SEC previews and predictions – Sep. 2

Every week, Jess Nicholas will break down each Southeastern Conference game and give his prediction on the outcome. Normally, his contribution will run on Friday morning, but with Southeastern Conference play on Thursday night, we give you his column today.

Last season's record: 64-21 (75.3%) HAWAII at ALABAMA
Matchup to watch: Alabama LBs/safeties vs. Hawaii slot receivers

Hawaii is going to score, they are going to gain yardage through the air and at the end of the day, Alabama won't be ranked anywhere close to where the Crimson Tide finished the 2005 season – ranked 5th in pass defense. That won't happen, but a victory probably will. Opening games are often over-scrutinized by the fan base because of so much run-up time to the kickoff, but it's not out of the realm of possibility to see a Hawaii upset here. The Warriors have a potent, veteran offense, but little defense and suspect special teams. Still, an Alabama team operating under a new quarterback for the first time figures to be prone to misfire, and if Hawaii scores a lot of points early on a rebuilding Alabama defense, the Crimson Tide is a poor candidate to play come-from-behind football this early in the season. The key for Alabama might end up being how well the linebackers and safeties play in coverage on Hawaii's receivers, in particularly those in the slot. Fortunately for Alabama, Hawaii will bring only nine receivers total – an issue when the Warriors run four wideouts on every snap – and only one of the top eight receivers is over 5'11". On the other side of the ball, expect Hawaii to take chances on defense in hopes of making the big play, but such a strategy will also yield Alabama the possibility of big gainers and long scoring plays. This game will probably be too close for comfort throughout, but look for Alabama's superior depth and athleticism to be the difference in the end. Alabama 34, Hawaii 21

SOUTH CAROLINA at MISSISSIPPI STATE
Matchup to watch: South Carolina OL vs. MSU DL

Starkville hasn't been kind to Steve Spurrier in the past, or anything related to Florida football. Can Mississippi State dial up a double helping of karma and send the Gamecocks home with a quick end to their possible SEC East championship dreams? It's possible, but not likely, given the struggles of the Bulldogs to put up points in 2005. This game will tell a lot about South Carolina's strengths and weaknesses, as well as if the Gamecocks might have anything for division favorites Florida, Georgia and Tennessee down the road. State, meanwhile, just wants respectability. A big win over South Carolina in the opener would open some eyes. Look for the key matchup here to be how well South Carolina's patchwork offensive line staves off the veteran defensive line of Mississippi State. South Carolina 21, Mississippi St. 7

VANDERBILT at MICHIGAN
Matchup to watch: Vanderbilt DL vs. Michigan OL/TE

Why Vanderbilt decided to schedule this game is still anyone's guess. This figures to be a down year for Vanderbilt football (no jokes about how all years are down years for Vanderbilt, please) as the Commodores replace a quarterback and important cogs on the defense. Michigan, on the other hand, may be playing to save the job of its coach, Lloyd Carr. With the game in Ann Arbor and Vandy still not up to speed as a team, this game could get ugly in a hurry. The Commodores' aims are noble, if misguided, by taking on this challenge. If Vanderbilt wants to pull the upset here, the key will be for the Commodore defensive line to hold Michigan's offense at bay for three quarters. As three starters on the Wolverine offensive line are new, that may prove to be Vandy's best bet. Michigan 37, Vanderbilt 14
WESTERN KENTUCKY at GEORGIA

Not much sense in scheduling walkovers like this one – unless you're Georgia, and you badly need a tune-up game to get new QB Joe Tereshinski III ready for SEC play down the line. Georgia 52, W. Kentucky 7

CALIFORNIA at TENNESSEE
Matchup to watch: Cal front seven vs. Tennessee OL

The only true marquee matchup this week, PAC-10 golden boys Cal arrive in Knoxville just as the pressure is ratcheting up on head coach Philip Fulmer and staff. Cal has spent the offseason trying to bolster its defense, while Tennessee has spent the offseason bolstering the ranks of the Knox County Jail. Assuming the Volunteers have put the offseason distractions behind them, the next question becomes whether new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe has solved the riddle that is the brain of QB Erik Ainge. Tennessee will have to be firing on all cylinders to take down the Golden Bears, who are better than most SEC fans think and are quite capable of winning in Neyland Stadium. The matchup to watch here concerns the California defense, which is a veteran unit. Cal finished 24th in rushing defense and 46th in total defense in 2006, and five of the front seven return to start in 2006. If Tennessee has trouble moving the football on the ground, it will force the game into the hands of Erik Ainge. While Cal's pass defense struggled in 2005 (80th in pass defense, but 24th in pass efficiency defense) it is still good enough to shut down Tennessee's passing attack, which needs work. California 27, Tennessee 21

SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI at FLORIDA
Matchup to watch: USM pass rush vs. Florida OT/TE

Florida should open its season with a comfortable win over a team that is rebuilding its defense and breaking in a new quarterback at the same time. If that sounds a lot like Alabama, no one would blame you. Instead, Florida is facing Southern Mississippi, and the operative difference between Southern Miss and Alabama is talent. USM won't roll over for Florida, but the chances of the Golden Eagles pulling an upset here with a defense that is expected to be a liability is a little too much to ask. If USM is going to grab upset gold, though, it will happen as a result of the Southern Miss defensive ends and linebackers, who will have the good fortune of working against potentially the worst Florida offensive line in years. Disrupt Chris Leak, and Florida could be toast. Florida 38, Southern Miss 17

WASHINGTON STATE at AUBURN
Matchup to watch: WSU secondary vs. Auburn QB Brandon Cox

Much has been made of the fact that Washington State lose five games by four points or less in 2005, the fact remains those games plus two others were lost – in a row, no less – and the Cougars finished 4-7. On the good side, this was a good offensive team in 2005 and it returns all the important pieces for 2006. The problem with Washington State, if history serves, is that physical football teams give this program a difficult time – and Auburn is certainly physical. The Cougars actually have more experience returning in key areas than do the Tigers, but like Florida versus Southern Miss, there is a talent discrepancy that can't be overlooked. Auburn should be able to pass at will on the Cougars' subpar secondary, while at the same time controlling both lines of scrimmage. If Washington State wants to make the upset happen, a secondary that ranked 113th in pass defense in 2006 must step up. Auburn 30, Washington St. 20

LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE at LOUISIANA STATE

The Ragin' Cajuns are riding a five-game winning streak into this contest – and within an hour of game clock time, it will be but a distant memory. If LSU can contain ULL quarterbacks Jerry Babb and Michael Desormeaux, there will be little ULL can do besides try to keep the score respectable. Good luck. LSU 47, La.-Lafayette 7

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA at ARKANSAS Matchup to watch: USC LBs vs. Arkansas RBs

Last year's matchup between these two teams ended in a 70-17 thrashing so startling that the Razorbacks never recovered. That loss stayed in Arkansas' minds all year and likely contributed to confidence issues throughout the season. Unfortunately, Arkansas is more likely to fall victim to the same fate this year than it is to stage a reversal of fortunes. While USC returns very few starters from last year's mega-team, and Arkansas returns a large, veteran group of players from 2005, it's not likely to matter. A lust for revenge may keep Arkansas from ending up completely on the wrong side of a backyard whipping, but the Trojans are on a mission to reclaim the national championship and aren't about to let one of the SEC's mid-pack teams derail them. If there is a hole in the Southern Cal machine, it's on defense, particularly rush defense. The only hope for Arkansas is if Southern Cal simply can't match up physically – a scenario that is unlikely at best. USC 35, Arkansas 14

MEMPHIS at MISSISSIPPI
Matchup to watch: Ole Miss QB Brent Schaeffer vs. Memphis DBs

With no more DeAngelo Williams coming out of the Tigers' backfield, there likely won't be any chances of victory coming for Memphis. But you never can tell with Ole Miss, a team that can look like a potentially dangerous opponent one week and total imposters the next. Memphis is hoping for big things from its passing game, and Ole Miss' secondary is somewhat vulnerable, but Memphis returns no starters to its defensive line and only one in its linebacker corps, which will even out the odds a bit between the Tiger defense and a Rebel offensive line that is a problem spot. With Ole Miss' superior speed, that should be enough to lift the Rebels to victory in a series that has produced a lot of close calls lately. The key for Memphis will be containing Ole Miss QB Brent Schaeffer, not an easy feat considering Schaeffer's skill and the fact Memphis was ranked 107th in pass defense in 2005. But if the Tigers manage to do it, they can upset Ole Miss. Ole Miss 17, Memphis 6

KENTUCKY at LOUISVILLE
Matchup to watch: Kentucky offense vs. Louisville defense


Kentucky's defense is improving, but whether it's improved enough to handle a veteran Louisville offense is another matter. Louisville returns all the important pieces from the No. 9-ranked offense in the country in 2005. Kentucky, meanwhile, returns hope, but nothing more substantial than that. The Wildcats didn't even name a starting quarterback until a day or two ago, and they're still searching for playmakers on both lines and at wide receiver. Kentucky lost only 31-24 last year when it had a much worse team than this, so the potential to keep this game respectable is there. The key matchup is fairly broad-based: Kentucky's offense, which was anemic in virtually all aspects in 2005, versus a Louisville defense that was good but not outstanding, and has lost several important pieces of last year's defensive line. Louisville 33, Kentucky 14


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