<
>

Five SEC games with the highest stakes in 2017

It feels like the SEC is somewhat wide open this year. Alabama is the favorite, but it isn't as clear as usual.

The SEC East looks like it could have some real bite at the top, while there are sleepers all around.

Every game in the SEC means a lot, but there are always those critical, high-stakes games that keep us glued to our seats in the fall.

Here are five of those games:

5. Arkansas vs. Texas A&M, in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 23

Talking about coaching hot seats isn't fun, but this game will be smothered in that sort of rhetoric in late September. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has watched his program falter under increased expectations, with three straight 8-5 seasons since Johnny Manziel left campus after the 2013 season. Sumlin's own athletic director, Scott Woodward, made it crystal clear in Destin, Florida, on Tuesday that Sumlin has to win this year and has to "do better than he has done in the past."

Arkansas' Brett Bielema isn't exactly engulfed in flames, but his seat is warming after a disappointing 7-6 season. In four years with Arkansas, Bielema is 6-19 against top 25 teams and 10-22 in SEC play. The loser of this game will make far more headlines than the winner.

4. Tennessee at Florida, Sept. 16

The Gators could actually get some divisional love this year, while Tennessee is kind of on the periphery. That doesn't mean that Tennessee coach Butch Jones will sneak by in 2017.

After failing to win the SEC East as the division's overwhelming favorite in 2016, Jones is hearing all sorts of hot-seat fodder. He also has a new boss to answer to, so a mediocre season could be disastrous. Losing this rivalry game will only add to the uncertainty around Jones.

As for Florida, losing this game at home would put the Gators behind in a division that should be a two-team race between the Gators and Georgia. Florida fans have been fickle with coach Jim McElwain, and a loss to this Vols team wouldn't help this relationship at all.

3. Alabama vs. Florida State, in Atlanta, Sept. 2

Early-season bragging rights for the SEC and ACC are on the line in the ATL. Alabama will be seven months removed from that gut-wrenching title-game loss to Clemson and will be looking to take its frustrations out on ACC foe.

Now, a loss for either won't make or break a playoff run, but a win will do wonders for momentum. These two teams will be popular conference winners and should have what it takes to make a run toward those coveted last four spots. Everyone will be watching this one.

2. Florida vs. Georgia, in Jacksonville, Florida, Oct. 28

These are the two favorites in the East, and the loser probably won't head to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. Florida has won the last three in this series by a combined 56 points. Georgia's Kirby Smart needs this one. Obviously, it'll help with a divisional title but it's also a game that Georgia coaches have to win in order to stay in the good graces of Bulldogs fans. The jury is still out on Smart -- even though it has only been one season -- and winning this game would go a long way.

With a season that features home games against Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Florida State, this is another in-state game the Gators need.

1. Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 25

OK, Auburn, we are tossing you some legitimate love, again. Don't make us look bad. With Jarrett Stidham behind center, a salty defense back and a stacked backfield, the Tigers are becoming that trendy No. 2 SEC pick with a chance to dethrone Alabama in 2017.

We've seen this story before, and the Tigers fell on their faces. But something feels different, right? Right now, this game feels like it could be for the SEC West. Alabama is beatable and Auburn is trending up. Maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves, but what if we aren't? A Tigers win here would turn the SEC upside down.