(We’re counting down to the first Saturday of college football, now 35 days away)
Let's look at the most crucial early stretches in the schedule for the SEC Eastern Division. We can do the same for the Western Division on Sunday.
Florida: Sept. 8 at Texas A&M, Sept. 15 at Tennessee. The Gators were generally a strong road team for Urban Meyer - 14-2 between 2006 and 2009 - but they're just 3-5 as a true road team in the past two seasons. Wins in both of these should have Florida 4-0 when LSU visits on Oct. 6.
Georgia: September sets up nicely for the Bulldogs, with only a Sept. 8 visit to Missouri meriting real preseason concern. It could be an emotional day at Columbia as the Tigers play their first SEC game, but this is a veteran Georgia team that has generally played well on the road for Mark Richt.
Kentucky: Sept. 2 at Louisville, Sept. 8 vs. Kent State, Sept. 15 vs. Western Kentucky. The Wildcats must get off to a good start, because they walk into a buzz saw of seven SEC games in seven weeks after these three non-league games. Joker Phillips teams are 1-8 on the road, with the only win in the 2010 season opener at Louisville. The Cardinals are projected to win the Big East, so this will be a tough opener. Phillips is 11-14 in two seasons, and the only obvious path to a .500 season involves winning all three of these, beating Samford on Nov. 17 and stealing a couple of SEC games - but there's not an obvious league win on the schedule.
Missouri: Sept. 22 at South Carolina, Sept. 29 at Central Florida. The Tigers' first SEC road game comes in the context of a 1-4 road mark last season, and they gave up 37 or more points in three of those. You'd like to say that a "real" SEC team wouldn't risk a road trip to UCF, which appears like the favorite in the Conference USA East, but it should be a good test.
South Carolina: Aug. 30 at Vanderbilt, Sept. 8 vs. East Carolina. The loser of the first league game of 2012 will be in a hole even before the sun comes up on the first Saturday. The Gamecocks have won 10 non-league home openers in a row, but have had some problems with East Carolina teams in the past.
Tennessee: Sept. 31 vs. N.C. State (at Atlanta). As with South Carolina, this is a game that could set the tone for the Vols right from the start. By the end of September, they will also have played Florida (Sept. 15) and at Georgia (Sept. 29), so we should have a good handle on Derek Dooley's squad - and, perhaps, his future - by then.
Vanderbilt: Aug. 30 vs. South Carolina, Sept. 8 at Northwestern. It's a challenging early stretch for Vandy, even though the team only plays three September games (Sept. 29 open week). There's all sorts of historical evidence pointing to a 1-3 start, when you include a Sept. 22 visit to Georgia, but a big part of James Franklin's challenge is to continue to fight against a long history of failure. There's no sample of games in the past 10 years that compares to the Commodores' 5-2 home mark last season, so it's impossible to figure if this was a fluke or a new thing.