As we get past the one-third mark of the college football season, it's time to truly find out which teams in the Southeastern conference are going to be contenders for the conference championship.
Let's go "Inside the SEC" for Saturday October 3rd:
South Carolina at Missouri – 11am kickoff
There's a sizable group of middling teams in the SEC this year, and South Carolina and Missouri both claim residency. The Tigers' Gary Pinkel has proven himself as a coach who can get his team to improve over the course of a season. But with their offensive struggles right now, it will be tough, and losing QB Maty Mauk for the week won't help. For Steve Spurrier, this game may be his last chance to salvage the season for the Gamecocks and stave off the critics who want him to call it quits at year's end.
#13 Alabama at #8 Georgia – 2:30pm kickoff
There is no question which team is under greater pressure. With a loss, Alabama probably sits out the year end playoffs. Georgia, meanwhile, is out to prove it can beat tough teams. I see Alabama thriving "Between the Hedges" with a strong, consistent effort from the offense coupled with a nasty performance from a defense that won't allow a thing on the ground and will get to the QB for a handful of sacks. Have you ever seen Bama play with a sense of desperation? Well, now you will!
San Jose State at Auburn – 3pm kickoff
The Spartans couldn't have come along at a better moment for Auburn, whose season took a nosedive last week with an unexpected loss at home to Mississippi State. The Tigers offense is struggling mightily, the fault of a quarterback position that has imploded and an offensive line that was overhyped in the preseason. Unless Auburn wins convincingly here, critics will continue to call for more than just simple edits to their depth chart.
#3 Ole Miss at #25 Florida – 6pm kickoff
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain could do his former employer a favor by beating Ole Miss. The Rebels have to lose twice before the Tide can represent the SEC West again in Atlanta. But Florida, which has gotten off to a strong start under McElwain, likely doesn't have the offensive firepower to keep pace with the offense of Ole Miss.
Arkansas at Tennessee – 6pm kickoff
Arkansas was supposed to be on the verge of moving into the top echelon in the SEC West, but have suffered three close losses. Now the Razorbacks are just trying to salvage the season and get a decent bowl invitation. Tennessee has blown big fourth quarter leads and in the process has fallen off it's the darkhorse bandwagon. This game comes down to a question of which team is closer to folding up. The Vols are more talented, but lack a passing offense. The Hogs' depth issues at running back and on defense have caught up with them. Arkansas' season is already teetering; if Tennessee were to lose this game, the Volunteers would be right there with them.
Eastern Michigan at #9 LSU – 6pm kickoff
The Tigers return to Baton Rouge for what should be a relatively easy victory. There aren't many storylines here except how many yards Leonard Fournette will run for in the first half before giving way to other backs in the Tigers' stable.
Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee – 6pm kickoff
If Vanderbilt plays against Middle Tennessee the way it did against Ole Miss, the Commodores will win the game. But therein lays the problem: Vandy doesn't play that way on a consistent basis. We'll see after this weekend whether the Commodores improvement against the Rebs was just a mirage.
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky – 6:30pm kickoff
The Wildcats have needed something to get them pointed away from the cellar of the SEC East for years, and the confidence they gained from the win over Missouri means volumes to the program. Kentucky better not just expect to show up and beat Eastern Kentucky though, or the Cats could find themselves suffering a crippling defeat.
#21 Mississippi State at #14 Texas A&M – 6:30pm kickoff
The Aggies are 4-0 but the record may be a bit misleading. Arizona State has not lived up to expectations, and the Aggies had to go into overtime in their own state to knock out a mediocre Arkansas team. Mississippi State won in unconvincing fashion over Southern Miss, nearly beat an LSU team some have ticketed for the final four, and then beat Auburn on the road in a physical, yet sloppy game. The Bulldogs' defense has been erratic at times, while the offense took a step back as a result of a high graduation count following last year. I just feel it's too much to ask Mississippi State to beat both Auburn and Texas A&M on the road in successive weeks.
It's week 4 in the NFL, and the Saints are still in search of that elusive mark in the win column. The Cowboys come into town this week for a Sunday night showdown in the Superdome, and while Dallas is without their top two offensive players; they've still managed a 2-1 record. Big D leads the all-time series 16-11, but New Orleans has taken 8 of the last 10 meetings and are 6-3 against Dallas in the Dome.
A big reason the Cowboys can still have success without quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant is the fact they have maybe the best offensive line in the league. Without their two stars, Dallas has still managed to move the football and they are ranked 8th in total offense (16th rushing / 9th passing) and average 25 points per game.
With no Romo, the keys to the car have been given to Brandon Weeden. The former 2012 1st round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns has completed 29 of 33 passes for 1 touchdown and 1 interception in the 2 games he has appeared in. While Weeden has good size and a quick release, accuracy and touch are an issue. In his career he has appeared in 30 games, completed 57% of his passes for 5,724 yards, 27 TDs and 29 INTs.
With no Dez, Dallas' top offensive weapon has been running back Joseph Randle. He has gained 203 yards rushing, averaging 4.2 a carry and has found the endzone 3 times.
The Cowboys RB stable also includes Darren McFadden. Now in his 8th season out of Arkansas, the often injured tailback is a used sparingly. He has racked up 82 yards on the ground this season with 1 TD.
As for receiving threats, tight end Jason Witten is now Dallas' biggest threat. The 33 year old future Hall of Famer always seems to be battling injuries but is still a difference maker on gamedays. Witten has 21 catches for 181 yards and 2 scores this season, but has never scored in the 8 games he's played against New Orleans.
The other top target for the Boyz is Lance Dunbar. While he hasn't scored yet this season, he is tied with Witten for the lead in team receptions with 21 for 215 yards. Terrance Williams didn't register a single catch in last week's loss to the Falcons, but has scored 1 TD despite 9 total catches this year. There's also Cole Beasley who has tallied 12 catches for 122 yards in 2015.
The Cowboys defense is currently ranked 8th in the NFL (10th vs. the run / 13th vs. the pass) and is giving up on average 25 points per contest. That ranking is way out of whack, though, since the Eagles put up a stink fest against Dallas in week 2 in which Philly managed to rush for 7 total yards the entire game.
After missing all of last season with an ACL injury, linebacker Sean Lee is healthy and looking good. He is ranked currently 2nd in the NFL in tackles with 33, has 1 sack and 1 interception.
The Cowboys pass rush is struggling, as they are without defensive ends Greg Hardy and rookie Randy Gregory as well as linebacker Rolando McClain. Hardy and McClain's 4 game suspensions end after this week, while Gregory is dealing with an ankle injury.
It's hard for me to do this, but I am actually going to pick the Saints in this one despite my preseason forecast of this game being a loss. I feel like a perfect storm is brewing this for the Black and Gold with Drew Brees and Keenan Lewis likely back in action and the game being at home in prime time where history tells us they've been so good. They are 8-0 at home on Sunday Night Football (9-0 if you include the 2011 Wild Card game against the Lions). A desperate team is a dangerous team, and boy, are the Saints desperate for a victory.
This morning on his conference call with the media, Saints head coach Sean Payton let it be known that he was not comfortable with the team’s depth at tight end right now. “We’re one short at tight end and that’s an area that concerns me. We’re light there; that’s an area we’ve look at and will continue to do so,” he said.
Those comments prompted me to start scouring the free agent pool to see who was out there and obviously nothing stands out. But, what about trading for someone?
The Chicago Bears are 0-3 this year and have seemingly given up already this season. They’ve already dealt defensive end Jared Allen to the Panthers and New England acquired linebacker Jonathan Bostic from them. So who’s to say the Saints don’t give them a call and try and pry Martellus Bennett away from the Windy City?
The 6ft7, 270 pounder is 28 years old and had a monster of a season last year, catching 90 passes for 916 yards and 6 TDs. He has two years remaining on his current four year deal that was worth $20.4 million. Bennett is set to make $4.9 million in base salary in 2015, and just over $5 million next season. The price may seem too steep for the Saints' cash-strapped wallet, but they did just rework Drew Brees’ contract to free up some money
Bennett would give the Saints the “Jimmy Graham” type player they are missing. I thought that Marques Colston or Brandon Coleman could be red-zone threats this year because of their size, but it just hasn’t worked out that way. Colston seems to have 2 or 3 drops per game and Coleman’s production is inconsistent.
What would it take to pry Bennett away from Chicago? If I had to guess I would think a 3rd or 4th round pick would get a deal done.
The other question... is he worth it? That’s tough to answer because of the state of the Saints. Is this team really in contention for anything? Add in to that, Bennett wants a new contract because while he is amongst the top tight ends in the NFL right now, he is not being paid like one.
To me, this signals that the team is looking to bring in someone to help either in the receiving game or add a pass rusher. The options available in free agency are slim to none, so maybe a trade is in the works? Hmm.
What does it mean? Saints sideline reporter Kristian Garic says, "First, it creates room to make some moves this year if the team is inclined to do so. The Saints are cash strapped and might need to add a player via trade in the coming week or so."
"As far as Brees and the future are concerned, the team has three options. In the off-season the Saints could decide to restructure his contract again and add two or three years to it and try to continue and rebuild around him. The Saints could honor the final year of the deal with a $30 million dollar cap figure for next season, or release him and create $13 million in dead money for the 2016 salary cap."
"Another possibility would be to attempt to trade Drew in the off-season but that one is less likely, considering Brees' age, and coming off a shoulder injury this season."
BOOM! Brees is actually throwing the football; unlike last week where he just took mental reps during practices with the team. In the end he wound up sitting out the game against the Panthers, while Luke McCown filled in and did a solid job finishing 31 of 38 passing for 310 yards.
We'll now wait and how Brees' shoulder reacts to the workout and if he is able to have the necessary zip on his throws. One thing for sure is that this is a huge positive sign #9 could be ready for Sunday night in the Superdome against 2-1 Dallas.
The landscape of the Southeastern conference has gotten a little bit clearer. It appears Ole Miss, LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia are for real. On the flip-side, Arkansas, Auburn and South Carolina have some serious issues. Will there be any upsets this week to shake things up? Time to go inside the SEC for Saturday, September 25!
Georgia cleaned up against South Carolina last week and while it would not be a surprise for the erratic Bulldogs to play sloppily, there is barely a chance this game will be anything other than a convincing win over the Jaguars. Major props to the UGA athletic director and his staff for scheduling Southern as its sandwich game between South Carolina and Alabama.
#8 LSU at Syracuse – 11am kickoff
The Orange has a decent defense but has had problems on offense. The matchup to watch here is LSU’s Leonard Fournette going against the third-ranked rushing defense in the country. But the reason Syracuse holds the third-highest ranking is more about the opponents it has played. The biggest challenge for LSU is probably to stay focused. A long trip to New York and playing in unfamiliar surroundings could be challenging for a Les Miles-led team. But then again, probably not.
UCF at South Carolina – 11am kickoff
So all of a sudden, UCF is terrible. The Knights have lost by one point to both Florida International and last week to Furman. In between, they got killed by Stanford. South Carolina is coming off losses to both Kentucky and Georgia, and NEED to get a win in this one. If they don’t…this season could very well be the ole ball coaches’ farewell tour.
Tennessee at Florida – 2:30pm kickoff
Tennessee is 2-1 but the Volunteers are not the team most expected them to be. They are running the ball well but the passing offense is stuck in neutral despite a talented receiver corps. Meanwhile, the defense has been subpar. Florida has played more to script in its 3-0 start. The Gators have struggled on offense but have ridden a veteran defense to victories over Kentucky and East Carolina. The question in this game will be whether Florida can keep up with Tennessee’s point production, as it would seem just a matter of time before the Vols can get its passing game in gear. The game is in “The Swamp”, but Florida may not be ready for this level of competition just yet.
ULM at #12 Alabama – 3pm kickoff
The Crimson Tide desperately needs to build a big lead quickly and work on things for next week against Georgia. Sure, saying that diminishes the profile of ULM and suggests the Warhawks may not be capable of pulling yet another upset in this series, but the fact remains that 'Bama is far more talented and has far fewer holes in its game despite the struggles against Ole Miss.
#14 Texas A&M vs. Arkansas in Arlington, TX – 6pm kickoff
Texas A&M finds itself 3-0 and a favorite of some in the media thanks to its offense. If Arkansas wasn’t such a mess, the opportunity would exist for the Razorbacks to pull this upset. But at 1-2 and with its season hanging in the balance, Arkansas looks like a team that is pressing for something to go right. The Hogs just don’t have enough offense to stay with A&M’s attack. Bret Bielema has begun to come under some pressure in Fayetteville; much of it his own making, thanks to a mouth that has no quit in it and a big loss here to a hated rival won’t help him.
Vanderbilt at #3 Ole Miss – 6pm kickoff
Not so long ago, Ole Miss used to regularly struggle in this game either because the Rebels were overlooking the Commodores, or simply weren’t very good. No longer tough. Ole Miss looks like one of the alpha dogs in the SEC West, while Vanderbilt is barely a legitimate FBS team. Vandy should get kudos for putting away Austin Peay in convincing fashion last week, but there are no plausible scenarios under which the lightly talented and questionably coached ‘Dores pull one off against this squad of Rebels.
Mississippi State at Auburn – 6:30pm
Auburn was run over by an LSU team that simply looked tougher and more aggressive. Now the question turns to whether Mississippi State can continue to play better than expected and upset the Tigers on the plains. If the Tigers do not get better quarterback play, the answer is yes. But Auburn has more overall talent than the Bulldogs. More importantly, State doesn’t have a guy like Leonard Fournette, who appeared to make some Auburn players flat out quit.
#25 Missouri at Kentucky – 6:30pm
Missouri won 9-6 over UConn last week while Kentucky lost 14-9. Two offensive powerhouses right here. This is typically about the point in the season when Mizzou begins to prove itself as a contender in the East, but I’ve got to say Kentucky is getting better. If the Tigers lose this game, they won’t have much more than an extreme outside chance at displacing Georgia as the SEC East representative in Atlanta; no matter how much the Bulldogs self-destruct down the stretch.
Brees has been limited in practice this week. He did not throw the football on Wednesday and its not clear if he did or did not yesterday. He has never missed a regular-season game due to injury in his ten years in Black & Gold.
If Brees sits, Luke McCown would start. McCown hasn't thrown a pass in the regular season since... 2011. We will find out more on the "Brees Situation" after today's practice.
Sunday, September 27, 12 p.m. on 870AM/105.3FM
Bank of America Stadium - Charlotte, NC
Line: Saints +3
Week 3 in the NFL brings on another NFC South opponent for the 0-2 Saints. The Black & Gold hit the road for Charlotte this Sunday where they will take on the 2-0 Panthers. Carolina knocked off the Jaguars in Jacksonville 20-9 in week 1, and then held on for a home victory against the Texans 24-14 this past weekend.
The Panthers own a 21-19 edge in the all-time series against the Saints. Last year, the two spilt their meetings for the second consecutive season, with each ballclub winning on the road. Carolina has been known throughout the years for having a stout defense and for at least the start of 2015, that has been no different. They own the 5th best overall D in the NFL (7th against the run / 8th against the pass) and are 2nd in the league allowing a mere 13 points per contest.
They have yet to face an elite quarterback and that streak could continue this week if Drew Brees ends up being sidelined due to a bruised rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.
The Panthers are dealing with an injury to their franchise player as well. Linebacker Luke Kuechly has not been cleared to return to practice yet after suffering a concussion in week 1. He hasn’t put on a helmet at practice yet so will likely be doubtful on Sunday, which definitely hurts Carolina. But then again, the Saints offense hasn’t been anything to worry of late.
The Cats D still has plenty of other threats on that side of the ball. Linebacker Thomas Davis is in his 11th season in the league but is still a force to be reckoned with. He leads the team in tackles with 16, has 1 sack, 2 passes defended and 1 interception.
Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy are the starting defensive ends. The duo combined for 12.5 sacks a year ago. Meanwhile, pass rush specialist Mario Addison has racked up 2 QB take downs this year. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei could be making his debut after missing the first 2 games and all of the preseason after suffering a stress reaction in his right foot early in training camp. I able to play and fully healthy, the 2013 1st round draft pick is a solid DT especially against the run.
The Panthers secondary added 13 year vet Charles Tillman and safety Kurt Coleman to improve a unit that struggled early on last year. Cornerback Josh Norman and 33 year old safety Roman Harper round out that group. Saints fans know all too well that Harper may be terrible in pass coverage but is still valuable in stopping the run.
Even though he led his team to the playoffs and won a postseason game for the first time in his career, 2014 was one that Cam Newton will gladly want to forget. He set a career-low in yards per attempt (7.0) and a career-high in turnovers (17). Newton also dealt with countless injuries, so it's kind of impressive he was able to help his team reach the playoffs. Granted, being in the NFC South helped. Newton is now healthy, but is just thrown for just 370 yards and 3 TDs with 2 INTs. The big, mobile signal caller has also rushed for 111 yards and a score.
Another player responsible for Carolina's hot finish a year ago was Jonathan Stewart. The oft-injured running back went into “Beat Mode”, rushing for 486 yards on 91 carries in the five games following the team's Week 12 bye. He has not found the endzone yet this year though and has only 118 yards rushing, averaging 3.4 a carry.
The receiving corps took a bit hit when Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season after tearing his ACL. In his rookie campaign last year he impressed catching 73 passes for 1,008 yards and had 9 touchdowns.
The team did use a second-round draft pick in an attempt to bolster the offense. However, Devin Funchess doesn't have a true position; he's too slow to be a receiver, but too small to be a tight end.
True TE Greg Olsen is coming off a career year in which he caught 84 passes for 1,008 yards and will be leaned on heavily again since Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown and Jerricho Cotchery are Newton’s other targets at WR.
The offense is ranked 27th right now (31st passing / 7th rushing) and averages 22 points per contest. Far from impressive, but could break out against a Saints defense ranked 25th in the NFL.
I’m definitely concerned over the Panthers rushing attack combined with the fact that if Brees does play in this game, he still won’t be 100%. Nothing about the Black & Gold’s offense excites me right now. The offensive line is getting abused, leading to way too much pressure on the QB and is paving the way for a rushing attack that is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. The wide receiving group is underwhelming as they seem unable to get separation or make big plays when needed. I honestly don’t see one thing in favor of the Saints in this one.
Hau’oli Kikaha has looked worthy of a 2nd round draft pick for the Saints thus far, as he’s been a solid contributor on defense and has even forced a fumble in each of the 2 games to start the season. What are the rookie linebacker’s keys to being able to knock the ball loose out of a player’s grip?
“It’s just a reaction,” Kikaha replied. “If you practice it so many times within the course of a week, when you get to the game you punch it out or pull it out depending on what your angle is.”
Kikaha and the rest of the defense will try and punch or pull the ball away from Panthers QB Cam Newton on Sunday. The big 6-ft-5, 245lb. signal caller hasn’t had a fumble yet this year but has been picked off twice while throwing for 370 yards, 3TDs and completing 53% of his passes. Newton has also rushed for 11 yards and a score.
“He’s an amazing athlete and he’s gifted,” said Kikaha. “Being that big and fast really helps someone, especially at that position. When it’s time to contain, you’ve got to hold that edge and don’t let him outside of you. Then come after that ball when you see him!”
There’s a ton of speculation heading into this game if Drew Brees will be able to suit up or not. He injured his shoulder in Tampa, but says it is his intention to play in Carolina. How does Kikaha think the offense would operate minus Brees under center and with Luke McCown running the show?
“I don’t know that I would see a difference”, the rookie linebacker said. “During camp, we (the defense) went against that guy and he was cutting us up just as good as Drew.”
Even with Brees, the offense has been sputtering this year. They are averaging just 19 points per contest and the rushing attack is gaining only 3.4 yards per carry. Does the defense feel any pressure to have to score some points for this team to win?
“We just have to do our jobs,” Kikaha answered. “Because as soon as you think you have to do more then what you’re supposed to or get outside of yourself, you mess up and we can’t afford that. So, I’d say no we just have to do our job and stick with the scheme.”
It's back to work for the Saints today, as the team takes the practice field in preparation for their week 3 match-up in Carolina. The big question right now is not can the Black & Gold get a win; the question is, will their franchise QB be able to play?
Drew Brees is said to have a bruised shoulder and Coach Sean Payton was asked this morning on his conference call with the media if he would elaborate any more on #9's status.
"Yeah, it would be day to day," Payton responded. "Last night was the first night in game planning. We'll get to work on it today. We'll make sure we're getting the reps that we need at that position and kind of see how he does. From an injury standpoint there's nothing that I'm going to say at all other then he'll be day to day, see how he's progressing and we'll be smart."
If Brees doesn't play, his back-up Luke McCown is the likely option. The Verizon spokesman has not completed a pass in a regular season NFL game since he was with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011.