Week 8 SEC Primer: LSU is too good to fall into the 'trap game' trap
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: LSU (-18.5) at Mississippi State
OK, let’s see: Playoff contender with a lot to lose? Check. Coming off a big, dramatic win? Check. With more big, season-defining games looming in the coming weeks? Check. Favored by double digits? Check. On the road? Check. Against an underachieving but still solid opponent that has arguably yet to play up to its potential? Check and check.
No doubt about it. What the Tigers have themselves here is a classic Trap Game.
A road trip to Mississippi State is so obviously a trap game, in fact, that if anything all the focus this week on LSU’s focus will only make LSU more focused. There’s certainly no shortage of reminders of just how badly it can go wrong. Two years ago, the Tigers rolled into Starkville ranked 12th in the AP poll and limped out as 37-7 losers, their most lopsided defeat in the history of the series and worst loss to an unranked opponent since World War II. Including that game, the Bulldogs have won 4 of their past 5 at home against ranked teams, the only loss coming in a down-to-the-wire upset bid against No. 1 Alabama in 2017. And just last week LSU watched Georgia bite the dust at home against an even bigger underdog.
This team has already proven it can handle its business in a tough road environment. But the cowbells tend to clang a little louder for these types of games. Of the tests LSU has to pass to get to the Alabama game unscathed, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Saturday wound up being one of the most fraught.
The stat: 76.3 percent
That’s Joe Burrow’s completion percentage on attempts that travel at least 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, best in the FBS this season by a mile.
On throws of 10+ yards this year
*Burrow: 76.3% (!) 12 TD 2 INT
*Herbert: 55.3% 11 TD 1 INT
*Ehlinger: 50.6% 12 TD 2 INT
*Tua: 51.6% 14 TD 1 INT
*Fields: 58.2% 11 TD 1 INT
*Sam Howell: 50.6% 11 TD 1 INT
— THE™️ David Hale (@ADavidHaleJoint) October 16, 2019
Against Florida, Burrow was 7-of-9 on downfield attempts for 179 yards, nearly all of that coming via his top wideouts, Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase. (Tight end Thaddeus Moss hauled in a 25-yard gain, as well.) In the Week 2 win at Texas, he was a truly absurd 16-of-20 for 379 yards, accounting for fully half of his attempts against the Longhorns and more than 80 percent of his record-breaking output for the night. Surprisingly, aside from the long, game-icing touchdown passes to Jefferson and Chase, respectively, very few of those yards in either game came after the catch.
If there’s a silver lining for Mississippi State, it’s that the secondary won’t have to worry about dynamic sophomore Terrace Marshall, who’s expected to miss his 3rd consecutive game due to a foot injury. In every other respect the matchup with LSU’s passing game looks like a nightmare: MSU ranks 11th in the SEC in pass efficiency D, 12th in sacks, and is coming off consecutive losses in which it allowed 15.0 yards per attempt to Auburn and 11.9 to Tennessee — easily season highs for both teams.
The big question: Does MSU’s offense have any juice left?
LSU’s defense is a rung or two below its usual perch in the national rankings, but the Bulldogs are on the verge of a full-blown crisis. They looked sluggish in September losses to Kansas State and Auburn and bottomed out in last week’s 20-10 loss at Tennessee, failing to sniff the end zone until well into the 4th quarter. Coach Joe Moorhead responded this week by assuring the fan base that he’s his own worst critic and making the most crowd-pleasing move at his disposal, anointing true freshman QB Garrett Shrader the full-time starter going forward.
The difference is largely semantic. Shrader has already taken the majority of snaps over the past month, coming off the bench to replace grad transfer Tommy Stevens against K-State, Auburn, and Tennessee and going the distance in his only start to date, a 28-13 win over Kentucky; although Shrader has been clearly more productive, that has to be taken with a grain of salt given that (a) Stevens has been limited by a lingering shoulder injury, and (b) both the Tennessee and Auburn games were disasters in progress in which Shrader was thrown in essentially as a stopgap. For the time being he’s still the Helicopter Guy.
Shrader’s best assets are his size (6-4, 220 pounds) and mobility (374 rushing yards on 6.3 per carry), both of which are reminiscent of the departed Nick Fitzgerald.
Unfortunately, so is his arm, which prevented him from overtaking Stevens sooner. And so are his receivers, who are still among the least-threatening groups in the conference to a blue-chip secondary like LSU’s. Last year’s trip to Baton Rouge netted 3 points in one of the most unwatchable slogs of the season.
This year, the game plan is the same: Whatever returns the Bulldogs generate over that debacle will begin and end with Shrader and workhorse RB Kylin Hill pounding out a living between the tackles, grinding the clock, and taking advantage of whatever big play and short-field opportunities come their way.
“Trap game” logic notwithstanding, these teams trending in opposite directions — nothing about the way they’ve played this season points toward a potential upset.
LSU’s offense has found a niche that exploits its talent to maximum effect; Mississippi State’s offense is foundering in the same way it did in 2018, opposite a defense that has regressed even more dramatically than expected. The Bulldogs’ best player liked a tweet about being “in a bad situation” in the middle of a game. The cowbells might show up in force — debatable, given just how demoralized the fan base is at the moment — but as long as Joe Burrow does, too, they’re not going to be in for any surprises.
LSU 41, Mississippi State 17
Tennessee (+34.5) at Alabama
This marks the 4th consecutive season and 6th time since 2012 Alabama has come into this game as the No. 1 team in AP poll; the Crimson Tide won the first 5 in that span by margins of somewhere between 31 and 39 points per game — the exact window for the 5-touchdown point spread Saturday night. The notion of an actually competitive Third Saturday matchup is as distant as ever.
Short of enacting a strict zero-tolerance policy on punting — which Jeremy Pruitt should, because why the heck not? You might get beat by 6 touchdowns instead of 5? — it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Tennessee avoids a repeat of the past few years.
The fans have taken a shine to true freshman Brian Maurer, whose promotion to QB1 has coincided with the first signs of life in a season that appeared to be dead on arrival. But Maurer has been left both of his first two starts early following ugly hits and remains a game-time decision after suffering a concussion in the Vols’ win over Mississippi State.
As long as Jarrett Guarantano is still available, frankly there’s not much point in rushing Maurer back only to put him in the crosshairs of Bama’s improving pass rush. Behind Tennessee’s offensive line, he’s liable to have his confidence knocked out of him or worse.
A less morbid game: Which of Alabama’s electric wide receivers will win this week’s round of rock-paper-scissors? So far the spotlight has gone in cycles — Jerry Jeudy cracked the 100-yard mark in the first 2 games of the season, Henry Ruggs III broke out in games 2, 3 and 4, and DeVonta Smith took his turn in games 3, 5 and 6. (Smith will be suspended for the first half against Tennessee after being ejected last week against Texas A&M.) Jaylen Waddle finally joined the party last week with his 1st TD reception of the season on top of 128 yards in punt returns. That could mean Waddle is due again, in keeping with the pattern. But this also feels like a potential Jeudy game, if only because he hasn’t scored in either of the past 2 and might be getting impatient for his number to come back around.
Alabama 48, Tennessee 16
Florida at South Carolina (+6)
South Carolina QB Ryan Hilinski is on track to play Saturday, and presumably start, after leaving last week’s upset win at Georgia with a knee injury. Even more important than the question behind center, though, is the one on the other side of the ball: Which version of the Carolina D will show up?
The Gamecocks are a middle-of-the-pack defense statistically, at least in the conventional terms of yards and points allowed. But the defense had been quietly solid leading up to the Georgia game and made a significant statement in Athens, hounding Jake Fromm into 3 interceptions (including the game-changing pick-6) and holding the Bulldogs to their 2nd-lowest point total in Kirby Smart’s tenure. They fare much better in the advanced metrics, too, coming in at No. 9 according to ESPN’s Football Power Index and no. 15 in Defensive SP+.
Kindly move out of Javon Kinlaw’s way, SIRpic.twitter.com/SHkNipV7d8
— Thor Nystrom (@thorku) October 12, 2019
The emerging force of the unit is senior DT Javon Kinlaw, who turned against Alabama earlier in the season and had a major impact against Georgia; among other highlights, he’s the one who supplied the pressure that forced Fromm to unload possibly the worst throw of his career on the pick-6. More of the same against Kyle Trask and the Gamecocks might begin entertaining visions of a dark horse run in the SEC East.
Florida 26, South Carolina 21
Kentucky (+25) at Georgia
There’s some intrigue here involving Kentucky’s quarterback situation: With starter Sawyer Smith on ice, WR Lynn Bowden Jr. looked like a natural behind center in last week’s 24-20 win over Arkansas, accounting for 274 yards, 3 TDs and zero turnovers in a game UK had to have in terms of bowl eligibility.
Smith and Bowden are listed as co-starters on the updated depth chart; as badly as the Wildcats were struggling on offense before last week, even if Smith is cleared to play at Georgia, it’s not out of the question that they’ll opt to keep the offense in its best athlete’s hands as long as it’s working.
Of course, now that they’ve seen Bowden on tape the Bulldogs might put an end to that experiment in short order in what figures to be a reassuring rebound from the loss to South Carolina. UGA ranks 6th nationally in rushing defense and is the only FBS team that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season. Still, any game plan that involves more touches for Bowden is worth a shot.
Georgia 38, Kentucky 17
Texas A&M (-6.5) at Ole Miss
The Aggies (3-3) and Rebels (3-4) need 3 more wins to be bowl eligible, and if this isn’t 1 of them, the path starts to look dark for both teams.
A&M, at least, will still be a likely favorite against Mississippi State, UT-San Antonio, and South Carolina — all in College Station — before closing out with back-to-back road games at Georgia and LSU. (Not that breaking even will placate A&M fans with much higher expectations than qualifying for the Belk Bowl, but at this point, it certainly beats the alternative.)
For Ole Miss, a 5th loss before Halloween would put it in the position of needing a major upset over Auburn or LSU just to have a chance.
Texas A&M 32, Ole Miss 24
Auburn (-19) at Arkansas
Auburn will be without its leading rusher, Boobie Whitlow, for at least another month as he recovers from knee surgery. Whether the Tigers take a committee approach to replace his production or a single back (Kam Martin?) emerges from the pack, Arkansas’ defense is a good starting point for figuring it out: The Razorbacks rank next-to-last in the SEC against the run after allowing Kentucky to pile up 330 yards on 6.1 per carry.
Auburn 40, Arkansas 14
Missouri (-21) at Vanderbilt
At midseason the Commodores rank dead last in the SEC in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense, total defense, rushing offense, rushing defense, pass efficiency, pass efficiency defense, yards per play, yards per play allowed, plays of 20 yards or more, plays allowed of 20 yards or more, sacks, takeaways, 1st downs, 3rd-down conversions and attendance. On the plus side, at least hardly anyone is paying attention.
Missouri 45, Vanderbilt 13
Week 7 record 4-3 straight up / 2-5 vs. spread
Season record: 49-12 straight up / 29-32 vs. spread