SEC Football: 10 Scariest Nonconference Games for 2014

Luke Brietzke@FireEverybodyContributor IIIMay 7, 2014

SEC Football: 10 Scariest Nonconference Games for 2014

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    Few entities in sports wear the bull's-eye on their backs more proudly than the college football programs in the SEC.

    What has for years been heralded as the nation’s top conference prides itself on unveiling new banners and increasing space in the trophy cases for new hardware.

    The 2014 season promises to provide one of the toughest challenges for SEC dominance, though. In case you haven’t noticed, the Pac-12 is very good and loaded with returning quarterback talent, only ramping up the competition for top conference honors. Stanford, Oregon and UCLA should be among the national elite teams. The middle class is just as tough, with teams like Arizona, Arizona State, USC and Washington making life out west difficult.

    The Big Ten has three legitimate Top 10 contenders as well in Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

    Furthermore, the departure of several key quarterbacks—Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Georgia’s Aaron Murray, to name three—leaves the SEC relying on either new quarterbacks to produce right away or new teams to step up to carry the conference banner.

    Teams like Florida, Mississippi State and Ole Miss—all of which return quarterbacks—need to improve for the league to maintain its reign over public opinion.

    Today we examine 10 nonconference games critical in the SEC’s quest to remain the consensus pick as the nation’s top football conference.

    We determined these games by considering the likelihood of a loss, what that loss would mean in the big picture to the conference and when and where the game is played.

10. Utah State at Tennessee, Aug. 31

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    Concern of Loss: Low

    Big-Picture Impact: Medium

    This marks the first of two times Tennessee appears on this list.

    The reason for concern is obvious—Tennessee remains unsettled at the quarterback position and has a long way to go, albeit under a talented coach.

    Utah State, meanwhile, gets quarterback Chuckie Keeton back from injury. He has come oh-so-close to engineering upsets at Auburn in 2011 and at USC last year.

    Those near-misses mean the Neyland Stadium atmosphere will do little to impact Keeton’s comfort level.

    Tennessee didn’t have a great experience with the last dual-threat quarterback it faced. Auburn’s Nick Marshall torched the Volunteers defense to the tune of 214 rushing yards and two scores last season.

    In 2012, the last time Keeton played a full, healthy season, the rising senior passed for 3,373 yards and rushed for another 619. He also accounted for 35 total touchdowns.

    Butch Jones is bringing great excitement into a program that has lacked it for far too long, but he needs to avoid potholes like the one this game presents.

    A loss here would set a bad tone for the 2014 season and would reflect poorly on the SEC, which would have a loss to the Mountain West Conference.  

9. Northern Illinois at Arkansas, Sept. 20

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    Concern of Loss: High

    Big-Picture Impact: Low

    This game could have just as easily been listed as Arkansas’ previous game, which it will play at Texas Tech.

    The concern of loss would be just as high, but the big-picture impact simply wasn’t the same.

    A loss in Lubbock—even a lopsided defeat—would simply be a decent Big 12 team beating a bottom-rung SEC team.

    However, an SEC team losing to even a MAC team that has played for the league championship in consecutive seasons doesn’t reflect well on the conference.

    Northern Illinois will come into Fayetteville unafraid, with the Huskies having beaten Iowa last year and coming a point away from doing so in 2012.

    The Huskies showed off a tough defense in those games, specifically against the run. Arkansas relies on a heavy run game and will continue to do so until quarterback Brandon Allen can at least keep defenses honest in the play-action game.

    Arkansas, meanwhile, will be coming off an opening stretch that includes road games at Auburn and, as mentioned earlier, Texas Tech.

8. Boise State vs. Ole Miss (in Atlanta), Aug. 28

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    Concern of Loss: Medium

    Big-Picture Impact: Medium

    Remember the last time Boise State played an SEC team in Atlanta?

    Georgia fans certainly do.

    Three years ago, the Broncos marched into the Bulldogs' backyard and—behind quarterback Kellen Moore—delivered a 35-21 victory that left little doubt as to who the better team was that night.

    Boise State hasn’t been on the same level since Moore left but now transitions to a new quarterback and a new coach (Bryan Harsin).

    For Ole Miss to take the next step toward respectability in the SEC, it must avoid key turnovers—specifically from quarterback Bo Wallace—and run the ball efficiently.

    Boise State boasts a strong defense capable of frustrating strong attacks.

    An early loss from one of the teams expected to help carry the banner for the SEC would mark a bad first day of the college football season for the league.

7. UCF at Missouri, Sept. 13

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    Concern of Loss: Medium

    Big-Picture Impact: High

    Unlike the first two SEC teams to show up on this list, Missouri brings with it credentials from 2013 that would make a loss to a nonconference foe sting that much more.

    The Tigers claimed the SEC East title last season and won the Cotton Bowl. A loss to this program—albeit with a new starting quarterback and several new defensive starters—would be a black eye for the SEC.

    UCF also must move forward without quarterback Blake Bortles, who declared for the NFL draft, but it has gained significant momentum and confidence under coach George O’Leary.

    The Knights narrowly missed an upset of South Carolina last season.

    Remember, the SEC lost a game to a team from the American Athletic Conference last year when Rutgers took down Arkansas. A second consecutive season with such a defeat would look bad for the conference.

6. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 29

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    Concern of Loss: High

    Big-Picture Impact: Medium

    There’s little national shame in losing to the defending NCAA champion—even for the SEC.

    Then again, it would be a great feather in the conference’s cap if Florida—which will find coach Will Muschamp on the hot seat to start the year—could take down Jameis Winston and Florida State.

    The SEC loves looking down its nose at the ACC as its little brother. In recent years, though, the ACC has brought some of its traditional power back to prominence.

    Clemson (which appears next) has emerged as a perennial contender in the conference, and Florida State capped its return to national relevance with the BCS title last season.

    Despite Florida’s horrible 2013 slump, it is still viewed as one of the SEC’s power programs.

    Another loss to its in-state rival would not sit well in Gainesville—nor would it reflect well on the conference.

    Florida’s defense still played well for the most part despite the rest of the ship sinking. Yet Winston threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns against the Gators.

    Sure, Muschamp should field another strong defense this season, but he also needs his offense to score points because Florida doesn’t seem likely to shut out the Seminoles.

    Maybe first-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper can have more success moving the ball against Florida State this year than he did last year while at Duke. His offense managed just seven points against the Seminoles during the ACC Championship Game.

5. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 29

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    Concern of Loss: High

    Big-Picture Impact: Medium

    South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier certainly doesn’t miss an opportunity to point out his program’s dominance of in-state rival Clemson.

    The Gamecocks have won the last five contests over their foes, leading to multiple barbs from the Ol’ Ball Coach.

    As much as Spurrier might like to think otherwise, one day the streak will come to an end.

    This could be the year. Both programs will be under the guidance of first-year starters at quarterback, but both seem likely to start the season in the Top 25—if not the Top 10.

    A South Carolina loss wouldn’t result in the SEC losing bragging rights over the ACC, but it wouldn’t mean much more than that. Clemson is accepted as a national brand, and therefore, such a loss wouldn’t be viewed as a significant black eye for the SEC.

4. Tennessee at Oklahoma, Sept. 13

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    Concern of Loss: High

    Big-Picture Impact: Medium

    No, Tennessee won’t go into Norman with the nation expecting the Volunteers to steal a win.

    However, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has raised the stakes anytime his program squares off with one from the SEC.

    Stoops went out of his way to take swipes at the SEC and its alleged dominance last year, going so far as calling it “propaganda.”

    He backed up his words during the Sugar Bowl, when the Sooners took it to Alabama in a 45-31 victory—and then further challenged the SEC’s elite status.

    When Tennessee brings its rebuilding project to town, it will almost certainly do so as an underdog—potentially a heavy underdog.

    Oklahoma would love nothing more than to dismantle and embarrass a Tennessee program that has already experienced similar treatment from another program wanting to prove a point about the SEC—Oregon. The Ducks outscored the Volunteers 107-27 in the home-and-home series.

    Can Tennessee stand up for itself this time, or will another big-conference power make an example of it?

    Any chance the Volunteers have will likely come from their ability to establish the run and create extra space for whichever of their quartet of quarterbacks wins the starting job.

3. Clemson at Georgia, Aug. 30

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    Concern of Loss: High

    Big-Picture Impact: High

    Georgia enters the season opener with far more to lose than Clemson, which won an exciting 38-35 game between the two last season.

    Consecutive losses to the Tigers would create a national perception that Clemson is clearly the better program. With Georgia still competing toward the top of the SEC, that is not an idea about which league officials can be terribly excited.

    Both teams break in new starters at quarterback, and both fully expect to compete for division—if not conference—championships.

    One of the most intriguing parts of this matchup will be opposing coordinators squaring off. Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt got the better of Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris last year when Pruitt was at Florida State. The Seminoles shut down Morris’ high-octane attack, allowing it just 14 points—seven of which the Tigers scored with the game well in hand.

    Perhaps Morris can make adjustments after seeing Pruitt’s defensive styling a year ago.                

    A win here would give Clemson and the ACC significant bragging rights over the SEC.

2. Auburn at Kansas State, Sept. 18

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    Concern of Loss: High

    Big-Picture Impact: High

    Big 12 fans—even Texas fans—are only too happy to follow Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ lead on discrediting the strength of the SEC.

    Imagine, then, the crowing that would start to rain down from the conference if Kansas State, which finished fifth in the Big 12 last season, takes down SEC champion Auburn.

    Coach Gus Malzahn’s offense has proven it will score points—and often a lot of points—against even the best defenses. It might have to.

    The Wildcats don’t necessarily represent a great matchup for the Tigers, who struggled significantly in the secondary last season.

    Kansas State boasts Tyler Lockett, one of the nation’s top receivers, and quarterback Jake Waters now has a year of Big 12 experience under his belt.

    Auburn’s best cornerback from last year, Chris Davis, is gone, leaving a significant hole to fill at a position where the Tigers will look to find young talent.

    This game’s national television audience will only amplify the implications across the country.

    Auburn-Kansas State runs unopposed on the Thursday night scene in a setting in Manhattan that should be absolutely electric.

    Bill Snyder has made a career out of stunning results. Can he pull off one more in his storied career?

1. Wisconsin vs. LSU (in Houston), Aug. 30

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    Concern of Loss: High

    Big-Picture Impact: High

    Ask the common SEC football fan about their perception of the Big Ten.

    Go ahead.

    When they’re done laughing, they will say something about the total lack of speed within the conference.

    Those SEC fans would be well advised to hold back—especially in this particular matchup.

    Wisconsin is one of the Big Ten teams best equipped to handle the SEC speed and even match it in a few places.

    LSU’s defense should be much improved in many areas, but the interior of the defensive line remains something of a question.

    That’s good news for a Wisconsin team with a strong, hard-nosed offensive line and running backs—led by Melvin Gordon—who can turn misfits and mistakes into six points.

    The Tigers will break in a new starting quarterback—likely sophomore Anthony Jennings or true freshman Brandon Harris—and will rely on several newcomers to produce.

    This is a big stage for Les Miles’ team to face so early in the season.

    LSU seems like a team that will be significantly better in Week 8 than it was in late August.

    However, that will matter little in the court of public opinion if the Badgers escape Houston with a neutral-field victory over one of the highest-profile SEC programs over the past decade.