- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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We get it kicked off early in the SEC this week with Alabama taking on Georgia State on Thursday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Auburn, Georgia and Kentucky are all off this week.
Here’s a look at what to watch in Week 12:
1. Thursday night football: Rarely would anybody in the SEC play a Thursday night game this late in the season, but Alabama has its reasons. For one, it’s Georgia State -- a first-year program. But more importantly, Auburn awaits in two weeks and has this week off. The Crimson Tide have already faced five straight SEC teams coming off bye weeks and are 3-2 in those games. By playing this game early -- and especially with the Auburn game being played on a Friday next week -- it gives Nick Saban a full week to prepare for the Iron Bowl.
2. More scoring in the SEC: Who says the SEC is a defensive league? The scoring is up considerably this season, led by Auburn. The Tigers are fifth nationally in scoring offense and averaging 42.8 points per game. They’re one of seven SEC teams averaging 30 points or more this season, and an eighth team (Florida) is on the cusp of the 30-point plateau at 29.6 points per game. Last season, only four SEC teams finished the season averaging 30 points per game. Moreover, 11 of the 12 teams this season are averaging 26.3 points or more per game.
3. Peterson’s farewell: He’s been one of the finest cornerbacks this league has seen in a long time, but LSU’s Patrick Peterson will almost certainly play his final game in Tiger Stadium on Saturday against Ole Miss. Peterson is projected by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2011 NFL draft if he comes out, which Peterson is expected to do. There simply aren’t many 218-pound cornerbacks on this planet who can run, tackle, cover and return kicks the way Peterson can. He’s been a treat to watch. That is, unless you’re the team having to punt the football to him.
4. Tigers’ BCS chances: Barring the unforeseen, LSU can just about guarantee itself a berth in a BCS bowl by winning its next two games and finishing 11-1. To have a shot at the BCS National Championship Game, the Tigers would need both Oregon and Auburn to lose with Auburn’s loss preferably coming in the SEC championship game or losing a one-sided game to Alabama in two weeks. At that point, LSU might be able to pass either Boise State or TCU into one of those top two spots in the final BCS standings. If Auburn wins out and goes to the BCS National Championship Game, LSU would then be ticketed for the Sugar Bowl, assuming the Mad Hatter & Co. can win these next two games.
5. Nutt’s mastery: Houston Nutt was asked earlier this week if he had LSU’s number. He wasn’t willing to go there, but the numbers sure suggest he does. As Ole Miss’ coach, he’s won the last two against LSU. There was the clock management game last season by LSU, with the Rebels winning 25-23. Two years ago, the Rebels pummeled the Tigers 31-13 in Tiger Stadium. And in what would turn out to be Nutt’s final game at Arkansas, the unranked Hogs shocked the then-No. 1 Tigers 50-48 in triple-overtime in Tiger Stadium to close out the 2007 regular season.
6. Staying grounded: There’s no secret what Mississippi State wants to do Saturday against Arkansas. The Bulldogs want to play keep-away from the Hogs, who are averaging 37.9 points and 343.6 passing yards per game. Mississippi State is the SEC’s third best rushing team this season and averaging 211.7 yards per game on the ground. Getting that ground game going early and keeping it going will be vital for the Bulldogs if they’re going to win this game. That’s their comfort zone, not getting into a shootout and having to throw the ball 30-plus times.
7. Road success: One of the knocks on Arkansas and Bobby Petrino coming into this season was that the Hogs were not a very good road team. In fact, they were just 1-8 on the road during Petrino’s first two seasons. But the Hogs are 2-1 on the road this season and trying to win their second straight road game Saturday at Mississippi State. The Hogs' only road loss was at No. 2 Auburn when the Tigers exploded for 28 points in the fourth quarter. The Hogs’ most complete game of the season came two weeks ago on the road when they hammered Eastern Division champion South Carolina 41-20.
8. Dynamic duo: Is there a better running back/receiver combo anywhere in the country that has a combined three years of college experience or less than Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery? These two guys have been so good that it’s easy to forget that Lattimore is a true freshman and Jeffery is only a sophomore. They can make South Carolina history this weekend against Troy. The Gamecocks have never had a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in the same season. Lattimore enters the game with 964 rushing yards, and Jeffery already has 1,087 receiving yards.
9. Bray’s way: He’s California cool in the purest sense. Tennessee true freshman quarterback Tyler Bray has thrown eight touchdown passes in his last two games, the first two starts of his college career, and you’d never be able to tell it by talking to him. But talk to the people around Bray in the Tennessee program, and there’s a real sense of excitement about where this offense is headed with Bray behind center. The Vols also like their young offensive line as well as their freshman receivers, Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers.
10. Getting defensive: Most of Vanderbilt’s struggles the past two seasons have been pinned on the Commodores’ offense and their inability to finish drives and score points. It hasn’t helped that they’ve lost several of their top playmakers on offense this season. But whereas the Commodores’ defense had been a staple the last couple of years, it’s been a big part of the problem this season. The Commodores have struggled to stop people. They’re 106th nationally in total defense, giving up 437.2 yards per game. That’s after finishing 56th nationally in total defense last season and 30th nationally in 2008 when they won the Music City Bowl.
2dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf
3dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf