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What are the top non-conference games to watch in the SEC this year?
Obviously, non-conference games have zero impact on conference championships.
But in the SEC, the nation's best and most cut-throat league, a critical non-conference win or loss can mean the difference between playing for a national championship or being relegated to just another bowl game.
Many are quick to point out the SEC's dearth of atrocious matchups in the non-conference in November — Eastern Kentucky (Florida), Charleston Southern (Georgia), South Alabama (South Carolina), Old Dominion (Vanderbilt), Western Carolina (Alabama), Samford (Auburn), UT-Martin (Mississippi State) and Presbyterian (Ole Miss).
But Nick Saban, Les Miles, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina have all challenged themselves year in and year out when it comes to their non-SEC slates. Here are the 10 best non-conference games to watch in the SEC in 2014:
1. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 29)
As far as deeply entrenched rivalries and overall importance of the game to the national landscape go, it's hard to argue the Palmetto State season finale won't be the biggest non-conference game in the league. Carolina and Steve Spurrier are eyeing an SEC East title and possible playoff berth, so a loss to the Tigers for the first time since 2008 would be crippling to those hopes. During the five-game winning streak, the Gamecocks have scored between 27 and 34 points while holding Clemson to 17 points or fewer.
2. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Aug. 30, Houston)
From a pure entertainment standpoint, the Tigers-Badgers semi-neutral field battle in Houston might be the one to watch in '14. This game will feature what should be two equally matched opponents, both of whom are expecting to compete for division titles in their respective leagues. The winner is buoyed right out of the gate with a top 20 win, the loser may be out of the national title picture after just 60 minutes of football. LSU and Wisconsin feature two of the best power running games in the land and this game will be a throwback showcase for both.
3. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29)
This was a blowout a year ago but Florida expects to be much improved this year and the historic Sunshine State rivalry could hold national championship implications for the Seminoles. Florida may have the best roster of any team Florida State will face in the 2014 regular season so fans should expect a much closer bout this time around — as long as the Gators' coaching staff is still intact by season's end.
4. Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)
Gus Malzahn's offense led by Nick Marshall, four returning offensive line starters and a deep receiving corps faces Bill Snyder's defensive wizardry on the road on a Thursday night. Both teams will have extra time to prepare for the primetime mid-week meeting and both will be contenders for their respective conference championships. From a coaching standpoint, it doesn't get much better than Malzahn vs. Snyder.
5. Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30)
Last year's meeting was an epic offensive showdown that featured elite playmakers and provided a memorable experience for everyone. This year, Clemson's defense is its strength while Georgia returns nine starters on D. With two new quarterbacks for both teams, expect a sloppier performance from both offenses — which could be equally as entertaining. Each team has an outside shot at playoff contention so this season-opening meeting is monumental for both teams.
Related: 2014 SEC Football Predictions
6. Boise State vs. Ole Miss (Aug. 28, Atlanta)
The sneaky good matchup in Atlanta features two rising stars on the sidelines in Hugh Freeze and Bryan Harsin. Both offenses should be electric on the fast track in the Georgia Dome and both teams think of themselves as conference contenders. The quarterback play for both teams will be fascinating to watch.
7. Georgia Tech at Georgia (Nov. 29)
Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate featured one of the best comebacks and finishes of the season last year. After leading 20-0 for most of the first half, Georgia finally got on the board with a Hutson Mason to Todd Gurley TD pass with 34 seconds left in the second quarter. Mason, who was making his first career start, kept the rally going, eventually sending the game into overtime tied at 27. In double-overtime, Gurley rumbled 25 yards for the improbable win. Anything close to that in '14 and this Peach State battle will be one of the top non-conference games of the year.
8. Kentucky at Louisville (Nov. 29)
Mark Stoops is making Kentucky more relevant every day and his team should be at its best by season's end. Bobby Petrino will be wrapping up his first season back in Louisville. With in-state recruiting battles growing more fierce by the day, the Wildcats-Cardinals matchup just gets that much more intriguing.
9. Tennessee at Oklahoma (Sept. 13)
It may not be all that close of a game but any time two major power brands like the Vols and Sooners get together, it's must-see TV. Trevor Knight and Oklahoma enter the year thinking Big 12 championship and postseason bid. Butch Jones and Tennessee are slowly working their way out of the worst slump in program history. There is a lot on the line for both coaches and both teams.
10. Arkansas at Texas Tech (Sept. 13)
Fans in Fayetteville and around the SEC may learn all they need to know about the Hogs in Week 3. Should Bret Bielema's team play well in Lubbock or even pull the upset, then Arkansas could be a much bigger factor in the SEC than expected. If not and Kliff Kingsbury out tempos the Razorbacks, it could signal a long year for Pig Sooie. This is a huge game for Bielema and his staff.
Other games to watch:
Indiana at Missouri (Sept. 20)
There should be a lot of offense in what is Mizzou's toughest non-conference tilt.
Utah State at Tennessee (Aug. 31)
Vols fans will get to watch Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton's return to college football in what should be a sneaky good Week 1 game.
West Virginia vs. Alabama (Aug. 30, Atlanta)
It won't be the matchup many thought it would be when it was scheduled, but anytime Nick Saban or Dana Holgorsen is on the field, fans need to pay attention.
UCF at Missouri (Sept. 13)
The Knights want to prove they have staying power after a 12-win season and BCS bowl victory. A trip to Mizzou is a good way to do it.
East Carolina at South Carolina (Sept. 6)
Ruffin McNeil historically plays very well against the big boys of his region. Spurrier and company better be ready.