- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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There are potential pitfalls out there. On every schedule, there’s a game that can slip you up. One minute you’re favored, the next you’re holding on for dear life.
So which games will fit that mold in 2015? What under-the-radar contest could put each SEC program on its back?
We’ll look at that game for each team in the East on Thursday. Click here for Wednesday’s breakdown of the West.
Florida: at Kentucky, Sept. 19
Let’s face it, we won’t learn much about Florida the first few games of the season. New Mexico State and East Carolina aren’t necessarily gimmes, but I don’t expect to see the full playbook from coach Jim McElwain. So when Florida goes on the road to Kentucky, it will be an important test. Not only will it be the first SEC contest, it will be the first game on the road. Will the Gators have their starting QB? Who will be on the O-line? What will the defense look like under Geoff Collins? While Florida is well ahead of Kentucky in terms of talent, there’s no doubt which team has more question marks. A win against UK would be a start. A loss would cast a pall over the rebuilding process being done in Gainesville.
Georgia: at Tennessee, Oct. 10
Assuming Georgia finds a quarterback, the Bulldogs are the team to beat in the East. They have maybe the best player in the conference in Nick Chubb, a defense that’s coming along nicely under Jeremy Pruitt, and a good mix of veteran talent across the board. But then there’s Tennessee. The Vols are surging under Butch Jones, operating well ahead of what the rebuilding schedule looked like a few years ago. Given their youth (we’ll get to that later), the last thing you want to give them is confidence. At home on Rocky Top, Georgia will be given all it can handle, despite their edge in depth and experience. A win might mean a clear path to win the East. A loss means a dogfight with a talented team that’s young enough not to know better.
Kentucky: at South Carolina, Sept. 12
After ending last season with six straight losses, Kentucky needs to get back on the horse. But after a season-opener against Louisiana Lafayette, that won’t be easy. Not with South Carolina coming to town. The Wildcats may have gotten the best of the Gamecocks last season, but that was at home. This year they’ll have “Sandstorm” ringing in their ears, not to mention the full attention of a Gamecocks team that’s not used to losing to Kentucky. If the Wildcats’ defense can’t find replacements for Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith quickly, they could be in trouble.
Missouri: vs. BYU, Nov. 14
Don’t be surprised if the Tigers are once again in the hunt late in the year. With a schedule that features Southeast Missouri State, Arkansas State and UConn to start things off and Mississippi State and Arkansas out of the West, they could easily make a run. But things could get tricky in November when after a long slate of SEC games, BYU seemingly comes out of left field. For coach Gary Pinkel and his staff, it’s a lot to ask. Because not only are they very different schematically, they don’t have comparable game film to watch since BYU never plays SEC teams. Even though the game is at home for Missouri, it’s a high-risk proposal.
South Carolina: vs. North Carolina in Charlotte, Sept. 3
Last year was bad. Steve Spurrier can say all he wants that a trip to a bowl game isn’t a failure, but given where expectations were for South Carolina heading into the year and where they finished, there’s no other way to describe it. It’s a big reason why he shook up his defensive staff and brought in co-coordinator Jon Hoke. So how quickly can the defense turn around and just who wants to start at QB with Dylan Thompson gone? It’s a tough question that will have to be answered right away when the Gamecocks open the season against North Carolina in Charlotte. We saw what happened when South Carolina didn’t start last season well. A repeat could be dooming.
Tennessee: at Florida, Sept. 26
They’re young. Many of the Vols fans are counting on to play key roles this season -- Todd Kelly Jr. and Derek Barnett to name a couple -- just finished their first spring practice. If a few starters go down, there’s not a lot of experienced depth behind them. But with all that said, expectations for Tennessee to make a run at the East are ever-present. And if they’re going to get ahead of the curve in Butch Jones’ rebuilding efforts, it will take a signature win on the road. So there may be no better early proving ground than Week 4 in The Swamp. A win would mean confidence. A loss might say they’re still a year away.
Vanderbilt: vs. Western Kentucky, Sept. 5
If you’re Derek Mason, you can’t take anything for granted. Not after last year. Not after a loss to Temple and narrow wins over Charleston Southern and UMass. With Patton Robinette retired, there are questions at QB to be considered. On defense, where Mason installed himself as coordinator, there’s just as much concern. So hosting a Western Kentucky team that went 8-5 last year, beating Army and Navy and losing by a touchdown to Illinois, for the season-opener is no small challenge. Another loss to a non-Power 5 team, especially one to start the year, could put Mason squarely on the hot seat.