Ranking the Best SEC Football Matchups of Week 5

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2017

Ranking the Best SEC Football Matchups of Week 5

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    Conference slates are heating up as teams begin to settle into their regular routine of league opponents, and there are more than a few intriguing SEC football battles that will take place Saturday.

    Two SEC East battles in an "anybody's guess" division should provide a little bit of separation and a lot of clarity as Georgia travels to Knoxville to take on Tennessee and Vanderbilt heads to Gainesville to play Florida.

    It's going to be interesting to see if the Gators have run out of pixie dust yet after the past two weekends.

    Over in the SEC West, Alabama likely won't have any trouble with Ole Miss in a game that has given the Crimson Tide fits over the past few years. In perhaps the most anticipated game of the weekend, Mississippi State will try to shake off last week's beatdown at Georgia as it travels to Auburn.

    There's also a good cross-divisional game on tap as South Carolina needs to get back on track following a home loss to Kentucky and a miracle comeback win over Louisiana Tech. The Gamecocks travel to Texas A&M to play embattled coach Kevin Sumlin's Aggies.

    There are a lot of reasons to watch Saturday, from coaching hot seats to see who are contenders and pretenders and just good, old-fashioned quality games. Let's take a look at the top SEC games of the week.

8. Eastern Michigan at Kentucky

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    This is the "week of worry" for a few SEC teams that are hurting and need to get back on track. You'll see a similar trend over the next couple of slides, but it all starts with Kentucky.

    After tap-dancing on their fans' hearts against the Florida for the 31st consecutive year, giving UK fans so much excitement by leading Florida through the entire game in Lexington, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion in the final minute, they have to get back at it again this week.

    The last time UK (3-1) played a "directional school," it struggled against Eastern Kentucky. Eastern Michigan (2-1) is better than the Colonels. As a matter of fact, the Eagles have rebounded from being one of the worst teams in the country to winning nine of their past 16 games.

    They're far from a pushover.

    Look for the Eagles to play Kentucky well deep into the game as there's a bit of a hangover remaining from last week. But UK running back Benny Snell Jr. plays with a chip on his shoulder that will only be bigger after the loss to the Gators.

    Quarterback Stephen Johnson will help him out in the second half, and Kentucky will pull out a closer-than-expected win. But it will not be as easy as it may appear on the surface.

7. Troy at LSU

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    One of the most puzzling hires of the past few years was a blue-blood program like LSU deciding to stick with interim coach Ed Orgeron to lead the program.

    After two uninspired efforts that included a 37-7 loss to Mississippi State and a lackluster win against visiting Syracuse last weekend, Coach O has to prove a lot to the Bayou Bengals faithful as well as to skeptical national spectators.

    One thing is certain: The Tigers will have plenty of talent because the Louisiana native is an elite recruiter. But can he coach them up? Can LSU (3-1) put together a complete game after looking disjointed at times on offense and defense at times this year?

    Troy is expected to be the cream of the Sun Belt this year, but the Trojans haven't played their best football yet. After going on the road and getting drubbed by Boise State to start the year, they handled Alabama State before getting close wins against New Mexico State and Akron.

    If they can put everything together, they will give LSU some issues. But that's asking a lot.

    The Tigers outclass Troy in talent, depth and playmakers. This game is in Death Valley, where it's nearly impossible for outmanned teams to win, and LSU probably feels it has a lot to prove to everybody. The Tigers will take care of business.

    That will ease the whispers about Orgeron for another week, at least.

6. New Mexico State at Arkansas

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    Following a 50-43 overtime loss to Texas A&M in the "Hot Seat Bowl" last weekend, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema told the media that he expected to see an angry team this weekend.

    "Guys, after they watched film, were pissed," Bielema told SEC Country's Trent Shadid. "When it really mattered or you did it five times, the sixth time wasn’t great."

    They had better be, because this game against New Mexico State is a prime position for a major upset. Look at last week's Tennessee-UMass game for reference following the Vols' last-second loss to Florida. UT came out flat and nearly lost to one of the nation's worst teams.

    NMSU (2-2) is not one of the nation's worst teams.

    Quarterback Tyler Rogers is having an excellent year, and the Aggies nearly upset Arizona State to open the season. The Razorbacks have more talent than the Sun Devils, and they're a better team than the Aggies, but this is a season that could go either way right now.

    Arkansas is 1-2 with a loss to TCU that doesn't look so bad right now and a loss to another set of Aggies (A&M) last week that looks worse. They need to get off to a good start, channel that anger in the right direction and take it out on NMSU on the scoreboard.

    If the Hogs let them hang around, this one could be interesting in the fourth quarter.

5. Ole Miss at Alabama

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    Ole Miss is the last team to beat Alabama in the regular season, doing it early in 2015. That's a testament to just how incredible the Crimson Tide have been recently, even though the Rebels pulled off stunning upsets in 2014 and '15.

    Last year, UA came from a 24-3 deficit for a 48-43 win in Oxford.

    It won't be anything like that this year. The Rebels (2-1) will still score points, as evidenced by that unit being 19th nationally behind the gunslinging arm of quarterback Shea Patterson. But the Landsharks defense is not walking though that door.

    The bottom line is, though Ole Miss will score some, the Rebels can't consistently put together drives against the Tide because they have a subpar running game. Also, this Alabama offense is better than it has been in years past, and they will shred Ole Miss.

    Damien Harris is one of the most underrated players in the SEC, Bo Scarbrough is an incredible complementary runner, and quarterback Jalen Hurts is coming into his own as one of the best playmakers in the league.

    There's a reason this game has a 28-point spread. A few of the games lower on the list have the potential of being closer, but only because of the Rebels' recent history against the Tide (4-0) does it rank this high. Crazier things have happened, so don't write it off just yet.

    If Patterson plays out of his mind and the Rebels get a couple of turnovers, it may get interesting.

4. South Carolina at Texas A&M

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    Just how worrisome is the coaching situation in College Station? Even after last week's resounding overtime win over Arkansas, there hasn't been much discussion of Kevin Sumlin saving his job.

    After the Aggies' late-season collapses over the past few years, it appears everybody is in a wait-and-see mode with Texas A&M, especially with a young quarterback that hasn't proved any consistency yet.

    This weekend is a huge game for the rest of A&M's season as it hosts South Carolina and exciting signal-caller Jake Bentley.

    As good as Bentley has been in Columbia, he is finding it much tougher sledding without star receiver Deebo Samuel, who is out for the rest of the season after getting injured against Kentucky. Last weekend, the Gamecocks offense wasn't the same in a struggle victory against Louisiana Tech.

    Now, they've got to travel to College Station to take on the Aggies in a very winnable game. The way A&M's offense was shredded against UCLA and Arkansas, they don't scare anybody. Defensive coordinator John Chavis may be a scapegoat before Sumlin is forced to leave.

    But it's way too early in the season to be talking about that right now. Both of these teams are 3-1, and there is still time for both to go on a run and prove how good they can be. Whoever wins this game could be on its way to a good season.

    The other one will have plenty of question marks.

3. Vanderbilt at Florida

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    All that "We want Bama" nonsense spewed by Vanderbilt leading up to last week's 59-0 annihilation at the hands of the Crimson Tide? 

    It's probably best if coach Derek Mason just burns the film and pretends that one never happened.

    If you forget about that debacle, the Commodores (3-1) have been pretty good this year, beating quality opponents in Middle Tennessee and a ranked Kansas State team in Nashville. Now, they've got the opportunity to go on the road and get what would be a marquee win against Florida.

    That would be a "name" win, and it's probably the Commodores' best chance to do that until late in the year when it plays Tennessee in Knoxville.

    Star running back Ralph Webb is difficult to shut down, but Alabama did that last weekend. Now, he returns to his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, where you know he wants to get a huge, career-capping win against the Gators.

    Florida, on the other hand, has found ways to win uneven games the past two weekends against Tennessee and Kentucky, but the Gators (2-1) need to start playing more consistently or somebody in the conference is going to slip up and beat them.

    This seems like the perfect opportunity for the 'Dores to get a big-time win, but Jim McElwain always seems to find a way to pull it out.

2. Georgia at Tennessee

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    The last we left these two teams, Tennessee completed a last-second Hail Mary dubbed the "Dobb-nail Boot" from Joshua Dobbs to Jauan Jennings to give the Vols their second consecutive win over the rival Bulldogs.

    If there's a game UT coach Butch Jones has rallied his team around in his tenure, it's been the Georgia game. 

    This year, the Vols (3-1) look like they're on the brink of spiraling in the wrong direction, but the Bulldogs (4-0) come to Knoxville right around a touchdown favorite, and it appears Las Vegas may know something the experts don't. Tennessee has plenty of talent, but can it put it all together against UGA?

    The Bulldogs easily look like the top team in the SEC East so far this year after going on the road and dispatching Notre Dame before trouncing Mississippi State at home last weekend.

    When Jacob Eason went down at quarterback, Jake Fromm has stepped right in and wowed everybody. The Bulldogs have a three-headed rushing monster, and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker's aggressive unit is turning heads and taking names.

    It's going to be interesting to see if UT puts together a complete game. With injuries, internal strife and the whispers about Jones' job security getting louder after a mismanaged loss against Florida, the season could go either way for the Vols.

    The Bulldogs have higher hopes than just the SEC East the way they've started the year. But they must keep the pedal pushed in Knoxville.

1. Mississippi State at Auburn

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    Will the real Mississippi State please stand up?

    Are Dan Mullen's Bulldogs the team that trounced LSU in a resounding 37-7 win two weeks ago when everything looked right and gave the national media a reason to write about its resurgence? Or is MSU the uninspired team that were manhandled 31-3 in Athens last week against Georgia?

    We may know a lot more this weekend when the Bulldogs (3-1) take their second straight difficult road trip in a row when they head to the Loveliest Village on the Plains to take on Auburn. That place has been anything but lovely on opposing offenses.

    Though coach Gus Malzahn built his reputation for his offensive acumen, the Tigers (3-1) have struggled with inconsistency on that side of the ball, as transfer Jarrett Stidham hasn't looked anything like the prince who was promised yet. AU has been saved by its running game.

    The other side of the ball is the one that has the swagger. Second-year coordinator Kevin Steele has built a defensive powerhouse, and it looks like the Tigers can hang with any offense they face.

    Nick Fitzgerald will prove a stout test as the Bulldogs try to get back on track. It's time to see if either of these teams is going to be Alabama's biggest contender in the SEC West. The winner will cement that claim while the loser will fall back to the middle of the pack.

    A lot will be at stake when the Bulldogs and Tigers meet Saturday.

             

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and cfbstats, and recruiting data courtesy of Scout.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.