SEC Football: Power Ranking Top 2014 Out-Of-Conference Games

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterMarch 24, 2014

SEC Football: Power Ranking Top 2014 Out-Of-Conference Games

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    Georgia RB Keith Marshall
    Georgia RB Keith MarshallStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    It's never too early to start looking ahead to the season, and the 2014 schedule in the SEC will feature several high-profile out-of-conference games that could play major roles in the landscape of the college football season.

    A juicy border battle gets the season started when Clemson heads an hour southwest to take on the Georgia Bulldogs, and it will come to a close with traditional intra-state rivalries like Florida at Florida State, Georgia Tech at Georgia and South Carolina at Clemson

    Which out-of-conference matchups involving SEC teams are the best? Our picks are in this slide show.

9. Arkansas at Texas Tech, Sept. 13, 2014

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    Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema
    Arkansas head coach Bret BielemaSam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Are you sick of the debate into hurry-up offenses? 

    Well the best is yet to come, because Arkansas' Bret Bielema—one of the most outspoken proponents of the ill-fated "10-second rule"—will square off against two hurry-up no-huddle teams in the first three weeks of the season.

    The first of which is the season-opener against Auburn, but two weeks later, Bielema will take his Hogs to West Texas to square off against Kliff Kingsbury and the Texas Tech Red Raiders.

    According to FoxSports.com, Kingsbury directed more criticism towards Alabama's Nick Saban during the three-week soap opera that resulted in the 10-second rule being tabled until next season. But Bielema's involvement in the conception of the rule has him guilty by association in the eyes of new-school coaches.

    If Kingsbury gets the chance, do you think he'll keep his foot on the gas a little while longer just to make a point? Would Bielema do the same if the Hogs get up big? The answer to both is probably "yes". If it's a close game in Lubbock, expect both coaches to pull out all the stops, which will result in a wildly entertaining game in mid-September.

8. Ole Miss vs. Boise State (in Atlanta, Ga.), Aug. 28, 2014

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    Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace
    Ole Miss QB Bo WallaceSpruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

    Boise State doesn't carry the same name-value it had when the Broncos toppled the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2011 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, but should provide quite a challenge to Ole Miss in the first of two kickoff games at the Georgia Dome in 2014.

    Can head coach Hugh Freeze's program take the next step in Freeze's third season in Oxford? Will quarterback Bo Wallace continue his progression? Just how good will that defense be now that Freeze has built a solid foundation through back-to-back stellar recruiting classes?

    We'll know under the big top at the Georgia Dome on Aug. 28. The Broncos will likely have quarterback Grant Hedrick in as the starter for a full season, after stepping in for Joe Southwick in the middle of last season and playing well.

    The biggest question facing the Rebels is the running game—particularly the absence of a true between-the-tackles bruiser to take some pressure off of Wallace in the running game. If one emerges in the opener, the Rebs could surprise.

7. Auburn at Kansas State, Sept. 18, 2014

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    Auburn QB Nick Marshall
    Auburn QB Nick MarshallKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Auburn will get a bye week before heading to the Little Apple to take on Kansas State on a Thursday night tilt in late September. Thursday night games are always tricky for the road team, and the Wildcats will likely be amped up to take on the defending SEC champs.

    But that goes both ways.

    Tiger quarterback Nick Marshall led his team to within 13 seconds of the BCS National Championship last season, but this game could be personal for him too. When he was playing for Garden City Community College in 2012, Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder wanted Marshall to sign with the Wildcats.

    He told AuburnSports.com's Jay G. Tate last May that he stopped considering Kansas State in December 2012, but Snyder faxed hand-written notes to Marshall every day for two weeks leading up to national signing day.

    "He definitely wanted me there," said Marshall. "They were cool, but that's not what I wanted. I came to Kansas to get away; I didn't want to stay in Kansas. That's the last thing on my mind."

    He'll stay in Kansas at least once more night during his football career, and he'll be squaring off against a Kansas State offense that should be much more consistent now that quarterback Jake Waters has a foundation to build off of from last season.

6. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 29, 2014

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    South Carolina QB Dylan Thompson
    South Carolina QB Dylan ThompsonStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    South Carolina got one for the thumb last season, when it toppled Clemson 31-17 in Columbia to earn its fifth straight win over its intra-state rival.

    The path to another state title will travel through Clemson, which could prove to be a little more challenging for the Gamecocks.

    Silver lining though—new starting quarterback Dylan Thompson, who started in place of Connor Shaw in this game in Death Valley in 2012, is plenty comfortable with the Palmetto State's biggest stage.

    Clemson's defense is fast and athletic, and offensive coordinator Chad Morris knows how to make his offense click despite the loss of quarterback Tajh Boyd.

    This is one of the more underrated rivalries in college football. Anger, bragging rights, frustration—it has it all. If one or both programs are dancing around the national title hunt in late November, don't be surprised if this matchup gets the national spotlight it rightfully deserves.

5. Tennessee at Oklahoma, Sept. 13, 2014

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    Tennessee WR Marquez North
    Tennessee WR Marquez NorthJim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    Tennessee starts the season with home games against Utah State and Arkansas State, neither of which should be overlooked. But in Week 3, a trip to Oklahoma to take on the Sooners will give the nation a true glimpse of just where this Tennessee program is, in its second year under head coach Butch Jones.

    The Vols' defense—which has zero returning starters along the defensive line—will look to contain that potent Sooner offense, which includes second-year starter Trevor Knight. Not an easy task to say the least.

    Tennessee is in the same boat on the offensive line with no starters returning, needs true freshman Jalen Hurd to provide quality depth at running back and hasn't been able to settle on a quarterback since Jones got the job. 

    Is Tennessee going to be competitive in the SEC East in 2014? We'll know based on how they play in Norman.

4. Alabama vs. West Virginia (in Atlanta, Ga.), Aug. 30, 2014

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    Alabama head coach Nick Saban
    Alabama head coach Nick SabanKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    For the second time in as many years, Alabama will kick its season off in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta. This time, it will be against a familiar team for Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban.

    The West Virginia Mountaineers. 

    Saban—a native of Fairmont, W.V.—was a defensive assistant for the Mountaineers in 1978 and 1979, shortly before jumping to Ohio State to become a defensive backs coach for the Buckeyes.

    Personal?

    Saban's process-oriented approach probably won't let it become personal, but it's another added storyline to a season-opening matchup that's dripping with intrigue.

    Who will play quarterback for the Crimson Tide? Can Saban solidify the back end of the defense? Just how short of a leash is Mountaineer head coach Dana Holgorsen—who's lost 14 of his last 20 games—on in 2014? 

    Several of those questions will be answered on opening night, in what will be a wildly intriguing game at the Georgia Dome.

3. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 29, 2014

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    Florida head coach Will Muschamp
    Florida head coach Will MuschampMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Florida sputtered to a 4-8 season in 2013, which placed head coach Will Muschamp squarely on the hot seat in 2014.

    Will he still be there by the end of the regular season when the Gators visit Tallahassee to take on the Seminoles? Will this game determine his future? Could Florida reassert itself as the dominant program in the state? 

    All of those are realistic possibilities depending on how effective offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's scheme is with Florida athletes. 

    Sure, quarterback Jeff Driskel has been a bit of a disappointment during his Florida career, but now he's in an offense that fits his dual-threat capabilities. Couple that with running back depth that includes Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones, and Florida could be poised for a tremendous turnaround in 2014.

    The storylines for this game are endless, and hit both ends of the spectrum. That should set quite a scene in Northwest Florida on the final Saturday of the regular season.

2. Clemson at Georgia, Aug. 30, 2014

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    Georgia RB Todd Gurley
    Georgia RB Todd GurleyJoshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    Georgia at Clemson dominated the headlines on Week 1 last year, and the rematch will undoubtedly draw some eyeballs in 2014.

    No, it won't have the hype that goes along with having two Heisman contenders at quarterback like Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd, but Bulldog running back Todd Gurley, a new-look defense, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and his quarterback battle are certainly worth the price of admission.

    First-year starting quarterbacks have enjoyed tremendous success over the last five years, and both of these programs have first-year starters coming into situations that are ready-made for instant success. Whichever team emerges with the "W" will have momentum and, more importantly, confidence. 

    It will set the tone for one program and provide a barometer for the other, which should create a fun atmosphere in the "classic city."

1. LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Houston, Texas), Aug. 30, 2014

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    LSU RB Terrence Magee
    LSU RB Terrence MageeDerick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    If LSU is reloading and not rebuilding, it'll have a chance to prove it early when it takes on Wisconsin in the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff at Reliant Stadium in Houston on opening weekend. 

    Will Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard be the top two running backs for head coach Les Miles, or will hot-shot prospect Leonard Fournette hit the ground running in his first college game? Who will be taking the snaps for the Tigers, Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris?

    More importantly, will the losses of defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson hurt an LSU rush defense that will be charged with slowing down rising junior running back Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns last season?

    Those are all important questions not only to LSU, but to the entire landscape of the SEC West. A lot of them will be answered versus the Badgers in the SEC's top out-of-conference matchup of the season.

     

    * Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com.