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Wednesday, December 31, 2008
What to watch in the SEC bowls


Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Finally, we get to some SEC teams in bowl games. Vanderbilt kicks it off on Wednesday afternoon against Boston College in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl, while LSU faces Georgia Tech on Wednesday night in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Thursday schedule has South Carolina facing Iowa in the Outback Bowl and Georgia meeting Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. Then on Friday, there are three games involving SEC teams. Ole Miss clashes with Texas Tech in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Kentucky takes on East Carolina in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and Alabama faces Utah that night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Here's a checklist of what to watch in those games:

1. Playing without Andre: Alabama at least has a few days to get over the shock of playing without its best player. That doesn't make it any easier once you step onto the field. Without Andre Smith, the Crimson Tide simply aren't as good offensively. He's one of the best left tackles to play in this league in a long time, and the tendency is to lean on a player of that caliber. Alabama won't be able to do that against Utah, which will undoubtedly do everything it can to take advantage of Smith's absence. The Crimson Tide will probably start by sliding junior Mike Johnson over to left tackle from left guard, with sophomore David Ross entering the starting lineup at left guard. Another option would be moving junior Drew Davis from right tackle to left tackle and inserting freshman John Michael Boswell into the rotation at right tackle. The best thing the Tide have going for them is offensive line coach Joe Pendry, who will have his guys ready up front.

2. In Julio they trust: Assuming the running game might not be quite the same without Smith, Alabama has a pretty nice Plan B to go to -- freshman receiver Julio Jones. Even before Smith's suspension became public, Utah was almost certainly going to dare Alabama to pass. Getting the ball to Jones will be more important than ever in this game. He's the guy with the big-play skills and tackle-breaking ability that can open up more things for everybody. Jones will also become a key cog in the red zone. In the past, Alabama ran right behind Smith in key situations. He was almost automatic near the goal line. The next closest thing may be one-on-one matchups with Jones, who seems to win those battles no matter who he's matched up against.

3. Getting to Harrell: Everybody knows that Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell was one of the hardest quarterbacks in the country to sack this season. He doesn't waste any time getting rid of the ball. The word is also out that Ole Miss is pretty stout in the defensive line. Peria Jerry, Greg Hardy and the boys led the SEC with 35 sacks this season. Harrell's not going to allow you to get to him repeatedly. He's too good, and Texas Tech's offense is designed to throw it quickly, which means Ole Miss' cornerbacks will be on point to make Harrell hold the ball longer than he wants to. And when Harrell does complete passes in front of the Rebels, they need to tackle well and make sure those short passes remain short gains.

4. Going back home: Nobody's more excited to be playing in the Cotton Bowl than Ole Miss sophomore quarterback Jevan Snead, who's from Stephenville, Texas, and can't wait to do his thing in front of the home folks. During the Rebels' five-game winning streak to end the season, he put it all together and threw 13 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. He simply grew up as a quarterback after admittedly trying to force too many throws earlier in the season. Props go to Ole Miss first-year offensive coordinator Kent Austin, who's the unsung hero in Snead's development. They share a special relationship, and Snead has really responded to Austin's tutelage.

5. Moreno vs. Ringer: If you like to watch good running backs, be sure you're in front of your television for the Capital One Bowl. Moreno rushed for 1,338 yards and 16 touchdowns this season for Georgia, while Ringer rushed for 1,590 yards and 21 touchdowns for Michigan State. Who's the better back? They're different kinds of players. Moreno has more burst, more moves and is a big-time breakaway threat. In the open field, few tailbacks are any better. Ringer is more of a pound-you-into-submission runner. He led the nation this season with 370 carries, which averages out to 30.8 carries per game. His strength is his durability. He just keeps coming at you. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said of his star runner, "He's a warrior."

6. Waking from the dead: Which version of South Carolina will show up in Tampa? If it's the same team that slumbered through its last two games against Florida and Clemson in blowout losses, the Gamecocks might want to have the team bus up and running early in the fourth quarter. If it's the team that fought back to win on the road at Ole Miss and won six of its seven games during the middle portion of the schedule, then the Gamecocks have an excellent chance to win only their fifth bowl game in school history. Slowing down Iowa tailback Shonn Greene, who won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back, won't be easy. But Ellis Johnson's defense was pretty stingy all season against the run and will load up the line of scrimmage to stop Greene.

7. ACC power: The SEC can't make a lot of jokes about the ACC being a basketball conference after what happened this season. The ACC was 6-4 in head-to-head matchups against the SEC, and Georgia Tech gets a chance to run its record to 3-0 against the SEC this season when it tangles with LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers have won 17 straight over ACC teams starting with a win over Duke in 1958. The Yellow Jackets, though, have not only beaten the two SEC teams they've faced this season, but they've feasted on them. In their 38-7 win over Mississippi State and 45-42 win over Georgia, they rushed for a combined 847 yards. What gives? Did they drop the Defending the Option class in the SEC?

8. One last hoorah: The LSU defense gets one final shot at redemption. Coordinators Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory are both on their way out to other jobs following this game, and former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis is on his way in. This is also it for seniors Tyson Jackson, Darry Beckwith and Kirston Pittman. The Tigers haven't stopped anybody of note defensively this season, and it's been ugly at times. Most of their trouble has come against the pass. That won't be a problem against Georgia Tech, which runs the option offense as well as anybody. Just ask Georgia, which was torched for 409 rushing yards by the Yellow Jackets a month ago. The Tigers are far more talented than they've played on defense this season. Here's one final chance to prove it.

9. Nickson to get first shot: Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson hasn't said anything publicly, but most indications are that fifth-year senior Chris Nickson will get the start at quarterback against Boston College. Look for junior Mackenzi Adams to also play. Both Nickson and Adams were knocked out of the regular-season finale against Wake Forest, paving the way for redshirt freshman Larry Smith to see his most extensive time of the season. Smith led the Commodores to their only scoring drive in that game, and Johnson has suggested that he may also use Smith against the Eagles depending on the situation. Who finishes this game at quarterback for Vanderbilt is anybody's guess. Johnson will probably just go with the hot hand. The only problem is that hot hands at the quarterback position have been few and far between this season. The Commodores rank 112th nationally in passing offense.

10. Farewell for Brooks?: Nobody's trying to push Rich Brooks out the door, because he's done a terrific job in getting Kentucky's program back to respectability. But you can't help but wonder, especially if the Wildcats play well on Friday and beat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl, if he hangs it up and hands the keys to the program to coach-in-waiting Joker Phillips. The Wildcats are making their third straight bowl appearance, the first time since 1949-51 that they've played in the postseason for three straight years. It would be a good time to walk away, and the 67-year-old Brooks could exit with the satisfaction of knowing that he leaves the program much better than he found it. A win would give the Wildcats 23 wins over the last three seasons, matching their best three-year win total since 1976-78.