Ranking Best SEC Football Matchups of Week 4

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2016

Ranking Best SEC Football Matchups of Week 4

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    Florida stud defender Bryan Cox Jr. and the Gators head to Knoxville for a massive SEC East showdown.
    Florida stud defender Bryan Cox Jr. and the Gators head to Knoxville for a massive SEC East showdown.Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    Regardless of which team you're a fan of, this is one of the best weeks of SEC football all season.

    Not only are there three matchups between ranked opponents, but the fourth-best game of the weekend is one that is frequently a great showdown between Auburn and LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

    In other words, it's an ideal Saturday to channel surf between all the top-notch conference games.

    There's a huge SEC East game between two hated rivals, a big early-season game in the rugged SEC West and an infrequently waged battle between two cross-divisional foes that could be massive in setting the tones of those teams for the remainder of the year.

    It'll separate pretenders and contenders.

    The week is so big that ESPN's College GameDay crew is going to be in Knoxville, Tennessee, and that game may not even be the best one of the weekend.

    So, let's take a look at the top games of the weekend in the SEC.

5. South Carolina at Kentucky

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    Jumbo target Hayden Hurst is one of the offensive weapons emerging for a South Carolina team needing them.
    Jumbo target Hayden Hurst is one of the offensive weapons emerging for a South Carolina team needing them.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    In such an important season for fourth-year head coach Mark Stoops, the Kentucky Wildcats have laid an egg thus far.

    Even in last weekend's 62-42 win over New Mexico State, the Wildcats continued their defensive ineptitude following a second-half meltdown against Southern Miss to open the season and a game against Florida where they hardly even showed up.

    Now, they host South Carolina, a team they've beaten in each of the past two seasons.

    Stephen Johnson is under center for UK after an injury to Drew Barker, and he's coming off a 310-yard performance against NMSU. He'll face a stiffer challenge against head coach Will Muschamp's Gamecocks defense.

    Where Carolina has struggled most this season is offensively, where the future is now with freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain comfortably at the helm. Though he's done well this season, he hasn't received any help from the offensive line or running game.

    That hasn't dampened the excitement of McIlwain's start.

    "I've seen the same guy (McIlwain) since he's been on campus," Muschamp said, according to Garnet and Black Attack. "He continues to improve every day and attacks the day the way you want as a quarterback at South Carolina."

    That's huge news for a program that is in the infancy stages of rebuilding. Though a victory this weekend wouldn't be immense, it would help the Gamecocks take another potential step toward bowl eligibility.

    Meanwhile, Kentucky just needs to get back on track in a pivotal year for its coach's regime. This is an early make-or-break game for both teams.

4. LSU at Auburn

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    LSU quarterback Danny Etling
    LSU quarterback Danny EtlingDerick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Just when LSU seemed to get back on track a bit last weekend against Mississippi State, finding a steady quarterback in Danny Etling (19-of-30 for 215 yards and a touchdown), the Tigers limped toward the finish line.

    Riding a 23-6 lead with a little more than five minutes remaining, they gave up two scores and held on for a frenetic, fretting 23-20 final. It wasn't exactly the finish for which head coach Les Miles was hoping.

    But a win is a win in the SEC, and Etling's performance is refreshing after the inefficient last two years of Brandon Harris.

    "He extended plays with his feet, ad-libbed the things he was supposed to, pretty accurate," Miles told the Times-Picayune's Jim Kleinpeter. "I think he missed maybe two throws. I liked him."

    Now, the Tigers will head to the Plains for another game they should win, but it won't be easy.

    Auburn was feeling fairly good about itself following a season-opening close game against then-No. 2 Clemson followed by an offensive outburst against Arkansas State. Then, the Tigers and quarterbacks Sean White and John Franklin III struggled in a home loss to Texas A&M.

    Now, AU needs a big win against the Bayou Bengals to keep the pressure off head coach Gus Malzahn. Besides Stoops, the pair of coaches in this contest may have the hottest seats in the SEC.

    Even though Auburn's defense has played well, that hasn't meant less stress for Malzahn, an offensive-minded coach who has seen his side of the ball fall short for two years.

    Malzahn needs a bit of a refresher of a signature win following a rocky couple of years, and this would be a nice one to add. Miles can't afford another slip-up, either. 

3. Arkansas at Texas A&M

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    Rawleigh Williams III looks like the next quality Bret Bielema-coached running back.
    Rawleigh Williams III looks like the next quality Bret Bielema-coached running back.Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    This may be a battle of the two most surprising teams in the SEC so far.

    While so much hype has been spilled on Tennessee and LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M actually have looked better so far. It's been an exciting start to the seasons in College Station, Texas, and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

    The Hogs have beaten both teams they're supposed to and also won a thrilling double-overtime game 41-38 on the road against TCU. Texas A&M not only upset UCLA, but the Aggies also went on the road and beat Auburn, too.

    Senior transfer quarterback Trevor Knight looks like the perfect fit for head coach Kevin Sumlin and new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, and with all those receiving weapons, A&M may be a tough out regardless of who it plays.

    In Arkansas, head coach Bret Bielema is enjoying a strong start in what was expected to be a rebuilding campaign.

    Which Razorbacks team is the one we should expect on Saturday? Is it the one that sweated out a 21-20 season-opening win over Louisiana Tech? Or is it the one that beat TCU and handled business against Texas State?

    Running back Rawleigh Williams III already has 354 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the early going, and first-year starting quarterback Austin Allen has thrown seven touchdowns against just two interceptions.

    Do they have enough to erase the past two years of hard-luck outcomes in this game? The Hogs lost each of the past two matchups to A&M in overtime, and Sumlin hasn't lost to Arkansas in his four years. Bielema admitted this week the game hasn't "gone too well" for his team.

    The team that wins this one should be considered a real dark-horse threat in the SEC West moving forward.

2. Georgia at Ole Miss

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    Following his late-game heroics, Jacob Eason must have a great game on the road against Ole Miss if the Bulldogs are to stay undefeated.
    Following his late-game heroics, Jacob Eason must have a great game on the road against Ole Miss if the Bulldogs are to stay undefeated.John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    Following a home howitzer dodged two weeks ago in a narrow win against Nicholls State and fourth-quarter heroics from quarterback Jacob Eason to finally put away Missouri on the road last week, the Georgia Bulldogs are fortunate to be 3-0.

    But undefeated they are, and that's all that matters.

    Ole Miss would take it.

    The Rebels are a hard-luck 1-2 following what may be the toughest start to the season for anybody besides Oklahoma, which already has played Houston and Ohio State. The Rebels endured collapses against Florida State and Alabama to wind up losing both those games.

    Now, they've got to pick up the pieces against UGA and try to move on from a disappointing and injury-plagued start.

    "It is going to be another great challenge for us," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said, according to quotes released by the school (via WTVA.com). "We knew September was going to be this way, and it is time for us to get back out and find a way to finish a game."

    Georgia is breaking in a new quarterback in the uber-talented Eason, and there is bad with good, but last weekend's game-winning touchdown pass could be the beginning of his legend. If the Dawgs can get running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel healthy, they're going to be tough.

    Historically, the Bulldogs own Ole Miss, but despite the records, the Rebels have looked like the better team so far. With Chad Kelly slinging footballs around at quarterback and a stellar defensive front seven, it's going to be a tough task for UGA to win on the road.

    If they do, it'll go a long way in helping the Bulldogs emerge in the SEC East in Kirby Smart's first year as head coach.

1. Florida at Tennessee

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    Tennessee junior receiver Josh Malone is emerging as the Vols' only reliable receiving weapon thus far.
    Tennessee junior receiver Josh Malone is emerging as the Vols' only reliable receiving weapon thus far.Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

    The ramifications of this SEC East showdown are immense.

    For the past 11 years, this game effectively has ended Tennessee's SEC East hopes more often than not.

    That's how long it's been since the Volunteers upended rival Florida, a team that can only loosely be considered a rival given its recent success in the series and one that has been verbally assaulting UT this week like a younger brother.

    "We have a message from DBU to Tennessee," Florida junior cornerback Quincy Wilson told 247Sports' Thomas Goldkamp. "Have you ever seen a duck pull a truck? Ducks don't pull trucks. Nobody has ever seen a duck pull a truck. Florida Gators are going to win, simple as that."

    If you're puzzled what that means, join the club. But it's an attempt to talk trash, something the Gators have done about the Vols all offseason, mainly from the defensive backfield with Jalen Tabor and Marcus Maye leading the charge.

    Tennessee hasn't returned the fire, and the only way the Vols can stop all the disrespectful chatter is to win the football game.

    That's something that's eluded them for more than a decade, and UT has found new and creative ways to rip its own heart out over the course of that span as well.

    Take last year's 28-27 loss for example, where UF receiver Antonio Callaway hauled in a 63-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-14 to climax a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter comeback.

    That was only the latest dagger.

    Now, an ESPN College GameDay crew will be in Knoxville to chronicle UT's next try. The Vols are wearing "Smokey" gray jerseys, checkerboarding Neyland Stadium and trying to pull out all the emotional stops. But it boils down to winning the football game on the field.

    There are middle schoolers who weren't alive the last time the Vols did that.