- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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There's a rumor floating around that there's a pretty big game in Tuscaloosa this week.
Here's a look at what to watch around the league in Week 10:
1. Winning up front: With all the focus on the two defenses in the Alabama and LSU game, keep a close eye on who gets it done up front on offense, especially in the second half. Both of these offensive lines have a way of imposing their will on teams after halftime. They should be healthy, too. Guard Anthony Steen is expected back for Alabama after missing time with a concussion, and LSU will get back center P.J. Lonergan, who didn’t play in either of the Tigers’ last two games while recovering from an ankle injury. The team that plays the best on the offensive line is the team that’s going to win this game.
2.Big-play receivers: With both the Alabama and LSU defenses being so stout, it makes sense that the team that wins is going to have to hit a few big plays in the passing game. It was Jarrett Lee completing the third-down bomb to Rueben Randle last season to ice the game for the Tigers, and two years ago, it was Julio Jones’ 73-yard catch and run that put the Crimson Tide ahead to stay. LSU’s Randle has been one of the best big-play receivers in the league this season. He has seven touchdown receptions and is averaging 19.3 yards per catch. Russell Shepard is somebody else to watch for the Tigers, while Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks are also plenty capable of striking from long distance for the Crimson Tide.
3. Settling the East: It’s not an Eastern Division game, but South Carolina could take a huge step toward wrapping up its second consecutive East crown by winning in Fayetteville. The Gamecocks would then have one SEC game remaining at home against Florida. South Carolina owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Georgia, but the Bulldogs get both of their remaining SEC games at home against Auburn and Kentucky. The Gamecocks haven’t matched up well in recent years against the Hogs, but need to get over that hump if they’re going to get back to Atlanta.
4. Pressuring with four: South Carolina’s defense has been excellent the last five games. The Gamecocks haven’t given up more than 16 points during that stretch. Their defensive front has been a big reason why, although assistant head coach for the defense, Ellis Johnson, said the real test will come Saturday against Arkansas. South Carolina leads the SEC with 26 forced turnovers, but Johnson said the key against the Hogs will be getting pressure on Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson with the Gamecocks’ front four and not having to blitz a whole lot. The Hogs have struggled to protect Wilson in some games this season.
5. Playing two halves: Arkansas got away with it last week against Vanderbilt. The Hogs did the same two weeks ago against Ole Miss. Make that ditto for the Texas A&M game a month ago. The Hogs simply haven’t answered the bell in the first half, but have found ways to battle back in the second half and win games. That’s a dangerous script to follow if you’re going to beat South Carolina. The Hogs have been one of the best teams in the league when it comes to making big plays on offense, which would be the easiest way to get off to a good start. But the Gamecocks haven’t given up big plays this season. In fact, they haven’t allowed one all season that was longer than 33 yards.
6. A different Vanderbilt: The Commodores last won at the Swamp (Florida Field) in 1945. So it’s been a while. But it’s obvious that this isn’t the same old Vandy. It’s also not the same old Florida. The Gators have lost four in a row and went winless in the month of October. It’s been a tough season for first-year coach Will Muschamp, especially with quarterback John Brantley missing much of October. But it will go from a tough season to an unbearable season if Vanderbilt comes into the Swamp and wins. The Commodores lost in the final minutes to both Arkansas and Georgia in their last two outings. They’ve been very good all season on defense and are improving on offense, but they’re still looking for their first win away from home.
7. Ending the misery: Between them, Kentucky and Ole Miss have lost nine conference games this season. The Rebels have lost 11 in a row going back to last season. Something’s gotta give Saturday when they meet up in Commonwealth Stadium. Both teams had their chances last week. In fact, Ole Miss has been in position to win each of the last two weeks, but couldn’t finish the game against Auburn or Arkansas. It looks like the Wildcats will be going with freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith in this game. Morgan Newton is battling an ankle injury. Smith came in last week against Mississippi State and showed some promise.
8. New faces for Dawgs: Get ready to see several new faces on Saturday in Georgia’s offensive backfield. The Bulldogs suspended three running backs this week, including freshman Isaiah Crowell, after they failed drug tests. Carlton Thomas and Ken Malcome were also suspended for the New Mexico State game. Making matters worse, Richard Samuel will miss the rest of the regular season with a foot injury after running as hard and as well as he has in a long time last week against Florida. So who’s going to carry the football for the Dawgs? Former walk-on Brandon Harton is the leader in the clubhouse followed by freshman walk-on Kyle Karempelis. Don’t be surprised if you see the likes of Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith back there some, too.
9. Another shot for Worley: Tennessee true freshman quarterback Justin Worley will make his second straight start Saturday after suffering through a rough outing last week against South Carolina. There are never any guarantees, but going up against Middle Tennessee’s defense figures to be a little less stressful than dealing with the Gamecocks on defense. It wasn’t all on Worley last week, either. He threw a couple of nice passes, but the players around him didn’t play very well. In particular, sophomore receiver Da’Rick Rogers dropped what would have been a touchdown pass. Rogers said he told Worley after the play, “I owe you. I owe you a bunch of stuff.”
10. Russell’s impact: Mississippi State was one of the SEC’s top rushing teams each of the last two seasons, but the Bulldogs have been more successful with the pass here lately. The biggest change has been Tyler Russell and his ability to throw the football. He’s a pocket passer with a big arm, and the Bulldogs have tweaked things when he’s in the game to play to his strengths. In the 28-16 win over Kentucky last week, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen rotated Chris Relf and Russell, and they combined for 264 passing yards and two touchdowns. It looks like the Bulldogs are going to stick with the quarterback rotation. They’ve generated more passing yards than rushing yards in their last four games and are averaging 204.6 passing yards per game, which is the most they’ve averaged through the air in eight seasons.
16hAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf
4dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf