The SEC has battleground states every single week, and this Saturday’s conference schedule will feature several games that will rival the heat and hatred everybody saw in this week’s election.
Rivalries such as LSU-Arkansas, Auburn-Georgia and Tennessee-Kentucky will be renewed, and other intriguing matchups such as Ole Miss-Texas A&M and South Carolina-Florida are on the slate as well.
So, while there may not be any marquee games in the conference, there are several that will keep everybody tuned in, especially considering Mississippi State showed the college football world with last weekend’s thorough upset of the Aggies that anything can happen any week.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin’s team will try to regroup and refocus against the Rebels, as each team will be breaking in a new quarterback following the season-ending injuries to Chad Kelly and Trevor Knight.
Can the Tigers keep rolling against rival UGA? Will LSU rebound after a hard-fought but disappointing loss at home against Alabama? Will Tennessee or Kentucky be the last team nipping at Florida’s heels?
We’ll have plenty of answers this weekend. Let’s take a look at the top games.
Can anybody beat Alabama?
The Crimson Tide look pretty invincible right now, especially after last weekend’s slobber-knocking 10-0 win on the road against LSU versus a Tigers team that looked like it was playing as well as it possibly could defensively but just couldn’t get anything going against Bama’s dynamic D.
If head coach Nick Saban‘s team is going to lose, you wouldn’t think it would be this week against the 4-5 Mississippi State Bulldogs. Then again, nobody thought MSU would win last weekend, either.
That’s when the Bulldogs shocked the college football universe with a convincing victory over a Texas A&M team that opened fourth in the initial College Football Playoff rankings.
If head coach Dan Mullen’s team can pull off another unthinkable performance in back-to-back weeks, it would be the biggest surprise of the college football season so far.
In order for that to happen, the Bulldogs will need another amazing performance from quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who finished with 391 total yards last weekend.
“Though Mississippi State’s record hadn’t shown it, Fitzgerald, a sophomore, had better stats than Dak Prescott through the same period in Prescott’s sophomore season,” Gridiron Now’s Mike Huguenin. “And Fitzgerald’s game Saturday against No. 4 Texas A&M was better than anything Prescott did as a sophomore in 2013.”
MSU could still make a bowl game, but it needs to come up big between now and the end of the season. But unless Alabama sleepwalks into the game in Tuscaloosa, it’s hard to imagine that will start this week.
After a terrible start to the season, Kentucky at 5-4 is one of the surprises of the conference. The Wildcats have an opportunity to take a huge step as a program this weekend with a trip to Knoxville where they have a chance to beat Tennessee for the second time in 32 years.
The Volunteers, on the other hand, are trying to shake off the hangover from a devastating defeat at South Carolina two weeks ago. Yes, UT beat Tennessee Tech 55-0 last weekend, but a win over Kentucky would improve the climate.
Tennessee still could legitimately win the SEC East, especially considering Florida must play resurgent South Carolina this weekend without starting quarterback Luke Del Rio before traveling to LSU next weekend.
If the Vols win out and the Gators lose, Tennessee will represent the East in the SEC Championship Game.
It wouldn’t be exactly the way the Vols wanted to get there, but a major goal still will be attained if that happens. Then, who knows what will happen in Atlanta? UT head coach Butch Jones certainly wouldn’t apologize for a circuitous route to the championship game.
He recently told Gridiron Now’s Jimmy Hyams:
I put more stress and more pressure on myself than anyone could ever write, anyone could ever speculate. Because the No. 1 thing I don’t want to let down is our players, our institution, the state of Tennessee and our fan base. And I take great pride in being the head coach here and I know how special this football program is to a lot of people.
The Vols could return running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Cameron Sutton, who’ve been injured.
If that happens, it will give UT a major boost. But it must shore up a tattered run defense against UK’s improved wide running attack that features Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell Jr. If the Vols don’t, it could be a long night in Neyland.
Florida’s offensive woes reached the point against Arkansas (especially on the heels of a sputtering performance in a win over Georgia) where basically everybody wondered when head coach Jim McElwain would pull quarterback Luke Del Rio.
Now, he doesn’t have a choice.
The Gators signal-caller will miss this weekend’s game against South Carolina in the Swamp, and with the way the Gamecocks are playing with true freshman quarterback Jake Bentley under center, things could get interesting.
Austin Appleby, who started earlier this season while Del Rio was hurt, will get every opportunity to start. Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask could possibly see his first action of the season. After all, the Gators are playing for a spot in the championship.
If Del Rio’s shoulder keeps him out “a while,” as McElwain told SEC Country’s Ryan Young, UF needs contingency plans.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks have new life under first-year head coach Will Muschamp. Somehow, they’ve gone from SEC East laughingstock in perhaps the worst Power Five division to a 5-4 record and potential spoiler in the league. First, they got Tennessee. Now, they can actually help the Vols with a win.
But the Gamecocks aren’t out of the SEC East running yet, either.
While a lot of the narrative this week has been steered toward Muschamp’s Florida tenure, he directed it back to his team’s chances, according to 247Sports’ John Whittle.
“We’re still alive in the race,” Muschamp said. “We need to go win the game against a good football team on the road. My emphasis for our team is to take the next step in the program for our team, which is to beat a good football team on the road, and Florida has a very good football team.”
Auburn got a major wake-up call last weekend when Vanderbilt took an early lead on the Plains and wound up causing the Tigers to sweat in what eventually wound up a seven-point victory.
They also got some major relief this week when viable SEC Offensive Player of the Year candidate Kamryn Pettway’s injury suffered against the Commodores was deemed not serious. AU head coach Gus Malzahn told AL.com’s Tom Green he wouldn’t be surprised if the 6’0″, 240-pound running back played against Georgia.
That would be major news for an Auburn team that needs to get through this weekend and into a gimme game against Alabama A&M to get rested and ready for the Iron Bowl.
But beating UGA isn’t a given.
The Bulldogs weathered a difficult, raucous environment in Lexington on Saturday night to beat a Kentucky team that had been quietly rolling. In that game, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb looked like a quality one-two punch for the first time in a while, and Jacob Eason threw for 245 yards.
The UGA defense also was opportunistic, allowing Kentucky to make just three of 13 third-down conversions.
So, it was a step in the right direction in what has been a difficult first season for head coach Kirby Smart.
If the Bulldogs can somehow upset Auburn in Sanford Stadium, it would be a monumental victory and a signature win for Smart. To do that, the Bulldogs have to play a great game, but they’ve certainly got the talent to pull it off.
This is one of those rivalries where anything can (and sometimes does) happen.
This season fell apart early for the five-loss Ole Miss Rebels, and Texas A&M is trying to keep its year from doing the same.
Last weekend, everything was great for the Aggies, whose only loss was to top-ranked Alabama. In the initial College Football Playoff rankings, A&M was fourth, which meant if the season ended then, it would be in the final four.
Then, the Aggies shockingly lost at Mississippi State and lost starting quarterback Trevor Knight in the process.
Now, they don’t want the late-season slumber that occurred the past two seasons to repeat itself again this year. That will have to happen with Jake Hubenak under center.
“Yeah, we’re disappointed,” A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said, according to ESPN.com’s Greg Ostendorf. “Everybody is disappointed. The message there is, ‘What now?’ Our attitude when we get back and when we’re in there [Sunday] has got to change. We’ve got to move on.”
The Rebels have dealt with injuries and close losses all season. Now, they’ve been dealt their biggest blow with star quarterback Chad Kelly out for the remainder of the season.
Jason Pellerin will take over and inherit a stable of able receivers, but the Rebels need to finish strongly in order to even make a bowl game right now with remaining games against A&M, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
This weekend’s game in College Station is now a toss-up thanks to the quarterback injuries, but that makes it intriguing to see where these programs will be with a new signal-caller. The future begins this weekend for both teams, which will start looking at the post-Kelly and post-Knight eras.
“A lot of people are just ready, focused up,” Pellerin told the Clarion-Ledger‘s Antonio Morales. “This is my shot.”
Can he make the most of it?
One of the best, hardest-hitting football games you’ll ever watch occurred last weekend between defensive-minded LSU and Alabama in the Crimson Tide’s eventual 10-0 triumph.
If you’re head coach Ed Orgeron’s Bayou Bengals, how do you regroup from that clash and travel to Arkansas to take on a good Razorbacks team?
Despite getting embarrassed 56-3 by Auburn three weeks ago, the Hogs spent their bye week fixing issues and then came back with a convincing win over Florida this past weekend. Now, head coach Bret Bielema‘s team has plenty of confidence.
There’s no downplaying this game on either side, either. While last weekend’s games were big, this one is, too.
“It’s unlike any other,” Bielema said, according to SEC Country’s Connor Riley. “It’s a border state. You have the two fanbases. I mean, how many people fight over a boot? It’s a representation of success for your coaches and players, your coaches, your fanbase and the pride of your state. As Commissioner Sankey always says, it just means more.”
It means plenty at this point of the season as both of these teams are now only battling for bowl placement with the SEC West seemingly out of reach and being decided between Alabama and Auburn.
That’s not the way either coach wanted his season to go, but there is still a lot for which to play. For Orgeron, it’s a head coaching job, as he would love nothing more than the “interim” to be removed from his title.
Though losing to Alabama didn’t help, there’s no question the Tigers have improved since they fired Les Miles. FoxSports.com’s Aaron Torres wrote this week about a path to Orgeron possibly getting the gig.
It all starts with a win over Arkansas. Regardless, this should be a great football game.