Thursday, October 15, 2009
What to watch in the SEC: Week 7
By Chris Low
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
It’s pretty clear at this point that Alabama and Florida are the class of the SEC, maybe the nation.
That doesn’t mean the race is over in the SEC. It’s never over until it’s over, but somebody is really going to have to put on the afterburners this second half of the season to prevent an Alabama-Florida rematch in the SEC championship game.
Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 7:
1. How about everybody else? We know Alabama and Florida can play. What about everybody else? The rest of the league has been referred to as a bunch of nobodies by some. Part of that has been fostered by Ole Miss’ disappointing start and the fact that LSU hasn’t been able to find itself offensively. Still, it’s a pretty big group of teams that has bunched up together behind Alabama and Florida. They’ve all had their moments, good and bad. Now let’s see if they can put together a stretch of football worthy of Top 25 consideration. If Alabama beats South Carolina this Saturday, there’s a chance the SEC will only have three ranked teams next week -- Florida, Alabama and LSU.
2. Hall of Fame credentials: A pair of future Hall of Famers meet up this weekend in Tuscaloosa. Actually, South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier has already been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player, but he will follow as a coach once he’s retired. So will Alabama’s Nick Saban. Each has defined excellence in his own innovative way. Each tried his hand in the NFL and didn’t like it. Spurrier is the offensive whiz. Saban is the defensive guru. Between them, they’ve coached at four different SEC schools, won eight SEC championships and two national championships. In a league full of coaching heavyweights, their legacies will endure as coaches who changed the way they play football in this conference.
3. Linebacker pipeline: When a player the caliber of Dont’a Hightower goes down at most schools, there’s a pretty obvious drop-off. Not at Alabama. The Crimson Tide just keep churning out the talent. Sophomore linebacker Jerrell Harris is back this week against South Carolina after serving a six-game suspension. He’s been competing for Hightower’s vacated inside linebacker spot in practice along with true freshman Nico Johnson, who started there last week and played well. Saban has been looking at different combinations the past couple of weeks to make sure he gets his talent onto the field. Both Harris and Johnson would be starting for a lot of teams in this league.
4. Testing Florida’s cornerbacks: Florida cornerbacks Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins are coming off excellent games last week at LSU. They can do it all as cornerbacks -- cover, tackle, and in a lot of cases, take away their side of the field -- allowing Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong all sorts of flexibility. Even though Arkansas isn’t 100 percent healthy, the Hogs’ receivers should provide Haden and Jenkins with their stiffest test of the season. They know how to get open, have specialized in the big play and are extremely dangerous after the catch.
5. Mallett’s second chance: Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett gets his second shot at a dominant defense. He looked rattled and confused earlier this season against Alabama and was taken out of his game. For that matter, the entire Arkansas offense was. We’ll see how much he’s learned when he goes up against Florida’s defense on Saturday. The Gators are just as talented and just as fast and will no doubt come after Mallett, who’s been red-hot ever since that Alabama game. He leads the country with 15 completions of 30 yards or longer and has thrown six touchdown passes the past two weeks.
6. Tebow a week later: The game plan last week with Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was to keep him out of harm’s way as much as possible and let him ease his way back into being hit again after suffering a concussion on Sept. 26. We’ll see if he opens it back up a bit Saturday against an Arkansas defense that has played better these last few weeks. Tebow had 12 called runs last week against LSU and was held to 12 yards on those called rushing attempts. Through his first four games, he had 273 yards on 44 called running plays for an average of 6.2 yards per carry.
7. The Cobb and Locke Show: While Kentucky chooses between junior Will Fidler and freshman Morgan Newton to replace injured starting quarterback Mike Hartline, the Wildcats’ hopes the rest of the way will lie with Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke making enough plays to help out whoever’s under center. They’ve both had excellent seasons to this point heading into Saturday’s game at Auburn. Cobb is lining up just about everywhere and had yards rushing and receiving last week against South Carolina while also returning kickoffs and punts. Locke, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, has been one of the most versatile performers in the league. He leads the league in all-purpose yardage with an average of 169.6 yards per game, and Cobb is fifth with an average of 130.8 yards per game.
8. Getting back to Auburn football: Auburn wasn’t as good as it looked in those first five wins, and the Tigers weren’t as bad as they looked in falling behind 34-3 last Saturday to Arkansas in their first loss of the season. The first thing they need to do is tackle better on defense and special teams, and shoring up that kickoff coverage would also be nice. It’s difficult to complain with anything Auburn has done offensively this season, but this Kentucky game at home is an absolute must. The teeth of the schedule is still to come, including a trip to LSU and home game with Alabama.
9. From bad to worse: You think it’s bad now for Georgia? Let the Bulldogs lose to Vanderbilt this weekend. The unrest in Bulldog Land would reach a boiling point unlike anything we’ve seen during the Mark Richt era. The truth is that it may already be there. The Bulldogs need to string some wins together in the worst way, and they need to prove they’re not a lost cause defensively and haven’t forgotten how to run the ball on offense. Vanderbilt has been a tough out for Georgia in recent years. The Bulldogs had to scratch out a 24-14 win in Athens last season, escaped 20-17 on a last-second field goal in 2007 and lost 24-22 in 2006.
10. Regaining the faith: If Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead doesn’t start playing with more confidence in his offensive line and his receiving corps, this season could really get away from the Rebels. Likewise, it’s on the Rebels’ offensive line and some of the skill people around Snead to play better and help get him going. He heads into Saturday’s nonconference game with UAB not even ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in passing efficiency. He’s thrown nine touchdown passes and nine interceptions. It’s not too late, but time is running out on Snead and the Rebels if they want to make something of this season.