The most heavily anticipated Iron Bowl in decades highlights the holiday weekend slate, but there are plenty of other intriguing matchups. South Carolina seeks its fifth straight win over Clemson; Missouri looks to wrap up the SEC East title with a win at home against Texas A&M; Georgia heads to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech without Aaron Murray under center; Mississippi State searches for its sixth win of the season in the Egg Bowl; Florida hopes to avoid a beatdown at home against Florida State; Kentucky and Tennessee look to end disappointing seasons on a positive note; Vanderbilt eyes win No. 8 with Wake Forest in town; and Arkansas travels to Baton Rouge riding an eight-game losing streak.
SEC Week 14 Game Power Rankings
1. Alabama (-10.5) at Auburn (3:30 ET, CBS)
Auburn’s dramatic turnaround from 0–8 in the SEC to top-five in the nation has set the stage for an epic Iron Bowl showdown at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Alabama is ranked No. 1 — and for good reason. Nick Saban’s team has been dominant on defense — the Tide are allowing an SEC-low 4.6 yards per play — and efficient on offense. The schedule hasn’t been overly taxing, but Alabama has won its 11 games by an average of 30.2 points, with all but one decided by 13 points or more. Auburn has returned to national prominence with an offense that is averaging just under 500 yards per game and just over seven yards per play. The Tigers are especially dangerous on the ground; Gus Malzahn’s run-based spread attack is producing a league-best 6.4 yards per attempt for an average of 320.3 yards per game. The difference in this game, however, could be Auburn’s inability to stop Alabama from running the ball. The Tigers are allowing 4.3 yards per rushing attempt — eighth in the SEC — and have given up more than 200 yards in a game four times this season.
2. Clemson (+5) at South Carolina (7:00 ET, ESPN2)
The Iron Bowl is stealing the headlines — and rightfully so — but the annual battle for bragging rights in the Palmetto State should be just as intense. For the first time ever, these two teams will meet with both schools ranked in the top 10. Clemson, at 10–1, is on the fringe of the national title chase, but the Tigers can put themselves in position to earn an at-large invite to a BCS bowl with a win over South Carolina. The Gamecocks will no doubt be focused on winning this game, but they will also have an eye on the scoreboard. If Missouri loses at home to Texas A&M — in a game that kicks off 45 minutes later — South Carolina will represent the East in the SEC title game. Diving into the matchup in Columbia, you might be surprised to learn that South Carolina has been the more efficient team on offense on a per-play basis (6.6 for the Gamecocks to 6.3 for the Tigers) and Clemson has been better on defense (5.1 to 5.4). The schedules haven’t been the same — South Carolina’s has been more difficult — but these stats seem to contradict the national perception of both teams.
3. Texas A&M (+4.5) at Missouri (7:45 ET, ESPN)
This is not a traditional Thanksgiving weekend rivalry, but it’s one of the most important games on the schedule. It’s simple for the Missouri Tigers: Win this game and play in the SEC Championship Game. Gary Pinkel’s team is 11–1 overall and 6–1 in the league with the only loss coming in overtime to South Carolina. It’s been a magical season in Columbia, but the Tigers will no doubt be disappointed if they fall one game short of Atlanta. Texas A&M is trying to avoid a .500 record in the SEC. That’s right: One of the most explosive offensive teams the league has ever seen is in danger of finishing with a 4–4 record in the league. The Aggies still lead the SEC in total offense, but they were held to a season-low (by a wide margin) of 5.1 yards per play in a 34–10 loss at LSU last weekend. Missouri has been terrific on both sides of the ball, but one of the keys to its success this season has been consistently winning the turnover battle. The Tigers lead the league (plus-1.27 per game) and have only had more turnovers than their opponents once this season — in a 48–17 win at Kentucky.
4. Georgia (+3) at Georgia Tech (3:30 ET, ABC)
For the first time since December 2009, someone other than Aaron Murray will be starting at quarterback for Georgia. Murray, one of the top quarterbacks in SEC history, is sidelined with a torn ACL suffered in Georgia’s win over Kentucky last Saturday. In steps Hutson Mason, a junior who has thrown a total of 82 passes in his three seasons. Mason’s task will be simple this week: Don’t make many mistakes and hand the ball off to Todd Gurley on a frequent basis. Todd Grantham has had his struggles as the defensive coordinator at Georgia, but his defenses have done a solid job against Georgia Tech’s option attack in his three seasons at the school. Georgia has won all three vs. Tech by an average score of 38–20.
5. Ole Miss (-3) at Mississippi State (Thursday, 7:30 ET, ESPN)
Ole Miss has spent part of the season in the national rankings. It has wins over Texas and LSU. Mississippi State has been an afterthought throughout the ’13 season. Its only SEC wins have come against Kentucky and Arkansas, teams with a combined record of 0–14 in the SEC. But guess what happens if State beats Ole Miss Thursday night in Starkville? Both teams would be tied with a 3–5 mark in the SEC, and MSU would technically finish ahead of the Rebs by virtue of the head-to-head win. Will this happen? Probably not — Ole Miss is the more talented team — but it’s still interesting that these teams are so close in the standings even though the Rebs are considered to be the much better team.
6. Florida State at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)
The annual meeting for bragging rights in the Sunshine State is usually one of the most-anticipated matchups of rivalry week. However, this season’s game has a feeling of two teams headed in opposite directions. Florida State is two wins away from playing for the national championship, while Florida is in the midst of its worst season since 1979 when it went 0–10–1. The Gators enter Saturday’s contest on a six-game losing streak, including a 26–20 defeat to FCS opponent Georgia Southern last week. Injuries have hampered Florida’s season, and quarterback Tyler Murphy is questionable to play with a shoulder injury. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg has struggled in his two starts and faces a Florida State defense that leads the nation with 23 interceptions. Florida ranks second in the SEC in total defense, but the Seminoles average 7.9 yards per play and have scored at least 40 points in every game this year.
7. Tennessee (-4) at Kentucky (7:00 ET, ESPNU)
These two SEC rivals have a combined one league win, by Tennessee over South Carolina. The Vols’ hopes of reaching a bowl game in Year 1 of the Butch Jones era were dashed last Saturday night with a loss at home to Vanderbilt. Tennessee has not won an SEC road game since November 2010 (Vanderbilt) and has not won a league road game out of state since beating Kentucky the previous November. Kentucky has many issues, but the Cats’ biggest problem has been on offense; they have 325 yards or fewer in all but one SEC game and have not scored more than 17 points in any of their last three games.
8. Wake Forest (+14) at Vanderbilt (12:21 ET, SEC TV)
Vanderbilt returns home after its thrilling win in Knoxville with a chance to win eight games in the regular season for the second straight season — something that hasn’t been done since 1927-28. Here’s an interesting stat: Vanderbilt has averaged only 289.4 yards in its last five games, but the Commodores are 4–1 during that stretch with wins over Georgia, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. Wake Forest has shown signs of life in the last month — they lost by three at Miami and by seven to Duke — but the Deacons have lost four straight and will miss a bowl game for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Vanderbilt has won two straight over Wake by a combined score of 96–28.
9. Arkansas (+24.5) at LSU (Friday, 2:30 ET, CBS)
This Thanksgiving weekend rivalry has produced some classic games and some monumental upsets. That, however, won’t be happening this week. Arkansas enters the final weekend searching for its first win since mid-September. The Razorbacks have been outgained by an average of 142.3 yards in their seven SEC games, and only one — last week’s 25–17 loss to Mississippi State in overtime — has been decided by less than 10 points. LSU is fresh off what could be the most impressive performance by any SEC team this season — a 34–10 win over Texas A&M. Beating the Aggies was not a great surprise, but holding Johnny Manziel & Co. to 299 total yards and one touchdown was shocking. Stopping Arkansas shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.
5 Pivotal Players
Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Marshall has been terrific in his first season at Auburn. He’s completed just under 60 percent of his passes, averaged 8.3 yards per attempt and only thrown five interceptions. Not bad for a guy who does his best work on the ground. This week, Marshall will have to be productive both on the ground and through the air to beat Alabama, the best team in the nation. At some point, he will need to make some plays down the field in the passing game. He’s done it before, but the stage will be bigger and the opponent more difficult this time around.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
The biggest mismatch in this game will be Alabama’s rushing attack against the Auburn run defense. Led by Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, the Crimson Tide are averaging 247.4 rushing yards in SEC games on a gaudy 6.4-yard average. Auburn, in league play, is allowing 178.8 yards per game and gave up 200-plus against Mississippi State, LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee. Look for heavy doses of Yeldon on Saturday afternoon.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Clemson
There will be pressure on Clowney, a preseason All-American, to finish off what has been a relatively disappointing junior season with a big game against the archrival Clemson Tigers. Clowney, who has been slowed by injuries, only has two sacks this season — down from 13 during his breakout sophomore season. Oh, and we can’t forget that Clowney said back in July that Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is “scared” of him. Should be a fun night in Columbia.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
We learned last week that it’s not a given that Manziel will throw for 300 or 400 yards and the Aggies will roll up 40 or 50 points. A good defense, with a great plan of attack, can actually slow down the Texas A&M offense. This week, Manziel & Co. will be facing what many consider to be the best defensive line in the SEC. And while he would never admit it publicly, Manziel is well aware that a huge game — against a top-five opponent — can vault him back into the Heisman Trophy race.
Florida defensive line
Florida’s defensive front — still one of the best in the SEC — will need to play its best game of the season to give the Gators the chance at pulling off the upset Saturday in Gainesville. Florida State’s Jameis Winston has shown very few signs of weakness, but any quarterback is less effective when under pressure. Florida has no shot if Winston is able to sit back in the pocket with no fear of the pass rush.
Ole Miss (-3) at Miss. State
Ole Miss 35-17
Ole Miss 34-28
Ole Miss 31-24
Ole Miss 30-20
Arkansas (+24.5) at LSU
Florida State at Florida
Wake (+14) at Vanderbilt
Georgia (+3) at Ga. Tech
Ga. Tech 35-21
Alabama (-10.5) at Auburn
Clemson (+5) at S. Carolina
S. Carolina 31-21
S. Carolina 38-34
S. Carolina 30-24
Tennessee (-4) at Kentucky
Texas A&M (+4.5) at Mizzou