Wake Forest WeekThis season we have seen many an inspired team leave every last ounce of effort on the field one week, only to come up flat and unfocused the next one. The UT game was not pretty - but Vandy left nothing in the tank. The conditions were harsh, emotions were raw, and injuries were significant - it was a fierce rivalry game. What's more, it was an intense battle that seemed lost until an improbable - but clearly correct - last minute over-rule.
Losing a game like this could easily sap a team of its strength - and we will see if UT faces a hangover in Lexington on Saturday. By contrast, winning solves a lot of ills. We are likely to be short-handed by injuries (and an ejection) this week-end, but our frame of mind should be positive. Our November streak remains intact.
Senior Day also can take various emotional turns - especially on a chilly week-end with students gone and an 11 a.m. kick-off. It will be important for fans to show up - there is nothing as deflating as a half-empty stadium on Senior Day. And we owe these seniors a lot. They are the group that turned the corner for us, arriving with a seemingly far-off goal and leaving with three consecutive bowls under their belts.
There are a lot of odd story-lines to this week's game. This has been an interesting rivalry over the last two decades (often dominated by the road team) - but James Franklin's teams (both Vandy and Maryland) have consistently handled Wake in more recent times. Wake itself is enigmatic this year - will we face the Wake team that took red-hot Duke and solid Miami to the wire and spanked bowl-bound Maryland, or the squad that clunked away games with Louisiana-Monroe and got shut-out by Syracuse? The Demon Deacs lost their two marquee games (Florida State and Clemson) by a combined score of 115-10. At 4-7, they are out of the bowl hunt - and more than a few analysts suggest their well-regarded coach, Jim Grobe, could be coaching his last game for the Deacs after a 13-year run that has seen brighter days.
Vandy slaughterd Wake last year, 55-21 - all the more reason for an inspired effort from the Demon Deacs this go-round. Wake's offense has talent and a running QB - we are well-acquainted with QB Tanner Price - but they have had trouble actually scoring. Wake fits into the category of offenses our D has been able to handle this year. Of course, last week our entire secondary was knocked out of the game. And defensive star and leading tackler Kenny Ladler, must sit out the first half following a targeting penalty. It is unclear whether the other starters will be back - and Wake may concoct an air-oriented game-plan as a result of this. The good news is, our back-ups filled in admirably and our D-line has been dominating lately. Wake is averaging less than 20 points per game - and only 8 points per game in its last three outings. Our beat-up D should be able to keep Wake within striking distance. Our offense has enjoyed a high-flying season until the past two weeks. I expect us to re-establish the passing game this week - and then play-action should take care of itself. We had been playing error-free ball recently, but that came to a crashing halt in Knoxville. This needs to be corrected immediately if we want to close out the season with a win.
Vegas likes us by 14. I am not going to argue with Vegas. Just the same, timing-wise, this is a dangerous game. Wake has challenged several very good teams. Hopefully, an inspired crowd will help our seniors celebrate a big day.
Both the East and the West titles come down to the final week-end of play. In the Iron Bowl, Auburn, winless in the SEC last year, is challenging for the SEC Championship. Auburn's accomplishments are many, but their "dominance" is kind of a mirage. Half of their ten victories have been by a margin of 8 points or less. Auburn boasts a great running game, but a challenged passing attack - which gives Nick Saban the opening he needs. I think Bama continues to roll - but following the "miracle" over Georgia, Auburn probably truly believes anything is possible. Unless Auburn can run over a stuffed box of Bama defenders, Bama will return to the SEC Championship yet again - AJ McCarron, the face of this Tide team, will audition one last time on national tv for the Heisman.
In Columbia, a Missouri win gives the Tigers the East. Johnny Manziel is rarely shut down twice in a row. But Texas A&M's defense will have its hands full with Mizzou's varied attack. These are the two teams that truly hammered us this year - Mizzou is more balanced, and also at home. The Tigers also have more to lose. Vegas likes Mizzou by 5. The only question is: will the pressure of the "must win" game get to the Tigers? Especially if Manziel goes off early? I think it is possible. Missouri impressed me as the best opponent we faced this year. They deserve to win the East - but a loss gives the crown to the Gamecocks.
The SEC game that actually affects us (and our bowl placement) most is in Starkville where MSU fights for bowl-eligibility. The Ole Miss-MSU game is a four-alarm rivalry this year, as MSU fights for relevance and Ole Miss tries to reach that elusive "next level." MSU still has not lost to an unranked team and Ole Miss is playing on very short rest after a Saturday night loss to Mizzou - a very physical team who can leave a lasting hangover. Ole Miss is favored by 4 - but circumstances are primed for an upset here.
LSU should thump Arkansas. Tennessee should take Kentucky - but their loss to us could take a genuine toll. UT is winless on the road this year and Kentucky seems far more vulnerable to passing teams than running ones. This has the potential to be a real slug-fest. And if UK can hang with UT early, this could be a major Vol gut-check.
In August, who thought they would see Florida as a 27 1/2 point underdog in any game this year? Will Muschamp & Co. hit rock bottom last week in losing to Georgia Southern. Muschamp is fighting for his job this week versus loaded FSU. Sadly, the most the Gators can hope for is to keep it respectable. Along the same vein, the ACC-SEC final week challenge could go the wrong way this year. Georgia enters the post-Aaron Murray era at Georgia Tech. Dangerous Clemson visits Columbia. The SEC team is favored in both of these games, but I think both are pick 'ems. The ACC will crow about a new age if it can win three of four from the mighty SEC in the closing week - this is a little extra incentive for us to put in a good performance versus Wake.
Happy Thanksgiving and Thank You Seniors!!!