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All Eyes upon the SEC this Saturday

John Marcase

by John Marcase

October 31, 2022 at 10:00:00 PM

See you next week, Nick

This coming Saturday is the worst nightmare for the commissioners of the Power 5 conferences not named Greg Sankey.

Sankey, the former Northwestern State golf coach and compliance director, runs the most powerful entity in college athletics - the Southeastern Conference.

While the head honchos of the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 fight for relevance following two summers of upheaval in which Texas and Oklahoma are bolting to the SEC, and USC and UCLA to the Big 10, Sankey’s conference will showcase to the masses what may be the single biggest Saturday any conference has experienced in seasons.

The SEC Championship game may not take place for another 4½ weeks, but its participants could be decided a month ahead of time.

Normally, an Alabama-LSU meeting in which both teams are ranked -- the Tide is sixth and LSU is 15th -- would be the marquee game of the week in not only the SEC, but all of college football. Alas, it is the undercard, albeit one in primetime on ESPN.

Saturday, the spotlight will shine in the afternoon sun when No.  2 Tennessee visits No. 1 Georgia at 2:30 p.m. on CBS, giving the SEC two games matching ranked teams. In fact, there is only one other game this week pitting ranked teams against each other -- No. 20 Wake Forest at No. 21 N.C. State, and that matchup has been relegated to the ACC Network.

The outcomes of Georgia-Tennessee and LSU-Alabama will determine Dec. 3’s SEC Championship pairing. In the East, Georgia is 5-0 and Tennessee is 4-0. Neither team has a conference game left after Saturday against a team without at least three conference losses.

For LSU and Alabama, it will be similar, although the Tigers may have the edge with their remaining schedule a little softer -- Arkansas (5-3 and 2-3) and Texas A&M (3-5, 1-4). Alabama still has No. 11 Ole Miss (8-1, 4-1) left before ending the season in the Iron Bowl against state-rival Auburn (3-5, 1-4).

Admittedly, LSU has less room for error than Alabama entering Saturday’s game.

The Tigers weren’t expected to be in this position in Brian Kelly’s first year as coach, but Kelly and his staff have done wonders in rebuilding the program’s depleted roster. Yes, there is still plenty of work left to build the quality depth expected from a top 10 or 15 program.

The key to LSU’s resurgence in recent weeks has been the improvement of quarterback Jayden Daniels, who has developed into a true dual threat quarterback. Since passing for a season-low 80 yards in a win over Auburn, Daniels has passed for nearly 900 yards in the Tigers’ last three games.

For the season, Daniels has thrown for 1,812 yards and 12 touchdowns while rushing for 524 yards and nine scores. Even more impressive, he has thrown 1 interception, which could be interpreted two ways - he is protective of the ball, or he is too timid to throw into tight quarters. I think the answer is both, although he has begun taking his shots down the field more in wins over Florida and Ole Miss.

Daniels’ combined 2,300 yards and 21 touchdowns is less than Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker’s 2,338 yards passing and 338 rushing and 25 touchdowns, but not by much.

With each team coming off a bye, key injuries should be at a minimum, and Alabama’s Bryce Young, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner, should be as healthy as he’s been since opening the season. He missed Bama’s win over Texas A&M.

Young has passed for 1,900 yards and 18 touchdowns, but the key to beating the Tide is keeping him in the pocket. Young is not the runner Daniels nor Hooker is, with 100 of his 137 yards rushing coming in the season opener against Utah State, but he picks his moments. Just ask Texas about Young’s scrambling ability.

Will Tennessee and LSU be able to spoil the expected rematch of Alabama vs. Georgia in the SEC Championship? Hard to say, but after the Tide and Dawgs met for the SEC and National championship last season, it is safe to say the anti-SEC crowd will be rooting hard for the Vols and Tigers this weekend. That crowd may also include a few conference commissioners.

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