A lull generally occurs around this time of year in college football. Most teams have played a gauntlet of three or four straight conference games, a toll on any team. Being the week before Rivalry Week, and most teams not wanted to expend any physical or emotional energy on a quality matchup, Division I-AA teams and below make their way to the coliseums of the Power Five.
Although the slate of games this week might not be nearly as enthralling as previous weeks, the matchups between Mizzou-Tennessee, LSU-Ole Miss, and Mississippi State-Arkansas have intriguing consequences.
Given the dearth of “powderpuff” teams in the schedule this week, I’m going to briefly highlight them and move on to the more important games for the sake of time.
As always, the games are listed in order of kickoff times.
#8 Florida vs. Florida Atlantic
Remember that guy Jeff Driskel? You know, the same one who quarterbacked in Gainesville for four years before being booed out of town. That same guy now has the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs in first place in the C-USA and has career highs in basically every statistical category. Well, his brother Jason who is the Owls backup quarterback will be coming to the old stomping grounds of his older brother. Jason hasn’t seen many reps in recent weeks, but if the Gators have a big lead in this one, we may see the younger Driskel get his chance to prove that the Driskel family can play competent football within the confines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Florida plays Florida State next week, and this will be a good opportunity for the starters to get some rest. Florida had several players go down against South Carolina last week, and if they want a shot against the Seminoles or in the SEC Championship, they’ll need their remaining impact players healthy.
I don’t see Florida putting up 50+ points on the Owls, but the Gators are favored by 31 points. The Owls may score a pair of field goals here, but otherwise they’re utterly snuffed out.
South Carolina vs. The Citadel
I’m officially putting South Carolina on a upset alert for this game. The Citadel has scored 35 or more points in five of their 10 games and have a winning record on the road. They run an option-offense that’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry and has scored 34 rushing touchdowns this year. Year after year, teams who schedule opponents that run an option-offense like The Citadel or Georgia Southern, have struggled against them. A lot of times these games come during this weekend, when the team is battered and tired, and the last thing they want to do is smash up against blockers for the next hour.
South Carolina didn’t exactly put the clamps on Florida last week, as Kelvin Taylor ran for over 100 yards, not a great sign for the Gamecocks defense considering Taylor averages less than four yards per carry. They did hold quarterback Treon Harris in check, keeping him to a mere 16 rushing yards on 10 carries, but he passed for 256 yards and score. The Citadel’s quarterback Dominique Allen is even worse than Harris as a passer, but a better runner considering he has 692 yards and 11 touchdowns on 151 carries.
South Carolina is a bad team with a lack of talent at multiple positions. They’re starting Perry Orth at quarterback, who can neither effectively run or pass the ball. Outside of Skai Moore on the defense, I don’t trust any other player to make splash plays or get important stops. If The Citadel has the ball on the 1-yard line with only two seconds to score down a score, I’m simply running it away from Moore and I don’t anyone else on South Carolina could make a stop.
Late season triple-option teams against bad teams in a better conference worry me. They might not have the same quality of athlete, but they know how to execute the system and have infinitely more desire to win. Look out, South Carolina, cause The Citadel Bulldogs are coming for you.
#15 LSU at #22 Ole Miss
Here’s the first of the three intra-conference games that will actually be exciting (I’m not counting Texas A&M vs. Vanderbilt because Kyler Murray might throw three picks). There’s a slumping LSU team and an Ole Miss team looking to avenge their loss to Arkansas on a Hail Mary lateral. There’s a lot of pride to be played for in this game. Whichever team loses falls to fourth place in the SEC West, likely becomes unranked, and plays their bowl game in a lesser pre-New Year’s matchup.
Looking at Ole Miss, there’s a lot to like. They play this game in the friendly confines of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, where they’re 5-1 this season. LSU’s defense also fails to capitalize on something the Rebel’s offense tends to do a lot, turn the ball over. Prior to last week’s game, Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly had thrown an interception in six straight games, with four of those having multiple interceptions. Kelly leads the conference in touchdown passes with 23, but is also tied for second with 12 interceptions. LSU however, is near the bottom of the conference in both passes defensed and interceptions, ranked 12th and 10th respectively. Just by the nature of the offense and Kelly’s mindset, an interception or two isn’t out of the question, but Kelly could repeat his no-turnover performance from the Arkansas game.
If you’re looking for positive signs for the Tigers, it comes in the form of Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice. I wrote on Monday that part of the cause for the drop in numbers stems from the amount of carries he’s been getting. Fournette has surpassed last season’s total carries by essentially a game’s worth of carries, but he did look better last week against Arkansas gaining 91 yards rushing and a score on 19 carries.
Last season, the Rebel’s were shredded by LSU’s ground attack. The Tiger’s running backs combined for 55 carries and 264 rushing yards, good enough for an average of 4.9 yards per carry. LSU’s top three rushers all average above five yards per carry, meaning that if Fournette doesn’t have it or needs a play off, the offense can continue their ground-and-pound philosophy.
Ole Miss is favored -6.5 over LSU, so a win here doesn’t technically make it an upset.
Auburn vs. Idaho
The main storyline here: Auburn becoming bowl eligible. They’re 5-5, and play Alabama in the Iron Bowl next week. It’s doubtful Auburn has any Kick-Six magic this season, and they definitely don’t have the talent to beat the Crimson Tide.
Jeremy Johnson played a really poor game against Georgia last week, throwing an interception and failed to top 100 yards passing. Sean White is still injured, and he was a non-factor against Georgia. Auburn will beat Idaho, lose to Alabama, become eligible for one of lower bowls an SEC team can qualify for. Between now and that bowl game, Auburn will need to find their quarterback.
#2 Alabama vs. Charleston Southern
Apparently Nick Saban takes this game much more seriously than anyone else. He went on an epic tirade this week, where he referenced Alabama’s last meeting with Charleston Southern in 2011 during with Charleston Southern ran through Alabama’s defense like “shit through a tin horn”. His words, not mine.
That’s Saban though, he’s a coaching robot who prepares each week like he’s playing to crush the hopes and dreams of his opponent. Playing Charleston Southern this week? Hit them so hard they don’t remember the trip. Oh, we play Middle Tennessee State? Make them return home telling war stories about the game.
The spread is Alabama -38.5, and they cover.
Arkansas vs. Mississippi State
Are we sure that Bret Bielema isn’t some sort of dark sorcerer who prays to the football gods? I’m convinced that’s the only way Arkansas has been able to turn this season around. I mean, this team looked ready to quit halfway through the season. Bielema definitely went out into the Arkansas backcountry and sacrificed a lamb to the Almighty Pigskin. No team would be able to beat Ole Miss the way Arkansas did without a little help from above.
The Razorbacks and Mississippi State come into this game with totally different mindsets. Arkansas is trying to keep a magical four game win streak going, while the Bulldogs are recovering from being absolutely spanked at home by Alabama. Arkansas is currently favored in this game, but I think picking them to win over Mississippi State would be a mistake.
Alabama was able to beat Mississippi State because their front seven is so dominant. They made Dak Prescott try to beat them with his arm, and Alabama’s secondary is good enough to matchup with the Bulldogs big receivers.
Arkansas doesn’t have nearly the defense Alabama does, and really nobody else in the nation does either. Prescott has been the best dual-threat quarterback in the SEC since Tim Tebow, and he’ll get his against Arkansas. Arkansas has been able to beat teams on the back of an Alex Collins-centered rushing attack, but other than Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Mississippi State has been able to keep opposing backs in check. Christian Jones plugs up the middle as well as anybody, and the linebackers are still talented.
The main issue for Arkansas comes with the size of Mississippi State’s receivers. De’ Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross both have at least four inches on either of Arkansas’ starting cornerbacks. There’s going to be a lot of help defense from safeties over the top, opening up the middle of the field for Prescott if he chooses to scramble. Expect to see Prescott test the secondary downfield quite a bit.
For Arkansas, they need to rely on the same formula they’ve been using the past four weeks; hand the ball off to Collins. Collins makes the defense put eight or nine men in the box, allowing Brandon Allen easier looks. Collins also sucks in linebackers, forcing a safety to cover the 6-foot-5 tight end Hunter Henry. Arkansas’ lack of receivers makes does allow opposing defenses to key in more on the run game, but the trio of Collins-Henry-Allen provides enough offensive variety to move the chains.
I could see this game either way, but I think Mississippi State is the more talented team and I believe Arkansas won’t continue their run of wins over higher quality teams. Give me the Bulldogs in this one.
Georgia vs. Georgia Southern
Teams keep on scheduling Georgia Southern as late season opponents and I have no idea why. They consistently win eight to ten games a year and run the triple option. I went over why this poses a problem in my preview of the South Carolina-Citadel matchup, but Georgia Southern runs the offense better than most teams in the nation, maybe behind only Georgia Tech and Navy. Georgia has played like trash ever since Nick Chubb went down, and while I’m not bold enough to put them on upset alert here, Georgia Southern could linger and make this game interesting. The Dawgs are favored by a pair of touchdowns, but this looks more like a game with a 10-point differential.
Missouri vs. Tennessee
In my season preview of Missouri, I wrote that Tennessee was the team I was worried about for the Tigers. This was before true freshman Drew Lock was thrust into the starting job at quarterback after Maty Mauk’s suspension and the woes of Missouri’s offensive line became evident.
Tennessee, for all their criticisms, has the talent of a team that could have nine-wins. They’re stacked with former four- or five-star recruits at nearly every position, and while the loss of defensive end/linebacker Curtis Maggitt has hurt them, they still have Derek Barnett coming off the edge. Really the main concern this team has had comes with the secondary and the fact the offense hasn’t lived up to it’s potential. Cornerback Cameron Sutton, an All-SEC caliber player, has let his production slip this year, and none of the younger players have picked up the slack. Oklahoma and Florida both went after an over-hyped group of defensive backs, and ended up winning late in both games because of coverage issues.
The Tennessee offense has only shown flashes of what it could become. That unit has only surpassed 30 points once this season, shocking when you consider who they have at each position. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs has improved over the course of the season, but still looks inconsistent at times and needs to work on his ability as a pocket passer. His top receivers, Von Pearson and Josh Malone, both have combined for 662 receiving yards and three touchdowns. That falls on Dobbs as well as Pearson and Malone, but they could do more to help their quarterback. Finally, you’ve got Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara coming out of the backfield, and they’ve arguably been the best position group on the whole team. Hurd and Kamara have combined for almost 1,400 rushing yards and have scored 16 touchdowns this year. Both bring in pedigrees as top recruits, and Kamara played a season at Alabama before transferring to community college before ending up in Knoxville. With this Tennessee team you’ve really got a team that’s “a year away”, a lots of failed goals stemming from lofty expectations and some coaching blunders.
Now on to Mizzou and Gary Pinkel, who will be coaching his last game at Faurot Field. Emotions will be running high Saturday night, and the Tigers will have plenty of motivation to win Pinkel’s last home game. The offense was able to get back on track somewhat against BYU, running the ball effectively enough to get first downs and keep the secondary honest. Lock threw for over 200 yards for the first time in his brief career and running back Russell Hansbrough finally looked 100% healthy after injuring his ankle the first week of the season.
The Tigers original plan going into the season was to make Hansbrough the focal point of the offense, taking the load off of an incredibly inexperienced receiving corp, and his injury really threw a wrench into those plans. Now that he’s back, Lock will have a veteran presence on offense he can go to on key downs.
Defensively, the Tigers will be thinner upfront after freshman Terry Beckner Jr. tore his ACL and MCL in the BYU game. Mizzou has some depth up front, but Beckner had been playing great football over the past month and would’ve been a big factor in slowing down Kamara and Hurd. Other than that, the Tigers don’t have too much difference in their defensive unit. Their defensive line is probably a little better than Tennessee’s offensive line, and defensive coordinator will call plenty of formations that will account for Dobbs’ foot speed. Dobbs has struggled over the past two years against the Tigers, and Mizzou’s strength relies more on their run defense than pass defense.
Something to watch out for this game will be the weather, as it’s supposed to be near freezing. With wind chill, the temperature is predicted to be a brisk 19 degrees thanks to some very strong 25-30mph winds. Those footballs become like a rock in that sort of weather, and we could see a lot of dropped passes and poor throws from both teams. Hurd and Kamara are a load to handle, but like I said, Missouri has a stout run defense.
Tennessee is favored by a touchdown, but with games that run so high in emotion like this, the Tigers might pull of the upset.
Vanderbilt vs. Texas A&M
Vanderbilt picked up a nice win over Kentucky last week, and have picked up two conference wins in the second half of the season. For a team that went 0-8 in their conference last season, two conference wins is a big improvement.
Texas A&M has essentially taken a complete opposite trend as Vanderbilt, going 2-3 since their hot start of five straight wins, including two over ranked teams. Kyler Murray has looked uneven since taking over as quarterback from Kyle Allen. Murray played poorly against Western Carolina, tossing up a pair interceptions and completing just over half his passes. If he’s struggling against an FCS opponent, it’s going to be rough to watch him against Vanderbilt’s top-ranked defense.
It’s amazing how roles can flip so quickly in college football, considering I’m talking about Vanderbilt possibly beating Texas A&M, a laughable thought in August. Vanderbilt still really struggles on offense, rotating through a group of quarterbacks that have looked woefully inept at times, but true freshman Kyle Shurmur (son of Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur) seems to have brought stability to the position. He threw a pair of scores against Kentucky, didn’t turn the ball over, and has led the Dores to a 2-1 record since taking over. If he can stay within his role as a game manager and isn’t asked to create plays, the offense now has a guy who can keep it moving.
This game really boils down to how well Murray adjusts to the Vanderbilt defense, and vice versa. Vanderbilt was hosed by Houston’s Greg Ward Jr., the best dual-threat quarterback in the nation, and will need to make sure that doesn’t happen against the mobile, athletic Murray. If the Dores defense forces Murray to go through his progressions and make plays with his arm, then they level the playing field. The Aggies may have more talent than the Commodores, but Vanderbilt’s defense plays together better as unit than the Texas A&M offense, which has looked disjointed at times.
My “bold-not-so-bold” pick of the week is Vanderbilt over Texas A&M.
Kentucky vs. Charlotte
Until about two weeks ago, I kept having this weird faith in Kentucky that they just might turn things around. I predicted that they’d improve to seven or eight wins, and all they’ve done is make me look like an idiot and fall to 4-6 on the season. The Wildcats are on a five game losing streak with no end in sight. Quarterback Patrick Towles looks terrible and is in danger of losing his job to freshman Drew Barker. Stanley Williams has been good this season, but doesn’t get the ball nearly enough, and backup Jojo Kemp hasn’t replaced those carries effectively. Kentucky and Mark Stoops, you’ve made me look like a fool.
Luckily, the Wildcats look to get an easy win against Charlotte this weekend. The Charlotte 49ers are an atrocious 2-8 this season, their only wins coming against Georgia State and Presbyterian College. The Wildcats will get a victory here, meaning they’re only one win away from being bowl eligible and will face a Louisville team that has a winning record next week.
Featured image: Southbound and Down