Weekly SEC Preview and Predictions

Previewing the opening of college football for Southeastern Conference squads, Jess Nicholas warns warns LSU to be on the lookout, says Memphis versus Ole Miss will be a game to keep an eye on, and predicts an unlikely first-place SEC team by the close of the weekend.

UTAH STATE at ALABAMA

Game within a game: Alabama's interior DL vs. Utah State's OL

There's little doubt the reason this game was scheduled, and there's very little reason to suspect Utah State can pull this upset. But Alabama isn't invincible, and Utah State has a smattering of good players on its roster. The top one offensively is quarterback Travis Cox, but the key for Utah State will be how well its interior line handles Alabama's injury-plagued defensive line. Left guard Victor Eti will be the key to Utah State's success, as right guard Elliot Tupea figures to be overmatched. With Utah State's running game a liability, giving Cox enough time to work the passing offense is crucial. If Alabama can control the defensive line of scrimmage, the Crimson Tide can have its way with the Aggies. Alabama 34, Utah State 7

NEW MEXICO STATE at ARKANSAS

Game within a game: Arkansas OL vs. New Mexico State front seven

Arkansas' offense returns one starter. New Mexico State's defense returns 10. Even though the Aggies were 3-9 in 2003, the defense was stingy. It was the Aggies' offense, which is virtually an I-bone attack ill-suited to making comebacks, which cost them games. This one doesn't figure to be close, and Arkansas would like to use the opportunity to gently break in its rebuilt offense, but New Mexico State doesn't figure to make a lot of mistakes in this one and a few mistakes by Arkansas - particularly on offense - could make things a bit tense. Arkansas 27, New Mexico State 10

LOUISIANA-MONROE at AUBURN

Game within a game: ULM QB Steven Jyles vs. Auburn secondary What could be the worst team in Div-IA travels to Auburn to take on the Tigers, and only a breakdown of mythic proportions will send the Tigers out of Jordan-Hare Stadium with a loss. The Indians‚ front seven isn't close to being capable of stopping Auburn running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. Louisiana-Monroe's only hope is that dual-threat QB Steven Jyles goes off and wins the game on his own. Another potential hiccup exists in Auburn's changeover from an I-based attack to the West Coast offense. If Auburn starts turning the ball over, the Tigers might let the Indians back in the game. Don't bet on it. Auburn 41, La.-Monroe 17

MIDDLE TENNESSEE at FLORIDA

Game within a game: Florida QB Chris Leak vs. MTSU secondary

The recent years have not been kind to MTSU and head coach Andy McCollum, who enters the 2004 season needing to get a few big wins. This game probably won't be one of them, however - particularly if MTSU's secondary can't shut down Florida quarterback Chris Leak. An intriguing sideline to this game will be how well Florida's young defense handles a surprisingly potent MTSU offense. But Leak could have a field day picking on an inexperienced secondary. Florida 45, MTSU 21

GEORGIA SOUTHERN at GEORGIA

Game within a game: The clock vs. the scoreboard's ability to display 100 points

Not much reason to even have this game, but it's here. Georgia at least gets a tune-up before its Week Two tilt with South Carolina. Georgia 52, Georgia Southern 7

KENTUCKY at LOUISVILLE

Game within a game: Kentucky running game vs. Louisville front seven

Louisville has a potent offense, but Kentucky has a potent defense. Meanwhile, Kentucky's offense has to look up to see the word "anemic" while Louisville's defense didn't stop much of anything in 2003. Louisville had particular trouble with tough running teams in 2004. While that doesn't describe Kentucky currently, that's what head coach Rich Brooks wants to put on the field. With new quarterback Shane Boyd, who likes to get outside the pocket and make plays, Louisville could be at a disadvantage. Expect the scoring to be lower than expected, but Louisville simply has more athletes. Louisville 24, Kentucky 14

OREGON STATE at LSU

Game within a game: Oregon rush defense vs. LSU RB Justin Vincent Don't look now, but LSU scheduled a very quality opponent. In addition to having the sixth-best passing offense in Div-IA last year, Oregon State also boasted the number seven defense in the country, and the fourth-best rushing defense. With LSU replacing quarterback Matt Mauck with the unproven Marcus Randall, the ability of the running backs to take the pressure off the quarterbacks is crucial. Oregon State's offense makes too many mistakes in the passing game to be considered an equal threat, but underdogs have won before. LSU could get a scare. LSU 27, Oregon State 24

MEMPHIS at OLE MISS

Game within a game: Memphis offensive balance vs. Ole Miss defense

Memphis is the darling pick of the media to make noise in the BCS this year, and it's easy to see why. The team finished with incredible offensive balance in 2003 - ranked 27th in passing, 32nd in rushing - and a whopping 11 starters, the entire unit, returns in 2004. Defensively, Memphis was solid, but lost six starters to graduation. Ole Miss, meanwhile, has to replace nearly its entire group of "heart" players, including QB Eli Manning and DT Jesse Mitchell. In addition, its best linebacker, Ken Bournes, has been dismissed from the team. All the elements are there for a Tiger victory, and Memphis may even be favored on the road. Look for Ole Miss to find a way to pull what may well be an upset win. Ole Miss 34, Memphis 31

TULANE at MISSISSIPPI STATE

Game within a game: Tulane OL vs. Mississippi State DL

With J.P. Losman now in the NFL, Tulane figures to come back to earth somewhat on offense, despite returning eight starters. But this team wasn't a winner even with Losman at the helm. What the Green Wave does have is an experienced offensive line, and MSU's ability to get through it will tell the tale in this contest. Tulane's defense is terrible, which should help the Bulldogs ease into the 2004 season with a new offensive system. Mississippi State 28, Tulane 17

SOUTH CAROLINA at VANDERBILT

Game within a game: New USC offensive system vs. Vanderbilt front seven

Lou Holtz is committed to running the football in 2004, and what better place to do it than against the average-at-best front seven of the Commodores. With South Carolina's stable of running backs, the choice is probably a sound one, but massive changes in philosophy rarely go without trouble. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, has had the same system and virtually the same players in place for two years. The question is whether it's the right system or players. Expect this one to be close and low-scoring. If South Carolina pulls off the win, the Gamecocks could be on their way to a top-half finish in the SEC East. Vanderbilt 17, South Carolina 14

UNLV at TENNESSEE

Game within a game: Tennessee quarterbacks vs. UNLV back seven UNLV has a particularly anemic offense, but defensively, the Rebels are experienced and have experienced linebackers. The problem for UNLV is the secondary - which could easily turn this game, given Tennessee's inexperience at quarterback - had a poor showing in 2003. If UNLV is improved defensively and Tennessee struggles getting out of the gate in this game, who knows what could happen late in the fourth quarter. The safe bet, however, is a plodding-but-effective gameplan on the part of the Vols, who should take this game without much trouble. Tennessee 23, UNLV 7


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