A Look at the Non-Conference Game each SEC Team Should Not Take Lightly
OXFORD, Miss. – There is little doubt the teams in the Southeastern Conference have tough schedules because, well, they must play each other eight times a season.
But, knowing they have to play every other team in their division, plus two other league games, could cause SEC teams to look past their out-of-conference opponents. Could teams from outside the conference upset an SEC team this season?
Here is a look at the non-SEC teams each league squad should not take lightly.
Sure, everyone is looking at the Sept. 10 game at Texas where the Crimson Tide will face former Bama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. But there is a game before the game in Austin and the Tide had better not look past it.
Alabama opens the season at Bryant-Denny Stadium against Utah State. Sure, the Aggies are stuck up in Logan, Utah – and to find that place, simply go to Idaho and turn around and you’re there – But Utah State can be dangerous. Last season, the Aggies were 11-3 and beat a pair of Pac-12 teams on the road.
The wild card in this situation is this is the season-opener for Alabama, but Utah State plays UConn the week prior. All coaches say teams make their biggest improvement from game one to game two of the season.
The Razorbacks open with Cincinnati, but the Bearcats are not going to be nearly as good as they were last year. Arkansas might want to be a little weary of a mid-October trip to Brigham Young.
BYU is always going to have talent and the game is in the altitude at Provo, Utah and that could be a problem for the Hogs.
The game is also after Arkansas plays Alabama and has a trip to Mississippi State. The Razorbacks could be a tad beaten up heading to the Rocky Mountains after those two.
The Tigers host Penn State Sept. 17, but practically everyone in Lee County, Ala., knows to be looking at that one with caution.
A game that might slip under the radar for Auburn comes in November against Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are always dangerous and will have West Virginia transfer Jarret Doege at quarterback. He is the active leader in college football in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
Also, WKU goes to Jordan-Hare a week after the Tigers host Texas A&M and a week before the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa.
Oh yeah, it is the Urban Meyer Bowl to start the season against Utah. Gator fans are making a lot of noise about the Utes not being able to handle the heat and humidity in Gainesville, so they believe the game will be easy.
But the game is at 7 p.m. local time, so the second half will be cooler because it will take place after dark. That and it is the first game of the season, so Utah will be in the best physical shape of the year after finishing fall camp.
Utah, and some people forget this, won the Pac-12 last year, destroying Oregon in the title game. The Utes lost the Rose Bowl to Ohio State by a field goal and probably should have won that one. Still, Utah finished 10-4. Welcome to town, Coach Napier.
The defending national champion should be the favorite in each of its games this season. But the Bulldogs should be wary of the season opener against Oregon.
The game is in Atlanta, so the heat will not be a factor for the Ducks after traveling from the Pacific northwest. Auburn transfer Bo Nix will be the Oregon quarterback, so he can let his new teammates know what to expect from an SEC venue.
Besides, what other out-of-conference game might even give Georgia a challenge? The other teams on the schedule are Samford, Kent State and Georgia Tech.
Kentucky has a pair of games to look out for, but one is Louisville, and the Cards are a natural rival. It is doubtful Wildcats’ coach Mark Stoops will let his team go into that one unmotivated.
Northern Illinois comes to Lexington in late September and the Huskies did win the Mid-American Conference last year.
The Huskies will also not be intimidated. A while back, NIU went into Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama.
In addition, UK has a trip to Oxford to play Ole Miss the next week.
This is an easy pick – the opener against Florida State. Sure, the game is in New Orleans, but as a neutral game the tickets were split evenly, and FSU has sold out its allotment. So much for a home game Tigers.
This will be the debut of Brian Kelly, but not for the Seminoles. FSU has a tune-up the week before against Duquesne. That will give the Noles a chance to get the kinks out before heading to the Big Easy.
Florida State coach Mike Norvell is on a tad bit of a hot seat, but his players seem to love playing for him.
That should provide a little incentive for the Seminoles to give Norvell his first signature win.
The Bulldogs have a sneaky one to start the season when Memphis comes to Starkville.
The Tigers were 6-6 last year, received a Hawaii Bowl bid, but that game was cancelled. They also won against MSU last year, although on a fluke play.
This one is also being played a week before the Bulldogs make a long trip to Arizona to take on the Wildcats.
The one the Tigers need to approach with caution is a familiar team. Mizzou’s second game is at Kansas State, a former Big 12 rival.
The Wildcats won eight games last season and routed LSU in the Texas Bowl.
One thing in Mizzou’s favor is the game is sandwiched between hosting Louisiana Tech and Abilene Christian, so the Tigers should be healthy.
The Rebels start the season with Troy – not an easy way to begin the season – but the non-conference game that could be most daunting is Georgia Tech. It will be Ole Miss’ first game on the road and it comes two weeks before the conference opener against Kentucky.
Tech opens the season against Clemson, and five days later, has the chance to get healthy against Western Carolina.
Georgia Tech is overshadowed by its in-state rival in Athens and only won three games last season, but the Rambling Wreck still has talent and could catch lightning in a bottle at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Of course, the easy answer here is Clemson. In fact, it is too easy and therefore the wrong answer. There is no way South Carolina could overlook the Tigers.
Carolina could, however, look past the opener against Georgia State. The Panthers have improved each year and they do a good job of keeping a lot of Atlanta players at home.
And ask Tennessee fans, Georgia State can come into an SEC stadium and win.
One thing in the Gamecocks’ favor is the next week GSU hosts North Carolina and that might be in the back of the Panthers’ mind should Carolina take an early lead.
In week two, the Vols head north to play Pitt. Last year, the Panthers won 11 games, including a 41-34 victory over UT in Knoxville.
This is going to be an early season indicator of how the Tennessee year will go. With a win, the Volunteers are off and running. With a loss, it will be tough to have a great season with Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU and Alabama on the schedule.
But Tennessee opens with Ball State while Pitt starts with a rivalry game against West Virginia. UT could catch the Panthers riding high after a big win or near rock bottom after a loss.
Miami comes to College Station Sept. 17, but no team in its right mind could possibly look past the Hurricanes. In fact, the Aggies may get caught looking ahead a week earlier when a dangerous Appalachian State team comes calling.
The Mountaineers won the Sun Belt Conference eastern division title last year and earned a bowl bid after winning ten games.
One of Appalachian State’s losses was by two points at Miami. The Mountaineers also have a history of knocking off the big boys on the road – just ask Michigan.
But this is a sandwich game for Ap State. It comes a week after hosting North Carolina and beginning league play against Troy.
The Commodores seem to be playing their “bowl” game early by starting the season at Hawaii.
Hawaii went 6-7 last year and only lost by a touchdown to Mountain West Conference champ, San Diego State.
What could catch Vandy is the trip. Honolulu is a long way from Nashville and let’s face it, a trip to Hawaii in August seems like a vacation.
If the Commodores concentrate on surfboards more than on scoreboards, it will be a spoiled vacation.
Steve Barnes joins The Rebel Walk staff as a senior writer and brings a trifecta of journalistic experience. As a writer, he has covered college sports for Rivals.com, Football.com and SaturdayDownSouth.com as well as served as a beat writer for various traditional newspapers.
He has been a broadcaster for arena football and several national tournament events for the National Junior College Athletic Association as well as hosting various shows on radio.
A former sports information director at Albany (Ga.) State University and an assistant at Troy and West Florida, he has helped host many NCAA conference, regional and national events, including serving five years on the media committee of the NCAA Division II World Series.
Barnes, a native of Pensacola, Fla., attended Ole Miss in 1983-84, where his first journalism teacher was David Kellum. The duo has come a long way since that time.
He will bring a proven journalistic track record, along with a knack for finding the out-of-the-ordinary story angles to The Rebel Walk.
Barnes continues to reside in Pensacola a mere ten minutes from the beach because he does have taste and a brain.