- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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The start of the college football season can't get here soon enough.
In just a few months, we'll have SEC Media Days. A month after that, we'll get the real thing.
In the meantime, we wait. We plot. We circle our calendars.
In that vein, here's a look at 10 of the most compelling SEC games this season, which includes both conference and nonconference matchups:
Sept. 5, Alabama vs. Wisconsin (Dallas): Is Alabama a legitimate playoff contender? It might not take long to find out depending on how the season-opener against nonconference foe Wisconsin plays out. Blake Sims is gone at QB, T.J. Yeldon is gone at running back and Amari Cooper is gone at receiver. That, and more than half of the Tide's starters on defense are new. So hold your breath for this one. Wisconsin fixtures Melvin Gordon and Gary Andersen are gone, but with so much up in the air on both sides, this could be an interesting matchup in Dallas.
Sept. 5, Texas A&M vs. Arizona State (Houston): There might be no bigger unknown in the SEC than Texas A&M, which has been all bark and little bite the past few years. But maybe this year will change that. There will be a new starter under center to go with a group of skill players any offense would like. And on defense, there's a renewed sense of hope with former LSU coordinator John Chavis now leading the charge. But will it lead to more wins and a spot in the race to Atlanta? It depends on how quickly things come together. The season opener against Pac-12 standout Arizona State will be a good measuring stick.
Sept. 12, Oklahoma at Tennessee: We're getting all top heavy with nonconference games, but can you blame us? Oklahoma and Tennessee are two of the most storied programs in college football. The Vols are young but talented. If they're planning on competing for the SEC East crown ahead of schedule, they'll have to start by defending their home turf against a Big 12 power. The Sooners might not be the Sooners we're used to seeing, but unusually low expectations could be deceiving. If anything, they should be playing with something to prove. And given all of Bob Stoops' jawing about the SEC, there will certainly be enough pregame hype to fill the week leading up to the game.
Sept. 19, Florida at Kentucky: OK, so this one won't be for all the marbles. It might even be for fifth place in the SEC East. But stay with me here. This might be the game in which we see how long the sleeping giant that is Florida will stay dormant. Because with all due respect to New Mexico State and East Carolina, it's hard to imagine getting a true picture of a Geoff Collins defense and a Doug Nussmeier offense in those games. We probably won't know how far behind first-year coach Jim McElwain is from competing until the Gators go to Kentucky for their SEC opener. A win could be a sign of progress for Florida. A loss could push the timeline back even further.
Oct. 3, Alabama at Georgia: With the exception of much of Tide Nation, let's all hope this doesn't turn into the 2008 "Blackout Game" in Athens. No one wants to see a halftime score of 31-0. So let's shoot for something slightly more competitive, which this rare cross-conference game promises to be. We could be looking at the favorites to make it to the SEC title game, after all. Granted, both teams have questions at QB. But both teams are loaded with talent, especially at running back. Georgia has one of the best in the game in man-child Nick Chubb. Meanwhile, the Tide boast the 6-foot-3, 240-pound wrecking ball Derrick Henry. There should be broken tackles galore.
Oct. 3, Arkansas at Tennessee: Who wants to be taken seriously? Who wants to go from the next big thing to the real thing? Because that's what this matchup is about, isn't it? We've read and heard all offseason about how Arkansas and Tennessee are on the verge of breaking though, and with good reason. The Razorbacks were one of the toughest outs in the SEC last season, taking conference champ Alabama down to the wire. The Vols, on the other hand, reeled off five wins in their last six games, including a convincing bowl win over Iowa. But there might be room for only one team to rise in the SEC -- who will it be?
Oct. 31, Ole Miss at Auburn: It's still hard to watch the play that led to Laquon Treadwell fracturing his fibia and dislocating his ankle. You can't think of Ole Miss' season last year without going back to that moment. The hope. The pain. The disappointment. When Treadwell went down, the game went down, and then the season went down for the Rebs. But by all appearances, Treadwell is working his way back to 100 percent. And if he's healthy, the sky's the limit for Ole Miss. But if a run to Atlanta is in the cards, they'll have to get by SEC West rival Auburn once again, this time at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Nov. 7, LSU at Alabama: We could tell you about all the great games between these programs. We could tell you about what great coaches Les Miles and Nick Saban are. We could even go back and count the staggering number of NFL players who have been born of this rivalry. But you probably already know that. LSU-Alabama has become synonymous with great football. The rivalry, which is arguably the most competitive and balanced in the game, has been appointment viewing in the SEC for some time now. This year should be no different.
Nov. 28, Alabama at Auburn: Where LSU-Alabama is about talent and competitiveness, Auburn-Alabama is about something more. It runs deeper. The Iron Bowl is the fiercest rivalry college football has to offer because it's in the blood. It's every day in the state of Alabama. And lately when the day of the game has actually arrived, it hasn't been a letdown. The back-and-forth battle between Nick Saban's defense and Gus Malzahn's offense has been special, and this year should be more of the same. With Jeremy Johnson under center, the Tigers expect to score points in a hurry. With one of the best defensive fronts in college football, the Tide expect to control the game. Whatever side prevails will likely be in position to win the West.
Nov. 28, Ole Miss at Mississippi State: It doesn't have the hype of the Iron Bowl, but the Egg Bowl is just as rich in meaning. Where Ole Miss looks down its nose at Mississippi State, State fans won't even call Ole Miss by its name. It's just T.S.U.N. or, as Dan Mullen dutifully says, "The School Up North." But make no mistake, both programs are keenly aware of one another and both expect to make runs at the SEC West after bursting onto the scene last year with record-breaking seasons. The Rebs return jam-packed with NFL talent (see: Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell, Robert Nkemdiche, et al), but are missing a starting QB. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are low in name recognition everywhere but under center, where Dak Prescott returns for another Heisman Trophy run.
134dAlex Scarborough and Edward Aschoff