- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Everybody’s already talking about Alabama vs. LSU on Nov. 5.
We still have a few more weeks of football to play before we get to that showdown, and a lot can still happen.
So let’s put on the brakes and take a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 6:
1. Young talent: The debate rages as to which defense is better and which is more talented – Alabama or LSU? But when it comes to young talent, the Tigers don’t have any peers. Of the 22 players in their defensive two-deep, 13 are sophomores or younger, including starters such as cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, defensive end Sam Montgomery, safety Eric Reid and both tackles –- Bennie Logan and Michael Brockers. True freshman tackle Anthony Johnson isn’t starting, but he’s a big part of the rotation and is the most talented of the bunch up front.
2. Gators getting offensive: While a lot of the attention will be on true freshman quarterback Jeff Driskel making his first start for the Gators in place of the injured John Brantley, the real key for Florida against LSU will be generating some semblance of a running game. The Gators have to find a way to get Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps on the perimeter, which is where they had been so dangerous until last week’s loss to Alabama. Rainey and Demps combined for just 3 yards on six carries outside the tackles against the Crimson Tide. That’s after averaging 9 yards per carry outside the tackles in their first four games.
3. Third-down excellence: If you like watching teams go at it on third down, be sure to tune in for the Georgia-Tennessee game. The Vols are tied for the lead nationally in third-down conversion offense. They’re 36-of-58 (62.1 percent) and have converted 10 third downs in three of their four games this season. In their only loss to Florida, they were 4-of-12. Georgia has been equally good at stopping teams on third down. The Bulldogs are second nationally in third-down defense. Opponents are just 18-of-71 (25.4 percent) against the Bulldogs this season. So third down could be mighty interesting come Saturday night in Neyland Stadium.
4. Neyland’s curse: Georgia coach Mark Richt is 35-10 in an opponent’s stadium, which includes an 11-5 mark against nationally-ranked foes. But Neyland Stadium has been a house of horrors lately for Richt and the Bulldogs, who’ve been blown out during their last two trips to Knoxville. Tennessee won 45-19 in 2009 and 35-14 in 2007. The Vols weren’t ranked in either game, but the Bulldogs were ranked No. 12 in 2007. Since taking over as Georgia’s coach in 2001, Richt has never lost three straight games in an opponent’s stadium.
5. Least of the East: It’s only five weeks into the season, and all six Eastern Division teams already have at least one conference loss. There’s a pretty good chance that four of the teams could have two losses after this week’s games. Georgia and Tennessee play each other, while Vanderbilt has to play at Alabama and Florida travels to LSU. Kentucky already has two losses. South Carolina won the East last season with three losses. At this rate, we could be headed for another three-loss East champion, and it’s very likely all six teams in the division will finish with at least two losses again.
6. Shaw’s second chance: After opening the season as South Carolina’s starting quarterback, sophomore Connor Shaw gets another chance to lead the Gamecocks. Coach Steve Spurrier said this week that Shaw will get the chance to finish out the game against Kentucky and show what he can do barring an injury or some other unforeseen circumstance. Spurrier stuck with fifth-year senior Stephen Garcia as long as the Gamecocks kept winning. But his passing woes caught up with them last week in a 16-13 loss to Auburn, and now it’s Shaw’s turn to see if he can jump-start the passing game. Garcia was completing just 51.7 percent of his passes and had thrown four touchdown passes and nine interceptions.
7. Defensive awakening: Auburn has played better on defense the last two weeks. Arkansas has gone in the other direction. Their matchup this Saturday at Razorback Stadium had all the makings of an offensive shootout when the season began and still may play out that way. But the Tigers tackled better and were in better position to tackle last week in a 16-13 win at South Carolina. Obviously, Arkansas’ high-powered passing game presents a much different challenge. The flip side to that is that the Hogs have given up 104 points in their last three games. They’re also saddled with some key injuries on defense and haven’t been able to stop anybody since blowing out New Mexico the second week of the season.
8. A crimson wall: Every week, Alabama’s defense gets a little more menacing. The Crimson Tide smothered Florida last week in a 38-10 win on the road and are now third nationally in total defense. They’re allowing just 191.6 yards per game and lead the country in limiting opponents to 3.06 yards per play. Alabama’s defense has also given up just five touchdowns in five games, which doesn’t bode well for a Vanderbilt team that’s ranked 117th nationally in total offense. The Commodores, who’ve taken three interceptions back for touchdowns this season, are probably going to need a defensive score or two to keep this one close.
9. Now or never for Bulldogs: If Mississippi State is going to turn this season around, it needs to start Saturday against UAB. The Bulldogs, who’ve lost all three of their SEC games, don’t just need to win. They need to win impressively, and more importantly, find some consistency and rhythm on offense. Injuries in the offensive line have been a huge problem, but the Bulldogs also haven’t made a lot of big plays offensively since the rout of Memphis in the opener. There are some winnable games coming up for Mississippi State, which gets South Carolina at home next week before getting a bye. But a disappointing season could become an utterly forgettable season if the Bulldogs don’t take care of business Saturday in Birmingham.
10. Offensive ineptitude: The SEC has long been known for the quality of defense played in this conference. But some of the offenses through five weeks have been hard to watch. In fact, three of the worst five offenses among the 120 FBS teams reside in the SEC. Granted, some of that probably has to do with the caliber of defenses in the SEC, but Ole Miss is ranked 116th nationally in total offense, Vanderbilt 117th and Kentucky 118th. Even No. 1-ranked LSU is ranked 90th. In fact, if you count Mississippi State (70th), South Carolina (78th) and Auburn (79th), seven of the 12 SEC teams are ranked in the bottom half of the country right now in total offense. That’s downright offensive, or defensive, depending on how you look at it.
Everybody’s already talking about Alabama vs. LSU on Nov. 5.We still have a few more weeks of football to play before we get to that showdown, and a lot can still happen.