Cliches are lazy, especially when it comes to rivalry games. They are the equivalent of comedians railing about airline food, mother-in-laws and the battle of the sexes.
Throw out the records, they say, bragging rights are at stake. In the SEC, the tangible is the entire reason we’re clamoring for the post-Thanksgiving smorgasbord as bowls, both Iron and Egg, and the new Battle Line Rivalry will decide who is headed to Atlanta next week for the conference championship game.
Basically, it’s about to get real as we break down the five biggest storylines heading into the final week of the regular season in SEC Coming Attractions.
For Alabama, it’s simple: beat Auburn and win the division. But should the Tide fall, it will be Mississippi State that claims the West if it can take down Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. There remains the chance that if the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs both win that each can get into the inaugural College Football Playoff (so long as West champion Alabama wins the SEC title game), but as far as the division goes, the stakes couldn’t be clearer. One year after Kick-Six spoiled the Tide’s season, they’ll try to avoid a repeat in Tuscaloosa, but may be getting the Tigers are the right time. While Alabama continues to struggle vs. mobile QBs and Nick Marshall racked up 99 rushing yards in this game a year ago, of far bigger concern is Auburn’s defense. The unit has allowed at least 31 points in each of its last five conference games, two of which were against unranked opponents as South Carolina scored 35 and Texas A&M had 41. That will mean trouble against the efficient QB Blake Sims (just one INT since Oct. 4) and an Alabama offense that is averaging 430.2 yards over its last four SEC games. Chances are, the Tide punch a ticket to the Georgia Dome, but one piece of the puzzle will be set before Auburn and Alabama take the field at 7:45 p.m. ET as Ole Miss hosts Mississippi State in a 3:30 p.m. start. The Rebels were a shell of their previous selves in being blanked by Arkansas, their first league action minus wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. While QB Bo Wallace is expected to play despite a right ankle injury, he’ll be facing a Bulldogs defense that is one of the nation’s stingiest, allowing 18.4 points per game (11th). There remains the question as to where the offense is going to come for the Rebels, because they don’t have a running game (64th at 164.3 per) or an elite downfield threat sans Treadwell. Look for the West’s top two teams to keep it in line for two playoff spots.
GRAB YOUR POPCORN: As far as movie rivalries, Apollo Creed vs. Rocky Balboa is the closest, given that they split their matchups (Creed by a split decision in ‘Rocky’ and Balboa by knockout in ‘Rocky II’). There are probably a few Alabama/Auburn and Mississippi State/Ole Miss fans that wouldn’t mind seeing their nemesis suffer the same fate Apollo did.
With Georgia having already completed its SEC schedule and turning its on-field attention to Georgia Tech (more on that later), the East boils down to one game: Missouri vs. suddenly surging Arkansas. The Razorbacks are coming off back-to-back wins in which they outscored No. 8 Ole Miss and No. 17 LSU by a combined 47-0 and have, as the score indicates, done it with defense. The Rebels were 3 of 11 (27.2 percent) on third downs and the Tigers managed just 36 rushing yards on 32 attempts (1.1 per carry). But Missouri’s defense has been stout in its own right, allowing an average of 17 points per game and racked up 20 sacks during its five-game winning streak to put itself in line for a second straight division crown. That being said, this is a game that sets up well for Arkansas, which succeeds by controlling the clock — the Hogs are third in FBS with an average time of possession of 34 minutes — against a Missouri offense that just doesn’t (88th at 29:04). If Gary Pinkel’s crew can’t keep Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Co. off the field, it will be Georgia that reps the East in Atlanta.
GRAB YOUR POPCORN: Not that you want to picture Bret Bielema in spandex (or maybe you do), but like Peter Parker going from zero to hero, Arkansas ended a 17-game SEC losing flipped and now has a chance at winning three straight for the first time since Nov. 5-19, 2011.
Florida State has looked vulnerable for more than a month now, trailing in the third or fourth quarter in three of its last five games, and it was tied with Boston College heading into the final 15 minutes last weekend. Along from trying to spoil the Seminoles’ playoff hopes, Florida is looking to send Will Muschamp out with a win, though he wants nothing to do with the comparisons to Ron Zook, the fired coach who beat No. 10 Florida State 20-13 in Tallahassee in 2004 in his finale, saying "’That ain’t going to help us win the game. I can assure you of that. So we’ll prepare well and we’ll go up there and play well. That’s what we need to do.” We’ve seen the Gators get up for a top-tier opponent, knocking off No. 11 Georgia behind a running game that’s averaged 283.3 yards over the last three SEC games. It’s likely going to take a similar effort of sustained, clock-eating drives to knock off the Seminoles, something no one has done since Nov. 24, 2012. That opponent? Florida. Symmetry!
GRAB YOUR POPCORN: In movies, one image immediately comes to mind when it comes to carrying a victorious character off the field in celebration: Rudy, followed by the note "Since 1975 no other Notre Dame player has been carried off the field." They don’t have quite that same nostalgia level at Florida, where Zook exited Doak Campbell Stadium on his players’ shoulders. Will Muschamp follow suit?
By the time the Bulldogs hit Sanford Stadium at noon Saturday, they will already know their division fate with Missouri playing on Friday. Now let’s, for the sake of argument, say that Arkansas continues its roll and hands Georgia the East. That’s where things could get interesting, because there is a very slim chance the Bulldogs could be a threat to make the playoff, especially it the Rebels win the Egg Bowl — crushing Mississippi State’s CFP bid — and then Georgia goes on to win the SEC title game. But none of that matters if the Dawgs can’t continue to dominate the Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate game. Georgia has won 12 of 13 and five straight, it has struggled against the run (Florida ran for 418 and Kentucky’s mediocre ground game had 214) and the Yellow Jackets’ spread option (third in FBS at 327.9 ypg),can crease all kinds of problems for opponents. This could a troubling matchup for the Bulldogs, but considering the success they had in shutting down Auburn’s running game, giving up just 150 yards, Georgia may be able to derail the Jackets.
GRAB YOUR POPCORN: Two ‘Rocky’ references in one piece? Seriously? Seriously. Balboa had to revamp his style to take on Clubber Lang (but in a major plot hole, Rocky ended up going back to his old style of getting beaten senseless until the opponent tired out). Likewise, Georgia’s defense has to quickly switch to preparing for a kind of offense it sees just once a year. Although damage on the ground by the Yellow Jackets hasn’t exactly mattered of late in this series. During the Dawgs’ five-game steak, Georgia Tech has run for 411, 306, 263 and 243 yards and still lost.
Remember when Kentucky was 5-1 and Tennessee two games below .500? Now they’re both 5-6 heading into the final week of the season, with much-needed bowl eligibility hanging in the balance. The Wildcats get the much tougher draw, facing Louisville and its seventh-ranked defense, which is allowing 290.2 ypg, while the Volunteers take on Vanderbilt, which is in danger of going winless in the SEC. Chances are, the Commodores, who have been outscored 259-85 in league play, won’t avoid the 0-for, giving Tennessee its first bowl berth under Butch Jones. But what about Kentucky? QB Patrick Towles has regressed since dropping 466 total yards and four TDs on Mississippi State on Oct. 25, averaging 155 yards and throwing a combined two TDs to three INTs over three straight losses to Missouri, Georgia and Tennessee and now he has to deal with Jim Thorpe Award contender Gerod Holliman. Kentucky has made serious progress in Year 2 under Mark Stoops, but a return to the postseason may not be this chapter’s ending.
GRAB YOUR POPCORN: Movies about bowling start and end with The Dude’s search for his rug. ‘The Stranger’ offered a line that sums up Kentucky and Tennessee’s bids to become relevant again while navigating the SEC waters: Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you.