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Rivalry Week SEC Recap

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Looking back at rivalry week in the SEC and around the nation.

Scores

(18) Mississippi State 35, Ole Miss 3

Missouri 38, Arkansas 0

(5) Georgia 45, Georgia Tech 21

(11) Florida 41, Florida State 14

(1) Alabama 52, Auburn 21

Vanderbilt 31, Tennessee 13

(15) Kentucky 56, Louisville 10

(2) Clemson 56, South Carolina 35

(22) Texas A&M 74, (7) LSU 72 (7OT)

10 Things I Learned

-5-7 wasn’t much below expectations for Ole Miss, but the offense was a colossal failure. Against Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M, the Rebels combined to score just 66 points, or 13 points per game. That’s inexcusable, despite the quality of those defenses, with the offensive talent they possess. Matt Luke has to move on from coordinator Phil Longo, who had a decent first year as offensive coordinator in 2017, but has been a bust in his second season. What’s the answer? Don’t worry about what’s going to beat Alabama. Worry about trying to beat LSU and Texas A&M. Power running and balance can get that done, and that gels more with what Luke wants to do as a former offensive lineman.

-Mississippi State would love to have September back. The Bulldogs are a 10-2 team masked as an 8-4 team. The blowout loss to Kentucky looks really odd now that the Wildcats look like a below-average offense (how did they score 28 points in that game??), and Mississippi State did not handle Dan Mullen’s return to Starkville well. Joe Moorhead has figured things out in the second half of the season, and this is definitely a team who would love to keep playing games. Keeping Bob Shoop as defensive coordinator will be critical, as he could garner some interest to be a head coach in the Group of Five, but I believe Moorhead can continue the run of consistent success under Mullen.

-I could write a book about the LSU-Texas A&M 74-72, 7OT classic, but I will say, I’m glad only bowl positioning for LSU was on the line from a tangible aspect (more on that later). What shouldn’t go unnoticed was the Aggies yet again fell apart in the fourth quarter before needing multiple replay reviews to set them up to score the game-tying touchdown on the final play of regulation. Despite ultimately winning the game, I’m not sure you can say Texas A&M truly exorcised demons from both the Auburn collapse earlier this year and the six-year losing streak to LSU. The Aggies don’t need to apologize for the win, but that wasn’t necessarily the manner in which you’d be convinced that this program is a budding playoff contender.

-On to the Iron Bowl, where Alabama faced actual game pressure against a threatening opponent for the first time all season. The Crimson Tide responded with a near-perfect second half, accounting for 35 of the 42 points scored after the break to run away from Auburn. Heading into a game that figures to be competitive next week against Georgia, this worked out well for Alabama. The concerns about this team entering the postseason without having been tested no longer exist. The Crimson Tide have been punched in the mouth now, and they weren’t going to be kept down for long. Auburn provided some discomfort, and Alabama responded like the champion that it is.

-As for Auburn, 7-5 surely wasn’t what any Tigers fans were hoping for from this season, but Auburn actually played pretty good football down the stretch. They rallied to stun Texas A&M, hung with Georgia, and gave Alabama its most competitive game it faced all season. The Tigers didn’t quit, and that bodes well for Gus Malzahn going forward. This program has its issues heading into 2019, but in the past, when it started slipping, it completely unraveled. This team stayed afloat despite being a disappointment.

-Vanderbilt has now won five out of seven games against Tennessee, and only one of those came by 10 points or less. Derek Mason is being a salesman when shouting about how Nashville is the Commodores’ city (it will always be a Vols city), but salesmen lie, and Mason is simply selling his program to recruits that he desperately needs to keep making bowl games. Is Vanderbilt too obsessed with beating a bad program? Perhaps, but the standard is different at Vanderbilt, and now having close to a decade of dominance against big brother is something worth touting.

-5-7 wasn’t a bad first year for Jeremy Pruitt, but it was a very disjointed season for Tennessee. Wins over Auburn and Kentucky were very impressive, but in four games thought to be winnable – Florida, South Carolina, Missouri, and Vanderbilt – the Vols only played one good half of football (the first against the Gamecocks), and went 0-4. A 3-1 close probably would have felt better, even if still ending up at 5-7, than dropping the final two games by a combined 58 points with a chance to make a bowl. Pruitt is playing the long game, which is the right approach, but it’s fair for Vols fans to still not be sold on their new leader.

-South Carolina give it a good run in Death Valley, grabbing an early 7-0 lead before simply being out-talented in a 56-35 loss to Clemson. Jake Bentley was brilliant in defeat, tossing five touchdown passes, but it wasn’t nearly enough against a team far superior to all but one or two in the country. South Carolina will beat Akron next week to finish 7-5, which is what I expected from the Gamecocks this season. That may seem disappointing in Columbia after going 9-4 last year, but that’s about what this program is right now. This season was by no means a step back for Will Muschamp.

-That was a very impressive domination by Georgia over Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets could do nothing on offense, as the Bulldogs defense again showed the blueprint for defending the triple option after last year’s 38-7 rout in Atlanta. Offensively, this unit has moved the ball with ease (between the twenties at least) since the LSU disaster, but against Georgia Tech it also finished drives. Conquering Alabama will still take a monumental effort, but Georgia is peaking at the right time.

-Florida should be quite proud of its 9-3 season. Sure, the schedule wasn’t great, and the Missouri loss was a debacle, but the Gators beat very good LSU and Mississippi State teams and could have hung with Georgia for 60 minutes if they hadn’t fumbled so much. Florida State had something to play for on Saturday, but Florida controlled the game from the start and won without ever feeling threatened. Dan Mullen is still a year or two behind what Kirby Smart is building in Athens, but I saw enough this year to think he can get this program to that level.

Around The Nation

-The 115th rendition of The Game was a good one for 30 minutes, but the final 30 looked just like every other Michigan-Ohio State tussle in Columbus for the past 16 years. The Buckeyes took advantage of a sizable speed gap to pick apart what had been the best defense in the country to date in a 62-39 route. Was it enough to vault the Buckeyes past Oklahoma? I don’t think so. The teams’ respective collections of wins is pretty comparable, and Ohio State has had more close calls and has a far worse loss (by 29 to 6-6 Purdue). Their brand helps them, but I still believe the Buckeyes need a second Sooners loss to Texas next week (coupled with an Alabama win over Georgia).

-As for Michigan, it’s yet another failure in a rivalry game. 10-2 is still a strong season for the Wolverines, but the truth is, their roster just doesn’t cut it against teams like Ohio State who recruit elite speed. Jim Harbaugh is an excellent football coach and a good fit for Michigan, but, like most coaches, he’s not going to beat teams with better athletes like his bitter rival. That has to be a philosophical shift going forward. Old-school offense and a physically imposing defense will win a lot of games, but it probably won’t beat Ohio State or earn playoff berths, which are the two main goals in Ann Arbor.

-I thoroughly enjoyed Oklahoma’s wild 59-56 win over West Virginia, but it’s cool if you were completely turned off by the lack of defense. Kyler Murray and Will Grier are special quarterbacks, but the easiness with which they were able to pile up touchdown after touchdown was a joint effort between the great offenses and horrific defenses. The Sooners and Mountaineers are two of the best teams in the country because of how well they can move the football. They’re also two teams who would be run off the field by Alabama because of their inability to prevent teams from moving the football.

-Two more Power Five jobs opened on Sunday with Larry Fedora out at North Carolina and native son Kliff Kingsbury not retained at Texas Tech. You’ve probably heard some big names for those jobs, such as Mack Brown and Dana Holgorsen respectively, but the logical hires are Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield and Troy’s Neal Brown. Satterfield is already in the Tar Heel State, and has won three Sun Belt titles in a row. Brown shared the Sun Belt crown with Satterfield last year, and has led the Trojans to upsets of LSU and Nebraska in the past two seasons. As a Kentucky native, the 38-year old Brown could prefer Louisville, if in the mix there, but if not, a return to Lubbock, where he was an assistant under Tommy Tuberville, makes a lot of sense.

-USC surprisingly will keep Clay Helton after the Trojans put up a decent fight in a 24-17 loss to No. 3 Notre Dame. Despite the narrow loss, the maddening mistakes (turnovers, penalties) that doomed USC all year returned against the Fighting Irish. There’s plenty of talent at USC, so a Pac-12 title in 2019 isn’t far-fetched, but bad seasons at USC should be 8-4 finishes, not 5-7. My problem is I still think USC underachieved despite winning the Rose Bowl in 2016 and the Pac-12 title in 2017. Why was Sam Darnold not the starter to begin the 2016 season when USC started 1-3? Why did the Trojans lose by a combined 52 points to Notre Dame and Ohio State with Darnold in 2017? Helton is a good enough coach to win a fledgling Pac-12, but he’ll never make USC what USC can be on a consistent basis, so this will ultimately end in disappointment for all.

-Five of the last six College Football Playoff semifinals have been duds (bless you, Georgia and Oklahoma). The likelihood of it being seven out of eight next month is fairly high. On its best day, Notre Dame can beat Clemson, but the Irish could go down easily. Oklahoma and Ohio State aren’t touching Alabama. The best-case scenario may be Georgia beating Alabama next week, setting up Georgia-Notre Dame and Clemson-Alabama semifinals.

-A quick summary of the bowl picture with one weeks to go: 78 slots are available, and 81 teams have already earned bowl eligibility. Virginia Tech can make it 82 with a win over Marshall on Saturday. That means three or four teams, most likely from Group of Five conferences, will not play in a bowl despite reaching six wins. More bowl games? Why the heck not? Austin? Indianapolis? St. Louis? More football is never bad.

The five non-SEC results that shocked me the most:

1. Wake Forest 59, Duke 7

2. Minnesota 37, Wisconsin 15

3. UNLV 34, Nevada 29

4. Hawaii 31, San Diego State 30 (OT)

5. Western Kentucky 30, Louisiana Tech 15

The week’s wildest stat lines:

1. South Carolina QB Jake Bentley – 32-of-50, 510 yards, 5 TD (L, 56-35 vs. Clemson)

2. Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins – 20-of-31, 396 yards, 6 TD (W, 62-39 vs. Michigan)

3. Wake Forest RB Cade Carney – 31 carries, 223 yards, 2 TD (W, 59-7 at Duke)

Top 25 Resume Rankings

1. Alabama

2. Georgia

3. Clemson

4. Notre Dame

5. Michigan

6. Oklahoma

7. LSU

8. UCF

9. Texas A&M

10. Mississippi State

11. Ohio State

12. Missouri

13. West Virginia

14. Washington State

15. Florida

16. Washington

17. Penn State

18. Kentucky

19. Syracuse

20. Utah

21. Stanford

22. Fresno State

23. South Carolina

24. Auburn

25. Texas

SEC Bowl Projections

Alabama – Orange Bowl vs. Oklahoma

Georgia – Sugar Bowl vs. Texas

LSU – Peach Bowl vs. Michigan

Florida – Fiesta Bowl vs. Boise State

Kentucky – Citrus Bowl vs. Penn State

Texas A&M – Outback Bowl vs. Northwestern

South Carolina – Belk Bowl vs. Syracuse

Mississippi State – Texas Bowl vs. Oklahoma State

Auburn – Music City Bowl vs. Wisconsin

Missouri – Gator Bowl vs. Miami (FL)

Vanderbilt – Liberty Bowl vs. Baylor

The 5 Championship Weekend Games I'm Most Interested In

1. No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Georgia (Atlanta) (4 p.m. ET, CBS)

2. No. 9 Texas vs. No. 5 Oklahoma (Arlington) (Noon ET, ABC)

3. No. 21 Northwestern vs. No. 6 Ohio State (Indianapolis) (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

4. No. 17 Utah vs. No. 10 Washington (Santa Clara) (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, FOX)

5. No. 25 Fresno State at No. 19 Boise State (7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN)

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.