Breaking down the weekend’s SEC slate, all in one place.
Game of the Week: Kentucky at Ole Miss (-6.5)
Welcome to the Prove-It Bowl. Two aspiring dark horses enter; only one leaves with its ambitions intact.
As different as they are in terms of their styles of play, narratively Kentucky and Ole Miss are very similar. Both sides are coming off a rare 10-win campaign in 2021 that ended in a January bowl; both opened this season with roughly similar expectations (Kentucky was 20th in the preseason AP poll, Ole Miss 21st); both cruised to a 4-0 September with reassuring road wins over Power 5 opponents (Florida and Georgia Tech, respectively) and no close calls against anyone else. Both will kick off on Saturday as the highest-ranked team in their respective divisions behind the obvious front-runners, Georgia and Alabama.
So as distant as the possibility may seem at the moment, if there is any chance of a dark-horse run over the second half of the season, the winner in Oxford immediately becomes a prime candidate to pull it off. For what it’s worth, the Wildcats and Rebels will both get their division heavy at home — Alabama is at Ole Miss on Nov. 12, Georgia at Kentucky on Nov. 19. That’s a long way off, obviously. But for a couple of programs that have never been to Atlanta, a win this weekend will confirm that at the very least the opportunity is real. The temptation to start looking ahead may be too tempting to resist.
The stat: 13.5 yards per attempt
That’s the Ole Miss QB Jackson Dart‘s average depth of target this season, per Pro Football Focus, is 2nd nationally among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts. (First nationally: Liberty’s Kaidon Salter, under the direction of former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze.) At 6-2, 220 pounds, Dart’s next-level arm talent made him one of the most prized transfers on the offseason market following a chaotic true-freshman season at USC, and he hasn’t been shy about showing it off: 24.4% of his attempts through the first 4 games have traveled 20+ yards, the highest rate of any SEC starter.
This is the best throw Jackson Dart has thrown in an Ole Miss uniform.
Ole Miss fans have this to look forward to.
— Brad Logan (@BradLoganCOTE) September 18, 2022
So far, Dart is gunning it downfield significantly more often than his predecessor, Matt Corral, in either of the past 2 seasons, although a) His accuracy has been spotty, with just 7 completions on 20 attempts of 20+ yards to date, and b) It’s fair to assume that rate will decline against SEC defenses, which are more likely to force the ball out of his hands more quickly. In other ways, though, Dart looks like essentially a slightly bigger version of Corral, right down to his willingness to throw his body around in ways that endear him to the fans while giving Lane Kiffin an ulcer. Despite massive turnover across the two-deep, the offense has yet to skip a beat.
The big question: Can Kentucky establish the run?
The Wildcats have made their bones under Mark Stoops as a reliably run-first offense, but their output on the ground in September was abysmal. As it stands, they’re 13th in the SEC in rushing offense (ahead of only Mississippi State, which never runs) and dead last in yards per carry, where they rank 125th out of 131 FBS teams at 2.4 yards a pop.
The problems started up front, where the vaunted “Big Blue Wall” lost a couple of long-tenured, highly decorated starters, Darian Kinnard and Luke Fortner, to the NFL Draft. On the same note, it doesn’t help that QB Will Lewis has taken an SEC-worst 15 sacks, which are a drag on rushing stats. But the biggest difference, by far, has been the NCAA-mandated absence of workhorse RB Chris Rodriguez Jr., who is due to make his season debut this weekend after sitting out the first 4 games due to an eligibility issue. His return could not come at a more opportune time.
For all the hype surrounding Levis’ draft prospects, Rodriguez was the real engine of the offense the past 2 years, piling up 2,164 yards and 20 touchdowns on 6.3 per carry across both seasons. What he lacks in highlight-reel sizzle, he more than makes up for in chain-moving grit and week-in, week-out consistency: Rodriguez led all Power 5 backs last year with ten 100-yard rushing games, including all 9 of Kentucky’s FBS wins. If he was under-appreciated then, there is no chance of that now.
Chris Rodriguez Jr. run over Yasir Abdullah. pic.twitter.com/4U7DT99r1Q
— Tyler Greever (@Tyler_Greever) November 28, 2021
On the other side, it’s been many years since Ole Miss could claim run defense as a strength, and the current group is not on track to change that after giving up 242 yards rushing on 6.1 per carry last week against Tulsa. Levis will have to make some plays with his arm, but given the option of grinding out first downs, controlling the clock, and keeping the ball away from Ole Miss’ offense, Stoops will take it every time.
The key matchup: Kentucky RT Jeremy Flax vs. Ole Miss DEs Cedric Johnson, Tavius Robinson and Jared Ivey
The success or failure of Kentucky’s ground game will be a major factor in keeping Levis upright. Flax, a former JUCO product in his first year as a starter, has struggled in Kinnard’s former position on the right side, allowing 3 sacks and 7 QB pressures on 141 pass-blocking snaps, per PFF. Memorably, he was also the victim on a viral highlight for Florida’s Brenton Cox Jr., who flung the 6-6, 328-pound Flax into his own quarterback like normal people toss a child in a swimming pool. Meanwhile, Ole Miss’ edge-rushing rotation of Johnson, Robinson (a transfer from Guelph University in Canada) and Ivey (a transfer from Georgia Tech) is off to a productive start, generating a combined 45 pressures over the first 4 games.
— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) September 17, 2022
The trio is largely interchangeable, meaning all three will get their crack at both Flax and his fellow bookend, LT Kenneth Horsey. If they get a chance to tee off on obvious passing downs, the Rebels might have the luxury of dropping 7 or 8 in coverage with confidence they can still turn up the heat on Levis with a 3- or 4-man rush. If Rodriguez succeeds in keeping the Wildcats on schedule, getting Levis out of his comfort zone becomes that much harder.
First of all, the verdict on these helmets?
— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) September 26, 2022
Meh. Thumbs down. This look is supposed to invoke camouflage (?), inspired by a hunting apparel company whose CEO is a former Ole Miss player turned booster, but looks more like the packaging for sugar-free chewing gum that loses its flavor after a few seconds.
Anyway, with as little as we know about either of these teams at this point the course of the game itself is unpredictable. Levis, who remains a favorite of draftniks, is due for a breakout performance against a getable defense. On the other hand, whenever possible Kentucky tends to prefer leaning on its own defense to drag games into the back alley, and with a fresh Rodriguez back in the fold the Wildcats will have every incentive to grind on offense in the name of keeping Ole Miss ‘ up-tempo attack on the sideline. But then Dart, too, is on his way to becoming a household name across the conference.
When the Rebels get the ball, they’ll move it at more or less their usual pace. How many opportunities they get, though, will come down to whether the defense holds its own on the line of scrimmage.
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Ole Miss 29 | • Kentucky 24
Alabama (-17.5) at Arkansas
The Crimson Tide’s recent issues on the road are well established. They only played in 4 true road games in 2021, but 3 of them – trips to Florida early, Texas A&M at midseason and Auburn late – came down to the final play, resulting in their only regular-season loss at A&M and a skin- of-the-teeth escape in the Iron Bowl. The cumulative score in those 3 games: Bama 93, Hosts 92. That trend carried over in their first road date this year, a come-from-behind, 20-19 win at Texas. At various points in all of those games, the Tide looked uncharacteristically disorganized and out of sync for long stretches, racked up penalties and struggled to communicate.
Then again, in the end they’ve never failed to look like Bama for long stretches, too, which is why they’re 4-1 on the road with Bryce Young as starting QB (including a 49-9 blowout at Mississippi State last October, the lone exception to the white-knucklers), and why they’re comfortably favored Saturday. Young has 13 touchdowns to just 2 INTs in hostile stadiums, refuting the notion that he’s a different player away from home. His run support and pass protection have been less reliable. But as long as the ball is in No. 9’s hands, Alabama’s going to remain the hardest team in the sport to kill.
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Alabama 34 | • Arkansas 23
Texas A&M at Mississippi State (-3.5)
Texas A&M was already the league’s most anemic passing attack, averaging 6.4 yards per attempt with 2 touchdowns in 3 games vs. FBS opponents, and got the worst possible news this week when its only bankable target, senior Aeneas Smith, was ruled out for the rest of the season with a leg injury. In Smith’s absence, the onus falls on the young wideouts, sophomores Yulkeith Brown and 5-star freshmen Evan Stewart oath Chris Marshallto level up asap – even more so considering that do-it-all RB Devon Achane can’t really be asked to do any more than he’s been doing when he’s singlehandedly accounting for more than a 1/3 of the Aggies’ total offense as it is. More realistically, the onus falls on the defense to continue to keep the score close enough to turn on one or two decisive plays.
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• Mississippi State 24 | Texas A&M 19
LSU (-9.5) at Auburn
Auburn’s starting quarterback has been ruled out for the second consecutive game and his head coach was forced to deny a report that he’s already been told he’s out at the end of the year – just another riveting week on The Plains. With TJ Finley oath Zach Calzada both on ice, the offense will run again through the athletic but one-dimensional Robby Ashford, who underwhelmed last week in his first career start vs. Missouri. There’s a very real possibility that Auburn fans will get theirs
first extended look at 4th-string true freshman Holden Geriner in a primetime conference game, always a fun moment.
As for LSU, the Tigers will welcome back WR Kayshon Boutte, who sold out last week’s win over New Mexico following the birth of his first child. Boutte’s reputation as an elite playmaker is beyond reproach, but between the injury that cost him most of last season and a relatively quiet start this season, he hasn’t scored a touchdown in almost exactly a calendar year – since last Oct. 2, to be specific, when he hit paydirt on LSU’s first possession of the game against Auburn. Between Malik Nabers, Jaray Jenkinsswear Brian Thomas Jr. the offense is hardly lacking for viable targets, whether Boutte shows up or not. Still, if the Tigers have any chance of making some noise in the West, the first round of a 6-week SEC gauntlet would be a good time for their most talented player to reassure everyone he’s all the way back.
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• LSU 30 | Auburn 17
Georgia (-28) at Missouri
The outcome was never in doubt, but Georgia was unusually sluggish in last week’s 39-22 win over Kent State, giving up nearly as many points in the first 3 quarters and change (22) as it allowed last year in the entire month of September (23). Other than Alabama in last year’s SEC Championship Game, the last team to go over 21 against Georgia prior to the Golden Flashes was Mississippi State in November 2020. Either the UGA defense is really due for a regression following a mass exodus of first-round talent , or Mizzou’s struggling offense is in for a world of hurt.
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• Georgia 41 | Missouri 10
Week 4 record: 9-1 straight-up | 4-6 vs. spread
Season Record: 33-6 straight-up | 15-22 vs. spread