Top storylines for each SEC team in Week 9
The big, bad grizzly bear of the SEC finally gets to sleep in Week 9, at least with one eye open.
With Alabama in break mode and the SEC West the Tide’s to lose during the final month after dispatching Texas A&M, that means Saturday’s spotlight can shift to the East Division, where Florida has a tenuous lead going into its annual late October collision with Georgia in Jacksonville.
This is the Bulldogs’ one final chance to get back in the race. Tennessee is waiting in the wings, too, with its very manageable remaining schedule and the head-to-head tiebreaker with Florida.
And in that SEC East scrum also sits … Kentucky? Incredibly, yes. The Wildcats are actually in the title race during the final days of October, and it’s Mark Stoops’ surging team that kicks off the six-game Week 9 SEC slate with another very winnable game.
Kentucky at Missouri, noon (ET): This is uncharted territory for Kentucky. It’s not even basketball season, and the Wildcats are being allowed to dream about playing for a conference title. The Wildcats have won four of their past five after last week’s heart-pounding, last-second victory over Mississippi State, with their only loss in that span coming at Alabama.
Suddenly, Kentucky is resourceful and clutch in the most crucial moments, led by Stephen Johnson, whose confidence is growing with every one of these recent victories. He also has the running back duo of Benny Snell and Boom Williams to lean on, and this is a Missouri defense that just gave up 51 points to Middle Tennessee in a stunning homecoming loss.
But this game also has a giant “beware” sign on it. Kentucky is improved, no doubt, and full of life. But the Wildcats have still been outscored by a combined 79-13 against Florida and Alabama, and they were a 51-yard field goal from losing at home to a Mississippi State team that is going nowhere. The Wildcats also haven’t won an SEC road game yet, and those are hard to come by, no matter the opponent. And Missouri has to win an SEC game at some point, right?
Florida vs. Georgia, 3:30 p.m. (ET): Is there ever a year when this rivalry bash in Jacksonville doesn’t have huge SEC East title implications for both teams? This year, it’s the Gators who have climbed into first after that loss at Tennessee and the inconsistent Bulldogs who are hanging by a thread, needing this win to stay relevant in November.
Georgia’s season — and its collective psyche — took a massive hit with that home loss to Vandy two weeks ago, and the Bulldogs have had two weeks to stew. If it feels like the Gators have hardly played lately, they haven’t. They beat Missouri at home sandwiched between two off weeks, the first caused by Hurricane Matthew, and Luke Del Rio (below) and Florida’s offense weren’t sharp at all against the Tigers.
So while the Gators are in charge of the SEC East, it doesn’t feel like they’ve done much to be in charge — not yet at least. They’ll have a chance to prove they are worthy in November and on Saturday, in a rivalry they’ve absolutely owned for seemingly forever. We’ll see if Jacob Eason can help turn the tide in his first taste of this unique, neutral-site matchup.
Samford at Mississippi State, 3:30 p.m. (ET): Dan Mullen’s team is 2-5 overall and at the bottom of the loaded SEC West. But the Bulldogs were a bounce from winning at BYU in an eventual double-overtime loss and fell on that 51-yard field goal at Kentucky. So 2-5 could easily be 4-3.
Samford is 6-1, but the Southern Conference team should be just the medicine for Mullen’s frustrated team to get an easy victory that could be its last of the season with Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss looming. So 2-5 could easily turn into 3-9. At least Samford comes first.
Tennessee at South Carolina, 7:15 p.m. (ET): The Volunteers got a well-deserved and well-needed rest last week after that insane four-game gauntlet of SEC showdowns left them battered, injured and with two losses — but not totally beaten and certainly not out of things in the SEC East. The second part of the Vols’ season begins Saturday night against a Gamecocks team that will be looking for a signature win in 2016 at a sure-to-be-rocking Williams-Brice Stadium.
Tennessee is one game behind Florida but owns that head-to-head tiebreaker, so all the Vols need is for the Gators to stumble once, like maybe Saturday in Jacksonville.
Back to Williams-Brice. South Carolina’s defense will be looking to rebound from a shaky second half against UMass, and the Gamecocks just might have finally found something on offense with freshman Jake Bentley, who was mighty impressive last week in his collegiate debut in helping South Carolina score over 20 points for the first time this year.
The Vols’ defense is far from UMass’, so we’ll know a lot more about Bentley after his SEC baptism. The Gamecocks are out of contention in the SEC East, but they can play spoiler while keeping their bowl eligibility hopes alive. The Volunteers could be without running back Alvin Kamara, who has a knee injury, but Tennessee coach Butch Jones expects his injury-ravaged offensive line to be back intact after recovering during the bye week.
For the Vols, 25 points on Saturday should be enough to get them healthy again in the win-loss department.
Auburn at Ole Miss, 7:15 p.m. (ET): Nobody outside of its mighty in-state neighbor has had a better past month in the SEC than Auburn. The Tigers have gone from a marginal team to No. 15 in the AP Poll. They are now a legitimate threat in the division, with a four-game win streak that started with that wild one against LSU at Jordan-Hare and was capped in the same friendly confines with last Saturday’s 56-3 embarrassment of Arkansas.
But on Saturday night the Tigers won’t be at home, where they’ve played an astounding six of their first seven games. They’ll be in Oxford against an angry Rebels team that once had SEC title aspirations but is now under .500 at 3-4 and playing for pride.
Can Auburn win at night in Oxford and continue its meteoric ascent up the SEC standings and AP rankings? Two factors say yes: 1) An Auburn defense that will be challenged by Chad Kelly just held Arkansas to 215 total yards. 2) Auburn ran for a jaw-dropping 543 yards against the Hogs, and that was without Kerryon Johnson, and its surging ground game could be what keeps Kelly off the field just enough to keep the Tigers right on the heels of Alabama and Texas A&M.
New Mexico State at Texas A&M, 7:30 p.m. (ET): Yes, the Aggies lost the big one at Bama last week, and the emotional letdown this Saturday might be noticeable for a quarter or even a half. It’s human nature. But Kevin Sumlin has a really good team and they’re still in the top 10, moving down just three spots to No. 9 in the AP Poll.
The challenge for Sumlin won’t be to get his team to bounce back with a victory, which should be a given against the “other Aggies” from the Sun Belt who are just 2-5. The challenge will be to bounce back with a resounding kind of effort that tells the world that these Aggies are ready to still win the SEC West should Alabama stumble down the stretch, like next week at LSU and against Auburn.
Texas A&M should be favored in each of its remaining games, so the storyline Saturday is all about refocusing and looking forward, not back at that ugly second half in Tuscaloosa.