By Jess Nicholas
Aug. 31, 2016
Last season’s record: 84-27 (75.7%)
Last season’s SEC previews generated a rather average won-loss record for the Predictions Dept., so we’re looking to get off to a stronger start this year and improve our batting average. As usual, the top game on the opening-week slate belongs to Alabama, but Auburn faces Clemson in a strong undercard matchup, while Ole Miss battles Florida State in a game that could have playoff implications. Here’s our look at all the games for the opening week:
MASSACHUSETTS at FLORIDA
The Minutemen finished 2015 with a 3-9 record, so even given Florida’s offseason struggle to find a quarterback and playmakers at running back, expecting anything other than a Gator blowout win would be almost silly. Florida isn’t the most dynamic team in the SEC in 2016, but it doesn’t have to be to win a game like this. Watching the development of the Gators’ quarterback group will almost be more interesting than this dullard of a game itself.
NORTH CAROLINA vs. GEORGIA (at Atlanta, Ga.)
Very quietly, North Carolina put together a very respectable 11-3 season in 2015 that included the following losses: By 8 to Clemson, by 11 to Baylor and by 4 to South Carolina. Aside from the loss to South Carolina – which happened before the Gamecocks fully descended into Steve Spurrier retirement madness – there is nothing to be ashamed of here, particularly since North Carolina won 11 straight beween the South Carolina and Clemson losses. The Tar Heels are an offensive force led by a coaching staff proven to know how to find weaknesses, and Georgia is breaking in a new coach and mostly new defense. The Kirby Smart era would find itself off to a rocky start if the Tar Heels were to pull what might not be an upset after all.
North Carolina 24
SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI at KENTUCKY
Lost in the hoopla over unexpected great seasons at places like Clemson and North Carolina last year was the fact the Southern Miss Golden Eagles finished with a 9-5 record, at one point winning six straight regular season games by an average margin of 48-16. While the Golden Eagles were not national contenders, nor will they be in 2016, this was quite a turnaround for a program that had been all but left for dead during the Ellis Johnson debacle. Kentucky, therefore, finds itself with a much more potent opponent than it probably had bargained for when this game was first scheduled. Kentucky has a lot of firepower returning on offense, but the defense is shaky and the quarterback unproven. Mark Stoops needs to make a strong statement this season, and a loss to the Golden Eagles would make a much different statement than the one he’d prefer to make.
Southern Miss 27
MISSOURI at WEST VIRGINIA
There was a time last year when Dana Holgersen might have been quietly making copies of his resume. But that was before West Virginia finished by winning five of its last six games, with only a one-point loss to Kansas State sullying the record. The Mountaineers are a fast, well-coached team that can score from anywhere at any time, which is a bad matchup for a Missouri team that figures to field a better-than-average defense, but saddled with an unproductive offense. Keeping this one close would be a good goal for the Tigers; a win here would be something to truly get excited about.
West Virginia 29
SOUTH CAROLINA at VANDERBILT
The Commodores and the Gamecocks will meet in a Thursday-night SEC opener, meaning everyone in the conference will watch and we’ll have nothing to talk about for two days other than Vandy-S.C. football – and then maybe never mention these two teams again all year long. Both teams are in dire need of a win – South Carolina because the Gamecocks are seeking bowl eligibility; Vanderbilt because its coaching staff’s paychecks depend on it. It’s almost ridiculous to say the season could be over for the loser of this game, but it’s a fact. Neither team has much room for error on a quest for six wins. And if South Carolina comes out the loser, particularly if it’s by a significant margin, the catcalls from Gainesville, Fla., will be heard across four states.
South Carolina 19
APPALACHIAN STATE at TENNESSEE
Nothing against Appalachian State, which put up 11 wins against fellow bottom-feeders a year ago, but there’s a big difference between the Old Dominions and Idahos of the world and the Tennessee Volunteers. Indeed, ASU faced exactly one quality team in 2015 (Clemson), and got run out of the building. Look for similar results here.
Appalachian St. 11
LOUISIANA TECH at ARKANSAS
Like many other first-week opponents on this list, Louisiana Tech put together a solid 2015 season, winning nine games. But in its lone contest with a SEC team, Mississippi State made Louisiana Tech look out of place. The big Bulldogs beat the little Bulldogs 45-20 in that game. This is a different year, but what isn’t different are things like expected imbalance to the LaTech offense (i.e., no real running game) and a defense that can’t keep up with legitimate wide receivers. The Razorbacks may have questions at quarterback, but a veteran defense and a wide receiver corps that can embarrass substandard defensive backs adds up to one thing: Barbecued Bulldogs.
Louisiana Tech 20
CLEMSON at AUBURN
Going strictly off these Tigers’ common opponent, Alabama, Clemson should win in a walkover. But things rarely go to plan inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn’s 2010 national title team may have found its heartbeat in a nail-biter over Clemson that year, and there have been plenty of times since that an underdog Auburn team has either nearly pulled off an impossible upset, or actually did the deed. Auburn is a home underdog in this game, too, due mostly to the uncertainty at quarterback compared to the relative stardom that Clemson’s Deshaun Watson possesses. But Auburn’s defense may actually be as good as advertised – for once, at least during the Gus Malzahn tenure – at which point all bets are off.
LOUISIANA STATE vs. WISCONSIN (at Green Bay, Wisc.)
Watching Les Miles nibble on grass from the Lambeau Field sideline, by itself, ought to be worth the price of admission. But the actual game should be just as good. LSU is trying its best to get back to basics and run the ball with authority and play solid defense. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has been doing that for years. The difference between the Badgers and most SEC teams is simply one of speed, which Alabama exploited to great success in 2015. Both these teams should be ranked at year’s end, but unless Wisconsin is stowing away a bunch of track stars, look for LSU to beat the Badgers using Alabama’s playbook.
MISSISSIPPI vs. FLORIDA STATE (at Orlando, Fla.)
This will be the first major test of Hugh Freeze’s ability to get his team to stop focusing on the brewing NCAA scandal in Oxford and start focusing on winning games. Teams under investigation sometimes have trouble following the correct target, and Ole Miss has compounded the problem by agreeing to face one of the favorites to crash the playoff party at the end of the year. Last year was a disappointing season for Florida State, as the Seminoles finished 10-3 and got thumped by Houston in a bowl game. FSU has something to prove, while Ole Miss may be more concerned with keeping its head down. Look for the ACC to get the best of the SEC at least twice this opening weekend.
Florida State 30
Ole Miss 24
SOUTH ALABAMA at MISSISSIPPI STATE
The Jaguars lost three games at the end of 2015 to miss the postseason, as the fledgling program continues to deal with growing pains. Worse yet was USA’s performance against Power 5 teams, losing to Nebraska 48-9 and to North Carolina State by a score of 63-13. A rebuilding Mississippi State team probably isn’t as potent as either of those were, but the Bulldogs will compete for a spot in a postseason bowl game, and are much stronger up and down the roster than is South Alabama. This could be a good opportunity for the new Bulldog quarterback to gain confidence for the rest of the way.
Mississippi St. 41
South Alabama 17
CALIFORNIA-LOS ANGELES at TEXAS A&M
If Texas A&M is going to take a major step forward in 2016, it has to start here, against UCLA. The Bruins were supposed to be a darkhorse contender for the national title in 2015, but stumbled to an 8-5 record, never finding any consistency. Unfortunately, such a performance has been the hallmark both of UCLA as of late, and Texas A&M. The Aggies are in the process of de-spreading its offense a bit, putting a greater emphasis on a more powerful running game. But the Aggie defense is still a mess in spots, especially against the run up front. This game could very well set the tone for Texas A&M’s entire season, and unfortunately for the Aggies, UCLA tends to be stronger in the beginning of seasons.
Texas A&M 27
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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