Inspired by the SEC’s announcement that all 14 schools will play football on the conference’s new network during the first four weeks of the season, the exercise in long-range planning was to identify the must-see game of the week while dealing with some self-imposed parameters.
First, all teams would be guaranteed a game. Second, there would be a three-game max on the league’s headliners.
Almost immediately, the desire to see if defenses had made progress dealing with quarterback Nick Marshall’s version of Gus Malzahn’s offense created a problem. Originally, the Arkansas-Auburn game was penciled in for the first week. But, defenses at Alabama, LSU, Georgia, and South Carolina figured to offer a better read than the Razorbacks and the Aug. 30 game was scratched.
With Arkansas-Auburn out of play, Texas A&M at South Carolina was a no-brainer. It is the only other SEC game on opening weekend and the Aggies’ first league game without Johnny Manziel at quarterback.
The second week, the non-conference games are blah and the only league game is Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, winner by default. The Rebels have high expectations and it will be the Vandy coach Derek Mason’s first taste of the SEC.
Before moving on, one of Auburn’s games vs. the top two teams in the Eastern Division and the Tigers’ biggest rivals in the West had to be tossed to meet the three-game limit. South Carolina got the hook.
The thinking was the in-state rivalry with Alabama would carry the day even without the dramatic finish to the 2013 “Iron Bowl,” Auburn-Georgia goes back to 1892, and Marshall’s production running the ball increased dramatically after a season-low 21 points against LSU.
The rest of the choices, week by week:
• Sept. 13, Georgia at South Carolina. The favorites in the East with two of the best running backs in the league, Mike Davis at South Carolina and Todd Gurley at Georgia. The winner has a leg up on Atlanta.
• Sept. 20, Florida at Alabama. The best of the three SEC games and a way to check off the Gators. This is an important season for fourth-year coach Will Muschamp and quarterback Jeff Driskel is supposed to be a dual threat under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
• Sept. 27, Arkansas vs. Texas A&M in Arlington. Both are likely to be 0-1 in the SEC and, with both Alabama and LSU on the schedule, the loser will be hard-pressed to get to 4-4 in the conference.
• Oct. 4, LSU at Auburn. Both should be unbeaten and ranked in the Top 10. The only team to beat Auburn during the calendar year, LSU held the Tigers to more than 100 yards rushing below their season average.
• Oct. 11, Georgia at Missouri. If not for Malzahn, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel would have been SEC Coach of the Year. Once again, the Tigers are generating little buzz, but quarterback Maty Mauk gives Missouri a chance to be a contender.
At this point, major factors in planning the back of the schedule included the absence of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi State and Auburn-Georgia in mid-November.
• Oct. 18, Tennessee at Ole Miss. Prefaced by Georgia and Florida and followed by Alabama and South Carolina, the Rebels might be the Vols’ easiest SEC game in a five-game stretch.
• Oct. 25, Mississippi State at Kentucky. Killing two birds with one stone.
• Nov. 1, Arkansas at Mississippi state. A must-win if the Razorbacks have a chance to be bowl eligible. Quarterback Dak Prescott did not play in MSU’s victory in Little Rock last year.
• Nov. 8, Alabama at LSU. Usually, defense the way it is supposed to be played.
• Nov. 15, Auburn at Georgia. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s second go-around vs. Marshall, who made 45 yards on 16 attempts vs. Pruitt and Florida State.
• Nov. 22, Missouri at Tennessee. Other options include five pathetic nonconference games.
• Nov. 29, Auburn at Alabama. Chris Davis. 34-28. Enough said.