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Sports Then and Now

Is the SEC West Really College Football’s Stongest Division?

Posted on September 17, 2015 by Jim Hurley
Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers barely escaped an upset bid by Jacksonville State.

Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers barely escaped an upset bid by Jacksonville State.

The SEC West is college football’s showcase division and it’s in the Saturday spotlight with two big games for us to watch. It starts in mid-afternoon with Auburn-LSU (3:30 PM ET, CBS) and then concludes with Ole Miss-Alabama in prime time (9:15 PM ET, ESPN). Here are some early thoughts about these four teams from a handicapping perspective, pertaining to both Saturday specifically and the long-term…

AUBURN: The scare the Tigers got against Jacksonville State on Saturday, needing overtime to pull out a 27-20 win as (-39) favorite has cost Auburn a lot of stock nationally. In fact, the Tigers have been overpriced lately anyway. What do I mean by lately? Like ever since they finished off the 2013 national championship game, a cover against Florida State.

Last season, Auburn was priced like a national championship contender and couldn’t meet that bar. The Tigers were 4-8 against the number and now they’ve started 0-2 ATS this season, even while winning both games outright.

I’m willing to give Gus Malzahn’s team a pass for the Jacksonville State near-disaster. It was right in between the season opener against Louisville in the Georgia Dome and the LSU game on Saturday, the proverbial “sandwich” spot. My concerns lie with what happened in the Louisville game itself.

Auburn jumped out to a 24-0 lead and then had to hold off a late Cardinal charge to hold on 31-24. Louisville is an extremely young team and the Tigers failed to cover the (-10) line. They had serious problems defending Louisville’s versatile quarterback Lamar Jackson, who ran for 106 yards. Auburn’s own quarterback, Jeremy Johnson, threw three interceptions.

That’s not a formula for winning games against SEC opponents that have quarterbacks who can move. However, before turning this into a pile-on-Auburn segment, we also have to point out the positives. Peyton Barber is running the football effectively, going for 115 yards in the Louisville game and again getting 100-plus as one of the few bright spots against Jacksonville State.

Auburn also played good pass defense against Louisville. Jackson was not able to get anything going in the air. That might not project out to very much against some SEC West opponents, but is relevant against LSU, which has significant problems throwing the ball that we’re about to touch on.

We’re concerned that the public affection for Auburn, drawn from that miracle 2013 run, has simply led to lines that their football team can’t meet. What we’re watching for on Saturday is to see how Barber runs against a big-time defense.

Les Miles will look to take advantage of Auburn's early struggles in their pivotal early season matchup.

Les Miles will look to take advantage of Auburn’s early struggles in their pivotal early season matchup.

LSU: These Tigers only have one game in, since the September 5 opener against McNeese State was postponed. Last week, LSU edged Mississippi State 21-19 at home, a non-cover as a (-3) favorite. The problems in the passing game are going to make it hard for LSU to cover spreads, even when they win games. For example, they’re a (-7) favorite against Auburn, and in spite of all the reservations we just expressed about Auburn, they’re a better opponent than a Mississippi State team decimated from last year by graduation.

What LSU does in run the football and they got 159 yards last Saturday from Leonard Fournette, a sophomore that you’re going to be seeing a lot of on Sundays. The other thing LSU has going for them, at least as far as handicappers are concerned, as that they’re no longer perceived as a nationally elite team. Even with a fairly pedestrian season last year, they still went 7-4-1 ATS.

Given this program’s emphasis on defense, it won’t surprise you to learn that eight of LSU’s twelve regular season games went Under on the Over/Under line. Auburn went 6-5-1 to the Over. We know Auburn wants to push the pace and LSU wants to grind it out with their defense. The Over/Under for Saturday’s game is 48.5, a relatively low number indicating oddsmakers expect the pace to be in LSU’s favor—a reason they’ve made the hosts a seven-point favorite.

ALABAMA: We talked about the Tide prior to their prime-time against Wisconsin two weeks ago and won’t belabor all the details here, except to point something out. We noted that Alabama was a money-burner last year, going 5-8 ATS. After a 35-17 win over the Badgers, covering a (-12) number, it would be easy to think that ‘Bama is ready to start covering. But they promptly gave it back in their 37-10 win over Middle Tennessee, a decisive ATS loss as a (-34.5) favorite. Continue to be cautious when considering the Tide.

We will say that it’s always easy to be impressed with this team on the field. Jake Coker looks already settled in at quarterback. Derrick Henry is a terrific running back. The defensive front seven is the best in the country and even the usually consistent running attacks Wisconsin produces couldn’t make a dent.

Now we’ll see how the Tide will match up with their conference brethren. We know they’ll look good, but (-6.5) is a stiff number in a game between two competitive teams, especially given Ole Miss won this game a year ago.

OLE MISS: Now speaking of the Rebels, they’ve put on a big offensive display in the first two weeks, scoring 149 points. The fact the opposition was UT-Martin and Fresno State certainly doesn’t tell us much about what will happen Saturday night, but it does seem safe to say that the Rebels are going to score points.

That’s one reason we have to overlook, at least for the time, the fact that 9 of 11 regular season games last year played to the Under. Chad Kelly looks a lot more comfortable at quarterback than Bo Wallace ever did and that seems to be having ripple effects—it’s not just about the production Kelly gives, but how head coach Hugh Frieze can open the attack with confidence.

Before elevating Ole Miss to the status of national contender, we need to see how well Kelly throws the football against Alabama. While it’s not reasonable to expect the Rebels to run the ball in this game the way they have the first two weeks, it is worth noting that the Crimson Tide pass defense was often vulnerable against Wisconsin.

Badger quarterback Joel Stave will never be mistaken for a Heisman contender, but he was comfortable in the pocket and consistently found open receivers. That’s in spite of playing from behind without the threat of a running game. If Ole Miss is going to talk about winning the SEC West, it is absolutely fair to expect Chad Kelly’s play to exceed that of Joel Stave, regardless of whether the Rebs win or lose this game on the road.

Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he began a Network that emphasized a team approach to handicapping. Hurley consults with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL and college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at

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