With the regular season winding to a close, here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 12:
1. FCS Celebration Week: The reality is that this isn’t the most compelling week of matchups in the SEC. In fact, seven of the 14 schools are squaring off against FCS opponents. Five years ago, the SEC made it mandatory for all schools to play on Thanksgiving weekend, and because so many of those season-ending games are fierce rivalries, a lot of the schools have attempted to schedule lesser opponents for the week prior. The only three SEC league games this weekend are Ole Miss at LSU, Arkansas at Mississippi State and Tennessee at Vanderbilt.
The next-to-last weekend should be a little more intriguing next season. Five league games are on the docket, highlighted by Texas A&M’s visit to LSU. The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s not always a given that an SEC team is going to roll over an FCS foe. Jacksonville State played Arkansas close in the season opener earlier this year and beat Ole Miss 49-48 in two overtimes to open the 2010 season. Maine defeated Mississippi State 9-7 in 2004, and although Georgia Southern didn’t win last season at Alabama, the Eagles churned out 302 rushing yards against the Crimson Tide’s vaunted defense.
2. Bowling for wins: Unless a few teams get busy here at the end of the season, the SEC’s not going to be able to fill all of its bowl tie-ins. Missouri and Ole Miss both are sitting at five wins and can become bowl eligible this weekend. Missouri gets Syracuse at home, and Ole Miss has to play at LSU. The Tigers probably need to get it done this weekend because they travel to Texas A&M the final weekend of the regular season. The Rebels close the regular season at home against Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.
Arkansas and Tennessee will have to win both of their remaining two games to make it to a bowl. The Hogs have the more difficult path: They play at Mississippi State Saturday, then face LSU at home the following Friday. The Vols travel to Vanderbilt, then get Kentucky at home. The SEC has agreements to send 10 of its schools to bowls, which includes the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Even if the SEC is shut out of the Discover BCS National Championship Game this season, it still will get a second school in a BCS bowl as an at-large team.
3. Coach watch: Already, Arkansas and Kentucky are looking for new coaches. John L. Smith will not be back at Arkansas after serving this season in an interim role, and Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart announced two weeks ago that Joker Phillips would not be back. Two more announcements could be coming as early as next week. Derek Dooley is on his way out at Tennessee, even though athletic director Dave Hart has not made any public statements, and Gene Chizik isn’t expected to make it at Auburn. That means Saturday’s game against Alabama A&M likely will be Chizik’s final game at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Between them, Dooley and Chizik have lost 22 of their last 23 SEC games. If all four coaches are indeed gone, it would be the first time in SEC history that four coaches were either fired or pushed out in the same season.
4. Brissett steps in: After battling for the starting job all spring and preseason, Jacoby Brissett steps back in as Florida’s starting quarterback. Jeff Driskel is out of Saturday's game against Jacksonville State with an ankle sprain, and it’s not a certainty that he will be back next week for the Florida State game. Brissett came off the bench last week after Driskel was injured and helped Florida rally past Louisiana-Lafayette 27-20. Brissett, a sophomore, started the season opener against Bowling Green, but was replaced the next week by Driskel. Not as mobile as Driskel, Brissett is more of a pocket passer, although he’s attempted just 13 passes this season. He started in the LSU and Auburn games last season.
5. Defending the option: No defense looks forward to facing a triple-option offense, especially when it’s this late and you haven’t gone against that style of offense all season. But that’s the task that awaits both Georgia and South Carolina. Georgia faces Georgia Southern, which leads all FCS teams in rushing this season, averaging 401.2 yards per game, and has 42 rushing touchdowns. Wofford is second nationally among FCS teams, averaging 357.1 rushing yards per game, with 35 rushing touchdowns. Georgia coach Mark Richt said his team has practiced in full pads all week to get ready for the cut blocks they’ll see from Georgia Southern. It’s not just a one-game deal for the Bulldogs, either. They get Georgia Tech the final week of the regular season, and the Yellow Jackets also run the option.
6. Murray moving on up: With his three touchdown passes last week against Auburn, Georgia’s Aaron Murray moved into fifth place on the SEC’s career chart with 83 touchdown passes. Florida’s Danny Wuerffel holds the SEC record with 114. Murray also can become the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000 yards in three straight seasons, a feat such greats as Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Tim Couch, David Greene and Wuerffel didn’t accomplish. Murray has 2,656 yards after throwing for 3,149 last season and 3,049 in 2010 as a redshirt freshman. Counting the SEC championship game and bowl game, Murray still has four more games to reach 3,000 yards.
7. Mettenberger comes to life: In his past two games, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger has thrown the football the way everyone expected when the season began. He’s passed for 571 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the 37-17 win over Mississippi State and the 21-17 loss to Alabama. He’s completed 66.1 percent of his passes in those two games, and even more telling, has been much more accurate on longer passes. He’s completed half of his passes thrown 15 yards or longer the past two weeks, including seven last week against Mississippi State. In his first four SEC games, Mettenberger completed just 16.7 percent of his passes thrown 15 yards or longer.
8. Johnny Football: The nickname has become the rage around college football and so has Johnny Manziel when he's on the move. The Texas A&M redshirt freshman quarterback is continuing to put up monster numbers and is well on his way to securing a trip to New York City as one of the finalists for the Heisman Trophy. He’s leading the SEC in rushing with 1,014 yards, and 728 of those yards are on scrambles. That’s 51 more yards scrambling than Marcus Mariota, Denard Robinson, Braxton Miller and Collin Klein have combined. Manziel has scrambled for 31 first downs this season, including 20 on third down. Talk about a machine when it comes to moving the chains.
9. Wrapping up: Granted, it’s been hard to watch Florida on offense for much of this season. But the Gators have been rock-solid on defense. Not only are they third nationally in scoring defense and fifth in total defense, but they’re about as well-schooled as it gets when it comes to tackling. In 10 games this season, they’ve missed just 43 tackles. That’s 15 fewer than any other SEC team.
10. Stacy probable: Vanderbilt senior tailback Zac Stacy suffered a leg/knee injury last week early in the Ole Miss game and was unable to return. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin has been mum about Stacy’s status Saturday against Tennessee, but Stacy practiced Wednesday, and the feeling now in the Vanderbilt camp is that he will be healthy enough to play. Stacy leads the Commodores with 769 rushing yards and has been a main cog in their offense. He’s also been tough as nails throughout his career and repeatedly has played through injuries. Getting him back in the lineup would be huge for the Commodores, although they also have a lot of confidence in backups Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow.