SEC Football: Every Team's Biggest Trap Game for 2014 Season
The SEC schedule is littered with potential trap games, and no team is exempt. Whether its schedule is lauded for its quality (Auburn) or ribbed for its lack thereof (Alabama), there are land-mines looming that could blow the season to pieces.
This is not an uncommon occurrence in any of the power-five conferences: Trap games are the main reason so few teams go undefeated, and their presence is one of the many things that give college football the best regular season in sports.
So many games are losable, but every loss matters so much.
But who might be this year's South Carolina: the team who gets caught looking ahead and pays the ultimate price because of it?
Based largely on the schedule—i.e., whom the team in question plays before and after a certain game—but also on the quality of opponent, we went searching for each SEC team's most likely trap situation.
Sound off below and let me know where you disagree.
November 15 vs. Mississippi State
Two seasons ago, Alabama beat LSU in a close game on the road, then returned home to finish the season with an above-average SEC West team, Western Carolina and Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
This season, after what should be a close a road game at LSU, Alabama returns home to finish the season with an above-average SEC West team, Western Carolina and Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
Of course, two years ago, that above-average SEC West team—which actually turned out to be a little better than that—was Texas A&M, an upstart bunch led by a star running quarterback, Johnny Manziel.
This year, that above-average SEC West team—which could easily turn out to be a little better than that—is Mississippi State, another upstart bunch led by a star running quarterback, Dak Prescott.
According to ESPN's Expected Points Added metric, Prescott was the third-best rushing quarterback in the country last season, posting a score (45.0) that's only been topped by Manziel, Jordan Lynch (twice), Taysom Hill, Collin Klein, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick (twice), Denard Robinson and Julian Edelman since 2004.
There's a blueprint for this exact upset.
September 13 vs. Northern Illinois
Arkansas might have the toughest opening stretch in the country; Nicholls State is the only sure-fire win before UAB on October 25.
The closest thing to a sure-fire win besides that, though, is a home game with Northern Illinois, which may be a powerhouse in the MAC but is still…well, a team from the MAC.
With road games at Auburn and Texas Tech in the first three weeks and home games against Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia looming, it would be tempting to overlook the Huskies.
But even without star quarterback Jordan Lynch, NIU is a proven commodity with players accustomed to winning.
Unlike the Razorbacks' upperclassmen, who have gone 7-15 the past two seasons, the Huskies' upperclassmen have gone 24-4 and played in the Orange Bowl against Florida State—a game where they trailed by just seven points after three quarters.
That experience has to count for something.
November 8 vs. Texas A&M
Auburn's schedule is hard in an explicit, no-room-for-a-trap-game way, which made it tough to satisfy the terms of this article.
One possible landing spot, though, is an early-November home game with Texas A&M, which could easily be overlooked if the Aggies get off to a slow start and enter with a record around 5-4.
Auburn would be coming off an ostensibly tough road game at Ole Miss and looking ahead to an even tougher one at Georgia.
But even if the finish wasn't as dramatic, Texas A&M also lost a back-and-forth game it thought it should have won against the Tigers last season, and it will be seeking just as much revenge. A young team that might struggle early should be turning the corner around November, and it definitely has the offensive weapons to score 30-40 points.
Newly announced starting quarterback Kenny Hill has some "Johnny Football" in him, Tra Carson and Trey Williams form an experienced backfield, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil have as much star potential as any receivers in the country and an offensive line led by left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi should be just as dominant as usual.
Shootouts give the underdog a chance.
November 1 at Vanderbilt
How does a team that went 4-8 last season overlook a team that (a) went 9-4 and (b) doubled its score, 34-17, when they played?
Answer: If the jerseys read "Florida" and "Vanderbilt."
The Gators are a trendy bounce-back candidate in 2014, and the Commodores are a trendy pick to take a step back. It's hard to say what either team's record will be when they meet on the first day of November, but almost regardless, Florida will be coming off a difficult stretch against LSU, Missouri and Georgia and might be focused on the following week's game against South Carolina.
Vanderbilt, however, should improve throughout the season under first-year coach Derek Mason, who if nothing else knows how to get a team (or at least a defense) fired up for a winnable home game. On offense, running back Jerron Seymour returns after rushing for three touchdowns against Florida last year.
Especially if a bowl game is still in play, the Commodores will come out balls-to-the-wall against the Gators. Given the way the schedule shakes out, are we sure Will Muschamp's team will match that?
November 8 at Kentucky
Georgia hits the road to play Kentucky one week after playing Florida, which is annually one of the biggest games on its schedule, and one week before playing Auburn, which is currently the single biggest game on its schedule.
The Wildcats, though, cannot be brushed aside as quickly as they have been in the past. They aren't ready to compete for a bowl or anything like that, but they should be a much improved bunch.
The way Mark Stoops is recruiting, they actually feel a lot like last year's Tennessee team: one year away from being one year away…but capable of pulling a home upset if everything breaks right.
Kentucky is strongest along the defensive line—where ends Alvin Dupree and Za'Darius Smith are legitimate All-SEC candidates, and freshman Matt Elam (6'7", 375 lbs) is a full grown man—and Georgia's offense is probably weaker in the trenches than anywhere else.
Strengths matching weaknesses is a good place for an upset to start.
September 6 vs. Ohio
If and when Kentucky becomes a team capable of upsetting Georgia, it won't be until later in the season, around November.
The Wildcats will be much more prone to playing poorly around September, before the 2014 recruiting class gets its feet wet.
Ohio is exactly the type of group-of-five team that can take advantage of that. It loses a ton of personnel from last season, but its head coach, Frank Solich, has been around for 10 years and has established a culture of winning, highlighted by a 43-24 record since 2009.
If Kentucky thinks too much of itself and gets caught looking ahead to Florida, the Bobcats can make it pay. Even with the eight new offensive starters, a Solich-coached team—built in the Tom Osborne vein—will always be able to run the football, and the Wildcats finished No. 99 in the country with 4.9 yards per carry allowed last season.
That could kinda, sorta be a problem.
November 15 at Arkansas
LSU wouldn't overlook Arkansas again, would it?
Maybe and maybe not.
To be honest, a lot depends on what happens against Alabama the week prior. When they've lost against the Crimson Tide the past few seasons, the Tigers have bounced back well the following week. But if they beat Nick Saban's team, there's a chance they'll start to read—and worse, believe—their press clippings the next few days.
Arkansas put a jolt into LSU last season, punching the Tigers in the mouth even before Zach Mettenberger's torn ACL. The Razorbacks are able (and not afraid) to run the ball on anybody, and after a second straight year of massive attrition in the defensive front seven, that is where LSU should be most susceptible.
Especially if you subscribe to Bruce Feldman's "body blow theory"—which broadly states that teams are more likely to lose one week after playing a physical opponent—having to defend a Bret Bielema power-rushing offense on the heels of Alabama sounds tricky.
Last year, the Razorbacks rushed for 182 yards on 34 carries, the highest average (5.35) LSU had allowed in almost two months.
October 18 vs. Tennessee
This one is entirely schedule dependent. Look at the five-week stretch Tennessee is nestled into the middle of for Ole Miss:
- Oct. 4: vs. No. 2 Alabama
- Oct. 11: at No. 21 Texas A&M
- Oct. 18. vs. Tennessee
- Oct. 25: at No. 13 LSU
- Nov. 1: vs. No. 6 Auburn
The Vols should be decent this season, but they are probably the worst team in that quintet. At the very least, they're the second worst, with Alabama, Auburn and LSU still considerably ahead of them.
Where they otherwise might have stuck out as a plucky land-mine on Ole Miss' schedule, the context makes them look more like an oasis, a luscious reprieve from a desert of high-probablilty losses.
That is trap game 101.
The Rebels have a big advantage along the lines (and on defense in general), but they also have an interception-prone quarterback in Bo Wallace. Nothing keeps a less-talented team in a game like turnovers, although explosive skill-position players who can turn short gains into long ones would be a close second. On that front, Tennessee (Jalen Hurd, Marquez North, Josh Malone, etc.) is particularly set.
And that is trap game 102.
September 13 at South Alabama
The Jaguars went just 6-6 last season, but they were better than their record, losing five of seven one-possession games. The result was a No. 68 finish on the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings, one spot ahead of 10-win Rice and four spots ahead of Tennessee.
What's more, they return 15 senior starters in 2014, per Phil Steele, who ranked them No. 33 on his combined experience chart. This is a veteran team that knows how to stay in ball games—it just hasn't yet learned how to finish them.
Mississippi State has to be careful in a rare nonconference road trip to Mobile, Alabama. With a trip to Baton Rouge the following week and Auburn and Texas A&M looming as the next two games after that, it is easy to imagine a scenario where it takes Joey Jones' team lightly.
Just ask Tennessee how competitive USA can be.
September 20 vs. Indiana
Any of Missouri's FBS nonconference opponents could rightfully be labeled trap-worthy. A road trip to Toledo and home dates with UCF and Indiana are all games the Tigers could easily lose.
By virtue of being last, though, this September 20 matchup with the Hoosiers seems like the most likely candidate.
It's easier to sleep through a home game than a road game, so Toledo is likely to get Missouri's best shot, and UCF has a target on its back after winning last year's Fiesta Bowl. But if the Tigers start 3-0 and start to feel good about themselves and plan ahead to the following week's game at South Carolina, they could be in a lot of trouble.
Indiana has an offense that is not to be trifled with after finishing No. 16 in last year's F/+ ratings. Offenses that finished lower included, but were not limited to, Louisville, Clemson, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Texas Tech and, of course, one spot back, Missouri.
With quarterback Nate Sudfeld, running back Tevin Coleman, receiver Shane Wynn and a quietly superb offensive line all returning, the Hoosiers can score points on even the most present-in-the-moment version of Missouri's defense. They can score a lot of points on a tired-and-looking-ahead version of Missouri's defense.
And they will, if given the chance.
September 6 vs. East Carolina
Head coach Steve Spurrier won't be looking past East Carolina. Sort of. According to Josh Kendall of The State, he called the Pirates "a lot tougher than maybe picking up one of those bottom Big Ten teams," but given his opinion of the B1G, that may not mean much.
Even if Spurrier does prepare his team like its playing a lower-tier power-five school, that may not be enough to guarantee absolute focus. The Gamecocks will be coming off a Week 1 showdown with Texas A&M and looking ahead to a Week 3 bout with Georgia.
It's hard to take ECU as seriously as those two games.
Not taking the Pirates seriously, however, is a recipe for disaster. It was only six years ago that they beat No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 7 West Virginia to open the season, and last year, more germanely, they embarrassed North Carolina by 24 points (55-31) in Chapel Hill.
Quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy are one of the best duos in the country and stand a better chance than some (if not most) SEC teams of testing South Carolina's thin secondary.
September 6 vs. Arkansas State
Tennessee has been hearing about Utah State all offseason. It knows not to take that game lightly. If it loses to the Aggies, it will not be because it got trapped; it will be because the Aggies were better.
The same cannot be said for a Week 2 game against Arkansas State. The Red Wolves come to Knoxville one week after Utah State and one week before the Vols play Oklahoma in Norman. Now that is the type of game that a team could end up sleeping through.
But sleeping against Arkansas State might not be such a bright idea. Even with a head coaching situation that functions like a Dixie cup dispenser—a new leader sliding down the chute to replace the old one each season—ASU has won or shared three consecutive Sun Belt titles, winning 28 total games during that span.
This year's new head coach is Blake Anderson, who served as Larry Fedora's offensive coordinator at Southern Miss and North Carolina and knows how to put up points against anyone.
Tennessee better come out ready to play some defense.
November 1 vs. Louisiana-Monroe
Like Ole Miss with Tennessee, this one is entirely dependent on schedule. The opponent, Louisiana-Monroe, is not as formidable as the Volunteers, but the situation around this game is even worse.
Take a look at (a) the seven-game stretch it falls directly in the middle of and (b) the two games immediately before and after it:
- Oct. 4: at Mississippi State
- Oct. 11: vs. No. 18 Ole Miss
- Oct. 18: at No. 2 Alabama
- Nov. 1: vs. Louisiana-Monroe
- Nov. 8: at No. 6 Auburn
- Nov. 15: vs. No. 24 Missouri
- Nov. 27: at No. 13 LSU
The bye week after Alabama/before ULM should help, but it's naive to think Kevin Sumlin and his staff will spend that extra time preparing for the Warhawks instead of looking ahead to Auburn, Missouri and LSU. In fact, it would be foolish for them to do that.
Those three games after ULM deserve the bulk of Texas A&M's attention, but they can't receive that attention undivided. The Aggies have no business losing to ULM, but Florida had no business losing to Georgia Southern last year, either. Sometimes half-decent opponents are taken for granted when they shouldn't be.
This is still a team with 14 wins the past two seasons.
September 27 at Kentucky
Vanderbilt plays Kentucky in Lexington at a rough point in the schedule: three weeks after hosting Ole Miss, one week after hosting South Carolina and one week before traveling to Georgia.
If they've been humbled with a pair of conference losses to start the season, the Commodores will not come out taking Kentucky for granted, which is ostensibly what a trap game is. But this could still be a trap because of what it means to the Wildcats comparatively.
Put yourself in Mark Stoops' team's shoes: You've lost 16 consecutive conference games, and this is by far the most likely win on the schedule. It's the SEC home-opener against a physically exhausted, emotionally depleted team that just wants one easy win before going on the road to most likely get its butt kicked in Athens.
If not on September 27, Kentucky might not win another conference game until 2015, more than 1,000 days after winning its last. This might be the only SEC roster with more questions than its own.
It's never good to play in another team's Super Bowl.
Note: All rankings refer to the Preseason AP Poll.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT