Nonconference football is back! Well, sure, we had bowl games at the end of 2020, but the 2021 season promises a return to 4 nonconference games for SEC squads. Most have followed the time-honored tradition of an FCS foe, an FBS chip-shot, a relatively challenging mid-major and a big time rivalry game. But how will it all stack up? Here’s our early prediction at the SEC squads’ 2021 nonconference showings

Alabama: 4-0

Matchups: Miami (neutral site, Week 1), Mercer (home, Week 2), Southern Miss (home, Week 4), New Mexico State (home, Week 11)

Skinny: Excluding the postseason, Nick Saban hasn’t lost a nonconference game since the Louisiana-Monroe shocker in 2007. So …

Sure, the Miami opener is a legitimate challenge. But Alabama is always ready for these games, and maybe we’re not 1,000% dialed in on a Miami squad that got rocked by North Carolina to end the 2020 season. This looks like the game that Alabama wins by 3 scores.

Historically, Southern Miss can be a challenge, but this program has been in tremendous upheaval recently. It’d be a surprise if Alabama doesn’t win each of the three non-Miami games by 40+ points.

Arkansas: 3-1

Matchups: Rice (home, Week 1), Texas (home, Week 2), Georgia Southern (home, Week 3), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (home, Week 8)

Skinny: Props to Arkansas for going big with the Week 2 date with Texas. While Texas probably has more talent, this looks like a great matchup — the first real test for Steve Sarkisian at UT and a chance to see if expectations are raised from 2020’s feel-good squad of Hogs.

Georgia Southern could be a real test in Week 3. The Eagles’ ground-and-pound style and their penchant to stay in games (4 of 5 losses in 2020 were 1-score games) could keep them close to the Razorbacks.

We’ll project Arkansas to lose to Texas and beat Georgia Southern. There’s a decent chance that the opposite could happen.

Auburn: 3-1

Matchups: Akron (home, Week 1), Alabama State (home, Week 2), Penn State (away, Week 3), Georgia State (home Week 4)

Skinny: No disrespect to Akron, but the Penn State game is the opponent everybody will be circling. Both teams had disappointing 2020 seasons, but while the Tigers dropped the ax on the Gus Bus, Penn State has forged ahead with James Franklin. For that reason, and because of home field, edge to the Nittany Lions, who also will have a Week 1 matchup with Wisconsin under their belts ahead of the game with Auburn. That said, it’s likely to be a competitive game, and could be one that gives Bryan Harsin (and Bo Nix) a big jolt of momentum heading into SEC play — assuming Nix can solve his road woes. Which also assumes Nix holds off transfer TJ Finley for the starting job.

Florida: 4-0

Matchups: Florida Atlantic (home, Week 1), South Florida (away, Week 2), Samford (home, Week 11), Florida State (home, Week 13)

Skinny: Credit the Gators for playing 3 in-state schools, even if UCF isn’t included. That said, former UCF QB McKenzie Milton will likely be taking snaps for Mike Norvell’s Florida State team. That matchup definitely provides the most intrigue. But forgive us if we’re not turning cartwheels over adding a good QB to a team that went 3-6 in a putrid ACC while often getting boat-raced by other bad teams. FSU might make this series a legitimate rivalry again in the near future. But not in 2021.

Georgia: 3-1

Matchups: Clemson (neutral site, Week 1), UAB (home, Week 2), Charleston Southern (home, Week 12), Georgia Tech (away, Week 13)

Skinny: Only 2 nonconference home games for the Bulldogs, and Georgia Tech has more bite than they did the last time these two faced off. But the story here is Clemson, and it’s obviously a significant chance for the Bulldogs to make a national statement in Week 1.

Sure, Trevor Lawrence is gone. But Dabo’s plug-and-play approach suggests that whoever the QB is, he’ll be fine. Georgia returns plenty of defensive talent and again, could make themselves not only the favorite for the East (which they already are) but a favorite for the CFP by pulling off this win. This is the marquee game of Week 1, but if we’re picking now, we’d take Clemson.

Kentucky: 4-0

Matchups: UL-Monroe (home, Week 1), Chattanooga (home, Week 3), New Mexico State (home, Week 12), Louisville (away, Week 13)

Skinny: Kentucky hasn’t been particularly sharp in openers, but a winless UL-Monroe team, even with new coach Terry Bowden, should not be much of a challenge. The other two are chip shots, which leaves Louisville in the regular-season finale on the road. Kentucky has owned the last 2 games of the matchup, and given the Cardinals’ ponderous performance in the 2020 season, the ‘Cats will be likely favorites again in the Battle for the Governor’s Cup. Unless Mark Stoops’ defense lays an egg, that looks like 4-0.

LSU: 4-0

Matchups: UCLA (away, Week 1), McNeese State (home, Week 2), Central Michigan (home, Week 3), UL-Monroe (home, Week 12)

Skinny: LSU and UCLA would prefer to forget the 2020 season. It’s a challenging road trip for the Tigers to open the new season, but Ed Orgeron has more talent across the board than Chip Kelly’s squad. It’s definitely a barometer game for the Tigers, as it’s hard to imagine them making any kind of run in the West if they can’t win their opener. The good news is that 2021 LSU looks better equipped than 2020 LSU was, and accordingly, we’ve got them going 4-0.

Mississippi State: 3-1

Matchups: Louisiana Tech (home, Week 1), NC State (home, Week 2), Memphis (away, Week 3), Tennessee State (home, Week 12)

Skinny: The Bulldogs have 2 real challenges. NC State was ranked for most of the season and could be a handful. The road game at Memphis is the one everyone has circled, just for the pure shootout nature of the matchup between two high-powered offenses.

We’ll go against the grain here and pick the Bulldogs to win at Memphis, but to lose at home to NC State. It doesn’t make much sense, but then, inconsistent returns were the story of Leach’s first season in Starkville. Give us 3-1 for MSU.

Missouri: 4-0

Matchups: Central Michigan (home, Week 1), SE Missouri State (home, Week 3), Boston College (away, Week 4), North Texas (home, Week 6)

Skinny: The road trip to Boston College will be a long one, but this Missouri team is well-equipped to play the kind of solid-in-all-phases game that allows for road wins. Meanwhile, BC is just an odd team to figure out. They gave solid efforts against Clemson and Notre Dame but also struggled to squeak out most of their wins in 2020. We’ll take the Tigers.

Ole Miss: 4-0

Matchups: Louisville (neutral, Week 1), Austin Peay (home, Week 2, Tulane (home, Week 3), Liberty (home Week 10)

Skinny: At the time the game was scheduled, the Louisville game probably stood as a massive matchup. Not any more. The Rebels should be a solid touchdown-to-10-point favorite over Scott Satterfield’s squad that disappointed in 2020. The more interesting game now has to be Liberty. Hugh Freeze and Malik Willis will invade Oxford in November. While Freeze would obviously love to grab the win, the superior competition that the Rebels will face (as opposed to FBS independent Liberty) should have them more prepared for the potential adversity of the game. It could well be a shootout, but it feels like the Rebels are the team that drops the late hammer to go 4-0 in non-conference football.

South Carolina: 3-1

Matchups: Eastern Illinois (home, Week 1), East Carolina (away, Week 2), Troy (home, Week 5), Clemson (home, Week 13)

Skinny: The Gamecocks should be fine in their first 3 games. A true road game at East Carolina is a little adventurous, but the Pirates had a rough go of the 2020 season. Troy has likewise been a giant killer, but Neal Brown isn’t walking through that door. That leaves Clemson, and while the Gamecocks would love to chip away at the Tigers’ advantage in the state, it doesn’t seem like 2021 is the year when that happens.

Tennessee: 4-0

Matchups: Bowling Green (home, Week 1), Pittsburgh (home, Week 2), Tennessee Tech (home, Week 3), South Alabama (home, Week 12)

Skinny: While expectations for UT are fairly low, every game is penciled in as a win except the Johnny Majors Bowl in Week 2. Pitt, like UT, has struggled in recent years to maintain its status as a contender. The difference is that the game is played in Knoxville and that Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers are a middle-of-the-pack squad even in the decidedly top-heavy ACC. We’ve got the Vols going 4-0 outside the SEC.

Texas A&M: 4-0

Matchups: Kent State (home, Week 1), Colorado (neutral site, Week 2), New Mexico (home, Week 3), Prairie View (home, Week 12)

Skinny: Colorado made significant strides in Karl Dorrell’s first season, but is it reasonable for the Buffaloes to hang with A&M? Those who think so would cite the loss of Kellen Mond. Haynes King may get trial by fire in Denver for Week 2, but given the Aggies’ rise in 2020, the program should be on solid enough ground to grab a solid win over Colorado. That should render the Aggies 4-0 out of the conference.

Vanderbilt: 2-2

Matchups: East Tennessee St (home, Week 1), Colorado State (away, Week 2), Stanford (home, Week 3), UConn (home, Week 5)

Skinny: Stanford coming across the country to Nashville should experience the same phenomenon as most visiting SEC schools: Nashville’s a great place to visit and take home a victory. While ETSU and UConn should also be easy wins, we’ll take Colorado State to win at home over Vandy. The Rams only played four games last season, but Steve Addazio is a year further into his rebuilding job than Clark Lea will be in his. That advantage, and home field, tell the tale.