A week from today, the SEC season will already be underway. One, and one team alone, will be sitting pretty at the top of the division standings with an unblemished 1-0 conference record and 1.000 winning percentage. That distinction will belong to either the Fighting Gamecocks of South Carolina or the Commodores from Vanderbilt.
And while that September 1 tilt in Nashville may not be atop anyone’s Best SEC Games of 2016 list (outside of Columbia, anyway), I assure you, these other five contests as right at home on that list.
Alabama @ Ole Miss, Sept. 17
Two years in a row. No, I’m not talking about Alabama’s current streak of SEC titles or their number of consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff. No, I’m talking the number of years Hugh Freeze’s Rebels have taken down the mighty Crimson Tide.
Though Alabama may own the series 48-11-2, Ole Miss has had their number the last couple of years. Can the Rebs make it three in a row?
During his 15-year SEC career, only Les Miles, Steve Spurrier and Hugh Freeze have ever beat Nick Saban two times in a row. Forget the high company. Freeze could sit alone atop the list as the only SEC coach to get the three-peat on Saban.
Note: How impressive is Saban’s record in “revenge games”? CBS has an entire piece on it.
LSU @ Auburn, Sept. 24
Both Les Miles and Gus Malzahn enter 2016 firmly on the hot seat - with the luster of their respective runs to the National Championship (Miles in 2011/2012, Malzahn in 2013/2014) fading with recent disappointing seasons.
Pretty basic implications here: the loser of this contest is likely to lose his job, while the winner notches a win against a major division rival.
LSU’s won 4 of the last 5, with that lone Auburn victory being a 41-7 thrashing in 2014 on The Plains.
Florida vs. Georgia, Oct. 29
It may not seem like it, but UGA is 6-20 vs. UF since 1990. Last season, Florida gave Mark Richt a 27-3 beatdown as a going away gift. How thoughtful of the Gators.
Beyond the rest of the 2016 season, new UGA head coach Kirby Smart can make a major statement in his first season as the man in charge with a win here in Jacksonville.
To add further intrigue, recent years have seen the former World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party become a de facto elimination game in the run for the SEC Eastern Division crown.
Fun fact: The last UGA head coach to win his first game against Florida was Ray Goff, taking home a 17-10 W in 1989.
Alabama @ Tennessee, Oct. 15
Ah, the Third Saturday in October actually happens on the third Saturday in October for the first time since 2012.
Tennessee is this year’s offseason darling - rocketing to the preseason Top 10 while adorning magazine covers in newsstands all over the country. For good reason, too: the Vols returns 18 starters and are led by an impressive backfield of QB Joshua Dobbs and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.
As us Gamecock fans know all too well, preseason rankings and magazine covers aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on come playing time - especially in the Vols’ case, when the Crimson Tide are on the other sideline.
Tennessee hasn’t beat Alabama since 2006 and what better way to announce a return to national prominence than with a signature win here.
Auburn @ Georgia, Nov. 12
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry turns the page with Kirby Smart stepping and Gus Malzahn potentially bowing out.
By the time this game rolls around, we should have a very good feel for how the remaining weeks will play out for these two teams. UGA will be closing conference play, while Auburn warms up for a road Iron Bowl in two weeks by taking the field in Athens. Gulp.
A win between the hedges likely buys the Gus Bus some goodwill, though history is not on his side with Auburn not having won in Athens in 2005. A win for Smart holds serve with the high (and sometimes unmet) expectations set by his predecessor.
UGA has won 8 of the last 10 iterations of the Rivalry, with Auburn’s last victory coming on the wings of The Prayer at Jordan-Hare during Malzahn’s first season at the helm.
Agree with our picks? Tell us the SEC games you’re most looking forward to!