Game week is here. Three SEC teams open the 2016 season Thursday night. The others follow suit Saturday and Monday.
Here is the best storyline for each as the SEC renews its annual assault on the rest of college football:
Appalachian State at No. 9 Tennessee, 7:30 p.m. Thursday
We know the Volunteers should be able to score plenty of points this season, including in their opener at Neyland Stadium. But the key will be their defense containing an offense that features an experienced quarterback (redshirt junior Taylor Lamb), a running back (senior Marcus Cox) who is the first player in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, and a solid line that could give its weapons time to do damage if the Vols don’t come out with that home-opener vengeance.
But the one thing that could open this game up early for the Vols? While Lamb and Cox are dangerous, Appalachian State’s receivers aren’t that great, so if Tennessee can stop (or limit) Cox early, it can get a quick lead and put to rest any stunning upset thoughts from the program that authored one of the biggest in history at Michigan in the 2007 season opener — which, by the way, was also played on Sept. 1.
Cue the twilight zone music.
South Carolina at Vanderbilt, 8 p.m. Thursday
The Gamecocks take their traditional season-opening, Thursday night national TV showcase to Nashville this year, and this time it’s an all-SEC encounter to kick off the Will Muschamp-Brandon McIlwain era.
This matchup probably won’t be the prettiest thing you’ll see from two SEC teams this fall, with two flawed squads, but the overwhelming storyline here? Desperation. These teams will be desperate for wins all season, so whichever one gets the jump on its season on the first night of September can use it as a springboard, while the loser will know it let a prime shot at a victory slip away, and right away.
Points likely won’t be plentiful, so a battle of teams desperate for a win will be played out between teams also desperate for points. The defenses should keep the score low. This could be like one of those stingy baseball game where two or three runs wins.
South Alabama at Mississippi State, noon Saturday
For the Bulldogs, the 2016 opener will be the start of life A.D.P. — After Dak Prescott. It’ll be Dan Mullen’s job to get his team believing it can win games without Prescott. The fact that it will come against the Jaguars, a more than four-touchdown underdog from the Sun Belt, will help, but the most important thing is that the post-Prescott Bulldogs act the part of expecting to win this game handily.
For a team expected to struggle for wins in the SEC, this is a golden opportunity to build confidence with a blowout victory, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t happen at home. A bonus would be the first signs of the Bulldogs’ next offensive leader like, say, senior running back Brandon Holloway.
Missouri at West Virginia, noon Saturday
Morgantown, West Virginia, can be cruel on any visitor on a football Saturday, so if there’s one thing the Tigers must do, it’s score early, or fairly early.
Missouri’s defense should be able to hang with the Mountaineers’ high-octane attack, so it will be up to the offense and Drew Lock, in Josh Heupel’s debut as offensive coordinator, to give the defense some support with first-quarter points.
If that doesn’t happen, and the veteran West Virginia offense led by Skyler Howard gets the quick jump with the Morgantown Maniacs rocking, it could turn into a long opening afternoon on the job for Barry Odom.
No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m. Saturday (at Lambeau Field, Green Bay)
The big-picture observer would say this is the perfect scenario for the Tigers to have in an opener that’s anything but subtle — as long as they follow the script for what they hope will be a championship season.
And it’s all about this: Can Les Miles’ crew go into Lambeau Field and show the first signs of its championship mettle against an always rugged Big Ten foe that will be beyond sky-high playing in a home-away-from-home setting, all with its all-world running back less than 100 percent?
If the answer is yes, then it could be a special year in Baton Rouge.
And we’ll be quick to find that answer a few thousand miles north at the fabled stadium that is frozen later in the fall but will be breathing fire in early September as Leonard Fournette deals with a sprained ankle sustained in mid-August that forced him to miss a week of practice.
If the Tigers can deal with everything — Wisconsin, Lambeau and opening-game jitters with Fournette possibly being less than his normal amazing self, then LSU will be all the better for it for the rest of the year.
No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M, 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Trevor Knight steps right into the proverbial fire in his Aggies debut, with a national TV game in front of the 12th Man against a nationally ranked foe, and therein lies the main plot: Can Knight, who had such an up-and-down run at Oklahoma, with many highs and too many lows, handle the immediate pressure of staring down a strong Pac-12 team and making a winning first impression?
Did we mention that UCLA is supposed to have one of the best secondaries in the Pac-12? That’ll further crank up the pressure cooker on Knight, who is expected to thrive right away with a dazzling receiving quartet led by Christian Kirk.
Louisiana Tech at Arkansas, 4 p.m. Saturday
In a season-opening situation like this for the Razorbacks, the most important thing will be that they act the part of a three-touchdown home favorite.
Skip Holtz has built a consistent program in Ruston, La., but Bret Bielema’s balanced offense, even with a new quarterback in Austin Allen, should be able to cash in on that inexperienced Bulldogs defense to build a nice early lead and have a no-drama opener. If they don’t, there’s something wrong.
No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina, 5:30 p.m. Saturday (at Georgia Dome, Atlanta)
The Bulldogs made headlines for so many reasons, good and bad, during a wild offseason, so of course Georgia will open the Kirby Smart era in the glare of the national spotlight in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at a sure-to-be-bonkers Georgia Dome. And, it appears, freshman quarterback Jacob Eason will step squarely into that glare.
Yes, there is the Nick Chubb factor, but it looks like the running back will be ready to go. And Chubb has been around the block. The expected start of the Eason era will blow the Chubb factor away, and how Eason deals with the instant pressure of being Athens’ Great Hope, not to mention dealing with Gene Chizik’s Tar Heels defense, will be one of the biggest storylines in the country Saturday, never mind in the state of Georgia.
UMass at No. 25 Florida, 7:30 p.m. Saturday
The first Saturday night in The Swamp of 2016 will be all about viewing and rating two guys who’ll be vital to the Gators’ success this fall: new quarterback Luke Del Rio and new kicker Eddy Pineiro. The game itself? UF is a five-touchdown favorite.
If Del Rio and Pineiro raise eyebrows along with the likely blowout final score, consider it a double victory for Jim McElwain’s team.
Southern Mississippi at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m. Saturday
This one is simple, too: The sprint to achieve six wins and bowl eligibility begins Saturday night in Lexington for a Wildcats offense that better be able to score, especially against a Southern Miss defense that lost three of its best players and has a new defensive coordinator (Tony Pecoraro) and new defensive-minded head coach (Jay Hopson).
Let’s call it this way: If the Wildcats put up at least 35 points, it’s a “win.” If they score less than that, then fans should be concerned, even in victory.
No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama, 8 p.m. Saturday (at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas)
Storylines abound everywhere amid the sizzle of one of the sexiest matchups you could dream of to start a season, but this battle of historical programs from distant lands boils down to this: Will the USC defensive line be able to handle Alabama’s trademark physicality and pounding from what should be another stellar Crimson Tide offensive line?
If the answer is yes, then the game could be in doubt late. If not, then we’re looking at the Tide pulling away in the fourth to a comfortable season-opening win.
Nick Saban is 9-0 in season-openers at Alabama, including 6-0 against Power 5 teams.
No. 2 Clemson at Auburn, 9 p.m. Saturday
This could be a magical opening night (and morning) at Jordan-Hare, there’s no doubt, with a national TV spotlight and the late kickoff time spilling the game past midnight and the high-octane, national runners-up from Clemson possibly there for the taking. But the only way Auburn will take something special away from Deshaun Watson and Co., like their national title hopes on opening night, is if its linebackers can slow down Clemson’s array of weapons and help hold them to, say, 31 points.
If Auburn allows more than 31 points, it’s probably going to be hard for its Sean White and the offense to keep up.
No. 11 Ole Miss vs. No. 4 Florida State, 8 p.m. Monday (at Camping World Stadium, Orlando)
Yet another stellar, headliner of a matchup that’s wonderfully stashed at the end of Week 1, on Labor Day night in Orlando, where the Rebels can either prove right away that they are true title contenders or more likely destined for something like a 10-2 record.
To pull off the former, other than Chad Kelly playing to the heights of his offseason clippings, Ole Miss will need to make this game a lot more about FSU quarterback Deondre Francois starting his first college game than about star running back Dalvin Cook starting his Heisman Trophy campaign.
Because if Cook’s brilliance glosses over Francois’ likelihood of making a few key mistakes, then the Rebels probably won’t be able to outscore the Noles in their home state.
Source: Saturday Down South