Running backs take center stage in Week 10, as seven of the SEC’s top 10 rushers all face daunting defensive challenges. That includes thunderous matchups in Baton Rouge, Fayetteville and Lexington.
We break down 10 of the best individual matchups through the conference that will out this week as all 14 teams return to action.
RB Kamryn Pettway, Auburn vs. LB Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
The SEC’s clear rushing leader meets the conference far-and-away best tackling specialist in Week 10 when Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway attempts to bulldoze his way through a Vanderbilt run defense led by Zach Cunningham. Since taking over starting duties out of the Tigers backfield, Pettway has posted an impressive 133.3 yards per game (YPG), mere percentage points behind Florida State’s Dalvin Cook for fifth-best in the nation. He’ll square up against Cunningham, whose 85 tackles (10.6 per-game) help anchor a Commodores run defense that surrenders only 157.6 YPG and is tied for No. 5 in the SEC with Texas A&M for fewest touchdowns (9) given up on the ground this year.
RB Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt vs. Auburn run defense
Kamryn Pettway won’t be the only running back looking at a tough assignment in Week 10 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. His counterpart on the opposing sideline Ralph Webb has just as arduous a task. Webb — who trails the Auburn tailback by 26.4 rushing YPG for second-best in the SEC — gets to barrel headlong into the teeth of a Tigers rush defense that not only yields 126.6 YPG, but has allowed only 4 touchdowns all season and none since Week 3 against Texas A&M.
RB Leonard Fournette, LSU vs. Alabama front seven
No one runs on Alabama. No one. The Crimson Tide have limited opponents to a remarkable 70.1 YPG on the ground entering Week 10 against LSU. Moreover, the Tide’s three rushing scores allowed tie them for tops in the nation with Louisville, Michigan and Ohio State. Not bad company, indeed. Leonard Fournette alone scored that many touchdowns the last time he stepped on the field in Week 8 against Ole Miss. The Tigers junior is averaging a cartoonish 167.5 YPG, which would rank him No. 2 in the country behind San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey’s even more mind-boggling 183.6 YPG, if the formerly injured Fournette had enough carries to challenge for the lead. Whoever controls this matchup likely sets themselves up in great position to walk out of Death Valley with the win.
LB Ironhead Gallon, Georgia Southern vs. QB Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
Ironhead Gallon isn’t just fun to say; the Georgia Southern linebacker is also a treat to watch. The senior could pose all kinds of trouble for Ole Miss in Week 10, whether it be harassing Rebels running back Akeem Judd or making quarterback Chad Kelly, owner of 309 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns, think twice before taking off with the ball. The senior Gallon has four double-digit tackle performances this season, including 13 take-downs against Western Michigan, to sit at No. 4 overall in Sun Belt in that category.
WR Fred Ross, Mississippi State vs. Texas A&M secondary
Fred Ross is quietly putting together a big senior year and proving his first three years at Mississippi State weren’t just a product of catching passes from Dak Prescott. Ross has hauled in 543 yards — third-best among SEC receivers — and is coming off his second 100-yard effort of the season (ninth of his career). It’s his 7 touchdowns, however, that lead the conference. Texas A&M gives up its share of yards (247.5 YPG), with only its Week 10 opponent the Bulldogs surrendering more through the air. But the Aggies are one of just three SEC teams, along with Florida and LSU, to have more interceptions than touchdowns allowed, at an 8 to 9 ratio. Ross can give his draft stock a solid boost with a big game against Texas A&M, a team he burned for 103 yards last year.
RB Rawleigh Williams III, Arkansas vs. Florida rush defense
If Arkansas wants to right its ship the rushing attack must re-established. That means getting the ball to and opening lanes for Rawleigh Williams III, whose 100.9 YPG make him one of just five SEC running backs averaging more than 100 yards per game. That’s no easy task, considering that the Hogs welcome Florida to the Hill in Week 10. The Gators defense only bends to the tune of 105.1 YPG, while allowing opponents to find the end zone 5 times all year — including just 2 touchdowns in the last three games.
QB Drew Lock, Missouri vs. CB Jamarcus King, South Carolina
Jamarcus King makes this list for the second consecutive week, earning it after intercepting Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs twice in Week 9 in South Carolina’s upset over the Volunteers. This week the transfer from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College will have his intentions set on a repeat performance. This time it comes against the SEC’s second-leading passer in Missouri’s Drew Lock. Playing behind starter Chris Lammons at cornerback, King and the Gamecocks have held opposing quarterbacks to fewer than 200 yards in five of their eight games this season — and came close with Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight who managed just 206 passing yards in Columbia. All told, Will Muschamp’s defense allows the second-fewest yards via the air in the conference (180.8 YPG). Lock and wide receiver J’Mon Moore have been one of the few bright spots for Mizzou this year, combining for 551 yards and 6 touchdowns, even if the duo hasn’t connected for a score since Week 4. Even with Moore’s end zone drought, Lock is tied for the SEC lead with 18 touchdown passes.
RBs Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell Jr., Kentucky vs. Georgia run defense
Only one SEC team has two running backs in the top 10 in terms of rushing yards in the conference this season and it’s not Auburn. Much of Kentucky’s surprising success this season belongs to the duo of Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell Jr. The tandem has combined for 1,482 yards and 9 touchdowns to lead the Wildcats to second place in the SEC East. They’ll get tested in Week 10 against Georgia, however. The Bulldogs have been on a recent slide, but it’s not because of their run defense, which allows a paltry 109.8 YPG. While Kirby Smart’s defense does clamp down on yards, the Bulldogs do allow their share of touchdowns (12). That’s a department Williams and Snell Jr. could stand to improve. The winner of the line in this game should put themselves in decent position to claim the win.
QB Jalen Hurts, Alabama vs. LSU defense
Jalen Hurts is a major reason why Alabama is undefeated and sitting at No. 1 in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s top spot. The freshman has 1,578 yards passing and 12 touchdowns, to go along with 521 rushing yards and an SEC-leading 9 rushing touchdowns (tied with Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight). But the freshman quarterback hasn’t faced a defense quite like LSU’s, yet. We’ll discovered Hurts’ mettle and poise when he squares off against a defense that’s yielded as many rushing touchdowns (4) as is has passing scores.
LB Josh Poplar, Tennessee Tech vs. QB Josh Dobbs, Tennessee
Josh Dobbs is coming off a tough game. Josh Poplar is looking to capitalize on that and make a name for himself outside of the Ohio Valley Conference where he’s respected for terrorizing quarterbacks. Earning a spot with Tennessee Tech as a walk-on, Poplar has amassed 84 tackles (10.5 per game), good for second-best in the conference — while forcing a recovering a pair of fumbles. Chances are strong that Tennessee quarterback Dobbs recovers from last week’s loss to South Carolina and lights up the Golden Eagles. After all, despite the Vols’ struggles, the senior does have 1,686 yards and 15 touchdowns, as well as 320 rushing yards and 5 scores. But regardless of the final score, Poplar will walk out of Neyland Stadium a winner.