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Thursday, October 8, 2009
What to watch in the SEC: Week 6



Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


This Saturday in the SEC needs no buildup. There are marquee matchups everywhere.

The intrigue surrounding Tim Tebow’s playing status has sort of dominated the headlines, but the real story is what happens on the field.

It’s the first chance for a couple of teams to separate themselves. We’ll see if they’re up to the task.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 6:

1. Bedlam on the Bayou: If you love college football and love the atmosphere surrounding college football on game day, find a way to be in Baton Rouge, La., on Saturday night. The party outside Tiger Stadium has a chance to be as good as the game itself. They do it up right on the Bayou for every game, but the environment for the Florida-LSU showdown will be electric. I can already taste the gumbo. I can already feel the anticipation of the last two national champions squaring off in one of college football’s most hallowed (and deafening) cathedrals. I can already hear the LSU band striking up those legendary first four notes: DAH-DANT-DA-DUM. For a little taste, go to LSUsports.com and click on “Touchdown for LSU” (pregame).

2. Getting the tough yards: If Tim Tebow does come back from his concussion and play for Florida, will he be as willing to take off and lower his head on third-and-short and down near the goal line? Let’s face it: His ability to get the tough yards and do the Gators’ dirty work has been what’s separated him and what’s made the Gators’ offense so difficult to defend. And if he doesn’t play, who’s going to assume those duties for Florida? Backup quarterback John Brantley isn’t much of a runner, and the Gators don’t really have an every-down running back. Emmanuel Moody, a 210-pound junior, would probably be the closest thing.

3. Dunlap and Cunningham: It’s hard to find a better defensive end combo in the country. Carlos Dunlap is pushing 290 pounds and has the strength to overpower an opposing offensive tackle while also having the speed to blow past him. Some analysts think Dunlap might be the top overall pick in the NFL draft if he decides to leave school early. On the other side is Jermaine Cunningham, who according to LSU offensive tackle Ciron Black, is the fastest defensive end in the country. LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was sacked six times last week in the 20-13 win over Georgia, so you can bet that Dunlap and Cunningham will be pinning their ears back and coming on Saturday night.

4. Great Scott: The Tigers appeared to find something in their running game toward the end of the Georgia contest last week, and they did so by handing the ball to senior Charles Scott and letting him do his thing. Scott finished with season highs of 19 carries and 95 yards rushing. His 33-yard touchdown romp where he ran over a Georgia linebacker was the game-winner with 46 seconds to play. Entering that game, he’d only carried it 43 times combined in four previous games and hadn’t gone over 63 yards or carried it more than 13 times in a game. This is the same guy who rushed for 1,174 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. The Tigers’ problem is that Scott is also their best blocker in the backfield, and he's having to play some fullback. But getting him more involved in the running game will be key if the Tigers are going to establish anything on the ground against the Gators.

5. Prove-it-to-me time for Rebels: Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt and his players said all the right things in the offseason, that they were handling the expectations and all the hype accordingly. As it turns out, they probably didn’t handle it all that well. They’ve yet to come close to playing their “A” game this season and lost to the only team they’ve faced with a winning record. It’s been a disappointing first five weeks to the season, no doubt. But that can all change with a win over No. 3-ranked Alabama at home Saturday. Not only do the Rebels prove that they’re legit by winning, but they put themselves in prime position for the stretch run in the Western Division race. This is their shot to completely change the complexion of their season.

6. Julio’s just fine: Want to get Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy fired up? Ask him why Julio Jones hasn’t been more involved in the offense this season. Jones has nine catches for 133 yards and one touchdown. Part of the reason his numbers are down is that he’s missed virtually two games with a bruised kneecap. But McElroy isn’t buying that Jones hasn’t been involved. If anything, Jones is the main reason that so many different guys have emerged in the passing game for the Tide. McElroy has thrown touchdown passes to six different players. “Just because Julio’s not catching passes doesn’t mean he’s not involved. He’s very involved. He demands the eyes. Four eyes are on him every time we snap the ball. That’s two from a safety and two from a corner. He makes a difference whether he catches a ball or not,” McElroy said.

7. Redemption for the quarterbacks: For a league that’s hard on quarterbacks, some guys have put up some mighty impressive numbers heading into Week 6. In fact, four of the top 12 rated passers in the country are from the SEC. Tebow is No. 3 in passing efficiency, Alabama’s McElroy No. 6, Auburn’s Chris Todd No. 8 and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett No. 12. Tebow’s not a surprise, and most people felt Mallett would come out slinging it in Bobby Petrino’s offense. But what about the two guys from the state of Alabama? Between them, Todd and McElroy have thrown 21 touchdown passes and two interceptions. Ole Miss' Jevan Snead is all the way down at No. 66 nationally in passing efficiency, but he's too talented not to make a move. Maybe it's this week. Ole Miss fans sure hope so.

8. Auburn at the front of the line: As we approach the midway point of the season, it’s hard to pick anybody other than Auburn when you start talking about the best offensive line in the league. Props go to Auburn offensive line coach Jeff Grimes. His guys have really played well up front. The numbers speak for themselves. The Tigers are second in the league and fifth nationally in rushing offense. They lead the league and are tied for second nationally with only two sacks allowed. They haven’t allowed any sacks the past two games, and they’ve also done it with different people. Guard Byron Isom has missed the last two games, meaning the Tigers have started a different combination in each of their last three games. Lee Ziemba might be the best left tackle in the league right now.

9. Garcia’s maturation: South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has resisted at every turn to drop the slightest bit of praise on sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia. Maybe Spurrier didn’t want to jinx it. Maybe he wanted to keep Garcia on his toes. Maybe he’s just hard on his quarterbacks. Whatever the case, the Head Ball Coach is starting to come around and says now that Garcia has made tremendous progress. Even though South Carolina didn’t win, you could sort of see Garcia grow up in that Georgia game, and he’s been steady ever since. The best thing he’s done is manage the game, meaning he’s given the Gamecocks a chance in every game and making the plays when they’re there. He’s only thrown two interceptions this season and heads into Saturday’s game against Kentucky having gone 116 pass attempts without an interception. Simply, he's playing winning football.

10. Revival on Rocky Top: You heard it here first. If Tennessee doesn’t beat Georgia at home Saturday, the Vols won’t have a winning season. That’s how important this game is for Lane Kiffin’s club, which has shown a knack this season for hanging around in games, but hasn’t been able to generate enough offense to beat anybody that counts. Despite the struggles, Kiffin hasn't taken any shortcuts and has stuck to his guns. He dismissed receiver Brandon Warren from the team this week after Warren spent one too many nights in Kiffin’s doghouse. He’s also stuck with senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton and says he has no desire to start shuffling quarterbacks. Whether that comes back to get him remains to be seen. Either way, the Vols have continued to play hard. It’s getting to the point, though, that they probably need to see some results if they're going to hang in there for the rest of this season. That’s what makes this Georgia game so critical heading into the bye week. A 0-3 start in SEC play could become 0-4 real quick with Alabama looming in two weeks. The last time the Vols started 0-4 in SEC play was 1988 when they finished 5-6 overall.