With the SEC becoming more adventurous in their non-conference scheduling, September is now full of appetizing early-season showdowns featuring the big boys of college football.
However, with these intriguing matchups comes the possibility of disappointment for fans of the nation’s most passionate conference.
While SEC teams faired only slightly better than .500 last season going 5-4 in non-conference match-ups against BCS schools in September, this year presents more intriguing early challenges that could set the tone one way or another for the SEC.
Only three SEC teams avoided scheduling a BCS level foe in the first five weeks of the season (Florida, Ole Miss, & Vanderbilt), while the rest ventured out and scheduled interesting games, some being in hostile environments.
Virginia Tech vs. Alabama Georgia Dome, Sept. 5
Perhaps the most intriguing non-conference matchup of the entire seasons takes place in week one, with Alabama returning to the Georgia Dome for the third time in two seasons.
While this game won’t impact their chances at a return to the dome in early December, if Alabama hopes to be coming up roses in Pasadena come Jan. 7 they need to top the two-time defending ACC champions Virginia Tech.
Prediction: No one knows how detrimental the loss of RB Darren Evans will be to the Hokies, but had he been healthy I probably would have picked Virginia Tech easily because of a better offense.
Both defenses are stout and both coaches are legends. This game is a toss-up in its truest since, but I’ll take Virginia Tech, only because Alabama will be breaking in a new QB and key pieces of an offensive line against one of the nation’s best defenses.
However, I would not be one bit surprised to see Alabama come out of top.
Georgia vs. Oklahoma State Stillwater, OK Sept. 5
Week One also offers up another high stakes showdown that will serve as an appropriate appetizer to Virginia Tech/Alabama showdown. Georgia is in the process of replacing offensive superstars Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno.
The 2009 starter, Joe Cox, should serve as an adequate replacement for Stafford, but probably does not have the big play capabilities that Stafford had. The key to the Bulldogs’ season will be their ability to provide time for Cox and open up holes for the run game.
On the other hand, there are no questions about the explosiveness of Oklahoma State’s offense. Zac Robinson, Dez Bryant, and Kendall Hunter will be lighting up scoreboards all season, but how will they do against Georgia’s tough defense.
Prediction: Last season, Oklahoma State put up huge numbers against everyone they faced. However, their defense didn’t always do its part.
A new look defense and a new coordinator could create some early issues for the Cowboys, but things couldn’t be much worse than last season. Georgia’s defense will keep the game close, but the Bulldogs won’t be able to keep up with the Oklahoma State in Stillwater.
However, if Zac Robinson can’t shake his nagging leg injury soon, the Cowboys could be in for disappointment on opening day.
South Carolina vs. North Carolina State, Raleigh, NC Sept. 3
College football kicks off on a Thursday night in Raleigh with a rematch of last season’s opening night game. Last year’s ugly first half turned into a route with a 34-0 Gamecock victory.
Wolfpack star QB Russell Wilson was knocked out of the game in the first half, and afterwards NC State struggled to move the ball or maintain possession for that matter. However,the boys from Raleigh look to have everything lined up to breakout in Tom O’Brien’s third season in charge.
On the other hand, South Carolina seems to have question marks at quarterback and on the offensive line. Stephen Garcia enters his first season as being the starter at South Carolina, but confidence from his coach and much of the Gamecock faithful is lacking.
The South Carolina defense will be strong as usual, but the team will only excel if Garcia lives up to his potential.
Prediction: Carter-Finley Stadium will be rocking as NC State hopes to get 2009 off to a dream start. This game should be a battle, but NC State’s tough play up front will slow down the South Carolina run game forcing Garcia to step-up.
While Garcia might prove to be a standout later in the season, an opening night test on the road is too much too ask of him as NC State exacts revenge on the Gamecocks.
Other Notable Contests
Arizona State vs. Georgia: Expect the Dogs to roll even more so than they did last year in the desert. By Week Four Georgia should be firing on all cylinders and ready for a game against the Sun Devils.
LSU vs. Washington: Last season was disappointing by LSU’s high standards, but it paled in comparison to the Husky’s 0-12 debacle. Expect a highly underrated LSU to dominate early.
UCLA vs. Tennessee: While many point to the Florida game as Lane Kiffin’s first real test as the Volunteer coach, this game will go further in setting the tone for the 2009 season as no one expects them to beat Florida. With the game being played in Knoxville and the return of some key players on defense, Tennessee should win by a touchdown or two.
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M: Bobby Petrino has the Razorbacks headed in the right direction. If it weren’t for the murder’s row schedule Arkansas faces in 2009 I would have them pegged to have a breakout year. That being said, Arkansas should dispose of A&M in Arlington with ease.
West Virginia vs. Auburn: The Gene Chizik era kicks off on the plains with skeptical fans abound. A 34-17 letdown against the Mountaineers on the road last October helped to seal the fate of Tommy Tuberville. To win over fans Chizik needs this one.
However, question marks on the offensive side of the ball will be exploited by a tough returning WVU defense.
If Auburn can slow down the explosive Noel Devine they might have a chance, but more than likely the Tigers’ lack of firepower will cost them again against West Virginia.
Louisville vs. Kentucky: The Cardinals dominated this series early in the decade, but the tables have turned and it appears that the Kentucky win streak in the series will be extended for the foreseeable future. Rich Brooks returns playmaker Randall Cobb and an experienced QB in Mike Hartline.
With the game being in Lexington as well, Kentucky shouldn’t have much trouble in this one.
Georgia Tech vs. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs should begin improving over the next few years as Dan Mullen takes the reins in Starkville. However, it won’t be this year, as Mullen does not have the players in place to turn it around just yet. Georgia Tech on the other hand is an ACC title contender and will run its option offense all over the Bulldogs.
It’s no doubt it will be an exciting early season in the SEC. The non-conference games can be a chance for the conference to flex its muscles or a chance for the other conferences to get their shots in on the SEC. Most of these games could fall either way, but no matter there will be a lot too talk about once conference play heats up.