Ranking the Best SEC Football Matchups of Week 1

Ranking the Best SEC Football Matchups of Week 1

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    John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

    There isn’t a single game this weekend that pits two SEC teams against each other, but there are still plenty of battles that will catch the attention of college football fans across the country.

    Everybody is talking about Saturday’s contest between the two highest-ranked teams to play an opener against each other, when top-ranked Alabama takes on No. 3 Florida State in Atlanta’s sparkling new spaceship, er, facility, Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

    But that isn’t the only interesting matchup.

    There’s also suspension-riddled Florida traveling outside of the Swamp for a season opener for the first time since 1987, when it heads to Arlington, Texas, to take on Michigan. Tennessee and Georgia Tech play the Labor Day night game in Atlanta.

    Then, there’s perhaps the most interesting game between two intriguing, trendy picks for potential surprises this year in South Carolina and North Carolina State.

    It’s a weekend that could provide a lot of excitement, and it’s the perfect kickoff to what is sure to be a fun season as the SEC tries to regain some parity—as well as some prestige—that took a hit in 2016.

    Let’s take a look at Week 1’s top matchups.

Honorable Mentions

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    Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee State

    It may not be on your radar, but there isn’t anything wrong with flipping over to catch some of the Vanderbilt-MTSU game on Saturday night.

    For one, it’s in Murfreesboro’s Floyd Stadium, and the Blue Raiders should have one of the most exciting offenses you’ll see this year. Also, this has turned into a nice little rivalry between the two programs. 

    The Commodores have high hopes for 2017 under head coach Derek Mason, whose team looked like it may be turning a corner toward the end of last year. They need to beat MTSU to keep those good vibes churning in Nashville.

                  

    Kentucky at Southern Mississippi

    The Wildcats are a trendy pick to surprise in the SEC East this year with so much offensive talent returning to a team that went 7-6 in what folks in the Bluegrass State hope was a breakout year for coach Mark Stoops’ program.

    But that could be derailed quickly as they travel to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to take on a Southern Miss team that beat them 44-35 a season ago in a brutal start to the campaign. The Wildcats will try to keep a repeat of that happening as they enter as decisive favorites. 

                     

    Appalachian State at Georgia

    A year ago, the Scott Satterfield-led Mountaineers marched into Neyland Stadium and nearly stunned Tennessee in an eventual overtime loss the Vols were lucky to win. Now, they’ll once again attempt to pull off an upset against an SEC East favorite.

    The Bulldogs are everybody’s darlings entering head coach Kirby Smart’s second year, but there are still plenty of question marks to address. Nothing would get things started like a decisive victory against a better-than-you-think mid-major program.

South Carolina vs. North Carolina State (Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte)

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    For two programs that sputtered through 2016, there is unfettered excitement brimming at South Carolina and North Carolina State entering this college football season.

    And, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at last year’s final record, the reasons are valid.

    The Wolfpack went 7-6, finishing with their third consecutive winning season, but head coach Dave Doeren isn’t exactly on firm footing with job security despite four of those losses being by seven points or less. This is perhaps his most talented team, and the Wolfpack should be a force in the ACC.

    At least one analyst—the SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic—believes the Wolfpack will be in the College Football Playoff, according to The State‘s Ben Briener.

    If that sounds like it’s hard to believe, at the very least, the Wolfpack’s stellar defense will be a major test for South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley and company.

    If the Gamecocks (6-7) are to make a major leap forward in 2017 in coach Will Muschamp‘s second season, they need to win toss-up games like this one in Charlotte. This is an evenly matched contest between two teams that are unknowns but have plenty of reasons for excitement.

    For Muschamp’s team, it’s youth and thrill-worthy players all over the offense such as Bentley, running back Rico Dowdle and receiver Bryan Edwards. For N.C. State, it’s all that defensive talent, led by generational stud defensive end Bradley Chubb.

    There are plenty of reasons to watch this one, and the most important is to see if any of the hesitant buzz around each program comes to fruition.

4. Texas A&M vs. UCLA (Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California)

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    The storylines are bountiful in this one.

    On Texas A&M’s side, you’ve got an Aggies team that always gets off to a hot start, only to fall off the college football map by the end of the season; that’s why head coach Kevin Sumlin finds himself firmly on the hot seat at the start of the 2017 season.

    They’re also mired in the midst of an unsettled quarterback battle between senior Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel or redshirt freshman Kellen Mond, and there won’t be any Myles Garrett wreaking havoc on quarterbacks for the first time in three years.

    That’s good news for UCLA’s Josh Rosen, who is returning after a season-ending shoulder injury cost him plenty of playing time and the Bruins a bowl berth. If he doesn’t come back with a vengeance, it could cost his coach his job.

    Yes, Jim Mora Jr. is feeling the pressure in Westwood, too.

    So, the loser of this game is going to have to endure even more headlines regarding the fate of their top man on the sideline.

    This is another game that is expected to be close, and if last year’s matchup is any indication, it should be a fun one. The Aggies prevailed 31-24 in overtime a season ago, in what were much happier times for both coaches.

    Now, they face must-win seasons. A loss in this one makes it an uphill climb for both programs as they get ready for brutal schedules.

3. Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech (Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta)

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    A year after Tennessee was expected to run away with the SEC East but fell victim to myriad injuries first and then South Carolina and Vanderbilt down the stretch to do in any hopes of a feel-good season, there aren’t many expectations for Vols greatness in 2017.

    UT is hoping to bring along some youth early in the season and quietly become a contender in the division.

    Though the season opener won’t have any bearing on the SEC schedule, it will set the narrative for a team that must replace stars such as defensive end Derek Barnett, quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Cameron Sutton.

    It’s also a difficult challenge playing Georgia Tech and its tough-to-defend flexbone scheme. 

    The Yellow Jackets were undefeated against the SEC a season ago, capping a 9-4 season with a 33-18 win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

    “[We’re] 3-0 in the SEC East,” GT coach Paul Johnson said after that game, per 247Sports, “got Tennessee next.”

    That’s going to be even tougher considering Tennessee starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. is out and the Vols’ defensive ends are young and inexperienced. It seems like the perfect scenario for Johnson to take advantage of a defense with a lot of questions.

    But Tennessee has talent, thanks to Butch Jones’ stellar recruiting efforts the past few years. If the Vols can settle on a quarterback between junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano and get quality offensive line play, this has the potential to be a good offense.

    The Vols are ready for a new crop of players to emerge. This is going to be an interesting game with a lot of quirky hurdles to overcome if 2017 is going to get off to a good start on Rocky Top.

2. Florida vs. Michigan (AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas)

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Two traditional powerhouses will meet in Arlington, Texas, to open the season, but the game will take a back seat to Alabama-Florida State as the marquee matchup of the week.

    That’s because, while Florida has represented the SEC East in the conference championship game the past two years, the Gators haven’t been the dominant program of old. Now, they must replace eight defensive starters, and they have a whopping 10 players suspended for the season opener against Michigan.

    That includes starting running back Jordan Scarlett and do-it-all receiver Antonio Callaway.

    All those players being nonfactors for head coach Jim McElwain’s team will make things much easier for a Wolverines team that is moving on to life without the 11 players who were drafted into the NFL in April.

    Though that’s going to be a major hurdle to overcome as well, coach Jim Harbaugh is well on his way to building Big Blue back to the national power it is known as being. There are athletes all over the field for the Wolverines and exciting young players like defensive end Rashan Gary and receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.

    The Gators have a slew of unknowns and gaps to fill with all the players out, but the biggest question may be at quarterback, where redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks will start instead of Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, according to CBSSports.com’s Tom Fornelli.

    “In that big stage, the guy’s got a big arm, too,” McElwain said. “You know what? He’s played in state championship games. He’ll be ready to go.”

    The state championship is a far cry from playing the Wolverines in “Jerry’s World,” but one thing is for certain: After this weekend, everybody will know if the new-look Gators have a bunch of promise or a bunch of problems.

1. Alabama vs. Florida State (Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta)

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Not only is this game the piece de resistance of the first full weekend’s schedule of games, it may just be the best regular-season showdown we’ll get to watch all year.

    This is the equivalent of the Daytona 500, a marquee event right off the bat between two powerhouses who may be still standing in the College Football Playoff at the end of the season.

    It’s possible the loser of the Alabama-Florida State game runs the table and winds up with a rematch when it matters most. These teams are that good.

    While no team looks like it’s head-and-shoulders better than any other entering the season, it’s a safe bet that head coach Nick Saban‘s Crimson Tide are going to be among the most talented and well-coached in the country.

    They lost a stable of stud defenders, but there are more coming up, led by elite defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne. Offensively, playmakers such as quarterback Jalen Hurts, receiver Calvin Ridley and running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris lead a potent attack.

    For the Seminoles, life without Dalvin Cook looks a little easier with the emergence of talented freshman Cam Akers, who will try to provide a balanced attack for quarterback Deondre Francois, who must be protected better by his offensive line than he was a season ago.

    Defensively, the Seminoles may be the best team in the country with stars such as safety Derwin James, cornerback Tarvarus McFadden and ends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns.

    Can once-pupil (FSU coach Jimbo Fisher) beat his former teacher, Saban? Which team will get a leg up as Ohio State’s biggest contender for the crown? We’ll all know Saturday night.