College football has become an aerial game, and stopping teams through the air will be a central theme during Week 3 in the SEC. But it won’t be all about thwarting the efforts of upstart quarterbacks such as East Carolina’s Philip Nelson, Texas State’s Tyler Jones or Greg Windham of Ohio.
We look at 10 of the best matchups (both individual and unit) to take the field this Saturday.
Mississippi State DE A.J. Jefferson vs. LSU RB Leonard Fournette
In what should be one of the biggest individual heavyweight bouts of the 2016 season, Jefferson will attempt to stop Fournette. No one has been better in the SEC so far this season at dropping ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage than Jefferson, the SEC’s leader in sacks (tied with Alabama’s Jonathan Allen and LSU’s Arden Key with 3) and tackles for loss (6). Fournette, the nation’s incumbent leading rusher, has been hobbled by a left ankle sprain to begin the season, but he is expected to play against the Bulldogs under the lights at Tiger Stadium. Injured or not, Fournette is a threat every time he touches the ball.
Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett vs. Auburn LT Austin Golson
Welcome to the left side in the SEC, Austin. Your reward for your first conference start as Auburn’s left tackle is the task of preventing Garrett from blowing up Tigers quarterback Sean White. Golson converted from center last year to left tackle in 2016, replacing the departed Shon Coleman. Garrett has been true to form early on this season, garnering 5 tackles, 4 quarterback hurries and 1 sack for the Aggies. Golson could be in for a long, but rewarding, day if he’s able to stand his ground.
Georgia DT Trenton Thompson vs. Missouri offensive line
One of the biggest reasons for Missouri’s early success, particularly in the passing game where Drew Lock leads the SEC with 365 yards per game, is the play of the Tigers offensive line. Mizzou’s line has allowed just 1 sack on the year, tying it with Florida and Mississippi State for fewest in the conference, and a conference-low 5 tackles for loss. Thompson has 12 tackles, including a team-high 11 of them coming last week against Nicholls State, to go along with 3.5 TFL and 1 sack in what is proving to be a breakout season for the sophomore and former 5-star prospect.
Ole Miss front seven vs. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
The Alabama offensive line is still ironing out some of its kinks through the first two weeks of the season, which could behoove a strong Ole Miss defensive front when the two clash in a matchup replete with plenty of postseason implications. The Crimson Tide have surrendered a middling 5 sacks this season, penultimate to Kentucky in the SEC. Hurts has impressed, but the freshman will go up against easily the toughest defense he’s faced in his very young career. Ole Miss will bring plenty of pressure from the likes of LB DeMarquis Gates and DE Marquis Haynes, who have combined for 3 sacks in two games. If the Tide’s offensive line struggles, Hurts might be forced to come of age quickly.
Kentucky RB Stanley “Boom” Williams vs. New Mexico State LB Rodney Butler
Williams will run straight into the teeth of New Mexico State’s defense, in particular, Rodney Butler. The linebacker leads the nation in tackles with 39 through the first two weeks of the season. Butler will be all over the field, as 26 of those tackles have been assisted, 8 more than the country’s next closest player Terrill Hanks (18), also of the Aggies (technically Cincinnati’s Eric Wilson has 19 assisted tackles, but has played in one more game). The junior Williams is averaging 80 yards per game for the Wildcats, but might discover finding the end zone for the first time this season will be difficult against New Mexico State’s solid linebacking corps.
Georgia Tech’s triple option vs. Vanderbilt defense
It’s no surprise what Georgia Tech wants to do on offense, running Paul Johnson’s patented triple-option. The Yellow Jackets aren’t going to pass the ball, not with much proficiency, that is, averaging 99.5 YPG via the air — worse that all but four teams in the nation (one of which is Vanderbilt). Tech is posting 241.5 YPG on the ground. The Commodores are stiff against the run (108.5 YPG), meaning this game could very well come down to which unit is able to slow the other just enough to eke out the win.
Tennessee defensive line vs. Ohio RB Dorian Brown and QB Greg Windham
Ohio has been effective on the ground so far this season, relying on Brown and Maleek Irons, as well as the scrambling abilities of Windham to amass an average of 283 yards per game rushing in two contests — good enough to rank No. 12 in the nation, albeit against Texas State and Kansas. Tennessee has been vulnerable against the run in 2016, yielding 185 YPG. The Volunteers should be able to dispatch Ohio, but not before the Bobcats make life a tad uncomfortable the same way Appalachian State and Virginia Tech were able to do.
South Carolina secondary vs. East Carolina QB Philip Nelson
The rib injury sustained by South Carolina safety Chaz Elder creates a hole in the Gamecocks secondary at an inconvenient time. Nelson is averaging 347.5 passing yards per game, 10th-best in the nation, to go along with 6 scoring tosses. Will Muschamp will look to replace the redshirt senior by dropping nickelback Chris Moody back in coverage or using some combination of D.J. Smith, Steven Montac and Jasper Sasser at safety while Elder heals over the next 3-4 weeks.
Arkansas secondary vs. Texas State QB Tyler Jones
Jones enters this tilt as one of the nation’s most prolific passers, airing out an average of 418 YPG. The Arkansas secondary continues to struggle coughing up 294.5 YPG. The Razorbacks are still looking to replace DB Kevin Richardson, who is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in Week 1 against Louisiana Tech. Despite the shuffling of lineups under new defensive backs coach Paul Rhoads and a slew of yards surrendered through the air, the Hogs secondary has only allowed 1 touchdown all year. And that’s against the pass-happy offenses of TCU and Louisiana Tech, the Nos. 7 and 10 passing offenses, respectively, in the nation.
Florida QB Luke Del Rio vs. North Texas secondary
Expect an afternoon of mismatches when North Texas travels to the Swamp. Del Rio has revitalized the Gators’ once-stagnate passing game with 576 yards and 6 touchdowns entering the contest against the Mean Green. Defending against the pass is one thing North Texas does relatively well, limiting opponents to 187 yards via the air this season. The Mean Green will benefit from the likely absence of star Florida wide receiver Antonio Callaway, who is expected to sit out with a quad injury. But the Gators should cruise to an easy victory.