- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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These past few weeks in the SEC are exactly what people who are against a playoff in college football point to as their most compelling argument why we should leave the sport alone.
There’s a playoff every weekend in the SEC, and it continues this Saturday.
The marquee game has Arkansas traveling to Auburn in a pivotal Western Division showdown.
As last weekend showed us, just about anything can happen. The balance in this league is as good as it’s been in a while, which means we’re in for a wild ride this second half of the season.
Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 7:
1. Survival of the fittest: Auburn and LSU are the only two teams in the league still unbeaten. By the end of next weekend, there will be one team unbeaten at most. Auburn and LSU square off Oct. 23 in Jordan-Hare Stadium. And if Arkansas takes down Auburn this Saturday and then Auburn takes care of LSU the following weekend, there won’t be anybody unbeaten in this league. In fact, the way it’s shaping up, don’t be surprised if everybody in the SEC, maybe with the exception of one team, has at least two losses following the SEC championship game. It’s that kind of year in this league when balance and parity might end up being the big winners.
2. Mallett vs. Newton: It’s the best matchup of quarterbacks in college football to this point. Between them, Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett and Auburn’s Cam Newton have thrown for 2,886 yards and 25 touchdown passes. They rank No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the SEC in total offense. Newton is first in the SEC in passing efficiency (180.7), and Mallett is third (170.3). They have two of the biggest arms in college football. Mallett is the guy who will beat you from the pocket. Newton will beat you passing and running. He’s leading the SEC in rushing. As individual matchups go, the one on the Plains Saturday should be one of the best of the season.
3. Blitzing Newton: The scouting report on Newton in the first six games says Arkansas might want to go easy on blitzing the 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior. For starters, all five of his interceptions this season have come when teams have dropped back at least seven defenders into coverage. And when teams have blitzed, Newton has been lethal. He’s completing 70.8 percent of his passes to go along with seven touchdown passes and no interceptions when teams come after him with extra defenders. Here’s the other thing: He’s also averaging 11.6 yards per carry on 14 quarterback draws this season.
4. Fourth-quarter dominance: Who’s been the best team in the fourth quarter/overtime this season? In terms of point differential, it’s Florida. The Gators have scored 59 points and given up 23. But Alabama and Auburn have done the best job of holding other teams down in the final quarter and overtime. Alabama has outscored opponents 38-10, while Auburn has outscored opponents 44-13. The only other three teams in the league on the plus side in the fourth quarter are Mississippi State (45-23), LSU (45-36) and Georgia (30-27). The worst team statistically after the third quarter has been Ole Miss, which has scored 41 points and given up 75. Tennessee isn’t too far behind, having scored 30 points and allowed 51.
5. No more booing: It’s not a Halloween thing. They were actually booing in the Swamp last week, and the boos were directed at Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio and his playcalling. But that’s what happens when you sink to 11th in the SEC in total offense, have trouble scoring in the red zone and generally don’t show much spark across the board offensively. This is Florida, where they’ve scored points the past few years the way most of us use up minutes on our cell phones. Running back Jeff Demps has been upgraded to probable for Saturday’s game, and that helps. But this is an offense right now that nothing is coming easy for, and when that happens, the guy calling the plays is usually the one who gets most of the blame.
6. Running to glory: Anthony Dixon was pretty much Mississippi State’s entire offense last season. He led the SEC with an average of 126.5 rushing yards per game. They leaned on him as much as any team in the league leaned on one player. But with Dixon gone, the Bulldogs are still running the ball with great success. They’re third in the SEC in rushing (211.8 yards per game), and that’s a credit to Mississippi State’s offensive line and some inspired running by all the backs, namely Vick Ballard, who’s averaging 7.2 yards per carry and has already scored 12 touchdowns. Running the ball against Florida will be critical, and quarterback Chris Relf will play a key role. Last week, LSU was able to churn out 161 rushing yards against the Gators, which ended up being a huge factor in that game.
7. Spurrier’s streak: South Carolina hasn’t lost to Kentucky for 10 straight games. But Steve Spurrier has never lost to the Wildcats. He’s 17-0 against them going back to his days at Florida, a streak that started in 1990. The Head Ball Coach knows, though, that all streaks come to an end, and he’s especially concerned because his team is coming off such a big win against Alabama. What’s more, Kentucky is due. The Wildcats have lost eight SEC games since 2008 by a touchdown or less. They were on the verge of beating South Carolina in Columbia last season until quarterback Mike Hartline went down with a knee injury. And speaking of streaks, the Gamecocks have one working against them. They’ve lost six straight SEC road games. Their last win on the road in the conference came on Oct. 11, 2008, against … Kentucky.
8. Cobb going solo: It doesn’t appear that running back Derrick Locke will be healthy enough to play against South Carolina. He’s doubtful after suffering a shoulder stinger last week against Auburn. That puts even more pressure on Randall Cobb to make plays for the Wildcats and allows South Carolina’s defense to shadow Cobb even more. The Wildcats have done a good job of moving Cobb around. He’ll line up at different receiver spots and will also get several snaps at quarterback in the Wildcat formation. Cobb accounted for four touchdowns last week in the 37-34 loss to Auburn. Without Locke, he might need at least that many Saturday if Kentucky's going to end its three-game skid.
9. Julio’s hand: There are tough guys all over the place in football. It’s not a sport for the meek. But few players in the SEC have consistently demonstrated the ability to play with pain and play through injuries the way Alabama junior receiver Julio Jones has. He is one tough customer. After breaking his left hand last week against South Carolina and then having surgery to insert screws and a plate, Jones was back on the practice field Wednesday catching passes. Alabama’s medical staff will evaluate him following Thursday’s practice. But in Jones’ mind, he’s playing Saturday against Ole Miss. He’s had an array of injuries during his career at Alabama and at least four different surgeries, but the guy shows up to play every weekend.
10. Green vs. Hayward: Everybody in this league knows who Georgia receiver A.J. Green is. And now that he’s back, Georgia’s offense has a much more explosive element to it. But keep an eye on his matchup with Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward, who’s quietly emerging as one of the best cornerbacks in this league. He’s tied for the league lead with four interceptions and is also an excellent tackler. He’s from Perry, Ga., too, so you know this is a game he’s had circled. Vanderbilt has produced several outstanding cornerbacks under secondary coach Jamie Bryant. D.J. Moore and Myron Lewis come to mind, but Hayward, only a junior, has a chance to be just as good and has the skills to give Green a run for his money on Saturday in Athens.
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15hSam Khan Jr. and Alex Scarborough
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13hSam Khan Jr. and Alex Scarborough