Which games will be the most important in the SEC in 2016?
From the end of the season through National Signing Day and now spring practice, nothing has dramatically changed the potential pecking order in both the SEC West and the SEC East.
There are, basically, three teams in each division that seem to be head and shoulders above their counterparts. There may be some surprises, of course, but it seems unlikely at the moment.
But this is the SEC and we’re always surprised by a few things. So we’ll leave a little window open for a few shockers, but for the most part we stay true to our January convictions that Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss – not necessarily in that order – will battle it out for the SEC West crown, with a few outliers at least hoping to make some noise.
The SEC East is all about Tennessee, Georgia and Florida – probably in that order – with the other four division teams far behind and not really a threat to contend. Certainly not this year.
That said, here are the five most important games on the SEC schedule this fall, based on our early April visions:
1. Alabama at Ole Miss (Sept. 17 in Oxford): For two years in a row now, Ole Miss has gotten the better of the Crimson Tide, the first time in the history of the rivalry that the Rebels have won two a row. Obviously, three straight has never happened, which makes this matchup all the more interesting with so much at stake.
The Rebels have a huge edge by playing this game so early in the season – again – because they have the experienced quarterback (Chad Kelly, a Heisman Trophy candidate), while Alabama will have someone starting their first SEC game, more than likely. Ole Miss has won two straight but it was Alabama that came back and won the SEC West both years. If Ole Miss wants to the get to the SEC Championship Game for the first time ever, it needs to win this game and then stay ahead of the Tide the rest of the way.
2. Tennessee at Georgia (Oct. 1 in Athens): The pecking order landed this way because the biggest threat for the front-running Vols seems to be beating the Bulldogs on the road. Tennessee finally got them last year, and if it wants to win the SEC East for the first time since 2007, they’ve got to win this game.
Georgia has a new coach (Kirby Smart) and maybe a new quarterback (freshman phenom Jacob Eason). Tennessee has much more experience at the skill positions, but winning at Sanford Stadium in what will likely be a primetime showdown is always tough. This is the Vols’ biggest hurdle.
3. Alabama at LSU (Nov. 5 in Baton Rouge): Another huge game for the Crimson Tide, and another one on the road. The Tigers haven’t done squat against Alabama in recent years, but this might be their time to finally get the measure of their arch rivals.
LSU has virtually everyone back on defense, which was a pleasant surprise on the bayou when so many draft-eligible players chose to stick around. That tough defense and a rabid Death Valley crowd should make this showdown very interesting.
4. Ole Miss at LSU: (Oct. 22 in Baton Rouge): This game gets played earlier this year – two weeks before the LSU-Alabama showdown – but it’s still going to be critically important, especially if Ole Miss does beat Alabama again.
Ole Miss won this showdown in 2015, but that was when the Tigers were in total meltdown mode and struggling terribly on offense. This time around, it might be different. Or it might not. We’re presuming LSU makes serious noise in the fall, but that’s also presuming they get past Wisconsin, Auburn and Florida before this game. The guess is they will.
5. Florida at Tennessee (Sept. 24 in Knoxville): It only seems like Tennessee hasn’t beaten Florida since the end of the Civil War, but it’s sure been a very long time. In fact, it’s been since 2004 that the Vols have won, losers of 11 straight to their SEC East rivals.
Florida won last year with some Antonio Callaway heroics, but this year is supposed to be difference in Knoxville. The Vols are the consensus pick to win the SEC East with a team loaded with talent at every key position. But we’ve heard this hype before coming out of Tennessee and this September game will tell us if the Vols are for real or not.