Defending the pass will be paramount in the SEC in Week 9, as several big matchups between top-flight quarterbacks and their receivers will look to burn their defensive counterparts … and vice versa.
We break down 10 individual one-on-ones that will be vital during Week 9.
Auburn RB Kamryn Pettway vs. Ole Miss run defense
What happens when the SEC’s leading rusher goes up against the conference’s worst run defense? We find out in Week 9, and the results might not be pretty. The sophomore Pettway brings his 116.7 yards per game into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium to face an Ole Miss defense that sieves 226.9 yards per game.
All told, the Tigers have blistered their way to the best rushing offense among Power 5 schools, churning out 302.9 yards per game, more than every team in the country, save for New Mexico and Army. The last time the Rebels took the field, they gave up 284 rushing yards to LSU’s Leonard Fournette alone. If Ole Miss can’t contain the run, it might make for a long day in Oxford. Unless the Rebels get the better of the following:
Ole Miss TE Evan Engram vs. Auburn DB Johnathan “Rudy” Ford
Ole Miss has a weapon in Engram that has allowed Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly to throw for 295.3 yards per game, tops in the SEC. Engram leads all tight ends in the country with 605 yards and provides plenty of versatile options for receivers such as Damore’ea Stringfellow, Van Jefferson and Quincy Adeboyejo to get open.
Engram’s presence could limit Ford from covering a Rebels wideout. Ford is second on the team in both tackles (42) and passes defended (6). Fortunately for Auburn, the Tigers boast the SEC’s third-best passing defense (198.3 yards per game).
Florida WR Antonio Callaway vs. Georgia CB Malkom Parrish
Callaway is seeking to rebound from a two-game slide where he’s caught a combined 6 catches (3 in each game) for a total of 64 yards and no touchdowns. At first glance, a matchup against the semi-porous Georgia secondary could be exactly what the Gators sophomore needs to earn his third 100-yard performance of the season. The Bulldogs give up 228.6 yards per game and 11 touchdowns, more than everyone in the SEC except for Kentucky (12 TDs) and Mississippi State (15 TDs).
But that might be easier said than done against Parrish. The Georgia cornerback has presented problems for opposing wide receivers this season, breaking up 8 passes on the year, tied with Aarion Penton of Missouri for second most in the conference.
Tennessee WR Josh Malone vs. South Carolina CB Jamarcus King
Malone has benefitted the most from quarterback Josh Dobbs’ big year, hauling in 402 yards and 5 touchdowns to lead Tennessee. The junior remains the Vols’ top threat, despite not having gone for more than 100 yards in a game this year and failing to reach the end zone since Week 4 against Florida.
He’ll line up across from King, whose team is coming off one of its worst pass defense performances of the season against Massachusetts. Regardless, the Gamecocks are stout against the pass, ranking behind only Florida in the SEC at 183.6 passing yards allowed per game. That unit is led by King, who was named Pro Football Focus’ co-cornerback of the week against those same Minutemen, by defending 3 passes and not allowing a catch in South Carolina’s victory.
Kentucky DE/OLB Denzil Ware and DE Josh Allen vs. Missouri LT Tyler Howell and RT Paul Adams
Howell and Adams have the unenviable job of slowing down the bookends of Kentucky’s defensive line in Ware and Allen, aka the blitz brothers. Both Ware and Allen have 4.5 sacks on the year to lead the Wildcats with more already this year through eight games than team leader Josh Forrest (3.5) had all last season.
The Tigers offensive line has held its own, allowing the fewest sacks (5) in the SEC — a remarkable turnaround for a unit that gave up 30 sacks in 2015. By comparison, Ware is tied for No. 9 in the conference with Auburn’s Carl Lawson for tackles-for-loss with 8 on the year, with Allen contributing another 5.5 TFLs.
Kentucky WR Jeff Badet vs. Missouri CB Aarion Penton
Badet finally put together the big game Kentucky has been looking for out of its junior wide receiver, hauling in 7 catches for 139 yards a pair of touchdowns in Week 8 against Mississippi State — all three of which were career highs. His reward in Week 9 is a likely matchup with Penton.
Penton is among the top cornerbacks in the nation, yielding just 41.5 of the passes thrown in the senior’s direction to be completed, per Pro Football Focus, who named him to its midseason All-American team. The website also reports that opposing quarterbacks earn a meager 39.8 passer rating when targeting receivers covered by Penton.
Georgia QB Jacob Eason vs. Florida CBs Teez Tabor and CB Quincy Wilson
The last thing any freshman quarterback wants to see is the nation’s No. 2-rated pass defense draping his wide receivers. Eason is that man in Week 9 when Georgia squares off against Florida in Jacksonville. Eason has had an up-and-down start to his collegiate career with a respectable 1,366 yards and 9 touchdowns, but can make a bold statement with a win over the Gators.
Standing in his way, however, is Tabor and Wilson. The Florida secondary is lights out when it comes to preventing big gains (save for the Tennessee game), and has nabbed 10 interceptions — 7 of which belong to Tabor (4 INTs) and Wilson.
South Carolina RB A.J. Turner vs. Tennessee run defense
South Carolina is banking on the return of two starters to lift its sagging running game out of the SEC basement. With Tennessee coming to town, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for the Gamecocks to continue to improve out of the backfield.
Turner, who missed most of the Week 8 contest against Massachusetts with a knee injury, is expected to be back to 100 percent. The freshman leads the Gamecocks with 300 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Turner hopes to have right guard Donnell Stanley back in the lineup to help clear some running lanes. Tennessee yields its share of yardage on the ground, giving up 215.3 yards and 14 touchdowns, tied with Missouri for No. 11 in the conference. The Volunteers’ run-stoppers should get a boost from the return of LB Darrin Kirkland, who has missed the last five games with an ankle injury.
Texas A&M secondary vs. New Mexico State QB Tyler Rogers
If New Mexico State wants to contend with No. 9 Texas A&M, then it must lean heavily on Rogers. The senior leads the Sun Belt in passing with 2,008 yards (286.9 YPG) to go along with 11 touchdowns. Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies are vulnerable against the pass, coughing up an SEC-worst (No. 99 nationally) 261.9 yards per game to opposing signal callers.
Rogers will need to make his passes count for touchdowns, however. Texas A&M gives up a lot of yards, but the likes of FS Armani Watts, SS Justin Evans and CB Priest Willis have surrendered only 7 touchdowns all year, ranking them tied for No. 15 in the country in fewest scores allowed via the air.
Mississippi State secondary vs. Samford WR Karel Hamilton
With starting free safety and team leader in interceptions Kivon Coman battling an injury that’s kept him out of Mississippi State’s previous two games, the Bulldogs are relying on a youthful secondary as its last line of defense. So it will be up to guys like Jamoral Graham, Jamal Peters, Brandon Bryant and Cedric Jiles to get the job done against Hamilton.
Samford’s leading wide receiver is coming off a 208-yard, 2-touchdown effort against Western Carolina in Week 8 — earning him Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors. The performance gives him 3,166 career yards, making him the school’s all-time leading receiver. Graham leads Mississippi State with 4 passes broken up, while taking his lone interception on the year 38 yards for a pick-6 against Massachusetts.