Each SEC team’s toughest conference game in 2016
In the SEC, the road to relevance is fraught with peril. Each season, there are one or two big, out-of-conference contests that draw media attention, but everyone knows that a season is won and lost in the heart of the schedule. It’s not about how a team plays in Week 1 against Clemson, but how it plays in Week 10 against a tough conference foe.
Alabama: at LSU, Nov. 5th
Each year, this game feels like an attempted coup by Les Miles to dethrone Nick Saban from atop the SEC West. For the last four seasons, five if you count the shellacking in the 2011 national title game, it’s been “long live the king!” as Alabama has emerged victorious. However, this year’s matchup feels particularly important. With Alabama replacing both quarterback Jake Coker and Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry, a trip to Death Valley could be perilous.
Arkansas: Ole Miss, Oct. 15
The resident bugaboo for Arkansas has been slow starts to the season. Last year, the wheels nearly came off before Week 7, when the bye gave the Razorbacks a chance to breathe. This season’s schedule is particularly odd, and far less forgiving. Bret Bielema’s bunch faces Texas A&M and Alabama in the midst of nonconference play, setting up a difficult road for a slow-starting team. However, Ole Miss is the turning point. A loss to Alabama would be understandable in Arkansas’ current situation, but throw in a loss to Ole Miss, and they’ve got a mini slump going headed into Jordan-Hare the following week. Arkansas needs to go at least 2-2 in those first four conference games: A&M, Alabama, Ole Miss, and Auburn. Ole Miss could be the difference.
Auburn: at Alabama, Nov. 26
How will Gus Malzahn be viewed leading into the regular-season finale against Alabama? He could be a hero once again, riding high on a successful 2016 and ready to face one final test before bowl season. However, it’s just as likely that he could be coaching for his job. Malzahn has seen all sides of the Iron Bowl, from last-second comebacks to embarrassing blowouts, but this game could forever define his legacy at Auburn. Since 2008, the Tigers are 2-6 in the biggest game of the year, winning by a combined 7 points. If this streak continues, it would be easy to imagine patience wearing a little thin on The Plains.
Florida: at Tennessee, Sept. 24
The balance of power in the East gets tested early as the defending division champion Florida Gators travel to Knoxville for their second conference game. This matchup is pretty close to a worse case scenario for Florida: It’s early in the season before all the kinks are worked out, and this mistake-prone offense from the last few years must play in front of a sold-out crowd on the road. Tennessee has the better quarterback, the more experienced roster and the genuine belief that this could be their year. Little has remained the same in the world since 2004, but that was the last time Tennessee won in this series. Chris Leak was the quarterback, George Bush was finishing up his first term and Tennessee fans talked smack about it on AOL Instant Messenger. Those 100,000-plus fans in Knoxville want their first win in the Twitter age, and they want it bad.
Georgia: Florida, Oct. 29
For a Georgia team that gets Tennessee at home earlier in the year, this game could propel them to the top of the East. First-year head coach Kirby Smart gets to avoid his previous employer in the regular season, setting up a potential three-team race in the East that favors the Dogs, schedule-wise. Coming off of two straight losses to Florida, this rivalry is far from out of hand, but it would do Smart some good to prove to the rest of the SEC that his teams are contenders right out of the gate.
Kentucky: at Tennessee, Nov. 12
It’d be pretty hard to find someone predicting the SEC East to be … predictable. In the midst of the chaos, the last conference game of the year for the Wildcats could be their toughest. Kentucky surely would love to finish out with a W, especially if it could be in the mix. The Vols will host Kentucy after most of their heavy lifting is done – with Florida, Georgia and Alabama already under their belts. No matter what happens, Tennessee will need this win badly, and the Wildcats will be hard-pressed to stop them.
LSU: Alabama, Nov. 5th
It’s a perfect storm for LSU, which returns nearly 97 percent of its offensive yards from last season. This could finally be the year. It’s become something of a one-game season in Baton Rouge, with tragic results if that game ends in an L. With an unproven Bama team traveling to Death Valley, Leonard Fournette, Brandon Harris and their underrated receiving corps have a chance for revenge against the Tide. If Les Miles can’t win this one at home with Fournette at his peak, it may be time to accept defeat in the fight against Saban.
Mississippi State: at Ole Miss, Nov. 26
With Dak Prescott, Mississippi State went from a team with an eight-win ceiling to the first No. 1 ranking in program history. Now it may be time for some of the established names to get their revenge on a Dak-less State squad that once played spoiler. Depending on how the season goes, Mississippi State could be fighting for a bowl game entering the last week. Cross-state rival Ole Miss would love nothing more than to twist the knife and ensure the Bulldogs are watching from home.
Missouri: at LSU, Oct. 1
If we’re to expect that Fournette will be better in Year 3, the LSU offense will once again be a runaway train to start the season. Seated squarely on the tracks is Missouri, which faces the task of flying to Baton Rouge. The visiting Tigers will still be trying to iron out the kinks of their offense, and Death Valley proves a brutal place for mistakes. Because of their returning talent, LSU should find itself in the opposite position – healthy and hungry. An upset by Barry’s boys would be huge, but it seems pretty unlikely.
Ole Miss: Alabama, Sept. 17
Because Ole Miss has done what LSU hasn’t, it could be time to re-seed the SEC West in terms of perception. Beating Saban in back-to-back years is near impossible, but here we are. For Hugh Freeze and his squad, the hard work is already over – they won in Tuscaloosa last season. In the Rebels’ win last year, they relied on Bama’s miscues and made the most of their opportunities. Bama had no established quarterback, and Derrick Henry alone couldn’t save them. This year, the Tide is in the same boat again – but now it’s on the road and without Henry. Chad Kelly isn’t some transfer trying to make a name for himself. He’s the best quarterback in the SEC. Other games may be harder, but this one could be a turning point in program history. Beating Saban cures everything, and it makes Freeze’s job look solid as a rock amid controversy.
South Carolina: at Florida, Nov. 12
The Gamecocks have one of the easier schedules in the league this year, missing all the big names from the West and getting their tough games in the East at home. If the circumstances were different, it would be a great year for them to make a run at the East title. As it stands now, their toughest test is in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during the home stretch of Florida’s schedule. When the games count the most, South Carolina will be tasked with stopping a UF squad that will likely be fighting for position in the East.
Tennessee: at Georgia, Oct. 1
Butch Jones and company must travel to Athens to face Nick Chubb and a talented defense, but the schedule isn’t doing them any favors. Tennessee plays Florida the week before, and the Georgia game is followed by playing at Texas A&M and Alabama at home. Georgia will likely be the difference in the Vols starting off 3-1, a commanding position, or 2-2, right in the middle of the pack. Also, the Bulldogs are a rare combination of a talented team and a trap game. Coming off the emotions of Florida, and looking forward to the Aggies and Tide, it would be easy to see the Vols slipping up here.
Texas A&M: at Alabama, Oct. 22
Going with the Tide here may seem like a cop out, but honestly A&M’s schedule makes this game a night and day difference in difficulty. A bit like South Carolina, A&M is fortunate to have nearly every big game at home – except Alabama. It would be believable that LSU, Tennessee, Ole Miss or Arkansas could come out flat and just get throttled by the Aggies in College Station. Expecting the same out of the Tide, in Tuscaloosa, with Sweet Home Alabama playing over the loudspeakers? That’s a tall order. Saban seems to have a bit of pent up angst towards Texas A&M after the Johnny Manziel years, and without that special talent at quarterback, the Tide defenses have had no problem dismantling Kevin Sumlin’s spread attack.
Vanderbilt: at Georgia, Oct. 15
This game comes at the end of a stretch that’ll have the Commodores feeling like they’ve been through a war. Georgia Tech, Florida and Kentucky are all physical teams, and Vandy will have to travel to Athens after facing all of them. Vandy has the misfortune of having half of their games on the road, so Derek Mason will be discovering the identity of his program far away from Nashville.