SEPT. 17, TENNESSEE AT FLORIDA: This is the first SEC game of the Urban Meyer era and what better way to take the plunge than against Tennessee, likely to be ranked second in the nation? Tennessee is loaded and has the talent necessary to run the table, but remember, Phil Fulmer has had the horses before and come up empty handed. He seems to coach best when he has teams that aren't quite as highly regarded as this one. He's got a secondary that is a total unknown at three of the four positions facing a Florida team that can put four wideouts that can all take it to the house on the field at the same time. Also, this is the SEC's first look at the Meyer spread option offense. Wouldn't you rather be the SECOND team to get a look at it rather than the first? Yes, Florida has two games prior to the UT game, but don't expect Meyer to show all his cannons against Wyoming and Louisiana Tech. Tennessee, however, will see it all. A Florida win puts the 800-pound gorilla on Tennessee's back for the rest of the season. A Florida loss and we will see if the honeymoon period for Urban Meyer is officially over.
SEPT. 24, TENNESSEE AT LSU: Should Tennessee lose to Florida the week before, the question is how quickly can the Vols rebound from the disappointment? What makes this game so interesting is the possibility that by the third game of the season the Vols could be battling for that all-important slot in the Peach Bowl. If the Vols beat Florida, then they're going up against an LSU team that has had their number in recent years. By game's end, Tiger fans will have a good idea if "Les Is More" in 2005. If Coach Les Miles loses this one, he's going to find out first hand how much passion Tiger fans have for LSU football. They like him now but if he loses, he will be skewered by fans and the media alike. You have to like LSU in this one since it's at home.
OCT. 1, FLORIDA AT ALABAMA: This might be the scariest game on the Florida schedule. Alabama returns nine starters from the nation's second best defense and the Tide's defense is coached by Joe Kines, who's been around the block so many times that you can bet he will have a few wrinkles designed to give Florida's spread option fits. Kines can do a few things no other team on Florida's schedule can do because Alabama may be the only team in the southeast with four starting defensive backs who can all cover man to man. If Alabama can cover the four wideouts man to man and find a way to neutralize the fifth receiver, then this one could be a real struggle. Alabama will play its pound it and throw it over the top offense. The Tide game plan is simple. Keep pounding the ball between the tackles and when the safeties creep up throw it deep over the top. With a healthy Brodie Croyle at quarterback, it's a strategy that actually works. Of course, the key is can Croyle stay healthy. He's never done it before. In a lot of ways, this looks like the scariest game on the Florida schedule.
OCT. 8, GEORGIA AT TENNESSEE: This is Georgia's first serious SEC encounter and it's on the road at Neyland. Tennessee must come into this game no worse than one SEC loss if the Vols intend to have a shot at the SEC East title. There is also the chance that Tennessee enters the game with two SEC losses. An unbeaten Tennessee team will be playing with plenty of confidence but with one or two losses? Confidence in the SEC can be a very fragile thing. Georgia has proven in the four years of Mark Richt that it won't be intimidated on the road, particularly at Neyland Stadium where he's already won twice. Where the Bulldogs may have an edge is between Richt's ears. He's shown in the past four years that he's better than Fulmer in the games that mean the most.
OCT. 15, FLORIDA AT LSU: The last time the Gators were in Baton Rouge, Chris Leak was a true freshman and everyone figured the Gators were going to get hammered. Well, a funny thing happened on that Saturday afternoon. Leak played lights out and the Gators beat LSU 19-7, the only loss the Tigers suffered on their way to SEC and national championships. Leak's a junior now and a much better quarterback than he was in 2003. Florida is also a much better team than it was two years ago. So much is in Florida's favor including the start time, which will be 3:30. The Tigers are always far more formidable when the light is artificial than when the sun is out as it will be on this day. In LSU's favor is new defensive coordinator Bo Pellini who has a blitz till they barf mentality. He's got speed and athletes to put a very disruptive team on the field. Figure Urban Meyer will be studying the tapes of Southern Cal's dismantling of Oklahoma in last year's Orange Bowl. That was a Pellini defense that Southern Cal wiped out. This could be the national game of the week if both teams come into the game unbeaten.
OCT. 22, AUBURN AT LSU: Talk about favorable schedules, this is Auburn's first tough game of the season and it comes the week after LSU plays Florida. An LSU team that's been beaten up and kicked around a little bit in SEC encounters with Tennessee and Florida could find itself reeling against an Auburn team that may have the league's best defensive team. A win in Baton Rouge will put Auburn in prime position to win the SEC Western Division, not to mention vault high in the national polls. The real advantage for Auburn in this game is that quarterback Brandon Cox will already have six games under his belt so he won't be so intimidated by LSU's big, fast defense or its huge crowd. However, if LSU comes into this game unbeaten, this could be a feeding frenzy atmosphere, the kind that favors a home team that is very talented.
OCT. 22, TENNESSEE AT ALABAMA: Every Alabama fan anywhere in the world has had this game circled on the calendar for two years. In Bama-speak, Phil Fulmer is the Anti-Christ. Tide fans know that Bama cheated and that's how they wound up in the NCAA jail house. What they don't understand is how Phil Fulmer has skated all these years. They're convinced Fulmer went state's evidence with the NCAA, ratting out Bama in exchange for clemency for rules violations of his own that were as bad or worse in the lastest fiasco. This is going to be the single most hostile venue of the season for any SEC team on the road. If Brodie Croyle is healthy and Alabama hasn't had significant injuries (probation after effects are little quality depth), then you might want to pencil in the word upset on the Tennessee dance card.
OCT. 29, FLORIDA-GEORGIA IN JACKSONVILLE: Georgia won last year but barely, and that game was just five days after Ron Zook had been canned as Florida's head coach. Zook's gone and Corey Bailey won't be in Florida's secondary as a magnet for game-winning plays (See Corey, throw the ball in his direction). Throw in the fact that Georgia is not as good a football team as last year and Florida has what figures to be the conference's most explosive offense and this one figures to be Florida's game. Here's where Georgia could spring the upset, though. If Georgia has adapted a very conservative approach on offense, using its huge offensive line and stable of running backs to pound the ball on everybody, then Georgia will definitely be in this game until the very end. If Florida has any injury problems along the defensive line, it will definitely play in Georgia's favor.
NOV. 5, TENNESSEE AT NOTRE DAME: At Neyland last year, Notre Dame's defense played its best game of the season, totally stifling the Tennessee offense en route to a huge upset. This year the game is in South Bend and if Tennessee manages to come into this game unbeaten then figure the leprechauns will be doing their thing. This game will have upset written all over it. There is something about South Bend in November when unbeaten teams come in to play the Irish. Now, if Tennessee has lost a game or two by this time, figure the Irish are in for some serious payback.
NOV. 12, AUBURN AT GEORGIA: This is another game that figures to have serious implications. If Auburn beats LSU in Baton Rouge, it's very likely the Tigers come into this game unbeaten and looking to run the table a second straight year. Although it's unlikely, when November rolls around Georgia could also have an unbeaten record. Stranger things have indeed happened. This is a huge rivalry game that Georgia has found a way to win most often in recent years. Since it's being played Between the Hedges, you have to figure the Bulldogs have the edge here, but here's a guess that Auburn comes into the game riding a 25-game winning streak.
NOVEMBER 19, AUBURN AT ALABAMA: No matter how hot the seat, Mike Shula can cool things off in Tuscaloosa by beating Auburn. He is 0-2 against Auburn. People understand that he's got a losing record largely because of NCAA sanctions. What they won't understand is losing to Auburn three straight years. Shula wins and he's coaching in 2006 in Tuscaloosa. He loses and he might be working for his daddy in 2006, helping to expand the family steakhouse business. By the way, the prime rib at Shula's is a tiny little 32 ounce cut.
NOVEMBER 26, FSU AT FLORIDA: The last time FSU ventured into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the Atlantic Coast Conference officiating crew forever shamed the conference and its zebras. The Swindle in the Swamp will not be forgotten and this will be the single most hostile environment an FSU team will ever see. You think it was hostile in 1995? Or 1997? Or 2003? Romper Room compared to what it will be this year. The Swamp is going to be a total zoo. Urban Meyer is a coach who doesn't let his team make excuses for losing but he has a psychology degree and bet the ranch he will be using what the ACC zebras did in 2003 to fire up his team even more for this one.