Clear Your Schedule – SEC, Week 9

By Brian Wilmer -
Alabama-Mississippi State
A.J. McCarron and Alabama host Mississippi State. Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE

The time of the season has approached in which we get the updated BCS rankings each week, and the numbers tell us that the SEC is, yet again, at the top of the heap. The conference features the top two, five of the top 11 and seven of the top 25 teams in the BCS standings. Four of those teams face off against each other this week, as #1 Alabama plays #11 Mississippi State, while #2 Florida draws #10 Georgia. If you honestly needed a reason to watch SEC football, those are two of the most compelling. Let’s take a spin around the conference for Week 9 and see what other compelling matchups await us.

Top of the Ratings

#11 Mississippi State (7-0, 3-0) at #1 Alabama (7-0, 4-0), 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Last week’s episode: Mississippi State 45, Middle Tennessee 3; Alabama 44, Tennessee 13

Program guide: Most people who follow the SEC likely had the “Matchup of the Year” circled for next week, as LSU hosts Alabama next Saturday night in Baton Rouge. The undercard to that heavyweight battle takes place this weekend in Tuscaloosa, as the 7-0 Bulldogs travel to take on the 7-0 Crimson Tide. The Bulldogs bring the SEC leader in rushing yards per game, LaDarius Perkins. Perkins averages 103.4 rushing yards per game, but has the task of facing an Alabama defense that allows better numbers than you could manage on the rookie mode of Madden. Opposing rushers have mustered a paltry 58.71 yards per game against the Tide. Missouri rushed 28 times for just 3 yards against Alabama two weeks ago. No Tide opponent has averaged three yards per carry this year, and only one opponent has surpassed 80 yards for an entire game.

Bulldog quarterback Tyler Russell has thrown for 1573 yards this season, matching his 15 touchdown throws with just one interception. His top receiver, Chad Bumphis, has caught 29 passes for 479 yards and six scores. Dan Mullen’s team should expect no safer passage through the air, as Alabama also possesses the nation’s second-ranked pass defense. The Tide defense surrenders just 136.9 passing yards per game, with an even better opposing mark at home. Alabama allows 116.7 passing yards per game in their three home contests.

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has done Russell one better, throwing for 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions. McCarron completes just under 69% of his passes on the season, and he will face a Mississippi State pass defense that is quite effective in its own right. The Bulldogs rank 20th against the pass, allowing just 184.7 passing yards per game. Alabama’s ground game has been tremendous, going for 595 total yards in their last two games. Crimson Tide rushers T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy combined for 208 yards on 32 carries last week against Tennessee, with Yeldon scoring twice in a 44-13 Alabama victory. If Nick Saban’s crew can control the ground game in Tuscaloosa on Saturday as they have the previous two — and all year, really — Mississippi State’s front seven will need to come up huge for the Bulldogs to escape with their perfect record intact.

#2 Florida vs. #10 Georgia (in Jacksonville), 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

Last week’s episode: Florida 44, South Carolina 11; Georgia 29, Kentucky 24

Program guide: The World’s Largest Outdoor Diet Soda Party (happy, Bernie Machen?) cranks up for another yearly installment at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field. One of the more storied rivalries in the sport has turned a bit one-sided of late, with Georgia having won just three of the last 14 and four of the last 22. One of those wins came last year, though, as the Bulldogs defeated Florida 24-20. We spoke of Alabama’s run defense, and Florida’s run defense allows a similarly stingy 97 rushing yards per game. LSU and South Carolina managed just 78 yards combined on 51 carries in their outings against the Gators.

Despite Georgia’s group of rushers, this may not be such a terrible thing for the Bulldogs. Quarterback Aaron Murray threw for 427 yards and four touchdowns in a 30-for-38 effort against an admittedly terrible Kentucky defense last week, but his only game in which he did not throw for multiple scores came two weeks ago against South Carolina. Though Florida’s pass defense is also very effective (184.7 yards per game), Georgia might find their biggest gains through the air. Bulldog backs Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, and Ken Malcome combined for just 93 yards last week against Kentucky.

Georgia’s defense is another concern, as the Bulldogs allow 24.1 points per game. Florida certainly did not put up eye-popping numbers against South Carolina last week (183 yards of total offense), but the four turnovers by the Gamecocks helped make the margin a lot larger than it may have otherwise been. Georgia’s 74th-ranked rush defense has been weakened by injuries, and the Bulldogs have been quite outspoken in their disappointment over their level of play thus far this year. There is no greater opportunity for Mark Richt’s defense to make a statement than in Jacksonville against their bitter rival.

Florida will look to continue its standard mode of operation, playing efficient offense and controlling the clock. Though the numerous Gamecock turnovers last week gave the Gators the decided advantage in field position, they managed to do very little on the ground. Mike Gillislee accounted for just 37 yards on 19 carries, while quarterback Jeff Driskel went 11-for-16 for 93 yards, throwing for four short scores. If the Bulldogs finally perform to their capabilities on defense and avoid the same turnover problems that plagued South Carolina last week, this one could go to the final play.

Set Your DVR

Tennessee (3-4, 0-4) at #13 South Carolina (6-2, 4-2), noon ET, ESPN

Program guide: Two teams on considerable skids converge at Williams-Brice on Saturday, with South Carolina trying to salvage their chances of going to another major bowl, while Tennessee possibly tries to salvage their coach’s job. The Volunteers started their SEC schedule 0-4 for an almost-inconceivable third straight year, and they have been outscored 173-108 in those four losses. Tennessee has lost 11 of their last 12 SEC outings, and they have never beaten a top 25 foe during Derek Dooley’s tenure on Rocky Top. Quarterback Tyler Bray has experienced his share of struggles of late, going just 13-of-27 for 184 yards with no scores and two picks last week against Alabama. His highest quarterback rating in any SEC game is 83.3, with six scores and eight interceptions in SEC play.

South Carolina finished their grueling three-game stretch against top SEC competition battered and bruised, going 1-2 in that portion of their schedule. They will look to get well against a Tennessee defense that is last in the SEC in points allowed (33.3 points per game), twelfth in the conference in rushing defense (186.43 yards per game) and next-to-last in pass defense (258.9 yards per game). The Gamecocks have had two straight offensive letdowns, with last week’s quarterback switch at halftime and 13-yard game from Marcus Lattimore putting an exclamation mark on G.A. Mangus’ group’s struggles. If South Carolina is to recover and claw their way back to a big-time postseason berth, a return to the friendly confines in Columbia and the Tennessee defense could be just what the doctor ordered.

Mississippi (4-3, 1-2) at Arkansas (3-4, 2-2), 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC Network

Program guide: Mississippi has put up respectable efforts in all three SEC contests, their most recent a 41-20 victory against Auburn two weeks ago. Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace had quite the game, going 17-for-22 for 226 yards and a score, rushing for two more touchdowns and even catching one in the victory. The Ole Miss passing attack will look to punish the suddenly-resurgent Razorbacks, who rank last in the conference in pass defense.

Arkansas has gotten off the carpet in their last two games, though they have been against Auburn and Kentucky. The Razorbacks have outscored those two opponents 73-14, and that offensive resurgence looks to continue this week. Tyler Wilson went a tidy 22-for-29 for 230 yards against the Tigers last week, and Dennis Johnson rushed 17 times for 76 yards and two scores. The real challenge will be to shut down a Mississippi rushing attack that averages 211 yards per game. Auburn’s top three backs combined to rush 20 times for just 94 yards against the Razorbacks. Both teams rank in the bottom four in the SEC in scoring defense (26.6 PPG for Ole Miss, 31 for Arkansas), so this looks to be a high-scoring affair.

Fast Forward

Kentucky (1-7, 0-5) at Missouri (3-4, 0-4), noon ET, ESPNU

Program guide: Three of the four winless teams in the SEC reside in the East, and two of them are on display in this affair. Kentucky found a bit of a running game against Georgia in last week’s loss, rushing for 206 yards. They still have next to no passing attack, averaging just 190 yards per game, good for 102nd in the nation. Last week’s game was their highest-scoring SEC game of the season, eclipsing the 17 they scored in a loss to South Carolina.

Missouri comes off a bye following a 42-10 shellacking by Alabama. Corbin Berkstresser looks to get another start in James Franklin’s place, having gone 12-for-29 for 126 yards and two interceptions against the Crimson Tide. The Wildcats allow just under 257 passing yards a game and have only intercepted opposing passers twice on the season.

Both offenses have struggled on the year, with Missouri 108th and Kentucky 116th in total offense. The Tiger defense is 41st in the nation, while Kentucky ranks 84th. Berkstresser’s struggles aside, the Tigers look to be in decent shape to pick up their first conference win. The Wildcats, meanwhile, will likely continue their search for answers — and possibly a new coach.

#20 Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2) at Auburn (1-6, 0-5), 7:00 p.m. ET, ESPNU

Program guide: While we speak of teams with coaches on the hot seat, we should likely mention Auburn. Gene Chizik is just 9-11 with the Tigers since Cam Newton’s departure for Carolina, and the team’s offensive struggles have continued throughout the year. Auburn ranks 122nd in total offense, tied for 121st in scoring offense, 100th in rushing offense and 117th in passing offense. Though A&M’s defense had a few problems against LSU, there is absolutely no reason to think these struggles will continue on the plains this weekend.

The Aggies came out punching against LSU last weekend, racking up almost as many first downs (11) as LSU had offensive plays (12) early on. Much as they did against Florida early in the season, however, they appeared to lose a lot of their physical edge, and despite a horrific effort from Zach Mettenberger (11-for-29, 97 yards, 1 TD), A&M fell 24-19. Running back Ben Malena had some success against LSU, rushing 12 times for 82 yards and a score before the Aggies seemed to abandon him. Johnny Manziel had one of his tougher games as an Aggie, going 29-for-56 for 276 yards and three picks, while gaining only 27 yards on 17 carries. He will look to rebound against a somewhat young Auburn defense, led by linebacker Cassanova McKinzy. McKinzy had a huge game against Vanderbilt last week, and he will have a huge task at hand in trying to contain Manziel and the Aggie offense.

UMass (0-7) at Vanderbilt (3-4), 7:00 p.m. ET, FSN (regional)

Program guide: We just spoke of teams struggling on offense, and the Minutemen are one of those teams. Charley Molnar’s UMass club is in its first year in FBS football, and they rank last in scoring offense (11.9 points per game), 111th in rushing offense (108.14 yards per game), 114th in passing offense (163.3 yards per game) and 123rd in total offense (271.4 yards per game). They also rank 119th in scoring defense (40.7 points per game), 115th in rush defense (230.7 yards per game), 78th in pass defense (241.9 yards per game, primarily because teams have built early leads and have not had to throw) and 111th in total defense (472.4 yards per game).

All this is to say that Vanderbilt should have little problem winning this game, despite some of their struggles this season. The Commodores got a tremendous rushing effort from Zac Stacy last week (27 carries, 169 yards, 1 TD) in a 17-13 victory over Auburn last week, in which the Vandy offense never seemed to get untracked. Jordan Rodgers completed 15-of-25 for 173 yards without a score or an interception. They also survived three turnovers to hold Auburn to a modest 212 yards of total offense. Auburn only converted 2-of-12 third downs last week, while Vandy completed 5-of-15. Don’t expect the Commodores to experience many of those same struggles in this contest.

Brian Wilmer is a contributor to Follow him @sportsmatters.

Comments (2)

Extremely well researched and well written.I do wonder why you think Ala.and Ga.will come down to the wire.I feel as though Alabama will have this one out of reach by the end of the third quarter.The only way I see Ga.still being in the game is if Ala.commits several turnovers,and I doubt that will happen.
Very good synopsis of the games.Thanks for your usual professionalism.

If you mean Florida-Georgia, Florida has been good at shutting down quarterbacks like Zach Mettenberger and Connor Shaw, but Aaron Murray is a little bit of a different animal. Georgia is somewhat banged-up, but rivalry games are unpredictable.