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Rivalry Week SEC Recap

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Resume rankings, bowl projections, top takeaways and more from Matt Smith after week 14.

Scores

Mississippi State 21, Ole Miss 20
Missouri 24, Arkansas 14
(3) Clemson 38, South Carolina 3
(4) Georgia 52, Georgia Tech 7
Kentucky 45, Louisville 13
(15) Auburn 48, (5) Alabama 45
Tennessee 28, Vanderbilt 10
(2) LSU 50, Texas A&M 7
(10) Florida 40, Florida State 17

The Big Story

What an Iron Bowl. As B.J. Bennett wrote on Saturday night, the game was a story.

It sure felt like 2013. Alabama missed a late field goal. Auburn scored a 100-yard touchdown on a deflected pass off of a player’s back. One second was added back to the clock prior to a field goal attempt. Gus Malzahn found a special teams wrinkle. Four hours later, Alabama was out of the national title chase. If Saturday’s 48-45 Auburn win wasn’t the football gods just having some fun with all of us, then I can’t explain what happened. On some random Thursday in the middle of June when I’m yearning for football, I’m definitely grabbing a beer or two and watching this game again.

As for the immediate impact, Alabama will miss the College Football Playoff for the first time. The Crimson Tide have needed some fortunate breaks in their prior national title runs, but fate was not a friend of Alabama this season. From injuries to Tua Tagovailoa and Dylan Moses to LSU’s offensive resurgence to again being the victim of Auburn magic, it just wasn’t Alabama’s year. More tangibly speaking, the defense wasn’t championship-caliber. The offense came close to overcoming it, but it fell eight points short in the two losses. The question Nick Saban needs to answer is can a great defense coexist with the way Alabama is playing offense now? Maybe the offense will change in the post-Tua era. There are nine months to figure that out. The best news for Alabama is that Jaylen Waddle, who had three receiving touchdowns and a punt return touchdown in a jaw-dropping performance on Saturday, will be back.

For Auburn, it was just quintessential Auburn. As the wild twists and turns of the game began to develop, it felt like there was no other way for the game to end than with the Tigers winning in dramatic fashion. Bo Nix, in the form of college basketball players during March Madness, was no longer a freshman, avoiding turnovers in his first Iron Bowl. Auburn football never makes sense, and the Tigers beating Alabama despite being outgained by 161 yards doesn’t make much sense either. Credit to Malzahn for delivering up a beauty, and now he’s beloved again on The Plains, at least until a five-star recruit flips to Georgia or LSU in a couple weeks on National Signing Day. Thus is the circle of life at Auburn.

Top Takeaways

-There’s plenty to discuss after this weekend, but the performance of Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden deserves premier billing. The wide receiver-turned-quarterback carved up Louisville in the rain on Saturday for 284 rushing yards and four touchdowns, as the Cardinals had no answer for the obvious winner or the Paul Hornung Award, given, ironically by the Louisville Sports Commission, to college football’s most versatile player. The Wildcats crushed their in-state rival for the second year in a row, 45-13.

Bowden finished as Kentucky’s leading receiver by 11 receptions before transitioning to quarterback, and the Wildcats closed strong with Bowden, losing only to Tennessee on a last-second goal-line stand and at 11-1 Georgia after a 2-3 start. The ultimate team player, Bowden sacrificed improving his NFL stock as a receiver to save the Wildcats’ season. He’s only a junior, so he could return in 2020, but regardless of what happens, he is a certified football legend in Lexington for what he did for Kentucky this season.

-We had a surprising coach firing on Saturday morning when Missouri pulled the plug on Barry Odom after four seasons. Odom finished 25-25, but was done in by an awful start to the 2017 season and an equally awful close to this season, as the Tigers tumbled from 5-1 to 5-6 before limping past Arkansas on Friday afternoon. As a Missouri alumnus, Odom has to be crushed, but he’ll land on his feet as either a Group of Five head coach (Memphis?) or a Power Five defensive coordinator (Virginia Tech?).

What does Missouri do now? It’s a tough job, but it’s an SEC job, and at least it’s in the SEC East. You can consistently go 8-4 in the SEC East without pulling major upsets. Would the Tigers go all in on LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady despite his age (30) and lack of experience (five seasons in college football coaching)? I would not go that route, but it is alluring. As for Group of Five candidates, the hottest names are Louisiana-Lafayette’s Billy Napier, Memphis’ Mike Norvell, Appalachian State’s Eli Drinkwitz and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell. All are young guys who will be coaching in conference championship games next weekend. Napier and Fickell built up their programs that had fallen on hard times, while Norvell and Drinkwitz have been able to build on already-successful programs.

Quick Hitters

-LSU was undoubtedly inspired against Texas A&M by the events of last season, when the Tigers lost to the Aggies in seven overtimes and a minor melee broke out on the field afterwards. The Tigers wanted blood on Saturday night, and they delivered with their most complete performance of the season in a 50-7 win. The defense held Texas A&M to just 40 yards in the first half, harassing Kellen Mond and shutting down the run game, while Joe Burrow did what Joe Burrow does, throwing for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns in three quarters of work. The defense finally looked like we thought it would, and LSU heads to Atlanta to face Georgia brimming with confidence on both sides of the ball.

-Unlike LSU, Georgia has some concerns. Star wideout Lawrence Cager is out for most likely the rest of the season, and freshman receiver George Pickens will miss at least the first half of the SEC Championship Game after being ejected for fighting in Georgia’s 52-7 win over Georgia Tech. Running back D’Andre Swift left the game against the Yellow Jackets with what head coach Kirby Smart described as a shoulder contusion, but signs do point to him being available next Saturday. Jake Fromm has missed on more than half of his pass attempts in every game since beating Florida on Nov. 2. Yes, the defense is fantastic, but the offense will have to play its best game of the season to take down the Tigers. The Bulldogs nearly rose to the occasion last year in this situation and took down Alabama, but ultimately fell just short.

-It was a bit of a quiet 10-2 season for Florida, as the list of victories is pretty blah outside of Auburn, but Dan Mullen is now 20-5 in two seasons in Gainesville after the Gators thumped Florida State on Saturday night. Florida is poised for another New Year’s Six bowl, and 21 wins in two years would be the most in a two-year stretch at Florida since Urban Meyer’s final two seasons. The roster still isn’t quite where it needs to be to compete for national championships, but this program is very close to breaking through. With a favorable schedule, perhaps 2020 could be the year.

-It seems like forever ago now after all that has transpired this weekend, but the Egg Bowl certainly lived up to expectations – a close game marred by idiocy. No, it’s not Matt Luke’s fault that his wide receiver Elijah Moore took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that turned the game-tying extra point attempt from a chip shot to a pressure kick that was missed. However, it can be seen as a sign of a larger discipline problem within the Ole Miss program. That’s ultimately why Matt Luke was fired on Sunday evening. After all that’s gone on between Ole Miss and Mississippi State in recent years, both coaches should have demanded that there wouldn’t be any shenanigans. Instead, Moore cost his team a chance to win the game. It was a terrible look for the school, far worse than the 21-20 loss to the Bulldogs itself, and that was enough to force Luke out after a 15-21 record in three seasons. Memphis’ Mike Norvell sounds like the top target for Ole Miss.

-Coupled with Matt Luke’s dismissal is the retention of Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State. It was silly to have Moorhead’s fate determined by one game, but there was buzz that he would have been out had Ole Miss not been penalized after its late touchdown and gone for two and gotten it to win the game. Now, Moorhead is expected back in Starkville in 2020, albeit with some major changes necessary. It will be interesting to look back in a few years at where both of these programs are and how their paths could have been entirely different had Elijah Moore not mimicked a dog relieving itself on Thanksgiving Night in 2019.

-While he’s garnered some buzz to be SEC Coach of the Year, non-Orgeron category, I would have Jeremy Pruitt fourth on my ballot. Yes, he rallied his team from 1-4 to 7-5, but I have to ding him for getting to 1-4 in the first place. Ed Orgeron is the runaway winner, and I would put Dan Mullen No. 2 and Mark Stoops No. 3. Both suffered early quarterback injuries, but still were able to meet or exceed season expectations. Citing Pruitt’s four wins as an underdog needs to be qualified with the fact that Tennessee was an underdog in some of those games largely because of the losses to Georgia State and BYU. Pruitt coached well this season, and Vols fans should have hope that Pruitt can get this team back to perennial Top 25 status, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that his team wasn’t ready to play when the season opened.

-SEC Bowl Projections:

Peach Bowl (CFP semifinal): Georgia vs. Clemson
Fiesta Bowl (CFP semifinal): LSU vs. Ohio State
Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Oklahoma
Orange Bowl: Florida vs. Virginia
Citrus Bowl: Auburn vs. Wisconsin
Outback Bowl: Tennessee vs. Minnesota
Belk Bowl: Kentucky vs. North Carolina
Music City Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Indiana
Texas Bowl: Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma State

Around The Nation

-No. 1 Ohio State took a couple early punches from Michigan, but the Buckeyes had little trouble defeating Michigan for the 15th time in 16 meetings, pulling away in the third quarter for a 56-27 win in Ann Arbor. Even with LSU hammering Texas A&M, Ohio State should remain No. 1 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, and it would probably take a close win against Wisconsin coupled with LSU blowing out Georgia for a 13-0 Buckeyes team not to be No. 1 next Sunday. The Heisman Trophy is Joe Burrow’s, but Ohio State arguably has three of the five best players in the country in quarterback Justin Fields, running back J.K. Dobbins and defensive end Chase Young.

-Dabo Swinney’s act is old. Nobody thinks Clemson isn’t a great team. The Tigers are ranked No. 3 because the ACC is the worst of the Power Five leagues, and Clemson has not played a ranked opponent all season. That’s it. Ranking the Tigers third but thinking they’d beat Ohio State or LSU is perfectly fine. Rankings aren’t supposed to be predictive. Swinney is astutely using the media to talk to his players, and the proverbial chip on their shoulders has helped the program win two of the last three national titles, but the disrespect card needs to go. Clemson has four losses in the past five seasons. No other team has fewer than six. It’s the top program in the country right now.

-If you have a hot take regarding Utah vs. Oklahoma (or Baylor) for the No. 4 rankings, props to you, but I can’t find much separation. Utah has been dominant in 10 of its 11 wins, while Oklahoma has three one-score wins since its loss at Kansas State. Likewise, Baylor, which has the best loss of the three teams (by three points to Oklahoma), has four one-score wins over teams that finished with a losing record. Oklahoma has more wins over good opponents, but Utah has left no doubt in its games. If I had to make a call right now (and things could easily change this weekend), I’d lean with the Utes because they’ve responded to their September loss to USC with dominance. Oklahoma has flirted with disaster multiple times since its loss in Manhattan. If both win by similar margins this weekend, it may be the hardest call the committee has had to make in six years of the College Football Playoff.

-Virginia completed the ACC Coastal seven in seven on Friday, defeating Virginia Tech, 39-30, in a fun game that snapped a 15-year losing streak to the Hokies. All seven ACC Coastal teams have now won the division title in the past seven years, the greatest bit of evidence of the parity (and mediocrity) in that division. The Cavaliers’ rewards? A date with Clemson on Saturday night, but also a likely trip to the Orange Bowl – the program’s first major bowl since the 1991 Sugar Bowl.

-Other non-SEC jobs to open this past week include Boston College, New Mexico, UNLV, USF and UTSA. Colorado State seems likely to open early this week, and who knows what’s going on with USC. N.C. State probably should open for the benefit of the program, but I don’t expect it to at this point.

-Other teams to catch my eye in Week 14, in a good way: Boston College, Northwestern, UAB

-Other teams to catch my eye in Week 14, in a bad way: Miami (FL), TCU, Wake Forest

-Teams that know they are already in the CFP if they win out: LSU and Ohio State. Teams that are in the CFP if they win this weekend: Clemson and Georgia. Teams that need a win and help this weekend: Baylor, Oklahoma and Utah. Everyone else is out.

-Bowl eligibility update: We finished with 79 bowl-eligible teams for 78 slots, so one 6-6 team will be left out, likely from the MAC. My vote goes to Toledo, which hasn’t missed a bowl game since 2009 and lost five of its last seven games. A December without the Rockets wouldn’t be the end of the world. Kent State has played in one bowl game since 1972, and Eastern Michigan hasn’t won a bowl game since 1987, so let’s make sure those two teams are in, OK?

Resume Rankings

1. Ohio State
2. LSU
3. Georgia
4. Clemson
5. Oklahoma
6. Utah
7. Notre Dame
8. Wisconsin
9. Baylor
10. Alabama
11. Florida
12. Auburn
13. Penn State
14. Memphis
15. Oregon
16. Michigan
17. Appalachian State
18. Boise State
19. Iowa
20. SMU
21. Kansas State
22. Navy
23. Cincinnati
24. Minnesota
25. USC

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.