In any given year, SEC teams usually play a mix of cupcakes and national or regional powers, mostly from the ACC (although the Vols have played a Pac 10 team the past four seasons). In these more high profile-out-of-conference games, teams from the Southeast have had varying levels of success. Alabama had a huge win against Chick Fil A Bowl champion Virginia Tech, but in that same week Georgia was annihilated on the road by Zac Robinson and Oklahoma State who lost by two touchdowns to another SEC team—Ole Miss—in the Cotton Bowl. Regardless of the outcome, these six games will be great matchups and show if the SEC has what it takes to continue its dominance as the best conference in football.
After USC was put on probation, Oregon became the undisputed Pac-10 preseason favorite. Even after losing Jeremiah Masoli, the Ducks have nine returning starters on offense including tailback LaMichael James, who will be making his season debut vs. the Vols after his one game suspension. Defense hasn't been Oregon's strength of late (gave up 51 to Stanford and 41 to Arizona), but Kenny Rowe brings a pass rushing presence off the edge (11.5 sacks), and Casey Matthews is a run stopper and senior leader (preseason Lombardi candidate, 81 tackles). On paper, it looks like the Vols have no chance against a Rose Bowl team that is returning 18 starters, especially with the dismissal of Darren Myles (1 int in spring game). However, because the Ducks have never played in a venue as big as Neyland Stadium, they will experience some early jitters a la Cal in 2006 (top ten team lost 35-14 to Tennessee at home). But because Tennessee doesn't have an experienced quarterback, offensive line, or secondary like they did in '06, sacks will be given up, and Nate Costa as a pocket passer will boost Jeff Maehl (636 yards) and DJ Davis' (233 yards) stats. James might show some rust early, but the Ducks will cruise to a win in the end.
Prediction: Oregon 35, Tennessee 17
Since 1896, the Gamecocks and Tigers have fought for the right to be known as the best team in South Carolina. They've played a game every year since 1909, and Clemson has won 11 of the last 13 matchups. This season, both teams are borderline preseason top 25 picks, and dark horse choices to win their divisions (SEC East and ACC Atlantic). The Tigers lost all purpose back and NFL first rounder C.J. Spiller, but Kyle Parker is an up and coming passer (20 TDs as a freshman) and their backup tailbacks Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper average over six yards per carry. They will run behind four returning offensive line starters. Clemson lost lots of good players on defense, but DeAndre McDaniel is a ballhawk (8 int) and Marcus Gilchrist (101 tackles) a great last line of defense. The Tigers need to find receivers, cornerbacks, and a pass rush (returning sack leader had three), but they're a lock for second place in the ACC. The Gamecocks didn't have a great season last year, but they beat a better Clemson team at home. This is Spurrier's most experienced squad returning 10 offensive starters, including up and down quarterback Stephen Garcia (2,862 yards). Defense should be USC's strength with Cliff Matthews (seven sacks) returning to pressure the quarterback, Shaq Wilson clogging the middle at linebacker (85 tackles), and three starters returning in the secondary, including Chris Culliver who had 62 tackles and nine pass breakups from his safety spot. This game should be a defensive struggle, and there will be turnovers on both sides of the ball because of the talent in the secondaries. However, USC has better receivers who should test Clemson's inexperienced corners. Because of their senior leadership at quarterback and playmakers on defense, the Gamecocks will win a tight one on the road and go into bowl season with a bang.
Prediction: South Carolina 28, Clemson 24
I've already talked about Clemson in the last slide as a possible ACC Atlantic contender. Auburn could take the SEC West from Alabama http://bleacherreport.com/articles/370683-why-auburn-will-win-the-sec-west. They have plenty of weapons on offense from junior college dual threat QB Cam Newton, sure handed wideout Darvin Adams (10 TD), and Mario Fannin who can play tailback, H-back, and slot receiver. To protect these offensive juggernauts, four offensive linemen return including preseason All SEC tackle Lee Ziemba, who will protect Newton's blindside. Auburn's defense was porous last year (11th in SEC), but they will have eight starters coming back including leading tackler Josh Bynes and hybrid safety/linebacker Daren Bates. The weakness of this unit is finding a pass rusher to replace Antonio Coleman. Both Clemson and Auburn have a non-existent pass rush, so this game will be a shootout. Expect plenty of offensive magic from Kyle Parker, Mario Fannin, Andre Ellington, and Darvin Adams. These teams are almost mirror images of each other. This game is early in the season, and Newton will still be getting used to his receivers, so because Parker has more experience at quarterback, the Clemson Tigers pull out a road win.
Prediction: Clemson 27, Auburn 20
The most underrated game of Week 1 college football pits a fading powerhouse with a coach on the heat against a predominantly basketball school that's trying to carve out some wins in the loaded ACC Coastal. UNC is yet another ACC squad (Virginia Tech, Miami) with a ton of returning starters trying to become a national power. The Tarheels don't have the best offense, but TJ Yates is a four year starter and winner (back to back eight win seasons) at quarterback. Greg Little is a multi-talented receiver (724 yards) who can run the ball too. The offense finished 108th in the NCAA last year, but a seasoned offensive line which returns five starters will remedy that. UNC's real strength is defense. Marvin Austin could have been a first round pick, but he returned to stuff the run and help out junior sackmaster Robert Quinn (11). Quan Sturdivant (79 tackles) leads a potent linebacker corps and Deunta Williams (six int) is the leader of four returning secondary starters. The Tigers should definitely challenge 'Bama for the West title. They're led by Jordan Jefferson, who has taken his lumps including this year's spring game, but he has a great corps of receivers led by Terrance Toliver (734 yards) and up-and-coming sophomore Russell Shepard.
The Tigers will start freshman Michael Ford (four-star recruit) at tailback, and he will run behind an offensive line that returns three starters. The defensive line must be rebuilt, but Sam Montgomery showed great promise in spring (two sacks). LSU's greatest asset is its secondary. Even though hard-hitting Chad Jones is gone, the Tigers return blanketing cornerbacks Patrick Peterson (15 passes defended) and Brandon Taylor (two interceptions). UNC will stuff LSU's ground game, but Jefferson and Tolliver are good for a couple big plays. However, Yates threw 15 picks last year, and Peterson and Taylor will expose that. LSU has homefield advantage and they win a defensive struggle.
Prediction: LSU 17, N. Carolina 13
Fifteen total national championships, 1,603 total wins, 83 All Americans. The list goes on... This is the marquee SEC/Big 10 matchup we've been waiting for in the regular season. Even without 3,000 yard passer Daryl Clark, JoePa has plenty of options offensively, including big play back Evan Royster (1,169 yards) who can run behind a gritty offensive line led by Rimington Award frontrunner Steve Wisnieski. Their defense doesn't have any standouts, but their new linebackers have really improved over the spring strength-wise. Jack Crawford and Eric Lattimore (nine sacks) should turn into pass rushing fiends, and Nick Sukay is a shutdown cornerback (11 pass break ups, two int). But 'Bama has the bigger guns. McElroy is a solid QB that doesn't make mistakes (2,508 yds). He's boosted by an even stronger run game led by Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson (2,400 yards combined). James Carpenter leads three returning starters on the offensive line, and Playboy All American receiver Julio Jones (596 yds) is ready for a breakout year. The defense lost many players to the NFL like Terrence Cody, Javier Arenas, and Rolando McClain, but there are some up and coming stars like "slobber knocking" defensive end Marcel Dareus (6.5 sacks) and starting safeties Mark Barron (six int) and Robby Green (four pass break ups). The Tide's weakness is at cornerback, which will provide big play opportunities for the Lions' new QB Kevin Newsome. This game should provide a lot of big plays, but Penn St.'s steady defense will have an easier time stopping Ingram than Alabama stopping Royster. The Tide could run the table in the SEC, but they'll take this early non-conference loss first.
Prediction: Penn St. 31, Alabama 28
Like Clemson-South Carolina, this has become a one-sided rivalry. The 'Noles haven't won since 2003, but before that they beat Steve Spurrier's Gators three times. Both schools recruit the same players, so these guys are used to beating up on each other. After some sub par years under Bobby Bowden, Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles are ready to soar. Christian Ponder (2,717 yds) is experienced passer, but he has yet to beat Florida. If things go as predicted, Florida St. will have secured the ACC Atlantic crown, and this game is for bragging rights. There are also some good players around Ponder, like tailback Jermaine Thomas (832 yards), receivers Bert Reed (710 yds), and Jarmon Forston (four TD). The defense was weakened by graduation, but Greg Reid has the flair to make plays in the secondary (two int) and linebacker Nigel Bradham is a steady tackler (93 tackles). But Florida St.'s defense will be no match for a backfield loaded with speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey and also power back Emmanuel Moody. All these guys averaged at least 6.5 yards per carry last year. Even if Brantley is a bust, there will be plenty of room for these backs to do work behind the broad shoulders of starting center Mike Pouncey. The returning defense is mostly reserves from last year's Sugar Bowl squad, but Ahmad Black can roam and make plays all over the field (70 tackles.) The linebackers should also be OK with senior AJ Jones and blitz machine Brandon Hicks (four sacks). Christian Ponder will make some plays in his last home game, but the Gators' running game and more talented defenders will have the last chomp.
Prediction: Florida 38, Florida State 24