Each week, Matt Hayes uses his sources around the country to bring you insider knowledge about what’s going on in and around the SEC ahead of this week’s games.

This is what he’s hearing from coaches and NFL scouts in Week 7 …

LSU vs. Florida: Referendum on perfect starts

The Florida-LSU game is the biggest non-Alabama regular season game in the SEC in years.

The winner has an inside track to be ranked No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff poll (should both win out through October), but more than that, it’s a referendum throughout the league on the state of 2 programs trying to return to the elite of the conference.

One SEC coach told me this week, “Who has LSU played that has a defensive pulse? I like what they’ve done, and (QB Joe) Burrow looks really comfortable, but he hasn’t been stressed. He’ll get it this week.”

At the same time, another SEC coach told me Florida’s defense “hasn’t played anything close to what LSU will show them. They can get after it with that front 4, and they can force some bad decisions. But at the same time, if LSU can protect, there plays to be had in that secondary. The safeties can hit you, but there’s some weakness in coverage.”

An undervalued aspect of the game: Florida’s ability to run the ball.

“They need to chew clock,” one SEC coach said. “The tail(back) or jet sweep stuff or QB run. They’ve got to slow it down and force the LSU offense to get on the field with the knowledge that time is limited, and they can’t make mistakes. If Florida can run and do that, any mistake the LSU offense makes, especially turnovers, is magnified.”

Now or never for Jeremy Pruitt?

One industry insider told me this week that the play of Brian Maurer has bought time for embattled Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt.

The Vols still desperately need to beat Mississippi State this weekend in Knoxville to avoid what would become overwhelming negativity around the program, but Maurer’s play last week against a strong Georgia defense has shown a glimpse of what could be.

“There’s a light there at the position, no doubt,” the source said. “If you’re going to have hope with one position, it’s best for it to be the most important position.”

The overriding question: Will it look good this weekend? A loss to Mississippi State is not only a loss to a team Tennessee believes it should typically beat, but it would also set up a tough stretch that would include a loss to Alabama next week and set up a make or break game against South Carolina in Knoxville a week later. In that scenario, a loss to the Gamecocks would then make it “extremely difficult” for Pruitt to make it past Year 2.

Alabama’s defense is shockingly bad

One NFL scout I spoke to this week said he’s “shocked” at the way Alabama has played defense this season.

“Here’s the thing, they’ve got some young talent, and they’ve got some guys that have been around a while that haven’t developed to the production level they typically get. People think you can plug and play with coaches, and that’s just not the case. These aren’t the same defenses we saw with Kirby (Smart) and Jeremy (Pruitt).”

There are numerous areas of concern, the scout said, but said the “red flag” is a lack of fundamentals.

“Bad angles, poor tackling, poor technique,” the scout said. “I realize hitting in practice has gone way down in college football. But that’s still teachable stuff. (Alabama coach) Nick (Saban), believe it or not, likes to give his guys a lot of space to do their job. He’s a terrific CEO in that sense. But at some point, he’s going to have to step in. I wouldn’t doubt it if he did during the bye week. There’s too much at stake right now. They can get away with what they’re playing against just about every team in the SEC. But if it doesn’t get fixed, late in the season, it’s going to bite them in the ass.”

The Urban Watch

An industry source told me USC desperately wants to keep coach Clay Helton because he “represents everything they want from a head coach.”

The problem, as it always is: the results – even though USC is down to its 3rd quarterback.

To that end, this weekend’s game at Notre Dame will go a long way in determining Helton’s fate. There are no “respectable” losses; in fact, any loss will be damaging to his future.

A bad loss and the wheels of change will be set in motion. A win and the dynamics change dramatically.

“That’s how crazy this business is,” the industry source said. “Getting a win on the road against a double-digit, bitter rival makes everyone feel better about where you’re headed.”

A loss will make the Urban Meyer talk grow louder. If not Meyer, another possibility is former NFL coach and USC player Jack Del Rio, who has publicly stated he would be interested in NFL and college jobs.

What scheduling debate?

Much was made last week about the SEC’s quirky (the SEC says quirky, you say shortsighted) schedule, when it suddenly became vogue to question why Florida and Auburn last played in 2011.

A couple of things:

1.) We’ve known this for years, and

2.) the SEC isn’t changing its 8-game format.

In a perfect world, the SEC would move Auburn to the East Division and Missouri to the West Division and geographical harmony would exist, if nothing else.

Nearly every year at the league’s spring meetings, coaches debate the idea of a 9-game SEC schedule. And nearly every year, it’s a whole lot of nothing. If anything, the league wants the rest of college football to embrace this scheduling philosophy for all Power 5 schools: 8 conference games, 2 nonconference games against Power 5 opponents, 2 nonconference games against Group of 5 opponents.

Or as one industry source put it: “The only way the SEC changes (its) scheduling is if they suddenly become 4th or 5th in the Power 5 pecking order. And that’s not happening. They schedule how they want because they can. It’s as simple as that. They hold all the cards when it comes to negotiating television deals, or even new streaming deals of the future.

“You want to show the SEC? You show what we give you. Until television or streaming sites of the future tell the SEC they’re not televising them without 9 conference games or Team A has to play Team B at least 3 out of 5 years, they’ll schedule how they want to schedule.”