A pair of three-team round-robins decided the SEC divisions in 2012. They seem likely to do so again in 2013, though there are some spoilers on each side that have something to say about that.
1. Alabama at Texas A&M – Sept. 14
This game has everything a television network could want – two-time defending champion Alabama, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and a rematch of arguably the best SEC game in 2012. Texas A&M, of course, took down the Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium for its only loss of the season. Kyle Field is amped for any game day, but this one will likely overshadow everything in the program’s recent memory – including games against that other team in the state. We don’t have to wait long to see the conference’s best game of the year – and one team with lofty expectations will have a long way to make up ground on the winner.
2. South Carolina at Georgia – Sept. 7
You don’t think there’s any chance the Bulldogs remember the 35-7 shellacking they took in Columbia last year, do you? Don’t look for such a mismatch between the hedges this year. QB Aaron Murray and his potent offense will surely fare better than they did in their only regular-season loss last season. Both teams start with huge season openers – South Carolina with North Carolina and Georgia at Clemson. One of these teams could be 0-2 with a devastating divisional loss by the time Week 3 rolls around.
3. LSU at Alabama – Nov. 9
For the first time in a long time, this game isn’t a slam dunk atop the preseason top games in the SEC. LSU gave Alabama everything it could handle a year ago at Tiger Stadium before T.J. Yeldon took an A.J. McCarron screen pass in for the winning score. This year the Tide gets this game at home. When these two teams clash, it’s always a physical beatdown of a contest. Expect this season’s tilt to be no different with significant SEC West implications to hang in the balance.
4. Florida vs. Georgia, in Jacksonville, Florida – Nov. 2
The World’s Greatest Outdoor… See, I still almost did it despite Verne Lundquist lecturing me to longer refer to this rivalry as such. This game lived up to its considerable expectations a year ago. Georgia escaped with the victory thanks to a great defensive play by LB Jarvis Jones. Though many key contributors for both teams – including Jones – are gone, the Bulldogs and Gators figure to have plenty on the line when they kick off in Jacksonville.
5. Florida at South Carolina – Nov. 16
Everything seemed to break wrong for South Carolina during its visit to The Swamp last season. By game’s end the Gamecocks had seen their dreams of a special season – and of a division title – decimated. Florida, conversely, flirted with a perfect regular season – as it did with disaster in lesser games – before getting blasted in the Sugar Bowl. The three-team round-robin between South Carolina, Florida and Georgia – with LSU potentially playing spoiler against the latter two – will almost certainly dictate the SEC East representative in Atlanta.
6. Texas A&M at LSU – Nov. 23
The Tigers graduated much of a defense that held Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel in check for most of these teams’ 2012 matchup. A year later, the Aggies will come calling to Baton Rouge for the first time since 1990. This is another case of a three-team round-robin – Alabama obviously being the other – likely determining the face of the division.
7. LSU at Mississippi State – Oct. 5
One of the knocks against Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has been his inability to beat the big boys in the conference. Of course, part of that isn’t fair. He hadn’t beaten Auburn until 2012, but when the Tigers turned out to be terrible Mullen suddenly lost credit. Look out, Tigers. This has “trap game” written all over it. The Bulldogs catch LSU between huge cross-division matchups at Georgia and against Florida. This brutal stretch could make or break the Tigers’ season. It could also finally provide Mullen with the victory over an elite SEC team he seeks.
8. Texas A&M at Ole Miss – Oct. 12
Yet another epic rematch from last season sees the Aggies traveling to Oxford for the second consecutive year because of a scheduling irregularity. Kevin Sumlin’s team was fortunate to escape the Grove with a win last season. Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace will be lying in the weeds again for Texas A&M, which would be wise to devote all its attention to a dangerous Rebels team. If Ole Miss is to take the next step forward, it will need to trip up one of the big three in the SEC West. Hugh Freeze’s team gets both A&M and LSU at home in consecutive weeks, starting with the tilt against the Aggies.
9. Ole Miss at Auburn – Oct. 5
Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn have great respect for each other having climbed the high-school ranks in Arkansas. Both have now developed big names for themselves and used Arkansas State as a launching pad into SEC West jobs. There will almost certainly be no divisional implications when the Rebels and Tigers square off at Jordan-Hare Stadium. This one just has high-scoring, exciting track meet written all over it. And in a league that built its reputation on staunch defenses, this type of game can be refreshing occasionally.
10. Vanderbilt at Tennessee – Nov. 23
James Franklin has elevated expectations for the Vanderbilt program after lifting it to a nine-win season in 2012. Farther east, Butch Jones wants the Volunteers to take back the Volunteer State. This game has already taken on some interesting undertones of state dominance. Bowl eligibility could be on the line in this one, but make no mistake – the bigger stakes might involve the recruiting soul of an entire state.
Top 5 SEC Cross-Divisional Games
1. LSU at Georgia – Sept. 28
LSU QB Zach Mettenberger gets his shot at his former team when LSU opens a daunting four-game stretch that includes two matchups against SEC East teams. The Tigers could really use a strong start to that gauntlet. The Bulldogs conclude a brutal September with this game at home and might need to win to finish the first month with a better-than-.500 record.
2. Florida at LSU – Oct. 12
Even in mid-October, this game could easily erase divisional aspirations for the loser. The Gators played right into LSU’s hand last year in The Swamp – and won. Florida’s game plan to run the ball right at the Tigers’ defense and wear them down ultimately worked and LSU never solved Florida’s stout defense.
3. Ole Miss at Vanderbilt – Aug. 31
The conference’s two biggest non-Johnny Manziel feel-good stories of 2012 face off to open the 2013 season. Both former SEC doormats will enter this game liking their chances to win. Vanderbilt’s home-field advantage might be neutralized by the fact that it breaks in a new quarterback while Ole Miss returns QB Bo Wallace.
4. Mississippi State at South Carolina – Nov. 2
While the Gamecocks’ primary divisional foes both face LSU, Mississippi State provides South Carolina’s biggest non-divisional challenge in league play this year. The Bulldogs will travel to Columbia, where they will look to give Dan Mullen a signature victory.
5. Tennessee at Alabama – Oct. 26
Well, this is what you signed on for, Butch Jones. Not only do you get to face Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, you also get to play Alabama every season. The Tide should roll in this one, but big underdog Volunteers teams have given Alabama a scare in the recent past.