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What to watch in the SEC: Week 2

9/10/2009



Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

We dive right into some conference games this weekend, which is refreshing given all the carnage we witnessed to open the season.

The SEC must have set some kind of record for 40-point blowouts last week. It was like everybody in the league was having a contest to see who could open up with the most overmatched foe.

That is, everybody but Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina. And LSU gets a pass, too, for going all the way across the country to play a Pac-10 team, even though Washington was 0-12 the year before.

Thankfully, the exhibition season is over, although somebody forgot to tell Florida. The No. 1-ranked Gators "step it up" from Charleston Southern to Troy this Saturday.

Think about how crowded the Purple Porpoise would be by halftime if that fine establishment were still open.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 2:

1. Joe Cox’s second shot: It sounds like Georgia quarterback Joe Cox has thick skin, which is good. He said this week he was unfazed by what his critics were saying. His focus remains on this team and the offense getting better. Who knows how much Cox was affected by flu-like symptoms last week. Georgia coach Mark Richt said Cox would be the last one to bring it up regardless of how he felt. Either way, he wasn’t very sharp throwing the football in the season-opening 24-10 loss to Oklahoma State, but gets a chance for redemption against a South Carolina defense that will come after him. Don’t count Cox out just yet. He’s better than he played last week and is one tough customer.

2. The Head Ball Coach’s dilemma: Steve Spurrier has a good defense. Actually, he has a really good defense capable of keeping South Carolina in just about every game it plays this season. Here’s the rub: Spurrier isn’t real fond of playing it close to the vest and playing to his defense. Sure, the Gamecocks have to play better on offense than they did in the 7-3 season-opening win over North Carolina State. But if they start pitching it around the ballpark too much, they risk the kind of turnovers that kept the defense backed up against its own goal line all of last season. We’ll see if Spurrier can find a happy medium this Saturday in Athens.

3. Getting defensive: OK, it wasn’t a rousing start for John Chavis and his LSU defense. Washington piled up 478 yards of total offense and 25 first downs last weekend, although the Tigers played better in the second half and prevailed 31-23 in Seattle. The LSU defenders have all vowed that it will be a different defense that takes the field this Saturday night against Vanderbilt. We’ll see if they can deliver on that promise. Ironically, the last time LSU gave up 478 yards or more of total offense in a regulation game was the 2005 opener against Arizona State. Like Chavis, Bo Pelini was also making his debut as defensive coordinator. The Tigers won 35-31, but were torched for 560 yards of total offense. How did they finish up that season? Try third nationally in scoring defense and total defense.

4. The good Shepard: After all the talk about Russell Shepard and all the different ways he could hurt a defense, the talented true freshman didn’t play a snap against Washington in the opener. The Tigers’ version of “Slash” watched from the sideline, as LSU coach Les Miles said afterward that he regretted not getting Shepard into the game. Miles said the closeness of the game and the Tigers’ limited number of offensive plays were the reasons why Shepard didn’t play. Here’s betting that Shepard is more than just a spectator this weekend. Having enrolled in school early, he’s gone through the spring and the preseason, and his teammates have raved about his ability to make things happen when he gets the ball. Maybe his chance will come in front of the home folks.

5. Life in the fast Lane: They’re loving them some Lane Kiffin on Rocky Top right now. As he said himself, manufacturing the largest yards difference in the history of the school is a pretty good way to start. The Vols, in blasting Western Kentucky 63-7 last week, rolled up 657 yards on offense and only gave up 83 yards on defense. That’s a 574-yard differential, which is eye-opening regardless of who you’re playing. It gets a little tougher this week against UCLA, but Kiffin likes this team’s focus and the way players are pushing each other for playing time. Are the Vols as good as they looked in Kiffin’s debut, or were they merely feasting on a team that was way out of its league? We should know more after the Bruins make the trek from the West Coast.

6. Freshmen follow-up: There were all sorts of impressive debuts by true freshmen in the opening week. Now it’s time for the encores. Auburn running back Onterio McCalebb rushed for 148 yards, which was more than Bo Jackson rushed for in his first game on the Plains. Mississippi State receiver Chad Bumphis started and caught two touchdown passes. Tennessee running back Bryce Brown rushed for 104 yards and averaged 9.5 yards per carry. Vanderbilt running backs Zac Stacy and Warren Norman each rushed for more than 100 yards, and South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore started and came up with a key pass breakup in the end zone to seal the game in the final minutes.

7. Anthony Dixon’s debut: After serving a suspension in the opener against Jackson State for his DUI arrest back in July, Dixon is back and raring to go. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said Dixon looked great throughout the preseason, and now that he’s down around 235 pounds, is moving as well as he ever has. Dixon’s 2,603 career rushing yards are more than any active player in the SEC. If he stays healthy, the Bulldogs plan on riding him this season. Look for him to get a workout Saturday against an Auburn defense that held Louisiana Tech to 96 yards rushing last week.

8. Protecting the Plains: Auburn gets the second of four straight games at home to open the season. This is the most important of the four with Mississippi State coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Getting off to a 1-0 start in the SEC would speak for itself. But if Gene Chizik and his bunch can hold serve at home (West Virginia and Ball State are up next), this is a team that all of a sudden becomes a player in the Western Division going to Tennessee on Oct. 3. The Tigers know a little something about themselves, too, after dominating Louisiana Tech in the second half last week. The Bulldogs were no pushover, which makes winning the second half so convincingly all the more impressive.

9. Low Tide or high Tide? Who said something about a letdown? Don’t let Alabama coach Nick Saban catch wind of it. He seethes at the mere suggestion that his club might not be at the same emotional pitch for Florida International this week as it was to open the season against nationally ranked Virginia Tech. I want to make this clear, coach Saban. I’m not disrespecting Florida International. I’m not suggesting that your guys will be looking past this game. But I will be interested to see how your team responds from such a physical, emotionally draining game. And you’re right. Championship teams don’t play up and down to their level of their competition. So maybe we get a glimpse of whether this is a championship team. The Crimson Tide sure looked like it in the fourth quarter against the Hokies.

10. Taking a stand: Vanderbilt proved it could win big games at home last season, taking down nationally ranked South Carolina and Auburn at Vanderbilt Stadium. But to get one of the SEC heavyweights on the road, and doing at night in Tiger Stadium, would really validate the improvement this program has made under Bobby Johnson. The Commodores won’t play scared, and they won’t hold anything back. Defensively, they will throw an array of different looks and blitzes at LSU sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who will be starting just his second game against an SEC defense. But if Vanderbilt is going to win this game, it’s going to need its own sophomore quarterback, Larry Smith, to soften up the LSU defense by hitting some passes down the field.