Opening weekend tossed the SEC plenty of curveballs, and it allowed the haters a chance to question the league’s acumen following a 7-7 Week 1 showing.
Of course, the slate also was packed with tough matchups. Week 2 is likewise full of non-conference matchups, but most are of the tune-up variety. FCS and Group of Five teams are on tap everywhere, giving several SEC squads get a chance to regroup before conference play begins in earnest.
But not every school has the luxury of an easy matchup, and a few are in real danger of falling to 0-2 — Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, to be specific.
We explain the case against each and offer a last-minute prediction for every Week 2 tilt below:
(All kickoff times ET)
Nicholls State at No. 9 Georgia: Greyson Lambert only plays a quarter
Jacob Eason will start his first college game on Saturday, per DawgNation and other outlets, but coach Kirby Smart reiterated that both Eason and Lambert will see reps this weekend.
“There will continue to be competition,” Smart said.
Still, this certainly seems to be a passing-of-the-torch moment. Starting against Nicholls State — an FCS team that went 3-8 last year — in friendly Sanford Stadium is a pretty easy introduction to starter-dom for Eason.
Lambert will play on Saturday, but you have to think it’s in mop-up duty only. Despite Smart’s insistence that the competition rages on, this is an invaluable chance for Eason to get precious game reps, even if they come against a cupcake. He’ll need that experience ahead of road matchups with Missouri and Ole Miss later this month.
If you’re rolling with the freshman, you’ve got to be all-in at this point. The schedule doesn’t afford much leeway.
Kickoff: Noon, SEC Network
Prediction: Georgia 53, Nicholls State 6
Prairie View A&M at No. 20 Texas A&M: Starters play into the second half
The Week 1 overtime win against UCLA would’ve been great if not for the Aggies’ fourth quarter falloff, which allowed the Bruins to erase a 24-9 deficit in short order.
Expect that blemish to be a point of emphasis Saturday during the Prairie View scrimmage, as it likely was during this week’s practice. The defense particularly would be wise to put in about three quarters of work, regardless of the score.
Coordinator John Chavis is commanding a stout unit in Year 2 with Texas A&M, maybe the school’s best in recent memory. This defense accounted for 5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and 3 interceptions against a ranked opponent with a top-tier quarterback, at times looking simply dominant.
Now the staff just needs to get that dominance to last for 60 minutes.
Kickoff: Noon, SEC Network
Prediction: Texas A&M 48, Prairie View 3
Western Kentucky at No. 1 Alabama: The Crimson Tide win by less than 30 points
That this even qualifies as a “bold prediction” illustrates the state of things at Alabama, which beat Southern Cal by 46 points last week. But it’s worth noting that Western Kentucky is a totally different beast than the Trojans.
Gone is 5,000-yard quarterback Brandon Doughty, but the Hilltoppers look to have another prolific passer in Mike White, who amassed 517 yards and 3 touchdowns in Week 1.
Granted, that came against Rice, and White wasn’t especially good before transferring away from South Florida (11 touchdowns, 16 interceptions in 17 games).
Even so, not many are knocking coach Jeff Brohm’s pass-happy no-huddle offense. The past two seasons, WKU has averaged no fewer than 44 points and 526 yards per game. In 2015, it led the country with 16 passing plays of 50-plus yards.
And let’s not forget that Brohm just guided this team to a 12-2 season, sweeping its Conference USA schedule and notching wins over Vanderbilt and USF. The two losses? A 3-point defeat at Indiana, and a 28-point defeat at LSU when Leonard Fournette was on his roll.
We know how the Alabama defense has matched up with certain up-tempo air attacks — not particularly well. The only teams to top 300 passing yards against Nick Saban since 2011 are: Clemson, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Auburn, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. With the exception of MSU, all of those games were losses or close wins.
So don’t completely sleep on the Hilltoppers. But don’t expect them to win, either.
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., ESPN2
Prediction: Alabama 43, Western Kentucky 23
Kentucky at Florida: Wildcats cover the spread
Which was more frightening: The Wildcats blowing a 35-10 lead in spectacular fashion, allowing Southern Miss to score 34 unanswered in a demoralizing loss? Or the Gators leading lowly UMass by no more than 6 points until there was 8:04 left in a 24-7 win?
Vegas has spotted Florida a 16-point cushion at home — understandable when UF has beaten Kentucky 29 years straight — but this has the makings of a tighter game than some think.
Southern Miss simply wore down Kentucky’s defense last Saturday, rushing the ball an astounding 68 times while attempting 28 passes. Conversely, the Gators’ offensive line continued to look like a concern, as Florida averaged 3.7 yards per carry on 29 rushes.
Kentucky picked off a highly productive, experienced quarterback (Nick Mullens) three times in Week 1 and sacked him three times, as well. Subtract a blown play — Mullens’ 71-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the first half — and his performance looks unspectacular. Drew Barker didn’t look bad, either (4 touchdowns, 13.5 yards per completion).
Florida will keep this game closer than it should, by virtue of its apparent running game woes. Watch out in The Swamp.
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., CBS
Prediction: Florida 20, Kentucky 14
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) September 8, 2016
Wofford at No. 19 Ole Miss: Chad Kelly will out-pass Wofford by 300 yards
I’ve got to predict something, right?
Wofford quarterback Brad Butler — bless his heart — does not have it easy this week, facing a Rebels defense no doubt furious after the collapse against Florida State. Butler isn’t much of a passer either, completing one of four attempts in last year’s loss to Clemson.
Kelly, like his defense, has to be eager for some redemption after three interceptions and a fumble lost heavily contributed to the season-opening loss.
This will be the rout we all expect.
Kickoff: 4 p.m., SEC Network
Prediction: Ole Miss 49, Wofford 3
Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt: The ‘Dores fall to 0-2
As of Friday, Vanderbilt is just a 4.5-point home favorite in this one.
The offense looked a mess against South Carolina, and Middle Tennessee has shown the ability to pass at least somewhat effectively on Derek Mason’s defense. Quarterback Brent Stockstill completed 32 of 51 for 286 yards in last year’s matchup.
Vanderbilt barely escaped that game with a narrow 17-13 win after scoring touchdowns on its final two drives of the game. Nine of the Commodores’ 10 previous possessions resulted in a punt, a turnover or a missed field goal. Kyle Shurmur doesn’t instill much more faith than Johnny McCrary did.
A loss here for Mason would be disastrous — and yet after the way Week 1 unfolded, I still think that happens.
Kickoff: 4 p.m., SEC Network
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 27, Vanderbilt 21
Arkansas at No. 15 TCU: Austin Allen hits the turf often
Earlier this week, I wrote about how the TCU defense asks its players to diagnose plays and make quick reactions/adjustments based off what they see. This leaves the door open to blown coverages and big offensive gains. Arkansas has the talent at receiver to take advantage of this.
Here’s the problem for the Hogs: Arkansas’ offensive line did not look anything close to settled against Louisiana Tech, allowing four sacks and three quarterback hurries in a nail-biting 21-20 win.
TCU has an array of better pass rushers, headlined by senior Josh Carraway (9.0 sacks in 2015), that can take advantage of this line as it tries to learn from last week’s mistakes.
The natural counter would be for Arkansas to rely on its ground game and go for short, quick passes to ease the pressure on quarterback Austin Allen. But at the rate TCU tends to put up points — and you remember what Kenny Trill did to Arkansas at Texas A&M — this won’t be an option. Allen will be forced to throw.
When that happens, cover your eyes and cross your fingers, Razorback fans.
Kickoff: 7 p.m., ESPN
Prediction: TCU 38, Arkansas 17
South Carolina at Mississippi State: Gamecocks pull the upset
My reasoning is detailed in this week’s Upset Alert column. The short version: Mississippi State wasn’t as bad as the team that lost to South Alabama, but South Carolina also could be much improved from the squad we saw beat Vandy.
Kickoff: 7 p.m., ESPN2
Prediction: South Carolina 17, Mississippi State 14
Jacksonville State at No. 21 LSU: Danny Etling plays two quarters, Leonard Fournette plays one
If LSU is smart, Fournette will get to rest for most of this one. This has little to do with the injury he suffered late against Wisconsin; it’s about making sure he’s still fresh in the second half of the season, where games against Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M reside.
Looking back, in light of LSU’s November 2015 skid, why did Fournette carry the ball 26 times each against Western Kentucky, Syracuse and Eastern Michigan? Derrius Guice is good. There’s no reason to keep him shelved like that.
As for Etling, he should see action in the second half of this game. Les Miles knows he can’t afford to give Brandon Harris much more time to figure things out.
“(He) was errant several times. … I don’t think his play was great” Miles said during this week’s press conference.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement there.
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., ESPNU
Prediction: LSU 36, Jacksonville State 10
Arkansas State at Auburn: Gus Malzahn only plays one quarterback
Assuming the Red Wolves can field an intact football team — they reportedly sent 12 players to the hospital this week because of a virus — Malzahn’s game plan should be simple: start Sean White for most of the game, call a bunch of running plays and treat him like someone who’s earned the job.
Because, let’s face it, White was far from perfect against Clemson, but he’s definitely the safest and best option for Auburn right now. Even if playing a pocket passer in Malzahn’s offense makes no sense whatsoever.
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
Prediction: Auburn 31, Arkansas State 7
Eastern Michigan at Missouri: You fall asleep
Huh? Was there a game happening here? I’m just so … tired … zzz.
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
Prediction: Missouri 27, Eastern Michigan 13
Virginia Tech at No. 17 Tennessee: Vols win by 7 points … again
We’re one week into the season and I already don’t trust this Tennessee team. Virginia Tech is not App State, and Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway will be loud.
There’s still so much talent on this roster that the Vols should scrape another greasy win off the griddle, but they won’t take care of business like they should. Where’s ye olde offensive line of 2015, Butch Jones?
Kickoff: 8 p.m., ABC
Prediction: Tennessee 31, Virginia Tech 24