Ranking the Best SEC Matchups of Week 13

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2017

Ranking the Best SEC Matchups of Week 13

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    After last week's clunker of a schedule produced zero SEC upsets, there is a ton more on the line this weekend.

    In the SEC West, all that's on the table in the Iron Bowl is the division and the opportunity to win the SEC Championship Game and slide into the College Football Playoffs. So, yeah, that's going to be the top game this weekend, not only in the SEC but in all of college football.

    Other games such as Georgia-Georgia Tech and Clemson-South Carolina have national-picture implications. There are a lot more rivalry games, too.

    That's the way it always is in the regular season's final Saturday, and this year is no different.

    In some cases, it's only about state rights (such as in Tennessee-Vanderbilt and Florida-Florida State). For others, such as the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving, there is pure hatred involved.

    Some coaches such as Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin may be taking charge for a final game of their tenure, while others like the Vols, Gators and Rebels are looking forward to the future.

    It's the final week of the regular season; let's take a look at the top games in the league.

9. Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee

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    Upon beating Tennessee in Nashville last season, Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason proclaimed: "This is our state."

    So, for anybody thinking this weekend's game doesn't mean anything to the Vols or the Commodores had better think again. After a 3-0 start, VU has stumbled to a 4-7 record, and there are serious questions about how much longer Mason will last at the SEC's toughest place to win.

    Meanwhile, on Rocky Top, former coach Butch Jones got fired after a lopsided loss to Missouri. Tennessee played an inspired half against LSU last weekend but still lost 30-10. Now, the Vols will try to avoid a two-game losing streak to the Commodores.

    Perhaps most importantly, UT will try to avoid its first eight-loss season in school history.

    "We wanted to get to that bowl. We really wanted to finish the season out right, so that hurts," UT linebacker Colton Jumper told the Knoxville News Sentinel's Blake Toppmeyer. "But you've got to look past it because we're playing Vanderbilt on Saturday. That's the biggest thing we're looking at. That loss last year, that one hurt. We're definitely going to have motivation for them."

    For a pair of 4-7 teams, all that's left to play for is pride. With the Jones era behind the Vols, they will try to christen the new era on a positive note as they prepare for the next regime. The 'Dores need more positive vibes, and few things can attain that for Mason like beating Tennessee.

    It will be interesting to see who's happy.

8. Missouri vs. Arkansas

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    It has been a remarkable turnaround for the Missouri Tigers and second-year coach Barry Odom.

    On October 14, Mizzou dropped to 1-5 on the year with its fifth straight loss, after South Carolina, Purdue, Auburn, Kentucky and Georgia had all dispatched the Tigers. In retrospect, none of those were poor losses, but Missouri looked awful doing it.

    Since then, they've reeled off five consecutive wins, finding an offensive spark behind pro-prospect quarterback Drew Lock in beating Idaho, UConn, Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Now, they've got the chance to end the year with a win against a bad Arkansas team and roll into a bowl with seven wins.

    The Razorbacks have suffered a forgettable season, and now that athletic director Jeff Long has been fired, Bret Bielema's safety blanket seemingly went with him. The Hogs are 4-7 and have just one win in the SEC.

    Though they played much better last weekend in a 28-21 loss to No. 16 Mississippi State, it was still a loss. And Bielema can't retain his job on moral victories at this point.

    On the surface, this looks like a game Mizzou should win. The Tigers began this miserable stretch for Bielema with an upset win to end last season, and they would love nothing more than to keep this offensive resurgence and wind up with a quality mid-range bowl game.

    If Mizzou can capture its seventh win, it may just send Bielema out of a job in the process.

7. Florida vs. Florida State

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    Way back when Feleipe Franks hurled a laser beam that fell out of the Gainesville afternoon air and into the waiting arms of Tyrie Cleveland to give the Gators a last-second, 26-20 win over Tennessee, things looked like they may be on the up for a Florida team that lost the season-opener to Michigan.

    That was six losses and a head coach ago.

    The Gators since then have been awful, especially in the last chunk of the season, going 1-5 during their past six games with only a win over UAB in its first year after a program hiatus.

    Now, the Gators will end interim coach Randy Shannon's brief tenure with a game against hated rivals Florida State. Much like Florida, the Seminoles had a game postponed by weather earlier this year, so both teams sit at 4-6.

    That's going to make it difficult for either to qualify for a bowl game.

    The Seminoles' results are shocking, considering how well they played in a season-opening loss to Alabama. In that game, they lost quarterback and team leader Deondre Francois and never recovered. Still, it's inexplicable that a team as talented as FSU could tumble to this kind of season.

    Florida has dealt with swirling Chip Kelly rumors this week as it looks for the next coach to try to raise it from the doldrums, but it first must deal with the remnants of a disappointing 2017 when it finishes its year against Florida State.

    The winner of this game will at least have some state bragging rights, even though Miami appears to be headed to the College Football Playoffs.

6. Louisville vs. Kentucky

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    Last season, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson had 452 total yards against Kentucky on his way to the Heisman Trophy.

    The Cardinals still lost thanks, in part, to Jackson's three interceptions.

    This year, the Wildcats will attempt to slow the stud signal-caller a little more than that and try to repeat the feat. It would be the perfect capper to a brilliant season for coach Mark Stoops, who has rebuilt UK into a respectable program.

    After taking the Wildcats to a bowl game a season ago, beating Louisville would give Kentucky its eighth regular-season win. That's quite a feat for a basketball school. Just how long has it been since UK won eight regular-season games?

    Try 33 years, according to Kentucky Today's Keith Taylor. Stoops told him:

    "You keep on trying to knock down as many doors as you can. The fact that we had back-to-back .500 wins in the SEC is again, we want more. It's easy to look back and get the what ifs, it's human nature. I understand that. But I am proud of some of the things we've done, and getting eight wins is another step forward."

    The Cardinals are 7-4, but Jackson has been just as incredible this year as he was last, and he probably should be getting a bit more Heisman consideration. Put it this way: If he repeats his yardage total from a season ago against the 'Cats, he'll have more than 5,000 all-purpose yards for the year.

    This is going to be an interesting showdown.

5. Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State

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    When Ole Miss star quarterback Shea Patterson went out with a season-ending injury, most thought that would effectively end the Rebels' season. After all, they couldn't go to a bowl game anyway following the embarrassing allegations suffered in the Hugh Freeze regime.

    But the Rebels haven't faded under interim coach Matt Luke.

    They're 5-6 and have recaptured some of their offensive magic behind backup quarterback Jordan Ta'amu and a stable of star receivers. If they were to somehow beat hated rival Mississippi State this weekend, the Rebels could get to the "bowl-eligible" win mark, even though they aren't eligible for a bowl.

    That would be a big positive for the next Ole Miss coaching regime and an important building block.

    Meanwhile, Mississippi State is ranked 16th and avoided a major hangover game a week ago by surviving Arkansas 28-21 after nearly upsetting No. 1 Alabama in Starkville two weeks ago.

    The Bulldogs are a much different, much better team when they're playing at home, and that's where quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and Co. will play Ole Miss this weekend. Though anything can happen in the Egg Bowl, it's hard to see the Rebels pulling the upset on Thanksgiving night.

    They would need to have one of their best defensive performances of the season to stop coach Dan Mullen's offensive attack.

    If MSU wins, it is looking at a healthy, quality bowl game as Mullen's name becomes a hot one for other jobs around the Southeast.

4. Texas A&M vs. LSU

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    Texas A&M plans to fire head coach Kevin Sumlin regardless of the outcome of the LSU game, according to the Houston Chronicle's Brett Zwerneman. There are high expectations in College Station, and even though beating the Tigers would mean getting to eight wins, it won't be enough.

    The Aggies have gone 8-5 in the past three years under Sumlin and crumbled down the stretch. They aren't the favorite in this one, either.

    As for the Bayou Bengals, they've seen what was once a disappointing season flip in a positive direction. Yes, they lost to Troy in an inexplicable setback, but they also beat Auburn, and coach Ed Orgeron's first full season in Baton Rouge has a chance to be solid.

    A win over the Aggies would give LSU a 9-3 record with a chance of a strong bowl game. That kind of finish would prove the team rallied after that horrible loss to Troy.

    As for the Aggies, they haven't endured an awful season, despite blowing a 34-point lead in the season opener and losing to UCLA in a game that solidified the frustrations with Sumlin's era. Despite battling through quarterback injuries and defensive inconsistencies, A&M hasn't been bad.

    Winning this weekend would mean the chance at a 9-4 season in College Station, and while that isn't the expected norm, it would be a good season under the circumstances.

    Apparently, it still won't be enough to save Sumlin if the reports are right.

3. Georgia vs. Georgia Tech

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    All anybody needs to do to see what happens when Georgia Tech meets Georgia at the end of every season is go back to last year when the Yellow Jackets won 28-27 with a touchdown in the final 30 seconds.

    That sent the first season of the Kirby Smart regime out with a grumble as Bulldogs fans wondered aloud if they'd done the right thing by forcing out Mark Richt for this.

    A year later, all that looks fine. Yes, Richt has Miami undefeated and aiming toward the College Football Playoffs. But if Smart's Dawgs can pick up a win over Georgia Tech and the winner of the Iron Bowl in the SEC Championship Game, they'll likely find themselves in the Top Four, too.

    First, they've got to get past coach Paul Johnson's team this weekend. The Yellow Jackets looked poised to play in a bowl game, needing just one win in their final two games to get eligible. Then, they were whipped last weekend by a struggling Duke team.

    Now, Tech needs to pull off a major upset over Georgia to get into the postseason. The extra motivation isn't lost on UGA.

    "I know our kids and our seniors will be excited to go play in Atlanta, and also play a team that in the last three years has beaten us twice," Smart told WSB-TV Atlanta. "So it gives us an opportunity to send these seniors out the right way. And great rivalry game that's been in this state for a long time."

    Georgia's first test as a top Dawg against Auburn didn't go so well. This is the second must-win game in what is essentially already a winner-go-home playoff for UGA. So, this one will be fun to watch to see if the Bulldogs respond.

2. Clemson vs. South Carolina

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    Nothing would quite underline the solid work coach Will Muschamp has done in his two seasons at the helm of the South Carolina Gamecocks than a victory over Clemson at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday.

    Not only would it knock the hated Tigers out of the College Football Playoffs running, it would give the Gamecocks their ninth win of the season and set up what could be a special 2018 season with Jake Bentley back, a healthy Deebo Samuel and another year for Muschamp to bring in a stable of strong recruits.

    Things are looking up in Columbia, regardless. But beating the Tigers would send things into an exciting frenzy.

    It's possible it could happen, too. Yes, the Tigers are strong, losing just one game in a shocking setback to Syracuse in a Friday night game when nothing went right. But they aren't anywhere near as dynamic offensively as they were a season ago.

    The Gamecocks aren't a high-powered attack, either, but they've found a way to win games. Their only losses this season came to Kentucky, Texas A&M and Georgia. With Bentley flinging darts and the defense playing inspired football, they've got hope on Saturday.

    With a marquee battle on deck for Clemson with Miami awaiting the next week in the ACC Championship Game, this game could sneak up on the Tigers, though it's hard to envision that being the case in a rivalry game.

    Muschamp and Dabo Swinney know they're going to probably get each other's best. If the Gamecocks can somehow pull off a win, it will help elevate Muschamp's growing program to the next level.

1. Alabama vs. Auburn

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    The Iron Bowl is shaping up to be an iron-man, heavyweight bout for the ages.

    If you'd said earlier this year the Tigers had a legitimate chance to beat the Crimson Tide, many would have shaken their heads. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham got sacked more times than recycled groceries against Clemson in an early-season loss.

    Then, AU blew a 20-point lead in an eventual ugly loss to LSU.

    All the while, Alabama blew through opponents easily on its way to an undefeated record that has it atop the College Football Playoff rankings.

    During the past few weeks, though, Auburn rebounded following the loss to LSU and has looked dominant. The Tigers destroyed Georgia in a game that reintroduced coach Gus Malzahn's team into the national spotlight.

    Now, they have the chance to make the Top Four as a two-loss team, looking as if they control their own destiny. Beat 'Bama and then Georgia again in the conference championship game, and you're in.

    The Tide, meanwhile, has been decimated by injuries in its linebacking corps. Yes, they're still ultra-talented on defense, but the depth issues are a concern. Also, Mississippi State did some things offensively against UA in a close loss two weeks ago that will find its way into Auburn's film room.

    Does Alabama have the second-level speed to stop Kerryon Johnson's runs to the edge? Can AU quarterback Stidham pass enough downfield to keep the Tide honest? Will 'Bama's offensive line rise to the occasion? Can UA quarterback Jalen Hurts cement himself as the best player on the field?

    All these questions will be answered Saturday, and the winner may not just be on its way to a conference championship; it may wind up winning the national championship, too. That's the level at which these two rivals are playing.

                        

    Unless otherwise noted, stats are courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com, and recruiting data is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.   

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