There isn’t a ton of drama remaining in the regular season. Assuming Alabama beats Auburn — and Nick Saban’s team is favored by over four touchdowns — the SEC Championship Game is set: Georgia vs. Bama. Two teams are fighting for bowl-eligibility; Ole Miss must defeat Mississippi State and Missouri needs a win at Texas A&M to reach the six-win mark.
Johnny Manziel & the Aggies take on the Tide in Tuscaloosa
Georgia can secure its second straight SEC East title with a win at Auburn. If the Bulldogs stumble, Florida, which has already concluded its SEC season (7–1), would make the trip to Atlanta. Alabama can wrap up the West with a victory at home against Texas A&M.
There was a big shakeup in the SEC on Saturday. South Carolina climbed to No. 2 in the league power rankings (and No. 3 in the nation) with their impressive win over Georgia, and Florida moved up to No. 3 after beating LSU 14–6 in Gainesville. Also, Vanderbilt jumped from 12th to ninth after beating Missouri in Columbia.
Georgia-South Carolina & LSU-Florida take center stage
The SEC takes center stage in college football this weekend with two huge matchups. Florida, experiences a resurgence under second-year coach Will Muschamp hosts LSU at the Swamp, and Georgia and South Carolina meet in Columbia in a game that could decide the SEC East champ.
What happened to James Franklin's production on the ground?
The SEC slate in Week 5 of the college football season is highlighted by the Arkansas-Texas A&M matchup in College Station and Tennessee’s trip to Georgia. On paper, neither game is expected to be too close — both home teams are favored by about two touchdowns, but these are still compelling matchups.
1. Todd Grantham vs. the Vanderbilt coaching staff
This is not a creation of the media: There is legitimately bad blood between the Vanderbilt coaching staff and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Last year’s game, won by Georgia 33–28 in Nashville, ended with Grantham and Commodore head coach James Franklin jawing near midfield before being separated by a Vanderbilt police officer. The Vanderbilt staff thought that some Georgia players, specifically safety Shawn Williams, were a bit too chippy during and immediately following the game. Grantham didn’t appreciate Franklin talking to his players on the field. Fortunately, no punches were thrown, but there is no denying this was a heated exchange.
Both parties are saying all the right things — Franklin recently joked that his family vacationed with the Granthams during the offseason — but there is no doubt there is some lingering animosity.
2. Austyn Carta-Samuels vs. the Georgia defense
Grantham’s defense will be facing a quarterback, junior Austyn Carta-Samuels, making his first start against an SEC opponent. Carta-Samuels has played against quality competition — he faced Texas and BYU twice as well as Boise State, Colorado, Utah and TCU once during his two years at Wyoming — but this Georgia defense will present an enormous challenge. Last year, the Commodores threw for 149 yards vs. Georgia, but 78 of those yards (and the only passing TD) came via trick plays — a 43-yard throw by running back Zac Stacy and a 35-yard toss by punter Ryan Fowler on a fake. Vanderbilt’s two quarterbacks, Larry Smith and Jordan Rodgers, combined to complete only 9-of-29 passes for 71 yards with three interceptions. Carta-Samuels will have to play extremely well to give Vanderbilt a chance for the upset.
3. Can Arkansas beat an FBS opponent?
Arkansas was touted by some as a legitimate national championship contender during the offseason. Now, the Hogs are simply hoping to win a game. The Razorbacks are 0–2 vs. FBS competition, with a loss to UL Monroe in overtime and a 52–0 debacle against Alabama last Saturday. The good news is that Tyler Wilson likely will be back at quarterback after missing the Bama game with a concussion. The bad news is that Wilson can’t help a defense that is allowing 436.7 yards per game. The Hogs’ issues on defense will put pressure on the offense to score a bunch of points in virtually every game. And that could be a problem on Saturday. Rutgers isn’t Alabama, but the Scarlet Knights are pretty nasty on defense. They ranked eighth in the nation in scoring defense and 14th in total defense in 2011 and have continued their strong play early in the ’12 season. Kyle Flood’s team has also experienced success on the road with wins at Tulane (24–12) and South Florida (23–13). This will be a significant test for Arkansas.
4. The Battle of Columbia
South Carolina and Missouri meet for the first time ever as members of the SEC. All things equal, you probably have to give South Carolina the edge due to the location of the game (Columbia, S.C.) and the Gamecocks’ advantage on defense. But all things might not be equal. Both quarterbacks are nursing injuries. South Carolina’s Connor Shaw returned to the starting lineup after sitting out last week’s game vs. East Carolina, but he had to leave the game in the second quarter after taking a big hit to his shoulder. Shaw will get the start on Saturday, but he has yet to complete a game this season. Missouri’s James Franklin is also nursing an injured shoulder. He did not play in the Tigers’ win vs. Arizona State but is expected back on Saturday. South Carolina is better suited at this point to win with its No. 2 quarterback in the game. After struggling in a brief appearance in the opener against Vanderbilt, Dylan Thompson has been solid in relief of Shaw — albeit against inferior competition. Missouri’s backup, Corbin Berkstresser, played relatively well in the Tigers’ 24–20 win over Arizona State, but he is a redshirt freshman who has yet to take a snap on the road.
5. Can Auburn be competitive?
Even the most ardent Auburn fan realizes it will be a tall order for the Tigers to beat mighty LSU this Saturday — even at Jordan-Hare Stadium. But it’s not too much for the Auburn faithful to expect their team to be more competitive against the elite programs in the league. The Tigers are 2–5 in their last seven SEC games, and the five losses have come by an average of 28.6 points. That’s a startling regression for a program that won a national championship just two years ago. Through three games, Auburn ranks 102nd in the nation in total offense and 104th in scoring offense. In the two games vs. AQ conference opponents (Clemson and Mississippi State), the Tigers have scored a total of one touchdown.
6. How ugly will get it in Gainesville?
Kentucky has lost 25 straight overall to Florida and 16 straight in Gainesville. The Wildcats’ last four trips to the Swamp have been especially gruesome, with the Gators winning by an average score of 39–7. And barring a major reversal from both teams, Saturday’s game at Florida Field figures to be just as one-sided. Florida returns home with a ton of swagger after winning two tough SEC road games. The Gators played the finest game of the Will Muschamp era on Saturday night, surging past Tennessee 37–20 in Neyland Stadium. Kentucky, meanwhile, is fresh off a humbling overtime loss at home to Western Kentucky. UK has now lost to the other two FBS programs in the state of Kentucky. This is a tough spot for Joker Phillips and the wounded Wildcats.
7. Can Ole Miss get more touches for Jeff Scott?
Jeff Scott is averaging 10.3 yards per carry in the two games he has played this season. The problem? He has only had 20 rushing attempts. Hugh Freeze acknowledged on Monday that he would like to get Scott, one of the few proven playmakers on the Ole Miss offense, more touches. But Scott is only 5-7 and 170 pounds, which can cause some problems when he is asked to get involved in protecting the quarterback. “If he’s in there for a consistent amount of time, we’re going to have to ask him to (pass protect) also,” Freeze said. “I don’t question Jeff’s or (tailback) Jaylen (Walton)’s heart at all with that. (But) we had defensive ends the other night (vs. Texas) that are 6-5 and 280 pounds.”
8. Can the Alabama defense pitch another shutout?
Alabama’s defensive numbers are staggering, especially when you consider the Crimson Tide have faced two preseason top 25 teams away from home — Michigan in Texas and Arkansas in Fayetteville. Bama has recorded two straight shutouts and has only allowed points in two of 12 quarters this season. This Saturday, the Tide will seeking their third straight shutout — something that hasn’t happened since 1966 — against a Florida Atlantic team that ranks 116th in the nation in scoring (14.7 ppg).
9. Bowden returns to the SEC … sort of
Terry Bowden will make his first appearance as head coach in an SEC venue since Oct. 17, 1998, when his Auburn Tigers lost at Florida 24–3. Bowden, who went 47–17–1 in five-plus seasons at Auburn, is in his first season as the boss at Akron. The Zips, 1–2 in ’12, visit Neyland Stadium on Saturday to a face a Tennessee team eager to get back on track after losing to Florida. “I’ve had the fortune of coaching in all the SEC venues,” Bowden said earlier this week. “And this is one of the most electric.” Bowden only played Tennessee twice during his time at Auburn, losing 30–29 in the 1997 SEC Championship Game and 17–9 in Knoxville in 1998.
10. Will Johnny Manziel ever throw a pick?
We don’t expect Manziel to navigate Texas A&M’s brutal SEC slate without making his share of mistakes, but the Aggies’ redshirt freshman quarterback is off to a great start. Manziel is completing 65.2 percent of his passes and has yet to throw an interception in 66 attempts. He is also a threat on the ground, with 184 yards rushing on 30 carries. “He’s a very talented guy,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said earlier this week. “He has to continue to work on moving from an athlete that’s playing quarterback to a quarterback that’s an athlete. And there’s a big difference.”
SEC Newcomers Mizzou and Texas A&M take center stage
College football’s second week of action features the debut of the two newest members of the SEC and a huge road trip for Nebraska.
10 Biggest Games of Week 2
Georgia (-3.5) at Missouri
Missouri’s journey into the SEC begins Saturday in Columbia, Mo., when the Tigers host Georgia, the defending champs of the East. Both teams won their respective openers with ease, though Georgia couldn’t have been thrilled about allowing 347 total yards (199 on the ground) in its 45–23 win over Buffalo. On a positive note, it doesn’t appear the Bulldogs will miss Isaiah Crowell too much; true freshman Todd Gurley, a 6-1, 218-pound North Carolina native, ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns on only eight carries. Missouri quarterback James Franklin, who underwent major shoulder surgery in the spring, was relatively sharp in the Tigers’ 62–10 win over Southeastern Louisiana. He completed 13-of-21 for 131 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Franklin, one of the top playmakers in the SEC when healthy, will have to be at his best on Saturday. Georgia 27, Missouri 21
Florida (+2.5) at Texas A&M
The other new SEC member, Texas A&M, also plays its first league game this weekend. It will also be the first game of the season for the Aggies, who had their opener vs. Louisiana Tech in Shreveport postponed due to Hurricane Isaac. Now, quarterback Johnny Manziel will make his first career appearance against an outstanding Florida defense that gave up fewer than 300 yards per game in 2011. Speaking of quarterbacks, Florida’s search for a competent signal-caller continues. Jeff Driskel received the majority of the snaps in the Gators’ tougher-than-expected 27–14 win over Bowling Green. His numbers weren’t bad (10-of-16 for 114 yards and one TD), but Florida only had one pass play that went for longer than 18 yards. This offense must be more balanced if the Gators plan on being a factor in the SEC East. Texas A&M 17, Florida 14
Miami (Fla.)(+7) at Kansas State
Beating Boston College, even on the road, is no reason to get overly excited, but Miami has to feel good about its offense after a 41–32 win in Chestnut Hill. Junior quarterback Stephen Morris was sharp (28-of-45 for 207 yards), but the big story for the Canes was true freshman tailback Duke Johnson, who ran for 135 yards and two scores on only seven rushes. The Miami defense, however, was not quite as impressive. Boston College, which ranked 112th in the nation in both total offense and scoring offense last season, rolled up 542 total yards — 441 through the air and 101 on the ground. Kansas State struggled early against FCS foe Missouri State before pulling away in the fourth quarter in a 51–9 win. The Wildcats are looking for quarterback Collin Klein to be more of a threat throwing the ball this season. He should have a big game, both with his arm and legs, against the suspect Miami defense. Kansas State 34, Miami (Fla.) 28
Nebraska (-5) at UCLA
It was no great surprise Nebraska beat Southern Miss with such ease — the final was 49–20. Nor that the Cornhuskers had 632 yards of offense. But what was surprising was the play of quarterback Taylor Martinez. The junior, who is known more for his running exploits, completed 26-of-34 passes for 354 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. The Nebraska staff would be thrilled to get that type of production from Martinez on a consistent basis. There was some bad news in Lincoln, however. Tailback Rex Burkhead went down with a sprained MCL in his left knee in the first half and isn’t expected to play this weekend. UCLA pounded Rice in Houston in coach Jim L. Mora’s debut with the Bruins. Tailback Johnathan Franklin ran for 214 yards and three scores on 15 carries, and quarterback Brett Hundley, playing in his first career game, threw for 202 yards and two touchdowns. This is one of the most intriguing games of the weekend. Nebraska has the edge in the trenches, so go with the Huskers. Nebraska 27, UCLA 21
Washington (+23.5) at LSU
Washington is embarking on a stretch that will feature three of its next five against teams currently ranked among the top four in the nation. In addition to this trip to the Bayou, UW travels to Oregon on Oct. 13 and hosts USC on Oct. 20. The Huskies are making strides under third-year coach Steve Sarkisian, but the program isn’t yet in position to seriously threaten any of the three looming superpowers. Washington features some high-quality offensive players — most notably quarterback Keith Price — but its defense will have a tough time against quality competition. LSU will be tested for the first time after disposing of North Texas in predictable fashion (41–14) in Week 1. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, in his first start at LSU, completed 19-of-26 for 192 yards and a touchdown. If he plays well — and gives the Tigers’ offense balance — this team will very difficult to beat. LSU 30, Washington 17
Purdue (+14.5) at Notre Dame
Notre Dame returns to the mainland after an impressive 50–10 win over Navy in Dublin, Ireland. Redshirt freshman Everett Golson was solid in his first career start, but the Irish got it done with their rushing attack. With starter Cierre Wood back in South Bend while serving a two-game suspension, Notre Dame turned to Theo Riddick (19 carries, 107 yards) and George Atkinson III (nine for 99) to power a ground game that averaged 6.4 yards per attempt. Purdue had no trouble with Eastern Kentucky, the alma mater of Boilermakers coach Danny Hope. Starting quarterback Caleb TerBush was suspended for the opener, leaving Robert Marve and Rob Henry, who have played significantly at Pudue, to handle the snaps. On Monday, Hope announced that TerBush will get the start for Notre Dame. Notre Dame 28, Purdue 17
Vanderbilt (-3.5) at Northwestern
Vanderbilt struggled to move the ball with consistency in a 17¬–13 loss to South Carolina last Thursday. The Dores picked up 276 total yards, but 28.7 percent of the yards came on one play, a 78-yard touchdown from Jordan Rodgers to Jordan Matthews. This week, they will face a Northwestern defense that gave up 596 yards to Syracuse in a thrilling 42¬–41 win at the Carrier Dome. Rodgers and Matthews figure to test the Wildcats’ shaky secondary with frequency. Northwestern, too, will present some problems on offense for Vanderbilt. The Wildcats are likely to play two quarterback; Kain Colter, the starter (if healthy), is a runner who is developing as a passer, while Trevor Siemian is a polished passer who came off the bench to lead NU’s game-winning drive at Syracuse. This is an important game for two programs who are hoping to find six wins to reach bowl-eligibility. Vanderbilt 34, Northwestern 24
Iowa State (+4) at Iowa
Iowa State scored a total of 15 points en route to losing three straight to Iowa from 2008-10. Last year, however, the Cyclones erupted for 44 points in a three-point win in Ames. The ’12 season got off to good start offensively for Paul Rhoads’ club. The Clones, a surprising home underdog to Tulsa, rolled up 441 yards in a 38–23 win over the Golden Hurricane. Yards will be tougher to come by in Iowa City this weekend. Iowa gave up only 201 total yards (73 on one play) in an 18–17 win over Northern Illinois in Chicago. Take out that one big play — a run by NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch — and the Iowa defense gave up an average of 2.4 yards per play. Offensively, Iowa had to be thrilled to get a big game from tailback Damon Bullock. A sophomore who rushed for a total of 20 yards last season, Bullock carried the ball 30 times for 150 yards. Now, Iowa just needs to keep him healthy. This rivalry game often doesn’t go as expected. This is just a hunch, but I like the Clones on the road. Iowa State 21, Iowa 20
Auburn (-3) at Mississippi State
This a huge early season showdown between two teams that will be jockeying for position in the middle of the SEC West. Auburn remains a work in progress on defense under first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder. The Tigers, who gave up an average of 421.1 yards in 10 games vs. AQ conference opponents in 2011, struggled to stop Clemson despite giving up only 26 points. Mississippi State, however, doesn’t have offensive weapons like Tajh Boyd and Andre Ellington at Clemson. Mississippi State barely broke a sweat in a win over in-state “rival” Jackson State. The Bulldogs’ offense showed nice balance, with 202 yards rushing and 193 yards passing. They have some playmakers at the wide receiver position; it will be up to quarterback Tyler Russell to get them the ball. Auburn 24, Mississippi State 21
Pittsburgh (+4) at Cincinnati (Thu)
Paul Chryst appears to be the ideal fit at Pittsburgh, but his tenure as the Panthers’ head coach got off to a miserable start — a 31–17 loss to FCS foe Youngstown State. The most alarming part of the loss? It wasn’t a fluke. The Penguins were the better team. Youngstown State outgained Pitt (381 to 369), converted 11-of-16 on third down and did not commit a turnover. Tino Sunseri, who struggled in Todd Graham’s system, completed 19-of-30 for 239 yards but missed on some key throws. He will need to play better to give this team a chance to be successful. Despite their poor showing, the Panthers are only a four-point underdog on the road to a Cincinnati team that has won or shared three of the past four Big East titles. The Bearcats, however, must replace several significant contributors on both sides of the ball, most notably tailback Isaiah Pead, quarterback Zach Collaros and defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. We’ll find out early this season if the 2012 Bearcats are rebuilding or if they have reloaded for another Big East title run. Cincinnati 24, Pittsburgh 17
According to the numbers, Vanderbilt was the worst team in the nation last season relative to its conference. The Commodores were outgained in their eight SEC games by an average of 245.4 yards and outscored by an average of 21.0 points.
Enter James Franklin.
With two games still to play, Vanderbilt has already won more games this season (five) than the last two seasons combined (four). And there has been nothing fluky about the Dores’ 5–5 mark; in fact, Vanderbilt, with three SEC losses by five points or less, is a few plays away from being 7–3 or even 8–2.
This season, Vanderbilt has only been outgained in SEC games by 31.5 yards (an improvement off over 200 yards per game) and outscored by 1.7 points (an improvement of 19.3 points per game).
The most dramatic difference has been on the offensive side of the ball. The Dores, for the first time in several years, feature legitimate playmakers at the skill positions. In four starts, quarterback Jordan Rodgers has averaged 232.5 yards passing and 52.8 yards rushing. Junior running back Zac Stacy, healthy for the first time since his freshman season, has rushed for 891 yards and nine touchdowns, and he leads the league (min. 80 carries) with a 6.5-yard average. Sophomore wide receiver Jordan Matthews has been on a tear of late with 21 catches for 452 yards and three TDs in the last three games.
“They made the quarterback switch (from Larry Smith to Rodgers), and they do everything,” said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley. “You can’t cheat against them, meaning every time they do this, they are going to do that. You got to go play. And what’s interesting is they really find a way to generate big plays, as good as anybody. I think Arkansas is the only team with more big plays than they’ve had.”
To Dooley’s point, Vanderbilt ranks second in the SEC (to Arkansas) in plays of 30 yards or more and leads the league in plays of 40 yards or more.
Last week, in a 38–8 win over Kentucky, the Commodores rolled up 410 yards of offense. Over the last four games, they have averaged 444.8 yards and twice in that stretch had over 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same game.
And it’s with this momentum that Vanderbilt heads to Knoxville — as a one-point favorite — to take on a Tennessee team that is 0–6 in the SEC for the first time ever.
“We feel real confident,” said sophomore defensive end Walker May. “We feel good, loose, ready to go. It's so fun. We are looking forward to this weekend, not looking back on the Kentucky win.”
The Commodores need to beat either Tennessee this week or Wake Forest next week to become bowl-eligible for the first times since 2008 and only the second time since the 1982 season.
Vanderbilt last defeated Tennessee in 2005, when Jay Cutler was a junior. Prior to that, the Dores had not won in Knoxville since 1975.
“I am not too familiar with the rivalry,” said Rodgers, a California native who enrolled at Vanderbilt last year after two seasons in junior college. “I know it has been pretty lopsided between the two schools.”
Rodgers believes his team is peaking at the right time of the season.
“With how much we’ve improved, I think it is a good time for us to be playing anybody,” he said. “I feel like we've gotten to the point where we’re confident that we can get a win against anybody we face, if we play how we know we should and execute how we know we should. So, for us right now, we go into every game thinking that we should win, that we should be able to compete. So, right now it's a good time for us to be playing anybody.”
AROUND THE SEC
• Florida scored a total of two touchdowns in its last three road games, losses at LSU, Auburn and South Carolina.
• South Carolina won six SEC games for the first time since joining the league in 1992.
• Arkansas held Tennessee to seven points in last week’s win in Fayetteville. It was the first time the Hogs have held an SEC team to single digits since beating Ole Miss, 44–8, in October 2007.
• Ole Miss is giving up a league-worst 6.67 yards per play against SEC competition. Alabama, the league leader, is giving up 3.5 yards per play.
• Alabama’s Eddie Lacy is averaging 12.2 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and 9.9 yards in the second half.
• Georgia has allowed 16 points or less is six of its eight wins this season.
• Auburn’s 195 yards in the loss to Georgia were the second-fewest of the Gus Malzahn era. Two years ago, the Tigers had 193 yards in a loss to LSU.
• LSU has given up four total touchdowns in six SEC games.
• Tennessee is converting 66.7 percent (42 of 63) on third down in non-conference games but only 24.7 percent (20 of 81) in league games.
The Tigers are 2-3 on the season and have four Top 25 foes remaining.
Gary Pinkel has had a successful run in his decade-plus at Missouri. After experiencing losing seasons in three of his first four years in Columbia, the veteran coach has taken Mizzou to the postseason six consecutive times. That six-year run includes three bowl victories and two Big 12 North Division titles, which shows that Pinkel has built a solid college football program and has had more than just a two- or three-year run with a great quarterback.