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

Game of the Week: LSU at No. 12 Ole Miss (-9)

The stakes

For the Rebels, how about keeping the program on track for its first New Year’s 6 bowl berth since a Huge Freeze-led Ole Miss team torched Oklahoma State by 4 touchdowns in the January 2015 Sugar Bowl? A road game at Auburn lurks around the corner, but the Rebels have already played Alabama and Arkansas, so it feels like the second half of the schedule is less taxing than the first half, if only slightly so. Of course, all of that goes out the window if LSU rolls into Oxford and wins Saturday afternoon.

LSU has won 5 consecutive Magnolia Bowls, including last year’s 53-48 track meet in Baton Rouge. Last year’s game was a great opportunity for Ole Miss to flip the script, but they came up a bit short on the road. This year, it feels like an opportunity too good for Lane Kiffin and his program to miss: a home date on national television against an LSU team coming off an emotional win over Florida, missing several All-America and All-SEC caliber talents, and playing for a lame-duck staff.

If not now, when?

Maybe that’s unfair. After all, there should be more opportunities to win big games, including the Magnolia Bowl, for Ole Miss under Lane Kiffin. The fit feels right, doesn’t it?

Ole Miss is a proud program with a chip on its shoulder, its winning tradition too often overlooked in a division that includes the greatest program in the country in Alabama, recent national championship programs in LSU and Auburn and resource-rich Texas A&M. Still, at Ole Miss, where fashion and football mix masterfully, and tailgating and southern hospitality are art forms, winning SEC football games dates back decades. Used to being doubted or condescendingly dismissed, Ole Miss believes it can win because history says it can win.

Kiffin, meanwhile, is a proud offensive genius with a chip on his shoulder, too often overlooked as the son of Monte Kiffin, a coaching legend, and the former offensive coordinator for the SEC’s greatest living legend, Nick Saban. Kiffin sports six-inch inseams, a shag haircut and powder blue fishing hats to summer media availability and isn’t afraid to admit he’d love to celebrate a win by having a cocktail next to a candelabra in the Grove. Used to being doubted or condescendingly dismissed, Kiffin believes he can win because history says he can win.

There’s a prevailing view in the sport of “Lane the mercenary,” a megalomaniac, attention fiend always looking for the next climb up the ladder. But what if — hear me out — Lane stays? His laid-back manner, southern sensibilities and “something to prove” attitude make Kiffin and Ole Miss a match made out of good-old fashioned, Mississippi magic, like Muddy Waters playing the blues.

Win this game, and it won’t just be a great fit anymore for Ole Miss. It will be one with a path to Atlanta. Kiffin can make the SEC West quite interesting with a little help and a win over Texas A&M. Wouldn’t that be something?

The stat: 38 points or more

Defense is optional in Magnolia Bowls of recent vintage. In the past 2 meetings, 196 points have been scored. Since 2015, the winner has scored at least 38 points. That seems unlikely to change Saturday afternoon in Oxford.

LSU has found something offensively over the last game and a half. A run game that at halftime of the Kentucky game averaged just 2.7 yards per carry on the season has suddenly exploded, gaining over 400 yards on the ground in their past 6 quarters.

Last week, LSU ran a simple counter trey concept over and over to bludgeon Florida to defeat. Ty Davis-Price entered the Florida game with 288 yards rushing on the season, 127 of which came in the second half against Kentucky. Against the Gators, Davis-Price nearly equaled his season total, running for 287 yards and breaking Leonard Fournette’s single-game LSU record (set against Ole Miss!) in the process.

The result in the short-term was a 49-42 win over the Gators, but the long-term impact of LSU finding its run game is far more significant. The Tigers are now playing without their most explosive player in the passing game, Kayshon Boutte, who was lost for the season in LSU’s loss to Kentucky. Without Boutte, the Tigers had to find a more balanced offensive identity if they hoped to salvage 2021.

Now they’ve found it, and just in time for Ole Miss.

Could that spell trouble for the Rebels?


Both Kentucky and Florida ranked in the top 30 nationally in total defense and run defense entering their games with LSU. The Rebels rank 106th nationally in that category. Ole Miss ranks 90th nationally in yards allowed per rush attempt. They’ll need to do better than that Saturday afternoon.

Either that or they’ll need their offense to score at least 38 points to win.

The big question: How will the injury affect Matt Corral?

Lane Kiffin said his Heisman Trophy candidate “was not in very good shape” on Tuesday and then declined to discuss his quarterback’s status on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. These status reports (or lack of reports) aren’t encouraging, given that only John Rhys Plumlee and Kinkead Dent are in the cupboard behind Corral for Ole Miss.

Corral is a classic gamer though, in the mold of SEC legends of the past like Rex Grossman or DJ Shockley, players who could miss practice or look average in practice but play like an All-American on Saturday.

Ole Miss won’t want Corral to run 30 times (or even half that much, if possible) on Saturday. LSU isn’t great against the run (99th in yards allowed per attempt, 102nd in success rate defending the run), but they have done a decent job containing quarterbacks who can run: Dorian Thompson-Robinson of UCLA had 5 yards on 13 attempts, Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson of Florida had 53 yards on 17 attempts)

Those numbers, and a Corral injury, may mean less of this on Saturday:

Instead, Kiffin will trust Jerrion Ealy, Henry Parrish Jr. and Snoop Conner a bit more. That’s fine. Those guys are capable of picking up the slack for Corral against LSU. It also means we get more of Corral doing this with his arm:

Still, Corral will, to some extent, be Corral. If he plays, he’s going to run some and probably want to take on linebackers and safeties. We’ll all get a decent hint as to how healthy he is and how he is feeling if he runs out of bounds on a scramble instead, though Kiffin may be more than fine with that decision.

The key matchup: LSU OTs vs. Ole Miss Edge/DE Sam Williams

When Dare Rosenthal, a projected starter for LSU at left tackle, transferred in July, LSU knew it was going to have to shuffle some pieces around up front. There was plenty of talent, as always, but finding the right combination to help LSU find offensive balance was going to be critical.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, that process took longer than expected. Cameron Wire started the season at left tackle but was injured in the UCLA game. As he battled back to health, the Tigers rotated redshirt freshman Xavier Hill, freshman Garrett Dellinger, a top-100 recruit, and converted guard Anthony Bradford at left tackle. Austin Deculus has played the most snaps for LSU on the right side and is coming off a massive game against Florida (more on that in a moment).

Entering the Kentucky game, the rotation was pass blocking well enough (LSU led the SEC in passing touchdowns at that point in the season and had the league’s 3rd-highest success rate throwing the football despite giving up double-digit sacks), but the run game was in dire straits.

As the Tigers’ makeshift line continued to get pushed off the line of scrimmage, 48.2% (55 of 114) of LSU’s true running plays entering the Kentucky game had gained 2 yards or less.

The Tigers have suddenly found solutions in the past 2 games, rushing for 470 yards at a 5.9 yard per carry clip.

With some momentum brewing up front, there is opportunity for this LSU offense to reach new heights as it finds balance for the first time since 2019. But can it cut down on sacks?

The early returns were good against the Gators, as LSU allowed just 1 sack for the first time in SEC play. But that progress came at home on a day the run game was rolling. Can the Tigers replicate that on the road Saturday?

Much like the Gators, albeit in a slightly different scheme, Ole Miss loves to rely on edge pressure. Sam Williams is the best of that group, ranking 2nd in the SEC in sacks with 6.5 and 5th in the league in quarterback pressures generated. Williams also brings the thunder when he wraps up ball carriers. He’s forced 2 fumbles this season, recovered 1, and collected 10 tackles for loss.

A fringe top-100 NFL Draft talent before the season, an NFL front office executive I spoke with this week told me Williams is on their “Top 50” board based on his film in 2021. Another NFL scout, from a 2020 playoff team, told me “he’d be stunned” if Williams wasn’t a top 2 round guy, “barring a nightmare Senior Bowl week or something like that.”

LSU did a splendid job last week on Zachary Carter and Brenton Cox, a pair of top 3 round NFL-type edge rushers who have piled up big numbers in 2021. Of the two, Carter is the most like Williams: physical, wide-framed, strong with a tremendous ability to bull-rush or beat you with a first burst.

If LSU can give Max Johnson time, the second-year quarterback has shown he’ll make good decisions and throws. Much of accomplishing that goal relies on how well LSU’s quartet at tackle handles Williams.

The verdict

LSU’s new-found balance offensively, coupled with the likelihood of Matt Corral being somewhat limited, suggests this football game could be a four-quarter fight.

Then again, not only does Ole Miss have a powerful run game that can exploit the weakness of LSU’s defense, but Matt Corral is a terrific passer who limits turnovers. Playing without Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks last week, the Tigers produced 4 interceptions against the Gators. Winning the turnover battle 4-0 is a big reason they won by 7 points. Corral has thrown 1 interception all season and won’t be as charitable as Dan Mullen’s quarterbacks were in Baton Rouge.

There’s also the matter of LSU playing on the road for the first time since the news broke that Ed Orgeron will not return next season. The Tigers rallied together and played an emotional game at home against Florida; it’s a different and tougher task to do that in a hostile environment on the road.

Ole Miss 41, LSU 28

Mississippi State (-20.5) at Vanderbilt

It will have been 735 days since Vanderbilt last won an SEC football game (a 21-14 upset of Missouri that sealed Barry Odom’s fate on October 19, 2019). There’s been a global pandemic since then and head coaching changes at Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. That’s half the programs in the SEC that have made coaching changes since Vanderbilt last won an SEC football game!

That’s why it takes conviction to suggest that if Vanderbilt is going to snag a conference win in 2021 under first-year head coach Clark Lea, it will be this weekend.

But for the heroics of South Carolina’s Zeb Noland, the 24-year-old graduate assistant turned quarterback, Vanderbilt would have won last week. The Commodores received a nice boost from freshman Mike Wright, who played well in relief of injured Ken Seals, and Wright should play again this week.

This is a better matchup for Vanderbilt than South Carolina was — especially through the air. Miss State is woeful in pass defense, ranking 100th in the country in pass efficiency defense and 114th (and last in the SEC) in explosive plays allowed in the pass game. Vanderbilt is no great shakes in pass defense either, and it’s bad to play a Mike Leach team when you rank 108th in success rate against in pass defense — but Will Rogers is banged up and if Vanderbilt does one thing very well as a pass defense, it is take the ball away. The Commodores have 8 interceptions, which ranks 3rd in the SEC. They’ll get a takeaway or two at home Saturday and Clark Lea, a defensive coordinator by trade, will have a nice scheme for Mike Leach and help Vanderbilt pull off the surprise.

Vanderbilt 27, Mississippi State 21

Tennessee at Alabama (-25)

An angry Alabama improved to 8-0 since 2008 the week after taking a regular-season loss, bullying the Bulldogs in the process with the type of defensive performance many of us expected this season when we discussed all summer whether this would be Nick Saban’s best defense in a decade on the Capstone.

The Crimson Tide tallied 7 sacks, 13 pressures, and 9 tackles for loss in their 40-point win in Starkville. They now return home to play a Vols team that left it all on the field- even mustard, water bottles and tobacco spit– Saturday night in Knoxville against Ole Miss.

Hendon Hooker hobbled off the field late against Ole Miss, too, which means the Vols will at best be playing with a limited version of the guy who has changed the fortunes of their first season under Josh Heupel. At worst, it’s Joe Milton, who hasn’t played much in weeks, facing Alabama in Tuscaloosa behind a leaky offensive line.

If this is close at halftime, that’s a testament to Heupel, who, win or lose Saturday, seems to have things trending positively in Knoxville.

Alabama 45, Tennessee 16

South Carolina at Texas A&M (-19.5)

Mike Elko’s Texas A&M defense is a bit of a statistical mystery.

The Aggies rank 11th in SP+ defensive efficiency and 17th in success rate defense (a successful play is one which gains 50% of the necessary yardage on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd and 4th down). Those numbers are good, and the Aggies defensive line, led by All-American DeMarvin Leal, a mainstay as either a ranked player or honorable mention in the SDS Top 10 Players in the SEC power rankings, is marvelous at pressuring the quarterback (18th in sack percentage).

But the Aggies, despite the talent and some nice advanced analytics numbers, have had defensive weaknesses.

They rank only 44th in total defense, are outside the top 20 in yards allowed per play and they are vulnerable against the run (56th nationally).

A dominant defensive performance is something this unit is capable of if you just look at talent. We just haven’t quite seen them put it all together yet.

They will Saturday, putting a dent in the great story that is Zeb Noland at quarterback for the Gamecocks.

Texas A&M 27, South Carolina 7

Arkansas Pine-Bluff at Arkansas

The Razorbacks just finished a stretch where they played Texas, Texas A&M, at Georgia and at Ole Miss and Auburn in a 6-week sprint. They deserve this breather. We all deserve to see the SEC’s leading receiver, Treylon Burks, do Superman things:

Really, this happens every week:

Pine Bluff is in trouble.

Arkansas 56, Arkansas Pine-Bluff 0