Welcome to The Tuck Rules – get it? – my new column that will aim to brief you on the important stuff around the SEC each week, hopefully having a little fun along the way. Speaking of, is there another conference with a more fun slate of opening games?
That was a rhetorical question. No, there is most certainly not. Ten SEC teams start the 2016 season against opponents who made a bowl game last year, including five Week 1 collisions with ranked foes. The league is challenging itself against the likes of Clemson, Florida State, UCLA, Southern California, North Carolina, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
So put some fresh batteries in the remote and let me help you prioritize the clicking. All 13 SEC openers ranked from most watchable to least, with predicted winners:
No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama, 8 p.m. Saturday, ABC – The two most recent college football dynasties (with a combined 27 claimed national titles) under one roof? Southern California’s star cornerback and receiver, Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, against the Tide’s star cornerback and receiver, Marlon Humphrey and Calvin Ridley? As the kids say: Yassssss, please. Bama should be able to control the line of scrimmage, but USC has horses again. Prediction: Alabama 31-24.
No. 11 Ole Miss vs. No. 4 Florida State, 8 p.m. Monday, ESPN – How much will the Rebels miss three NFL first-rounders? We’ll find out real fast. Are Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly (the SEC’s leading passer) and Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook (the ACC’s leading rusher) legit Heisman contenders? We’ll find out real fast. Now tell me you’d rather watch the Rebels defeat UT Martin by 73 points in the opener like last season. Prediction: Florida State 34-31.
No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC – What happens when an unstoppable force (Tigers running back Leonard Fournette) meets an immovable object (the Badgers defense)? One must assume some sort of big bang, resulting in the creation of a new universe in which Les Miles is normal. That, and a college football game at Lambeau Field, is quite exciting. Plot twist: Wisconsin ranked fourth nationally in run defense last season, but now its coordinator is at LSU. Prediction: Pain (and LSU 27-14).
No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina, 5:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN – Three of college football’s best running backs on the same field. You already know the Bulldogs’ Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (3,865 combined career yards). You should know the Tar Heels’ 220-pound powerhouse, Elijah Hood (1,463 yards, 17 TDs last season). He and a Tar Heels team that won 11 games last season could spoil Kirby Smart’s Georgia debut. Prediction: North Carolina 28-24.
No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS – Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen threw for more yards (3,669) than any Power 5 freshman in the country last season. Aggies defensive end Myles Garrett (24 sacks, 33 ½ tackles for loss in two seasons) is the nation’s best pass rusher. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who left UCLA for A&M in the offseason, should be able to offer tips on stopping Rosen – not that defensive coordinator John Chavis usually needs much help. Advantage, Aggies. Prediction: Texas A&M 31-28.
No. 2 Clemson at Auburn, 9 p.m. Saturday, ESPN – This game feels like it should be higher. Auburn has played for two national titles since 2010. Clemson reached the College Football Playoff final last season. But these teams are trending in opposite directions. The last two sub-par seasons and this year’s roster offer little reason to believe Gus Malzahn’s team can hang. After all, you don’t bring a Sean White to a Deshaun Watson fight. White had 4 interceptions and 1 touchdown in 2015. Watson threw for 4,100 yards and ran for 1,100. Prediction: Clemson 41-21.
Missouri at West Virginia, noon Saturday, Fox Sports 1 – This could be a rude introduction for Tigers coach Barry Odom. He’s heading to Morgantown, where the Mountaineers went 6-1 last season, with an offense that ranked next-to-last nationally in scoring in 2015. West Virginia averaged 40 points in its eight wins. So Mizzou better hope its defense is great again because there’s no shot in a shootout. Prediction: West Virginia 34-20.
Southern Miss at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU – Mark Stoops’ critical fourth season starts with a potential stumbling block. The Golden Eagles are coming off a nine-win season, and QB Nick Mullens (4,476 yards, 38 TDs) was the 2015 Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year. Mississippi State, a common opponent, defeated Southern Miss 34-16 and Kentucky 42-16. Prediction: Kentucky 38-28.
Appalachian State at No. 9 Tennessee, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, SEC Network – The Mountaineers are no joke. They’re Sun Belt favorites after going 11-2 and winning a bowl game in their second season since stepping up from the FCS. And who can forget their 2007 stunner at Michigan? But if Butch Jones’ Vols really are SEC title contenders, they roll. Prediction: Tennessee 42-20.
South Carolina at Vanderbilt, 8 p.m. Thursday, ESPN – Hey, it’s the first conference game of the season, and that has to count for something, right? Also: one of these teams will win, and that’s not nothing. Both went 1-7 in SEC play last fall, the Gamecocks’ lone league victory coming in a rock fight against the Commodores. Prediction: Bad football (and Vanderbilt 20-13).
Louisiana Tech at Arkansas, 4 p.m. Saturday, SEC Network – Reasons for the Hogs to worry: They lost to Toledo early last season, while Louisiana Tech took Kansas State to three overtimes on the road and finished with nine wins and a top-25 offense. But, like Arkansas, the Bulldogs lost a star quarterback and running back (5,426 total yards between them). Bret Bielema has better replacement parts. Prediction: Arkansas 38-17.
South Alabama at Mississippi State, noon Saturday, SEC Network – Now Dak’s how you start Life After Prescott. The Jaguars, picked seventh in the Sun Belt, have lost their last three games against Power 5 opponents (including Mississippi State in 2014) by a combined score of 146-25. With South Alabama, South Carolina and UMass in the first month, the new-look Bulldogs should enter the meat of their schedule with some confidence intact. Prediction: Mississippi State 35-6.
Massachusetts at No. 25 Florida, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, SEC Network – The Minutemen are awful, having won eight total games in four seasons since moving up from the FCS. They’re also honorary members of the SEC this fall with games against the Gators, Mississippi State and South Carolina. New Florida QB Luke Del Rio should enjoy a successful debut. Prediction: Florida 48-10.
If an SEC player wins the Heisman Trophy in 2016, it’ll be Fournette, Chubb or Kelly. But my money is on Watson, Cook or Stanford star Christian McCaffrey taking home the hardware. And it’s not crazy to think the SEC’s streak of 10 consecutive seasons with a Heisman finalist will be snapped.
WATCH THE THRONE
Can Alabama win its fifth national title in eight years? Can the SEC claim its ninth crown in the last 11? It’s hard to bet against college football’s perennial power and its resident juggernaut. There’s a lot to like about Clemson, though, whose only loss last season was a 45-40 shootout against the Tide in the title game.
WATCH YOUR BACK
Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and LSU’s Les Miles are all on various “hot seat” lists entering this season. With the exception of Stoops, who has a massive buyout that Kentucky isn’t going to pay, all of those men have real reasons to feel uneasy. Last year’s all-time awkward mess made it clear Miles is in real trouble, but he at least has the talent to save himself with a big season. Malzahn? He looks like a dead man walking, destined to join Gene Chizik on the list of Auburn coaches canned within three years of playing for a national title.
It’s a brutal league, but that’s why we love it, right?
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.