Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 4:
1. Punching back on the Plains: It’s no secret that No. 2 LSU is one of the most physical teams in the country and revels in pounding teams into submission in the second half. The beating LSU put on Auburn last season in Baton Rouge was R-rated. Auburn gets a chance to do something about it Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium. But it remains to be seen if Auburn is physical enough to stand toe-to-toe with LSU, which has barely broken a sweat in its first three games. Auburn is preparing to play more of its base 4-3 defense in this game to try to slow down LSU’s bruising running game. Auburn spent a lot of time in its 4-2-5 alignment in the first three games against teams that spread the field. It’s going to be more about winning one-on-one battles at the line of scrimmage in this game, which has typically been LSU’s forte.
2. Tyler Wilson Watch: Even though Wilson has been practicing this week, the Hogs are still unsure if he’ll be cleared medically to play against Rutgers after missing the Alabama game last week with a concussion. It could be Friday or Saturday before the Hogs know, but they’re at least preparing as if Wilson will be able to play. Since he was knocked out of the Louisiana-Monroe game two weeks ago, Arkansas has scored one touchdown in its past six quarters of play. Clearly, the Razorbacks need Wilson back on the field if they’re going to make something of this season, and his leadership is needed as much as his ability to throw the football.
3. Running back revival: Everybody wondered in the offseason if South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas’ Knile Davis could return to their pre-injury forms. The jury is still out. Lattimore, coming off a torn ACL, rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the opener, but has carried it only 25 times in his past two games. The Gamecocks haven’t really needed him, but that could change Saturday against Missouri. It has been tough sledding for Davis, who has 191 yards on 54 carries in his first three games. Davis missed all of last season with a fractured ankle and just hasn’t been as decisive about hitting the hole. And to be fair, there hasn’t been a surplus of holes to run through to this point. The Hogs need to get the running game going and may give Dennis Johnson a few more opportunities.
4. Absorbing the pounding: South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Missouri’s James Franklin are both hurting, and it’s still September. That’s not to question the toughness of either player, but it is a reminder that quarterbacks whose livelihood in this conference is running the ball have to be a special breed and also have to be able to absorb a serious amount of pounding. Shaw, who has a hairline fracture in his right (throwing) shoulder, will start Saturday against Missouri. He sat out the game two weeks ago and left the game early last week after aggravating the injury. Franklin is optimistic that he’ll be able to play Saturday after missing last week’s game against Arizona State. Franklin declined to take a painkilling shot after injuring his shoulder against Georgia two weeks ago.
5. Gators chomping away: There’s only one SEC team with two league wins, and that team is Florida. In fact, the Gators have two road wins and are home Saturday to face struggling Kentucky in the Swamp. To this point, Florida has been exactly what second-year coach Will Muschamp had hoped the Gators would be. They’re physical. They can run the ball, and they’ve been suffocating on defense in the second half. They’ve yet to allow any fourth-quarter points in three games and have forced 10 three-and-outs in the second half. Florida has a bye week after Kentucky’s visit and gets LSU at home on Oct. 6. So barring a major letdown in the Swamp this weekend, the Gators are poised to rejoin the SEC’s elite and will have a chance to rejoin college football’s elite that first Saturday in October.
6. Three straight shutouts for Alabama? In their first three games, the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide have won by a combined margin of 128-14. They haven’t allowed any points in their past two games, and if they blank Florida Atlantic this Saturday, it would mark the first time since 1966 that Alabama had recorded three shutouts in a row. That 1966 team, which finished 11-0 and won the SEC championship, had four straight shutouts and collected a total of six shutouts that season. The 2012 version of the Crimson Tide has been equally dominant, and if you go back to the end of the 2010 season, Alabama has played only one game in its past 17 that was decided by fewer than 16 points. That was the 9-6 overtime loss to LSU last season. Only twice in its past 16 victories has Alabama won by fewer than 21 points.
7. Carta-Samuels takes his shot: Vanderbilt coach James Franklin isn’t saying for sure who will start at quarterback this week against Georgia, but Austyn Carta-Samuels is listed No. 1 on the depth chart after playing the whole game last week in the Commodores’ 58-0 rout of Presbyterian. Jordan Rodgers, one of Vanderbilt’s team captains, had been the starter in the first two games, but the Commodores lost both and failed to score a second-half touchdown in either game. Franklin has shown in the past that he’s not afraid to switch quarterbacks. A year ago, the Commodores started playing some of their best football after Rodgers replaced Larry Smith. Now, it looks like Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming, will get a chance to show what he can do against an SEC defense. Franklin has been guarded about the whole situation and has refused to let either quarterback talk to the media this week.
8. Playing like a contender: Mississippi State played just well enough to survive last week in its 30-24 victory at Troy. The Bulldogs moved into The Associated Press’ Top 25 poll at No. 23 this week, but they still need to prove they belong there. A big step in that direction would be taking care of business against South Alabama in convincing fashion Saturday and not playing down to the competition. The Bulldogs are set up to have a special season when you look at their schedule. Quarterback Tyler Russell is playing lights out, and the defense stepped up big in the win over Auburn. But if Mississippi State is going to be a legitimate contender in the West, it’s time the Bulldogs start playing their best football every week … regardless of the opponent.
9. Most improved: Speaking of Russell, he’s right there at the top when you start reeling off the SEC’s most improved players three weeks into the season. Russell and West Virginia’s Geno Smith are the only two quarterbacks in the country with a passing efficiency rating of at least 160.0 with eight or more touchdowns and no interceptions. Florida’s Mike Gillislee, now that he’s the Gators’ go-to back, also has blossomed. He’s leading the SEC with 346 rushing yards. A few others who deserve mention are Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, Alabama place-kicker Cade Foster, South Carolina cornerback Jimmy Legree, LSU linebacker Kevin Minter, LSU running back Kenny Hilliard, Georgia receiver Marlon Brown and Florida receiver Frankie Hammond.
10. Maturation of Manziel: What has been the biggest difference in Texas A&M redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, who’s leading the SEC in total offense with an average of 325.5 yards through his first two games? That’s easy, said coach Kevin Sumlin. “The biggest transition for him has been moving from an athlete playing quarterback to a quarterback who’s an athlete,” Sumlin said. Manziel is still working on becoming a better passer and keeping his eyes down the field when he starts to scramble. But Sumlin likes what he sees from his first-year starter to this point. “The biggest compliment I can give him is how he’s led the team and taken care of the football,” Sumlin said.