The festive fall colors and Christmas decorations controversially put out before Thanksgiving can only mean that it’s that time of the year. No, we’re not talking about the holiday season. The penultimate weekend of the regular season schedule in the Southeastern Conference is an annual rite of the football season, as many of the league’s members schedule teams from lesser conferences or even the Football Championship Subdivision, who are expected to take a three-hour beating and get paid for it as tuneups for the SEC’s season-ending rivalry games.
Yes, it is Walkover Weekend. There are only three games between SEC teams on Saturday: Ole Miss–Vanderbilt, Arkansas–Mississippi State and Missouri–Tennessee. The rest of the non-conference slate goes from potentially intriguing to downright criminal, a point that rival Power 5 leagues hold up every year in rebuttal when the SEC touts its national contenders’ strength of schedule. No matter which side of the debate you fall on, there’s no rule against scheduling light outside of your conference, and SEC teams will take advantage as long as they can stomach the occasional half-full stadium.
Below, we rank the eight non-conference games (five against Group of Five teams, three against FCS foes) that SEC teams have scheduled for Week 12, from the most difficult tests to the true cupcakes.
1. UAB at Texas A&M
Four years ago, UAB was preparing to drop football. Now, after an 11th-hour resurrection and a return to play in 2017, the Blazers are one of the country’s best stories, sitting at 9–1 after clinching the Conference USA West division. Jimbo Fisher’s first season at Texas A&M has been an up-and-down affair, but UAB will have its hands full with the SEC’s leading rusher Trayveon Williams. Still, after a remarkable turnaround, the Blazers have played themselves well out of the mold of Week 12’s usual cannon fodder. You think the faithful in College Station have grown anxious about the second-half fade overseen by the Aggies’ $75 million coach? Imagine what will happen if they lose on Saturday.
2. Middle Tennessee at Kentucky
Kentucky’s defense, which has been very good this year, will be facing a quarterback in Brent Stockstill that has thrown for over 10,000 yards and 98 touchdowns in his career. Having last scored more than 17 points over a month ago, the Wildcats would be wise to avoid a shootout. Once a trendy pick to make a New Year’s Six bowl, they still have an opportunity to right the ship against the Blue Raiders and a rudderless Louisville team to secure their best season in three decades.
3. Chattanooga at South Carolina
South Carolina needs one more win to become bowl eligible, and if the Gamecocks’ defense no shows on Saturday, they will be on the couch for bowl season. South Carolina has given up nearly 1,200 yards in its last two last games, including 528 to offensively challenged Florida on Saturday. While Chattanooga is no FCS juggernaut, South Carolina is susceptible to losing these kinds of games, as The Citadel proved in 2015. Add in that South Carolina’s last five games have all been decided by four points or less, and this is one FCS paycheck game worth monitoring.
4. Idaho at Florida
It’s a good bet that Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks won’t be shushing his home crowd this weekend. Franks had a hand in the aforementioned meltdown by South Carolina in Gainesville to wrap up SEC play for both teams, scoring three total touchdowns and getting the Gators’ offense going just in time. Idaho dropped down from FBS to FCS this season for budgetary reasons and has not set the lower division on fire, coming into this contest at 4–6.
5. UMass at Georgia
UMass has one of the worst run defenses in the FBS, giving 261 yards per game on the ground, nearly five and a half yards a pop. Georgia has run for a total of 634 yards in the last two weeks against Kentucky and Auburn. Jake Fromm can get his 10 passing attempts in and then rest his arm for Georgia Tech and Alabama.
6. Liberty at Auburn
Liberty did just score 24 points on Virginia and has beaten Troy, New Mexico and Old Dominion in its inaugural FBS season, but the Tigers shouldn’t have to strain themselves too much a week out from the Iron Bowl. How this game came together, the payout that Liberty is receiving and how Old Dominion is involved is a story in itself. Gus Malzahn and the rowdy fans on the Plains don’t have to worry about any buyout talk ... this week.
7. Rice at LSU
Fortunately for LSU, who is a 44-point favorite, Rice is in the running for the worst team in the FBS in its first season under head coach Mike Bloomgren. The Owls rank 100th or worse nationally in 11 different major statistical categories, including total offense and defense, and have lost 10 games in a row. (Their only win came in the season opener against Prairie View). Rice has used four quarterbacks this season and has given up 40 or more points in six different games. LSU has eight wins and only seven touchdown passes so far; the Tigers may get a chance to turn that stat around this week before taking on Texas A&M.
8. The Citadel vs. Alabama
It would benefit all involved to have 10-minute quarters with a running clock for this game. Alabama fans won’t get much out of a game against The Citadel, which sits at 4–5 on the year and should enter Bryant-Denny Stadium as roughly 50-point underdogs, but the Tide are happy to shell out the $500,000 to bring the Bulldogs to Tuscaloosa for a stress-free Iron Bowl tuneup. Since Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts are both managing injuries, quarterback Mac Jones and rest of the third-stringers should get plenty of playing time.