To me, there really isn't much point in discussing mid-season or late-season SEC games right now. Too many things will happen between here and there that will render the preview obsolete by the time we get there. Instead, I'm going to run down a list of early season games that I'm really looking forward to seeing, and tell you why. I'll exclude the LSU games, which should be obvious anyway. Here's a ranking of non-LSU games I'm excited to see in the first 3 weeks.
1. Bama at Vandy, September 8, Week 2. This is the first true test of whether or not hiring Nick Saban will give Bama any immediate improvement. Vandy's no pushover, but if Bama has really improved this quickly, they should be able to handle Vandy fairly easily. If Saban has been unable to really improve the team (or if Mike Shula really wasn't that bad), Vandy will be able to stay with Bama, and will have a real shot to beat them. A loss to Vandy would be devastating, as it would mean that there would be a real chance that Bama would start the season 1-4, and possibly collapse from there despite the schedule easing up a bit after that. A loss to Vandy will make it hard for Bama to get the 6 wins necessary to get to a bowl game. This game will go a long way towards telling us if Bama is going to be a real player in the West this year or if they will decline.
2. South Carolina at Georgia, September 8, Week 2. I've been talking up South Carolina at every opportunity. At this point before the season, I see no reason to believe that any team in the East is better than South Carolina. They have an experienced senior QB who was rather effective last year when he played. They have one of the best running backs in the East. They have a solid #1 WR. They have the best linebacking corp in the East and possibly in the conference. Last but not least, they have Steve Spurrier. They return a ton of starters on defense, and they got a terrific 2007 recruiting class. Of course, it could just be some illusion, which the Rivals network believes. I've been burned by South Carolina before, when I thought they were a dark horse to win the East last year. Like with the above game, week 2 will tell me if I've made a decent pick or if I've seen a mirage again.
As for Georgia, there's every reason to believe they'll be a decent team, and some reason to believe they'll be better than decent. If they handle South Carolina here, watch out for them.
3. Arkansas at Bama, September 15, Week 3. People are sleeping on Arkansas this year. They've had an embarrassing offseason, and they lost a lot of good players, particularly on the offensive line. I guess people think that Arkansas just isn't going to be that dangerous this year with all those losses. There are a lot of similarities between the 2006 Arkansas team and the 2005 Bama team. Both teams got a lot of breaks early, peaked in the middle of the season, stayed in the National Championship hunt until a late-season close loss to LSU, then finished weak. If the trend continues, Arkansas really will have a weak season in 2007 to match Bama's weak season in 2006.
However, I say watch out for Arkansas. Bama lost Brodie Croyle, Tyrone Prothro, and several excellent and theretofore underappreciated defensive players (like Mark Anderson), and suffered through the inexplicably production decline of its star running back. Arkansas loses some good players, but nothing quite like that list of talent, and there is little prospect of the McFadden-Jones tandem going all Ken Darby on them. If they can piece together and effective offensive line, they're a very dangerous team, and this game will be the first test for them.
4. Tennessee at Florida, September 15, Week 3. Well this one just goes without saying. This game always goes a long way towards setting up the season in the East. Both teams have holes to fill, and there's no reason to believe either will be in the hunt for a national championship, but it's Tennessee-Florida! While there are other games I have more immediate interest in, you have to include this one on the list.
5. Tennessee at Cal, September 1, Week 1. This list is in order of excitement, not in chronological order. This is the biggest out-of-conference matchup for an SEC team other than LSU vs. Virginia Tech. Cal will be looking for revenge against a team that mauled them last season, setting the tone for people to realize how strong the SEC was. Cal has the Vols at home this time. We'll see if Tennessee can replace the weapons and defensive talent it lost. If so, they should handle Cal, but they won't have Cal in awe this time, like they were when they saw close to 100,000 screaming fans at Neyland Stadium last year, a sight Cal fans do not see in the more subdued Pac-10.
6. Kansas State at Auburn, September 1, Week 1. It's disappointing that Auburn has such a weak early schedule. There wasn't a single game in the first four weeks that I could really point to and say, "This game will tell us something about Auburn." There isn't one. This is easily their best game until they play Florida on September 29, and I'm just not going out that far. I applaud Auburn for scheduling a reasonably tough out-of-conference game. I just wish the scheduling gods hadn't followed it up with South Florida, bye-week, New Mexico State, and Mississippi State. How'd they manage to get their SEC opener to be against Mississippi State in Week 3 and not to have a really good SEC matchup until Week 5? Anyway, if you don't catch this one, you won't know anything about Auburn for a long time.