October 2, 2008

SEC: Vanderbilt sits atop Eastern Division

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Florida won the national title two years ago and has a Heisman Trophy winner running its offense. Georgia opened the season as the top-ranked team in the land and boasts the nation's top NFL quarterback prospect.

Both find themselves looking up at Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division standings.

Vanderbilt has endured 25 consecutive losing seasons, but the Commodores are in sole possession of first place in the Eastern Division. The Commodores (4-0) are two wins away from becoming eligible for their first bowl appearance since 1982. ESPN's "GameDay" crew is even descending on Vanderbilt for the first time ever this week as the Commodores prepare to face Auburn.

With the Commodores in such an unfamiliar position, how does Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson keep his team from getting caught up in the hoopla?

"Well, we just throw on last year's Auburn film," Johnson said. "That's the best thing we can do."

Indeed, the gulf separating Vanderbilt from the conference's top programs was particularly apparent that day.

Vanderbilt had won three of its first four games last season before getting blown out 35-7 at Auburn. That reality check kicked off a late-season slide that caused the Commodores to finish 5-7.

"We went into the game and were a little cocky last year," wide receiver Sean Walker said. "This time we know we can't be that way. We've got a lot of stuff riding on this. We can't let all the attention get to us."

Vanderbilt certainly has the attention of Auburn, which needs to win Saturday to have any realistic hope of capturing the Western Division title.

"I think this is even inspiring to our guys," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "This is going to be a great opportunity. They had a week off and (we) are going to see if we can go prove something. We might not be able to. They might be a lot better than us, but you never know until you play."

  • Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead vs. South Carolina defense: The Rebels' upgrade at the quarterback position with Snead is arguably the biggest reason why Ole Miss is competitive again. Snead has thrown an SEC-leading eight touchdown passes this season. He threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third score Saturday in the Rebels' 31-30 upset of Florida at the Swamp. But he hasn't been perfect. Snead also has thrown eight interceptions this year and was picked off four times in a 23-17 loss to Vanderbilt that opened the Rebels' SEC schedule. If the Rebels want to build on their momentum from the Florida game, Snead will have to avoid mistakes against an opportunistic South Carolina team that leads the nation in total defense and ranks second in pass defense. Captain Munnerlyn and Emanuel Cook lead a hard-hitting secondary that has allowed just one touchdown pass all season.

    Florida at Arkansas, 12:30 p.m.
    South Carolina at Ole Miss, 3:30 p.m.
    Kentucky at Alabama, 3:30 p.m.
    Auburn at Vanderbilt, 6 p.m.
    Northern Illinois at Tennessee, 7 p.m.
    Vanderbilt QB Chris Nickson: If the NCAA handed out Comeback Player of the Year awards, Nickson could be dueling Texas QB Colt McCoy for the honor. After losing his job during an injury-plagued 2007 season, Nickson has thrown three touchdown passes and has run for five scores this year without throwing an interception. Of course, Nickson has benefited from operating a run-oriented offense that doesn't force him to throw too often. He hasn't thrown for more than 156 yards in any of Vanderbilt's past three games. The Commodores might need more production from Nickson this week when they face an Auburn team that ranks fifth in the nation in scoring defense and ninth in pass efficiency defense. Nickson went 5-for-16 for 38 yards last year in a 35-7 loss to Auburn. He will have to play much better than that for Vanderbilt to have a chance of winning the rematch.

  • Alabama RB Glen Coffee has run for two touchdowns in back-to-back games. Alabama S Justin Woodall has picked off a pass in three straight games. Auburn DE Antonio Coleman has recorded a sack in four of the Tigers' five games. Florida WR Percy Harvin had 13 catches for 186 yards, carried the ball 10 times for 82 yards and scored two touchdowns against Ole Miss. Florida kicker Jonathan Phillips is 5-for-5 on field-goal attempts. Florida LB Brandon Spikes has compiled at least 10 tackles in three consecutive games. Georgia WR A.J. Green has caught a touchdown pass in back-to-back games. Kentucky WR Dicky Lyons Jr. has caught 23 passes over his last three games. LSU RB Charles Scott has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the Tigers' four games and is averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Ole Miss WR Shay Hodge is averaging 25 yards per catch. In the Rebels' upset of Florida, Hodge caught three passes for 133 yards, including an 86-yard touchdown. Vanderbilt kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt has gone 7-for-7 on field-goal attempts. Vanderbilt CB D.J. Moore leads the nation with a punt return average of 29 yards per attempt.

  • Arkansas QB Casey Dick has gone 27-for-52 with three interceptions and one touchdown pass during the Razorbacks' two-game losing streak. Arkansas ranks 113th in the nation in scoring defense. No other SEC program ranks below 62nd in that category. Tennessee RB Arian Foster has rushed for a total of 67 yards on 22 carries in his last two games. Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton has thrown four interceptions and only two touchdown passes this season, which caused Vols coach Phillip Fulmer to re-open the quarterback competition.

  • "He's pretty tough from the start. I don't know if he can get much tougher. He lets us know that it doesn't mean anything being ranked No. 2. We still have to go out there and play ball."
    Alabama RB Glen Coffee on how the Tide's fast start has affected the way Alabama coach Nick Saban treats the team.

    "That just brings out the best in me. I have all the confidence in the world in myself, that I'm going to be fine and that I'm still going to be the guy."
    Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton to VolQuest.com on Fulmer's decision to open up the quarterback competition.

    "The best news about today is that we still have a chance to control what happens. A year ago (after the loss to Tennessee) we did not have that ability. About everybody in the East still has a chance. That's the thing about our league. It's bloody. It's brutal. It's unpredictable. Most everybody has played two SEC games and there's still so much more to go."
    Georgia coach Mark Richt after his team's 41-31 loss to Alabama.

    "I think it was me not giving up and Florida just being lazy, thinking 'It's just an extra point. They didn't do what they were supposed to do, and I took advantage."
    Ole Miss DE Kentrell Lockett to The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger on his blocked extra-point attempt in a 31-30 victory over Florida.

    "To the fans and everybody in Gator Nation, you know what, I'm sorry, extremely sorry. We were hoping for an undefeated season. That was my goal, something Florida has never done here. But I promise you one thing. A lot of good will come out of this. You have never seen any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season. You'll never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season. You'll never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless.''
    Florida QB Tim Tebow after the Gators' loss to Ole Miss.

    "It certainly helps when you have a quarterback that can run out of there. Hopefully Stephen can make good decisions. Good decisions are what separate quarterbacks. He can make some that Chris (Smelley) isn't comfortable making. We just have to coach the heck out of Stephen. If we can get him not scrambling every play, I think he'll be a great quarterback."
    South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier on QB Stephen Garcia, who threw for 131 yards and rushed for 86 yards Saturday in a 26-13 victory over UAB.

    "We have to say, 'OK, is this season going to be like this the whole time? Or can we hold on, get closer as a family, play harder as a football team, decide not to go down like softies, get up off our knees and play better?' ''
    Arkansas TE D.J. Williams to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette after the Razorbacks' 52-10 loss to Texas. The Hogs have lost their last two games by a combined score of 101-24.

  • ETC.
  • Alabama hasn't trailed in a game all season. Kentucky leads the nation in scoring defense. The Wildcats have allowed a total of 22 points through their first four games. Ole Miss' upset of Florida put the Rebels on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time since the magazine profiled Archie Manning in 1970. The cover shot shows Ole Miss DE Greg Hardy pressuring Florida QB Tim Tebow. Spurrier indicated Garcia probably would earn his first career start Saturday at Ole Miss. Garcia entered the UAB game in the Gamecocks' second possession last week and earned the most substantial playing time of his career. The SEC owns a 26-5 record in non-conference games and owns an NCAA-leading .839 non-conference winning percentage. Tebow has thrown a school-record 183 consecutive passes without an interception. The home-field advantage hasn't been much of a factor in the SEC so far this season. The road team has won eight of the first 11 SEC games of the year. The SEC has the NCAA leaders in scoring defense (Kentucky) and total defense (South Carolina). How much has defense dominated the SEC? Six of the nation's top 18 teams in scoring defense are from the SEC: No. 1 Kentucky, No. 5 Auburn, No. 10 Florida, No. 11 South Carolina, No. 15 Alabama and No. 18 LSU. The highest-ranking SEC team in scoring offense is Alabama at No. 19.

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10

    Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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