This is the week I expect Kirby Smart’s team to surrender the top spot in the College Football Playoff poll to SEC rival Alabama. And for that, Nick Saban will have Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team to thank.

In a battle of top 10 programs on Saturday, Auburn (7-2, 5-1) should prevail in a nail-biter on the Plains, bringing an end to Georgia’s (9-0, 6-0) quest for a perfect season.

Georgia defense, which has been outstanding in allowing just 62 points in six league games, is due for a letdown now that the Dawgs have clinched the SEC East and have been assured a spot in the conference title game.

If Smart’s team does drop its guard, Auburn quarterback Jason Stidham will take advantage and finally put his stamp on Malzahn’s offense. Stidham has completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,000 yards with 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

Meanwhile, Kerryon Johnson has rushed for 15 touchdowns in what has been a breakout season because of Kamryn Pettway’s various injuries. Pettway, who led the Tigers with more than 1,200 yards a year ago, is now out for the season with a broken shoulder blade. But when it comes to the “next man up” concept, Johnson has been more than capable. He’s on track to enjoying a 1,200 yard season himself.

Smart said it will be vital that Georgia’s defense prevents Johnson from reaching the edges because he can win footraces to the end zone.

“He’ll bounce out, he’ll hit it up inside. He runs with great toughness,” said Smart. “I’ve seen this kid grow for a long time. Watched him play when he was in high school … He’s got great speed.”

For Georgia, freshman quarterback Jake Fromm will face his toughest test in a season in which he has passed for 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns with just four interceptions while rushing for another three scores.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs tag team of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel have combined for  nearly, 1,600 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns.

Malzahn expects his defense to see a steady diet of that dynamic duo, but he also knows Fromm is part of that run-first philosophy. Plus, he can burn defenses with shots down the field off run-pass options.

“(Fromm) has been very efficient,” said Malzahn. “When he’s had to make throws, those 50-50 balls, especially when they are in the red zone, I’ve been very impressed with him.”

 IN THE SPOTLIGHT

All times Central

Arkansas at LSU, Saturday 11 a.m. CT, ESPN

Louisiana at Mississippi, Saturday 11 a.m. CT, SEC Network

Florida at South Carolina, Saturday 11 a.m. CT, CBS

Georgia at Auburn, Saturday 2:30 p.m. CT, CBS

Kentucky at Vanderbilt, Saturday 3 p.m. CT, SEC Network

Alabama at Mississippi State, Saturday 6 p.m. CT, ESPN

New Mexico at Texas A&M, Saturday 6 p.m. CT, ESPNU

Tennessee at Missouri, Saturday 6:30 p.m., SEC Network

FAB FIVE

  1. Alabama (9-0, 6-0): Last Week – W, LSU, 24-10. The Impact – Crimson Tide has not allowed a first-half touchdown to an SEC opponent this season. Forced to throw by LSU’s defense crowding the box, Jalen Hurts passed for 183 yards and a touchdowns and rushed for 44 yards and another score.
  2. Georgia (9-0, 6-0): Last Week – W, South Carolina, 24-10. The Impact – While Dawgs have clinched SEC East title and are No. 1 in only poll that matters – College Football Playoff rankings – Kirby Smart can’t afford to hit cruise control  over these final weeks of the regular season. Freshman Jake Fromm tossed two TD passes against Gamecocks, who gave Georgia its toughest SEC test.
  3. Auburn (7-2, 5-1): Last Week – W, at Texas A&M, 42-27. The Impact – With Tigers tasked with playing Georgia and Alabama over next three weeks, Gus Malzahn can be excused for cursing SEC scheduling office. Against Aggies, Tigers returned one blocked punt for a TD and took advantage of a shanked kick of 16 yards to score another.
  4. Mississippi State (7-2, 4-2): Last Week – W, Massachusetts, 34-23. The Impact – With Alabama visiting Saturday, Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs will find out how much they’ve improved during four-game win streak. They better be much better than last week when MSU trailed at the half to UMass and needed an 83-yard punt return by Deddrick Thomas with five minutes left to secure win.
  5. LSU (6-3, 3-2): Last Week – L, at Alabama, 24-10. The Impact – In bruising game, Tigers met the physical challenges, gaining more yards and collecting more first downs than Crimson Tide, but couldn’t get needed breakthrough in red zone. The two teams split 16 punts and combined for 10 sacks – six by Tigers.

THE PACK

6. South Carolina (6-3, 4-3): Last Week – L, at Georgia, 24-10. The Impact – In seeing their three-game winning streak end, Gamecocks were outgained on ground by nearly 200 yards at Georgia. Jake Bentley passed for 227 yards and a touchdown but was intercepted twice.

7. Texas A&M (5-4, 3-3): Last Week – L, Auburn, 42-27. The Impact – Healthy again, Nick Starkel stepped back in at quarterback, completing half his passes for 185 yards while connecting with Damien Ratley on scoring passes of 62 and 8 yards. Still, Aggies have lost three of last four.

8. Kentucky (6-3, 3-3): Last Week – L, Mississippi, 37-34. The Impact – Playing at home, Wildcats squandered four leads and wasted a 176-yard, three-touchdown rushing effort by Benny Snell Jr. But for Mark Stoops, the Wildcats can still match or improve on last season’s 7-5 regular-season record despite that lost opportunity.

9. Mississippi (4-5, 2-4): Last Week – W, at Kentucky, 37-34. The Impact – Jordan Ta’amu completed 31 of 40 passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns with two to D.K. Metcalf, including a 7-yard game-winner with five seconds left to beat UK. It was only the second win in last seven games for Rebels.

10. Missouri (4-5, 1-4):  Last   Week – W,  Florida,   45-16.  The Impact – After being outscored 175-89 in previous four SEC games, Mizzou earned its first league win, battering struggling Gators. As their reward, Tigers now get to devour Vols. After 1-5 start to season, Barry Odom’s team could win last six games.

11. Florida (3-5, 3-4): Last Week – L, at Missouri, 45-16. The Impact – Gators have scored just 56 points in last four SEC games. With former Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire getting first UF start, UF settled for three field goals until Felipe Franks led a late TD drive.

 THE UNPROVEN

12. Tennessee (4-5, 0-5): Last Week – W, Southern Mississippi, 24-10. The Impact – Vols stepped outside the conference to end four-game losing streak. John Kelly’s two rushing touchdowns in third quarter sealed the deal.

13. Vanderbilt (4-5, 0-5): Last Week – W, Western Kentucky, 31-17. The Impact – Commodores ended five-game skid but still need to win two more games to become bowl eligible. Ralph Webb rushed for 104 yards against Hilltoppers to move into 11th place on SEC’s all-time rushing list with 3,885 yards.

14. Arkansas (4-5, 2-4):  Last  Week – W, Coastal Carolina, 39-38.  The Impact – Razorbacks had to rally from 13-point deficit in last 10 minutes to beat a Coastal Carolina team that has won just one game this season. It was also second straight week Bret Bielema’s team won by only one point. Alas, Bielema is still two games under .500 at UA and the losing will resume Saturday in Baton Rouge.

 Beard’s Picks

(Predicted winners in Bold Caps)

Arkansas at LSU

Louisiana Lafayette at MISSISSIPPI

Florida at SOUTH CAROLINA

Georgia at AUBURN

KENTUCKY at Vanderbilt

ALABAMA at Mississippi State

New Mexico at TEXAS A&M

Tennessee at MISSOURI

LAST WEEK: 7-2

OVERALL: 61-16 (79.2)

Note: Each week during the college football season, I’ll be  updating how things are unfolding in the Big Ten by Wednesday, the SEC by Thursday and ACC by Friday.  

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