With signing day in the books, spring practice is just around the corner for all 125 FBS teams. And it’s never too early to start thinking about the upcoming season and some of the key games on the schedule.
The SEC East appears to be a three-team battle atop the standings next season. Georgia and South Carolina are the likely frontrunners, with Florida slightly behind the Bulldogs and Gamecocks. Georgia faces a tougher schedule than it has in recent years, but South Carolina has to play in Athens this year.
While Georgia, Florida and South Carolina will likely be the only top-25 teams from the East, Vanderbilt is poised to earn its third consecutive bowl berth, while Tennessee and Kentucky should show improvement under new coaching staffs. Missouri had a disappointing debut in the SEC but could be better with a full offseason for quarterback James Franklin to heal.
With spring practice getting ready to start across the nation, Athlon takes a look at the schedules for each of the SEC East teams and examines some of the interesting storylines, scheduling tidbits and trends to watch.
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SEC East Football Schedule Analysis for 2013
Aug. 31 Toledo
Sept. 7 at Miami, Fla.
Sept. 14 Bye Week
Sept. 21 Tennessee
Sept. 28 at Kentucky
Oct. 5 Arkansas
Oct. 12 at LSU
Oct. 19 at Missouri
Oct. 26 Bye Week
Nov. 2 Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Nov. 9 Vanderbilt
Nov. 16 at South Carolina
Nov. 23 Georgia Southern
Nov. 30 Florida State
* The second week should be circled for Florida fans. Al Golden has Miami pointed in the right direction and seems to be making progress nearly every week with a young roster will only continue to develop. This is a huge moment for the Hurricanes getting the SEC power at home and will be a major hurdle for Florida to clear so early in the season. A win over the Canes likely means a 5-0 start heading into Baton Rouge.
* Florida will play both major Sunshine State powers in Miami and Florida State. The three-team round robin is great for college football in the state of Florida and fans across the country should be paying attention. The Gators will be favored in both games but this could feature three fairly evenly matched teams.
* Following the trip to Miami in Week 2, Florida will get an off week before hosting Tennessee. The Gators have won eight straight over the Vols and while Will Muschamp gets an extra week to prepare for new coach Butch Jones, Tennessee will be traveling to Eugene, Ore., and back. This all but assures a ninth straight win for the Gators.
* Five straight SEC games pinnacle with a trip to Baton Rouge. This has been one of the best and most physical crossover rivalries in the conference and both teams could easily be unbeaten when they lock horns on Oct. 12. Florida and LSU both have one tough road game but should be no worse than 4-1 entering this game.
* Upset alert for Florida is clearly the road trip to Missouri the Saturday following the LSU game. The Gators will have to expend copious amounts of energy and will have to play at an elite level to defeat the Tigers in Baton Rouge. Should that happen, a long trip to Columbia to face a team that gave them fits in 2012 is an obvious spot for a slip-up. Can Muschamp get them up for a second straight week?
* Following the five-game SEC stretch, Florida will get another bye week before playing a key rival. From 1990-2010, Florida was 18-3 against Georgia, and often times, the win clinched the SEC East for the Gators. But the Dawgs have won two straight in the series in heart-breaking fashion. The extra time off couldn’t have come at a better time than before a trip to the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
* After facing all of that in the first three months of the season, Florida could be unblemished and ranked in the top five nationally. However, the entire season could come crashing down when the Gators head to South Carolina on Nov. 16. Some will pick the Gamecocks to win the East, and in fact, both teams could be unbeaten when they tangle in Columbia. This game, possibly more than the Cocktail Party, could decide who plays in the SEC title game. The enormity of this game could also cause Florida to totally overlook the tricky Vanderbilt Commodores the week before.
Aug. 31 at Clemson
Sept. 7 South Carolina
Sept. 14 Bye Week
Sept. 21 North Texas
Sept. 28 LSU
Oct. 5 at Tennessee
Oct. 12 Missouri
Oct. 19 at Vanderbilt
Oct. 26 Open Date
Nov. 2 Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Nov. 9 Appalachian State
Nov. 16 at Auburn
Nov. 23 Kentucky
Nov. 30 Georgia Tech
* Special moments are extremely difficult to overcome in college sports. Entire towns, fanbases and programs build hype and pour themselves into specific moments in time. South Carolina did it to Georgia last year and Clemson will have a chance in 2013 right out of the gate. This moment will be huge for the Tigers at home, as they have a chance to make it two in a row against the SEC. Tajh Boyd’s offense is filthy loaded and the Dawgs are breaking in eight new starters on defense. A loss does nothing to the Dawgs SEC title hopes but…
* Georgia’s national title hopes could hang in the balance in the first two weekends. South Carolina comes to town in Week 2 and a home game with LSU wraps up one of the toughest first months of play anywhere in the nation. This team will face three top 10 teams in the first five weeks. Should UGA defeat Clemson, a win in the home opener over the Gamecocks is likely. But should they slip-up in Death Valley, a win over South Carolina — a team that has hung 80 points on Georgia in the last two meetings — the next week seems highly unlikely. What happens in the first two weeks will determine the entire ’13 season for Mark Richt.
* After facing three elite teams in the first month, should Georgia leave September unbeaten (4-0), the rest of the nation better watch out. The remaining schedule features some intriguing road trips and one Outdoor Cocktail Party, but the Dawgs would likely be favored in every game the rest of the way.
* Like the Gators, Georgia too will get an extra week to prepare for the trip South to Jacksonville. The Bulldogs have won two straight over Florida but needed some tricky fourth-down gambles and one amazing forced fumble to win both of those games. It is good for the SEC and for the fans that both coaches and teams get two weeks to prepare for what could be the biggest game of the year in the SEC East.
* After the cocktail party, all bets are off for Richt and company. The Bulldogs will finish with three of their last four at home and all three should be easy wins. The lone road trip to Auburn will be the toughest game of the final four weeks, and while the Tigers should be improved, one has to assume UGA will be a heavy favorite over a team that lost nine games in 2012. The final month could simply be a tuneup for another meeting with Alabama in Atlanta.
Aug. 31 Western Kentucky (Nashville, Tenn.)
Sept. 7 Miami, Ohio
Sept. 14 Louisville
Sept. 21 Bye Week
Sept. 28 Florida
Oct. 5 at South Carolina
Oct. 12 Alabama
Oct. 19 Bye Week
Oct. 26 at Mississippi State
Nov. 2 Alabama State
Nov. 9 Missouri
Nov. 16 at Vanderbilt
Nov. 23 at Georgia
Nov. 30 Tennessee
* Kentucky has the toughest schedule in the East every single season simply because it doesn’t get to face… Kentucky. Playing in the SEC is nasty for the Floridas and Georgias of the world, but the Gators, for example, have it much easier because they don’t have to face the Gators. The Wildcats get no breaks in the East as they have to play every major power in the division each season.
* LP Field should be rocking in Nashville on opening weekend for the Wildcats. Western Kentucky will debut Bobby Petrino on its sideline with a chance to defeat an SEC team in Week 1. The entire college football world will be watching and it only increases the pressure new head coach Mark Stoops will be facing in his own debut. To top it off, the Cats have no more than five chances at wins and losing to a Sun Belt team in Week 1 could doom Stoops’ first year.
* Kentucky will head into the bye week in Week 4 after facing hated rival Louisville. This in-state basketball trio has long been extremely intriguing and fairly competitive, but with two new coaches and a one new league, these football teams are now moving the needle as well. No one could write a worse way to start a tenure for Stoops than an 0-2 in-state record.
* Playing well early is key for the Cats because wins will be impossible to come by once SEC play starts. Stoops’ first three SEC games will be absolutely murderous as Kentucky faces Florida at home, South Carolina on the road and Alabama at home in three consecutive weeks. At least the bye week will allow the Cats to lick their wounds once the Crimson Tide leaves town. Best of luck, boys.
* Three of the last five SEC games will also come on the road. Trips to Starkville, Nashville and Athens afford Kentucky few chances at upsets. However, the two home games against Missouri and Tennessee could provide upset opportunities. To somehow get to a bowl game, which appears to be a very long shot, the Wildcats would have to likely win both (and come up with an another upset somewhere else as well).
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Aug. 31 Murray State
Sept. 7 Toledo
Sept. 14 Bye Week
Sept. 21 at Indiana
Sept. 28 Arkansas State
Oct. 5 at Vanderbilt
Oct. 12 at Georgia
Oct. 19 Florida
Oct. 26 South Carolina
Nov. 2 Tennessee
Nov. 9 at Kentucky
Nov. 16 Bye Week
Nov. 23 at Ole Miss
Nov. 30 Texas A&M
* This is how Gary Pinkel should have started his first season in the SEC: With easy non-conference wins. A road trip to Indiana might be the toughest test of the first five weekends for Mizzou and it likely means an undefeated record heading into conference play. And considering it’s the first month of SEC play, the Tigers will need all the momentum they can get.
* Pinkel’s bunch might be facing the toughest month of October in the nation. Road trips to Vanderbilt and Georgia to begin conference play are brutal but the month finishes with Florida and South Carolina coming to town. This four-week stretch is absolutely brutal and could take an unbeaten team and give them four straight losses.
* To make a bowl game, Mizzou likely has to win both the Nov. 2 home game with the struggling Volunteers and the Nov. 9 road trip to Kentucky. These two games were the only two conference wins for the Tigers a year ago and might be the only two in 2013 as well. If this team wants to return to the postseason after missing a bowl game for the first time since 2004, these two are must wins because…
* Mizzou finishes the ’13 campaign with two nasty conference games. In fact, while SEC East powers face Coastal Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia Southern, the Tigers will face a road trip to Oxford and a home game against Johnny Manziel. It’s a nasty way to finish and an upset against either seems unlikely.
Aug. 31 North Carolina
Sept. 7 at Georgia
Sept. 14 Vanderbilt
Sept. 21 Bye Week
Sept. 28 at UCF
Oct. 5 Kentucky
Oct. 12 at Arkansas
Oct. 19 at Tennessee
Oct. 26 at Missouri
Nov. 2 Mississippi State
Nov. 9 Bye Week
Nov. 16 Florida
Nov. 23 Coastal Carolina
Nov. 30 Clemson
* Much like Georgia, South Carolina faces a solid ACC team in Week 1. But hosting a rebuilding North Carolina team that lost tons of NFL talent isn’t the same as visiting the ACC preseason frontrunner. The Gamecocks should roll over the Tar Heels in the Shriner’s Bowl, setting up a huge road trip to Athens in Week 2. Carolina has won three straight in the rivalry by outscoring the Dawgs 97-56 in that span. The atmosphere will be electric between the hedges for what could be a defacto SEC East championship game.
* Once the Gamecocks return from Georgia, the schedule sets up nicely. Getting Vanderbilt at home is key before getting the first bye week. Games with UCF and Kentucky wrap-up the first half in fairly easy fashion. An unbeaten 6-0 mark is well within reach for Steve Spurrier.
* Georgia and Florida are the two biggest games of the year for South Carolina, but a three-game road trip in October against Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri will determine if this is going to be a special season in Columbia. All three games are winnable and Carolina should be favored in all three, and a few years ago, this stretch would be as nasty as any in the nation. Spurrier’s bunch always loses one game it shouldn’t and this three-week stretch is where it’s most likely to happen. On the flip side, two new coaches and a bruised Mizzou team should pose little resistance if Carolina wants to consider itself a national championship contender.
* Mississippi State comes to Williams-Brice Stadium to start November in another key scheduling break for the Cocks. The Bulldogs, much like the Dores, might be able to pull an upset over South Carolina at home but will be heavy underdogs down in The Palmetto State.
* So after an extremely winnable six-game stretch without a break, Carolina will get an extra week to prepare for the Florida Gators. While Will Muschamp’s bunch will have to battle with Vanderbilt the week before, Spurrier and his team will be sitting at home resting and preparing for what could be the second defacto SEC East title game. The Cocks have won two out of three over Florida, including the last time these two met in Columbia.
* There is a chance that one of the most vicious rivalries in college football could be a national championship elimination game. Clemson visits South Carolina on the final weekend in what could feature two unbeaten, top-five teams. It’s a long shot, but should that happen, this nasty in-state rivalry will finally get the national recognition it deserves. Even if Carolina rolls for the fifth straight season.
Aug. 31 Austin Peay
Sept. 7 Western Kentucky
Sept. 14 at Oregon
Sept. 21 at Florida
Sept. 28 South Alabama
Oct. 5 Georgia
Oct. 12 Bye Week
Oct. 19 South Carolina
Oct. 26 at Alabama
Nov. 2 at Missouri
Nov. 9 Auburn
Nov. 16 Bye Week
Nov. 23 Vanderbilt
Nov. 30 at Kentucky
* Butch Jones should get an easy win behind his stellar offensive line in his debut. But a win over Bobby Petrino in Week 2 is much less of a sure thing. After the disappointing 2012 campaign, a 2-0 start would do wonders for a famished Big Orange fan base. A loss to a coach that many fans in Knoxville opined for during the extended UT coaching search would be downright devastating to an already crippled program.
* A 2-0 start is also extremely important due to back-to-back road trips to Oregon and Florida. Few teams will face two teams that went 23-3 a year ago on the road in consecutive weeks like the Vols will. Keeping the bloodshed to a minimum would be a moral victory for Jones. While his team is trying to stop Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas in Auzten Stadium, Will Muschamp’s team will be kicked up in their lazy boys during the off week licking their chops.
* There is no rest for the weary, either, as the month of October offers little comfort to the downtrodden program. Tennessee will face Georgia and South Carolina at home and Alabama in Tuscaloosa in a four-week span in October. The only comfort that month will be a much-needed bye week following the visit from the Bulldogs in Week 6.
* The Vols run at a potential bowl game will come following the Alabama game. It begins with a road trip to Missouri where revenge should be on the minds of the Big Orange players. A win in Columbia could kickstart a manageable final month of the season for Tennessee. Home games with Auburn and Vanderbilt are tricky but winnable, with at least a split is likely needed for a bowl berth. A win over Kentucky in Lexington in the season finale is a must if Jones wants to reach the postseason in his first season.
Aug. 31 Ole Miss
Sept. 7 Austin Peay
Sept. 14 at South Carolina
Sept. 21 at UMass
Sept. 28 UAB
Oct. 5 Missouri
Oct. 12 Bye Week
Oct. 19 Georgia
Oct. 26 at Texas A&M
Nov. 2 Bye Week
Nov. 9 at Florida
Nov. 16 Kentucky
Nov. 23 at Tennessee
Nov. 30 Wake Forest
* There might not be a better way to get the season started than with Ole Miss visiting Vanderbilt. Wait, really? Yes, Ole Miss is one of the hottest names in college football after an unexpected bowl season and elite recruiting class. Vandy returns most of its offense and is riding high on West End after back-to-back bowl games. This matchup will set the tempo for both teams and fans across the nation should enjoy the offensive ingenuity involved in sneaky-good crossover contest.
* James Franklin isn’t scared of anyone, and he will have a chance to prove it in 2013. Not only does Vandy host Ole Miss but also has to visit South Carolina in the first three weeks of the year. A 2-1 start is well within reach and would have to be considered a successful start to the year. A 1-2 start could dampen the rampart energy running through this program at the moment.
* Should the Commodores start well in ’13, a 5-1 start is extremely reasonable. Following the nasty trip to Carolina, the Dores have three very winnable games with non-conference foes UMass and UAB before hosting a mediocre Missouri team. If Franklin wants this team to take the next step, winning five of the first six is almost a must.
* After the bye week following the Mizzou game, things get tough for the Dores. Vanderbilt will face Georgia at home and both Texas A&M and Florida on the road over a four-week span. It’s a brutal stretch and Franklin’s only comfort is a bye week sandwiched between Johnny Heisman and The Swamp.
* The end of the season provides the Dores with ample opportunity to get to a third straight bowl game for the first time in their program’s history. Home games with Kentucky and Wake Forest sandwiched around a key road trip to Knoxville is a fairly pleasant way to end an SEC season. Vandy should be a favorite in all three but a win over the Vols on the road could put a stamp on yet another stellar season on West End.
* Right now, Vandy appears to be the favorite in eight games and the underdog in four. This team should win the games it supposed to and should lose the games it’s supposed to. Upsets on either side of the coin seem unlikely.
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