By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 30, 2015
Publisher’s note: Links on SEC team name are to the pre-season previews.
Last week’s record: 6-3 (66.7%)
Season record: 33-9 (78.6%)
Upsets to both of Alabama’s chief rivals killed the Prediction Dept.’s record last week. This week’s slate of games feature a couple of matchups of teams that are in the middle of disappointing seasons (Arkansas-Tennessee, South Carolina-Missouri). Alabama-Georgia headlines the conference’s slate of games and will be covered in depth in our weekly Alabama preview. Here’s the rest of what the SEC has to offer in Week 5:
MISSISSIPPI at FLORIDA
Both teams were in jeopardy of losing their respective games last week, although it’s easier to understand how Florida could be threatened by Tennessee than it is how Ole Miss let Vanderbilt hang around for three quarters. The Rebels were coming off a physical game against Alabama and looking ahead a bit to this one, to be sure. The Gators won in the last minute of its game against the Volunteers off an improbable fourth-down touchdown pass and then a missed-twice field goal attempt. This week, former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain could do his former employer a good turn by beating the Rebels at home. Ole Miss has to lose twice before Alabama can represent the SEC West again in Atlanta. But Florida, which has gotten off to a strong start under McElwain, likely doesn’t have the offensive firepower to keep pace with Ole Miss’ offense, to say nothing of advancing the ball consistently against the tough Rebel defense. The emotional letdown following a win over the Gators’ second-biggest rival won’t help matters.
Ole Miss 34
EASTERN KENTUCKY at KENTUCKY
The Wildcats are coming off a huge win over Missouri that could end up having implications far beyond one week of games. The Wildcats have needed something to get them pointed away from the cellar of the SEC East for years, and the confidence Kentucky gained from the win over Missouri means volumes to the program. This week, Kentucky faces FCS Eastern Kentucky, which is 2-1 on the year. The Colonels were shut out 35-0 by NC State in Week 2, but beat Austin Peay last week by a margin comparable to the one Vanderbilt ran up against the same team. Translation: Kentucky can’t put this one in overdrive just yet, lest the Wildcats follow up a big win with a crippling defeat.
E. Kentucky 17
SOUTH CAROLINA at MISSOURI
There’s a sizable group of middling teams in the SEC this year, and South Carolina and Missouri both claim residency in that group. Things are a tad more dire for Missouri, however, which nearly lost to both Arkansas State and UConn. South Carolina is at least coming off a win over UCF, but the Gamecocks have a somewhat dire situation at quarterback. This is the point in previous seasons where Missouri got hard to predict week-to-week; Gary Pinkel has proven himself as a coach who can get his team to improve over the course of a season, but with Missouri’s offensive struggles right now, it will be tough. Losing QB Maty Mauk for the week won’t help. For Steve Spurrier, this game may be his last chance to salvage the season and stave off the critics who want him to call it quits at year’s end.
South Carolina 23
ARKANSAS at TENNESSEE
Speaking of middling teams, Arkansas and Tennessee are currently carrying the trophy in their respective divisions. Arkansas was supposed to be on the verge of moving into the top echelon in the SEC West, but have suffered three close losses to Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Now the Razorbacks are just trying to salvage the season and get a decent bowl invitation. Tennessee has blown big fourth-quarter leads to Oklahoma and Florida and, in the process, has fallen off its own darkhorse bandwagon. This game comes down to a a question of which team is closer to folding up. The Vols are more talented, but just barely. But Tennessee lacks a passing offense – thanks mostly to a poor offensive line – and has been disappointing defensively. Arkansas’ depth issues at running back and on defense, especially in the secondary, have caught up with them. Arkansas’ season is already teetering; if Tennessee were to lose this game, the Vols would be right there with them.
VANDERBILT at MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
If Vanderbilt plays against MTSU the way it did against Ole Miss, the Commodores will win the game. And therein lies the problem: Vanderbilt doesn’t play that way nearly often enough, or on a consistent basis. MTSU lost by two points on the road to Illinois last week, and is the trendy pick to win this game thanks to Vandy’s inconsistency, the fact the game is in Murfreesboro and a general desire to find an upset to take. But Illinois may not be better than Vanderbilt, and the Blue Raiders still have the same issues they had against Alabama: no downfield threat in the passing game, a lack of depth, subpar defensive speed. We’ll see after this weekend whether Vanderbilt’s improvement against Ole Miss was just a mirage.
SAN JOSE STATE at AUBURN
The Spartans couldn’t have come along at a better moment for Auburn, whose season took a nosedive last week with an unexpected loss at home to Mississippi State. San Jose is coming off a convincing win over a Fresno State team that is fast proving to be one of the worst teams in Division-IA this year. Auburn’s offense is struggling mightily, the fault of a quarterback position that has imploded and an offensive line that was overhyped in the preseason. Unless Auburn beats San Jose State convincingly, the skeptics will continue to howl until Auburn makes changes beyond simple edits to its depth chart.
San Jose St. 17
EASTERN MICHIGAN at LOUISIANA STATE
EMU appears to be on the right path, which isn’t hard to do for the Eagles given how disastrous the program has been for pretty much its entire history. The Eagles at least have an offense – they’ve scored 34 or more points in 3 of their 4 games. But Eastern Michigan ranks 127th in rushing defense. Leonard Fournette is laughing already.
E. Michigan 21
MISSISSIPPI STATE at TEXAS A&M
The Aggies are 4-0 but the record may be a bit misleading. Arizona State has not lived up to expectations, and the Aggies had to go into overtime in their own state to knock out a mediocre Arkansas team. Mississippi State is similarly an unknown quantity. The Bulldogs won in unconvincing fashion over Southern Miss, then nearly beat an LSU team some have ticketed for the final four, then beat Auburn on the road in a physical, yet sloppy game that left observers trying to figure out how good the Tigers really are. Mississippi State’s defense has been erratic at times in 2015, while the offense, as expected, took a step back (particularly on the ground) as a result of a high graduation count following the 2014 year. This may be the hardest game of the week to pick, thanks to each team’s offensive misfires. It may be too much to ask Mississippi State to beat both Auburn and Texas A&M on the road in successive weeks.
Texas A&M 27
Mississippi St. 17
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN