They say defense wins championships. We’ll find out plenty about who is a contender in the SEC this year and who might not be in arguably the biggest week so far this season in conference play.
We took a look at 10 of the best matchups — both individual and unit — on the field in Week 4.
SDE Derek Barnett, Tennessee vs. RT Fred Johnson, Florida
Fred Johnson has the unenviable task of preventing Derek Barnett from ruining quarterback Austin Appleby’s day. So far this season, however, the sophomore right tackle has been up to the task as part of a Florida offensive line that has allow just one sack all season long — a stark difference from a unit that allowed the most sacks in the nation last year. Barnett has registered 10.0 sacks in each of his first two season coming off the Tennessee edge. But the junior is still seeking his first sack of the season and would love nothing more than to get it in the heated Vols and Gators showdown on Rocky Top.
RBs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, Auburn vs. LSU run defense
Opponents have come close, but no one — not Wisconsin’s Corey Clement (87 yards), Jacksonville’s State’s Eli Jenkins (97 yards) nor Ashton Shumpert of Mississippi State (34 yards) — have been able to eclipse the 100-yard plateau on the LSU run defense. In fact, the Tigers have surrendered just 2 touchdowns on the ground through the first three weeks of the season. That’s not stellar news for Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, the Auburn tandem that has the Tigers leading the SEC in rushing. The sophomore duo is splitting time as tailbacks No. 1A and 1B out of the Auburn backfield, helping Gus Malzahn’s offense roll up 261.67 yards per game — nearly 65 more yards than last year’s squad. Whomever controls the run game should put themselves in a decent position to win the Week 4 matchup at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
CB Ryan Pulley, Arkansas vs. QB Trevor Knight, Texas A&M
Arkansas needed someone to step up their game in the Razorbacks secondary after finishing in the SEC basement against the pass in 2015. Ryan Pulley appears to be that guy. Only Missouri’s Aarion Penton has broken up (5 BRU) and defended more passes (6) than the Arkansas cornerback, who is averaging 2.0 per game for the formerly maligned Hogs defensive backs. It was the sophomore’s 25-yard pick-six that gave the Razorbacks a decisive edge in Week 3 against Texas State. But he and his teammates in the secondary will face their toughest test of the season when Trevor Knight and Texas A&M play host to Bret Bielema’s squad at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Knight, a senior, is spreading the ball to his dangerous wide receiving corps at a clip of 276.7 yard per game and 5 touchdowns. Even more important might be Oklahoma-transfer’s knack for not turning the ball over, with just 2 interceptions tossed in three games. If Arkansas wants to assert itself as an SEC West frontrunner, the Razorbacks need to find a way to limit the Aggies passing game.
QB Chad Kelly, Ole Miss vs. CB Juwuan Briscoe and S Quincy Mauger, Georgia
Chad Kelly has picked up where he left off last season, once again leading the SEC in touchdown passes with 10 scoring tosses. Ole Miss is going to look to pass often, as only Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight has dropped back more times than the Rebels senior quarterback, who sits second in the conference with 953 yards via the air. He’ll meet a Georgia secondary led by defensive backs Juwuan Briscoe and Quincy Mauger, who share the SEC lead for interceptions with 2 apiece. All told, Georgia defensive backs give up an average of 214.3 YPG, behind only Florida and Tennessee (the lesson here being that the SEC East is tough against the pass). Mauger’s 2 picks are remarkable considering the senior free safety just began working with the Bulldogs first team this week while recovering from an ankle injury that’s hobbled him since summer camp. One of those interceptions came at a critical junction against Missouri, thwarting a Tigers’ 2-point conversion in a contest Georgia won 28-27. Kelly better know where both Briscoe and Mauger are at all times if he wants to pad his lofty numbers.
WR Isaiah McKenzie, Georgia vs. Ole Miss secondary
With running back Nick Chubb slowed the last two games, the Georgia passing game could be paramount when the Bulldogs travel into Oxford to face Ole Miss. While Georgia looks to prevent Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly from beating them through the air, the Bulldogs will look to return the favor on offense. Isaiah McKenzie has become quarterback Jacob Eason’s favorite weapon, hauling in 305 yards and an SEC-best 4 touchdowns (tied with Tennessee’s Josh Malone). But he’ll face an Ole Miss secondary that has stepped up this season giving up 216.3 yards per game and allowing a paltry 2 touchdowns.
RB Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt vs. Western Kentucky linebackers
Ralph Webb enters Week 4 as the SEC’s leading rusher, compiling 377 yards for an average of 125.7 yards per game. Despite the lofty numbers, the Vanderbilt running back is susceptible to a solid run defense. Yes, Webb blistered Middle Tennessee State for 211 yards on the ground, but was held relatively in check in Week 3 against a Georgia Tech defense that limited him to 69 yards. Western Kentucky’s defense is even stauncher than that of the Yellow Jackets, yielding 104.67 yards per game through the first quarter of the season. Those stats include holding Alabama to 124 combined rushing yards and the Crimson Tide’s leading rusher Damien Harris to just 45 yards on the ground.
KR A.J. Turner, South Carolina vs. Kentucky special teams
A.J. Turner is a threat to break a long return every time a team dares to kick the ball to the South Carolina freshman. Turner leads the SEC in kick-return average, blistering for 35.5 yards every time he’s touched the ball this season, for a total of 142 yards. He’ll run straight into a Kentucky special teams unit that yields a stingy 16.4 yards to return men this season — a stat line made more impressive when you consider that only Georgia has kicked the ball off more than the Wildcats’ dozen. Field position will be everything in an important game that both teams need to win in order to further their postseason goal. Limiting Turner will be critical.
OLB Oren Burks, Vanderbilt vs. QB Mike White, Western Kentucky
It’s no secret that Western Kentucky wants to air it out when they take the field at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium on Saturday in Bowling Green, Ky., against Vanderbilt. The Commodores’ best line of defense against Mike White and his 306.7 yards per game is Oren Burks. The senior outside linebacker is more than comfortable dropping back in pass coverage. Burks has 4 passed broken up and another 5 defended so far in 2016 to rank him among the SEC’s best.
OLB Terence Waugh, Kent State vs. Alabama offensive line
If there’s an arena that Alabama could stand to improve it’s along its offensive line. The Crimson Tide have been good for allowing a middling 2.0 sacks per game so far this season. They’ll be assigned to protect quarterback Jalen Hurts and running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough from the human torpedo that is Kent State’s Terence Waugh. If Alabama leaves the senior outside linebacker unprotected, he’s sure to make the Tide pay. Waugh is .5 sacks behind Houston’s Steven Taylor for tops in the nation with 5.0 take-downs this year.
SDE A.J. Jefferson, Mississippi State vs. Massachusetts offensive line
This isn’t so much a great matchup, as it is a chance to watch A.J. Jefferson completely annihilate an opponent. The SEC leader in tackles-for-loss (6.5, 5.0 sacks) goes up against a Massachusetts offensive line that’s holier than the screen doors in the Vatican. Only San Jose State has given up more sacks this year than the Minutemen — who have allowed more sacks (14.0) through three games than Florida, Missouri, LSU, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt combined. This has a chance to not be pretty, unless, of course, you’re a Bulldogs fan.