Rarely has there been as important of a weekend on tap for the Southeastern Conference than this one.
Sure, everyone talks about the ruggedness of the league and how every game is winnable (or losable) no matter which teams are squaring off. While that point is true and conference wins are precious to all 14 schools, it is still a rarity for a slate of big games as the ones this week.
Arkansas and Ole Miss are battling for their postseason lives in Little Rock. The SEC West Division championship could be on the line when undefeated Mississippi State travels to No. 1-ranked Alabama for homecoming in Tuscaloosa. The SEC East could be wrapped up by No. 3 Florida with a win over No. 11 Georgia in the Cocktail Party.
Will South Carolina or Tennessee stop the bleeding and finally get back on the winning track when the two tangle in Columbia, S.C.?
Pride, glory and supremacy are all on the line in these games and more. So, without further ado, let’s get to examining all of them.
When people examined the Mississippi State schedule in the preseason, most figured the only thing standing between the Bulldogs and a 7-0 start would be the Auburn contest in Week 2. Somehow, MSU found ways to drop the AU tilt year-in and year-out, but no one expected Auburn to be 1-6 at this point in the year and floundering like it has been. Now that the 7-0 record is reality and Dan Mullen’s bunch is pushing the “We Believe: 8-0” campaign everywhere in the Magnolia State, it’s time for the first major road test (and perhaps first major challenge) of the 2012 season.
Alabama has shown no signs of a letdown from the national title run a year ago. The Tide has overpowered all seven opponents thus far, and it’s hard to argue with the fact that this could be Nick Saban’s most talented squad yet in Tuscaloosa. That’s a scary thought when you factor in the fact that UA is sitting pretty for its third national championship in four years. However, has the Tide really faced anyone to this point either?
Under the lights in Bryant-Denny Stadium, both squads can definitely admit to having been battle-tested as the final buzzer sounds following the 7:30 p.m. CT kickoff. ESPN will televise the biggest meeting between the two rivals since 1999.
It’s hard to pick against Alabama in a moment like this since that’s what history has proven to be the safe choice over and over again.
Call it now: Alabama 27, Mississippi State 14
• Kentucky at Missouri (Columbia, Mo., 11 a.m. CT, ESPNU)
A month ago, few would have argued with the notion that Kentucky was the SEC’s worst team. The Wildcats looked atrocious in the season’s first month and seemed to have hit rock bottom after falling to Western Kentucky in overtime on Sept. 15. Then, a funny thing happened: UK started getting competitive in its losses.
The Wildcats led South Carolina at halftime. Joker Phillips and Co. had every chance in the world to take down Georgia. Kentucky hung with Mississippi State, giving the Bulldogs perhaps their most challenging game yet.
Meanwhile, Missouri has not enjoyed its transition to the SEC at all. The Tigers came into the league spouting off about changing the culture and getting away from “old man football” prior to getting shellacked by Georgia in their SEC debut. So far, four league outings have resulted in an 0-4 SEC mark with few winnable games left.
Kentucky has a chance to put itself above Auburn and Missouri and out of the SEC basement this weekend, and I believe it will happen.
Call it now: Kentucky 28, Missouri 21
• Tennessee at South Carolina (Columbia, S.C., 11 a.m. CT, ESPN)
I still believe this is Steve Spurrier’s best team at South Carolina, despite a two-game losing skid coming into this weekend that has all but eliminated the Gamecocks’ chances at the SEC Championship Game. Once again, the schedule is USC’s demise in a quest for its first-ever league crown.
The most important matchup in this contest will be Tennessee’s sometimes-porous offensive line against the impressive front four of Carolina’s defense. If Jadaveon Clowney and Co. can wreak havoc like they have all season, Tyler Bray will be generous with the ball and help the struggling USC squad out with great field position most of the day.
Call it now: South Carolina 24, Tennessee 13
• Ole Miss at Arkansas (Little Rock, Ark., 11:21 a.m. CT, SEC Network)
Rarely has this game ever held as much “must-win” prognosis than now when the Rebels and Razorbacks get back to work after sharing a bye week last Saturday.
Each team can firm up its footing for a bowl game with a triumph in Little Rock tomorrow. Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss offense is likely licking its chops for a chance at the Arkansas defense, while Tyler Wilson is salivating at the opportunity to go up against a secondary that allowed Auburn its second-highest point total of 2012 (20) two weeks ago.
Look for lots of points and a home team victory in this morning kickoff.
Arkansas 41, Ole Miss 34
• Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla., 2:30 p.m. CT, CBS)
If you’ve never been to a Florida-Georgia game, you need to change that fact soon.
Even if you dislike both teams, you are robbing yourself of a chance to experience one of the coolest atmospheres in college football by not at least attempting to make it down to Jacksonville for this annual skirmish between two bitter rivals.
I’m completely against neutral site regular season games. I feel as though they should be reserved for championship games and bowl games only. These season openers in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, etc. make me sick because you rob fans of opportunities to really get to experience new campuses and new traditions at places your school doesn’t normally play. However, if there is an exception to the rule, it’s this game.
With Georgia’s win last season, just its fourth since 1991, many pointed to this year’s game as the first legitimate chance for the Bulldogs to really change the streak in this series into their favor after suffering loss after loss following Spurrier’s arrival in Gainesville back in 1991. However, no one saw UF’s resurgence that has occurred in the first two months of 2012 as the Gators are poised to wrap up the SEC East with a win.
Defense and special teams will be the deciding factor in this one, both areas in which Florida has a large advantage.
Call it now: Florida 21, Georgia 17
• Texas A&M at Auburn (Auburn, Ala., 6 p.m. CT, ESPNU)
What seemed like a laughable notion in the summer has become a glaring reality during Auburn’s first 1-6 start since 1952: Gene Chizik’s job is most definitely in question (if not already eliminated) as the Tigers limp into this week’s game with league newcomer Texas A&M.
Auburn has nearly established itself as the runaway choice for the SEC’s worst team and has suffered a 9-11 record since winning the national championship in 2010. The vicious criticism that met Chizik when he got the Auburn job in late 2008 is returning and getting louder following each loss down on the Plains.
Johnny Manziel, the runaway favorite to win SEC Freshman of the Year, has broken the league record for total offense twice already this season. It would not surprise me to see him break it a third time this weekend in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Call it now: Texas A&M 49, Auburn 20
• UMass at Vanderbilt (Nashville, Tenn., 6 p.m., FSN)
Don’t look now, but Vanderbilt is on the verge of going bowling in back-to-back years. That’s right: the Commodores are eyeing a legitimate chance at the postseason yet again under the direction of the brash James Franklin.
When Franklin arrived in Nashville two winters ago, he promised to change the culture for Vandy, and he has done nothing but live up to that promise. The ‘Dores are no longer anyone’s pushover and have given several teams more than they can handle with close wins (or close losses).
While Saban or Will Muschamp will win SEC Coach of the Year depending on who takes the league crown in Atlanta on Dec. 1, it will be hard to argue against Franklin’s case for the award if Vandy does in fact reach postseason play again this year.
Call it now: Vanderbilt 49, UMass 3
RUSHING’S OVERALL PICKS
Last week: 5-1