Pick-6: Biggest SEC storylines I'll be following today in Week 4
Nine games, several conference matchups and the biggest nonconference game of the year?
Week 4 has it all.
Here are 6 things I’ll be following closely today in and around the SEC.
1. Georgia doesn’t need to beat Notre Dame to reach the Playoff
That’s probably not what fans who shelled out 4 figures for tickets want to hear, but the reality is: If Georgia wins the SEC title, Georgia is going to the Playoff, regardless of what happens tonight in Athens.
Seriously, Georgia could lose by 14 (relax, it won’t) and it doesn’t change anything about the Dawgs’ Playoff chances.
The SEC champion is a Playoff lock. It’s that simple. It’s earned that right.
And, perhaps even more important to note, if/when Georgia thrashes Notre Dame tonight, it might not go to the Playoff unless it wins the SEC title.
LSU and math are the complicating factors here. Almost anything can happen on most Saturdays, but through 3 weeks, there is little to suggest Clemson and Ohio State will lose a conference game. Undefeated Power 5 conference champions make the Playoff. That’s 2 spots. Pencil in the SEC champion. That’s 3.
That leaves 1 really good SEC West team (likely LSU or Alabama), the SEC title game loser, likely Oklahoma and potentially a 1-loss Pac-12 champ to battle for the lone remaining Playoff spot.
(It also, again, exposes the lunacy of the 4-team Playoff format, but I broke that drum 5 years ago.)
So what can the Dawgs prove today? That they are national championship contenders.
I think this is their coming out party. I think D’Andre Swift is going to have a Heisman effort. I think Georgia wins by 21 or more in the most convincing statement yet that Kirby Smart’s program is ready to take down Alabama.
Just remember, the Dawgs still would have to actually take down Alabama (or LSU) in Atlanta for a blowout Saturday night to truly matter.
2. Kyle Trask can beat Vols, but I want to see Emory Jones
Trask looked perfectly efficient in orchestrating the comeback victory over Kentucky. Maybe that’s not giving him enough credit, but the reality is he isn’t a next-level threat to stretch the field.
Florida probably doesn’t need him to be Saturday against the Vols. The Gators’ advantages are numerous and Jarrett Guarantano is Jarrett Guarantano. Trask will be plenty accurate and poised enough to handle the Vols.
The most interesting aspect of this game is how Dan Mullen handles Emory Jones. At some point, all of the happy talk about how Jones is ahead of Tim Tebow at a similar stage, how he’s a playmaker, etc., etc., has to give way to actually playing him.
Today is the day. If he is as ready and as good as Mullen has been saying for nearly 2 years, let’s see it.
This isn’t necessarily about beating the Vols. It’s about the approaching storm from the West: Auburn and LSU in back-to-back weeks.
Does Jones have that ability? Let’s find out.
3. I absolutely love how Nick Saban is using his running backs
Take advantage of what you have. And what he has is the most explosive group of receivers in the country, a group so dangerous no team can dare bring an extra defender in the box because they need at least 7 to minimize the damage down field.
That alignment all but dares a team to run the ball.
Not so long ago, daring Alabama to run was a slow death sentence. But that really hasn’t been the case since Tua Tagovailoa replaced Jalen Hurts.
Rather than run in place behind a line that isn’t executing to Bama’s standard, last week we saw Saban shift Najee Harris out of the backfield out wide. We saw Harris turn a screen pass — essentially a handoff, only already outside the edge — into an ESPY.
Getting Bama’s 6-2, 230-pound monster in a 1-on-1 with a slower linebacker or smaller DB is the matchup we’ve been waiting to see. Harris has had trouble setting it up himself because he has struggled to get to the second level. The screen game is the perfect antidote and it’s the scariest difference between this year’s offense and last year’s offense.
A reasonable goal should be to target Harris 4 times on swing routes, wheel routes, etc. Get the big man in space and let him eat.
4. Kellen Mond vs. The Legend of Kellen Mond
I actually think Texas A&M vs. Auburn is the most interesting game in Week 4, certainly the most intriguing QB matchup simply because we don’t know what to expect.
I’ve never been as high on Kellen Mond as some. I see the raw skills, but I’ve never really believed in them. So I wasn’t surprised when Clemson — even with an overhauled front — stifled Mond in Week 2.
Today will offer him another chance to change some opinions.
Auburn’s front is better than Clemson’s. Auburn contained Mond last year — holding him to 16-of-32 for 220 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. It was very similar to Mond’s performance against Alabama. Not surprisingly, Texas A&M lost both games.
Mond is developing a Drew Lock-like reputation of beating up against inferior competition. Last year’s Clemson game clearly is the outlier, but even in that game, he failed to complete 60 percent of his passes.
More consistency, regardless of who is staring back at him. That’s what I want to see today. I’m sure Jimbo Fisher wouldn’t mind that, either.
5. Can Kelly Bryant beat South Carolina again?
South Carolina beat Drew Lock and the Tigers 3 consecutive years. They never allowed Lock to truly go off. Lock threw just 2 TDs against 6 INTs in losses in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Kelly Bryant will try to end Missouri’s losing streak and extend his success against the Gamecocks.
As Clemson’s QB, Bryant threw for 272 yards and 2 TDs in the Tigers’ 34-10 win in 2017.
The SEC East needs Missouri to win today. If that happens, the Wyoming loss just becomes a strange, any Saturday outlier, and we can continue to hype the Georgia-Missouri showdown.
If South Carolina wins, we might as well just crown Georgia now.
6. Who wins the race to 8 or 9 wins?
As Joe Cox noted earlier this week, Kentucky and Mississippi State are mirror images as football programs. Lately very good but usually doubted.
Today’s game in Starkville is critical. Both lost last week. Neither can afford to make it 2 in a row and still make a legitimate run at 9 wins. Even 8 would be difficult.
A Mississippi State loss would be more devastating. Obviously, it would be a home loss, but given what lies ahead, it would all but eliminate any chance the Bulldogs have of finishing with a winning record in the SEC. That’s something Joe Moorhead noted soon after taking over, how infrequently State has posted a winning record in the SEC. (Just once this century.)
A Kentucky loss would put the Cats in an early 0-2 hole in the SEC, all but eliminating its chance of posting a winning conference record for the second consecutive season.
These teams are always battling for respect. Kentucky, which hasn’t won in Starkville since 2008, has the bigger chance to earn some today.