It seems unthinkable that a game involving two top-ten teams would be eclipsed by another game, but such is life in the SEC. We focused – rightly so – on the South Carolina-LSU game last week, and despite my referring to Texas A&M-Louisiana Tech as a “must-see affair”, no one could have predicted that outcome. We will try to recap 116 total points in as briefly as we can later, but for now, let’s take a look at what to watch this week around the SEC.
Top of the Ratings
#9 South Carolina (6-1, 4-1) at #3 Florida (6-0, 5-0), 3:30 pm ET, CBS
Last week’s episode: LSU 23, South Carolina 21; Florida 31, Vanderbilt 17
Program guide: It seems as though South Carolina has become a fixture in this segment, but a look at their schedule provides all the necessary explanation. The Gamecocks travel to Gainesville for the final game of a murderous three-game run, and the hope for Steve Spurrier is that the offense also makes the trip. Though South Carolina faced a great LSU defense last week, they still only managed a very unusual 211 yards of total offense. Marcus Lattimore never seemed to get on track, rushing 13 times for 35 yards and a score. Lattimore is questionable for this week’s game with a hip bruise, leaving Kenny Miles and Mike Davis to potentially carry the load. Connor Shaw was not without his struggles, either, completing 19-of-34 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns to go with two crippling interceptions.
They face another top-15 defense in Will Muschamp’s Gators this week, and those Gators are allowing 12 points per game in SEC play. Florida also defeated LSU in Gainesville, punishing the Tigers with 34 carries from Mike Gillislee. One would imagine the chances are good that this will be the case again on Saturday, as most of the Gamecocks’ defensive line is battling injuries. Kelcy Quarles is unlikely to play due to a shoulder issue, and Jadeveon Clowney has been slowed by foot problems. Jeff Driskel has been an effective caretaker for the Florida offense, and the numerous South Carolina injuries would seem likely to put him in this same role on Saturday.
The two teams share a rather unusual statistic, as they both average exactly 378.3 yards per game on offense. This ties them for 82nd in the nation. Another low-scoring affair seems to be in the cards for this one. South Carolina has a lot to overcome in terms of injuries, and they may look to employ Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington as changes of pace in the run game if Lattimore is unable to go. Florida will try to gain an early lead and control the game with Gillislee (615 yards rushing, 7 TD) on the ground. This may not be the type of game we have come to expect from the Head Ball Coach or Florida, but there are still plenty of compelling story lines to carry the day.
#6 LSU (6-1, 2-1) at #20 Texas A&M (5-1, 2-1), noon ET, ESPN
Last week’s episode: LSU 23, South Carolina 21; Texas A&M 59, Louisiana Tech 57
Program guide: So, about that Texas A&M game I mentioned earlier…
64 first downs. 1293 yards of total offense. 187 offensive plays. 27 penalties. Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies led 39-16 at the half, and most people seemed ready to write off Louisiana Tech as a complete fraud. Fast forward almost twenty-nine minutes, and the Bulldogs were a missed two-point conversion away from tying the game. Giving up 41 points in two quarters certainly cannot inspire Aggie fans, but they get a little bit of an unexpected break with LSU coming to Kyle Field. LSU knifed through a weakened South Carolina defensive line to the tune of 258 rushing yards, but the Wrecking Crew defense allows less than half that total per game. If that rushing game cannot key LSU’s attack, the Tigers will have two problems. First, they will have to rely on Zach Mettenberger, who completed only 12-of-25 passes last week for 148 yards and an interception, continuing his somewhat inconsistent ways. Second, this makes more time for Texas A&M’s offense to spend on the field.
Many people talked about West Virginia’s offense before last week, but Texas A&M averages the exact same offensive output (543.7 yards per game). We have talked about quarterback Johnny Manziel in this space numerous times, and he is now starting to gather some Heisman buzz. The key, though, just may be the running game. A&M’s first SEC outing against Florida showed the Aggies physically imposing their will in the first half. This was particularly evident on one run by Ben Malena in which he ran over a Gator defender. With Manziel becoming more of a focal point in the Aggie rushing attack, their physicality on offense may be enough to wear LSU down.
Set Your DVR
Middle Tennessee (4-2) at #15 Mississippi State (6-0), 7:00 pm ET, ESPN2
Program guide: Despite a decent amount of success during Rick Stockstill’s tenure in Murfreesboro, including three bowl appearances and a victory earlier this year at Georgia Tech, most people still seem to be unfamiliar with the Blue Raiders. I know this because I attended Middle Tennessee, and I still get blank stares when I discuss the school with others. The Blue Raiders have been led this year by running back Benny Cunningham, who has rushed for 600 yards and 11 touchdowns this year. 217 of those yards and five of those touchdowns came in the victory at Georgia Tech. Cunningham will miss the rest of the season with an injury, however, and Stockstill will have to turn to Jordan Parker (42 carries, 213 yards) and LSU transfer Drayton Calhoun (45 carries, 199 yards, 2 TD) to carry the ground attack. Middle does have other offensive weapons, though, including quarterback Logan Kilgore (116-of-172, 1422 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT) and wide receiver Anthony Amos (39 receptions, 580 yards, 5 TD).
Mississippi State will look to victimize Middle Tennessee’s somewhat porous defense, which allows 442 yards per game in total offense. Quarterback Tyler Russell has thrown for 12 touchdowns this year against just one interception, including a solid 23-for-37 performance against Tennessee last week. Russell threw for 291 yards against the Vols, adding two more scores. Combine this with fellow offensive weapons LaDarius Perkins (105 carries, 599 yards, 7 TD) and Chad Bumphis (28 receptions, 468 yards, 6 TD), and the Sun Belt representative faces a tough challenge in Starkville. Middle Tennessee has a Thursday night game with their rival Western Kentucky, and the beautifully-named 100 Miles of Hate will carry a tremendous amount of significance no matter the outcome of this game. An unexpected victory against the Bulldogs, however, and that game becomes even more exciting.
#1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0) at Tennessee (3-3, 0-3), 7:00 pm ET, ESPN
Program guide: With all the history between these two teams and their significance to the game, this game should be in the top of the discussion throughout the week. The Vols are off to an 0-3 start in the conference, though, and with a trip to Columbia next up for Derek Dooley and his troops, an 0-5 start in the SEC is a very real possibility. Dooley was in trouble last year, and closing with Missouri, at Vanderbilt and Kentucky could likely net Tennessee a 3-5 record at best this year. Tennessee fans need to answer an honest question. If the most likely result occurs and Tennessee finishes 7-5 (3-5), is that enough for Dooley to keep his job? How much of a rebound did Volunteer fans expect in 2012?
Returning to discussion of on-field activities, there are some other concerns for Tennessee. They are being marginally out rushed by their opponents (4.86 to 4.80 yards per carry), and are only outscoring their opponents 38.0 to 31.5 per game. This includes games against Georgia State and Akron. They have also allowed an eye-popping 521.7 yards per game in their three losses this year. Alabama, conversely, is undefeated despite having a 52nd-ranked offense. The Tide actually tally more yards away from Bryant-Denny, averaging 467.3 per game. The Vols have found a weapon in Cordarrelle Patterson, who accounted for two of Tennessee’s scores last week on a 98-yard kickoff return and an 11-yard reception from Tyler Bray. If Tennessee has any realistic shot of clipping Alabama, Bray and Patterson will have to be heard from early and often.
Auburn (1-5, 0-4) at Vanderbilt (2-4, 1-3), 12:21 pm ET, SEC Network
Program guide: The SEC Network gets to carry yet another clunker involving the Tigers, with the Music City as the backdrop. Auburn employed Clint Moseley under center last week to try to right the ship, and he finished 11-of-18 for 112 yards with an interception. Running back Tre Mason turned in another impressive effort against Mississippi, rushing for 82 yards and two scores in a 41-20 Tiger loss. Auburn’s defense continues to struggle, allowing 451 yards of offense to the Rebels on 22 first downs. Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace completed 17-of-22 attempts for 226 yards, compounding the struggles for an Auburn defense that has seen opposing passers throw for over 1350 yards and ten scores.
Vanderbilt played reasonably well against Florida last weekend, rushing for 237 yards against a stout Gator defense. Auburn gives up over 190 yards per game on the ground, so Vanderbilt will try to continue that strategy against the Tigers. Jordan Rodgers has also started to regain his touch a bit through the air, and the hope for James Franklin has to be that Rodgers can establish the pass early to set up that run game. Vandy will also likely have a sense of urgency here, as every remaining game on their slate appears winnable. Games against UMass, at Kentucky and at Mississippi are lined up for the Commodores before Tennessee visits, so the lure of locking up bowl eligibility with a couple of weeks remaining has to be present.
#13 Georgia (5-1, 3-1) at Kentucky (1-6, 0-4), 7:00 pm ET, FSN (regional)
Program guide: Joker Phillips’ Wildcat squad has appeared listless all year, and that was evident last week in a 49-7 thrashing by Arkansas. Kentucky compiled just 170 yards of offense against the Razorbacks, and 66 of that was on the ground. Jalen Whitlow went just 2-for-10 for 83 yards, with one of those completions being a 61-yard score to La’Rod King. He was replaced by Morgan Newton, he of the 3.8 quarterback rating on the season. Kentucky lost the last meeting with Georgia in 2011, 19-10, but that outing seems decades away when looking at this Wildcat team.
Georgia is coming off a bye week, having lost 35-7 to South Carolina in Columbia two weeks ago. This is a perfect way for Mark Richt’s team to right the ship. The Bulldogs face Florida next week, so they cannot afford to look past Kentucky, but even an effort less than their best should be enough to secure a victory in the Commonwealth. That 19-10 Georgia victory in 2011 netted an SEC title for Mark Richt’s team and ended the Wildcats’ string of five straight bowl games. The teams combined for eight turnovers in that game, and if Kentucky can again somehow force four turnovers while avoiding four of their own, this one might stay close for a few minutes.
Brian Wilmer is a contributor to FBSchedules.com. Follow him @sportsmatters.