Rivalry week doesn’t officially come until the end of the season, but this week’s games feature a couple of underrated conflicts.
Tennessee and Florida battle on Saturday afternoon, as the Volunteers try and snap an 11-game winning streak by the Gators dating back to Urban Meyer. Arkansas will also try to snap a four-game losing streak against Texas A&M that has remained active since the Aggies joined the SEC.
Additionally, Kentucky and Ole Miss will be in desperate need of wins to turn the tide of their seasons. Both had high expectations coming into the year, but have disappointed and fallen to 1-2 so far.
Here are the top five SEC games you should be watching this weekend.
No. 10 Texas A&M vs. No. 17 Arkansas
9 p.m. Saturday in Arlington, Texas (ESPN)
Not many SEC fans know much about this rivalry, but it is quietly one of the best in the conference. These two teams were bitter rivals in the old Southwest Conference, even if both teams bonded over a mutual hatred of Texas. But since the meetings picked up again in 2009, the rivalry has quickly been renewed.
Texas A&M is undefeated against Arkansas since the Aggies joined the SEC, but the games have drawn closer every year. Former Aggie Kenny Hill threw touchdowns of 86 and 59 yards in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime and eventually win in 2014. The Aggies also needed a late touchdown and two-point conversion in 2015 to send the game to overtime and eventually win.
Is this the year Arkansas knocks the Aggies off? It’s hard to say. Texas A&M is more experienced than Arkansas on offense, but the Razorbacks have their best defense of the Bielema era. With Joe Tessitore on the call, this game should quickly become an instant classic at JerryWorld.
No. 14 Tennessee vs. No. 19 Florida
3:30 p.m. Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn. (CBS)
If Tennessee can’t win this football game, it might never be able to break Florida’s 11-game winning streak that dates back to Urban Meyer’s first season at Florida. The Volunteers have a more complete roster, are healthier and are playing at home. But if previous years are any indication, it might not matter.
This rivalry remains one of the most enigmatic in the SEC. From Tim Tebow to Will Grier, Florida wasn’t excellent throughout this entire streak. In fact, Tennessee failed to even beat the Gators when they were coached by Will Muschamp – not even once.
Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs has struggled to move the ball downfield, and that won’t change going against a defense ranked No. 2 in yards allowed. However, Florida will start Purdue transfer Austin Appleby after Luke Del Rio went down with a knee injury. For fans of beautiful football, this game is not for you. However, this could be one of the most competitive games of the year.
No. 12 Georgia vs. No. 23 Ole Miss
12 p.m. Saturday in Oxford, Ala. (ESPN)
Georgia needed a late touchdown drive led by true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason to pull past Missouri last week, but the win launched the legend of Eason. Going on the road and throwing a beautiful 20-yard touchdown pass to beat an SEC opponent was enough to earn Kirby Smart and Eason several games worth of cache.
Ole Miss has no such fortune. The Rebels fell to 1-2 after blowing a 21-point lead against Alabama. It was almost déjà vu of the Florida State game, as the Crimson Tide needed just 6 minutes of game time to tie things up. Playing a tough early schedule can be an advantage in some cases, but it can also ruin a team’s confidence in an instant.
The Rebels remained in the AP Top 25, joining Oklahoma as the only two 1-2 teams on the list. But against Georgia, Ole Miss has to prove its first half performances were no fluke and that it should still be considered among the class of the SEC. For a team that had SEC title hopes, recovering from a 1-3 start would be difficult.
Auburn vs. No. 18 LSU
6 p.m. Saturday in Auburn, Ala. (ESPN)
This game might as well be sponsored by Kingsford Charcoal, because whichever coach loses will soon be on one of the hottest seats in the country. Gus Malzahn needed a bounce-back season in 2016 after barely making a bowl game last year. Les Miles was nearly fired last year – anything less than an SEC title and he could be out the door.
Neither is off to an ideal start. LSU fell to unranked Wisconsin in its opener and needed a late sack from Arden Key to put away Mississippi State last week in Death Valley. The Tigers fell to Texas A&M last week at home and dramatically reduced the outlook of their future schedule.
Mixing high-end talent with desperation is usually a winning combination. Miles played his final card by starting quarterback Danny Etling last week for the first time. While the move was relatively effective, Miles is all out of excuses. Malzahn, a former offensive savant, hasn’t gotten consistent production out of any of his quarterbacks. Fall to 1-3 and it might be impossible to recover.
Kentucky vs. South Carolina
7:30 p.m. Saturday in Lexington, Ky. (SEC Network)
Obviously, there’s a significant drop off between the first four games and this one, but this contest still has major implications for both programs.
Kentucky is lost. The Wildcats were expected to have an excellent chance at making a bowl game this season, which would be the first of the Mark Stoops era. But after watching a massive lead dissipate against Southern Miss, getting eviscerated by Florida and barely beating New Mexico State at home, fans are already calculating Stoops’ buyout.
The Wildcats host South Carolina on Saturday, a team virtually stripped of talent thanks to attrition. In fact, offensive lineman Mason Zandi is the only senior on the offense who started his career as a scholarship player. Stoops can be faulted for many things, but his program has talent. If Kentucky can’t handle South Carolina, his pink slip may arrive before the game even ends.