The SEC’s Big Picture: The East is on the line in Week 9
Much more than the teams to make it through Saturday unscathed, Week 8 was about the schools that lost.
Texas A&M forgot how to function on offense as Ole Miss cruised to an easy win. Auburn and Tennessee each suffered bitter defeats of their own, with the Tigers falling to Arkansas in quadruple overtime and the Vols coming five points shy of reversing the ‘Bama curse in Tuscaloosa. Even Missouri continued its spiral, losing to Vanderbilt in a 10-3 thriller.
Here’s a breakdown of how that and the rest of this weekend’s action affects the SEC title race heading into a pivotal Week 9:
Not many beasts in the SEC East
There are six SEC games lined up for next Saturday, but one will carry major implications for the conference championship game. That would be the 3:30 p.m. ET showdown between UGA and Florida — the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party down in Jacksonville, Fla. A win for the Gators all but clinches their spot in the SEC title game. A loss to the archrival Bulldogs, as unlikely as that may seem, would put a middling UGA squad in the driver’s seat to play in Atlanta.
Tennessee, for all of its talent and tenacity, simply doesn’t have the experience to put these close conference games away. Kentucky has pieces — ones that few coaches not named Mark Stoops could have lured to Lexington in the first place — but weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive lines have been badly exposed over the past two weeks. Both have three conference losses, and both have already fallen to the Gators.
The only team left to conquer is UGA, which got brutalized by ‘Bama and most recently eked out a 9-6 home victory against Missouri — a team that, once again we must remind ourselves, lost to Vanderbilt. Don’t hold your breath, Bulldogs fans.
Rebels rebound and an Aggie-nizing defeat
Nearly every pundit was picking Texas A&M to march into Oxford, Miss., and hand Ole Miss its third loss of the season. Instead, the Rebels shut down Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin’s high-powered offense and kept its foothold firmly in SEC West contention.
What happened to Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen? Speculation that he could be playing hurt aside, this offense has done a complete 180 since playing Alabama. Ole Miss, playing without star defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, held Allen to less than three yards per completion and watched him connect on just two of the last 22 passes he threw.
To be fair, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly (three interceptions) looked a far cry from the gunslinger who overcame Alabama. But with suddenly stout defense and a ground game that churned out 230 yards rushing, he could’ve been Greyson Lambert and still gotten a win. Large matchups with LSU and Mississippi State still loom, but this was a promising first step on what looks like a murderous back half of the schedule for Ole Miss.
The Nov. 7 matchup between Alabama and LSU has been highlighted on a lot of calendars for a long time. And with both teams on bye this weekend, the intrigue and intensity of this phenomenal rivalry will remain intact.
LSU didn’t exactly blow out an underrated Western Kentucky team, but “survive and advance” has been the mantra of the Tigers’ season to date. Alabama clung on for dear life against Tennessee but still beat its cross-division rival for the ninth year in a row.
Did the Crimson Tide play all that well against the Vols? Definitely not. But Jake Coker probably still gives Alabama a better week-to-week shot than Brandon Harris does for LSU, and coach Nick Saban’s defense is marginally better-prepared to stop Leonard Fournette than LSU’s also-dominant defense is Derrick Henry. Either way, it’ll be a classic LSU-Bama barn-burner.
Projected SEC Championship game, through Week 8:
Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) vs. Florida (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
The crystal ball holds steady this week. Florida, even with Treon Harris under center, can practically cakewalk down the stretch and into Atlanta, and Alabama still has home field advantage in Week 10. This would be a compelling pairing.