The Gators are off, and South Carolina gets an in-state favor...but the other 10 teams in the SEC play games of great importance on the first Saturday in October. If September shows us who the players are, this week may put them in order with a couple of non-conference tests and four huge conference showdowns.
GAME OF THE WEEK
LSU at Georgia
The Dawgs make their third appearance in five weeks in this slot, and will finish their opening gauntlet in Knoxville the following week. Meanwhile, LSU's schedule gives them an easy tuneup through the entire month of September: at Washington, Vanderbilt, LA-Lafayette, at Mississippi State - combined 2008 record of LSU's September opponents: 17-32.
So while the Tigers will still be very untested, Georgia's run of Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Arkansas and Arizona State means the Dawgs will be experienced as the calendar hits October. They could also be beaten down with a couple of losses. For Georgia, this game serves as either the game that proves they belong in the championship conversation, or potentially the one that proves they're taking a step back in 2009. Last year in Baton Rouge, Georgia won 52-38 in a game that featured almost 1,000 total yards of offense. Expect those numbers to be down while both teams are still growing with young quarterbacks...but if Georgia can survive this gauntlet, or if LSU can go into Athens and win, the team that comes out of this one victorious should be in the championship race to the finish.
OTHER MUST SEE GAMES
Auburn at Tennessee
Gene Chizik vs. Lane Kiffin, and this may be the most important game of the season for both teams.
Here's why: for Auburn, September is no free ride with West Virginia coming to town, plus Chizik will get a crack and Dan Mullen and Mississippi State before he sees Kiffin. If the Tigers have already lost once, this is the game that will separate their season - win, and you're probably 4-1 with Arkansas and Kentucky coming up next, meaning you could realistically get to a 6-1 start. When the back end of your schedule includes LSU, Georgia and Ole Miss, how huge would that start be for Chizik?
It's the same thing for Tennessee - if everyone is penciling in a loss to the Gators, if the Vols beat UCLA they'll come into this game 3-1. After this one, the Vols get Georgia and Alabama back to back, and still have to go to Ole Miss - the hot start is so important for the new head coach. If the Vols can beat Auburn and get to 4-1, they should almost certainly be able to get to a bowl game even if they struggle against the best teams in the back half of their schedule. But if you lose here and start 3-2, the whole season is going to be questionable, and all the early enthusiasm for Kiffin is going to take a huge blow with a home loss.
It would be an even bigger blow because we saw last year that Tennessee and Auburn were the exact same team. Their seasons finished with identical records and identical fates for their head coaches, and their meeting in Auburn was about as even (and ugly) as they get, with one Arian Foster fumble being the difference. There should be no real separation between the two teams this year as well, with the Vols hoping Knoxville makes the difference. For Chizik and Kiffin, this is such an important game to get.
OTHER GAMES OF INTEREST
Alabama at Kentucky
Arkansas at Texas A&M
Georgia Tech at Mississippi State
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt
Big chance for home upsets for Kentucky and Vanderbilt - the Cats get Florida and Alabama at Commonwealth Stadium in consecutive weeks, while Vandy could enter this contest 3-1 if they can upset Mississippi State on September 19. Arkansas can really give Bobby Petrino and their program a boost if they can go to Texas A&M and win, while Dan Mullen gets Georgia Tech a week after LSU comes to town, continuing his difficult start in Starkville.
In terms of eventual bowl eligibility, like Tennessee and Auburn, there are games this week that teams really need to win. Arkansas has the unfortunate break in the SEC schedule that gives them both Florida and Georgia in the SEC East rotation this season, so getting to six wins may have to include beating A&M. Vandy's SEC West rotation brings them LSU and Mississippi State plus this annual date with the Rebels, so any upset helps - remember, Vandy beat Ole Miss last season in Oxford. It's a weird year in the SEC, where all 12 teams will enter the season with bowl hopes - Vandy just played in one, Kentucky has played in three straight, and the optimism of a new head coach will allow Mississippi State fans to indulge themselves in that fantasy for now. At most, the conference will get 9 teams in, which would be a ton...but still, at least three teams are going to get left out. So it goes without saying that every game is of vital importance.
THE REST OF THE SCHEDULE
South Carolina State at South Carolina
(Bye Week: Florida)