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SEC Football Previews: Aug. 29-31

Arkansas wide receiver Julian Horton, a GAC grad, and his teammates play their first game under new head coach Bret Bielama on Saturday. (File photo)

Arkansas wide receiver Julian Horton, a GAC grad, and his teammates play their first game under new head coach Bret Bielama on Saturday. (File photo)

SEC Preview: Week One

Staff correspondent Andrew Hall breaks down this week’s SEC football matchups.

North Carolina at No. 6 South Carolina

Today, 6 p.m./ESPN

After a nearly eight month hiatus, college football returns tonight at 6 p.m. with a game that features one of the most talked about players in the country, Jadeveon Clowney. This matchup pits ACC vs. SEC, offense (North Carolina quietly averaged over 40 points per game last year) vs. defense (South Carolina’s performance will rise and fall with its defense). The general consensus is that South Carolina (ranked 7th in the country) is the better team, but if the Heels and left tackle James Hurst (a projected first round draft pick in his own right) can find a way to keep Clowney at bay, things could get interesting. Ultimately, South Carolina will keep UNC’s explosive offense off the field by controlling the clock on offense and forcing a few turnovers on defense.

Our pick: South Carolina by 7

Ole Miss at Vanderbilt

Today, 9:15 p.m./ESPN

The late game tonight features two teams boasting momentum. Vanderbilt finished last season with a 9-4 record and a top-25 ranking in both the Coaches Poll and the AP Poll. Ole Miss hauled in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes thanks to a number of elite recruits who chose the Rebels over national powers like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Ohio State. Vanderbilt has an edge in experience and coaching and will be able to outshine the youngsters on the opposite side of the field.

Our pick: Vanderbilt by 10

Toledo at No. 10 Florida

Saturday, 12:21 p.m./ESPN3

This game should go Florida’s way, but the Gators struggled at times last year against inferior opponents. In 2012, Bowling Green hung around for a while, Missouri gave Florida all it could handle and Louisiana-Lafayette held a 7 point lead with under two minutes left to play. I’m assuming that Will Muschamp fixed the Gators’ tendency to start slow against weaker opponents.

Our pick: Florida by 21

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M

Saturday, 1 p.m./ESPN

If any player received more dedicated air-time and ink this summer than Jadeveon Clowney, it was Johnny Manziel. It appears the biggest question about this game has already been answered. Manziel will play despite an ongoing NCAA investigation into a possible autograph deal that allegedly led to him being compensated as an amateur athlete. With Manziel in the game, the Aggies should rack up some points. Rice ranked 79th in scoring defense last year. Heisman Campaign 2.0 opens up with a win for Manziel and the Aggies.

Our pick: Texas A&M by 24

Mississippi State vs. No. 13 Oklahoma State

at Cowboy Stadium in Dallas

Saturday, 3:30 p.m./ESPN2

There was widely believed notion that Mississippi State fell apart or somehow regressed in the second part of 2012. That was not the case. In reality, the Bulldogs defeated several mediocre teams (Jackson State, Auburn, Troy, South Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Middle Tennessee State) to open the season 7-0. Ultimately, Dan Mullen’s team could not defeat above average teams (Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Ole Miss, Northwestern). This game is an opportunity to make a statement for Miss. State, but the Bulldogs aren’t quite ready.

Our pick: Oklahoma State by 14

Louisiana-Lafayette at Arkansas

Saturday, 4 p.m./ESPN 3

The Bret Bielema era at Arkansas will open with a win. A victory against Louisiana-Lafayette may not mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but for a program that has been wrecked by turmoil it will be a cause for celebration. The Razorbacks went 4-8 and won just two SEC games last year.

Our pick: Arkansas by 21

No. 1 Alabama vs Virginia Tech

at Georgia Dome

Saturday, 5:30 p.m./ESPN

Alabama has had a lot of success at the Georgia Dome, and this game won’t be any different. When this game was scheduled several years ago, it seemed to be a clash of titans, but Virginia Tech has declined significantly as of late. The Hokies begin this season in a new position — outside the top-25 rankings.

Our pick: Alabama by 24

Austin Peay at Tennessee

Saturday, 6 p.m./ESPN3

Las Vegas has Tennessee favored by 51 points in this game, so it should be fairly obvious how things are going to turn out. Don’t count on the Vols to cover 51 points, as that type of effort requires perfection (and Tennessee’s defense has been plagued by big plays in the recent past), but the Volunteers win quite comfortably and get some quality playing time for young backups in head coach Butch Jones’ debut.

Our pick: Tennessee by 35

Washington State at Auburn

Saturday, 7 p.m./

ESPNU

Auburn has struggled to identify a quarterback since Cam Newton left, and the Tigers have finally settled on former Georgia defensive back Nick Marshall. How well will he fair? He’s certainly athletic, but he also lacks accuracy. Last year, while playing for Garden City Community College he threw more interceptions (20) than touchdowns (18) in 11 games. All that being said, Auburn has a decisive talent advantage to win Gus Malzahn’s first game as head coach.

Our pick: Auburn by 10

Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

at LP Field in Nashville

Saturday, 7 p.m./

ESPNEWS

Kentucky avenges last year’s upset and in doing so ensures that all four of the SEC’s new coaches bring home wins in their first week of play. This game could get ugly, but the Wildcats win by double figures in the first game for head coach Mark Stoops.

Our pick: Kentucky by 10

Murray State at Missouri

Saturday, 7 p.m./ESPN 3

Gary Pinkel is arguably the coach sitting on the hottest seat in the SEC. With tough games against Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Texas A&M on the slate for Mizzou, every other game is a must-win if Bowl eligibility is the goal. Fortunately for the Tigers, they get one this week.

Our pick: Missouri by 21

No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson

Saturday, 8 p.m./ABC

The general consensus is that this is going to be an offense-lovers’ dream. Clemson will bring a highly touted offense led by Tajh Boyd against a young Georgia defense. Georgia will bring one of the most explosive offenses in the SEC against a Clemson defense that is suspect at best. Ultimately, Georgia’s inexperienced but talented defense will make enough stops to win the game. And, don’t be surprised to see Georgia find a lead and conserve it by pounding the ball with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Lost in the hoopla of the Tigers’ bowl win over LSU is the fact that LSU’s running backs gained 140 yards on just 19 carries.

Our pick: Georgia by 10.

No. 12 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU

at AT&T Stadium in Arlington

Saturday, 9 p.m./ESPN

LSU does as good of a job as anyone in scheduling, and the Tigers are throwing themselves into the fire in Week 1. Zach Mettenberger will be much improved as a passer and the defense will re-load in customary Baton Rouge fashion. The Tigers feel slighted by a non-top-10 ranking and inflict pain on the Horned Frogs.

Our pick: LSU by 10