September 3, 2009

Weekend breakdown of the SEC

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THE SCHEDULE
Thursday
South Carolina at N.C. State, 7 p.m.
Saturday
Kentucky vs. Miami University in Cincinnati, noon
Western Kentucky at Tennessee, 12:10 p.m.
Jackson State at Mississippi State, 3:30 p.m.
Georgia at Oklahoma State, 3:30 p.m.
Missouri State at Arkansas, 7 p.m.
Louisiana Tech at Auburn, 7 p.m.
Charleston Southern at Florida, 7 p.m.
Western Carolina at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m.
Alabama vs. Virginia Tech in Atlanta, 8 p.m.
LSU at Washington, 10:30 p.m.
Sunday
Ole Miss at Memphis, 3:30 p.m.
SEC teams are involved in arguably the two biggest games of the weekend: Alabama vs. Virginia Tech in Atlanta and Georgia at Oklahoma State.

But the games mean even more to their opponents, and as such, those games are covered more in-depth in other conference previews (Big 12, ACC). Instead, we'll focus on the games involving the SEC's three first-year coaches.

Mississippi State's Dan Mullen (against Football Championship Subdivision member Jackson State) and Tennessee's Lane Kiffin (against Western Kentucky, playing its first game as a full-fledged Football Bowl Subdivision member) should have successful debuts. Neither is taking over an offensive juggernaut, but the offenses of the Bulldogs and Vols look to be much better than the defenses they will face this weekend.

That leaves Auburn's Gene Chizik, and his opener - against Louisiana Tech, which won eight games last season - should be anything but easy.

Louisiana Tech is coached by Derek Dooley, the son of former Georgia coach Vince Dooley (an Auburn alum, by the way). Much like his dad, Derek places a great premium on a strong rushing attack and a tough defense. Bulldogs tailback Daniel Porter ran for 1,164 yards and nine touchdowns last season, and he'll run behind a big line that returns all five starters. Defensively, Tech has three starters back in its defensive front, including star tackle D'Anthony Smith, an SEC-caliber player. Tech also has a good secondary, but the linebackers are a concern.

This also will be the first game for Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who oversaw one of the nation's top offenses the past two seasons at Tulsa. But he had better personnel for his offense at Tulsa. Auburn has no established go-to receiver, Todd was barely mediocre last season, and the running game was stuck in neutral for most of 2008.

"We feel very good about where we are. Obviously, this game is going to tell us a lot more," Chizik told reporters Monday. "We are going to have a starting point and that's the bottom line. Whether it's going to be good, bad, or ugly, we have a starting point, and our goal is to get better every week.

"There are a lot of unknown factors. You have to throw in new offenses and new defenses, and on top of that, you got to throw in 10 to 12 freshmen that are going to be playing, and I mean playing, not just getting two snaps a game."

Best matchup: Alabama offensive line vs. Virginia Tech defensive line. Alabama received excellent play from its offensive line last season, but the Tide lost three starters, including All-America T Andre Smith and All-SEC C Antoine Caldwell. The Tide's offensive line was extremely shaky in the Sugar Bowl without Smith, but they've had nine months to prepare for life without their big guy. How that rebuilt line holds up may well determine the outcome of the game against Virginia Tech. The Hokies return three of their four starters on the defensive line, led by E Jason Worilds, one of the best pass rushers in the nation. If the Tide can't keep him out of the backfield, it will be a long and difficult night for QB Greg McElroy. Hokies Ts Cordarrow Thompson and Demetrius Taylor do a nice job mucking up the works in the middle of the line; one of their main duties is to take on blockers so the Hokies' active linebackers can flow to the ball.

Players on the spot: SEC quarterbacks not named Snead and Tebow. Almost every SEC team has at least a few questions about its quarterback heading into the season. For the most part, the first-week opponents are easy - Kentucky's Mike Hartline vs. Miami University, Tennessee's Jonathan Crompton against Western Kentucky, Mississippi State's Tyler Lee against Jackson State, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett against Missouri State, Vandy's Larry Smith against Western Carolina. But if any of those guys struggle this week, that could bode ill for the rest of the season. The quarterbacks to keep a close eye on: South Carolina's Stephen Garcia against North Carolina State, Georgia's Joe Cox against Oklahoma State, Auburn's Chris Todd against Louisiana Tech, Alabama's McElroy against Virginia Tech and LSU's Jordan Jefferson against Washington. Garcia is known for his poor decision-making (on and off the field), and if he is turnover-prone against the Wolfpack, Steve Spurrier will have a meltdown on the sideline. Cox will be going against a defense that has been mediocre for much of this decade, and he should have success in the passing game. However, he has been battling flu-like symptoms, and his health could be an issue. Todd faces an underrated defense, one that could make it difficult on the Tigers' rushing attack. If Todd has to win a game with his arm, Auburn is in trouble. McElroy won't see many - if any - defenses this season better than Virginia Tech's, and he must avoid turnovers against a team that thrives on forcing mistakes. Jefferson runs a unit that should overwhelm Washington with its speed, but if he has a poor passing day, LSU's offensive coaches need to be worried.

Numbers game: LSU and Kentucky are first and second, respectively, in longest non-conference winning streaks in the nation; LSU is at 17 and UK at 14. Both should extend those streaks this week.

What they're saying:

"I think the players were a little bit fed up with some of the things that kept us from being champions last year. ... I don't have any idea what the potential of this team is, but I am excited about them." - Georgia coach Mark Richt to the Touchdown Club of Athens, as reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"Obviously, we'll have a personnel advantage." - Florida coach Urban Meyer, discussing first-week foe Charleston Southern, in his weekly news conference.

"I really believe he's changed. There's no doubt he's more of a team player. He's bought into the team and realized what's good for Ole Miss is good for everybody, including himself." - Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt on senior DE Greg Hardy, to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.

"It's a killer. It's going to gash a lot of people. They're not going to see it coming. The scheme that coach has got in right now is phenomenal." - LSU OT Ciron Black on the Tigers' version of the "Wildcat" formation.

Etc.: Georgia coach Mark Richt is 34-3 in non-conference games, with the losses to West Virginia and Boston College in bowl games and to Georgia Tech last season. ... Louisiana Tech is looking to win its second consecutive opener against an SEC foe; last season, the Bulldogs beat Mississippi State. ... Only two SEC quarterbacks have made at least 10 career starts - Florida's Tim Tebow and Ole Miss' Jevan Snead. But only one quarterback, Alabama's Greg McElroy, is making his first career start this weekend. ... Auburn is opening the season with four consecutive home games. Alabama and Kentucky are opening at neutral sites, then play three consecutive home games. ... Watch the special teams in the LSU-Washington game. Both teams are breaking in new kickers and new punters. ... Auburn QB Chris Todd and Alabama DE Brandon Deaderick, who was shot in the arm during a robbery attempt Monday night, are former teammates at Elizabethtown (Ky.) High and have remained friends since graduating in 2005. "I was talking to his mom, she was very thankful and I'm thankful that he's OK because that situation could have come out a lot worse," Todd told reporters earlier this week. ... Florida LB Dustin Doe has been suspended for at least the opener and maybe longer as a punishment for some legal issues. Doe was a full-time starter in 2007 and a part-time starter last season. ... Vandy starting TB Jared Hawkins may miss the opener because of continuing problems with his foot. True freshman Zac Stacy would be the likely starter if Hawkins can't go. ... During the SEC teleconference Wednesday, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen would not comment on starting RB Anthony Dixon's status for Saturday's game. Dixon pleaded guilty last month to driving under the influence of alcohol and could miss the game. ... Two true freshman linebackers are expected to see time for Ole Miss on Sunday, 5-foot-8 Joel Kight and D.T. Shackelford.

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



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