Alabama-Miami, Georgia-Clemson highlight SEC opening week

National Sports

Here are things to watch in the Southeastern Conference in Week 1:

GAMES OF THE WEEK

Two high-level SEC-ACC matchups start the season with No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami in Atlanta and No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 3 Clemson at Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s difficult to label season-openers as crucial, but the losers will be on a season-long alert not to lose again or risk having their College Football Playoff aspirations dashed. The Crimson Tide have eight new faces on offense after losing such stars as quarterback Mac Jones, tailback Najee Harris and receivers Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner. Miami is seeking that signature win it used to rack up regularly as college football’s power program. Expectations at Georgia are high and could implode immediately with a loss to the Tigers, who are looking for their seventh straight ACC championship. The game features a matchup between high-school rivals in Bulldogs QB J.T. Daniels and Clemson’s new starter in quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who sat behind NFL No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence. The Tigers are also minus two-time ACC player of the year in Travis Etienne.

BEST MATCHUP

Kentucky’s opener with Louisiana-Monroe features a matchup between two of the more prominent coaching families of the past few decades in the Wildcats’ Mark Stoops and the Warhawks’ first-year coach Terry Bowden.

Stoops is starting his ninth season at Kentucky. He led the Wildcats to four consecutive winning seasons before going 5-6 in the pandemic-affected 2020 season. Bowden, 65, spent the past two years as a graduate assistant at Clemson for Dabo Swinney. So it’s no surprise Bowden added several assistants with Clemson experience on his staff, most notably offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, who led the attack of Terry’s brother, Tommy, with the Tigers 20 years ago.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

Florida Atlantic coach Willie Taggart Jr. gets to coach in The Swamp when his Owls open against Florida. Taggart was coach of Florida State in 2018 and 2019, but was let go after nine games – before the Seminoles played their annual rivalry showdown with the Gators.

Taggart was hired by the Owls the next month and went 5-4 as their defense was among the best in Conference USA. His team will have a difficult time slowing down the high-impact Gators, who averaged nearly 509 yards and 42 points a game last season. Florida will have a new quarterback and new receivers to break in, after losing passer Kyle Trask and NFL first-round tight end Kyle Pitts.

LONG SHOT

Amid all the projected blowouts likely in the SEC in Week 1, Eastern Illinois might have the longest odds at taking down South Carolina. The Panthers of the FCS’s Ohio Valley Conference have gone 5-24 the past three seasons and even though the Gamecocks have their issues, their SEC talent level should be enough for a satisfying outcome in Shane Beamer’s head-coaching debut.

IMPACT PLAYER

LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. started since he was a freshman season and will look to start his expected final college football season strongly against UCLA. Stingley is projected to be a high first-round draft pick in the 2022 NFL draft. He played in only seven games last year, missing one due to illness and the last two with an injury. He had six interceptions as a freshman in 2019, but none last year as opposing passers tried to steer clear of who he was defending. Stingley’s been bruised up in camp, but LSU has brought him along slowly to make sure he’s in the lineup for Saturday.

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