Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
The countdown to Alabama vs. Florida II began last Saturday night when the Crimson Tide were putting the finishing touches on their 24-15 win over LSU.
We know the Crimson Tide and Gators are going to play for the SEC championship for the second straight year. These next couple of weeks will determine whether that game will also be for the right to play for the national championship.
Both teams face road tests this weekend, while one of the most intriguing games in the league is Tennessee’s visit to Ole Miss, only the fourth time ever that the Vols have faced the Rebels in Oxford. It’s also Ed Orgeron’s return to Oxford in a game both teams need to bolster their bowl standing.
Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 11:
1. Ingram vs. Dixon: The top two running backs in the SEC go at it in Starkville. Alabama’s Mark Ingram is leading the league with an average of 127.6 rushing yards per game, and Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon is right on his tail with an average of 125.1 yards per game. Both players have already gone over 1,000 yards for the season, and both players don’t go down easily. We know they’re capable of huge games, too. See Ingram’s 246-yard effort against South Carolina and Dixon’s 252-yard effort against Kentucky. The SEC rushing title could well be decided in this game.
2. Home cooking? Mississippi State has already played one of the toughest home schedules in the country and one that may go down as one of the toughest in recent SEC history. It only gets more difficult on Saturday when No. 2 Alabama comes to town. The Crimson Tide are the fifth team in the top 15 of this week’s BCS standings to pay a visit to Scott Field. The Bulldogs have already lost at home to No. 1 Florida, No. 7 Georgia Tech, No. 8 LSU and No. 15 Houston. All but Georgia Tech were fourth-quarter games.
3. Big-play SEC: While this league has a defensive reputation for good reason, three of the best big-play offensive artists in the country have resided in the SEC this season. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett leads all FBS quarterbacks with 23 passes of 30 yards or longer. The next closest guy is San Diego State’s Ryan Lindley with 19. Mallett is third nationally with 37 passes of 20 yards or longer. Ingram leads the nation with 24 rushes of 15 yards or longer, while Georgia receiver A.J. Green has 15 catches of 20 yards or longer, which is one off the national lead.
4. Gators winning with defense: All those 40- and 50-point explosions from a year ago are a distant memory. So everybody waiting for this Florida team to transform overnight and become that same team from a year ago might want to give it up. This is a team that’s winning with defense, and Urban Meyer is coaching to that defense. Excellent special-teams play doesn’t hurt, and neither does having Tim Tebow on third down. But Florida’s defense heads to South Carolina this weekend having given up just six touchdowns all season.
5. Calling a few ball plays: The South Carolina fans have been clamoring for the Head Ball Coach to call all of his own plays again ever since last season when he started delegating some of those duties to his son, Steve Spurrier Jr. But the elder Spurrier said earlier this week that he would move back into the lead role again of calling plays, and it just so happens that his first game as the primary playcaller again will come against the mighty Gators. It was at Florida where Spurrier became a legend with his “ball plays” and developed a well-earned reputation as the best playcaller in the business.
6. Matthews returning? The Gamecocks could use some help this weekend on defense against the Gators and may get it in the form of junior defensive end Cliff Matthews. Spurrier said there’s a chance that Matthews may be able to play after injuring his shoulder against Tennessee two weeks ago and not playing last week against Arkansas. Getting Matthews back on the field would be huge for the Gamecocks. He’s one of those guys who plays the run as well as he rushes the passer, and that’s vital when you’re going up against Tebow.
7. Greetings for Coach O: What will it be like for Ed Orgeron to return to Ole Miss for the first time since he was fired following the 2007 season? The reviews from his former players have been mixed. Some have talked about his energy and his passion and what a relentless recruiter he was. Others have talked about how ruthless he was in his treatment of players. Orgeron, now the Tennessee recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach, has placed himself off limits to the media this week, but you know this is a game he’s had circled for a long time. Despite his dismal record at Ole Miss as head coach, most of the Rebels’ top players are guys he recruited. The Vols have won 12 straight games in the series.
8. Georgia’s penalties: Even after Georgia coach Mark Richt issued an edict that players whistled for penalties would be yanked from the game, the Bulldogs still went out and committed 11 penalties last week in the win over Tennessee Tech. Six of those were for false starts on the offensive line. This penalty epidemic has been going on for two years now, and Georgia enters Saturday’s game against Auburn with 18 more penalties than the next most penalized team in the SEC (Arkansas). The Bulldogs are flirting with 80 yards per game in penalties. Nobody else in the league is in the 60s.
9. Ridley’s chance: The word out of Baton Rouge is that Stevan Ridley is the real deal and will get every chance to show what he can do now that senior running back Charles Scott is out for the remainder of the regular season with a broken collarbone. We saw a glimpse of Ridley last week when he stepped in for Scott and scored on an 8-yard touchdown run to put the Tigers ahead in the third quarter. The 222-pound Ridley hurt his knee back in March and missed most of spring practice, but he was the guy the Tigers turned to when Scott went down at Alabama. It will be interesting to see how the carries are split the rest of the way between Ridley and Keiland Williams.
10. Hartline’s return: As long as Mike Hartline’s knee doesn’t look too shaky in practice the rest of this week, he’s going to have a chance to play Saturday against Vanderbilt. The Kentucky junior quarterback has missed the last four games, and it’s been quarterback by committee for the Wildcats. True freshman Morgan Newton has played the last couple of weeks, but Will Fidler and Randall Cobb have also played some there. Kentucky has managed to go 3-1 in Hartline’s absence, but needs this game against Vanderbilt to lock up a bowl trip. Hartline isn’t the only one who’s been hurting. Cornerback Trevard Lindley is also expected to return for this game after missing the last four with a high-ankle sprain.