Ah! Whoever said the Holidays were the most wonderful time of the year was mistaken. College football has returned! Fall practice has begun nationwide and we're only 21 days away from the kickoff of another exciting year of college football. What better place to start the discussion than the conference that has produced the last four national champions. This is a preview of five pivotal matchups that will shape the race to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game.
1. USC at Florida - Nov. 13
This game basically can be summed up as the SEC East Championship game. South Carolina has the most talented team in the SOS era (if not the programs' history). Couple that with the rest of the contenders being down compared to previous years and the stars are aligning in Columbia like they never have before.
One obstacle will be the tough schedule. It seems that Carolina draws the short straw when it comes to Western division opponents each year, always adding a team on its way up and replacing a team on its way down.
Florida is talented as always, but has to replace a lot of production from the previous year. Specifically 68 percent of their offensive yardage and at least 71 percent of their total points. Not to mention losing defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to the Louisville head coaching job, along with most of the starting defensive secondary. Yet, as I said, they have a lot talent, they just have to execute and put the pieces together.
If this game was played toward the beginning of the season, the edge would easily go to USC.
2. Auburn at Alabama - Nov. 26
Alabama, who has won the last two meetings by a combined score of 62-21, is the defending SEC and National Champion. Not to mention they return Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram along with a slew of playmakers. Having to replace nine starters on defense will be a challenge, but Nick Saban and his staff are more than capable.
Auburn is trying to turn its program around under head coach Gene Chizik and an extremely talented recruiting class. Adding QB Cam Newton to run the spread office should benefit the Tigers.
This matchup, like USC-Florida, could determine the winner of their respective division. This depends a lot on Auburn's ability to navigate a brutal SEC West. With most of the tough matchups at home, Auburn has the talent to compete for the division title.
3. LSU at Auburn - Oct. 23
This is a game I'm really looking forward to this season. By this game, each team will probably have at least one conference loss. Both teams will still have to play Alabama with a chance to advance to the SEC title game. Basically, the winner of this matchup gets a big leg up in the division race.
LSU returns 11 starters (4 on defense) from a 9-4(5-3) team a year ago. Now I wouldn't necessarily put a National Champion coach on the hot seat, but let's face it, LSU has fallen behind in the SEC West. Will LSU look past Auburn to their matchup with Alabama in two weeks or will they take care of business against the Tigers? And will Auburn and coach Chizik officially arrive or will the hype be too much for them to overcome?
4. Florida at Tennessee - Sep. 18
This game was typically a big affair with major conference implications, until the last five seasons where the Gators have dominated the series. Most experts have predicted this trend to continue. Here is my take.
Both teams have a lot of questions this year. Tennessee, who has a different coaching staff for the third time in three years, has to replace a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, and has had a slew of offseason arrests and injuries early in practice.
With all that said, this game is early in the season and Florida is an inexperienced team. The Vols faithful will be loud and feisty behind their team, especially if they knock off Oregon the week before. I look for this game to be a good early test for both teams.
5. Georgia at South Carolina - Sep. 11
A great matchup in the early SEC season with big conference implications. The winner of this game will have a matchup later in the season with Florida for the right to play in the SEC title game.
With the exception of last year's shootout, this game is typically a low scoring defensive affair with four out of the last five games decided by seven points or less. I expect this series to return to its past this season.
To Carolina's advantage, Georgia will more than likely be starting a Freshman QB along with a new defensive scheme that the players won't have adjusted to yet. How will the young QB fair in the frenzied environment of Williams-Brice Stadium? That will be determined on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon in Columbia, SC.
This year is shaping up to be another entertaining year of football. Look for these five games to play a big part in determining not only the outcome of the SEC conference, but potentially the National Championship game as well. Stay tuned for more weekly previews and recaps of the SEC action.