November 10, 2011

Week 11 preview in the SEC

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Georgia coach Mark Richt went into the season on the hot seat, and his seat got even hotter when the Bulldogs opened 0-2, including a loss to SEC East foe South Carolina in the second game.

That sure seems like a long time ago.

THE SCHEDULE
Florida at South Carolina, noon
Kentucky at Vanderbilt, 12:20 p.m.
Auburn at Georgia, 3:30 p.m.
Tennessee at Arkansas, 6 p.m.
Western Kentucky at LSU, 7 p.m.
Louisiana Tech at Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m.
Alabama at Mississippi State, 7:45 p.m.
The Bulldogs have won seven in a row and are alone in first place in the East Division going into Saturday's home game against longtime rival Auburn. Indeed, it's not a stretch now to think Richt gets a contract extension.

The Bulldogs certainly looked sharp last week in their final tune-up before their stretch run, rolling up 627 total yards and 63 points in hammering New Mexico State. That's the most yardage and highest point total of the Richt era. The seven-game winning streak matches the longest under Richt, tying a run that ended the 2007 season.

Georgia plays Auburn this week and finishes up its SEC schedule next week by playing host to Kentucky. It would seem, then, that a victory this week all but locks up the division title, which would be Georgia's first since 2005. The Bulldogs also won it in 2002 and '03.

While the offense was impressive last week, the defense has looked good for most of the season. The Bulldogs are seventh nationally in total defense, eighth in rush defense, 24th in pass defense and 23rd in scoring defense. Richt said his guys are ready for Auburn's up-tempo offense - and credited the weather for helping out.

"I think we're in good condition," he said earlier this week. "I think we've benefited from very mild weather. Most of our games have been where it hasn't been extremely hot, and I think that's helped us. We're in the time of the year where it's very cool. You have TV timeouts happening all the time. It's almost hard to get tired out there."

Meanwhile, Auburn had last week off to prepare for its stretch run. The Tigers finish with games against the Bulldogs, FCS member Samford next week and archrival Alabama on Nov. 26.

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"I think the week off has certainly helped us just kind of mentally and physically rejuvenate somewhat," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said in his Monday teleconference.

Auburn isn't going to win the SEC West, but the Tigers still are in good shape for a Jan. 1 - or later - bowl bid. But Chizik admits to being worried about Georgia.

"They are playing with a huge amount of confidence," he said of the Bulldogs, who haven't beaten anybody in the league with a winning conference record.

This is the 115th meeting in the series, including the 68th in a row; the teams have met every season since 1944. Georgia has won four of the past five in the series, but Auburn is 18-11 all-time in Athens.

Best matchup: Auburn run offense vs. Georgia run defense. Auburn's passing attack is a bad one - the Tigers haven't thrown for more than 161 yards in five games and have thrown for more than 200 once this season, in the opener - which means TBs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb need to be extremely effective. Auburn has run the ball well against everybody but Utah State and LSU, and the Tigers average 191.1 rushing yards per game. Georgia has been stout against the run, surrendering just 91.1 yards per game on the ground. The Bulldogs' linebackers have played much better than expected this season. Since allowing 253 yards to South Carolina in the second game of the season, Georgia has held five of its past seven opponents to less than 100 rushing yards.

Players on the spot: South Carolina's defensive linemen. There is a question whether Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw - who suffered a concussion late in last week's loss at Arkansas - will be able to play Saturday against Florida. Winning without Shaw - or with Shaw at 80 percent - is a definite possibility if the Gamecocks' defensive line performs to its capabilities. Florida's offensive line was whipped by the defensive lines of Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia in October. The Gamecocks' line isn't as good as LSU's or Alabama's (though it's close to the Tide's), but it is better than Auburn's or Georgia's. Shutting down Florida's running game and forcing the Gators to the air is a great blueprint for beating Florida. It's up to Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor, Jadeveon Clowney, Travian Robertson and their playmates to make sure that happens.

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Keep an eye on: Alabama's intensity. The Tide is coming off a loss in this season's "Game of the Century," and there probably is a natural reaction to continue to bemoan blown chances. But the Tide certainly isn't out of the running for the national title - heck, Alabama is No. 3 in the BCS standings - and can't have any carryover from last week when it visits Mississippi State. The Bulldogs aren't that good, but the Tide still can't scuff around and expect to win.

Numbers game: Georgia has posted the biggest turnaround among SEC teams from this time last season. The Bulldogs' 7-2 mark is three games ahead of last season's 4-5 mark. Vanderbilt has the league's second biggest turnaround at two games, from 2-7 to 4-5.

Quotes of the week

"It doesn't take but one bad recruiting year or a couple of misses or injuries for it to add up in this league. You have to be so consistent." - Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who announced Monday that he was stepping down at the end of the season

"I will probably sit down and drink some ice tea with Diana [his wife[ and see what happens. I still feel like I have five, seven or 10 years left in me. I have a lot of energy and passion for the greatest game in the world, and I don't want to stop like this." - Nutt, on his future

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"I have to be real honest with you: Anyone not impressed with that game, I don't care. Obviously you have not watched football for a length of time, care anything about defense, effort, speed to the ball or two teams that fought valiantly. If you didn't like that game, then tough." - LSU coach Les Miles, on last week's 9-6 win at Alabama

"I do. I do. Just like I said 40 years ago, 'I do.' " - Alabama coach Nick Saban, on whether he feels good about the psyche of his kickers, who were a combined 2-of-6 in last week's loss

"Doing the little things right really does add up. Whether it's what the split is supposed to be, or whatever. I mean, we run a play and gain 10 yards, and 10 yards [again] on it, and then don't line up right and let a guy come in and tackle the [runner] for a loss. After we lined up right twice. So what would you take from that? Is there any lesson in that? Like, 'If I do it right, this is amazing. It works.' " - Saban, on what he hopes his team learned last week

"If we can run more than we throw, that's the best way to go about it. We'll see how the game progresses. Hopefully we can throw it around better than we have lately. We were sad the other night trying to throw it around. Hopefully we can get better." - South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, on his offense

"They have a real confident swagger to them. Every time a team inches closer to them, they answer the bell. Pow! Pow! Pow! Touchdown. I've seen it so many games. So, yes, this will be our biggest challenge answering the pass. And it's really hard to stop them. Not many teams have." - Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, on Arkansas' passing attack

"I'd like to welcome Missouri into the conference. Come on in, the water is fine." - Miles, on the SEC's newest member

Poll watch: LSU remained No. 1 in the BCS standings, and Alabama dropped just one spot, to third, after its loss to the Tigers. The Tide's high ranking means there conceivably could be an Alabama-LSU rematch in the national title game.

Etc.: South Carolina junior WR Alshon Jeffery could move into the top 10 in league history in receiving yards Saturday. He has 2,767 and is 48 yards from passing former Tennessee WR Joey Kent (1993-96) for 10th place. Jeffery is 85 yards away from tying former Vandy WR Earl Bennett (2005-07) for ninth place, 112 from tying former Arkansas WR Anthony Lucas (1995-99) for eighth, 113 from tying former Vandy WR Dan Stricker (1999-2002) for seventh, 117 from tying former Georgia WR Fred Gibson (2001-04) for sixth and 132 from tying former Kentucky WR Craig Yeast (1995-98) for fifth. LSU has won 36 consecutive regular-season non-conference games, which is the longest such current streak in the nation. Saturday's game against Arkansas is Tennessee's third this season against an SEC West team ranked in the top 10. The Vols already have lost to Alabama and LSU. Tennessee is 4-1 against Arkansas all-time when the Hogs are ranked. Maxwell Smith's 283 passing yards in last week's win over Ole Miss was a Kentucky record for passing yardage by a true freshman. The average margin of victory in a conference game this season has been 17.8 points. Auburn was the only SEC team to win all its league road games last season. Georgia will finish unbeaten on the road in league play this season, and Alabama and LSU have a chance to do the same. Florida (seven), Ole Miss (eight) and Vanderbilt (nine) are the only SEC teams not to have thrown at least 10 TD passes this season. Kentucky (eight) and Tennessee (nine) are the only SEC teams not to have at least 10 rushing touchdowns. The national average for scoring offense is 28.8 points per game. The average SEC team is averaging 28.3 ppg, which is eighth among the conferences. The national leader is the Big 12, at 36.2 ppg. Florida has been outscored by 42 points in the fourth quarter, by far the most of any conference team. Ole Miss is next, at 23 points. Alabama, Arkansas and LSU each have outscored their foes by at least 50 points in the fourth quarter. Arkansas is 8-1 for the third time since joining the SEC in 1992. Alabama has held 10 consecutive opponents to 14 or fewer points. The school record in that category? How about 31 games, from 1960-63. Ole Miss K Bryson Rose has made 17 consecutive field goals, one shy of the league record and the longest active streak in the nation. LSU coach Les Miles is going for his 100th career victory Saturday when the Tigers meet Western Kentucky. Kentucky senior LB Danny Trevathan has made 17 tackles in back-to-back games and has intercepted a pass in three consecutive games. Saturday's game with Arkansas will be Tennessee's sixth night game this season, which is a single-season school record. Arkansas' 205 total first downs lead the SEC and rank 32nd in the NCAA, and the Hogs' 125 passing first downs lead the SEC and are tied for 12th in the NCAA. Vanderbilt is averaging 24.8 points per game. That is the highest average for the Commodores since 2005 (27.2 ppg) and is higher than all but three of the past 30 seasons.

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

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