It's a "whole vs. sum-of-parts" Saturday for the SEC. The marquee late-season matchups don't begin until Georgia-Florida on November 2, so we're left with a whole bunch of questions to answer as we gird up for November.
No. 15 Georgia at Vanderbilt (12:00 p.m. ET, CBS)
What's Georgia got left in the tank?
The Dawgs showed incredible resilience in getting past LSU without Todd Gurley, then surviving a trip to Tennessee while losing Keith Marshall, Justin Scott-Wesley, and Malcolm Mitchell. A high volume of injuries can be much more costly when focused on a specific unit or two, and Georgia has gotten crushed at running back and receiver. Still, they were finding a way to survive ... until Saturday, when Missouri took them down, 41-26, in Athens despite sacrificing their own best offensive player (James Franklin, injured in the fourth quarter) and best defensive player (E.J. Gaines, injured in the second).
When you're getting by with smoke, mirrors, and guts, you can perhaps keep that up for a while, but what happens when you finally give in? Can Mark Richt and quarterback Aaron Murray rally the squad for a run at the SEC East title (the Dawgs are clearly still in the race)? Or is this where UGA hits a semi-justifiable wall and becomes vulnerable to a bigger upset bid?
Is Vanderbilt a threat?
James Franklin's Commodores are almost perfectly mediocre this year, with a 3-3 record and an almost dead-on average F/+ ranking of 64th. This isn't bad for Vandy; the 'Dores are still only three years removed from ranking 101st and finishing 2-10.
Still, the defense has regressed dramatically -- 40th and 35th, respectively, in Franklin's first two years and 106th this year; coming off of a bye week, is there anything defensive coordinator Bob Shoop can do, midseason, to address some serious issues in the front seven? The secondary still has plenty of potential, but that hasn't been enough. The offense is solid, and special teams is superb; can the defense at least rebound to a mediocre level so the 'Dores can pull an upset and get back on track for a bowl?
No. 11 South Carolina at Tennessee (12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Was last week the new normal for South Carolina?
Expectations were high for Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks this season, but they didn't look like a true SEC title contender even once in the first six weeks of the season. That changed in Week 7 with a masterful performance against Arkansas. SC forced four punts, three turnovers, and a turnover on downs, scored on eight of 10 possessions (including touchdowns on drives of 11, 12, 12, and 15 plays), and basically played a picture-perfect game of keepaway, limiting Arkansas to just 37 total plays. Quarterback Connor Shaw was efficient, running back Mike Davis was his typical punishing self, and Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen was held to 4-for-12 passing for 30 yards and a pick.
There are still reasons for concern for the Gamecocks, however. First of all, they're still just 1-for-6 from a "Do they look elite?" standpoint. The defense still allowed 220 rushing yards in 23 attempts and logged just two tackles for loss. And while long scoring drives are really impressive to watch, they are harder to maintain against good defenses (Arkansas' defense ranks 67th in Def. F/+ -- not good, not terrible).
Still, this was a major step. Was this a one-off thing, or is this type of growth what we can expect moving forward? If it's the former, this is the fourth-best team in the SEC East. If it's the latter, there's more than enough time and opportunity to make a title run in the flawed East.
What does Tennessee do consistently well?
Butch Jones' tenure took a nice leap with its near-upset of Georgia two weeks ago. Still, there are questions. First of all, how much of that aggressive, interesting, confident team from two weeks ago is left? Tennessee was up for an upset bid, took risks, got a special teams touchdown, and generally followed the Upset Script rather well. But the Vols almost lost to South Alabama the week before that. What's the baseline?
And more importantly, how exactly can the Vols maximize their strengths? They rank 73rd in Off. F/+ and 62nd in Def. F/+, wholly mediocre. A strong running game is offset by a weak passing game (and the fact that Tennessee really wants to pass). A strong pass defense is offset by a weak run defense. What does Jones build on through the rest of 2013?
No. 22 Florida at No. 14 Missouri (12:21 p.m. ET, SEC Network/ESPN3)
Are you ready, Maty Mauk?
Two weeks from now, one of two story lines will dominate in Columbia, MO: either "Maty Mauk is the Kurt Warner to James Franklin's Trent Green," or "Franklin's injury has torn apart a promising season." In the current F/+ rankings, Mizzou ranks 14th; that's higher than every remaining 2013 opponent. South Carolina's 19th, Florida's 22nd, Texas A&M's 25th, Ole Miss is 37th, Tennessee is 61st, and Kentucky is 83rd. With a healthy Franklin and home games against the three toughest teams on that list, the Tigers would be positioned not only for a run at the SEC East title, but a run as the favorite for the East title following the win over Georgia.
Instead, Mizzou is left to flip a coin. Mauk threw for more yards than any high school quarterback ever has and operated from a spread offense rather similar to Missouri's. He is the presumed front-runner for the starting job in 2014 following Franklin's graduation. But with Franklin out 3-5 weeks, Mauk is now forced to prove himself earlier than expected. That the Tigers finished the Georgia game on a 13-0 run with Franklin out is encouraging (and a reminder that the team is more than just the quarterback), but now Mauk has to steer the ship for 60 minutes, first against Florida and its elite defense this Saturday, then against South Carolina next week.
Mauk will make mistakes; the magnitude of the mistakes -- fatality versus wound -- will determine whether Mizzou is still in the SEC East race when Franklin returns.
Where's the median for Florida's offense?
Before the LSU game, I wrote this about Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy:
Murphy has not faced a test like LSU in Baton Rouge yet, and yes, he might wilt in the moment. He would be excused if he did so.
But if the moment doesn't get to him, LSU might not either. In the nearly three games since starter Jeff Driskel went down against Tennessee, Murphy hasn't been a Heisman contender by any means, but he's been exactly the efficiency guy the Gators need. Whereas Driskel took sacks on 13 percent of his pass attempts, Murphy's sack rate is only 5 percent. And in his first two starts, he completed 78 percent of his passes. Many of those passes didn't really go anywhere, but that's not really the point. Sacks are devastating for a team that plays a conservative style and needs to win the field position battle. Murphy doesn't take many, and thus far, LSU hasn't come up with many, either.
Safe to say, Murphy wilted a bit. With a Death Valley crowd on him and no running game to support him, Murphy completed 15 of 27 passes for just 115 yards and was sacked four times for a loss of 40. Yards per pass attempt, including sacks: 2.4.
How much of that was Murphy regressing toward the mean after playing a little too well against Kentucky and Arkansas? How much was it simply Death Valley getting into the head of a new starter? How much was it LSU's defense turning a corner?
We'll begin to find out on Saturday. Mizzou's crowd will be loud, but it isn't Death Valley. Still, Missouri's pass rush is top notch -- just ask Aaron Murray and Austyn Carta-Samuels -- and Murphy will be under some duress. How does he respond?
No. 24 Auburn at No. 7 Texas A&M (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
How good is Auburn's defense?
When Auburn hired Gus Malzahn, it was easy to assume we knew how growth would take place (assuming it indeed took place). The Tigers would improve most dramatically on offense, and the defense would round into form at a later date. That's what happens when you hire a head coach best known for offense.
That's not how it's turned out. Auburn's offense has improved -- it had almost no choice but to improve after sinking so far -- but the defense is the story; the Tigers rank 25th in Def. F/+. That's fifth in the SEC, behind only Florida (third), Alabama (fifth), Missouri (10th), and South Carolina (22nd). We knew the defense would be infinitely more experienced in 2013, but it's also been quite a bit better.
And now, Auburn gets the potential "Congrats on your cute little defense; now here's Johnny Manziel" reality check. A top 25 defense could still allow 40+ points and 500+ yards to A&M; can the defense keep those totals tamped down just enough to give the offense a chance?
How bad is Texas A&M's defense?
We've talked a lot this year about how SEC defenses are down, and that's certainly true. After all, Auburn's 25th-ranked defense is the fifth-best. Stereotype says the league is supposed to have about five in the top 10, right? Still, most SEC defenses are at least competent while battling major youth issues.
"Most SEC defenses," however, doesn't include Kentucky (115th in Def. F/+), Vanderbilt (106th), or, yes, Texas A&M (107th). We knew Mark Snyder's defense was going to take a step backwards after so many pieces were lost from last year's front seven. But it hasn't taken steps, it's plummeted. A&M's offense is so good that the D hasn't actually cost the Aggies too much; they allowed 509 yards to Rice and won by 21, 483 to Arkansas and won by 12, and 462 to Ole Miss and won by three. Still, they have allowed at least 5.8 yards per play in all but one game and have allowed 8.6, 7.3, and 6.3 in three conference games. That's horrendous, and it's going to trip the Aggies up at some point.
Auburn probably doesn't have the weapons to do it, but how close will they stay, and how many plays will Manziel be forced to make to advance with a win?
No. 6 LSU at Ole Miss (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Stacy Revere, Getty
Is this the new (old) LSU defense?
LSU has played two marquee games in three weeks, first at Georgia, then at home against Florida. In the former, the Tigers allowed 44 points and 494 yards, and in the latter, six and 240. Obviously Georgia's offense is better than Florida's (especially when mostly healthy, as it was for that game).
But while the LSU defense still ranks just 41st in Def. F/+, the Bayou Bengals ... looked like the Bayou Bengals on Saturday. LSU was fast, aggressive, mean, and efficient; this week, we'll start to find out if that was more because of LSU or because of Florida. This is a young defense with players growing into new roles. There's a chance that things clicked into place on Saturday.
How's Ole Miss' depth?
Starting defensive end Robert Nkemdiche is out. Outside linebacker and leading tackler Serderius Bryant is probably out. Starting nose tackle Issac Gross, starting corner Mike Hilton, starting end C.J. Johnson, backup end Carlos Thompson, and backup safety Chief Brown are all nursing injuries, "questionable at best" for Saturday. So, too, are running back Jeff Scott and backup/Wildcat quarterback Barry Brunetti.
A laundry list of injuries is never a good thing, but it's especially bad for an Ole Miss team that has struggled with consistency and ranks just 37th in F/+ at the moment. The Rebels are battling both health and confidence following a three-game losing streak that took them from confident contender (before the 25-0 beatdown by Alabama) to a dinged, young 3-3 team desperate for three more wins. Bringing LSU to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is a major opportunity for a season turning point, but with such a thin squad, it probably isn't going to happen.
Arkansas at No. 1 Alabama (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Have you started building for 2014 yet, Bret Bielema?
Midway through the game at Rutgers on September 21, it was easy to be quite impressed with the job Bret Bielema was doing in his first year at Arkansas. The Razorbacks had handled their business against mid-majors like Louisiana-Lafayette (a 34-14 win) and Southern MIss (24-3) and had surged to a 24-7 third-quarter lead at Rutgers.
But from the moment running back Jonathan Williams threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry to put the Hogs up by 17 in Piscataway, they have been outscored, 148-40, in about 13.5 quarters. Rutgers scored the game's final 21 points to pull off the win, Texas A&M fended off the Hogs by 12 in Fayetteville, Florida smoked them (Florida-style, a.k.a. by 20 points) in Gainesville, and South Carolina completely humiliated them on Homecoming last Saturday.
And after all that comes a trip to Alabama. At 3-4 -- okay, 3-5 after Saturday -- Arkansas will need to figure out how to beat both Auburn and Mississippi State at home and pull a road upset of either Ole Miss (not impossible) or LSU (just about impossible) to reach bowl eligibility.
In other words, it might not be a bad time to start looking toward 2014. The most recent two-deep features just four senior starters on each side of the ball, and that's a good thing. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins are a sophomore and freshman, respectively. True freshmen are holding the fort (well, trying to) at right guard and tight end. No. 2 receiver Keon Hatcher is a sophomore. TFLs leader Trey Flowers is only a junior. Active defensive tackle Darius Philon is a redshirt freshman. There are a lot of pieces to like here; one should probably just watch them and avoid looking at the scoreboard for the rest of 2013.
Is Amari Cooper ready?
Amari Cooper's output against Kentucky on Saturday -- four targets, three catches, 64 yards -- was not exactly awe-inspiring. In fact, we'd have called that a down game for the sophomore just a couple of months ago. But in filling the role of This Year's Sammy Watkins (sets the world afire as a freshman, struggles with injuries and invisibility as a sophomore), Cooper now calls that his best game of the season so far.
Injuries to Cooper's toe and foot have slowed the sophomore down dramatically, but thanks to steady play from Christion Jones (255 yards, 8.8 per target, 79 percent catch rate) and incredible work from DeAndrew White and Kevin Norwood (combined: 518 yards, 13.6 per target, 92 percent catch rate), Alabama's offense has subsisted at a solid level (20th in Off. F/+). But as the offensive line rounds into form, a healthy Cooper would start to make the 2013 Tide look quite a bit like the 2012 Tide. Barrett Jones and company aren't walking through the door, but if a healthy Cooper does, the Tide will be solid BCS title favorites.
Well, they already are, but you know what I mean.