Around the SEC: Things are starting to take shape

Adam Luckett, Special to Cats Illustrated
Cats Illustrated

Believe it or not, we’re about a third of the way through the college football regular season and things are starting to take shape in the Southeastern Conference. Georgia now appears to be the heavy favorite in the SEC East and could be Alabama’s biggest competition for a league title. The Mississippi State bandwagon got filled up a little too fast and Jim McElwain needs to take the rabbit’s foot out of his back pocket.

As we head into the last weekend of September, we’ll see if Butch Jones can pick up a statement win and if Mississippi State can bounce back from a beatdown in Athens. Three SEC programs are hosting Group of Five teams and Ole Miss will be going for back-to-back wins in Tuscaloosa. This should be fun.

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Game of the Week: #7 Georgia at Tennessee

Two of the big dogs in the SEC East will meet on Saturday afternoon on Rocky Top with CBS on the call. Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs have been playing excellent football to start the season and their defense might be the best in the country. The rush defense for UGA has been spectacular to start the season as opponents are only averaging three yards per carry as the Dawgs have put the clamps on some very good rushing offenses.

Jake Fromm has been rock solid behind center and he’s coming off the best game of his career as he passed for 201 yards and two touchdowns. Nick Chubb has looked like his old self as he’s ran for 371 yards in four games, but the surprise of the offense has been true freshman running back D’Andre Swift. The Philadelphia native is averaging 7.3 yards per carry and has given a loaded backfield an extra weapon.

Tennessee is fresg off a sluggish home win against UMass and Butch Jones appears to have turned on the media. It was a much expected hangover performance by the Vols but they should be more than ready to go with UGA coming into Neyland Stadium. On offense, John Kelly appears to be the best running back in the SEC early on and I think he’ll end up leading the conference in rushing by the end of the season. He is a flat out stud and the only other real playmakers on Tennessee’s offense are sophomore wide receivers Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson. The Vols have the weapons to take on a Georgia secondary that really hasn’t been challenged yet this year.

After the horrible performance against Georgia Tech in the opener, the defense has played pretty well three weeks in a row for defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Linebackers Daniel Bituli and Colton Jumper have paced the group but the secondary is the strength of this team. UGA will be able to establish the run, but an experienced Vols secondary could get Fromm to make some bad decisions.

Going into this one, I feel that most people are expecting a low scoring game but don’t be surprised if this turns into a bit of a shootout. Each of the last five meetings has seen these two squads combine for at least 65 points. Expect offensive coordinator Larry Scott to throw the kitchen sink at Georgia and for the UT playmakers will do some damage.

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You Also Need to Watch: #24 Mississippi State at #13 Auburn

The biggest SEC West match-up of the day will occur on The Plains as the Tigers and Bulldogs will hook up for a 6:00 PM ET kickoff. Both teams have looked impressive at home to start the season but each has struggled when facing a top 10 caliber squad at home.

Dan Mullen’s team is fresh off an ugly performance in Athens as Mississippi State was just totally outclassed in a 31-3 blowout. In the loss, junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald only threw for 83 yards while collecting 47 on the ground. The Georgia native looked lost all night and it was a bad performance by a Hail State offense that had been rolling to this point in the season. Todd Grantham’s defense had their worst performance of the year as they gave up 31 points on 404 total yards. It became ugly quick and the Bulldogs never threatened.

Auburn bounced back well last week as they went on the road and crushed a Mizzou squad that has hit rock bottom. The Tigers rolled up 482 total yards in the blowout victory as they dropped 51 points on Mizzou. The running game has been a strength for Auburn as the passing attack is slowly coming along. The defense, meanwhile, has been dominant all season and it appears to be one of the best in the country in defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s second season.

It appears people are overreacting just a tad to Auburn’s offensive production against Mizzou last week. It’s important to remember that South Carolina even hung 41 on that Mizzou defense and Barry Odom’s squad hasn’t stopped anyone this season. Dan Mullen usually has his squad in close games against Auburn and in a bounce back spot after last week you need to put Gus Malzahn’s team on upset alert.

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Sleeper Game: Vanderbilt at #21 Florida

Once again, Florida is a contender to come out of the East as the Gators are off to a 2-0 start in SEC play. It took a fair amount of good fortune, but the Gators are here because of some young playmakers. True freshmen Malik Davis and Kadarius Toney have provided big plays in both SEC wins and the wildcat package is something we’ll see very often moving forward. Luke Del Rio takes over at quarterback and he should look to wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland very often as he’s been one of the best wideouts in the league. The defense has been very disappointing to this point in the season as they are giving up chunk plays at an alarming rate.

The Commodores became a media darling last week and Alabama put them in their place last weekend with an absolute bludgeoning. After a terrific start, quarterback Kyle Shurmur came crashing down to earth as he completed four of 15 passes for 18 yards and threw his first interception of the season against the dynamic Alabama defense. In a huge surprise, the run game for Vandy has been brutal all season as Ralph Webb only has 169 yards on 64 carries. This must improve immediately. The Vandy defense is super salty and I believe they have the best secondary in the SEC outside of Tuscaloosa. Outside linebacker Charles Wright has been the biggest surprise as he leads the SEC with six sacks in just four games.

Recent history tells us this will be a low scoring affair and I expect more of the same on Saturday. Vandy’s run game will continue to struggle and the Commodores will have a hard time controlling the Florida pass rush. Meanwhile, Derek Mason’s unit will stop the Florida wildcat package and Luke Del Rio will have a hard time making passes against this Vandy secondary. Expect an ugly one in Gainesville.

The Rest of the League

Three SEC programs host Group of Five squads on Saturday while we have two other SEC games to touch on. Mizzou is on bye this week and it should be another interesting Saturday.

Down in Fayetteville, Arkansas is coming off another brutal loss to Texas A&M and the hot seat is starting to warm up for Bret Bielema. The Hogs will be welcoming New Mexico State to town and their quarterback Tyler Rogers is averaging 353.3 passing yards per game. Expect a lot of points.

It’s another Saturday night in Death Valley as Neal Brown will be taking his Troy Trojans into Tiger Stadium to take on Ed Orgeron’s club. It appears that LSU is in a bit of a funk as they struggled with Syracuse at home after getting whooped by Mississippi State. Now, a week later, they’ll be facing another offense that likes to throw it around the yard. Don’t be surprised if this one is close.

Over in College Station, the Aggies finally have some momentum on the season after the big SEC win over Arkansas. Kevin Sumlin’s squad will be hosting South Carolina as the Gamecocks were very lucky to collect a win over Louisiana Tech. The Gamecocks offense really struggled in their first full game without Deebo Samuel and Jake Bentley is having to do a lot. The South Carolina rushing defense has been the biggest strength of their team and that’ll be tested early and often against a dynamic A&M rushing offense. It’s a near must win game for Sumlin as the schedule gets really tough for the Aggies after Saturday.

Ole Miss has beaten Alabama two of the last three seasons but an upset is not happening again in Tuscaloosa. After a bye week, expect offensive coordinator Phil Longo and quarterback Shea Patterson to have some tricks up their sleeves. In the end, Alabama should do whatever they want on offense and the Tide will win big once again.

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