One of the most exciting opening weekends in recent memory will give way to an excellent month of college football this September.
Championships are not won until American households trash leftover turkey and string up holiday lights, but some of the SEC’s most marquee matchups will take place in the season’s first four weeks. The outcomes will dictate the course of what promises to be an entertaining title chase.
Check out SEC Country’s rundown of “The September Seven” below.
LSU at Wisconsin (Sept. 3)
Les Miles reportedly came within 30 minutes of losing his job in November, and is in hotter water than any of his surviving peers from last season.
While his teams have always performed well in primetime season-opening matchups, there’s reason to think disaster might strike in Week 1 this year. The Tigers are playing a “neutral-site” game at Lambeau Field, just two hours from the University of Wisconsin campus, but a world away from Baton Rouge.
The Badgers are a fringe Top 25 team this year, and could pack a bigger punch in their home state than the current +10 line in Las Vegas gives them credit for. Coming off a 10-win season and a bowl win over USC, Paul Chryst‘s team has a trio of talented running backs that will help out whoever replaces Joel Stave under center, and the Wisconsin defense has finished No. 7 or higher in total defense each of the past three years.
Make no mistake: Leonard Fournette and LSU are expected to win this game, but a cakewalk is probably not in the cards, and a loss could lead to an early-season death spiral for Miles’ program.
Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Sept. 10)
The “Battle at Bristol” will be college football’s most unique spectacle this year, with more than 150,000 people expected to watch the Volunteers and Hokies duke it out at Bristol Motor Speedway in eastern Tennessee.
Stakes are high for Vols coach Butch Jones, who is caught between his program’s years of underachievement and sky-high expectations in Knoxville this fall. The only way to appease an impatient fan base will be to win the SEC East, a goal that won’t technically be affected by the outcome against ACC foe Virginia Tech.
But fans don’t just have a division title on their minds: They want a College Football Playoff run. And a September loss to the Hokies would be disastrous for morale, a “Here we go again” moment for one of the post-millennium SEC’s most tortured teams.
Texas A&M at Auburn (Sept. 17)
Hot seats abound in this year’s SEC, don’t they? Never mind the heat that Miles and Jones are feeling; Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn could also be facing do-or-die scenarios in 2016.
Their teams square off in Week 3, and the loser is going to feeling some serious pressure. Malzahn will likely have more riding on this game thanks to a rough Week 1 matchup vs. Clemson that probably will not go his team’s way.
A&M also has a tough opener against UCLA, but the Aggies are slightly favored at home. We’re likely to see the 2-0 Aggies against the 1-1 Tigers in a “must-win” type of game
Alabama at Ole Miss (Sept. 17)
The Crimson Tide have managed to earn two consecutive College Football Playoff spots despite falling to the Rebels in each of the past two autumns.
It’s created an interesting narrative for recruits: Would you rather go to the 16-time national champion, or the team that has made a recent habit of beating them? The announcement of severe program violations and self-imposed punishments (with the NCAA’s own sanctions looming) takes a little of the luster out of this year’s matchup, but make no mistake: Alabama is looking for blood.
Ole Miss players have gloated on social media following consecutive wins against Nick Saban‘s big, bad football team. The losers have noticed.
Alabama will have a new quarterback and a new running back when the teams square off in September, but the Tide are loaded at almost every other position, and will likely be considered the favorites against Hugh Freeze‘s Rebels. That means Chad Kelly and Co. will need to engineer Ole Miss’ third straight upset of ‘Bama if they want to keep their SEC West title hopes afloat early.
LSU at Auburn (Sept. 24)
We’re beginning to think Malzahn’s fate will be clear by the time September ends. He gets a trio of strong opponents at home — Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU — and will either be the toast of Lee County or renting a U-Haul by the time the final whistle sounds against Les Miles and the Tigers.
This marks the second tough road game of the month for LSU, which should be 3-0 going into kickoff, but might be in “must-win” mode if they slip up against Wisconsin to open the season.
With Alabama’s backfield uncertainty and Ole Miss’ off-field mess, the SEC West might be LSU’s or Auburn’s for the taking. We’ll know which team is a contender — and which is in trouble — before October hits.
Georgia at Ole Miss (Sept. 24)
One week after playing host to Alabama, Ole Miss gets to welcome “Alabama 2.0” to Oxford. Kirby Smart‘s Georgia squad has been engineered to reflect its neighbors to the west, with Nick Chubb leading a potent rushing attack and Mel Tucker coaching a defense that finished No. 7 overall in the country last year.
We should be treated to an intriguing quarterback battle, as Ole Miss’ Kelly — considered by many to be the SEC’s best passer — will potentially square off against Georgia’s most prized five-star recruit, Jacob Eason.
Inter-divisional matchups count the same as intra-divisional in the standings, and neither side can afford a slip-up here.
Florida at Tennessee (Sept. 24)
Folks across The Volunteer State are well aware of Tennessee’s recent struggles against its biggest rival. The Vols have dropped 11 straight against the Gators, including a heartbreaking 28-27 loss in last year’s game that helped Florida eventually claim the division.
Despite the ugly streak, Tennessee will likely be favored when these teams square off in the final week of September.
Jim McElwain‘s Gators are the defending East champions, but prognosticators don’t have as high of hopes for Florida this year thanks to an unsettled quarterback situation and the indefinite suspension of their star player, wide receiver Antonio Callaway.
A 12th straight win over the Vols would be enough to thrust the Gators back into the national picture, and potentially end the Butch Jones era in Knoxville.