It’s far from the most exciting slate of games in the SEC this week, but there are still some intriguing matchups. Missouri, the surprise of the nation, can all but clinch the SEC East with a win over South Carolina; Tennessee, fresh off its big win over the Gamecocks, heads to Tuscaloosa to battle the might Crimson Tide; and Mark Stoops takes his Kentucky Wildcats to Starkville for a Thursday night showdown with Mississippi State.
SEC Week 9 Game Power Rankings
1. South Carolina (+3) at Missouri (7:00 ET, ESPN2)
It’s the second annual Battle of Columbia — and it looks as though it might also be the battle of the backup quarterbacks. Missouri will once again go with Maty Mauk under center, and it appears that South Carolina will be without Connor Shaw, who injured his shoulder late in the loss at Tennessee. Shaw’s backup, Dylan Thompson, has plenty of experience, but this is a big blow to the Carolina offense. Shaw is a savvy senior leader who — up until the Tennessee game — had been playing extremely well. Mauk passed his first test, throwing for nearly 300 yards in the Tigers’ surprisingly easy win over Florida. Missouri is already two games up in the loss column in the SEC East; a win on Saturday will basically guarantee the Tigers a trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game.
2. Tennessee (+28.5) at Alabama (3:30 ET, CBS)
Alabama has dominated this great Southern rivalry of late, winning the last six games against Tennessee — all but one by 20 points or more. The Vols have not scored more than 17 points in regulation against Bama since 2001, when they won 35-24 in Tuscaloosa. (They scored 51 in the five-overtime classic in 2003, but had only 20 points at the end of the fourth quarter). Based on the recent play of the Alabama defense, Tennessee will have a hard time scoring more than 10 points on Saturday afternoon. Since its 49-42 win at Texas A&M, Alabama has allowed an average of 212 yards and 3.2 points in five games. Colorado State is the only team during that span that averaged more than 4.0 yards per play. Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley has played relatively well in his last two games, completing 36-of-65 for 394 yards without an interception, but both of those games — vs. Georgia and South Carolina — were at home. This trip to Tuscaloosa will be far more challenging.
3. Kentucky (+10) at Mississippi State (7:30 ET, Thur., ESPN)
This is a pivotal game for Mississippi State, which is 3-3 and searching for three more wins to become bowl-eligible. The Bulldogs have lost to three teams currently ranked in the top 20 of the AP poll — Oklahoma State (19), LSU (13) and Auburn (11) — and defeated three non-AQ conference teams. State is expected to start Tyler Russell at quarterback for the second straight week, but sophomore Dak Prescott will also see significant time. Kentucky announced on Tuesday that Maxwell Smith, a sophomore, will get the start at quarterback. Jalen Whitlow, who injured his ankle in the loss to Alabama two weeks ago, will be available and could play. Kentucky, as expected, is struggling on offense. In SEC games, UK is averaging only 214.7 yards per game; nationally, only Purdue is averaging less yards per game in league play.
4. Vanderbilt (+18) at Texas A&M (12:21 ET, SEC TV)
Vanderbilt and Texas A&M will meet for the first time ever. The Commodores are rejuvenated after rallying to beat Georgia in Nashville. The defense, which had really struggled in three previous SEC games, only gave up 221 yards and two touchdowns. Yes, Georgia was short-handed due to injury, but this was still a big step in the right direction for Vanderbilt. It looks as though the Dores will be without starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, who went down with a knee injury in the second quarter against Georgia. Patton Robinette, a redshirt freshman, will make his first career start. Texas A&M must bounce back from a surprising loss at home to Auburn. The Aggie offense, as usual, was fantastic, but the defense continues to be a major concern. A&M ranks last in the league in total defense (494.4 ypg) and yards allowed per play (6.7). In league play, those numbers jump to 532.0 yards per game and 7.3 per play.
5. Florida Atlantic (+24.5) at Auburn (7:30 ET, FSN)
Auburn is perhaps the most improved team in the nation. The Tigers, 0-8 in the SEC last season — and outgained by an average of 214.3 yards in those eight games — are now 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the league after last week’s 45-41 win at Texas A&M. They already have more total yards in four SEC games (1,886) than they had last year in eight league games (1,881). Florida Atlantic is also much-improved, though the Owls only have two wins on their resume. Their last three losses have come by seven points in overtime at Middle Tennessee, by four points at Rice and by one point to Marshall.
6. Idaho (+41) at Ole Miss (7:30 PM, CSS)
The Rebels step out of SEC play this week after an emotional win over rival LSU last Saturday night. This week’s opponent, quite simply, is not very good. Idaho, coached by Bobby Petrino’s brother (Paul), is 1-6 overall, and all but one of its losses have come by 10 points or more. Ole Miss shouldn’t have to break a sweat on Saturday night.
7. Furman (+47) at LSU (7:00 PM, PPV)
LSU must regroup after suffering its second loss of the season — a loss (27-24 at Ole Miss) that knocked the Tigers out of the national title race. The once-potent LSU offense has been held to an average of 357.5 yards and 20.5 points the last two weeks — not awful numbers but definitely down a notch from previous games. Furman is coached by Bruce Fowler, who served as the defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt from 2002-10. While at Vanderbilt, Fowler faced LSU twice in Baton Rouge, holding the Tigers to 24 points in 2004 and 23 points in 2009.
5 Pivotal Players
Dylan Thompson, QB, South Carolina
With Connor Shaw sidelined due to a shoulder injury, Thompson will get his first start of the year. In his only significant action this season, Thompson completed 15-of-32 passes for 261 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in South Carolina’s 28-25 win at UCF. He will be facing a confident Missouri defense that limited Florida to 151 total yards last week in a 36-17 win in Columbia. Led by defensive end Michael Sam — a breakout performer in his senior season — the Tigers lead the SEC with 23 sacks. Thompson and the South Carolina offensive line will have to limit the negative plays (sacks, tackles for a loss) on Saturday night.
Missouri’s wide receivers
Missouri’s outstanding crop of big, physical and athletic receivers has been instrumental in the Tigers’ 7-0 start. This week, L’Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Murphy & Co. will face a South Carolina secondary that has held four of six opponents under 200 yards passing but gave up 300-plus to both Georgia and UCF. If the Tigers are able to stretch the field — they are averaging 8.5 yards per passing attempt in three SEC games — South Carolina could have trouble slowing down Mizzou’s balanced attack.
Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, Tennessee
So many things will have to go well for Tennessee to hang with Alabama on Saturday in Tuscaloosa — chief among them will be the Vols’ ability to run the ball with consistency. Neal and Lane have combined to rush for 1,028 yards on 189 carries for a solid 5.4-yard average. Yards, however, will be more difficult to come by this weekend. Alabama has been dominant against the run this season, allowing an average of 98.3 yards per game and 3.26 yards per carry. Since losing at Texas A&M, Bama has allowed a total of 371 rushing yards in five games. Tennessee, in its two previous games against top-flight rushing defenses, picked up 178 yards on 38 carries against Oregon and 66 yards on 21 carries against Florida.
Raymond Sanders and Jojo Kemp, Kentucky
With Maxwell Smith starting over Jalen Whitlow, Kentucky loses the threat of the run from the quarterback position. That puts more pressure on the Wildcats’ primary tailbacks, Sanders and Kemp, to be productive. Kentucky’s struggles on offense haven’t allowed either back to get much work — Sanders has 52 carries, Kemp 44 — but they have been effective in limited touches. Mississippi State has been solid against the run, but Kentucky will need to find a way to get Sanders and Kemp involved in the offense. It’s tough to envision Kentucky winning this game if Smith is asked to throw the ball over 30 times.
The Commodores’ linebacking corps struggled in losses to South Carolina and Missouri. The unit played much better last week — thanks in part to Karl Butler’s return from injury — in a 31-27 win over Georgia. Jake Sealand, who is filling in for the injured Chase Garnham in the middle, played his best game of the season, and Darreon Herring, a first-year starter on the outside, led the team with 10 tackles and had three pass break-ups. This group will face the ultimate challenge on Saturday against Johnny Manziel (assuming he plays) and the Texas A&M offense. The entire defense will need to play well, but it’s especially important for the linebackers to be at their best against a quarterback who is equally adept at running and throwing.
Kentucky (+10) at Miss. St.
Miss. State 21-14
Miss. State 31-23
Miss. State 31-20
Miss. State 21-10
Vanderbilt (+18) at Texas A&M
Texas A&M 49-28
Texas A&M 44-31
Texas A&M 45-30
Texas A&M 44-31
Tennessee (+28.5) at Bama
S. Carolina (+3) at Missouri
S. Carolina 30-24
S. Carolina 24-20
Furman (+47) at LSU
FAU (+24.5) at Auburn
Idaho (+41) at Ole Miss
Ole Miss 35-7
Ole Miss 38-13
Ole Miss 55-10
Ole Miss 48-0