SEC FOOTBALL: Ten games that will matter the most

When it comes to football in the Southeastern Conference, there really is no week off. The league has earned its reputation for being the nation's best league from top to bottom over the years, and this year should be no different, particularly with the usual suspects looking to remain at the top along with bottom dwellers Vandy and Mississippi State figuring to be much improved.

While every game is critical, here are the ten SEC games that at least in the preseason, figure to matter most:

1. September 11, Georgia at South Carolina: This is a very dangerous game for the Poodles, who won two years ago in Columbia only on a miracle touchdown on a defensive play in the end zone by David Pollack. Georgia is favored by many experts to run the table and win the national championship this year, but there are some holes in that lineup. This is a huge first SEC game for the Poodles. It's on the road in Columbia, a venue where they have had some struggles, and it's against Lou Holtz. Over the years, there have been few coaches better at getting their team ready for a big game than Holtz. He has a new defensive coordinator in Rick Minter, the former U-Cincy coach who was on his Notre Dame staff, and he's got some good athletes on that side of the ball. Holtz is going to call the offense himself this year, so get ready for smash mouth. If South Carolina can establish the running game early and control the ball, this is potentially the first big upset of the season.

2. September 18, Florida at Tennessee: Typically, this is the first huge SEC game of the season. For the 12 years of the Steve Spurrier era at Florida, this was THE SEC game of the year. This season figures to be a measuring stick for a young team with an unlimited future (Florida) and a program trying to figure out what direction it's going in (Tennessee) after a couple of sub-par seasons and recruiting efforts that have left the Vols unusually short on speed at the skill positions and quality experience at quarterback. There will be a tremendous amount of hype because this will be the battle of the quarterbacking Leaks, Chris for Florida and older brother CJ for Tennessee. In this rare flip flop, it is the younger brother that has the edge in experience. The team that comes out of this with a win has a huge leg up on the field in the SEC East. The loser has to hope that the team that comes out of Neyland with this win loses two times the rest of the way.

3. September 18, LSU at Auburn: Last year, Auburn was supposed to be the team that would win the national championship, but instead there were five very disappointing losses. LSU, meanwhile, picked no higher than number 15 to begin the season, lost only once (Florida in Baton Rouge) and gained momentum the rest of the year en route to the Tigers first national championship since 1958. The bar of expectation is set high for LSU once again, but considerably lower for Auburn. Auburn has a new offensive coordinator, and perhaps there will be a new quarterback to replace the erratic Jason Campbell. It is no secret that Auburn will come out running, hoping to use its huge offensive line to open a few creases for Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. If Auburn gets its running game going early, this is a potential upset that could propel Auburn to a run for the SEC West championship.

4. October 2, Auburn at Tennessee: This could either be a battle of two unbeatens or two teams trying to right the ship after failure in their first big tests of the season. For Auburn, it's a roadie the week after the LSU game. If the Tigers lose to LSU, then this becomes their Waterloo game, the one that they have to have in order to factor in the SEC West championship. Even if Auburn wins, there is that chance for a huge emotional letdown. Playing two huge games back to back is never easy so there is potential for the Tigers to be drained of energy. If Tennessee loses to Florida, the Vols will have their backs to the wall and this becomes the single most important game of the season. If Tennessee is riding the momentum of a win over Florida, Auburn could be in deep linguine.

5. October 2, LSU at Georgia: They met twice last year, once in Baton Rouge and once in the SEC championship game. Both times LSU came away with the win. This year it's at Sanford Stadium and it will be the 3:30 game on CBS, so the whole nation will be watching. The preseason expectations are that both teams will come in unbeaten and ranked in the top five nationally. The Poodles are this year's media darling, the team pundits have chosen most likely to win it all, but the offensive line is the same one that allowed 47 sacks last year and the wide receivers have been known to let a few slip through the fingers. Despite some losses of personnel, LSU still has the best defensive line in the conference, an exceptional secondary and tough, fast linebackers led by Lionel Turner. It will take a flawless effort by Georgia on offense and the defense will have to avoid giving up big plays that allowed LSU to romp to a 34-13 win in the SEC championship game. If LSU neutralizes David Pollack, the Tigers will win this game.

6. October 9, Tennessee at Georgia: Mark Richt is 3-0 against Phil Fulmer and he gets the Vols in Sanford Stadium. Tennessee could be coming into this game 2-0 or 0-2 in the SEC, depending on the early season breaks. A 2-0 Tennessee team could be a very dangerous foe for the Poodles coming off the showdown with LSU the week before. Should Georgia come into the game with at least one SEC loss, this could be the game that determines the rest of the season. Two SEC losses would pretty much relegate the Poodles to hoping for miracles the rest of the way. If one of these two teams comes out of this game undefeated, there will be visions of an SEC championship and a chance to play for the national title dancing in their heads.

7. October 9, LSU at Florida: Two years ago, LSU solved the mystery of The Swamp, so expect LSU to come into this game confident it can win a game in Gainesville. The Gators hung the only L on the LSU record last year in Baton Rouge and this Florida team should be much better both offensively and defensively than that team. If the Gators win at Tennessee, they should come into this game with an unbeaten record. This game sets up well for Florida since LSU will be playing its second critical road game in a row. Will LSU have the emotion to play at the highest level two weeks in a row? Can the young Gators make a statement that the good times are back again? By this game, the youngsters on the Florida defense should be battle tested and ready to face the challenge of a team that is capable of dominating with its running game. Stuff the run and avoid turnovers on offense is the formula that Florida will need to win this one. This game could set up a rematch in the SEC championship game.

8. October 30, Florida-Georgia in Jacksonville: The Gators have won 13 of the last 14 including the last two when they were serious underdogs. Georgia has all the preseason hype and Poodle fans have hopes that this is the year for a national championship run, but winning the SEC East and the national championship require the Poodles to do something Richt has never done as a head coach: beat the Gators. What intrigues in the preseason is that both teams have the chance to come into this game unbeaten with the winner vaulting into the national championship picture. Should Georgia stumble out of the gate or in one or both of its back to back games with LSU and Tennessee, the Poodles will be even more dangerous. The same holds true for Florida, which has scored big upsets as a three-time loser coming into this game in the past two seasons. Of the ten most critical games in the SEC, at least in the preseason, this is the one that has the most potentially entertaining scenarios.

9. November 6, Florida at Vanderbilt: It's been a lot of years since Vanderbilt registered as a critical game for anyone, but this is not your typical Vandy team. The Commodores return 20 starters including Jay Cutler, one of the best quarterbacks in the country. In Gainesville, this would be a game Florida would be expected to dominate and win with a big score even if Vandy is much improved. However, it's in Nashville where the Gators typically give an underwhelming performance and it is the week after the Georgia game. If the Gators come in after a loss, Vandy could be a dagger in the heart. If the Gators come in unbeaten and after a gut-wrencher of a win in Jacksonville against the Poodles, this could shape up as a huge potential upset. This is a very dangerous game for the Gators and it could prove a chance for Bobby Johnson to show that Vandy is ready to be consistently competitive in the SEC.

10. November 13, Georgia at Auburn: The way this game has played out in recent years, the team playing on the road plays its best game of the year. If history repeated itself, the Poodles would come out of this one with a big win. No one is expecting Auburn to make a run at a national championship or at the SEC West this year, but with early games against LSU and Tennessee to give momentum, the Tigers have a decent chance to come into this game with a lot of momentum. Typically, Auburn under Tommy Tuberville will win a game that it shouldn't and lose two or three that it has no business losing. For T-Tubs, this is a season that will go a long way determining his future at Auburn University. The school has already tried to dump him once. If he comes into this game with two or three losses and loses to the Poodles, this will be the sayonara game no matter how T-Tubs does against Alabama in the season finale. However, if Auburn does the unexpected and wins one or both of those early season biggies then pulls off a win here against the Poodles, it could mean an SEC West championship and perhaps a BCS berth. For Georgia, this is the final SEC game of the season, and the Poodles could enter this game just as easily unbeaten as they could with two or three losses under their belts.

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