We have reached the final weekend of September, and the outlook of the SEC is coming into focus.
No. 13 LSU survived a massive scare from Arkansas last week, casting some doubt on its merit and quest for back-to-back SEC West titles. However, quarterback Jayden Daniels and wide receiver Malik Nabers have become one of the most dangerous duos in the country. The Tigers will take on No. 20 Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi, one week after the Rebels fell to No. 12 Alabama in the latest of many heartbreakers under coach Lane Kiffin.
Elsewhere, No. 1 Georgia keeps marching towards a potential three-peat at Auburn in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. The Bulldogs have won six straight over their cross-state rival, which is limping after a Week 4 loss to Texas A&M.
The Crimson Tide righted the ship last weekend against the Rebels and now travel to Mississippi State and a raucous Davis Wade Stadium. Is the Tide's offensive line improving? We will find out when they take the field in front of all of those cowbells in Starkville, Mississippi.
Let's break down some of the biggest storylines and make some picks!
Appetizer: Auburn's massive problem
Tigers quarterback Payton Thorne was 6 of 12 passing for 44 yards in the 27-10 loss to Texas A&M last week before he was pulled for dual-threat signal-caller Robby Ashford. It didn't work. Ashford was 1 of 4 passing for 4 yards and eventually was replaced by Holden Geriner. Did that work? You guessed it ... nope. He went 2 of 7 for 8 yards. As such, coach Hugh Freeze plans to go back to his Week 1 plan with Thorne at the helm and Ashford serving in the changeup role against the Bulldogs.
"We're still kind of wading through that, but that's probably where we'll land this week also," Freeze said Monday.
The operative word here is 'probably.' Make no doubt about it: Freeze and the offensive coaching staff are in full-on panic mode. Thorne threw for 6,493 yards in three seasons at Michigan State for a reason, so it's not like he's totally incompetent. He's a deer in headlights right now, and fixing that against Georgia is as likely as my hair growing back.
Main course: Defining moment for Kiffin
Another year, another loss to Nick Saban. The Rebels' 10 points were the fewest scored in an SEC game since Kiffin took over in 2020. The loss drops him to 5-7 against AP Top 25 teams at Ole Miss and 8-22 overall in stints at Tennessee (2009), USC (2010-13) and Florida Atlantic (2017-19). No. 13 LSU rolls into town on Saturday for what is not only the biggest Magnolia Bowl of Kiffin's career, but a defining game for his reputation.
The Tigers put up 509 yards against Arkansas, 320 of which came from Daniels, who had four touchdowns. They are 10th in the nation in passing offense at 338.3 yards per game and scoring offense at 42.8 points per game. Kiffin knows just how dangerous LSU's offense is with Daniels at the helm.
"He, as you see, gets really hot. Completes a lot of passes, hard to bring down," Kiffin said Monday. "I don't know that we're in a better position. Need a really good game plan, and we're gonna need to play really well."
This game will determine if Kiffin is more sizzle than steak. A win keeps the Rebels in the SEC West title race but a loss will essentially eliminate them, indicating Kiffin might have reached his coaching ceiling.
Dessert: Tennessee's attempt at revenge
Tennessee's 63-38 loss at South Carolina last year eliminated the Volunteers from College Football Playoff contention and put a stain on what was otherwise a magical year. Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler threw for 453 yards and six touchdowns in the track meet; it's likely Rattler will force the style of this game as well, and nobody has been able to stop Gamecocks receiver Xavier Legette. Styles make fights, and Tennessee will need banner day in order to knock the Gamecocks out.
Vols quarterback Joe Milton III has not lived up to the preseason hype. He ranks 11th among SEC passers in yards per game (231.3) and completion percentage (62.5%). That's not going to cut it. Rattler completed 18 of 20 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns in the 37-30 win over Mississippi State last week. That puts him second in the SEC in completion rate (74.2%).
"He understands coverages, sees rotations. He takes himself to the right spot based on the coverage and the beaters that they have up on their schemes," Vols coach Josh Heupel said of Rattler. "He's got the ability to extend and make plays with his feet. He's accurate with the football. You've got to do a great job. You've got to control the line of scrimmage. You've got to apply pressure to him. You can't let him out of the pocket, at the same time. When he does scramble, you've got to match the personnel out in space."
Make no mistake, this will be a battle of quarterbacks.
- Ole Miss
- Texas A&M
- South Carolina
- Mississippi State
Straight up: 43-6 | Against the spread: 21-14-2
*Picks use SportsLine consensus odds and were made on Instagram since SEC Smothered & Covered started in Week 2
No. 1 Georgia at Auburn
Auburn can't score. That's not deep analysis, but it's all that needs to be said about this one. There is no way the Tigers, in the midst of a quarterback conundrum, are going to get things fixed against Georgia's defense. Auburn's defense is also good, but few defenses can sustain themselves for four quarters without any help from the offense. Georgia will win this one by at least 20 points. Pick: Georgia -14.5
No. 12 Alabama at Mississippi State
The Crimson Tide offensive line showed some improvement against Ole Miss, which is the primary reason quarterback Jalen Milroe completed 81% of his passes. Mississippi State's pass defense is last in the nation in opponent completion percentage at 74.2%. Uh oh. Milroe will force Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers -- who is 12th in the league in completion rate at 60.7% -- to light up an Alabama defense that has showing marked improvement over the last two games. Pick: Alabama -14.5
No. 13 LSU at No. 20 Ole Miss
The Tigers will continue to light up opposing defense thanks to quarterback Jayden Daniels. However, Rebels quarterback Jaxson Dart hasn't thrown a pick at home, and the crowd at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium will be revved up for what is one of the most underrated rivalries in the country. The two signal-callers will make this a track meet, and I trust Daniels in that situation more than Dart -- even on the road. This will go down as an instant classic with LSU coming out on top in a 1-point game ... perhaps in overtime. Pick: Ole Miss +3
South Carolina at No. 21 Tennessee
South Carolina is way below Tennessee in my power rankings, which suggests that Tennessee will get the win here. Wrong. Styles make fights, and Rattler will turn this one into a shootout. Who do you trust more: Rattler or Milton? The answer is pretty obvious. Milton will make a couple of late mistakes through the air. The Gamecocks will and not only cover, but win this one outright. Pick: South Carolina +12.5
No. 22 Florida at Kentucky
If you're looking for an underrated game that will come down to a field goal, this is it. Florida's offense isn't flashy, but quarterback Graham Mertz has been smart with the football and the offensive line has improved since Week 1. It's far from dynamic, however. Kentucky's defense hasn't been as consistent as it should be, but it won't been that threatened by Mertz and Co. This will be an ultra low-scoring, old-school affair in which Florida will win in a slight upset. Pick: Florida +2.5
No. 23 Missouri at Vanderbilt
The Tigers are nearly two-touchdown favorites in this one, but that's just a bit too much for a stagnant setting in Nashville. Neither team has been consistently good against the pass, which suggests this will be a track meet. Vanderbilt quarterback AJ Swann struggled last week against Kentucky and is nursing an arm injury, but that is factored into the spread. Even if he doesn't play, the Commodores have enough weapons outside to at least keep this reasonable. Tigers quarterback Brady Cook will make a few plays late to secure the victory. However, the threat of a backdoor cover is too big to ignore. Pick: Vanderbilt +13.5
Texas A&M vs. Arkansas
Aggies quarterback Conner Weigman won't play for the rest of the season, but backup Max Johnson erupted in the second half against Auburn and has plenty of experience thanks to his starting experience at LSU and early last season with the Aggies. It's hard to trust an Arkansas team that continues to make minor mistakes that stack up into huge problems. I'll take Texas A&M to win and cover ... especially since a seven-point win cashes Texas A&M tickets. Pick: Texas A&M -6.5
Which college football picks can you make with confidence in Week 5, and which underdogs will win outright? Visit SportsLine to see which teams will win and cover the spread -- all from a proven computer model that has returned almost $2,500 in profit over the past seven-plus seasons -- and find out.