Saturday’s games saw some surprises with Kentucky and Missouri getting wins over LSU and Tennessee while Auburn dominated South Carolina in Columbia. Mississippi State also gave Alabama at least a run for their money for most of the game in Tuscaloosa.

The middle of the pack just seems to get bigger and bigger with just Alabama clearly at the top and Vanderbilt clearly at the bottom. Those two teams are about the only ones that I’m almost instantly confident in picking them to win and lose. The middle twelve teams have all shown at least some signs of being good and with just a little bit of chaos could probably beat any of the others in that group on any given night.

On Saturday, my picks went just 4-3, but it’s a winning record, which moved my season total to 29-20. This week, most SEC teams have just one game against other SEC opponents because 10 teams in the league will be participating in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday.

We’re also approaching the midpoint of the season for teams that have been able to play all of their games. While Alabama has continued to separate itself, there are still a lot of other spots in the league standings to fight for with just a few games separating most of the middle group. In this week’s matchups, Tennessee and Mississippi State, Arkansas and Ole Miss, and Georgia and South Carolina are all within a game of each other.

Mississippi State (4-4) at Tennessee (4-3)

Both of these teams enter this game on two-game losing streaks with Mississippi State losing to Ole Miss and Alabama last week while Tennessee fell to Florida and Missouri.

Tennessee lost to the better teams last week, and they have the slight advantage of being at home, but they definitely look like they’ve taken a step back over the last few games. Before this losing streak, they just had two wins over Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.

Mississippi State got beat pretty bad by Ole Miss but then turned around and kept things interesting on the road against Alabama. If DJ Stewart Jr. is playing as well as he did against Alabama, this Mississippi State team might be a hard team to beat.

The Bulldogs have a lot of size, and that size could pose problems for Tennessee like Jeremiah Tilmon and Missouri did on Saturday. While Jaden Springer won’t solve the size issue for the Volunteers, Tennessee has seemed to miss him quite a bit in each of the last two losses that he had to sit out for an ankle injury.

I think that if Tennessee is going to hold onto their national ranking and get back in the SEC title race as they should be, this is a key game for them to win. There isn’t much of a homecourt advantage this year, but hopefully defending Thompson-Boling Arena will give the Vols a little extra motivation to snap out of their two-game skid.

Mississippi State’s offense, led by DJ Stewart, Iverson Molinar, and Tolu Smith has been slightly better than Tennessee’s offense in SEC play so far, but the Volunteers will again rely on their strong defense anchored by Yves Pons. Pons is going to make it very difficult for the Bulldogs to get points in the paint, but Keon Johnson and others in the frontcourt will need to step up to slow down Molinar and Stewart.

I just can’t see Tennessee dropping a third straight game, and I think if Springer can play in this one they’ll have a big bounce-back win. If Springer isn’t able to go, this could come down to the wire.

Prediction: Tennessee 69, Mississippi State 65

Kentucky (4-3) at Alabama (8-0)

People are starting to jump back on the Kentucky belief train again after they looked to have a capable offense against LSU. I’m definitely still not sold on the Wildcats because I thought the win over LSU at home was more an indication of how many defensive problems the Tigers have and not a sign of Kentucky all of a sudden having an offense to rely on.

Alabama is going to play much better defense against the Wildcats and they’ll have the slight advantage of playing at home this time. Even on the road, Alabama dominated Kentucky and that was the last time that I made the mistake of picking against the Crimson Tide.

I shouldn’t have picked Kentucky then and I haven’t seen anything to tell me that I should pick them this time. BJ Boston is starting to look like he’s figuring things out, but for a player that was hyped as a potential All-American, he and his other highly touted teammates are going to produce a lot more for me to take them seriously down the stretch.

The Crimson Tide are bound to have a game that they overlook and lose when they shouldn’t soon, but I don’t see it coming against a team that still means as much on the schedule as Kentucky. Mississippi State might have given Alabama enough of a scare that they don’t need a full-blown loss to wake them up.

I think I mentioned this in the last matchup, but Kentucky does have the potential to outwork Alabama down low, especially since the Tide will be without Jordan Bruner for the entire game this time after he got hurt at the end of the first meeting between these teams. However, Kentucky’s size hasn’t really been an asset for them this season and I don’t think it will make up for the vast style of play differences between these two.

Alabama’s three-point rate is almost 20-percent higher than Kentucky’s and they’re the first in the league while Kentucky is all the way down at 13th. Normally relying on three-pointers so much can be a risk, but with Alabama continuing to shoot them pretty consistently well and their defense to back it up if shots aren’t falling, I don’t see how Kentucky can keep up.

The Crimson Tide is far-and-away the best team in the SEC and I haven’t seen near enough from Kentucky to think they can pull the road upset. Alabama should win back to back games against the Wildcats for the first time since 2001-2002.

Prediction: Alabama 85, Kentucky 72

LSU (5-3) at Texas A&M (2-5)

LSU got exposed last week against Alabama and Kentucky. The Tigers had some issues with their offense, but mostly just couldn’t stop anything on defense. Against Alabama, that was understandable, but to allow Kentucky to score 82 points is a major concern.

Texas A&M also lost both of their games last week and continues to look like one of the worst teams in the SEC, especially with their inability to score and seemingly can only win if they force other teams to play as ugly as they like.

The Aggies have scored more than 56 points in just one SEC game this season, so this will be a good opportunity for LSU to prove that they can at least stop someone’s offense. But on the other hand, the Aggies might just be able to give LSU enough problems and frustrate them early.

I think Buzz Williams can coach circles around Will Wade, but he might not have quite enough talent to finish the deal against Trendon Watford, Cameron Thomas, Javonte Smart, and the rest of LSU.

Texas A&M’s defense has looked better than it probably is because they play the slowest pace in the SEC and they’re pretty good at getting other teams to stick to that pace. LSU will want to speed things up considerably, but even if they aren’t successful, I think the Tigers have enough weapons to produce their offense efficiently.

While this game is between the 10th and 11th best defenses in the SEC, and Texas A&M has a slight advantage there, LSU’s offense is still the third-best in the league and they’ll likely be able to score way more than Emanuel Miller can put up for the Aggies.

Prediction: LSU 80, Texas A&M 67

Missouri (4-2) at Auburn (3-5)

After letting the Arkansas game slip away despite a hot start, Auburn had their best game of the season in a blowout road win against South Carolina. As the orange and blue Tigers are starting to look even better with Sharife Cooper, they’re landing on probably the toughest week of the season. After hosting Missouri on Tuesday, Auburn will also have to go to Waco to face a top-2 Baylor team.

Missouri had a big win over their own on Saturday when they got their revenge against Tennessee and showed that they might be back to being one of the top teams in the SEC. The Tigers resume certainly speaks for itself up to this point, but it seems like the guards are starting to play as well as Jeremiah Tilmon has for all of conference play.

Jeremiah Tilmon is currently one of my front-runners for SEC Player of the Year and he’s going to force Dylan Cardwell, Babatunde Akingbola, and probably others to have some of their best games on Tuesday if Auburn is going to slow him down. I’m confident that Sharife Cooper can win the matchup against Pinson, but Tilmon hasn’t had many players that can stop him so far in the SEC this season.

Auburn has been shooting the ball pretty well for all of SEC play, but Missouri showed they can shoot it well from behind the arc as well in their win over Tennessee. Missouri certainly doesn’t want to get into a three-point shooting contest with Auburn, but they took a step forward from being one of the worst three-point shooting teams.

Cuonzo Martin’s very experienced team will have almost two more years of experience across the board. The Tigers from Columbia are the 7th most experienced team according to KenPom while the other Tigers are all the way at 347th. The experience for Missouri is most notable in their defense, where the Tigers currently have the second-best defensive rating in the SEC behind just Alabama.

However, on the offensive end, Auburn is also significantly better, especially with Sharife Cooper. Bruce Pearl’s team is currently the fourth most efficient offense in the SEC scoring over 1.05 points per possession. The other Tigers are the third-worst offense but are still scoring over one point per possession.

If Auburn plays like they did against South Carolina, I’m not sure any SEC team can beat them. But I’m worried Auburn will take another step back, and still concerned about the offense shutting down if guys like Allen Flanigan and Jaylin Williams aren’t able to take the scoring load off of Sharife Cooper. Missouri has the experience and defensive ability, and I ultimately think that Jeremiah Tilmon will be too much for the young guys in Auburn’s frontcourt to handle.

Prediction: Missouri 78, Auburn 76

Vanderbilt (0-5) at Florida (5-3)

I gave up on Vanderbilt last week, and judging by his postgame comments against Arkansas, Jerry Stackhouse might have as well. To make things worse, the Commodores were without their second-best player, Dylan Disu. He should be back for this game against Florida, but if he’s not, this one could get ugly as well.

Like Arkansas, who just beat Vanderbilt, Florida is also looking like one of the hottest teams in the SEC right now. Even without their best players, the Gators are still starting to really click on offense and have a defense good enough to give other teams problems.

If Disu plays, he and Scotty Pippen Jr. might be able to produce enough offense to keep things interesting for a while. But with the worst defense in the SEC, Vanderbilt isn’t going to keep it close with Florida for very long.

I mentioned at the top that there are basically just two teams that I know what I’m going to pick before even looking at their matchup right now. Alabama is an auto-win until they prove otherwise and Vanderbilt is the opposite of that.

Florida getting the win over Tennessee last week proved that they do belong in the SEC title race and they have made their way back to what their expectations were with Keyontae Johnson.

The Gators will win this and it shouldn’t be close.

Prediction: Florida 88, Vanderbilt 74

Georgia (2-5) at South Carolina (1-3)

While I don’t think either of these teams is particularly good this season, this could be a pretty good matchup. I know South Carolina has been looking progressively worse over their last three games, but they still have two guys in Keyshawn Bryant and AJ Lawson that can put up plenty of points.

Georgia got a big win over Kentucky last week and then kept things mildly interesting against Florida. The Gators should probably be switching to a development mindset for the rest of this season, but there’s no better way to head in that direction than knocking off one of the most experienced teams in the league on the road.

I don’t want to totally give up on South Carolina yet, but their game against Auburn didn’t show a lot of signs for optimism in Columbia. Georgia also hasn’t been great in many of their games but has looked competitive in just about all of them.

If Sahvir Wheeler can have even half of the success that Sharife Cooper was able to have against the Gamecocks, Georgia could pull off their second road SEC win of the season and hand South Carolina their fourth straight loss.

My concern for Georgia is their ability to defend in the post, and with Keyshawn Bryant already leading the SEC at 23 points per game, he has the perfect opportunity to continue that against the Bulldogs. With Georgia having the second-worst defense in the SEC right now, this might also be another opportunity for AJ Lawson to have a big game as well.

I liked what I saw from Georgia last week, but I think playing on the road, against a much more experienced team will be too much. Frank Martin should be able to get his guys refocused after the big loss and make a push to stay competitive in the middle of the league.

With Georgia’s interior issues, I think this will be a chance for Justin Minaya to have his breakout game in SEC play and help Lawson and Bryant snap the Gamecocks’ losing streak.

Prediction: South Carolina 76, Georgia 70

Ole Miss (3-4) at Arkansas (4-4)

Ole Miss is an interesting team. They keep winning games that I don’t think they should, but they also haven’t looked nearly as good as I expected them to be this season. Devontae Shuler stepping into his role as the team’s best player is a nice development for the Rebels, but I still think that metrics are overrating Ole Miss.

Up until last week, I would have said similar things about Arkansas not living up to expectations. But starting at about the 15-minute mark against Auburn, things seemed to click back on for the Razorbacks. Justin Smith is healthy and playing like himself again and Moses Moody continues to look like one of the best players in the SEC, not just one of the best freshmen.

While Arkansas was able to score plenty against Auburn and Vanderbilt, they struggled mightily last time they faced a good defense against Alabama. Ole Miss certainly doesn’t have the offense to match as Alabama does, but the Rebels still boast the third-best defense in the SEC right now and are giving up just 98 points per 100 possessions.

Part of the reason Ole Miss is able to slow teams down so much on offense is that they also slow the entire game down. Kermit Davis’s squad is the second slowest team in SEC play this season and they force other teams to make the most of their possessions.

Arkansas is on almost the complete opposite side of the tempo spectrum as they currently average over 77 possessions per game compared to Ole Miss’s 67.7 per game. More possessions will just mean more opportunities for one of Arkansas’s many weapons to score.

With the game being in Fayettville, I don’t think Ole Miss will be able to dictate the pace as much as they would like. And with a faster game, I don’t think Devontae Shuler and Jarkel Joiner can put up as many points as Moody, Jalen Tate, Desi Sills, and JD Notae. Adding Justin Smith back to that rotation is just too much for Ole Miss to handle.

Kermit Davis will continue to do the most with this roster, but I don’t think any gameplan will be enough to keep up with the Hogs in this one.

Prediction: Arkansas 74, Ole Miss 59