Saturday, July 20, 2024

2023 SEC Championship Game race will be shaped, either through clarity or chaos, by pair of Week 10 matchups

Saturday is the biggest weekend of the year in SEC Country by far. The landscape of the conference will be shaped by what we see between the hours of 3:30 p.m. ET and midnight. Will there be clarity? Will there be chaos? Will there be both? Every option is on the table, and it should make for the best 8 ½ hours of college football this season. 

No. 12 Missouri and No. 2 Georgia will tee it up at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, on Saturday afternoon in the first half of the SEC on CBS doubleheader. A win by the Tigers, who are 15.5-point underdogs, would bring them even with the Bulldogs in the conference standings and provide an inside track in the SEC East race with Tennessee, Florida and Arkansas left on the schedule. If the Bulldogs hold home court, it would vault them into a two-game lead on the field with two conference games left (Ole Miss and Tennessee). It wouldn’t clinch the division, but the likelihood of the Dawgs missing the SEC Championship Game would be as likely as kids voluntarily giving up their Halloween candy.

Meanwhile, No. 14 LSU looks to make it two in a row over No. 8 Alabama after last season’s overtime thriller in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Tigers, who are 3-point underdogs, will be in the driver’s seat in the SEC West if they can spring the upset with Florida and Texas A&M left on the slate. The Crimson Tide can clinch the division with a win and an Ole Miss loss to Texas A&M earlier in the day. Even if the latter doesn’t happen, the path is still relatively clear for coach Nick Saban’s squad with Kentucky and Auburn left to play.

With a defining weekend on tap, let’s dive into the two biggest SEC games of the weekend. 

Cinderella story in Athens?

In one corner, we have a Missouri team that came out of nowhere but finds itself playing its biggest game since the 2014 SEC Championship Game. 

The Tigers, picked to finish sixth in the East at SEC Media Days, have stunned the college football world with a wildly balanced offense led by quarterback Brady Cook, wide receiver Luther Burden III and running back Cody Schrader. Cook was actually booed during the team’s Week 3 game vs. Kansas State, but a 356-yard performance that led to Harrison Mevis‘ 61-yard walk-off field goal kick-started four straight games of at least 300 yards passing games for the signal-caller. Missouri isn’t a one-trick pony, though. Its red zone defense ranks third in the conference, which comes in handy during high-scoring affairs. 

Coach Eli Drinkwitz has transformed this team into a force despite entering this season on a seat that wasn’t necessarily smoking hot … but was warmer than he would have liked. 

In the other corner, we find the two-time reigning national champion Bulldogs. Coach Kirby Smart always tries to find an edge to keep his team from being complacent. Last year, it was building off the motivation that someone, somewhere, apparently picked his team to go 7-5. This week, the College Football Playoff selection committee ranked Georgia at No. 2 despite the fact that the undefeated Dawgs have been ranked No. 1 in both major polls all season.

The offense hasn’t missed a beat without star tight end Brock Bowers, who exited the Bulldogs’ game vs. Vanderbilt on October 14 with an ankle injury. Quarterback Carson Beck has become a legitimate superstar after topping the 300-yard mark in three of his last four games, which included a 315-yard, two-touchdown performance last week against rival Florida. Plus, the defense has caught fire due in large part to its ability to create havoc in the backfield. It hadn’t generated much pressure at all prior to last week when it sacked Gators quarterback Graham Mertz four times in the first half.

Can Mizzou spring the upset and slip its foot into Cinderella’s slipper, or will Georgia’s path to Atlanta clear out in a big way? We’ll find out as the sun sets in the Classic City. 

Heavyweight fight

The nightcap will feature a traditional SEC West rivalry with enough storylines to fill Bryant-Denny Stadium. LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels leads one of the most feared offenses in the nation, and a road win over the Crimson Tide would almost certainly vault him over Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and into the driver’s seat for the Heisman Trophy. With a win, Daniels would become the first starting quarterback to beat a Saban-coached Alabama team in consecutive years. 

What’s really interesting about this one, though, is the Tigers defense. It has been the punchline to a bad joke for the majority of the season, but it’s held opponents to under 300 total yards and 5.0 yards per play in each of the last two games. However, defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo and defensive back Zy Alexander will miss the contest with injuries. Defensive backs Denver Harris and Duce Chestnut will also miss the game for undisclosed reasons. 

The Crimson Tide, which have an unblemished mark in conference play, have had a roller-coaster season that includes a nonconference loss to Texas, quarterback uncertainty and several sloppy wins. Keeping them on the fringe of the CFP race is a stout defense, led by superstar linebacker Dallas Turner and freshman defensive back Caleb Downs

The Tide’s offensive line has struggled all season, which has led to the inconsistency at quarterback. However, Jalen Milroe has settled in as the starter, and despite making some poor decisions under pressure, he ranks third nationally with a 60% completion rate for passes traveling 20 or more air yards. That’s something that he has built off of throughout the season. 

Consider this one a grudge match for the foundation of the future. LSU topped the Tide and played in Atlanta last year. Another win would solidify Brian Kelly’s squad as the class of the division as Nick Saban’s career begins to wind down. If the Tide survive, it would confirm that last year was an aberration and Saban still has his fastball.

Buckle up. Saturday is going to be a wild ride.

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