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Week Eleven SEC Primer

By Matt Smith
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Get ready for this weekend's SEC action with burning questions, previews, predictions, trivia, and more from Matt Smith.

It’s LSU-Alabama week. For the second time this decade we will break out the misnomer of Game of the Century for the showdown between the top-ranked Tigers and second-ranked Crimson Tide (in the AP Poll, at least) Although it didn’t turn out to be, the 2011 meeting in nearly identical circumstances was thought to be a national title elimination game. Not so this time around, particularly if Alabama wins. The hype is still immense, however, for different reasons.

These defenses are nowhere near what they were eight years ago, but the offenses have gone through a complete revolution. The two teams combined to score 36 points in two meetings in the 2011 season. Both teams might hit that number individually Saturday afternoon. This is a completely different LSU-Alabama game stylistically from what we’ve seen from this game since it became nationally relevant, which makes it all that more intriguing.

There are other SEC football games this weekend – six of them, in fact. The biggest is in Athens, as Georgia looks to inch closer to Atlanta, while Missouri hopes to crawl back into the division title race with a big upset. Tennessee and Kentucky play a massive game for bowl positioning in Lexington, while 4-5 South Carolina can all but kiss a bowl game goodbye if it falls to Appalachian State.

Let’s take a deep dive on a busy Week 11 in the SEC.

5 Things I Want to Know on Sunday Morning

1. Is Tua healthy?

The left ankle of Tua Tagovailoa is the most important joint in the South this week. The Alabama quarterback will be 20 days removed from a surgical procedure on his ankle when the Crimson Tide and LSU kick off on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. Physically, he should be fine in the pocket, but I would be worried about the mental side of the injury. Is it affecting his decision-making? Is the ball coming out sooner than it needs to? These aren’t robots. The mental toll of injuries can have as much of an effect as the physical toll.

2. Is LSU’s receiving corps on par with Alabama’s?

I do believe Alabama’s group of receivers is the best I’ve ever seen, so technically speaking, LSU’s contingent can’t truly be on par with the Crimson Tide. However, might the gap be minimal? Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase and now healthy Terrace Marshall actually have more receiving touchdowns than the big four at Alabama, 25-24. Neither team’s secondary resembles the dominant units we’ve seen in the past from LSU and Alabama, so it should be a fair fight in determining how big the gap between the two is, or if there is even a gap at all.

3. What pass rusher steps up?

After Michael Divinity left the team for personal reasons, earlier this week, LSU does not have a player on its roster with more than 2.5 sacks this season. The Tigers actually have a 20-19 edge in sacks over Alabama this season, but if there’s a guy who could be a game-wrecker on Saturday afternoon, you have to point to the Crimson Tide’s Terrell Lewis. LSU likes to throw the ball downfield more so than Alabama, meaning the Tigers offensive line will have to hold their blocks longer. That could allow Lewis, who has teetered on stardom during an injury-plagued career at Alabama, to shine in the season’s biggest game.

4. Will Tennessee fall to 0-2 this decade against Kentucky receivers-turned-quarterbacks?

Tennessee headed to Lexington in 2011 with a 26-game winning streak over Kentucky, but it needed the streak to reach 27 in order to go a bowl. The Wildcats turned to their emergency quarterback, former wide receiver Matt Roth. Kentucky held Tennessee scoreless until the fourth quarter in a 10-7 win. On Saturday, Kentucky may again deploy a former wide receiver at quarterback against Tennessee in Lynn Bowden. Both Bowden and Sawyer Smith may play, but like that 2011 Tennessee team, this year’s Vols team will also arrive in Commonwealth Stadium with bowl hopes hinging on the outcome of this game. Unlike 2011, their active winning streak over Kentucky is one, not 26.

5. Did Missouri flip the script during its idle week?

The 2019 Tigers remain an enigma, sitting at 5-0 in home games and 0-3 away from Columbia. Missouri was off last weekend after back-to-back road losses at Vanderbilt and Kentucky in which it scored a total of 21 points. Missouri still can get to the SEC Championship Game, but it will have to shed its goose egg in the win column in road games in remarkable fashion on Saturday night at Georgia. Quarterback Kelly Bryant is battling a hamstring injury, but expectations are that he’ll play in Athens. At its best, this team can hang with Georgia into the fourth quarter. At its most recent, however, this team will have Bulldogs fans turning their focus to next week’s trip to Auburn by the second quarter.

Trivia Time (answers below):
1. What four head coaches have defeated Kirby Smart-coached Georgia teams in Athens?
2. What three SEC teams were ranked in the top five of the first-ever CFP poll in 2014 – the only CFP poll in which Alabama has not been ranked in the top five?
3. When was the last year in which Alabama and LSU did not play?

Previews and Predictions

Western Kentucky at Arkansas (-1), Noon ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Taylor Zarzour and Matt Stinchcomb

This seemingly innocuous game features an intriguing storyline, as Hilltoppers quarterback Ty Storey returns to Arkansas a season after he transferred from the Razorbacks after the coaching staff chose to go in a different direction. So far, Storey has had the last laugh, as Western Kentucky, 2-10 a year ago, is just one win away from bowl eligibility. The 2-6 Hogs will turn to redshirt freshman John Stephen Jones, grandson of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and true freshman K.J. Jefferson at quarterback this week. It can’t get much more embarrassing for Arkansas, but having a quarterback you didn’t want come back to Fayetteville and beat you might do just that.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 28, Arkansas 21

Vanderbilt at (10) Florida (-26.5), Noon ET (ESPN)
Announcers: Bob Wischusen and Dan Orlovsky

The Commodores have beaten Florida just once in the past 30 years, but they are catching the Gators at a time that has been a struggle in recent years. Florida has dropped three straight games in the week after playing Georgia, all by at least three touchdowns. The year before that, a 10-win Florida team eked out a win over a 4-8 Vanderbilt team, 9-7, in Gainesville. The Commodores could once again play multiple quarterbacks, as concussion protocol is likely to sideline both Mo Hasan, out since the Missouri win three weeks ago, and Riley Neal, who left last week’s loss to South Carolina. That means Deuce Wallace should start for Vanderbilt. Florida has had to reset its goals this week after the loss to Georgia, so this is a possible flat spot with a Noon kickoff and a late-arriving crowd. The Gators won’t ever be in any danger, but this game might not be pretty.

Prediction: Florida 31, Vanderbilt 7

(2) LSU at (3) Alabama (-6), 3:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Announcers: Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson

Are we in store for a true duel between Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa? Or will one or both of these somewhat maligned defenses rise up and remind everyone that SEC teams still know how to stop a good offense? For LSU, I expect them to take chances in the secondary. Alabama is more of a quick passing team, but even more so with a gimpy quarterback. The ball should come out quickly, and Tagovailoa has been prone to mistakes. Alabama has the better chance to get pressure. Burrow can keep plays alive, which he’ll have to do to take the deep shots that has become a staple of the LSU attack. Of the two quarterbacks, I think the heavier burden in this game falls on Tagovailoa. If there’s a tragic turnover, I think LSU gets it. Neither ground game is being talked about much, but both LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Alabama’s Najee Harris are big-time running backs. One potential edge for Alabama is if the officials let the receivers and defensive backs be physical down the field. That could stunt the effectiveness of LSU’s deep passing game. I don’t think both teams get to 30 points as many expect to happen, but this will still be the classic that we’re all hoping to see.

Prediction: Alabama 31, LSU 27

New Mexico State at Ole Miss (-28.5), 4 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Dave Neal and D.J. Shockley

It’s been a challenging season for Ole Miss, as a win over even a peer program has been elusive, let alone an upset. The 3-6 Rebels will handle the 1-7 Aggies with ease, but the bigger story will be how many people show up to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Going head to head with LSU-Alabama won’t help matters, but with a decision on Matt Luke’s future to come in the next few weeks, the business side of the football program may play a factor. New Mexico State was a 62-10 loser to Alabama in Week 2, and also lost to former Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze and Liberty, 20-13, last month.

Prediction: Ole Miss 42, New Mexico State 10

Missouri at (6) Georgia (-16.5), 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Announcers: Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Todd McShay

This game appeared to be massive just a few weeks ago, but then the Tigers tumbled from 2-0 in SEC play to 2-2. Missouri still has plenty to play for, however. The path to an upset starts with getting tight end Albert Okwuegbunam involved more against a Bulldogs defense that, while rock solid, has struggled to defend tight ends against Notre Dame and Florida. “Albert O” has just 18 catches this season after entering the year as a top candidate for the Mackey Award, and Missouri fans are frustrated by his lack of usage. He had half that many against Georgia alone in 2018. On the other side of the ball, Missouri has struggled to replace star linebacker Cale Garrett – a bad sign for how it’ll fare against the SEC’s best rushing attack.

Prediction: Georgia 37, Missouri 17

Appalachian State at South Carolina (-5.5), 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Announcers: Anish Shroff and John Congemi

Like Missouri-Georgia, recent results have taken some of the shine off of this game. Appalachian State was a legitimate Cotton Bowl contender just 10 days ago, but the Mountaineers were upset at home last Thursday by Sun Belt rival Georgia Southern. Despite the loss of perfection, Appalachian State still has a chance to defeat both North Carolina and South Carolina in the same season, which would be a highly celebrated achievement for a school in that area. The Gamecocks have topped 200 yards on the ground in three of their past five games, but haven’t been consistent week to week. This game will be in doubt until late, when a Bryan Edwards touchdown catch propels the Gamecocks back to .500.

Prediction: South Carolina 31, Appalachian State 24

Tennessee at Kentucky (-1), 7:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Tom Hart, Jordan Rodgers, and Cole Cubelic

As many as five different quarterbacks could play on Saturday night in Lexington. Tennessee may turn to any or all of Brian Maurer, who missed last week’s win over UAB, J.T. Shrout, or Jarrett Guarantano. Kentucky is expected to re-incorporate Sawyer Smith to the offense after missing most of the past month, but Lynn Bowden should still have a role in the Wildcat package. Tennessee’s front seven has taken a huge step forward from its September state, which has spurred the Vols’ recent charge from 1-4 to 4-5. The ‘Cats will try to ugly the game up as usual, but Tennessee has too many playmakers on offense to be contained for 60 minutes.

Prediction: Tennessee 27, Kentucky 23

Best Bets
Last Week: 3-1-1, +2 Musburgers
YTD: 22-25-3, -6 Musburgers

Boston College -2.5 vs. Florida State   – 5 Musburgers
West Virginia +2.5 vs. Texas Tech – 4 Musburgers
Virginia -16 vs. Georgia Tech – 3 Musburgers
Louisville +6.5 at Miami (FL) – 2 Musburgers
Notre Dame -8 at Duke – 1 Musburger

Trivia Answers
1. Paul Johnson, Butch Jones, Derek Mason and Will Muschamp
2. Mississippi State (No. 1), Auburn (No. 3) and Ole Miss (No. 4)
3. 1963

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.