In a year possibly unlike any other, 2020 has been nothing but unpredictable. It seems like things change from day to day, even moment to moment.
SEC football has followed suit to the letter. That letter is U, for unpredictable.
Week Three in the conference was, once again, anything but boring. Two games were upsets, all but two squads scored at least 24 points, and one team avoided a shutout by scoring a safety. Interesting.
Once again, your fearless forecaster was a whole lot of average in his picks, going a middling 5-2 again last Saturday (14-7 overall this season.) Let’s recap the craziness.
Georgia 44, Tennessee 21
Texas A&M 41, Florida 38
South Carolina 41, Vanderbilt 7
Auburn 30, Arkansas 28
Missouri 45, LSU 41
Kentucky 24, Mississippi State 2
Alabama 63, Ole Miss 48
Let us take a peek into the crystal ball at what could transpire in the SEC next week, shall we?
Kentucky at 18 Tennessee
The Cats had a really good start to their game with MSU. The offense was solid in the run game and took advantage of opportunities down the field with the pass, producing a couple of scores and a 14-0 halftime lead. Then the wheels fell off the offense. The league-leading run game evaporated, the passing game was nonexistent, and a safety pointed to an assured 0-3 in SEC play. But the defense came up huge at the moment they had to, forcing six interceptions and a pick-six to carry Big Blue to their first win of the season, holding the MSU offense scoreless. Amazing.
Give Tennessee credit. They went into Georgia and punched them in the mouth right off the bat, converting an errant snap into a defensive touchdown two plays into the game and kept punching for the first half to take a 21-17 lead into the locker room. But the Vols found out that there are two halves and usually the elite program knows how to hit the accelerator in the second half and that’s what Georgia did. There’s no shame in getting beat at Georgia; a lot of folks do. But the loss exposed some flaws the Vols must correct. The offensive line, while they are great run blockers, struggled with UGA’s athletic front seven when they blitzed and forced Vol Jarrett Guarantano into hurried passes, sacks, and eventually turnovers. The UT defense will hit you, but no defense can stay on the field for 50 plus plays, especially with Georgia’s punishing run game that eventually softens the defense up and allows for big plays in the passing game, which happened. The Vols are making progress, but there’s still work to do to make the step to the SEC elite.
This game will be an old-fashioned street fight between the lines (in a good way.) I look for the Cats to get back to what they have done to turn the tide in Lexington -- power run game behind the Big Blue Wall, solid, hard-hitting defense (thank goodness!), and control the field on special teams. Tennessee is going to do the same thing to the Cats -- power running, a hitting defense, and no mistakes in the special teams. If this happens, points will be at a premium.
I think the game comes down to each team’s senior signal-caller. Both UK’s Terry Wilson and UT’s Guarantano have had their share of success and failures through the years. I think the game comes down to which one can limit mistakes and keep their offenses moving. Could UK quarterback Joey Gatewood see time against the Vols? Stay tuned.
In the end, I think the Vols score late and send the Cats to 1-3 unfortunately. The Neyland horrors continue for UK.
PREDICTION: Vols 27, Cats 21
11 Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Mississippi State did its thing in the Air Raid, throwing the ol’ pigskin around the yard 67 times and completing 44 of them. But most of those completions were of the four- to six-yard variety with little to no completions down the field, going for a pedestrian 275 yards by its own standards. The Dawgs also had five interceptions that crippled any chance of a victory. Quarterback KJ Costello had the lions share of the numbers, going 36-55 for 232 yards and four of those interceptions. It is the first time that a team coached by MSU coach Mike Leach was held scoreless on offense.
Finally, Texas A&M and coach Jimbo Fisher have a victory over a top-five opponent. One would have to think Fisher has been hearing the whispers that the team should be better than they have played to date and is Fisher worth the guaranteed $49 million invested in him. The Aggies answered the bell with an explosive offense and an opportunistic defense which forced a late turnover, leading to a game-winning field goal.
I predict a similar fate for the Dawgs. Costello (or freshman Will Rogers) will complete a bunch of passes against the Aggies and will probably look better than they did at Kentucky. But the Aggies may finally be rolling. Give me A&M on the road.
PREDICTION: Gig Em 38, Dawgs 21.
Vanderbilt at Missouri
It looks like the dismissal of coach Derek Mason is coming upon us for the ‘Dores. Through their first three games, Vandy has been outscored 82-14. Ouch. Mason was known as a defensive maven in his Stanford days. Those days seem like a very distant memory. To be fair though, Vanderbilt had just 56 scholarship players available in its 41-7 loss to USC on Saturday, a result of COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and injuries. With players dropping off the roster, a lack of top-level SEC reserves to replace them, and playing in the unforgiving SEC (see LSU), you have to feel bad for Mason in a way. Mason is trying to cobble together a lineup to just play scheduled games. Vanderbilt may be the toughest Power 5 coaching job in America. The succession line for Mason’s job, though, should be forming right about now.
For Mizzou, they pulled the upset the author called, just a week later. After being dispatched by Alabama and Tennessee, the Tigers rebound in a huge way in upsetting LSU. Tiger quarterback Connor Bazelak was on fire, going 29-34 for 406 yards and four touchdowns. Congratulations to Show Me head ball coach Eli Drinkwitz. Your prize? Show Me plays winless Vanderbilt. That’s a little nicer.
If the Dores can get to full strength, they can hang around and make a game out of it. If they continue to have buzzard's luck, Mizzou wins going away. As a matter of fact, Show Me will win this one relatively comfortably.
PREDICTION: Mizzou 42, Vandy 17
LSU at 10 Florida
The struggles at LSU are all over the place right now. No one feels sorry for you when you are the defending national champions, even if you lost 13 players to the NFL, both of your offensive and defensive coordinators, and perhaps your best player (receiver JaMarr Chase) opting out of the season. The Tigers were 0-10 on third-down conversions and, perhaps most telling, with the game on the line, the ball at the one-yard line, and first and goal LSU was denied four times the go-ahead score to get beat.
Florida suffered its first loss of the season despite Heisman hopeful Kyle Trask’s usual big game (23-32, 312 yards, four touchdowns.) However, other-worldly Gator tight end Kyle Pitts was held to five receptions and 47 yards. Even worse was the Florida defense being torched for 543 yards, 205 yards of that rushing and 338 yards passing from Kellen Mond. The Gators have the offense, but to make the next step as an SEC challenger they must get better on defense.
This game doesn’t have the feel of a Florida/LSU game. The struggles are way too real right now for the Tiger defense, particularly on the defensive side. Scoring 41 points should be enough to win (ask Kentucky.) If the defense doesn’t take a big step forward quickly, the season could get much bleaker with nuclear offenses at Alabama and Ole Miss on the horizon, not to mention the Gators. But the Florida defense hasn’t been much to write home about, so its possible for LSU and quarterback Myles Brennan to get hot again and score some points. I think Florida will answer the bell, and get itself right behind Trask, Pitts, and its offense in a high-scoring affair in the Swamp.
PREDICTION: Gators 42, Tigers 30
14 Auburn at South Carolina
If there is a team that is impossible to figure out week in and week out, it has to be the Auburn Tigers. War Eagle can look like a Top-10 program one week (the second half against Kentucky) to getting thumped by an actual Top-10 program (Georgia) to struggle mightily against a team they should be able to handle relatively easily (needing a last-second field goal to dispatch Arkansas 30-28.) The “Gus Bus” has to have seat belts on it because the driver, coach Gus Malzhan, is all over the road.
For South Carolina, the Gamecocks got their needed win over a hapless Vanderbilt squad in Nashville where the Commodores are usually a game opponent. USC running back Kevin Harris rushed for 171 yards and two touchdowns and the Carolina offense outscored Vandy 31-7 in the second half to blow the game open against a vastly undermanned Vanderbilt team. But a win is a win, and the Gamecocks needed one to at least lower the hot seat under coach Will Muschamp a few degrees.
This matchup comes down to one thing for me: which Auburn team shows up in Columbia. If it is the confident one that won late last week over Arkansas, then the Tigers win by 7-10 points. If its the one that played most of the game Saturday against the Hogs, then USC has enough firepower to spring the upset. That said, I think War Eagle scores late to win. I think.
PREDICTION: Auburn 30, South Carolina 24
Ole Miss at Arkansas
You know, I miss the video game NCAA Football badly. Can you imagine how fun it would be to play the game with Ole Miss’ offense? All the “Lane Train” did Saturday night was hang 48 points and 646 yards on ALABAMA. Granted, the Rebel defense surrendered 63 points and 723 yards to the Crimson Tide, but that Rebel offense though is fun. Quarterback Matt Corral had 365 yards passing, running back Snoop Conner ran for 128 yards, and receivers Kenny Yeboah and Elijah Moore were monsters (181 and 143 yards receiving each.) To be honest, the only hope Ole Miss has is flat-out outscore their opponents because their defense has given up 51, 41, and 63 points in the first three weeks. Wow.
I really like what Arkansas is doing. Although they’ve only won once so far (which ended a 20-game SEC losing streak), the Hogs play hard for four quarters, have made a consistent quarterback out of talented but struggling Feliepe Franks, and play sound, physical defense. If the Hogs had some more depth and experience, they beat Auburn last week. But they will get there eventually.
I think the Ole Miss offense is too much in this one. Arkansas will compete and have a solid game plan, but I just don’t think they have enough offense to match the Rebels. The Lane Train goes to 2-2.
PREDICTION: Hotty Toddy 45, Hogs 24
3 Georgia at 2 Alabama
If Alabama can be compared to anything right now, I’m going back to another eighties movie classic, Predator. The Tide can morph into anything it wants to win games comfortably. Your team is strong on defense? We can line up and stop anything you do. Do you want to play offense? We can light the scoreboard up like a Christmas tree too. I feel like this might be the most complete Alabama team in a couple of years. They have playmakers everywhere on both sides of the ball and they have Nick Saban running the show so they will be ready to go against a strong Georgia squad.
After getting woke up Week One by a spry Arkansas squad in the first half and yet again by Tennessee in the opening frames, Georgia did what it does well- attack you on defense, punish your defense with the run game to open up the passing game and run athletes at you en masse, allowing the Dawgs to pull away in the second half. Here’s the thing about those first-half struggles which hasn’t come back to hurt the Dawgs badly yet. Now they face Alabama and anyone who either has a pulse or has seen a football game knows if the Tide gets the opportunity to bury their opponent as quickly as possible they will oblige quick, fast, and right now. UGA cannot afford a slow start against Bama, especially on the road in Tuscaloosa.
I don’t predict an offensive shootout; on the contrary, I expect a physical, hard-hitting affair that will be decided in the fourth quarter. Bama’s depth wears down the UGA defense and the Alabama defense scores a touchdown. Give me the Tide at home in an SEC classic matchup.
PREDICTION: Tide 31, Dawgs 17
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and at A Sea of Blue, KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and HarlanCountySports.com.