- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Most of the attention lately in the SEC has been concentrated off the field.
It’s on the field where both divisional championships can be decided this weekend.
Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 11:
1. Clinching titles: Auburn can clinch the Western Division title and its first trip to the SEC championship game since 2004 by taking care of Georgia at home on Saturday. The Bulldogs have won four straight games in the series. If Georgia upsets Auburn, then the Tigers would have to beat Alabama on the road on Nov. 26 to win the West. For LSU to win the West, the Tigers need to win out and have Auburn lose both of its remaining SEC games. Alabama could still win the West in a three-way or four-way tie where all of the teams had two losses, meaning Auburn would have to lose its last two and LSU would have to lose one of its last two. In the Eastern Division, it’s much simpler: The winner of Saturday’s Florida-South Carolina game will be the champion.
2. Playing through distractions: Auburn coach Gene Chizik has steadfastly maintained that it’s been business as usual this week on the Tigers’ practice field. Still, you know all the allegations swirling about Auburn quarterback Cam Newton have been a giant distraction. Newton’s teammates have all rallied around him, and it could be that everything out there only drives Newton that much harder come Saturday. He’s already plenty motivated. The thing you have to guard against in these situations is not getting too emotional where you come out and try to do too much.
3. Passing fancy: The Auburn-Georgia game may well come down to who can hit the biggest plays in the passing game. Both defenses have had their struggles against the pass this season. Auburn is ranked 11th in the SEC in pass defense. Georgia is ranked sixth, but the Bulldogs have also given up 13 touchdown passes. Auburn has given up 16 touchdown passes, which is the second most in the league behind Ole Miss’ 17. Both teams also have dangerous downfield threats. Georgia’s A.J. Green has been a terror since he’s been back and no doubt saw what Alshon Jeffery and Greg Childs did to the Auburn secondary. The Bulldogs’ Kris Durham (lung) is also set to return after missing last week, and Tavarres King is starting to play his best football. You can bet that Auburn will also try to get Darvin Adams open downfield against a Georgia secondary that has had its own struggles in coverage.
4. Getting Swamped: It’s a fact that South Carolina has never won at the Swamp. Of course, Steve Spurrier has won a bunch at the Swamp, but that was back in the 1990s as Florida’s coach. Spurrier’s last trip to the Swamp was a nightmare. The Gamecocks were humiliated 56-6. However, they came within a Jarvis Moss blocked field goal of winning at the Swamp in 2006 and ruining Florida’s national championship march. It goes without saying that South Carolina has to play smart football, protect the football and get this game into the second half. The last thing the Gamecocks want to do is give the Gators some easy scores, get that crowd riled up and have to play from behind. That’s usually a death sentence for the visiting team in that stadium.
5. Rediscovering the edge: South Carolina’s drop-off defensively has been hard to figure. The Gamecocks have talent and have played well up front. They lead the SEC with 32 sacks, have been excellent in red zone defense and have had flashes were they’ve been dominant. But lapses and missed assignments have killed them. So have big plays. Usually, they all go together. And when it comes to covering the pass, South Carolina has clearly lost its edge. The Gamecocks are last in the league in pass defense. They will need one of their more disciplined efforts of the season defensively, especially with the Gators switching up quarterbacks like they are now, if South Carolina is going to win at the Swamp.
6. Trio of quarterbacks: You’ve heard of two-quarterback systems? Well, Florida is using three quarterbacks, and the results have equated into the most productive offensive run of the season for the Gators. John Brantley (the passer) is sharing the quarterback duties with Trey Burton (the runner) and Jordan Reed (the athlete) in a new-look, hurry-up attack that has pumped life into a once lifeless Florida offense. The Gators have been able to keep teams off balance by going with different quarterbacks at different times. The production speaks for itself. Since going to the three-headed quarterback system, Florida has rolled up 930 yards of total offense and 89 points in two games.
7. Different waters for Tide: When’s the last time Alabama has played a game in November that didn’t have a direct impact on the Crimson Tide’s national championship hopes? The answer: During Nick Saban’s first season at Alabama in 2007. That was the same year he was trying to explain a November loss to Louisiana-Monroe. The Crimson Tide are long since past those days, but this is definitely new ground for the players on this team. How they respond knowing that there’s not a championship at stake (even an SEC title is a real long shot) will be interesting to see. Obviously, there’s a lot of pride in the Alabama program. That pride is going to be tested Saturday against a streaking Mississippi State team.
8. Heavy hearts: Mississippi State gets back to playing football on Saturday when the Bulldogs travel to Alabama, and in a lot of ways, it has to be therapeutic for them. Nick Bell’s funeral was last Saturday, and they had a bye week on the schedule. So they’ve had a lot of time to think about their fallen teammate. It’s been a terrific season for the Bulldogs to this point on the field. They’ve won six consecutive games. They’re nationally ranked. They’re inching closer to that upper echelon in the league under Dan Mullen. Winning at Alabama would be their biggest win yet under Mullen. It would also be a special way to honor Bell, who was from Bessemer, Ala.
9. Bowl elimination: Even mentioning a bowl game in connection with Tennessee’s program last month would have gotten you some weird looks. But the Vols can make a postseason trip by winning their last three games, a stretch that starts Saturday at home against Ole Miss. In a lot of ways, this is the most important game of that stretch for Tennessee, which is still looking for anything resembling a quality win this season. Beating the Rebels would give the Vols their first SEC win, and more importantly, some momentum heading into their last two games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. For the Rebels, a loss wouldn’t eliminate them from bowl contention, but it would put them in a deep hole. They would need to win out against LSU on the road and Mississippi State at home to be bowl eligible. In other words, they better win Saturday at Tennessee if they want to return to the postseason for a third straight year.
10. Davis finds groove: Arkansas’ Knile Davis has been one of the step-up players of the year in the SEC. The Hogs were looking for more punch in their running game, a player they could sort of ride, and Davis has been that guy. He enters Saturday’s UTEP game ninth in the SEC in rushing and has a shot at 1,000 yards. Davis has rushed for 662 yards on 107 carries and has scored nine touchdowns, eight of those coming in his last three games. All nine of his touchdowns have come against SEC defenses, too, and the 6-foot, 220-pound sophomore is fifth in the league in rushing in SEC games only.
Most of the attention lately in the SEC has been concentrated off the field.It’s on the field where both divisional championships can be decided this weekend.