As the college football season draws near, Athlon Sports is making sure fans know exactly when and where to tune in this fall. Here are the SEC's top 40 must-see football games for the 2012 season:
1. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Alabama at LSU
The plotline for these two programs over the last 18 months or so has been well documented. Game of the Century Part 1 was an offensively challenged 9-6 road win for LSU on the legs of Brad Wing and Drew Alleman. While the Tigers deserved all the credit for the brutally contested clutch win, it still appeared to most who watched the game that Alabama was the superior team. As it turns out, it wasn’t really even close. LSU showed up for the BCS national championship game woefully under prepared and clearly lacking focus and motivation. The game now shifts to Baton Rouge, and the Death Valley faithful have had November 3 circled on the calendar ever since that fateful night in January when their team gained 92 total yards and five first downs.
2. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Georgia at South Carolina
If the SEC West semifinal is LSU-Bama, then the Eastern’s semi will take place in Columbia on the first Saturday in October. Normally one of the first two games of the year, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks have to wait until the second month to square off. The Cocks won last year in a shootout in Athens on the back of turnovers and special teams — they scored essentially four touchdowns on defense and a fake punt. But Marcus Lattimore’s fourth quarter performance was what sealed the win for Carolina, and No. 21 is back healthy this fall. Georgia already has a strong track record of success in Williams-Brice Stadium and should have its full compliment of defensive stars by the time these two meet as well. The Dawgs have won four of the last five in Columbia.
3. Week 3 (Sept. 15) Alabama at Arkansas
Arkansas fans are optimistic that, even without Bobby Petrino, their Razorbacks can compete for an SEC title. Well, winning the West is the first step and Week 3 gives John L. Smith a chance to prove his worth against the defending national champions. That said, AJ McCarron outplayed Tyler Wilson, Nick Saban out-coached Petrnio and the Bama defense out-stifled the Hogs last time they met. Arkansas will have to reverse nearly all of the above to pull off the upset this season. Running the ball more effectively will narrow the gap, as Bama outgained the Hogs 197 to 17 on the ground in the 38-14 decision last fall. Can the return of Knile Davis, and getting the contest at home, tip the scales in favor of Coach Smith? Fans won’t have to wait long to find out.
4. Week 13 (Nov. 23) LSU at Arkansas
Arkansas has had some recent success in this series with three wins in the last five meetings. However, last fall’s 41-17 whitewashing of the Hogs pushed LSU into the SEC title game. Les Miles’ bunch rushed for 286 yards and three touchdowns at a per carry clip of 6.2 yards. Tyler Wilson and company mustered 248 total yards of offense. Shifting the series back home gives the Hogs a better shot at an upset this time around. So will having Knile Davis back fully healthy — a guy who rushed for 152 yards and a score on 30 carries in the 31-23 win over LSU two years ago.
5. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
The Dawgs have won only four times in this series since 1989, but last year’s 24-20 win helped Georgia make it back to Atlanta and the SEC title game. On the arm of Aaron Murray and the river boat gambling of Mark Richt, Georgia won its first Outdoor Cocktail Party since 2007. If the Dawgs out-rush the Gators 185 to -19 again this year, fans can bank on another UGA victory.
6. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Auburn at Alabama
The Iron Bowl is filled with as much hatred as any other rivalry in the history of college football. And the stakes have never been as high as they have been over the past few seasons. The winner of this game has gone on to win the BCS National Championship in each of the last three seasons. The intensity and passion of an already rabid rivalry has reached an all-time high. With Bama acting as defending champs and Auburn enthused about new coordinators, War Eagle fans are expecting something much tighter than last season's 42-14 outcome.
7. Week 8 (Oct. 20) South Carolina at Florida
Both South Carolina and Georgia get plenty of key contests at home this fall, but Carolina’s trip down to The Swamp is the second biggest SEC East game of the year. From 1940 to 2004, the Gamecocks were winless against the Gators. Since then, Steve Spurrier has defeated his alma mater three out of seven times, including the last two. Having said that, last year’s meeting was a hotly contested, defensive struggle in which both quarterbacks struggled to complete passes. Expect the defenses and ground games to play huge roles. If South Carolina wants to take the next step in its search for its first SEC title, winning on the road within the division is a must.
8. Week 6 (Oct. 6) LSU at Florida
The Tigers and Gators lay claim four of the last nine national championships and both claim two of the best SEC resumes in history. While Florida won’t feature a vintage Gators squad, particularly on offense, this game still has plenty of weight in 2012. Florida’s defense should be nasty, but will have to play better at the point of attack after allowing 238 yards rushing to LSU last fall. The Gators mustered only 213 total yards in their second straight loss in the long-time crossover series.
9. Week 3 (Sept. 15) Florida at Tennessee
Yes, the Florida-Tennessee rivalry has seen better days. No, neither is picked to win the East. But this game has no shortage of storylines — or future NFL talent. One team possesses an electric high-flying offense while the other boasts one of the most explosive defenses in the league. And both have a head coach feeling the pressure from alumni and fans to win now. Florida has won seven straight in the series, but will be coming to Knoxville following a brutal trip to Texas A&M in Week 2. Meanwhile, the Vols will face ACC sleeper NC State in Week 1, so if both teams struggle out of the gate, this game could decide more than just bowl eligibility. If both enter 2-0, one team will leave as the clear contender to Georgia and South Carolina for SEC East supremacy.
10. Week 1 (Sept. 1) Alabama vs. Michigan (Arlington, Texas)
This might be the marquee non-conference match-up of the season. It is the first regular season match-up between the two historic programs and the Wolverines own a two (1988, 200) to one (1997) lead in the series. The thought that it may be one-sided, however, keeps it from sitting much higher on the list. The defending national champions have one of the deepest college teams ever assembled and Brady Hoke will be hard-pressed to stop the Bama rushing attack in the second half. Michigan can keep it close for three quarters, but in Jerry's Palace with that offensive line, Nick Saban should come away victorious.
11. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Arkansas at South Carolina
This series has been heavily one-sided over the last few years. Arkansas has won three straight in a big way (118-64) and has won five of the last six overall. This is Carolina's best chance to end the current streak as it welcomes the Hogs to Columbia. The Gamecocks' pass rush and front seven is going to pressure Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis and gives Steve Spurrier his best chance at a win over Arkansas since 2008.
12. Week 1 (Sept. 1) Auburn vs. Clemson (Atlanta, Ga.)
The first Saturday night of the season in the Georgia Dome has turned into a yearly must-watch contest and these two Tigers won't disappoint. Clemson won the meeting 38-24 last fall while Auburn won the 27-24 thriller en route to its National Championship in 2012. Brian VanGorder should have the Auburn defense much improved, but if Aubie expects to upset Clemson, it will have to get quality quarterback play on offense. This will be a great barometer game for both programs right out of the gate.
13. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Georgia at Missouri
Columbia won’t be the same as College Station, but fans have to expect a raucous atmosphere in the newly touched-up Faurot Field. That said, Mizzou has a more explosive offense than Texas A&M and will be facing the East favorites, who will be short-handed due to suspensions. Georgia needs to be on upset alert in Week 2.
14. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Arkansas at Texas A&M
This game should need no introduction. The second-half collapse last fall by the Aggies was one in a season filled with late-game gagging. Tyler Wilson threw for 510 yards and scored 25 points in the second half after trailing 35-17 at halftime in Cowboys Stadium. There will be no neutral field, however, this year as the game goes home-and-home for the next two years.
15. Week 13 (Nov. 24) South Carolina at Clemson
It may not be the most high-profile rivalry and it may not have national implications like many other rivalries, but it is hard to find a yearly battle that possesses as much vitriol as the Tigers-Gamecocks. The last three years have seen South Carolina stake a major claim to in-state supremacy and none have been close as Carolina has outscored its rival 97-37. Both teams are focused on a conference title in their respective leagues, so the game means little to the actual standings, but don't tell that to the people in the Palmetto State. Or to two teams that could potentially be ranked in the Top 10 by the time they meet.
16. Week 1 (Aug. 31) Tennessee vs. NC State (Atlanta, Ga.)
This will be an excellent barometer game for both programs. If NC State wants to compete in the ACC, a win over Tennessee will send a shot across the bow of Florida State and Clemson. The Vols, and more specifically Derek Dooley, need to get 2012 started well, possibly more than any other SEC team. Two great QBs, Amerson vs. Hunter and the Georgia Dome? What more can you ask for?
17. Week 7 (Oct. 13) South Carolina at LSU
LSU has a commanding 16-2-1 series lead and 1994 was the last time the Gamecocks defeated the Tigers. While Carolina has a shot at the SEC title game — and a potential rematch with the Bayou Bengals — a win over LSU on the road in October feels like a stretch.
18. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Alabama at Tennessee
The Third Saturday in October hasn’t had the same luster as it had in days of yore, but if the Vols are improved like many believe, the drama of the 2009 meeting could easily be recreated in Knoxville this fall.
19. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Florida at Texas A&M
The first SEC home game for the Aggies and the 12th Man is going to be downright nuts. The gameday atmosphere in College Station needs no help, but adding SEC implications and the Florida Gators makes Kyle Field on Sept. 8 must-see TV.
20. Week 1 (Aug. 30) South Carolina at Vanderbilt
The season opener for both — not just for the SEC, but for the college football world — will feature Marcus Lattimore, Steve Spurrier and James Franklin (as well as what is easily the best SEC city). One of these two will be 1-0 in conference before every other SEC team even plays its first game of the year. The other will have a conference loss before the first Saturday of the year. No pressure, Commodores!
21. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Arkansas at Auburn
The Hogs dominated their home games a year ago and Auburn was one of the many victims. Tyler Wilson threw for 262 yards while the ground game rolled-up 176 yards and three scores in the 38-14 win. That said, Auburn posted 292 yards on the ground, further highlighting the Razorbacks' defensive issues.
22. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Florida at Florida State
This rivalry certainly hasn't had the luster it once did back in the late '90s, but there is still plenty on the line when these two powerhouses get together in the regular-season finale. After the Gators won six straight in the series, the Noles have reclaimed Sunshine State supremacy in a big way the last two seasons with two dominating performances. The Gators have scored 14 total points in the last two games and scoring will once again be difficult.
23. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Tennessee at Georgia
These historic SEC programs haven’t seen too many close finishes of late with six of the last seven featuring double-digit point differentials. Georgia has won three out of four in the series, but the Vols are 2-2 in their last four trips to Athens. This is a game the Dawgs have to win.
24. Week 4 (Sept. 22) LSU at Auburn
The Bayou Bengals have won four of the last five meetings, including the memorable 24-17 battle on the Plains two years ago. It was the last time LSU visited Auburn and this time a national title could be on the line for the other Tigers.
25. Week 8 (Oct. 20) LSU at Texas A&M
These two old rivals used to play all the time until the series ended in the mid-90s. It was renewed in 2010 when they met in a 41-24 Cotton Bowl win for LSU. Now, the rivalry is back on track in a very different way — with SEC conference standings on the line.
26. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Tennessee at South Carolina
Always fun when Big Orange nation battles with Steve Spurrier. Brutal road test for UT.
27. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Georgia Tech at Georgia
Easily the best named rivarly in college football: Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.
28. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Tennessee at Vanderbilt
In-state rivarly is heating up to a rolling boil where bowl rights and recruiting trail storylines abound.
29. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Missouri at Tennessee
Few stadiums Mizzou has ever played in will match the experience of Neyland, and that's before you consider the potential bowl implications.
30. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Georgia at Auburn
The oldest running rivalry in the South produced a lopsided 45-7 UGA destruction of the Tigers last season.
31. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Alabama at Missouri
The entire city of Columbia will understand what being in the SEC means when the Crimson Tide visits town.
32. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Missouri at South Carolina
Second SEC game, the first on the road, for Mizzou will be even tougher than the debut.
33. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Missouri at Florida
Road trip to brutal SEC venue begins nasty final month for the Tigers.
34. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Auburn at Vanderbilt
Major opporutnity for the Dores to get a signature home win over perennial SEC power.
35. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Missouri at Texas A&M
First ever SEC meeting between two teams that have battled for years in the Big 12.
36. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Mississippi State at Ole Miss
Egg Bowl means very little nationally — but has huge import for Magnolia Staters.
37. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Tennessee at Mississippi State
Key swing game for both teams could mean trip to the postseason for Bulldogs, Vols.
38. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Texas A&M at Auburn
Third meeting all time (1911, 1986) between two teams battling for bowl privileges.
39. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Vanderbilt at Missouri
The Battle for James Franklin bragging rights between head coach and quarterback.
40. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Vanderbilt at Georgia
UGA was lucky to escape West End last fall with a 33-28 win, now gets Dores at home.
Best of the Rest:
41. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Vanderbilt at Florida
42. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Texas A&M at Alabama
43. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Washington at LSU
44. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Arkansas at Mississippi State
45. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Auburn at Mississippi State
46. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Rutgers at Arkansas
47. Week 1 (Sept. 2) Kentucky at Louisville
48. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Mississippi State at LSU
49. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Kentucky at Tennessee
50. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Mississippi State at Alabama
Athlon Sports SEC Predictions and Team Previews:
1. LSU Tigers: No. 2
2. Alabama Crimson Tide: No. 3
3. Arkansas Razorbacks: No. 13
4. Auburn Tigers: No. 30
5. Texas A&M Aggies: No. 32
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs: No. 47
7. Ole Miss Rebels: No. 71
1. Georgia Bulldogs: No. 8
2. South Carolina Gamecocks: No. 10
3. Florida Gators: No. 26
4. Missouri Tigers: No. 31
5. Tennessee Vols: No. 37
6. Vanderbilt Commodores: No. 41
7. Kentucky Wildcats: No. 75