What to watch in the SEC: Week 10

November, 5, 2009
11/05/09
8:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

It’s a good thing Alabama and LSU tangle this weekend. They meet for only the second time since 1978 as top-10 opponents.

If not for that highly anticipated showdown, the schedule would be top-heavy with a bunch of duds, mostly teams hoping to stretch their legs and their scoreboards against outmanned nonconference foes.

The Arkansas-South Carolina matchup should also be interesting. The loser could be in deep trouble as far as finishing this season strong.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 10:

1. How the West was won: For Alabama, it’s as simple as winning Saturday against LSU. The Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0) would clinch the Western Division title and their second straight trip to the SEC championship game with a win. They would own all tiebreakers based on their head-to-head victory over LSU regardless of what they do in their final two SEC games against Mississippi State and Auburn. The Tigers (7-1, 4-1) wouldn’t clinch the West title with a win over the Crimson Tide, but would put themselves in a commanding position. LSU would still need to win over Ole Miss on the road and Arkansas at home to lock up a trip to Atlanta to play in the SEC championship game.

2. Beast of the East: Florida is already taking ticket orders for the SEC championship game. The Gators (8-0, 6-0) clinched their second straight trip to Atlanta last week. Still, they will probably need to stay unbeaten if they want a shot at the BCS national championship. Being upset at this point by anyone left on their regular-season schedule (none of their remaining four opponents are ranked) would drop them low enough in the polls that they would have a difficult time climbing back high enough -- even with a win in the SEC championship game -- to finish in the top two of the final BCS standings. So, in other words, it’s still pretty much sudden death for the Gators if they want to get to Pasadena and play for their second consecutive national title.

3. Miles vs. Saban III: When both coaches go out of their way to talk about how this game isn’t about them and how it’s about the players, that’s a pretty good indication that the two coaches are indeed a huge part of this game. How can they not be? Saban guided LSU to a national championship in 2003 before bolting for the NFL. Miles took over and won LSU’s second national championship four years later in 2007 and did so with a lot of players who were recruited by Saban. It’s one thing to replace a coach the stature of Saban, but it’s quite another to have to face him every year after he shows back up in your same division at one of your chief rivals. Winning Saturday would go a long way toward getting Miles out of Saban’s shadow at LSU once and for all.

4. Tide’s troubles in the red zone: Alabama has struggled mightily this season inside the red zone. The Crimson Tide have just 16 touchdowns in 38 trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard line, and their 42.1 touchdown percentage ranks 111th nationally. Even more troubling for Saban is his team's inability to throw the ball when trying to score touchdowns. Alabama's 27.3 completion percentage inside the red zone ranks dead last (120th) among all FBS teams. So if LSU gears up to stop the run, which you know the Tigers will, Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy is going to need to throw the ball better in order to score touchdowns. Getting tight end Colin Peek back would be a huge boost. Peek remains day to day with a knee sprain suffered in warm-ups against Tennessee. He practiced some Wednesday.

5. Peterson’s second chance: LSU sophomore cornerback Patrick Peterson has been replaying the catch over and over in his mind. He was defending Alabama receiver Julio Jones last season when Jones hauled in the 24-yard catch in overtime to set up the Crimson Tide’s game-winning touchdown. Peterson, who’s emerged this season as one of the better cornerbacks in the SEC, hasn’t made it any secret that he’s been counting down the days to getting another shot at Jones. “The coaches know what I want," Peterson said. "They have confidence in me. ... Everything I’ve been doing since [last] season is to prepare for Julio Jones. I really haven’t had a chance to get into the game plan on how coach has us guarding him, but I do know I’m going to lock on Jones.”

6. Practice makes perfect: Figuring out who’s going to be starting for Arkansas on defense this weekend would require getting your hands on the practice tape. For the second week in a row, the Hogs plan on starting the players who grade out the highest in practice. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done earlier in your career or earlier this season. It matters only what you’ve done this week on the practice field. Arkansas had six first-time starters on defense a week ago, and defensive coordinator Willy Robinson thinks the message has come through loud and clear. The Hogs, last in the SEC in total defense and the only team in the league giving up 400 or more yards per game (410.6), needed a jolt on that side of the ball.

7. Breakfast in Fayetteville: Those morning kickoffs this season haven’t been real tasty for the visiting team, which means South Carolina could be in trouble this Saturday. The Arkansas-South Carolina contest is set for an 11:21 a.m. CT start. Three of the last four morning kickoffs have all been won by the home team in convincing fashion. Auburn beat Ole Miss 33-20 last week. Ole Miss beat Arkansas 30-17 the week before, and Arkansas beat Auburn 44-23 back on Oct. 10. Going back to September, visiting LSU also struggled before keeping Mississippi State out of the end zone at the end and escaping 30-26 in Starkville. Whoever loses this latest morning affair is going to have a hard time regrouping for the rest of the season. It's a huge game for both teams.

8. Gators going Spikes-less: Brandon Spikes’ half-game suspension against Vanderbilt has turned into a full game after Spikes went to the Florida coaches and suggested that he should sit out the entire game. Spikes didn’t want to be a distraction to his teammates, who say they’ve got his back regardless of his attempted eye gouge in the Georgia game last week. Ryan Stamper will step in for Spikes at middle linebacker, and the Gators should be fine against a Vanderbilt offense that hasn’t scored more than 10 points all season against an SEC opponent. But the bigger picture is how this whole ordeal will affect Spikes down the road. The Gators will need him at his best, both physically and emotionally, if they’re going to win another national title.

9. Stormin’ Norman: What kind of freshman season has it been for Vanderbilt running back Warren Norman? Well, he charges into Saturday’s game at Florida with three kickoff returns for touchdowns. The only other player in SEC history to have pulled that off was Willie Gault in 1980. Norman also leads the SEC with 1,526 all-purpose yards and has a shot to break Herschel Walker’s SEC freshman record for all-purpose yards in a season (1,805). Norman is averaging 169.6 yards per game, which would place him among the top 10 in the SEC all-time in terms of season average, just ahead of Deuce McAllister’s 169.2 yards per game in 1999 and Bo Jackson’s 169 yards per game in 1985. Talk about some exclusive company.

10. A November to remember: It was about this time a year ago that the Phillip Fulmer era at Tennessee came to an end during an emotional news conference at Neyland Stadium. Sandwiched around that announcement were ugly November losses to South Carolina and Wyoming. The outlook this November is a little brighter for the Vols, who are playing their best football of the season under first-year coach Lane Kiffin and looking to sweep through the month of November unbeaten starting with Memphis on Saturday. Running the table -- which would also mean winning at Ole Miss, beating Vanderbilt at home and then closing the season with a win at Kentucky -- would put the Vols in great shape come bowl selection time. The Capital One, Outback and Cotton bowls would all be interested.

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