One week ago in this very space, yours truly expressed some reservations about Mississippi State given the Bulldogs’ rather easy schedule in the opening two games of the season. That quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was the real deal, there was no doubt. But we hadn’t seen anything from Starkville to convince us that the Bulldogs could match up man-for-man in the trenches against an opponent such as LSU.
Well, we know how that turned out. Mississippi State’s all-out decking of the Tigers, a 37-7 rout set to a symphony of clanking cowbells, ranks among the most impressive victories by any SEC team this season. Are the Bulldogs really that good? Maybe, given that they’ve clearly matured on defense, and they’re led by one of the league’s top offensive weapons.
And Saturday, they have another big one: at Georgia, in what’s suddenly a matchup of top 20 teams, and shapes up as the SEC’s best game this week. Coach Kirby Smart’s team has taken care of business, with a signature victory of its own at Notre Dame, and gets this one at home. But Mississippi State has that “it” factor right now, and we’re not going to make the same mistake we did last week.
On to the predictions, with all kickoffs in Eastern Daylight Time.
No. 17 Mississippi State at No. 11 Georgia: A second straight upset for State
Even using a backup quarterback, it’s easy to like Georgia’s personnel, with that tempo-setting running game and that bedrock defense. What’s not easy to like is the way Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney manage games. Georgia had to rally at Notre Dame because it kept asking too much of freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, and against higher-quality opponents there remain too many “what are they thinking?” moments. Meanwhile, State has a proven play caller in coach Dan Mullen, a game changer in Fitzgerald, and the opportunity to pull an upset for the second straight week.
Kickoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN
Line: Georgia by 5
Prediction: Mississippi State 31, Georgia 27
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin’s seat gets even hotter
Welcome to the Hot Seat Bowl in Arlington, Texas, where the losing coach may be asked to walk back to campus. No one is really happy in Arkansas after watching the Hogs get handled by TCU. Certainly no one is happy in College Station. But the Razorbacks are coming off an open week, and they have a proven quarterback in Austin Allen, not to mention cool Cowboys-inspired uniforms. This Arkansas-South Carolina stretch is crucial for Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin, who could face four straight ranked opponents starting Oct 7.
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, ESPN
Line: Texas A&M by 2½
Prediction: Arkansas 24, Texas A&M 23
Massachusetts at Tennessee: Vols find some touches for receiver Tyler Byrd
Tennessee running back John Kelly is a star, but he can’t do it all himself — although he tried in totaling 237 all-purpose yards in last week’s loss at Florida. The Volunteers need more playmakers on offense, and coach Butch Jones wants Tyler Byrd to be one of them. After recording 15 catches last season, the sophomore doesn’t have a reception this season, something that should change against the outmanned Minutemen.
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, SEC Network
Line: Tennessee by 28
Prediction: Tennessee 42, Massachusetts 14
No. 1 Alabama at Vanderbilt: Vandy is for real, but Bama is still better
These are exciting times in the West End, with Vanderbilt at 3-0 for the first time since 2011, quarterback Kyle Shurmur and running back Ralph Webb clicking on all cylinders, and the nation’s best defense shutting down opponents. Now here comes top-ranked Alabama for the CBS showcase game, where points will be at a premium. Vandy’s D is good enough to keep this more competitive than the Vegas number, but the Crimson Tide have too many offensive weapons, and a defense as good or better than the one on the opposite sideline.
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS
Line: Alabama by 18½
Prediction: Alabama 28, Vanderbilt 14
Louisiana Tech at South Carolina: Gamecocks’ biggest injury worry isn’t at receiver
With receiver Deebo Samuel out for most or all of the rest of the season with a broken leg bone, look for the Gamecocks to make better use of tight end Hayden Hurst and freshman wideouts OrTre Smith and Shi Smith. But South Carolina’s biggest injury concern isn’t at receiver — it’s on the offensive line, where future NFL player Zack Bailey is out with a high ankle sprain. The Gamecocks are moving pieces around, but Bailey is easily the best they have, and quarterback Jake Bentley’s protection may be compromised as a result of his absence.
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, SEC Network
Line: South Carolina by 8½
Prediction: South Carolina 35, Louisiana Tech 31
Syracuse at No. 25 LSU: Tigers take out frustration on the Orange
Tigers tailback Derrius Guice is out. Syracuse runs a high-tempo offense not unlike the kind Mississippi State used to wear out LSU’s defense last week. There are reasons to be concerned — and then you remember Syracuse hasn’t won a road game against a non-league Power Five opponent since 2012, and LSU has’t lost a nonconference home game since 2000. The Tigers have some flaws, as everyone witnessed last week, but they have a chance to figure things out against an opponent that two weeks ago lost at home to Middle Tennessee.
READ MORE: Why is LSU committing so many penalties?
Kickoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2
Line: LSU by 22½
Prediction: LSU 45, Syracuse 20
No. 20 Florida at Kentucky: Wildcats run the ball to end the streak
It’s been 30 years since Kentucky last beat Florida, and most years the game hasn’t been close. These Gators head to Lexington with some key playmakers still under suspension, an offense that’s struggled to score touchdowns, and an anemic attack, regardless of how the Tennessee game ended. Kentucky has a solid defense capable of taking away the rush and making Florida even more one-dimensional than it already is. Then it’s up to Benny Snell and the Wildcats running game to grind out the kind of victory the Vols couldn’t finish last week.
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, SEC Network
Line: Florida by 2½
Prediction: Kentucky 24, Florida 17
No. 15 Auburn at Missouri: Tigers finally snap out of offensive funk
It’s one thing to struggle on offense against national champion Clemson, quite another to struggle against Mercer. If the Tigers are ever going to snap out of their funk, it’s going to be against a Missouri team that’s giving up boatloads of points, even after firing its defensive coordinator two weeks ago. A slog in CoMo, and things really begin to get uncomfortable for Tigers coach Gus Malzahn. Against an opponent that gave up 35 to Purdue, it won’t come to that — right?
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU
Line: Auburn by 19
Prediction: Auburn 38, Missouri 17