The earliest possible date -- the 2014 SEC football schedule debuts with Texas A&M to traveling to South Carolina for a Thursday night game on August 28th.
Both teams figure to be ranked in the top 25 even with the likely departure of Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel for the NFL.
But the real message here isn't that the game is a good one it's this -- you'd better be carrying the SEC Network at launch...or else.
The state of Texas is the biggest cable and satellite battleground there is, with over 8 million cable and satellite subscribers in the state.
That's why the SEC's decision to use A&M as a massive market to launch the network isn't a coincidence. They want as many people as possible flooding their cable and satellite operators demanding the network be carried in their markets.
How can you accelerate that process during the offseason?
By putting the very first game of the 2014 season on the SEC Network.
Then allowing ESPN to pump that game all offseason.
It's brilliant, really, Chinese water torture SEC-style.
Remember, this year the SEC has two kickoff games on Thursday night with ESPN -- North Carolina at South Carolina and Ole Miss at Vandy.
It's only the SEC Network game on Thursday night.
We're exactly a year away from the SEC Network's launch, but is it possible that ESPN limits their Thursday night football schedule to ensure that South Carolina at Texas A&M is the best game of opening night?
That seems pretty likely.
The great distribution battle is officially underway.
Look at what else the SEC and ESPN have done with the 2014 schedule, it's reconfigured so that there are a bunch of attractive games each weekend. The best games are more spread out than they have been in past years.
While CBS gets first pick every week, keep in mind that some weeks the SEC Network will get second pick. (Also remember that the SEC has the right to put other leagues on the SEC Network when the SEC team hosts the big out-of-conference game.)
Let's just consider a few weeks here to illustrate my point.
What SEC game are you picking first on October 4th?
Oct. 4 Alabama at Ole Miss LSU at Auburn Florida at Tennessee Vanderbilt at Georgia South Carolina at Kentucky Texas A&M at Mississippi State
There are several decent options here, right?
Fourteen months away I'd guess that CBS would go with Alabama at Ole Miss.
Think that one's tough, check out the decision on November 15th:
Mississippi State at Alabama LSU at Arkansas Auburn at Georgia South Carolina at Florida Kentucky at Tennessee Missouri at Texas A&M
I have no idea which game CBS would pick first.
But based on this schedule there's definitely going to be two or three pretty decent games airing on the SEC Network on November 15th, right? Games that could really matter not just for the SEC race, but for the national title race as well.
Keep in mind that it's not just one game, the SEC Network will have a triple header of football most Saturdays.
All of this pales in comparison however to what the SEC Network's ultimate trump card is -- scheduling a team or teams on the SEC Network the most times in markets where cable companies are being the most difficult.
Make no mistake, the SEC and ESPN have a map of the South with color coordination of which cable and satellite companies are serving which teams in those markets. Right now it's like the SEC and ESPN are planning their own Normandy invasion. I need a graphic of Mike Slive holding General Patton's riding crop while ESPN's SEC leader, Justin Connolly, peers over his shoulder wearing a green Army helmet. If you're a good partner -- i.e. one who agrees to carry the network -- you might not be targeted that often
But what if you're a bad partner, not willing to negotiate, fighting hard to keep from paying for the SEC Network?
Time Warner Cable just got the bad partner treatment. The biggest cable company in Columbia, South Carolina? Time Warner. The biggest cable company in the Texas A&M region? Time Warner.
Good luck, guys, you're going to need it.
Let's say, for instance, that Cox Communications is being difficult to negotiate with and doesn't want to carry the SEC Network. Cox's strongest market in the SEC is Louisiana. Guess which team is going to be put on the SEC Network the most? LSU.
What about Time Warner? Well, Time Warner is biggest in Florida.
Go Gators, straight to the SEC Network.
How do you think SEC fans would respond if their favorite team was on television playing football and they couldn't watch?
My point here, it's important to remember that all cable and satellite companies aren't equally present geographically across the South. That is, these companies are strong in some markets and weak in others.
For instance, Comcast is particularly strong in the state of Tennessee. So if Comcast balks at carrying the SEC Network, there's probably a good chance that Tennessee and Vanderbilt at the end of the year would be on the SEC Network.
But this year's schedule also illustrates that the SEC has built traps that could catch multiple cable companies. The SEC could really get gangsta and put Time Warner and Comcast in a really difficult position at the same time.
Look back at that October 4th SEC schedule again. Odds are Alabama at Ole Miss is the CBS pick.
That could put Florida at Tennessee on the SEC Network.
What would Tennessee fans do to Comcast if Florida at Tennessee wasn't on in the state?
Ask the Comcast technicians what it's like when UT's pay-per-view telecast every year doesn't start on time.
The phones explode.
There might well be a riot here if Florida at Tennessee isn't carried by Comcast.
If you go through the SEC schedule with these details in mind, you can see pretty quickly what the SEC has done.
The entire 2014 schedule is a series of landmines for cable and satellite companies.
So who will blink first, the SEC or the cable and satellite companies?
We're exactly one year from launch and it turns out the most interesting 2014 SEC game may not even end up being played on the football field.