Critical games for 2013: Key stretches for the SEC

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Which three- and four-game stretches will determine the SEC title?

Which three- and four-game stretches will determine the SEC title?

A handful of SEC teams know all too well how much the schedule plays a role in the success or failure of a season. Even before the SEC expanded to 14 teams, the draw between East and West divisions played an outsized role in determining the league title.

In a league where the talent base runs deeper and the pressure on coaches is higher, who a team plays and when can change the course of the season.

At the top of the league, Alabama benefits from an advantageous schedule in 2013, perhaps making up for 2010 when the Tide played a handful of opponents off bye weeks. In the East, Georgia finally gets the tougher schedule draw compared to South Carolina. And for the lower tier, the SEC schedule can be too brutal to generate momentum.

In our series looking at the critical stretches for major-conference teams, we examine the games in the SEC that will determine division titles, bowl games or simply a successful season. We’ve already examined the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten.

*presented in Athlon’s SEC projected order of finish

SEC EAST

Georgia

Aug. 31 at Clemson
Sept. 7 South Carolina

Conventional wisdom says we’ll know a lot about Georgia’s season after the first two weeks, but the last time Georgia started 0-2, the Bulldogs won 10 in a row to win the East in 2011. Meanwhile, South Carolina won the last two matchups and Georgia won the East anyway thanks to some fortunate scheduling. Still, if Georgia wins both games, the Bulldogs will be BCS title contenders. Lose both, and Georgia’s out of the discussion.

Related: Georgia game-by-game picks

South Carolina
Aug. 29 North Carolina
Sept. 7 at Georgia
Sept. 14 Vanderbilt

For whatever reason, South Carolina hasn’t been as sharp early in the season in recent years as its been late. Steve Spurrier has the upper hand against Georgia (three in a row) and Vanderbilt (four in a row), but they haven’t always been easy. The Gamecocks finally got a gift from the schedule-makers by avoiding Alabama and LSU, but they won’t be able to ease into the season. Perhaps a good reason for some gamesmanship on the part of Spurrier earlier this week?

Related: South Carolina game-by-game picks

Florida
Oct. 12 at LSU
Oct. 19 at Missouri
Nov. 2 Georgia (Jacksonville)
Nov. 9 Vanderbilt
Nov. 16 at South Carolina

Florida’s toughest stretch of opponents includes only one game in Gainesville, and it’s worth noting Vanderbilt lost by only five points its last trip to the Swamp. Road trips to South Carolina and LSU, teams that allowed the third- and fourth-fewest yards per carry in the SEC, will be barriers to an SEC East title. But it’s worth keeping an eye on Missouri. Florida’s trip to Columbia, Mo., will be a rare 1,000-mile road trip for the Gators (only Arkansas is a further destination from Gainesville).

Related: Florida game-by-game picks

Vanderbilt
Oct. 19 Georgia
Oct. 26 at Texas A&M
Nov. 9 at Florida

OK, Vanderbilt, you have our attention. Win one of these games, and you’ll be impossible to ignore. The Commodores’ defense will have their hands full against Georgia’s run-pass balance, A&M’s spread and Florida’s power run game.

Tennessee
Nov. 2 Missouri
Nov. 9 Auburn
Nov. 23 Vanderbilt
Nov. 30 at Kentucky

The Volunteers face Oregon, Florida and Alabama on the road before November, plus South Carolina and Georgia in Neyland. The final month of the season, however, is when Butch Jones should have a chance to show real progress, especially against a run of four teams that aren’t exactly offensive juggernauts.

Related: Tennessee game-by-game picks

Missouri
Sept. 7 Toledo
Sept. 21 at Indiana
Sept. 28 Arkansas State
Oct. 5 at Vanderbilt

The Tigers aren’t about to compete for the SEC, but the early segment of the season against a MAC contender, a Big Ten upstart, the defending Sun Belt champions and Vanderbilt will be a key gauge of what a healthy Tigers team can do. Missouri is still settling a quarterback competition, so all eyes will be on James Franklin or Maty Mauk to hold onto the job.

Related: Missouri game-by-game picks

Kentucky
Aug. 31 Western Kentucky (Nashville)
Sept. 7 Miami (Ohio)
Sept. 14 Louisville

Beat Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky, take care of Miami U and put a scare into Louisville, and everyone should be happy in Lexington.

Related: Kentucky game-by-game picks

SEC WEST

Alabama

Aug. 31 Virginia Tech (Atlanta)
Sept. 14 at Texas A&M

What could we say about a critical stretch to determine Alabama’s schedule? Perhaps we should just say the SEC Championship Game and the BCS Championship Game instead of anything during the regular season. Alabama has an off week before its top two opponents (Texas A&M and LSU) and gets them nearly two months apart. The Crimson Tide draw Kentucky and Tennessee from the East. And the best individual player Alabama will see all season, Johnny Manziel, may be ineligible in Week 3. For Alabama, these schedule breaks just aren’t fair for the rest of the SEC.

Texas A&M
Nov. 9 Mississippi State
Nov. 23 at LSU
Nov. 30 at Missouri

The Alabama matchup on Sept. 14 is the game of the year, but Johnny Manziel’s eligibility remains a question. Instead, let’s skip to the end of the season when the Aggies would have to face two more standout defensive lines (Mississippi State, LSU) in back-to-back weeks to end the season. No one is expecting much out of Mizzou, but strange things have happened to title contenders on the road in the final week of the regular season.

Related: Texas A&M game-by-game picks

LSU
Sept. 28 at Georgia
Oct. 5 Mississippi State
Oct. 12 Florida
Oct. 19 at Ole Miss

LSU’s games against Alabama and Texas A&M in November may be more important, but they won’t mean much if LSU struggles to get out of this four-game stretch. The LSU offense has its questions, but the new-look defense will get a workout in a contrast of styles against Georgia’s balanced attack, Mississippi State’s veteran backfield, Florida’s grinding run game and Ole Miss’ spread. So if you’re keeping track: That’s four returning starters at quarterback and three road games before the Tigers even get to AJ McCarron and (maybe) Johnny Manziel.

Related: LSU game-by-game picks

Ole Miss
Aug. 29 at Vanderbilt
Sept. 7 Southeast Missouri State
Sept. 14 at Texas
Sept. 28 at Alabama
Oct. 5 at Auburn

No doubt, the start of Ole Miss’ schedule is brutal (the Rebels also catch Texas A&M and LSU in back-to-back weeks in mid-October). But out of this five-game stretch to start the season, Ole Miss wouldn’t shock anyone if it defeated Vanderbilt, Texas or Auburn. With a healthy Bo Wallace and shaky depth early in the year, maybe Ole Miss is lucky to catch these games earlier on the season.

Related: Ole Miss game-by-game picks

Mississippi State
Nov. 2 at South Carolina
Nov. 9 at Texas A&M
Nov. 16 Alabama

Mississippi State proved it wasn’t quite ready to compete with the SEC’s best last season, losing to Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU by a combined score of 103-37 in a three-week span. Here’s another crack at the national elite in November.

Auburn
Aug. 31 Washington State
Sept. 7 Arkansas State
Sept. 14 Mississippi State

Close calls at home with West Coast teams (Utah State) and Sun Belt teams (ULM) forced Gene Chizik out of town. Gus Malzahn opens with Washington State's Mike Leach and then his former employer in the first two weeks of the season. But the biggest statement may have to wait for Mississippi State: Auburn hasn’t scored in an SEC game since Oct. 27 in the third quarter against Texas A&M.

Related: Auburn game-by-game picks

Arkansas
Nov. 2 Auburn
Nov. 9 at Ole Miss
Nov. 23 Mississippi State

Arkansas draws three Athlon top-15 teams (Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama) during one stretch this season. That’s a potential four-game losing streak or more heading into November (the Hogs go to Rutgers on Sept. 21). If Arkansas is going to salvage something in Bret Bielema’s first season, the Hogs will have to do it against the second-tier of the SEC West in November.

Related: Arkansas game-by-game picks

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