Alabama and Georgia, the top-ranked teams in the country and the favorites to win their Southeastern Conference divisions, are preparing to face the league’s biggest early season surprises.
No. 12 Mississippi is heading to Alabama to take on the top-ranked Crimson Tide while No. 8 Arkansas plays at No. 2 Georgia.
The matchups Saturday weren’t necessarily penciled in as quite such high-profile games leading up to the season.
Now there all kinds of intriguing storylines: national and SEC championship implications; established powerhouses hosting ambitious fast risers; former assistants against their old bosses.
“We’ll have our hands full,” said Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, a former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator under Nick Saban whose current team is a two-touchdown underdog.
“I’m sure that’s why we’re a huge underdog.”
Ole Miss is sporting its highest ranking since rising to No. 12 during the 2016 season. Arkansas, which started to emerge from the program’s doldrums in coach Sam Pittman’s first year, hasn’t been as high as No. 8 since 2012.
Wins over Texas and then-No. 7 Texas A&M helped the Razorbacks become one of September’s biggest college football stories. They and Ole Miss are trying to show they’re ready to perhaps unseat ‘Bama in the SEC West.
Pittman, a former Georgia assistant, said the extra attention hasn’t affected him or his team, though getting an appearance on CMT “was awesome.” But going from Texas A&M to Georgia to Ole Miss to No. 22 Auburn is a good ego check.
“It’s hard to get the big head because one of them are going to knock you out if you’re not prepared for them,” Pittman said. “Our team understands that.”
But he noticed more interest from recruits since that win over Texas, and figures the Razorbacks program is worthy of their attention.
“It’s certainly an exciting time to be at the University of Arkansas,” Pittman said. “It kind of solidifies our belief in what we can do because we’re the University of damn Arkansas.”
Of course, Ole Miss and Arkansas have a long way to go to approach the sustained success of the universities of damn Alabama and Georgia. Those programs have become old hands at these big games in regular season and beyond.
Georgia has already faced then-No. 3 Clemson and Alabama survived a visit to No. 10 Florida. In fact, the Tide have beaten a record 22 ranked teams by 25-plus points under Saban.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart doesn’t necessarily think that big-game experience gives any edge for his team.
“We haven’t really even thought about that, because I look at it they’ve had two massive games as well,” Smart said. “There’s no kid that is going to say, ‘Oh man, this game is bigger than that game.’ They’re all big. I mean they are all tremendously big game and they only get bigger from here. So, I don’t think anybody has an advantage when it comes to that.”
Kiffin is well acquainted with Saban’s famed “Process” having been the Tide’s offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015 when the Rebels pulled off back to back upsets of Alabama under Hugh Freeze.
Then there was the 2016 game when Ole Miss scored on a fumble by Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts. Alabama did rally for the win. Kiffin said it takes some breaks to beat a No. 1 team, along with playing and preparing very well.
“That’s why they rarely happen,” Kiffin said. “Maybe we can get one of those passes where the quarterback gets hit and they drop it and it tips up to us and we go score. Call Hugh and ask him what that play is called.”
The Rebels did give Alabama’s defense fits last season before losing 63-48. They also have an early Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Matt Corral and one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.
Also perhaps a little more confidence.
“I think last year we were more worried about playing Alabama than we were this year,” said Corral, who quickly clarified what he meant.