SEC Preview, Week 2: Huge games on tap in tough conference

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 63 views 

story by Chris Rushing, College Sports Matchups (CSM is a content partner with The City Wire)
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Things get started pretty quick for a huge weekend in the Southeastern Conference with a Thursday night contest featuring a pair of second-year coaches.

Alabama plays host to a Big Ten traditional power and college football’s all-time winningest coach. The SEC East race gets the first front-runner after the Bulldogs and Gamecocks tussle in Columbia Saturday afternoon.

Needless to say, this weekend is filled with plenty of storylines and potential headlines. By the time the final gun sounds on Saturday night, the weekend will also help establish the league as college football’s best once again with some big wins in marquee non-conference matchups.

The first weekend featured mostly fine-tuning and resting starters for a majority of the 12 SEC squads, but there will be very few opportunities to offer those luxuries throughout these eight contests.

Especially the most important showdown: No. 25 South Carolina vs. No. 19 Georgia. With seven of the past nine meetings between these schools having been decided by seven points or less, the 19th-ranked Bulldogs will take its first-year starter at quarterback, Aaron Murray, into his first (and perhaps biggest) test of his freshman campaign. Murray had a fantastic debut against Louisiana-Lafayette with 160 passing yards and three scores in a 55-7 rout, but the Ragin’ Cajuns’ defense is not near the caliber he will face in Williams-Brice Stadium.

South Carolina will counter with a veteran starter at signal caller in junior Stephen Garcia. Garcia reportedly had a rough time in the spring holding off freshman Connor Shaw for first-string status, but Garcia’s numbers (16-of-23, 193 yards, 2 TDs) against Southern Miss have USC fans touting this as his breakout season after two lackluster tries as a freshman and sophomore. There is no doubt that this is Steve Spurrier’s best chance to break the eight-win plateau and make a serious run at the East Division title, and those dreams will be ruined with a loss on Saturday.

This annual meeting never fails on drama and always seems to offer plenty of highlight-reel plays, and the Bulldogs held on for a wild finish in Athens last year and triumphed 41-37. UGA found out Wednesday evening that star receiver A.J. Greene would be ineligible for the next three contests after having already sat out last weekend’s victory. Greene was found guilty by the NCAA to have sold his Independence Bowl jersey to a person who qualifies as an agent.

ESPN2 will televise the action to a national audience beginning at 12 p.m. (EST) to get a busy day started.

Call it now: Georgia 27, South Carolina 21

• No. 20 Auburn at Mississippi State (Thursday, Sept. 9, Starkville, Miss., 6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN)
ESPN’s Thursday night production returns to Starkville for this huge SEC Western Division showdown between the No. 21-ranked Auburn Tigers (1-0) and a confident Mississippi State Bulldogs (1-0) squad fresh off the largest win (49-7) in six years.

The feeling surrounding this game is that there will be a lot of points. I don’t see anything to doubt those sentiments with both teams rolling on offense in their respective openers. Auburn racked up 602 yards with 373 on the ground against Arkansas State, while MSU employed a two-quarterback system to near perfection as Chris Relf (7-of-9, 116 yards, 1 TD) and Tyler Russell (13-of-16, 256, 4) both posted quarterback ratings of 200-plus against Memphis.

Cameron Newton was this close to being Dan Mullen’s starting quarterback for the 2010 season before signing with Auburn on New Year’s Eve. Newton had a huge debut in orange and blue last week with a school-record 171 rushing yards as well as 186 passing en route to earning SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors. State fans still circulate pictures of Newton ringing a cowbell in the midst of the Bulldogs’ players and coaches during the 2009 Egg Bowl celebration, so expect the junior college transfer by way of the University of Florida to receive a not-so-encouraging welcome from the MSU crowd.

Neither fan base seems to respect the opposing team very much by the looks of the message boards, so I don’t think one set of attendees will leave Davis-Wade Stadium with the same warm and fuzzy feelings that are prevalent surrounding both programs prior to kickoff. Someone’s bubble is going to pop, and the road does not get easier for either school the rest of the way in conference play.

It’s a must-win for Auburn and Mississippi State, and that should result in a great game for a national television audience.

Call it now: Auburn 45, Mississippi State 35

• South Florida at No. 6 Florida (Gainesville, Fla., 12:21 p.m. EST, SEC-Network)
The Gators had a tough time on offense a week ago, showing the difficulties have stemmed from the 2009 season that only showed sparks of promise as opposed to the big numbers UF fans had come to appreciate and expect during the first two years of Tebow’s reign as the starting quarterback.

This week, popped up on message boards, one of many obvious signs of displeasure the Gator Nation is sure to display if things don’t get better fast for UF on that side of the ball. Steve Addazio is a great offensive line coach, but he has yet to really prove his worth as a top-notch SEC offensive playcaller.

USF is riding high off a 59-14 shellacking of Stony Brook a week ago. The last time the Bulls visited an SEC stadium early on in a season, South Florida knocked off Auburn in overtime during the 2007 season’s second week. Can B.J. Daniels pull off what his predecessor, Matt Groethe, did his sophomore season? Highly doubtful, considering Urban Meyer has only lost twice at home in five-plus seasons of roaming the home sidelines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Call it now: Florida 28, South Florida 18

• No. 14 Penn State at No. 1 Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 6 p.m. CT, ESPN)
In a game that has been pushed out for five years due to schedule conflicts on both Alabama’s and Penn State’s ends, one of the most electric atmospheres in college football for the 2010 season is all but assured with Joe Paterno coaching a game in the house that Bear Bryant built with the guy that stands between those two on the all-time wins list (Bobby Bowden) in attendance amongst 102,000-plus screaming fans.

ESPN’s bringing the GameDay crew to town, and the defending national champs get a chance to show that they’re poised for a repeat run at the crown with a more powerful offense and younger defense than the 2009 version of the Crimson Tide. Greg McElroy and Julio Jones appeared to have better chemistry on the field last week than what was shown last season, and Penn State is bringing a true freshman quarterback atop its depth chart to try to lead the Nittany Lions to victory.

Rob Bolden was serviceable in his first career start last week against Youngstown State, but he is going to find that even a young Nick Saban and Kirby Smart-coached defense is a huge step up from the previous competition. JoePa, not one to normally shy away from expectations, has been somber in his public appearances this week leading up to kickoff, making you think that there’s not much hope running through the PSU campus right now.

Saban’s team is in full focus and has done a great job of blocking out the distractions and other “clutter” that seem to annoy the Tide skipper so much. It’s pretty much decided that Mark Ingram will have to wait at least another week before his 2010 debut.

Call it now: Alabama 35, Penn State 14

• No. 8 Oregon at Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn., 7 p.m. EST, ESPN2)
Simultaneous with the Alabama-Penn State kickoff, Tennessee hosts Oregon in an interesting intersectional battle that may have lost some of its luster thanks to the hard times the UT program has fallen upon the last three seasons.

The Ducks rolled up 720 yards on New Mexico a week ago, but the offense won’t be as potent against an SEC defense. However, the weapons are all over the place for Chip Kelley and Co. and there’s not of slowing down the train led by Kenjon Barner (who is atop my weekly Heisman list featured on the site in the CSM News and Notes section).
Tennessee had a stellar opener of its own, blanking Tennessee-Martin 50-0. Derek Dooley has had an interesting first year as the UT head coach, but the schedule only gets tougher after the cupcake that got his career started.

Call it now: Oregon 45, Tennessee 20

• Louisiana-Monroe at No. 15 Arkansas (Little Rock, Ark., 6 p.m., FSN)
Bobby Petrino’s club just might be looking ahead to the next two weeks that feature contests against Georgia and Alabama. Could this come back to bite the Razorbacks in a bad way? Sure, I guess.

I just don’t see the War Hawks staying on the field with the Hogs in this one. Not for long at least. Much like last week, this game is about seeing how many and which records Ryan Mallett breaks before the job gets much more difficult in week three.

Call it now: Arkansas 50, Louisiana-Monroe 10

• No. 16 LSU at Vanderbilt (Nashville, Tenn., 6 p.m. CT, ESPNU)
The Tigers did everything they could to give away the season-opener last week against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome, but the test is much easier to pass this weekend in the SEC opener at Vandy.

The Commodores never gave up against Northwestern, and Robbie Caldwell has his team believing in his coaching staff despite undergoing one of the league’s wackiest offseasons. Four ball-carriers and quarterback Larry Smith combined for 192 yards on the ground against the Wildcats, and it is no secret that the ‘Dores will have much of the same dosage of toting the rock for Les Miles’ undersized defensive line.

The Bayou Bengals won almost exclusively on Patrick Peterson’s knack for being one of the country’s most explosive punt returners in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. Vandy won’t have all the off-field distractions surrounding its program LSU’s first opponent (North Carolina) was battling. However, the talent discrepancy between LSU and Vanderbilt is too great to go with the home team in this one.

Call it now: LSU 27, Vanderbilt 13

• Western Kentucky at Kentucky (Lexington, Ky., 7:30 p.m. EST, CSS)
For a week that has had the headlines dominated by Enes Kanter and his eligibility on John Calipari’s hoops squad, almost lost in the drama has been Joker Phillips’ big debut win at Louisville in the first contest of 2010.

The Hilltoppers shouldn’t offer much of a challenge in the home opener for the Wildcats, and Phillips is perfectly happy with that. Look for big numbers again from Derrick Locke as well as Randall Cobb.

Call it now: Kentucky 34, Western Kentucky 7

• Ole Miss at Tulane (New Orleans, La., 8 p.m. CT, ESPN2)
If there is anyone that needed to get away and get lost for a little while in the Big Easy, it might just be Houston Nutt and his Rebels squad fresh off a stunning loss to open 2010.

Ole Miss quickly became a national punch line last Saturday as the highlights of Jacksonville State’s 49-48 double-overtime victory were prevalent every half hour on ESPN and other sports networks. The Rebels were rather potent on offense, cruising to a 31-10 lead at the halfway point, but struggled mightily on defense in the second 30 minutes of play. Jacksonville State walked away with a huge program-defining win thanks largely in part to the Rebels’ lack of desire to put the Gamecocks away.

Tulane feels pretty good about its chances to extend Ole Miss’ sorrows and hand the Rebels their third loss in the last four outings. Will it happen? Highly unlikely. Nutt can’t blow two-straight gimmee wins, can he?

Call it now: Ole Miss 35, Tulane 10

Rushing’s predictions:
Last week: 11-1
Season: 11-1