In 2015, certain SEC fan bases had to reconcile head-scratching defeats like The Citadel over South Carolina, Toledo over Arkansas and Memphis over Ole Miss — upsets that weren’t exactly easy to predict last summer.
Fast forward to the present: SEC Country looks deep into the SEC’s 2016 schedule grid to forecast four potential upsets or high-profile near-misses for the upcoming season.
Of the four games to watch, each potential giant killer hails from a conference outside the Power 5 leagues (SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12).
This should be a fun exercise for the 10 SEC programs not included in this piece. Of course, Florida might have been exempted from here last summer, long before the Gators required lots of overtime luck to survive a two-win Florida Atlantic squad in November — just seven days after clinching the SEC East title.
ARKANSAS STATE @ AUBURN
DATE: Sept. 10
1. Arkansas State is one of the most enigmatic programs from the Group of Five. The Red Wolves swept through Sun Belt Conference competition last season; but against four non-conference teams from the FBS (Southern California, Missouri, Toledo, Louisiana Tech), ASU incurred an average defeat margin of 26 points. Ouch.
2. Judgment call on whether Auburn coach Gus Malzahn enjoys facing his old school. Yes, his 2013 squad crushed Arkansas State by 29 points, but the Tigers also had more stability at quarterback and receiver then. Malzhan’s current team might still be adjusting to personnel changes on the fly (especially at QB).
3. Auburn’s first four games are at home, giving the program three 50/50 chances to upend potential powerhouses like Clemson (Sept. 3), Texas A&M (Sept. 17) and LSU (Sept. 24).
But it bears asking: What kind of energy and focus will Auburn have reserved for Arkansas State?
So, even if Auburn hypothetically topples Clemson and Heisman Trophy front-runner Deshaun Watson … there’s no guarantee the Tigers will be sharp, crisp or consistent the following Saturday.
Especially with Texas A&M and LSU on the horizon.
NEW MEXICO STATE @ KENTUCKY
DATE: Sept. 17
1. Our expectations for Kentucky are reasonably high this fall. But that doesn’t mean the Wildcats are now immune from falling to foes from smaller conferences. Especially when the potential upset lies between important encounters with Florida (Sept. 10), South Carolina (Sept. 24) and Alabama (Oct. 1).
2. New Mexico State tailback Larry Rose III (1,651 rushing yards, 16 TDs) was dominant for large chunks of last season, amassing 180-plus rushing yards six times; Rose found the end zone 10 times in those six outings.
From the Kentucky perspective, the Wildcats ranked 96th against the rush last season, allowing 196 yards per game.
3. These are desperate times for New Mexico State, which will reportedly get booted from the Sun Belt Conference after the 2017 campaign.
This leaves the Aggies with one of two choices:
a) Humbly accept the demotion and consider moving to a smaller league, or maybe the FCS competition level.
b) Rise up and upset the likes of Texas A&M, Arkansas State, New Mexico, UTEP or Kentucky this fall, in an effort to garner some national attention.
VANDERBILT @ WESTERN KENTUCKY
DATE: Sept. 24
1. Western Kentucky should have Vanderbilt’s full attention, following last year’s road upset in Nashville. That defeat would mark the first of 10 occasions when the anemic Commodores scored 17 or fewer points.
2. In his first two years at WKU, succeeding the enigmatic (and perhaps nefarious) Bobby Petrino, head coach Jeff Brohm boasts a 19-7 overall record — including a perfect run through Conference USA last season.
3. Under Brohm’s leadership, Western Kentucky has significantly upped the ante with non-conference opponents. Last year, the Hilltoppers scheduled schools from the SEC (Vandy, LSU) and Big Ten (Indiana) — all on the road.
For 2016, WKU again has two SEC programs on the September docket (@ Alabama, vs. Vandy).
4. The timing of this matchup isn’t particularly good. The week before, Vanderbilt travels to Georgia Tech; and the week after, the Commodores host Florida, a school they’ve never knocked off at Vanderbilt Stadium.
5. Expectations are starting to percolate with the Vanderbilt program, thanks to the ‘Triplets’ grouping of sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur (4-start recruit, five TD passes in his final three starts last year), junior tailback Ralph Webb (2,064 career rushing yards, 9 TDs) and junior receiver Trent Sherfield, who established a school single-game record for receiving yards last season (against Austin Peay, mind you).
The future’s obviously bright in Nashville. However, to accumulate another layer of respect in SEC circles, Vanderbilt must handle up-and-coming programs like Western Kentucky.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN @ OLE MISS
DATE: Nov. 5
1. Georgia Southern came thisclose to knocking off Georgia Tech (2014) and UGA (2015) in consecutive years.
Against Georgia Tech, GSU rallied from a 35-10 deficit in the second quarter and was running out the clock late in the fourth quarter. But a devastating fumble allowed Tech to get the ball back and roll for the game-winning score.
And last year, Georgia Southern pushed the Bulldogs to the brink of defeat, before falling in overtime.
2. The dynamic backfield of Matt Breida (1,608 yards rushing, 17 TDs) and L.A. Ramsby (816 rushing yards, 13 TDs) returns for Georgia Southern, the nation’s No. 1 rushing attack among FBS competition (363 yards per game).
3. Ole Miss has plenty of talent returning to the mix in 2016, but it’ll be interesting to see how the Rebels push forward without the superb trio of wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche — all first-round picks in the NFL draft.
4. It’s been written here in various forums: Ole Miss gets my vote for ‘Most Daunting SEC Schedule’ this year, a docket that begins with Florida State, Alabama and UGA in a 19-day span during September … and then includes four SEC road games after Oct. 15 (Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt).
From a sandwich-game perspective, this leaves the Rebels vulnerable for flat home outings against either Auburn (Oct. 29) or Georgia Southern (Nov. 5). Take your pick.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.