Ranking SEC football season openers for 2021 – from most compelling to snoozers | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

The pandemic-altered 2020 college football season included a few blessings.

Among them: Thanks to the SEC moving to a conference-only schedule, we didn’t have to endure games like Eastern Illinois at South Carolina or Kent State at Texas A&M.

Those snoozers are among the 2021 season openers, now that nonconference games are back on the schedule.

Games such as those make me think the SEC should permanently embrace a 10-game conference schedule. After all, it’s not as if playing 10 conference games prevented an SEC team from winning the national championship last season.

Nevertheless, a handful of nonconference games involving SEC teams will give fans reason to tune in when the season begins the first week of September.

Here’s my ranking of the Week 1 matchups involving the SEC, from most interesting to least interesting:

1. Georgia vs. Clemson (in Charlotte)

This should be a battle for the nation’s No. 1 ranking, and it might prove to be a Part I of a sequel that could renew in the College Football Playoff.

A Bulldogs victory would serve as notice that Georgia – not Alabama – is the SEC’s team to beat. A loss, though, would signal this season could result in another squandered opportunity for coach Kirby Smart.

Meanwhile, this neutral-site opener will tell us something about Clemson’s staying power after the quarterback torch passed from Trevor Lawrence to D.J. Uiagalelei.

SOUNDING OFF:Georgia president Morehead sees ‘great value’ in addition of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC

2. LSU at UCLA

Was LSU’s 5-5 record in 2020 an aberration, or a warning that the program’s 2019 national title had everything to do with the perfect union of quarterback Joe Burrow and coordinator Joe Brady?

We'll gain more information about the stability of LSU’s program from this opener.

LSU is just a 4.5-point favorite in this game, which coach Ed Orgeron needs to win to avoid feeling some hot-seat heat.

TOPPMEYER:LSU football coach Ed Orgeron is one loss to UCLA away from hot seat

3. Ole Miss vs. Louisville (in Atlanta)

Ole Miss is a trendy sleeper team in the SEC – the Rebels were picked to finish fourth in the West – and quarterback Matt Corral is a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender.

A comfortable Ole Miss victory in this Labor Day opener would send the hype for coach Lane Kiffin’s second season through the roof.

LANE ON THE BRAIN:As Lane Kiffin fever engulfs Ole Miss, Rebels coach says he has changed

4. Alabama. vs. Miami (in Atlanta)

The Crimson Tide opened the past nine seasons against Power 5 opponents. They went 9-0 in those games, with an average margin of victory of 26.4 points. No game was decided by fewer than 10 points.

Alabama is a 17.5-point favorite against Miami. Still, Bryce Young’s debut as starting quarterback gives this matchup some life.

5. Florida Atlantic at Florida

Credit the Gators for scheduling dates against instate Group of 5 programs. After playing FAU, they’ll play at South Florida in Week 2. A three-game series with Central Florida will begin in 2024, and one of those installments is scheduled to be played in Orlando.

How quarterback Emory Jones fares as Florida's offensive steward, rather than a substitutional wrinkle, is the top storyline in this game.

6. Central Michigan at Missouri

Central Michigan is just a 13-point underdog. Easy money for those taking the Tigers, or is Vegas onto something?

Expectations are rising for Missouri after Eli Drinkwitz went 5-5 in his debut season. Is the praise premature for a program that stubbed its toe in ugly losses last season to Tennessee and Mississippi State?

MIGHTY MIZZOU?:Missouri football 'on the rise': Eli Drinkwitz gives Tigers swagger and momentum

7. Louisiana Tech at Mississippi State

Upside for Louisiana Tech: It returned 10 defensive starters. Downside: That defense surrendered 34.7 points per game last season.

Second-year Mississippi State coach Mike Leach should embrace this as an opportunity to split playing time among two quarterbacks – returner Will Rogers and Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham – to determine who gives the Bulldogs the best chance at success.

8. Rice at Arkansas

Rice’s offense, which has been abysmal the past several seasons, won’t score enough to threaten an upset. But Arkansas’ transition to new starting quarterback KJ Jefferson is worth monitoring. 


  • Akron at Auburn
  • Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky
  • Eastern Illinois at South Carolina
  • Bowling Green at Tennessee
  • Kent State at Texas A&M
  • East Tennessee State at Vanderbilt

First-year coaches Bryan Harsin (Auburn), Shane Beamer (South Carolina), Josh Heupel (Tennessee) and Clark Lea (Vanderbilt) couldn’t ask for much more favorable debuts.

We won’t learn much about Kentucky or Texas A&M, either, both of which should roll overmatched foes.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.