SEC: Vanderbilt Commodores
UAB at Arkansas, SEC Network: Bret Bielema will have to wait at least one more week before notching that first SEC victory, but after three straight losses, this Arkansas team needs a win in the worst way. It’s not like the Razorbacks are playing poorly. Even Saturday, after falling apart in the first half, they didn’t give up. They responded in the second half and outplayed Georgia the final 30 minutes. That first conference win is coming. In the meantime, Arkansas can’t afford to overlook UAB. The Blazers put up 34 points on No. 1 Mississippi State earlier in the season, so they’re at least capable of getting in the end zone.
No. 1 Mississippi State at Kentucky, CBS: What happened to Kentucky? This game was shaping up to be one of the biggest games in program history – a top-25 matchup, a chance to take down the No. 1 team in the country – and then it all fell apart at LSU on Saturday. Losing close is one thing, but the Wildcats were dominated in Death Valley. The good news is that they can still take down No. 1 this weekend as this will be Mississippi State’s first game since taking over the top spot. For the Bulldogs, it’s a chance to prove they’re worthy of No. 1 and it’s another opportunity for Dak Prescott to shine in front of a national audience.
Vanderbilt at Missouri, SEC Network: A week after everybody left Missouri for dead, the Tigers are back in the SEC East race and rolling after a 42-13 win at Florida. The defense feasted on the Gators’ offense, forcing six turnovers and taking two back for touchdowns. That’s bad news for Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary, who will be making his first start for the Commodores. In his first action since the season opener, McCrary went 10-of-16 for 169 yards with one touchdown and one interception Saturday against Charleston Southern. But that was Charleston Southern. This is Missouri. Good luck Mr. McCrary.
No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 24 LSU, ESPN: Don’t assume that Ole Miss is going to just go to Baton Rouge and handle its business. Yes, the Rebels have arguably the top defense in the SEC. And yes, they’re ranked No. 3 for a reason. But winning on the road at LSU is no easy task. Just ask Les Miles, who is 45-4 as LSU coach in night games at Tiger Stadium. There’s something special about when the sun sets over Death Valley. So don’t be surprised if this game is close in the fourth quarter, and it’s up to Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace to make a play. Wallace did account for more than 350 yards and four touchdowns at LSU two years ago.
No. 4 Alabama at Tennessee, ESPN2: Thank you, Lane Kiffin, for infusing a little life back into this rivalry. He made it interesting back in 2009 when his Tennessee team nearly knocked off the eventual national champs, and he’s doing it again this year with his return to Knoxville as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. You can bet the fans will be a little more rowdy in welcoming Kiffin back to Neyland Stadium on Saturday. But despite all the hoopla surrounding Kiffin, there’s still a game to be played. Alabama comes in as a heavy favorite, and the Vols could be in trouble if quarterback Justin Worley isn’t able to play.
South Carolina at No. 5 Auburn, SEC Network: Gus Malzahn admitted this week that he wears a visor every game because of Steve Spurrier. That’s how much respect and admiration he has for the Head Ball Coach. On Saturday, Malzahn will face Spurrier for the first time as a head coach in a game that Auburn has to win for its playoff hopes. The Tigers are coming off a loss to Mississippi State, and this is their first of four SEC games in four weeks. Meanwhile, South Carolina has not delivered on the preseason hype. A top-10 team before the season, the Gamecocks are barely above water at 4-3.
3. Have you heard? Lane Kiffin is returning to Tennessee on Saturday. OK, you're probably tired of hearing about it, but if you haven't read it yet, do yourself a favor and go read Jon Solomon's piece on the Alabama offensive coordinator. In it, Kiffin's mother Robin says she's "scared to death" for her son's safety and wishes he would coach from the press box against the Volunteers. Even athletic director Mike Hamilton says he wishes Kiffin's first game against Tennessee would have been in Tuscaloosa, not Knoxville. It's certainly an intriguing storyline and one to keep an eye on this weekend, but don't expect more than the normal heckling from Vols fans. I'm more interested to see how Kiffin's offense fares on the road.
Around the SEC
- The Alabama players don't mind the hecklers. They've heard it all before.
- Gus Malzahn, Steve Spurrier meet in a matchup of offensive innovators.
- Vandy quarterback Johnny McCrary to make first career start at Missouri.
#UGA coach Mark Richt told me he's optimistic on Todd Gurley's reinstatement and "hopefully we'll know sooner rather than later"— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) October 22, 2014
We'll just have to look forward to Week 9 for some better SEC entertainment.
Game of the week: No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 24 LSU
Now this should be fun. Night games at Tiger Stadium usually are. Two straight wins have LSU feeling good and back in the rankings. The Tigers are also back on the fringes of the SEC West race and could throw a giant wrench into the Magnolia State love-fest by upsetting the Rebels. The jury is still out on LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings, who didn't have to do much to beat Florida (110 yards passing) or Kentucky (120 yards passing). The Ole Miss defense, however, promises to give the Tigers their toughest test of the season. This unit is operating at peak performance at just the right time for a visit to Baton Rouge. The Rebs allowed zero rushing yards -- ZERO! -- to Tennessee last Saturday and have given up just six touchdowns in seven games this season. It should be a brawl in the Bayou.
Player under pressure: Maty Mauk, Missouri
The Tigers' gunslinging quarterback has been humbled and harnessed in his last two games -- a disastrous 34-0 home loss to Georgia in which he had five turnovers, and a goofy 42-13 win at Florida in which he was 6-of-18 passing for 20 yards and an interception. Mauk's and Missouri's seasons are nearing a crossroads. After playing what he called the worst game of his life against UGA, Mauk overcame a shaky start at Florida and played in control while the Gators self-destructed. The good news for the Tigers offense is that Mauk & Co. will have a solid chance to work out their issues against Vanderbilt, which will bring one of the worst defenses in the SEC (allowing 415.9 yards a game) to Columbia, Mo.
Coach under the microscope: Lane Kiffin, Alabama
The Tide's offensive coordinator might not have circled the third Saturday in October on his calendar, but you can bet 100,000 ticket-holding Volunteers fans sure did. In 2009 Kiffin coached his one and only season at Tennessee. He was full of promises, bravado and hot air. Other than some solid recruiting, the highlights of his 7-6 season were wins over Georgia and South Carolina and a near-miss at Alabama. Who can forget Bama's Terrance "Mount" Cody swatting away two Tennessee field goals in a 12-10 victory? Well, other than Kiffin? Now that he's back in the SEC, patrolling the Alabama sideline and steering its inconsistent offense, the vitriol is sure to reach a fever pitch on Saturday. Hundreds of students rioted when news broke of Kiffin's sudden departure in 2009. How are they going to treat his return?
Storyline to watch: Division dominance
The SEC West is a powerhouse. The East is a house of cards. So the story goes, and it doesn't seem likely to deviate with No. 1 Mississippi State visiting Kentucky and South Carolina traveling to No. 5 Auburn. The East has lost six of seven cross-division games so far this season, most of them with lopsided results. The much-improved Wildcats were riding high at 5-1 before being thrashed by LSU. Now they'll have to contend with Dak Prescott and his steamrolling MSU offense. South Carolina has the worst defense in the SEC and might need a miracle on the Plains to keep up with Auburn's offense. Don't look for the division script to flip this week.
Intriguing matchup: LSU offense vs. Ole Miss defense
As previously described in our game of the week entry, LSU can't expect much from its quarterback in Saturday's matchup against the fearsome Rebels defense. It gives Ole Miss a tremendous advantage to be able to stack the box against the run, but LSU has the horses to give the Rebel defense its toughest test of the season. Tigers senior RB Terrance Magee is coming off a career game with 220 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. He makes a fine pairing with freshman stud Leonard Fournette, LSU's leading rusher with 544 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. If the Tigers can establish the run against Ole Miss it could open up some play-action passing or at least give Jennings a chance to take some shots with the very capable Travin Dural, a sophomore wide receiver with 26 catches, 665 yards and seven touchdowns. It all starts in the trenches.
QB: Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Bad Bo may be a thing of the past. The formerly inconsistent senior has strung together back-to-back big games when his team has needed them most. He’s currently No. 1 in the SEC in percent of completions gaining 10 or more yards (59.7).
Todd Gurley is the class of the SEC. But Collins is as good as anyone behind him. The true sophomore is fourth in the SEC in rushing yards (634) and ranks third in percent of runs gaining 5 or more yards (55.4). He’s physical (seventh in yards after contact), but he’s also explosive (17 runs of 10 or more yards).
WR: Travin Dural, LSU
But when you say “explosive” you better reference LSU’s sophomore wide receiver. Dural ranks first in the SEC in yards per reception (26.1), second in receiving yards (626) and second in receiving touchdowns (8).
TE: Steven Scheu, Vanderbilt
Not a lot of people are watching Vanderbilt this season, for obvious reasons. But you’re missing out on one of the most productive tight ends in the league. Scheu is second on the Commodores with 19 receptions, 269 yards and one touchdown. Imagine if he had a better quarterback throwing him the football.
OL: David Andrews, Georgia
Forget the Todd Gurley drama, Nick Chubb's emergence and Hutson Mason's inconsistencies. What’s really fueling Georgia is its offensive line Leading that charge is senior center David Andrews. He’s a big reason the Bulldogs rank 12th nationally in rushing yards and Mason has been sacked just eight times.
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
There are a lot of reasons why Arkansas is a better football team this season. The running game is obviously one of them. But the play on the defensive line, and the continued improvement of Philon, is another. Philon has an impressive 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this season.
LB: Xzavier Dickson, Alabama
Many around Tuscaloosa have been waiting for Dickson’s emergence at outside linebacker. It turns out he was waiting until his senior year. The Georgia native already has five sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss this season, blowing away his previous career totals.
CB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
While we wait for Tennessee to break through as a program under coach Butch Jones, there’s one Vol who has already announced himself to the SEC: Sutton. The sophomore corner has come up big in big moments this season. He’s hauled in three interceptions, defended seven passes and even had four tackles for loss.
S: A.J. Stamps, Kentucky
Ever wonder what’s caused the Wildcats to come on so strong this season? Look no further than Stamps, a junior college transfer who has solidified the back end of Mark Stoops’ defense. Stamps has 27 tackles, three interceptions and six passes defended.
K: Francisco Velez, Florida
If you didn’t know his story, reading it should be enough to make you want to root for the guy. If that’s not enough, consider that he ranks fifth in the SEC in field goals made (8), second in overall field goal percentage (88.9, minimum six attempts) and tied for first in field goals of more than 40 yards (8).
P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
It’s not about quantity for Foster. But when it comes to punters in the SEC with a minimum of 20 attempts, he ranks first in percent of punts inside the 20, first in average distance from goal after return and first in fewest punts returned.
KR/PR: Darrius Sims, Vanderbilt
Here’s another Commodore you’ve probably never heard of. Sims, a defensive back by trade, is first in the SEC in kickoff return yards (431), second in yards per kickoff return (30.8) and tied for first in kickoff return touchdowns (2). Nine of his kickoff returns have gained 20 yards or more.
Scoring and yardage are both down halfway through the season in head-to-head conference play compared to where the league was at this point last year. On paper, defenses appear to be on pace to look more like they did in 2012 than 2013.
But the numbers – and there were lots of them – aren’t too far off from last season, compared to the halfway point and the final totals.
With nine teams breaking in new starting quarterbacks – five underclassmen – I wanted to see if there would be a drastic difference in how defenses looked statistically.
(Note: The numbers used in this research came via ESPN Stats & Information’s statistical database.)
SEC defenses are allowing 358.6 yards per game and 402.3 yards per game in conference play. Seven defenses are ranked within the top 50 in total defense; six made the cut halfway through last year. At this point last year, defenses were allowing 376.3 yards per game and 423.5 yards per game in SEC play. In 2012, when defense was king, those numbers were down to 361.3 and 373.8 at the end of the season.
Those numbers aren’t too far off, but it’s interesting that at this point last year, defenses were allowing 3.68 offensive touchdowns per game and 6.14 yards per play in conference play. At the halfway point in 2012, those numbers were 2.75 touchdowns allowed in league play and 5.31 yards per play.
Those numbers dipped slightly in 2013, as eight teams finished in the top 50 in total defense, meaning SEC defenses got better as the year progressed in a league that featured a plethora of talented, veteran quarterbacks.
Scoring is down at the moment, as teams are averaging 1.92 points per drive in SEC play, down from 2.21 last year. Teams are also scoring touchdowns on 24.4 percent of drives after scoring on 27.7 percent last season. Overall, teams are scoring 21.6 points per game on SEC defenses, which is down from 24.2 through Week 7 of last year. The total scoring percentage in league play for offenses is the same as in 2012 (31.9), which is down from 36.9 percent last year.
While the numbers show that defenses are steadily improving, it’s important to note that prolific offenses appear here to stay in a conference built on stout defensive play. That becomes obvious when you look at the fact that teams are allowing just 21.2 less yards per game and almost the same amount of yards per play and touchdowns per game while facing a less-heralded group of quarterbacks.
With more offenses implementing some sort of variation of the spread, teams should continue to move the ball. The addition of more tempo around the league has helped teams, too.
“There has been a push to more athleticism and speed," LSU coach Les Miles said of the evolution of SEC offenses. "We’ve tried to make that adjustment.”
Another interesting note is that takeaways and sacks are up for defenses in 2014, yet offenses are responding well. Defenses have forced 81 turnovers with 48 interceptions. Midway through the 2013 season, defenses forced just 63 turnovers (34 interceptions). In 2012, teams forced 88 turnovers (45 interceptions).
As for sacks, teams have 91 this year after having 90 at this point last year and 123 in 2012, when teams were allowing just 198.85 passing yards per game halfway through the season.
Pressuring quarterbacks is up, but teams are still averaging 234.6 passing yards per game (nearly 10 fewer yards than last year at this time) in SEC play. To Florida coach Will Muschamp, spread offenses help counter the pressure.
"The ball is out of the quarterbacks' hands quickly," Muschamp said. "Pressure is a little overrated, in my opinion, depending on the type of passing game and the passing concepts they're using. You have to be able to play man-to-man. You gotta be able to deny the ball, mix zone with that. It certainly can expose you, as far as deficiencies in coverage and guys who can't tackle in space."
As we go forward, it’ll be interesting to see if defenses continue to trend up or if offenses heat up. Last year, numbers dropped as defenses adjusted to such good quarterback play. Last year's experience isn't there, but could quarterbacks -- and offenses -- catch up to defenses by the end of the year with teams working in space more?
“It’s a different style of football,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who runs the spread. “... It gives some people advantages that years ago they didn’t have.”
“The defense figures it out and the offense goes and finds something else."
Here are five SEC true freshmen who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from last Saturday:
RB Nick Chubb, Georgia
What he did: With Heisman Trophy frontrunner Todd Gurley suspended indefinitely and Keith Marshall and Sony Michel injured, Georgia turned to Chubb to carry the load in the backfield, and he exceeded all reasonable expectations. Chubb carried the ball a whopping 38 times for 143 yards and a touchdown in the Bulldogs’ 34-0 win over Missouri and also caught four passes for 31 yards.
What it means: Gurley’s status remains unclear and it doesn’t look like Marshall or Michel will be available Saturday against Arkansas, so Chubb and Brendan Douglas need to be ready for another heavy workload. As good as they were against Mizzou, the Bulldogs will be much better off when their backfield depth gets back closer to normal.
RB Leonard Fournette, LSU
What he did: Fournette had previously split carries pretty evenly with LSU’s three other tailbacks, but he got by far the most touches while making his first college start against Florida. Fournette ran 27 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns against the Gators, the most rushing yards in a game by an LSU true freshman since 2003. He also had 85 yards on kickoff returns.
What it means: We’ll see whether this was a one-game thing or whether Fournette will now be LSU’s feature back. This was easily his best game as a Tiger after a relatively quiet first half of the season – even if he has led LSU in rushing in six straight games and ranks third in the SEC in all-purpose yards at 136.9 ypg.
RB Stanley Williams, Kentucky
What he did: Sure, the competition wasn’t outstanding, but Williams was one of the stars of the Wildcats’ 48-14 win against Louisiana-Monroe. He ran seven times for 104 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, and also returned a kickoff for a 75-yard gain.
What it means: The exciting freshman showed once again how many ways he can affect a game. He has made big plays for the Wildcats already on the ground, in the passing game and as a return man, making him one of Kentucky’s players to watch when it visits LSU for a key conference game on Saturday night.
P J.K. Scott, Alabama
What he did: Scott punted a career-high eight times against Arkansas and landed seven inside the Razorbacks’ 20-yard line -- all of which were downed inside the Arkansas 15. Scott netted 44.2 yards per punt to raise his season net punting average to 43.1, which ranks fourth nationally. Scott was named Ray Guy Award Player of the Week on Monday for his play against the Razorbacks.
What it means: Specialists usually don’t get enough attention on lists like this, but Scott has been outstanding all season for Alabama. He leads the SEC with an average of 46.7 ypp, with eight of his 19 punts going for 50-plus yards and 12 landing inside the 20. Alabama has had its problems on special teams, but Scott and the SEC’s leading punt coverage team -- the Crimson Tide leads the league with a 43.1 net punting average -- have been outstanding.
WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M
What he did: There wasn’t much for the Aggies to brag about in their home loss to Ole Miss, but Noil continues to impress with his playmaking ability. He caught 11 passes for 105 yards against the Rebels and also returned three kickoffs for 68 yards and two punts for 19 yards.
What it means: Like Kentucky’s Williams, Noil is quickly emerging as one of the SEC’s top all-purpose performers. He ranks seventh in the league with 121.2 all-purpose ypg and has picked up his receiving production in recent weeks. The Aggies have plenty of strong options in the passing game, but Noil is becoming one of the best.
DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: Recorded three tackles and a sack for a 12-yard loss in a loss to Ole Miss.
DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss: Recorded two sacks for 26 yards in negative yardage in a win against Texas A&M.
RB Dallas Rivers, Vanderbilt: Ran 11 times for 47 yards and a touchdown and returned two kickoffs for 30 yards in a win against Charleston Southern.
RB Derrell Scott, Tennessee: Played for the first time this season and led Tennessee with 42 rushing yards on nine carries in a win over Chattanooga.
CB Jalen Tabor, Florida: Posted seven tackles, including a sack for a seven-yard loss, and broke up a pass in a loss to LSU.
There's no doubt he will leave some massive shoes to fill, Slive also replaced a visionary leader. Roy Kramer, SEC commissioner from 1990 to 2002, expanded the conference to 12 teams, split it into two divisions and added the all-important conference championship game.
Slive took the league to new heights. Winning seven straight football national championships is a weighty legacy, but take a look at his track record in leading the SEC's business dealings: He negotiated a stunning 15-year, $2.25-billion TV rights deal with ESPN, expanded to 14 teams, launched the SEC network and more than tripled the total payout to member institutions from $95.7 million when he took over in 2002 to $309.6 million this year.
Slive became one of the most powerful people in sports. Naturally the announcement of his retirement was met with an outpouring of gratitude, admiration and exaltation.
The question on deck is who replaces this monolithic figure. The SEC presidents will decide on whom to hire, and the speculation has already begun. The ideas range from the light-hearted (Commissioner Steve Spurrier, anyone?) to the downright silly (Commissioner Lane Kiffin?) to the expected favorite (Slive's No. 2 man is SEC Chief Operating Officer Greg Sankey).
Whoever it is will have all the resources imaginable, greater autonomy and nothing less than the weight of the college football world bearing down. Good luck!
Around the SEC
- The league released the 2015 schedules for all 14 teams. It's 13 weeks long, which means only one bye week next year.
- Georgia RB Todd Gurley is still practicing, but coach Mark Richt says he has no idea when Gurley will play again. Sophomore J.J. Green has moved back to tailback this week.
- Tennessee hasn't beaten an SEC West team since 2010. Ole Miss is hosting the Volunteers on Saturday, and Tennessee native Bo Wallace isn't planning to take it easy on his childhood favorite.
- Missouri QB Maty Mauk had his worst start last week with five turnovers, but Tigers coach Gary Pinkel says, "He's our guy."
- It's official: Alabama coach Nick Saban is an automobile dealer. Of course they're luxury cars.
Spurrier on autograph signing: "I guess what happened with Manziel, these guys say, 'Well, the worst I am going to get is half a game.'"— Josh Kendall (@JoshatTheState) October 14, 2014
That won’t be an issue in 2015, with the usual slate of SEC-versus-Power Five opponent openers -- including Alabama-Wisconsin, Auburn-Louisville, Texas A&M-Arizona State and the Thursday night opener between South Carolina and North Carolina -- followed by three conference games and Oklahoma-Tennessee in Week 2.
After taking a quick glance at the schedules, here are a few more highlights and abnormalities:
- Georgia’s non-conference slate is nothing special (Louisiana-Monroe, Southern, Georgia Southern, at Georgia Tech), but Mark Richt’s Bulldogs might have drawn the toughest cross-division slates with dates against Alabama and Auburn. Kentucky drawing a Thursday-night matchup against Auburn and a trip to Mississippi State isn’t much of a favor to Mark Stoops, either.
- UGA-Alabama is one of the most interesting cross-division games on the list. The two programs haven’t met in the regular season since the Crimson Tide spoiled preseason No. 1 Georgia’s 2008 “Blackout” game at Sanford Stadium by jumping out to a 31-0 halftime lead. A few others of interest are Florida-Ole Miss (Oct. 3), Florida-LSU (Oct. 17), Alabama-Tennessee (Oct. 24), Georgia-Auburn (Nov. 14) and a Thursday-night game between Missouri and Mississippi State (Nov. 5).
2015 SEC cross-divisional games: Alabama (Oct. 3 at Georgia, Oct. 24 vs. Tennessee), Arkansas (Oct. 3 at Tennessee, Nov. 28 vs. Missouri), Auburn (Thursday, Oct. 15 at Kentucky, Nov. 14 vs. Georgia), Florida (Oct. 3 vs. Ole Miss, Oct. 17 at LSU), Georgia (Oct. 3 vs. Alabama, Nov. 14 at Auburn), Kentucky (Thursday, Oct. 15 vs. Auburn, Oct. 24 at Mississippi State), LSU (Oct. 10 at South Carolina, Oct. 17 vs. Florida), Ole Miss (Sept. 26 vs. Vanderbilt, Oct. 3 at Florida), Mississippi State (Oct. 24 vs. Kentucky, Thursday, Nov. 5 at Missouri), Missouri (Thursday, Nov. 5 vs. Mississippi State, Nov. 28 at Arkansas), South Carolina (Oct. 10 vs. LSU, Oct. 31 at Texas A&M), Tennessee (Oct. 3 vs. Arkansas, Oct. 24 at Alabama), Texas A&M (Oct. 31 vs. South Carolina, Nov. 21 at Vanderbilt), Vanderbilt (Sept. 26 at Ole Miss, Nov. 21 vs. Texas A&M).
- As usual, opening weekend is when most of the SEC-versus-Power Five games will occur, but there are others sprinkled throughout the schedule. Four SEC teams aren’t scheduled to play a Power Five nonconference game, while South Carolina (North Carolina, Clemson) is the only SEC team set to play two.
- We'll give Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks the early nod as the SEC team with the toughest nonconference schedule. In addition to the neutral-site game with UNC and home game against Clemson, South Carolina will host Central Florida and The Citadel.
2015 SEC-versus-Power Five: Alabama (Sept. 5 vs. Wisconsin in Dallas), Arkansas (Sept. 19 vs. Texas Tech), Auburn (Sept. 5 vs. Louisville in Atlanta), Florida (Nov. 28 vs. Florida State), Georgia (Nov. 28 at Georgia Tech), Kentucky (Nov. 28 vs. Louisville), LSU (Sept. 26 at Syracuse), Ole Miss (None), Mississippi State (None), Missouri (None), South Carolina (Thursday, Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina in Charlotte, Nov. 28 vs. Clemson), Tennessee (Sept. 12 vs. Oklahoma), Texas A&M (Sept. 5 vs. Arizona State in Houston), Vanderbilt (None).
- Texas A&M will actually leave the state of Texas only once in the first 11 weeks of the season (Oct. 24 at Ole Miss). Prior to its Nov. 21 visit to Vanderbilt, A&M will play seven home games and neutral-site games against Arizona State (in Houston) and Arkansas (in Arlington). The Aggies close the season on Saturday, Nov. 28 at LSU, not on Thanksgiving like this season’s finale with the Tigers.
- With SEC teams getting just one open date apiece in 2015, Ole Miss’ schedule looks like a considerable challenge. The Rebels will play for 10 straight weeks -- including road dates at Alabama, Florida and Auburn -- before taking the weekend off on Nov. 14. They will close the season with a Nov. 21 home game with LSU and the Nov. 28 Egg Bowl at Mississippi State.
Those are just a few of the details that jump out after taking a look at the SEC’s 2015 schedule. Check out the SEC’s official site to see each team’s individual schedule and a week-by-week slate for next fall.
No. 13 Georgia at No. 23 Missouri, CBS: Georgia fans have been calling Nick Chubb the next Todd Gurley for weeks now. We’re about to discover how valid those comparisons actually are after Thursday’s news that Gurley is suspended indefinitely. The Bulldogs likely hoped to ride their star tailback to a win that might determine the SEC East champion. Instead, they’ll play Mizzou without Gurley for a second straight season and pray that his absence won’t hurt as badly as it did last year. Chubb is going to be a star, but the freshman is going to have a ton of pressure on his shoulders Saturday.
No. 2 Auburn at No. 3 Mississippi State, CBS: The first of the day's two marquee top-15 matchups should be a shootout. Dan Mullen is just 1-4 against Auburn at Mississippi State, but he hasn't coached a Bulldogs team that was this talented, either. Everyone will focus on the quarterbacks in this one -- and for good reason, since Dak Prescott and Nick Marshall are two of the SEC's most electric players -- but there are plenty of subplots that make this one interesting. ESPN's “College GameDay” will be in Starkville for the first time, the Bulldogs -- longtime doormats in the SEC -- are tied for third nationally with cross-state rival Ole Miss and there is Heisman buzz surrounding both quarterbacks. Regardless of the outcome, this will be one of the most memorable days in Mississippi State's football history.
Tennessee-Chattanooga at Tennessee, SEC Network: This is a necessary get-well game for Tennessee after the Volunteers suffered bitter back-to-back losses to Georgia and Florida. It's going to be difficult for the Vols to achieve bowl eligibility this season with a difficult second half of the schedule to go, but it will be nearly impossible if Tennessee fails to win this one and get to 3-3 at the midway point. UTC (3-2) is a fine FCS program, but it shouldn't provide much of a challenge.
No. 7 Alabama at Arkansas, ESPN: Like Tennessee, Arkansas has made some good teams -- namely Auburn and Texas A&M -- sweat before eventually putting away the Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's team is much improved, but it needs a conference win in the worst way. The Hogs are at home today against Alabama, which helps, but it will be a tall order to avoid an 0-3 start in SEC play. Nick Saban's Crimson Tide hobbles into the game after Ole Miss beat them 23-17 last week, with the Tide losing a few key players to injury. If Alabama struggles to contain Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and the Razorbacks' physical rushing attack, this one could get interesting.
LSU at Florida, SEC Network: We're accustomed to these two teams entering this game with conference and national title hopes intact. That isn't the case this season, as both are unranked and in turmoil. This one might come down to which team's quarterback -- a position that has been problematic for both clubs throughout the season -- shows some competence. With Jeff Driskel and Anthony Jennings taking the snaps, it's hard to know what to expect from either offense.
Charleston Southern at Vanderbilt, FSN: Surely Vandy's going to win this one, right? Probably -- come on, this is an SEC team against an FCS club -- but it's difficult to count the Bucs out completely. They're 5-0 and ranked 23rd in this week's FCS coaches' poll, while Vandy is 1-5. Remember, the Commodores trailed UMass by 11 points midway through the fourth quarter before rallying for a 34-31 win -- their lone victory to this point.
No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 14 Texas A&M, ESPN: Capping off the day is the other top-15 matchup, one that will pit one of the SEC's top offenses against arguably its top defense. Last week, Ole Miss admirably managed the “GameDay” hoopla that Mississippi State will encounter on Saturday and emerged with a landmark win over Alabama. It turns right back around this weekend with a road trip to meet Kenny Hill and the Aggies, who lead the SEC with an average of 47.8 points per game. Ole Miss boasts the SEC's top-scoring defense, though, at 10.2 PPG, and Mississippi State proved last Saturday that Hill & Co. can be stopped. Can the Rebels do it at Kyle Field, though? What an entertaining way to conclude a huge day around the league.
2. Without question, one of the biggest games in the SEC this weekend is Ole Miss’ visit to Texas A&M. Manziel led A&M to narrow wins against the Rebels in both 2012 and 2013, but it’s now on Kenny Hill to carry the Aggies’ offense. Those Ole Miss teams weren’t ranked third nationally like this one, though, and these Rebels remember those bitter defeats well. What makes this game particularly intriguing is the matchup between Ole Miss’ defense which might be the best in the SEC and an A&M offense that typically puts up points in droves -- although Mississippi State proved last weekend that the Aggies can be stopped. Here’s a good Ole Miss-A&M breakdown from the Dallas Morning News. One more item to watch on Saturday: If it rains, keep an eye on the turf conditions at new Kyle Field. The field was a mess in the Aggies’ last home game against Rice following a night of heavy rain.
3. Love him or hate him, you can usually expect to hear Steve Spurrier say something interesting. Check out some of his comments on Wednesday night’s call-in show. Gems like, “I am embarrassed at times the way we play.” Spurrier’s South Carolina players say they haven’t lost faith in quarterback Dylan Thompson, but it’s clear that he needs to play better as the Gamecocks hit the stretch run in the SEC East. South Carolina has a week off to lick its wounds after last Saturday’s upset loss to Kentucky. Meanwhile the Wildcats, enter Saturday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe as one of the SEC’s feel-good stories. At 4-1, Kentucky boasts one of the nation’s top pass defenses.
Around the SEC
Florida’s back to its ground-and-pound identity because of its problems in the passing game.
Speaking of the running game, LSU knows it needs to get its ground game going against Florida on Saturday.
Sammie Coates and Duke Williams get most of the headlines, but Auburn’s receiving corps is much deeper than just the two biggest stars.
Arkansas defensive backs coach Clay Jennings compares Alabama receiver Amari Cooper to NFL star Calvin Johnson.
A new sexual assault claim has surfaced in the Vanderbilt rape case from last year.
Tweet of the day
What's that? You prefer a little more quality football, like the Wild West showcases? Well, I can't blame you there, but I urge you to take a glance at what's happening on the other side of the SEC.
Listen, the East hasn't been great by any means, and I'm not going to sit here and pretend that it has been. Preseason favorite South Carolina is all but out of the divisional race with three conference losses, Missouri lost to Indiana, Vanderbilt has regressed tremendously, Tennessee lost at home with a 9-0 lead in the fourth quarter to offensively challenged Florida, Georgia lost to South Carolina and is still trying to figure out its passing game, and Florida is an enigma.
Hey, Kentucky could play spoiler in this league with an almost silent 2-1 record in the SEC.
So many questions and so many concerns means must-see TV, folks. Though the Western counterparts are beating each other up every weekend, we are watching a potential mess develop in the East. You just can't stop watching, and whether you like the quality or not, that we have no clue who will come out of the East is incredibly fun.
This weekend could tell us out a lot, or it could confuse us even more because of two games: Georgia at Missouri -- the East's only ranked teams -- and LSU at Florida.
No. 13 Georgia (4-1, 2-1 SEC) at No. 23 Missouri (4-1, 1-0)
Mizzou enters undefeated in league play, and the Bulldogs' only loss came on the road against South Carolina, which is praying for a miracle to get back into the SEC race. Georgia still has to play Arkansas in Little Rock and hosts No. 2 Auburn on Nov. 15. Mizzou still goes on the road to Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M before hosting Arkansas to close the season. Win Saturday, and the East is yours for the taking, right? Georgia can certainly make a run with Todd Gurley in the backfield, but there are still questions with the passing game and pass defense. Mizzou's offense has been a little up-and-down at times so far, but you have to like that running game. Now stopping the run, that has been iffy, especially with the interior of the defensive line struggling.
LSU (4-2, 0-2) at Florida (3-1, 2-1)
A Florida win would give the Gators a crucial conference win. Neither one of these offenses is really lighting things up, but the Gators will take a win at this point with Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina still on the schedule and the offense such a big question mark. A Florida win might shake things up a little in the division. We know the offense isn't exactly threatening right now, but if the defense continues to progress like it did during the Tennessee game, other teams will take notice. Plus, the Gators get those three big SEC games in their home state.
A Florida loss could paint a much clearer picture for the East, but a win would keep the Gators right at the top with the winner of the Georgia-Missouri game. Weird, right?
And we just can't forget about Kentucky. Does this team have the legs to make a real run in the SEC East? I just don't see it right now, but I definitely see the Wildcats having what it takes to end someone else's title hopes.
After ranking at the bottom of the SEC in offense the past three seasons, the Wildcats are sixth in total offense (467.8 yards per game) and are scoring 34.2 points per game. Don't sleep on these Cats.
Tennessee might be in a hole with two SEC losses, but when that passing game is on, it can make plays on just about any defense in the East. The Vols were stopped by Florida, but future opponents Missouri and South Carolina both rank in the bottom half of the division in pass defense. So you just never know what could happen in those games.
The fact is, even though the East isn't on the same level as the West, the race to Atlanta won't be any less exciting. Uglier? Yes, but still fun, even if the East has a two- or three-loss champ. That might not cause much of a stir in the polls, but it will keep us interested in that division until season's end.
Almost midway through the season and teams such as Arkansas and Texas A&M have shown the obvious strengths of their teams with their running backs and wide receivers, respectively. But in most cases every team has an apparent weakness, too. Here’s a closer look at how each team in the SEC will address its needs through recruiting.
No. 6 Texas A&M at No. 12 Mississippi State, ESPN: The biggest football day in the history of the Magnolia State kicks off early with a dandy matchup between unbeaten teams that should go a long way in defining the SEC West race. This one features a delicious quarterback clash with two of the best the SEC has to offer. The Bulldogs' Dak Prescott is a dual-threat surgeon who has scored through the air and on the ground in each of MSU's past three games. The Aggies' Kenny Hill operates mostly via air assault. His 17 touchdown passes are tied for second in the FBS. Both teams have too many offensive weapons to list here.
Florida at Tennessee, SEC Network: What used to be one of the SEC's glamour games has been reduced to a desperate struggle between two programs that appear to be headed in different directions. Florida could turn around that perception and stop some of the bleeding with a comfortable victory, while Tennessee is hungry for respect and needs something more nourishing than moral victories. It all comes down to quarterback play, as usual, and these two starters also appear to be headed in opposite directions. Florida's Jeff Driskel has been under siege after struggling against Kentucky and Alabama. Justin Worley, on the other hand, has been impressive despite the Vols' 2-2 record.
No. 3 Alabama at No. 11 Ole Miss, CBS: The unbeaten Rebels take on the unbeaten empire. If you'll pardon the "Star Wars" reference, this game has everyone's attention, including ESPN's "College GameDay," which will be at The Grove for the first time. Ole Miss has a huge opportunity to make a statement of its own against the West division's biggest bully. Let's call this the battle of the Kiffins, because the best matchup here is older brother Lane Kiffin's Alabama offense against the Ole Miss defense, for which Chris Kiffin is the defensive line coach. The Tide have racked up 2,377 yards, breaking the school record through the first four games of a season. The Rebs have the No. 1 defense in the SEC, allowing 248 yards a game. They've yielded just two red zone TDs in 10 opponents' chances, second best in the FBS this season. Something's got to give.
Vanderbilt at No. 13 Georgia, SEC Network: The Commodores have been improving steadily since the Derek Mason era got off to a nightmarish start. Vandy's 3-4 defense has grown especially toothy, but do the Commodores have enough to slow the Heisman Trophy campaign of Georgia tailback Todd Gurley? Probably not. Gurley is coming off a career-high 208-yard effort last week in Georgia's win over Tennessee. History certainly isn't on Vanderbilt's side here. The Bulldogs have beaten the Commodores in 17 of their past 19 meetings.
No. 15 LSU at No. 5 Auburn, ESPN: The annual clash of SEC West Tigers features a decided contrast at the all-important quarterback position. Auburn has the veteran Nick Marshall, while LSU is giving true freshman Brandon Harris his first career start. Harris has won LSU's QB derby (for now), and if scoring is the best factor in determining such things (as it should be), then LSU coach Les Miles didn't have a very difficult decision. Anthony Jennings, the previous starter, led LSU to scores on 13 of his 51 possessions, while Harris has put points on the board in 13 of 19 drives. LSU was the last SEC team to beat Auburn, but success on the Plains could be another story altogether.
South Carolina at Kentucky, SEC Network: The Wildcats took care of business last week, breaking their 17-game SEC losing streak with a win over Vanderbilt. Next on the to-do list for Kentucky is to win consecutive SEC games for the first time since 2009. The Gamecocks have lost just one of their past 14 games to the Cats, but this Kentucky team is starting to change perceptions in Mark Stoops' second season. They could be getting South Carolina at just the right time. The Gamecocks are out of the top 25 for the first time since the 2010 preseason and they have the worst defense in the SEC, giving up 440 yards a game. An upset might not shock UK fans, but it would turn the SEC East upside down.
With that said, who is running the ball best? Let’s look and see.
The Crimson Tide might not have the same eye-popping statistics, but between T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, there’s plenty of production. As a team, Alabama has the 18th-most productive running game in the country in terms of yards per game (258.5).
But it’s not just quantity with these two programs. Alabama and Arkansas have been the two most efficient running games in the SEC, with the Tide averaging 5.68 yards per carry and the Razorbacks averaging 6.91. Alabama and Arkansas are the only two teams in the conference to have more than half of its rushes result in 5 or more yards gained. At the same time, both teams rank in the top five in the conference in lowest percentage of rush attempts gaining zero or negative yards.
Arkansas has 42 runs of 10 or more yards this season, ranking fifth nationally in that category.
Mississippi fans should be worried about their running game this weekend. There’s not much to feel good about when you look at the statistics.
The Rebs have the highest percentage of rushes resulting in zero or negative yards (28.0), the fourth-fewest total rushing yards (643) and are tied for the fewest number of rushes for 10 or more yards (13) in the SEC.
Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss’ lead tailback, has been all or nothing this season. Of his 30 total carries, eight times he’s been stopped before crossing the line of scrimmage and nine times he’s gained 0-5 yards. He’s had a few big runs (20, 23 and 71 yards), but does the good outweigh the bad?
Lest we pick on the Rebs too much, Ole Miss isn’t the only underachieving running offense in the SEC. Tennessee, thanks to its youthful offensive line, has the fewest rushing yards (507) in the conference. It’s no wonder that Tennessee and Vanderbilt are the only teams in the SEC with less than 600 rushing yards and under 3.7 yards per carry.
The least physical running teams, in terms of the fewest yards after contact, are Florida (240), Vanderbilt (245) and South Carolina (296).
The teams with the biggest fumbling problems: LSU and Vanderbilt, which boot the ball on 3 percent of their carries.
And the best
You thought we would go this entire post without mentioning Todd Gurley ’s name? Wrong. Let’s take a quick look at the top individual performers in the SEC.
- Most productive: Collins leads the way with 621 yards rushing, followed by Gurley (610), Jonathan Williams (486), Josh Robinson (485) and Cameron Artis-Payne (468)
- Most explosive: Gurley has the most runs of 20 or more yards (8), followed by Collins (7), Robinson (6), Artis-Payne (4), Russell Hansbrough (4) and Leonard Fournette (4)
- Most physical: Gurley has the most yards after contact (299), followed by Collins (284), Robinson (248), Williams 224) and Hansbrough (219)
- Most elusive: Collins has the most yards before contact (337), followed by Gurley (311), Artis-Payne (268), Williams (262) and Ralph Webb (252)
- Most likely to score: Tra Carson has the highest touchdown-per-rush percentage (12.5), followed by Jonathan Williams (12.1), Trey Williams (10.5), Jaylen Walton (10.3) and Darrel Williams (9.1)
We're going to start separating the pretenders from the contenders, as division races heat up. It's time to find out a whole lot more about the powerful SEC West, where a whopping six top 15 teams square off. Buckle up!
Game of the week: Alabama at Ole Miss
The No. 3 Tide still have the best chance to win the SEC West -- a 31-percent chance to be exact, according to ESPN's FPI (Football Power Index) -- but their biggest threat of being upset will be waiting at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday. The No. 11 Rebels admitted they were looking ahead to the big game after slogging past Memphis 24-3, but they still turned in another impressive performance by what has become one of the nation's most dominant defenses. Ole Miss kept Memphis out of the end zone and has allowed just two touchdowns on 38 drives this season. The Rebels' run defense was particularly nasty, limiting Memphis to 23 yards on 31 attempts. Alabama is coming off a bye and a dominant, complete performance of its own in a 42-21 thrashing of Florida. It all sets up to be quite a clash in Oxford, Mississippi, the first of what will likely be a handful of glamorous SEC West showdowns.
Player under pressure: Dak Prescott
Last time we saw them, the Bulldogs made quite the statement in beating then-No. 8 LSU for the first time in nearly 15 years and winning in Baton Rouge for the first time in nearly 24 years. Prescott showed all of his dual-threat brilliance in carving up the Tigers' defense, and MSU shot up in the polls after a very big win. In order for the Dogs to keep momentum on their side they now have to beat another top 10 foe. Prescott will be the central figure, and the pressure he'll face is sure to be literal as well as figurative. Texas A&M leads the SEC with 17 sacks in four games. True freshman end Myles Garrett has been a force with 5.5, while linebacker Shaan Washington returned from a broken collarbone last week and recorded two sacks in his first game of the year. One more thing: Prescott will be without his starting center, as Dillon Day will serve a one-game suspension for stomping on two LSU players.
Coach under the microscope: Florida's Will Muschamp
Muschamp probably has this category to himself until his Gators start winning and pulling off upsets. Florida's loss to Alabama was not unexpected, but the way it went down -- more ineptitude on offense and a school record for yards allowed on defense -- pushed fans to the brink. Even some of Muschamp's die-hard supporters had to be talked off their nearest ledge. If the noise was that loud after UF's loss to a juggernaut program like Alabama, what would happen if the Gators lose to Tennessee for the first time in nearly 10 years? The Volunteers are an improving bunch. They came oh-so-close to beating Georgia on the road last week, and they're still hungry for respect. Florida, coming off a bye, will have to get its act together in order to pull off a win at Neyland Stadium.
Storyline to watch: Will Brandon Harris start?
LSU's visit to No. 5 Auburn has an entirely different feel after the Bayou Bengals' season-long quarterback controversy took a turn for the decisive. True freshman Brandon Harris was electrifying in relief of Anthony Jennings. Harris was 11-of-14 passing for 178 yards and directed the LSU offense to seven touchdowns on seven possessions. After the game, coach Les Miles declined to name Harris the starter, saying LSU's way is to thoroughly evaluate before making a decision. With all due respect, that's a bunch of hooey. Harris obviously gives LSU its best chance to pull what would be an enormous upset both in terms of the national stage and the division race. It won't be easy against Auburn's improving defense. The Tigers have allowed only three plays of 25 yards or more this season, tied for the second fewest in the FBS.
Intriguing matchup: South Carolina at Kentucky
While the West division deserves all the attention it's going to get on Saturday, the East is quietly trying to sort itself out. Upstart Kentucky finally removed a very large monkey off its back by beating Vanderbilt and snapping a 17-game conference losing streak. In order to earn respect, the Wildcats' next task is to score an upset. Kentucky and its fans will be fired up for this home game, and the Gamecocks are ripe for the picking after blowing a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter against division-leading Missouri. Kentucky's improving offense will stretch USC's struggling defense. But the most intriguing matchup in this one is on the other side of the ball, where the Cats' defense is coming off its best performance against an SEC foe since 1996. UK held Vanderbilt to 139 yards last week. If the Wildcats can contain the Gamecocks' offense, it might not even take a shootout to earn that elusive signature win.
12:00 PM ET UAB Arkansas 3:30 PM ET 1 Mississippi State Kentucky 4:00 PM ET Vanderbilt Missouri 7:15 PM ET 3 Ole Miss 24 LSU 7:30 PM ET South Carolina 5 Auburn 7:30 PM ET 4 Alabama Tennessee