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RED RIVER RIVALRY
If it's possible, the Red River Rivalry has more significance now than it did in the 1980s, when it was viewed as life-or-death by fans of the Longhorns and Sooners. Of course, the fans' attitude hasn't changed -- but the country's has. Since Texas and OU are both nationally ranked and are in the same conference and same division, Saturday's matchup has Big 12 and national title implications. It's about as big a conference matchup as you can have.
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You can't stop Adrian Peterson -- you can only hope to contain him.
Each team enters Saturday's matchup with one loss. No. 14 Oklahoma is still festering over its controversial loss to Oregon and has had an extra week to prepare for this game. Having a week off near the beginning of the season is both good and bad -- it gives teams time to heal and time to prepare, but coaches hate to get out of a routine. Coaches spend the time worrying about players traveling home, doing too much, etc.
To beat No. 7 Texas, Oklahoma will have to establish a passing game. As good as running back Adrian Peterson is, he can't carry the Sooners by himself against a big, athletic, veteran Longhorns defensive line. Ohio State was able to defeat Texas by using a balanced attack; the progress of Sooners quarterback Paul Thompson will be measured by his performance Saturday. Peterson will get his yards, and it will be up to Texas' D to limit his yards after the initial hit, to keep him from getting 40 yards on what should be a 10-yard run. They have to gang-tackle him, which is easier said than done. When you commit your defense to one person, you run the risk that you'll give up big plays in the passing game. Oklahoma has shown it has the ability to do that.
Neither quarterback has started a game in the rivalry, and it will be interesting to see how they handle not only the pressure of the other team but also the hundreds of thousands of people in Dallas for the state fair and the general buildup -- it's as close to the days of gladiators fighting in the Coliseum as I've seen. This is the type of game you live to play in as a coach and a player -- the kind you remember long after your playing days are over.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
The SEC claims the nation's top four points-per-game defenses and four of the top 17 teams ranked in total defense. What makes these teams so good? A combination of athleticism, size, speed, quickness and outstanding coaching. LSU, Georgia, Florida and Auburn all lost key players to graduation and injury -- yet they are as good, if not better, than they were last season. Auburn even changed defensive coordinators yet continues to be dominant. One key is that these teams recruit the depth to sustain themselves. As the season wears on, it will be interesting to see how each team reacts to the inevitable injuries that occur. When important players go down, it can cause big changes in the leadership and decision making of the unit.
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LSU's defense has swarmed the competition.
There isn't an overwhelming offense in the SEC this year, and because of the strength of the defenses, offensive coordinators have played much more conservatively and tried to win games around their defenses, which has mostly worked. When coaches know their defense can hold them, there is less pressure to win games on offense.
The SEC isn't home to all the top defenses, however. The trends I've noticed in the league -- big, mobile linebackers, a sleek secondary and a veteran defensive line that can take on blocks and rush the passer -- is what every coach is looking for. In watching the defenses of Michigan and Ohio State, I've seen the same characteristics that make the SEC so tough.
KEY MATCHUPS: SEC EDITION
No. 9 LSU at No. 5 FloridaJim Donnan was the head coach at Georgia and Marshall and is an ESPN college football analyst.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Florida limps into this matchup with a rash of injuries to key playmakers, including running back DeShawn Wynn and freshman showstopper Percy Harvin, as well as suspensions (tackle Marcus Thomas). The Gators, however, have impressed me so far with their ability to withstand whatever has been thrown at them -- a quality they will need as they begin one of the nation's roughest three-game stretches (next, they play No. 2 Auburn and No. 10 Georgia).
The matchup I'm most interested in seeing in this contest is between the secondaries; Florida has improved, but LSU boasts possibly the best secondary in the country. There's no denying that the Tigers benefit from having such an experienced corps. Both teams' athleticism will be on display, and the D that can make tackles in the open field, swarm to the ball, make the play and keep the other team from moving the chains will ultimately be victorious. Florida had a tough time protecting against LSU's front last year -- will the Gators be able to improve? Before the season started, I thought that Florida had the best D-line in the country and that LSU had the best secondary. We'll get to see whether that's true on Saturday.
Both quarterbacks -- Florida's Chris Leak and LSU's JaMarcus Russell -- have been playing extremely well, making smart decisions and not pushing the offense. In the last three games, Russell is playing like the kind of quarterback I thought he would be. Since both teams have veteran quarterbacks, a wealth of receivers, high-powered offenses and stingy defenses, this game will come down to how well the offensive lines perform in protecting their quarterbacks from these defensive fronts.
This contest is another example of how good the SEC is. Undefeated Florida and one-loss LSU are both top-five teams, in my mind. LSU lost to Auburn, which plays the Gators next week. In a game like this, with both teams so talented and athletic, it really is must-see TV.
No. 13 Tennessee at No. 10 Georgia
Georgia has had the upper hand versus Tennessee lately, winning five of the last six. Two years ago, the Vols upset Georgia in Athens 19-14. The Dawgs' defense has been carrying them as they figure out their starting quarterback situation. After losing senior Joe Tereshinski to injury, freshmen Matthew Stafford and Joe Cox have filled in. Although they've won, they've been plagued by inconsistencies and a lack of execution. The teams Georgia has beaten have been among the country's worst. Luckily for the Dawgs, Tereshinski will reportedly get the start this week.
Georgia's defense has not gone up against an offense like Tennessee's; the Dawgs have had a beneficial schedule (Western Kentucky, South Carolina, UAB and Colorado). Tennessee certainly has an edge on competition -- the Vols already have played two nationally ranked teams (Cal and Florida), which should help them. Georgia's pass rush will be important against Vols QB Erik Ainge, a rhythm passer who likes to get his feet set; Ainge is not as mobile as the last two quarterbacks Georgia has faced. Georgia will have to watch out for Vols receivers Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain, who have developed into two of the top receivers in the nation.
Georgia is notorious for not giving up big plays, and I am anxious to see how the Dawgs match up against a Tennessee squad that dominated then-No. 9 Cal and lost a 21-20 heartbreaker to Florida. In coach Mark Richt's five years at the Georgia helm, he has forced Tennessee to give up a lot of punt returns. The secret to this matchup is the hidden yardage in the kicking game. Georgia has a kicking game that can really help in a game like this; Tennessee can't afford to give that up.