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SEC West: Matchups to watch

9/30/2014

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Amari Cooper will match up against a stingy Ole Miss pass defense.The SEC West has been dominant in the first month of the season. Consider these stats:

  • The SEC West is 25-0 against teams not in the SEC West and has won those games by an average of 34.1 points.

  • Six of the top 15 teams in The Associated Press poll hail from the SEC West -- more than the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC have in the top 15 combined.

  • All seven teams from the SEC West rank in the top 20 of the Football Power Index, including the top three teams in the rankings: Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn.

  • The SEC West has five undefeated teams, which is two more than any other conference in the FBS (the Pac-12 and Big 12 each has three).

Given the quality of the division, it’s no surprise that six of the 10 toughest remaining schedules belong to teams in the SEC West.

This week will be the first real conference test for many of the SEC West’s top teams. Three of the weekend's best games (and perhaps the three best, period) -- Alabama at Ole Miss, Texas A&M at Mississippi State and LSU at Auburn -- all involve SEC West teams. Below is one matchup to watch in each of these games.

Alabama at Ole Miss

Matchup to Watch: WR Amari Cooper vs. Ole Miss pass defense

Amari Cooper is averaging an FBS-high 163.8 receiving yards per game and has the longest active streak of 100-yard receiving games in the nation (six). Ole Miss, on the other hand, is allowing 133.5 passing yards per game and has not allowed a receiver to crack the 100-yard mark this season.

Cooper has accounted for 49 percent of Alabama’s receiving yards and has 41 more targets than any other Alabama receiver. He has more yards after the catch (320) and more receptions of 20 yards or longer (10) than Ole Miss has allowed this year.

The Rebels must limit Cooper downfield, after the catch and on third down. QB Blake Sims is 9-of-10 with seven first downs when targeting Cooper on third down, which is a big reason Sims leads the nation in third-down QBR.

Ole Miss leads the SEC in most major passing categories on defense and has eight more interceptions than passing touchdowns allowed, the highest margin in the country. To continue this success, the Rebels must contain Cooper, who statistically has been the best wide receiver in the nation this season.

Texas A&M at Mississippi State

Matchup to Watch: Texas A&M receivers vs. Mississippi State secondary

Texas A&M is averaging more than 400 passing yards per game and has an FBS-high 27 completions of 20 yards or longer this season. It will face a Mississippi State defense that has allowed the most passing yards per game in the SEC and has had trouble stopping big passing plays.

Passing SEC Ranks, 2014 Season

On Saturday, the Bulldogs will need to limit Texas A&M's receivers after the catch. The Aggies have 340 more yards after the catch than any other SEC team and are averaging 8 yards after the catch per reception (fourth in SEC).

Determining which receiver to try to shut down may be a challenge. The Aggies have seven receivers with at least 100 receiving yards this season (tied for second-most in the FBS) and have an FBS-high nine players with a receiving touchdown.

LSU at Auburn

Matchup to Watch: Auburn’s run game vs. LSU run defense

Since Gus Malzahn took over as coach, Auburn has run on 69 percent of its plays and ranks third in the FBS in rushing yards per game, behind two triple-option offenses. Auburn is 13-0 in the last two seasons when it runs for at least 250 yards and 3-2 when it does not.

One of those losses came at LSU last season, when Auburn was limited to 213 rushing yards and 4.1 yards per rush. LSU forced Auburn to pass on 40 percent of its plays, Auburn’s second-highest percentage in a game last season.

Without DT Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, however, LSU has not had the same rushing defense as the one the slowed Auburn in 2013. LSU is allowing the third-most rushing yards per game in the SEC and has allowed two opponents to rush for at least 250 yards. LSU did not allow any team to reach that mark in 2013.

LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards in the nation to opposing quarterbacks, which is not a good sign considering Auburn's Nick Marshall ranks third among active quarterbacks with 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season. Nonetheless, if LSU can follow the blueprint that it set in 2013 -- and that Kansas State followed in 2014 -- by limiting Auburn’s run game and forcing Marshall to pass, it might hand Auburn its first loss of the season for a second straight year.