We are one week away from the return of the 2023 college football season. The action kicks off across the pond, as Notre Dame and Navy open the season at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. The SEC season officially kicks off later that night on the SEC Network as Vanderbilt hosts Hawaii from Nashville. Last Word on College Football has everything you need to prepare for Saturday. Each week we’ll preview the top matchups in the SEC. Last week, we gave you something sweet by looking at the cupcakes, the SEC’s easiest non-conference schedules. This week, we break down the top 2023 SEC Non-conference Schedules.
Most Challenging: South Carolina Gamecocks
Opponents: North Carolina (N), Furman, Jacksonville State, Clemson (H)
South Carolina has the#1 strength of schedule in the country. The Gamecocks play two ACC foes for bragging rights beyond the traditional SEC-ACC debate. They open the season in Charlotte against North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Classic. The winner can lay claim as the true “Carolina” team. South Carolina has shown steady improvement under Shane Beamer. The Gamecocks are 15-11 and have gone bowling in both of his seasons in Columbia.
Beamer knocked off Mack Brown and the Tar Heels in the 2021 Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Who can forget the post-game Mayo bath? The Gamecock defense will have their hands full trying to contain the Tar Heel’s Drake Maye. Maye’s name is on all the Heisman watch lists and will likely challenge Caleb Williams as the #1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.
The Gamecocks close the season with its annual matchup against Palmetto state rival Clemson. A South Carolina field goal in the fourth quarter snapped the Gamecocks’ seven-game losing streak in the series and knocked Clemson and the ACC out of contention for a College Football Playoff spot in 2022. Beamer is also beating his team’s in-state rival in recruiting. The Gamecocks currently have commitments from three of the top five players in the state in the Class of 2024. Contrast that with Clemson that only has commitments from three of the top 20 players, none of which are in the top 10. 2023 is shaping up to be a big year in Columbia, South Carolina.
Hot Seat Alert: Florida Gators
Opponents: Utah (A), McNeese (H), Charlotte (H), Florida State (H)
While South Carolina may have the most challenging Strength of schedule, Flordia has arguably the toughest SEC non-conference schedule. The Gators open the season by traveling to Salt Lake City for a night game against Utah. Billy Napier and the Gators escaped an early season loss to the Utes in 2022, behind the running ability of Anthony Richardson. Richardson is now the Indianapolis Colts’ starting quarterback, and Napier has tapped Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz as the Gator’s starting quarterback in 2023. Mertz was a bright spoke back in the dark days of the 2020 college football season. His hot start had folks thinking he might win the Heisman and bring Wisconsin a playoff berth. Spoiler: it didn’t happen.
In addition, Flordia’s biggest in-state rival, Florida State, is primed to have a breakout season in 2023. The Seminoles are the pick to win the ACC and the first Flordia team to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Gators seemed to be pulling away from the Seminoles in 2018 and 2019, with two wins by an average of 25 points. The gap is erased, and Florida is now chasing Florida State for the state’s top college football spot.
2023 is going to be a concern for Gator fans. Napier came in with a lot of hype and a pedigree that included working coaching under Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban. Richardson was the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, yet the Gators were a paltry 6-7 last year. As Lane Kiffin pointed out during Flordia’s Spring game, the Gators will be thrown to the fire in 2023, and Napier’s seat might get warmer. I mean, we think that is what Kiffin was saying.
Must See TV: Alabama Crimson Tide
Opponents: Middle Tennessee (H), Texas (H), USF (A), Chattanooga (H)
Is Alabama playing an actual road game at South Florida? Yes, but that’s not the point of this section. Speaking of road games. “We’re just going to play another road game. Just as hard in Kansas and Iowa State as it is going to be in Tuscaloosa. It’s just bigger and more people.” Those were the words of Texas (and former Alabama) Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Banks in his thoughts on the Longhorns traveling to Bryant Denny Stadium. I am sure Saban won’t have that up in the locker room or remind his players and fans about the comment leading up to their Week 2 matchup with Texas. There are plenty of questions about Alabama heading into the 2023 season. Who will be the quarterback? How quickly will new coordinators Tommy Rees and Kevin Steele acclimate?
Those questions should be starting to be answered when they host the Longhorns. Big things are expected from Texas in their last year in the Big 12 before they move to the SEC in 2024. Steve Sarkisian has elevated recruiting and won the #WeWantArch (Manning) sweepstakes in 2023. He will also have second-year starter Quinn Ewers back at quarterback and several receivers to scheme open against the Tide. A win against Alabama could vault the Texas is Back fan club into overdrive and spark the Longhorns to their first College Football Playoff appearance. An Alabama loss and the naysayers will grow louder about Saban starting to lose his fastball. Take a look at Saban’s smile after last week’s press conference; he may still have a few tricks up his sleeve.
Upset Special: Tennessee Volunteers
Opponents: Virginia (N), Austin Peay (H), UTSA (H), UConn (H)
Tennessee had a breakout season in 2022. The Volunteers went 11-2 and defeated Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Joe Milton has gotten plenty of love for his big arm and seems primed to replace Hendon Hooker for the Vols. Beware the rat poison Vol nation. Looking at Tennessee’s non-conference schedule, there is one game where they could be ripe for an upset: UTSA. Jeff Taylor has ensured that the Roadrunners are up for any test. UTSA was 11-3 in 2023 and won Conference USA. They will jump to the AAAC in 2024, but don’t let the G5 label mislead you. Frank Harris returns as quarterback and is ready to lead the Roadrunners in 2023. The Redshirt senior accounted for 41 touchdowns (9 rushing, 32 throwing) in 2022 and was Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player and an Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award finalist. Tennessee will be expected to push Georgia in the SEC East in 2023, but first, they need to focus on the non-conference opponents and avoid the rat poison.