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BCS Title Game Preview – 1/6/14

PrintThe day is finally at hand.  Will Auburn’s team of destiny capture a crystal football, the school’s second since 2010?  Will Florida State break the SEC’s stranglehold on the national championship game?  Will the SEC collect its 8th title in a row?  Will great defense beat great offense as it has in so many of those previous title bouts?

Despite Bob Stoops getting the best of Alabama — which led most of the nation to say, “Yeah, the SEC is overrated,” Mike Slive’s league is actually 7-2 in bowl games on the season.  Georgia’s tight loss to Nebraska is the only other smudge on the conference’s resume this bowl season.  So while FSU does have the better defense and Auburn has reached Pasadena thanks to a pair of once-in-a-lifetime plays, the Tigers are the champions of a league that’s more than held its own this year.  This despite a drop in the SEC’s overall defense.

And that brings us back to our biggest question — Will defense once again rule the BCS title game?  Read on for our views and prediction…

 

The Vizio BCS Championship Game

#2 Auburn (12-1) vs Florida State (13-0)

TV:  8:30pm ET on ESPN (and a half-dozen other ESPN properties)

Opening Line:  Florida State -7.5

Current Line:  Florida State -10

Cool Factor:  While not the intersectional battle we like to see in title games, this one’s still for the national championship and that’s pretty darn cool.  Interestingly, if the Tigers lose, anyone suggesting that the SEC isn’t really all that will have to admit that it took another Southern team that recruits in the very same SEC zone to snap the SEC’s streak.  It will be a big boost for the ACC, but Deep South football will still be king regardless of who wins tonight.

What’s At Stake:  Read above.  A national title for Auburn or FSU.  The SEC’s string of national titles.

Keep An Eye On:  Auburn QB Nick Marshall.  Florida State will likely get theirs on offense because Ellis Johnson’s defense has been far from brick wall-stout this season.  The pressure, then, will be on Auburn to match points with the Seminoles.  That means Marshall will not only have to run AU’s offense and run the football himself, he’ll need to have another good night throwing when he’s called upon to do so.  Marshall was the league’s ninth best quarterback (in terms of yardage per game), but he did place sixth in SEC passer rating.  He’ll need to play like he did versus Mizzou and Bama if the Tigers are to win.  In those title-clinching victories, Marshall completed 20-of-27 passes (74.0%) for 229 yards (combined), three TDs and zero interceptions.

Hidden Tidbit 1:  The last time Auburn reached the BCS title game, they had Superman on their side.  Cam Netwon was the consensus Mr. Everything in 2010.  This season, Jameis Winston is the man with all the silverware — Heisman Trophy, Davey O’Brien Award, Walter Camp Award, etc.  But unlike Newton, he’s not a dual-threat, rushing for just 193 yards on the season.  Instead, he’s a passer of extraordinary talents.  A 67.9% completion rate, 3,820 yards through the air, 38 touchdowns to just 10 INTs and a passer rating of 190.0 — all stellar.  So what kind of secondary will he be throwing against tonight?  A unit that ranked 13th in the SEC in passing yards allowed (3,371), though many Tiger foes had to start throwing once they fell behind.  On the season, AU allowed just 17 touchdown passes (not bad) and they pulled down 13 interceptions (middle of the SEC pack).  Opposing quarterbacks notched a passer rating of 126.2 versus Auburn, good for just ninth place in their conference.  In worse news for the Tigers, ranked opponents had an even easier time throwing against them (64% completions, a 13-5 TD-to-INT ratio, and a passer rating of 162.08).   AU fans need to hope that playing on such a big stage will coax some jitters out of Winston, who is still just a freshman.  But that’s a hard thing to have to hang your hopes upon.

Hidden Tidbit 2:  FSU’s defense is dominant.  The Seminoles rank first nationally in scoring defense, 13th in rush defense, first in pass defense, third in total defense, first in interceptions, and fourth in long plays from scrimmage (10+ yards ) allowed.  But here’s the thing — Alabama ranks just above or just below Florida State in nearly every one of those categories.  And Auburn beat Alabama with a special teams play.  Unfortunately, FSU is pretty good in that area, too.  In addition to returns and kick and punt coverage, the Noles also boast the nation’s best kicker.  Roberto Aguayo is 18 of 19 on field goal attempts, 90 for 90 on extra points, and he’s outscored Florida State’s opponents 147-136 himself.  Re-read that last bit.  And, no, that’s not a typo.

Hidden Tidbit 3:  Turnovers.  You knew we’d go down this road.  In the SEC’s two bowl losses, turnovers were the difference.  Alabama lost that battle to Oklahoma five to one (ouch).  Georgia lost that battle to Nebraska two to one.  All seven of the SEC teams who’ve won their bowls either broke even or held the advantage on the turnover ledger.  It’s really not rocket science, folks.  Take care of the football and you’ll most likely win.  So which team has been best on the turnover front this season?  FSU was tops in the ACC in turnovers forced (34) and in turnover margin (plus-17).  Auburn came out even in terms of giveaways and takeaways (18 lost and 18 gained).  If AU is to spring the upset, the Tigers will need to do a much better job of forcing turnovers tonight.

Hidden Tidbit 4:  If tonight’s ballgame starts slow or turns sloppy, it won’t be the first title game to go in that direction.  Both squads have been off for more than a month.  Even with practice, it’s hard to believe their won’t be some amount of rust that will have to be knocked off early.  The advantage goes to the team that can rev its engine and get rolling first.

Hidden Tidbit 5:  Has Florida State been too good, too dominant?  Jimbo Fisher’s team has averaged 53 points per game this season.  Roll that one around in your head for a bit.  The Noles have dominated everyone they’ve played.  A 48-34 win over Boston College was FSU’s tightest contest all season long.  No other team came within — get this — 27 points of Florida State.  Auburn, on the other hand, beat Alabama by six, topped Georgia by five, bested Texas A&M by 4, and won tight games early versus Mississippi State and Washington State, too.  If The Tigers can hang around until the fourth quarter the odds might start to move in their favor.  They’ve won on tipped Hail Marys and last-second missed field goal returns.  At this point, Gus Malzahn’s bunch has to believe they can pull out any game… even if they need 109 yards in the final second.  But after 13 blowouts in a row, FSU might get spooked if it looks up and sees it’s in a real, honest-to-goodness football game in the final period.  So the trick for Auburn?  Get to the fourth quarter within 10 points of Florida State.

Hidden Tidbit 6:  While Auburn hasn’t been great on overall defense, the team has excelled in the clutch.  The Tigers rank seventh best in America in red zone defense.  Opposing teams have scored on just 70.8% of red zone trips and only 44.4% of the time have they scored a touchdown.  (FSU ranks #25 in that stat, but — truth be told — the Seminoles have allowed just 26 red zone trips all season while Auburn has allowed 48).  Auburn also ranks 21st in the country in third down defense allowing only 34.0% of thirds to be converted.  (FSU ranks third nationally allowing just 29.7% conversions.)  If AU is to keep this one close to the end they’ll need to force the Noles off the field when they get third-down opportunities to do so and they’ll need to hold State to field goals rather than touchdowns.  But in case you’re wondering, Florida State is tops in the nation in red zone offense scoring at a 97.1% clip with 55 touchdowns (and 12 field goals) on 69 red zone trips.

Our Thinking:  Before the SEC Championship Game, we picked Missouri because the Tigers had the better defense.  A week earlier we picked Alabama because they also had a better defense than Auburn.  Tonight, Florida State will have the much better defense.  Defense has won championships for the SEC in the past so we’re going to stick with the same logic that Auburn has ignored in those two games mentioned above.  We’ll take Florida State, but we would not be the least bit surprised to see Malzahn doused in Gatorade following yet another miracle win tonight.

Prediction:  Florida State 44, Auburn 31

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Cotton Bowl Preview – 1/3/14

cotton-bowl-logo-attTonight’s game between Missouri and Oklahoma State takes on added meaning after Alabama’s bumbling performance last night.  The SEC doesn’t… well… we’ll save it for our game preview below:

 

AT&T Cotton Bowl

#8 Missouri (11-2) vs #13 Oklahoma State (10-2)

TV:  7:30pm ET on FOX

Opening Line:  Missouri -3.5

Current Line:  Oklahoma State -1

Cool Factor:  Well, from a Missouri perspective there’s very little cool about going back to the Cotton Bowl to play an old conference foe you split from just two years ago.  If it were Kansas on the other sideline, it’d be different.  But the OSU/Missouri rivalry isn’t exactly steeped in tradition.  Also, the Tigers are working hard to shift their recruiting base from Texas — where they’ll not play as often — to Florida and Georgia — where they’ll play on a regular basis.  But instead of getting a berth in a Florida bowl against a different foe from the Big Ten, they get a “back to the future” type game.  Worse, recruits watching on TV are much more likely to watch the BCS Orange Bowl between Ohio State and Clemson.  So, yeah, Mizzou got a bum deal.  On the plus side for viewers, this game could/should have plenty of offensive fireworks.  The Cowboys come in averaging 39.8 points per game while the Tigers put up 39.0 per contest.  (Then again, last night’s game was supposed to be a defensive struggle.)

What’s At Stake:  Bragging rights between the Big 12 and SEC.  The SEC swiped two Big 12 teams.  According to Arkansas AD Jeff Long, the Big 12 failed to coax the Razorbacks into thinking about a move of their own.  And the two leagues will now be working more closely together moving forward — the new basketball challenge, the Sugar Bowl becoming an annual SEC/Big 12 tilt, the Texas Bowl, etc.  No one in the SEC wants the Big 12 to kick off all those new agreements by besting a pair of top 10 conference representatives in big-time bowls.  Bama already wet the bed, so it’s up to Mizzou to carry their new league’s banner proudly.  If not, get ready to hear more talk of SEC “propaganda” from Bob Stoops and the folks in the Midwest.

Keep An Eye On:  The turnover battle.  Alabama lost last night because it gave away points via turnovers (including 21 in the first half alone).  You know our mantra around here — There is no more important stat in football than turnovers.  And these two teams force ‘em.  Oklahoma State led the Big 12 in turnover margin forcing 30.  Missouri led the SEC by forcing 29.  Offensively, Mizzou lost just 13 while OSU lost only 15.  We could break down a million angles to this game — as we did Bama’s last night — but turnovers are the key ingredient.  Whoever wins the turnover battle in Arlington tonight will likely win the game.

Hidden Tidbit:  Keep an eye on Missouri’s tall, lanky receivers.  When 6-4 L’Damian Washington and 6-6 Dorial Green-Beckham go out for passes, one of them will be paired up with 6-foot All-American corner Justin Gilbert and the other by 5-11 cornerback Kevin Peterson.  The Tigers will have the height advantage, but the Cowboys rank #4 in America with 20 interceptions and #16 nationally in passes defended.  James Franklin only threw five INTs in nine games played and MU ranks fifth in the country with 23 big plays of 40 yards or more.  If you’re looking battles within the battle, that’s a big one — Can Missouri go over the top against OSU?

Hidden Tidbit:  Missouri led the SEC in sacks this season with 38.  Gary Pinkel’s pass rushers have recorded a sack in each of their last 10 games and two or more sacks in eight of their last 10.  And it wasn’t just one man doing the rushing.  Michael Sam had 10.5, yes, but Markus Golden had 6.5, Kony Ealy had 6.0, Shane Ray had 4.5 and Matt Hoch had 3.0.  Those are all D-linemen so the Tigers know how to create pressure without having to blitz.  But.  Oklahoma State only allowed 11 sacks for minus-60 yards all season.  That was tops in the Big 12 and #6 in the nation.  The Pokes put the ball in the air 427 times which means they gave up one sack every 39.8 pass attempts.  Can The Tigers get to Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf?

Prediction:  Missouri 41, Oklahoma State 40

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Gator, Outback, Capital One Bowl Previews – 1/1/14

bowl logosWith Mississippi State’s rout of Rice and Texas A&M’s come-from-behind victory over a game Duke squad, the SEC has moved to 3-0 this bowl season.  While no hater of the SEC will mention it, Tuesday was a very, very good day for the conference.  Arguably the 10th best team in the league (MSU) took apart the champions of Conference USA.  Then the fifth or sixth best SEC team knocked off the #2 selection from the ACC.  An impressive showing.

So do we think the SEC will go from 3-0 to 6-0 today?  Read on…

 

Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl

#22 Georgia (8-4) vs Nebraska (8-4)

TV:  12pm ET on ESPN2

Opening Line:  Georgia -10

Current Line:  Georgia -9

Cool Factor:  It’s a rematch from New Year’s Day 2013.  The only thing cool about this one is the possibility that Bo Pelini might blow his top and say something really ugly, really stupid, or both if his team loses to Georgia again this year.

What’s At Stake:  A quiet offseason for Mark Richt.  Georgia came into the 2013 season with aspirations of a BCS bowl, perhaps a BCS title.  Then a tsunami of injuries struck the Bulldogs, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.  A once promising season turned into a mediocre season (by UGA’s standards).  But here’s the thing — when a coach has been at a school for more than a decade and he finishes with five losses, fans tend to get angry.  And angry fans don’t give a hoot in hell — “Patton,” great movie — about excuses.  Even legitimate ones like all those injuries.  Richt needs a win to keep the grumblers at bay.

Keep An Eye On:  The quarterbacks.  Both schools will be trotting out backups as starters Aaron Murray and Tyler Martinez are on the shelf with injuries.  The Dawgs will start Hutson Mason, three years a Murray understudy.  On the season — including a last game start over Georgia Tech — Mason has completed 46 of 71 passes for 648 yards, four TDs and two interceptions.  Freshman Tommy Armstrong is expected to get the nod for the Cornhuskers.  He’s completed 62 of 117 passes for 803 yards with seven touchdowns and — uh-oh — seven interceptions.  Nebraska can’t afford to have their QB hurling picks on the morrow.

Hidden Tidbit:  Nebraska has just two wins against teams that finished winning records (7-6 Michigan and 7-5 Penn State).  Georgia went toe-to-toe with Clemson on the road, beat South Carolina, LSU and Georgia Tech, and lost to SEC champ Auburn on a last-minute deflected Hail Mary.  Forget the usual stats.  Georgia has played the better schedule.  If the Huskers beat Georgia, it would be their first win in three tries against ranked opponents this season.

Prediction:  Georgia 34, Nebraska 24

 

Outback Bowl

#16 LSU (9-3) vs Iowa (8-4)

TV:  1:00pm ET on ESPN

Opening Line:  LSU -8

Current Line:  LSU -8

Cool Factor:  LSU is just the third SEC West team to land a bid to Tampa since the late-90s.  Even though these teams met in the Capital One Bowl exactly nine years ago today (in Nick Saban’s last game as Tiger coach), this is still an unusual bowl matchup, which we like.  All those January 1st Big Ten/SEC bowl games usually wind up being Big Ten versus SEC East games.  So Big Ten versus SEC West is rather novel.

What’s At Stake:  Momentum for LSU in 2014.  Over the last seven seasons, the SEC West has been represented in Atlanta by either LSU or Alabama on five occasions (Auburn filled the other two slots).  For that reason, the late-season showdown between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers has become one of the nation’s most hyped rivalries.  But that could change.  Gus Malzahn led AU to the BCS title game  in his first year as head coach.  Texas A&M is viewed as a program on the rise.  If LSU drops to 9-4, some may begin to wonder if the Bayou Bengals are slipping.  In our view they’re not, but we aren’t purple- and gold-clad fanatics.  Fanatics want dominance every year despite youth and despite injuries.  Like Richt, Miles wouldn’t be in any serious trouble if he lost today, but he would have to put up with some more moaning and groaning from within his fanbase.

Keep An Eye On:  The LSU passing attack.  Zach Mettenberger had the SEC’s best overall quarterback rating before he was lost for the season due to a knee injury.  Freshman Anthony Jennings will get the starting nod after leading a late, game-winning drive against Arkansas in the Tigers’ season finale.  On the year, Jennings is just 8-of-14 for 49 yards with the one touchdown pass to beat the Razorbacks.  Though Jennings may be green, he will have two of the SEC’s best receivers to throw to in Jarvis Landry (1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Odell Beckham (1,117 yards and eight TDs).  Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will likely call more run plays for Jeremy Hill this afternoon, but the Hawkeyes are 17th in the nation versus the run.  LSU will need to find some amount of balance through the air (Iowa is #11 in the nation versus the pass) to keep the Hawkeyes honest.  Jennings has his work cut out for him.

Hidden Tidbit:  How well will LSU be able to convert on third down?  The Tigers were the SEC’s best in that area this season, converting 58.5 percent of the time, which suggests the Tigers were typically able to gain enough on first and second downs to make third downs manageable.  Iowa ranked fourth in a weak Big Ten in third-down conversion defense, allowing just 34.2% of third downs to be converted.  If the Tigers can keep the chains moving with Jennings as they did with Mettenberger, they’ll be just fine.

Prediction:  LSU 33, Iowa 20

 

Capital One Bowl

#8 South Carolina (10-2) vs # #19 Wisconsin (9-3)

TV:  1:00pm ET on ABC

Opening Line:  Wisconsin -1

Current Line:  Wisconsin -2

Cool Factor:  Raise your hand if you said to yourself, “He’ll never be able to turn those guys around,” when South Carolina hired Steve Spurrier.  If you’re being honest, there should be many a hand raised.  The Gamecocks were a ne’er-do-well program and Spurrier was a 60-year-old NFL washout back in 2005.  Now he’s going to be coaching Carolina in their sixth straight bowl game.  A win over Wisconsin would give the school its third consecutive 11-2 season.  In a word: Stunning.  And watching USC go from a cellar dweller to perennial top 15 team has been pretty cool indeed.

What’s At Stake:  As with the other two ballgames today, bragging rights are at stake.  The SEC is off to a perfect start to the bowl season.  The Big Ten?  Not so much.  Michigan and Minnesota have already lost to Kansas State and Syracuse, respectively.  Heck, even the two schools scheduled to join the Big Ten next season — Maryland and Rutgers — have dropped their bowl games.  You can be sure both Jim Delany and Mike Slive desperately want to win today’s three-game series.

Keep An Eye On:  The defenses.  You already know about Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles on the Cocks’ D-line.  Carolina ranked #34 nationally against the run and #19 versus the pass.  But Wisconsin’s defense put up even better numbers (albeit against a weaker schedule).  The Badgers ranked 12th against the pass and fifth against the run.  There’s one area, however, where USC holds a clear advantage.  When it comes to turnover margin, the guys in garnet and black are plus-11 overall with 26 takeaways.  Wisconsin was plus-three overall with 18 takeaways.  Both defenses are good, but the Gamecocks force more turnovers.

Hidden Tidbit:  This afternoon’s contest marks the final game for Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw.  Facing a stout UW defense without injured #2 wideout Damiere Byrd, a lot will fall on Shaw’s shoulders.  The senior finished fifth in the SEC in passer rating and fourth among rushing quarterbacks (behind Nick Marshall, Dak Prescott, and Johnny Manziel).  But Shaw’s greatest gift might be his leadership (which was on full display as he rallied Carolina for a big comeback win at Missouri).  He leaves Columbia as the winningest starting quarterback in school history.  He also brings a TD-to-INT ratio of 21-to-1 into today’s game.  And, yes, you read that right.  He’s thrown just one interception in 259 pass attempts this year.  All things being equal, Shaw will be the difference in Orlando.

Prediction:  South Carolina 28-24

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Liberty, Chick-fil-A Bowl Previews – 12/31/13

liberty chickfila logosA happy and safe New Year’s Eve to everyone out there.  After a solid win by Ole Miss yesterday, the SEC is off to a 1-0 start this bowl season.  Two more games today… which we preview… right now.

 

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Mississippi State (6-6) vs Rice (10-3)

TV:  4:00pm ET on ESPN

Opening Line:  Mississippi State -7

Current Line:  Mississippi State -7

Cool Factor:  Meh.  Sorry, but this game rarely has a cool factor.  In most years, one of the SEC’s stragglers goes up against the champion of Conference USA.  The SEC’s reputation is on the line, though it’s a little unfair considering the matchup.  Mike Slive’s league is 4-1 versus C-USA in Liberty Bowls since 2006, but the games have always been close.  Carolina over Houston 44-36.  Mississippi State 10-3 over UCF.  Kentucky 25, East Carolina 19.  Arkansas 20-17 over East Carolina.  And UCF 10-6 over Georgia.  Pay attention, MSU.

What’s At Stake:  Dan Mullen’s popularity.  There was a widening gap between the pleased and displeased in Starkville this season.  An end of the year win over hated Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl seemed to shift the crowd back in Mullen’s direction.  A fourth consecutive bowl trip — for the first time in school history — didn’t hurt, either.  But make no mistake, there are some in the MSU camp who want wins over SEC teams with winning records.  Many believe Mullen cannot get the Bulldogs to the next level.  If State gets fried by Rice in front of a cowbell-ringin’ crowd today, State will finish 6-7 on the year.  If that happens, this offseason could be a noisy one in the Magnolia State as MSU fans debate the direction in which their program is moving.

Keep An Eye On:  The battle in the trenches.  Rice boasts the 15th best ground attack in the nation (240.1 yards per game).  The Owls ran for 306 yards versus Texas A&M back in September.  MSU has America’s 49th best rushing defense (allowing just 151.0 yards per contest).  However… five times State allowed a team to average more than five yards per rush against them (Arkansas, Alabama, Bowling Green, LSU and Oklahoma State, with the Cowboys averaging 7.1 yards per carry on 40 attempts).  We should know early on whether Rice’s ground game is good enough to challenge State.  On the season, the Fighting Pilafs have gained 4.97 yards per carry in the first halves of games and just 4.39 yards per carry in second stanzas.  Typically, the best rushing teams wear foes down in the second half.  Rice’s numbers suggest that if the Bulldogs hold their ground early, it’s unlikely — barring turnovers — that the Owls will be able to make a charge late.  Rice topped the 250-yard mark through the air just twice all season.  So focus on how well MSU stuffs the run early on.

Hidden Tidbit:  Rice is going for it’s 11th win overall and it’s 10th win in 11 games.  The Owls’ win total is impressive, but that tally includes some close calls with weak teams (18-14 over FAU, 30-27 over Tulsa in overtime, 27-21 over UT-San Antonio and 37-34 over UAB in overtime).  The Owls did hang 31 points on Texas A&M’s porous defense in their season opener (losing 52-31), but Dak Prescott and the MSU offense should be able to put up enough points to win this one.  After all, Mullen has made a career of beating smaller programs… and Ole Miss.  (State’s six wins this season came over Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green, Kentucky, Arkansas and the Rebels.)

Prediction:  Mississippi State 30, Rice 24

 

Chick-fil-A Bowl

Texas A&M (8-4) vs Duke (10-3)

TV:  8:00pm ET on ESPN

Opening Line:  Texas A&M -11.5

Current Line:  Texas A&M -12.5

Cool Factor:  If you like offense, this one figures to have lots of it.  In fact, it wouldn’t surprise us if A&M/Duke come close to the point total of the last college football game played in the Georgia Dome (102 points in Auburn’s win over Missouri).  The Blue Devils had a below average ACC defense this season (allowing 24 points per game and 419.8 yards per contest).  The Aggies’ defense cost them a shot at greater glory (30.9 points per game allowed and 460.3 yards allowed per contest).  We still wonder what happened to all the A&M fans who bashed us in the preseason for daring to suggest this year’s team wouldn’t have the success of last year’s team, but that’s neither here nor there.  Expect points aplenty in Atlanta.

What’s At Stake:  Once again, the SEC’s reputation is at stake.  The Chick-fil-A Bowl — which will become the Peach Bowl again starting next season — enjoys the #2 selection from the ACC and the #5 pick from the SEC.  Like the Liberty Bowl, this really isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison.  But if Duke wins, that won’t stop the masses from saying the Southeastern Conference is overrated.  (Unfortunately, when you have to win all of your bowl games every season just to silence the doubters, eventually you’re going to slip up.)

Keep An Eye On:  The Johnny Manziel-to-Mike Evans connection.  Reports claim they’ll both turn pro at after this game and it’s hard to blame them.  Manziel passed (3,732 yards) and ran (686 yards) his way to New York for another Heisman ceremony (after winning the trophy last year).  Evans (1,322 yards and 12 TDs) developed into one of the nation’s top wideouts.  What more do they have to prove at the college level when injuries are becoming more and more common?  Sure, it’d be fun to see these guys stick around the SEC (especially since Manziel has displayed a new level of maturity since August), but no Aggie fan should begrudge either young man for jetting if that is indeed his next action.  So enjoy one last Manziel/Evans show tonight while you can.  Years from now, folks will still be talking about extraordinary college skills of Johnny Football.  You can say you watched what should be his final scintillating performance in the collegiate ranks.

Hidden Tidbit:  If Duke is to upend A&M they’ll need a big day on special teams.  And that’s entirely possible.  The Blue Devils rank #8 in the nation in both kick returns (25.0 yards per) and punt returns (14.5 yards per).  DeVon Edwards led the ACC in kickoff returns averaging 31.0 yards per return and taking two to the house.  Jamison Crowder was second in his league in put returns (16.0 yards per return) and he scored two TDs as well.  Texas A&M wasn’t bad in kick coverage (third-best in the SEC), but they finished 13th in the league in punt coverage surrendering 10.4 yards per return.  Having coached at Tennessee where General Robert Neyland’s game maxims are gospel, expect David Cutcliffe to remind his Duke team to “press the kicking game,” where the breaks are made.

Prediction:  Texas A&M 48, Duke 38

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Music City Bowl Preview – 12/30/13

FAMC_MusicCityBowl_logo7Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Ole Mss (7-5) vs Georgia Tech (7-5)

TV:  3:15pm ET on ESPN

Opening Line:  Ole Miss -1.5

Current Line:  Ole Miss -3

Cool Factor:  The Rebels and the Yellow Jackets once shared a conference, but they’ve only played three times all-time and the last came 40 years ago.  Always fun to see unusual match ups.

What’s At Stake:  This Ole Miss team has been better than last year’s squad.  But.  If the Rebs lose they’ll finish up with the same record as last year’s squad.  Fans want to see constant improvement (whether that’s a realistic expectation for a team playing so many freshmen or not).  SFor that reason, Hugh Freeze’s bunch needs to end the season on the right note with a win for many backers to call his second year a success.

Keep An Eye On:  UM’s offense.  Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how Ole Miss deals with Tech’s old-fashioned triple-option offense, but the real story here is the Rebel attack.  After an impressive season (#5 in the SEC in total offense), Freeze’s up-tempo unit stalled at season’s end.  Ole Miss put up less than 400 yards against both Missouri and Mississippi State and scored just one offensive touchdown.  Time for Bo Wallace to rev his team’s engine again.

Hidden Tidbit:  Georgia Tech ranks #22 nationally in scoring offense (36.6 points per game) while Ole Miss ranks #58 (30.4 points per game).  It’s not been a banner year for SEC defense, but we’ll go out on a limb and say the Rebels have still faced a tougher schedule in 2013 than the Jackets.

Prediction:  Ole Miss 35, Georgia Tech 31

 

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SEC Championship Game Preview – 12/6/13

mrsec game previewCan you believe the SEC football season ends tomorrow?  This season whizzed by like none before.  That or this writer is just getting old.

With only one contest remaining — a surprise Tiger on Tiger battle in Atlanta — we’re going to go a little deeper with our game preview today.  The SEC Championship Game deserves a little something extra… especially since it doesn’t look like the game will produce a BCS title game participant for the first time in eight years.  We’ll show both AU and MU some love today.

So here goes, Auburn versus Missouri in an up-tempo clash in what will be Saturday’s highest-rated football game.  Best of luck to both teams and both sets of fans.  Your official MrSEC.com SEC title game preview begins now…

 

#3 Auburn (11-1) vs #5 Missouri (11-1) in Atlanta

TV:  4:00pm ET on CBS

Opening Line:  MU -2

Current Line:  AU -1.5

Common Opponents:  Arkansas State (Missouri 41-19 win, Auburn 38-9 win), Georgia (Missouri 41-26 win, Auburn 43-38 win), Tennessee (Missouri 31-3 win, Auburn 55-23 win), Ole Miss (Missouri 24-10 win, Auburn 30-22 win), Texas A&M (Missouri 28-21 win, Auburn 45-41 win).

Average Score Vs Common Opponents:  Missouri 33-16 average win, Auburn 42-27 average win

One To Watch:  Missouri’s pass rush versus Nick Marshall.  Auburn allowed just 15 sacks all season.  That’s the third best number in the SEC.  But Saturday they’ll face the league’s best unit at getting to the quarterback.  Mizzou has wrung up 37 sacks on the season (about three per game).  Michael Sam has 10.5 sacks by his lonesome while fellow D-linemen Markus Golden, Kony Ealy, and Shane Ray all have 4.5 or more.  The black and gold Tigers can flat get after opposing signal-callers.  But here’s the rub: Auburn’s quarterback ranks eighth in the SEC in rushing yards this season (922 yards on 140 carries).  Gus Malzahn’s squad doesn’t throw the ball much, but when they do, MU’s pass rush will have to be controlled.  The ends will have to be careful not to get too far upfield.  The last thing Mizzou needs to do is create escape routes and running lanes for Marshall on those rare occasions when he is asked to put the ball in the air.

This And That:

1.  Speaking of Auburn’s passing game, the Tigers are nowhere near balanced on offense.  On the season they had what amounted to a 2-to-1 rush-to-pass ratio (3,819 yards on the ground versus 2,073 through the air).  Ironically, the navy and orange Tigers’ most balanced performance (213 rushing yards versus 224 passing yards) came in their lone loss to LSU.  Missouri, on the other hand, is the SEC’s most balanced offense.  In 2013, Gary Pinkel’s Tigers have rushed for 2,843 yards and passed for 3,031.  Being one-dimensional hasn’t hurt Auburn yet, but we’ll still give a slight edge to Mizzou for having two proven means of moving the football.

2.  Which team is facing the bigger distraction this week?  Pinkel had to come out on Thursday and shoot down rumors that he might leave Missouri for Washington.  Meanwhile, Auburn’s players have been glad-handed and back-patted all week down on the Plains.  Chris Davis — who won the Iron Bowl for AU with his last-second touchdown return — was given an ovation when he entered one of his classes this week.  Missouri had the Pinkel thing, but the possible letdown for Auburn would seem to be a bigger factor on the ol’ psyche.  Malzahn will have needed to do a great job of keeping his team focused after they won the state of Alabama’s own version of the Super Bowl.

3.  Auburn has been on big stages before.  Just three years ago this week the Cam Newton-led Tigers were whipping South Carolina for the SEC title and setting up a trip to Glendale, Arizona and a BCS title clash with Oregon.  There are still some Tiger players — along with support staff, coaches, broadcasters, etc — that remember what it’s like to play in an SEC title game and in a national championship game.  This is new stuff for Missouri.  Pinkel took two previous teams to the Big 12 Championship Game, but his current squad wasn’t part of that show.  And everyone involved in Mizzou’s traveling party will be experiencing the magnitude of an SEC title game for the first time.  Auburn knows the Georgia Dome.  Missouri does not.  If one team has the jitters early on, it figures to be the Tigers from Columbia, not the ones from Auburn.

4.  Don’t forget about the backup quarterbacks going into this one.  As we showed you earlier this week, 11 of the SEC’s 14 schools have had to change starters due to injury at least once this season.  James Franklin missed the better part of four games with a shoulder injury.  Marshall missed Auburn’s game with Western Carolina and then played only briefly against Florida Atlantic as he nursed a pair of different injuries.  With Franklin and Marshall both sure to run tomorrow afternoon, both teams are just one hit away from needing to call on their second-stringers.  In Mizzou’s case that’s Maty Mauk who started against Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.  He’s a dual-threat QB just like Franklin.  Auburn backup Jeremy Johnson is a 6-5 pass-first kind of player.  His experience came against those aforementioned creampuffs — WCU and FAU.  In those two games Johnson attempted 41 passes while rushing just seven times.  If both quarterbacks go out on Saturday, Missouri should be able to run their standard offense with Mauk.  Auburn would likely dial back on the quarterback runs and pump up the aerial assault.

5.  This week, we examined the speed of each SEC offense.  Auburn and Missouri rank fourth and fifth, respectively, when it comes to going up-tempo.  The three fastest offenses in the league — Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Georgia — all played both AU and MU this season.  So which defense did the best job of surviving those no-huddle attacks?  Mizzou gave up 1,211 yards and 57 points to that triumvirate.  But Auburn yielded a mind-blowing 1,598 yards and 101 points to A&M, UM and UGA.  In terms of defending fast offenses like the two that will be on display tomorrow, the advantage goes to Missouri in a big way.  That doesn’t mean Auburn won’t be able to move the ball at all.  Malzahn’s offense involves more motion than anything Dave Steckel’s defense has seen this season.  Missouri’s D is physical, but they’ll also need to play smart tomorrow.

6.  Kick off a big SEC football game and those of us at MrSEC.com start counting turnovers.  Our own six-season research project showed that turning the ball over just once in an SEC-versus-SEC matchup drops a team’s chances of winning from 72.5% (with zero turnovers) to 61.6% (with one giveaway).  Looking at it from another angle, teams that finished an SEC contest plus-two in turnover margin won 80% of the time between 2007 and 2012.  So who’s done a better job of protecting the ball this season?  Missouri.  By a country mile.  In SEC games, Pinkel’s squad was plus-11 in turnovers.  They were plus-14 overall.  Malzahn’s team, however, was minus-one in league play and just plus-one overall.  In another SEC-versus-SEC turnover study we posted this week, we showed you that MU forces a takeaway on defense once every 34.9 snaps.  Auburn takes the ball away from a foe once every 53.2 plays.  More impressive is the fact that Missouri turned the ball over just six times in eight conference game this season — just once every 94.3 snaps.  Auburn had 12 turnovers in SEC action (one giveaway every 47.7 snaps).  That’s yet another advantage for the East Division champs.

7.  In several statistical categories, these squads are almost dead even.  Scoring offense: MU 38.8 points per game, AU 38.6 points per game.  Total offense in SEC games: AU 461.3 yards per game, MU 459.8 yards per game.  Even red zone defense in conference play (allowing touchdowns from inside the 20), Auburn is second best in the conference (51.4% TDs) and Missouri is third best (52.1% TDs).  But when it comes to other defensive stats, the advantage clearly goes to Pinkel’s team.  Scoring defense in conference games: MU allowed 18.6 points per game, AU allowed 28.0.  Rushing defense in league play: MU allowed just 120.7 yards per game (best in the SEC), while AU gave up 183.7 (9th in the SEC).  Total defense in SEC play: MU allowed 378.9 yards per game while AU surrendered 458.1 yards per game.

Missouri’s Gotta Defend:  Auburn’s special teams units.  Davis beat Alabama with a 109-yard return.  And that run wasn’t even part of AU’s regular special teams repertoire.  The Tigers have four punt returns of 20+ yards (best in the SEC).  They also have eight kickoff returns of 30+ yards.  Mizzou can’t afford to let AU win the game with a big special teams play.

Auburn’s Gotta Defend:  Missouri’s tall receivers.  Auburn’s secondary has been scorched on occasion this year.  They’ve allowed 44 passes of 20 or more yards, the worst mark in the SEC.  They’re also worst in terms of  30+ yarders allowed (with 24) and 40+ yarders allowed (with 12).  Now Ellis Johnson’s defense will have to cover L’Damian Washington (6-4, 205), Dorial Green-Beckham (6-6, 225) and Marcus Lucas (6-5, 220).

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SEC Game Previews – 11/28/12

Thanksgiving-Cornucopia-Recipe_slideshow_imageFirst, a big ol’ Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at MrSEC.com to you.  We hope you all have a fun, safe day with family, friends and/or football on TV.

We’re splitting this week’s game previews into two parts.  Below are the stats, thoughts and picks for the SEC games to be played tonight (the Egg Bowl) and tomorrow (the battle for the Golden Boot).  Saturday’s previews will go up tomorrow afternoon as per usual.

Best of luck to whoever you’re rooting for!

 

Ole Miss (7-4) at Mississippi State (5-6)

TV:  Tonight, 7:30pm ET on ESPN

Opening Line:  UM -3

Current Line:  UM -4.5

One To Watch:  MSU QB Damien Williams.  We penciled in Williams as our guy to watch before State’s win over Arkansas last week, too.  Only that sneaky Dan Mullen started a banged-up Tyler Russell as his quarterback instead.  At least until Russell got hurt (again).  Williams came in and scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime.  Dak Prescott is definitely out this week and Russell is once again listed as day-to-day.  If Williams does get the start, how will the freshman play and what will the Rebels throw at him?  (We expect both Russell and Williams to see action.)

This And That:

1.  State head coach Dan Mullen needs to win this game.  The momentum he created with an Egg Bowl win in his first season and a nine-win campaign in his second is long gone at the end of Year Five.  With the Iron Bowl, both Alabama and Auburn can be good at the same time.  The Egg Bowl rivalry is different.  It seems that only one team at a time can rise in the Magnolia State.  From ’08 to ’11, MSU was that team.  Then came a Hugh Freeze-led rout last November and a top five recruiting class for the Rebels.  Mullen has to win this one to go bowling (for a fourth straight year) and to steal back a little sizzle from “the school up North.”

2.  Can Mississippi run the football?  In the Rebels’ seven wins they’ve averaged 243 yards per game rushing and 5.3 yards per carry.  Great numbers.  But in their four losses?  Just 107 yards per game and an unhealthy 3.4 yards per carry.  UM also rushes for 50 yards less per game on the road than at home.  Top Rebel back Jeff Scott is once again less than 100%, but MSU has allowed seven of its 11 opponents to rush for more than 160 yards (including three that went over 200).  If the Rebels can run the ball effectively (and steer clear of turnovers), it’ll be hard for State to win this one.

3.  Ole Miss leads the Egg Bowl series.  Ole Miss has the better team this season.  But Ole Miss hasn’t won in Starkville since 2003.  In fact, the Rebels have lost six of the last seven Egg Bowls played in Oktibbeha County.

Bonus:  MSU will be wearing gold helmets as they continue to inch toward Oregon and Maryland status with regards to daffy uniforms.

Double Bonus:  Anyone remember Dan Mullen’s statement to his team after a 2010 Egg Bowl win?  “We’re never losing to this team again.”

Prediction:  Ole Miss 27, Mississippi State 21

 

Arkansas (3-8) at LSU (8-3)

TV:  Friday, 2:30pm ET on CBS

Opening Line:  -24.5

Current Line:  -25.5

One To Watch:  LSU’s mindset.  The Tigers will have go to guard against a letdown tomorrow afternoon.  Last Saturday they walloped Texas A&M 34-10 and, arguably, played their best game of the season.  Now they’re coming off a short week against a foe that will be easy to overlook.  Will Les Miles team be sharp… or sloppy?

This And That:

1.  November 25, 2011.  Arkansas carried a #3 national ranking into its date with #1 LSU.  Three minutes into the second quarter, the Hogs held a 14-0 lead.  That was the equivalent of James Longstreet’s July 3rd assault on Union forces at Gettysburg — it was the Razorbacks’ high-water mark.  LSU would roar back for a 41-17 victory in that game.  Less than five months later Bobby Petrino would wreck his motorcycle and set off a chain of events that’s seen the Hogs’ football fortunes plummet.  Since that last Arkansas visit to Baton Rouge, UA has gone just 8-16 (2-13 in the SEC).  It’s a long, long drop from #3 to winless in the SEC.

2.  Bret Bielema’s team is playing for nothing but pride at this point and that usually results in nothing but losses in the SEC.  The coach said this week that he’s told his team to “have fun with it, try to make the most of a very difficult situation and be something that you can remember for a lifetime.”  Not exactly Gene Hackman’s speech from “Hoosiers,” but to be fair, there’s not really much to be said.  Arkansas has lost eight games in a row.  The first-year coach has gone from hero to “maybe he’s not the right guy” in three months’ time (which isn’t fair considering Arkansas’ roster and his preferred style of play).  Can the coach find any way at all to milk a competitive effort out of his squad at Tiger Stadium?  Or are his players simply ready to close the lid on this season and bury it?

3.  The numbers just don’t add up for Arkansas.  The Hogs are 0-4 on the road.  LSU is 6-0 at home.  The Tigers average a hundred yards per game more on offense than the Razorbacks.  They allow 60 yards per game less.  LSU is minus-two in turnovers for the season, but Arkansas is much worse at minus-nine.  Any way you want to slice it, this one looks like it’s going to be a long, hard slog for Bielema’s boys.

Prediction:  LSU 38, Arkansas 14

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SEC Game Previews – 11/15/13

mrsec game previewIt’s a light weekend for the SEC with only five games on the schedule.  But with four league-vs-league games on the slate, hopefully the action we do get will at least be interesting.

Below is our usual roundup of TV times, betting odds, players to watch, game keys, hidden stats and predictions.

Best of luck to your favorite team tomorrow!

 

Troy (5-5) at Ole Miss (6-3)

TV:  12:00pm ET on ESPNU

Opening Line:  UM -28

Current Line:  UM -28

One To Watch:  Troy QB Corey Robinson.  Let’s face it, the Trojans’ chances of victory are pretty slim.  This is a team that Mississippi State crushed 62-7 back in September.  To pull the upset, Troy will need a lights-out performance by its quarterback.  In his team’s wins this year, Robinson has completed 74% of his passes with a TD-INT ratio of 11-to-three.  In Troy’s losses he’s completed just 62% of his passes with eight TDs and five INTs.

This And That:

1.  There was a time when Troy could give an SEC foe a scare.  Those days are gone.  Larry Blakeney’s program has fallen off a bit as evidenced by losses to Arkansas State, Duke, UL-Monroe and UL-Lafayette (in addition to the MSU loss mentioned earlier).  The Trojans are allowing 462 yards per game (seventh in the eight-team Sun Belt Conference) against a schedule that’s included Savannah State, Georgia State and South Alabama.

2.  Turnovers are upset fuel.  If the Rebels slip tomorrow, they will have given the ball away multiple times.  But that has not been their DNA so far in 2013.  The Rebels are plus-two overall in turnover margin (fifth best in the SEC) having lost six fumbles and seven interceptions.  Credit quarterback Bo Wallace for greatly improving his accuracy/decision-making from a year ago.  Troy, on the other hand, is minus-eight on the season and — not surprisingly — they’re minus-six in their losses.

3.  Speaking of Wallace, did ya know that he now ranks fourth in the SEC in passing yardage (265.8 per game)?  Only Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger have been more prolific through the air.

Prediction:  Ole Miss 52, Troy 14

 

Kentucky (2-7) at Vanderbilt (5-4)

TV:  12:21pm ET on SEC TV

Opening Line:  VU -13.5

Current Line:  VU -12.5

One To Watch:  Kentucky QB Jalen Whitlow.  The Wildcat signal-caller has seized the starting role and kept himself healthy the last two weeks (despite being sacked 10 times).  He’s rolled up 600+ yards of offense (not counting the lost sack yardage).  Whitlow, once viewed as “the running quarterback” in UK’s system, has improved his accuracy, too.  In his last three starts (versus the defenses of South Carolina, Alabama and Missouri), Whitlow has completed 50-of-77 passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions…

This And That:

1.  The problem has been a lack of playmakers around him in Neal Brown’s Air Raid attack.  Whitlow’s 7.6 yards-per-attempt average in those three starts would rank just ninth in the SEC.  A rash of injuries at the receiver spot hasn’t help the Cats when it comes to creating big plays through the air.  Which means you should expect to see Whitlow use his legs quite a bit versus Vandy.  The Commodores are giving up 148 yards per game on the ground.  Kentucky will try to take a run-first approach.

2.  Everyone knows the old statement: “They remember what you do in November.”  Well, that’s certainly becoming the case in Nashville where James Franklin has led the Commodores to an impressive 7-2 November record during his three-year stint on the West End.  With Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest ahead, it’s not inconceivable that the Dores could once again sweep through the month (they already beat Florida last week), finish 8-4 and go bowling for a third straight year.  Vandy, it’s said, ain’t a team that’ll play dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.  (A nautical song, Commodores, Anchor Down… whaddya want it’s a free site.)

3.  Vanderbilt hasn’t exactly been tearing it up on offense since losing starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels against Georgia.  Last week’s big road win at Florida was the result of some good defense and an opportunistic offense that scored on three post-turnover drives of less than 22 yards.  This week, however, VU will face the league’s 12th best team in total defense… not the league’s best (Florida).  Keep an eye on quarterback Patton Robinette and his ability to protect the football (three picks in 45 passes over his last three games).

Prediction:  Vanderbilt 34, Kentucky 21

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SEC Game Previews – 11/8/13

mrsec game previewWeek 11 of the SEC season will get off to a very early start tomorrow.  Five league games will kickoff between noon and 12:30.  That’s to make room for the CBS double-header tomorrow night… the one that includes the much-anticipated renewal of the Alabama/LSU rivalry.

Below are the issues, odds, stats and views on all seven games that you need leading into the second Saturday in November.  Enjoy.

And good luck to your favorite team tomorrow!

 

Vanderbilt (4-4) at Florida (4-4)

TV:  12:00pm ET on FSN

Opening Line:  UF -7.5

Current Line:  UF -10

One To Watch:  Vanderbilt QB Patton Robinette.  The redshirt freshman had a tough first start at Texas A&M two weeks ago.  He was 15-of-28 for 216 yards, one TD and two interceptions.  Even with multiple injuries Florida’s defense is better than A&M’s.  Robinette will need to show big improvement in the Swamp…

This And That:

1.  The Commodores haven’t shown the kind of rushing attack that can alleviate the pressure on a young quarterback.  Vandy ranks dead last in the SEC in rush offense (141 yards per game).  Inside the league they’re averaging just 118 rushing yards per contest.  Florida still ranks second best at stuffing the run (107 yards per game allowed).

2.  At what point does Florida collapse due to injuries?  We — along with some other sites — count nine season-ending injuries for the Gators.  Others claim 10.  Whatever the number, it’s a lot.  Too many for most team to survive.  Yet Florida showed a lot of grit by shutting out the Georgia offense in the second half of last weekend’s contest.  But which D will Vandy see?  The one that allowed UGA to build a 23-3 lead?  The one that buckled down and allowed the Gators to creep back into the game, 23-20.  Or the one that couldn’t get Georgia’s offense off the field for the final eight minutes of the game?  And keep in mind, Vanderbilt’s offense isn’t Georgia’s.

3.  Both teams need two wins to reach a bowl game.  The Commodores have an easier path the rest of the way (Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wake Forest).  The Gators still have dates with Georgia Southern, South Carolina and Florida State.  This is much more of a must-win game for Will Muschamp’s bunch.

Prediction:  Florida 24, Vanderbilt 17

 

#8 Missouri (8-1) at Kentucky (2-6)

TV:  12:00pm ET on ESPNU

Opening Line:  MU -13.5

Current Line:  MU -14

One To Watch:  Missouri’s Starting QB.  Whoever that may be.  Gary Pinkel said last week that he thought James Franklin would be ready to go this week.  But Maty Mauk could get another start to allow Franklin even more time to heal up his bum shoulder.

This And That:

1.  Kentucky’s pass defense ranks 10th in the SEC against league competition (allowing 269 yards per game).  This week they’ll face a tall test — pun intended — from Missouri receivers Dorial Green-Beckham (6-6), Marcus Lucas (6-5) and L’Damian Washington (6-4).  Whoever gets the start behind center for the Tigers should see some open targets at Commonwealth Stadium.

2.  Mizzou has picked off a league-leading 17 passes this season.  But Kentucky has thrown just two picks all season and starter Jalen Whitlow has only tossed one.  If Kentucky is to have any chance on Saturday, Whitlow and his Cats will need to protect the football while dinking and dunking their way down the field.  (Whitlow’s 6.7 yards-per-attempt average is one of the worst for a starter in the SEC>

3.  In SEC play, Kentucky has allowed an average of 33.7 points per game while scoring an average of 16 points.  Missouri’s got one of the league’s best offenses, but Kentucky has a healthy quarterback.  So…

Prediction:  Missouri 38, Kentucky 20

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SEC Game Previews – 11/1/13

mrsec game previewOK, so the Week 10 SEC schedule isn’t exactly sterling.  In fact, there are only two matchups in which the Vegas line is less than 10 (which tells us that most desert bettors are anticipating blowouts tomorrows).

As usual, we break down the bad with the good.  All six games and the key points you need to know about each are right below.

Good luck to your favorite team this weekend!

 

Mississippi State (4-3) at #14 South Carolina (6-2)

TV:  12:21pm ET on SEC TV

Opening Line:  USC -11.5

Current Line:  USC -12.5

One To Watch:  South Carolina QB Connor Shaw.  Shaw entered last week’s game at Missouri and promptly rallied his troops like the Palmetto State’s fictional Benjamin Martin in “The Patriot.”  Without him… offense lifeless.  With him… offense darn near impossible to stop.  This week Shaw battled back from an illness and is expected to be good to go tomorrow.  If he’s not, might USC’s offense drift off to Sleepytown again?

This And That:

1.  Both the talent on the two teams’ rosters and MSU’s history under Dan Mullen suggest that this one should be a rather easy victory for Carolina.  But the Gamecocks’ offense has a bad habit of turning the ball over.  Currently they’re minus-four on the season (12th in the SEC), having given the ball away 15 times.  Mississippi State is plus-four in turnover margin, third-best in the league.  If you want a prescription for an upset it’s turnovers plus…

2.  Emotion.  The Gamecocks are coming off a heart-pounding come-from-behind win at Missouri.  Now they get a 4-3 State team at home.  USC has been up and down all season — whipping North Carolina, losing at Georgia, letting Vanderbilt back into a game, struggling at UCF, letting Kentucky back into a game, crushing Arkansas, losing at Tennessee, and then last week’s late-game turnaround.  We’re not just talking about the 12:21pm start time when we say the Cocks had better have their alarm clocks set properly.

3.  Mississippi State’s rush defense versus BCS opponents ranks just 11th in the SEC as it’s allowed 197.2 yards per game.  This week the Bulldogs will face the league’s leading rusher in Mike Davis (116.2 yards per game).  But Davis put the ball on the ground twice last week and we all know of Steve Spurrier’s lust for aerial yards.  Will he ride Davis — who is listed as A-OK after narrowly dodging a broken leg last week — or will the Ol’ Ball Coach try to wing the ball all over the yard?  In some of those games we mentioned above, Carolina’s offense sputtered as Spurrier relied too heavily on his passing game.

Prediction:  South Carolina 34, Mississippi State 20

 

Georgia (4-3) vs Florida (4-3) at Jacksonville

TV:  3:30pm ET on CBS

Opening Line:  UGA -2.5

Current Line:  UGA -3

One To Watch:  Florida QB Tyler Murphy.  The redshirt junior made his debut against Tennessee after an injury to Jeff Driskel.  Against the Vols, Kentucky and Arkansas, Murphy averaged 221 yards per game of total offense.  He averaged 8.5 yards per play.  But in UF’s last two games, Murphy has turned into a pumpkin: 74.5 yards of total offense per game and just 2.0 yards per play.  That 2.0 yard-per-play number includes passes, folks.  Murphy will have to play better for Florida to win tomorrow.

This And That:

1.  It’s not all on Murphy, though.  He lost 58 yards versus LSU and Mizzou in part because his O-line couldn’t protect him.  And as we’ve been asking for years now — literally, years — where are the skill position players who should be lined up around Florida’s quarterback?  From Steve Addazio to Charlie Weis to Brent Pease, it’s been a while since a Gator offensive coordinator had at his disposal a single running back or receiver who struck fear into the hearts of opposing defense coordinators.  UF will face a Georgia defense that’s actually sixth in the SEC versus BCS-level foes (a surprising number, no?).  Can the Gators generate enough offense?

2.  Both teams have seen their championship hopes severely damaged by injury.  The difference tomorrow, however, could actually be a key player who’s returning to action.  UGA’s electrifying running back Todd Gurley will finally be back after a three-game absence.  He registered 154 yards against Clemson, 132 against South Carolina, 91 against North Texas (before being pulled), and 73 in a half against LSU.  His big-play ability has been missing from UGA’s attack in an overtime win over Tennessee and back-to-back losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt.  Meanwhile, Florida’s rush defense has gotten progressively worse as injuries have mounted.  Over the last four weeks their opponents’ yards-per-rush average has gone from 2.29 (vs Kentucky) to 3.83 (vs Arkansas) to 4.49 (vs LSU) to 5.54 (vs Missouri).  If Gurley thrives, it’s going to be very hard to Florida to win.

3.  Tomorrow’s contest will basically be an elimination game in the SEC East race.  Georgia’s Mark Richt will also be trying to notch a third victory in a row over Florida, something UGA hasn’t done since 1987-1989.  But — as is the case in so many games — keep an eye on the turnover battle.  Florida isn’t bad at plus-one.  Georgia is 13th in the SEC at minus-five.  To stay alive in the East and remain in the catbird seat in this rivalry, the Dawgs will have to protect the football.

Prediction:  Georgia 24, Florida 17

#Auburn (7-1) at Arkansas (3-5)

TV:  6:00pm ET on ESPN2

Opening Line:  AU -7.5

Current Line:  AU -8

One To Watch:  The scoreboard.  Bret Bielema has made it abundantly clear that he’s no fan of Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.  Malzahn — leading a much better team — might take the opportunity Saturday to remind Bielema not to ever publicly accuse him of misconduct (as he did in this week’s game tape kerfuffle).  The Natural State native son might also want to let the Razorback administration know that he should be coaching in Fayetteville not Auburn.  If he gets the chance, how much will Malzahn pour it on?

This And That:

1.  Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall is listed as day-to-day for the Tigers.  According to Malzahn, backup Jeremy Johnson has taken “almost equal reps” with the first team offense this week.  No QB announcement is expected before gametime.  Marshall — who has an injured throwing shoulder — ranks 10th in the SEC in total offense with a sizzling 461 yards gained on the ground.  As a passer he’s completing 57.6% of his tosses.  Marshall’s the runner.  Johnson’s strength is in the passing game.  He’s completed 69.2% of his passes and thrown six TD passes in just three games of work.  Johnson has rushed just seven times for 47 yards.  Arkansas will have had to prepare for two distinctly different styles of quarterbacks.

2.  Like Auburn (tops in the SEC), Arkansas (fourth in the SEC) loves to run the football.  But unlike the Tigers, the Razorbacks haven’t had enough success throwing the ball to keep defenses honest.  The Hogs rank 14th in the league in passing yards per game (146.6) which is right at 50 yards per game less than Auburn’s aerial output.  Against SEC foes, Brandon Allen has completed just 39.5% of his passes, throwing three TDs and six picks.  But only Missouri allows more passing yards per game than Auburn, so keep an eye on Allen’s ability to supplement Arkansas’ ground attack.  If he can, the Hogs could hang around on their homefield.  If he can’t, this could be a slaughter.

3.  Just how good is Auburn’s rushing attack?  Its 315.3 yards-per-game average is best in the SEC and fifth best in America.  The Tigers have had four different players rush for 100+ yards in a game this season (Marshall and running backs Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, and Corey Grant).  The combination of up-tempo speed and Malzahn’s gap run schemes is once again proving extremely difficult to defend.

Prediction:  Auburn 44, Arkansas 27

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