NCF Nation: Anthony Dixon

Positions will be won and lost all across the SEC this spring.

And in some cases, nothing will be settled until preseason practice resumes in August.

Here are five position battles to keep an eye on as spring practice in the SEC gets under way on Feb. 25 with LSU kicking it off. Two months later, Arkansas and Kentucky will both shut it down on April 24 with their spring games:

1. Georgia quarterback: Joe Cox won’t be around to blame anymore. He’s gone after one year on the job, meaning this spring will be one big scrap for the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback job. Junior Logan Gray is one of the most athletic players on the team and will probably get first dibs on proving that he’s the guy. Whether or not he throws the ball well enough to play winning football in the SEC remains to be seen, which means it will probably come down between redshirt freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger. Both were on campus for spring practice a year ago and know the system. Mettenberger is a taller, pocket passer with a big arm, while Murray possesses the kind of versatility all coaches are looking for in a quarterback. The early indications are that Murray has that “it” factor and may be the one to beat.

2. Alabama cornerback: Not only is Alabama short one cornerback, but both starting cornerbacks from its national championship team are gone with Kareem Jackson leaving early for the NFL. Don’t feel too sorry for the Crimson Tide, because there’s a cache of talent waiting in the wings. Sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick has all sorts of potential after coming in last season as one of the top defensive back prospects in the country. He certainly isn’t lacking for confidence. Nick Saban also went out and signed two of the top cornerbacks prospects in the country this year in DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton, and both players are already on campus and will go through spring practice. Don’t forget about LSU transfer Phelon Jones, either, and junior college newcomer DeQuan Menzie will arrive this summer.

3. Tennessee running back: Montario Hardesty was one of the most pleasant surprises in the league last season. He was a workhorse for the Vols after enduring injury concerns for much of his career. He led the SEC with 282 carries while rushing for 1,345 yards, which was 300 yards more than he’d gained in his first three seasons combined. The reality is that it may take a couple of players to replace his production. Sophomore Bryce Brown is a big, strong runner who showed flashes last season, but was probably overhyped coming out of high school when he was tabbed by some as the No. 1 prospect in the country. The guy to watch is junior Tauren Poole, who didn’t get much of a chance under the previous staff. He’s got to watch his fumbling. Redshirt freshman Toney Williams was extremely impressive last spring before tearing his ACL in summer workouts, while sophomore David Oku is a guy who can catch it and run it.

4. South Carolina weak side linebacker: It’s known more commonly around Columbia as Eric Norwood’s position, although the Gamecocks were able to move the three-time All-SEC selection around to different spots during his career. He provided so many big plays over the last couple of seasons that replacing him won’t be easy. One of the guys who will probably get the first shot is sophomore Reggie Bowens, who has great speed and has been trying to find the right position after coming to South Carolina as a safety. He was out the entire season two years ago with a shoulder injury and was plagued by knee problems last season. Junior Shaq Wilson had to move inside last season because of injuries in the middle, but also could end up moving back to the weak side. Tony Straughter and Quin Smith are two other guys to keep an eye on this spring.

5. Mississippi State running back: Few players in the league left bigger shoes to fill than Anthony Dixon when you consider how big a part of the Mississippi State offense he was last season. There’s no substitute for being able to turn around and hand the ball off to a bruising back the caliber of the 245-pound Dixon. With him gone, it’s going to be a free-for-all to see who emerges as the starter. Junior Robert Elliott has been one of those “potential” guys who may be due for a breakout season. He has great speed and acceleration, but just needs to do it on a consistent basis. Montrell Conner is a 215-pound speedster that redshirted last season. The Mississippi State staff is eager to see what he can do this spring, while junior college newcomer Vick Ballard is already enrolled and will go through spring practice. Ballard rushed for 1,728 yards and 22 touchdowns last season at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

Biggest shoes to fill in the SEC

February, 8, 2010
2/08/10
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Every year in the SEC, there are some big shoes to fill.

But next season, we're talking size 18s, 19s and 20s everywhere you look.

When you factor in the talented juniors leaving the conference, new faces, new leaders and new playmakers are going to have to step up like never before in 2010.

That said, here’s a look at the biggest shoes to fill in the league next season. As you might imagine, the names are familiar ones:

1. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow: Contrary to popular belief, Tebow didn’t play seven seasons at Florida. It just seemed that way to everybody he beat up on. As a starter, he was a remarkable 35-6 with a Heisman Trophy, one SEC championship, one BCS national championship, two SEC championship game appearances and two BCS bowl wins. He scored more touchdowns than anybody who’s ever played in the SEC, and he was the kind of inspirational leader that coaches dream about having on their team. It’s impossible to replace everything that Tebow was to the Gators. He’s one of the best college football players of this era. Junior John Brantley gets first chance. He’s a different kind of quarterback than Tebow and is already an extremely polished passer. The Gators’ offense will change with Brantley, a highly recruited player who’s been waiting for his chance.

2. Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain: One of the smartest players Nick Saban has ever coached, McClain was so many things, not only to the Alabama defense, but to the entire team. For one, he was that rock-solid, emotional leader all great teams have. But he was also that guy on the field who knew everybody’s position, knew everybody’s duties and made sure guys were in the right spots. On top of it all, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound McClain was one of the most productive linebackers in the country who was always making game-changing plays. With the Butkus Award winner deciding to turn pro early, Dont’a Hightower is the heir apparent to take over for McClain. Hightower is a great player in his own right, but is coming off reconstructive knee surgery. If he returns close to 100 percent, the Crimson Tide could have their second straight Butkus Award winner.

3. Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon: We’re going with Dixon at the No. 3 spot for a couple of different reasons. Most importantly, it’s always a chore to replace 126.5 rushing yards per game. Dixon led the SEC in that category. But here’s the other thing: Dixon WAS the Mississippi State offense last season. Dan Mullen rode him the entire season, and Dixon delivered with a record-setting season. With him gone (along with two other senior running backs), the Bulldogs will have to tweak things some offensively in 2010. Making it even more difficult is that there’s not a proven quarterback on campus. Chris Relf was the Bulldogs’ designated runner at quarterback last season and was good in that role. But he only attempted 41 passes in 10 games. Redshirt freshman Tyler Russell will get every chance to win the quarterback job this fall. But when things get hairy, he won't have the luxury of turning around and handing the ball off to Dixon.

4. Ole Miss running back Dexter McCluster: Staying in the state of Mississippi, there wasn’t a more productive or feared player in the league during the second half of the season than McCluster. From the Arkansas game on (or once he moved full time to running back), he carved opposing defenses apart and made the Rebels’ offense so much better with his ability to strike from long distance. The Rebels didn't have to put together long drives all the time because the speedy McCluster was popping long runs left and right. There’s not player in this league, let alone on Ole Miss’ roster, just like McCluster. After all, he became the first player in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards and have 500 yards receiving in the same season in 2009. It may be that the Rebels have to divvy up his roles next season. Junior Brandon Bolden returns as the featured back, but junior college newcomer Randall Mackey looks like a great fit in the Wild Rebel formation. And Ole Miss also needs to find more ways to get the ball to Jesse Grandy. The wild card is Tim Simon, who looked great early on as a freshman before suffering a nasty knee injury. His recovery could be a lengthy one.

5. Tennessee safety Eric Berry: Even though Berry’s interception numbers were down last season, he was still the most complete safety in college football. The Jim Thorpe Award winner was used mostly as a hybrid linebacker in Monte Kiffin’s defensive system and ended up leading SEC defensive backs with 87 tackles, including seven for loss. Having a safety the caliber of Berry opens up so many other things for your defense. He makes up for mistakes, takes the pressure off more unproven players in the secondary and forces the opposing offensive coordinator to know where he is at all times. Berry was perennially around the ball and made so many things happen for the Vols the past three years. Plus, he provided some invaluable leadership for that defense. Janzen Jackson has the physical talent to be the next great safety at Tennessee. When he wasn’t suspended last season, he made his presence felt as a freshman. But he still has to prove that he’s going to do the right things both on and off the field.

Who improved and who regressed in the SEC?

December, 10, 2009
12/10/09
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Who was the most improved team in the SEC this season? Who went the other way?

Let’s make it easier and break it up into categories.

We’ll start with Most Improved. Who says we don’t accentuate the positive around here?

Total offense: Auburn.

The Tigers under first-year coordinator Gus Malzahn were third in the league with an average of 432.3 yards per game, which was 129.4 yards better than a year ago when they were eighth at 302.9 yards per game.

Tennessee was close behind with a jump of 126.6 yards per game. Interestingly enough, the only three schools who didn’t improve their total offense numbers from a year ago were Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Dixon
John David Mercer/US PresswireAnthony Dixon helped the Bulldogs improve their ground game by 127 yards over last year.
Rushing offense: Mississippi State

The Bulldogs were first in the league this season, riding Anthony Dixon and averaging 227.6 yards per game. That’s after finishing 11th last season with an average of 100.6 yards, a difference of 127 yards.

In one of those odd stats, the perception was that Georgia’s running game had dropped off dramatically this season with Knowshon Moreno gone. In actuality, the Bulldogs averaged more rushing yards per game than a year ago. They were ninth in the league, averaging 157.1 yards per game and were fifth a year ago, averaging 148.3 yards per game. So they were up 8.8 yards per game.

Passing offense: Tennessee

The Vols were a runaway winner thanks in large part to Jonathan Crompton’s transformation.

They were third in the league with an average of 225.6 yards per game and finished 11th last season with an average of 145.8 yards per game, an improvement of 79.8 yards per game.

Total defense: Florida

Despite their struggles in the SEC championship game, the Gators were second in the league with an average of 253.8 yards per game after giving up 285.3 yards last season, a difference of 31.5 yards.

Alabama was the only other team in the league that improved its total defense numbers. The Crimson Tide finished first in the SEC, allowing an average of 241.7 yards per game. They gave up an average of 263.5 yards last season, a difference of 21.8 yards.

Rushing defense: Arkansas

That’s right, Arkansas. The Hogs were ninth in the league, giving up an average of 150.1 yards per game. That’s after giving up an average of 170.8 yards per game a year ago, an improvement of 20.7 yards.

Only three teams in the league improved their rush defense numbers from a year ago -- Arkansas, Mississippi State and Florida.

Passing defense: Ole Miss

Ole Miss was sixth in the league with an average of 179 yards per game. That’s after finishing last a year ago with an average of 221.7 yards, a difference of 42.7 yards.

Turnover margin: Arkansas

The Hogs were second in the league at plus-13 and led the league with 27 forced turnovers. They were 11th last season at minus-9, a difference of plus-22.

(Read full post)

ESPN.com's All-SEC team

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
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We’re pleased to announce the “official” 2009 All-SEC team.

No biases. No slant. No trying to take care of every team. No career achievement awards.

Just the best players in the SEC this season with heavy emphasis placed on how they did against league competition.

The quarterback decision was extremely difficult. Florida’s Tim Tebow is one of the best college football players I’ve ever seen over the course of his career, but the numbers say Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett was a little better this season.

Mallett had 2,189 passing yards, 16 touchdown passes and five interceptions in eight SEC games. Tebow had 1,552 passing yards, eight touchdown passes and five interceptions in nine games against SEC foes. Tebow also had eight rushing touchdowns compared to Mallett’s two.

I realize that Alabama nose guard Terrence Cody is in the running for several national awards. At times, he’s a force in the middle, but he wasn’t one of the four best defensive linemen this season on an every-down basis.

Alabama's Javier Arenas was the only player in the league to make it at two different positions. What a senior season he's had. Vanderbilt's Warren Norman was the only freshman to make the team.

There were several tough choices (running back and defensive line, in particular), but here’s our 2009 All-SEC team. On offense, we’ve included an all-purpose player:

OFFENSE

QB -- Ryan Mallett, So., Arkansas

RB -- Mark Ingram, Jr., Alabama

RB -- Anthony Dixon, Sr., Mississippi State

AP -- Randall Cobb, So., Kentucky

WR -- Shay Hodge, Sr., Ole Miss

WR -- A.J. Green, So., Georgia

TE -- Aaron Hernandez, Jr., Florida

OL -- John Jerry, Sr. Ole Miss

OL -- Mike Johnson, Sr., Alabama

OL -- Chris Scott, Sr., Tennessee

OL -- Mike Pouncey, Jr., Florida

C -- Maurkice Pouncey, Jr., Florida

DEFENSE

DE -- Antonio Coleman, Sr., Auburn

DE -- Pernell McPhee, Jr., Mississippi State

DT -- Dan Williams, Sr., Tennessee

DT -- Malcolm Sheppard, Sr., Arkansas

LB -- Eric Norwood, Sr., South Carolina

LB -- Rolando McClain, Jr., Alabama

LB -- Brandon Spikes, Sr., Florida

DB -- Joe Haden, Jr., Florida

DB -- Patrick Peterson, So., LSU

DB -- Javier Arenas, Sr., Alabama

DB -- Eric Berry, Jr., Tennessee

SPECIAL TEAMS

K -- Leigh Tiffin, Sr., Alabama

P -- Drew Butler, So., Georgia

KR -- Warren Norman, Fr., Vanderbilt

PR -- Javier Arenas, Sr., Alabama

What we learned in the SEC: Week 12

November, 22, 2009
11/22/09
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We’re down to this: One more week of football remaining to determine if Alabama and Florida will meet in the SEC championship game as unbeaten teams.

The Crimson Tide and Gators are coming off “scrimmages” and should be rested for their big rivalry games this weekend.

Ole Miss seems to be getting hot at just the right time for the second straight season. They’re just plain hot in Georgia after the Bulldogs’ 34-27 home loss to Kentucky, and who knows what they’re thinking on the Bayou after one of the worst mismanagements of a late-game clock situation by LSU in recent SEC history?

Here’s a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 12:

1. Running backs galore: It’s been a while since the SEC had this many good running backs putting up these kind of numbers in the same season. Picking the top two for first-team All-SEC honors is going to be a chore. Five guys can stake a claim. Alabama’s Mark Ingram has 1,399 rushing yards, averages 6.8 yards per carry and has 15 touchdowns. Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon has 1,258 rushing yards, averages 5.5 yards per carry and has 11 touchdowns. Auburn’s Ben Tate has 1,209 rushing yards, averages 5.4 yards per carry and has eight touchdowns. Tennessee’s Montario Hardesty has 1,127 rushing yards, averages 5 yards per carry and has 10 touchdowns. Ole Miss’ Dexter McCluster has 903 rushing yards, averages 6.9 yards per carry and has nine touchdowns. McCluster also has 412 receiving yards. How do you pick just two?

2. It’s a Big Blue world: If Kentucky does this coming Saturday what it’s failed to do every year since 1984 – and that’s beat Tennessee – the SEC Coach of the Year award this season should take its rightful place in Lexington, Ky. The more you watch this team play, the more respect you gain for what Rich Brooks has done. The Wildcats proved yet again in their 34-27 win over Georgia how resourceful they are, how resilient they are and how they simply don’t give up -- sort of like how Brooks never gave up on this program several years ago when everybody else had given up on him. A win over the Vols at home this coming weekend would give the Wildcats their first eight-win regular season since 1984, quite an accomplishment when you consider all the injuries this team has endured this season.

3. Chaotic clock management: You could watch football for a long time (at any level) and not see a worse butchering of an end-of-game situation than what you saw from LSU on Saturday in its 25-23 loss to Ole Miss. And let’s face it: Les Miles has played with fire before in these situations. Remember the touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd with one second left against Auburn in 2007? He got away with that one, but not this time. There was zero direction on the LSU sideline in that final minute against Ole Miss. Sure, Jordan Jefferson should have never taken that sack on second down, but he never should have been throwing the ball in the first place. Jefferson’s comments afterward were telling. He said confusion reigned and admitted that he “didn’t know what to do.” There were so many mistakes by the LSU offensive staff that the hardest part is trying to figure out where to start. The Tigers wasted 17 seconds before calling a timeout after the third-down play. They inexplicably didn’t try to run the ball after getting to the Ole Miss 32 with 1:04 to play. They didn’t have a plan in place for the final play. And even in the postgame press conference after all the chaos had ended, Miles seemed as lost in trying to explain it all as he did when it was all melting down around him on the sideline. The truth is there isn’t any explaining this one.

4. From bad to worse for Georgia: There was already a black cloud hovering over Georgia’s football program. This season hadn’t been what anybody wanted, but then the Bulldogs went out and lost to Kentucky … at home. Not only did they lose, but they dominated the statistics and still managed to lose. But that’s what happens when you turn the ball over four times in the second half and have 75 penalty yards for the game. The Bulldogs (6-5, 4-4) are staring squarely into the face of their first non-winning regular season since Jim Donnan’s first season in Athens in 1996. The Bulldogs might not be one of the top two most talented teams in the SEC, but they’re certainly one of the top three or four. Talent is not Georgia’s problem. It’s focus. It’s execution. It’s player development and it’s discipline. When you commit as many penalties as the Bulldogs have the past two seasons and turn the ball over as many times as they have this season (26), it’s obvious that there’s a decay in the program somewhere that has to be addressed. Mark Richt has been as classy as they come and as consistent as they come. But if he doesn’t address this decay with more than just cosmetic changes, then it’s going to be addressed for him.

5. Brantley looks the part: It was only for part of the second half and the Gators were up by something like 22 touchdowns, but this just in: Backup quarterback John Brantley can throw it. He’s a better pure passer than Tim Tebow and will add a dimension to the Gators’ passing game next season that they simply don’t have right now. Again, it was mop-up duty, but you talk to enough people in and around the Florida program, and there’s a quiet confidence about some of the things they’re going to be able to do next season with Brantley at the helm. Of course, you give up Tebow’s third-down prowess and his ability to make all the clutch plays with his legs and arm, and you also give up his incredible will to win and the impact that he's had on the rest of his teammates. But Brantley’s polished enough throwing the football that the Gators aren’t going to go quietly into the night next season when Tebow departs. In fact, Brantley might be the third or fourth best quarterback in the SEC right now.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 12

November, 19, 2009
11/19/09
8:00
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The attention shifts away from Alabama and Florida this week because they both face the kind of nonconference games the rest of the country gives the SEC so much grief about.

The timing’s not too bad, though. Both teams can use a breather with the SEC championship game just around the corner.

The marquee game this week features LSU traveling to Ole Miss. The winner can lay claim to being the SEC’s third best team and will also move to the head of the list for a Capital One Bowl invite.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 12:

1. An updated roster at Alabama: It’s not a matter of whether the starters will finish the game against Chattanooga, but whether they finish the first half. Especially those players who have been fighting off nagging injuries, look for them to play just enough to stay game ready. There’s no need to push it in a game like this. Plus, it’s a perfect opportunity to get some younger players into the game that you’re going to need down the road. The fourth quarter might resemble the final quarter of the A-Day Game in terms of all the unfamiliar jersey numbers on the field.

2. An updated roster at Florida: Remember all the buzz about possibly seeing John Brantley against LSU when Tim Tebow was coming off his concussion? Well, Florida fans ought to get a heavy dose of Brantley against Florida International this weekend. Tebow has already taken a ton of hits this season, and there’s no way the Gators are going to take any chances with him. He’ll probably be done by halftime. It’s also a chance to get some of those younger receivers into the game and maybe rest some of the veteran defensive players who’ve been slowed by injuries.

3. Going bowling: Tennessee can become bowl eligible by winning this weekend, and Arkansas can improve its standing in the SEC’s bowl pecking order by winning. The Hogs face Mississippi State in Little Rock, while the Vols take on Vanderbilt in Knoxville. Mississippi State, meanwhile, is eliminated from bowl contention unless the Bulldogs can win over the Hogs at War Memorial Stadium. Mississippi State would then have to win on the final weekend of the regular season over Ole Miss to become bowl eligible. Currently, nine teams in the SEC are already bowl eligible. Vanderbilt is the only team that’s been eliminated.

4. Magnificent McCluster: Already one of the most exciting players in the country, 5-foot-8, 170-pound Dexter McCluster has been one of the hottest players in the country the past few weeks. He has 591 rushing yards in his last three SEC games to go along with six touchdowns. He’s coming off a school-record 282-yard performance against Tennessee where he scored four times, including a 71-yard run that will be a fixture in Ole Miss highlight packages for a long time to come. Even though he carried it 25 times last week, McCluster ought to be plenty fresh for LSU and the rest of the season. He had double-digit carries only once in his first six games.

5. Porter’s days dwindling at LSU? He’s been one of the key pieces to LSU’s coaching staff under Les Miles, but Larry Porter is now one of the leading candidates for the head coaching job at Memphis. A former running back at Memphis, Porter is widely viewed as one of the top recruiters in college football. His handprints were all over the class the Tigers brought in last year that was ranked No. 1 nationally by ESPN’s Scouts Inc. Porter coaches the running backs at LSU and also has the title of assistant head coach. It may be just a matter of time before he’s heading up his own program at his alma mater.

6. Big test for Jones: Tennessee was missing its starting free safety last week, and you see what McCluster did to the Vols. LSU free safety Chad Jones is now the guy responsible for making sure that McCluster doesn’t poster-ize the Tigers, too. Jones won’t be the only one trying to slow down the red-hot McCluster. He’ll have some help from his LSU defensive mates, who’ve been stingy against the run all season. LSU has allowed just three rushing touchdowns, which is tied for the SEC low with Florida, but McCluster poses the kind of big-play threat that can make any defense look silly.

7. Dixon vs. Mallett: It’s the classic run vs. pass matchup. Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon is second in the SEC in rushing and averages 120.2 yards per game. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett leads the SEC in passing with an average of 288.2 yards per game. Dixon may end up being the Bulldogs’ best defense against Mallett, who’s already set or matched 10 different school records this season. If Dixon can pound away at the Arkansas defense and help Mississippi State play keep-away, Mallett won’t get as many chances. Dixon has been a workhorse for the Bulldogs, carrying the ball 204 times. The only person to carry it more in the SEC this season is Auburn’s Ben Tate, who has 205 carries.

8. Berry bids adieu: He’s not officially saying this will be his Neyland Stadium farewell, but you know it will be. Tennessee junior safety Eric Berry is projected to be one of the top handful of picks in April’s NFL draft, meaning the chances of him hanging around for his senior season are remote at best. Berry has been a wonderful player for the Vols. He’s been an even better representative of the university and has gone out of his way to do everything with class. He insists that he’s not thinking of this as his final home game and instead just wants to soak everything up and enjoy the moment. Either way, he’ll go down as one of the finest to ever wear the orange.

9. Georgia leaning on the run: With star receiver A.J. Green out with a shoulder injury, the running game becomes more important than ever for the Bulldogs this weekend against Kentucky. The good news is that they’ve been running it better these last few games and have seemed to find the right combination up front. Georgia coach Mark Richt said one of the keys was moving sophomore Cordy Glenn back inside to guard from tackle, and freshman running back Washaun Ealey has also added some pop to the Bulldogs’ running game. They’ve averaged 191.7 yards on the ground in their last four games.

10. Cobb-Locke duo carrying Wildcats: Kentucky is holding its breath that Mr. Versatility, Randall Cobb, will recover from his shoulder injury well enough to be able to play Saturday against Georgia. He’s been the heartbeat of this team all season along with junior tailback Derrick Locke. They rank No. 3 and No. 4 in the SEC in all-purpose yards. Cobb is averaging 148.1 yards per game and Locke 146.1 yards per game. When healthy, they pose an ominous challenge for any defense, and both players are also extremely involved in special teams. Between them, they’ve scored 18 touchdowns this season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

The countdown to Alabama vs. Florida II began last Saturday night when the Crimson Tide were putting the finishing touches on their 24-15 win over LSU.

We know the Crimson Tide and Gators are going to play for the SEC championship for the second straight year. These next couple of weeks will determine whether that game will also be for the right to play for the national championship.

Both teams face road tests this weekend, while one of the most intriguing games in the league is Tennessee’s visit to Ole Miss, only the fourth time ever that the Vols have faced the Rebels in Oxford. It’s also Ed Orgeron’s return to Oxford in a game both teams need to bolster their bowl standing.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 11:

1. Ingram vs. Dixon: The top two running backs in the SEC go at it in Starkville. Alabama’s Mark Ingram is leading the league with an average of 127.6 rushing yards per game, and Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon is right on his tail with an average of 125.1 yards per game. Both players have already gone over 1,000 yards for the season, and both players don’t go down easily. We know they’re capable of huge games, too. See Ingram’s 246-yard effort against South Carolina and Dixon’s 252-yard effort against Kentucky. The SEC rushing title could well be decided in this game.

2. Home cooking? Mississippi State has already played one of the toughest home schedules in the country and one that may go down as one of the toughest in recent SEC history. It only gets more difficult on Saturday when No. 2 Alabama comes to town. The Crimson Tide are the fifth team in the top 15 of this week’s BCS standings to pay a visit to Scott Field. The Bulldogs have already lost at home to No. 1 Florida, No. 7 Georgia Tech, No. 8 LSU and No. 15 Houston. All but Georgia Tech were fourth-quarter games.

3. Big-play SEC: While this league has a defensive reputation for good reason, three of the best big-play offensive artists in the country have resided in the SEC this season. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett leads all FBS quarterbacks with 23 passes of 30 yards or longer. The next closest guy is San Diego State’s Ryan Lindley with 19. Mallett is third nationally with 37 passes of 20 yards or longer. Ingram leads the nation with 24 rushes of 15 yards or longer, while Georgia receiver A.J. Green has 15 catches of 20 yards or longer, which is one off the national lead.

4. Gators winning with defense: All those 40- and 50-point explosions from a year ago are a distant memory. So everybody waiting for this Florida team to transform overnight and become that same team from a year ago might want to give it up. This is a team that’s winning with defense, and Urban Meyer is coaching to that defense. Excellent special-teams play doesn’t hurt, and neither does having Tim Tebow on third down. But Florida’s defense heads to South Carolina this weekend having given up just six touchdowns all season.

5. Calling a few ball plays: The South Carolina fans have been clamoring for the Head Ball Coach to call all of his own plays again ever since last season when he started delegating some of those duties to his son, Steve Spurrier Jr. But the elder Spurrier said earlier this week that he would move back into the lead role again of calling plays, and it just so happens that his first game as the primary playcaller again will come against the mighty Gators. It was at Florida where Spurrier became a legend with his “ball plays” and developed a well-earned reputation as the best playcaller in the business.

6. Matthews returning? The Gamecocks could use some help this weekend on defense against the Gators and may get it in the form of junior defensive end Cliff Matthews. Spurrier said there’s a chance that Matthews may be able to play after injuring his shoulder against Tennessee two weeks ago and not playing last week against Arkansas. Getting Matthews back on the field would be huge for the Gamecocks. He’s one of those guys who plays the run as well as he rushes the passer, and that’s vital when you’re going up against Tebow.

7. Greetings for Coach O: What will it be like for Ed Orgeron to return to Ole Miss for the first time since he was fired following the 2007 season? The reviews from his former players have been mixed. Some have talked about his energy and his passion and what a relentless recruiter he was. Others have talked about how ruthless he was in his treatment of players. Orgeron, now the Tennessee recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach, has placed himself off limits to the media this week, but you know this is a game he’s had circled for a long time. Despite his dismal record at Ole Miss as head coach, most of the Rebels’ top players are guys he recruited. The Vols have won 12 straight games in the series.

8. Georgia’s penalties: Even after Georgia coach Mark Richt issued an edict that players whistled for penalties would be yanked from the game, the Bulldogs still went out and committed 11 penalties last week in the win over Tennessee Tech. Six of those were for false starts on the offensive line. This penalty epidemic has been going on for two years now, and Georgia enters Saturday’s game against Auburn with 18 more penalties than the next most penalized team in the SEC (Arkansas). The Bulldogs are flirting with 80 yards per game in penalties. Nobody else in the league is in the 60s.

9. Ridley’s chance: The word out of Baton Rouge is that Stevan Ridley is the real deal and will get every chance to show what he can do now that senior running back Charles Scott is out for the remainder of the regular season with a broken collarbone. We saw a glimpse of Ridley last week when he stepped in for Scott and scored on an 8-yard touchdown run to put the Tigers ahead in the third quarter. The 222-pound Ridley hurt his knee back in March and missed most of spring practice, but he was the guy the Tigers turned to when Scott went down at Alabama. It will be interesting to see how the carries are split the rest of the way between Ridley and Keiland Williams.

10. Hartline’s return: As long as Mike Hartline’s knee doesn’t look too shaky in practice the rest of this week, he’s going to have a chance to play Saturday against Vanderbilt. The Kentucky junior quarterback has missed the last four games, and it’s been quarterback by committee for the Wildcats. True freshman Morgan Newton has played the last couple of weeks, but Will Fidler and Randall Cobb have also played some there. Kentucky has managed to go 3-1 in Hartline’s absence, but needs this game against Vanderbilt to lock up a bowl trip. Hartline isn’t the only one who’s been hurting. Cornerback Trevard Lindley is also expected to return for this game after missing the last four with a high-ankle sprain.

SEC power rankings

November, 2, 2009
11/02/09
8:04
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

We have a change at the top this week in the SEC power rankings thanks to Florida’s most complete game of the season:

1. Florida: The Gators (8-0, 6-0) answered the mounting questions about their offensive shortcomings emphatically last Saturday with a 41-17 whipping of Georgia in Jacksonville. It’s the kind of complete performance Florida needed heading into the November stretch and was enough to push the Gators past the Crimson Tide into the No. 1 spot.

2. Alabama: Even though the Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0) dropped to No. 2, it was a productive week. They had a bye, which came at a perfect time with LSU coming to town this weekend. Ultimately, it’s not going to matter whether the Crimson Tide are No. 1 or No. 2 if they keep winning. They’ll get their shot to prove they're the SEC’s best team on the field.

3. LSU: The Tigers (7-1, 4-1) have come to life offensively the last two weeks and are coming off a 42-0 rout of Tulane. They get their chance Saturday to move to the forefront of the Western Division race with a win over Alabama. The Tigers have proven they’re good enough defensively to pull it off. Whether they’ve improved enough offensively remains to be seen.

4. Tennessee: The Vols (4-4, 2-3) just keep getting better and are one of those teams nobody wants to play right now. They followed up on their near upset of Alabama with a convincing 31-13 win over South Carolina last weekend. Their defense has allowed just one touchdown in the last three games, and quarterback Jonathan Crompton is playing the best football of his career.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks (6-3, 3-3) need to find a way to hold on after losing badly at Tennessee. This can still be a successful season, but it starts to head the other way in a hurry if they lose a second straight this Saturday at Arkansas. The Gamecocks turned the ball over three times in the first 16 minutes of their 31-13 loss at Tennessee. They have to play smarter and with more discipline.

6. Auburn: The Tigers (6-3, 3-3) stopped the bleeding with a much-needed 33-20 win over Ole Miss. Suddenly, winning eight games seems like a real possibility again. The most encouraging news about the win over the Rebels was the way the defense played. Chris Todd also returned to the form that made him one of the league’s most productive quarterbacks in September.

7. Georgia: There have certainly been better days for the Bulldogs (4-4, 3-3). They’ve now lost 17 of their last 20 meetings with archrival Florida and look like they might be limping to the finish this season. The defense continues to give up big numbers. The offense is limited, and the penalties and turnovers just won’t go away. Mark Richt sounds like he’s considering making a change at quarterback after Joe Cox threw three interceptions last week.

8. Ole Miss: Just when you thought the Rebels (5-3, 2-3) were about to get on a roll, they lay an egg at Auburn in a 33-20 loss. It’s already been a disappointing year for a team that opened the season ranked in the Top 10, but it could really turn ugly if the Rebels don’t take care of their business down the stretch. Their resume to this point is pretty unimpressive.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs (4-5, 2-3) are playing some of their best football right now, and senior running back Anthony Dixon has been off-the-charts good. He’s coming off a school-record 252 yards rushing in the 31-24 win over Kentucky. Dan Mullen’s club gets a week off before Alabama comes to town on Nov. 14.

10. Arkansas: The Hogs (4-4, 1-4) beat up on Eastern Michigan 63-27 in one of those name-your-score type of games. Of course, scoring hasn’t really been a problem for this team, which still has a lot to prove in SEC play. The Hogs played well in their 23-20 loss to Florida a couple of weeks ago, but need to come up with a few more league wins down the stretch to make this a successful season.

11. Kentucky: The Wildcats (4-4, 1-4) continue to play shorthanded, although middle linebacker Micah Johnson was able to come back from an MCL strain and play in the 31-24 loss to Mississippi State. Kentucky gets Eastern Kentucky this Saturday and will then need one more win against either Vanderbilt, Georgia or Tennessee to become bowl eligible. There aren’t any guarantees.

12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores (2-7, 0-5) played great for a half against Georgia Tech, but then the bottom fell out. The Yellow Jackets scored 28 unanswered points to turn a 31-28 Vanderbilt lead in the third quarter into a rout. The Commodores have now lost five straight and travel to No. 1 Florida on Saturday. They’re the only team in the league that’s been eliminated from bowl contenti$on.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- One of the biggest storylines in the Florida-Mississippi State game on Saturday night may end up being how many of their injured defenders the Gators are able to get on the field.

Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes and tackles Jaye Howard and Lawrence Marsh are all iffy and didn't practice much this week. Tackle Justin Trattou (torn biceps) is definitely out, and Florida coach Urban Meyer said Howard (knee) and Marsh (ankle) are both doubtful.

Spikes missed most of the Arkansas game last week with a groin injury. The Gators missed his productivity and leadership. The players on that side of the ball will all tell you that they typically go as Spikes goes.

Here's the other thing: When you're going against Mississippi State bruising running back Anthony Dixon, the last place you want to be shorthanded is the middle of your defense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

One slip-up in the preseason wasn’t going to ruin what had been one of the most committed stretches of Anthony Dixon's football career.

 
 AP Photo Jim Lytle
 Anthony Dixon is now Mississippi State’s all-time leading rusher.
The fast-talking and hard-running senior tailback simply wasn’t going to allow that to happen.

If anything, his DUI arrest back in July -- one of those situations that Dixon says now that he should have never put himself in -- has served as a motivator for doing everything the right way.

His lifestyle. His diet. His work ethic. His commitment to his team. His commitment to helping Mississippi State get back to a bowl game.

“Mentally, spiritually … I’m just better at everything I’m doing,” said Dixon, who became Mississippi State’s all-time leading rusher last week in the 27-6 win over Middle Tennessee.

“I’ve really changed a lot. I’ve started living differently and just taking everything a little more seriously. Really, I’ve just turned it up, turned that knob all the way up, broken that knob. I’m turned up to the max right now and ready to go. This is my senior year. I don’t have many more chances to leave my mark on this league and leave my mark on this program.”

Dixon, who has 3,299 career rushing yards, was suspended for the opener against Jackson State as punishment for his DUI arrest. But he’s gained at least 100 yards in every game but one since returning to the lineup. That one game that he didn’t was his first game back against Auburn, and he had 94 yards.

“I’m making some good reads and hitting the hole,” said Dixon, who’s third in the SEC in rushing with 696 yards and seven touchdowns. “I still have to get my pad level a little lower and finish off the play. I’m kind of mad at myself from the last game. I let the safeties get me twice, and I know I should have beaten them. That’s the thing I’ve got to do better this game.”

Dixon is downright giddy about measuring himself against the Florida defense, which is ranked second nationally and has only given up two rushing touchdowns all season. But more importantly, he knows it’s a chance for the Bulldogs to get back on track in their quest for a bowl game.

“It’s the biggest game of my life, playing the No. 1 team,” Dixon said. “It’s my first time getting to play Florida. I watched them coming up as a kid. It’s a chance of a lifetime, man. I’ve been dreaming about this day. I’m not going to hold anything back. I’ve been telling my teammates the same thing. We have to get that intensity up, because I know what kind of intensity they’re going to have.

“This is our chance, on national TV, to show everybody what we’re about at Mississippi State.”

Mississippi State first-year coach Dan Mullen said Dixon’s energy has been infectious and is one of the main reasons this team hung in there despite three tough losses in a row prior to the win last week at Middle Tennessee.

“Every day at practice, he’s high energy, high effort,” Mullen said. “In the locker room, he’s high energy and high effort. When he plays, you can see that in how he plays on Saturdays. He’s really a team player, and that’s an important thing when you’re trying to build a program, to have your best player to be all about the team.”

Dixon, who’s sixth all-time in the SEC with 787 rushing attempts, was coming off the best offseason of his career when he ran into his trouble off the field two weeks before the start of preseason practice. He’d dropped 20 pounds, reshaped his body and was moving better than he ever had.

But he admits, for a split second, that he lost his focus and let his team down.

“I didn’t have my mind right, to let something like that happen,” Dixon said. “It was something that happens to a lot of people, and I made a mistake. I’m definitely not perfect. But even though I put myself in that situation, I was still working my butt off and giving it all to my team. I just went out and tried to have a little fun and made a bad decision.

“But you realize that it’s all about staying focused on the things that matter, and what matters is this team.”

SEC picks: Week 7

October, 15, 2009
10/15/09
9:01
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


It could have been a memorable week. I hit Tennessee’s win over Georgia and Arkansas’ win over Auburn.

Granted, I didn’t see either game being as lopsided as they were.

My chance at perfection went out the window with Vanderbilt’s overtime loss to Army and then Mississippi State’s loss to Houston where the Bulldogs didn’t get any favors from the officiating crew.

So after six weeks, I’m 40-9 (.816) and was 5-2 last week. There’s a bonus written into my contract that I get to take a limousine to the Florida-Georgia game if I’m still over .800 when that game rolls around.

Please wish me luck. I'm already dreading Union Avenue.

Here are my picks for Week 7:

Mississippi State 30, Middle Tennessee 24: What is Mississippi State doing playing at Middle Tennessee? Talk about a game where you have everything to lose and nothing to win. The Bulldogs are coming off three tough losses in a row, so they’re not going to be picky about the particulars. They need any win. It won’t be easy in Murfreesboro, Tenn., but Anthony Dixon and Co. will find a way to grind it out.

Ole Miss 35, UAB 14: The worse Ole Miss plays, the worse its schedule looks. This schedule wasn’t very flattering when you broke it down back in August. It really looks like a dud now. So far, the Rebels have beaten Memphis, Southeastern Louisiana and Vanderbilt. They get a chance to add UAB to that list on Saturday, which isn’t going to win the Rebels much love nationally. But more than anything, they just need a game where they play well on offense and get everybody going in the same direction.

Georgia 21, Vanderbilt 10: Go back and check the recent history of this series. Vanderbilt always seems to play Georgia tough, and it beat the Bulldogs in Athens in 2006. Vanderbilt has really targeted the state of Georgia in its recruiting, too, so winning this game would give the Commodores even more legitimacy when they start knocking on doors in that state. Look for another second-half game, but Vanderbilt simply doesn’t have enough offense to pull off the upset.

Auburn 38, Kentucky 17: The schedule has really worked out pretty nicely for Auburn to this point. The Tigers get to come back home after their first loss of the season and face an injury-riddled Kentucky team that will be playing without its starting quarterback and best defensive player. The Wildcats played valiantly last week at South Carolina, but you wonder if they’re about to hit that wall.

Florida 34, Arkansas 21: This is the fourth straight week that Arkansas has faced an unbeaten team. The Hogs also get the pleasure of being the second team this season (joining Kentucky) to have faced both Alabama and Florida, the top two teams in the country. The Hogs have a better idea of what they’re getting into for this game than they did at Alabama and have improved on defense. This game will be closer than most people expect, but the Gators are too dialed in to stumble now.

Alabama 24, South Carolina 7: Any time you get Steve Spurrier on one sideline and Nick Saban on the other sideline, it ought to be fun. Now, if Spurrier were still coaching some of those Florida teams from the 1990s, this would be one everybody would want to see. But he’s not. Anyway (as the Head Ball coach would say), the Gamecocks have been one of surprises in the SEC in the first half of the season and have hung in there despite some costly injuries on defense. Quarterback Stephen Garcia is getting better, and this could be one of Spurrier’s best teams at South Carolina. But that’s still a far cry from having a team that’s ready to go to Tuscaloosa and beat an Alabama team that might be the best in the country.

SEC picks: Week 6

October, 8, 2009
10/08/09
9:04
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


As I survey the lineup of games this week in the SEC, there’s no doubt that it’s the toughest batch I’ve had to pick all season.

You knew back in the spring when you looked at the schedule that Oct. 10 was going to be one of those days that we SEC freaks live for. It all starts at noon ET in Fayetteville, Ark., and won’t end until sometime just before midnight in Baton Rouge, La.

Strap it on a little tighter, and make sure those ankles have plenty of tape.

It’s going to be a wild one.

I go into the weekend on a bit of a roll. I’m 35-7 for the season (.833) and was 6-1 last week. I’ve hit 13 of 15 the past two weeks.

The only one I missed last week was LSU’s 20-13 win over Georgia, and who knows how that one would have turned out had the officiating crew not been excessively throwing flags in the final minutes.

Here are my picks for Week 6 in the SEC:

Vanderbilt 19, Army 13: This is the first of two option offenses the Commodores will see this month. Georgia Tech pays a visit to Nashville on Oct. 31. Of course, defense hasn’t been the problem for the Commodores this season. They simply haven’t been able to score, totaling 19 points in their three SEC losses. Look for them to match that total at West Point, which should be enough to even their overall record at 3-3.

Mississippi State 35, Houston 31: The Bulldogs go from a run-happy offense in Georgia Tech last week to a pass-happy offense in Houston this week. The Cougars can score points with the best of them. They just can’t stop anybody. UTEP’s Donald Buckram ran for 262 yards and four touchdowns last week against a Houston defense that’s allowed 121 points in its last three games. Think Anthony Dixon is licking his chops?

South Carolina 31, Kentucky 13: Too bad South Carolina can’t play Kentucky every week. The Gamecocks haven’t had many teams’ number in the SEC, but they’ve pretty much owned the Wildcats. South Carolina has won nine straight and 11 of the last 13 games in the series. History’s not the only thing working against the Wildcats, either. Both of their starting cornerbacks, including All-American Trevard Lindley, are out for this game.

Tennessee 21, Georgia 17: The Vols have been close enough to be dangerous in their two SEC losses. Their defense has given them a chance against both Florida and Auburn. Now, if only the offense would cooperate. The Bulldogs haven’t been able to run it the past two weeks, which doesn’t bode well for them against Monte Kiffin’s defense. Meanwhile, the Vols’ running game seems to be hitting its stride. It all adds up to Lane Kiffin’s first SEC win.

Arkansas 38, Auburn 31: Gene Chizik has done a terrific job with the Tigers, who at 5-0 are the surprise team of the league. They’re extremely balanced on offense and playing with a purpose. The chinks have come on defense, which has given up more points and yards than anybody on the Plains would like. That will finally catch up with them in Fayetteville, where the Hogs will find themselves on the right end of a shootout this time.

Alabama 24, Ole Miss 17: These teams always seem to play close games, and Alabama always seems to win. The Crimson Tide have won five straight and six of the last seven in the series. If the Rebels (and Jevan Snead) were playing better, it would be tempting to pick them at home. But Alabama’s defense is just too good, and the guy playing quarterback for the Crimson Tide hasn’t been what you’d call shabby.

Florida 28, LSU 16: Will he, or won’t he? Picking this game without knowing the playing status of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is like trying to hear the signals in Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night. The place will be rocking for sure, and LSU’s defense will be ready for whatever quarterback Florida trots out there. Ultimately, though, the difference will be the Gators’ defense, which has only given up two touchdowns all season. The Tigers have had a hard time scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and you’re not going to beat Florida kicking field goals.

SEC picks: Week 4

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
9:03
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


Well, I’m 22-5 on the season (.814) and not especially proud of my performance from last week.

I was 7-2, missing Mississippi State’s win over Vanderbilt and Georgia’s win over Arkansas. But I was also battling flu-like symptoms. I just want to get that out there.

Wearing a mask and my hands dripping in sanitizer, here are my picks for Week 4 in the SEC:

THURSDAY

Ole Miss 24, South Carolina 21: You keep waiting for the Head Ball Coach to win one of these games and notch that signature win that has escaped him at South Carolina. The Rebels are ripe for an upset after playing a soft schedule to this point. But Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead isn’t going to stay average for much longer, and South Carolina has some guys banged up on defense. Until the Gamecocks win one of these, it’s just hard to pick them.

SATURDAY

Tennessee 31, Ohio 13: Remember the days when a 10-point loss to Florida had everybody calling for the coach’s job at Tennessee? Well, it’s a different day on Rocky Top. The Vols are trying to work their way back to elite status under Lane Kiffin and hope to build off their hard-fought 23-13 loss to the Gators. The best way to do that is play with the same pride, purpose and toughness they played with at the Swamp from here on out ... regardless of the opponent.

Auburn 42, Ball State 10: A year later, the euphoria is gone for Ball State. The Cardinals had a memorable run last season, but lost just about everybody from that team. They limp into Jordan-Hare Stadium with a 0-3 record, including a loss to the same North Texas team that was trounced last week by Alabama. Look for the Tigers to go to 4-0 and pour it on in this game, almost as hard as the rain poured last weekend on the Plains.

Vanderbilt 27, Rice 20: If the Commodores ever needed a win, they need one now. They were able to get by last season with a strong defense and key plays on special teams, which masked a limited offense. There’s been no masking that offense this season, but a simplified attack and a few big plays from sophomore quarterback Larry Smith should be enough to keep the Owls winless. They’ve given up 140 points in their first three games.

Georgia 34, Arizona State 17: With all the grumbling about Georgia’s porous pass defense, gone virtually unnoticed is the fact that the Bulldogs are 2-0 in the SEC. They step back out of conference this week and face another stiff challenge in Dennis Erickson’s Sun Devils. Georgia’s schedule gets harder every time you look at it. But this is a team that has rallied around each other and will find a way to get it done again Saturday, setting up what will be a huge showdown with LSU in two weeks at Sanford Stadium.

Florida 42, Kentucky 14: The Gators have scored at least 45 points in three of the four games in this series since Urban Meyer arrived in 2005. The Wildcats had serious problems hanging onto the ball last week in their win over Louisville. If you turn the ball over against Florida, what happens is what happened to the Wildcats last season when they were clobbered 63-5. It won’t be that bad this time around, but the Gators will still take out a little frustration after not having their "A" game last week against Tennessee.

LSU 21, Mississippi State 16: This is a dangerous game for LSU. The Bulldogs are a confident bunch after winning at Vanderbilt last week, and senior running back Anthony Dixon is running like he means business. This is also Mississippi State’s first game back home after two straight games on the road, so the cowbells will be ringing with renewed vigor. The difference will be an LSU defense that hasn’t allowed a touchdown in the past six quarters and appears to be rounding into shape under first-year coordinator John Chavis.

Alabama 38, Arkansas 21: Watching Ryan Mallett go up against Alabama’s defense will be a treat, although it might not seem that way to Mallett when he’s got Marcell Dareus, Dont’a Hightower and Rolando McClain chasing him. The Hogs’ passing game is the real deal, but so is Alabama’s defense. The Crimson Tide will get Mallett out of the pocket, where he didn’t look quite as effective throwing against Georgia last week.

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.

SEC power rankings

September, 14, 2009
9/14/09
9:01
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


Now we’re getting into some conference games we can really sink our teeth into.

Georgia and South Carolina played a wild one in Athens Saturday night, combining for 78 points, 206 yards in penalties and one game-changing play after another on special teams.

The team on the move this week is Auburn, which is 2-0 and coming off a 49-24 blistering of Mississippi State.

The team taking the biggest tumble is Tennessee, which lost for the second straight season to UCLA. The Vols are 1-3 against Pac-10 foes in the past four years.

Here’s a look at this week’s updated SEC power rankings:

1. Florida: Can the Gators make it 50-plus points for the third straight week? They barely broke a sweat in the first two games against outmanned foes and have yet to give up a touchdown. But now it’s on to Tennessee and Lane Kiffin. Florida coach Urban Meyer downplayed Kiffin’s comments Sunday and said it’s all water under the bridge. If you believe that, I’ve got some property on the water in Bucksnort, Tenn., I want to sell you.

2. Alabama: Coach Nick Saban wasn’t especially fond of the intensity Alabama played with to start the game, but the Crimson Tide sure did finish the game with a flurry in a 40-14 win over Florida International. This is a team that can strike fast and has owned the fourth quarter this season. The Tide pulled away Saturday without Julio Jones on the field. Now if only Alabama can figure out how to cover a kickoff.

3. Ole Miss: The biggest battle the Rebels fought last week was the one with the flu. In other words, the bye came at a perfect time. They had more than 25 players at one point too sick to practice, but the bug has appeared to run its course. It really shouldn’t matter again this week. Ole Miss faces Southeastern Louisiana in the second leg of one of the softest nonconference schedules you’re going to see anywhere. The Rebels’ first real test won’t come until the Thursday night game against South Carolina later this month.

4. LSU: Les Miles called his club’s 23-9 win over Vanderbilt “imperfect.” But given the way the Tigers struggled on defense in the opener against Washington, it was a nice response by John Chavis’ crew, which held the Commodores to 81 yards on 31 plays in the second half. Anything less than a 4-0 start would be a real disappointment for the Tigers, who have Louisiana-Lafayette this week and Mississippi State the next.

5. Arkansas: The Hogs have been working on Georgia since before their first game, so this is one they ought to be ready for. Arkansas was off last week after blasting Missouri State 48-10. This looks to be one of the most explosive offensive teams in the league. But you really don’t know until the Hogs go up against an SEC defense. When you look at Arkansas’ road schedule, it’s easy to see why this is such a crucial game for the Hogs at home.

6. Georgia: After being down and out following a season-opening loss to Oklahoma State, the Bulldogs got back up off the deck and slugged their way to a 41-37 win at home Saturday night against South Carolina. The Bulldogs’ backs were to the wall, and they played like it after falling behind 17-7 in the first quarter. Senior quarterback Joe Cox, sore shoulder and all, needed some success to build on the rest of the way.

7. Auburn: Gus Malzahn’s offense just keeps on rolling up 500-yard games, and Auburn made it look easy last week against Mississippi State in a 49-24 rout. The Tigers could have played for 10 quarters last season and not scored 49 points against an SEC defense. As Auburn coach Gene Chizik said, the Tigers’ offensive line is “getting it” right now and paving the way for Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb to run their way into the Auburn history books.

8. South Carolina: There was a lot to like about South Carolina’s 41-37 loss on the road to Georgia, namely the fact that sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia grew up before our very eyes and finally played like a guy capable of leading his team to a big season. There were still too many mistakes on special teams, and the running game hasn’t been real productive through the first two weeks.

9. Kentucky: The Wildcats are back in action after taking last week off. Rich Brooks was pleased with the way his defense charged out of the gate in the opener and clamped down on Miami (Ohio) in a 42-0 shutout. Louisville should provide a little stiffer test this week, and then it’s really on with back-to-back home games against Florida and Alabama. So much of what happens this season with Kentucky revolves around the continued development of junior quarterback Mike Hartline.

10.Vanderbilt: This is probably a little low for a team that was right there in the middle of a one-possession game at LSU until the latter stages. The Commodores, though, will have a chance to prove they should be higher in the coming weeks. They’re really good on defense again and come after you from all different angles. It’s the passing game (really the offense in general) that needs to improve in a hurry.

11. Tennessee: The only thing the Vols have proven to this point is that they can beat up on an incredibly weak Western Kentucky team. The air was let out of the Big Orange balloon Saturday in a 19-15 home loss to UCLA. It’s a loss that may haunt the Vols for the rest of the season. If senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton is going to throw the kind of interceptions he did against UCLA, then Kiffin has no choice but to give a shot to Nick Stephens.

12. Mississippi State: The most disappointing thing for the Bulldogs in their lopsided loss to Auburn was that they didn’t hold up better defensively. It’s no secret that the offense may be a work in progress this season, and it was good for the Bulldogs to get senior running back Anthony Dixon back from a suspension. They get a chance for redemption this weekend at Vanderbilt.

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