Determining an SEC team’s most important game can seem like an impossible task. The passion of the fans is so high and the competition between the programs is so intense that all the games feel crucial. Yet some matter more than others.
For our purposes it’s probably better to explain what the most important game isn’t:
It’s not necessarily the one fans most want to win. Every school has a hated rival or two, but most of the SEC’s most important games this season won’t involve traditional rivalries.
It’s not necessarily a team’s hardest game. There’s a difference between most important game and most likely loss.
What then qualifies a game as being a team’s most important?
The most important games are the ones that provide the greatest opportunity to change the trajectory of a season. Some become important because of where they fall on the schedule, others because of the recent history with the opponent. However the one thing all these games have in common for the teams that play them is they sit right on the dividing line of success and failure this year.
Now let’s take a look at the games:
Most important game: Sept. 17 at Ole Miss
Could a team really beat Alabama coach Nick Saban three years in a row? That’s what Ole Miss is going to try to do this September when the Crimson Tide returns to Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium for the first time since a 23-17 defeat at Ole Miss in 2014, and just a year after the Rebels won at Alabama in 2015.
The last time Alabama traveled to Oxford, Miss., it was Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace’s fourth quarter heroics that made the difference. This time Alabama has an even more formidable quarterback to deal with — Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly arguably is the best in the country at his position.
Alabama fans are notoriously demanding — even when their team is less than a year removed from a national championship. There will be some angry Tide fans if the streak against Ole Miss isn’t stopped.
Most important game: Sept. 10 at TCU
One of the strangest story lines over the last couple of years has been Arkansas coach Bret Bielema’s weird rivalry with the state of Texas.
It started at last year’s SEC Media Days when Bielema described his team’s 2014 Texas Bowl win over the Texas Longhorns as ‘borderline erotic,’ and then continued last season when the Razorbacks lost to Texas Tech 35-24. After the game Red Raiders coach Cliff Kingsbury said, “ (Bielema) just got his (expletive) kicked … and probably (will) next week by Texas A&M as well.”
Kingsury’s comments were in response to Bielema’s earlier criticism of the spread offense Kingsbury favors, but by also referencing Texas A&M (a game Arkansas did lose 28-21), it’s hard not to conclude that the issue that puts the coaches at odds is less about offensive philosophy and more about an outsider who wants to invade Texas for recruits. Indeed Arkansas did sign four prospects from Texas in its 2016 recruiting class — including 4-star running back Devwah Whaley.
A win at TCU would make it easier for the Razorbacks to acquire more talented Texans like Whaley in the future.
Most important game: Nov. 12 at Georgia
After 11 losses in the last two years, Auburn finds itself in desperate need of a turnaround.
Unfortunately, bounce-back seasons are hard to come by in the SEC West, college football’s toughest division. Making things even tougher for the Tigers is a brutal season opener against Clemson — last year’s ACC champion and national runner-up. Therefore if there’s any hope for improvement for Auburn in 2016 the games it plays against the less-heralded SEC East become must-win games.
The problem with that is Auburn hasn’t had much success against its permanent crossover from the East lately. Since beating UGA in dramatic fashion in 2013 in the game forever remembered as “The Prayer at Jordan-Hare,” the Tigers have lost back-to-back games to the Bulldogs — including a 34-7 blowout in Athens, Ga., in 2014 and a 20-13 home loss last season.
If Auburn loses to Georgia again, coach Gus Malzahn’s seat will start to feel hotter than a furnace.
Most important game: Nov. 26 at Florida State
Last year when Florida State beat Florida, the Gators were the reigning SEC East champions and a trip to Atlanta for the league’s title game was secured — which probably served as some consolation after a 27-2 defeat.
No one yet knows what the postseason scenarios will be when the two rivals get together for this year’s season-ender, but we think Florida will have the most to prove.
The Seminoles are dominating the recruiting scene in the Sunshine State right now. According to the 247Sports composite ranking, FSU’s 2016 class ranked No. 2 in the country while Florida’s was just 13th. If the Gators want to win a few more recruiting battles against the Seminoles they’re going to have to start winning some on-field battles against them too.
Most important game: Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina (in the Georgia Dome)
A team’s most important game wouldn’t typically be the season opener, but new UGA coach Kirby Smart needs to begin his career with a win if for no other reason than to continue the momentum that has been developing since he first took the job in December.
Almost everything Smart has touched so far has turned to gold. He decided to stick around his previous employer — Alabama — through the College Football Playoff and was rewarded with a national championship for his trouble. He also convinced 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason to maintain his commitment to the Bulldogs, and then to top it off rallied more than 93,000 UGA fans to attend the G-Day spring scrimmage.
To say that Smart is riding high would be an understatement. However, all the positive headlines and glowing reviews won’t help against a Tar Heel team that won 11 games last year and returns the majority of its starters on both sides of the ball.
UNC is good enough to win this one, and if they do then all the fun from Smart’s first offseason quickly will be forgotten.
Most important game: Oct. 22 vs. Mississippi State
Kentucky could be a bowl team this year, and the game vs. Mississippi State could be the win that puts the Wildcats into the postseason.
Follow the logic here: In Kentucky’s first six games there are two likely losses — at Florida on Sept. 10 and at Alabama on Oct 1. There are also four possible wins — home games vs. Southern Miss, New Mexico State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. If we assume the Wildcats lose both the road games and go 3-1 in the home games then they’d be 3-3 heading into a bye week on Oct. 15 with a home date with Mississippi State looming the following week.
Things get tough for Kentucky after that. The final five games of the season include contests with Georgia, and road games with Tennessee and Louisville — all three of which could be nationally ranked.
Therefore it seems Kentucky’s best hope to get to the magic number of six wins is to take advantage of a Bulldogs team traveling a long way from Starkville, Miss., is unfamiliar with the Wildcats and probably isn’t aware that coach Mark Stoops has been improving Kentucky’s roster through recruiting in the last couple of years.
Most important game: Nov. 5 vs. Alabama
LSU coach Les Miles is so confident in his team’s ability to defend its home field than he’s called Death Valley — the stadium where the Tigers play — “The place dreams go to die.”
That’s a catchy phrase, but this year a different slogan might be more appropriate.
LSU’s stadium needs to be the place dreams are preserved.
A quick reading of preseason magazines and Vegas odds indicates most experts view the Tigers as a legitimate national championship contender, and the No. 1 reason that’s cited is LSU gets its annual clash with Alabama at home this year. The assumption being the result will be a lot more favorable to LSU than last season’s 30-16 loss — which was played in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
It’s too early to pick a winner between the two teams, but one prediction regarding the game is fairly easy to make: Last season LSU traveled to play the Crimson Tide sporting a No. 2 national ranking, and the Tigers will be in a similar position when the teams meet this year. However the real question is where will LSU be ranked after it plays Alabama? Will its championship dreams be dashed once again?
If so, they’d best prepare for a nightmare of a coaching search, because Miles won’t have Death Valley to call home anymore.
Most important game: Sept. 24 vs. UGA
Within the first three weeks of the season Ole Miss will have played Florida State and Alabama. It’s hard to imagine any team playing a tougher schedule to start a season than that. That’s why the game against Georgia is so critical.
The Bulldogs aren’t as formidable as the Seminoles or Crimson Tide this season, but still plenty good enough to slip into Oxford, Miss., and come out with a win. The Rebels will be long shots to win vs. FSU or Alabama, and if they were to also lose to Georgia as well — which would be the team’s third loss in just under a month — the impact on the rest of Ole Miss’ season would be disastrous.
The Rebels were in the Sugar Bowl a year ago, but with a loss to UGA, the postseason destination for Ole Miss this season probably will taste a lot less sweet.
Most important game: Oct. 8 vs. Auburn
Mississippi State’s 2016 season should be sponsored by Southwest Airlines. The Bulldogs will travel to Massachusetts to play UMass on Sept. 24 and take a trip to Utah to play BYU on Oct 14. The effect all those miles will have on Mississippi State could be catastrophic.
The Bulldogs biggest rival used to be Ole Miss, but by the end of this season it may very well be the TSA.
Mississippi State would be wise to take advantage of its home games, and the date vs. Auburn in between the two cross-country trips is pivotal.
Most important game: Oct. 29 vs. Kentucky
The early-season schedule won’t be easy. The season starts with a road game vs. West Virginia on Sept. 3 and includes a home game vs. Georgia and two more tough trips — games at LSU and Florida — all within the first six weeks of the season.
A home game vs. Kentucky on Oct. 29 could provide a welcome break from that grind — not that the Wildcats will be a pushover. The game will be winnable for Missouri, and first-year coach Barry Odom will take all the winnable games he can get, because there might not be many of them for Missouri this year.
Most important game: Oct. 1 vs. Texas A&M
In a weird scheduling quirk South Carolina’s first three SEC games will all be on the road — at Vanderbilt to start the year, at Mississippi State on Sept. 10, and at Kentucky on Sept. 24.
The Gamecocks first SEC home game won’t come until Oct. 1 when South Carolina hosts Texas A&M. That alone is enough to make the game vs. the Aggies important, but there’s another layer to this game as well.
The last time Texas A&M came to South Carolina, the Gamecocks were embarrassed 52-28 in the first game of the 2014 season. It might be hard to believe now given the program’s struggles since that beat down vs. the Aggies, but South Carolina actually entered that season ranked No. 9 in the country.
That rating was clearly unjustified and the blowout to Texas A&M signaled the beginning of the end for the Steve Spurrier era. Now Will Muschamp is at the helm and there’d be no better way for him to introduce himself to Gamecocks fans than to do to Texas A&M what the Aggies did to South Carolina the last time it traveled to the Palmetto State.
Most important game: Sept 24 vs. Florida
Not only is the game against Florida the most important Tennessee will play this year, it’s among the most important games any team will play this season.
Given all the talent it possesses this should be a year when the Vols return to greatness, but standing in their way is a foe that’s vanquished them 11 seasons in a row. Tennessee coach Butch Jones has been responsible for three of those defeats to the Gators, and Vols fans for the most part have been patient with him.
However it’s fair to say Tennessee fans’ patience has now reached its expiration date.
They’re more than ready to see their team beat Florida again, and the fact that the game takes place so early in the season only makes this year’s matchup more intense.
Most important game: Oct 8 vs. Tennessee
Since coming to the SEC in 2012, Texas A&M has had a nasty habit of losing home games. The Aggies have lost at least twice at home in each of those four seasons.
Texas A&M’s struggles at Kyle Field are almost certainly part of the explanation for why the Aggies have been trending down since joining the league — going from 11-2 in 2012, to 9-4 in 2013, to 8-5 the last two seasons.
This year they’ll have a chance to redeem themselves when what is sure to be a highly-ranked Tennessee team travels to College Station, Texas, as a part of a treacherous stretch of games for the Vols that includes the showdown vs. Florida, a trip to Georgia, and the annual Third Saturday in October clash with Alabama.
If the Aggies have any hope for making this season better than the last and making their home stadium anything close to the reputation its 12th Man fans have attempted to lay claim to, taking advantage of a likely fatigued but talented Tennessee team is imperative.
Most important game: Oct. 1 vs. Florida
In a masterful defensive performance last November, Vanderbilt came within an eyelash of pulling off the upset at Florida — ultimately losing 9-7. This year the Commodores should have an improved offense, and the’ll get the Gators on their home field in Nashville, Tenn. — which makes this a game Vanderbilt could win.
If the victory over the Gators somehow happens then there’s also a chance the Commodores could emerge as one of the sport’s biggest surprises. The early schedule is more than manageable. Vanderbilt is currently favored in the season opener over South Carolina, and should be favored in at least two of its next three games after that — home vs. Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 10, then road games at Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky on Sept. 17 and 24.
In other words, don’t be surprised if the Commodores not only play well against Florida, but actually have something to play for that day as well.