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University of Tennessee Martin vs University of Missouri football

Mizzou coach Barry Odom encourages the Tigers before the 2018 season opener. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

COLUMBIA, MO. — You might think it’s still college baseball season, but it’s never too early to start thinking about college football. The first game in the Southeastern Conference kicks off in a little more than 13 weeks, which means it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2019 season, which will be Mizzou and Texas A&M’s eighth year in the SEC, the sixth year of the College Football Playoff, the fourth year of Barry Odom’s regime and, just to get personal for a second, my 20th season covering MU’s program in some form or fashion.

(I was the Columbia Tribune’s No. 2 man on the beat as an undergrad in 1998-99, took over as the beat writer from 2000-03, went on sabbatical for a couple seasons then returned for 2006-12, moved to the Post-Dispatch in 2013 and have stayed on the Mizzou beat each season for the local 22.)

OK, back to the what’s most important: football season. Each week over the next few months, we’ll devote some space at STLtoday.com to SEC football with a top 10 list of a new topic each week.

We open with a look at the best nonconference games across the SEC this season. SEC members are required to play at least one Power 5 opponent from another league —Notre Dame and BYU also count — and this year’s lineup features a handful of compelling matchups. There are no new head coaches in the SEC this year, but, interestingly, SEC teams will play six Power 5 teams led by new head coaches, including one recycled coach from the ACC. Here we go.

10. Kansas State at Mississippi State, Sept. 14.

This one is appealing mostly because the Wildcats are under new leadership. K-State went a bit unconventional and turned to the FCS to replace legend Bill Snyder, handing the program over to North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs will have to settle on a new quarterback to replace Nick Fitzgerald, plus the defense loses three first-round NFL draft picks. This looks like a healthy early test for both programs. 

9. South Carolina vs. North Carolina, Aug. 31 (Charlotte)

Again, the interest here is more about the opposing coach, UNC’s Mack Brown, out of retirement and back in Chapel Hill. Brown, who turns 68 four days before kickoff, last coached the Tar Heels from 1988-97 and produced a better winning percentage (.599) than each of the five men who succeeded him at UNC. This could be a pivotal year for South Carolina under Will Muschamp. After winning nine games in 2017, they fell back to 7-6 last year.

8. Florida State at Florida, Nov. 30

What happened to the Seminoles? They won the national championship just six years ago but the last two years went 7-6 and 5-7. Of the three power programs in the state of Florida, the Gators are positioned to be on top — now and perhaps long term under Dan Mullen — and this rivalry game could go a long way toward maintaining that advantage.  

7. West Virginia at Missouri, Sept. 7

The home debut of Kelly Bryant and the new south end zone complex at Memorial Stadium should make for a highly anticipated home opener, provided the Tigers don’t blow a tire out in Wyoming the week before. Will the NCAA have ruled on MU’s sanctions appeal by kickoff? Impossible to know in May, but either way this figures to be a competitive SEC-Big 12 matchup. It’s the second meeting in a two-game series, the first of which was Odom’s debut game as Mizzou’s head coach back in 2016. Dana Holgorsen no longer coaches the Mountaineers, and he’s replaced by former Troy coach Neal Brown, who knows a thing or two about upsetting Power 5 teams on the road.

6. Clemson at South Carolina, Nov. 30.

The reigning national champions face a couple SEC teams this year and in this matchup Dabo Swinney’s Tigers will try to extend their five-game winning streak over the in-state rival Gamecocks. This wasn’t much of a contest last year at Clemson, a 56-35 Tigers victory.

5. Florida vs. Miami, Aug. 24 (Orlando)

The Manny Diaz era kicks off in Miami, and kudos to Florida for scheduling both of the other high-profile programs within the state border. The Gators and Canes haven’t played since 2013, and Miami has won seven of the last eight meetings. This marks just the fifth time since 2002 that Florida, Florida State and Miami will all play each other, with the round-robin winner earning the Florida Cup. The Canes claimed the Cup in 2002-04, the Gators in 2008 and the Noles in 2013. On paper the Gators should have the best team of the three, but the paper could quickly crumble in this early showdown.

4. Auburn vs. Oregon, Aug. 31 (Arlington, Texas)

The last time the Tigers and Ducks met it was for the national championship after the 2010 season, when Cam Newton and Gene Chizik led the Tigers to the BCS crown. The stakes won’t be as high at Cowboys Stadium, but this could be one of the best games across the nation in the first full weekend of games. Auburn’s been scuffling along the last five years — just one double-digit win season — but Gus Malzahn’s teams seem to post better seasons when expectations are mild. One reason to watch: Oregon might have the nation’s best quarterback not named Tua or Trevor. Justin Herbert could have been one of the top passers taken in the draft but came back to Eugene for his senior year.

3. Texas A&M at Clemson, Sept. 7.

Clemson has been nearly unbeatable at home the last six years, losing just twice since the start of the 2013 season. The winning coach in one of those two defeats? Jimbo Fisher, then at Florida State. The Aggies’ $75 million man went 9-4 in his debut season last fall and came closer to toppling Clemson than anyone. These teams met last year at Kyle Field and the Aggies gave the eventual national champions one of their stiffest tests, a 28-26 Clemson win, the Tigers’ narrowest of their 15 victories. The Aggies lost some key players but return quarterback Kellen Mond.

2. Louisiana State at Texas, Sept. 7

Both of these traditional powers won a New Year’s Six game last year. Expect a tidal wave of hype to surround the Longhorns after they won 10 games last year and showed signs of rejoining (finally) the game’s elite programs. A win over LSU will help that cause, but don’t overlook the job Ed Orgeron did last year when the Bayou Bengals beat Miami, Auburn, Mississippi State, Georgia and UCF.

1. Notre Dame at Georgia, Sept. 21

The way Clemson smothered Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinals backed the notion that Georgia deserved a place in the four-team field over the Irish — until, of course, Georgia lollygagged through a Sugar Bowl loss to Texas three days later. This second matchup in three years figures to command national attention, just like UGA’s visit to South Bend two years ago when Kirby Smart’s team built buzz with a 20-19 victory. Georgia has star players to replace at cornerback and receiver but should be loaded for another playoff run.

Missed the cut

Louisville at Kentucky, Nov. 30: The road team has won each of the last four meetings in this rivalry game.

Alabama vs. Duke, Aug. 31 (Atlanta): This might have had more sizzle had Daniel Jones returned under center for the Blue Devils.

California at Ole Miss, Sept. 21: Coming off a two-year bowl ban, the Rebels get a rematch of a 2017 loss in Berkeley, Calif.

Vanderbilt at Purdue, Sept. 7: Two of the nation’s best, if not overlooked, offensive playmakers collide: Vandy running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Purdue receiver Rondale Moore.

Utah State at LSU, Oct. 5: A month after playing at Texas, LSU hosts a sneaky difficult game. Utah State returns key pieces from an 11-2 team.

Odds & ends

Only two SEC teams play road games at Group of Five programs: Missouri kicks off the season at Wyoming, the second matchup of a two-year series, while Ole Miss plays a rivalry game at Memphis. Mississippi State hits the road to play Louisiana (formerly known as Louisiana-Lafayette), but it’s a neutral-site game in New Orleans at the Superdome.

• Once again, Arkansas gets by without having to play a Power 5 nonconference opponent. The Hogs were originally scheduled for 2018-19 home-and-away games against Michigan, but the Wolverines backed out of the series, earning Arkansas a waiver for the SEC scheduling mandate. Instead, the Hogs face a murderer’s row of Portland State, Colorado State, San Jose State and Western Kentucky.

• Credit these teams for scheduling multiple Power 5 teams: Georgia (Notre Dame, Georgia Tech), Florida (Miami, Florida State) and South Carolina (North Carolina, Clemson).

One of the growing trends in college football, especially in the SEC, is schools' willingness to beef up nonconference schedules, notably the league's top programs - or, in some cases, big-name programs that still resonate with fans even if they're not competing for titles. Georgia is leading the way. Along with its annual rivalry game against Georgia Tech, UGA has added future games against Oregon, Oklahoma, Clemson, Florida State and Texas. Alabama has games lined up against USC, Miami, Texas, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. Arkansas has upcoming games against Notre Dame and Texas. Auburn will play Penn State. LSU plays Clemson and Oklahoma. Texas A&M has scheduled Notre Dame and Miami. Florida will play Texas, in a year it also plays Florida State. Tennessee has scheduled Oklahoma and Nebraska for separate years. Missouri hasn't scheduled an elite program but has revived old rivalries with upcoming series against Illinois, Colorado and Kansas State. 

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