1. SOUTH CAROLINA-GEORGIA
Will Muschamp will face many challenges in his first year with the Gators, including key games against Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and Alabama this season.
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Sept. 10, Athens, Ga.
The Bulldogs-Gamecocks game typically sets the tone in the SEC East race and this year will be no different. Coming off its first SEC division title, 12th-ranked South Carolina is the favorite to win the East again this year. Georgia gets the first chance to bring the Gamecocks down a peg.
Sept. 24, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The Razorbacks emerged as a major player in the SEC West last year, reaching a BCS bowl game for the first time under Bobby Petrino. We won’t truly find out what the Hogs are made of until they visit Tuscaloosa in Week 4, as Arkansas opens the season with games against Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy.
Oct. 1, Gainesville, Fla.
As with Arkansas, Florida won’t face a top-tier opponent until it runs into second-ranked Alabama to open October. Will Muschamp, Charlie Weis and company will likely clear their first obstacle when Tennessee visits Gainesville on Sept. 17, but the true test of the new coaching staff will come from Nick Saban’s mighty Tide.
Oct. 15, Auburn, Ala.
SEC proponents need to look no further than this game to tout the difficulties the conference’s schedule can present. The Gators will be concluding a stretch where they face Alabama, LSU and defending national champion Auburn in consecutive weeks. The Tigers enter having visited South Carolina and Arkansas in the previous two weeks, with a trip to LSU the next week.
Oct. 29, Jacksonville, Fla.
If either of these teams manages to threaten South Carolina for the SEC East title, a win along the banks of the St. Johns River is a necessity. Florida has unquestionably dominated this series over the last two decades, but the Bulldogs and Gators have seldom been as evenly matched as they appear to be this year.
Nov. 5, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Most experts point to this game as the one that will settle the SEC West race, as No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 LSU enter the season with sky-high expectations. Both schools seem to feel that way, as well — they both built a bye week into their schedule for the week before their showdown in T-Town.
7. SOUTH CAROLINA-ARKANSAS
Nov. 5, Fayetteville, Ark.
Perhaps the greatest threat to South Carolina’s division title hopes comes in November, when the Gamecocks visit Arkansas and host Florida on back-to-back weeks. South Carolina has developed a reputation for fading in the second half of the season under Steve Spurrier, so this will be their chance to prove the program has turned the corner.
8. FLORIDA-SOUTH CAROLINA
Nov. 12, Columbia, S.C.
If someone besides South Carolina wins the SEC East title, chances are good that the Gamecocks will have dropped this game in Columbia. Most likely, this will be the final elimination game of the year in the East Division race and the winner could very well sew up a spot in Atlanta.
Nov. 25, Baton Rouge, La.
The Battle for the Golden Boot has emerged as one of the SEC’s most entertaining rivalry games in recent years. LSU and Arkansas’ last six meetings have been decided by a total of 21 points and the higher-ranked team lost in three of those contests. It’s possible that both teams will enter with division title hopes intact, so this could serve as an elimination game.
Nov. 26, Auburn, Ala.
Alabama should be an overwhelming favorite entering this one, as the Crimson Tide may be undefeated and have national title hopes intact when it visits the Plains, as was the case in 2009 when Alabama rallied from a two-touchdown deficit en route to a victory and an eventual BCS title. The Iron Bowl is almost always a war and the in-state tensions simmering between the two sides should make for even more compelling drama this year.