We’ve reached the point in the football season where SEC teams play their most bitter traditional rivals — usually.
There are some exceptions. Tennessee plays Alabama in October. LSU and Alabama meet in early November. But for sheer unadulterated bragging rights, there’s nothing quite like the games that are played in the last two weekends of the SEC regular season.
Unless you're Vanderbilt when its rivalry with UT is only bitter for the pills that the Commodores must swallow year-in and year-out.
In my SEC East preview column, I predicted that Vanderbilt — building on the foundation laid last season in its first post-season bowl in living memory — would beat the Volunteers on its way to a third place finish in the eastern division. Boy, was I ever wrong!
The train wreck that is Vandy’s 2009 football season comes to a merciful end this weekend in Knoxville. By every meaningful measure, the ‘Dores’ season actually ended on Oct. 10 when they lost to Army. Nevertheless, it is still worth asking the question: Can Vanderbilt salvage some ember of football respect from the ash-heap of this disastrous season by beating Tennessee?
The easy answer is: Are you serious?! You can’t possibly believe that Vandy has any chance of keeping the final score within three touchdowns of the Vols!
But this column is not about easy answers. The hard answer is, of course, that Vanderbilt has a chance. Look at the performance that Monte Kiffin’s vaunted defense turned in last Saturday in Oxford, Miss. Against Ole Miss, Tennessee proved to be as good at playing defense as Nu’Keese Richardson is at armed robbery. Did Tennessee miss the services of starting safety, Janzen Jackson? As far as I could tell, Jackson could have been the 12th guy on the field and Tennessee still would not have been able to tackle Dexter McCluster.
Unfortunately, for Vanderbilt’s chances this weekend, a Commodore victory cannot depend solely on another no-show by the Tennessee D. The Vanderbilt offense has to find a way to sustain drives, score points and avoid mistakes. Through 11 games, however, Vandy has not demonstrated the ability to do any of these three things.
Sustain drives? Vandy’s average time of possession is eight minutes per game less than its opponents. Score points? Vandy has averaged fewer than 17 points per game while its opponents score more than 22. Avoid mistakes? The ‘Dores have thrown nine interceptions, and lost six of 22 fumbles.
Vanderbilt could play each of the teams at the bottom of every BCS conference and not be favored in any game. Ask yourself this: On a neutral field, would you pick Vanderbilt to beat Virginia? What about Kansas? Syracuse? Indiana? OK, Washington State maybe, but you get my point.
But this speculation is all academic. Vanderbilt doesn’t play any of those bottom dwellers. It plays Tennessee.
In some circles the UT-Vanderbilt game is still called a rivalry. That label is increasingly hard to justify given the disproportionate way that Tennessee dominates this series. However, judging from some of the comments that self-identified UT fans have posted to this column over the last few weeks, there is still quite a bit of steam in the Tennessee–Vanderbilt kettle.
In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter what you call this game. Rivalry or not, Tennessee is just a better team than Vanderbilt, notwithstanding UT’s embarrassing performance against Ole Miss. The pick: Tennessee
LSU vs. Ole Miss:
To the traditionalists in their respective fan bases, Ole Miss is LSU’s greatest rivalry game. That’s understandable; the two schools have played each other 98 times. Maybe the origin of this rivalry has something to do with shared historic roots. Perhaps it’s something that arises out of the great river that runs like a common thread through the heart of both states and from which one takes its name.
Or perhaps it’s something more sinister, like the cruel social and economic legacy that plagued both states for more than a century after Reconstruction. On the other hand, it could be that Ole Miss fans just don’t appreciate the Elvis impersonator wearing the purple and gold uni-tard, and his companion in the tiger-striped zoot-suit trespassing in The Grove. Maybe, in the end, it’s just southern college football played with passion and style.
LSU holds a substantial advantage in the series [55-38-4], but Ole Miss beat the Tigers last season in Baton Rouge.
Against Tennessee, the Rebs got their offense, especially the running attack, into a very high gear. Dexter McCluster has been averaging nearly 200 yards rushing over the last three conference games. Just ask the players on the Tennessee defense how good McCluster is. They all got neck strain from turning their heads as he ran by them.
LSU used to have a stud running back in Charles Scott, until he broke his collar bone in the second half of the Alabama game. The Tigers are also dealing with injuries at quarterback and in the defensive secondary. Alabama exposed LSU’s serious lack of conditioning and the Tigers struggled last Saturday against Louisiana Tech.
The sports media in the Bayou State has been withering in its criticism of LSU’s Les Miles. A Times Picayune columnist this week questioned Miles’ sanity, writing that the Tigers’ head coach doesn’t have a firm grip on reality. It’s one thing for pundits around the region to take shots at Miles, but now the hometown paper are doing it too. Miles may have set a new record for the shortest shelf-life of a national championship.
LSU will be only the second ranked opponent that Ole Miss has played this season. The Rebs lost their previous encounter with a ranked team 22-3.
I have been cautioned by a reader who follows the Rebs very closely never to pick Ole Miss to win. But there’s just something about these two teams at this point in the season. Ole Miss has been improving over the last few weeks, and against Tennessee they literally hit the ground running and didn’t stop until the final whistle. Alabama whipped LSU like a rented mule, and the Tigers still haven’t recovered.
The cautious call is to go with the ranked team; the one with the better record for the season, the better record against common opponents, and the better record in the series; which is exactly why I’m going the other way. The pick: Ole Miss.
Mississippi State vs. Arkansas:
The Hogs and Bulldogs don’t much care for each other, but when it comes to rivalries, both of these teams play their bitterest rivals on the final weekend of the season. The game this Saturday in Fayetteville is just a tune up.
Mississippi State might be the best 4-6 team in the country. OK, I know how cliché it is to make such a statement, but give me a second to justify it. Five of MSU’s losses came against teams that are currently ranked in the top 15 in the AP poll. Set aside last weekend’s game against Alabama. In the remaining four games against ranked opponents, MSU’s average margin of defeat was only eight points per game.
State averages over 200 yards rushing per game, 50 yards per game more than it has allowed the opposition. As good as State is at running the ball, it is equally inept in the passing game. But so long as the Bulldogs can use the rushing game to keep their offense on the field they will have a chance to neutralize the Arkansas scoring threat.
Arkansas, on the other hand, might be the worst 6-4 team in the country.
Take a look at how the Hogs accumulated their wins. Four came over non-SEC opponents. Missouri State, Eastern Michigan and Troy are not going to put a fright into too many teams in the SEC West. Texas A&M looked like a stout opponent on Oct. 3, when the 3-0 Aggies came into their game against the Piggies. But since getting blown out by the Hogs, A&M has gone 2-4.
When the offense is in gear, Arkansas averages nearly 38 points per game. But the Porkers have struggled against the best defensive teams on their schedule, scoring only seven points against Alabama, 17 against Ole Miss and 20 against the Gators.
Something tells me that State is due. I was wrong on consecutive weeks in September when I picked State over Auburn and Vandy over State. Maybe I will be wrong this week, but I think a 4-6 team, that is better than its record reflects can beat a 6-4 team that is worse than its record. The pick: Mississippi State
Kentucky vs. Georgia:
The principal rivalry games of these two 6-4 teams are a week away. Next week, the Bulldogs face the buzz-saw that is the Georgia Tech second half offense, while the Cats will try to finish the season with a better record than their great rival from Volville. This weekend, they will have to settle with playing against each other.
Last weekend, the Dawgs beat Auburn in a most unforeseeable way; the Georgia defense-which on average has surrendered 26 points and 334 yards in each of 10 previous games — managed to keep Auburn from scoring the potentially tying touchdown in the waning seconds of the game. Meanwhile, Kentucky spent last Saturday beating Vanderbilt in a most foreseeable way.
Comparing both teams’ records against common opponents provides precious little insight into which will fare better against the other, but it does suggest that this will be a very competitive game. Both teams beat Auburn by a touchdown. Georgia beat Vandy by 24 points while Kentucky downed the ‘Dores by 11. Florida scored 41 points against both, while Georgia beat South Carolina by four and Kentucky lost to the Roosters by two.
If ever there were a toss-up game, this is it. But the point of this column is to make predictions. Maybe tossing a coin is the only approach that makes sense with these two teams. The pick: Georgia