The first game of the new college football season is Friday in Australia, so SEC fans can whet their pigskin appetite with Hawaii and Cal (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) while they wait for the rest of Week 1 to finally arrive.
When it does, it will present a range of challenges. For South Carolina and Vanderbilt, it will mean the start of SEC play — on a Thursday night, no less.
For some, like Florida and Mississippi State, it will be a chance to see how players perform in a low-stress environment. For others, like Missouri and LSU, it will provide an early test in hostile territory.
Here’s a look at each SEC school’s opener, ranked in difficulty from easiest to most difficult:
13. UMass at No. 25 Florida
Latest line: Florida -35.5
Overview: The Minutemen, with only six starters back from last season’s 3-9 squad, come in as huge underdogs. As an newly-minted independent, they’ve loaded their schedule with guarantee games this fall. Anything other than an easy win for the Gators would be a shock, but the check for $1.25 million should soften the blow a bit for the visitors.
12. South Alabama at Mississippi State
Latest line: Mississippi State -31
Overview: The Jaguars are picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt and, on paper, provide ideal opposition to help the Bulldogs ease into life without Dak Prescott at quarterback. South Alabama showed some spark on the road last season, however, clipping San Diego State in overtime.
11. Louisiana Tech at Arkansas
Latest line: Arkansas -26
Overview: Skip Holtz’s Bulldogs to Fayetteville won the New Orleans Bowl in 2015, and are one of the favorites in Conference USA’s West division. However, the loss of 13 starters, including former Florida transfer Jeff Driskel at quarterback, makes opening on the road against an SEC school a tall order.
10. Appalachian State at No. 9 Tennessee
Latest line: Tennessee -20
Overview: It’s been nine years since Appalachian State’s famous win as a 33-point underdog at Michigan, but you can bet the Tennessee coaching staff will bring it up this week. The Mountaineers haven’t won on the road against a Power 5 team since. Still, with 15 returning starters from last year’s 11-2 team, they’re not exactly cannon fodder.
9. No. 20 Southern Cal vs. No. 1 Alabama
Latest line: Alabama -10.5
Overview: These two traditional powers haven’t met in the regular season since 1978, but they have a date at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on opening weekend. Alabama is a double-digit favorite, but the Trojans return 15 starters. It’s a game the Tide should win, but it could get uncomfortable if they aren’t playing at their best.
8. No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin
Latest line: LSU -10
Overview: The Tigers are a significant favorite, despite the game’s location at historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay (two hours north of Madison). The Badgers will be facing their former defensive coordinator in Dave Aranda, and with both teams seeking to establish the run, this one could be very physical.
7. Southern Miss at Kentucky
Latest line: Kentucky -6.5
Overview: Former Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson will be calling the plays when the Golden Eagles visit Lexington. That adds some spice to a tricky opener for the Wildcats, who will need every win they can get as they seek bowl eligibility. Don’t be surprised if Kentucky leans hard on its running backs, especially Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp, in an effort to grind out a win.
6. South Carolina at Vanderbilt
Latest line: Vanderbilt -3.5
Overview: For the third time in five seasons, the Gamecocks will open the year with a conference game. They last time they did so on the road was in 2012, when they edged Vanderbilt 17-13. It’s not the ideal way for new coach Will Muschamp to start his tenure, but it offers a chance to make an early statement for a guy who likes that sort of thing.
Derek Mason and the Commodores also would like to send a message to start the season. Mason recently ripped his team’s low ranking in USA Today, and it’s not hard to imagine him relishing a league win in the opener. It has all the makings of a tight contest, with the winner picking up some confidence for the rest of the schedule.
5. No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M
Latest line: Texas A&M -3
Overview: The Bruins bring one of the nation’s best young quarterbacks (Josh Rosen) into Kyle Field to face the Aggies. Despite the loss of seven offensive starters, they are one of the favorites in the Pac-12 South. Texas A&M will need to hit the ground running on offense and get after Rosen with Daeshon Hall and Myles Garrett on defense, to come out on top.
4. No. 22 North Carolina vs. No. 18 Georgia
Latest line: Georgia -2.5
Overview: I’m not sure how, but this will be the first meeting between these schools since the 1971 Gator Bowl. North Carolina will be breaking in a new quarterback, but with 14 returning starters, is picked to compete for the ACC Coastal title. The Bulldogs should have an edge in fan support at the Georgia Dome, and it’s worth noting that the Tar Heels have lost their last four neutral-site games.
We’re still waiting to hear who Kirby Smart will start at quarterback for Georgia, and that will be a major story line for the Bulldogs as this one gets closer.
3. No. 11 Ole Miss vs. No. 4 Florida State
Latest line: Ole Miss +4
Overview: Camping World Stadium — or the Citrus Bowl, for traditionalists — is the site for this clash of ranked teams. Florida State played its spring game there in April, and likely will have a fan-support edge in Orlando. The Seminoles return all 11 offensive starters from a 10-3 squad, though redshirt freshman Deondre Francois will start at quarterback for the injured Sean Maguire.
The Rebels counter with QB Chad Kelly, who will need a big game in order to put Ole Miss in position to grab a win. The defense will need to contain Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
2. No. 2 Clemson at Auburn
Latest line: Auburn +7
Overview: Clemson has arguably the best quarterback in the game in Deshaun Watson, 11 other returning starters and a ton of momentum after last season’s 14-1 record. Auburn, despite losing the two most recent meetings, still owns the all-time series with a 34-13 edge.
The Clemson defense will look far different than last year’s version with seven new starters, and Auburn will need to test that inexperienced unit to pull the upset. A win here would go a long way toward quieting the critics for Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
1. Missouri at West Virginia
Latest line: Missouri +9.5
Overview: The Tigers will face the most hostile environment in Week 1 when they visit Mountaineer Field. West Virginia, led by quarterback Skyler Howard, returns 12 starters from last year’s 8-5 squad and is pegged to finish near the middle of the Big 12 this season.
Only four of those returnees are from the defense, however, so Missouri’s new-look offense should have some room to operate. Taking care of the ball is job No. 1, as the Mountaineers led the Big 12 with 31 takeaways last season.