Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
It's never too early to start looking at the key stretches in each team's schedule, those three or four weeks that could make or break a season. So here goes:
Sept. 26: Arkansas at home, Oct. 3: Kentucky on the road, Oct. 10: Ole Miss on the road -- It doesn't look like a menacing stretch on paper, but it's still early enough in the season that the Crimson Tide could be sorting things out on the offensive line. And winning at Ole Miss would put them in commanding position in the Western Division race.
Sept. 26: Alabama on the road, Oct. 3: Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, Oct. 10: Auburn at home, Oct. 17: Florida on the road, Oct. 24: Ole Miss on the road -- Talk about a killer schedule. If the Hogs are still standing after this stretch, look out. Nobody in the country has a more difficult road schedule.
Oct. 3: Tennessee on the road, Oct. 10: Arkansas on the road, Oct. 17: Kentucky at home, Oct. 24: LSU on the road -- The swing game in this stretch is the one at Tennessee. Coming off four straight home games to start the season, the Tigers could really generate some momentum by winning in Knoxville.
Oct. 10: LSU on the road, Oct. 17: Arkansas at home, Oct. 24: Mississippi State on the road, Oct. 31: Georgia in Jacksonville -- Remember, it was at home where the Gators lost last season, and the Arkansas game does fall on the heels of Florida's trip to LSU. If the Gators are going to lose next season, it likely will come during this stretch. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Florida is off the week before the LSU game.
Sept. 5: Oklahoma State on the road, Sept. 12: South Carolina at home, Sept. 19: Arkansas on the road, Sept. 26: Arizona State at home -- There are a bunch of unknowns for the Bulldogs going into the season, and they sure don't ease their way into the schedule. Surviving the first month of the season will be critical. If they do, this could be a team that surprises some people. If they don't, it could be a long year in Athens.
Nov. 14: Vanderbilt on the road, Nov. 21: Georgia on the road, Nov. 28: Tennessee at home -- The Wildcats are gunning for their fourth straight bowl appearance, and here's betting that it comes down to the last three games of the season to find out if they're bowl eligible. Looking at the Wildcats' early schedule, they might have to win two of their last three to keep their postseason streak alive.
Sept. 26: Mississippi State on the road, Oct. 3: Georgia on the road, Oct. 10: Florida at home -- LSU is the only one of the Western Division favorites (Alabama and Ole Miss) that has to face Florida next season, and the Tigers get the Gators coming off back-to- back road games. Winning one of those games against Georgia and Florida is a must if LSU doesn't want to be out of the West race by the middle of October.
Sept. 24: South Carolina on the road, Oct. 3: Vanderbilt on the road, Oct. 10: Alabama at home -- Are the Rebels for real? We find out right away. It's never easy to go to Columbia, S.C., and play on Thursday night. That Vanderbilt trip looms as a trap game right before the home showdown with Alabama. All in all, it's a pretty cushy schedule for the Rebels if they make it through this early stretch.
Sept. 12: Auburn on the road, Sept. 19: Vanderbilt on the road, Sept. 26: LSU at home, Oct. 3: Georgia Tech at home -- Dan Mullen's first two SEC games as a head coach are on the road, which should tell us a lot about his first Mississippi State team. If the Bulldogs can go 2-2 in this stretch, then a .500 or better record at the end of season remains entirely possible.
Sept. 3: North Carolina State on the road, Sept. 12: Georgia on the road, Sept. 19: Florida Atlantic at home, Sept. 24: Ole Miss at home -- The start to the season is crucial for the Gamecocks. They have two Thursday night games in the first four weeks, starting with the trip to Raleigh. Anything less than a 2-2 start would be bad news for Steve Spurrier and his ball players.
Oct. 3: Auburn at home, Oct. 10: Georgia at home, Oct. 24: Alabama on the road, Oct. 31: South Carolina at home -- More than ever, the Vols have to protect their home turf next season. They get a week off in the middle of this particular stretch, which helps. But that Auburn game at home looms as critical if the Vols want to go to a bowl, as does that game on the back end at home against the Gamecocks.
Oct. 31: Georgia Tech at home, Nov. 7: Florida on the road, Nov. 14: Kentucky at home, Nov. 21: Tennessee on the road -- There's nothing easy about having a tough nonconference game like Georgia Tech thrown in right before you go to Florida and then it comes down to the two games it always comes down to for the Commodores if they're going to be bowl eligible -- Kentucky and Tennessee.