The de facto SEC East title game between Florida and Georgia in Jacksonville highlights the Week 9 schedule in the SEC. There is also a big game in the SEC West as a pair of 7–0 teams, Alabama and Mississippi State, battle in Tuscaloosa. There’s also an intriguing game in Fayetteville. Ole Miss is vastly improved, but are the Rebels good enough to beat Arkansas, which has won two straight, at Razorback Stadium?
Other Week 9 Previews and Predictions
SEC’s Top Storylines to Watch in Week 9
1. Can Mississippi State make Alabama sweat?
It’s safe to say that Alabama hasn’t played under duress at any point this season. Bama’s seven wins have come by an average of 32.7 points, and each victory has been by at least 19 points. The Crimson Tide have only trailed once — by one point to Ole Miss for 15 seconds — and they have never led by less than 13 points at any time in the second half. So what happens if Nick Saban’s club is forced to sweat? Will this team, which has operated with such efficiency so far this season, show signs of weakness? It’s doubtful, but Mississippi State would sure love to find out. The Bulldogs are 7–0 overall and 3–0 in the SEC yet head to Tuscaloosa as a 23-point underdog. “Everyone on their roster is a 4- or 5-star prospect,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said earlier this week. “They get those guys in position to make plays and have a real physical team. They don’t make many mistakes and do not turn the ball over. … It should be a great challenge for our guys as we will have to play our best game of the year.”
2. Can AJ McCarron play his way into the Heisman Trophy race?
Kansas State’s Collin Klein is the clear favorite, for now, in the evolving race for the Heisman Trophy. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is also getting significant buzz. But we can’t forget about AJ McCarron, the starting quarterback on the nation’s No. 1 team. McCarron’s raw numbers won’t wow you — he ranks 64th in the nation in passing yards per game (210.9) and tied for 12th in touchdown passes (16) — but he leads the nation in passing efficiency thanks to his 68.9 completion percentage and 16-to-0 TD-to-INT ratio. The nation is now starting to realize what most savvy SEC fans have known since the middle of last season — McCarron is far more than the “game-manager” of the powerful Alabama offense. He’s one of the elite quarterbacks in the game.
3. Can Tyler Bray play well against a good team?
Tyler Bray is regarded as one of the most talented quarterbacks in the SEC. That talent, however, hasn’t translated to success against the better teams in the league. Bray, a strong-armed junior, has feasted on inferior competition throughout his career. This season, in three games vs. non-conference opponents, Bray has a quarterback rating of 183.4 (third in the league) and has averaged 348.0 yards passing with 10 touchdowns and one interception. In league play, however, those numbers plummet. His quarterback rating vs. SEC foes is 106.3 (11th in the league), and he has averaged 217.5 yards with six touchdowns and eight interceptions. For his career, he has nine games with at least 300 yards passing. Only two were against SEC foes, Ole Miss and Kentucky in 2010. Bray is too talented, and he has too many weapons — including two likely first-round draft picks at wide receiver — to struggle so much against quality competition.
4. Can South Carolina regain its focus?
Two weeks ago, South Carolina fans were dreaming of a national title. Now, after losses at LSU and Florida, the Gamecocks are all but eliminated from the SEC East title chase. Steve Spurrier’s challenge is to keep his team engaged for the stretch run, which begins this week with a visit from Tennessee. The Volunteers are struggling but have more than enough talent, especially on offense, to hang with Carolina in Columbia. “They’re going to come in here and throw it around probably as well as anybody we’ve played,” Spurrier said earlier this week. “They’ve got a good running game also. They've made yards against everybody they’ve played.” The Gamecocks will be seeking their third straight win against Tennessee. Since joining the SEC in 1991, Carolina has yet to win three in a row against any of its chief rivals in the SEC East — Tennessee, Florida and Georgia.
5. Can Ole Miss beat a good team?
There is no doubt that Ole Miss is one of the most improved teams in the league. The Rebels have made significant progress on both sides of the ball under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. Through seven games last year, Ole Miss ranked 116th in the nation in total offense (268.7 ypg) and 110th in total defense (442.1 ypg). This year, they rank 38th in offense (440.7 ypg) and 40th in defense (356.0 ypg). That’s impressive improvement. However, it must be noted that the Rebs have yet to beat a good team. Their four wins have come against Central Arkansas, UTEP (2–6), Tulane (1–6) and Auburn (1–6). So can this team take the next step and defeat a quality opponent? (And yes, I am considering Arkansas, at home, to be a quality opponent.)
6. Can Georgia’s defense bounce back?
Thanks in part to South Carolina’s recent slide, Georgia controls its own destiny in the SEC East. The Dawgs’ biggest hurdle is this week against Florida in Jacksonville. After that, they host Ole Miss and travel to Auburn, games in which they will be the heavy favorite. That all sounds good, but is this Georgia team good enough on defense to take advantage of the situation? Last year, in the second season of Todd Grantham’s 3–4 scheme, the Bulldogs fielded one of the elite defenses in the nation. They ranked fifth in total defense (277.2 ypg) and 23rd in scoring defense (20.6 ppg). With 10 starters back, expectations were high for this unit in 2012. But through seven games, Georgia ranks 47th nationally in total defense (367.4 ypg) and 49th in scoring defense (24.1 ppg). Over their last three games, the Dawgs have given up a total of 105 points — yet still managed to win two of those games. Last week, in a too-close-for-comfort win against Kentucky, Georgia gave up 206 yards rushing to a UK offense that had combined to run for 150 yards in its previous two games. That’s not a good sign with Florida up next. The Gators are far from elite on offense, but they do run the ball effectively, utilizing both the tailback (Mike Gillislee) and the quarterback (Jeff Driskel). Georgia has the weapons to beat Florida; it’s up to the defense to do its part.
7. What will Auburn do at quarterback?
Breaking news: Auburn’s offense is bad. How bad? Well, the Tigers rank 119th in the nation in total yards (276.7) and have averaged only 229.0 yards against SEC opponents. Last week, in a 17–13 loss at Vanderbilt, Auburn managed 212 total yards. The week before, against Ole Miss, they had 213 yards. It’s no secret that the primary area of concern has been the quarterback position. Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley, who have taken the majority of the snaps, have a combined three touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Moseley, who replaced Frazier as the starter prior to the Ole Miss game, has decent stats (38-of-59 for 373 yards in two games), but the offense has three total touchdowns since he was elevated to the No. 1 position. Don’t be surprised if Jonathan Wallace takes on a larger role in the coming weeks. A true freshman who has seen action in the past five games in the Wildcat package, Wallace is a dynamic athlete who might be able to ignite the Auburn attack. Last week, he completed his first career pass, a quick out that went for 11 yards. The Tigers clearly aren’t threatening defenses with their downfield passing game; it might be time to lean on Wallace and tailbacks Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb.
8. Will Missouri win its first SEC game?
Missouri’s quest for its first SEC win should come to an end this Saturday with Kentucky coming to town. The Tigers likely will be without quarterback James Franklin for one more week, but they are still nearly a two touchdown favorite to beat UK. Missouri’s 0–4 start in its new league shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Sure, losing to Vanderbilt wasn’t exactly what the Tiger faithful had in mind, but the three other losses have been against Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. Beating Kentucky this week is of paramount importance because it’s the last time Mizzou will be favored against an SEC foe. With trips to Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M looming, Gary Pinkel’s club could be staring at an 0–8 record in its maiden voyage through the league if it somehow fails to beat Kentucky.
9. Will Patrick Towles return for Kentucky?
Kentucky’s disappointing 2012 season received a jolt of electricity when Patrick Towles made his collegiate debut in the first quarter against Mississippi State on Oct. 6. Towles, a true freshman from Fort Thomas, Ky., drove the Cats 80 yards on 10 plays for a touchdown in his first drive. His presence in the lineup energized Commonwealth Stadium, giving the Wildcat faithful a reason to get excited. The fun didn’t last long. Towles was sidelined in the second quarter with a high ankle sprain that was feared, at the time, to be potentially season-ending. Towles, however, returned to practice this week and will play this week at Missouri — assuming he is able to go through all the necessary drills this week. The plan, if Towles is able to go, is to play both quarterbacks — Towles and fellow true freshman Jalen Whitlow. Senior Morgan Newton, who went 1-of-6 for four yards against Georgia last week, is also available.
10. Can Florida keep winning without a downfield passing attack?
Florida is one of the surprise teams in the nation in 2012. The Gators are well-positioned to compete for a national title just one year after stumbling through the school’s first losing SEC season since 1986. Will Muschamp’s team is getting it done with its defense and running game. At some point this season, however, the Gators must prove they can make plays in the passing game. This isn’t to say they can’t do it — they just haven’t done it yet. Consider the following: Florida ranks last in the SEC in passing plays of 10 yards or more (35) and last in passing plays of 20 yards or more (13). In their last three games, the Gators have completed only two passes that went for 20 yards or more — a 39-yarder to tight end Jordan Reed vs. South Carolina and a 21-yarder to Quinton Dunbar vs. Vanderbilt. This limited offensive attack has served Florida well to this point, but can this team win a national championship without the threat of a deep ball? Stay tuned.
Kentucky (+13.5) at Missouri
Tennessee (+14) at S. Carolina
S. Carolina 35-21
South Carolina 34-20
S. Carolina 37-20
S. Carolina 31-20
Ole Miss (+5) at Arkansas
Florida (-6.5) at Georgia
Texas A&M (-14) at Auburn
Texas A&M 38-7
Texas A&M 45-17
Texas A&M 34-17
Texas A&M 30-17
UMass (+33) at Vanderbilt
Mississippi St. (-23.5) at Alabama