- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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We have some key SEC matchups this week and a nice ACC-SEC battle in the other Death Valley.
Things get kicked off tonight when LSU meets Mississippi State in Starkville. This game should be full of hard hits and maddening cowbells. Can all that clanking rattle the Bayou Bengals?
And don't forget about a key SEC East matchup Saturday between Florida and Tennessee. The Gators have won six straight over the Volunteers, but this Florida team is still a mystery to most.
Here's what to keep an eye on in the SEC in Week 3:
1. Mississippi State’s rushing defense: The Bulldogs haven’t stopped the run well at all in two games this season. Last weekend, Auburn carved up Mississippi State’s defense for 235 rushing yards and got 150 of them from Michael Dyer. Tonight, the Bulldogs will face an LSU running game that has put up 175 yards in both wins this season. Mississippi State was supposed to get a boost from Fletcher Cox in the middle last week, but he was a non-factor. Against this group of Tigers, Mississippi State has to stop the run if it wants to win. Forcing quarterback Jarrett Lee to make plays against a talented secondary could benefit the Bulldogs.
2. Running in the Swamp: The Florida-Tennessee rivalry has always come down to the running game. The team with the most rushing yards has won 19 of the last 21 meetings. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said this week that in order for his offense to truly be effective against the Gators it has to generate a dominant running game. So far, the Vols’ running game has been anything but that, averaging just 127 yards a game. Florida has had a lot of success with its backfield, especially the slippery Chris Rainey, thus far, and the Gators are second in the league with 248.5 rushing yards per game. Winning the battle of the backfield will go a long way Saturday.
3. Hangover in Death Valley? Auburn has taken both of its games down to the very last minute. The Tigers literally needed a goal-line stand to prevent overtime against Mississippi State. But those games came at home and now the Tigers must greet another set of big cats at Clemson. Auburn is riding high and has proved that while young, this team has the heart and the fight to compete for four quarters every week. Can this trend continue? Well, it’s hard to pick against Auburn, but at some point these late-game antics have to catch up with this team … right?
4. Two-QB system in Fayetteville: Bobby Petrino laughed at the handful of questions he fielded Wednesday about possibly using a two-quarterback system. He made it clear that Tyler Wilson is his starter and that Brandon Mitchell is the backup who got some extra reps here and there. But why not put Mitchell out there more? Petrino even admitted that he likes the idea of playing him more because he gives defenses something extra to think about because of how productive he is outside of the pocket. Keep an eye out for it. Mitchell adds another rushing threat to Arkansas’ offense and that running game needs a jolt.
5. South Carolina’s tackling ability: The Gamecocks’ defense claimed it would be much better compared to last season. So far, that hasn’t been the case. South Carolina has been in two straight shootouts and tackling has been a major issue. Coach Steve Spurrier ripped his team publicly this week about its inability to tackle effectively. This week, the Gamecocks get a Navy team that is only leading the nation rushing for 400 yards a game with that deadly triple option. Spurrier made it clear that if his team wants to stay undefeated it can’t let Navy’s rushing attack control the game.
6. Alabama’s quarterback competition: AJ McCarron looked to have cemented himself as the Tide’s starting quarterback after an impressive performance at Penn State, but coach Nick Saban still wants to give Phillip Sims some reps. This is the perfect weekend for the last stage of this battle. Alabama’s talent should overwhelm North Texas, meaning Saban can rotate his quarterbacks more. I still give McCarron the edge, but if Sims is going to make any sort of push for the rest of the season, it will have to be this weekend because SEC play is just around the corner.
7. James Franklin going for his first league win: So far, Vanderbilt’s coach’s approach is working. Franklin has been a powder keg of energy for this program and the Commodores are 2-0 for the first time since 2008. Franklin hates looking back to the past and is all about pushing this program forward. Saturday, Franklin and his Commodores will get their biggest test of the year when Ole Miss comes to town. The Rebels haven’t been great this season and the offense hasn’t been consistent. Vandy’s aggressive defense should provide plenty of problems for the Rebels, who have lost two of their last three to the Commodores.
8. Tyler Bray vs. Florida’s secondary: It’s no secret that Tennessee’s sophomore quarterback has a cannon for a right arm. He’s throwing for 350 yards a game and has seven touchdowns. Two things helping his video game-like numbers are receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, who have combined for 31 catches for 502 yards and five touchdowns. But how will Bray stack up against a Florida defense that has been superb in its first two games? Granted, the Gators haven’t played the toughest competition, but they are doing what has been expected and have been much more aggressive. However, top Florida cornerback Jeremy Brown is still battling a knee injury, while the other two main corners are underclassmen. Matt Elam has been solid at strong safety, but there are still questions at free safety.
9. Mettenberger making an appearance: We finally got to see LSU’s backup toss the pigskin around last week when he filled in for Jarrett Lee during the second half. Lee suffered an ankle injury, which doesn’t seem too serious, but we might have another Zach Mettenberger sighting tonight in Starkville. The junior college transfer had a solid outing against Northwestern State and showed a little of what he can do, so trust is growing with the coaching staff. Players seemed excited about seeing more of Mettenberger and if Lee struggles or feels any effects from last week’s ankle tweak, Mettenberger could get some quality snaps tonight.
10. Georgia’s losing streaking coming to an end: Georgia hasn’t won a football game since Nov. 27, 2010, when the Bulldogs topped rival Georgia Tech 42-34. The losing ends Saturday! Coastal Carolina will see a mad, hungry group of Dawgs this weekend and things won’t be pretty for the Chanticleers. Georgia is looking to generate some confidence and this weekend the Bulldogs will look to correct some of those mistakes that cost them in the first two weeks. We should finally see some smiles in Athens Saturday night.