1. Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 13: If South Carolina knocks off Texas A&M in the season opener and follows that up with a win over Georgia, the Gamecocks will establish themselves as a clear favorite to make it to Atlanta from the SEC East. It’s the first SEC game of the season for Georgia, which has lost the last three times it has faced the Gamecocks in Columbia.
2. Florida at Alabama, September 20: This game is huge for both teams. For the Gators, it’s their first serious test after opening the season with three cupcakes. If the Gators can trade punches with the mighty Tide without getting kayoed, it will be a sign of good things to come. If Alabama blows the Gators out, it’s a sign that the Crimson Tide is as good as advertised, but what happens if the Gators turn this into a white knuckler? The final outcome of this game could have a lingering effect on the psyche of both teams.
3. Mississippi State at LSU, September 20: Mississippi State hasn’t knocked off a ranked team since beating #22 Florida, 10-7, in 2010. Since then the Bulldogs are 0-15 against teams from the top 25. They believe they are going to contend for the SEC West title this year. If they’re going to be a factor, they have to beat some ranked teams along the way. The first one will be LSU in Tiger Stadium, not exactly the nicest place to start a title run, but if the Bulldogs win they will have to be taken seriously. As for LSU, the Tigers might be better than anyone expects.
4. Wisconsin vs. LSU (Houston), August 30: It’s going to be like a home game for the Tigers, who have sold the majority of the seats in Reliant Stadium. This LSU team has more questions than any in recent memory, but if they shut down Wisconsin’s powerful running game, that will provide a lot of answers about the defense. If freshman tailback Leonard Fournette is as good as advertised and busts loose in game one, then figure LSU is going to be formidable.
5. Auburn at Kansas State, September 18: Auburn will have to get out to a first half lead. Why? K-State is 165-5 under Bill Snyder when leading at the half. There are more than a few insiders who feel Auburn is a vastly superior team to the one that came within 13 seconds of winning a national championship last year. This will be the first road game for Auburn and it’s at one of the toughest places to win in the country. Even though this is a non-conference game, we’ll have a good idea when this is over if the Tigers are going to be contenders or pretenders.
#2 ALABAMA: Alabama might have the most impressive stable of running backs in the country, but they are coming off a season in which they developed a reputation as fumblers. Last season T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake combined to cough up the ball nine times, seven of which were recovered by the defense. Yeldon, who has gained more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa says ball security has been “the main emphasis” for running backs so far in August ... Chris Herrin, who battled drug addiction throughout his college and professional basketball careers, was brought in as a motivational speaker. “Just listened to the best speaker I’ve ever heard in my life,” tweeted Corey McCarron.
Arkansas: Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney says the Razorbacks won the run game in Saturday’s scrimmage 15 of 17 plays. That means they converted on third-and-one or got four or more yards on first-and-10 ... Frank Ragnow is pushing returning starter Mitch Smothers for the center job ... Running back Jonathan Williams returned to practice Monday.
#6 AUBURN: Defensive end Corey Lawson, who tore an ACL at the end of spring practice, could be back this season. “He’s way ahead of schedule but I would say half a season would be optimistic,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson told Sirius XM’s College Sports Today ... Replacing Lawson in the pass rush has been a focus in camp. Gabe Wright, Montavious Adams and Cassanova McKinzy are all taking snaps at defensive end to try to generate more pressure on the quarterback.
#12 GEORGIA: The Bulldogs took Sunday and Monday off after getting in 19 practices in the first 16 days of August. When they return to practice today, they’ll devote full attention to the season-opener with Clemson ... Georgia flipped defensive tackle Jonathan Ledbetter, who was committed to Alabama. That Georgia signed his older brother Joseph to a football scholarship might have had a teensy bit of influence on the flip. Joseph is a former NCAA Division II basketball player who came to UGA’s version of Friday Night Lights and tried out as a tight end.
Kentucky: Redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles (6-5, 238) was named the starting quarterback for the Wildcats Monday. Towles completed 19-40 passes last season for 223 yards and a touchdown last season. Towles beat out Drew Barker, Reese Phillips and Maxwell Smith for the job. Tweeted head coach Mark Stoops, “This competition has brought out the best in our quarterbacks and I’m confident in Patrick moving our team forward.”
#13 LSU: Freshman defensive tackle Travonte Valentine (6-6, 330) was finally cleared by the NCAA. He was rated one of the top five defensive tackles in the country in the class of 2014. Valentine begins practice Tuesday ... Kendell Beckwith is making a serious challenge for the #1 middle linebacker job ... Redshirt defensive tackle Frank Herron, called “a beast” by head coach Les Miles is simply called “The Man” by center Elliott Porter.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: Middle linebacker Bernardrick McKinney (6-4, 245), who is listed by ESPN.com as the #2 underclassman eligible for the 2015 NFL Draft, and defensive tackle Chris Jones (6-5, 300) have a lot to do with the high expectations for a Mississippi State defense that finished fourth in the SEC in total defense last season. McKinney has 173 tackles in two seasons. Jones had 32 tackles as a freshman last season including 7.0 tackles or loss and 3.5 sacks. “On our team, the number one priority will be stopping the run,” said defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. That’s what we want to do first and foremost.”
#24 Missouri: Head coach Gary Pinkel welcomed afternoon practices as the Tigers get ready for the heat of three consecutive day games to start the season, “I’m glad we’re getting the heat,” Pinkel said after Monday practice. “We’ve just got to get a little more mentally tough and work through it” ... Senior wide receiver Jimmie Hunt is listed day-to-day after a hamstring pull Monday. Corner John Gibson (hamstring), running back Morgan Steward (hip), wide receiver Gavin Otte (high ankle sprain) and wide receiver Eric Laurent (broken finger/hamstring) are not practicing.
#18 Ole Miss: A point of emphasis in fall camp was improving a pass rush that produced 1.54 sacks per game last season, 12th in the SEC and 96th in the nation. Ole Miss thinks a good bit of improvement in that area will come from defensive end C.J. Johnson, who had 6.5 sacks in 2012 but missed the final nine games of 2013 with an injury. Johnson is healthy and starting to look like his old self ... Expectations are also high for freshman Marquis Haynes, who is #1 at the end opposite Johnson.
#9 SOUTH CAROLINA: Starting offensive guard Mike Matulis has been diagnosed with a left knee sprain. He will be re-evaluated in two weeks. “They’re going to try to treat him for awhile and not operate,” head coach Steve Spurrier said. The hope in Columbia is that Matulis will be able to return by midseason ... Sophomore corner Jamari Smith broke a foot in Saturday’s scrimmage and will miss the 2014 season ... Despite losing Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles to the NFL, defensive line coach Deke Adams is very pleased with the level of talent and outstanding depth.
Tennessee: With so many freshmen on the roster, head coach Butch Jones talked Monday about how fall camp wore down many of his youngsters. “We are still a work in progress from the maturity standpoint,” Jones said. “We knew this and it wasn’t any surprise to us. These are 17-year-olds going through their first training camp. It’s having that mental toughness to fight through the conditioning and fatigue.”
#21 Texas A&M: Now that sophomore Kenny Hill has been declared the starter at quarterback, all he has to do is fill the shoes of Johnny Manziel, who produced 9,989 yards of total offense and 93 touchdowns the last two years ... Unofficial capacity for Kyle Field, which is halfway through its renovation (second half before next season) will be 109,000 this season. When renovation is complete, capacity will be 103,000.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores finish preseason camp Tuesday and begin classes on Monday ... Captains for 2014 are Joe Townsend (offense), Kyle Woestman (defense) and Andrew East (special teams) ... Head coach Derek Mason called Monday “a cleanup day” for practice, just trying to work correct a few mistakes before starting game preparation for the season-opener with Temple.
Braxton Miller’s Heisman Trophy hopes and Ohio State’s hopes to make the college football final four might be in serious jeopardy. Miller injured his surgically repaired right (throwing) surgery Monday per The Columbus Dispatch. The Buckeyes are 24-2 the last two seasons with Miller taking the snaps and accounting for 64 touchdowns running and throwing. Without Miller, Michigan State will be the clear favorite to win the Big Ten.
Former Vanderbilt point guard Kyle Fuller is writing a book with Vandy graduates Eric Schulman and Jerry Castro about the prevalence of drugs, sex and parties to agents offering money to players under the table. It sounds controversial and candid except that Fuller will not be naming names. “I’m not going to put any of my teammates out there like that ... I’m not dissing Vandy in any way.” If Fuller isn’t going to get specific and name names, then this book is no threat to the New York Times bestseller list.
Even before the ramifications of the Ed O’Bannon trial, which might include paying players a stipend, Hawaii is seriously considering dropping the sport. The Rainbow Warriors project a $2 million deficit for 2014 ... Stud running back Joe Mixon entered a plea of not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of assault Monday, but that won’t get him on the field at Oklahoma. He’s been suspended for the entire season and will have to jump through some hoops to get back on the team in the spring ... Kudos to Notre Dame for having the integrity to suspend four key players while it investigates allegations of academic fraud dating back to 2012 ... Apparently Bobby Petrino and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham are feuding, which is not a good sign considering Grantham has a guaranteed five-year, $1 million a year contract.
If you had to rate the top five rivalry games in the SEC, what would they be?
Not only do The Blank Tapes look like refugees from the 1960s, but their music comes across as a hybrid of The Beach Boys, Doors and Jefferson Airplane. Lead guitar/singer Matt Adams writes all their material and claims to have a thousand songs he’s written stored in his head. This is “Look into the Light” which would have played great in Golden Gate Park during the summer of love.