SEC Football: 10 Must-Win Non-Conference Games for SEC Teams in 2013
No team, in any conference, can technically "afford" to lose a non-conference football game. A loss is a loss is a loss—it doesn't matter who you are or what league you play in.
But with the gauntlet of conference play bearing down on them, SEC teams are particularly obligated to beat out-of-conference foes. Failing to do so is a tremendous disadvantage, narrowing the margin for error in a league where danger always lurks.
For a team like Alabama or Georgia, one loss could be the difference between the Sugar Bowl and BCS National Championship. For a team like LSU, the difference between the Sugar Bowl and the Chick-fil-A Bowl. For a team like Vanderbilt or Missouri, the difference between any bowl and nothing.
Here are 10 tough non-conference games that SEC teams can't afford to lose:
North Carolina at South Carolina (August, 29): The first BCS-conference game of the season is a border war. Clowney and South Carolina better not let Bryn Renner get too comfortable in the pocket.
Mississippi State at Oklahoma State (August, 31): The Bulldogs swept their non-conference schedule last year and went bowling. With a tougher SEC season lined up, they might need to do the same in 2013.
Tennessee at Oregon (September, 14): One of the biggest non-conference SEC games, but not necessarily a "must-win." The SEC has a superiority complex, but nobody can be blamed for losing at Autzen.
Louisville at Kentucky (September, 14): Mark Stoops will be an underdog in his first high-profile game. But SEC teams are not supposed to lose, at home, against teams from the AAC.
Georgia at Clemson, August 31st
Georgia has a bad track record in high-profile openers, losing by 14 to both Oklahoma State in 2009 and Boise State in 2011. Mark Richt hasn't learned his lesson, though, and opted to start his season with yet another Top 10 team.
You have to admire his stubbornness, even if it's to a fault. Richt wants to start his season with a signature victory and he won't stop until he gets one.
A loss here would be crippling to Georgia's national title chances. They would need to run the table in conference play, including the SEC championship, to even stand a chance. There's a reason you don't see many two-loss teams hoisting the trophy.
The reward from a win—a boost in the eventual BCS polls—is decent enough, but Richt is playing with fire. Especially against a team that beat down LSU in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl.
LSU vs. TCU, August 31st
So much of the Tigers' 2013 season revolves around Zach Mettenberger, the senior quarterback who underachieved in his first season under center. Now that teams like Alabama and Georgia have unlocked the key to offensive explosion, LSU will be left behind if they're unable to follow suit.
Les Miles believes in trial by fire, though, starting Mettenberger out against what could very well be the best secondary in college football. Cornerback Jason Verrett is an All-American, and he's flanked by the likes of Sam Carter and Chris Hackett on the back end.
Like Georgia against Clemson, a loss here for LSU would be crippling to any title aspirations they harbor, and for a team like LSU, a team expected to contend for a BCS bowl game, this could be a nightmare start to the season.
Alabama vs. Virginia Tech, August 31st
Alabama has been here before, beating Virginia Tech 34-24 in the 2009 season opener at the Georgia Dome.
They return to Atlanta in 2013, but they'll face a much different Hokies team. That team, led by Tyrod Taylor and a punishing defense, started the season ranked No. 7 in the country. This year's version probably won't crack the Top 25.
Still, this is Virginia Tech we're talking about, a modern ACC dynasty that, if nothing else, will always come ready to compete, and Alabama can not afford to start its title defense with a loss.
Florida at Miami, September 7th
Florida renews its rivalry with the Hurricanes this season, having played Miami (Ohio) more recently than they've played their in-state rivals.
They picked a bad time to do so, though. Miami has struggled in the five-year interim, but now stands poised to restore its former glory. Running back Duke Johnson and quarterback Stephen Morris are both future pros, while Florida is still waiting on its quarterback, Jeff Driskel, to realize his immense potential.
Florida fans travel well—particularly in-state—so there will certainly be a Gator contingent at Sun Life Stadium. But this will still feel like a road game, out of conference, against a legitimately talented opponent. That's a dangerous combination.
Ole Miss at Texas, September 14th
Ole Miss returns 15 starters—and adds Robert Nkemdiche—to a team that went bowling last year, leading to the loftiest expectations in Oxford since the Snead-McCluster team of 2009.
The schedule makers didn't do them any favors, though: Their first five games include trips to Vanderbilt, Texas, Alabama and Auburn. With the game at Alabama looming, Ole Miss needs to win at Austin, ostensibly, to avoid an early two-game losing streak.
Big things are expected in Austin this season. ESPN's Phil Steele even ranks them his No. 4 team. But the SEC doesn't expect to lose non-conference games—irrespective of opponent, location, weather, injuries, etc.—so the Rebels better come ready to play.
Arkansas at Rutgers, September 21st
The only semi-difficult game on Arkansas' non-conference schedule, traveling to Rutgers will, if nothing else, at least test the Razorbacks' ability to play on the road.
But it could be an even stiffer test than that. The Scarlet Knights have a history of major upsets at home, and return one of the nation's most exciting players in receiver Brandon Coleman. The defense required a rebuild—five Rutgers defenders were drafted to the NFL this April—but the five players who return played on one of the nation's top units in 2012.
Bret Bielema better bring his team ready to play in this one. An out-of-conference loss would be a nightmare start to his tenure.
Missouri at Indiana, September 21st
Suffice it to say, Missouri did not make as smooth a transition to the SEC as Texas A&M did. But the former Big 12 stalwarts expect a bounce-back in 2013, with quarterback James Franklin and an experienced offensive line leading the charge.
There have been some changes on defense, though, which could prove problematic against a quietly high-octane Indiana team.
The Hoosiers ranked 24th in Football Outsiders' Offensive FEI last season, one spot behind the notoriously high-scoring Red Raiders of Texas Tech. They dropped 49 points on undefeated Ohio State and return nine starters on the offensive side of the ball, including quarterback Cameron Coffman and four seasoned receivers.
If Missouri's defense takes Indiana for granted, its rebuilding project could take a fatal step back in Bloomington.
Clemson at South Carolina, November 30th
Clemson has the audacity to schedule two SEC teams in one year, ending their regular season the same way it started it.
South Carolina demolished the Tigers in 2012, at Memorial Stadium, riding 4.5 sacks from Jadeveon Clowney to a 27-17 victory. Clemson returns four starters on the offensive line, which sounds like a good thing at first, but that means it's the same unit who allowed Clowney to run rampant.
Still, if the Gamecocks enjoy a successful SEC season, this is hardly a gimme game at the end of the schedule. If they find their way into a blue-chip bowl, nobody can say they didn't earn it.
Georgia at Georgia Tech, November 30th
Georgia beat down on "little brother" in 2012, thrashing an out-of-its-league Tech team 42-10. But now the Jackets welcome Georgia back into Bobby Dodd Stadium, seeking revenge with a much more experienced roster.
The biggest question surrounding Georgia Tech is at quarterback. They return 15 starters at key positions down the rest of their depth chart. Whoever wins the job, be it Vad Lee or Justin Thomas, will have the benefit of a full year's experience by the time they play Georgia.
In other words, by the time these two teams meet, that one question should have an answer.
Tech hasn't beaten the Bulldogs since 2008, which doesn't bode well for them. But it also means UGA might get cocky, think itself in the clear, or be looking ahead to a potential SEC Championship.
That would probably be a mistake.
Florida State at Florida, November 30th
If there's a learning curve on freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, the Gators won't be around to reap its benefit. They get the Seminoles on November, 30, the last game of the regular season, where even if Winston got off to a slow start, he's likely to be firing on all cylinders.
There was an even wider chasm between Florida and Florida State last season, yet this game still managed to be close. The Seminoles led in the fourth quarter until a furious Gator rally—sparked by recently incarcerated linebacker Antonio Morrison—put them on top for good.
This season that talent gap has shrunk, and even at the Swamp, this should be a start-to-finish nail-biter.