Alabama fans are still celebrating another national championship after an incredible title bout with Clemson on Monday night in Arizona, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start thinking about the 2016 season.
The schedule for next year is loaded with intriguing matchups, particularly nonconference tilts early in the season. And with plenty of talent returning at several SEC outposts, plus new coaches at UGA, South Carolina and Missouri, 2016 is almost certain to be another wild and entertaining campaign.
Here’s a look at the 16 games SEC fans should be most excited about in the first month of the 2016 season, even if that is nearly nine months away:
Alabama vs. Southern Cal, Sept. 3, Arlington, Texas
Two of the nation’s most storied programs open the season at “Jerry World”. Alabama hasn’t played Southern Cal since the 1985 Aloha Bowl, but will begin its title defense against a talented, but recently inconsistent Trojans team.
LSU vs. Wisconsin, Sept. 3, Green Bay, Wisc.
Leonard Fournette will be rumbling on the iconic frozen tundra of Lambeau Field … OK, the field probably won’t be frozen in early September. Still, it’s a national stage for Fournette, a great venue and new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda faces his former team in his first game with the Tigers.
Auburn vs. Clemson, Sept. 3
Gus Malzahn will be under intense pressure to rebound after a substandard 2015, and he gets to start 2016 by facing the best quarterback in the country and possibly the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. At least it is at home, right?
UGA vs. North Carolina, Sept. 3, Atlanta
The Kirby Smart era starts off with a fascinating game. The Tar Heels lose do-it-all quarterback Marquise Williams, but bring back a ton of talent from a team that went on an 11-game winning streak in 2015 before losing two straight. Does the Jacob Eason Era begin in Atlanta?
Texas A&M vs. UCLA, Sept. 3
Speaking of new SEC assistants facing their old teams in Week 1, Aggies offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone gets the Bruins at Kyle Field. If Deshaun Watson is the quarterback with the best chance to win the Heisman Trophy in 2016, UCLA gunslinger Josh Rosen is probably No. 2 at this point. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin does not need to start next season with a home loss to a really good but not great program.
Missouri at West Virginia, Sept. 3
Barry Odom’s first game as the big boss at Missouri could be a tricky one. West Virginia went 8-5 in 2015, returns a bunch of starters on offense (including quarterback Skyler Howard), and coach Dana Holgorsen might have some special tricks ready after an offseason to prepare. Recall that the Mountaineers gave Alabama a stern test to start the 2014 season, and that team was less seasoned at key offensive positions.
Ole Miss vs. Florida State, Sept. 5, Orlando
The Rebels will enjoy the offseason after finishing the 2015 season with a Sugar Bowl thumping of Oklahoma State and a No. 10 ranking in the final AP poll. They lose a lot of talent, but also bring in a great recruiting class. Will those kids be ready to open the season against Florida State, which might be a top-5 team in 2016 if the Seminoles can find consistent quarterback play?
Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech, Sept. 10, Bristol, Tenn.
What a spectacle this should be. The Vols and Hokies will play at Bristol Motor Speedway, and it will serve as both a strong test for a Tennessee team expected to win the SEC East and a great stage to show off the sport.
Arkansas at TCU, Sept. 10
The Razorbacks need to stop getting off to slow starts, but a trip to Fort Worth in Week 2 might not help with that. Former Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill could be the starter for the Horned Frogs, who will again be expected to compete for a Big 12 title. Arkansas is replacing some major offensive weapons.
South Carolina at Mississippi State, Sept. 10
This could be a sneaky great conference game early in the season. It will be Will Muschamp’s second game as South Carolina’s coach (after opening with Vanderbilt), and a good measure of where these two programs are at, given the Gamecocks’ struggles in 2015 and that quarterback Dak Prescott will not be playing for the Bulldogs.
Alabama vs. Western Kentucky, Sept. 10
This is a classic letdown/look-ahead game, sandwiched between two of the biggest games of the season for the Crimson Tide (Southern Cal and Ole Miss). Also, Western Kentucky went 12-2 this year and retained both its head coach and the starting quarterback. Could the Hilltoppers surprise, and at least hang with mighty Alabama here?
Alabama at Ole Miss, Sept. 17
Nick Saban is 26-1 in the past two seasons against everyone else, but is 0-2 against coach Hugh Freeze and the Rebels. Ole Miss could win the SEC next season and make the College Football Playoff, or it could also have two losses by Week 3 and be an afterthought. No pressure, guys.
Florida at Tennessee, Sept. 24
Week 4 has a quartet of juicy conference games, including Tennessee’s next chance to end a now 11-game losing streak against Florida. The Vols won’t be taken seriously as SEC contenders if the streak reaches 12.
LSU at Auburn, Sept. 24
Fournette ran all over Auburn in 2015, so expect the home team to be looking for some redemption here. If Auburn can’t upset Clemson in Week 1, the Tigers could have two home losses in September to two of the top 5-7 teams in the country. Conversely, Les Miles’ seat is similarly warm heading into 2016 and he’s got two very dangerous road games in the first month.
UGA at Ole Miss, Sept. 24
Smart’s crew also has a tricky trip to Missouri in Week 3, but this might be a make-or-break game for the Bulldogs in 2016. If UGA can get past North Carolina and win in Oxford, Miss., Smart will be on a Jim McElwain-esque track for SEC coach of the year honors and the Bulldogs could be SEC East contenders. Or UGA could limp into October with two or even three losses, because there is no mercy in the SEC.
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M, Sept. 24, Arlington, Texas
Hey, it is two old pals getting together again. There were a lot of fireworks before this game in 2015, because of Bret Bielema’s feud with Kevin Sumlin’s compadre Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech. This year, it will just feature two coaches who really need to have a good 2016 to ensure employment at their current positions in 2017. That can be fun too.