The Southeastern Conference, a perennial contender for the National Championship, has long been ridiculed for its “soft” out of conference schedule. The big out of conference games taking place within the first few weeks of the season will go a long way in determining what the SEC has to offer this season.
Biggest SEC Out of Conference Games in 2015
Florida vs. East Carolina
Saturday, September 12th, 7 p.m. EST, ESPN2
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium; Gainesville, FL
Out of all the games featured here, this has the biggest upset potential, but will plot the trajectory of where this Florida team is headed.
The offensive minded McElwain was hired this off-season to breathe new life into a Gators’ offense that struggled mightily under the helm of Will Muschamp. Growing pains will be expected with a new quarterback. Whether its Will Grier or Treon Harris, whoever wins the job will begin their first season as a starter with an inexperienced offensive line. The Gators will rely heavily on their backfield which returns junior Kelvin Taylor, while true freshman Jordan Scarlett is expected to make an impact immediately. They will be going against a Pirates’ rush defense that – though ranked 11th in the country in rushing yards per game – forced teams to pass due to their high scoring offense (337-169 scoring differential in their eight games last season).
Hopefully, the only remnants of Muschamp left in Gainesville is the Gators’ stellar defense. Last season Florida ranked 15th in the country, allowing only 21.1 points per game and 4.55 yards per play. The defense returns seven starters, including All-American cornerback and future first-round NFL draft-pick Vernon Hargreaves III. With ECU losing key veterans in quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy, the Pirates’ may not have enough wind in their sails to land ashore in the end zones of The Swamp.
South Carolina vs. North Carolina
Thursday, September 3rd, 6 p.m., ESPN
Bank of America Stadium; Charlotte, NC
After an extremely disappointing 2014 season that started with a 52-28 opening day shellacking in Williams-Brice at the hands of Texas A&M, South Carolina looks to start this season on a better note against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Offensively, the Gamecocks will be hoping sophomore Connor Mitch will be able to duplicate the success of the legendary Connor Shaw. Having junior wide receiver Pharoh Cooper certainly helps. The wide receiver snagged 69 passes for 1, 136 yards and nine touchdowns last season and will be difficult to contain by a Tar Heels pass defense that allowed 8.54 yards per pass attempt. Running backs Brandon Wilds and David Williams will have all day to run with a North Carolina rush defense that gave up nearly 250 yards per game on the ground.
After last year’s horrendous defensive outing in the season debut that carried on throughout the season, South Carolina hopes to turn things around by switching to a 4-3 defense. Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton return at middle and weakside linebacker respectively, and will look to contain quarterback Marquise Williams, a dual-threat who rushed for 783 yards and 13 touchdowns while passing for 3,073 yards with 21 touchdowns against nine interceptions.
Tennessee vs. Oklahoma
Saturday, September 12th, 6 p.m. ESPN
Neyland Stadium; Knoxville, TN
The Volunteers’ September 12th rematch in Knoxville against the Sooners will hopefully go better after last year’s 34-10 drubbing in Norman.
Head Coach Butch Jones will be working with a new offensive coordinator for the first time in his eight years of coaching, hiring Mike DeBord after Mike Bajakian left to coach Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay. Sophomore quarterback Josh Dobbs will take the reins behind center, and with a receiving corps lead by three returning starters in junior Marquez North and seniors Von Pearson and Pig Howard, the Vols will have a field day going up against a Sooners pass defense that allowed 276.2 yards a game last season.
The Vols bring back several key players on a defense that only allowed 196.2 passing yards per game last season. Derek Barnett and outside linebacker Curt Maggitt registered 10 and 11 sacks respectively last season, which will cause trouble for a Sooners squad that lost three starters on the offensive line. A defensive backfield featuring junior cornerback Cam Sutton and a three-year starter in senior strong safety Brian Randolph will cause problems for an OU squad that finished 83rd in passing yardage per game.
Texas A&M vs. Arizona State
Saturday, September 5th, 6 p.m. ESPN
NRG Stadium; Houston, TX
Perhaps the most equally matched teams, the Aggies take on the Sun Devils in Houston to kick off their respective seasons.
Sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen took over for a flamed out Kenny Hill last year, and will more than likely get the start on opening day. Allen will have an excellent wide receiver corps to throw too that features sophomores Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones, along with All-SEC junior Josh Reynolds. Going against a ASU defensive backfield that returns both its starting corners in Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown, the matchup will be great to witness.
New defensive coordinator John Chavis looks to establish a more physical style of play with a defense that finished last in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game (150) and 234.8 yards through the air. ASU replaces Taylor Kelly at quarterback, but Mike Bercovici has shown flashes of greatness, passing for 488 yards in his first career start against UCLA last season.
Alabama vs. Wisconsin
Saturday, September 5th, 8 p.m. ABC
Cowboys Stadium; Arlington, TX
With a disappointing and somewhat shocking end to last season after a loss to National Champions Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide seek to get revenge on the Big Ten when they start the season in Arlington, TX against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Whereas Texas A&M vs. Arizona State will be a dogfight, Alabama vs. Wisconsin will be a ground battle in the trenches. T.J. Yeldon is gone but there won’t be any drop off in the rushing game with junior running back Derrick Henry. Wisconsin also loses big legs in the backfield with the departure of Melvin Gordon but have their own spare in Corey Clement. The Tide lost several starters on the offensive line and will have a freshman in Ross Pierschbacher at left guard. But as we’ve seen before, Nick Saban will have no problem reestablishing a dominant O-line.
The defense returns seven starters to a unit that ranked 12th in total defense last season. All of the defensive linemen return in the Tide’s 3-4 scheme. Last year the Tide held opponents at 3.17 yards per carry; juxtaposed against Wisconsin who averaged nearly seven per rush. Anchored by nose tackle junior A’Shawn Robinson, the d-line will have a tremendous advantage over a Badger offensive front that returns only two starters.
The out-of-conference schedule after the first two weeks of the season are weak for the SEC. However, if Alabama or A&M were to lose, they can still keep their National Championship aspirations alive. Oklahoma and ECU will set the tone for the Volunteers and Gators seasons, while South Carolina seeks to put last year out of their memory and make a run at their second Eastern division title.
The schedule may not do much to silence the critics, but the SEC’s early slate of OOC games offer big matchups with evenly matched teams, bringing a ton of excitement to kick off 2015.