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Projecting the Missouri-Ole Miss spread showdown, A&M-LSU and more

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Missouri needs to sweep Ole Miss and Texas A&M to win the SEC East. In a battle of two teams with wonderful ball distribution, can the Tigers outgun the Rebels in Oxford on Saturday night? Elsewhere, enjoy the fleeting spectacle of Johnny Football at Death Valley and endure the SEC's last cupcake weekend of 2013.

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Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

No. 8 Missouri at No. 24 Ole Miss

The biggest game of the week is unquestionably in Stillwater, Oklahoma. But as Oklahoma State and Baylor kick off, about 550 miles southeast, in Oxford, Mississippi, a former conference mate of the two programs will be fighting to maintain its SEC East lead.

The safety net is gone for Gary Pinkel's Tigers. Thanks to Georgia's stunning loss at Auburn and South Carolina's win over Florida, they have to beat both Ole Miss (in Oxford) and Texas A&M (at home in Columbia) to take home their first SEC East crown in just their second attempt. Odds say they've got about a 38 percent chance of doing that, though they're a favorite (via the numbers) in both games.

If you're a believer in destiny, it's difficult to bet against South Carolina winning the division title, considering the two least likely, most dramatic wins of the SEC season (Auburn's win over Georgia and South Carolina's at Missouri) went the Gamecocks' way. But the Tigers still have a shot. At least, they do until Saturday night. Might not after that.

Has Ole Miss' offense turned a corner?

Ole Miss currently ranks 27th overall in the F/+ rankings, not too far from the Rebels' current BCS rankings. They are 19th in Def. F/+ but still just 36th in Off. F/+ despite their 750-yard performance against an admittedly awful Troy defense. Still, the narrative seems to be that the Ole Miss offense is rounding into form overall. Is this true?

First, it bears mentioning that deriving any sort of momentum or improvement from a 12-game schedule is tricky. What we think of as growth or a hot streak could stem from just one or two strong performances. Over a 30-, or 82-, or 162-game season, a game or two is nothing. In college football, we craft all-encompassing narratives from such a sample.

There is no denying that Ole Miss' offensive output has improved of late. In terms of per-play yardage, the Rebels' five best performances have come in the last five games. But that's not as much a sign of momentum as a sign that Ole Miss has played some pretty awful defenses of late. In fact, using the Def. F/+ rankings (which means we have to ignore the game vs. SE Missouri State on September 7), we see that Ole Miss' offensive performance falls perfectly in line with the quality of the opposing defense. And I mean perfectly.

Opponent Date Def. F/+ Rank Ole Miss' Yards Per Play
at Alabama September 28 2 3.60
at Auburn October 5 20 5.21
at Vanderbilt August 29 50 5.82
at Texas September 14 63 6.24
LSU October 19 74 6.25
Texas A&M October 12 79 6.33
Arkansas November 9 94 6.99
Idaho October 26 105 7.73
Troy November 16 121 8.08

In their last five games, the Rebels have played the five worst defenses on their schedule, all at home, and produced their five best results. Funny how that works.

You can pencil Ole Miss in for about 5.0 or 5.5 yards per play.

So what does that mean against Missouri? Mizzou's got the second-best defense Ole Miss has faced so far; the Tigers rank 12th in Def. F/+, 12th in Standard Downs S&P+, and 16th in both Rushing and Passing S&P+. Yes, that ranking is propped up by the run of backup quarterbacks Mizzou has faced in conference play, but only a little bit. Missouri's defense is experienced and rather well-rounded, with a deep, aggressive defensive line doing favors for what was supposed to be a pretty questionable secondary, and with mean middle linebacker Andrew Wilson cleaning up messes near the line of scrimmage. If the pattern holds true (and Missouri hopes it will), you can pencil Ole Miss in for about 5.0 or 5.5 yards per play, but the Rebels will probably need a little more than that to pull off the win on Saturday night.

Ole Miss does have one potential advantage, however. Missouri hasn't faced a true spread offense since September, and the ones the Tigers faced were able to poke some holes in the Mizzou D. On September 7, Toledo averaged 6.1 yards per play, forcing the Tigers into a nickel defense with short passing success (and lord knows Ole Miss will try its share of short passes), then getting running back David Fluellen rolling with the run game (17 carries for 111 yards, plus 10 catches for 100 yards). Thanks in part to its aggressive front four, Missouri has been vulnerable to screens and flares to running backs at times; if this is still the case on Saturday, Ole Miss will take full advantage.

Balance, baby

Donte Moncrief. Spruce Derden, USA Today

Few teams in the country utilize a broader array of options than Ole Miss and Missouri do. The spread offense will be getting all sorts of attention in Stillwater, but the spread ethos is alive and well in the SEC as well.

Missouri's intended touches, 2013
Player (Position) Carries, yards Catches-targets, yards Intended touches (yards)
Henry Josey (RB) 125 for 760 yards 8-for-10, 52 yards 135 for 812 (6.0)
Russell Hansbrough (RB) 83 for 544 yards 1-for-2, 5 yards 85 for 549 (6.5)
Marcus Lucas (WR) 46-for-72, 531 yards 72 for 531 (7.4)
Marcus Murphy (RB) 63 for 485 yards 6-for-7, 26 yards 70 for 511 (7.3)
L'Damian Washington (WR) 36-for-64, 680 yards 64 for 680 (10.6)
Dorial Green-Beckham (WR) 1 for 3 yards 40-for-61, 579 yards 61 for 579 (9.5)
James Franklin (QB) 52 for 368 yards 52 for 368 (7.1)
Maty Mauk (QB) 32 for 188 yards 32 for 188 (5.9)
Bud Sasser (WR) 17-for-30, 205 yards 30 for 205 (6.8)
Jimmie Hunt (WR) 18-for-21, 223 yards 21 for 223 (10.6)
Morgan Steward (RB) 21 for 84 yards 21 for 84 (4.0)
Ole Miss' intended touches, 2013
Player (Position) Carries, yards Catches-targets, yards Intended touches (yards)
Jaylen Walton (RB) 76 for 399 yards 14-for-17, 246 yards 93 for 645 (6.9)
Donte Moncrief (WR) 44-for-85, 686 yards 85 for 686 (8.1)
Bo Wallace (QB) 84 for 357 yards 84 for 357 (4.3)
Jeff Scott (RB) 64 for 488 yards 15-for-18, 101 yards 82 for 589 (7.2)
I'Tavius Mathers (RB) 69 for 430 yards 4-for-7, 27 yards 76 for 457 (6.0)
Laquon Treadwell (WR) 2 for 8 yards 53-for-70, 477 yards 72 for 485 (6.7)
Ja-Mes Logan (WR) 36-for-50, 497 yards 50 for 497 (9.9)
Barry Brunetti (QB) 48 for 268 yards 48 for 268 (5.6)
Evan Engram (TE) 20-for-28, 265 yards 28 for 265 (9.5)
Mark Dodson (RB) 21 for 126 yards 21 for 126 (6.0)
Vince Sanders (WR) 13-for-20, 275 yards 20 for 275 (13.8)

Each team has 11 players averaging at least 2.0 touches per game, though Ole Miss' Evan Engram is injured and out for the season. Of the 22 players above, 20 have averaged at least 5.0 yards per intended touch (10 for each team), and 15 have averaged at least 6.5 (8 for Missouri, 7 for Ole Miss). There are stars in this group -- at the very least, Josey, Washington, Green-Beckham, Franklin/Mauk, Moncrief, Wallace, Scott, and Treadwell should be names most college football fans recognize at this point -- but the ball goes wherever the defense dictates it go, and wherever the ball goes, it probably generates positive yardage.

Tank vs. Scooter

Following a shoulder sprain that forced him to miss the fourth quarter of the Georgia game, plus the four games that followed (sans a handful of for-the-hell-of-it handoffs at the end of the Kentucky game), James Franklin has been pronounced 100 percent healthy and will be back in charge of the Missouri offense. Gary Pinkel, however, has also said that because backup, and scooter aficionado, Maty Mauk played so well in Franklin's absence, he has earned some playing time as well. At this point, we have no idea what that might mean, but no matter what, the odds are good that Franklin takes a majority of the snaps on Saturday.

So what does that mean for the Missouri offense? I broke down the differences between Franklin and Mauk a couple of weeks ago at Rock M Nation.

Basically, Mauk averaged more yards per pass attempt with fewer sacks but a much lower completion rate, and about as many rushes per start, he averaged one fewer yard per carry. And he did this without the benefit of cupcakes. Hell, if we look only at BCS opponents, Franklin was only averaging 6.6 yards per pass attempt, 85 percent of Mauk's average.

Mauk did well, in other words.

So how big a deal is Mauk's completion percentage? He averaged 4.1 more yards per completion than Franklin did, but he completed only half of his passes. And besides, if you take out one single pass -- the 97-yard touchdown to L'Damian Washington -- Mauk's per-attempt average sinks to 7.0. That's still solid considering the competition, but not nearly as solid.

The effect of efficiency is noticeable when it comes to three-and-outs. As I discussed in my book -- currently $12.59 at Amazon! -- three-and-outs are deadly. They aren't as bad as turnovers, but you better not commit more than about three per game. With Franklin at the helm, Missouri went three-and-out 14 percent of the time; with Mauk, it was 22 percent of the time. And even as Franklin was producing pretty mediocre passing averages in his three games versus BCS competition, he was moving the chains: Mizzou went three-and-out just three times in 35 possessions (9%) versus Indiana, Vandy, and Georgia.

With Franklin, the Tigers are more efficient. With Mauk, they are more explosive. For all we know, Franklin might still be rusty, and any sort of rotation between the two might fail miserably (Mauk wasn't really a fast starter in his time on the first string). But on paper, Missouri is in good hands either way. The Tigers will need to be in good hands against Ole Miss because the Rebels can defend. Ole Miss is sound across the board -- between 19th and 29th in Rushing, Passing, Standard Downs and Passing Downs S&P+ -- and balances out its relative lack of size with speed and big-play prevention. In this sense, one could make the case that Missouri's offense could be in better hands with Franklin since he takes smaller bites than Mauk, so to speak.

Regardless of the quarterback, all eyes will probably be on wideout Dorial Green-Beckham to see what he has in store for an encore after his four-touchdown performance against Kentucky. Missouri's enormous receiving corps provides some unique matchup issues for defenses, but one assumes Ole Miss will have two sets of eyes on DGB most of the time.

Projected score: Missouri 26, Ole Miss 24

Other Saturday SEC Games

No. 12 Texas A&M at No. 22 LSU

Technically, this game does have stakes. If A&M manages to beat both LSU and Missouri and Alabama beats Auburn, the Aggies could be reasonably well-positioned to steal a Sugar Bowl bid from an Auburn team that defeated them a few weeks ago. While they don't have a defense, the Aggies certainly still have drawing power.

Still, while it feels strange giving this game second billing behind the game in Oxford, it's more than justifiable. Both of this game's defensive coordinators, A&M's Mark Snyder and LSU's John Chavis, have struggled through uncharacteristically unsuccessful seasons. The Aggies and Tigers rank 79th and 74th, respectively, in Def. F/+. LSU struggles to stop the run (61st in Rushing S&P+) while A&M cannot get off of the field on passing downs (82nd in Passing Downs S&P+). Needless to say, against these respective offenses, getting off the field without points could be an issue for both defenses.

This season has been relatively disappointing for both teams. A&M was ranked sixth and received a first-place vote in the preseason Coaches Poll, and while LSU was expected to struggle a bit on defense, the Tigers were still ranked 12th (AP) and 13th (USA Today) to start the season. Each team has basically lost one more game than it was supposed to (A&M to Auburn, LSU to Ole Miss), but this is still a game dripping with star power, especially on the offensive side of the ball. You won't get many more opportunities to watch Johnny Manziel throw to Mike Evans (probably) or Zach Mettenberger throw to Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Jr. (definitely). And this is almost certainly your one chance to watch Manziel take on Death Valley. This will be a fun college football spectacle, even if the stakes are not what we thought they would be.

Projected score: LSU 48, Texas A&M 47

Kentucky at Georgia

One failed pass deflection made the difference between Georgia thinking, "If Missouri loses to Ole Miss and Texas and we beat Kentucky, we can still win the East!" and instead thinking, "This season sucks." The improbable loss to Auburn (which followed an improbable comeback by Georgia) has lowered the ceiling for this Georgia season significantly, but let's just say that when you're fighting motivation issues, Kentucky's a pretty good team to play.

It's still Senior Day for quarterback Aaron Murray and company, and Georgia still has significant advantages over Mark Stoops' young Wildcats in just about every category. Unless Kentucky's decent pass rush can do a strong Auburn impersonation and hurry Murray early and often, the Dawgs should rather comfortably move to 7-4.

Projected score: Georgia 52, Kentucky 24

It's rare that a 6-6 record would be worth celebrating in Knoxville.

Vanderbilt at Tennessee

If motivation matters, give the edge to Tennessee in this one. At 4-6, the Volunteers can still rally for bowl-eligibility with wins over Vanderbilt and Kentucky, long-time Vol victims who have beaten UT as many times in the last two years (record: 2-2) as in the preceding 28 (record from 1983-2010: 2-54). It's rare that a 6-6 record would be worth celebrating in Knoxville, but "rare" is a pretty common adjective for this period in Tennessee's history. Ending a two-year bowl absence -- Tennessee's first since a four-year drought from 1975-78, when there weren't as many bowls -- would be a clear sign of progress for this young team.

After a bye week, freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs gets his third attempt at Win No. 1 as a Vol. A Vanderbilt defense that is porous against the run but still stout against the pass could create a pretty run-heavy game plan for Tennessee.

Projected score: Vanderbilt 30, Tennessee 24

Mississippi State at Arkansas

With a win over Arkansas and an Egg Bowl upset of Ole Miss, Mississippi State could also salvage bowl-eligibility. However, losing out is almost as likely as winning out, and against an Arkansas team simply trying to salvage some dignity from 2013, the Bulldogs have quite a bit of work to do just to get to Win No. 5. After all, as SB Nation's For Whom the Cowbell Tolls is quick to remind us, MSU has never won at Arkansas.

MSU boasts a pretty strong defense (31st in Def. F/+), but the Bulldogs are throwing anything they can find against the wall to try to boost a mediocre offense. Run-first quarterback Dak Prescott missed last week's Alabama game, so when backup (and former starter) Tyler Russell got hurt, freshman Damian Williams subbed in and went 0-for-4 with a sack. Either Prescott or Russell will start, and whoever gets the nod will face a defense that is, to put it gently, lacking in confidence at the moment. Arkansas ranks just 94th in Def. F/+ and is allowing 41.3 points per game in SEC play.

Projected score: Mississippi State 30, Arkansas 22

Chattanooga, Coastal Carolina, and Georgia Southern at Alabama, South Carolina, and Florida

This is the worst six-man tag team match ever.

I'll say this much, at least: the cupcakes of choice for the 2013 SEC-SoCon Challenge could be a lot worse. Hell, one of them isn't even from the Southern Conference. Coastal Carolina (South Carolina's opponent) is currently 10-1 and 11th in the FCS polls -- for frame of reference, No. 12 Fordham beat Temple, and No. 13 Montana State nearly beat SMU, so Coastal Carolina could potentially finish in the middle of the pack in the AAC. Alabama foe Chattanooga, meanwhile, is 8-3 and 23rd. If either of these teams were facing Florida's fading Gators, the game might be interesting for at least a little while. But Florida gets a worse-than-normal Georgia Southern team instead in Gator quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg's second career start. But hey, at least you'll get to watch Southern run the triple option for a bit...

Projected score: SEC 110, Southern Conference/Big South 21

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