The 2016 season is expected to be one of the most competitive in recent memory. If Mark Richt has showed anything, it is that the bar is sky-high for SEC teams. There’s a reason no current SEC East coach has lasted more than three seasons — wins are expected in bunches
Each team has numerous games on its schedule that could help define the season. However, some rise above as either must-win or an opportunity to make a statement. Here is each team’s make or break game next season.
Alabama: at LSU
The Crimson Tide are rightfully the favorites in the SEC after winning the national championship last season. While Alabama is touted, LSU has been quietly working toward a bounce-back season. RB Leonard Fournette will be motivated, especially considering last year’s game against Alabama ruined his Heisman chances.
The Tigers bring back more starters. This game may come down to quarterback play, with LSU’s Brandon Harris going against whomever starts for the Crimson Tide. If Alabama’s quarterback makes mistakes, LSU has a great shot to win the football game.
Arkansas: at Auburn
Bret Bielema’s teams have become famous for peaking in November. With the way the schedule sets up, Arkansas could be fighting just for a bowl spot. Three of the four non-conference games are winnable, but the conference schedule only gets tougher from there. In a five-game stretch, Arkansas plays Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Florida and LSU.
That is why the Auburn game is so important. The Tigers should be improved this season after a rough 2015 campaign. Bielema’s Razorbacks return several starters, but are without star QB Brandon Allen, RBs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins and three of five offensive linemen. A loss to Auburn could keep them from bowl eligibility.
Auburn: vs. Texas A&M
We will learn everything we need to know about the Auburn Tigers on Sept. 17 against the Aggies. Texas A&M is reeling after losing a pair of quarterbacks in the offseason, but there is talent all over the roster. Even with uncertainty, Auburn has also managed to bring elite talent under Gus Malzahn.
Auburn is a prestigious job, and a 6-6 regular season clearly was not good enough to appease the Tigers faithful. This will be a vital game for both Auburn and Texas A&M. Potentially, the losing coach could be looking at a pink slip come season’s end.
Florida: at Tennessee
The Gators readily taunt Volunteers fans with their 11-game winning streak, but things could be different this season. Tennessee has its most talented team in at least a decade, and the expectation is to win the SEC East. Florida, the defending division champs, would like nothing more than to squash Tennessee once again.
Florida looked to be a national title contender last season before losing QB Will Grier to suspension. However, bad quarterback play meant the Gators finished the season 4-4, including on a three-game losing streak. Tennessee lost by just a point last season in Gainesville. Losing this game could signal a shift in the balance of SEC East power, maybe for the foreseeable future.
Georgia: vs. Tennessee
In the third game of conference play, Georgia will face off against Butch Jones and the SEC East favorite Tennessee Volunteers. Georgia mostly has been the top team in this division since Urban Meyer left Florida, but the scales are tipping. The Bulldogs’ hold on the division was light enough that Georgia let go of longtime coach Mark Richt this offseason.
While being a new head coach can buy time, this job comes with expectations. Richt led the Bulldogs to 9.7 wins per season in his 15-year tenure. Smart’s mission is clear: bring Georgia championships. Dropping to Tennessee would be an ominous start to the tenure.
Kentucky: at Louisville
Mark Stoops has become the longest-tenured coach in the SEC East (along with Tennessee’s Butch Jones) after the departure of several mainstays. While the talent he has brought to Lexington is admirable, the results have not yet followed. The Wildcats have not qualified for a bowl game since Joker Phillips’ first season at Kentucky.
On the other end of this matchup, Louisville is a Kentucky-based team that has quickly overtaken the Wildcats for national prestige. QB Lamar Jackson is poised to break out onto the national stage. Beating an arch-rival and qualifying for a bowl game would strengthen Stoops’ position, though he’s very unlikely to get fired no matter what the result thanks to a giant buyout.
LSU: vs. Alabama
Tigers nearly fired Miles last season, but uproar from the fans eventually allowed him to keep his job. Everyone knows the stakes this year, especially Miles.
Heading into the season, many consider LSU the favorite to win the SEC West. The Tigers return most of their starters, especially star offensive players RB Leonard Fournette and WR Malachi Dupree. Regardless, the results must come for Miles to survive another season in Baton Rouge. This game could eventually decide the SEC West championship.
Mississippi State: vs. Arkansas
It’s hard to bet against Bielema in November, but Dan Mullen and Mississippi State will need to do just that. The Bulldogs are in a tough spot after losing Dak Prescott, one of the best players to ever walk through Starkville.
There are several winnable games on the schedule. Crossover games against Kentucky and South Carolina bode well for Mississippi State too. This game could feature two teams dueling for bowl eligibility — or at least pecking order within the second half of the West Division. Mullen has led the Bulldogs to six straight bowl games and a combined 55-35 record with the Bulldogs. A win would say plenty about the Bulldogs’ staying power post Prescott.
Missouri: at South Carolina
Both on and off the field, there were few teams in more turmoil than Missouri last season. The Tigers lost head coach Gary Pinkel to health, QB Maty Mauk to dismissal and had protests on campus about civil rights issues. Actual football often was the least of everyone’s concerns.
Barry Odom will have plenty of time to try and get things under his control. A Mizzou graduate, Odom brings back plenty of key talent, especially on the defensive line. Even with struggles early, Odom’s job is safe. Reaching a bowl game would make for an acceptable season. Anything more is gravy at this point.
Ole Miss: vs. Florida State
Is QB Chad Kelly good enough to help the Rebels challenge for an SEC West title? That will become clear Week 1 against the vaunted Seminoles in Orlando. Ole Miss has impressed under Hugh Freeze and improved in wins every year of his tenure. However, the Rebels will have to overcome several key losses from last season’s team.
The Rebels defense exemplifies opportunism, and FSU RB Dalvin Cook knows how to take advantage. If Ole Miss isn’t ready defensively, this game could be over quickly. Putting aside the potential ramifications of the NCAA investigation, Freeze has done enough on the field that his job isn’t in doubt based on results. However, a win could cement Ole Miss as a legitimate national championship contender.
South Carolina: at Vanderbilt
Many questioned South Carolina’s hiring of Will Muschamp after his struggles at Florida. The tone will be set right away as the Gamecocks have games on the road against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State to open the season.
Muschamp is an excellent defensive coach, and has a game against a tough defense right away. Derek Mason has built his program well — on one side of the ball, at least. However, this is a chance for Muschamp to prove that his team has developed offensively. Florida’s offense was putrid under Muschamp; has he learned since then?
Tennessee: vs. Alabama
The target is clear in Butch Jones’ fourth season: Win the SEC. Tennessee brings back as much talent as any program. On the defensive side of the ball. Derek Barnett and Jalen Reeves-Maybin to produce one of the scariest pairings in all of college football. And the three-headed rushing monster of Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara could be the best in the SEC.
However, when going against future Hall of Famer Nick Saban, all bets are off. The Crimson Tide consistently produce the most fearsome team in football. Even in a rebuilding season, Alabama is poised to be the favorites in the conference. A win against the Crimson Tide could help change perception of Tennessee for years to come.
Texas A&M: vs. UCLA
It wasn’t long ago that Kevin Sumlin was seen as a favorite to leave for an NFL job in the near future. Now, he has to fight for the one he has. After a quick entrance to the SEC with Johnny Manziel, the Aggies have been disappointing.
Texas A&M stole offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone from UCLA this offseason. Funnily enough, Mazzone will face off against the Bruins the first week of the season. The resources are there for Sumlin to put together an SEC contender. A loss to UCLA the first week of the season at home could be devastating.
Vanderbilt: at Georgia Tech
The Commodores made strides under Derek Mason in 2015, but results did not necessarily follow. After captivating reporters during SEC media days, the spotlight could soon be back on Mason’s program.
For a team with three mid-major opponents on the schedule, the road is relatively difficult. Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky are not games to be overlooked. The key comes as the Commodores travel to Atlanta on Sept. 17 to play the Yellow Jackets. A convincing win, or strong performance, could buy Mason more time to build.