LSU hasn’t quite been as formidable as we originally thought, but Alabama’s trip to Baton Rouge to battle the Tigers is still the biggest game in the SEC this season. There’s also an intriguing battle in Starkville, as Mississippi State hosts Texas A&M in a game featuring teams jockeying for position in the SEC West. Georgia is two wins away from wrapping up the SEC East title. This week, the Bulldogs host the improved Ole Miss Rebels.
Other Week 10 Previews and Predictions
SEC’s Top Storylines to Watch in Week 10:
1. Does LSU have enough on offense to beat Alabama?
At first glance, LSU’s offensive numbers are just fine. The Tigers are averaging 385.8 yards and 31.0 points per game — not great, but good enough for a team with an elite defense. Those numbers however, have been padded by a soft non-conference schedule. Against SEC competition, LSU is averaging only 16.3 points (11th in the league) and 318.3 yards (11th) per game. The biggest problem has been an anemic passing attack that has struggled to throw the ball down the field. In SEC games, LSU is last in the league in completions of 10 yards or more (18), 20 yards or more (eight), 30 yards or more (two) … you get the point. Junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger ranks 12th in the SEC in passer rating in league games and is averaging only 5.4 yards per attempt. This production (or lack thereof) has been sufficient to win all but one game this season, but it’s hard to envision LSU beating Alabama without the threat of the forward pass. Last year, the Tigers won the regular-season game vs. the Tide 9–6 despite throwing for only 91 yards, but that LSU team had a quarterback (Jordan Jefferson) who was a threat to run. Jeferson’s mobility added a different dimension to the LSU offense — something that the ’12 Tigers don’t have with Mettenberger under center.
2. Can Alabama continue its dominance away from home?
Alabama has emerged as the premier program in the nation over the last few years due in large part to its ability to win on the road. Nick Saban’s club has won 11 straight games away from home, dating back to a 24–21 setback at LSU in November 2010. And the Crimson Tide aren’t just winning — they are dominating. The average margin of victory in these games — three of which have been on a neutral site — is a staggering 29.9 points per game. The closest victory was by 16 points over Penn State in September 2011; the most decisive was a 52–0 shutout vs. Arkansas this season. Keep these stats in mind when you are sitting down to watch Alabama take on LSU in vaunted Death Valley on Saturday night.
3. Can Georgia handle prosperity?
It’s amazing what one win can do for the morale of a football team and its fan base. Georgia opened the month of October with a disheartening 35–7 loss at South Carolina. After a week off, the Bulldogs struggled through a surprisingly close 29–24 win at Kentucky. A season that began with such promise was on the verge of implosion. That all changed, however, with a 17–9 victory in Jacksonville against the previously unbeaten Gators. Georgia suddenly finds itself in control of the SEC East, needing only wins vs. Ole Miss this weekend and at Auburn on Nov. 10 to return to Atlanta for the second straight season. And if the Dawgs somehow find a way to win the SEC title game, a trip to the BCS National Championship Game likely would be next on the docket. But first things first: Georgia must take care of business this week against a very capable Ole Miss team that has won consecutive SEC games for the first time since 2009.
4. Is Hugh Freeze the SEC Coach of the Year?
Ole Miss is only one win away from becoming bowl-eligible. Not bad for a team that went 0–8 in the SEC last season and was outgained by an average of 174.2 yards in league games. Last weekend, the Rebels knocked off Arkansas 30–27 in Fayetteville for their first SEC road win since 2009. The man responsible for the turnaround is Hugh Freeze, who last season led Arkansas State to its only Sun Belt title in school history. Freeze has instilled confidence in a team that had no reason to be confident heading into the 2012 season. “Hugh Freeze has got them going there at Ole Miss,” said Georgia’s Mark Richt, whose Bulldogs host Ole Miss on Saturday. “He’s doing a great job. They’re really excited right now, and they’re winning. They’ve already scored more points, had more first downs, had more touchdowns, more passing yards and just about every stat that you could have. They’ve had more of that now in eight games than they had all of last season, so it’s very impressive.” I realize it’s not too hard to find a coach praising another coach. But this time it’s all true.
5. Is James Franklin healthy enough to give Missouri a chance in Gainesville?
Missouri has struggled in its first season in the SEC. But we haven’t seen the Tigers at their best for much of the 2012 season. Injuries at quarterback (James Franklin), running back (Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy) and on the offensive line have limited Missouri on offense. Last week, the Tigers broke threw with their first SEC win, pulling away from Kentucky in the second half en route to a 33–10 win. Franklin wasn’t expected to play but was forced into action after Corbin Berkstresser through interceptions on MU’s first two possessions of the third quarter. Franklin clearly wasn’t 100 percent — he attempted only nine passes and did not have any carries — but his presence in the lineup made a difference. The question this week is whether or not his knee is healthy enough to give the Tigers a chance to score some points against an outstanding Florida defense. With Franklin at his best — serving as a threat with both his arm and his legs — the Tigers have a chance to keep it close in Gainesville. If not, it could be another long day for Mizzou, which lost its only previous SEC road games by 21 points (at South Carolina).
6. How alarmed should Florida be about its passing game?
Florida’s passing attack has been among the least productive in the league all season. When the Gators were winning — which they did in their first seven games — it wasn’t too much of an issue. But now, after they were held to 266 yards in a 17–9 loss to Georgia, it’s fair to ask: Why is Florida’s passing game so anemic? The Gators rank last in the SEC and 114th in the nation in passing offense, averaging only 143.6 yards per game. From an efficiency standpoint, they aren’t awful — the Gators rank ninth in the SEC in passing efficiency and have only thrown three interceptions — but a team with as much talent as Florida should be more adept at throwing the ball down the field. It’s unfathomable that a program like Florida only has 15 pass plays for 20 yards or more eight games into the season.
7. Can Tennessee and Auburn avoid disaster?
These are not good times at Tennessee and Auburn. In Knoxville, Volunteer fans are dealing with an 0–5 start in the SEC for the third straight season. At Auburn, the Tiger faithful are trying to understand how their team can be so bad just two years after winning the national championship. As bad as things seem now, imagine the scene at these two SEC strongholds if either team loses this week. Tennessee hosts Troy, which is 4–4 overall and 3–3 in the Sun Belt. The Trojans have had their moments this season — they rolled up 572 yards in a 30–24 defeat at home to Mississippi State in September — but they are coming off a horrible loss to FAU last weekend. Tennessee is favored by 18.5 points. Risk of loss for the Vols: Low. New Mexico State, which has losses to Idaho and Texas-San Antonio on its résumé, is arguably one of the worst five teams in the nation. Auburn is favored by 22.5 points. Risk of loss: Very low.
8. Can Jordan & Jordan keep it going for Vanderbilt?
The level of competition was no doubt a factor, but Jordan Rodgers had his most efficient game at Vanderbilt last week, completing 17-of-21 passes for 217 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the Dores’ 49–7 win over UMass. The senior quarterback is now completing 58.9 percent of his passes and has only thrown one pick in the last six games. The recipient of many of Rodgers’ targets has been junior wide receiver Jordan Matthews. Last week, Matthews caught 10 passes for 112 yards. It was the seventh 100-yard game of Matthews’ career, but the first that did not come vs. an SEC opponent. A junior from Madison, Ala., Matthews has 775 yards receiving with at least four games remaining. Barring an injury, he figures to be Vanderbilt’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Earl Bennett had 1,146 yards in 2006.
9. Can Mississippi State get back on track?
Mississippi State’s undefeated run came to an end with a resounding 38–7 loss at Alabama on Saturday night. No great surprise. Even the most optimistic MSU fan could not have expected the Bulldogs to win in Tuscaloosa. Now, with that loss behind them, the Dogs must focus on a difficult stretch run. There’s a decent chance State might only be favored one more time this season — at home vs. Arkansas on Nov. 17. This week, Texas A&M comes to town with the league’s most explosive offense. The Aggies opened as a slight 2.5-point favorite but the line quickly jumped to six points. A loss on Saturday would send MSU to Baton Rouge on Nov. 10 riding a two-game losing streak. State coach Dan Mullen is well aware that his team faces a challenging final month of the season. “You always define yourself in November,” he said earlier this week. “To me, it is a thing of how you are going to close out the season. We put ourselves in a great position for the month of November right now. Now, you have to see what separates a good season from a great season to a championship season.”
10. Will Texas A&M run the table on the road?
The wins haven’t exactly come against marquee opponents, but give credit to Texas A&M: The Aggies are 4–0 on the road this season with a redshirt freshman starting at quarterback. Kevin Sumlin’s team beat SMU 48–3 in Week 3; rallied to beat Ole Miss in Oxford 30–27; held on for dear life to edge Louisiana Tech 59–57; and then rolled past Auburn with shocking ease, 63–21, last Saturday. This week, the Aggies take their traveling road show to Starkville to face Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are 7–1 overall and 3–1 in the SEC, yet A&M is a 6.5-point favorite. If the Aggies survive Starkville, then the fun really starts: On Nov. 10, they head to Tuscaloosa to take on the mighty Crimson Tide. Good luck.
Missouri (+16) at Florida
Texas A&M (-6.5) at Miss. State
Texas A&M 28-21
Texas A&M 31-24
Texas A&M 34-31
Texas A&M 30–24
Vanderbilt (-7) at Kentucky
Troy (+18.5) at Tennessee
Tulsa (+7.5) at Arkansas
N.M. State (+22.5) at Auburn
Ole Miss (+14) at Georgia
Ole Miss 35-31
Alabama (-9.5) at LSU
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