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SEC: Previewing the games worth watching this weekend

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(RNN) - Week 1 in the SEC: Fake bowls and check games. Fake bowls happen when SEC teams play teams from other leagues because it makes good TV and generates the massive revenues that make check games possible. Check games happen when little schools visit big schools and receive a few hundred grand for getting slapped around like extras in a gladiator movie. It's trickle-down economics at its most brutal.

Let us pause a moment and salute the lads from Bowling Green, North Texas, Jacksonville State, Central Arkansas, Jackson State and Southeastern Louisiana, who will be taking one for the budget this weekend at Florida, LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Missouri, respectively.

Here are the real games, all times Eastern:

Friday, Aug. 31

Tennessee vs. North Carolina State, 7 p.m., Atlanta Georgia Dome

We last saw the Tennessee Volunteers walking dejectedly to the locker room after a humiliating loss to Kentucky - and it wasn't basketball season.  Getting back on track after last year's 5-7, bowl-free season is Job No. 1 for embattled coach Derek Dooley, who needs wins early in the season like a developing forest fire needs control breaks and ditches in its probable path.

The Vols have 10 starters back from last season's lackluster offense but will be missing WR Da'Rick Rogers, who caught an SEC-high 67 balls last year. Rogers was suspended indefinitely for unspecified rules violations.

N.C. State will be missing its starting cornerback C.J. Wilson, who was suspended for unspecified academic issues. Bad news all around, but it seems the Vols got the worst of that exchange.

N.C. State has a 6'6", redheaded quarterback who slung the rock for 3,000 yards last year and Tennessee's pass defense better be better than it was last year or no fun will be had by Tennessee.

Saturday, Sept. 1

Auburn vs. Clemson, 7 p.m. EST, Atlanta Georgia Dome

Two years ago Auburn won the national title under second-year coach Gene Chizik then tapered off to an 8-5 record. Last year, Clemson whipped the fans into a frenzy by winning its first eight games under Dabo Swinney.  

The joy died slowly and painfully. Clemson lost four of its last six games, mixing in three catastrophic failures against N.C. State, South Carolina and West Virginia. Both head coaches have something to prove this year. Both teams are more seasoned.  

Auburn is better on defense. Clemson has more talent on offense. Auburn has had a flurry of internal problems – a couple of players got into trouble for drinking, another was declared ineligible because a high school counselor fudged academic transcripts, assorted dismissals for random misbehavior. Auburn's quarterback is unproven and the running back position is slimly populated.

Alabama vs. Michigan, 8 p.m. EST, Arlington, TX

Alabama lost much of its awesome defense and returns a good portion of an annoying offense that stalled in the red zone most of last year. Michigan returns the coolest quarterback in college football, Denard Xavier Robinson, nicknamed "Shoelace" because he doesn't wear shoelaces while he runs off and leaves defensive players. The Wolverines have seven players back off a pretty good defense.

Nick Saban hired Doug Nussmeier to run the Crimson Tide offense after Jim McElwain left to be head coach at Colorado State. Nussmeier's offenses at Washington and Fresno State scored lots of points and he has produced a lot of good quarterbacks.  He's got a good one to work with: A.J. McCarron threw for 2,600 yards last year and didn't make mistakes. Alabama has a great offensive line.

Saban's teams always start strong.  Alabama has a marked advantage in team speed. Michigan has a chance to make a statement here. If it wins, Brady Hoke will be anointed as a water-walking genius and the Wolverines are elite again. If they play close (Alabama is a 12-point favorite), they're probably good enough to beat Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska and go to the Rose Bowl.

Sunday, Sept. 2

Kentucky at Louisville, 3:30 p.m.

This would be a really good basketball game. It might even be a fairly good football game, because Louisville and Kentucky truly hate each other, which tends to make for interesting sporting events.

The clash of in-state rivals wasn't sexy enough to pull a TV audience on Saturday, though, so it got moved to Sunday.Louisville has a lot of starters back and is probably the best team in the Big East – and Kentucky is one of the few teams in the SEC a team from the Big East can beat.

Kentucky's Joker Phillips is under the gun and a win in this game could go a long way toward making his life easier. And why is Joker Phillips called "Joker?" I have never seen him crack a smile, and that doesn't seem likely anytime soon.