For the second-straight week, Arkansas faces a litmus test in its journey toward the top of the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division. Throughout the week, confidence has been exuded by everyone the Razorbacks’ Sports Information staff has put in front of reporters to prove that Bobby Petrino’s comment about the Hogs not believing they could win prior to last year’s meeting with Alabama is an anomaly with the 2010 UA roster.
Meanwhile, a trio of other matchups within league play takes place when upstart South Carolina (3-0) travels to the Plains to take on fellow undefeated Auburn (3-0), and Florida (3-0) looks to get its offense back on track by hosting yet another 3-0 SEC squad, Kentucky. In perhaps the biggest game of the SEC season so far, Georgia and Mississippi State will duel at Scott Field to avoid 0-3 starts to conference play with both squads entering the contest with 1-2, 0-2 marks.
But, back to the nation’s only meeting between top 10 squads.
No. 1 Alabama has limited its opponents to a total of 19 points in three outings. And that’s with the Tide “rebuilding” on defense. There is no doubt Ryan Mallett and Petrino have been salivating at the opportunity to expose a Bama secondary that features four new starters in 2010, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alabama signal caller Greg McElroy test the Arkansas secondary more than his Heisman Trophy-candidate counterpart.
While the reigning national champions have been winning impressively with a powerful running game that has featured three different 100-yard rushers in each contest, the No. 10-ranked Razorbacks (3-0, 1-0) have been balanced with their offensive attack and have shown a marked improvement on the defensive side of the ball from last year’s mostly-porous group.
Many have pointed to this three-game stretch Alabama is entering as the most likely timeframe that Nick Saban’s team will suffer its first loss in three regular seasons. As I stated earlier, the Arkansas players and coaches have been almost smug in interviews throughout the week in order to portray the image that this year’s team is ready for anything Bama brings to the table Saturday afternoon in Razorback Stadium.
With the Red Out slated for the fans, can the Natural State’s flagship university be putting too much stock into one contest? Sure, it’s the first meeting of top-10 teams in Fayetteville since 1979, but it is still just the fourth week of a long, demanding SEC season.
Can Arkansas win? Absolutely. The weapons are in all the right spots to ensure that the raucous home crowd can hoist the goal posts all the way to Dickson Street. However, I’ve seen Alabama play in person and it’s my belief it will be even more difficult to beat them this year than when the Tide was rolling to an undefeated season and national title in 2009. It will not be easy nor likely for the hogs to be called jubilantly well into the Northwest Arkansas night.
The action starts at 2:30 p.m. CT, and the showdown will be aired to a national audience via CBS Sports.
Call it now: Alabama 37, Arkansas 24
• UAB at Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn., 12:21 p.m. EST, SEC-Network)
Things have gone from bad to just about worst for Derek Dooley and the Tennessee Vols through the first month of the season. From season-ending injuries along the offensive line to a first-year starting quarterback suffering growing pains with just about every throw, the UAB Blazers are a welcome sight to UT’s many supporters that have suffered through two-straight defeats to top-10 opponents at home.
Matt Simms has thrown for a modest three touchdowns while mirroring that total with three interceptions, but he hasn’t made too many back-breaking mistakes in the two losses to Oregon and Florida. His future is bright, but Dooley will need to get a stud at his position soon to help develop Simms further by competition via quality depth.
The Blazers are riding high off a one-point 34-33 triumph over in-state rival Troy last weekend. Neil Calloway’s group erased a 23-point deficit in the contest, but the victory should boost UAB’s confidence heading into Neyland Stadium.
The Vols, though down in spirits and full of voids in the first string from the fall’s opening depth chart, have enough talent to get their second victory. It just may not be pretty.
Call it now: Tennessee 21, UAB 17
• Georgia at Mississippi State (Starkville, Miss., 6 p.m. EST, Fox Sports Net-South)
Neither team in this matchup can afford to lose a third-straight contest and fall to the bottom of its respective division with an 0-3 mark in SEC play. These raised stakes should make this one tough to miss around the league as you can bet on all the stops being pulled by both coaching staffs.
Dan Mullen paraded around the state of Mississippi throughout the offseason touting this year’s Bulldogs squad as vastly improved from the 5-7 team MSU fielded during Mullen’s debut season in 2009. Excitement was bubbling over throughout the fan base still on a high from the 41-27 Egg Bowl triumph last November. Chris Relf and Tyler Russell aren’t bad quarterbacks, they just haven’t been very effective in two chances against SEC defenses.
On the opposite sideline, Mark Richt is in unfamiliar territory as the Bulldogs have started 0-2 in league play for the first time in his nine-plus seasons in Athens. I don’t think he’s on a hot seat with new athletic director Greg McGarity, but things definitely won’t get easier for him should the Red and Black fail to return to campus with a league victory.
Aaron Murray will be a great quarterback. He has shown signs of maturity beyond his years by leading the Bulldogs back from a 14-point deficit against Arkansas a week ago while his defensive teammates gave the freshman a chance to lead a game-winning drive within the game’s final minutes. However, his growing pains have been far more evident as shown by the horrendous sack he suffered near midfield on third down to prevent a Blair Walsh field goal attempt on UGA’s final “drive” of the Arkansas loss.
The cowbells will once again be in full force in Starkville Saturday night, but Georgia’s talent overcomes State’s home field advantage.
Call it now: Georgia 27, Mississippi State 21
• Kentucky at No. 9 Florida (Gainesville, Fla., 7 p.m. EST, ESPNU)
Florida owns a 23-game winning streak in this series, but this could be one of the toughest chances to earn yet another win over Kentucky.
Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke have been steady and tremendous for the Wildcats in Joker Phillips’ first season at the helm of the program. Mike Hartline hasn’t made any game-breaking mistakes, and the UK defense has been solid through the first three outings. However, despite facing former UF defensive coordinator Charlie Strong in the season-opening victory over Louisville, the Gators pose the biggest challenge for the UK offense to-date.
John Brantley has yet to show others outside the Gator program that he would in fact have started for 11 other SEC schools as Meyer claimed the past two years while Tim Tebow held onto the No. 1 spot on the UF quarterback depth chart. If not for Jon Demps’ speed to power a couple of back-breaking runs in the wins over Miami (OH) and South Florida, it’s hard to imagine just where Florida might be confidence-wise coming into this important showdown.
Phillips and Co. could catch the Gators looking ahead to next week’s game at Alabama, but there is a reason that this streak has reached 23. Kentucky will end one of its embarrassing losing skids this season, but it won’t be this one.
Call it now: Florida 31, Kentucky 17
• Fresno State at Ole Miss (Oxford, Miss., 6:30 p.m. CT, CSS)
Things may have gone from bad to worse for Houston Nutt and his Ole Miss team that is reeling at 1-2 right now. It’s never fun to lose to Vanderbilt, but to drop a contest at home to a Commodores squad still mired in a last-minute coaching change as well as coming off a 2-10 campaign a year ago is almost unforgivable for the right reverend.
To top things off, the Rebels tried to up the physicality at practices this week in order to regain the team’s confidence and attitude on defense. Sounds good, right? Well, it’s never good when a team has one of its top players suffer a nagging injury thanks to friendly fire. Linebacker D.T. Shackelford left practice Tuesday with an ankle injury and his status as of Wednesday night was unknown for this week’s game against Fresno State.
The Bulldogs have already knocked off one opponent from a Bowl Championship Series conference with the season-opening win over Cincinnati, so it should be no surprise that Fresno State enters the game as a favorite in Las Vegas. However, Cincy is no Ole Miss — despite the fact that the Rebels have already fallen to two lesser opponents.
It is tough for me to pick the Rebels here, despite the home-field advantage. Pat Hill has instilled an attitude of “anyone, anywhere” in his program, but that mantra hasn’t served the school well when venturing into SEC territory. Make no mistake, however: if Ole Miss fails to win this one, it will be nearly impossible for me to pick them in any conference game the rest of the season.
Call it now: Ole Miss 38, Fresno State 28
• No. 12 South Carolina at No. 17 Auburn (Auburn, Ala., 6:45 p.m. CT, ESPN)
This one is probably the toughest to predict as far as a final outcome amongst the SEC contests this weekend.
Auburn loves to run the ball (see the Tigers atop the SEC’s rushing statistics at 259.3 yards per game). South Carolina features the league’s top rushing defense (59.7 yards allowed per outing). What’s that adage about objects meeting immovable forces?
By the way a majority of Auburn’s fans are acting, you’d think that the Tigers were 1-2 right now as opposed to the 3-0 record AU actually owns. While the offense has yet to truly take off in 2010, the defense has gotten better as the game has gone along in all three outings. The largest piece of evidence: last week, Clemson gained 267 yards in the first half en route to stretching to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. The Atlantic Coast Conference version of the Tigers gained just 147 yards from scrimmage combined in the second half and overtime. CU scored just seven points after intermission.
It’s a trend that needs to continue this weekend against a South Carolina offense that is budding with confidence thanks to a true freshman phenomenal running back, Marcus Lattimore.
Folks may remember in Lattimore’s recruitment just how close the Byrnes, S.C., native came to spending his college years at Auburn. However, the home state pull was too strong and Lattimore appears to have made the best decision for himself as evidenced by his breakout 198-yard performance against Georgia in the second week. USC quarterback Stephen Garcia has been efficient, hooking up mainly with favorite target Alshon Jeffrey (19 catches, 301 yards).
An overlooked stat: South Carolina ranks just behind Auburn at the bottom of the SEC’s total defense stats as the Gamecocks have given up 327.3 yards per contest. This is most surprising based on the ability USC has shown to stopping the run as evidenced earlier in this preview.
Cam Newton will have to show faith in more than one receiver, but Darvin Adams (Newton’s favorite target thus far) has shown a penchant for beating double-teams throughout the past two years in order to come up with huge catches in the end zone and past the first down markers. If the passing game can get going against one of the SEC’s most talented secondaries, Mike Dyer – Auburn’s own freshman star running back – could be a big difference.
I’m still not completely sold on my prediction, but I’ll go with the home field advantage since South Carolina has yet to play outside the friendly confines of Williams-Brice Stadium in 2010.
Call it now: Auburn 24, South Carolina 21
• No. 22 West Virginia at No. 15 LSU (Baton Rouge, La., 8 p.m. CT, ESPN2)
Two of college football’s most “avid” fan bases meet for a key non-conference tilt on the bayou this weekend as LSU hosts the Big East’s final undefeated squad, West Virginia.
Mississippi State showed just how difficult it is to go under the lights at Tiger Stadium and emerge as victors last week as five turnovers powered a 29-7 LSU win in the home opener. Now, Jordan Jefferson gets to face perhaps the weakest defense thus far as the junior continues to search for his confidence and breakout performance.
LSU has not been tearing it up on offense, averaging just 323 yards per contest, but the first-team defense has been nearly flawless and has even earned the “best I’ve ever coached” praise from defensive coordinator John Chavis. Chavis means something when he says this as his defenses were amongst the nation’s best year-in and year-out at Tennessee in the 90s and early part of the 2000s.
Geno Smith saw minimal action last year in the loss at Auburn, but being the starter in a road environment such as the one his team faces Saturday night is a much taller task than the pair of snaps he took when last year’s No. 1 QB Jarrett Brown went down in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
WVU’s last venture into SEC land included hurricane-like weather conditions as a 1-plus hour rain delay postponed kickoff against AU, and with a couple of tropical storms brewing near the Gulf of Mexico, it wouldn’t be surprising if less-than-stellar conditions are in the forecast.
The key to this game is if Smith and Noel Devine can get any kind of offense going for the Mountaineers and if the pride of the Big East can keep from turning the ball over. LSU’s defense is very opportunistic, and the Tigers converted all five takeaways into points last weekend.
LSU will need to score touchdowns instead of field goals at some point, but that may come later when the Tigers face stauncher foes within the league.
Call it now: LSU 27, West Virginia 14
Last week: 7-1