Marquee openers highlight SEC's 2016 football schedule

With the SEC releasing its schools’ 2016 football schedules on Thursday, we took a gander to identify some of the highlights.

Here is some of what we noticed:

Marquee games: Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of checking out upcoming schedules is comparing the marquee nonconference games for each team. In 2016, SEC schools will play a mixture of annual nonconference rivalry games (Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, Kentucky-Louisville), intriguing matchups at home sites (UCLA at Texas A&M, Clemson at Auburn, Mississippi State at BYU, Arkansas at TCU, Vanderbilt at Georgia Tech, Missouri at West Virginia) and neutral-site openers (Ole Miss-Florida State in Orlando, Florida, Alabama-USC in Arlington, Texas, Georgia-North Carolina in Atlanta).

And then you have a couple of games that are the products of truly creative scheduling.

LSU and Wisconsin will open the season by playing Sept. 3 at a semi-neutral site: the Green Bay Packers’ legendary Lambeau Field. The Tigers and Badgers likely won’t have to deal with any frozen tundra on the historic playing surface that early in the season, but it should still make for an awesome setting to kick off the college season.

In case you were wondering, this won’t be the first college game at Lambeau, but it will easily rank as the most high-profile college contest in the Packers’ stadium. St. Norbert College has twice defeated Fordham there, in 1982 and 1983, and St. Norbert also beat Mankato State College at Lambeau in 1960.

A week later, we’ll witness possibly the highest-attended college football game in the sport’s history. Tennessee will play Virginia Tech on Sept. 10 at Bristol Motor Speedway, a game dubbed the “Battle at Bristol.” Organizers expect to sell more than 150,000 tickets for the game, which would shatter the attendance record (115,109 for Michigan State at Michigan in 2013) for college football.

Best weeks: Opening weekend is always fun, and that will certainly be the case next year in the SEC. All 14 teams will be in action, and many of the big marquee games will be that weekend. Alabama-USC, Ole Miss-Florida State and LSU-Wisconsin will headline the weekend, but Auburn-Clemson, Missouri-West Virginia and Texas A&M-UCLA are all great matchups, too.

The highlights of three more big weekends:

Week 4: LSU at Auburn, Georgia at Ole Miss, Florida at Tennessee, Arkansas vs. Texas A&M in Arlington

Week 11: Auburn at Georgia, Ole Miss at Texas A&M, Mississippi State at Alabama, LSU at Arkansas

Week 13: Auburn at Alabama, Mississippi State at Ole Miss, Florida at Florida State, LSU at Texas A&M, Georgia Tech at Georgia, Kentucky at Louisville, South Carolina at Clemson, Tennessee at Vanderbilt

Power 5 opponents: Next season will be the first year where the SEC requires its schools to play at least one opponent from a Power 5 conference or a major independent team. We’ve already mentioned a couple, but here are the Power 5 nonconference games for each SEC school:

Alabama (USC), Arkansas (TCU), Auburn (Clemson), Florida (Florida State), Georgia (North Carolina, Georgia Tech), Kentucky (Louisville), LSU (Wisconsin), Mississippi State (BYU), Missouri (West Virginia), Ole Miss (Florida State), South Carolina (Clemson), Tennessee (Virginia Tech), Texas A&M (UCLA), Vanderbilt (Georgia Tech).

Cross-divisional games: In many seasons, the difficulty of SEC teams’ cross-divisional games directly impacts their ability to win their division. For instance, Georgia might have a tougher time winning the SEC East when its Western Division games are at Ole Miss and at home against Auburn. Conversely, Mississippi State fans might feel good about their games against Eastern Division teams right now (South Carolina and at Kentucky).

Here is a rundown of each SEC team’s cross-divisional games:

Alabama (Kentucky, at Tennessee), Arkansas (Florida, at Missouri), Auburn (Vanderbilt, at Georgia), Florida (LSU, at Arkansas), Georgia (at Ole Miss, Auburn), Kentucky (at Alabama, Mississippi State), LSU (Missouri, at Florida), Mississippi State (South Carolina, at Kentucky), Missouri (at LSU, Arkansas), Ole Miss (Georgia, at Vanderbilt), South Carolina (at Mississippi State, Texas A&M), Tennessee (at Texas A&M, Alabama), Texas A&M (at South Carolina, Tennessee), Vanderbilt (at Auburn, Ole Miss).

Thursday games: It looks like SEC teams will play just two Thursday night games in 2016. Just as they did this season, South Carolina and Vanderbilt will kick off the season on opening night -- but next fall it will be against each other. South Carolina beat North Carolina and Vandy lost to Western Kentucky on the first Thursday night this season. The Gamecocks will visit Nashville on Thursday, Sept. 1 next fall.

The other Thursday game -- LSU at Texas A&M on Thanksgiving day -- could have significant SEC West implications, and it will be between two teams on short rest. LSU and A&M will both play on Nov. 19 and then turn around and play again five days later. If you’re wondering why both of them scheduled lower-division teams that late in the season (LSU hosts South Alabama on Nov. 19 and A&M hosts Texas-San Antonio), that’s why.