Alabama vs. FSU headlines an SEC non-conference schedule loaded with top-flight matchups
The overwhelming theme for this year's SEC non-conference schedule will be the ongoing battle for conference supremacy it and the ACC. There are a total of nine high-profile matchups between the two powerhouse conferences, including the colossal season opener between Alabama and Florida State. Here are the SEC's best non-conference games for 2017:
1. Alabama vs. Florida State (Sept. 2 – Atlanta)
The 2017 college football season kicks off in epic fashion with a national title-caliber matchup in Atlanta's brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This highly anticipated game between two of the nation's most prestigious programs might even qualify as the greatest season opener in history. The top spot in the national rankings will be on the line to go along with conference bragging rights, and a big leg up in the race for a College Football Playoff berth.
2. Auburn at Clemson (Sept. 9)
The Auburn Tigers gave the eventual national champions a run for their money at home last season. Auburn will bank on transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham to provide the edge it needs in 2017 to exact its revenge. But even if Stidham is the real deal, it will be a tall order to get past a re-loaded Clemson team in Death Valley. Clemson has won each of the last three meetings against Auburn dating back to 2011.
3. Florida vs. Michigan (Sept. 2 – Arlington, TX)
While both of these storied programs are charged with replacing the bulk of their starters from star-studded 2016 defenses, there is no shortage of talent for either team on that side of the football. The difference might just come on offense. An inexperienced Michigan offense returns just five starters. Florida returns nine starters on offense, and Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire has the potential to finally put an end to the Gators’ woes at quarterback. The Wolverines still have more talent, but their overall lack of experience could be an Achilles heel early on.
4. Georgia at Notre Dame (Sept. 9)
Any time a team from the SEC heads to South Bend to take on the Irish, it's a big deal. This matchup is no exception. Both of these traditional powerhouses will be looking to make an early-season statement following disappointing 2016 campaigns. While Georgia and Notre Dame should both be much improved in 2017, question marks still linger for each program. This game should provide answers to many of those questions. Surprisingly, this will be just the second time ever that these two teams have met. The Bulldogs defeated the Irish 17-10 in the 1981 Sugar Bowl to claim the national championship that season.
5. Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech (Sept. 4 – Atlanta)
The early-season trend of marquee SEC vs. ACC matchups continues with this Labor Day night affair between two former rivals in Atlanta. It has been 30 years since the Volunteers and Yellow Jackets last took to the field against one another in what used to be an annual clash between two of college football's best. While Tennessee holds the overall edge in talent, Georgia Tech's triple-option offense can be a nightmare to defend. It could prove to be the great equalizer against a Vol defense that struggled mightily against the run down the stretch in 2016.
6. LSU vs. BYU (Sept. 2 – Houston)
At first glance, this doesn't appear to be a great matchup. The Tigers have a clear and significant advantage in terms of talent. Regardless, the Cougars always seem to provide even the toughest of opponents with a serious run for their money. And the fact that this game falls early in the season will only help their cause. LSU will be breaking in a bunch of new starters on both sides of the football, and a new-look offense under coordinator Matt Canada probably won't be hitting on all cylinders. This could easily be the first big upset of the season.
7. Arkansas vs. TCU (Sept. 9)
Overshadowed by the Battle at Bristol, the 2016 matchup between the Razorbacks and Horned Frogs flew under the radar as one of the most entertaining games of the season. These two former Southwest Conference rivals traded blow after blow in what ultimately culminated in a 41-38 Arkansas victory in double overtime. The 2017 rematch has the potential to be equally compelling.
8. Georgia at Georgia Tech (Nov. 25)
Each of the last four games in this long standing in-state rivalry known simply as "Clean, Old Fashioned Hate" has been decided by seven points or less. Georgia Tech has won two of the last three meetings in the series, including a hard-fought 28-27 victory last season in Athens. Both teams have lofty expectations for 2017 and bragging rights will once again be on the line. This game almost never disappoints.
9. Texas A&M at UCLA (Sept. 3)
Last year's matchup between these two historically rich programs was billed as one of the premier games of the season. It did not disappoint as the Aggies narrowly escaped at home with a 31-24 victory over the Bruins in overtime. While the 2017 edition lacks some of the initial appeal of last year's game, it should deliver once again. Both teams appear to be very evenly matched, and this is one of two SEC vs. Pac-12 matchups this season, which adds to the intrigue.
10. South Carolina vs. NC State (Sept. 2 – Charlotte, NC)
This game may not rank up there with the other monster week 1 and 2 SEC vs. ACC matchups, but it has the potential to be the best game of the bunch. Both South Carolina and NC State could be surprise teams in 2017. They also should match up quite well against one another. I don't want to go so far as to say that this under-the-radar pairing is a "can't miss” game. However, I still think you want to tune in.
11. Kentucky vs. Louisville (Nov. 25)
The Wildcats stunned the No. 11-ranked Cardinals 41-38 in Louisville last season to claim the Governor’s Cup for the first time since 2010. The 2017 matchup between these two Bluegrass State rivals has all the ingredients to turn into yet another exciting shootout. The opportunity to watch Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is alone worth the price of admission.
12. Florida vs. Florida State (Nov. 25)
The "Sunshine Showdown" hasn't exactly provided the most exciting of games in recent years. In fact, this long-standing rivalry has become fairly one-sided of late with the Seminoles winning each of the last four contests and six of the last seven, most in convincing fashion. That being said, this is still a tradition-rich rivalry that deserves respect and attention. And if the Gators can finally put a capable offense on the field, which seems plausible in 2017, this will once again be a game worth watching.
13. Mississippi State vs. BYU (Oct. 14)
Dan Mullens' Bulldogs know first-hand that BYU is a team that should not be taken lightly, losing to the Cougars on the road 28-21 in overtime last season. Mississippi State will have an opportunity to return the favor at home in 2017 in what should once again develop into a hotly-contested battle.
14. Vanderbilt vs. Kansas State (Sept. 16)
While this matchup is odd in many regards, it’s intriguing nonetheless. It also should make for an entertaining game in the opening month of the season. The two teams have met just once previously and that was back in 1984. The Commodores won that game by a score of 26-14, but that wasn’t a Bill Snyder-coached Kansas State team. These Wildcats will provide the Commodores with a significant test before heading into SEC play.
15. Ole Miss at California (Sept. 16)
The bizarro factor alone makes this a matchup worth watching. For starters, the Rebels have never faced a team from the Pac-12. It also will be the farthest they have ever traveled to face any opponent. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this game will be to see how an Ole Miss team rocked by scandal will fare in its first road test of 2017 under new leadership. We also get to see a new-look Cal team under first-year head coach Justin Wilcox.
Best of the Rest
Clemson at South Carolina (Nov. 25)
Syracuse at LSU (Sept. 23)
Appalachian State at Georgia (Sept. 2)
Kentucky at Southern Miss (Sept. 2)
Purdue at Missouri (Sept. 16)
Wofford at South Carolina (Nov. 18)
Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee (Sept. 2)
Western Kentucky at Vanderbilt (Nov. 4)
Southern Miss at Tennessee (Nov. 4)
Colorado State at Alabama (Sept. 16)
– Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.