What to watch in the SEC

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
8:04
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


We get a little bonus action this week with Ole Miss taking on South Carolina on Thursday night in Columbia. I've got to find somebody who owns one of those Cockabooses so I can do a little tailgating before the game.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 4:

1. Garcia vs. Snead: Who’s been the more productive quarterback this season? You might want to do a little homework before you answer. Stephen Garcia has passed for 683 yards in three games with a 62.7 completion percentage and hasn’t looked anything like the guy who finished with eight interceptions and six touchdowns last season. He’s maturing as a quarterback and even the Head Ball Coach is starting to give him some props. Jevan Snead also hasn’t looked like the same guy who threw 16 touchdown passes and only three interceptions during Ole Miss’ six-game winning streak to end last season. But, then, the Rebels haven’t really needed him to be on top of his game so far. They’ll need him Thursday night, though, if they’re going to get out of Columbia unscathed.

2. Finally a real game: Despite its lofty ranking, Ole Miss hasn’t been challenged. There were a few anxious moments in the first half of the Memphis game to open the season, but the Rebels won going away. Then came the open date and flu outbreak followed by the rout of outmanned Southeastern Louisiana last week. It’s been a strange September for the Rebels, only one Saturday game all month. We know they’re talented. We know last year’s team ended the season playing superb football. But this is a different team and a different season. We find out a lot more about THIS team under the lights Thursday in a tough place to play against a South Carolina team that’s already been in a couple of battles.

3. Petrino vs. Saban: It’s the classic offense vs. defense debate. Bobby Petrino is a whiz at exploiting defenses and finding ways to score points. Nick Saban is a whiz at rendering offenses helpless and finding ways to keep the score down. In his second year at Arkansas, Petrino has a quarterback in Ryan Mallett and enough playmakers around him to put up Xbox-like numbers. See last week’s shootout against Georgia. Saban’s defensive front seven at Alabama is one of the best in college football. They specialize in putting opposing quarterbacks on their backside. Something’s got to give Saturday in Tuscaloosa.

4. Chomping at the bit: It wasn’t a loss, but it sure sounded like it around the Florida camp this week. Even after a win over Tennessee, albeit one that wasn’t all that flattering, Florida coach Urban Meyer found himself talking more about what the Gators didn’t do than what they did do. The bottom line: It wasn’t a championship performance against the Vols. Not even close, and these Gators are all about winning another championship. In retrospect, it may have been a blessing in disguise, because Meyer’s had his team’s attention and then some this week. That’s probably not good news for Kentucky.

5. Taking down No. 1: The last time the No. 1-ranked team in the country visited Commonwealth Stadium, that team walked away with a loss. LSU suffered a 43-37 triple-overtime setback to Kentucky in 2007, but still went on to win the national title. Seeing a scenario where Florida could stumble at Kentucky on Saturday and still remain on course in the national championship race is difficult to imagine. But so was seeing LSU climb back into position later in the 2007 season after the Tigers lost to an unranked Arkansas team on the final weekend of the regular season. In this league, you never know.

6. Getting offensive: LSU’s offensive numbers have been pretty pedestrian, and that’s being kind. The Tigers are last in the SEC in total offense, 10th in rushing offense and ninth in passing offense. They’ve just sort of gotten by to this point. None of their running backs have rushed for 100 yards in a game. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson has thrown five touchdown passes and just one interception, but he’s yet to throw for more than 172 yards in a game. It’s been a little bit here and a little bit there heading into Saturday’s game at Mississippi State. The Tigers are due for a breakout game on offense.

7. Linebacker U.: Want to see the best linebacker tandem in the country? Tune into Alabama’s game with Arkansas on Saturday and find No. 25 and No. 30. They will be the guys always around the football. Junior Rolando McClain has been a force from his middle linebacker position since his freshman season. Sophomore Dont’a Hightower is quickly emerging into one of the best big-play linebackers in the SEC. He moves outside on obvious passing downs, which is where he’ll be for most of the game against Arkansas, and is tied for second in the league with four tackles for loss.

8. Getting a pass?: The Georgia fans aren’t happy with the Bulldogs’ pass defense, and defensive coordinator Willie Martinez has been their target. It was a similar story last season when the Bulldogs gave up 38 or more points in four of their last five regular-season games. Well, they’ve given up 37 or more points in their last two games, although they’ve managed to win both. Georgia coach Mark Richt isn’t ready to hit the panic button. He likes the way the Bulldogs have stopped the run, but said they haven’t gotten enough inside pressure against the pass. That’s surprising when you look at the talent and depth the Bulldogs have at tackle. Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens are both future NFL players.

9. Dixon’s back: Sort of quietly, Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon has rushed for 215 yards the past two weeks after being suspended for the opener. He definitely has more burst now that he’s down around the 235-pound range and showed off that burst last week with a 40-yard run in the fourth quarter to set up Mississippi State’s clinching touchdown in its 15-3 win over Vanderbilt. Dixon talked to the media this week for the first time since his DUI arrest in July and said all the right things. There’s no question that he understands how important he is to this team, and the Bulldogs are going to ride him the rest of the way. Look for LSU to get a steady dose of No. 24 on Saturday.

10. Must-win mode: If Vanderbilt is entertaining serious thoughts about getting back to a bowl game this season, the Commodores can’t afford to come back from Rice with a loss. This is a game Bobby Johnson’s club absolutely has to have to keep any postseason hopes alive. Ultimately, it’s not going to matter if the Commodores can’t work out the kinks offensively. They’ve scored just 12 points in their past two games and have struggled to get anything going in their passing game. Quarterback Larry Smith hasn’t thrown it well, but the receivers haven’t caught it well, either. The plan Saturday will be to simplify and narrow the playbook to find something the Commodores can hang their hat on offensively.

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