September 1, 2011

Week 1 preview in the SEC

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The only SEC West team not in a preseason top 25 is Ole Miss, and Rebels coach Houston Nutt told reporters this week that any chance of finishing the season ranked depends on playing well early.

Last season, the Rebels were stunned by FCS member Jacksonville State in the opener and never really recovered; they finished 4-8, which included another embarrassing home loss in Game 3, that one to Vanderbilt.

THE SCHEDULE
THURSDAY
Mississippi State at Memphis, 8 p.m.
Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville, 9:15 p.m.
SATURDAY
Utah State at Auburn, noon
Kent State at Alabama, 12:20 p.m.
BYU at Ole Miss, 4:45 p.m.
Montana at Tennessee, 6 p.m.
Missouri State at Arkansas, 7 p.m.
Florida Atlantic at Florida, 7 p.m.
East Carolina vs. South Carolina at Charlotte, 7 p.m.
Elon at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m.
LSU vs. Oregon at Arlington, Texas, 8 p.m.
Boise State vs. Georgia at Atlanta, 8 p.m.
This season's opener looks much tougher. BYU comes to town sporting an experienced team, one that returns 15 starters from last season, including nine on offense.

"We don't want the same thing to happen as last year," Ole Miss running back Brandon Bolden told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger this week. "We feel that if it happens the same way as it did last year, we're probably going to go 4-8 again."

What has to worry Nutt - and anyone associated with Ole Miss - is that BYU should have a highly productive passing attack. Pass defense was a huge problem for the Rebels last season, when they ranked 103rd nationally; they surrendered 24 TD passes and 246.3 passing yards per game, and had just six interceptions.

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BYU sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps struggled early last season, not surprising considering he was a true freshman. But he caught fire down the stretch, tossing 14 TD passes in the final six games. That was against lesser competition, for the most part, though Ole Miss' pass defense also would have fit the "lesser competition" label.

In addition to better pass defense, Ole Miss needs a solid game from new starting quarterback Barry Brunetti, a West Virginia transfer. Brunetti is a true dual-threat quarterback, and he and Bolden will be operating behind a big, physical and experienced line. Ole Miss ran the ball effectively last season - 207.6 rushing yards per game, third in the SEC and 18th nationally - and should be able to do so again. The line is mammoth, with the five projected starters averaging 6 feet 6 and 321 pounds.

The more effective Ole Miss is running the ball Saturday, the less time that suspect secondary is on the field - and that's a good thing.

Games 2 and 3 are against Southern Illinois and Vanderbilt, so a win in the opener could mean a 3-0 start for Ole Miss. And a 3-0 start would give Ole Miss legitimate bowl hopes.

BEST MATCHUP: East Carolina wide receivers vs. South Carolina secondary. Despite a good pass rush, South Carolina allowed 241.9 passing yards per game and surrendered 23 TD passes last season. Both starting safeties will be new and that could be a problem, especially against the pass-happy Pirates. ECU's defense is going to be shredded, which means that if the Pirates want to keep up, this will have to be a shootout. ECU is well-equipped in that regard. Last season, ECU was eighth nationally in pass offense (318.7 ypg), 25th in total offense (437.6 ypg) and 16th in scoring offense (36.8 ppg). QB Dominique Davis threw for 3,967 yards and 37 TDs, and Lance Lewis will be one of the best receivers the Gamecocks see this fall. Lewis has great size (6-3/212) and had 89 receptions for 1,116 yards and 14 TDs. He was the No. 2 receiver last season, and with Dwayne Harris now in the NFL, Lewis will be the go-to guy.

GAMES OF THE WEEK
Georgia (against Boise State) and LSU (against Oregon) play in the two biggest games of the weekend, and we'll have more in-depth looks at those games Friday.
PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Every SEC quarterback. This isn't exactly a league filled with star quarterbacks. The best is Georgia's Aaron Murray, and he's a sophomore. Four league schools will have a first-time starter at the position - Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss. South Carolina could have a new starter, too, as coach Steve Spurrier - maybe joking, maybe not - told reporters this week that Connor Shaw might start instead of senior Stephen Garcia. Incumbent starters at Florida (John Brantley), Mississippi State (Chris Relf), Tennessee (Tyler Bray) and Vanderbilt (Larry Smith) have had their ups-and-downs. LSU will go with senior Jarrett Lee against Oregon because incumbent starter Jordan Jefferson has been suspended for his role in a fight outside a Baton Rouge bar. Kentucky's Morgan Newton has started nine games in his career, but he was a backup last season. All in all, an underwhelming group.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Georgia's running game. Again, we will have a full breakdown of the game Friday, but we'll still mention an aspect of the contest here. Georgia's rushing attack is a big question. Murray is a good quarterback, but he will need some help from his tailbacks Saturday night. Highly touted true freshman Isaiah Crowell looks as if he will be the main man for the Bulldogs, but he'll be running behind a line with three new starters. If the Bulldogs can't run effectively - say, 130 or so yards - they have no shot at the win.

NUMBERS GAME: SEC teams play 12 games against FCS opponents this season, one more than last season; each league school has one such game. There are 12 non-conference games against Big Six opponents, a decrease of four from last season. There are three games against FCS teams this weekend and one against a Big Six opponent.

KEY INJURIES: Florida could be without starting CB Jeremy Brown (knee). If he can't go, true freshman Marcus Roberson would get the start. WR Omarius Hines (hamstring) also could miss the game against FAU. ... Kentucky starting G Stuart Hines has been bothered by a sore knee and could be replaced in the lineup by Kevin Mitchell. ... LSU starting G Josh Dworaczyk, one of the best in the league at his position, suffered a knee injury during practice and could miss a significant portion of the season. T-Bob Hebert likely gets the start instead. ... Ole Miss DE Kentrell Lockett, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility for numerous injury issues, still doesn't seem to be 100 percent and could miss the opener against BYU. The Rebels seem more certain to be without WR Melvin Harris (back).

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QUOTES OF THE WEEK

"That is going to be part of the journey that we're going to be on. It's really challenging when you take a true freshman and you put him at center in this league. That's really going to be interesting." - Auburn coach Gene Chizik, on redshirt freshman OT Chad Slade and true freshman C Reese Dismukes earning starting jobs

"Rushing yards demoralize you. You got to stop the run. When people are able to line up and run the ball on you, it's a slap in the face. Last year was a slap in the face the way they ran the ball on us." - Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, on whether he is worried about his run defense facing Western Kentucky RB Bobby Rainey, who ran for 188 on UK last season

"They're an offensive bunch. Their defense was not that good last year, but their offense was good." - South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, on playing East Carolina

"I think we've been able to start the change of changing people's perspective of Vanderbilt football and what it's all about. ... I think I've been running around kind of like a psycho for the last six months, as you guys could imagine with this job and all the things that we've had to do. I think everybody understands how big a job that is." - Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, whose team opens with FCS member Elon

POLL WATCH: Eight league teams were in both preseason polls - every league team except Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. The Big Ten and Big 12 each had five in the coaches' poll.

ETC.: Two SEC coaches will be making their debuts - Will Muschamp at Florida and James Franklin at Vanderbilt. ... LSU has lost just two non-conference games (including bowls) since 2000, the fewest of any SEC team. But the Tigers will be without Dworaczyk (injury), starting QB Jordan Jefferson (suspension) and starting WR Russell Shepard (suspension). ... Georgia CB Brandon Boykin needs 50 yards on kickoff returns to move into 10th place on the SEC's career list in that category. He has 1,813. Arkansas' Dennis Johnson is eighth on the list and he is 113 yards away from moving into seventh. But given that this week's opponent is Missouri State, you wonder how many chances Johnson will get to return kickoffs. ... Mississippi State is ranked in the preseason for the first time since 2001. ... Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is entering his sixth season on the college level. He has had a different starting quarterback each season: Robert Johnson at Arkansas in 2006, Paul Smith at Tulsa in '07, David Johnson at Tulsa in '08, Chris Todd at Auburn in '09 and Cam Newton at Auburn last season. In their first starts, Malzahn-coached quarterbacks have combined to go 80-of-120 for 1,190 yards, 11 TDs and two picks, and have won four times. ... Florida has won 21 consecutive season openers; that's the nation's second-longest such streak, behind only Nebraska's 25. ... Tennessee is likely to start two true freshmen at linebacker against Montana in Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson. The Vols haven't started a true freshman linebacker in a season opener since freshman eligibility was reinstated in 1972. ... Ole Miss has scored at least 41 points in each of its past three openers. But the Rebels lost 49-48 in OT to FCS member Jacksonville State last season. ... Alabama has 11 players who already have graduated, including NT Josh Chapman, C William Vlachos and G/T Barrett Jones. ... Mississippi State senior Quentin Saulsberry is expected to start at center Thursday against Memphis. He already has started at both guard spots and at right tackle in his career. Saulsberry has started 37 consecutive games. ... Ole Miss will start thee junior college transfers and one redshirt freshman on defense against BYU. ... This is the second time Florida has played FAU; the Gators routed FAU 59-20 in Game 11 of the 2007 season. Florida's leading rusher that day? Backup QB Cam Newton, with 46 yards. .. Alabama coach Nick Saban and his wife, Terry, are Kent State alums. Alabama is playing the Golden Flashes for the first time Saturday. ... A victory over Montana would give Tennessee a five-game regular-season winning streak. The Vols haven't had one of those since they won their last five to end the 2007 regular season.

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



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