The showdown at the Georgia Dome Saturday night between Georgia and Clemson highlights the Week 1 action in the SEC. The only league game, Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, takes place Thursday night in Nashville.
SEC Week 1 Game Power Rankings
1. Georgia (-2) at Clemson (8 ET, ABC)
The marquee matchup of Week 1 pits two teams with legitimate national title aspirations. Clemson is known for its explosive attack — and rightfully so — but Georgia was actually the more efficient offensive team last season. The Bulldogs led the nation in yards per play (7.09) and ranked second in passing efficiency. Clemson compiled more yards (512.7 ypg) than Georgia (467.6 ypg) because the Tigers ran about 15 more plays per game. Georgia’s defense has been singled out as a cause of concern due to heavy personnel losses, but we can’t forget that this was not a particularly good defense (by Georgia standards) last season. The Dawgs gave up 31 points or more four times and ranked sixth in the league in both total defense and scoring defense. The next wave of Bulldog defenders is ready to emerge, and Georgia — even without standout linebacker/safety Josh Harvey-Clemons in the lineup (suspended) — will field a more talented defense than Clemson. The Dawgs will give up some points — no team will shut down Tajh Boyd & Co. — but don’t assume the Georgia defense will be a weakness in Week 1.
2. Ole Miss (-3) at Vanderbilt (Thursday, 9:15 ET, ESPN)
This is a crucial game for two up-and-coming programs that would like nothing more than to start the season with an SEC win in Week 1. Ole Miss dominated this series from the 1950s through the mid-2000s, but Vanderbilt has won six of the last eight (including three straight) against the Rebels. Last year, the Commodores rallied from 17 down in the second half to knock off Ole Miss 27–26 in Oxford despite giving up over 400 yards passing. This year, the teams appear to be evenly matched once again. The focus will be on both quarterbacks. Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace will be playing his first game since undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason. The reports have been positive, but we won’t know if Wallace, a native of Middle Tennessee, is completely healthy until he faces a live defense. Vanderbilt will turn to fifth-year senior Austyn Carta-Samuels, who started for two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vanderbilt. Both quarterbacks will be without their No. 2 receivers — Ole Miss’ Vince Sanders is injured; Vanderbilt’s Chris Boyd is suspended. Should be a great game in Nashville.
3. LSU (-4) vs. TCU (Arlington, Texas) (9 ET, ESPN)
Two offseason developments reduced TCU’s chance of knocking off LSU Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium. First, Devonte Fields, the Horned Frogs’ All-America defensive end, was suspended for the first two games for a “violation of university and team policy.” Then, just a few weeks ago, starting linebacker Joel Hasley decided to quit football. The Frogs will still be stout on defense — when aren’t they? — but few teams can afford to be without two of their top players. LSU will be playing its first game under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who is hoping to diversify the Tigers’ attack, which has leaned heavily on the run in recent years. Zach Mettenberger had his moments last year (298 yards vs. Alabama), but the former Georgia Bulldog was a bit of a disappointment in his first season as the starter at LSU. A solid game from Mettenberger against TCU would be a great sign for the Tigers.
4. Alabama (-19.5) vs. Virginia Tech (Atlanta) (5:30 ET, ESPN)
Virginia Tech has been hit hard by injuries in preseason camp — not a good sign when Alabama, the defending national champs and the preseason No. 1 team, is on the schedule in Week 1. Virginia Tech shook up its offensive staff in the offseason after the ’12 Hokies scored 17 points or less in four of their final six games. Scott Loeffler, who spent last season at Auburn, is now calling the plays in Blacksburg. He has a talented quarterback (Logan Thomas) at his disposal but few other proven playmakers. The projected starting running back, J.C. Coleman, isn’t expected to play against Alabama due to injury, and none of the wide receivers on the roster caught more than 20 passes last year. Oh, and have we mentioned the offensive line is banged up? This is a tough spot for Frank Beamer’s club. An upset is highly unlikely.
5. North Carolina (+11.5) at South Carolina (6 ET, ESPN)
South Carolina opens the season in a familiar spot — on national television on Thursday night. Last year, the Gamecocks escaped Nashville with a 17–13 Week 1 win at Vanderbilt. This year, the opener figures to be a bit less stressful. North Carolina is a solid team, but this looks to be a bad matchup for the Tar Heels. North Carolina’s biggest area of concern is on the offensive line, and the Heels will have three new starters making their debut against one of the top defensive fronts in the nation. Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles & Co. could make life very difficult for quarterback Bryn Renner. Defensively, North Carolina is replacing its top two players (linebacker Kevin Reddick and tackle Sylvester Williams) from a unit that gave up 33 points or more in six games. The secondary, despite the return of four players who started at least eight games last season, is a big concern.
6. Mississippi State (+12.5) vs. Oklahoma State (Houston) (3:30 ET, ABC/ESPN2)
Oklahoma State is the pick by many (including Athlon Sports) to win the Big 12 title, but very few expect the Cowboys to be a factor in the national title race. The offense will have a new play-caller as Mike Yurcich takes over for Todd Monken (now the coach at Southern Miss), but it will be a surprise if the Pokes aren’t among the national leaders in total yards. Quarterbacks Clint Shelf and J.W. Walsh will be throwing to an elite crop of wide receivers that is led by junior Josh Stewart. This looks to be a favorable matchup on both sides of the ball for Oklahoma State. The Pokes will look to attack a Mississippi State defense that will feature two new starters at cornerback. And on the other side of the ball, the strength of the Oklahoma State defense is the interior of the line. This could present some problems for Mississippi State tailback LaDarius Perkins and force quarterback Tyler Russell to throw the ball to a receiving corps that has some talent but is largely untested.
7. Western Kentucky (+4.5) vs. Kentucky (Nashville) (7 ET, ESPNews)
Perhaps the lowest point of Kentucky’s 2012 season came in Week 3 when the Wildcats lost 32–31 at home in overtime to Western Kentucky. Now energized by a new coaching staff, UK will be seeking revenge when these two in-state rivals get together in Nashville. The key for Kentucky will be to slow down tailback Antonio Andrews, who rumbled for 125 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries in the Toppers’ win in Lexington last season. Bobby Petrino is known for his passing attacks, but he realizes that with a new quarterback (junior Brandon Doughty), his best bet is to lean heavily on Andrews and the ground game.
8. Washington State (+16) at Auburn (7 ET, ESPNU)
One of the more underrated storylines of the 2013 season is the quarterback situation at Auburn. Gus Malzahn has tabbed Nick Marshall, a former defensive back at Georgia who threw 20 interceptions in junior college last season, as the starter. Marshall is an incredible athlete, but at some point he will have to prove he can consistently throw the ball down the field. Washington State is in Year 2 of the Mike Leach era. The Cougs figure to be better — most notably on the offensive line — but Auburn has the decided talent advantage.
9. UL Lafayette (+10.5) at Arkansas (4 ET, Fox Sports Net)
Bret Bielema’s first game as the boss in Fayetteville will not be easy. UL Lafayette returns seven starters from an offense that averaged more than 450 yards and 35 points last season. Quarterback Terrance Broadway, in only nine starts, set single-season school records for total offense (3,616 yards) and completion percentage (65.4). This offense will move the ball. Arkansas will counter with an attack that will feature heavy doses of tailback Jonathan Williams. A former 4-star recruit from Texas, Williams hasn’t received a ton of pub in the preseason, but the sophomore will be the feature back on a Bielema-coached offense. Translation: He will run for well over 1,000 yards.
10. Toledo (+23.5) at Florida (12:21 ET, SEC Network)
The Gators opened the 2012 season at home against a team from the MAC, and it turned out to be quite a struggle. Florida and Bowling Green were tied 14–14 midway through the third quarter before the Gators pulled away late for the 27–14 win. Toledo stacks up favorably to last year’s Bowling Green team. The Rockets are far more potent on offense but won’t present too much resistance defensively. Only two starters return from a Toledo defense that gave up 473.2 yards per game last season. It will be a significant cause for concern if the Florida offense has trouble scoring points on Saturday.
11. Rice (+27.5) at Texas A&M (1 ET, ESPN)
Johnny Manziel will miss the first half of the season-opener, becoming the first returning Heisman winner to be suspended at any point in the following season (according to Chris Huston, the Heisman Pundit). Manziel will return to the lineup in the second half, and by that point his Aggies should be in complete control.
12. Murray State at Missouri (7 ET, PPV)
Missouri should barely break a sweat against a Murray State team that lost at Florida State 69–3 in the 2012 opener. This game will mark the return of tailback Henry Josey, who hasn’t played since suffering a devastating knee injury in November 2011. At the time of his injury, Josey ranked fifth in the nation in rushing with 127.7 yards per game. He could be a pivotal player for a much-improved Mizzou offense.
13. Austin Peay at Tennessee (6 ET, PPV)
The Butch Jones era begins with a tune-up against one of the worst FCS programs in the nation. Austin Peay went 2–9 in 2012 (one of the wins came against Culver-Stockton) and ranked 107th in the nation in total offense. Don’t put much stock into anything you might see in this box score.
5 Pivotal Players for Week 1
Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
The former 4-star recruit steps into the role as the No. 1 back at South Carolina — a position held by Marcus Lattimore (when healthy) the past three years. Davis, a 5-9, 215-pound sophomore, ran for 275 yards on 52 carries last season as a true freshman. South Carolina has been known as a run-first team in recent years, but the Gamecocks ranked last in the SEC in 2012 by averaging only 3.67 yards per carry (a stat that was not helped by the team’s 260 yards lost due to sacks). Davis’ emergence as an All-SEC-caliber back would be a nice boost to the South Carolina offense.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
Murray has won a bunch of games and thrown for a ton of yards during three years as the starter at Georgia, but despite leading his team to two straight SEC title games, the senior quarterback has been — at times — underwhelming on the big stage. Georgia is 2–7 vs. ranked opponents during the Murray era — a stat he is well aware of. “I gotta win the big games,” Murray told the Macon Telegraph. “I’ve gotta step it up and play better when it comes to big-time games. I know that. And that’s something I’m looking forward to this year, is taking that next step and taking on those bigger teams.” He will have an opportunity to “step it up” this weekend when the Bulldogs head to Clemson.
Jonathan Krause, WR, Vanderbilt
Krause put up some decent numbers (24 receptions for 243 yards) as a true freshman in 2009 on a bad Vanderbilt offense. In the past two seasons, however, he combined to catch only 34 passes for 240 yards. He has been a nice weapon as a punt returner but a non-factor in the passing game. Now, however, with Chris Boyd out (suspended), Krause will have an opportunity to shine as the Commodores’ No. 2 receiver.
Robert Nkemdiche, DE, Ole Miss
The nation’s consensus No. 1 incoming freshman, Nkemdiche played his way into the starting lineup during preseason camp. The 6-5, 294-pound defensive end will be on a national stage Thursday night against a Vanderbilt offensive line that features one of the more underrated tackles in the nation, senior Wesley Johnson. The Ole Miss staff will no doubt try to create some mismatches and give Nkemdiche a chance to make plays in his first college game.
Mississippi State’s cornerbacks
The Bulldogs must replace one of the top cornerback tandems in the nation, Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are the new starters, and they won’t have time to ease into their new roles. Oklahoma State, the Week 1 opponent, has ranked in the top 10 in the nation in passing offense in each of the last three seasons, and the 2013 Pokes feature an elite corps of wide receivers. The Mississippi State secondary will have to play well to give the Bulldogs a chance to win this game.
Athlon Week 1 SEC Predictions
N. Carolina (+11.5) at S. Carolina
S. Carolina 24-14
S. Carolina 28-13
S. Carolina 31-23
S. Carolina 28-14
Ole Miss (-3) at Vanderbilt
Ole Miss 28-21
Toledo (+23.5) at Florida
Rice (+27.5) at Texas A&M
Texas A&M 48-10
Texas A&M 61-13
Texas A&M 48-10
Texas A&M 51-7
Miss. State (+12.5) vs. O-State
Okla. St 31-21
Okla. St 30-21
Okla. St 34-24
Okla. St 38-24
UL Lafayette (+10.5) at Arkansas
UL Lafayette 24-21
Alabama (-19.5) vs. Va. Tech
Austin Peay at Tennessee
W. Kentucky (+4.5) vs. Kentucky
Washington St (+16) at Auburn
Murray State at Missouri
Georgia (-2) at Clemson
LSU (-4) vs. TCU (Arlington)