For the first time in three weeks, there is no battle of mutual national title contenders in the SEC. We were spoiled after the Texas A&M-Mississippi State, Alabama-Ole Miss, and LSU-Auburn trio two weeks ago and the Auburn-MSU encore last week.
This Saturday doesn't feature a true headliner in the sport's best conference, but it does have a fivesome of games that are intriguing for one reason or another. (It also features Furman at South Carolina, but we won't worry about that one.)
Let's take a look at a key matchup for each of this week's SEC games. Battles in the trenches appear to be the theme of the week.
No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 7 Alabama, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
The first thing we have to note is that Arkansas' defensive front is pretty good. Really good, actually. The Razorbacks' defense ranks seventh in Adj. Line Yards, which means that Alabama has faced back-to-back top-10 units in that regard (Ole Miss is eighth). Still, it was more than a little bit jarring to see Bama backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combine for just 70 yards on 23 carries against the Hogs (3.0 per carry) a week after averaging just 4.3 per carry against the Rebels.
If the current depth chart holds, Alabama might be starting its fourth combination of offensive linemen on Saturday. Senior Leon Brown and sophomore Alphonse Taylor have alternated back and forth at right guard, and midway through the Ole Miss game, freshman Bradley Bozeman came in for injured starting center Ryan Kelly, who is doubtful to play against A&M. With Cam Robinson holding down the left tackle spot, that means Bama has two true freshmen in the starting lineup and five (plus a sophomore) on the depth chart. This is a level of youth we're not used to seeing on the Alabama front, and even with all the upside in the world, that means there will still be some growing pains.
We're also seeing some growing pains from Henry, a true sophomore who has gained only 62 yards in 24 carries the last two weeks.
Texas A&M, by the way, ranks 86th in Adj. Line Yards. The Aggies are pretty good in short-yardage situations, and they're probably better at stopping the run than they were last year (Arkansas and Mississippi State averaged 5.8 yards per carry, but South Carolina and Ole Miss averaged just 4.0). But with another game under Bozeman's belt and a lesser run defense, the Tide should be able to run the ball. And if they can do that, they can probably do enough to hold off an Aggie team that has been tarnished over the last couple of games (Mississippi Schools 83, A&M 51) but is still solid.
No. 10 Georgia at Arkansas, 4 p.m. ET, SEC Network
Let's keep with the ground theme. Arkansas can run the ball and stop the run. Georgia wants to run the ball and is coming off of its best run-stopping performance of the season. The ground game will be the most important facet of this game, and because of that alone, you have to figure Arkansas likes its chances.
I'm actually most curious to see what happens if Georgia's running game can't do much. In the absence of Todd Gurley (suspended), Keith Marshall (injured), and Sony Michel (injured), Nick Chubb was asked to carry a heavy load in last week's win over Missouri. He didn't get very far in his 38 carries (143 yards, 3.8 per carry), but he was able to take on that much of the burden, with sophomore Brendan Douglas looking pretty good in his 13 opportunities as well.
Because Georgia's defense was completely controlling a flailing Mizzou offense, the Dawgs didn't need, or get, any sort of explosiveness from the ground game.
If they have to score, and if the run isn't very effective, will Georgia finally let its increasingly healthy receiving corps run free? We know Chris Conley and Michael Bennett can be effective in running more intermediate routes, and former leading receiver Malcolm Mitchell might be rounding into healthy form, with Justin Scott-Wesley not far behind. Midway through the season, we don't actually know how much coordinator Mike Bobo trusts Hutson Mason to let loose -- he really hasn't had to yet -- but we might find out, one way or another, on Saturday.
Tennessee at No. 3 Ole Miss, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Tennessee is improving quickly on defense, and if the Volunteers are able to get into Bo Wallace's head a bit (something that is evidently more difficult to do), Tennessee could force some mistakes and hang around for a while in Oxford.
But at some point, Tennessee will also have to score. That might be an issue. The Volunteer offense has proven to be a bit too young to make serious noise. The Vols are averaging 4.6 yards per play for the season -- in the last two weeks, they averaged 3.4 against Florida and 4.8 against Chattanooga -- and even adjusting for opponent, they rank just 71st in Off. F/+.
The Ole Miss defense, meanwhile, ranks third. The Tennessee offensive line is going to have an absolutely nightmarish day against the Rebels' defensive front, which means Justin Worley will probably have to pass the Vols to victory with a receiving corps that hasn't had enough time to get open this year. The highly regarded trio of Marquez North, Pig Howard, and Josh Malone has combined to average just 5.4 yards per target.
If Tennessee can get to 21 points, the Vols might have a chance at a major upset. But I have no idea how the Vols get to 21 points.
Hey, speaking of low point totals...
Missouri at Florida, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The current over/under for Mizzou-Florida is 47 points. That seems about 20 points too high, doesn't it? Missouri's defense ranks 10th in Def. F/+, and while Florida's D was out of sorts against both Kentucky and Alabama (combined: 6.8 yards per play), it has begun to resemble what it is supposed to be against Tennessee and LSU (combined: 3.8 yards per play).
Florida's offense has improved, believe it or not, but against the two best defenses it has faced (Alabama and Tennessee), the Gators managed a total of 24 offensive points and 3.3 yards per play. That's awful, but the Gators could have the element of surprise in their favor in Gainesville.
True freshman Treon Harris filled in against Tennessee when [Jeff] Driskel completely lost the plot, and while he didn't actually do much -- 2-for-4 passing, four rushes for 24 yards -- Florida did score twice with him behind center. He provides a mobility threat that Driskel doesn't, even if he's still relatively new to the offense. He was suspended last week for the LSU game, and while he's back with the team, Will Muschamp has said that Driskel will start. But Missouri heads to Gainesville with no idea who might be behind center for a majority of the game. And the two quarterbacks are just different enough to make preparation very tricky.
We have no idea whether a sustained dose of Harris might result in a sea change for the Florida offense as a whole, or whether his limitations will be quickly exploited. Like a good guitar player, Harris is benefiting from unknowns and mystique. But until we do know what he's capable of, it's a little scary to think of him jumping in and changing everything about how (and how well) Florida's offense operates.
You could make the case that both teams have two quarterbacks -- Driskel and Harris for Florida, Maty Mauk and Maty Mauk for Missouri. The book is out on Mauk, and he needs help from his supporting cast that he has not been getting. Nobody really knows what Harris is capable of at this point.
Kentucky at LSU, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network
Kentucky fans are starting to get a little bit salty. When this week's SEC win projections gave the Wildcats only about a two percent chance of finishing 5-3 in conference (they're currently 2-1), I got quite a few responses talking about how UK could beat Tennessee (in Knoxville) and Missouri (in Columbia) and would have a good chance at beating LSU (in Baton Rouge) as well. That's three more wins right there!
Kentucky is indeed improving; the Wildcats are 59th in the F/+ rankings. For a team that hasn't ended up higher than 86th since 2010, that's exciting.
But this improving team is still 59th, and a disappointing LSU team is still 35th. Kentucky has enough receivers to test a fun LSU secondary, but sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles has been inconsistent on passing downs (he's still a sophomore, after all). Meanwhile, the Wildcats allowed pretty big totals to the only decent rushing teams it has faced (Florida and South Carolina: 5.3 yards per carry, 260 rushing yards per game), and LSU is more than happy to run and run on you until you stop it.
Kentucky absolutely has a chance of pulling an upset and taking one step closer to five conference wins, but the odds are still in LSU's favor.