October 27, 2011

Week 9 preview in the SEC

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While everyone already is focused on next Saturday's Alabama-LSU SEC West showdown, this Saturday shapes up as a huge day in the SEC East race.

The Alabama-LSU game looks to be a national semifinal of sorts; Saturday's Florida-Georgia and South Carolina-Tennessee contests should give us a much clearer idea of who will serve as cannon fodder for the Tide-Tigers winner in the SEC championship game.

Arkansas at Vanderbilt, 12:20 p.m.
Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, 3:30 p.m.
Mississippi State at Kentucky, 7 p.m.
Ole Miss at Auburn, 7 p.m.
South Carolina at Tennessee, 7:15 p.m.
Georgia and South Carolina are tied atop the East Division with 4-1 conference marks; the Gamecocks own the tiebreaker by virtue of their Sept. 10 win in Athens. After this weekend, Georgia's remaining conference games are against Auburn and Kentucky, while South Carolina's are against Arkansas and Florida. That's an easier road for Georgia, especially if the Bulldogs win Saturday.

Florida is two games back in the loss column, at 2-3, and a loss to the Bulldogs eliminates the Gators from the race. The Vols are winless in league play, having lost to the Bulldogs and the Gators; they're not going to win the division, but they can play spoiler.

This is the first time since 2004 that Georgia is ranked and Florida isn't going into the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party." Georgia won 31-24 that season. This also is the first time in series history that both teams are coming in off a bye.

The bye week looks to have enabled Florida quarterback John Brantley to get healthy. He has missed the past 2 1/2 games with a lower-leg injury and Florida's offense has been punchless without him. The Gators have lost three in a row, and the Bulldogs come in on a five-game winning streak.

Georgia coach Mark Richt doesn't put much stock in either streak.

"I think there is a perception that Georgia is on a roll and Florida is struggling, but if you flip those schedules I'm not sure it wouldn't be a whole lot different story for us and for them as far as winning," Richt said on his weekly teleconference. "They are a very talented team as always, a very fast team. That's the one thing that sticks out more than anything - just the team speed, offense, defense, special teams. We have issues to deal with in that regard."

Florida's three losses have come against Alabama, LSU and Auburn. Georgia's five wins have been over Coastal Carolina, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt ; Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee are winless in SEC play, while Vandy has one win (over Ole Miss).

An intriguing sidelight is that Florida coach Will Muschamp will be going against his alma mater for the first time as a head coach.

"Wherever I played has no bearing on this game at all," he said on his teleconference. "Every game is important; they're all important games. It's a SEC East opponent, it's a big rival, it's important to the University of Florida, so it's important to me. ... I've worked at Auburn, LSU and Texas - I've worked a lot of different places, and this isn't the first time I've played against Georgia."

When the South Carolina-Tennessee game kicks off Saturday night, the Florida-Georgia game will be over, meaning the Gamecocks will know whether they have a shot at a one-game lead in the East or whether the best they can hope for is to remain tied.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier admits his team pays attention to the standings. He called the game with the Vols "huge" for his squad.

"There is attention on our side," he said. "Ask those Georgia Bulldogs what kind of attention they give us every week. We don't want to be uptight about it. We talked briefly about where we are and what our goals are. Obviously, our first goal is to win the Eastern Division."

Tennessee has changed quarterbacks, with true freshman Justin Worley - coincidentally a South Carolina native who wasn't recruited heavily by the Gamecocks - getting his first start. Worley hadn't played at all this season until coming on in the fourth quarter and getting five snaps in last week's loss to Alabama.

"I just feel like for us to go out and try to win games, we are not throwing and catching the way we need to and we're not calling the game the way we want to," Vols coach Derek Dooley said. "We just need to make this move. It's not something that is done on a whim."

The Vols also have made some changes on their offensive line, with true freshman Marcus Jackson replacing James Stone as the starting left guard. Stone had been the starting center until last week.

"He is a bigger, more powerful player," Dooley said of Jackson. "... He has the stature, the explosive power and the physical tools. What he hasn't impressed us with is his consistency, but, again, we are not getting the performance we need so we have to make a change."

Spurrier noted that the Vols lead the series 22-4, with the Gamecocks winning just once in Knoxville.

"It's always a big game for the University of South Carolina," Spurrier said. "I don't know how big a game we are to them [because of the lopsidedness]."

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BEST MATCHUP: Arkansas' wide receivers vs. Vanderbilt's secondary. Vandy is tied for the national lead with 15 interceptions, and CB Casey Hayward leads the Commodores with five, which is tied for second nationally. Vandy also is 15th nationally in pass defense and has allowed just 10 TD passes. To have any hope of upsetting Arkansas, Vandy has to stifle the Hogs' passing attack. Hogs WRs Joe Adams, Cobi Hamilton and Jarius Wright have combined for 84 receptions for 1,342 yards and nine TDs. TE Chris Gragg had chipped in with 20 receptions. "Their secondary is very good," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "They do a nice job with what they do scheme-wise. They're very experienced back there." Vandy also averages two sacks per game.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Mississippi State QB Tyler Russell. While coach Dan Mullen won't say, the assumption is Russell starts at quarterback Saturday at Kentucky. It would be his second start of the season. While he is not as good a runner as former starter Chris Relf, he is a better passer. Kentucky is 18th nationally in pass defense, but the Wildcats have surrendered a league-high 12 touchdown passes. In addition, a loss in this game likely means no bowl for Mississippi State (3-4), which still has to play Alabama and Arkansas.

KEEP AN EYE ON: South Carolina's tailbacks. With Marcus Lattimore done for the season, the Gamecocks are going to have a new-look backfield Saturday. True freshman Brandon Wilds is the presumed starter; he has run 13 times for 75 yards this season. Juniors Kenny Miles and Eric Baker also could get some carries.

NUMBERS GAME: There have been 26 conference games; the margin of victory has been greater than 10 points in 18 of them.

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"We have a great challenge for us this week. We're playing an Ole Miss team that is extremely talented. It's the best 2-5 team in the country." - Auburn coach Gene Chizik

"You get charged when you come over that [Jacksonville's Matthews Bridge] and you see all the RV's. ... Growing up in the South, you understand the impact of that game. There is no question that when you come over that bridge, it charges you up. You get goose bumps talking about it." - Florida coach Will Muschamp, on the Florida-Georgia rivalry

"I have no idea about Auburn. I just know what I see on film. ... They have had close games and they finish them. I am not worried about their mindset. I am worried about our guys." - Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, on Auburn's mindset going into Saturday's game

"I come in here in the morning and scour the Internet before anyone else gets here and just try to figure out what's going on. And it's funny because I don't even know who's playing right now in major league baseball. I read something and I was shocked by it. All those things outside of our world, who's ranked and all those things, and where we're at in the conference, we've really spent very little time talking or thinking about that. Our focus right now is on Arkansas." - Vanderbilt coach James Franklin

POLL WATCH: LSU and Alabama remained first and second, respectively, in the BCS standings. Arkansas (10th), South Carolina (13th), Georgia (22nd) and Auburn (23rd) also are in the top 25.

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ETC.: Auburn's three losses this season have come against teams currently ranked in the AP top 10. ... Kentucky will wear black uniforms Saturday for the first time in program history as part of its "Blackout" game. ... Tennessee is the only team in the nation with three freshmen (true or redshirt) among its top six tacklers; additionally, the Vols are the only team in the nation with two true freshmen among its top four tackle leaders. True freshman LB A.J. Johnson is tied for the team lead with 45 tackles, while true freshman LB Curt Maggitt is fourth with 34 tackles. True freshman FS Brian Randolph is sixth with 25. ... South Carolina junior WR Alshon Jeffery has 2,731 career receiving yards; he needs 50 yards to tie Kenny McKinley (2,781) as the school's career leader in receiving yards. Jeffery also needs three touchdown catches to tie Sidney Rice as the school's leader in touchdown receptions at 23. ... Florida senior QB John Brantley is 12-6 as a starter in his career. He has thrown 12 TD passes in the wins and just one TD pass in the losses; that lone TD pass came on the first play from scrimmage in this season's loss to Alabama. ... Georgia has won five in a row, its longest winning streak since 2007. The Bulldogs have held their opponents to just five offensive touchdowns during the streak. This week's opponent is Florida, which has scored at least 30 points in each of its past four games against Georgia. ... Ole Miss defensive line coach Terry Price held the same position at Auburn from 1999-2008. ... Auburn P Steven Clark leads the SEC and is second in the nation with 25 punts downed inside the 20-yard line this season. ... South Carolina has allowed the game's first points in all seven contests this season and in 10 consecutive games dating to last season. The Gamecocks are 7-3 in those games. ... Tennessee is plying a top-15 opponent for the third consecutive week, the first time Tennessee has done so since 1991. The Vols have lost to LSU and Alabama in their past two games. ... Georgia is the only team in the league to score first in all of its games this season. ... This week's game will mark the fourth in a row for Florida against a team ranked in the AP top 25 poll. The last time Florida faced four ranked teams in consecutive regular-season games was in 1971. ... Georgia will be without two suspended starters for the first half against Florida. NT Kwame Geathers and SS Shawn Williams were suspended for their actions in a game against Vanderbilt on Oct. 15. Vandy C Logan Stewart was suspended for the first half of the Commodores' game against Army last week.

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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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