The 2020 SEC football season was anything but normal, forcing the conference to cancel all of its out-of-league games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the SEC opted to play an unconventional 10-game conference-only schedule. It was interesting, to say the least, but we definitely missed out on some great games and key rivalry matchups as a result.
Fortunately, non-conference games are set to return to the SEC slate this fall. And with that in mind, now seems like as good a time as any to take a glimpse into the future at some of the more compelling non-conference matchups on the 2021 SEC schedule. There are several marquee matchups worthy of your attention, particularly in Week 1. Here now are the 10 most intriguing SEC non-conference games for 2021:
10. Pittsburgh at Tennessee, Sept. 11
There are several intriguing elements to this ACC vs. SEC matchup. One being that Josh Heupel will face his first real test as head coach of the Vols. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this game lies with legendary coach Johnny Majors, who won a national championship at Pitt in 1976 before returning to his alma mater to lead the Vols to 116 wins and three SEC titles. This will be the first meeting between the two schools since 1983 when Pittsburgh defeated a Majors' led Tennessee team by a score of 13-3 in Knoxville.
9. Georgia at Georgia Tech, Nov. 27
The annual in-state rivalry often referred to as Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate returns after taking a year off for the first time since 1925. The 2021 edition of this heated rivalry will mark the first-ever meeting between Kirby Smart and second-year Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins. The Yellow Jackets went just 3-7 in Collins' first year as head coach, but it's a minor miracle that they were able to win any games given the almost impossible transition from a triple-option attack to a more conventional modern-day offense. Georgia Tech should be better equipped on that side of the ball this season, led by rising quarterback Jeff Sims. Defensively, the Ramblin' Wreck has plenty to improve upon after giving up 37 points per game last season. That could be a problem against a Georgia offense that averaged 37.3 points per game with JT Daniels under center. Nevertheless, there will be plenty of intrigue surrounding this matchup.
8. Florida State at Florida, Nov. 27
Florida State head coach Mike Norvell probably dodged a bullet by not having to face the Gators in his debut season at Florida State, but it was still a shame to see this annual end-of-season in-state rivalry off the schedule for the first time in 63 years. The good news is that the Sunshine Showdown will return for 2021, marking the first-ever meeting between Norvell and Florida head coach Dan Mullen. Florida has some big shoes to fill on both sides of the ball from last year's SEC East title team, but the Gators should have enough talent in place to once again rank among the top teams in the conference. The Seminoles should see improvement in Norvell's second year at the helm as well. Hopefully, the gap between these teams starts to close sooner than later to bring one of college football's greatest rivalries back to prominence.
7. Texas A&M vs. Colorado (Denver), Sept. 11
This SEC vs. Pac-12 matchup features a pair of former Big 12 foes that will be meeting for the first time since 2009. Second-year Colorado head coach Karl Dorell hopes to improve on a surprisingly strong debut season that saw the Buffaloes go 4-2 in Pac-12 play, and nothing would set the tone better than playing the role of spoiler against the Aggies. Of course, that will be no easy task against a reloaded Jimbo Fisher-led Aggies squad that went 10-1 last season, missing out on a College Football Playoff appearance by the narrowest of margins.
6. Texas at Arkansas, Sept. 11
An old rivalry is renewed in a matchup that harkens back to the days of the old Southwest Conference, where these two teams routinely battled it out for conference supremacy. The Razorbacks will be in search of a signature upset win against the Longhorns, as they look to take another step forward after a much improved 2020 season under head coach Sam Pittman. New Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian hopes to bring the Longhorns back to their glory days, and he has talent in place to do just that. However, a fast start could be challenging, with tough non-conference matchups in back-to-back fashion against Louisiana and Arkansas to kick off the Sarkisian era at Texas.
5. Auburn at Penn State, Sept. 18
Everyone loves a good SEC vs. Big Ten matchup, and the first regular-season meeting ever between these two traditional powerhouses shouldn't disappoint. New Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin will look to get the Tigers back on track behind the arm of Bo Nix following a 6-5 season that saw the Tigers lose three of their final four contests. Meanwhile, James Franklin hopes to get the Nittany Lions back to their winning ways after a disappointing 4-5 campaign. A win here would go a long way for both teams after taking a step backward last season.
4. LSU at UCLA, Sept. 4
The 2020 season was anything but kind to the LSU Tigers, who finished with a disappointing 5-5 record following their phenomenal run to the national championship in 2019. The good news is that Ed Orgeron's squad should be able to return to winning form in short order thanks to an overhauled coaching staff and a reloaded roster with no shortage of talent. Despite a disappointing 3-4 finish for Chip Kelly's Bruins, progress was evident with all four of UCLA's losses coming by six points or less. More importantly, the Bruins showed solid improvement on both sides of the football, averaging 35.4 points per game on offense and limiting opponents to a much-improved 5.4 yards per play on defense. UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson also returns after a strong 2020 campaign. It's hard to believe that these two historically rich college football programs have never met on the gridiron, but that will change on Sept. 4 inside the Rose Bowl. It should be fun to watch.
3. Liberty at Ole Miss, Nov. 6
There will be no shortage of storylines heading into the first-ever meeting between Liberty and Ole Miss. Chief among them will be Hugh Freeze's return to Oxford to face his former team. The matchup itself should produce plenty of fireworks as well. Liberty returns 21 starters from last years' 10-1 team, led by former Auburn transfer Malik Willis at quarterback. Lane Kiffin's Rebels return most of their key starters from an offense that averaged 555.5 yards and 39.2 points per game last season, including quarterback Matt Corral and running back Jerrion Ealy. Given all the components, this is shaping up to be a fantastic game between two aspiring Top 25 teams.
2. Alabama vs. Miami (Atlanta), Sept. 4
Alabama is once again reloaded with elite talent, led by new quarterback Bryce Young. However, the Crimson Tide find themselves short on experience with several key departures from last year's national championship team. Miami returns most of its starters from last year's 8-3 squad, including veteran quarterback D'Eriq King. A more experienced Miami roster should help pay dividends in the Hurricanes' bid to pull off the huge Week 1 upset. But that will be a very tall order against the superior talent and coaching of Alabama. The Crimson Tide also have a strong track record of dominating Power Five opponents in season openers. This will be the first meeting between Alabama and Miami since the 1993 Sugar Bowl, which resulted in a 34-13 win and a national championship for the Crimson Tide.
1. Clemson vs. Georgia (Charlotte, N.C.), Sept. 4
There are plenty of great games on tap to kick off the 2021 college football season, but this colossal ACC vs. SEC showdown is by far the most appealing. You get a pair of national championship contenders with loads of talent, led by two of the top coaches in the nation in Dabo Swinney and Kirby Smart. You get a high-profile quarterback matchup between former five-star southern California signal-callers D.J. Uiagalelei and JT Daniels. And the stakes couldn't possibly be higher for a Week 1 matchup with major College Football Playoff implications on the line. What's not to love?
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.