There will be plenty of great individual matchups to keep an eye on in the SEC in Week 1 when the conference kicks off the 2016 season.
We took a look at 10 of the premier battles that will take place between both individuals and their units who figure to lock horns on Saturday.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Southern California vs. CB Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
Nick Saban knows not to take JuJu Smith-Schuster lightly when the coach’s Alabama squad takes on Southern California to open the season. He praised the Trojans wide receiver this week by comparing him to a certain NFL star.
“Blocks. Does everything that anybody could ask for from a guy and plays with great competitive character,” Saban said of Smith-Schuster via NFL.com. “Big, strong, fast, good hands. A big-time guy. Kind of a Dez Bryant type of receiver, and he’s certainly going to be a challenge for us to guard.”
Saban will look to limit Smith-Schuster — who hauled in 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2015 — with star cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Humphrey intercepted three passes last year while breaking up eight passes and forcing a pair of fumbles to help lead a vaunted Crimson Tide secondary.
“Definitely heard a lot about JuJu. He’s the No. 1 receiver,” Humphrey said via 247 Sports. “I’ve watched his film. Big guy and he adjusts to the ball probably the best I’ve ever seen. There’s definitely a reason why he’s up there as one of the highest-rated receivers. Going into this game, I’m just going to have to cut him off and try to make a play on the ball.
LT Mitch Hyatt, Clemson vs. DE Carl Lawson, Auburn
Tune into the Auburn-Clemson game if you’re curious what kind of sound two trains make when colliding with one another head on. Auburn is looking to unleash a healthy Carl Lawson on a Clemson team that returns two players — QB Deshaun Watson and RB Wayne Gallman — who each rushed for more than 1,000 yards on the way to the College Football Playoff championship game. Clemson boasts arguable the best offensive lines in the nation. Led by left tackle Mitch Hyatt, the Clemson front line allowed just 18 sacks in 15 contests during the 2015 campaign.
QB Josh Rosen, UCLA vs. Texas A&M Secondary
Following a 3,669-yard, 23-touchdown freshman year in Westwood, Josh Rosen is a big reason why many pundits are high on UCLA this year. The sophomore, however, has never faced a group of defensive backs such as Armani Watts and the Aggies, who finished No. 4 (166.4 YPG) in the nation in pass defense in 2015. In fact, the best pass defenses he faced belonged to Brigham Young, the country’s No. 31-ranked unit (201.8 YPG), followed by No. 59 Colorado (218.2 YPG).
RB Dalvin Cook vs. Ole Miss Front Seven
The loss of DE Robert Nkemdiche hurts the Ole Miss defensive line, but not as badly as you’d think. The Rebels return a stocked unit paced by the likes of Marquis Haynes (16.5 TFL, 10.0 sacks) and Fadol Brown (4.5 TFL, 10 QBH) on the edges. With D.J. Jones and Breeland Speaks manning the inside of the line, Ole Miss is confident in its ability to slow Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. That is, if it’s humanly possible to slow Cook, who led the ACC with 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. One method Ole Miss might want to use to get to Cook is through his brother Deandre Burnett, who is a member of the Rebels basketball team.
— Ole Miss Basketball (@OleMissMBB) September 1, 2016
LBs Chris Orr and Jack Cichy, Wisconsin vs. RBs Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice
Wisconsin has tasked linebackers Chris Orr and Jack Cichy with the unenviable job of slowing down the nation’s incumbent rushing leader Leonard Fournette — and his more-than-capable backup Derrius Guice of LSU. The pair are owners of the SEC’s top rushing offense last year. The Badgers linebacker duo combined for 106 tackles in 2015, including 5.5 sacks (5.0 by Cichy) and will have to step up their game even further with the absence of the team’s leading tackler T.J. Edwards.
WR Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech vs. Arkansas Secondary
Trent Taylor has his sights set on a 100-catch season, after finishing runner-up in the category among all Conference USA wide receivers a year ago with 99 catches. That endeavor could get a big start against an Arkansas pass defense that finished last in the SEC in 2015. The Razorbacks have brought in former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads to coach-up the Hogs defensive backs, which promise to be stronger this season. Whether they’ll be tough enough to slow down a wide receiver who pulled-in 1,282 yards and 9 touchdowns will be a battle worth watching.
DE Charles Harris, Missouri vs. West Virginia Offensive Line
West Virginia will run a potent vertical offense this season, which will be reinforced by one of the better offensive lines in the Big 12 and beyond. But that could be for naught if the unit can’t contain Missouri defensive end Charles Harris. The rising junior led the SEC in tackles-for-loss with 1.54 TFL per game and should be a disruptive force for a Mountaineer offense that’s going to look to air the ball out.
RB Elijah Hood, North Carolina vs. Georgia Front Seven
Georgia has a plan to slow down Elijah Hood. Naturally, it’s easier said than done when it comes to stopping the North Carolina running back who tallied 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore.
“Trust me, we’ve seen it,” Inside linebacker Reggie Carter said via Macon.com. “We have to be fundamentally sound with wrapping up, hat across the ball.”
Carter’s fellow Bulldog linebacker Natrez Patrick also chimed in about the task of preventing one of the ACC’s best running backs from having a big day.
“He’s a strong runner,” Patrick said via Macon.com. “Great balance. We just have to have population to the ball.”
With their top receiver sitting out a targeting suspension in the first half, the Tar Heels might have to rely heavily on Hood, which could prove daunting for a Georgia defense that yielded 149.46 YPG (No. 42 in the nation) on the ground last year and is without linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd.
Mississippi State Quarterbacks vs. South Alabama Pass Defense
Mississippi State will break in a new quarterback, or quarterbacks for that matter, as sophomore Nick Fitzgerald and junior Damian Williams appear to be heading for a split role of replacing Dak Prescott. The uncertainty under center for the Bulldogs could create an opportunity for South Alabama to take advantage. The Jaguars finished second in the Sun Belt and No. 25 nationally against the pass in 2015 (195.0 YPG). If Mississippi State fails to get the passing game going — whomever is call out signals — then South Alabama might be able to make things a bit uncomfortable for Dan Mullen’s squad in Week 1.
DL Sha-Ki Holines, Massachusetts vs. Florida Gators Offensive Line
Sha-Ki Holines makes this list, and not just because we wanted to say his outstanding name aloud repeatedly. The junior returns his tenacious pass-rushing abilities and 12.0 career tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks to the Massachusetts defensive line as the Minutemen’s top returning sack artist. His Holines will face a Florida offensive line that brings back just about everyone from the 2015 squad. That unit, however, finished last in the nation, allowing an abysmal 45.0 sacks. The offensive line is supposed to be improved with a year’s experience under their belt, but don’t be surprised if Holines — along with fellow defensive end Peter Angeh and nose tackle Ali Ali-Musa — causes a bit of a commotion along the line.