Early impressions of every SEC game in Rivalry Week
Two stats are noteworthy as we head into the final week of the regular season.
One is that the SEC has a chance to boast 13 bowl-eligible teams for the first time ever. LSU and Florida, both of whom have already fired their head coaches, can clinch a bowl berth with a win on Saturday.
Speaking of that, the other stat is that since Nov. 2019, 10 SEC programs have made head coaching changes. That’s essentially 2 years. So in terms of the Week 1 coaches in 2019, only 4 of the SEC’s 14 are still at their current job. Two of them are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country (Kirby Smart and Nick Saban), one just delivered his program its second winning SEC record since the Jimmy Carter administration (Mark Stoops) and another is a year removed from delivering his program its best AP Top 25 finish in 81 years (Jimbo Fisher).
Meanwhile, the 2 who were fired this year (Dan Mullen and Ed Orgeron) received a combined $29 million buyout. At this time 2 years ago, one was about to deliver arguably the best season in college football history (Orgeron) and the other was about to become the first coach to ever start off at a new job with 2 consecutive New Year’s 6 Bowl victories (Mullen).
Life comes at you fast in this league.
What did that have to do with Rivalry Week, you ask? I don’t know. I just wanted to get that off my chest.
Ok, let’s talk Rivalry Week:
Ole Miss vs. MSU — Both of these programs have become exactly what their fanbases could’ve hoped for
Think about it. Go tell an Ole Miss fan before the start of the year that Lane Kiffin’s Year 2 bump would be trying to lock up a New Year’s 6 Bowl berth in the Egg Bowl. Also tell that Ole Miss fan that the defense improved and Matt Corral turned into a legitimate first-round quarterback prospect. They’d take that any day of the week.
Now go tell an MSU fan that Mike Leach’s Year 2 bump would be playing as a Top 25 team in the Egg Bowl. Also tell that MSU fan that the defense would still be plenty promising and that Will Rogers turned into a legitimate All-SEC candidate at quarterback. They’d take that any day of the week.
What else would these 2 fanbases take? A Thanksgiving victory to spoil each other’s good vibes heading into the postseason.
Mizzou vs. Arkansas — Ugh, please don’t let Treylon Burks be out
In case you missed it, Burks got hurt trying to recover an onside kick at the end of Saturday’s game against Alabama:
Oh no. Treylon Burks just got hurt on a huge block by Will Anderson on the onside kick. Burks had to be helped off. pic.twitter.com/rWTdRFJ6GV
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) November 21, 2021
Burks delivered one of the gutsiest performances of the year. Dealing with a shoulder injury, he lit up the Alabama defense and made himself some money for the next level. The shoulder injury might’ve actually explained why Will Anderson was able to move Burks’ right side so effortlessly (not to take anything away from Anderson’s superhuman strength). We’re still waiting to see if Burks is going to be a go against a Mizzou team that he lit up last year.
Given how improved the Tigers have been against the run in the last few weeks, an injury to Burks would potentially be a major break for Mizzou. For the rest of us who want to see Burks play in college as long as possible? It’d be brutal to see his stellar junior year cut short.
Alabama vs. Auburn — Empty the Tank, Auburn
As in, Tank Bigsby. He got 22 carries against South Carolina, and honestly, it should’ve been more. Jarquez Hunter’s emergence allowed Bigsby to stay fresh for the duration of the regular season. He looked every bit like the preseason All-SEC back he was cracked up to be by many (including yours truly). It’s a shame that Mike Bobo didn’t call on him on that 4th and 1 from the 35, and he probably should’ve given him a touch in the last 5 minutes in a 4-point game.
Alabama’s run defense has actually been pretty dominant since the Florida game. It’s tied for No. 4 in FBS in yards per carried allowed. The Tide held Isaiah Spiller to 46 rushing yards on 17 carries, which is worth noting because he’s probably the closest thing to Bigsby on that schedule. With how overwhelmed TJ Finley continues to look against pressure, now would be a nice time to see Auburn totally commit to the ground game with 25-plus touches for No. 4.
Texas A&M vs. LSU — This game is low-key loaded with high stakes … not because of Jimbo Fisher
If I had to guess, I’d say that Texas A&M is heading to the Citrus Bowl or Outback Bowl. Those destinations would make a lot of sense for the 8-3 Aggies, who are a borderline top-15 team heading into the last weekend of the regular season. But is it possible that A&M could have a chance to earn a New Year’s 6 Bowl bid with a win and perhaps a little chaos in the top 10? Sure.
And on the LSU side, LSU is trying to avoid its first losing season in the 21st century. That happened last year thanks to a pair of late comebacks to close the season. But a loss here would end that streak and perhaps cost the head coach his job. Ok, that was a mean joke. I do wish the best for Ed Orgeron’s future. What about the future of Max Johnson? Don’t you think he’d love the opportunity to beat a ranked team and further boost his chances to win LSU’s 2022 starting quarterback job with Garrett Nussmeier redshirting? I do.
There are some high stakes in Baton Rouge. But no, that wasn’t my subtle way of saying that I think Fisher is going to bolt Texas A&M for Scott Woodward’s bag of money. Maybe that makes me a sucker for believing him. Oh well.
Kentucky vs. Louisville — Will Levis is about to do what?
That is, throw for more passing touchdowns than any Kentucky quarterback since Andre Woodson. I know, I know. The turnovers are frustrating. But in 1 season, Kentucky’s offense went from being the worst in Power 5 to being No. 69 in FBS. That’s a credit to Levis, Wan’Dale Robinson and Liam Coen’s job overhauling this offense. Levis has been a fearless runner, too. There might not be 5 quarterbacks in all of college football who pack a punch like the Kentucky signal-caller.
Levis has a chance to earn some serious momentum heading into 2022 with what he does in these last 2 games. One more touchdown pass and he’ll actually tie the late Jared Lorenzen’s career high of 24 touchdown passes in a season. With 3 more passing scores in these next 2 games, Levis would only look up to Woodson and Tim Couch in terms of Kentucky’s single-season leaderboard. That’s darn impressive any way you slice it.
Florida State vs. Florida — You don’t know what to expect from Florida and neither do I
If the Gators came out totally flat after Dan Mullen was fired, we’d say it was the byproduct of a heavy week. If they came out with their hair on fire and beat Florida State for the 3rd consecutive time to clinch a bowl berth, we’d say it was a team who had something to play for. We cannot know what to expect, and no amount of cliché midweek quotes could tell you otherwise. Shoot, even Mullen continued to say after the South Carolina debacle that his team didn’t have any signs of a letdown during practice.
Quietly, Florida State won 5 of its last 6 after a historically awful start. Mike Norvell’s team has played much better in the latter half of the season, and it’s more than capable of continuing Florida’s slide. Defensively, the Florida team who showed up against Mizzou can absolutely frustrate that inconsistent FSU offense. But anything less than that and Florida will be spending bowl season on the couch.
Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee — I’m suddenly fascinated by this time of possession battle
Because against Ole Miss’ tempo offense, we watched Vandy go on the road and possess the ball for 40 minutes and only fall by 2 touchdowns to a potential New Year’s 6 team. Against a Tennessee team who runs a similar offense with Josh Heupel, might we see Mike Wright and Rocko Griffin try to suck the life out of the building again? We know that Tennessee has been dominant against lesser opponents, but some of that might be because teams get outside of their offensive identity.
I watched Vandy stick with the game plan for 4 quarters. Wright is improving as a passer, too. He and Chris Pierce have developed a nice rapport that should have the attention of Tennessee lockdown corner Alontae Taylor. It’s possible that Vandy just ran into an Ole Miss team who took its foot off the gas a bit too early ahead of a short week. But the Vols are dead last in FBS in time of possession. Against Ole Miss, Wright helped Vandy convert on 12 third/fourth downs.
Don’t be surprised if the Commodores handle Tennessee’s inevitable first quarter punch and actually hang around into the second half.
Georgia vs. Georgia Tech — Oh, the irony if George Pickens were to return
We saw Pickens go through warmups for the first time since he tore his ACL in spring. Does that mean we’re going to see him line up against Georgia Tech? It certainly seems possible. How ironic that would be considering the way Pickens ended things the last time he was at Georgia Tech:
George Pickens just got ejected and will miss the first half of the SEC Championship as a result.
Here’s why: pic.twitter.com/SCi0fO8gtT
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) November 30, 2019
That wasn’t his finest moment. Even he would admit that.
More importantly, we’re 8 months removed from Pickens tearing his ACL. The original hope was that he’d be back in November for a potential stretch run. His activity ahead of this past Saturday was as good a sign as any that Pickens’ time is coming. If it is, it would make more sense to get him back out there against Georgia Tech than doing so against Alabama. At least I would think. But Kirby Smart said that he’s not cleared just yet and that there are still some tests he needs to pass.
Fingers crossed that happens before Saturday’s matchup.
Clemson vs. South Carolina — What if Shane Beamer did this in Year 1 …
Just think about that. Nobody in their right mind would’ve said as recently as 2 months ago that South Carolina would have an outside chance of beating Clemson in Year 1 of the Beamer era. Shoot, would anyone have predicted that even as recently as 3 weeks ago? No way. South Carolina is a much-improved team with Jason Brown as the starter. He’s 2-1 having led the Gamecocks to their 3 best offensive outputs against SEC competition.
Clemson’s offense was a disaster in the first part of the season. In its first 6 games vs. FBS competition, it didn’t score more than 21 points. In its last 4 games vs. FBS competition, Clemson exceeded 30 each week. It’s still not a particularly good passing game, which should bode well for JJ Enagbare and Jaylan Foster. Only 3 Power 5 teams rank worse in completion percentage. Does that mean South Carolina could force a game-changing turnover to pull off the upset? Don’t rule it out, though the bigger issue might be figuring out how to sustain scoring drives against Brent Venables’ defense.
This has the makings of a rock fight with an over/under of 43.5. But man, no matter how ugly it is, Beamer would have absurd amounts of momentum if he could pull this off.