We're kicking off a new series today looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. We start in reverse alphabetical order with Vanderbilt.
Most important game: Sept. 6 vs. Ole Miss
Key players: The biggest change at Vanderbilt is at head coach where former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason was brought in after James Franklin bolted for Penn State. With the departure of senior starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, the Commodores will also be breaking in a new signal-caller. Sophomore Patton Robinette started three games last season, including the BBVA Compass Bowl. Stephen Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers, transferred from LSU in the offseason and is immediately eligible to compete for the job. Vanderbilt junior running back Jerron Seymour made eight starts in 2013 and tied Zac Stacy's school record with 14 rushing touchdowns. The Commodores have a large hole to fill at receiver where they graduated Jordan Matthews, the SEC's all-time leading receiver with 262 receptions. Mason has a lot of work to do with Vandy's defense, especially after losing Andre Hal, Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall -- three of the team's top-four tacklers -- from the secondary. The strength of Mason's defense, as it moves from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base, will be the linebackers. Darreon Herring (84 tackles), Jake Sealand (45 tackles) return in the middle, while Kyle Woestmann (six sacks) and Caleb Azubike (four sacks) move from defensive end to outside linebacker.
Why it matters: The second game of the season won't have postseason implications for either team, but it means everything in terms of Mason's first impression in the SEC. Taking over for the best coach in a school's history isn't easy. After three bowl games in a row and back-to-back 9-4 seasons, the bar is now set high at Vanderbilt. Mason will be looking to prove he can continue Franklin's success without much of a transition. His players, meanwhile, should have even bigger chips on their shoulders. They want the SEC to know their recent run wasn't all about Franklin. They'll also be looking for some revenge against Ole Miss for a season-opening 39-35 loss last year. Vanderbilt-Ole Miss isn't one of the SEC's highest profile rivalries, but it is one of the oldest. This will be the second time in two years that these two teams meet in Nashville, Tennessee. The Commodores played host to the Rebels in a highly entertaining back-and-forth game last season. There were four lead changes, culminating with a 75-yard touchdown run by Mississippi RB Jeff Scott with just over a minute left in the game. The loss didn't dampen Vandy's enthusiasm much, though, as the Commodores went on to beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. They'll need the same kind of mental resolve to make Mason's debut in 2014 a success.