Week 8 in the SEC features two matchups with ranked teams, including the suddenly important Florida-Missouri showdown in the East Division. The Tigers defeated Georgia last week, but the victory came at a price. Quarterback James Franklin is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, leaving inexperienced backup Maty Mauk as the No. 1 option.
Auburn is clearly improved in coach Gus Malzahn’s first season. But do the Tigers have the firepower to keep up with Texas A&M? The Aggies continue to struggle on defense, but the offense is one of the best in the nation.
Elsewhere this Saturday in the SEC, ranked teams in Georgia, South Carolina and LSU are all on the road against conference foes. Alabama hosts Arkansas in what is one of the biggest mismatches of Week 8.
SEC Week 8 Game Power Rankings
1. Auburn (+14) at Texas A&M (3:30 ET, CBS)
Gus Malzahn’s Tigers are one of the most improved teams in college football this season and could build some momentum as they approach a tough season-ending two-fer with rivals Georgia and Alabama. Quarterback Nick Marshall will have to make plays with both his arm and his legs if the Tigers are to keep pace with Johnny Manziel and company at Kyle Field. Marshall missed last week’s game against Western Carolina due to injury, but the junior is expected to start on Saturday. Manziel is stating a credible case for back-to-back Heismans, and he's coming off one of the most dynamic performances of his career, overcoming a couple of costly turnovers to throw for 346 yards and rush for 124 and two touchdowns in a 41–38 win at Ole Miss, marking his fourth career 300 pass/100 rush game. The Aggies are riding Manziel's arm and legs to 47.8 points per game, a number that ranks fourth in the nation, and 586.5 yards per contest (third). Both numbers lead the SEC. Auburn's defense is improved, but the Tigers will rely on their offense, which is averaging 474.2 yards per game, to keep them in this one. Texas A&M is vulnerable on defense, surrendering 32 points and 474 yards per game. Expect a shootout, much like the Aggies' visit to Oxford last week.
2. Florida (-3) at Missouri (12:21 ET, ESPN 3)
Just when Missouri appears to have turned a significant corner with a 41–26 upset of Georgia in Athens — possibly the biggest win of the Gary Pinkel era — the hard-luck Tigers must welcome their SEC East rivals without their key playmaker and leader, quarterback James Franklin, who injured his shoulder against the Bulldogs. After dire early reports that had Franklin missing the remainder the season, Pinkel asserted that he could return for the season-ending games with Ole Miss and Texas A&M. But that doesn't help this week, when the Tigers face the SEC's leading defense. Pressure falls to redshirt freshman Maty Mauk to step into the breach, and it will be a trial by fire against the Gators as Mizzou looks to maintain its grip on the SEC East lead. Mauk lacks Franklin's size and physical skills and will be asked to manage the offense, limit turnovers and let the Tigers' three-headed running attack — Russell Hansbrough, Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy — handle the load. Even with Franklin's injury, this is a team with national aspirations. "There is no question that one of the goals for this team is to get back to Missouri’s winning ways," Pinkel said. "It is a big deal to them. ... They want to get back to competing for championships."
3. LSU (-9.5) at Ole Miss (7:00 ET, ESPN 2)
The renewal of this storied rivalry always harkens back to the most famous encounter between the two teams — the 1959 Halloween classic won by the Tigers 7–3 on Billy Cannon's punt return. This one lacks that level of national significance, but it's a critical game for both teams, and LSU still holds championship aspirations. The two teams are trending in opposite directions; LSU surges into Oxford fresh off a 17–6 win over Florida, while Ole Miss' 3–0 start has disintegrated into an 0–3 stretch that culminated with a heartbreaking 41–38 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday night. Even with a mediocre statistical outing against the Gators, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger leads the SEC in passing efficiency and has tossed only two interceptions on the season (compared to 15 touchdowns). The Rebels will need to force the Tigers into some mistakes while protecting the football themselves to have a shot at the upset. It would also help if Hugh Freeze's offense could muster some production on the ground and generate some long drives.
4. South Carolina (-7) at Tennessee (12:00 ET, ESPN)
The Vols are a popular upset pick in some quarters based on their strong showing against Georgia, but let's not get crazy. South Carolina is coming off its most complete performance of the season, a dominating 52–7 win at Arkansas. Still, this is a Gamecocks team that struggled to beat Kentucky and UCF and almost squandered a big lead against Vanderbilt. In other words, if the Vols can hang around into the fourth quarter, they are capable of pulling the upset. Butch Jones' offense will have to maintain the balance they showed against Georgia. Rajion Neal gashed the Dawgs for 148 yards, and Justin Worley threw for 215 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Worley will have to display a similar level of ball security against a defense that forced three turnovers against Arkansas. The biggest task facing the Vols defense will be stopping Mike Davis, who has emerged as arguably the best back in the SEC and is averaging 123.7 yards per game.
5. Georgia (-9.5) at Vanderbilt (12:00 ET, CBS)
Georgia arrives in Nashville decimated by injuries and discouraged by a home loss to Missouri that would seem to eliminate the Dawgs from SEC East title contention. With the Dawgs' backs against the wall, look for elite running back Todd Gurley to make his return from a sprained ankle. A productive running game would open things up downfield for Aaron Murray and the passing game, although Murray's wealth of targets has diminished considerably due to injury. The Commodores have struggled at times to establish the run, and it will be up to running back Jerron Seymour and an experienced offensive line to chew up some clock and move the chains. It will also be incumbent upon receiver Jordan Matthews to make plays in the passing game, but Matthews has been the most reliably consistent player in the SEC this season.
6. Arkansas (+28) at Alabama (7:00 ET, ESPN)
Given Arkansas' utter failure to show up for its own homecoming game against South Carolina, and Bama's utter dominance this season of any team that lacks Johnny Manziel at quarterback, this one appears to be a colossal mismatch — and appearances in this case are not deceiving. The Hogs have lost four straight, the last two by a combined score of 82–17, as a once-promising offense has sputtered to a halt. That's not an encouraging thought when you're heading to Tuscaloosa to face a Tide defense that has allowed 26 points total in the five games in which it wasn't facing Johnny Football. Expect the Tide to grind out another workmanlike double-digit win, much like the 48–7 win over Kentucky last week that included a couple of uncharacteristic turnovers but revealed superior manpower at every position.
SEC Week 8 Pivotal Players
Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Marshall injured his knee against Ole Miss but appears to be back at full strength for the Tigers' trip to Kyle Field. Gus Malzahn needs his junior signal-caller to be at his absolute best on Saturday against a weak A&M defense if, as anticipated, a track meet breaks out. Marshall made plays with his legs against the Rebels, rushing for 140 yards, and Malzahn will likely be looking for more of the same in an attempt to keep the ball away from Johnny Manziel for as long as possible.
Missouri's offensive line
This group has paved the way for a balanced and productive offensive attack — 239.3 yards per game rushing, 276.3 passing — but without dynamic quarterback James Franklin and a likely reluctance to put the game in the hands of a redshirt freshman quarterback (Maty Mauk), the onus will be on the line to open holes for the running game against a stout Florida front. The Gators are allowing only 83.3 rushing yards per game, so the Tigers' big uglies have their work cut out.
Andre Hal, CB, Vanderbilt
Hal, thought to have all-star potential at cornerback, has yet to intercept a pass this season for a Commodore defense that has been disappointing. Georgia limps into this matchup hobbled on offense, but you can bet that quarterback Aaron Murray will look to make plays down the field against the Commodore secondary in an effort to end this one early. If Hal is up to the challenge, he could find the ball in his hands at some point.
Justin Worley, QB, Tennessee
Worley seemed to take a major step against Georgia, leading the Vols to a near-upset with solid, mistake-free play down the stretch. But the South Carolina defense presents a significantly tougher challenge. The Gamecocks are coming off a frighteningly thorough domination of Arkansas in which the Hogs could muster only 30 yards passing. Worley will have to have some success in the passing game if the Vols are to pull the upset — and his receivers will have to help him out by making plays when they're available.
I'Tavius Mathers, RB, Ole Miss
After a blazing start to the season — 302 yards rushing combined against Vanderbilt and Texas — Rebel runner Jeff Scott saw his touches and his production diminish, and an injury against Texas A&M could rule him out against LSU. Hugh Freeze needs a running dimension against an athletic LSU defense, and the pressure could fall on Mathers to help provide it and take some of the burden off quarterbacks Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti. The sophomore is averaging 6.2 yards per carry on limited opportunities. Those opportunities could increase this week.
SEC Week 8 Predictions
UGA (+7.5) at Vandy
S. Carolina (-7.5) at Tennessee
S. Carolina 35-13
S. Carolina 38-17
S. Carolina 31-17
Florida (-3) at Missouri
Auburn (+13.5) at Texas A&M
Arkansas (+28) at Alabama
LSU (-8) at Ole Miss