The SEC West is still king, with Alabama coming off yet another national championship and LSU appearing to have one of the best rosters, top to bottom, in the nation. And Ole Miss probably would take Chad Kelly at quarterback over just about anybody else in college football.
Related: Official 2016 SEC Preview Podcast
But now, after a long hiatus, the SEC East is ready to show that it also has some real contenders. Florida and Tennessee have emerged from mediocrity to bring the fight to Georgia at the top of the division, just like the good ole days. With three solid programs atop each division, that’s going to make for some fantastic games this fall.
Here are 20 SEC games that you absolutely must watch this season.
1. Alabama at Tennessee (Oct. 15)
The Third Saturday in October... back to its rightful place as the biggest SEC game of the year. Over the years, Alabama and Tennessee have been the SEC’s two most successful programs. But they haven’t both been elite in a long time. When Tennessee was dominating in the ‘90s, Alabama was mostly irrelevant. And while Nick Saban, has been roaming the sidelines, Tennessee has been nonexistent. This year, both teams have College Football Playoff potential. This one could be special.
2. Alabama at LSU (Nov. 5)
LSU has been more of a thorn in Alabama’s side during the Saban years, but honestly, not as recently as most would think. Since beating the Crimson Tide in the 2011 regular season, LSU has fallen short. That was five years ago (time really flies). Now, it’s safe to say LSU’s roster looks as good as it has since that season. The Tigers get Alabama in Death Valley, in a game that will almost certainly decide which team goes to Atlanta. Will Alabama’s dreams come to die this time?
3. LSU at Arkansas (Nov. 12)
Make no mistake about it, the Tigers have this one circled on the calendar. If LSU does beat Alabama, it will take another tremendous effort just one week later to beat the Hogs in Fayetteville. LSU hasn’t matched up well in this game the past two years. In fact, the Tigers have been embarrassed, losing by 17 points on both occasions. They’ll have to do something different this year if they want to buck that trend.
4. Florida at Tennessee (Sept. 24)
Forget Appalachian State’s upset potential. Forget the largest college football crowd in history at the Battle at Bristol. This is where it all starts for the Volunteers. The Gators have won 11 in a row in this divisional series. If Tennessee doesn’t beat Florida, it will be a major uphill battle for the Vols to win the SEC East. This is a huge momentum game, and Tennessee has to get over the mental hurdle. The Gators won’t go down lightly, as proven by their one-point victories in the fourth quarter over Tennessee the past two seasons.
5. Alabama at Ole Miss (Sept. 17)
Can Ole Miss make it three in a row over the Crimson Tide? It’s not out of the question, especially with Chad Kelly slinging passes against a susceptible secondary. The Rebels have a ton to replace on both sides of the ball this year, and Alabama lacks a proven running back for the first time under Saban. With this game coming early in the year, the new faces make it even more interesting. The matchup to keep an eye on here is Ole Miss’ offensive line vs. Alabama’s defensive line.
6. Tennessee at Georgia (Oct. 1)
Should the Volunteers get past Florida, it’s fairly likely that this game will decide the winner of the SEC East. Both of these teams should have lethal running games, so it will come down to which quarterback can make the most plays between the hedges. Last year, Tennessee ended a drought against the ‘Dawgs winning 38-31 in Knoxville. What better way for new Georgia head coach Kirby Smart to make his debut than by knocking off the East favorite?
7. Ole Miss at LSU (Oct. 22)
The Rebels are one of a few teams on LSU’s schedule with a legitimate shot at spoiling the Tigers’ title hopes. Kelly and Ole Miss’ receivers are such game-changers that it masks the fact the Rebels are so fragile in other areas. If LSU can control the clock, it will win the game. But if it turns into a high-scoring affair, that favors Ole Miss. The Rebels have won two of the last three in the series.
8. Florida vs. Georgia (Oct. 29 — Jacksonville, Fla.)
The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party could be big on so many levels. First of all, if we find out that Tennessee is a pretender, it could decide the winner of the SEC East. But even if the Volunteers are still in the mix, this will be a crucial game. Florida is one of the few teams on Georgia’s schedule that has the ‘Dawgs number. If the trend continues, the Gators could spoil Georgia’s hopes of getting to Atlanta — or the other way around.
9. Ole Miss vs. Florida State (Sept. 5 — Orlando, Fla.)
We’re going to find out a lot about both Ole Miss and Florida State in week one. Sure, the Seminoles aren’t an SEC team, but it will be interesting to see how they stack up against the SEC early in the season. And Ole Miss... that’s the fascinating part. We’ll see the Rebels up against a stingy ‘Noles defense, and we’ll see how much quarterback Chad Kelly is relied on to do it on his own. Will Ole Miss have enough firepower besides him to beat a team that some have ranked No. 1?
10. Tennessee at Texas A&M (Oct. 8)
The Aggies and Volunteers will meet for the first time since 2005, when Tennessee beat A&M in the Cotton Bowl, 38-7. In fact, this will be only the third all-time meeting between the teams. If the Vols have a “trap game” on the schedule, by definition, this could be it. Tennessee will be on the third leg of a difficult four-game stretch, and will have to travel all the way to College Station. The Aggies’ offense should be rolling by early October.
11. Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Sept. 10 — Bristol, Tenn.)
It’s going to break the all-time college football attendance record. Officials are expecting upwards of 150,000 people to attend this “football on NASCAR” spectacle at Bristol Motor Speedway. So, it is certainly a must-see kind of game – and one that could be flying under the radar. Virginia Tech retained defensive coordinator Bud Foster and should still be salty on that side of the ball. If the Hokies can keep this one low scoring, Tennessee better watch out.
12. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 3 — Green Bay, Wis.)
Sticking with the out-of-conference theme, how about a game at historic Lambeau Field? LSU and Wisconsin meet there in one of week one’s biggest games. The weather should be reasonably nice up north in September. And Wisconsin should provide a solid challenge for an LSU team looking to prove that it is back among the elite in college football.
13. Alabama at Arkansas (Oct. 8)
As part of a brutal road slate this season, Alabama will have to travel to Fayetteville. The Tide barely got out of there with a win in their last trip, edging the Hogs 14-13. Arkansas hasn’t beaten Alabama since 2006, but it has been closer the last two years. This could be that major mid-season win that Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema so desperately needs; because we know these guys are good late in the season. But a win over ‘Bama before November? Now, that would be big.
14. UCLA at Texas A&M (Sept. 3)
Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen has the potential to be a Heisman Trophy contender in due time. But potential is a funny thing. Some would say UCLA underachieved last year. Now, the Pac-12 South is wide open. If Rosen can live up to the hype, the Bruins could be a title contender. What better way for them to make a statement than by knocking off an SEC team in week one? And what better way for the Aggies to say they’re for real? This should be a closely-contested offensive battle.
15. LSU at Texas A&M (Nov. 24)
Call this one a “sleeper” pick for a must-see game. LSU is expected to do big things this year. That’s no secret at this point. But A&M is the wild card here. The Aggies could be really good by season’s end. They have a lot of weapons on offense that LSU will have to worry about, and a defensive line that could be nightmarish for quarterback Brandon Harris. Kevin Sumlin is 0-for-4 against Les Miles, but that could change with the help of 100,000 Aggie fans looking on as one of the SEC elites rolls into town.
16. Ole Miss at Arkansas (Oct. 15)
The last time the Rebels played in Fayetteville, they got embarrassed 30-0. Then last year in Oxford, they had one stolen away in overtime after the Hogs converted a wild fourth down to stay alive. Ole Miss is definitely trying to get the Arkansas monkey off its back, while the Razorbacks want to continue to expand on their mid- to late-season dominance. The Hogs could be a little banged up after dealing with Alabama the week before.
17. Alabama vs. USC (Sept. 3 — Arlington, Texas)
This game might not live up to the hype that comes with its participants’ history, but still it would be hard to leave this one off a “must-see” list. Alabama and USC are two of college football’s all-time most successful programs, and interestingly, have only met on the gridiron seven times. Since this is the first meeting between the teams since 1985, it should be fun to watch. With that said, Alabama looks much better top to bottom.
18. Georgia at Ole Miss (Sept. 24)
Ole Miss plays Florida State, Alabama and Georgia all in the first four weeks of the season. That’s a tough stretch for a team that will be rebuilding on both sides of the ball. Fortunately, the Rebels have All-SEC quarterback Chad Kelly. It will be interesting to see how he stacks up against a newly-led Georgia defense, commanded by new head coach and former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. This game will be pivotal for both teams when it comes to cross-division wins, if either is in the discussion to get to the SEC Championship Game by season’s end.
19. Florida at Arkansas (Nov. 5)
The Gators and Hogs will meet for the first time since 2013, which was Bret Bielema’s first year as the Razorbacks’ head coach. Florida won that meeting — and the previous eight before it — but Arkansas has shown its prowess in November the last two seasons. The Gators, on the other hand, were awful in November last year. Arkansas has its bye week before this matchup, so the Hogs should be well-prepared.
20. Florida at Vanderbilt (Oct. 1)
This game will provide Vanderbilt the opportunity to enact revenge from a narrow 9-7 defeat in Gainesville last year, and it also will provide the Commodores an opportunity to notch a major upset win in a season where bowl eligibility should be a realistic goal. For Florida, this one comes right after a road trip to Tennessee, so the Gators will either be riding an emotional high or an emotional low. There is upset potential here.
Best of the Rest:
LSU at Florida (Oct. 8)
Georgia vs. North Carolina (Sept. 3 —– Atlanta)
Vanderbilt at Auburn (Nov. 5)
Texas A&M at Alabama (Oct. 22)
Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26)
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 24 — Arlington, Texas)
Ole Miss at Texas A&M (Nov. 12)
Missouri at West Virginia (Sept. 3)
Georgia Southern at Ole Miss (Nov. 5)
Arkansas at TCU (Sept. 10)
Texas A&M at Auburn (Sept. 17)
Mississippi State at BYU (Oct. 14)
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt (Nov. 19)
Auburn at Mississippi State (Oct. 8)
Clemson at Auburn (Sept. 3)
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)