Around the SEC: Meaningful conference games across the board

Adam Luckett, Special to Cats Illustrated
Cats Illustrated

After another wild weekend in the Southeastern Conference, we found out that Matt Canada has a lot to work on at LSU, Todd Grantham was a brilliant hire by Dan Mullen, the Vanderbilt defense is filthy, and Jake Bentley is just a game manager to this point.

We are heading into week four with some huge match-ups on deck and we’re going to learn a lot more this Saturday. A win in Athens could make Mississippi State the biggest competition to Alabama in the West, we could see an embarrassing streak end, the Hot Seat Bowl takes place in Arlington, and CBS is coming to Nashville for a defensive clash. The best sport in the world is starting to heat up.

As always, the team here at Cats Illustrated is giving all of the analysis you could ever want as everyone gets ready for the biggest game in Kroger Field history. So in Around the SEC, we will focus on the rest of the league. As usual, there are plenty of storylines to focus on.

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Game of the Week: #17 Mississippi State at #11 Georgia

Dan Mullen’s squad made a huge statement last week with a bludgeoning of Ed Orgeron’s LSU Tigers and now dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is starting to get serious Heisman Trophy consideration. After emerging as a star at the end of his redshirt sophomore season, the Georgia native is off to a hot start in 2017 as he’s been responsible for 12 touchdowns in just three games. Aeris Williams has given Hail State a legit threat at running back for the first time since 2014 and defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons has been the best defensive player in the SEC to this point.

A week after the huge win in South Bend, the Dawgs took care of business against FCS Samford at home. True freshman Jake Fromm made his second career start and he is completing right at 60% of his passes with five touchdowns and a 7.9 yards per attempt average. But at the end of the day, this is a primarily rush attack that will go as backs Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and D’Andre Swift go. After three games, the trio has scored seven touchdowns and is averaging 192 yards per game. Meanwhile, the front seven is just filthy and opponents are averaging just 2.3 yards per carry.

It’s an interesting spot for Mississippi State as Fitzgerald was not recruited one bit by his home state school and Grantham returns to Sanford Stadium after being the defensive coordinator there from 2010-2013. It’s no secret that UGA fans were not fans of Grantham and they’ll really want Jim Chaney’s offense to put up a bunch of points on Saturday.

I like how Mississippi State matches up with this Georgia squad as Nick Fitzgerald is the exact type of quarterback that gives Kirby Smart defenses trouble and Grantham is going to put a ton of pressure of the true freshman quarterback. UGA struggled as a home favorite last year against SEC teams and Mississippi State could get into the Playoff discussion if they win in Athens for the first time since 1956.

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You Also Need to Watch: Texas A&M vs. Arkansas

In the Hot Seat Bowl, both Bret Bielema and Kevin Sumlin are starting to feel some pressure after lackluster starts to begin the season. Sumlin’s seat is much, much more warmer and one more loss could cause athletics director Eric Hyman to pull the trigger on the firing and officially begin the coaching search. The Aggies are starting true freshman Kellen Mond at quarterback and the dual-threat has struggled as he is completing only 50% attempts and is averaging just six yards per attempt. Trayveon Williams is a very dangerous running back and the offense will go as he goes. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has to be creative to get wide receiver Christian Kirk touches due to the passing issues.

The Hogs are coming off a bye during week three after getting hammered in Fayetteville by TCU. Quarterback Austin Allen is off to a bad start with a brand new group of receivers and the Hogs will need that passing game to pick up the production quickly. True freshman Chase Hayden is the team’s leading rusher and he should become a more pivotal part of the gameplan after the bye week.

Everyone is talking about the troubles the Hogs have had to run the football, but very quietly their defense has performed very well to start the season. New defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads has made the switch to the 3-4 and the unit slowed down a high octane TCU attack. The Hogs should have the advantage against a true freshman quarterback and you have to like Austin Allen’s chances to make some plays as a senior who has never beaten Texas A&M. Bielema has yet to beat the Aggies and a win on Saturday would give him and his team some breathing room.

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Sleeper Game: #1 Alabama at Vanderbilt

After Derek Mason’s first season, who would’ve seen this coming? Vanderbilt has one of the best defenses in the country and is riding a veteran quarterback to a hot start. Mason has won five consecutive regular season games and the last two ranked teams to come into Vanderbilt Stadium left the West End with a loss.

For the season, Kyle Shurmur has tossed for eight scores and zero interceptions, is completing 71% on attempts, and is averaging 10.1 yards per attempt. The Commodores have not gotten this type of quarterback play since Jay Cutler was on campus, but Vandy is struggling to run the football as senior tailback Ralph Webb is only averaging 2.6 yards per carry on 58 attempts.

It’s been pretty boring in Tuscaloosa after the season opening win over Florida State as the Tide has just methodically taken care of business. Jalen Hurts has been solid through the air and he’s on pace for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. It’s a load of riches in the Alabama running back room and junior Damien Harris is leading the charge.

On defense, the Tide is struggling with the injury bug. Both Fresno State and Colorado State had success moving the football and on the season, Alabama is giving up nearly five yards per play. But this unit should be just fine as they are stopping the run and should still be able to rush the passer.

I would pump the brakes on the Vandy hype as we’re about to find out a lot in the next three weeks as the ‘Dores take on Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Kyle Shurmur was mostly a game manager against Kansas State and he’ll have to start emerging as a playmaker if the Vandy running game cannot get going. Expect a physical, low scoring game in Nashville.

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The Rest of the League

It’s setting up to be another solid Saturday in the SEC as we have games beginning at noon that will run all the way until 11 PM ET. With three teams facing inferior non-conference opponents at home, wins should be accumulated by a lot of squads this weekend.

On Rocky Top, Tennessee will look to bounce back after the brutal loss to Florida. The Vols usually never play well the week after the Florida game and with a noon start time, a hangover is expected. They’ll be facing a UMass team that is 0-4 but is losing games by an average of 7.7 points. Andrew Ford is solid quarterback and the Minutemen will hang around longer than expected before Tennessee pulls away late.

In the 3:30 PM ET slot, South Carolina will look to bounce back after the brutal home loss to Kentucky last Saturday. The Gamecocks will be welcoming Louisiana Tech, a team that is expected to contend for a Conference USA title this fall. We’ll see how offensive coordinator Kurt Roper tries to replace the dynamic Deebo Samuel and my guess is quarterback Jake Bentley will now have a lot more on his plate. Until the running game gets fixed, look for Bentley to lead the league in pass attempts.

Look here, it’s another SEC team coming off a brutal conference loss who will try to bounce back at home. LSU welcomes Syracuse and their Veer-and-Shoot offense to Tiger Stadium on Saturday night and this one should get ugly quick. After the embarrassing performance against Mississippi State, we should see an LSU defense shut down this pass happy attack and the offense should look much better after a complete failure in Starkville.

Over at Faurot Field, things are getting ugly for Barry Odom after extremely disappointing home losses to South Carolina and Purdue. Now the Tigers will host an Auburn squad that has a nasty defense and should shutdown the Veer-and-Shoot scheme. Meanwhile, the Auburn offense should get healthy against the worst defense in the SEC. Mizzou could be looking at a winless season in the SEC.

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