SEC Previews: Week 3

Southeastern Conference previews and predictions column by Jess Nicholas.

Last week's record: 6-1 (85.7%)

Season record: 16-2 (88.9%)



Game within a game: Steve Spurrier vs. Joe Kines

It's not so much the talent that will determine the winner of this game, but the coaching. As a head coach, Steve Spurrier runs circles around Mike Shula, at least for now. Spurrier is one of the true innovators of the modern game, with his Fun 'N' Gun offense – essentially a zone passing offense, if such a thing exists – rewriting statistical record books during the 1990s when Spurrier was in Gainesville. Alabama holds an edge, either slight or large, in most match-ups in this game – quarterback, wide receiver, running back, linebacker, and so on. But South Carolina has Spurrier, and the Gamecocks have home field advantage. At Williams-Brice Stadium, home field advantage means something. Alabama spent last week getting stuck in second gear for a large portion of its game against Southern Mississippi, while South Carolina was busy giving what could be the SEC's best team, Georgia, a thorough scare in Athens. This game is going to come down to two things: How Alabama's defensive coaching staff handles in-game adjustments, and Alabama's defensive discipline and speed. Spurrier's passing offense will seek to expose holes in Alabama's multiple zone coverage looks, and how Joe Kines responds to Spurrier's moves will be critical. Alabama has better pieces, but Spurrier has proven to be the master strategist. For South Carolina, though, it won't be as simple as turning Spurrier and QB Blake Mitchell loose on the Alabama secondary. South Carolina has no running game to speak of, struggles stopping the run and doesn't return kicks well. For USC to beat Alabama, by any measure, would be an upset. By now, Alabama should have enough game film on South Carolina to figure out the Gamecocks' weaknesses, which are many. How well Alabama applies that knowledge is the key. Alabama 24, South Carolina 13



Game within a game: Tennessee QBs vs. Florida secondary

Florida is getting a lot of mileage out of lopsided wins over a couple of overmatched opponents, Wyoming and Louisiana Tech. Things change drastically this week, as Florida gets the preseason beast of the east, Tennessee. Tennessee's lone tune-up game was nearly a bust, as the Volunteers struggled to get by UAB 17-10. If good quarterbacks give Tennessee trouble, the Vols might want to find something to crawl under Saturday, as Florida brings in Chris Leak. But Tennessee is stronger overall on both lines of scrimmage, at running back, linebacker and on special teams, and is no worse than tied at wide receiver. The key is the defensive backfield of both teams. Tennessee is ranked 94th, while Florida is ranked 3rd, but neither team has reached a point of statistical significance. What will be important is how each secondary handles the other's quarterbacks. In Florida's case, Leak should find success against Tennessee's secondary, which was problematic in 2004. The reverse might not be true, however. Florida's secondary was mediocre last year, but appears to be coming together better in 2005. For Tennessee, the quarterback position is still undecided. Senior Rick Clausen will start this game ahead of sophomore Erik Ainge, and Clausen's more prudent style should fit the Volunteers better. Florida's defense overall doesn't look great, but it is too good for Tennessee to simply line up and try to smashmouth the Gators down the field. Clausen must be competent against the Volunteers, but Leak needs to be superb to make up for a running game that is still learning on the job and to cover for a defense that was predicted to be average and has yet to face a stern test. Winning on the road has always been difficult in this series, but look for the Vols to pull it off, as Florida is still taking baby steps under new head coach Urban Meyer. Tennessee 24, Florida 17



Game within a game: Georgia's offense vs. a two-digit scoreboard

Louisiana-Monroe is ranked in the top 50 nationally in just one category, turnover margin. The Indians get a ranking of 43rd for their +.5 ratio. The next highest rating for any category is 71st in passing offense, and it all goes downhill from there. Georgia is coming off a 17-15 win over South Carolina, which left the Bulldogs feeling a bit embarrassed at their offensive output. Expect Georgia to take out their frustrations on the lowly Indians, who lost in week one to Division-IAA Northwestern State and are coming off a shutout loss to Wyoming. Georgia 52, Louisiana-Monroe 7



Game within a game: Kentucky secondary vs. Indiana QB Blake Powers

Indiana comes into this game 2-0, but the wins were tight ones over middling Central Michigan and Division-IAA Nicholls State. Kentucky escaped with a win last week over Division-IAA Idaho State after nearly upsetting in-state rival Louisville in week one. In other words, neither team has enough of a track record yet to predict victory based on the stats. The game is on the road, which for Kentucky has usually spelled sudden death in recent years. But Indiana is still trying to transition to new head coach Terry Hoeppner's high-octane passing offense. So far, it's been a measured success; the Hoosiers are ranked 16th in passing offense. Indiana also stops the pass well, but most other areas are in need of improvement. Kentucky has more team speed, which will be the key here. For Kentucky, the secondary must step up and stop Indiana QB Blake Powers, who has the look of a winner. The Wildcats can also work on their running game against Indiana's porous rush defense, which allowed a whopping 408 yards to Nicholls State last week. The final score is likely to be close, but that is more an indictment of these teams' potency than a sign of good things to come. Kentucky 28, Indiana 24



Game within a game: Vanderbilt QB Jay Cutler vs. Ole Miss pass defense

Ole Miss has played but one game, a 10-6 yawn-fest against a Memphis team that played most of the game without its starting quarterback. As such, the Rebels' stat pack is skewed, with virtually no offensive production to speak of and defensive numbers that look like the Pittsburgh Steelers' Steel Curtain. Vanderbilt comes into this game with a surprisingly potent and balanced offensive attack, which so far has been directed with perfection by QB Jay Cutler. The Ole Miss pass defense was a question heading into this season, and despite the shutdown of Memphis, is still a question. But this much is sure: It will be the best pass defense Cutler has faced yet. There won't be any time for Vandy to waste digging a 24-13 hole as it did last week against Arkansas before rattling off a 15-0 fourth quarter. The Commodores need to take control of the game early and hope that Ole Miss' new West Coast offense is still trying to shake out the cobwebs. Having the game in Nashville helps, but Vandy's Cinderella season won't continue if Cutler has trouble or the Commodores fail to contain Ole Miss QB Micheal Spurlock. Vanderbilt 24, Ole Miss 21



Game within a game: USC rush defense vs. Arkansas running backs

Southern Cal is another of the one-game teams, having defeated Hawaii 63-17 in the opener. Against the Rainbow Warriors, the Trojans gave up a few more rushing yards than expected to a run-and-shoot team that has never had much success on the ground. Arkansas is the nation's leading rushing team at the moment, but has only a 1-1 record to show for it, including a loss to the SEC's usual doormat, Vanderbilt. Winning this game, if you're an Arkansas fan, is almost out of the question. To do it, Arkansas would have to continue to run the ball down the Trojans' throats the way they had done it against Vanderbilt and SW Missouri State – while at the same time, keeping the nation's most efficient passer, Matt Leinart, sidelined. That isn't likely, but if the USC rush defense is a soft spot waiting to happen, Arkansas could at least break the Vegas spread. Don't look for an upset, though. Southern Cal 47, Arkansas 17



Game within a game: Auburn football protection vs. Ball State defense

If you're looking for a statistical comparison between these two teams – and you're trying to make that comparison favorable to poor Ball State – there is but one place to look: turnover margin. The Cardinals are 22nd in the nation, at +1.50. Auburn is tied for 78th at -.5. Unfortunately for Ball State, it's not going to matter. The Cardinals seem to be incapable of either moving the football or stopping the opposition from moving it. Auburn will use this game to determine its running back rotation while hoping the fans don't fall asleep. Auburn 52, Ball State 10



Game within a game: MSU game experience vs. Tulane emotion

This will be Tulane's first game of the year thanks to Hurricane Katrina, while Mississippi State comes into the game with two contests already under the Bulldogs' belt. No one knows where this one is going to go, but here's where it's already been: Tulane has moved the game from the Louisiana Superdome, which is currently uninhabitable, to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport. The game will be tied to a telethon for hurricane relief. Meanwhile, the two teams will attempt to find out some things about themselves. Tulane will be looking for any answers possible, including how the team will deal with being displaced by the hurricane. Southern Miss, in a similar situation last week, looked undisciplined in a loss to Alabama. Mississippi State is beginning to look more and more like the 2004 version – pass defense numbers are good, rushing offense is so-so, and just about everything else stinks. Nonetheless, MSU has played twice, and that means loads in big-time college football. Unless Tulane plays completely over its head, look for the Bulldogs to get back on the plus side of the win-loss ledger. Mississippi State 24, Tulane 20



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