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SEC Week Four Primer

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith previews week four in the SEC.

SEC Week 4 Primer
We’ve reached the middle portion of the SEC schedule. Three games are in the books for all 14 teams. We think we know who is good and who isn’t, but there isn’t enough separation in the standings to make declarations about how things will look in mid-December.

The next five weeks, in which all but four teams are scheduled to play four games and have one idle week, feature most of the conference’s biggest games this season, including perhaps the first of two meetings between Georgia and Alabama this Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. The SEC West is a jumbled mess, as six teams sit either 2-1 or 1-2 in the battle for the No. 2 spot behind Alabama. This weekend’s schedule will help identify the contenders and pretenders for that role.

COVID issues have postponed the Vanderbilt-Missouri and LSU-Florida game until December, but the other 10 teams are all in action. There are some very small point spreads this week, hopefully signaling a fun 12 hours of football on Saturday. Storylines are many, and we’ll kick off the Week 4 primer with a look at the biggest ones.

Southern Storylines
2020 Fights Back
The SEC had navigated the COVID pandemic without any major issues within its programs. That changed this week, as rising case counts within the Florida and Vanderbilt programs forced postponements of the LSU-Florida and Vanderbilt-Missouri games. There are multiple off weeks for each team, including a league-wide built-in week on Dec. 12, so there is no reason to panic, but the past few days did squash hopes of an incident-free season that began to seem plausible after three weeks with no postponements. Wednesday brought news of some increased cases at Ole Miss, albeit not enough for a postponement yet, as well as the positive test of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who is currently asymptomatic but away from the team in isolation. The SEC will get to the finish line, but the conference hit its first detour this week.

Clash of the Titans
Saturday’s Georgia-Alabama game has been anticipated for years, just as soon as it was clear that former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was building a perennial national title contender in Athens. Two dramatic wins by Alabama in postseason games in 2017 and 2018, as well as some rumors of bad blood between Smart and Saban, have added even more sizzle to the Bulldogs’ first trip to Tuscaloosa since 2007, even if Saban is unable to be at the stadium while in COVID isolation. It won’t be in the front of our minds once the ball is kicked, but in reality neither team needs to have this game. If Georgia beats Florida in three weeks, this will be the first of at least two meetings between the teams this season.

Picking Up The Pieces
Tennessee’s eight-game winning streak is history after a second-half meltdown at Georgia, but the Vols still have a chance to get to 3-1 before Alabama comes to town against a Kentucky team that has had about as much success against Tennessee lately as the Vols have had against the Crimson Tide. Kentucky hasn’t won in Neyland Stadium since 1984, including six straight defeats there by double digits. The Vols have Kentucky’s number, but all the promise from their fast start could be erased by the prospects of falling to 2-3 after playing Alabama if the ‘Cats can pull an upset. 

Maroon Mood Swings
It was 6 p.m. central time on Oct. 3. I was at a wedding reception checking scores on my phone. Meanwhile, Texas A&M had just fallen to 1-1 after a blowout loss at Alabama, a week removed from an ugly 17-12 home win over lowly Vanderbilt. About 80 miles west in Starkville, 1-0 Mississippi State was warming up for its home opener against Arkansas, still flying high from an upset win at LSU. Since then, the Bulldogs have lost twice, scoring just 16 points in losses to the Razorbacks and Kentucky, while the Aggies upset No. 4 Florida last Saturday for their biggest win under Jimbo Fisher. Texas A&M and Mississippi State now meet on Saturday in Starkville, feeling the way the other felt less than two weeks earlier. Things change quickly in college football, and that should give the Bulldogs some hope that things will flip back in their favor this week.

Surprise Party
We thought it would be at least 2022 before either Arkansas or Ole Miss would have a claim to being the second-best team in the SEC West. We might have been off by two years, as both the Razorbacks and Rebels, despite their 1-2 records, enter Saturday’s tilt in Fayetteville coming off of impressive defeats on the heels of huge road wins a week earlier. Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin are your top early contenders for the league’s Coach of the Year. The victorious coach on Saturday afternoon is probably the midseason favorite. After three seasons of battling for the basement in the SEC West, an Ole Miss-Arkansas game with significance again will be a welcome sight.

Trivia Time (answers below):
1. What former SEC coach famously said that Georgia wasn’t “man enough” to beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa prior to their 2002 win over the Crimson Tide
2. What South Carolina quarterback’s final college game was a home loss to Auburn in the Tigers’ most recent trip to Columbia?
3. At what two schools in addition to Texas A&M and Mississippi State was Jackie Sherrill a head coach?

Previews and Predictions
(15) Auburn (-3) at South Carolina, Noon ET (ESPN)
Announcers: Dave Pasch and Greg McElroy
South Carolina’s ground game has improved over the past couple weeks, struggling against Tennessee, having success in spots against Florida, and exploding against Vanderbilt last week. The Gamecocks hope that trend continues against an Auburn defense that has faced 40 rushing attempts in all three of its games this season, and an SEC-high 127 attempts in total. Auburn’s Seth Williams is the only game-changer in the passing game for either side, but the Gamecocks are serviceable on the back end of their defense. If South Carolina can approach 35 minutes of possession time, they should win this game. It’ll be a good atmosphere as always in Columbia, and I smell an upset. Prediction: South Carolina 27, Auburn 23

Kentucky at (18) Tennessee (-6), Noon ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Tom Hart, Jordan Rodgers and Cole Cubelic
On the heels of last week’s results, this border battle got a lot more interesting. Offensively, Kentucky’s stats are aided by a 400-yard day on the ground against Ole Miss. It had little success on the ground last week against Mississippi State. Kentucky’s defense is salty, and allowing 35 points in regulation to Ole Miss in Week 2 seems a lot less alarming after what the Rebels did to Alabama last Saturday night. Aside from self-destruction, big plays in the passing game hurt Kentucky against Auburn in Week 1. That’s a concern for the ‘Cats again on Saturday in Knoxville. They may be highly efficient against the Tennessee offense, but the Vols passing game is good for two or three 30-yard plays through the air. If those come at the wrong time, it could leave Kentucky again wondering how they came up short. Tennessee will get back on track to set up next week’s showdown with Alabama. Prediction: Tennessee 31, Kentucky 20

Ole Miss (-3) at Arkansas, 3:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Announcers: Dave Flemming and Rod Gilmore
What ultimately led to Ole Miss’ downfall last week against Alabama was the necessity for the offense to be perfect to keep up with Alabama. They were nearly that into the fourth quarter, but the offensive line wore down. Ole Miss had to settle for field goals on two drives, while its defense allowed a touchdown on Alabama’s last eight possessions. The margin for error will be greater on Saturday in Fayetteville against an Arkansas team that is 13th in the SEC in both rushing and yards per play. Arkansas continues to get the most out of its defensive talent. It hasn’t gotten pushed around to date, but this will be the biggest test of the season. Lane Kiffin and the Rebels offense should expose some cracks in the Razorbacks, but it’ll be yet another exciting Ole Miss game as the visitors land one too many punches for Arkansas to pull off a sweep of the Magnolia State this season. Prediction: Ole Miss 42, Arkansas 31

(11) Texas A&M (-6.5) at Mississippi State, 4 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Dave Neal and D.J. Shockley
The Aggies’ offensive line has played very well over the first three weeks, and a fourth strong performance should be the ticket to getting out of Starkville with a 3-1 record. Mississippi State isn’t easy to run on, allowing just over two yards per carry so far this season, but Texas A&M is good enough to have success in the trenches and keep Mike Leach’s offense off the field. The Aggies passing game took another blow this week with the loss of No. 1 wide receiver Caleb Chapman for the season. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer has 13 catches over the past two weeks and is quickly becoming the top target of Kellen Mond. The Bulldogs won’t be as bad as they’ve looked over the past two weeks, but I don’t think this is the week they get back in the win column. Prediction: Texas A&M 33, Mississippi State 21

(3) Georgia at (2) Alabama (-6), 8 p.m. ET (CBS)
Announcers: Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson
This game was difficult to analyze prior to the news that Nick Saban tested positive for COVID, but there’s now an extra layer of complexity whose tangible impact is impossible to measure, as there is no precedent. I’ll stick to the players themselves. For years, when a great offense faced a great defense, it usually ended up with the team with the great defense dictating play. That has changed over the years, with the great offenses winning most of these strength-on-strength battles, forcing the other offense to have to keep up on the scoreboard. For that reason, I think this game comes down to whether or not Stetson Bennett and the Bulldogs offense can keep pace. Georgia may try to match the tempo that Ole Miss used so successfully last week, but that’s a little outside of their comfort zone. The margin for error will be greater than it was for Ole Miss with a defense who will actually get some stops, but I don’t think it’s big enough for the ‘Dawgs to knock off the Crimson Tide for the first time in 13 years. Prediction: Alabama 38, Georgia 31

Best Bets
Last Week: 2-3, +3 Musburgers
Season: 7-6-1, +9 Musburgers
Cincinnati -3 at Tulsa – 5 Musburgers
Temple -10.5 vs. USF – 4 Musburgers
Florida State +13.5 vs. North Carolina – 3 Musburgers
Navy -2 at East Carolina – 2 Musburgers
Memphis +3.5 vs. UCF – 1 Musburger

Trivia Answers
1. Pat Dye
2. Stephen Garcia (2011)
3. Washington State (1976) and Pittsburgh (1977-81)

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.