SEC pride won't be the only thing on the line when Auburn opens its season against Washington in Atlanta
Considered one of the top football conferences in all of the land, the SEC enjoys the chance to flex its collective muscle against teams from outside its realm. Whether neutral-site clashes to open the season or decades-old rivalry games to end it, there’s something on the non-conference menu that should whet the appetite of all SEC football fans this fall.
Here are the SEC’s best non-conference games for 2018:
1. Auburn vs. Washington (Sept. 1 in Atlanta)
Week 1 games that truly set the tone in the College Football Playoff race are few and far between, but the meeting between the Tigers and Huskies may truly have an impact on the national championship chances for each program. New Mercedes-Benz Stadium has not been kind to the Tigers yet, as Auburn lost both the SEC title game and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to end the 2017 season in the venue.
Jarrett Stidham vs. Jake Browning. Gus Malzahn vs. Chris Petersen. This one has it all.
2. LSU vs. Miami (Sept. 2 in Arlington, Texas)
This is the type of non-conference clash all college football fans would sign up for more often. Two national brands will meet for just the second time in the last 30 seasons when the Tigers and Hurricanes receive the national spotlight of a Sunday night kickoff during Labor Day weekend.
It will be a pivotal opener for LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, and it will be the first time Mark Richt coaches against a SEC program since parting ways with Georgia in 2015.
3. Texas A&M vs. Clemson (Sept. 8)
Welcome to Aggieland, Jimbo Fisher. To celebrate, here’s another crack at the Clemson program that gave you fits during the last several ACC seasons while at Florida State. Fisher lost his final three games against the Tigers, which probably was a microcosm of the changing of the guard in that league.
The Aggies will cruise into this Week 2 meeting after a gimme opener against FCS opponent Northwestern State, and Kyle Field is sure to be fired up for a chance to take down the 2016 national champions and get the “Jimbo Era” off to big start.
4. Tennessee vs. West Virginia (Sept. 1 in Charlotte, N.C.)
Jeremy Pruitt will be thrown to the wolves in his Volunteer head coaching debut, facing a high-powered Dana Holgorsen offense engineered by former Florida quarterback Will Grier.
Tennessee fans will be doing their best to block out flashbacks to 2015, when a young Grier stuck a dagger in their hearts with a late fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway to help the Gators beat the Volunteers.
5. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 24)
It’s a fresh start for a rivalry game that seemingly had annual national championship implications in the not-so-distant past.
There’s a new coach on each sideline this fall, with Dan Mullen taking over at Florida and Willie Taggart at Florida State. This game not only will be for bragging rights, but also for the upper hand in the all-important Sunshine State recruiting battles. And, who knows, maybe soon it again will include national title drama, too.
6. Alabama vs. Louisville (Sept. 1 in Orlando, Fla.)
Would this game have been more fun with former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson suiting up for Louisville? Unfortunately, we’re a year too late on that wish for this Sunshine State season opener for Nick Saban’s program.
We’ve become accustomed to Alabama challenging itself against a national power, such as Florida State or USC, on a neutral site to open the season. We’re getting an ACC school at a neutral site, but with the Crimson Tide as a near four-touchdown favorite, it’s likely to lack the drama we crave.
7. Mississippi State at Kansas State (Sept. 8)
Never doubt Bill Snyder and never underestimate playing a road game in Manhattan, Kansas. The Wildcats' track record in non-conference home games is very strong.
But there are reasons for Mississippi State, which should one of the stronger teams in the SEC this season, to feel confident. Vanderbilt beat Kansas State in Nashville last season, and Auburn came away victorious as the last SEC team to visit Snyder’s home turf in 2014.
8. Ole Miss vs. Texas Tech (Sept. 1 in Houston)
Points, points, points and more points!
This neutral-site meeting between two offensive-minded coaching staffs has the potential to be a five-hour, touchdown-laden slugfest. If you love defense, turn your head. If you’re looking for Week 1 fireworks, get your popcorn ready and clear the calendar.
9. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 24)
Will Muschamp won nine games during his second season with South Carolina, which has visions of a big-time season dancing in the heads of some Gamecocks fans as quarterback Jake Bentley and top playmaker Deebo Samuel return for 2018.
But for all the things Muschamp has done right, staying competitive with Clemson has not been one yet. Outscored 90-17 during his first two games in the rivalry, the final game of Year 3 will be a real measuring stick for the Gamecocks' head coach.
10. Georgia vs. Georgia Tech (Nov. 24)
Ahh, there’s nothing quite like the “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” in the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry. But will the Yellow Jackets be able to keep up with a Bulldogs program that squashed them 38-7 on the way to a national title game appearance in Year 2 under Kirby Smart?
Georgia Tech fans would argue that the Yellow Jackets won two of the previous three games in the series and have every right to believe they’re still good enough to win this one just like the last time they went to Athens.
11. Vanderbilt at Notre Dame (Sept. 15)
Some might argue that Vanderbilt shouldn’t be scheduling this type of non-conference road trip, but as Derek Mason said at SEC Media Days, the Commodores aren’t worried about South Bend -- they play in the SEC.
Last season a non-conference win against Kansas State was the Commodores’ marquee victory. If they’re able to pull off an upset against Notre Dame in September, that may make non-SEC teams think twice about scheduling Vanderbilt in the future.
12. Missouri at Purdue (Sept. 15)
Jeff Brohm’s Boilermakers embarrassed Missouri on its own field with a 35-3 blowout last season. The Tigers get their chance to make things right in the rematch during Week 3, but they’ll have to do it on the road this time.
In what many consider to be a pivotal season for the Barry Odom regime, the outcome of this game could be a leading indicator for the direction of Year 3 for the Tigers' head coach.
13. Kentucky at Louisville (Nov. 24)
If Mark Stoops truly wants to get “over the hump” at Kentucky, regularly besting Bobby Petrino in this in-state rivalry is as important as anything that happens in the SEC East each year. The narrative around this program only changes when the Wildcats have established themselves as the dominant program in the state (both on the field and in recruiting).
Stoops is just 1-4 against the Cardinals, with the lone win coming against perhaps the strongest Louisville team he has faced in 2016.
14. Missouri vs. Memphis (Oct. 20)
Memphis has won 37 games in the last four seasons, including a 2015 victory against a then-ranked Ole Miss program and at least one win against a Power 5 program in each of the last three years. Mike Norvell has minimized the damage of Justin Fuente’s departure for Virginia Tech, and the Tigers would like nothing more than another SEC victory.
Have your attention yet, Missouri fans?
15. Arkansas at Colorado State (Sept. 8)
This game will be a good measuring stick for just how deep of a rebuild is needed for Chad Morris at Arkansas. The Week 2 road trip will match the Razorbacks up with one of the more consistent Group of 5 programs in the country, which is headed by former Georgia quarterback and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
If Arkansas wins, it could be a good sign that the Hogs are on their way to eclipsing the four-win bar set during the 2017 season.
Best of the rest:
Florida vs. Colorado State (Sept. 15)
Auburn vs. Southern Miss (Sept. 29)
Vanderbilt vs. Middle Tennessee (Sept. 1)
Alabama vs. Arkansas State (Sept. 8)
Kentucky vs. Central Michigan (Sept. 1)
South Carolina vs. Marshall (Sept. 15)
LSU vs. Louisiana Tech (Sept. 22)
Georgia vs. Middle Tennessee (Sept. 15)
Mississippi State vs. Louisiana Tech (Nov. 3)
Missouri vs. Wyoming (Sept. 8)
-- Written by Nick Cole, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has spent the previous seven years covering SEC football for SEC Country, Saturday Down South and The Tennessean. Follow him on Twitter @NickColeSports.