It’s always tough for fans to understand how their team can overlook a team on the schedule, or get knocked off by an inferior opponent. But keeping 18-23 year olds motivated for 12 regular season games is never easy – not even for motivational guru Urban Meyer or the intimidating Nick Saban.

 

While every SEC team has a potential trap game it only really matters if the team is a legitimate conference contender or national champ contender. So there’s no reason to concern ourselves with Georgia traveling to Colorado and having to adjust to the altitude, nor should we spend too much time thinking about a monumental upset by Memphis over Tennessee in November.

So a look at the 2010 SEC schedule reveals these as the six biggest trap games for serious championship candidates. 

Auburn at Mississippi State (Sept. 9)

Auburn’s expected record entering this game: 1-0

This game begins a three-week stretch where the Tigers could lose any week. After opening with a typical easy SEC win – Arkansas State on Sept. 4 – Gene Chizik’s squad travels to Starkville and faces an improving Mississippi State five days later in the Thursday night ESPN game. If they get past the Bulldogs they get a tough home game with Clemson on Sept. 18 followed by South Carolina at home on Sept. 25.

Auburn is a popular pick to win the SEC West, so an early loss here would be dissappointing, but not devastating. Tigers QB Cam Newton should have a confidence-building first game, but this will be his first real test.

Why Mississippi State?

The Bulldogs may be a year away from being a legitimate challenger, but the job Dan Mullen has done in Starkville is impressive. The excitement is almost unbelievable considering Mississippi State went 5-7 last year (but it did get the important Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss).

Remember how he had State playing in that near upset of Florida last year? There’s no question the Bulldogs could close the deal against Auburn, especially with the MSU crowd having all day to get primed for this one and the constant ringing of those cowbells.

If the Bulldogs play their normal stout defense behind one of the best lines in the league, QB Chris Relf will control the game with safe passes and handing the ball off to Vick Ballard and Montrell Connor.

There’s also a good chance the Tigers could be looking ahead.

Why it probably won’t happen.

It’s probably too early in the season for Auburn to overlook this game and Chizik is a good motivator so there’s no excuse for not being ready for this road game.

South Florida at Florida (Sept. 11)

Florida’s expected record entering this game: 1-0

After opening with Mid-American Conference weakling Miami of Ohio (Sept. 4), Urban Meyer’s boys take on first-half wonder South Florida on Sept. 11 one week before traveling to rival Tennessee. But the Bulls won’t have that psycho coach (Jim Leavitt) leading them into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Instead, it will be a much calmer Skip Holtz.

There’s no question the Gators are more talented, but South Florida is trying to shed the identity crisis of being No. 4 in the Sunshine State. Remember the Bulls’ shocking win last year at Florida State?

Why South Florida?

The Bulls have a history of pulling off early season upsets. Here’s an impressive list of wins – Louisville (2005), North Carolina (2006, 2007), Auburn (2007), West Virginia (2007, 2009), Kansas (2008), North Carolina State (2008) and Florida State (2009).

OK, Florida is in a totally different category than these teams, but that doesn’t make the Gators any less likely to fall prey to the Bulls’ mystique. Florida will have John Brantley in just his second game at QB and there are a few other fresh faces on defense.

South Florida’s only real challenge early is Florida (apologies to Stony Brook, Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic), so Holtz will put a lot of focus on playing in Gainesville … especially with the in-state players as they’ll try to prove they were good enough to be Gators.

Also QB B.J. Daniels is extremely confident and he played a key role in those big wins against WVU and FSU last year.

Why it probably won’t happen.

The Gators usually get everyone’s “A” game, so UF is prepared for this type of challenge. Oh yea, those Florida players don’t want South Florida posting more of those Big 4 billboards on the interstates around the state like they did after upsetting FSU in Tallahassee.

West Virginia at LSU (Sept. 25)

LSU’s expected record entering this game: 3-0

Here’s what I see happening. About 80,000 totally blitzed cajuns co-mingling with 15,000 liquored-up hillbillies. Sweet!! ESPN will need a permanent crowd-cam, and Erin Andrews will think Rey Maualuga’s sneak attack at the Rose Bowl a few years ago was consensual.

Let’s applaud Les Miles and the Tigers for not being afraid to beef up the non-conference schedule and welcoming WVU to Baton Rouge. A few weeks earlier, LSU also plays North Carolina in the Chic-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta on Sept. 4.

The Tar Heels will be a tough opener, but the SEC has dominated this season opener with the ACC and it won’t change this year.

So why WVU?

Well, the Mountaineers have the overall team speed to keep up with any SEC team, but they lack the depth. Also, WVU teams don’t panic when they are an underdog and the Mounties have held their own against the SEC (ask Georgia and those shocked Bulldogs fans at the 2006 Sugar Bowl). Even in last year’s 41-30 loss at Auburn, West Virginia was in control until Jarrett Brown went on a turnover frenzy.

There’s a good chance Noel Devine, Jock Saunders and Tavon Austin will be too much for an LSU defense that hasn’t been quite its normal dominant self the past two seasons.

Also, LSU will be coming off the emotional victory over UNC and a tough-fought SEC victory over Mississippi State the week before.

Lastly, it’s not often Bill Stewart gets the edge in coaching advantage, but after watching Miles melt down during the Ole Miss loss last year it might seem like Stewart is putting on a coaching clinic.

Why it probably won’t happen.

It’s a night game in Baton Rouge. Louisiana state law prohibits non-conference teams from winning night games at Tiger Stadium?

Alabama at South Carolina (Oct. 9)

Alabama’s expected record entering this game: 5-0

The Tide will be challenged early in the 2010 season by playing Penn State, at Arkansas and Florida in the first five weeks. So there are potential trap games all over the place.

But the defending national champs should be up to the early tests because of experience. On offense, Nick Saban returns reigning Heisman winner RB Mark Ingram, QB Greg McElroy, WR Julio Jones and OT James Carpenter to name a few. On defense, Bama will be led by DE Marcell Dareus, LB Dont’a Hightower, S Mark Barron and LB Courtney Upshaw.

However, after hosting Florida on Oct. 2 and undoubtedly topping the rankings, the Tide will be ripe for an upset when they travel to Columbia for an SEC showdown with the Head Ball Coach and South Carolina on Oct. 9.

Why South Carolina?

The Gamecocks have two weeks to prepare for UA, an advantage five other SEC teams enjoy before facing the Tide. This benefit is not lost on Steve Spurrier and he’ll have a few wrinkles added to the game plan that could lead to big plays.

Also, there’s nothing like a fired up home crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium to give Carolina the edge it needs to upset the No. 1 team. You can almost hear the roar of 82,000 fans as “2001-A Space Odyssey” blares.

All the coaching (and yelling) by Spurrier finally pays off and QB Stephen Garcia (or Connor Shaw) has a career game against a tired Bama defense.

Why it probably won’t happen.

Alabama has a rare opportunity to finish its third consecutive regular season undefeated and no one on that sideline could live with seeing it end against a lesser opponent like the Gamecocks.

Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Oct. 9)

Arkansas’ expected record entering this game: 3-1

The Razorbacks will be in the hunt for the SEC West title and potentially a BCS Bowl bid, so playing their former Southwest Conference rival Texas A&M is not the normal trap game. This longtime rivalry, which dates back to 1903, was renewed last year after a 17-year hiatus and Arkansas easily won 47-19.

With QB Ryan Mallett leading the Hogs offense, which also boasts an improved offensive line and one of the league’s top TEs (D.J. Williams) Arkansas could easily be a two TD favorite entering this game.

Arkansas has also improved its depth on the defensive side and should be better in 2010.

Why Texas A&M?

The biggest reason why is Arkansas will be overconfident despite facing a rival. If the Razorbacks upset Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 25 (very unlikely), Bobby Petrino’s team gets a week off before playing A&M. But the Razorbacks are likely to be looking ahead to a key SEC game with Auburn the following week.

Arkansas was also weak against the pass last year, and Texas A&M QB Jerrod Johnson is an amazing talent who threw for more than 3,500 yards and 30 TDs last season. Expectations are even higher this year.

The Aggies could arrive at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, riding a major wave of confidence and undefeated at 4-0 if they pull a minor upset at Oklahoma State on an ESPN Thursday night game on Sept. 30.

Why it probably won’t happen.

In season three with Petrino, everyone in and around Fayetteville is “High on the Hogs.” Mallett is a potential No. 1 draft pick and he’s surrounded with playmakers who feel they can challenge for an SEC title. Losing here is just unacceptable.

Mississippi State at Florida (Oct. 16)

Florida’s expected record entering this game: 5-1

Mississippi State has the fortune of twice being picked as a trap game for an SEC opponent. Florida, on the other hand, is also singled out as potentially facing two traps in 2010.

The Gators could be 3-3 at this point – if they lose to South Florida in the earlier trap game, at Alabama and to LSU (a game that is played one week before the Bulldogs). Florida’s too well coached (that’s if Urban Meyer is coaching then) and too talented to be .500 six games into the season.

Reports out of spring camp have been glowing about QB John Brantley so the offense could be more potent than last year. The defense is loaded with prospects, but the first year without former DC Charlie Strong (Louisville’s new coach) could result in some growing pains.

Why Mississippi State?

Simply put, Dan Mullen. The former Gator OC had his Bulldogs primed for an upset of Florida in Starkville last year and it didn’t look like a fluke. He’s that good of a coach and motivator.

Timing also helps. While Florida is coming off a tough stretch that includes South Florida, Alabama and LSU, the Bulldogs will be coming off consecutive games against Alcorn State and Houston before facing the Gators. Don’t overlook the fact UF plays rival Georgia two weeks later.

Like the Ole Miss game in The Swamp in 2008, Florida seems to play down to the level of its opponent at least once a season and this seems like a good fit. While these two don’t face each other every year, Mississippi State hasn’t defeated UF since 2004 in what was basically the end of the Ron Zook era in Gainesville.

Why it probably won’t happen.

Florida’s defense will gell by this game and with State having a mediocre running game the Gators will create havoc for QB Chris Relf.