September 23, 2010

Week 4 preview in the SEC

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THE SCHEDULE
UAB at Tennessee, 12:20 p.m.
Alabama at Arkansas, 3:30 p.m.
Kentucky at Florida, 7 p.m.
Georgia at Mississippi State, 7 p.m.
Fresno State at Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m.
South Carolina at Auburn, 7:45 p.m.
West Virginia at LSU, 9:15 p.m.

Alabama has cruised to a 3-0 record and a spot atop the national polls.

Starting Saturday, the Crimson Tide enter a three-game stretch that likely will define the season.

Or maybe not.

Arkansas, which is 11th in the coaches' poll, is first up on Saturday in Fayetteville, Ark. On Oct. 2, the Tide plays host to No. 8 Florida. Then, on Oct. 9, Alabama travels to play No. 15.

On paper, that looks like a daunting stretch. But Arkansas' and South Carolina's high rankings are in direct relation to their wins over Georgia, which is 1-2, and Florida's best win is over a Tennessee team that was coming off a 35-point loss to Oregon.

Still, Saturday's game in Fayetteville is a big one, especially for the Hogs, who have been touted as an SEC dark horse for the past few months.

"We're playing with a lot of confidence and we're playing sound," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino told reporters earlier this week. "...We're much better than we were a year ago."

Last season, the Tide rolled 35-7 in Tuscaloosa. Arkansas geared up to stop the run, and it worked, as the Tide managed just 134 yards, their second-lowest total of the season. But Alabama QB Greg McElroy responded by throwing for a career-high 291 yards and three TDs. In addition, the Tide defense made life miserable for Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett, who completed barely a third of his passes.

In 2008, Alabama won 49-14 in Fayetteville.

In each of the past two meetings, the Hogs have been held scoreless in the first quarter. A fast start is important Saturday for Arkansas. For one, the Hogs obviously don't want to have to come from behind to beat the No. 1 team. For another, it would keep the crowd at a fever pitch. Arkansas students started setting up tents outside Razorback Stadium on Monday morning, and it wouldn't be a surprise if there was a stadium-record crowd Saturday.

Things also should be at a fever pitch in Auburn, as the Tigers are playing host to South Carolina. It's a chance for both teams to show they're legitimate contenders in their respective SEC divisions.

Auburn is coming off an extremely physical OT victory over Clemson ; at the same time, South Carolina was strolling past FCS member Furman. How much do the Tigers have left in the tank?

Actually, Auburn coach Gene Chizik doesn't think his team has been physical enough.

"We've got to win the line of scrimmage more than we are," Chizik said. "I feel like we need to be playing more physical. I don't think that's any secret. ... The name of the game for us is playing a very physical game. I don't think last week we were as physical as we need to be."

Best matchup: South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore vs. Auburn linebackers. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier basically has entrusted the offense to Lattimore, and so far, the true freshman has delivered. He'll need to keep delivering Saturday night on the Plains in a key SEC showdown. There's no way Spurrier wants to put the game in the hands of junior QB Stephen Garcia, so Lattimore and his offensive line have to have success - i.e., at least 100 yards. If Lattimore is successful, Garcia should be able to take advantage of a defense that will have to put at least seven and sometimes eight in the box.

Player on the spot: Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett. Arkansas' defense is better than it was last season, but it still isn't good enough to keep Alabama from scoring at least in the high 20s. Thus, that means that if the Hogs are to pull the upset, Mallett has to be razor-sharp against a rebuilt Alabama secondary. That secondary really hasn't been tested this season, and Mallett must hit some big plays for the Hogs to win. Last season, Mallett was 12-of-35 for 160 yards, with one TD and one interception, against the Tide. In one fell swoop, Mallett can become the Heisman front-runner and make his team the one to beat in the SEC West race.

Numbers game: Florida has won 23 in a row (and 29 of 30) over Kentucky, the second-longest active streak for a major Division I school against a major opponent in an uninterrupted series. (The only longer streak is Tennessee's 25-gamer against UK.) In addition, Florida has won 13 in a row at home. Urban Meyer will be going for career win No. 100 in Saturday's game.

What they're saying

"I wish I could stand up here and say I have seen enough. I've seen us win some games. I've seen us do some good things. But I have not seen enough to say we're right on that edge." - Florida coach Urban Meyer, on whether his offense, ranked 92nd in the nation, is about to "turn the corner"

"We are going to the home of the cowbells." - Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team plays at Mississippi State on Saturday

"We have to get our confidence and swagger back, and the way we do that is by making plays and playing hard." - Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt

"You cannot - cannot - come out and be not focused, not be intense, not be able to match their speed for the first quarter. If you do that, you could be down 14 points in a heartbeat or be down 21 points, and we've been there, been down 28 in the first quarter." - Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, on getting off to a fast start against Florida. The Gators led UK 28-0 after the first quarter in 2008 and 31-0 last season

"I just do what they tell me. Thing I remember is that there were 33 takes, and after 17 bites, I couldn't take anymore of the Little Debbies." - Alabama coach Nick Saban, on the filming of the ESPN GameDay ad spotlighting his love of Little Debbie snack cakes

Etc.: Florida ranks No. 2 in the nation this season with a plus-7 turnover margin, including a nation's-best 10 interceptions. ... Ole Miss QB Jeremiah Masoli threw for 190 yards and rushed for 104 in last week's loss to Vanderbilt. He became the first Ole Miss quarterback with at least 100 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in the same game since Archie Manning threw for 206 and rushed for 109 against Mississippi State in 1969. ... Auburn starting TB Mario Fannin, who sat out last week's OT victory over Clemson game because of a shoulder injury, is expected to play against South Carolina. But Auburn has lost starting OT A.J. Greene for the season. He will be replaced by either Brandon Mosley or John Sullen. ... South Carolina has run the ball on 63.8 percent of its plays from scrimmage (127 rushing attempts in 199 offensive snaps). ... Look for LSU to use what is calls its "Mustang" defensive package at times against West Virginia this week. When Tigers coaches feel the opponent is in a definite passing situation, the Tigers remove a tackle and a linebacker and put six defensive backs on the field. LSU came up with three interceptions in the "Mustang" last week against Mississippi State. ... Kentucky has rushed and passed for more than 200 yards in each of the first three games. It's the first time in school history UK has surpassed 200 yards in both rushing and passing for three consecutive games. ... Mississippi State starting TE Marcus Green missed last week's loss to LSU with a knee injury, and his replacement, senior Brandon Henderson, was lost to a knee injury during the game. Both have practiced this week, but their availability for Saturday's game with Georgia is uncertain. ... Richt says defenses can play his offense differently when the Bulldogs are missing WR A.J. Green: "I would have to think if I was a defensive coordinator, I would play Georgia differently with him than without him. I would have a different plan, no doubt." ... Florida has scored 30-plus points in four consecutive games, the longest active streak in the SEC. ... Ole Miss plays host to Fresno State on Saturday, and it will be just the second team from California to play the Rebels. Ole Miss played Long Beach State, which since has dropped football, in 1971. ... Shon Coleman, who signed with Auburn in February, attended last week's game with Clemson. Coleman has been at home in Mississippi receiving treatment for cancer. Chizik said he doesn't know whether Coleman ever will play again but also said he expects Coleman to attend Auburn, "whether he's playing or not."

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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