October 6, 2011

Week 6 preview in the SEC

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Losses by Florida and South Carolina last week have made things interesting in the SEC East, and the winner of Saturday's Georgia-Tennessee game appear to be in the best position to take advantage.

In Week Two, Georgia fell to South Carolina; in Week Three, the Vols lost at Florida. But all four teams are on more equal footing now. (Vanderbilt has just one SEC loss, too, but Vandy winning the SEC East? Come on.)

"The fact that South Carolina and Florida lost is definitely a motivating factor for everybody," Georgia coach Mark Richt said on the SEC coaches' teleconference.

Kentucky at South Carolina, noon
Mississippi State at UAB, noon
Florida at LSU, 3:30 p.m.
Vanderbilt at Alabama, 7 p.m.
Auburn at Arkansas, 7 p.m.
Georgia at Tennessee, 7 p.m.
Florida, in fact, could take another step back Saturday when it plays at LSU without starting quarterback John Brantley. South Carolina, meanwhile, will meet Kentucky with a new starting quarterback, Connor Shaw, after the much-maligned Stephen Garcia was benched.

Still, the spotlight is on Georgia-Tennessee, which is the latest game involving two of the four main challengers for the division title.

The home team has won four consecutive games in the series, and recent games have not been close. Indeed, each of the past six meetings has been decided by at least 12 points and four of the past five have been decided by at least 18 points.

[Video: Georgia QB Aaron Murray presser]

Georgia has won seven of the past 11 in the series; that "hot" streak came on the heels of the Vols winning nine in a row. The Bulldogs' last win in Knoxville came in 2005.

"It's a very tough place to win - at least it has been for us the last two times we were there," Richt said. "We pretty much got drubbed there. We didn't put up much of a fight the last two times we were in their house, so we need to try to hopefully change that."

Richt is trying to become the third Georgia coach to win 100 games with the Bulldogs.

"I never thought I'd get to 100; I didn't know if I'd get to 100 games period, but to get to 100 victories would be sweet, no doubt," he said. "The sweetest part of it would be if it happened this week. I would think there is a pretty good chance that this season we'll get to 100, but I sure would like it this week because it is Tennessee and it is so important for where we are right now and the race we're in."

Young offensive players are the key for both teams. For Georgia, it's sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray and true freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell, For the Vols, it's two sophomores - quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers.

Crowell ran for 104 yards in last week's win over Mississippi State ; it was the second week in a row he had reached the plateau and the third time this season. He is averaging 103.0 rushing yards per game, making him the top freshman rusher in the SEC, fourth among freshmen in the nation and tied for fourth overall in the SEC. His production is a big reason Georgia has scored at least 24 points in all five of its games and is averaging 34.6 points.

Rogers, a Georgia native who once was a Bulldogs commitment, leads the Vols in every receiving category: 27 receptions for 442 yards and six TDs.

Bray leads the SEC in passing at 334.0 yards per game, and Murray is third at 220.0 yards per game. Bray also leads the league with 14 TD passes, while Murray is second with 13. Bray has thrown two picks, Murray six.

[Video: Georgia coach Mark Richt presser]

Tennessee is looking for its first 4-1 start since 2006. A victory also would give the Vols consecutive wins in October in the same year for the first time since 2007. But the Vols haven't forgotten the 41-14 beatdown they took from the Bulldogs last season.

"I have never been one of those kind of guys where you want revenge," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley told reporters this week. "You should never put yourself in a position to be wanting that. We didn't play well last year and they played really well - let's not forget that. They played well, we didn't.

"My biggest thing is how are we going to play, and we shouldn't need last year as motivation to play well. We only get 12 days a year that we get measured on. I tell the team that all the time. And there is no excuse not to be ready."

BEST MATCHUP: Tennessee WR Da'Rick Rogers vs. Georgia CB Brandon Boykin. Rogers, a Georgia native who once was a Bulldogs commitment, leads the Vols in every receiving category: 27 receptions for 442 yards and six TDs. He has three 100-yard games this season - but you can be sure that Georgia has noticed that in the one game the Vols played against a real defense, he was held to five catches for 62 yards against Florida. Boykin relies more on speed than physicality, but he will need to be physical with Rogers, who has excellent size (6 feet 3/215 pounds). Boykin has one pick (against South Carolina), three pass breakups and 19 tackles. Tennessee has a solid group of receivers but only Rogers is a game-breaker, so Boykin and fellow CB Sanders Commings must not allow him to make big plays.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: South Carolina QB Connor Shaw. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier finally had had enough and benched senior QB Stephen Garcia. Shaw is a 6-foot-1 sophomore from the Atlanta area who is a former three-star recruit. He started the opener against Eats Carolina but was pulled early. He is 4-of-11 for 29 yards this season and 27-of-44 for 252 yards, a TD and two interceptions in his career. This start will come against Kentucky, whose defense has allowed 868 yards in two SEC games (520 against Florida and 348 against LSU). You would think the Gamecocks would be able to heavily lean on TB Marcus Lattimore, but if he is stymied, it will be up to Shaw. A positive for Shaw: UK's offense is pitiful, which means it shouldn't take more than 17 points to win this game.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Auburn's secondary. This group was torched early this season, with quarterbacks from Utah State (a true freshman making his first-ever college start), Mississippi State and Clemson (a sophomore making his first start against a ranked team) throwing for 805 yards, five TDs and one pick while completing 68.2 percent of their passes. But the Tigers have become tougher to throw on in their past two games. They had three picks in a win over Florida Atlantic and two more last week in an upset of South Carolina. Garcia was just 9-of-23 for 160 yards. The question Saturday is whether the Tigers can continue their solid play against Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, who threw for 510 yards last week against Texas A&M. Pressuring Wilson is vital, but the Tigers have just six sacks. Having to resort to blitzes is dangerous against the Hogs.

NUMBERS GAME: Tennessee leads the series with Georgia 21-17-2. In each of the 21 seasons in which Tennessee has defeated Georgia, the Vols have finished with a winning record.

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"In boxing, you never know when you have a good fighter until the guy gets hit, gets staggered, and you see how he takes a punch. In a tough environment, in a tough situation, I was really pleased with the way our team sort of competed through a lot of things that happened early." - Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose team gave up a TD on the first play and fell behind 10-3 last week at Florida

"My personal goal is to be the starter. I am going to do whatever it takes to get there." - LSU's Jordan Jefferson, the Tigers' former starting quarterback until he was arrested and suspended in August

"Collectively, this is the best unit I've seen since I've been coaching in college football. They're as big as any defense I've ever seen." - Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, who has been coaching at the college level since 1995, on Alabama's defense

"I know our offense looks pretty sorry." - South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier

"I hope they shake it up and don't turn it over to '21' [Marcus Lattimore]. That's the shaking up I'd like to see done." - Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, on South Carolina "shaking up" its offense

"We're looking forward to preparing for Florida. There is a little bit more juice in the football operations building and a little bit more 'want to' in the coaches." - LSU coach Les Miles, on this week's game

POLL WATCH: This will be the seventh consecutive Florida-LSU game in which both teams go into the contest ranked in the top 25. The last time one of the teams wasn't ranked came in 2003, when the unranked Gators, then coached by Ron Zook, upset No. 6 LSU 19-7. That was LSU's only loss that season, and the Tigers went on to win the national title. Chris Leak was Florida's quarterback this season, and he is the only freshman to guide a visiting team to victory in Tiger Stadium this century.

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ETC.: The Florida-LSU game features the two winningest programs in the SEC in the past 10 seasons (2002-11). The Tigers have the top mark at 97-26 (.789) and the Gators are second at 92-31 (.748). In addition, Florida has the league's top road record (41-17, .707) since 2000, while the Tigers have the best home mark during that time (68-11, .861). ... Georgia will be without starting LB Cornelius Washington this week; he was suspended for at least two games after being arrested for a DUI last weekend. It's likely that sophomore Chase Vasser will get the start, and it seems probably that touted true freshman Ray Drew will see a lot of time, as well. ... SEC teams have scored 18 defensive touchdowns this season with South Carolina scoring the most (four). ... LSU goes into Saturday's game with Florida having won each of its first five games by double digits. That is just the fourth time in school history that has happened, and LSU went on to win the national title in two of those seasons (1958 and 2007); the other season was 1969. LSU never has opened a season with six consecutive double-digit victories. ... Arkansas has scored six touchdowns of more than 50 yards this season and have scored at least one in all four of their victories. ... The SEC has six of the top 13 teams in the nation in pass efficiency defense, seven of the top 27 in pass defense and five of the top 11 teams in total defense. ... Auburn P Steven Clark had five of his seven punts downed inside the 12-yard line in last week's win over South Carolina; two were downed inside the 5. Clark leads the SEC with 14 punts downed inside the 20. ... For the first time this season, Mississippi State will face an opponent not nicknamed Tigers or Bulldogs. Mississippi State opened the season with three teams nicknamed "Tigers" (Memphis, Auburn and LSU) and followed with a two games against teams nicknamed "Bulldogs" (Louisiana Tech and Georgia). ... Vanderbilt leads the nation with 14 interceptions. The Commodores already have surpassed their 2009 (12) and 2010 (nine) season totals in picks. ... With one point this week, Georgia senior K Blair Walsh will move into sole possession of ninth place on the SEC's career scoring list. He currently is tied with former Florida QB Tim Tebow, who is the only non-kicker on the list, with 342 points. Former Alabama K Phillip Doyle is in eighth place with 345 points and former Georgia K Kevin Butler is in seventh with 353. ... After surrendering 79 points in the season's first two games (37 against East Carolina and 42 at Georgia), South Carolina's defense has stepped it up in the past three games. The Gamecocks allowed 40 points in those three contests (21 to Navy, 3 to Vanderbilt and 16 to Auburn). ... Kentucky LB Danny Trevathan and S/LB Winston Guy rank first and second, respectively, in the SEC in tackles. Trevathan, the SEC's leading tackler a year ago, has 59 stops this season. Guy has 53 tackles. Trevathan also needs 10 tackles to reach the 300 mark in his career. ... Alabama has won 20 in a row over Vandy; the Commodores' last win over the Tide came in 1984. That is Vandy's only win in Tuscaloosa; the Commodores are 1-15 there and 5-31-2 on the road against Alabama. ... Florida coach Will Muschamp is a former LSU assistant (under Nick Saban). Muschamp is one of four former LSU coaches (head coach or assistant) that the Tigers will face this year. Others are Saban (Alabama), Derek Dooley (Tennessee) and Bradley Dale Peveto (Northwestern State). ... Florida has scored on its opening drive in four of five games this season, including on the first play in last week's loss to Alabama. The Gators have outscored opponents 64-13 in the first quarter and 106-44 in the first half this season. ... Arkansas' 126 total first downs lead the SEC and are tied for seventh in the NCAA, and the team's 77 passing first downs lead the SEC and rank sixth in the NCAA. Since Dan Mullen arrived as coach before the 2009 season, Mississippi State is 14-0 when winning the turnover battle and 2-14 when tied or having a negative turnover margin. ... Alabama allowed 10 points in the first half of the Florida game, snapping a nine-game streak of allowing seven or fewer points in the first half. ... Kentucky beat South Carolina last season, snapping the Gamecocks' 10-game winning streak in the series. That is Steve Spurrier's only loss to UK as a coach; he is 17-1 all-time against the Wildcats. ... Arkansas and Auburn have played 20 times. How close has the series been? In those 20 games, Auburn has outscored Arkansas 477-475. The teams have split the past 10 meetings.

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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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