Georgia, Ole Miss trying for game-changing SEC upsets
As exciting as the college football landscape has been so far, we have seen plenty of scares and thrilling close calls but no major upsets. Oh, sure, Akron came ever so close to torching Michigan's season, but the Wolverines pulled it out in the end, just as Stanford chalked up a win against Army, even though the cadets gave the Cardinal a scare for the better part of three quarters.
In the SEC we've had Clemson beat Georgia by a field goal, but no one who had seen those two teams would have called that an upset, while Auburn beat Mississippi State. Again, the Tigers weren't supposed to be that good and the Bulldogs weren't expected to be that bad, but the earth didn't shift on its axis when that final score came in.
This weekend could be different, not because anyone is expecting an unranked David to slay Goliath, but because Saturday could see upsets that will shuffle the SEC landscape and change the BCS picture in immeasurable ways.
First there is LSU visiting Georgia, a matchup of top-10 teams that is being billed as the most entertaining and competitive of the week, and for good reason. The last time these two teams met was in the 2011 SEC Championship game, which LSU won with the help of two Tyrann Mathieu punt returns. But the Honey Badger is now an Arizona Cardinal, Zach Mettenberger is now the LSU quarterback, and Georgia is a much better offensive and much weaker defensive team than it was two Decembers ago. LSU is favored -- they are ranked sixth in the country, three slots above the Dawgs -- but these two teams are as closely matched as any in the conference.
Mettenberger, the guy who was once slated to battle Aaron Murray for the starting job at Georgia, has finally matured into the quarterback that Les Miles thought he would be when he brought him in from the JUCO wilderness, while Jeremy Hill has proven himself to be the Tigers' best runner.
But Mettenberger is not Aaron Murray and Hill most certainly is not Todd Gurley or even Gurley's backup Keith Marshall. If Georgia's offensive line can wear out the LSU defensive front the way Auburn did a week ago, the Dawgs should be able to control the clock and score points.
The Tigers will put up numbers as well, especially if Mettenberger can pick on the young and inexperienced Georgia secondary. The key for Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will be the play of freshman linebacker Leonard Floyd and sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who was billed as the heir apparent to Jarvis Jones. If those two can pressure Mettenberger, disrupt the passing rhythm and force LSU to improvise, the Dawgs should win the game.
The one spot where LSU has a distinct advantage is special teams. Odell Beckham, Jr. is one of the best returners in the country, while Coach Richt and the Bulldogs seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the kicking game. Anyone who asks Richt why Georgia doesn't have a special teams coach is more likely to get a tongue lashing than an answer, and as of Friday afternoon, no moves had been made to put starters on the special team squads. North Texas stayed in a game in Athens that shouldn't have been close because of special teams play and no Georgia fan will forget what happened to the Dawgs in Atlanta two years ago. Still, Georgia should come out on top. Home crowd and a burning desire to rid themselves of the "can't win the big one" and "weak schedule" nattering will likely propel the Dawgs to an upset victory.
While a Georgia win would not come as a great surprise, the other potential upset would, indeed, rock the college football world.
Ole Miss, two years removed from being arguably the worst team in the conference, will come into Tuscaloosa with a 3-0 record and a boatload of confidence.
Alone that wouldn't be enough. Plenty of good attitudes have fallen victim to Alabama’s superior athletes in the Nick Saban era. But this year could be different for several reasons -- most notably the bumper crop of athletes Ole Miss is now fielding. A lot of people chuckled with Hugh Freeze went in his recruiting tear a year ago, but those efforts have certainly paid off. The Rebels have some smash-mouth defenders on the field, while their offense, led by quarterback Bo Wallace, is the sort of fast-paced spread attack that has given Nick Saban fits.
The Rebels jumped out to quick starts in all three of their games -- including a 14-0 early sprint against Texas -- because of hurry-up play calling and the quick-hitting nature of the plays themselves. Receivers Donte Moncrief and LaQuon Treadwell have an opportunity to pick on the Alabama cornerbacks the way Mike Evans of Texas A&M did when he had seven catches for 279 yards against the Tide.
On the other side of the ball, Ole Miss freshman defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and his teammates will put pressure on the Alabama offense. The question is: will it be enough? Can the Rebels shake up college football by knocking off the No.1 team in the land? Sure, but it's a long-shot.
Hugh Freeze will have them ready, just as Kevin Sumlin had the Aggies ready when they upset Alabama in Tuscaloosa a year ago. It isn't likely, but if the Rebels play their game of their lives, then this could be remembered as Upset Saturday, the week that changed the college football picture across the country.