September 15, 2011

Week 3 preview in the SEC

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In a way, Saturday's Florida-Tennessee matchup is a game of firsts, as in the Vols are going for their first win over the Gators in seven seasons in Florida coach Will Muschamp's first SEC game.

Further, while both teams are 2-0, each will get its first real test in the Swamp in CBS' first telecast of the season.

LSU at Mississippi State, 8 p.m.
Auburn at Clemson, noon
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, 12:20 p.m.
Coastal Carolina at Georgia, 1 p.m.
Tennessee at Florida, 3:30 p.m.
Navy at South Carolina, 6 p.m.
Louisville at Kentucky, 7 p.m.
North Texas at Alabama, 7:30 p.m.
Troy at Arkansas, 7:30 p.m.
Florida is tied for first in the nation in scoring defense, having allowed just three total points in beating Florida Atlantic and UAB. But Tennessee's offense, led by sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, is on another level from those teams.

Bray had a huge game last week in the Vols' 45-23 victory over Cincinnati, going was 34-of-41 for 405 yards and four touchdowns. Bray's 34 completions were the sixth-most in school history, and he extended his school-record streak of consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes to eight.

His 405 passing yards were the fourth-most in school history, and 282 of them came in the first half. Bray also put himself in iconic company at UT: He and Peyton Manning are the only Vols quarterbacks to throw for 400 yards in a game.

"Our passing game was on all cylinders," Vols coach Derek Dooley said Monday. "We're going to build the team around the guys [Bray and his receivers]. This isn't socialism; it's the guys that can do it get to do it, and if you can't do it as good as him, you ain't going to do it.

"It's not rocket science. [Bray] can throw it, and those two big guys [Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter] can go down the field, so that's what we're going to do until they stop it."

Whether Florida can stop it is a big question. The Gators start two true freshmen in the secondary, cornerback Marcus Roberson and free safety DeAnte "Pop" Saunders, and the other two starters in the defensive backfield are sophomores (cornerback Cody Riggs and strong safety Matt Elam).

Florida could get a big boost from the return of junior cornerback Jeremy Brown, the only returning starter in the secondary. Brown hasn't played this season because of a slight knee injury.

Florida definitely expects a boost from the return of sophomore defensive end Sharrif Floyd, who was suspended for the first two games for receiving illegal benefits while in high school. Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn raved about Floyd's playmaking ability during spring ball and summer camp. The Vols have allowed three sacks, and Florida needs to find a way to consistently pressure Bray.

For all of Bray's gun-slinging ways this season, the team that has rushed for more yards has won eight in a row and 20 of the past 21 in the series.

[More Tennessee coverage:]

While Florida's defense will get its first test, Tennessee's had one last week against Cincinnati, which is solid offensively but porous defensively. The Vols gave up 396 yards, including 166 on the ground.

Florida has been vanilla on offense, and coordinator Charlie Weis has relied on speedy tailbacks Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps to provide the bulk of the offense.

"We don't have a lot to go on because in both games they just overwhelmed their opponents and it's like watching a preseason game," Dooley said. "I don't think they showed a lot. I know they are going to show a lot more against us. They are able to get two games under their belt and really not go into the deep end of their playbook."

Florida has dominated the series of late, winning six in a row and 14 of 19 since the SEC split into divisions in 1992. When you take the three Ron Zook-coached seasons out of the mix for the Gators, it's 13 wins in the past 16 meetings. Dooley shrugs that off.

"It is only relevant if the team makes it relevant," he said. "I've said it all along: You can't be held hostage to the past. ... That stuff doesn't matter unless you make it matter. If you make it matter, it matters."

[More Florida coverage:]

Muschamp is raring to go.

"It's a very important game; we don't need to tell our players that," he said. "They come to play at a place like Florida to play in a game like this."

BEST MATCHUP: Mississippi State offensive line vs. LSU defensive line. Mississippi State's line pushed around Memphis in Week 1 and Auburn in Week 2, but LSU's defense, especially its line, is in a different dimension. QB Chris Relf and TB Vick Ballard - with help from change-of-pace TB LaDarius Perkins - form a potent combo for Mississippi State, which has rushed for 642 yards in its first two games. But can the Bulldogs even reach the 200-yard plateau against LSU? That's what it is going to take to pull the upset. Relf as a passer scares no one, especially LSU's secondary. That means Gs Gabe Jackson and Tobias Smith and C Quentin Saulsberry have to create some push in the middle of the line.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Kentucky QB Morgan Newton. Newton, a junior, has been ... well, let's be nice and say underwhelming in his first two games. UK is 2-0 but the Wildcats haven't exactly beaten juggernauts (Western Kentucky and Central Michigan). While Louisville doesn't appear to be as good as it was last season, when it went to a bowl, the Cardinals' defense still will be the best UK has seen this season. Newton is 16-of-36 (44.4 percent) for 211 yards, with two TDs and four picks. If he puts up those types of numbers against Louisville, the Wildcats will lose to their in-state rival.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Auburn's linebackers. Mobile quarterbacks have bothered Auburn in the first two games, and Clemson's mobile Tajh Boyd is next up. Starting LBs Daren Bates, Jake Holland and Jonathan Evans have combined for 50 tackles in the first two games. But they also have combined for just four tackles for loss. Clemson has an experienced offensive line, and Auburn can't afford to have its 'backers again making tackles 4 and 5 yards downfield.

NUMBERS GAME: Through two games, Auburn has been outgained 971-745, but is 2-0. The Tigers have won a nation's-best 17 in a row overall and have won nine in a row in games decided by seven or fewer points.

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"As everybody knows who watched the game, we certainly have a lot of room for improvement. I think we made some baby steps Saturday in being a better football team, but so many strides are left to go." - Auburn coach Gene Chizik, on last week's win over Mississippi State

"If the game [against South Carolina] went the other way, then Georgia is the frontrunner in the East. Everybody would start thinking about all the positive possibilities. Is the difference between winning and losing that big of a difference between where we are? I don't think there is." - Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team is 0-2

"You're going to see a multiple-scheme running attack. I really felt like the Oregon attack, which was very capable, did not necessarily use scheme to its advantage." - LSU coach Les Miles, on Mississippi State's spread offense compared to Oregon's

"I want to say thanks to our fans that were at our last game. We had a big throng in Athens. Fortunately as it ended up, they were the last ones to leave. It's always a good thing when our fans are the last ones to leave." - South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier

"This week's game is bigger than the first game. A SEC game counts more than that first game." - LSU TE DeAngelo Peterson, to , on Thursday's game at Mississippi State compared to the opener against Oregon

POLL WATCH: LSU and Mississippi State will be playing for the 105th time, but Thursday night's contest will be the first time ever that the schools have faced each other while both were in the top 25.

ETC.: Alabama coach Nick Saban has said there still is competition at quarterback and the official depth chart still lists A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims as sharing first-team duties. But McCarron played every important snap last week at Penn State, and Saban said Monday that he plans to continue to give McCarron two snaps for every one Sims takes in practice. Given that the Tide plays North Texas this week, it seems probable that Sims will get more work Saturday. ... Georgia will be without starting ILB Christian Robinson (foot) for at least three weeks. Senior walk-on Jeremy Sulek likely will get the start this week. ... Ole Miss TB Brandon Bolden, who was injured in the opener and didn't play last week, returned to practice Tuesday. But Rebels coach Houston Nutt said Bolden didn't go through the entire practice and that Bolden's status for Saturday's game at Vanderbilt won't be known until Thursday night or Friday morning. Meanwhile, starting LB Mike Marry has a strained arch and likely won't play against Vandy. ... Arkansas expects TB Dennis Johnson, who has been bothered by a sore hamstring for the past month, to play Saturday against Troy. He has not played since last September, when he was lost for the season with a bowel injury against Louisiana-Monroe in Week 2. Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson took a concussion test Sunday and seems likely to play Saturday. He was hit in the head on the final play of the first half last week against New Mexico. ... South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is 42-0 against non-Big Six teams in his coaching career as his team prepares for Navy this week. ... Georgia K Blair Walsh has a chance to move into the top 10 in league history in extra points this week against Coastal Carolina. He has 145, and four would put him in ninth place, one ahead of Georgia's Billy Bennett (2000-03) and Tennessee's James Wilhoit (2003-06). In addition 11 points this week would put Walsh in eighth place in league history in points scored by a kicker; he currently has 316. Nine points would tie him for 10th, while 10 points would leave him tied for ninth. ... Since the SEC expanded to divisions in 1992, LSU is 18-1 against Mississippi State. Eight of those victories have come in Starkville, with six of those by at least 14 points. ... In the past six seasons, Vandy is 4-2 against Ole Miss and 7-35 against the rest of the league. ... South Carolina plays host to Navy this week. In one of the most infamous games in Gamecocks history, they lost to Navy in 1984. South Carolina went into the game 9-0 and ranked second. But on a day in which No. 1 Nebraska lost to Oklahoma, the Gamecocks fell 38-21 to Navy. The Gamecocks finished the season 10-2. .. Each of the past two Auburn-Clemson games has gone to overtime.

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Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for He can be reached at

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