Key Early Season Games for SEC West Teams
The competition in the SEC West is as fierce as ever. Alabama is trying to repeat another run through the conference. Auburn, LSU, and Arkansas all seemingly have a chance to play the role of spoiler. And Mississippi and Mississippi State look to edge their way into the conversation as well.
Each team plays a game in the first month of the season will give you a good indication whether or not they are contenders or pretenders in the SEC West race.
Alabama @ Arkansas, Sept. 25
Alabama does play a decent out-of-conference game two weeks prior against Penn State. However, I don't expect PSU to have enough speed or depth to make that a contest beyond the first half. The first big test for the Crimson Tide is in week 4 as they travel to the Ozarks. The talent-laden, yet inexperienced defense of Alabama will be put to the test against the Hogs offense. If the Crimson Tide plans to repeat their two-year run through the conference, they'll have to go on the road and put a fork in the pesky pigs. Alabama will still be in the mix for the SEC West either way but no team wants to start from behind in the conference divisional race.
Arkansas vs. Alabama, Sept. 25
It's a repeat but this is the biggest test for Arkansas in September. I could make an argument that the week 3 Georgia game is important as well but I happen to think Arkansas will blow by the Bulldogs in that one. If Arkansas and Ryan Mallett (along with as talented a group of skill players found in the SEC) can carve enough points out of the Crimson Tide stonewall defense, Petrino and company will take a LARGE first step towards booking travel plans for Atlanta in early December. Losing this won't sink the season but it will dash hopes for Arkansas first SEC West crown since 2006.
Auburn @ Mississippi State, Sept. 9
Auburn will live and die by just how good the offense is in 2010 - especially the play of new quarterback Cam Newton. If Newton can overcome the jitters of his first road start in the conference and lead a balanced, consistent attack for the Tigers against Miss. State, there's plenty of evidence to think the Tigers can make a solid run in 2010 and continue to build for the future. Stumbling out of the blocks early could seriously damage the confidence of this signal caller and as he goes in 2010, so goes Auburn's chances for anything of note on the football field.
LSU vs. North Carolina, Sept. 4 at the Georgia Dome
LSU is a complete mystery. They are as loaded as either Florida or Alabama but something just hasn't added up since the championship run in 2007 for the Tigers. Les Miles is feeling the heat and a win against Butch Davis' Tarheels would go a long way in quieting some critics and in giving his team a much needed positive shot in the arm as they prepare to make a run back to the top of the SEC West. A loss in this one could send LSU spiraling towards a low-tier bowl and might signal the beginning of the end for Les Miles in Baton Rouge.
Mississippi vs. Fresno State, Sept. 25
The Rebels (that's still the mascot, right?) get three cakewalks (sorry Vandy) before they get a real test in 2010 and it's going to be a test. Betting against Pat Hill and Fresno State is a very bad idea as he always fields a physical, pesky team and last year took a good Wisconsin team to double overtime. If Houston Nutt is going to do anything of note in 2010, he and his team need to win this one and decisively. The back end of the schedule is no picnic for the Rebels so a quality win early will go a long way in instilling confidence in a young team and in keeping some of the Nutt naysayers at bay - until the meat of conference play that is.
Mississippi State vs. Auburn, Sept. 9
Another repeat? Yes. This one is just as big for Miss. State as it is for Auburn. Many would shrug off the Bulldogs of Starkville because in all honesty, there isn't a lot there to fear. However, a new quarterback making his first conference road start may be enough of a window to give the maroon cowbells plenty to ring about early in the season. No one expect Miss. State to be in the mix in the latter part of the year but they can send shockwaves and position the program for brighter days by getting this win early against Auburn. A loss here is not the end of the Bulldogs' season but a win makes the road leading to a bowl berth much clearer.