Playing in a league where every one of every eight conference games is a grind is hard enough.
Being the ‘other’ side of the league and opposite what is regarded as the best division in college football, well, that maybe lends to folks thinking the SEC East isn’t quite as competitive as its West companion.
The truth is, Georgia looks to be strong again, with Missouri taking the SEC by storm the last two years, Tennessee on the rise, Kentucky poised to take a jump, Florida under new management and South Carolina taking things on with wounded pride as a battle cry, the East title chase has a chance to be just as feisty as the West.
With that as the baseline, let’s take a look at the toughest game on every SEC East team’s slate this season.
Oct. 17 at Georgia: The Tigers have stunned the East Division in their first two seasons by being a more tough-minded team than some expected, particularly on defense. With some reloading to do on that side of the ball, though, maintaining that grit and tenacity figures to be a challenge – one that might not be put to a real serious test until the trip between the hedges. If Mizzou is unbeaten at that point, a third straight division crown is a realistic goal, but only if the Tigers can figure out a way past the Bulldogs and their similar aspirations.
First runner-up | Sept. 26 at Kentucky: The aforementioned defense is going to get stretched and prodded in the first three games in different ways, but Kentucky’s Air Raid offense in Year 2 could be a tricky challenge if the Cats have established some confidence by that point.
Sept. 19 vs. South Carolina: For all the success the Bulldogs have had in recent years, the one hurdle that has kept them from reaching loftier heights and knocked them out of the last two conference championship games in has been the Gamecocks. Carolina has won four of the last five meetings with UGa, usually early in the season to put the Bulldogs in position to fight uphill the rest of the league season. This doesn’t appear to be the same caliber of Gamecocks’ team, especially on defense, but Georgia has to focus on plowing through this one to maintain division championship holes.
First runner-up | Nov. 14 at Auburn: Because of the weird way the Bulldogs’ schedule finishes up, they play two non-conference games at the end, so the best chance to be in full control of their SEC destiny comes in the ‘Oldest Rivalry in the South.’ That ramps up the intensity more than it always is in this game anyway, and if Auburn is in a similar position – where it could win the West – this could be a potential prequel to the SEC Championship Game.
Sept. 19 at Kentucky: Why so big this early? Because it’s the first SEC test for Jim McElwain’s first-year coaching staff, the defensive brain trust in particular, and it comes against an offense that could be dangerous and is led by a veteran quarterback. The ghost of Will Muschamp might have been chased out the door, but the defense he left behind is still expected to be stout. We’ll all find out just how true that is in this game.
First runner-up | Oct. 31 vs. Georgia (Jacksonville): By this point, the Gators will have a pretty good idea where things are headed and whether they have the fortitude to go toe-to-toe with the conference’s heavyweights. Regardless of which direction Florida’s confidence is headed, the rivalry game with the Bulldogs brings something different out. Win this one and the Gators head into a stretch of three manageable games to get ramped up for their other big rivalry showdown against Florida State.
Oct. 10 vs. Georgia: If Tennessee is going to be the team that so many pundits are predicting, it should be able to handle the first two conference games successfully – at Florida and home vs. Arkansas. That would set up an early showdown of old foes that many think will be the frontrunners in the East in 2015 when the Bulldogs come to town and the Vols could be in a perfect spot to announce their presence in the East Division race.
First runner-up | Oct. 24 at Alabama: No matter how the game above plays out, the trip to The Capstone looms as a barometer for Butch Jones and UT in terms of whether that ‘right direction’ everybody has written and talked about means the Vols can make this resemble a true rivalry game again. UT has lost the last eight clashes with Alabama, all when the Tide was ranked No. 7 or higher.
Oct. 10 vs. LSU: The Gamecocks have to grow up quickly on defense and by the time they play host to the Tigers, they could be facing a fifth consecutive offense that will physically test them. No SEC schedule qualifies as easy, but Carolina could stake claim to the toughest early half, which culminates with LSU – the one conference team Steve Spurrier hasn’t beaten since he got to Columbia.
First runner-up | Nov. 28 vs. Clemson: It’s conceivable the Gamecocks could be playing to qualify for a bowl game in the season finale while their in-state rivals might be bound for the ACC Championship Game. The Tigers manhandled Carolina last season and have, for now at least, moved ahead talent-wise by a good margin.
Sept. 26 vs. Missouri: Kentucky as an SEC East contender? Very well could happen early on, and that makes this second road trip in league play so sizable for the Cats. Kentucky would vault into at least a spot at least sharing the catbird seat if it can win at South Carolina and vs. Florida in Lexington before facing Mizzou. Win a third in a row over the two-time division champion Tigers and, well, see the first sentence.
First runner-up | Nov. 7 at Georgia: The whole being-a-contender notion may well have fizzled out by the ninth game, while the Bulldogs might be closing in on nailing down the top spot in the East. That’s not a good equation for Big Blue.
Oct. 17 at South Carolina: There don’t figure to be many weeks that aren’t tough-as-nails for the Commodores, but this is potentially the toughest because it’s the last of three games in a row on the road and against a Gamecocks’ team that might be desperate for any win it can scrounge up. With as uncertain a quarterback situation as there is in the SEC, even the notion on taking on a tottering Gamecocks’ defense isn’t encouraging.
First runner-up | Nov. 28 at Tennessee: There isn’t likely to be a bowl game waiting for Vandy and this in-state rivalry game comes at the end of playing seven consecutive weeks, the previous two against high-octane offenses (Kentucky, Texas A&M). Playing out the string against a UT club that might still have a chance for a nice landing spot after the season makes for a long day in Knoxville.