As we’re headed toward the close of the regular season, the weeks start to become more difficult to pick as some teams begin to transition from contenders to also-rans and vice versa. South Carolina’s shocking upset of Florida last week, a game that was never even close, is a prime example. This week, Arkansas and LSU is a similar matchup, while Mississippi State-Auburn and Tennessee-Georgia offer opportunities for underdogs to make a statement.
Last week’s record: 4-3 (57.1%)
Season record: 64-21 (75.3%)
SAMFORD at FLORIDA
Florida is lucky this matchup came up at this time, because following last week’s debacle – which led to the firing of two Gator assistant coaches – any game should be considered a chance to get hit with a loss. Fortunately for Florida, Samford probably isn’t strong enough to give the Gators much trouble, and perhaps Florida can use this game to springboard back into the hunt for a bowl game. At 4-5, Florida must win two of the next three, which also includes games against disappointing Missouri and Florida State teams, but just a week ago a win against South Carolina looked like a foregone conclusion. The Gators football office is in a mess, there are talent holes all over the place and a full-blown quarterback controversy going on.
NEW MEXICO STATE at ALABAMA
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GEORGIA at TENNESSEE
Because Tennessee can score points, this becomes the most intriguing game on the board as observers try to determine just how elite the Georgia defense is. Tennessee gets a lot of bang for the buck on offense, scoring plenty of points but never holding onto the ball for too long. It’s a double-edged sword due to the thinness of the Tennessee defense, and the offense’s apparent lack of concern with keeping that defense off the field. As for Georgia, the defense may be elite, but the offense scores points almost by accident, and certainly most often due to fallout from its defense’s ability to create pressure, stops and turnovers. The one way Tennessee can win this game is forcing Georgia into a shootout, because the Bulldog offense doesn’t seem to have good quick-strike capability from the quarterback position. Everywhere else, though, it’s barely a comparison between the Georgia haves and the Tennessee have-nots.
KENTUCKY at VANDERBILT
In the course of about a month, Kentucky has gone from potential spoiler in the SEC East to potentially finishing third or worse yet again. The Wildcats got past Florida, but then suffered losses to Georgia, Mississippi State and Tennessee. The first was expected; the second and third, not so much. Now the Wildcats’ psyche is again in question, seemingly an annual event. Fortunately for the Cats, Vanderbilt is impotent on offense and vulnerable in its defensive front, which Kentucky is more than capable of taking advantage of. What Kentucky needs more than anything right now is for the coaching staff to figure out – many years into its tenure, admittedly – how to keep the UK mental state on an even keel. So far, it hasn’t been able to do that. If this game is close, you’ll know they still aren’t able to do it.
SOUTH CAROLINA at MISSOURI
Suddenly, this is a real contest, thanks completely to South Carolina’s upset of Florida last week and Missouri’s continuing inability to get defensive stops. Missouri has more potential offensive explosiveness than even Florida had, but South Carolina just got finished putting up 40 points against a much more potent defense. The game being on the road, far from the Gamecocks’ home, might come into play here, but this one is all on the Missouri defense to show that it can rally up and play a significant part in actually winning a game, rather than being the unit the coaches have to scheme around.
South Carolina 27
ARKANSAS at LOUISIANA STATE
By far the most difficult game to pick, LSU is coming off a week in which it nearly upset Alabama in Tuscaloosa, while Arkansas got back on the horse and upset Mississippi State. This one comes down to how LSU handles the Alabama loss emotionally: Do the Tigers find themselves bolstered by the knowledge that they nearly took down a top-two contender, or are they discouraged because they once again came close without finishing the deal? Ed Orgeron suggested that LSU had put all of its recent preparation into the Alabama game, selling out for a shot at victory, which might mean the Tigers have ignored the Razorbacks entirely. If that’s the case, Arkansas could wind up not just winning, but blowing out the Tigers. The game being in Baton Rouge may be the only thing that keeps that from coming to pass.
MISSISSIPPI STATE at AUBURN
The Bulldogs continue to make fools out of commentators who believe the Air Raid offense is on the verge of taking over the conference. In reality, it might, but only if Mississippi State suddenly doubles its talent level. The Bulldogs continue to ping-pong back and forth from impressive wins to inscrutable losses, thanks mainly to a lineup that only features four or five difference-makers on both sides of the ball combined. As for Auburn, the loss to Texas A&M hurt, but even in defeat, the Auburn defense showed up. The offense has to get off the deck – no touchdowns now in six quarters is a record that has to be broken, fast – but the good news is Mississippi State’s defense is nowhere near as potent as the Aggies’. The game being in Auburn gives the Tigers additional cushion in this one.
Mississippi St. 17
TEXAS A&M at MISSISSIPPI
For the second straight week, the Aggies find themselves in what is essentially an eliminator to see who will sit in second place in the SEC West like a vulture waiting for Alabama to slip up while leading the division. The difference between Ole Miss and Auburn, of course, is the focus shifts from an all-defense, no-offense setup to exactly the opposite. The other difference is the venue. Ole Miss needs a win here and then needs to finish well in imminently winnable games against Vanderbilt and then Mississippi State, then hope for Auburn to upset Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The question is whether the Rebels can score enough against the Aggie secondary to keep the A&M offense, a modest outfit at best, from getting just enough points.
Texas A&M 27
Ole Miss 24
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN