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Florida photo by Courtney Culbreath / Florida football coach Dan Mullen is concerned reduced practice time this year could result in sloppy play out of the gate.

After several incredibly trying months amid this COVID-19 pandemic, Southeastern Conference football returns Saturday with seven head-to-head matchups that will start the league's 10-game schedule consisting solely of conference contests.

SEC football is back, but will quality SEC football return?

If you've witnessed any games in other leagues to this point — Georgia Tech won at Florida State 16-13 on Sept. 12 despite throwing two interceptions and having three kicks blocked — then you know it's been quite wretched. SEC coaches are aware of the shoddy play and hope they can avoid it as much as possible.

"We've missed so much football," Florida's Dan Mullen said Wednesday. "You ended up with limited practices in training camp. They changed how we dictate training camp and basically eliminated a lot of your time when you teach a lot of things with the rules that were made. You eliminate spring ball, and I think what you've seen is a massive amount of football teaching taken away from these guys.

"It has shown with the performances you have seen on the field."

Alabama's Nick Saban said roster continuity has been the bigger issue in Tuscaloosa during this unprecedented time.

"You may have a couple of players out this week, and then you had several different players out last week," Saban said, "so you don't have the same continuity, and that can affect any part of your team."

Don't expect a ton of close calls during the SEC's first weekend, as there are three games involving point spreads larger than 24 points: Alabama over Missouri, Georgia over Arkansas, and Texas A&M over Vanderbilt. That is an SEC first when it comes to league pairings on one weekend.

There also will be the adjustments to smaller crowds, with Ed Orgeron of reigning national champion LSU admitting, "We've got to create our own energy and focus," inside Tiger Stadium against visiting Mississippi State.

Most SEC schools have capped their stadium capacities at either 20% or 25%, but Auburn has the added wrinkle Saturday of allowing students to purchase the overwhelming majority of the tickets. That should make Jordan-Hare Stadium the loudest of all venues on this most curious of opening weekends.

"When the schedule first came out, the first thing that stood out to me is we actually were at home the very first game, which I think is important with all this new normal," Auburn's Gus Malzahn said. "Our student section is always one of the best, if not the best in the country, and I know they're going to have their A-game. They'll be loud as possible to help us win."

 

Pasquali's Pix

Florida at Ole Miss: This marks Florida's first trip to Oxford since 2007 and its first true road game in a season opener since a journey to Miami in 1987, when the Hurricanes shredded the Gators by the unique score of 31-4. Gators 33, Rebels 16.

Kentucky at Auburn: Did you know these are the two winningest SEC men's basketball programs over the past five years? Did you also know that the Wildcats have defeated the Tigers in football just once in the past 50 years? Tigers 27, Wildcats 24.

Mississippi State at LSU: Since 2001, Mike Leach offenses lead all Football Bowl Subdivision programs with an average of 394.5 passing yards per game. Of course, none of those Leach aerial attacks had to face cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. Tigers 33, Bulldogs 14.

Georgia at Arkansas: Nick Saban (19-0) and Kirby Smart (0-0) have yet to lose to a former assistant coach. Bulldogs 51, Razorbacks 10.

Alabama at Missouri: The Crimson Tide are 13-0 in season openers under Saban by the average score of 41-11. Sure, the likes of Western Carolina, San Jose State and Kent State account for some of those whippings, but so do Clemson, Florida State, Michigan and Southern California. Tide 48, Tigers 13.

Vanderbilt at Texas A&M: Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond has 34 career starts and has surpassed 7,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards, matching a feat attained by program legend Johnny Manziel. Vandy's top returning passer is junior receiver Cam Johnson, who had a 16-yard completion last year. Aggies 54, Commodores 7.

Tennessee at South Carolina: The Volunteers snapped their 0-for-7 lifetime skid against Will Muschamp-coached teams last season, so it's all gravy from here. Vols 27, Gamecocks 19.

Florida State at Miami: The Seminoles were a sizzling 59-9 in the five seasons leading up to the 2017 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Alabama. They're 18-21 since. Hurricanes 31, Seminoles 16.

Other picks:

Oklahoma 45, Kansas State 12

Central Florida 52, East Carolina 21

Pittsburgh 24, Louisville 17

Syracuse 26, Georgia Tech 25

Texas-San Antonio 29, Middle Tennessee 20

Charlotte 27, Georgia State 24

Appalachian State 48, Campbell 9

Texas 51, Texas Tech 28

Cincinnati 30, Army 23

Oklahoma State 33, West Virginia 26

Virginia 31, Duke 22

BYU 34, Troy 13

Virginia Tech 32, N.C. State 27

Baylor 40, Kansas 19

Boston College 19, Texas State 14

Louisiana-Lafayette 36, Georgia Southern 31

Last week:

Winners — 0

Memorable games — 0

Pasquali is undefeated and winless so far in his 26th season.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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