Hayes: Guide to Week 9 in and around the SEC
Every Friday, Matt Hayes brings you the Weekend Watch List.
It’s not a stretch to say Tennessee hasn’t played since its historic win over bitter rival Alabama.
Time to see how the Vols respond to success.
Like everything on this magical Big Orange ride, every big moment has been protected from ensuing disaster.
A physical overtime win over Pitt in Week 2 was followed by a home game against Akron, the worst team in the MAC.
The win against bitter rival Florida in Week 4 was followed by a bye week, before a road game at LSU.
The latest and most fortunate gift from the football gods: a groundbreaking win over Alabama — including nonstop feting from every Playoff analyst after the fact — was followed by a glorified scrimmage against FCS Tennessee-Martin.
Now here comes Kentucky, the first big test for Tennessee since the goalposts at Neyland Stadium were ripped down and tossed into the Tennessee River. And wouldn’t you know it, the schedule sets up again: The game is in Knoxville — with a prime-time kick and a juiced crowd of more than 100,000.
“Battling through different adversities, being on the same page and having chemistry and gelling,” Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker said earlier this week at the team’s media availability. “All that comes into play through the time we spent this offseason.”
Dealing with adversity is one thing. Dealing with success is another, especially when it arrives with a Kentucky team that not only nearly beat the Vols before falling 45-42 last season, but knows that but for a few big plays — 75- and 72-yard touchdown passes, a 37-yard touchdown run, a 56-yard interception return — it could’ve been a big win.
This is a Kentucky defense that has had 2 weeks to prepare for the Vols, and which 2 weeks ago held Mississippi State QB Will Rogers — the SEC leader in yards per game (319.4) — to 203 yards passing and an average of 5.48 yards per attempt.
Matchup problem in College Station
If losing 3 straight games — and possibly losing the locker room — isn’t bad enough for Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, Ole Miss rolls into town Saturday with the No. 1 rushing offense in the SEC (251.8 ypg).
The Aggies, meanwhile, are the No. 12 run defense in the SEC (179.5 ypg).
More problems for the Aggies: Ole Miss is converting 52 percent of 3rd-down conversions and is scoring touchdowns 73 percent of the time in the red zone.
Need an example of what this will look like? Look back to late September, when Arkansas did what it wanted on the Aggies’ defense (244 rushing yards) but also fumbled at the goal line to take points off the board — and had a game-winning field-goal attempt somehow hit the top of the upright and bounce back onto the field.
If Ole Miss QB Jaxson Dart rushes for more than 100 yards and 1 TD and throws for more than 150 and 2 TDs — like KJ Jefferson did for the Hogs against Texas A&M — the Aggies will need more than a miracle missed field goal to end the losing streak.
Chasing the Buckeyes
Four years ago, after a bitterly disappointing 28-27 loss to Ohio State, James Franklin stood at the podium and made clear the steps Penn State needed to take to become elite.
Since that game, Penn State is 33-17 (6-11 vs. ranked teams) and has lost all 3 games to Ohio State by 13, 11 and 9 points.
Here we are 4 years later, in another anticipated “whiteout” game in Happy Valley, and just how far have the Lions come in their quest to be elite?
Franklin says there are some areas where Penn State has made significant progress, and others where it hasn’t. The Lions are a 14.5-point home underdog.
“You’ve got to be able to feel like you can line up and match up, from a skill and athleticism perspective, with an Ohio State 1 week,” Franklin said. “Then say you make it to the Big Ten Championship, and you play Wisconsin. That’s a very different animal that you’re getting ready for, and you have to either have the depth or the diversity within your personnel to do it.
“You’re trying to build a team that can do both, which is easier said than done.”
Despite 3 recruiting classes in the top 15 (No. 6 in 2022) since 2019, Penn State hasn’t hit with elite defensive line recruits. Look for the Lions to hit the transfer portal in the offseason to get bigger and more physical along the defensive front.
Franklin said 2 weeks ago after an ugly loss to Michigan — when Penn State gave up more than 400 yards rushing — that the defensive front has to get fixed. Size and strength is the key.
‘Don’t get me wrong, I really like our D-line room,” Franklin said after the Michigan loss. “But there are some guys who would help us and help themselves if they gained a few pounds.”
A potentially frightful Saturday
Arkansas travels to The Plains in one of those sleepy 11 a.m. CT starts that over the years has been deadly to coaching careers on the brink.
Lose big in the 1st window of Saturday television, and everyone talks about it for 12 hours. And those boosters with deep pockets and short patience can’t help themselves.
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Auburn coach Bryan Harsin’s nightmare scenario: After surviving a Sunday firing for much of the season (thanks, Harrison Mevis), he may not be able to avoid it after this weekend.
Arkansas has had 2 weeks to prepare, and it still has an opportunity to finish strong in the 2nd half and back up last year’s breakout season. Auburn has the worst run defense in the SEC (204.4 ypg) — which in and of itself makes those hands-on Auburn boosters sideways — and Arkansas has TB Raheim Sanders and Jefferson and a whole lot of girth along the line of scrimmage.
There’s nothing more demoralizing — or humiliating for a coach on the hot seat — than a defense that can’t stop the run. Especially at home.
If Harsin makes it out of this weekend alive, he may just make it until the end of the regular season.
Win big … or else
Five weeks remain in the regular season, and the road is clear for TCU: score as many points as possible every single Saturday.
The eye test is everything for the unbeaten Horned Frogs — because what looked like strong victories against ranked teams not so long ago may not look that way in late November.
TCU, which plays at West Virginia on Saturday, won 4 straight games against ranked teams (Oklahoma, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Kansas State) — 3 of whom might not be ranked by Sunday.
In fact, TCU needs Kansas State to beat Oklahoma State on Saturday in Manhattan, Kansas, to guarantee both teams spots in the first CFP poll. If Oklahoma State wins, 3-loss K-State could drop out of the Top 25.
In that scenario, TCU’s lone win vs. a currently ranked team would be Oklahoma State. The Cowboys would likely be a top-10 team.