Georgia hosts Clemson in crucial early season battle
Georgia hosts Clemson in a huge non-conference game for two programs with aspirations of playing in the inaugural CFB Playoff. Several other SEC teams have key games against non-SEC foes at neutral sites — Wisconsin meets LSU in Houston, Ole Miss battles Boise State in Atlanta and Alabama takes on West Virginia, also in Atlanta. There are two games matching up two SEC teams, and they’re both big. South Carolina hosts Texas A&M in the first-ever game on the SEC Network, and Arkansas makes the trip to Auburn on Saturday afternoon.
Week 1 Preview and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12
SEC Week 1 Game Power Rankings
1. Clemson (+7.5) at Georgia
5:30 ET, ESPN
This crucial Week 1 showdown features an intriguing matchup of two veteran quarterbacks thrust into starting roles for the first time in their careers. At Clemson, Cole Stoudt steps in for Tajh Boyd, one of the most beloved (and productive) players in school history. Meanwhile, Hutson Mason takes over at Georgia for Aaron Murray, who set several SEC career records. On paper, Mason appears to have more talent at his disposal, but there is a quiet confidence at Clemson that the Tigers’ offense — with Chad Morris still calling the plays — won’t take a step back despite the loss of Boyd, All-America wideout Sammy Watkins and 1,000-yard rusher Roderick McDowell. Don’t expect Georgia to abandon its passing game, but the Bulldogs will lean heavily on an absurdly deep crop of running backs that is led by Heisman contender Todd Gurley. Two key matchups to watch: Clemson’s outstanding defensive front — anchored by end Vic Beasley — against Georgia’s good but not great offensive line, and Georgia’s secondary vs. a Clemson passing attack that has specialized in the big play in the Morris era.
2. Texas A&M (+10.5) at South Carolina
Thursday, 6 ET, SEC Network
All eyes will be on the SEC Network Thursday evening when the Johnny Manziel-less Aggies visit South Carolina for the first time in school history. Sophomore Kenny Hill will be at the controls of an A&M offense that will still score plenty of points — when hasn’t a Kevin Sumlin offense been productive? The big issue for the Aggies is on defense, where they were gashed on a routine basis throughout a disappointing 2013 season. Texas A&M allowed a league-worst 5.4 yards per carry and 221.3 yards per game against SEC opponents. That’s not good news when South Carolina is the Week 1 opponent. The Gamecocks feature one of the SEC’s top offensive lines and a running back (Mike Davis) who could be in the Heisman Trophy discussion. Davis is reportedly dealing with some minor injuries, but it will be a surprise if he doesn’t play on Thursday night.
3. Ole Miss (-10.5) vs. Boise State (Atlanta)
Thursday, 8 ET, ESPN
Boise State established itself as a legitimate player on the national scene with a string of early season wins over big-name opponents from major conferences — vs. Oregon in 2008 and ’09, Virginia Tech in ’10 and Georgia in ’11. The Broncos, however, have not fared as well in recent years, losing at Michigan State in ’12 and at Washington in ’13 (by 32 points). Expect this trend to continue. Boise State is coming off an 8–5 season — its worst since 1998 — and will not have Chris Petersen roaming the sidelines for the first time since ’05. This program isn’t likely to slip into irrelevance, but its days of flirting with the top 10 could be over. Ole Miss, on the other hand, is trending in the other direction. Hugh Freeze has accumulated top-flight talent on both sides of the ball and has his team positioned to be a factor in the brutal SEC West. The Rebels should be able to flex their muscles on both lines of scrimmage and win this game with relative ease.
Listen to Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast: Week 1 Preview
4. LSU (-5) vs. Wisconsin (Houston)
9:00 PM ET, ESPN
There’s a theme developing in Week 1: Untested quarterbacks in big games. Wisconsin, the favorite in the new Big Ten West, named former junior college transfer (and one-time South Carolina Gamecock) Tanner McEvoy as its starter over incumbent Joel Stave. McEvoy, a dual threat who is more advanced as a runner, started at safety in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1. LSU has yet to name a starter, but sophomore Anthony Jennings — the hero of the comeback win over Arkansas late last season — is expected to get the nod over true freshman Brandon Harris. The job for both quarterbacks in this game: Hand the ball off to the running backs and get out of the way. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon averaged an astounding 7.8 yards per carry en route to a Big Ten-best 123.8 yards per game last season. LSU might not list Leonard Fournette as its starter, but it will be a significant surprise if the true freshman does not end up being the Tigers’ primary ball-carrier. Some believe Fournette is the best running back prospect to enter the college ranks since Adrian Peterson arrived at Oklahoma in 2004.
5. Arkansas (+20.5) at Auburn
4 PM ET, SEC Network
The defending SEC champs open the season at home against a team that failed to win a league game in 2013. Don’t, however, assume that this will be easy for Auburn. Arkansas features some elite talent at running back and should be able to move the ball on the ground. A year ago, the Hogs ranked fourth in the league in rushing against SEC opponents, and Auburn, despite its success as a team, had trouble stopping the run. Arkansas, though, will need to do far more than run the ball to win this game. The Hogs will have to find some way to slow down what should be an explosive Auburn offense — even without quarterback Nick Marshall in the starting lineup. This game could be high scoring. Auburn will score more.
6. Utah State (+6.5) at Tennessee
Sunday, 7 ET, SEC Network
Chuckie Keeton is no stranger to SEC country, having made his first career start at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium as a true freshman in the 2011 opener. Keeton and the Aggies held a 10-point lead late into the fourth quarter but were unable to hang on, dropping a 42–38 decision to the defending national champs. Keeton returns to the Southeast as a seasoned senior who has won a bunch of games for a very solid Utah State program. The Aggies, however, only return seven starters from a team that won the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference last season. Utah State will eventually be a very good team in 2014, but it might take some time. Tennessee’s troubles are well-documented — no starters back on either line of scrimmage, suspect quarterback play, etc. — but the Vols should have enough to survive a stiff Week 1 challenge.
7. Alabama (-26) vs. West Virginia (Atlanta)
3:30 ET, ABC
The most interesting news regarding this game — other than the fact that West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett claims his first kiss was with Nick Saban’s daughter — is that Jacob Coker might not start at quarterback for Alabama. Coker, the presumed QB1 since he announced his transfer from Florida State, will play, but senior Blake Sims could take the first snap of the 2014 season. It shouldn’t matter in this game — Bama is a huge favorite for a reason — but the Crimson Tide will need to get the quarterback position settled at some point before the schedule heats up in late September. West Virginia should be improved, but the Mountaineers simply don’t have the personnel to hang with Alabama — especially away from Morgantown.
8. Temple (+13.5) at Vanderbilt
Thursday, 9:15 ET, SEC Network
The Derek Mason era begins in Nashville against a Temple team that was probably better than its 2–10 record from a year ago. The Owls went 2–4 in the latter half of the season, with wins over Army and Memphis sandwiched around four losses by an average of 4.8 points. Vanderbilt’s decision to go with Patton Robinette as its starting quarterback was a bit of a surprise. Robinette went 2–1 as a starter last year and also took significant snaps in wins over Georgia and Tennessee, but he’s not considered an ideal fit for offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell’s system. Mason and Dorrell insist their quarterback will not be on a short leash, so Robinette will have ample opportunities to prove his critics wrong.
9. Southern Miss (+30.5) at Mississippi State
7:30 ET, SEC Network
The last time these two in-state schools met, Brett Favre was in charge of the Southern Miss offense. The Golden Eagles lost that day in 1990, 13–10 in Starkville, but went on to win six of their final eight games to finish with an 8–4 mark. The 2014 Eagles have more modest goals. After snapping a 23-game losing streak with a win in the ’13 finale, Southern Miss would love to flirt with a .500 mark in the second season of the Todd Monken era. Mississippi State, on the other hand, would be disappointed with anything less than eight wins. The Bulldogs must navigate through the difficult SEC West, but this could be the most complete team at MSU since Dan Mullen took over. It will be a bad sign if State does not win this game with ease.
10. Idaho (+36.5) at Florida
(7 ET, ESPNU)
The most important season of Will Muschamp’s career as a head coach begins with a visit from a really bad Idaho team. The Vandals, 1–11 last season, have not won a road game since beating San Jose State in November 2011. Idaho played seven road games last season and gave up at least 40 points six times, including 59 at Ole Miss and 80 at Florida State. Advice to Florida fans: Don’t make any conclusions on the new Gator offense based on this game. Idaho is not good.
11. UT Martin (+19.5) at Kentucky
(12:00 ET, SEC Network)
Kentucky begins Year 2 of the Mark Stoops era against a UT Martin team that won seven games in 2013. The Skyhawks, however, went 0–2 against FBS opponents, losing to Memphis 21–6 and Boise State 63–14. Patrick Towles won a hotly contested battle to start at quarterback for Kentucky. The Cats don’t quite have SEC-caliber talent on the offensive line, but they have some able bodies at wide receiver and a nice collection of running backs. We might actually see the “Air Raid” attack that offensive coordinator Neal Brown promised to bring back to the Bluegrass.
12. South Dakota State (+29.5) at Missouri
3:30 ET, ESPNU
This is the only sure thing in an otherwise tricky non-conference schedule for Missouri. After this Week 1 visit from the Jackrabbits, the Tigers travel to Toledo and then host UCF and Indiana. They should be 4–0 heading into SEC play, but none of those three games will be easy. Saturday afternoon’s game, however, shouldn’t be too taxing. South Dakota State is a solid FCS team but isn’t good enough, on either side of the ball, to make Mizzou sweat.
SEC Week 1 Predictions
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
Texas A&M at South Carolina
S. Carolina 38-17
|S. Carolina 38-24||S. Carolina 34-24||South Carolina 34-26|
Ole Miss vs. Boise State (Atlanta)
Ole Miss 35-21
|Ole Miss 34-13||Ole Miss 34-17||Ole Miss 34-10|
Temple at Vanderbilt
|Vanderbilt 27-13||Vanderbilt 31-17||Vanderbilt 28-13|
UT Martin at Kentucky
|Kentucky 41-10||Kentucky 38-13||Kentucky 37-10|
Alabama vs. West Virginia (Atlanta)
|Alabama 31-13||Alabama 38-10||Alabama 30-13|
South Dakota State at Missouri
|Missouri 45-14||Missouri 45-17||Missouri 41-10|
Arkansas at Auburn
|Auburn 38-21||Auburn 38-24||Auburn 37-24|
Clemson at Georgia
|Georgia 24-21||Georgia 27-24||Georgia 34-27|
Idaho at Florida
|Florida 44-3||Florida 45-10||Florida 51-0|
So. Miss at Mississippi State
MIss. State 48-10
|Miss. State 38-10||Miss. State 40-13||Miss. State 37-10|
LSU vs. Wisconsin (Houston)
|LSU 31-14||LSU 30-20||LSU 34-31|
Utah State at Tennessee
Utah State 28-24
|Tennessee 34-27||Tennessee 27-24||Tennessee 20-9|