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Week Four SEC Primer

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Get ready for all of the Week Four SEC action with Matt Smith's primer.

After a light weekend with only two notable games, the SEC slate is loaded on the penultimate day of summer.

The highly anticipated rematch between Notre Dame and Georgia is finally here, as ESPN’s College GameDay makes its first visit to an SEC campus this season. In conference play, Auburn and Texas A&M will battle to see which team is more likely to challenge Alabama and LSU in the SEC West race, while Kentucky and Mississippi State will try to avoid early losing streaks when they play their annual in Starkville.

The Tennessee-Florida rivalry is nowhere close to what it once was, but it does present an opportunity for the Vols to show they’ve put their 0-2 start behind them against a Florida team that may struggle to score.

That’s just scratching the surface. Let’s go deep on Week 4 in the SEC.

5 Things I Want to Know on Sunday Morning

1. Are there more than six playoff contenders?

I hate talking playoff this early, but there does seem to be a dividing line between No. 6 Ohio State and No. 7 Notre Dame. Can the Fighting Irish blur those lines at Georgia on Saturday night while at the same time bringing the Bulldogs back to the pack? If not Notre Dame, who else can break through into the top six? Would you give Michigan, Florida, or Utah a better chance than the Irish of winning in Athens? Probably not. With Georgia the only top-six team with any sort of test, the gap may only widen if the ‘Dawgs win comfortably.

2. Could Florida’s offense be improved with Kyle Trask?

For one night, Trask looked like the answer for a struggling Gators offense after replacing an injured Feleipe Franks and leading a comeback win over Kentucky. Tennessee now can prepare for Trask, however, so there shouldn’t be any surprises unless Dan Mullen chooses to deploy sophomore dual-threat Emory Jones. Where Trask could elevate this team is in the elimination of the big mistakes that Franks made too often. The concern is how Trask handles a still-developing offensive line. Against Miami (FL), Franks was able to escape pressure and create successful plays. Trask might have that ability, but he hasn’t shown it yet.

3. What is the real Auburn running game?

After two weeks looking out of sorts, the Tigers running game accounted for nearly 500 yards against Kent State last weekend. Now comes a much tougher task with a trip to Texas A&M. Auburn has to run the ball well to score. Period. This offense can’t do what Alabama can through the air. One game against a bad team isn’t enough to say they’ve turned the corner, but a productive afternoon in College Station would be. The Tigers have at least four defenses better than the Aggies still ahead. If things don’t go well this week, Auburn’s offense could be in big trouble.

4. What coach can best pick his team up off the mat?

Two SEC teams suffered one-score defeats last weekend, and they’ll both be on the same field on Saturday afternoon in Starkville. Kentucky collapsed yet again in a loss to Florida, while Mississippi State suffered a sloppy home defeat to Kansas State. One of these teams will be 2-2, all but dashing any hopes of getting to eight wins, so this game is quite important for both sides. Mark Stoops has more experience at responding to gut-punch defeats than Joe Moorhead, whose 2018 Bulldogs team suffered three of their four losses by 16 points or more.

5. How good is Missouri?

South Carolina cost Missouri a chance at a New Year’s Six bowl last season, knocking off the Tigers for a third-year in a row despite playing with a backup quarterback and coming off of back-to-back road games. The Tigers are again in an advantageous position for this year’s meeting with playing at home, coming off of an FCS opponent while the Gamecocks played Alabama, and being much healthier than a South Carolina team that has been hit hard by illness and injuries. If Missouri is going to be a viable threat to Florida for the No. 2 slot in the SEC East, it needs to defeat South Carolina without much trouble. Stacking a fourth straight loss to the Gamecocks on top of the ugly opener against Wyoming would be a bad look for Barry Odom in a season in which he was dealt a great hand.

Trivia Time (answers below):

1. Who is the last SEC West team that Kentucky has defeated on the road?
2. What Florida player had five sacks in a win over Tennessee 20 years ago this week?
3. Who is the last current SEC team to win a home game against Notre Dame?

Previews and Predictions

Tennessee at (9) Florida (-14), Noon ET (ESPN)
Announcers: Bob Wischusen and Dan Orlovsky

Eventually, this game will truly matter again. For another year at least, however, Tennessee-Florida remains largely an afterthought. The 3-0 Gators will turn the keys over to Kyle Trask this week, as they look to defeat the Volunteers at home for the eighth straight time. Tennessee was crisp last week in a 45-0 rout of Chattanooga, but Florida isn’t Chattanooga (great analysis). The Vols have the skill position players to cause some problem for the Gators defense, but quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has struggled with reads and anticipation this season, which will have to be on point against the blitz-heavy Gators. Florida won’t pull away from any competent team this season, including this week. Tennessee will have its chances, but it will be yet another missed opportunity.

Prediction: Florida 27, Tennessee 17

Southern Miss at (2) Alabama (-39), Noon ET (ESPN2)
Announcers: Roy Philpott and Kelly Stouffer

It’s a second SEC road game in three weeks for the Golden Eagles, who fell to Mississippi State, 38-15, on Sept. 7. Alabama still hasn’t shown its running game is anywhere close to the level it has been under Nick Saban, so this may be the week for the Crimson Tide to lean heavy on the ground before a stretch of six straight conference games commences next Saturday. Southern Miss is no pushover on offense, and with Alabama likely to start four true freshman in its front seven, the visitors should be able to get into the teens.

Prediction: Alabama 49, Southern Miss 14

(23) California at Ole Miss (-2.5), Noon ET (ESPNU)
Announcers: Clay Matvick and Ryan Leaf

This game is buried amongst a pretty juicy national slate, but the Golden Bears’ trip to Oxford has significant ramifications. The Pac-12 could use a decent non-conference win, while the Rebels’ hopes to return to a bowl for the first time since 2015 almost certainly require a win on Saturday. Cal’s defense is SEC-caliber, as the Bears haven’t allowed more than 23 points in their last 10 games. Ole Miss’ defense has improved dramatically, but the Rebels are still susceptible to the big play in the passing game. These two coaching staffs know each other well, and neither offense has shown a consistent ability to move the ball. Expect a tight, defensive battle, with Cal heading back west with its perfect record intact.

Prediction: California 23, Ole Miss 20

(4) LSU (-24) at Vanderbilt, Noon ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Tom Hart, Jordan Rodgers and Cole Cubelic

It will be another visitors’ takeover of Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday when LSU makes its first visit to Vanderbilt since 2009 and, as of now, its last until 2031. The Tigers are in the middle of the soft part of their schedule, with this game surrounded by two non-conference games and an idle week. There shouldn’t be any looking ahead or lack of focus from LSU, especially after dilly-dallying for the first half of last week’s win over Northwestern State. After a challenging night at Texas two weeks ago, the LSU defense will return to form, while Joe Burrow carves up a shaky Commodores secondary.

Prediction: LSU 41, Vanderbilt 10

(8) Auburn at (17) Texas A&M (-3.5), 3:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Announcers: Carter Blackburn, Rick Neuheisel and Aaron Murray

The Tigers finally broke through an ended a six-game streak of the visiting team winning in this series with their comeback win last November on the Plains. Auburn is 3-0 in SEC games at Kyle Field, including two wins as an underdog, which it’ll be on Saturday afternoon in the steamy heat of southeast Texas. With both running games having struggled in their marquee non-conference games, this game could come down to the quarterbacks. Despite a messy day at Clemson, I’ll still take Kellen Mond over a true freshman making his first road start.

Prediction: Texas A&M 24, Auburn 20

Kentucky at Mississippi State (-6), 4 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Taylor Zarzour and Matt Stinchcomb

The Bulldogs are still uncertain (at least as far as we know) about whether Tommy Stevens or Garrett Shrader will be under center for this critical SEC contest. Shrader impressed with his gritty, acrobatic play in last week’s loss to Kansas State, but if healthy, Stevens will return as the starter. Kentucky has allowed six rushing touchdowns this season, the most in the SEC. That bodes well for Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill, who had a huge day last week in defeat. This is a must-win game for the Bulldogs, but I’ll take Mark Stoops’ team to pull a second straight upset in this series after last year’s 28-7 thrashing in Lexington.

Prediction: Kentucky 24, Mississippi State 22

South Carolina at Missouri (-9.5), 4 p.m. ET (SEC Network Alternate)
Announcers: Mike Morgan and Ray Bentley

Did you know there’s a trophy for this game? It’s called the Mayor’s Cup, because both schools are located in Columbia. Enough of that. The task at hand for the Tigers is getting over the hump against a team that has inexplicably beaten them multiple times this decade. The Gamecocks have had a brutal month with injuries, illness, and a difficult schedule, but true freshman Ryan Hilinski has given South Carolina fans a ton of hope for the future with his play last week in a loss to Alabama. Missouri has bounced back from the Week 1 Wyoming loss by allowing just seven total points in its last two games. That will change a bit on Saturday, but Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant will manage to beat South Carolina again after going 3-0 against the Gamecocks while at Clemson.

Prediction: Missouri 34, South Carolina 24

San Jose State at Arkansas (-20.5), 7:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Dave Neal and D.J. Shockley

The Razorbacks’ heinous non-conference schedule continues with a visit from the Spartans, who are just 4-23 under third-year head coach Brent Brennan. Arkansas will win, but Hogs fans should in addition demand a game where both sides of the ball excel, which hasn’t really happened yet under Chad Morris. With Nick Starkel settling in under center, the offense should have its way. After allowing 34 points to Colorado State, it’s the defense’s turn to have a bounceback week. Arkansas, big.

Prediction: Arkansas 45, San Jose State 10

(7) Notre Dame at (3) Georgia (-14.5), 8 p.m. ET (CBS)
Announcers: Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson

What’s the path for the Fighting Irish to make this a four-quarter game? Their rushing defense has been shaky in two comfortable wins to start the season, but now comes what might be the best ground game in the country in Georgia. Jake Fromm is going to have opportunities to make plays in the passing game with Notre Dame likely to sell out against the run. If he can continue his steady play, the Georgia offense shouldn’t have trouble moving the ball. Ian Book will need some wizardry to escape the Bulldogs’ pass rush, but if he can, there are plenty of weapons in the Irish passing game to threaten Georgia. Notre Dame will likely be without two of its top three running backs, as the roll of the injury dice hasn’t landed the Irish’s way so far this season. The final score won’t be all that close, but it will at least be a better display for Notre Dame than so many of its recent games against top-five teams.

Prediction: Georgia 35, Notre Dame 18

Best Bets

Last Week: 3-2, +3 Musburgers
YTD: 4-10-1, -15 Musburgers

Syracuse -5 vs. Western Michigan – 5 Musburgers
Arkansas -20.5 vs. San Jose State – 4 Musburgers
Buffalo +14 vs. Temple – 3 Musburgers
Northwestern +9 vs. Michigan State – 2 Musburgers
Wyoming +3.5 at Tulsa – 1 Musburger

Trivia Answers

1. Auburn (2009)
2. Alex Brown
3. Texas A&M (2001)

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.