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Rivalry Week SEC Primer

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Welcome to Rivalry Week – the greatest weekend of the college football season.

Welcome to Rivalry Week – the greatest weekend of the college football season.

As is often the case, the SEC will be in action on all three days of Thanksgiving weekend. The Egg Bowl kicks things off on Thursday night for the third straight year, as Mississippi State hopes to make it a perfect 10-for-10 at making bowl games this decade. Friday features the sixth renewal of the Battle Line Rivalry, as Missouri (five) and Arkansas (eight) hope to snap long losing streaks.

Saturday’s schedule is highlighted, of course, by the Iron Bowl. An Alabama win would send the Crimson Tide to their couches for Championship Weekend needing just a bit of help to reach their sixth straight College Football Playoff. Three of the four SEC-ACC in-state clashes have huge point spreads, but Louisville-Kentucky is an interesting matchup.

LSU goes for perfection under the bright lights of Tiger Stadium against Texas A&M, while Tennessee hopes to finally take down “little brother” Vanderbilt again after three straight double-digit losses to the Commodores.

Let’s say farewell to the regular season with an in-depth look at the nine-game SEC slate on Rivalry Weekend.

5 Things I Want to Know on Sunday Morning

1. Is Mac Jones ready for the big stage?

The Alabama backup quarterback has offered little to pick apart in two home blowout wins over Arkansas and Western Carolina. Now comes the Iron Bowl. In Auburn. Against an elite defense. With playoff chances riding on the outcome. With millions of people watching. Last time we saw Jones in a game of consequence, he was part of an ill-fated fake field goal attempt in Alabama’s national championship game loss to Clemson. He’s not Tua Tagovailoa, but Jones is a talented player who certainly won’t bring this offense to a halt. But what happens in the big moments – in the red zone and on third-and-long? Those are the new tests coming for Jones this week.

2. How will the Iron Bowl’s weaker units fare against each other?

Like we’ll see in next week’s SEC Championship Game between Georgia and LSU, the Iron Bowl features strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. The big stars will be on the field when Alabama has the ball, making that the more fascinating of the two matchups, but what happens when Auburn has the ball? Despite the teams’ identities shifting over the past few seasons, this still is still a Gus Malzahn offense against a Nick Saban defense. Will Bo Nix’s next big step forward as a quarterback come as a sophomore in 2020? Or does he have one big performance left as a freshman after a rocky second half of the season?

3. Can Texas A&M put another scare into a division winner?

By and large, the Aggies fared well in their 19-13 defeat at Georgia last Saturday. Sure, the offense was a bit of a slog, but that’s life against the 2019 Bulldogs. Kellen Mond did lead an impressive touchdown drive to make the game interesting the fourth quarter, and the defense allowed only one touchdown. LSU is a different challenge entirely. While the offense should be much more successful, it also has to be far more efficient than it was last Saturday. Both Georgia and LSU make opponents play to their styles, and their styles could not be more different.

4. Will the Egg Bowl feature any shenanigans?

Nine combined wins between the two teams matches the lowest total of the decade heading into an Egg Bowl. Despite the lack of on-field success, perhaps no rivalry in college football has more petulance and vitriol at the moment than Ole Miss and Mississippi State. You know why. We don’t need to rehash it. In the Bulldogs’ win in Oxford last season, a brawl nearly carried into the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium stands. While neither head coach has stoked the fire like their predecessors did, they also haven’t done anything to cool it off. Say what you want about the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, but it’s almost always civil on the field. The Rebels and Bulldogs could take a page or two from the state to their east.

5. Could South Carolina, Georgia Tech, or Florida State shock the world?

Probably not, but South Carolina did put up 35 points on Clemson last year in Death Valley, and Florida State certainly has the talent to go round-for-round with Florida. Georgia Tech has no chance against Georgia, and South Carolina doesn’t have the firepower this year to hang with Clemson, but the Seminoles seem to have some renewed energy under interim coach Odell Haggins. Dan Mullen rarely loses to teams he should beat, so the odds are stacked against Florida State, but the ‘Noles are 4-0 this decade in Gainesville. A Florida win would all but clinch either an Orange or Cotton Bowl berth.

Trivia Time (answers below):

1. Who is the only true freshman quarterback to defeat a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team?
2. Who is the last team to go winless in SEC play in consecutive seasons?
3. What was Kirby Smart’s record as a Georgia player against Georgia Tech?

Previews and Predictions

Ole Miss at Mississippi State (-2.5), Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Announcers: Adam Amin, Tim Hasselbeck and Pat McAfee

Neither fanbase would ever want to admit it, but these two teams are mirror images of one another. Both run the ball very well, but haven’t found any consistency in the passing game. Likewise, neither team is very good at stopping the pass, but has played the run at a slightly better level. Despite a 4-7 record, it appears that Ole Miss will bring its coaching staff back intact next season. There is much more drama in Starkville, especially with the Rutgers job still open and Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead being linked to a possible return to the Northeast. In a series that the home team dominated in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the road team has taken command with four straight wins. Leaning on stability, I’ll say Ole Miss makes it five, as the Rebels deny their rivals a bowl trip.

Prediction: Ole Miss 38, Mississippi State 28

Missouri (-12) at Arkansas (Little Rock), Friday, 2:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Announcers: Carter Blackburn, Aaron Taylor and Rick Neuheisel

Missouri finally learned its bowl fate on Tuesday after the NCAA formally denied its appeal to have its postseason ban overturned. Even with a win in Little Rock, the 5-6 Tigers will be home for the holidays for just the third time since 2004. Arkansas has known it would be home for the holidays since October, as the Razorbacks are searching for their first SEC win in 25 months. While it’s a cliché, this game is all about pride. What does Missouri have left after Tuesday’s blow from the NCAA? Is Arkansas ready to move on to a new era? Or is there one inspired performance still to come. I can’t pick the Razorbacks to win, but I expect a competitive game from them before closing the book on a season to forget.

Prediction: Missouri 26, Arkansas 24

Louisville at Kentucky (-3), Noon ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Taylor Zarzour and Matt Stinchcomb

This is a fun game. Both head coaches are excellent talent maximizers, as the 7-4 Cardinals are one of the nation’s most pleasant surprises in Scott Satterfield’s first season, while 6-5 Kentucky has had to recreate its offense after multiple quarterback injuries. Kentucky’s defense has a slight edge over that of Louisville, but there’s a clear advantage for the visitors at the offensive skill positions. Tutu Atwell leads the ACC with 1,072 yards and 11 touchdowns, while freshman running back Javian Hawkins ranks third in the conference after a 233-yard day last week against Syracuse. Hopefully Satterfield vs. Mark Stoops becomes a nice little rivalry in the 2020s. I think Satterfield squeaks out a close win in Round 1.

Prediction: Louisville 31, Kentucky 28

(3) Clemson (-27) at South Carolina, Noon ET (ESPN)
Announcers: Dave Pasch, Greg McElroy and Tom Luginbill

A streaky series has seen Clemson follow up a five-game winning streak by South Carolina with a five-game streak of its own, and the Tigers are heavy favorites to make it six straight on Saturday afternoon in Columbia. Clemson hasn’t had a game closer than 31 points since the 21-20 escape at North Carolina in late September, but this is a Gamecocks team that took down Georgia in Athens. South Carolina leaned heavily on takeaways that day, but the Tigers have just one giveaway in their past four games. That’s the only recipe for South Carolina to keep this game close. It won’t happen.

Prediction: Clemson 49, South Carolina 21

(4) Georgia (-28.5) at Georgia Tech, Noon ET (ABC)
Announcers: Bob Wischusen and Dan Orlovsky

It’s been 20 years since Georgia’s last defeat at Bobby Dodd Stadium, as Bulldogs fans often take over the old midtown Atlanta stadium on Thanksgiving weekend and make it feel like a Georgia home game. The Yellow Jackets have entered the game with optimism for an upset over the years, but this year’s Georgia Tech team is still in transition mode in Geoff Collins’ first season, sitting at 3-8 after a mild upset of N.C. State last Thursday. Georgia Tech is allowing 215 yards per game on the ground, most in the ACC. That’s a bad matchup against a ‘Dawgs offense that prefers to run the football. There’s no real identity for Collins’ offense yet, and this Georgia defense shouldn’t get stung by anything the Yellow Jackets throw at them.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Georgia Tech 11

(5) Alabama (-3.5) at (15) Auburn, 3:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Announcers: Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson

Auburn is likely Citrus Bowl-bound regardless of Saturday’s result, but there will be plenty of motivation for the Tigers with an opportunity to formally knock Alabama out of College Football Playoff contention for the first time. The Tigers secondary has been solid all season, but this matchup with Alabama’s receiving corps concerns me. Auburn has to generate the kind of pressure it did against LSU if it wants to stay in this game. If it can, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones may be susceptible to a game-changing mistake. Offensively, the Tigers need to expose a shaky Alabama run defense to be able to open up the passing game for Bo Nix and top target Seth Williams. Jones will play well, but this a gut pick that Auburn will bookend its season with dramatic victories and help the College Football Playoff committee by knocking out an Alabama team with a controversial resume.

Prediction: Auburn 31, Alabama 27

Vanderbilt at Tennessee (-21), 4 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Dave Neal and D.J. Shockley

With a three-touchdown spread, it’s easy to forget that the Commodores have actually won the past three meetings, each by double digits. Tennessee has developed very nicely into a team without a glaring weakness, as both lines of scrimmage have turned the corner after bad starts to the season. The passing game is the strength with three big-play receivers, while the pass rush has come alive with 19 sacks in the past six games. For Vanderbilt, the concerns are everywhere, but mostly on offense, as the ‘Dores haven’t topped 21 points in a game against an FBS opponent since September. I don’t think this game is anywhere close to the spread. Either Vanderbilt plays an inspired game and makes things very uncomfortable in Neyland Stadium, or Tennessee takes out three years of frustration and lays a complete beatdown on Vanderbilt. For some strange reason, I think the Commodores keep this competitive.

Prediction: Tennessee 29, Vanderbilt 20

Texas A&M at (2) LSU (-17), 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Announcers: Sean McDonough and Todd Blackledge

The Tigers slipped from No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings this week, but LSU still finds itself likely needing just one win in the next two weeks against Texas A&M and Georgia to finish in the top four on Dec. 8. Texas A&M needs to turn Kellen Mond loose on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, as Mond had the best game of his career last year against LSU in the Aggies’ unforgettable seven-overtime victory. With Joe Burrow and the Tigers offense continuing to roll, there’s no room for the conservatism displayed by the Aggies last week in a close loss to Georgia. Texas A&M can score, has to score and will score. LSU will just score more.

Prediction: LSU 49, Texas A&M 35

Florida State at (10) Florida (-17.5), 7:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Tom Hart, Jordan Rodgers and Cole Cubelic

The Seminoles have been an impossible team to figure out this season. They appeared to have overcome a slow start with a midseason surge, but then it all came crashing down in a terrible home loss to rival Miami (FL), and Willie Taggart was fired the next morning. Odell Haggins is now 4-0 as in interim coach between 2017 and 2019, but none of those four wins had anywhere near the significance of what a victory on Saturday night in Gainesville would mean. How does Florida State do it? Running back Cam Akers needs a big day after sitting out last week’s win over Alabama State. Florida rarely beats itself with mistakes, reducing the Gators’ vulnerability to going 0-for-the-2010s in home games against the ‘Noles.

Prediction: Florida 34, Florida State 21

Best Bets

Last Week: 5-0, +15 Musburgers
YTD: 31-31-3, +5 Musburgers

East Carolina +5.5 vs. Tulsa   – 5 Musburgers
Wisconsin -2.5 at Minnesota – 4 Musburgers
Washington -7 vs. Washington State– 3 Musburgers
Marshall -7.5 vs. FIU – 2 Musburgers
Purdue +6.5 vs. Indiana – 1 Musburger

Trivia Answers

1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
2. Kentucky (2012-2013)
3. 3-1

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.