By Kendall Webb
There was finally something bigger than Johnny Football to talk about, and you could actually take your pick – the Yahoo! Sports article alleging that five SEC players received improper benefits including one at Alabama, which heads to College Station this weekend to take on Johnny Manziel’s Texas A&M Aggies. Or perhaps you were still shaking your head at the news out of Oklahoma State alleging everything from academic misconduct to rampant drug abuse to co-eds providing sexual favors to visiting recruits.
Yeah, it’s been a week for headlines, and for once, none of them involve Manziel. It was so distracting that potentially the biggest game of the season – that little aforementioned tussle between the Crimson Tide and the Aggies this weekend – barely got any attention at Nick Saban’s weekly press conference. After fielding questions mostly about the alleged violations involving former offensive lineman D.J. Fluker, a disgusted Saban walked out of the press conference with one final sarcastic shot at the press in attendance:
“I appreciate your interest in the game.”
Well, good news, Coach, while we’ve been keeping our eye on the off-the-field stuff, too, we still believe what happens on the field in College Station this weekend has a chance to be one of the defining moments of the 2013 season.
Week Two Recap
Straight up we went 11-1 last week to get us to 22-3 overall in the first two weeks. Of course, we readily acknowledge there haven’t been many premier matchups, as it’s mostly been the SEC vs. a lineup of heavy underdog non-conference foes.
Our loss was taking Florida on the road to beat Miami (FL). We described the game accurately – we told you 20 points would probably be enough to win it, and it was. The only problem was it was the Hurricanes with 21 when the final horn sounded, enough to give the hosts a 21-16 win over the visiting Gators.
On the bright side, we did give you another spread winner when we took Toledo to stay within 17 against Missouri. That came through with Missouri winning 38-23 to make us 2-0 against the spread.
This Coming Weekend
Hey, once you get past all the off-the-field noise, Saban actually has a point – this is a huge football game in College Station this weekend, and perhaps, a defining moment for the winner. Alabama is the favorite to repeat as national champion, and a win would only make it seem more likely that they might finally be unbeatable (remember, they had a loss in each of their past two championship runs). A Texas A&M upset, however, would catapult the Aggies to favorite status in the minds of most pundits, and there hasn’t been a bigger game in College Station in recent memory. That’s because this… is as big as it gets. In the SEC or anywhere else.
STORYLINE: Can Kentucky slow down Teddy Bridgewater?
Hey, never mind that Kentucky is the third-best college football program in Kentucky these days (remember, they can’t beat Western Kentucky anymore). This is still a huge game for the fan bases of these two schools. On paper, it looks like a huge mismatch – Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater gives Louisville a huge weapon for which Kentucky doesn’t have an answer. But one of the knocks against Louisville is that despite their high ranking, they are still seen by many as being a step behind the top programs in the country. Rivalry games can get interesting, and the Cardinals will have to avoid any injuries to Bridgewater and not allow the Wildcats to gain any confidence by staying in the game too long.
PREDICTION: In the end, I think it is a huge mismatch. I just don’t see how Kentucky can come up with an answer for Bridgewater who spreads it around to different receivers as well as anybody in the game, and this could be uglier than his previous two wins over the Wildcats in 2011 (24-17) and 2012 (32-14).
Southern Miss Golden Eagles at Arkansas Razorbacks
11:21 a.m., Saturday, September 14 (SEC TV)
STORYLINE: Can Southern Miss stop the Arkansas ground game?
We still don’t know much about this Arkansas squad which beat La.-Lafayette worse than we thought they would before struggling to put away FCS opponent Samford last week. We do know, however, what the Razorbacks will try to do – pound the ball away relentlessly with their running game. So far that’s meant a heavy dose of both Alex Collins (303 yards rushing) and Jonathan Williams (277 yards) to the tune of 312.5 rushing yards per game in their first two contests. Considering Southern Miss’s run defense has given up 179 yards per game in its first two contests, I wouldn’t expect that to change.
PREDICTION: And I wouldn’t expect an upset here. This is a Southern Miss team that hasn’t won a game since the 2011 season, and I expect Arkansas will actually have an easier time this week than they did with Samford last week. Go with Arkansas to win comfortably, although a spread running around -23.5 looks awkward and, perhaps, difficult to cover.
STORYLINE: College Football’s No. 1 Team (Alabama) vs. College Football’s No. 1 player (Johnny Manziel)
What else can we say? It’s the game of the week certainly, perhaps, the Game of the Year, and in some reports, it’s being billed as the SEC’s next Game of the Century – which only happens two to three times per year. Preseason hype aside, we actually feel like this is one of those games that could live up to the billing, and I think everybody knows the story line – does Alabama do enough to cancel out Johnny Manziel’s contributions or does Johnny Football pull off another upset for the ages.
PREDICTION: Wow, everything says Manziel’s got the ability to pull this off, and he’ll have a loud Kyle Field crowd backing him up here. But Saban has fumed about this one all through the off-season, and we think he’ll have a few surprises up his sleeve. We think it could come down to one drive and one crucial mistake by Manziel. We’ll go with Alabama in a fight to the finish.
STORYLINE: The Ducks’ fastbreak offense vs. Tennessee’s ability to slow it down
So far the loss of Chip Kelly hasn’t hurt Oregon. It’s only helped the Philadelphia Eagles. Meanwhile, back in Eugene, Mark Helfrich, the long-time offensive coordinator under Kelly and the architect of those big Oregon offenses, still has the Duck machine humming along. Quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De’Anthony Thomas are the latest stars for the Ducks, and while they haven’t played a top-rated opponent yet, the reality is Tennessee is a long way from that. The Volunteers’ only chance to probably keep it close is to limit big plays and force the Ducks to drive the length of the field. They’ll still score, they just won’t score as much in that scenario, and that’s the only chance Tennessee has is to keep this game somewhere in the 30’s and hope their offense can answer against the Ducks’ defense.
PREDICTION: If it turns into a track meet, then Tennessee doesn’t stand a chance. And we think there’s a pretty good chance of that. We’ll go with Oregon in a comfortable win that may even cover the 28-point spread.
STORYLINE: Loser is 0-2 in the SEC East
These are two good football teams, but the story line says it all, and neither of these teams can afford to be 0-2 in the SEC East if they want to compete for a league title. Of course, being at home plays heavily in favor of the Gamecocks, and they’ll have the best player on the field in Jadeveon Clowney with a renewed interest from Steve Spurrier in figuring out how to get him more involved. If he’s successful at that, then Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels is likely to have a long day.
PREDICTION: We like what James Franklin has accomplished at Vanderbilt, but games like this illustrate just how hard it is for the Commodores to break through. We expect it will be a defensive-oriented game, and in the end, that will play better to the Gamecocks and their star defensive end Clowney. We’ll go with South Carolina to get it done.
STORYLINES: Mississippi State’s passing offense vs. Auburn’s pass defense and Auburn’s rushing offense vs. Mississippi State’s rushing defense
A game like this is likely to determine who finishes in the basement and who doesn’t. It’s crowded at the top in the SEC West, and both of these teams are almost guaranteed to finish behind Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU, and if Ole Miss continues to emerge, they’ll only sink deeper in the standings. A win here at least gives one of them something to build on, and homefield advantage is likely to play a huge role here.
PREDICTION: Homefield combined with Auburn’s ability to possibly control the game by more effectively establishing the run game has us leaning toward Auburn in one of the harder games to pick this week.
STORYLINE: LSU just needs to show up
LSU won’t have any problems in this mismatch vs. Kent State from the Mid-American Conference.
PREDICTION: LSU in a rout.
STORYLINE: Mississippi’s read-option vs. Texas’ run defense
One of the more intriguing games on the schedule is this matchup between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Big 12’s Texas Longhorns. The Texas run defense was so atrocious last week at BYU in yielding a school-record 550 yards that the Longhorns fired their defensive coordinator on Sunday. In steps former Longhorn coordinator Greg Robinson who last served in the role in 2004. That would seemingly be to the Rebels’ advantage, but Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze noted the difficulty of preparing for a coach that he isn’t that familiar with. He knows the whole point of bringing Robinson in is to shake things up, and so the Rebels aren’t quite sure what they’ll see at Texas.
PREDICTION: This could go either way, and it could be a “sink or swim” moment for Texas. The Longhorns’ season potentially is on the line here, and a second straight loss could send the team into a tailspin. If there’s one thing Texas head coach Mack Brown is good at, however, it is refocusing his team after potentially-devastating blowout losses. It has happened multiple times in his career after the ‘Horns took a beating from Oklahoma, and we think they’ll bounce back here. In fact, the spread has Texas as a three-point favorite. We’ll take them to cover as they, at least temporarily, right the ship.