Admittedly, the term ‘must-win’ is overused in college football.
For the most part, teams are allowed some margin for error in hopes of reaching the four-team Playoff during the best regular season in sports. The BCS saved room for Power 5 unbeatens, but times have changed.
Alabama overcame an early-season setback at Ole Miss to catch fire and win the SEC last season while Auburn manufactured a similar flurry the previous year. True to an extent, if you’re going to suffer a loss during the regular season, make sure it happens before October to avoid committee members questioning a team’s overall strength down the stretch.
Projecting every must-win game in the Eastern Division this fall, here’s what I have devised in terms of playing for a spot in Atlanta at the end of the season …
Florida (must-win Oct. 3 vs. Ole Miss)
The Gators won’t be favored and the Rebels have a clear advantage based on personnel, but Florida needs to find a way to take care of business at home based on the rest of the October schedule — at Mizzou, at LSU and vs. Georgia. Plus, Jim McElwain’s team could be in danger of starting the SEC season 1-2 if it falls to Tennessee the previous week (assuming Florida wins at Kentucky on Sept. 19). We’ve mapped out a way for the Gators to win eight games this season and beating Ole Miss would certainly help.
Georgia (must-win Oct. 3 vs. Alabama)
The Bulldogs’ schedule is laced with landmines throughout, but splitting their cross-divisional games against Alabama and Auburn is essential to a division title and possible Playoff berth at season’s end. Georgia’s three most important games against East rivals all come consecutively post-Alabama, so a loss to the Crimson Tide would put tremendous pressure on this team on the their journey to Atlanta with several challenging games and a road trip to Auburn left to play.
Kentucky (must-win Sept. 19 vs. Florida)
Here’s the game that eventually cost the Wildcats a bowl berth last fall. The triple-overtime loss at The Swamp was Kentucky’s only blemish during the first seven weeks of the season. The Wildcats are itching to return the favor in a home night game that follows a difficult road trip to Columbia, S.C. An 0-2 start in the SEC would all but eliminate Kentucky from division title contention and puts the Wildcats at a disadvantage hosting Mizzou in another must-win scenario the following week. At worst, Kentucky needs to win one of its first three league contests to be in bowl contention late and this one appears to be the most favorable.
Mizzou (must-win Oct. 10 vs. Florida)
Without diving into statistical referencing or looking at projected wins/losses from other division rivals, beating the Gators has been one of the key ingredients in winning consecutive East titles for the Tigers. there’s a chance Mizzou could be 5-0 and ranked inside the top 10 hosting Florida this season, the final game before a showdown between the hedges on Oct. 17 that many think could decide the division. Losing to Florida would cause that matchup to lose some of its luster and ultimately, Mizzou’s East hopes would be severely damaged with games against Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas still to play.
South Carolina (must-win Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina)
We saw what losing the opener for the first time in Steve Spurrier’s tenure meant for the Gamecocks in 2014, a rapid fall from the SEC elites conversation that lingered throughout the the season. Once again placed in the spotlight on opening night, South Carolina’s rivalry game against the Tar Heels in Charlotte kicks off the college football season and represents the perfect opportunity to open a few eyes as a possible division darkhorse. Bowl hopes dwindle with a loss considering the remaining schedule, as do the Head Ball Coach’s current streak of 22 consecutive non-losing seasons in the SEC.
Tennessee (must-win Sept. 26 at Florida)
There’s no doubt the much-anticipated home bout with Oklahoma in Week 2 is a marquee matchup that could strengthen the Vols’ momentum as a Playoff darkhorse, but any shot Tennessee has at winning the division begins in Gainesville for the SEC opener. The Vols haven’t beaten the Gators in a decade, squandering one of their best chances last season late in the fourth quarter. Returning to prominence means taking care of business against inferior competition in terms of talent and Tennessee has the edge. If the Vols start the SEC season 0-1, it could make for a long, disappointing year.
Vanderbilt (must-win Sept. 3 vs. Western Kentucky)
Yes, the Commodores’ 2015 season opener at home against the Hilltoppers is Derek Mason’s most important game of the year, at least in the early going. We’ll know quickly if Vanderbilt has improved on last season’s anemic showing and at least be enticed to watch the first quarter of the Georgia game on CBS the following week. Considering the challenges of this year’s SEC slate and serious questions on offense, starting the non-conference schedule off with a win is a necessity for a coach hoping to stick around for a third season.