With no need for a fancy preamble, here are the make-or-break games for each SEC East team this season -- not necessarily the most important or coveted games, but the games each team simply can't lose if it expects to achieve realistic goals in 2017.
MISSOURI: SOUTH CAROLINA, WEEK 2
It gets late early for the Tigers, who will almost immediately dive into the most important part of their schedule instead of playing three straight non-conference games the way other SEC teams (such as Vanderbilt) will do this year.
For the teams at the top of each SEC division, the heavyweight games obviously take center stage. For a team in Missouri's position, the success of the season depends on winning games in its neighborhood of strength and quality. South Carolina could eventually become a formidable team, but the Gamecocks are a mystery at this point. Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt (one could even put Tennessee into this basket, but the Vols own a level of pedigree which understandably makes them value higher targets, whether realistic or not) would all love to beat Georgia and Florida, but their seasons depend largely on being able to clean up against all the non-UGA, non-UF teams in the East.
Therefore, as we move along, there's no need to over-complicate this "make-or-break" analysis:
SOUTH CAROLINA: KENTUCKY, WEEK 3
Much of what was said above about Missouri applies to the Gamecocks here. If South Carolina loses to Missouri in Week 2, this becomes a must-win for Will Muschamp. If the Gamecocks beat Mizzou, this game would consolidate gains and put South Carolina in excellent position to make a bowl game. The team could enter October playing for bowl positioning rather than desperately scrambling to merely make a bowl. The Gamecocks want to be able to play Georgia and Florida from an aspirational vantage point, meaning that they want to face the Dawgs and Gators having already achieved basic goals, thereby earning the opportunity to chase the East Division title, no matter how unrealistic that goal might be. Winning both the Missouri and Kentucky games in the first three weeks of the season will allow South Carolina to dream, if only for a little while. An 0-2 record in those two games would be a nightmare.
VANDERBILT: AT OLE MISS, WEEK 7
Ole Miss is going to be terrible this year -- how can this be Vanderbilt's make-or-break game?
First, VU will play this game after a three-game death march against Alabama, Florida and Georgia. This is a recovery/bounce-back game after a punishing portion of the schedule.
Second, this is a road game against a bad team. Vanderbilt's bowl seasons under James Franklin were largely the product of being able to take care of those kinds of situations. Similarly, beating Ole Miss in the midst of its tailspin last year made a bowl season possible (by making the Tennessee game a bowl play-in game).
Third, Vanderbilt's bye week is in Week 8. The Commodores will be exhausted, and they will also be susceptible to the same pre-bye-week letdown which ambushed Arkansas when Auburn dismantled the Hogs last year, 56-3.
Fourth, Vanderbilt's schedule is front-loaded. The Commodores could very realistically win their last six games. This is the first of the six. It carries more weight within the flow of the season than one might think at first glance.
KENTUCKY: TENNESSEE, WEEK 9
The Wildcats so rarely get a chance to play Tennessee on favorable terms. They even more rarely manage to beat the Vols. Grabbing this game will set up the Cats well for November, possibly keeping them in the SEC East hunt. A loss could be dispiriting enough to make the bottom fall out in a rough end-of-season stretch against Vanderbilt, Georgia and Louisville.
TENNESSEE: GEORGIA, WEEK 5
The Vols will have a very tough time in The Swamp against Florida in Week 3. A trip to Tuscaloosa looms in Week 8. This is the high-end home game where the Vols have to plant the flag and make a stand. If they don't -- and the Florida and Bama games produce expected losses -- it's hard to see how the Vols can possibly win more than eight games, and it's very likely they will hover near the .500 mark in late November. Tennessee has to beat Georgia if it wants to have any hope of winning the East... and playing November games in a spirit of optimism as opposed to a cauldron of runaway stress.
GEORGIA AND FLORIDA: THE COCKTAIL PARTY, WEEK 9
This is the one SEC East game which shares make-or-break qualities for two teams in the division... and it shouldn't come as a controversial selection. Yes, Georgia plays Auburn. Yes, Florida plays LSU. Yes, both teams need to take care of Tennessee and will derive a lot of satisfaction from beating the Vols... if they are up to the task. Yet, neither the Dawgs nor the Gators can dream bigger dreams -- of SEC titles or New Year's Six bowls -- if they don't first win the SEC East. Winning in Jacksonville has to be achieved before those larger goals can come into focus.
Sometimes, the obvious answer -- supported by the simplest, most linear thought process -- is the right one.