NCF Nation: Chris Nickson
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
A few things to watch as the first SEC teams kick off their portion of the bowl season on New Year's Eve. Vanderbilt takes on Boston College in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET), and LSU faces Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET):
1. Angry or apathetic?: LSU coach Les Miles has talked a lot about how the Tigers are ready to come out and fight in this bowl game, how they're primed and ready to put a bow on an otherwise disappointing season. Honestly, it's been a while since we've seen that version of the Tigers. The defending national champions enter the matchup with Georgia Tech having lost three of their last four games. If they're genuinely ready to get it on, this has a chance to be one of the more interesting bowl games. If they're ready to get it over with, the Yellow Jackets and everybody else in the Georgia Dome may be asking what the rushing record is by the start of the second half. Remember, the last time the Yellow Jackets and their triple-option offense faced an SEC defense, they rolled up 409 rushing yards against Georgia to end the regular season.
2. Defensive distractions: The LSU defense didn't play very well this season when there were no distractions. But the Tigers go into this game knowing one co-defensive coordinator, Bradley Dale Peveto, is headed to Northwestern State, where he's been named the head coach, while the other co-defensive coordinator, Doug Mallory, is headed to New Mexico to be the Lobos' defensive coordinator. It's called finding other employment before you're demoted or fired, and both of the Tigers' embattled co-defensive coordinators did just that. Now that they're on their way out and everybody knows so, let's see how an LSU defense that gave up 30 or more points in its last three games responds.
3. Proving ground for Eagles: Talk about a battle of bowl neophytes vs. bowl veterans. Boston College will be gunning for its ninth straight bowl victory, the longest such streak in the country. This is the Eagles' 10th straight bowl appearance. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is making its first bowl appearance in 26 years. Nothing against the Music City Bowl, but you know the Eagles had hoped for more this year, losing for the second straight year in the ACC Championship Game. They've just missed on some chances to land BCS berths in recent years and are annually passed over by other bowls because their fans don't typically travel well. Will they be determined to prove they deserve better, or will they be bummed to even be in the Music City in the first place?
4. Quarterback carousel: Who won't line up at quarterback for the Commodores? Senior Chris Nickson will likely get the start, but he's been wildly inconsistent this season. In his defense, he hasn't been the same since hurting his throwing shoulder, the same injury that plagued him all of last season. Junior Mackenzi Adams was strong in relief several times this season and took over the starting duties toward the end of the season, but he went down with injuries to his knee and chest. Redshirt freshman Larry Smith showed enough promise in the regular-season finale against Wake Forest that Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has said that Smith will figure into the mix in the bowl game. Smith's reps during the pre-Christmas practices went up considerably. Boston College has its own issues at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Dominique Davis will be making just his third career start after taking over for injured fifth-year senior Chris Crane. Davis threw a pair of interceptions in the ACC Championship Game loss to Virginia Tech.
5. Points at a premium: The first team to 20 is probably going to win this one. Boston College is sixth nationally in total defense, so few teams have taken the ball and driven it down the Eagles' throats. The Commodores haven't driven it down anybody's throat in a long time. They had a terrible time scoring points after starting out 5-0 this season. In fact, they were held to 14 or fewer points in seven of their last eight games. In addition to the uncertainty at quarterback, Vanderbilt is also shorthanded at running back. Jamie Graham, a receiver and return specialist this season, could see most of his time in the backfield depending on how much Jared Hawkins is able to play. There's also All-America cornerback D.J. Moore, who's proven he can make plays wherever the Commodores put him.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We check in with the Internal Affairs department from around the SEC:
1. Tackle by committee: Florida is banged up in its defensive line heading into Saturday's game at Florida State, which means you could see all sorts of combinations at tackle. The Gators will be without backup tackle Matt Patchan, who has a sprained knee, and it's unknown how much starting nose tackle Lawrence Marsh will be able to play after spraining his MCL last week against The Citadel. Sophomore Terron Sanders will move in as the starter at tackle, and if Marsh can't play, junior Brandon Antwine will start at nose. Sophomore Torrey Davis is moving from tackle to nose to provide depth at that position, but a number of players may see action at both interior positions against the Seminoles. Redshirt freshman Jaye Howard is another one that will see time at tackle behind Sanders.
2. Loading the line: It sounds simple enough, although not a lot of teams have made it work against Georgia Tech. But look for Georgia to do everything it can (including putting everybody in the box) to take Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer out of the game as early as possible. This is a big game for the Georgia linebackers. They have to tackle well and play with some discipline against Georgia Tech's option offense. Georgia as a defense has not been consistent with its tackling this season, and stopping the run has also been an issue of late. The Bulldogs have given up 185 yards or more on the ground in three of their last four games, and the Yellow Jackets are fourth in the nation in rushing at 270.8 yards per game.
3. Adams back in: Vanderbilt is searching for anything right now to get its offense going. Coming off one of their worst offensive showings of the season in a 20-10 loss to Tennessee (where they had just 25 yards of total offense at the half), the Commodores will go back to Mackenzi Adams at quarterback this Saturday against Wake Forest. Adams at least gave Vanderbilt a pulse in the passing game in the second half last week after Chris Nickson threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and also lost a fumble near midfield. Nickson had started the last two games and played well in the win at Kentucky. But a shoulder injury from earlier in the season has limited his ability to throw the ball. The only thing that could hold Adams back this weekend is a knee injury he suffered against Tennessee, although Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said he didn't believe it was serious.
4. Kodi to the rescue: The truth is that Auburn's coaches aren't going to ask sophomore quarterback Kodi Burns to go out and win the game for the Tigers on Saturday when they travel to Bryant-Denny Stadium for only the seventh time in this storied rivalry. If anything, it will be just the opposite. Burns' directive is not to lose the game, and when Auburn has its chances, he has to be poised enough and savvy enough to capitalize on those chances. Punting the football away won't be such a bad thing Saturday against Alabama. Burns is playing much more settled now that it's clear he's Auburn's quarterback. He hasn't thrown an interception in his last two games. That's after throwing six in his previous three games.
5. Then there was Jefferson: LSU coach Les Miles hasn't said so officially, but it appears that true freshman Jordan Jefferson will be the Tigers' third different starting quarterback this season when LSU faces Arkansas on Friday in Little Rock. Jarrett Lee injured his ankle against Ole Miss and didn't practice Monday. Andrew Hatch, who started the first three games, remains out with a leg injury. Look for the coaches to give Jefferson more of the playbook than he had against Ole Miss. He's always a threat to run and showed flashes of being a good passer in that game, too. He just needs experience, and given the Tigers' struggles at quarterback this season, he probably deserves more playing time than he's gotten to this point. It's pretty clear that he's LSU's quarterback of the future.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We're down to the final week of the regular season and then it's on to Alabama vs. Florida in the SEC Championship Game. These last few weeks have been anti-climatic with the title game being set so early, especially when you consider what's at stake when the Gators and Crimson Tide clash on Dec. 6 in Atlanta. Still, there were more than a few eye-opening developments around the league in Week 13. Here's a look at what we learned:
1. Ole Miss is for real: Here's a teaser for Ole Miss fans: You're going to like the newest edition of the SEC power rankings when they come out on Monday. The Rebels (7-4, 4-3 SEC) left little doubt that they should be included among the SEC's elite teams this season with their 31-13 pummeling of No. 18-ranked LSU in Tiger Stadium. Houston Nutt showed once again why he's such a solid big-game coach. The Rebels were aggressive on defense, ran a fake punt, ran reverses and never quit attacking. Their defensive line has few peers in the league right now. Peria Jerry and Co. held the Tigers to one of their worst rushing days this decade -- 37 yards on 29 carries. If the Rebels can take care of business at home Friday against Mississippi State, they're headed to the Cotton Bowl with the kind of momentum Ole Miss hasn't seen in football since Eli Manning was flinging passes.
2. Something's amiss at LSU: This team is far too talented to be getting trampled at home. The defending national champion Tigers (7-4, 3-4 SEC) have lost three games at home this season after losing three games total at Tiger Stadium from 2003-07. The 31-13 loss Saturday to Ole Miss was another reminder of everything that's gone wrong. Sure, the quarterback issues have been tough to deal with, but most disappointing in the Tigers' collapse has been a defense (and a defense with several future pros) that has repeatedly taken it on the chin. The Tigers gave up 409 total yards to the Rebels. That's three SEC games that LSU has been shredded for 400 or more yards this season. Florida had 475 and Georgia 443. At this point, you can't help but wonder if LSU coach Les Miles will re-consider his two-defensive coordinator system of Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto at the end of the season.
3. Simply the best: Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis doesn't make it a habit to compare players. But when he says sophomore safety Eric Berry is, in his opinion, the best defensive player in the country, you can bet that Chavis means it. Outgoing Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer goes one step further when he says Berry is already one of the greatest players to play at Tennessee and could be one of the best to ever play in the SEC. Berry intercepted his seventh pass of the season Saturday in Tennessee's 20-10 victory over Vanderbilt and returned it for a 45-yard touchdown. Berry now has 12 career interceptions in 25 career games and has returned three of those picks for touchdowns. He has 487 return yards for his career, which is 14 yards shy of the all-time FBS record held by Florida State's Terrell Buckley from 1989-91.
4. Bulldogs still swinging: Talk about a tormented season. It's been that and more for Mississippi State, which was eliminated from bowl contention two weeks ago in a loss to Alabama. The questions about Sylvester Croom's job security have intensified, not to mention the calls for him to purge his staff. In short, it's been one big mess of a season for the Bulldogs, but they proved Saturday in a 31-28 win over Arkansas that they haven't shut it down. They easily could have after falling behind 14-0 midway through the first quarter to the Hogs, but they battled back behind their best and most complete offensive performance of the season. Mississippi State finished with a season-high 445 yards, and junior running back Anthony Dixon had a career-high 179 yards rushing and also caught five passes for 32 yards, two that went for touchdowns.
5. Quarterback horror show: Parental guidance was suggested for the quarterback play in the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game. Simply, it was rotten. Four different quarterbacks threw passes, and all four threw interceptions to go along with no touchdowns. Of course, that doesn't count the touchdowns they threw to the other team. Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson threw a second-quarter pass that was returned 45 yards for a touchdown, and Tennessee's B.J. Coleman threw a third-quarter pass that was returned 42 yards for a touchdown. The Vols managed to win despite finishing with just 21 passing yards. It's the worst they've been at quarterback in at least 30 years and maybe going all the way back to the single-wing days. The Commodores wound up with 188 passing yards, but 66 of those came in the final 1:21 when the game was already over and the Vols were giving Mackenzi Adams the underneath throws. You'd have to watch a lot of football to find a game with poorer play at the quarterback position.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
With five of the 12 teams in the SEC off this week, we take our Internal Affairs look at the conference:
A Hardy sighting: Ole Miss junior defensive end Greg Hardy is feeling healthier and also has fresh legs, which could be bad news for LSU. Hardy led the SEC with 10 sacks last season, but has been plagued by a stress fracture in his right foot. He missed the first three games of the season, but returned in time to play a key role in the Rebels' 31-30 upset of Florida. He re-injured his foot against Alabama and spent most of the next two games on the sideline. But last week, he returned against Louisiana-Monroe and showed glimpses of his old self with a sack and 22-yard interception return. The open date before the Louisiana-Monroe game gave Hardy some extra time to rest his foot, and he should be closer to 100 percent this Saturday. When he's on, he's still one of the SEC's best pass-rushers.
Where's the Wild Berry? One of the reasons Tennessee safety Eric Berry has not played on offense this season, according to coach Phillip Fulmer, is that he's had a shoulder injury and the coaches didn't want to take a chance on getting him tackled. Fulmer and Berry had both talked in the preseason about getting Berry involved on offense, and Berry did play one snap of offense against Alabama when he caught a screen pass. Berry, one of the top safeties in the country, has still been working some on offense in practice in recent weeks and could get a few snaps this Saturday against Vanderbilt, Fulmer said.
Battle of the brothers: It's a given that one of the Dick brothers will start at quarterback this Saturday for Arkansas. Whether it's Casey Dick or Nathan Dick, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino would like to keep Mississippi State guessing. Casey has started every game this season, but was knocked out of the South Carolina game two weeks ago with a concussion. He also threw three interceptions in that game, which didn't sit well with Petrino. Having the open date last week to get a longer look at Nathan (and with Casey sitting out because of the concussion), Petrino decided to open up the competition. Casey is second in the SEC with 2,389 passing yards, but has also thrown 14 interceptions.
Nickson to start: Senior quarterback Chris Nickson will make his second straight start after leading Vanderbilt to a 31-24 victory over Kentucky last week, earning the Commodores their sixth victory and making them bowl eligible. Nickson has played through the pain of a shoulder separation (his right throwing shoulder, no less) for much of the last two seasons. The injury rendered him ineffective earlier this season, and Mackenzi Adams took over. Both quarterbacks may end up playing in the game, but Nickson looked much healthier in the win over Kentucky with 118 yards rushing and three passing touchdowns. His ability to both run and pass makes the Commodores a much more difficult team to defend. Nickson is just 78 yards shy of the all-time rushing record for a Vanderbilt quarterback. He has 1,390 career rushing yards.
Auburn pushing back the spring: It may not be game strategy, but Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville is already looking at some different strategy for the offseason. The Tigers are typically one of the earliest teams out of the gate for spring practice, starting in February. But with the injuries and surgeries piling up, Tuberville is now thinking about pushing back the start of spring practice. His thinking is that the extra time will give more players a chance to recover physically and be healthy enough to go through most of the spring if the Tigers hold off until March. The latest Auburn player to go down was tight end Tommy Trott, who will have knee surgery this week. He's the ninth Auburn player to undergo surgery since the preseason.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
|AP Photo/Mark Humphrey|
|Tim Tebow accounted for five TDs in the Gators' win over Vanderbilt.|
Alabama's hot. Florida may be hotter. How's that for a segue into this week's edition of Hot and Not? We could sit here for days and argue the merits of both teams, and I'm sure it would be a lively debate. But we get to find out who's the best team on the field come Dec. 6 when they meet in the SEC Championship Game. That showdown, a play-in game for the right to play in the BCS National Championship Game if both teams can win the rest of their regular-season games, should take all the debate out of it. Until then, we can still go back and forth.
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow: In his last three games, Tebow has accounted for 14 touchdowns (seven passing and seven rushing). His passer rating of 214.5 leads the nation over that time frame, and he hasn't thrown a fourth-quarter incompletion in nearly two months. In Florida's 42-14 fleecing of Vanderbilt last weekend, Tebow had three touchdown passes and two touchdown runs all in the first half. He might not win his second Heisman Trophy, but he has the Gators positioned for the prize he wants most of all -- a national championship.
Alabama receiver Julio Jones: The SEC has several big-time receivers. Florida's Percy Harvin, Georgia's A.J. Green, South Carolina's Kenny McKinley and LSU's Brandon LaFell are all right up there. But there's not a tougher receiver to cover man-on-man in the league than Jones, who has the size, strength, speed and body control to beat any cornerback. It's remarkable to think that he's only a freshman. Or as Larry Munson would say, "My God, a freshman."
Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody: It was obvious Cody wasn't close to 100 percent against LSU. A knee sprain for any player is a difficult injury to come back from in a couple of weeks. But for a 365-pound defensive lineman? Cody looked a bit heavier and a lot slower. Maybe that's because he was freakishly dominant before the knee injury. You wonder how much he'll play this week against Mississippi State. The good news for him is that Alabama has an open date the next week.
Tennessee coaching rumors: The only person who hasn't been connected with the Vols' coaching search is Elvis, and there are some sketchy reports that he was seen playing golf at Tennessee National with Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Vince Lombardi and Gen. Neyland. They all then hopped a jet and met at Graceland to put the staff together. Sounds like Elvis is going to call plays.
Vanderbilt's passing game: The Commodores have lost four straight, and a big part of their problem is a passing game that doesn't scare anybody. They've averaged just 129.2 yards passing during that skid and thrown seven interceptions. Mackenzi Adams suffered a hip pointer last week against Florida, so Chris Nickson could step back into the starting role against Kentucky.
South Carolina receiver Kenny McKinley: Like a fine wine, McKinley just keeps getting better and better. The senior from Mableton, Ga., had seven catches for 130 yards against Arkansas and broke Sterling Sharpe's school record for career receiving yards. McKinley now has 188 catches for 2,602 yards, both school records.
Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez: It can't be a fun time for Martinez, who's a good coach coaching a bad defense right now. But when things go bad in college football, the coach gets the blame. The Bulldogs have given up 38 or more points in three straight games for only the second time in school history and the first time since ... 1900.
Alabama running back Glen Coffee: If there's a harder running 198-pound back in the country than Coffee, I want to see him. The guy hits it up in there like every carry is his last. Coffee rushed for 126 yards on 26 carries against LSU to become the 13th running back in Alabama history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He now has 1,010 yards on 162 carries, an average of 6.2 yards per carry.
Tennessee's offense: The Vols, in losing 13-7 to Wyoming in a shameful performance, managed to hit another new low. They've now gone three straight games without scoring in double digits, the first time that's happened since 1964. In seven of their 10 games this season, they've scored 14 or fewer points. Where have you gone Peyton Manning, Carl Pickens and Chuck Webb?
Ice, Ice Baby
LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee: He's only a redshirt freshman, so it's unfair to expect Lee to carry too much of the load for the defending national champions. But he also can't keep throwing the ball to the other team. He has 14 interceptions this season and threw four more last weekend in the 27-21 overtime loss to Alabama. Even more damaging, he threw his sixth interception of the season that was returned for a touchdown. LSU coach Les Miles says he's going to play true freshman Jordan Jefferson some this Saturday against Troy. Here's a novel concept: Why not give Jefferson a chance against some of the teams that count?
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We go inside as we do every week at this time with our "Internal Affairs" look at the conference. And, no, I'm not going to break down the rationale that different people use in voting in the polls:
1. Garcia on the move: Don't look for Stephen Garcia in the direct-snap Wildcat Formation or anything, but South Carolina is going to do its best to move him around and not allow the LSU defense to zero in on him in the pocket Saturday night in Columbia. Garcia, a redshirt freshman, is making his first collegiate start. He's pretty fearless running the ball, and Steve Spurrier likes his ability to make throws and make things happen on the run. Plus, you know the Tigers are going to be gunning for him.
2. Going five wide: That may be overstating it a bit, but Tennessee is going to try and open it up a little more and play to quarterback Nick Stephens' strengths. Throwing the deep ball is one of the best things he does, and sophomore receiver Denarius Moore has emerged as the Vols' best deep threat. Look for the Vols to get more of those guys on the field in spots to see if they can do a better job of spreading defenses out and backing safeties off the line of scrimmage. Whatever it is, Tennessee's got to find a way to keep defenses honest and run the ball better.
3. Adams takes over: With Chris Nickson nursing a bum throwing shoulder, Vanderbilt's passing game has been non-existent the last few weeks. Enter Mackenzi Adams, who's more comfortable in the pocket and pretty patient when it comes to allowing things to develop. The Commodores will play to Adams' strength, and although he won't run as much as Nickson, they will call some designed running plays for him. The biggest difference is that he's healthy and capable of making Georgia pay this weekend if the Bulldogs don't respect his ability to throw the ball.
4. Dueling quarterbacks at Auburn: The Tigers have a little extra time to figure it all out, but the main thing is that Kodi Burns is in and Chris Todd is out. Auburn doesn't play again until next Thursday (Oct. 23) at West Virginia, but Tommy Tuberville is finally committing to Burns. The Tigers completed just 10 passes in last week's loss to Arkansas. There's also a chance that true freshman Barrett Trotter may play for the first time and not redshirt if the Tigers think he's going to play significant minutes the rest of the way.
5. Turning Dixon loose: Anthony Dixon is healthy again, which means he's going to get the ball as much as he can take it the rest of the season, starting Saturday against Tennessee. Plagued by a painful groin injury, Dixon had been unable to practice much and lost some of his sharpness. But he came back last week against Vanderbilt after an open date and carried the ball 27 times for 107 yards. The most he'd carried the ball previously this season in a game was 18 times. Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom is ready to ride Dixon the rest of the way.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
You've got to hand it to Vanderbilt. The Commodores are doing it again.
They have exactly 43 yards of total offense at the half, yet are leading Mississippi State 7-3.
Bobby Johnson's club, seeking its first 6-0 start since 1928, has mastered the art of winning despite being consistently outgained by the other team all season. In this one, the Bulldogs have 101 more yards of total offense (144) at the half.
The difference, as it has been on several occasions for the Commodores this season, is special teams.
Punter Brett Upson pinned Mississippi State on its own 2-yard line. The Bulldogs couldn't move the ball, and their punter, Blake McAdams, shanked one out of bounds.
Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson, playing with a bum shoulder, scored on a 1-yard touchdown run just before the half in a drive that started at the Mississippi State 17-yard line.
Talk about being efficient ... and squeezing everything you can out of 43 yards of total offense.
The even better news for the Commodores is that they now enter their half. They've outscored the opposition 58-10 in the second half this season and have shut out their last three opponents in the second half.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
It's a battle of the last two BCS national champions on Saturday night in the Swamp. And if you're into trends, the Gators should be in good shape. The home team is 7-0-1 when the last two national champions meet. The last time it happened was 18 years ago when Notre Dame (the 1988 champ) beat Miami (the 1989 champ) 29-20 in South Bend. LSU's 28-24 win over Florida last season was one of the more exciting, hard-hitting games in the league. But, then, what LSU game a year ago wasn't heart-pounding? The winner of this game can make a pretty convincing statement in its divisional race that it's the team to beat. And especially if Florida wins, there's a decent chance the two teams could meet in a rematch in the SEC championship game. Here's a look at what to watch for in Week 7 in the SEC:
1. The Mad Hatter: Yes, LSU coach Les Miles is a bit unorthodox in how he goes about answering the simplest of questions in such a way that leaves you more confused than you were before you asked the question. And, yes, the way he wears his hat squarely on top of his head is a bit comical. But Miles could wear a lampshade on his head if he keeps winning the way he has. He's 8-3 against top 10 teams at LSU and has won six in a row. He's 4-2 on the road against top-10 competition. In his last 16 games against SEC opponents, the only two games he lost were in triple-overtime. It's high time the Mad Hatter gets his due. The guy can coach.
2. Auburn's offense: What's it going to look like now that Tony Franklin is gone? Steve Ensminger will call the plays, and Tommy Tuberville insists that the Tigers aren't going away from the no-huddle, spread offense that Franklin implemented. That may be, but surely Auburn is going to make more of an effort to run the ball Saturday against an Arkansas defense that hasn't stopped anybody on the ground this season.
3. Tuberville crossing over: Tommy Tuberville has a distinguished background as a top defensive coordinator and linebackers coach when he was at Miami and then Texas A&M for a year before getting the Ole Miss top job. But calling offensive plays? It will be interesting to see how involved he really is the rest of the way in coordinating Auburn's offense and making the play calls on game day. Tuberville says it will be a team effort and that he will be a big part of that team.
4. Spikes vs. Scott: Florida's Brandon Spikes is one of the best middle linebackers in the country. He's fast, physical and always around the ball. He dares you to run at him. But that's what LSU likes to do with bruising 233-pound tailback Charles Scott, who's rushed for 100 or more yards in each of his four games this season. There's not a whole lot fancy about Scott other than his penchant for running over people. That first collision between Spikes and Scott ought to be one to remember.
5. The beast within: Brandon Spikes has already warned everybody that talking trash to Tim Tebow before a big game is akin to making the beast that much angrier. Look for Tebow to be a beast in this game and not hold back. It's obvious he hasn't looked to run quite as much this season. That all changes Saturday night in the Swamp. Not only will he look to run, but he'll look to run over somebody early to set the tone. The Tim Tebow that won the 2007 Heisman Trophy isn't a pocket passer. He's a modern-day, 240-pound single-wing tailback.
6. Solving Spurrier: Rich Brooks has yet to beat South Carolina since taking the Kentucky job in 2003. South Carolina's Steve Spurrier has never lost to Kentucky. He's 15-0 all-time against the Wildcats, who have lost eight straight to the Gamecocks. In short, something has to give if the Wildcats are going to break through and have a big season. They get the Gamecocks at home in a game that should provide the most definitive answer yet as to whether Kentucky is a contender or a pretender.
7. Adams on call: It sounds like Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson's right throwing shoulder is healthy enough for him to start Saturday against Mississippi State. Of course, Nickson has failed to finish the last two games after taking hits on that shoulder. The comforting thing for the Commodores is that they don't miss a beat when backup quarterback Mackenzi Adams is in the game. In fact, they really didn't start moving the ball consistently against Auburn until he entered the game in the second quarter.
8. Southerland's impact: Rumor has it that Georgia fullback Brannan Southerland, who missed the first five games after recovering from foot surgery, will arrive at Sanford Stadium on Saturday in a limousine provided by sophomore tailback Knowshon Moreno. Nobody has missed Southerland's crushing lead blocks more than Moreno, who was a nonfactor in the Alabama loss two weeks ago. Southerland's leadership and all-around toughness will also be key for the Bulldogs as they enter the teeth of their schedule beginning this weekend against Tennessee.
9. Getting to Smelley: The problem South Carolina had earlier this season was protecting the quarterback. But Chris Smelley has had more time to throw these last few games. He faces a Kentucky front four that ranks up there with the best in the league. The Wildcats sacked Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson three times last week, and the Crimson Tide offensive line was whistled twice for holding on pass plays. Rich Brooks says it's easily the best pass rush he's had at Kentucky, and the numbers back him up. The Wildcats are second nationally in pass efficiency defense.
10. Stephens' SEC debut: Not only does Tennessee have to go on the road Saturday against a Georgia team eager to get revenge for last season's shellacking in Knoxville, but the Vols do so with a quarterback (Nick Stephens) who's never taken a snap in an SEC game. Stephens was serviceable last week in the narrow win over Northern Illinois, but you know the Vols have to be kicking themselves now for not giving him a chance against Auburn or Florida earlier this season and for not giving him a chance to at least compete with Jonathan Crompton for the starting job back in the spring and preseason.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Let the party begin in the Music City.
Vanderbilt is 5-0 for the first time since World War II. The Commodores, after falling behind 13-0 early, reigned supreme once again in the second half and for the second time this season sent a nationally-ranked team packing in a 14-13 win over No. 14-ranked Auburn.
Vanderbilt Stadium has never rocked like it did Saturday night. It's been a while since the No. 19-ranked Commodores have looked this good at this point in the season.
Vanderbilt (5-0, 3-0 SEC) has now outscored its opponents 58-10 in the second half.
Adams threw a pair of touchdown passes, the second one a 1-yard toss to tight end Brandon Barden in the back of the end zone in the third quarter.
After getting mauled up front to start the game, Vanderbilt adjusted and more than held its own in the line of scrimmage from the second quarter on. Auburn (4-2, 2-2 SEC) struggled to generate any offense for the second straight week.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Just when you thought Vanderbilt was on the verge of being blown out of here, the Commodores do what they've done all season.
Not surprisingly, a big play on special teams got them back in the game.
With the offense struggling to move the ball at all, D.J. Moore weaved his way to a 25-yard punt return to give the Commodores their best field position of the game at the Auburn 30-yard line.
Adams entered the game on the next-to-last possession of the first half after Chris Nickson injured his right throwing hand. Nickson attempted several practice throws on the sideline afterward, but appeared to be wincing in pain every time he gripped and released the ball.
Auburn has dominated this game on both lines of scrimmage. But in vintage Vanderbilt form this season, the Commodores have managed to hang around.
Adams, playing with a lot of confidence, was perfect on that final drive. He hit all four of his passes, and his touchdown throw came on third-and-goal from the 15 and was placed perfectly between two defenders.
Having finished the season a year ago for an injured Nickson, Adams is used to seeing SEC defenses. In other words, it's not like this is totally new territory for him.
Auburn has been so superior up front in this game that you still get the feeling the Commodores are going to have to score on defense or hit another big play on special teams to win this game.
But, then, that's how they got to 4-0 in the first place.
Auburn quarterback Chris Todd completed just four passes in the first half, but two of them were for touchdowns.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We travel around the league to see what else is being written and said:
- Alabama coach Nick Saban is still miffed by some of the special teams breakdowns last week in the 41-30 win over Georgia. Not surprisingly, that's been an emphasis for the Tide heading into the Kentucky game.
- The production at wide receiver for Florida, outside of Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy, hasn't been nearly what it needs to be. Florida coach UrbanMeyer said others need to emerge.
- Lost in the disappointment by Auburn fans in how poorly the offense has played is a Tigers defense that has been lights out under first-year coordinator Paul Rhoads.
- Had he known then what he knows now, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville would have probably been hot and heavy after Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson, who's from the state of Alabama, during the recruiting process. At the time, Tuberville said Nickson wasn't the right fit for what the Tigers were running.
- Alabama's offensive line versus Kentucky's defensive line should offer plenty of intriguing one-on-one matchups. The Wildcats' defense says it's up for the challenge.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vanderbilt offensive tackle Thomas Welch has spent most of his nights this week doing what any football player in the SEC does the week of a nationally ranked showdown.
|AP Photo/Mark Humphrey|
|The Commodores are attempting to start a season 5-0 for the first time in over 60 years|
Forget the film room or even the hottest party on campus. Welch has been sequestering himself in the library for hours at a time.
Midterms are fast approaching at Vanderbilt.
"Last Saturday on our open date, I was in the library for four or five hours," Welch said. "I've also got a paper due, so I've got a lot to get ready for."
Somewhere along the way, Welch will also manage to squeeze in Saturday's football game. Don't think he's not excited. Don't think everybody on West End Avenue isn't excited.
It's only been since World War II that the No. 19-ranked Commodores last started a season 5-0, but that's the opportunity that awaits them Saturday when No. 14-ranked Auburn visits Vanderbilt Stadium in the kind of storyline usually reserved for Hollywood.
Come on. Vanderbilt, a top-20 school academically, playing a game in October that means something in the SEC race and ESPN's "College GameDay" on hand to watch it?
"I have a lot of pride in the fact that I'm at a place like Vanderbilt," said senior safety Reshard Langford, one of the team captains. "Not everybody can do what we do. I keep my head high every day, because this is a special place."
Indeed it is, and this is shaping up as a special season for the Commodores, who've historically led the football-crazed SEC in GPA's, but not much else.
Well, maybe losses. But we won't go there. This team refuses to go there, so why should we?
Remind quarterback Chris Nickson, center Bradley Vierling or any of the Vanderbilt players for that matter that the Commodores have had 25 straight losing seasons and only one winning season in SEC play over the last 47 years, and they barely flinch.
"We let what's happened in the past stay in the past," said redshirt freshman receiver Jamie Graham, who also plays on the Vanderbilt basketball team. "We know this is a new generation, new players and a new team.
"We want to change the program around."
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Hey, it was just the opening weekend. My timing wasn't down. The speed of the game was something I still have to get accustomed to, and you always make the most improvement from your first game to your second game. So I'm not sweating my 8-4 start to the season in picking games. For the record, the games I missed last week were Alabama-Clemson, Louisiana Tech-Mississippi State, Kentucky-Louisville and Tennessee-UCLA. Go ahead and give it to me Bama fans. I woefully underestimated your team. And Tennessee fans, what in the name of Hades was that out on the West Coast? That was a middle-of-the-road Pac-10 team ravaged by injuries and playing with its third-string quarterback that beat you. That said, here are my picks for Week 2, and I don't see any trap games on the schedule:
South Carolina 21, Vanderbilt 13: The Commodores are a different team when Chris Nickson's healthy, so this isn't a good time to be getting them. Chris Smelley will get his chance at quarterback for the Gamecocks, who will survive thanks to their improved defense. Any chance Stephen Garcia gets into the game for South Carolina?
Auburn 35, Southern Miss 10: This much we know about the Tigers: They better pump some life into that passing game if they're going to make a run at the SEC title. Everything else seems to be in place. Chris Todd takes his shot this weekend at proving he's the quarterback that can get the Tigers where they want to go.
Alabama 27, Tulane 7: Nick Saban's 24-hour rule has come and long gone for Alabama after its impressive thumping of Clemson in the opener. I know Saban hates to hear this, but there's got to be a natural letdown after such a resounding win. Still, the Crimson Tide will win this one going away ... and Julio will catch another touchdown.
Arkansas 27, Louisiana-Monroe 14: The Hogs played 13 freshmen in their season-opening scare against Western Illinois. When you're playing that many first-year players, there's going to be some growing pains. This might be Arkansas' last chance to win in a while when you look at what's coming up -- Texas, Alabama, Florida and Auburn. Ouch!
Kentucky 31, Norfolk State 3: The Wildcats are better than anyone (but they) could have imagined on defense, and they have the kind of limitations on offense that we haven't seen in the Bluegrass in a while. Unless something crazy happens, though, this looks like a 4-0 football team heading to Alabama on Oct. 4.
Miss. State 28, Southeast Louisiana 6: There are bad losses, and then there are bad losses that sting for a while. How quickly can the Bulldogs get over their 22-14 stinker last week against Louisiana Tech? Even more importantly, can they keep from self-destructing offensively?
Georgia 41, Central Michigan 17: Central Michigan has a Tim Tebow-like quarterback in Dan LeFevour, who became the second quarterback in FBS history (Division I-A) last season to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in the same season. He's pretty good, but the Bulldogs' defense is really good.
Wake Forest 31, Ole Miss 20: Too bad Ole Miss isn't full strength on defense. Tackle Peria Jerry might be able to give the Rebels a few snaps after missing last week, but end Greg Hardy remains sidelined. Wake Forest's Riley Skinner is one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the country and a completion machine. He'll be the difference in a game that's close most of the way.
Florida 45, Miami 14: The Hurricanes have won six straight in this bitter Sunshine State rivalry, but that's deceiving. The two teams have faced each other only six times since the Gators' last win in the series, 1985 at the now demolished Orange Bowl. If you like speed, this is your game. The Gators have more of it, though, and that's bad news for The U. This one won't be close.
Last week: 8-4. Season: 8-4.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Here's a look at our first installment of "Hot and Not" in the SEC. We'll do this every week throughout the season after all of the games are played. We'll top it with that week's "En Fuego" award and end it with the dubious "Ice, Ice Baby" award:
Alabama's offensive line: Even without star left tackle Andre Smith for much of the second half, the Crimson Tide offensive line controlled the game and reminded us all what being physical is all about. Clemson's fannies are probably still smarting.
Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson: He brings a dimension with his ability to run the ball (166 yards in the opener) that's critical to the Vanderbilt offense.
The Auburn passing game: The Tigers had just 28 yards passing at the end of the third quarter last Saturday in their 34-0 rout of Louisiana-Monroe.
Ole Miss running back/receiver Dexter McCluster: He's the Rebels' version of "Slash" and he had 125 total yards last weekend. Gotta love the Wild Rebel formation.
Mississippi State's offense: The Bulldogs' five turnovers were bad enough. But the real clincher: They didn't have a first down in the fourth quarter.
LSU's composure: The game was moved up to a 10 a.m. start and a deadly hurricane was bearing down on the Gulf Coast, but LSU never blinked and went out and took care of business.
Kentucky's defense: We knew the Wildcats would be stout up front defensively, but they're as talented and deep across the board on defense as they've ever been under Rich Brooks.
Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson: He played exactly the way the Tide needs him to in the opener. He managed the offense, didn't force things and made plays when they were there.
Tennessee tailback Arian Foster: Crippling fumbles will tarnish an otherwise stellar career. He had another one against UCLA that totally changed the complexion of that game.
ICE, ICE BABY
Tennessee's coaching staff: Not the best start for Phillip Fulmer & Co. New offensive coordinator Dave Clawson had first-year starter Jonathan Crompton throw the ball 41 times. The defense played soft in coverage and never adjusted to UCLA's short passing game in the second half. How many touchdowns do the Vols need to give up on special teams before they hire a full-time coordinator?