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August 29, 2013

Early tests should set tone in SEC — and nation

ATLANTA — Coaches always preach it: No looking ahead.

Kind of hard in this case, considering all the big games the Southeastern Conference will be involved in the opening month of the season.

No one has it tougher than Georgia. The fifth-ranked Bulldogs open the season Saturday at No. 8 Clemson, then return home the following week to face No. 6 South Carolina in a game that, as usual, will establish the early balance of power in the SEC East.

"We're preparing one game at a time,'' Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said, relying on another familiar cliche, "and both of them are big games.''

But Georgia is hardly alone in facing some early tests that will set the tone in the SEC - and, therefore, the nation.

Top-ranked Alabama, which has won three of the last four titles in the league's unprecedented run of seven straight national championships, kicks off its season in Atlanta against Virginia Tech, which is admittedly a bit down at the moment but certainly a tougher challenge than facing some Directional U.

After an off week, the Crimson Tide hits the road again to take on Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, the only team to beat Alabama last season.

Those games made it easy for coach Nick Saban to keep his team motivated during the offseason.

"It really helps enhance your offseason program, your spring practice, your summer conditioning, because players are looking forward to the challenge of playing an outstanding opponent early,'' Saban said Wednesday. "When you play somebody good, you really see where you are, which is helpful.''

No. 12 LSU will find out rather quickly how well it's going to cope with heavy losses to the NFL. The Tigers begin the season Saturday against No. TCU at AT&T (formerly Cowboys) Stadium in Arlington, Texas. In late September, they hit the road again to face Georgia in what very well could amount to an elimination game in the national title race, if either or both teams are already saddled with a loss.

Also keep an eye on this game: No. 10 Florida faces a potentially treacherous trip to play state rival Miami in Week 2. The Gators shouldn't have any trouble in their opener against Toledo.

Georgia has some experience with this kind of early season schedule though it would prefer to avoid a repeat of two years ago, when the Bulldogs opened with losses to Boise State and South Carolina.

Even though that team bounced back with 10 straight wins, good enough to claim the SEC East title, it would be nearly impossible to contend for a national championship after an 0-2 start.

Swann said Georgia is treating its opener much like it would a game at the end of the season.

"You never want to have that start we had back in `11,'' the junior said. "That's what you try to avoid, so we're preparing like we prepared for the SEC championship game, like we prepared for the Nebraska game'' in the Capital One Bowl.

Teammate Malcolm Mitchell said this opener feels "a lot bigger'' than the 2011 opener against Boise State. Maybe that's because the Bulldogs have a lot higher expectations after coming up just short of being the team that played Notre Dame for the BCS championship last January. In a heart-stopping SEC title game, the clock ran out on the Bulldogs as they closed in on the winning touchdown against Alabama.

Under Saban, the Crimson Tide has made a habit of opening the season with neutral-site games. Last year, Alabama set the tone for a second straight national title with a 41-14 rout of then-No. 8 Michigan at Arlington. This will be the third time in six years the Tide has opened the season in Atlanta, preceded by a 34-10 rout of Clemson in 2008 and a 34-24 victory over Virginia Tech in `09.

"When you play in these neutral-site games, it's almost preparing your team a little bit of what it's going to be like to play against a good team on the road,'' Saban said. "In our league, it's critical to be able to play well on the road against good teams.''

That will certainly be the case on Sept. 14, when Alabama travels to College Station looking to avenge Texas A&M's shocking 29-24 upset a year ago - a game that largely propelled Manziel toward becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman.

Any chance of Manziel not being eligible to the rematch because of allegations he accepted money for providing autographs to memorabilia brokers ended Wednesday when it was announced he would only be suspended for the first half of the Aggies' opener against lowly Rice, for what was described as an "inadvertent'' violation of NCAA rules.

Not that Saban is ready to talk about Texas A&M.

Remember, no looking ahead.


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