Vanderbilt has a chance to become bowl-eligible at Ole Miss, the Titans and Vols face must-win games, and Alabama plays another big game on the national stage for the second weekend in a row. Here’s a look at those games, as well as the rest of the action around the Southeastern Conference.
Titans travel to face resurgent Dolphins
Last week’s blowout by the Bears put Tennessee at 3-6, and means that the Titans must essentially win out of they hope to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, nobody really expected playoff talk for the Dolphins after last year’s 6-10 mark (which resulted in a coaching change as well as a rookie quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, behind center), but Miami’s 4-4 mark puts the Dolphins in the picture at the season’s midway point.
The Titans’ hopes rest squarely on the (hopefully healthy) shoulders of young quarterback Jake Locker, who hasn’t played since throwing two passes vs. Houston on Sept. 30. Any debate of whether Locker was the right guy was more or less settled by his absence, and so the Titans should be able to not only take more shots downfield because of Locker’s arm, but also find an extra dimension to their rushing attack by virtue of his nimble feet. Given that the Dolphins have given up 427 yards on average to the Rams, Jets and Colts – none exactly offensive juggernauts – you’d think that the Titans can put up some points.
But can the Titans stop the Dolphins? That’s really the key question here; since a hot start, the Miami offense has been rather pedestrian the last month. Still, since the Titans have given up at least 30 points in seven of their last nine games. That trend speaks more loudly than anything else I can bring up, and that’s why I expect Miami to win. Dolphins 31, Titans 23
Vanderbilt tries to become bowl-eligible
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin has done a fantastic job of getting Vanderbilt to take care of business in winning the games it should win – which hasn’t always been a gimme at VU – and that continued as Vandy disposed of Auburn, UMass and Kentucky to get above .500 all year. Now, Vandy needs to win one of those games that not everyone necessarily expects it to win – which is just what it has on the slate when it travels to 5-4 Ole Miss on Saturday.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze (yes, that Hugh Freeze of The Blind Side fame) has done a marvelous job of getting the Rebels close to bowl-eligibility in his first season, a season when nobody really expected that (sound familiar, Vandy fans?) Freeze is regarded as an offensive genius, and since the Rebels’ per-game point total has nearly doubled from last year, nobody’s arguing.
But Franklin has a couple of advantages: the Commodores are a year further along in the rebuilding process, and their defense is significantly better than Ole Miss’s. The Rebels will test Vandy thoroughly with their no-huddle offense, but the problem is that Ole Miss is really hurting on the defensive side of the ball (it was already thin, and now a number of starters will be either sitting out or playing hurt). Vandy knows how to win on the road – it’s collected two-straight SEC road wins; what universe are we living in? – and should arrive back in Nashville with that magical sixth win, which guarantees a bowl for a second-straight season. Vanderbilt 30, Ole Miss 23
Tennessee tries for second-straight win against Missouri
There’s not much I can say about Tennessee’s spectacular offense, or a defense that’s burning out light bulbs on the Neyland Stadium scoreboard, that hasn’t been said a thousand times this week. So let’s look at Missouri for a moment instead.
The Tigers nearly pulled a shocker at Florida last weekend, falling 14-7. It’s been a long, long year in Columbia for coach Gary Pinkel; his offensive line hasn’t been fully healthy since Game 1, and his quarterback, James Franklin, hasn’t been right since Vandy hurt his knee back on Oct. 6. Franklin has come under fire for not playing through pain (and evidently gotten his feelings a bit hurt in return) as an atmosphere of negativity has settled in around a program that got used to those 10-win seasons as a member of the Big 12.
However, last weekend’s game could be a sign of better things to come for the Tigers. They’ve got a stout rushing defense led by DT Sheldon Richardson and LB Will Ebner, and they’ve created 20 turnovers this year. Offensively, Franklin is an exceptionally-gifted player with both his arm and his feet, and RB Kendial Lawrence should have a good day against a team that hasn’t stopped the run all season. Missouri just needs a tonic to feel better about its offense right now, and it’s definitely getting one when it lines up against the Vols on Saturday.
The Tigers are three-point underdogs, but when one team can get stops and the other can’t, I know who I’m picking. Missouri 34, Tennessee 30
Elsewhere in the Southeastern Conference
Texas A&M at Alabama: Stylistically, there may not be a more interesting game than what might be the nation’s best offense (A&M) against the nation’s best defense. I think that A&M QB Johnny Manziel has been unfairly short-changed in the Heisman polls because voters just don’t like to vote for freshmen. Saturday will be his opportunity to make his mark, though I suspect that ‘Bama’s home-field advantage and depth and Manziel’s tendency to turn the ball over some will be the difference. Alabama 31, A&M 24
Mississippi State at LSU: LSU proved last week that it can hang with anybody last week after just missing an upset of ‘Bama. State hasn’t proven it can beat a good team after getting demolished by ‘Bama and A&M in back-to-back weeks. The Tigers have underachieved in a lot of their wins this season, but I expect that not to happen tomorrow in a stadium where nobody but Alabama wins any more. LSU 34, MSU 17
Georgia at Auburn: The Bulldogs have gotten their bite back a bit after beating Florida two weekends ago and then whipping Ole Miss last Saturday. Georgia has played un-focused a lot of the year, but winning this one gets the Bulldogs to the SEC title game, so there’s your motivation. Georgia 47, Auburn 10
Arkansas at South Carolina: Suddenly, this one could be interesting – the Razorbacks aren’t the pushover they were at the start of the season, and the Gamecocks suddenly look mortal after that beat-down of Georgia just a few weeks ago. Arkansas has owned this series recently, but I think the home-field advantage and a better defense help Carolina escape. South Carolina 30, Arkansas 27
Louisiana-Lafayette at Florida: The Gators have been very underwhelming since the 44-11 beat-down of South Carolina a couple of weeks ago, and here’s my take: between the fact that Will Muschamp has so telegraphed that the ball is going to RB Mike Gillislee, and the fact that the Gators’ receivers are easily as poor as they’ve been since the 1970s, it’s not hard to defend UF. The defense is just outstanding and Muschamp is a defensive genius, so Florida’s strengths are stronger than its weaknesses, and that suits the Gators to win all these low-scoring games. What does that have to do with tomorrow? Very little, since UF will get some points tomorrow because Louisiana is terrible on defense and the Gator D can hold anybody down. Florida 31, UL-L 10