Despite all the postulating that goes on during the offseason, everything changes when the ball is snapped. With the strength of the SEC’s schedules, each team has potential pitfalls to prepare for, and that extends to nonconference play.
Playing tough games early gives SEC teams the ability to prove their place in the national landscape. Additionally,these games involve fierce rivalries or interesting subplots having over the on-field action.
Here are six of the SEC’s most intriguing nonconference games:
LSU vs. Wisconsin – Sept. 3 in Green Bay, Wis.
ESPN’s College GameDay kicks the SEC season off by covering a game filled with storylines. With Corey Clement on one side and Leonard Fournette on the other, there will be rushing yards aplenty. There is perhaps no better place for these future NFL stars to square off than in Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers.
Additionally, Wisconsin has a little something extra to play for. Former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda left his post with the Badgers to take the same position at LSU. this offseason Over his three seasons in Madison, Wis., Aranda led one of the best defenses in college football. He has also coached two of the last three Big Ten Linebackers of the Year (Joe Schobert, Chris Borland).
Texas A&M vs. UCLA – Sept. 3 in College Station, Texas
In addition to featuring Josh Rosen, one of the best young quarterbacks in America, this game has plenty of subtext, as former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone left the Bruins in January to take the same position at Texas A&M.
With Rosen returning under center, UCLA is expected to post a breakout season in 2016. The Bruins were picked as favorites to win the Pac-12 South over USC and Utah. The Aggies would like nothing more than to derail UCLA’s hype train before it even leaves the station. Texas A&M will have the advantage of playing at Kyle Field, though it has struggled against ranked opponents at home under coach Kevin Sumlin.
Alabama vs. USC – Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas
These two teams could not have finished last season more differently. Obviously, Alabama ended the year by dominating its competition and then outlasting Clemson in the national championship game. On the other end, the Trojans fired coach Steve Sarkisian five games into the season amid reports that he had a drinking problem and finished 8-6 under interim coach Clay Helton.
Now, Helton will try to return the Trojans to their former glory. The talent is on campus, as four of their last five recruiting classes have ranked in the top 10 nationally. This will be a strong test for Alabama in the first week of its title defense. For USC, an embarrassing loss could derail the season.
Ole Miss vs. Florida State – Sept. 5 in Orlando, Fla.
This game will feature two of the best players in their respective conferences and potential Heisman candidates. In one corner, Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly (4,042 yards, 31 touchdowns passing last season) will try and improve on his breakout junior campaign. On the other sideline, Florida State running back Dalvin Cook (1,691 yards, 19 touchdowns rushing) is a big candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
Ultimately, this game will likely come down to the defenses. Ole Miss must replace players along the defensive line, including star Robert Nkemdiche, but it also returns many key contributors. Florida State has to replace stars in the secondary. If Kelly can have an electric game, Ole Miss could quickly launch itself into the early national title picture.
Arkansas at TCU – Sept. 10 in Fort Worth, Texas
With how much Arkansas recruits the state of Texas, this will be an important statement game. TCU is expected to contend with Oklahoma for the Big 12 title, but must replace star QB Trevone Boykin and WR Josh Doctson.
While TCU has star players to replace, Arkansas might have more. The Razorbacks lost the vast majority of their offensive production, including QB Brandon Allen, RB Alex Collins and TE Hunter Henry. However, if Arkansas can put up a fight against the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth, it will drastically change the Hogs’ narrative heading into SEC play.
Florida at Florida State – Nov. 26 in Tallahassee, Fla.
Rivalry games are always intriguing, but this one only continues to escalate. The Gators had a resurgent season in Jim McElwain’s first year with the program, but got thumped by the Florida State Seminoles, 27-2, to close out the regular season. After going 3-0 against teams from the state of Florida, FSU manufactured “state championship” rings.
When this game comes around, it should once again have implications for a New Year’s Six bowl. The Gators return much of their defense, and could be improved if they can find a capable quarterback. Either way, these two teams don’t like each other, and it’ll be fun to watch.