When it comes to season-opening games, there are two options: schedule a complete patsy or play a team that can actually beat you, which puts early pressure on the coach and the team. We’ll try to mesh coach and team together in our preseason look-see at the SEC’s most important openers.
Below you’ll find our rankings of which SEC schools and coaches face the biggest, most pressure-packed opening games. They’re ranked 13 to one, least important to most important (there’s one conference game in the opening week). Attached to each game is a quick explanation of our views.
For the team, for the coach… here are the SEC’s openers graded 13 to one.
13. Central Arkansas at Ole Miss — Hugh Freeze’s first game at Ole Miss will come against an FCS school that even a depleted Rebel squad should best. Expectations are through the floor and a loss would just be blamed on Houston Nutt and the poorly-stocked cupboard he left for Freeze anyway. Very little pressure for Freeze or his Rebs in this one.
12. Texas A&M vs Louisiana Tech (Shreveport) — Kevin Sumlin’s tenure won’t be undone by his first game, either. New system, new quarterback, etc, etc. Plus, Louisiana Tech isn’t a gimme in this neutral site affair. We rank this game as being more important than Freeze’s opener simply because there’s a chance that the Aggies could sneak into a bowl game this year. That would almost certainly require a win in their opener.
11. SE Louisiana at Missouri — Any coach losing to an FCS school would take heat, but Gary Pinkel is as snug as a bug in a rug after the job he’s done in Columbia. And the odds of Mizzou dropping this one are pretty dang slim. If the Tigers do fall, you can bet it will because they will have had their minds on their Week Two matchup with Georgia instead of on their opener.
10. North Texas at LSU — Sure Les Miles went from hero to goat in some folks’ minds following the BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama, but he’s not going anywhere. Even with a loss to North Texas. We rank this game higher than the last three, though, because if by some miracle the alma mater of Mean Joe Greene does pull the upset of the century… the Tigers couldn’t recover on the BCS front. Even winning the SEC likely wouldn’t undo that kind of damage in the eyes of the voters and in the silicon chips of the computers.
9. Buffalo at Georgia — No, we don’t expect Buffalo to go into Athens and beat Georgia. Not even with UGA having to give multiple walk-ons scholarships just to get over 70 for the season (85 scholarship players is the NCAA maximum). Still, we rank this one a bit higher because if the Dawgs did somehow lose, you can bet the howls for Mark Richt’s noggin would begin anew.
8. Jackson State at Mississippi State — Clearly MSU should win this one. But. It’s an in-state foe and Dan Mullen is entering Year Four after a disappointing Year Three. This is a “must step forward” year for Mullen and his Bulldogs. That makes their opener — even though it’s against a sacrificial lamb — a little more important.
7. Bowling Green at Florida — See above. Instead of entering Year Four, Will Muschamp is beginning Year Two in Gainesville. After a 7-6 season in 2011, a home upset at the hands of Bowling Green would lead to plenty of hot seat talk in the Sunshine State… just 14 games into Muschamp’s tenure. Would that be realistic or fair? Probably not. But you’d hear it just the same.
6. Jacksonville State at Arkansas — Every game is an audition for John L. Smith. Most believe he’ll need to win the SEC West, the SEC overall, or even the BCS title in order to land the full-time Arkansas gig. And with talk of West, SEC, and BCS titles even being discussed, the fan reaction to a loss to Jacksonville State — and former Hog coach Jack Crowe — would be horrific.
5. Alabama vs Michigan (Arlington) — How can the biggest game in the country rank #5 on our list? Because Alabama could recover from a loss in its opener. Last year, the Tide lost midway through the season at home to an SEC West foe and still reached the BCS title game. If Michigan turns out to be a Top 10 team, the Tide could conceivably drop a close one to the Wolverines, run the table the rest of the way, and be right back in the thick of the BCS mix come December. Oh, and Nick Saban is as untouchable as any coach can be, too.
4. Auburn vs Clemson (Atlanta) — At some point, Tiger fans will demand that Gene Chizik’s stellar recruiting classes start to deliver stellar wins on the field. Without Cam Newton around, that is. Entering Year Four, Chizik — like MSU’s Mullen — needs to take a step forward. Clemson won’t be an easy opener as the Tigers beat Auburn last year in South Carolina. With two new coordinators and new systems being unveiled in the Georgia Dome, this one could be very tricky for Chizik and his Tigers. He needs to get off on the right foot.
3. South Carolina at Vanderbilt — Technically, this is the only game that impacts the SEC’s standings so it should be ranked #1, right? Wrong. Ask Carolina if their SEC-opening win over Georgia meant anything in the long run last year. The loser can recover. Steve Spurrier’s job is secure and James Franklin is as popular as Taylor Swift in Nashville these days. This game ranks #3, however, because it will help to define two programs. Is South Carolina truly ready to run with the big boys of college football on a year-in, year-out basis? A loss to Vandy would tell the nation, “No.” And is Franklin — who’s making progress on the recruiting trail and in the PR department — ready to make progress on the field as well? Remember, Bobby Johnson was praised for losing a lot of close games with the Commodores, too. It’s a big game, but not the biggest of the week.
2. Tennessee vs NC State (Atlanta) — We could go back and forth on these last two games. We put Tennessee in this slot because the Vols are expected to be better than Kentucky in 2012 (even though they lost to the Cats to close out 2011). If UT wins a football game in Atlanta for the first time since 1998, there could be an uptick in confidence and fun support. If they lose, the pressure will be great on Derek Dooley. Possibly so great that his season could spiral out of control. But — and it’s a big but — a win over Florida in Knoxville just two weeks later could erase a loss to NC State. Thus, UT in the #2 spot.
1. Kentucky vs Louisville — Joker Phillips’ seat is just a degree or two hotter than Dooley’s because no one expects the Cats to show much improvement record-wise this season. Meaning he’s more likely to get the axe at year’s end. UK is a double-digit underdog to its cross-state rival and Big Blue fans already returned a couple thousand tickets for this game. Bad, bad, and bad. If Kentucky loses to Louisville, Phillips could still lead a revival, pull an upset, or beat Tennessee again. But the fans are so close to abandoning ship already — and his roster is so average at the moment — that it would likely be more difficult for UK to recover from an opening loss than it would be for UT. Thus Kentucky’s opener gets the top slot on our countdown of the SEC’s most important openers.