SEC Cupcake Saturday -- the week before SEC rivalry games -- means very little movement in the rankings of each team in the conference. Most of this week's stock exchange won't be spent looking back at Week 12. The view of Week 13 will be our primary focus.
1: ALABAMA -- The Crimson Tide prepare for a journey to The Plains, recalling 2013. Everything was in play for both Alabama and Auburn then, and everything is in play for the two programs this Saturday. Will Alabama kick a 57-yard field goal? Will Alabama be able to make fourth-quarter field goals of any length or any degree of appreciable importance? Will Auburn use clever run-pass options to strike big-play lightning in the clutch?
The most important challenge for Alabama is that with its injuries at linebacker -- a situation which has improved in recent weeks (multiple players are getting healthy) -- Auburn's offensive line has a chance to either control the line of scrimmage or, at the very least, keep Bama's front seven away from Jarrett Stidham. Mississippi State did quite well against Alabama's front seven. If Auburn -- which smoked Mississippi State -- can similarly handle Alabama's defensive front and linebackers, this will be a very complicated, thorny game for the Tide.
Auburn has a better defense than Mississippi State. If Jalen Hurts trails by seven points in the fourth quarter, it will likely be harder for him to mount a game-tying drive, which he did in Starkville.
If Alabama holds a late lead as it did in Auburn in 2013, don't expect the Tide to let go of their advantage. However, if Auburn's line strength is as considerable as the Georgia game suggested, Alabama might not have a late lead to protect on Saturday.
2: AUBURN -- The objective against Alabama's offense is always the same: Force Jalen Hurts to make above-average passing plays. Hurts is a gifted runner, and on several occasions throughout the season, Hurts makes simple passes to wide-open receivers with great pass protection. Hurts can make uncomplicated pass plays and complicated run plays; defenses must try to make Hurts produce complicated pass plays. Auburn's performance against Georgia showed this is realistic -- not necessarily likely, but certainly well within the realm of possibility. It would not be a surprise at all.
The Auburn defense has to win up front and contain the Alabama ground game in order to achieve the above objective. Containing Calvin Ridley -- not getting beaten deep, and making sure tackles right after the catch to prevent eight-yard gains from becoming 25-yard gains -- is another piece of the puzzle.
Yet, the Auburn defense won't be solely responsible for the way the Tigers play Hurts, and for the situations Hurts will confront. Alabama feasted last season on non-offensive touchdowns. That Tidal wave hasn't existed to the same extent this season, but it remains that Alabama feasts on special teams plays and opponents' offensive lapses. Any plays the Tide can make -- any seismic shifts Alabama can get -- in order to relieve pressure on Hurts and reduce his playmaking (read: passing) burden represents found money for what is the richest, most powerful college football program in the United States.
Any Alabama opponent must start with this cornerstone against the kings of the Capstone: Don't give freebies away. Any cheap points for Alabama feed the beastly defense which grabs a lead and can then tee off on opposing quarterbacks, playing downhill with the speed and physicality of a Saban Death Star Monster. Not giving away easy scores is a non-negotiable essential against the Tide.
If Auburn can achieve that first goal, the second familiar component of a successful day against Alabama is to hit home-run pass plays. Yes, Auburn might be able to run against Bama if the Tide's linebackers -- healthier but very possibly rusty -- aren't fully sharp. It is true that Mississippi State did very well at the line of scrimmage against Alabama, with a unit which was badly depleted. If Auburn wants to test Bama's strength and sturdiness on its first two drives, that's fine. However, if Alabama mounts any resistance in the first quarter, Gus Malzahn has to be willing to go long and circumvent the need for 12-play, 80-yard drives.
Alabama's dominance of college football stems from several sources, but the inability of offenses to mount sustained drives against the Tide's defense stands at the very top. Auburn needs to be ready to embrace the deep ball and the exotics in its playbook sooner rather than later. Throwing to set up the run is more likely to bear fruit than running to set up the pass. In fairness to Gus, however, if his O-line shows in the first quarter that it can blow Bama off the ball, he would be wise and reasonable to pursue a smashmouth-oriented plan.
3: GEORGIA -- Georgia Tech is a mess, and Yellow Jacket defensive coordinator Ted Roof will not be around next year, but for one day, Paul Johnson's team figures to throw the kitchen sink at Kirby Smart's Bulldogs. Mark Richt owned Georgia Tech when at Georgia, and the way Richt's Miami team improbably beat Georgia Tech this year showed that Richt's hold over the Jackets has acquired mythical proportions. Smart, though, has to establish that control of the Jackets, and on Saturday, he needs to demonstrate it. Georgia Tech has played close games all season. Georgia has to be ready to strike the first blow and make the Jackets doubt themselves in the first half.
4: MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The Egg Bowl is a volatile game which has produced several upsets in recent years. The Bulldogs should win on Thanksgiving Night, but "should" often means nothing in the Magnolia State sports event of the year.
5: LSU -- Two years ago, Texas A&M's visit to Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge was accompanied by a lot of noise about a coach firing which was about to take place. Les Miles somehow wiggled out of trouble for the time being. Does Kevin Sumlin have an escape plan? It's not likely, but if he wins on LSU's home field, maybe he can duplicate Miles' deathbed escape. LSU going 9-3 would be a tremendous season in context, given the lower-than-low point after the loss to Troy. However, the upcoming flood of SEC coaching changes means that the league might fortify a lot of coaching situations, which could mean regression, not improvement, for LSU.
6: SOUTH CAROLINA -- Clemson comes to Columbia without Deshaun Watson, the Gamecock Killer. It would be foolish to trust that South Carolina can win, but it would also be foolish to reflexively dismiss the Gamecocks' chances. Clemson's offense has been profoundly vulnerable with Kelly Bryant at the controls. Even before he got injured against Syracuse, Bryant had not played well. The Tigers did not perform at a high level at any point in that game. South Carolina defeated the North Carolina State team which pushed Clemson hard for 60 minutes a few weeks ago. It is true that South Carolina won't have Deebo Samuel -- that's an acute loss against Clemson -- but Jake Bentley can make improvisational plays to change the equation. Bentley's best game -- a big if, but not an absurd possibility, given the way Ryan Finley of N.C. State played against Team Dabo -- will make this an entirely winnable contest for Carolina.
7: TEXAS A&M -- Last year, A&M allowed 54 points to LSU. This year, it is hard to imagine LSU's offense coming particularly close to that level of scoring output. A shootout favors the Aggies this time. It's up to Kevin Sumlin and coordinator Noel Mazzone to make that happen. If this is Sumlin's last game, it is probably best for all parties. Sumlin has been treated poorly by people in positions of leadership and influence at Texas A&M. He will be more appreciated elsewhere. However, this does not mean that firing him is wrong or unfair. Sumlin has one SEC West home win the past four years, since Johnny Manziel left. That's completely unacceptable. A fresh voice is needed in College Station.
8: MISSOURI -- Barry Odom has quietly done one of the best coaching jobs in America this season. Beating Arkansas for a second straight season would cement the Tigers' decidedly improved place -- and their year of overachievement -- in the SEC. Missouri has been throwing and landing knockout punches with its offense. Competent, steady execution should be more than enough to handle the Hogs in what is likely to be a firefight on Friday.
9: KENTUCKY -- The Wildcats have had two good quarters in them in a lot of games this season. That's better than the worst of the SEC, but with Missouri playing complete games in November, it's not enough to stay ahead of the Tigers for eighth place in the SEC rankings. Kentucky now meets Louisville and Lamar Jackson. The Wildcats forced a large number of turnovers from Jackson last year, knocking the Heisman Trophy winner and Louisville out of the Orange Bowl. Kentucky will take the field with a lot of confidence, but it also knows Louisville and Lamar will be out for revenge. Kentucky gets one last chance to change the way its season will be remembered.
10: OLE MISS -- The Rebels keep fighting, much to Matt Luke's credit, but their lack of depth and the rigors of a long season have taken their toll. They will empty the tank against Mississippi State... but will there be enough fuel for 60 minutes against the best SEC team not included in the Bama-Auburn-Georgia triumvirate?
11: ARKANSAS -- The Razorbacks have struggled to close down games in the fourth quarter this year... and the year before that... and the year before that... and the year before that...
12: FLORIDA -- The biggest question of the moment in Gainesville: Is there anything Florida can or can't do to influence Chip Kelly's decision between the Gators and UCLA, if indeed the coach is weighing those two -- and only those two -- options? Florida could lose to Florida State by 30, and yet if Kelly goes to Gainesville, no one in Alachua County will care.
13: VANDERBILT -- The bottom has fallen out for the Commodores. In November, this ship has taken on more water than any non-Tennessee program (a figure of speech which contains a literal dimension, given the monsoonal storm which hit Knoxville last Saturday). It is hard to deny the notion that Derek Mason will be on the hot seat in 2018. Losing this game would make that a certainty, if it already isn't the case. Vanderbilt offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig should not feel entirely safe. A big game from Kyle Shurmur would allow Ludwig to rest more comfortably.
14: TENNESSEE -- The good news: There is only one game left in a nightmarish season. The bad news: Tennessee football and athletic director John Currie continue to trip over themselves. This late-breaking incident with Jauan Jennings is a portrait of ineptitude. This should be a matter for the new head coach to handle. This reinforces the notion that Currie is out of his depth and will not hire a good replacement for Butch Jones. We will see. Maybe the Vols will get lucky in spite of themselves.