story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
This is an important week to several teams on the six-game docket within the rugged Southeastern Conference.
While September went about as good as could be expected for several schools, others had rough spots through tough opening slates that they’re trying to erase as the calendar changes to October. Two of those schools, Auburn and Arkansas, square off this weekend in a pivotal matchup down on the Plains.
However, we’ll get to that contest in just a few moments.
Last weekend, I was in attendance at the Georgia-Tennessee shootout in Athens, Ga. The No. 5 Bulldogs and Volunteers gave the packed house at Sanford Stadium and national television audience via CBS Sports an entertaining show, concluding in a 51-44 UGA triumph.
Several fans of Georgia and rival schools point to the scoreboard and ask what was wrong with Todd Grantham’s defense, but the hidden story reveals that the Georgia offense gave Tennessee 20 points thanks to turnovers creating excellent field position as well as a pick-six in the first quarter.
Now, Aaron Murray had several great passes and did a tremendous job of dissecting the UT secondary, which has struggled all season at preventing big plays. However, the turnovers have got to be eliminated this weekend on the road at fellow undefeated and No. 6-ranked South Carolina. Not having go-to wideout Michael Bennett will be a big blow, however. Murray does a great job of distributing to his receivers, but Bennett was definitely his most dependable target.
The Gamecocks overcame a 17-7 halftime deficit to lowly Kentucky last weekend in Lexington to win 38-17 thanks to heady play and dependability Gamecock fans have come to expect from Marcus Lattimore and Connor Shaw. While USC doesn’t resemble anything close to the offensive firepower Steve Spurrier’s Florida teams routinely displayed in the 90s, Spurrier has South Carolina loaded on defense as well as on the verge of being in Atlanta for the second time in three seasons as well as possibly entering the SEC and national championship landscapes with another victory over Georgia this week.
The matchup of the Georgia offense against the South Carolina defense is reason enough to make sure you’re in front of a television set to catch ESPN’s 6 p.m. broadcast from Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday night. Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Chris Fowler and the rest of the ESPN GameDay crew will be giving the national college football landscape overview from the Fairgrounds just outside the campus of the University of South Carolina to help build up an already anticipated eclectic atmosphere.
While the winner isn’t guaranteed to represent the SEC East in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 1, neither school wants to be at a two-game deficit in the standings following the final buzzer Saturday night, either.
Call it now: South Carolina 27, Georgia 24
• Arkansas at Auburn (Auburn, Ala., 11 a.m. CT, ESPN2)
In August, I wrote for The City Wire that this game would be the turning point for both Auburn and Arkansas due to difficult September schedules for both teams. With the two schools combining for two wins in the opening month of the season, this game has become win-or-die for bowl hopes just six weeks into the year.
The Tigers showed massive improvement on the defensive side of the ball against LSU two weeks ago, holding the Bayou Bengals to just 12 points and three third down conversions. While the AU offense still showed futility, there was creativity in the play calling and play design for the first time in 2012 and several big plays were halted due to LSU’s aggressive and speedy defensive line.
To leave Auburn with a victory, 1-4 Arkansas must protect Tyler Wilson and refuse to give up on the running game with Knile Davis. Bobby Petrino owned a 3-1 record against his former employer in southeast Alabama, but John L. Smith has more than proved himself to be Not Bobby Petrino. Cobi Hamilton could put up big numbers on a young and relatively inexperienced Auburn secondary, but there still needs to be a healthy dose of Davis to get the Hogs a much-needed W.
How Auburn is a double-digit favorite, I have no idea, but I do feel as though the home field advantage will play a crucial role in the Tigers’ ability to get their season back on track.
Call it now: Auburn 24, Arkansas 17
• Mississippi State at Kentucky (Lexington, Ky., 11:21 a.m. CT, SEC Network)
The unofficial Joker Phillips Farewell Season continues this weekend against red-hot Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs have played solid football through four games and went into the bye week on the heels of a 30-10 business-like victory over South Alabama. This yearly meeting between UK and MSU has been one that has never seemed to give Dan Mullen much trouble in his first three years in Starkville.
Unless State plays incredibly poorly, this one shouldn’t be close heading into the fourth quarter.
Call it now: Mississippi State 34, Kentucky 3
• LSU at Florida (Gainesville, Fla., 2:30 p.m. CT, CBS)
Last season, the Gators started 4-0 under Will Muschamp but finished just 7-6 thanks to an unforgiving October slate that started with a primetime butt-kicking by eventual national champion Alabama. Florida looks to have turned the corner this year, carrying a 5-0 record into this weekend’s LSU contest.
The Bayou Bengals appeared to sleep-walk against Towson last weekend, allowing 22 points to the Football Championship Subdivision program. Zach Mettenberger appears to have been exposed in the 12-10 narrow victory over Auburn two weeks ago, and he must play infinitely better against the stout UF defense.
Equally as important is Jeff Driskel’s ability to continue his night-and-day improvement from the opener against Bowling Green against LSU’s suffocating defense. Driskel’s ability to run has always been there for the sophomore, but he is doing a much better job of only running when he has to or is designed to as a four-game starter in 2012.
A win in this game is important to both school’s SEC Championship hopes as the pair’s chief competitors in their respective divisions do not show many weaknesses at all thus far. Are the Gators for real? Can Les Miles stay out of his own way and allow his team to pull off another big road win?
Call it now: Florida 17, LSU 13
• Texas A&M at Ole Miss (Oxford, Miss., 6 p.m. CT, ESPNU)
If you didn’t believe A&M was for real, last week’s 58-10 thrashing of Arkansas should serve as quite the wakeup call to that reality. I figured Kevin Sumlin’s offensive attack would spit and sputter in the first season as an SEC member, but I did not ever foresee Johnny Football bursting onto the scene like he has the first four weeks of the year.
This begins a pivotal stretch for the 3-2 Ole Miss Rebels as they host A&M, Auburn and travel to Vanderbilt in the next four weeks – all winnable games if UM can keep up the intensity shown in the two toughest contests thus far against Texas and Alabama. The Rebels got hosed by a couple of calls last weekend in Tuscaloosa, but it did not make any difference in the outcome of the game whatsoever.
If you like offense, you’ll love this one. Hugh Freeze and Sumlin look poised to continue building contenders at their respective jobs – although this may be a year of transition for both.
Call it now: Texas A&M 38, Ole Miss 28
• Vanderbilt at Missouri (Columbia, Mo., 6 p.m. CT, FSN)
The Battle of the James Franklins takes place in the Zoo Saturday night as the Commodores of Vandy travel to take on the newest Tigers of the SEC in Missouri.
The coach James Franklin has a tough task ahead in his continued effort to rebuild the program and image of Vanderbilt football. The Commodores have been erratic but in all but one game so far through a 1-3 start. VU is a much more formidable opponent at home than on the road, but you cannot sleep on Nashville’s pride any longer.
I’m not sure the Missouri faithful envisioned this tough of a transition into the SEC, especially after being named an SEC East school. The quarterback James Franklin possesses big play ability, especially when throwing to MU’s extremely talented wide receiver corps, but that hasn’t been nearly enough to keep Mizzou in games against Georgia and South Carolina.
Bowl position is the biggest item up for grabs in this one. Vandy must play much better on the road than it has thus far to come out with its second win on the year.
Call it now: Missouri 24, Vanderbilt 21
OVERALL RUSHING PICKS
Last week: 6-0