The most important Iron Bowl since the Kick Six is upon us. No. 1 Alabama travels south to face No. 6 Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the winner will earn a spot in the conference title game. But there are plenty of other SEC predictions to make outside of the Yellowhammer State.
Along with Hans Heiserer, I broke down every Week 13 matchup on Bud Light’s Predictions Among Friends, which you can view here. This post is an in-depth look at this coming weekend.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Auburn
Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Auburn’s blowout win over Georgia two weeks ago reversed an ugly trend for Gus Malzahn’s program and gave Tigers fans plenty of hope for the Iron Bowl. Malzahn finally has a capable quarterback to run his offense, and Jarrett Stidham is the type of player who can take down a Nick Saban defense. He’s efficient (67.8 completion percentage), mostly careful with the football (4 interceptions through 11 games) and can make big plays through the air (9.2 yards per attempt).
Few people doubt his ability to succeed against Alabama. But that’s different than believing he will succeed against Alabama. The good news: Stidham won’t need to do it on his own. In the Georgia win, he was outshone by three other factors: an unstoppable defensive front, running back Kerryon Johnson, and some excellent offensive scheming. All of them together make Auburn a legitimate national title contender.
I present all this to you because I want you to know that the home side can win the game. It’s not the same dumpy old Tigers team from 2015 or 2016.
But I don’t think Saturday will be the Tigers’ Iron Bowl breakthrough.
Betting against Saban requires an immense amount of confidence; not just in the opposition, but in the idea that Saban’s team is going to be outplayed, outcoached and struck down by some divine pigskin presence. The Crimson Tide have suffered some key defensive injuries, especially at linebacker. It’s still unclear whether the passing offense can succeed against an elite defense. A recent game against Mississippi State came down to the wire. Your brain screams, “They’re mortal!”
But seemingly every time Saban’s teams are expected to play a close game — or even lose — vs. an SEC opponent, we all look like fools in hindsight. Not since 2014 at Ole Miss has Alabama been favored by a touchdown or less and lost a conference game.
Consider, on an X’s and O’s level, that Auburn found immense success against Georgia thanks to a suffocating pass rush. Alabama’s offense has a different set of weapons, with the primary change being Jalen Hurts’ ability to escape the pocket — either by design or not — and neutralize the rush with his legs. He also has an ultra-athletic group of receivers that can challenge Auburn’s defensive backs in a way they haven’t been since the Clemson game. Throw in perhaps the country’s best stable of running backs and ‘Bama is a beast to slow down if Hurts can get comfortable.
We’ve got a potential classic on our hands. The winner gets the SEC West title and a ticket to Atlanta, with a national title at stake. For the fourth consecutive year, I think the victor wears crimson. The pick: Alabama
No. 7 Georgia at Georgia Tech
Saturday at Noon ET (ABC)
Tech used a 14-point fourth-quarter rally to stun Georgia last season and has won two of three against the Bulldogs. The Yellow Jackets are coming off an ugly loss to Duke (in which they gave up 319 rushing yards), but it’s part of a weird little Jekyll-and-Hyde routine in 2017. Paul Johnson’s team has quality wins over Virginia Tech and Wake Forest and showed some good fight against Clemson just before Halloween.
I don’t have the gumption to say the “good” GT will show up Saturday and knock off the Bulldogs (will Kirby Smart’s team be looking ahead?), but don’t rule it out. The pick: Georgia
No. 2 Clemson at South Carolina
Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
A pair of strong defenses should keep scoring to a minimum (at least relative to the last four years, in which the teams have combined for an average of 58 points). But this South Carolina squad isn’t quite good enough to snap its three-game losing streak against Clemson.
The problem lies with the Gamecocks offense. It just hasn’t generated enough big plays or scoring to be a credible threat to a College Football Playoff contender. Take, for instance, a recent 24-10 loss to Georgia. South Carolina posted just 270 total yards (at a clip of 6.3 yards per pass attempt and 2.5 yards per rush attempt) while its typically sturdy defense allowed Georgia to bleed out the clock with 242 yards on the ground.
Quarterback Jake Bentley has been the epitome of average this season; nothing about his statistical profile stands out. He hasn’t thrown multiple touchdown passes in a game since Oct. 7. In fact, he’s thrown just three in the last five games (while chucking 5 interceptions). USC needs him to play at a high level against Clemson’s defense, and he just doesn’t appear ready to do that. The pick: Clemson
Texas A&M at No. 20 LSU
Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
It’s Thanksgiving week, which means it’s time for Derrius Guice to eat. The LSU running back had a big game against A&M in 2015 (7.3 yards per carry and a 48.5 kick-return average) and had a huge game last November (285 rushing yards). This season, the Aggies are surrendering 156 rushing yards and 1.36 rushing touchdowns per game.
Everyone knows by now that Kevin Sumlin’s teams don’t fare well in the final month of the season, and that’s largely been due to LSU, which owns a 6-0 record against A&M since the Aggies arrived in the SEC. It doesn’t help that many of Sumlin’s players will assume he’s gone after the weekend. The pick: LSU
Ole Miss at No. 16 Mississippi State
Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
This should be one of the best quarterback battles of the season. Jordan Ta’amu and the Rebels will be throwing the football all over the field — regardless of whether it’s working — while Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs will be trying to take advantage of Ole Miss’ horrible rushing defense (123rd in the country).
Most signs point toward an MSU win here, but don’t rule out a little magic in Matt Luke’s likely final game as Mississippi coach. The pick: Mississippi State
Louisville at Kentucky
Saturday at Noon ET (SEC Network)
Defending Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson has scored a total of 40 touchdowns and collected more than 4,500 passing and rushing yards through 11 games. Jackson has not been as consistently dominant as he was over the same span in 2016 — especially in the second halves of contests the 7-4 Cardinals have dropped — but it’s highly likely that he will destroy the Wildcats defense on Saturday.
Over the last five games, Jackson is averaging 256 passing yards, 155 rushing yards and 3.8 total touchdowns. The Kentucky “D” might only amplify those figures. Each of UK’s last six opponents has surpassed its season average for yards, while five of six have surpassed season averages for points scored. The pick: Louisville
Missouri at Arkansas
Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Arkansas actually showed up against Mississippi State, and Bret Bielema is still requesting to keep his job, so there are at least some signs of life in Fayetteville. But this is the wrong matchup at the wrong time. Arky has allowed 7 touchdown passes against 0 interceptions in its last three games (all against teams that don’t pass particularly well). Meanwhile, Missouri quarterback Drew Lock has been lighting up defenses for the better part of two months now.
Lock has thrown at least 3 touchdowns in seven (!) consecutive games. His TD-to-INT ratio in that span is 28-to-4. Mizzou has won three straight SEC games and will make it four on Friday. The pick: Missouri
Florida State at Florida
Saturday at Noon ET (ESPN)
One of the preseason’s most anticipated matchups is now a complete afterthought. The Florida news cycle is currently built around a coaching search instead of its biggest (in modern times, at least) rivalry game. A season-opening beatdown — and quarterback injury — at the hands of Alabama ruined Florida State’s season. Credit card fraud brought down Jim McElwain and UF before the season even began.
Both sides have a lot of talent, but that talent has not been particularly motivated in 2017. It’s more or less a toss-up at the Swamp. Go with the more stable program (and the one that’s dominated this series in recent years). The pick: Florida State
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Saturday at 4 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Which side will finish 0-8 in the SEC? Such a scenario was unfathomable in mid-September, when Vandy was 3-0 and fresh off a win against No. 18 Kansas State, while Tennessee was one well-defended Hail Mary away from being 3-0, too. Since then, the teams have gone a combined 3-13. Butch Jones is gone. Derek Mason is answering questions about his job.
One of these teams is trending (ever-so-slightly) upward, and that’s the Vols. Backup-turned-starter-turned-backup-turned-starter Jarrett Guarantano had his best game of the season against LSU, and the Vols avoided embarrassment in a 30-10 loss. That’s more than the Commodores can say; Mason’s team fell behind Missouri 35-0 in an eventual 45-17 loss, continuing a troubling trend of … being awful on both sides of the football. Count on the Vols to once again play the older brother in this rivalry and keep the ‘Dores at the bottom of the East standings. The pick: Tennessee
How do you see the games playing out this weekend? Let us know in the comments section below.