SEC Preview, Week 6: Midseason awards talk, big weekend battles

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 58 views 

story by Chris Rushing, College Sports Matchups (CSM is a content partner with The City Wire)
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As we approach the midway point of the 2010 season for almost all Southeastern Conference squads, it’s time to start thinking about the end-of-year accolades that are passed out amongst the league’s coaches and media scribes prior to kickoff in the Georgia Dome for the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 4.

There have been plenty of stars for the SEC so far this year, and it would be hard to argue with the importance that Cam Newton and Nick Fairley have brought to the 5-0 and No. 8-ranked Auburn Tigers during the solid start in the Loveliest Village on the Plains. Many whispers have been made about these two storming out of the gates as the front-runners for both the Offensive and Defensive Most Valuable Player trophies at midseason. It will take quite an effort the rest of the way for both of these standouts to hold off fellow stars like Patrick Peterson of LSU (who may be a lock for special teams MVP), Mark Ingram and Greg McElroy of Alabama as well as Janoris Jenkins from Florida.

So far, if I were to participate in the ESPN College GameDay segment called “What was I thinking?” I would only have a couple of regrettable picks in my sizzling 38-5 record in the picks through the first five weeks.

The common denominator in those two gaffes? Picking Georgia to win each of the past two weeks. We’ll just say, “What was I thinking…” about saying Mark Richt wasn’t on a hot seat and the Bulldogs would win the SEC’s Eastern Division during SEC Media Days? I thought 10 returning starters was going to be plenty good enough for Aaron Murray to turn into one of the league’s best signal callers by now, but his growth has been stunted by a mostly weak offensive line that has plenty of seniors with hordes of starting experience.

With that being said, it’s time to turn our focus to a weekend filled with winnable games for just about every team on the docket. However, half of the teams will win and the other half won’t when it’s all said and done Saturday night. This could be one of the best Saturdays yet for the best conference in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

For the marquee matchup, we’ll shift our focus away from the top-ranked Crimson Tide (despite ESPN GameDay’s refusal to do so) and examine the annual meeting between Florida and LSU.

Does anyone else remember the Auburn-Mississippi State epic 3-2 battle from 2008? Or did you erase it from your memory about as fast as I removed the program from my DVR list? This game featuring the Gators and Tigers could very well rival that snoozefest in Starkville if you enjoy watching teams score a ton of points.

The likelihood of another 3-2 outcome ever coming to fruition again is next-to-none at best, and I do expect at least one team to reach the end zone Saturday night in the Swamp. Now, whether that’s an offensive or defensive touchdown is the real debate.

Either quarterback Les Miles decides to give a majority of the snaps is capable of putting the ball right into Jenkins’ hands. On the flip side, if John Brantley can hit a wide-open CJ Mosley for a defensive touchdown, Peterson will have his share of opportunities to reach the end zone via an errant Brantley pass as well.

I have had a bad habit of predicting shootouts that turn into 17-14 squeakers as well as low-scoring affairs that see both teams surpass the 20-point plateau. However, there is absolutely nothing in both UF’s and LSU’s offensive and defensive performances to-date that suggests a high-octane shootout in Gainesville. Look for a pick-six to seal the deal, one way or another.

The game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. EST under the lights of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as well as the scrutiny of ESPN’s nationwide audience.

Call it now: Florida 13, LSU 9

• Tennessee at Georgia (Athens, Ga., 12:21 p.m. EST, SEC Network)
Tennessee was oh so close to having Derek Dooley’s statement victory last week before getting out-smarted by Les Miles and his crazy substitution antics. Or maybe it’s out-dumbed? We could take the role that the rest of the national media possess and say “out-lucked.”

For the first time since that 1906 meeting that is fresh on everyone’s minds, both teams enter this game featuring losing records. Tennessee is 2-3 and winless in two SEC outings, while Georgia holds a commanding one-game lead as the East’s bottom seed with a 1-4, 0-3 SEC mark. The good news is that someone has to win this game. The bad news is that one of these two squads will strengthen its stronghold on last place and distance itself from even Vanderbilt.

Georgia’s transition to the 3-4 base defense has had mixed results as the last four weeks have featured many of the disheartening mistakes the Bulldogs continually made last season en route to an 8-5 showing. Now, however, 8-5 would be a welcomed showing to the fan base which had grown accustomed to having multiple victories in the month of September over the span of the past 17-plus falls.

Tennessee, meanwhile, is short on depth and experience across both lines. Experts and coaches will explain to you all day long that games are won and lost in the trenches, which should give hope to the UGA faithful as the Bulldogs are far superior (on paper) despite the early season shortcomings.

If I choose Tennessee, it means going against all logic. Supporting Georgia could lead to yet another, “What was I thinking?” moment. I’ll give Richt and Co. one last chance to engineer some hope and midseason momentum to save the 2010 campaign from the gutter.

Call it now: Georgia 21, Tennessee 17

• No. 11 Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Dallas, Texas, 2:30 p.m. CT, ABC)
The best thing that will come out of the second annual Southwest Classic is that Arkansas’ defense will face the closest clone to Newton in Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson just seven days prior to the pivotal Auburn-Arkansas battle in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Oct. 16.

The Razorbacks have endured a week of rest and second-guessing themselves after having Alabama on the ropes on Sept. 25 before letting the Tide off the mat and allowing ‘Bama to maintain its winning streaks and No. 1 ranking. After a physically-draining fight with the Tide, it was important to get healthy and some regained focus on the remainder of the season. October and November can yield great returns as far as postseason bowl bids are concerned if the Hogs can shake off the 24-20 loss.

If the Aggies’ only televised contest of the season proved anything, it’s that Texas A&M isn’t going to go away without a fight – no matter the point deficit. Despite a bevy of turnovers and a 14-point margin to overcome, A&M erased Oklahoma State’s 28-14 fourth-quarter cushion in the span of just over 8 minutes before Johnson tossed his fourth interception of the Thursday night battle in Stillwater, setting the scene for Oklahoma State’s game-winning field goal in the final seconds of the Big 12 opener for both squads.

Texas A&M is capable of scaring Arkansas and could find a way to win if the Hogs aren’t paying close attention to their current opponent as opposed to casting a wandering eye to next week’s SEC battle with AU. I find this scenario highly unlikely, but it’s there nonetheless.

Call it now: Arkansas 45, Texas A&M 28

• No. 1 Alabama at No. 20 South Carolina (Columbia, S.C., 3:30 p.m. EST, CBS)
Hey, Gamecocks: if you thought stopping Cam Newton and Mike Dyer was fun, wait until you get a heavy dosage of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Of course, USC was the poster child opponent for Ingram’s successful 2009 Heisman Trophy campaign as the then-sophomore churned out 246 yards on the ground in a 20-6 victory.

As the last three contests have proven, a preseason knee surgery hasn’t slowed down the reigning stiff-armed trophy winner. To make matters worse, Ingram’s counterpart, Richardson, has proven to be much better as a sophomore than as a freshman to give Ellis Johnson and the South Carolina defense even more fits Saturday afternoon in Williams-Brice Stadium.

The Gamecocks are the first of six-straight league opponents to enjoy a bye week prior to playing the defending national champions. Earlier this week, Nick Saban downplayed the importance of that nuance by citing a 29-29 record for SEC teams coming off idle weeks over the span of the past five seasons. (Of course, I don’t remember hearing about that nugget during the months of April-June when the rest of the SEC’s world was put on hold by Saban and Co. as the University of Alabama tried to power a wholesale schedule change for the league to satisfy one school.)

I’m going to say it’s a safe bet that that 29-29 turns into 29-30 by the time the final seconds tick off the clock in Columbia Saturday evening.

Call it now: Alabama 31, South Carolina 20

• Eastern Michigan at Vanderbilt (Nashville, Tenn., 6 p.m. CT, ESPNU)
Vanderbilt may not secure very many victories in what could be Robbie Caldwell’s first and last season at the helm of the Commodores’ program, but it won’t be because VU didn’t give great effort.

Two times the ‘Dores have trailed by double-digits only to come roaring back and threatening to take control of the lead and the game but fall just short of garnering the W. Last week, as Connecticut’s homecoming opponent, Vandy erased a 14-0 deficit and scored 21-unanswered second quarter points to take a 21-14 lead over the Huskies. However, UConn rattled off 26-straight points, 19 coming after halftime, to cruise to a 40-21 victory.

Coming into the season and following Bobby Johnson’s abrupt retirement, I pegged this as Vanderbilt’s only likely win of the year. The Commodores have already exceeded that expectation with its 28-14 win at Ole Miss in the SEC opener. Caldwell and Co. should have triumph No. 2 by the time the night life cranks up in Nashville.

Call it now: Vanderbilt 24, Eastern Michigan 13

• No. 8 Auburn at Kentucky (Lexington, Ky., 7:30 p.m. EST, ESPN2)
For the second-straight year, Auburn is 5-0 under Gene Chizik’s guidance, but the feelings surrounding the AU program are much more upbeat this time around following hard-fought wins over Mississippi State, Clemson and South Carolina in successive weeks.

Now, the Tigers take to the road for the second time in 2010 to avenge one of the more head-scratching losses in an 8-5 2009 season as AU travels to Lexington to take on the 3-2, 0-2 SEC Kentucky Wildcats. This should be an interesting test for Auburn as it is the first real opportunity for Chizik’s staff to preach revenge to its congregation as AU takes on the first of three-straight opponents that were victorious in last year’s battles.

Joker Phillips has leaned on stars Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke, who enter Saturday night’s tussle averaging a combined 340.2 yards per outing in the first five games. Against Auburn in 2009, both surpassed the 100-yard plateau in rushing yards and each notched a touchdown dash in the 21-14 UK triumph. Phillips and Co. have been confident about this catfight all week, pointing to last year’s win as proof that the Wildcats are more than capable of pulling off another win.

Newton is the X-factor in this year’s meeting. If he performs up to par, Auburn won’t have much of a problem getting its offense in gear and jump-starting the running game for lots of yards. However, if Newton and the AU offense perform to the same standard they set during the other road contest, the 17-14 Thursday night win in Starkville, UK will get its second-consecutive win over the Tigers.

Call it now: Auburn 38, Kentucky 28

• Mississippi State at Houston (Houston, Texas, 7:30 p.m. EST, CBS College Sports)
Oh, the joys of traveling to take on non-Bowl Championship Series conference opponents. It seems like Mississippi State makes these trips to Conference USA and Sun Belt stadiums far more often than any other SEC school, but a new athletic director should prevent these types of occurrences from being so frequent in the future.

For the SEC’s sake, I sure hope that’s the case. You can call me an elitist all you want, but there is no reason for an SEC team to play in front of a maximum 25,000-35,000 people that support a school more accustomed to playing its “big” games on Friday nights to maximize television opportunities.

Injuries and suspensions have lowered Houston’s expectations over the span of the past three weeks, but the Cougars have a good enough offensive scheme to give MSU fits and cause the Bulldogs to earn their fourth win of the season.

UH won in a shootout last season in Starkville, but MSU is better than the 2009 version of itself. Houston is not as good this year, but the home field advantage could prove to be beneficial for Kevin Sumlin and Co. Then again, State has practiced in front of more folks than will crowd Robertson Stadium Saturday night.

Call it now: Mississippi State 45, Houston 24

• Rushing’s predictions
Last week: 6-1
Overall: 38-5