SEC Previews and Predictions

Jess Nicholas gives his outlook on the four games being played in the Southeastern Conference This week.

Last week: 5-1 (83.3%)

Season: 62-18 (77.5%)

LSU at ARKANSAS (Little Rock, Ark.)

Game within a game: Arkansas QB Matt Jones health vs. LSU running back group

It isn't often we find a game's premier match-up to be between groups of players who will never actually meet on the field during the game, but that's what we've got here with LSU and Arkansas. The health of Arkansas QB Matt Jones – injuries slowed him against Mississippi State – nearly cost the Razorbacks dearly last week, as they held on for a 24-21 win. So how does Jones' health affect what LSU's running backs do? The longer Jones is able to stay on the field and engineer drives for the Razorback offense, the less time Alley Broussard and Joseph Addai will have to create havoc for the Arkansas defense, which is porous against the run. If Jones is effective against the LSU defense, a big Arkansas lead could force LSU into its passing game early – and that's not good for the Bayou Bengals. LSU QBs Marcus Randall and JaMarcus Russell are inconsistent at best in the passing game, and if forced to make a comeback against Arkansas, they'll be playing right into the defense's strengths. But if Jones continues to be hobbled against LSU, the Tigers can run all over Arkansas. Arkansas is 5-5 and needs the sixth win for bowl eligibility. The SEC needs another bowl-eligible team to fill the Independence Bowl. It's enough to make the officiating skeptics around the region to watch closely for Hog-friendly calls this week, but the reality is Arkansas is going to need a lot more than a few close calls to upset LSU. Arkansas doesn't match up well with the Tigers, and the upset hinges almost solely on a quarterback who isn't 100 percent at the moment. LSU 30, Arkansas 21


Game within a game: UGA coach Mark Richt's offensive gameplan vs. GaTech defense

The Yellow Jackets are 6-4 so far in 2004, and like Alabama, have pulled no real upsets but have basically beaten the teams they were predicted to beat. And like Alabama, Tech has put a very strong defense on the field, currently ranked 18th overall in the country. What should be a fairly clear win for Georgia might not turn out that way. Tech head coach Chan Gailey has proven he can get his team up for big games, but his young charges must also prove they can perform under adversity, which they will certainly face in Athens. The key for Georgia head coach Mark Richt is to stop underperforming as a playcaller. Georgia is almost certainly the SEC's most underachieving team in 2004, picked for greatness in the preseason, but now on the outside of the SEC Championship Game, looking in. A large part of their struggles have come as a result of lack of intensity and curious game plans on the part of Richt, who has appeared to outsmart himself on several occasions. Georgia may also be looking past or over this game, especially with Tech the decided underdog. But a Citrus Bowl bid for Georgia won't come unless the ‘Dogs make a good showing in this game, and to do that, Richt has to bring his "A" game to the table. Georgia 23, Georgia Tech 19


Game within a game: UT QB Rick Clausen vs. Kentucky secondary

Kentucky can't brag about much in 2004, but as the season has gone along, the Wildcat secondary has gotten better. Kentucky is ranked 18th against the pass heading into this week, and there is potential to cause trouble for Tennessee given Clausen's inexperience and mediocre talent under center. Tennessee is one week removed from skating by Vanderbilt in a game that didn't see a lot of focus from the Volunteers, and Kentucky beat Vanderbilt two weeks ago. The difference between Kentucky and Vanderbilt, however, is that Vanderbilt can occasionally field a competent offense, as it did against UT. Kentucky's offense is anemic to the point of needing a blood transfusion. The Wildcats can't run, can't pass and can't stop making mistakes. Expect UT head coach Phil Fulmer to force his team to focus a little better this week after lollygagging against Vandy. Auburn awaits in the SEC Championship Game the following week, and Tennessee badly needs a tune-up. Tennessee 32, Kentucky 10


Game within a game: Ole Miss rush defense vs. MSU momentum

This is going to be an interesting Egg Bowl for several reasons. First and foremost, both teams are 3-7 heading into the game. That's probably better than expected for Mississippi State fans and certainly worse than what Ole Miss fans expected, as the Rebels were coming off a 10-win season in 2003. Right now, Ole Miss may be one of the least physical teams in the conference. The Rebels got run completely over against LSU, despite the closeness of the final score. Mississippi State fell just short in a comeback bid to beat Arkansas, but the Bulldogs are 2-2 after a woeful 1-5 start that included a loss to Div-IAA Maine. Never discount the power of momentum, and Mississippi State has it. The fallout of this game will be wide-ranging. Many observers feel MSU head coach Sylvester Croom is on the verge of taking control of recruiting in the state from Ole Miss, and a win in this game would solidify the situation. At the same time, David Cutcliffe's rear end is squarely back on the hot seat. A loss here and Ole Miss might be joining the other teams searching for coaches in the offseason. The key for Ole Miss comes down to stopping the MSU running game. With the MSU rushing attack stuffed, QB Omarr Conner isn't good enough yet to lead the Bulldogs to victory solely with his arm. The debate is whether Ole Miss can actually pull it off. Neither team has been consistent enough this year to safely predict what will happen. In the short term, go with the team that has the most talent, which is Ole Miss. Ole Miss 27, Mississippi State 24

IDLE: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt

Ed. Note: Jess Nicholas' column was submitted on Nov. 24, an editor's error delayed publishing.

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