The last college football weekend in October will feature two major SEC games: an East Division rivalry showdown between No. 1 Georgia and Florida in Jacksonville and the West Division battle between No. 10 Ole Miss and No. 18 Auburn on the Plains.
The former could serve as the finish line of the SEC East title race. If the Bulldogs top the Gators and Mississippi State upsets No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday night, the Bulldogs will officially punch their ticket to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the SEC Championship Game. The latter will likely act as a de facto SEC West elimination game for the loser.
Let’s break down the top storylines in the SEC and make picks straight up and against the spread for the Week 9 conference games.
Appetizer: Keep an eye on Tank and Hunter
Sometimes football isn’t complicated. Auburn coach Bryan Harsin doesn’t need to overcomplicate things on Saturday against Ole Miss — just run the dang ball. The problem is that hasn’t been as easy as many thought for the Tigers over the last few games. They averaged 1.59 yards per carry against Georgia two games ago and 3.86 last time out against Arkansas. That has to change. Sophomore Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter were rolling earlier this season but have tailed off tremendously due in part to what appears to be growing confidence in quarterback Bo Nix.
Harsin needs to go back to the basics against Ole Miss because the last thing that he needs to see is Rebels quarterback Matt Corral between the white lines. Ole Miss has the second-worst rush defense in the SEC (181.0 YPG), and has given up 44 rushing plays of 10 or more yards, which ranks 10th in the conference.
Expect a heavy dose of Bigsby and Hunter with a little bit of Nix on the ground sprinkled in. It’s the best chance Auburn has of springing the slight upset.
Main course: Don’t make this difficult, Dan
Georgia coach Kirby Smart and Florida coach Dan Mullen each have quarterback questions to answer this week. But, let’s be real, Mullen’s is the only one that truly matters.
Junior Emory Jones has started all seven games for the Gators, but has 10 touchdowns and 9 interceptions while proving to be a liability at critical times through the air. Freshman Anthony Richardson, on the other hand, hasn’t had his chance yet. He’s averaged 10.6 yards per attempt, rushed for 348 and three touchdowns, and has done so with significantly less playing time than Jones.
Mullen this week was noncommittal on who will get the first snap vs. Georgia.
“We’re going to keep playing them the same way,” Mullen said. “We plan on playing both of the guys like we have.”
Psst … Dan … start Richardson.
The writing is on the wall for Jones. He’s inconsistent under pressure, isn’t a big-play threat through the air and is comparable to Richardson in terms of his ability on the ground. Richardson is a big-play threat through the air but hasn’t had the opportunity to shine in big spots nearly as much as Jones.
It’s a gamble to start Richardson. It’d be like chasing a flush with pocket hearts and another on the flop. It isn’t the best idea, but at least it has a chance of working. Starting Jones would be like betting big with seven-two off-suit and four face cards on the table.
Dessert: Will Rogers has to be big
Will Rogers, the second-year starting quarterback for Mississippi State, is second in the SEC in passing plays of 20 or more yards with 27 despite playing one fewer game than conference leader Bryce Young (33). That’s not the most surprising nugget since Bulldogs coach Mike Leach essentially refuses to run the football. But the matchup vs. Kentucky should be one of the more difficult challenges of the season for Rogers.
The Wildcats have only given up 15 passing plays of 20 or more yards — second fewest in the conference. They’ve had three of 30 or more yards — the best mark in the league.
“Will [Rogers] is doing a really good job of running the offense,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said this week. “You can see his comfort level going higher and higher and getting rid of the football and not putting them in such negative situations as you would in the first year in a program with a young quarterback. You see him playing at a very high level and getting to where they want to be.”
Keep an eye on how Stoops attacks Rogers. Leach’s game plans aren’t exactly complicated, but they’re difficult to stop. With two weeks to prepare, expect Kentucky to have some new looks in the scheme.
Straight up: 62-12 | Against the spread: 32-31
The Tigers are 16-point road favorites despite losing three of their last four games, including a 35-14 home loss to Texas A&M two weeks ago. It also ranks last in the SEC in rushing defense at 287.57 yards per game, which is 106.57 yards per game behind the second-worst rushing defense in the SEC (Ole Miss at 181.0 YPG). That is flat-out horrendous. Vanderbilt will be effective enough on the ground to cover the spread and make it a game in the fourth quarter. Pick: Vanderbilt (+16)
No. 1 Georgia vs. Florida
The Gators defense is going to get torched by Georgia’s offense no matter who starts at quarterback. Stetson Bennett IV and JT Daniels have both been wildly successful deep downfield this year, and the one thing that we know about Florida’s defense is that coordinator Todd Grantham will blitz 20 guys as long as the refs don’t notice. It won’t work, though. Georgia will put this one to bed midway through the third quarter and the Bulldogs win with ease. Pick: Georgia (-14)
No. 10 Ole Miss at No. 18 Auburn
Ole Miss will stop the Tigers running game enough to make Nix attempt to win a shootout with his arm. He won’t be able to do it. Rebels coach Lane Kiffin will use tempo to wear out an Auburn defense that’s a little banged up, Nix will make a couple of mistakes in the second half and Ole Miss will keep its SEC West hopes alive with a seven-point win. Pick: Ole Miss (+2.5)
No. 12 Kentucky at Mississippi State
Mississippi State Bulldogs
If there’s one thing we know more than anything else about the Wildcats, it’s that Stoops is a defensive wizard. With two weeks to prepare for a predictable Mississippi State offense, he’s as dangerous as any coach in the country. The Wildcats forced 6 interceptions in this game last year. While they might not hit that mark this time around, they’ll do enough to win and cover against Will Rogers and Co. Pick: Kentucky (-1.5)
Which college football picks can you make with confidence in Week 9, and which top-10 team will go down hard? Visit SportsLine to see which teams will win and cover the spread — all from a proven computer model that has returned almost $3,900 in profit over the past five-plus seasons — and find out.