Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.

Game of the Week: Mississippi State (+11) at Auburn

The stakes

It’s still only September, somehow, which means it’s still too soon to invoke the ‘P’ word for a team that still has to play Florida, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama. But the optimism at Auburn is well earned: By vanquishing Oregon and Texas A&M, the Tigers are the only FBS outfit to date with multiple wins over top 20 opponents, both of them coming away from home. That says something about something, and if nothing else keeps them on the ever-shrinking list of outfits for whom a plausible Playoff path still exists. As long as that’s the case, every game is a big one.

Nowhere is that more true than behind center, in Bo Nix’s bid to continue the trend of true-freshman quarterbacks playing at a championship level right out of the box.

Statistically, he’s off to an underwhelming start; mentally, he’s right on track and should only keep growing by the week. After throwing 2 INTs in the first half of the season opener, Nix has gone 14 consecutive quarters without a turnover, a span in which he’s also led a dramatic comeback and looked right at home in one of the most hostile environments in the nation. A big game against a division rival would be right on schedule.

The stat: 113.8 yards per game

That’s the difference between Auburn’s rushing output in its first 4 games (259.5 ypg, best in the SEC) and its output vs. FBS opponents last year (145.7 ypg, the worst number of of Gus Malzahn’s tenure, by far). The workhorse of the rotation, redshirt sophomore JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow, is easily on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards, a mark no Auburn back came close to hitting in 2018 for the first time in a decade.

Specifically, the 23-9 loss in Starkville last October was the night the bubble surrounding the 2018 team officially burst. Just like this year, the Tigers arrived with a top 10 ranking largely carried over the preseason, and proceeded to set off alarms by failing to score a touchdown against a loaded MSU defense; they immediately plummeted in the polls, and exited for good the following week after an all-hands-on-deck loss to Tennessee.

“(Mississippi State) really just, bottom line, embarrassed us last year,” Malzahn said earlier this week. “They just lined up and whipped us. … That was a tough one.”

Of course, the headliners from the unit that administered that butt-kicking are playing in the NFL, while Auburn boasts a long-in-the-tooth offensive line composed of 5 5th-year senior starters. In contrast to the Tigers’ turnaround on the ground, the Bulldogs’ rushing D has regressed so far by 48 yards per game and 1.6 yards per carry. Saturday night will be another significant test of just how sustainable those early gains are against the meat of the conference slate.

The big question: Can Mississippi State throw downfield?

Both MSU quarterbacks, Tommy Stevens and Garrett Shrader, have been sharing first-team reps this week, with the starting assignment still anyone’s guess. Stevens is apparently healthy enough to play after sitting out last week’s 28-13 win over Kentucky with a lingering shoulder injury. Shrader arguably has the hot hand after accounting for 305 total yards (180 passing, 125 rushing) in his first career start, a performance that earned him SEC Freshman of the Week.

Shrader might get the nod by default, depending on how Stevens feels at kickoff; otherwise, the decision between the pocket-passing veteran and the dual threat youngster will be a good indicator of how the Bulldogs plan to attack beyond the requisite 25-30 touches for dynamic RB Kylin Hill.

Either way, wide receiver remains an issue. Junior Osirus Mitchell is the clear leader of the group, with 17 catches for 244 yards and 3 TDs — that’s not far behind the next 4 in the rotation combined — but at 6-5, 210 pounds is hardly a candidate to outrun anyone in Auburn’s secondary.

Barring an outright bust, neither is anyone else: As a team, Mississippi State has just 2 pass plays of 30 yards or more (both from Stevens to Mitchell), fewest in the conference, and none of 40 yards. Auburn’s defensive line is hard enough to handle as it is; if the Tigers feel free to devote an extra defender or 2 to containing Hill, slugging it out without a credible threat of stretching the field is exhausting even to contemplate.

The verdict

When I say Nix is “on schedule” for a big night, I have a specific reference point in mind: This is roughly the same spot on the calendar 2 years ago that saw then-freshman Jake Fromm turn in a breakthrough performance against Mississippi State that propelled Georgia into the national conversation. (Sorry for the reminder, State fans.)

That’s a little over-determined, admittedly, but Nix is in a very similar place. It’s his first game in Jordan-Hare against an SEC opponent, a much bigger energy than tomato-can games against the likes of Tulane and Kent State. His confidence and comfort level in the offense continue to improve. And Auburn’s relatively close-to-the-vest approach in the passing game so far has obscured the talent level at receiver, where the Tigers are blessed with size, speed and depth.

Yes, at times Nix has been as erratic as he has been efficient; as long as the defense is holding up its end of the bargain, the first instinct is to protect him. But he’s going to get his shots, too — likely early on, when Malzahn generally prefers to go on the attack. If he connects, it could send his stock, and his team’s, through the roof.

Verdict: Auburn 30, Mississippi State 21

Ole Miss at Alabama (-38)

Bama’s wide receivers are so interchangeably explosive at this point that they literally play Rock Paper Scissors for dibs on the most choice routes. Given that this is more or less the same corps that sacrificed the Ole Miss secondary to the gods last year in Oxford — and more or less the same secondary, too — there should be no shortage of opportunities on Saturday for CBS cameras to pick up a quick game just ahead of a big play. That’s about as suspenseful as this one’s likely to get.

The bigger concern for the Rebels is who plays quarterback, a decision that could have longer-term implications than whether they mange to cover the spread Saturday. The nominal starter, redshirt freshman Matt Corral, was knocked out of last week’s loss to Cal with bruised ribs; his replacement, true freshman John Rhys Plumlee, nearly led a comeback from 15 points down off the bench and will be in line to make his first career start if Corral can’t play.

The question is what happens if Corral can play: Do you send him out to face the Crimson Tide at less than 100 percent, or stick with Plumlee and risk having him thrown into the volcano? If Corral is still the guy going forward, frankly he’s probably better off taking it easy.

Verdict: Alabama 54, Ole Miss 10

Kentucky at South Carolina (-3)

I’m still reluctant to suggest Will Muschamp is coaching for his job this season after losing his starting quarterback for the year, but if his fate is any doubt this looks like a must-win. The Gamecocks have already dropped 2 of the winnable toss-up games on the schedule to North Carolina and Missouri; losing a 3rd with Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, and Clemson still ahead would all but guarantee a losing record before Oct. 1. And that’s counting Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Appalachian State as likely wins. Lose 1 of those, and things could get ugly real fast.

Kentucky also lost its starting QB early in the year, and feared it would have to resort to extreme measures behind center after the new starter, Sawyer Smith, injured his shoulder in last week’s loss at Mississippi State. Smith played the entire game despite the injury, and as of mid-week expects to be ready to go in Columbia. But he was clearly not right after halftime in Starkville, completing just 8-of-26 attempts, and whether he’ll be effective enough to keep UK from embracing the Wildcat out of sheer necessity is another question.

Verdict: South Carolina 26, Kentucky 24

Arkansas (+23) vs. Texas A&M

Arkansas is bad, like “seriously, we lost to San Jose State at home” bad. But is it “quit on the season” bad?

Because even when the Razorbacks have dwindled at the bottom of the standings — and even though they’ve yet to actually beat A&M since the Aggies joined the conference — since rebranding as the “Southwest Classic” this has been a consistently competitive series: Four of the past 5 have been decided by exactly 7 points, including 3 overtime games in 2014, ’15, and ’17.

This A&M team isn’t demonstrably better than any of those, so the oddsmakers who set the point spread north of 3 touchdowns believe that the Razorbacks are that much worse or they’ve packed it in for the year. They might be right, but I’m not convinced the Classic follows that kind of logic. Or any kind.

Verdict: Texas A&M 36, Arkansas 17

Northern Illinois (+6.5) at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt QB Riley Neal was 0-3 against NIU as the starting quarterback at Ball State, including a 59-41 loss in 2015 in which he torched the Huskies for 393 yards and 4 TDs. If he throws 4 TDs on Saturday he’ll be just the 3rd Vandy quarterback to do it against an FBS opponent since Jay Cutler.

Verdict: Vanderbilt 31, Northern Illinois 27

Towson at Florida (-37)

Towson is a top 10 team at the FCS level, which makes it roughly the equivalent of an average Conference USA team. (The Tigers are 115th in Jeff Sagarin’s full D-I ratings, just below UAB and just ahead of Middle Tennessee State.) I’m sure fans in The Swamp will take that into account if it takes a quarter or 2 for the Gators to get on track.

Verdict: Florida 47, Towson 6


Week 4 record: 7-2 straight-up / 7-2 vs. spread

Season record: 35-8 straight-up / 21-22 vs. spread