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Thursday, October 25, 2012
What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

By Edward Aschoff

We've got a few big games in the SEC this weekend and here's what you should be watching out for in Week 9:

1. Taking the East: It'll be quite the party in Jacksonville on Saturday, as this game will essentially decide the SEC East. If Florida wins, the Gators are headed back to Atlanta for the first time since 2009. A Georgia win gives the Bulldogs the edge in the East race from here on out. The Gators haven't dealt with success like this lately, so it'll be interesting to see how this team comes out against a Bulldogs team that has its back against the wall, just like last season. One thing playing in Georgia's favor is this team has been here before and fought its way out of a corner ... all the way to the SEC championship game.

AJ McCarron
The Bulldogs need to get pressure on Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who has only been sacked 13 times this season.
2. Pressuring McCarron: A lot of the talk surrounding the Alabama-Mississippi State matchup has dealt with AJ McCarron facing Mississippi State's very talented secondary. But if the Bulldogs are going to stop Alabama's balanced offense, they have to put pressure on McCarron and force him to make mistakes. The Bulldogs haven't been great at hurrying the quarterback this season and have registered just 11 sacks on the year, while Alabama's line has given up just 15 sacks. Obviously, this team has to defend the run, but getting to McCarron is going to be very important for Mississippi State's defense.

3. Arkansas' revival: Remember when the Razorbacks were basically dead in the water? Well, Arkansas has won two straight and things are starting to click for the Hogs. Their last two wins have come against Auburn and Kentucky, but wins are wins in this league, and Arkansas' confidence is flowing right now. Saturday's game with Ole Miss is crucial as far as Arkansas' bowl hopes go. The Hogs need three more wins and one of them has to come Saturday with the gauntlet that is November coming up. Players said the bye week helped clean up some of the little things, and that defense will have to be at its best against Ole Miss' high-powered offense.

4. Slowing down the run: Going back to the Hogs' defense, if Arkansas is going to control Ole Miss' offense, it has to stop the Rebels on the ground. Ole Miss is fourth in the SEC in rushing, averaging 211.4 yards per game. Arkansas has stopped the run well in its past two games, but neither of those running games were on par with Ole Miss' rush game. Tennessee and Georgia also have to control the opposing run games. Florida is third in the league in rushing and its offense has gone the way of its rushing attack for most of the year. If the Bulldogs can force Florida into more passing situations, it could benefit Georgia. The same goes for Tennessee, as the Gamecocks will look to run Marcus Lattimore as much as possible. Connor Shaw struggled throwing the ball last week, so the Vols will try to make him beat them Saturday.

5. Georgia's defensive toughness: Senior safety Shawn Williams created a stir when he called the play of his defense "soft" and then proceeded to name which linebackers should be playing more. Some feelings were hurt, but Mark Richt hopes it motivates his players. Williams' words very well could, but the pressure is now on him to play one of his best games. But this defense has to toughen up as a whole. It hasn't played well in the past three games, and that has to change against Florida's tough running game. Giving up big plays have really hurt this defense lately, and Georgia can't afford that Saturday.

6. Big-game time for Russell: Georgia's Aaron Murray isn't the only one with a lot to prove when it comes to big games this weekend. While he's looking for his third career win over a Top 25 team, Mississippi State's Tyler Russell is looking for a signature win in his career. Beating Alabama would certainly be that win. Russell has been tremendously efficient this season, tossing 15 touchdowns to just one interception. He'll have to be at his absolute best against Alabama's defense. This is the biggest game of his career, so keep an eye on how he deals with that pressure.

7. Johnny Football's rebound: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel found second-half struggles in the loss to LSU, but he'll have the chance to really rebound this weekend against Auburn's floundering defense. The Tigers are giving up more than 400 yards a game, and Manziel has the ability to gash this defense through the air and on the ground. Manziel was getting some Heisman love before the LSU game, but his hopes haven't been destroyed. He can still make a run, and good outings against tough defenses in November will help.

8. Making the bowl push: This is an important weekend for a few teams still trying to make postseason runs. Vanderbilt needs three more wins and should get one easily Saturday against UMass. Ole Miss and Arkansas are in a bowl fight as well. The Razorbacks have to win this one if they are going get the three more wins required to become bowl eligible, while getting to five wins on the season now would only help the Rebels, especially with a tough November approaching. Tennessee has a favorable November ahead, but this is a game that could either help or really hurt this team's confidence going forward. Missouri is essentially in a must-win situation for a bowl. November will be a very tough stretch for the Tigers, so beating Kentucky is crucial for the postseason.

9. Getting the offense back on track: Missouri's offense hasn't been very explosive at all this season. Injuries have certainly hurt it, but SEC defenses haven't had much trouble shutting down the Tigers when they have the ball. Coach Gary Pinkel said before the bye week that things had to be simplified on offense, and he thinks that will happen going forward. It starts with backup quarterback Corbin Berkstresser being more comfortable in place of James Franklin. South Carolina is also looking to revive its offense after a very poor showing against Florida. The Gators' defense certainly was a big part of South Carolina's struggles, but the passing game was just ugly in general. All eyes will be on Shaw, but having a healthier Lattimore running the ball should help him.

10. Tennessee's fight: The Vols have had some really bad luck when it comes to keeping up in games. They put up a few big plays against Alabama last week, but averaged just 4 yards immediately following plays of 20 or more yards. After big defensive stops, Alabama came roaring back with scoring drives. The Vols also had back-to-back comeback attempts thwarted by opponents in the fourth quarter in the weeks prior. It might not appear likely, but Tennessee could still make it to the postseason and could still win eight games. But the Vols have to keep going mentally. With the losses and all the talk about Derek Dooley's job, it could be easy for this team to quit, but there's too much of the season left. Saturday's game is a chance for redemption. It's early, so Tennessee could catch South Carolina off guard. But if things are too far gone in Knoxville, this team could roll over at the first sign of adversity.