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Two Conference Games to Watch
Alabama at Tennessee (7:15 ET/ESPN2) –
“The Third Saturday in October” once again takes place a week late on the calendar as the Tide and Vols square off in one of the South’s oldest rivalries. In a series defined over the past 40 years by its streaks, Alabama looks to improve its current run to five straight and six of the past seven. From 1971-81, Bear Bryant’s Tide owned the Vols by claiming 11 straight wins. Tennessee took the next five during the mid-80s, and Alabama took back control with a nine-game unbeaten streak (with a tie in 1993 thrown in.) Phil Fulmer put his mark on the Tennessee program by dominating Alabama from 1995-2004, losing only once in that span, and claiming a national title at the peak of the run in 1998.
Alabama enters the game a prohibitive favorite – some outlets are giving Tennessee as many as 30 points, and the lines keep inching higher after opening at 27.5 – but two of the past three games in this series played in Tuscaloosa featured a highly-favored Alabama hanging on for a win as the result of last-minute field goal attempts. In 2005, the Tide was as good as dead until Corey Anderson fumbled a near-touchdown through the back of the endzone. A Jamie Christensen field goal a minute later sent Alabama home with a thrilling 6-3 win. In Alabama’s championship run of 2009, the Tide had to block two Daniel Lincoln field goals – one bouncing off monstrous defensive tackle Terrance Cody’s paw on the game’s final play – to preserve a 12-10 ‘Bama win and thwart what would have been the greatest upset in series history. The takeaway here? At face value, this game looks like a blowout, but crazier things have (almost) happened in similar situations.
Tennessee’s offensive line seemed to improve slightly last week against LSU. Was that an anomaly or the start of a trend? The nation’s 114th-ranked rushing attack actually showed modest signs of improvement last week despite facing one of the best defenses in the country. UT improbably gained 111 yards on the ground and helped the offense stay balanced enough to keep its head above water in the first half. The floodgates opened in the second half and the game got out of hand, but consider it a step in the right direction that the Vols went north of 100 yards on the ground.
In order for this game to be closer than three touchdowns by the start of the fourth quarter, Tennessee must be able to run it respectably against one of the biggest front sevens in college football. Unfortunately, the challenge went from difficult last week to nearly impossible in this one – Alabama ranks first in many statistical categories on defense and leads the nation in stopping the run giving up 38 yards per game on the ground. For a frame of reference, its closest competition gives up almost 60 a week. This seems to be a recurring theme, but until the Vols’ create some running room up front, the beatdowns will continue. Tennessee has tried a few different combinations up front during practice this week, but it likely won’t matter in this one.
Since 2005, Alabama has held Tennessee to ten points or less in four of six meetings. Expect Alabama to streak on in the series using a similar blueprint to its wins in 2007, 2008 and 2010 – those games were close at the half but saw a physically dominant and superior squad use its depth to pull away. In fact, Alabama led only 13-10 last year in Knoxville before running off three quick touchdowns in the third. The Tide has developed a pattern of giving up early scores before settling in, so don’t be surprised if Tennessee keeps this one close early into the final half. Ultimately, though, the verse will change but the song remains the same for another year.
OKTC Prediction: Alabama 40, Tennessee 7
Auburn at LSU (3:30 ET/CBS) –
This game stamped Cam Newton’s name on the Heisman Trophy two months early last year as the former Auburn signal-caller dazzled a national audience with highlight reel runs on his way to 217 yards and two touchdowns on almost 30 carries. The Tigers of Auburn gashed their counterparts from Baton Rouge racking up an unbelievable 440 yards on the ground – a number that is still as mind-numbing now as it was last October. Fast-forward a year, and the situation has turned 180 degrees as Gene Chizik is breaking in a brand new quarterback in perhaps the least hospitable venue for such an undertaking. Across the field, LSU is employing a two-quarterback system (although not in a traditional sense) and it’s paying dividends as Jordan Jefferson seems to be settling into his role as a dynamic, change-of-pace runner to compliment Jarrett Lee’s efficient passing. Is anyone surprised that Les Miles has navigated the Jefferson fiasco and used it to help make his team better? Yeah, me either. The man eats grass and turns it into magic.
For better or worse, the Clint Moseley era at Auburn begins now. Before the season, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that Barrett Trotter could eventually be unseated by a younger, up-and-coming quarterback midway through the season. That new starter was supposed to be Kiehl Frazier, though, not Moseley. In a desperate turn of events, Chizik and Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn will turn the reins over to the sophomore from Leroy, Ala. who entered the Florida game last week in relief of Trotter in the 2nd Half. Moseley was a respectable four-of-seven passing for 90 yards in limited action, but you can bet he’ll have a tougher go of it this week in Tiger Stadium against a ravenous defense that’s out for blood. Frazier will still get his snaps and will gain yardage on the ground, but this game rests squarely on the shoulders of Moseley and Auburn’s defense.
Auburn’s offense has been uncharacteristically pedestrian (and at times, downright bad) over the past several weeks, but its much maligned defense has answered the call and shown steady improvement. Quite simply, if that defense can’t keep this game in the teens, Auburn has next to no chance of winning. Moseley getting his first real shot of the season against LSU simply isn’t fair, and he wasn’t shy to voice his displeasure when Trotter was initially named the starter. Moseley could cement his name in Auburn lore by leading the Tigers to an upset this weekend. But the adage “be careful what you wish for” may be truer now than ever if this gets ugly. This is the kind of game former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville thrived on, but this team is built differently and may not be able to hang tough in a game of attrition against a team that has more talent. Chizik will employ a similar game plan to the one that propelled Auburn to a win in South Carolina. The only problem: LSU ain’t South Carolina.
OKTC Prediction: LSU 24, Auburn 9
Other quick reads:
Jacksonville State at Kentucky – Would anyone honestly be shocked if 5-1 Jax State defeated the Wildcats? Better yet…in the wake of Big Blue Madness last week, would any Kentucky fans even really care if it happened? Doubtful on both counts. The Gamecocks will channel the same energy they used in defeating Ole Miss last year to keep this one close, but Kentucky will hang on.
OKTC Prediction: Kentucky 27, Jacksonville State 24
Arkansas at Ole Miss –
Just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse for Ole Miss, that happened. That, of course, being a 52-7 defeat against Alabama in a game the Rebels had been preparing for over the course of two full weeks. The Egg Bowl at the end of the year could prove to be Nutt’s last stand – a final referendum on the Right Reverend – but if the Rebels can’t stay within three touchdowns of Arkansas this weekend, Nutt may not even make it that long. Perhaps the only saving grace right now may be that a select group of Ole Miss faithful are even more disenchanted with AD Pete Boone than Nutt himself, and they’re fearful of who Boone might tap to replace Nutt if given the chance. At any rate, a defense that lost starters Marcus Temple and Wayne Dorsey to season-ending injuries against Alabama stands little chance of slowing down an Arkansas offense that’s rested up after a bye week. Ole Miss’ offense is such a mess right now, any early miscues could fast-track this blowout.
OKTC Prediction: Arkansas 44, Ole Miss 13
Vanderbilt 31, Army 13
Byes: Georgia, Mississippi State, Florida, South Carolina
Season Prediction Record: 22-7
Season ATS: 17-16-1