Thursday, September 29, 2011
What to watch in the SEC: Week 5
By Edward Aschoff
We are starting to learn more about every team in the SEC, but there is still room for growth on every squad.
We know that LSU and Alabama are the teams to beat in the conference and are setting up for a national championship knockout game in November.
We know that Florida's defense is better than we expected and the running game is very tough to stop with all that speed. We still don't really know much about the passing game, but it has been efficient enough to this point.
We know that South Carolina has the talent and the athletes, but the focus isn't always there. We saw tremendous improvement in the defense last week and something tells me that trend will continue. We also know that running back Marcus Lattimore won't be able to continue carrying the heavy load he has had through the first part of the season.
And we know that Arkansas just isn't the same team that it was last year. The defense is much-improved, but not having Knile Davis in the backfield has held the offense back at times.
We'll know even more after this weekend, and here's what to watch in Week 5:
1. Something has to give in Columbia: Outside of ultimate workhorse Lattimore, South Carolina’s offense looked awful against Vanderbilt last week. For most of the season, the Gamecocks have struggled to get anything really going on offense when Lattimore isn’t touching the ball. Oh, and Stephen Garcia seems to be more mistake-prone than ever. Enter Auburn’s defense. The Tigers are allowing 477.5 yards per game, which is most in the SEC and 110th nationally. So, maybe South Carolina’s offense can rebound against Auburn. Or maybe it will be the complete opposite. Someone has to win this game and someone will. But which team will come to play for longer?
AJ McCarron and his Gators counterpart, John Brantley, will need to open up their downfield passing games Saturday.
2. Downfield passing games: Alabama and Florida have spent most of the season cramming the ball down opponents’ throats with their running games. The two are first and second in the league, respectively, in rushing offense and are in the top three in rushing defense. Passing the ball, however, hasn’t looked as pretty. Alabama ranks 64th nationally in passing (225.25 yards a game), while Florida is 79th (202.75). With two defenses that eat up the run like Cookie Monster does Chips Ahoy, Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Florida’s John Brantley might have to look downfield more in this contest. Those passes to the flat and check downs won’t come as easily in this one for either team.
3. Jet lag: If a rough start in Oxford, Miss., isn’t bad enough, Ole Miss has to travel across the country to take on Fresno State. Last year, the Rebels hung 55 on the Bulldogs, but that was at home. Ole Miss hasn’t been able to get much done offensively this season, especially with a quarterback shuffle on its hands. The running game doesn’t have the same grit it has during the past three years under coach Houston Nutt and the offensive line isn’t playing to its potential. This trip comes at the worst time for this team. It’s a long flight and could be an even longer game with the way the Bulldogs score points, meaning the Rebels’ offense will have to step up even more.
4. Arkansas’ pass rush: The Razorbacks will be without defensive end Tenarius Wright, who is out four to six weeks with a broken arm, and could have to play without end Jake Bequette for the third game in a row. During the two weeks in which Bequette was out, the Hogs had just three sacks. Arkansas’ inability to consistently get to the quarterback really hurt it when Troy put up 373 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air. Arkansas was better against Alabama last week, but not having both these players won’t help them against Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill, who is averaging just under 300 yards a game.
5. Life without Justin Hunter: Tennessee suffered a devastating loss when sophomore wide receiver Hunter tore his ACL very early in the Florida game two weeks ago. Now coach Derek Dooley will look to fill Hunter’s spot at the “X” position by committee. Zach Rogers will get the first shot, starting in the X, but expect Dooley to call on a few other young receivers to help out quarterback Tyler Bray. Da’Rick Rogers also needs someone else out there to lessen the double-teams he’s likely to see from here on out. Freshman DeAnthony Arnett, who had a breakout game against Florida, is listed as the backup to Rogers and so is former running back Rajion Neal, who has seven career catches.
6. Bounce-back Bulldogs: Georgia hosts Mississippi State this weekend, and both teams are in must-win situations. Georgia is already behind the eight ball in the East with both South Carolina and Florida getting early conference wins. Two SEC losses won’t kill Georgia, but this team is looking to build momentum to get through the heart of the SEC, and losing now could drain this team. Mississippi State just hasn’t looked like the team that put up 93 points and 1,176 yards through the first two weeks. Since then, this pack of Bulldogs has averaged 266.5 yards in the past two games and has scored just 32 points. Mississippi State is 0-2 in conference play and desperately needs to get in the win column in conference play.
7. Teacher vs. student: Will Muschamp might not know much about “Star Wars,” but he definitely knows that people are extremely interested in seeing him take on his former mentor in Nick Saban. Florida and Muschamp are the underdogs at home, while Saban and his Alabama team will enter Gainesville as the villains. It’s a great storyline for us in the media, but publicly neither cares too much about it. However, neither wants to be bested by the other. Expect Muschamp to unveil a few wrinkles that should frustrate Saban a bit. But don’t think Saban won’t have a few things up his sleeve to trick his former pupil.
8. Quarterback shuffle: As we’ve said time and time again on the blog, Ole Miss’ offense has really struggled this season. It’s also had three quarterbacks line up and take snaps. Barry Brunetti started off the season as the Rebels’ signal-caller, then he was benched for Zack Stoudt, and eventually Randall Mackey came in. Stoudt has taken the majority of the snaps, but Mackey took reps with the first-team offense during Wednesday’s practice. Nutt said he would like to redshirt Brunetti, but there’s a chance he could still play again this year. Nutt wasn’t made available to the media after practice, so let the speculation begin on who will line up under center first in California this weekend. Regardless of who makes the start, if things get bad, you can bet there will be a quarterback switch at some point.
9. Even more SEC flare in Arlington: Saturday’s game between Texas A&M and Arkansas is a preview of even more to come from the Aggies and the SEC in the future. With Texas A&M officially making the move to the SEC in time to start athletic competition next season, expect to hear more than the normal amount of SEC chants echoing throughout Cowboys Stadium. In fact, you might hear it right when the Aggies take the field. Will that cause Arkansas players and fans to go easy on their future family members? Absolutely not. There will be handshakes and hugs early, but it will be all business after kickoff.
10. A youth jolt for Kentucky’s offense: Freshman Josh Clemons will continue to be the guy at running back for Kentucky this weekend when the Wildcats travel to Baton Rouge to take on No. 1 LSU. The youngster is healthy and ready to take on one of the most smothering defensive fronts in the entire country. Besting LSU’s defense probably isn’t going to be something Clemons and Kentucky do often Saturday, but coach Joker Phillips is hoping that he can generate some more consistency for Kentucky’s offense. The Wildcats haven’t moved the ball well, but Clemons has been a bright spot at times. Clemons is getting ready for a major road test, but it will be good experience for the frosh, who is in charge of this running game with Raymond Sanders sidelined with a knee injury.