Ranking the Best SEC Football Matchups of Week 3

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2017

Ranking the Best SEC Football Matchups of Week 3

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    After a couple of warm-up weeks, the SEC is going to get the opportunity to flex its muscles against each other, at least in a few important early-season games.

    A few other teams will be going head-to-head with Power 5 opponents for intriguing matchups.

    With Hurricane Irma blown through, Tennessee will travel to Gainesville as scheduled to take on Florida in a game that may decide who Georgia's biggest contender is in the SEC East. Over in Columbia, South Carolina, however, the Gamecocks and Kentucky Wildcats may have something to say about that.

    While it's still a heavy out-of-conference slate in the SEC West, there is a good game in Starkville where Mississippi State will try to prove its early offensive firepower isn't a fluke when the Bulldogs host LSU.

    There are a lot of reasons to watch SEC football this weekend, so let's rank the top games on the schedule.

7. Colorado State at Alabama

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    Nobody really believes Colorado State is going to stampede into Tuscaloosa and hang with Alabama for four quarters, but this will be a fair test for the Crimson Tide as they get ready for the SEC schedule.

    Rams coach Mike Bobo got his team off to a resounding start with a lopsided upset win over Oregon State, but they struggled offensively in a rivalry game loss to Colorado in Week 2. Now, they will try to make it through a trip to a national title contender's stomping ground without the battle scars to prove it.

    For Nick Saban's team, this will be an opportunity to shore up an area that gave the Tide fits late last season: defending the pass. CSU quarterback Nick Stevens has a bunch of playmakers at his disposal, and this will be a nice test in that area for the Tide.

    Offensively, though, it's hard to imagine the visitors having an answer for UA quarterback Jalen Hurts and the waves of stars that have emerged from Saban's recruiting spoils. On defense, CSU must contend with a group that Bobo said looks like an "NFL front four."

    Nobody expects the Tide to sweat much this weekend, but this will be an opportunity for them to get one final tuneup before games against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss the following two weeks.

6. Purdue at Missouri

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    After piling up the points during the season's first week, Missouri crashed back down to Earth in a disappointing 31-13 loss to SEC East counterpart South Carolina last weekend at home.

    Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock and Co. did fine against the Gamecocks, but the defense continues to be a major issue, which is why coach Barry Odom fired defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Dave Matter.

    "I am very appreciative of all that DeMontie has done for Mizzou, and am sorry that this did not work out, however, after careful evaluation, I believe it is important to make this change now," Odom said, per a release from the school.

    Now, the Tigers play host to Purdue in a game that looked like a probable win to start the season. Instead, new Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm's team nearly pulled off a major upset in the season opener against Louisville and then trounced MAC contender Ohio 44-21 last weekend.

    This looks like it could be a game where the first team to 40 wins.

    So, if you want entertainment and like high-flying offensive attacks, you should probably tune in to this weekend's game between the Tigers and Boilermakers. It definitely won't be a shutout.

5. Ole Miss at California

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    Speaking of high-scoring games, how's that Missouri-Purdue game as a segue into this slide?

    The Ole Miss Rebels and California Bears have plenty of offensive weaponry themselves, and this late-night game that is part of the "Pac-12 After Dark" for viewers elsewhere in the country should lead to a typical extravaganza of points.

    With the Rebels unable to go bowling this year thanks to the alleged recruiting transgressions of the Hugh Freeze era, they're airing it out in a no-prisoners offensive attack that features star sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson flinging darts all over the field to his dynamic receiving corps.

    That group is led by A.J. Brown, who is making highlight-reel plays every weekend.

    The only negative for the 2-0 Rebels thus far is they haven't shown they can play even a little defense. That doesn't bode well for a trip to Berkeley, California, to take on the Bears. While they expect to get better under defensive-minded head coach Justin Wilcox, the leftovers from the Sonny Dykes era are all about the points.

    Offensive firepower is the major reason Cal is 2-0, with wins over North Carolina and Weber State. But they received some bad news this week when it was revealed senior running back Tre Watson will miss the remainder of the season with injury, according to the Associated Press (h/t the Los Angeles Times).

    Even without Watson on the field, there are plenty of guys on both sides of the ball who can make things happen. This one could get wild.

4. Kansas State at Vanderbilt

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    This may just be the year Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason's group breaks through and becomes a quality football program.

    After a couple of difficult seasons, the Commodores made it to a bowl game last year before falling to a 6-7 record. This season, with quarterback Kyle Shurmur blossoming into a star signal-caller, VU looks like it could be ready to take a step forward.

    The Commodores flexed their defensive muscle in a season-opening win against a good Middle Tennessee team that went up to the Carrier Dome and upset Syracuse the following week. Then last weekend, Vandy dropped Alabama A&M 42-0.

    Now, they begin a grueling four-game stretch that starts with No. 18 Kansas State in Nashville. Alabama, Florida and Georgia follow, so everybody will know if this start is the real deal or not really soon.

    "We are going to have a tough schedule, but you've got to like it that way," Mason told the Tennessean's Adam Sparks. "At least we started out the way we were supposed to start out. … Let's see how good of a football team we are."

    For the Wildcats, Vanderbilt being a perennial bottom-dweller doesn't take anything away from the importance. "A lot of us have circled the game on the calendar, because Vanderbilt is a SEC opponent," K-State center Adam Holtorf told the Wichita Eagle's Kellis Robinett.

    The 'Dores want to prove they aren't a pushover, while the Wildcats are looking to upend an SEC opponent. This could be a very good football game that will come down to the last possession.

3. Kentucky at South Carolina

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    No matter how hot the Commodores are to start the season, the award for the league's biggest surprise may go to South Carolina.

    The Gamecocks were a hot pick by several to surge in Will Muschamp's second year because of star sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley. But the way Carolina dispatched of a good North Carolina State team and then went on the road and handled Missouri, is eye-opening.

    It may wind up being Muschamp's team that is Georgia's biggest contender in the SEC East.

    Things haven't been quite as easy for Kentucky, which struggled in both of its two games so far against Southern Mississippi and Eastern Kentucky. But the only thing that matters at this point is the Wildcats are 2-0 with a major opportunity to get an important win this weekend.

    The loser of this one sinks back into the pack in a wide-open division, but the winner could find itself with enough swagger to last deep into the season. If the Gamecocks come away victorious, they'll already be 2-0 in the conference and in the division.

    For Mark Stoops' team, this is an opportunity to prove they are better than they've played thus far. 

    It's also a chance for the nation to see a couple of underrated great players in Bentley and UK running back Benny Snell. This may be a game for the disrespected, but the winner will be getting plenty of publicity Saturday night.

2. LSU at Mississippi State

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    Considering the Bayou Bengals have beaten Mississippi State in 23 of their past 25 meetings dating back to 1992, this game could hardly be considered a rivalry.

    But four total points have decided the past two Tigers wins, and MSU won back in 2014 when quarterback Dak Prescott was emerging as a collegiate star, so the Bulldogs and coach Dan Mullen have made things interesting recently.

    Nobody expected much from the Bulldogs entering this year, but with another star quarterback—dual-threat signal-caller Nick Fitzgerald—leading the way, they're 2-0 and have looked good so far. In the first full season of Ed Orgeron's tenure, LSU has yet to drop a game, either.

    Defense has been the story for Orgeron's team, which didn't allow BYU to cross the 50-yard line in a 27-0 season-opening shutout, followed by an easy 45-10 win over FCS foe Chattanooga last weekend.

    Now, they must travel to Starkville in a game that will be closer than a lot of people expect.

    With the Bulldogs expected to load up to stop running back Derrius Guice, the onus will fall on LSU quarterback Danny Etling, who must prove he can lead a balanced attack. On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers get back electric star pass-rusher Arden Key for the first time this season.

    With Key back, the Tigers could be even better than they've been on that side of the ball. That's scary. But Fitzgerald is one of the two best dual-threat quarterbacks they will face this year along with Alabama's Jalen Hurts, so they'll need all the weapons they can get.

1. Tennessee at Florida

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    In the past, this was the marquee game of the SEC East schedule. That may not be the case in 2017, as it looks like Georgia may be for real after its road win over Notre Dame a week ago.

    Still, this game has supreme importance to both teams, and the winner will find itself right in the thick of the divisional race.

    Last year, Tennessee exorcised the reptilian demons with a torrid comeback win that featured receiver Jauan Jennings torching UF defensive back Jalen Tabor for a signature touchdown. Neither of those guys are around this year, with Tabor injured in the NFL and Jennings out for the year.

    Other players will have to step up for both of these question-riddled teams to win.

    Thanks to Hurricane Irma, the Gators haven't played since their Week 1 lopsided 33-17 loss to Michigan that was actually worse than the final score indicated. The Vols did everything but lose to Georgia Tech in the opener, coming back with a double-overtime win over the Yellow Jackets.

    Nobody learned much about UT last weekend when it beat Indiana State at home.

    So, this is a pair of enigmas looking for offensive playmakers, consistent quarterback play and for their defenses to make enough plays to keep them in the game. This battle will be waged in Gainesville as scheduled, and so UT must revisit one of its recent houses of horror to emerge victorious.

    Florida will be attempting to show a glimmer of offensive hope for the first time since former quarterback Will Grier was suspended. This will be a game where we learn a lot about who is a viable SEC East contender.