What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 17, 2009
9/17/09
8:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


You’ve got to hand it to Lane Kiffin.

Thanks to some of his offseason comments, he’s managed to single-handedly turn a game that has blowout written all over it into one of the most anticipated matchups of the season in college football.

Florida’s a four-touchdown favorite against Tennessee in the Swamp on Saturday, and nobody really thinks the Vols have much of a shot.

The surprise will be if Tennessee’s still in the game in the second half. The only surprise bigger than that will be if Florida coach Urban Meyer calls off the dogs. He’s 4-0 against the Vols.

Here’s a look at Week 3 in the SEC and what all to watch:

1. Getting Swamped: There’s no truth to the rumor that Meyer has had the Gators’ statisticians researching the worst loss in Tennessee football history. For the record, Tennessee once lost a game 70-0 to Trinity College (the present-day Duke University) way back in 1893. But the Vols’ most lopsided loss in modern history was a 44-0 shellacking by Georgia to open the 1981 season. That was a Georgia team that featured SEC legend Herschel Walker. This Florida team features SEC future legend Tim Tebow. The Vols certainly hope there’s no connection.

2. Staying grounded: Only once since 1990 in the Florida-Tennessee series has a team won the game without winning the rushing battle. That lone exception came in 2002 when the Gators won 30-13 in the rain, but were outgained on the ground 99 to 94 yards. Since Meyer’s arrival in 2005, Tennessee has yet to rush for 100 yards against Florida. In fact, the Vols’ combined rushing total of 189 yards the past four years against the Gators is less than the 226 yards Travis Stephens put up by himself in 2001 at the Swamp when the Vols won 34-32. The Gators are allowing just 2.6 yards per carry this season.

3. Speed to burn: Percy Harvin might be gone, but the Gators haven’t lost a step when it comes to team speed. Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey form what has to be the fastest backfield in the country, and then there’s Brandon James lining up at a couple of different positions. You don’t see anybody catching Riley Cooper from behind, either. The Gators’ speed is just as apparent on defense. Jermaine Cunningham is a blur coming off the edge from his end position, and on those rare occasions when somebody in the secondary does get beat, the recovery speed is unbelievable. “They’ve got guys who run 10.3, 10.4 and 10.5, and they’re all over the place,” Kiffin said.

4. Special or un-special teams: All across the league, special teams have been a big story, both good and bad. At the head of the class is Florida, which owns the best kicking game in the country. James has already returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season and has a punt return for a touchdown each of the last two seasons against Tennessee. Arkansas had several miscues in its opener, including two kickoffs that went out of bounds and a fumbled punt. Alabama has given up kickoff returns for touchdowns in each of its first two games. Auburn had a punt blocked for a touchdown last week against Mississippi State, and Georgia returned a kickoff for a touchdown against South Carolina.

5. Dogs getting defensive: Georgia’s defense played well enough in the first game against an explosive Oklahoma State offense for the Bulldogs to win. The Cowboys were limited to 307 yards of total offense, and three of their scoring drives were 32 yards or shorter. But last week against South Carolina, Georgia allowed 427 yards of total offense and 37 points and didn’t have much of an answer for South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia. Which one is closer to the real Georgia defense? We should find out Saturday when Georgia tangles with an Arkansas offense loaded with playmakers and an offense that has been preparing for this game since the preseason. The Hogs run it and pass it equally well.

6. Back to Auburn football: Talk to the coaches. Talk to the players. Talk to anyone at Auburn, and they’ll tell you the same thing. The most refreshing thing about the start to this season (other than the 2-0 record) is that the Tigers are back to playing “Auburn football” on offense. The translation: Committing to running the football and doing all the things it takes to run it well. Auburn heads into Saturday’s game against West Virginia having rushed for 300 yards or more in each of the first two weeks. Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb have each topped 100 yards in both games this season, and it’s difficult to find an offensive line in the SEC playing better than Auburn’s right now. The rushing yards speak for themselves, but the Tigers are just one of seven teams nationally not to have allowed a sack.

7. Upholding league pride: Other than Alabama’s season-opening victory over Virginia Tech, it hasn’t been a rousing start to the season for the SEC, which makes Auburn’s game with West Virginia on Saturday all the more important. The SEC doesn’t need another loss or poor performance in a marquee nonconference game if it wants to continue to claim top billing. Georgia’s loss to Oklahoma State and Tennessee’s loss to UCLA sure don’t help the league, and neither does the way LSU allowed Washington to run up and down the field two weeks ago in the Tigers’ 31-23 win in Seattle. You’re already starting to hear some rumblings nationally about the SEC being overrated. A loss by Auburn at home to West Virginia would really fan those flames.

8. Healthier Rebels: Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said he had several guys in that first game against Memphis who were sicker with the flu than anybody knew. Perhaps that explains how sluggish the Rebels were for much of that game before blowing it open in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jevan Snead was one of the players fighting the effects of the flu and didn’t have his best stuff. It sounds like everybody’s healthy now, which means Ole Miss gets a chance to stretch its legs a little bit against Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday before facing its first real test next Thursday night at South Carolina.

9. Big Blue development: This will be the Wildcats’ first legitimate challenge up front with their revamped defensive line after an easy 42-0 win over Miami (Ohio) to open the season two weeks ago. Louisville has enough talented skill people to make it tough on the Wildcats if they don’t get a push up front and get some pressure on the Cardinals’ quarterback, Justin Burke. In the opener, Kentucky’s starting defensive line finished with four tackles and no sacks. Ends Chandler Burden and DeQuin Evans were making their first career starts. Kentucky coach Rich Brooks anticipates those guys turning it loose and playing more instinctively now that they’ve been through it in a game.

10. McElroy’s maturation: It hasn’t taken Greg McElroy very long to mature into one of the SEC’s most efficient quarterbacks. He started the season as one of the chief question marks on Alabama’s team. But ever since a shaky start against Virginia Tech in the opener, he’s looked totally in command of what he’s doing and has really looked good throwing the football. McElroy set a school record by competing 14 consecutive passes in the Florida International game. He’s spread the ball around and done his damage without Julio Jones being on top of his game. Jones, who has a bruised knee, may not play in Saturday’s game against North Texas. A year ago, that would have been a problem. But this offense is more diverse than the one a year ago, and a big part of that is McElroy’s ability to throw the ball down the field and use everybody around him.

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