The SEC might not be involved in the marquee games on the card for college football Week 4, but the conference still has a good slate ahead, especially in the SEC East, where three notable intra-divisional matchups lead up the Saturday undercard.
South Carolina, Georgia and Florida are the favorites in the SEC East and all three will be at home, but each game provides at little bit of an upset possibility. The Gamecocks take on Missouri, a game where both quarterbacks are expected to play after shoulder injuries. In the case of South Carolina’s Connor Shaw it’s a hairline fracture that doctors say can’t get made any worse by contact. There’s still the question of pain tolerance and we have to see if Shaw is able to put his head down and run. His versatility is a big part of their offense and without it, it leaves room for defenses to key on Marcus Lattimore on the backfield. James Franklin, another two-threat quarterback, is expected to be ready for the Tigers.
Missouri was beaten up front in the fourth quarter against Georgia two weeks ago and when all is said and done, there’s no reason to think the same what happen here. That previous game was at home, with all the emotion of the program’s inaugural SEC game going for it, and they still lost the trench battle. South Carolina can get down and hit at least as well, if not better than Georgia and the Gamecocks will have a home crowd on their side. Lattimore should get his yards in the second half and South Carolina should open up a close game in around midway through the third quarter.
Speaking of Georgia, they’ll play host to Vanderbilt, and the Commodores have to be wondering if the optimism coming into the season justified. After making a bowl game a year ago, Vandy suffered a tough loss at home to South Carolina, then another tough loss on the road at Northwestern before blowing out Presbyterian. There’s no shame in either loss, there’s no honor in the win, so we know little about the Commodores except for the fact they must run the ball. If Zac Stacy can’t produce 100-125 yards on the ground, Vandy can’t keep Aaron Murray and that Georgia offense off the field. An offense which includes dynamite freshman running back Todd Gurley. I’m not ready to write off Vandy for bowl contention, even if they fall to 1-3, but they aren’t going to Athens and coming out with a win.
Florida’s home date with Kentucky normally wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but the Gators are in a letdown spot after the biggest win of Wil Muschamp’s year-plus tenure last Saturday in Gainesville. And Kentucky will be hungry after losing to Western Kentucky in overtime. The loss to the Hilltoppers isn’t as bad as it might appear—you may recall WKU was the team Nick Saban scolded the media for overrating one week prior and Western Kentucky went out and played Alabama tougher than Arkansas did. But Kentucky also lost to Louisville handily, so there’s little doubt they are the third-best program in the state right now in spite of being over .500 in their first two years under Joker Phillips. If this game were in Lexington, I’d give the Wildcats a real shot at the upset. But on the road, I think the most they hope for is to make it closer than the experts say—and with the experts saying Florida’s a 24-point favorite, I think Kentucky beats that number handily.
The SEC West has a game of its own, as LSU hosts Auburn. I’m not entirely sold on LSU as a national title contender again this year, but I’m even less sold on Auburn’s ability to go into Baton Rouge and compete in a prime-time setting. LSU has still blown out respectable opponents in Washington & North Texas, they’re getting a balanced running game and the problematic Auburn offense, led by a freshman quarterback, is completely in over its head. One measuring stick to watch as far as LSU’s future prospects—how does quarterback Zach Mettenberg perform throwing the ball, as measured against the work Clemson’s Tajh Boyd did against this same Auburn defense in the season opener? Boyd, an ACC MVP candidate, went 24/34 for 208 yards. If Mettenberg can work at that same kind of efficiency, LSU can feel like they’re progressing as much as anyone can ask.
The Pac-12 has three cross-divisional games and all look competitive. SoCal will be hopping as both USC and UCLA are at home, going up against Cal and Oregon State respectively. And then Rich Rodriguez takes his juiced-up Arizona offense north to Oregon. The latter game should be fun, and the Over/Under on points is currently posted at 77.5 Mike Scott and the Wildcats will put up the points, but the problem they have is that Oregon can cover most of that number themselves.
USC is a solid 16-point favorite over Cal, but the Golden Bears can keep this one close. Cal, with Isi Sofele in the backfield can play the same kind of run-first style that bedeviled the Trojans last week at Stanford. In the end, Cal’s not at home, they don’t have Stanford’s history of beating USC and the Trojans are going to be desperate, so I don’t see an upset. But I do see USC struggling to put this one way.
Oregon State plays just its second game of the year after beating Wisconsin two weeks ago. Now that we’ve seen Wisconsin also struggle with Northern Iowa and Utah State at home, the Beavers’ 10-7 win in Corvallis looks less impressive by comparison and UCLA is running the ball in a way the Badgers are not. Oregon State will need to open up the offense, which they can do with Sean Mannion and a good package of three receivers. What’s in doubt as whether Mannion can push the pace without also throwing 2-3 interceptions and allowing the Bruin ground game, led by early Heisman candidate Jonathan Franklin, to take over. The guess here is that UCLA is too physical to lose this one at home.
Other noteworthy games…
*Temple can establish itself as the new football power in the state of Pennsyvlania when they visit Penn State on Saturday. The Lions have injury problems in the backfield, but Matt McGloin is playing well at quarterback and the Owls are doing some rebuilding. It probably takes another year for Temple’s rising program to replace Penn State’s falling one, and I like the Lions to win, although the way they play offense I’d never lay 7 ½ points on them against anybody.
*Miami went to Boston College in Week 1 and got an impressive ACC win. The Hurricanes have followed that up by getting hammered at Kansas State and then playing a poor game against Bethune-Cookman. But they’re still 1-0 in the ACC and play Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech, who’s fresh off pummeling Virginia. If the ‘Canes were pushed around by Bethune-Cookman, what happens against the physical Yellow Jackets?
*It wouldn’t be a college football Saturday in September if there weren’t an opportunity for the Big Ten to humiliate itself. A target spot would be Louisiana Tech’s visit to Illinois. The Bulldogs can move the ball in the air with Colby Cameron and they’re a program coming off a WAC title and near-miss against TCU in a bowl game last December. They’re also from the same league as Utah State, who nearly upset Wisconsin last Saturday. And Illinois’ low attendance is a problem, so this won’t be a wild road atmosphere. Keep an eye on this one.
*The Thursday night fare of Boise State-BYU lost some of its luster when each team lost a game in September, the Broncos at Michigan State and the Cougars at Utah. But with the last at-large bid to the BCS bowl games looking like anybody’s to talk, either team could still be a contender at 11-1, so this is an early elimination game for a major bowl slot.
Check back with TheSportsNotebook tomorrow, when our marquee Friday feature locks in on the three big prime-time games of Saturday—Michigan-Notre Dame, Kansas State-Oklahoma and Florida State-Clemson.