Hey, you know what we all missed (well, some of us missed) while we were going bananas over the World Cup? The college football offseason quietly passed that wonderful point where we go from either rehashing last year or throwing all manner of crazy stories against the wall to distract ourselves to actually, you know, talking about next season. And not in that silly MSM “here’s my post-Signing Day/pre-spring top 25 … stay tuned for my post-spring/pre-Memorial Day top 25 in two weeks” way, I mean in a “Hey, the games are only a couple of months away, let’s start talking about what’s going to happen and why college football is awesome” kind of way.
For example: Nico’s post at RBR naming five nonconference games he’s excited about seeing. Those are some sweet match-ups he’s highlighted; Virginia Tech trying to singlehandedly ruin Boise St.’s season and LSU’s previously spluttertastic offense trying to score on UNC’s NFL-ready D have me salivating already.
But as cool as those games will be, you know what’s got me really fired up? Not just salivating but positively frothing at the mouth? The SEC, as always. So building on Nico’s post, here’s five in-conference matchups (aside from Auburn’s) that I feel like I ought to already have marked out on the calendar. Enjoy:
THE TOP FIVE
1. Georgia at South Carolina, Sep. 11. If there’s any single overarching narrative to the 2010 SEC season, it’s this: Is anyone going to challenge Alabama and Florida? Two years ago the narrative was the Tide and Gators’ stunning surge to dominance, and last year’s was the teams’ deathgrip and collision course. But if one year of hegemony is interesting and two equals grudging respect, a third is just boring. I can’t imagine any neutral fan either within or without the SEC is all that fired up about those two teams chugging along to a rubber match, any more than NFL fans of the ’90s wanted to see the Cowboys and Bills play a third straight Super Bowl.
So who might upset the proverbial apple cart? On paper, the West is a total scrum, with Arkansas, LSU, and Auburn all harboring reasonable ambitions of becoming the Tide’s biggest challenger, and both Mississippi schools plenty capable of having a say when all is said and done. But the East? Unless Derek Dooley is a miracle worker, we’re only going to be two weeks into the season when we find out who’ll be the only team capable of stealing Florida’s ticket to Atlanta: whichever team wins the Carolina-Georgia meeting. Given the difficulty of each team’s SEC slate and the unlikelihood of the loser both making up a de facto two-game deficit to the winner and overcoming the Gators, it’s safe to say that whichever teams winds up on the wrong side of this game is already out of the divisional running.
So the stakes are already high enough. There’s a few other reasons this game should be a thriller:
— There’s no favorite. Carolina returns everyone, everyone, who wasn’t Eric Norwood, could actually have a running game behind Marcus Lattimore, and is at home. Georgia is the more talented team top-to-bottom, could boast the league’s most consistent offense between that line and A.J. Green, and will own a substantial advantage on special teams. From here, it’s a coinflip.
— If they’re anything like their respective fanbases, these teams don’t like each very much.
— They like playing close games, as the last three have been decided by 15 points total and 7 of the last 9 by a touchdown or less.
Again: it’s all happening in Week 2. Thanks, league office.
2. Mississippi St. at LSU, Sept. 18. You ask me, with Spurrier likely to take a step forward with his ’09 rebuilding year behind him, no SEC coach is on a hotter seat than Les Miles. LSU might have won 9 games a year ago, but they didn’t actually play any better than they did in their 7-5 2008 disaster, unless you think having Tyson Lee throw the game away at the goalline or Jedi mind tricking officials into flagging A.J. Green is a sign of quality. It’s easy to see LSU slipping back to seven or even six wins; would Miles survive that kind of season?
He’ll have to start by beating a State team that had his entirely dead to rights if not for a fluky fourth-quarter punt return and Lee’s brain flatulence with the game on the line. Dan Mullen had his bunch running the ball with damn near impunity by the end of last year, and if Anthony Dixon’s gone, so are the first-season adjustments and Lee’s uncertainty. LSU, meanwhile, said goodbye to both starting defensive tackles. I’m telling you now: State’s going to get theirs on the ground.
State, overall, was a team that was better than their record last year and should have only gotten better this offseason. LSU was a team much worse than their record that may or may not have improved depending on how quickly the new defensive linemen get up to speed, how much Chad Jones meant to the secondary, whether they can get the ball into Russell Shepard’s hands often enough, etc. This is one Miles can’t afford to lose … and might lose anyway. It’s one Mullen doesn’t need to confirm that he’s too good to stay in Starkville all that long … but he might get it all the same.
3. Alabama at Arkansas, Sept. 25. There’s no spot on the Tide’s roster weaker than its secondary. There’s also no team on their schedule more capable of attacking that weakness than the Hogs. Mallett’s overrated, but he’s been far better at home, and in any case D.J. Williams, Joe Adams, Greg Childs, and Jarius Wright–oh, and Bobby Petrino–are not.
The home team will have to score a lot of points to keep up with the pinball numbers they’re likely to give up to Ingram, McElroy, and Co. But if any team in the first 11 weeks of ‘Bama’s schedule is capable of attacking the Tide’s weakest point and scoring enough to put them in real trouble, it’s Arkansas.
4. Alabama vs. Florida, Oct. 2. As I said, when it comes to the SEC championship game, I’d rather see almost anything else: Alabama vs. Georgia, Arkansas vs. Florida, LSU vs. Carolina, whatever. (Auburn vs. anyone would be the bets possible matchup, of course, but I’m trying to respond as a neutral.)
But that doesn’t mean this isn’t the most immediately tantalizing (non-Auburn) SEC game on the slate. Until definitively proven otherwise, these are the two best teams in the league, and I have a sneaky suspicions the Florida offense v. Alabama defense pairing is goign to be a lot more even than it was last year. C’mon: you know you’re going to be watching. (If you could go just a hair lighter on the hype, though, media types, that’d be appreciated.)
5. LSU at Arkansas, Nov. 27. LSU likes playing close games against virtually everyone, but after last year’s 21-point drubbing of Auburn (sigh), it’s safe to say there’s no one they like going down to the wire against right now more than the Hogs. Average score of the past three meetings? Arkansas 37, LSU 37, in 1.3 overtimes. Neither side has won by more than five points since 2004. My personal expectation is that the Hogs are going to have a much better team than the Bayou Bengals this season, but I also don’t expect it to matter this particular week; it’s going down to the wire. (That LSU’s got maybe the best pair of corners in the league in Peterson and Eugene won’t hurt.)
Besides, there’s a trophy involved, and what red-blooded American college football fan doesn’t like that?
Georgia vs. Florida/South Carolina at Florida: One of these games is probably going to decide the SEC East. Don’t know which yet–that’s what No. 1 is for–but one of them. And Florida’s probably down just enough and the Dawgs and ‘Cocks up just enough that unlike the last two years, there’s no foregone conclusions.
Kentucky at Tennessee: If I was a ‘Cat fan, I’d have torn my hair out by now–UK has gone through its best stretch in decades, maybe ever, while the Vols have been mostly flailing … and the now-25-year UT streak remains intact. Maybe this is the year?
Mississippi St. at Florida: If Florida’s going to have their traditional letdown against a lightly-regarded SEC West opponent, this is the one. The Mullen vs. Meyer subplot remains juicy, too.