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LSU RB Leonard Fournette
LSU is sitting pretty at No. 13 in the College Football Playoff rankings, is riding a three-game winning streak under interim head coach Ed Orgeron and has faint hopes at earning a spot in the four-team playoff down the road.
That road has a massive obstruction, though, in the form of undefeated and top-ranked Alabama—which holds a five-game winning streak over the Tigers.
If LSU stands a chance to break that streak and keep their dreams intact in the matchup Saturday night in Death Valley, its only hope is star running back Leonard Fournette.
The superstar was held to just 31 yards on 19 carries in last season’s 30-16 loss, and that stat line was actually inflated by an 18-yard run with 11 minutes to play when LSU was down 20.
“We’re going to do some things with Leonard that he’s able to do,” Orgeron said. “I think that whatever happened last year is the past. We have a great game plan for Leonard. But I will say this to you. It’s going to be very tough moving the football on this defense. They’re one of the best defenses I’ve ever seen.”
A good performance from Fournette will go a long way toward Orgeron keeping his job on a full-time basis, LSU staying in the mix for a playoff spot and enhancing the chances of Fournette making a late Heisman push despite missing three games this season.
“He’s the best player in the country,” Orgeron said on Wednesday. “No question. I don’t know how that works with all that stuff, but I know this: When I was at USC, Carson Palmer had a great last three games and we beat Notre Dame, and he won the Heisman. I think that when you look at the things that he did [against Ole Miss], it puts him in consideration, obviously. It’s not his fault that he was hurt.”
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LSU RB Leonard Fournette
He has to have a Heisman-like performance for LSU to have a shot.
While Derrius Guice is a solid running back, LSU’s star performing at his best will make life much easier for the rest of the Tiger offense. That offense averaged 536 yards per game and 8.55 yards per play in three October games. Quarterback Danny Etling averaged 9.2 yards per attempt and posted a whopping 153.51 passer rating in the second month of the season, due in large part to the running game—either with Fournette or Guice—gobbling up all the attention.
But it had that success against three defenses—Missouri, Southern Miss and Ole Miss—that aren’t in the top 80 nationally in yards per play.
There’s nothing to suggest, other than hope, that LSU can become two-dimensional against good defenses. In a perfect world, you’d rather not find out against a defense like Alabama—which ranks in the top 12 nationally in total defense, yards per play, sacks and tackles for loss.
LSU has to have its Plan A thrive, because Plan B—Etling winning a game with his arm—will likely result in a defense that has nine defensive touchdowns this year impacting the scoreboard rather than the offense.
Luckily for LSU, Fournette is motivated.
“[Fournette] is probably the most motivated guy on the team, to be honest with you,” Orgeron said. “He has spoken to the team, will speak to the team again. His want-to to have success against Alabama is as high as any other player I’ve seen. And so is our team.”
Get your popcorn ready.
The Hits Keep Coming
Arkansas’ offensive line struggled mightily in SEC losses to Texas A&M, Alabama and Auburn; and the hits just keep on coming.
The No. 11 Florida Gators will head to Fayetteville this weekend with legit playoff hopes and a defensive front that has the attention of Razorback head coach Bret Bielema.
“They have five inside defensive linemen, five outside defensive linemen and a couple of others who they sprinkle in,” said Bielema. “They have full depth up front before you even approach their linebackers and defensive backs, which is what the SEC is all about. Very disruptive, very talented, very sudden. Every player has his own unique skill set, but they’re all physical and fast.”
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Florida DL Caleb Brantley
According to CFBStats, Florida leads the SEC in total defense (239.4 YPG), yards per play (4.01), opponent long scrimmage plays of 10 or more yards (61), third-down conversions (27.84 percent) and red-zone scoring percentage (68.75 percent).
Conversely, Arkansas has allowed the third-most tackles for loss in the SEC this year (52) and second-most sacks (21).
Arkansas’ Achilles’ heel this year is up front on offense, which is the primary—and perhaps only—reason why Bielema’s crew isn’t in contention. Everywhere you look in the SEC, there are fast, physical and deep defensive fronts that feast when offensive lines struggle or aren’t on the same page.
That doesn’t make this season a referendum on Bielema’s ability to cut it in the SEC, Arkansas’ viability moving forward in the SEC West or an indictment of the program.
It just means that Arkansas’ primary weakness this year plays into the direct strength of virtually everybody on the schedule.
Texas A&M became one of the focal points of the college football world on Tuesday night when it appeared in the fourth spot of the first edition of the 2016 College Football Playoff rankings ahead of undefeated and fifth-ranked Washington.
Not bad for a team that has a signature road win over ninth-ranked Auburn but also a 33-14 loss to top-ranked Alabama on its resume.
Despite the newfound hype, the Aggies don’t care all that much.
“We were actually practicing, so we didn’t know anything about it until we got off the field,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Like I told our team, whatever happened in that deal doesn’t really matter. There’s a lot of football to be played, and whatever the rankings were going to be, was going to happen. Most important thing is to win next week, and this team has done a really good job of blocking out noise all year.”
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Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin
Specifically, this team has blocked out noise related to is impending doom rather than its success.
Sumlin entered the season on one of the hottest seats in America. That seat quickly cooled thanks to a six-game winning streak to open the season.
“The same noise that said we weren’t going to be any good…they blocked that out at the beginning of the year,” said Sumlin. “I don’t see why they won’t continue down that same road right now.”
That’s dripping with coachspeak, but it also is a way of life for college coaches and players. It’s a process-oriented sport that thrives when players and coaches fall into a routine and trust the system. What’s more, this A&M team has veteran leaders like quarterback Trevor Knight, end Myles Garrett, receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and Christian Kirk, and safety Armani Watts—all of whom have gone through plenty of ups and downs throughout their careers.
A&M doesn’t care about the rankings, and I believe it.
A Big-Time Emergence
Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway is an imposing figure, quite literally.
The 6’0″, 240-pound sophomore running back has an SEC-best 933 yards despite notching carries in only six games this year, seeks out contact and has become the catalyst for Auburn’s return to the national spotlight.
He also grabbed the attention of Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason, whose Commodores have the unenviable task of trying to slow him down this weekend on The Plains.
“He’s got great foot speed and extremely good vision for a guy his size,” Mason said. “A lot like Christian Okoye to a certain degree in terms of his physicality and his ability to find room where there’s very little. For a big man, he has patience in the hole. He hits it hard, he can run downhill, he can run away from you and he can run through arm tackles.”
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Auburn RB Kamryn Pettway
What’s even scarier about Pettway is the fact that he’s only one piece of the Auburn running back puzzle.
Kerryon Johnson is still getting back into form after an injury limited him over the last three games. He’s solid between the tackles, too, but is a much bigger threat in space and out of the backfield. Stanton Truitt and Eli Stove also have home run ability and have been eased into more prominent roles over the last month.
Pettway deserves a ton of credit for all of that.
Once he solidified himself as a true every-down back who can wear defenses out between the tackles on a consistent basis, everybody else settled into the roles in which they’re currently thriving.
Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason earned the starting job in Athens following the season-opening win over North Carolina but has been far from consistent.
He threw the game-winning touchdown on 4th-and-10 on the road to beat Missouri, hit Riley Ridley for the go-ahead touchdown across the field with 10 seconds to play against Tennessee (which Georgia lost on a Hail Mary) and threw for 346 yards in a loss to Vanderbilt in which his running game provided very little help.
Then there have been the down times.
He completed just 29.4 percent of his passes at South Carolina, averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt against an Ole Miss defense that’s far from elite and completed just 45.5 percent of his passes last week in a loss to Florida. That Florida defense sacked Eason twice, hurried him a whopping 16 times according to CFBStats.com and generally made life miserable for the native of Lake Stevens, Washington.
“He showed some toughness and some grit,” Smart said. “He took some shots in that game—probably more punishment in that game than any other in terms of the physicality of it.”
The first-year head coach of the Bulldogs is using that experience as a learning tool for Eason and the sputtering Georgia offense.
“A big thing for him is putting us in the right plays and making good decisions down the field when he sees the coverages,” Smart said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of different coverages that they played, but they just covered well. The next part is finding receivers and knowing where his eyes go.”
Eason will be fine.
Georgia’s offensive line has been a problem all year, the wide receivers are nearly as inexperienced as Eason and the fact that Eason is learning on the fly will pay off for Smart’s crew next year and beyond.
The growing pains are real, though.
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Georgia QB Jacob Eason
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information is courtesy of Scout. Odds provided by Odds Shark.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @BarrettSallee.