Can Alabama beat No. 1 again? What is the X-factor in Georgia-Auburn?

Our Five Burning Questions about the SEC with four Saturdays left in the regular season:

1) Can Alabama beat No. 1 again? Mississippi State (9-0, 5-0) has been No. 1 for five weeks in a row, but the Bulldogs are a seven-point underdog at No. 5 Alabama (8-1, 5-1). One reason is that Alabama rarely loses at home (39-3 since the 2008 season, Nick Saban’s second as head coach. In that same stretch Saban’s teams are 16-5 against the Top 10 in the AP poll.

Another reason Alabama is favored is that the Crimson Tide has had some recent success against No. 1 with three victories in their past four shots at the nation’s top-ranked team. Alabama beat Florida in the 2009 SEC Championship game; lost 9-6 to LSU in 2011 at Bryant-Denny Stadium; avenged that loss against LSU (21-0) in the 2011 BCS title game, and then knocked off Notre Dame 42-14 for the 2012 BCS crown.

Alabama has won 13 in a row at home. Mississippi  State has won 12 in a row, the second longest streak in school history.

2) What is the X-factor in the Georgia-Auburn game? Both teams will play with a sense of urgency. Georgia (7-2, 5-2) can clinch the SEC East with a win combined with a loss by Missouri. Mathematically, Auburn  (7-2, 4-2) is still in the SEC race if it beats Georgia and Alabama beats Mississippi State. Running back Todd Gurley returns for Georgia after a four-game suspension. Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne leads the SEC in rushing and has 531 yards in his past three games.

But the X-factor? I think it’s Auburn’s Nick Marshall, who has completed 64.1 percent of his passes in his past five games. Georgia has to keep Marshall’s numbers respectable if the Bulldogs hope to win.

3) Can the Head Ball Coach salvage his season? It has not been a fun year for South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks began 2014 ranked in just about everybody’s Top 10. It started with an embarrassing 52-28 loss to Texas A&M and has pretty much gone downhill since. South Carolina (4-5, 2-5) enters Saturday’s game at Florida (5-3, 4-3) with a four-game SEC losing streak by a grand total of 18 points. South Carolina needs two wins in its last three games against Florida, South Alabama and Clemson to become bowl eligible. It’s going to be hard to do with a defense that has given up 132 points in its past three games and 274 points (39.1 avg) in seven SEC games this season.

4) Can Josh Dobbs keep it going at Tennessee? Dobbs, of Alpharetta, has gotten the Volunteer Nation excited in just two games. He came off the bench against Alabama and threw for 192 yards and ran for 75 more in a 34-20 loss. Then two weeks ago against South Carolina Dobbs threw for 301 yards, ran for 166 more, and was responsible for five touchdowns as Tennessee rallied from a 42-28 deficit in the final 4:52 to win in overtime, 45-42. So now Tennessee (4-5, 1-4) has visions of a bowl game if it can win two of its final three, starting Saturday against Kentucky (5-5, 2-5) in Neyland Stadium.

5) Can Missouri run the table, starting Saturday at Texas A&M? Missouri (7-2, 4-1) has had one of the stranger seasons in recent memory. The Tigers somehow lost to Indiana, which is 0-5 in the Big Ten, and lost 34-0 at home to Georgia on Oct. 11. But as we arrive at the third Saturday in November, Missouri can clinch the SEC East by winning at Texas A&M (7-3, 3-3) on Saturday and then beating Tennessee in Knoxville and Arkansas at home. The odds are against that, but here is a stat that speaks volumes about the struggling SEC East and the quirks of the schedule. If Missouri wins those final three games, its seven SEC wins will have come against teams that currently have a collective conference record of 12-31.


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