The SEC has done its part once again in scheduling marquee non-conference opponents.
In fact, thanks to the SEC, and the other Power Five conferences, 2016 may feature the greatest week one slate of games in the history of college football. It’s certainly the best opening weekend in recent memory. Really, if you didn’t know better, you might think it was January with this kind of quality.
But it’s not just early September. There are several games throughout the season that should prove to be entertaining. Here are the SEC’s best non-conference games for 2016:
1. Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Bristol, Tenn. – Sept. 10)
If everything goes as planned, this will be the biggest college football game ever. Well, at least from an attendance standpoint. Officials at Bristol Motor Speedway are expecting at least 140,000 people to show up for this game. There has been some speculation that attendance could be as high as 160,000. It’s crazy to think about, but this is a game that both fan bases have wanted for a long time.
2. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Lambeau Field, Sept. 3)
There are only a few true palaces in football. It will always be subjective when arguing the beauty of the Rose Bowl versus that of “The Big House,” Soldier Field or Neyland Stadium. But most college football die-hards would agree that Lambeau Field is near the top of that list. This game should be an unbelievable neutral-site spectacle. LSU athletic director Joe Alleva probably put it best when he called this one “a bucket-list type game.”
3. Ole Miss vs. Florida State (Orlando, Fla. – Sept. 5)
Ole Miss and Florida State have met only once before on the gridiron, way back in 1961. The Rebels won that game 33-0. This neutral-site matchup in Orlando, Fla., is intriguing for a number of reasons. First, we should find out pretty early what Florida State is all about. Some think the Seminoles are deserving of a No. 1 ranking. But also, we will see how bad the drop-off is for Ole Miss after an exodus of talent from last season. Will Chad Kelly have to carry the offense by himself?
4. Alabama vs. USC (Arlington, Texas – Sept. 3)
For starters, this is a matchup of two of college football’s most prestigious programs – Alabama and USC. These two schools have combined for approximately 27 national titles (give or take a couple depending on how many you allow Alabama fans to claim). Remarkably, the Trojans and Crimson Tide have only met seven times on the gridiron, with Alabama holding a 5-2 series advantage. The teams last played in 1985, so it will be nice to see such storied history clash on the field once again.
5. Georgia vs. North Carolina (Atlanta – Sept. 3)
This seems to be one of the popular upset picks for week one. It could happen, especially if Georgia’s top two running backs aren’t able to go. Both teams will be looking for stability at the quarterback spot, so you would think the team that is able to run the ball efficiently will have an advantage. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel would be the best bet, if they are healthy, but the Tar Heels have a fantastic running back of their own in Elijah Hood. This one could be a classic to kick off the season.
6. Clemson at Auburn (Sept. 3)
Another popular upset pick, this game isn’t quite as easy to figure out. If Auburn plays to its full potential in week one, anything could happen. The Tigers certainly has talent, but Clemson is coming off a near-miss national championship season. The ACC’s Tigers have the most dynamic quarterback in football in Deshaun Watson, but traveling to Jordan-Hare Stadium won’t be easy. Clemson has won the last two meetings between the teams.
7. Arkansas at TCU (Sept. 10)
The Razorbacks haven’t looked great early in the season under Bret Bielema. By November, they seem to be unstoppable, but lack that intensity in September. Arkansas will be tested early when it travels to Fort Worth to take on TCU. The Horned Frogs could be one of the surprise teams out of the Big 12 this season. This game also has historical value. These two programs used to battle it out in the old Southwest Conference. This will be the first meeting between the Razorbacks and Horned Frogs since 1991.
8. UCLA at Texas A&M (Sept. 3)
Josh Rosen seems poised for a big year with the Bruins. This may finally be the season that UCLA takes the next step, but we’ll find out early if the boys from Los Angeles are for real when they head east into the brutal Texas heat to take on the Aggies. Texas A&M has a few more questions at quarterback, but looks to have a solid option in Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight. This will be a big momentum boost for the winner.
9. Missouri at West Virginia (Sept. 3)
The high-octane, high-flying offense of the Big 12 meets one of the SEC’s best defenses in this week one contest. That will certainly be the matchup to watch. If West Virginia puts up 40 points, turn out the lights, because Mizzou likely will struggle to score touchdowns. But if the Tigers’ defensive line wreaks havoc up front, the Mountaineers could be in big trouble. Regardless, couches will be burning.
10. Vanderbilt at Georgia Tech (Sept. 17)
This game is pivotal for a Vanderbilt team that will be fighting to get back to a bowl game this fall. The Commodores have a lot of winnable games on the schedule, and this is one of them. But we just don’t know how good Georgia Tech will be. The Yellow Jackets finished 3-9 last season, yet knocked off Florida State. Chances are, they’ll be improved, but will the triple option work against a solid Vanderbilt run defense?
11. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26)
Moving to rivalry week now, the annual battle for the Sunshine State could be interesting. Last year, the Gators mustered only two points against the Seminoles. It was sad to watch, honestly. Hopefully, Florida will have more offense to show this year, because the Gators probably will need it against a talented Florida State defense. The Seminoles have won five of the previous six meetings in the series.
12. Mississippi State at BYU (Oct. 14)
This game just seems weird in so many ways. First off, it’s on a Friday night. Second, it’s right in the middle of the season, whereas usually key non-conference games are at the beginning and the end of the season. Regardless of the “when,” the Bulldogs will go on the road to take on a more-than-capable BYU team that pulled off some big upsets last season. This will be third meeting all-time between Mississippi State and BYU.
13. Georgia Tech at Georgia (Nov. 26)
Despite having a first-year head coach, Georgia should be a contender in the SEC East this season. The Bulldogs’ schedule sets up very well inside the conference, but they do have two tough matchups against the ACC. There’s the previously-mentioned game against North Carolina, plus this annual rivalry bout with Georgia Tech. This game is typically close, regardless of which team is having the better year.
14. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 26)
The main reason this one is interesting is because of the unusual talent disparity. South Carolina doesn’t have much to work with, and Clemson is absolutely loaded. With all the sarcastic beatdowns delivered by Steve Spurrier’s teams in recent memory, how bad will Clemson want to destroy the Gamecocks in the final week of the regular season? The Tigers could once again have plenty on the line.
15. Georgia Southern at Ole Miss (Nov. 5)
No, I didn’t just pick a random Sun Belt team. Hear me out. Georgia Southern returns a ton of talent from a team that took Georgia to overtime in Athens last November. Not to mention, this team blasted a very good Bowling Green team in the GoDaddy Bowl, 58-27. Ole Miss’ three games before this one: at Arkansas, at LSU, vs. Auburn. The Rebels could be a little banged up and might be looking to take the weekend off. Just sayin’.
Best of the Rest
Kentucky at Louisville (Nov. 26)
Appalachian State at Tennessee (Sept. 1)
Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky (Sept. 24)
Arkansas State at Auburn (Sept. 10)
Mississippi State at UMass (Sept. 24)
Memphis at Ole Miss (Oct. 1)