Georgia can secure its second straight SEC East title with a win at Auburn. If the Bulldogs stumble, Florida, which has already concluded its SEC season (7–1), would make the trip to Atlanta. Alabama can wrap up the West with a victory at home against Texas A&M.
SEC’s Top Storylines to Watch in Week 11
1. Can Johnny Manziel thrive against an elite defense?
Much has been made of John Manziel’s “struggles” against the top defenses he has faced, but he still averaged 268 yards of total offense in losses — by a total of eight points — to Florida and LSU. Now, he gets a stab at the mighty Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa. Last week, Nick Saban’s team showed signs of weakness — the Tide gave up a season-high 435 yards — in a 21–17 win in Baton Rouge, but this is still one of the top two or three defenses in the country. Manziel is fresh off a brilliant performance in Texas A&M’s 38–13 win at Mississippi State. He completed 30-of-36 passes for 311 yards and added 129 yards rushing and two scores on the ground. It was the fourth time this season that he has had at least 275 yards passing and 100 yards rushing. Manziel will be the second elite dual-threat quarterback that Alabama has played against this season. In the opener, the Tide shut down Michigan’s Denard Robinson, holding him to 227 yards of total offense, including a net of only 27 on the ground. Manziel might not be as electric running the ball — though it’s close — but he has proven to be a better passer than Robinson.
2. Can Alabama play with enough emotion this week?
Alabama remained unbeaten with a 21–17 win in Baton Rouge last Saturday night — but it was far from easy. The Crimson Tide expended a ton of energy in one of the most emotional regular-season games in recent memory. AJ McCarron, the winning quarterback, was crying on the bench before the game was even over. Nick Saban, usually one of the most stoic coaches in the game, was visibly moved during his postgame interview. True, this was only one win. But there is no denying its importance. Now, only seven days later, Saban must have the Tide ready — both physically and emotionally — to play a very good Texas A&M team that will demand their attention on both sides of the ball. Saban is a master at keeping his team focused, but it won’t be a surprise if Alabama is a bit flat this week when the Aggies roll into town.
3. Was that the real Zach Mettenberger?
There are no moral victories at LSU — that’s obvious. There were, however, some positives to come out of the Tigers’ 21–17 loss to Alabama. For the first time since he stepped foot on campus, Zach Mettenberger played like a high-level SEC quarterback. The strong-armed junior — who many expected to provide an upgrade at the quarterback position — had been a huge disappointment through the first two-thirds of the season. Prior to the Alabama game, Mettenberger had completed only 46.2 percent of his passes with one touchdown against SEC competition. What was expected to be a strength had become a liability. But somehow, some way, Mettenberger enjoyed the game of his life against the Crimson Tide. He completed 24-of-35 for 298 yards and one touchdown. He made several key throws to keep drives alive and was a big reason the Tigers converted 10-of-20 on third down — an amazing stat against a defense as strong as Alabama’s. This begs the question: Was this Mettenberger’s breakthrough performance or was it simply a (positive) blip on what will be an inconsistent career? We’ll find out over the next year-and-a-half, and his first test comes on Saturday against Mississippi State in Baton Rouge.
4. Will South Carolina snap its skid vs. Arkansas?
South Carolina has emerged as one of the top programs in the SEC in recent years. Dating back to the start of the 2010 season, the Gamecocks are 16–7 in the league, highlighted by their first-ever SEC East title in 2010. However, there is one thing South Carolina has been unable to accomplish of late — beat Arkansas, or more specifically, be competitive against Arkansas. The Hogs have won three straight in the series, the last two in convincing fashion against very good Carolina teams. Two years ago, Ryan Mallet, Knile Davis & Co. rolled up 443 yards of offense in a 41¬–20 victory in Columbia. Last season, Tyler Wilson and friends outgained the Gamecocks 435-to-207 en route to a 44–28 win in Fayetteville. Now, it’s time for payback. South Carolina is a two-touchdown favorite at home against an Arkansas team that is 4–5 overall and 2–3 in the SEC.
5. Can a bad defense (Tennessee) stop a bad offense (Missouri)?
Tennessee’s historically bad defense is coming off its worst game of the season. The Volunteers gave up an astounding 721 yards of offense to a Troy team that had 381 yards the previous week in a loss to FAU. For the season, the Vols rank last in the league in both yards allowed per game (483.1) and yards allowed per play (6.31). This week, Tennessee meets a struggling Missouri offense that has scored 15 points or less in four of its last five SEC games. James Franklin is back at quarterback for the Tigers, but he threw four interceptions in a 14–7 loss at Florida last week. Injuries have sabotaged Franklin’s first season in the SEC, starting with a shoulder issue in the spring and then continuing with a knee injury suffered against Vanderbilt in early October. Last season, Franklin rushed for 981 yards and 15 touchdowns; this year he has netted only 104 yards on the ground and has yet to run for a touchdown. Missouri clearly needs Franklin to be at his best (both running and passing) to succeed, even against a defense as bad as Tennessee’s.
6. Does Georgia have enough weapons at wide receiver to be a factor down the stretch?
Georgia is the national title contender no one is talking about. The Bulldogs are 8–1 overall and ranked No. 5 in the latest BCS standings. The Dawgs, however, have some issues at wide receiver that could hinder their ability to remain in the BCS title chase. Marlon Brown, who shares the team lead in receptions (27) and ranks second in receiving yards (469), was lost for the season with a torn ACL vs. Ole Miss. Earlier this season, Michael Bennett, who had 24 catches and four touchdowns in five games, went down with an ACL injury as well. The Dawgs still have quality at the position — Tavarres King has 27 catches for 551 yards and Malcolm Mitchell has 26 for 358 — but they are lacking in quantity. “We still have some playmakers,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said this week. “But Marlon and Michael were just two outstanding football players . … And they actually had a nice physicality to them at that position. We’ll miss that. Other guys are just going to have to step up and get after it.” Among the “other guys” with an opportunity to take on a larger role are junior Rantavious Wooten, who has 12 catches for 154 yards, and Chris Conley, a sophomore who has seven receptions for 84 yards.
7. Can Jonathan Wallace get the job done against an SEC defense?
Auburn true freshman Jonathan Wallace made his first start at quarterback last week and received a passing grade from the coaches for his work in the Tigers’ 42–7 win over New Mexico State. Wallace, who had been used almost exclusively in Wildcat packages earlier in the season, completed 9-of-16 passes for 164 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Surprisingly, he only ran for nine yards on three attempts. This week, the Phenix City, Ala., native will face an SEC defense for the first time as a starting quarterback when Georgia travels to Jordan-Hare Stadium. “It’s going to be a completely different issue,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “The speed and intensity in which they blitz and move around will be completely different.” Wallace played well in relief two weeks ago vs. Texas A&M, completing 6-of-9 for 122 yards and two touchdowns while adding 71 yards on the ground.
8. Can Vanderbilt win again in Oxford?
Much to the dismay of the Rebel faithful, Vanderbilt has controlled this series of late, winning five of the last seven overall, including two straight in Oxford. In 2008, Ole Miss outgained Vanderbilt 385-to-202 yet lost 23–17 due in large part to Jevan Snead’s four interceptions. Two years, ago, one of the worst Vanderbilt teams in recent history (at least statistically) beat Jeremiah Masoli & Co. 28–14 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Ole Miss’ lone win since 2006 came in Nashville in ’09 by a score of 23–7. This Saturday’s game will be the first time since 1967 these two teams have played in November. In 2001, they played on Dec. 1 after their scheduled game was postponed due to the 9/11 attacks.
9. Can Mississippi State stop the bleeding?
Just two weeks ago, Mississippi State was 7–0 and dreaming of a special season. Now, after two losses by a combined score of 76–20, the Bulldogs are 7–2 with a trip to LSU looming. In the past two weeks, MSU has dropped from 48th to 73rd nationally in total offense and from 25th to 50th in total defense. There is no shame in losing decisively at Alabama, but the Bulldogs were alarmingly uncompetitive at home against Texas A&M. The Aggies jumped out to a 24–0 lead at the half and outgained MSU 693-to-310. Mississippi State only ran 57 offensive plays, compared to 97 by Texas A&M. The task this week will be to do something that no Bulldog team has done since 1991 — win in Baton Rouge.
10. Can Florida flex its offensive muscles against UL Lafayette?
It’s hard to find too much fault with a team that concluded its SEC season with a 7–1 record in league play. But the Florida coaching staff has to be a bit concerned with the Gators’ offense. In SEC games, UF ranked 11th in the league in total offense, averaging only 328.8 yards per game. The Gators finished the SEC season with 183 yards against South Carolina (in a lopsided win), 266 against Georgia and 276 against Missouri. They had 325 yards or fewer in five of eight league games. This type of production (or lack thereof) was good enough to go 7–1 in the nation’s most difficult conference, but at some point Florida needs to start scoring points with regularity. This week’s opponent, UL Lafayette, gave up 50 points at home two weeks ago to Arkansas State and 65 points in a Week 3 loss at Oklahoma State. It will be a disappointment if Florida doesn’t score at least 40 points on Saturday.
Week 11 SEC Predictions
Texas A&M (+14) at Alabama
Texas A&M 28-24
Arkansas (+14) at S. Carolina
S. Carolina 31-14
S. Carolina 30-24
S. Carolina 34-20
S. Carolina 33-17
Missouri (+3) at Tennessee
ULL (+26.5) at Florida
Georgia (-15) at Auburn
Miss. State (+14.5) at LSU
Vanderbilt (+3) at Ole Miss
Ole Miss 24-14
Ole Miss 30-27