The 2016 college football season is only weeks away, and with a handful of marquee matchups early on, the month of September will play a hand in shaping the College Football Playoff race.
Here is a look at the most crucial early-season matchup for each team in the SEC.
Alabama (Sept. 17 at Ole Miss)
Alabama’s neutral-field season opener against USC at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, will captivate a national audience, but this showdown is not the biggest game for the Crimson Tide in September. That contest will take place at Ole Miss on Sept. 17.
The Rebels feature the SEC’s most accomplished passing attack — by far — with a starting quarterback (Chad Kelly) who already led his team to an upset of Alabama as a junior in 2015. The SEC West is expected to be tightly contested once again this season, and this conference opener could have far-reaching implications on the race for the division title.
Arkansas (Sept. 10 at TCU)
The Razorbacks are poised for an inevitable step backward given the departures of offensive leaders Brandon Allen, Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, but a victory over what should be a top-25 team at TCU has the chance to give the team a considerable boost to begin this transition period.
A win here would all but assure a 4-0 non-conference record for Arkansas in 2016, clearing a fairly easy path to a bowl appearance.
Auburn (Sept. 17 vs. Texas A&M)
Auburn is projected to finish in the bottom half of the SEC West this season. The Tigers cannot afford to stumble out of the gate, but with Clemson, LSU and Texas A&M all on the schedule in September, a 1-3 start is a realistic possibility.
Texas A&M is without a doubt the most beatable of those three opponents, and a victory could launch a respectable 2016 campaign.
Florida (Sept. 24 at Tennessee)
Judging by preseason media predictions — and the eye test — the Tennessee Volunteers are the team to beat in the SEC East, with Georgia and Florida far behind. The Gators will receive an early-season opportunity, however, to make their claim as the top dog in the division.
Florida travels to Knoxville for a game that could determine who represents the SEC East in Atlanta this December.
Georgia (Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina)
Besides avoiding injury at the running back position, the key to Georgia’s season will be to find an answer under center.
The Bulldogs have two legitimate options in senior Greyson Lambert and true freshman Jacob Eason, but neither has staked a claim to the starting quarterback job. A full-time starter could emerge during the season opener in Atlanta against North Carolina.
Kentucky (Sept. 3 vs. Southern Miss)
Kentucky football fans could be in for a long season. The Wildcats and South Carolina appear destined for the SEC East cellar.
The Wildcats will likely need to go undefeated in non-conference play in order to produce a winning season, and that goal will be threatened in week one at home against Southern Miss. Kentucky’s pass defense will be tested by senior quarterback Nick Mullens, a fourth-year starter who threw for 38 touchdowns last season.
LSU (Sept. 3 vs. Wisconsin)
The LSU Tigers are one of the favorites to be crowned national champion at the end of the 2016 season. A week-one showdown with Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, though, should concern LSU fans. The Tigers are clearly the more talented team, but factors such as offseason rust and the roaring Wisconsin crowd in Green Bay could make this one interesting.
Mississippi State (Sept. 17 at LSU)
How will Mississippi State fare in year one of post-Dak Prescott life? The third game of the season on the road at LSU will be a telling sign.
Prescott burst onto the national scene in 2014 with a shocking upset of the Tigers in Death Valley, and proceeded to re-write the Mississippi State record books. Do not expect a star to emerge as Prescott did two years ago — or a victory — but a strong showing against one of the top teams in the country would be a positive step for the program during this transition period.
Missouri (Sept. 3 at West Virginia)
Between losing an athletic director on the eve of SEC Media Days and ushering in a new head coaching regime for the first time since 2001, Mizzou desperately needs a positive distraction on the football field. Making a bowl game is a realistic expectation for Barry Odom in his first year at the helm of the program, but he needs to take advantage of any opportunities to tilt the odds in his team’s favor.
The early part of the Tigers’ 2016 schedule is filled with a mix of non-conference games they should win and SEC matchups they will be projected to lose. The only toss-up is their season opener on the road at West Virginia. The Mountaineers have a seasoned veteran at quarterback (Skyler Howard), but a Mizzou defensive line that has been touted as one of the best in the country could lead the Tigers to victory.
Ole Miss (Sept. 5 vs. Florida State)
Ole Miss lost its top playmaker, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, to the NFL Draft this offseason, but thanks to the return of senior quarterback Chad Kelly, the Rebels should remain a force in the SEC this season. They face an early non-conference test in week one, though, as they travel to Orlando for a neutral-site matchup with Florida State.
With Ole Miss retaining the SEC’s leading passer from 2015 and the Seminoles returning nearly all offensive starters from last season, expect a high-scoring affair to get the season started.
South Carolina (Sept. 24 at Kentucky)
The arrival of first-year head coach Will Muschamp has brightened the outlook for the South Carolina football program, but a monumental turnaround in his first year on campus is unlikely.
Picking up his first SEC victory with the Gamecocks will be no easy task for Muschamp. His team will be the underdog in most, if not all, of its conference games. Perhaps the best opportunity to do so will take place at Kentucky, another team expected to struggle this season.
Tennessee (Sept. 24 vs. Florida)
Tennessee is the clear-cut favorite to win the SEC East, totaling 225 of 331 first-place votes in the SEC preseason poll. At home against Florida on Sept. 24 is the Volunteers’ first chance to prove they are worthy of this recognition. Most importantly, the winner of this game will hold a considerable edge in the division race, which is expected to be a three-way competition which also includes Georgia.
Texas A&M (Sept. 3 vs. UCLA)
After an embarrassing offseason in which assistant coaches have gotten testy with recruits on Twitter and orchestrated blatantly sexist slideshows for the “Chalk Talk for Women” fundraising event, Texas A&M could not have the 2016 football season arrive any sooner.
What could make matters worse for the potential dumpster fire brewing in College Station, Texas? A home loss to UCLA in the season opener in front of 100,000-plus fans and a national television audience.
Vanderbilt (Sept. 1 vs. South Carolina)
Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason managed to hold onto his job this offseason, but a third consecutive losing season in 2016 would likely change those circumstances.
Fortunately for Mason, things are looking up for the Commodores. They boast arguably the SEC’s best defensive player, junior linebacker Zach Cunningham, and an All-SEC caliber running back, Ralph Webb. They also have a starting quarterback, Kyle Shurmur, who showed promise as a true freshman in 2015.
Vanderbilt has the potential to be a long-shot contender in the SEC East this season, but the Commodores will need to pick up a week-one victory over South Carolina first.