Busy Schedule For Opening Week Of SEC Play

A look at each of the opening day football games from around the Southeastern Conference is featured.

Staff writer Stephen Atkinson analyzes the opening week of football games across the Southeastern Conference.

South Carolina at Vanderbilt

Saturday, 11:30 a.m. JP Sports

Both of these teams ended 2003 in disappointment by getting taken to the woodshed by their cross-state rivals. South Carolina beat Vanderbilt 35-24 last season to improve to 5-3, but lost its final four games to finish 5-7 for the second straight season. Vanderbilt finished the year with a losing record for the 21st consecutive season at 2-10.

However, 2004 looks more promising for the Commodores than any season in recent memory. Vanderbilt returns 21 starters from last season, including several players on preseason All-SEC teams. Jay Cutler is one of the better quarterbacks in the league, and the receiving duo of Brandon Smith and Erik Davis could cause the Gamecock defensive backs a lot of problems. South Carolina had to replace most of its secondary, including Dunta Robinson, the 10th pick of the NFL draft. Tailbacks Norval McKenzie and Kwane Doster return for the Commodores after rushing for 2,149 combined yards in the last two seasons.

Jay Cutler leads the Vandy attack.

On the other side of the ball, Lou Holtz spent most of spring practice changing the offensive philosophy from the spread to the veer offense. South Carolina will be using a lot of triple option, dives and counter plays, much like Holtz used in his days at Arkansas and Notre Dame. It will be interesting to see how well the veer still works in 2004.

South Carolina returns most of its offense as well, including talented tailbacks Demetrius Summers, Cory Boyd and Daccus Turman. Dondrial Pinkins returns at quarterback, but struggled throwing the ball in 2003.

This one could turn into a shootout in Nashville, but look for the home team to pull out a win in the opening game SEC matchup.

Georgia Southern at Georgia

Saturday, 2 p.m. FSN South

This game will be one of several mismatches around the league this week--a Division I-AA team visiting the third (AP)/fourth (coaches) ranked team in the country. It will likely be a blowout by the second quarter, but it will be interesting to see how freshmen running backs Danny Ware and Thomas Brown perform for the Bulldogs. Kregg Lumpkin was listed as starter at tailback heading into fall practices, but tore his ACL in a non-contact drill and will be lost for the season.

The Georgia Southern Eagles return 21 starters from a 7-4 squad in 2003, and for the second straight year, Georgia has starters suspended heading into the opener. None of that should matter, as this will be a game for Georgia to clear its bench for the second half.

Oregon State at LSU

Saturday, 5 p.m. ESPN

The Beavers, and their fans, are in for a rude awakening in this one. The ESPN Gameday crew will get the crazy Cajuns started early, and the party won't stop until the early hours of Sunday morning. In 2003 Oregon State played only two games in front of crowds of more than 40,000, and none more than 74,000. The defending BCS National Champions, as well as 90,000 screaming fans, might be too much for the Beavers to overcome on a hot, muggy Saturday night in the bayou.

Marcus Randall won the LSU starting QB job.

LSU's Marcus Randall steps in at quarterback for the departed Matt Mauck. Randall is experienced, but the team struggled in 2002 with him under center, losing four of their last six games after Mauck went down with injury. The Fightin' Tigers are loaded with young talent at tailback and receiver, and this early-season matchup will show how well they play under the spotlight. A year ago Oregon State surrendered only 288.7 yards per game, with 84.4 of those yards on the ground, good for fourth in the country.

Derek Anderson

Beaver quarterback Derek Anderson threw for 4,058 yards last season, including 485 yards at Co-National Champion USC. However, the LSU secondary is one of the best in the country. The group returns three of four starters from a unit that held Heisman Trophy winner Jason White to 13 of 37 passing, 102 yards and two interceptions in last year's Sugar Bowl. For Oregon State to have a chance in this one, head coach Mike Riley must find a way to replace Steven Jackson's 1,545 rushing yards and 22 total touchdowns from last season, and Anderson will have to do a little better than year's Heisman winner.

Tulane at Mississippi State

Saturday, 5 p.m. ESPN2

Regardless of the outcome, this one will be one of the most talked about games of the weekend. Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom will make his debut as the first black head coach in the SEC after inheriting a declining program from Jackie Sherrill.

This game could turn into a battle of athletic quarterbacks against defenses that struggled last year. Omarr Conner returns to his old position at quarterback after playing receiver last season as a freshman. Former Parade All-American and LSU transfer Lester Ricard will get the start at quarterback for the Green Wave.

Last season, both defenses were ranked near the bottom of the barrel in just about every statistical category, and both go into the season with questions. Tulane won an early season shootout in the Superdome a year ago, but the Bulldogs will likely win a shootout this time around.

Middle Tennessee State at Florida

This game has been postponed until October because of the threat posed by Hurricane Frances.

Utah State at Alabama

Saturday, 6 p.m. PPV

After two years of staying home for the holidays, the Crimson Tide will have a chance to go bowling in 2004. With seven bowl spots open for the SEC, a win against the Utah State Aggies would be a good start for Alabama to go to its first postseason game since the 2001 Independence Bowl.

Most of Coach Mike Shula's defense returns from last season, but the offense has plenty of question marks. Shaud Williams' 1,367 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns must be replaced, as well as the entire receiving corps. QB Brodie Croyle has put up strong numbers in Alabama's preseason scrimmages, and may be able to pick apart the Utah State secondary on his way to a big night.

Utah State's quarterback, Travis Cox, threw for 2,791 yards and 18 touchdowns with only seven interceptions last season. If he can get hot, it could make for an interesting game for a while, but look for Crimson Tide to run away with this one against what is considered to be a weak opponent.

Memphis at Ole Miss

Saturday, 6 p.m.

Last year's matchup between these two teams was one of the more exciting games of the year. Ole Miss led by 13 points heading into the fourth quarter and left the Liberty Bowl with a 10-point loss, 44-34.

Memphis returns all 11 starters off the offense that gained 506 yards against the Rebels last season. Joe Lee Dunn will run the defense for the second consecutive season, after finishing ninth in the country in total yards per game allowed in 2003.

Michael Spurlock will have a chance to step into the Ole Miss spotlight this season.

The biggest story coming into 2004 for the Rebels is how Michael Spurlock will do replacing Eli Manning under center. Spurlock will have talented receivers like Mike Espy, Taye Biddle, Bill Flowers and Kerry Johnson to throw to, as well as a good offensive line for protection.

Ole Miss will have a tough challenge slowing Memphis tailback DeAngelo Williams and quarterback Danny Wimprine. Williams led the nation in all-purpose yardage in 2003, and Wimprine threw for 3,174 yards on the way to a 9-4 season. With Albert Means plugging the middle, Dunn's 3-3-5 defense should be able to slow the Rebel offense just enough to pull out a win.

New Mexico State at Arkansas
Saturday, 6 p.m.

Houston Nutt's Razorbacks enter the season opener against New Mexico State with a lot of unknowns. Almost all of the starters, including six lost to the NFL draft, are gone from last year's 9-4 squad. However, quarterback Matt Jones is back for what seems like his eighth season. Tailbacks DeCori Birmingham and De'Arrrius Howard are proven players.

New Mexico State finished 3-9 last season, and will likely be about the same in 2004. Arkansas beat the Aggies last year 48-20, but this season's matchup should be a bit closer. Houston Nutt probably won't want to tip his hand too much before Texas rolls into town next week.

Kentucky at Louisville

Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ESPN

In an early season rivalry game, Kentucky and Louisville face off at Papa Johns Stadium in a battle of basketball schools on Sunday afternoon.

Quarterback Jared Lorenzen finished his career at Kentucky with the third most yards in SEC history and will be replaced by senior Shane Boyd. The Wildcats struggled to move the ball last season, and will likely struggle even more without Lorenzen.

Louisville returns a bundle of offensive talent at the skill positions. Quarterback Stefan LaFors is back after throwing for 3,145 yards and running for an additional 405 yards. Behind LaFors is one of the best tailback combos in the country. Lionel Gates and Florida State transfer Eric Shelton combined for more than 1,600 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. Shelton, who is 6-2, 247 pounds, ran for 151 yards in Lexington a year ago.

Kentucky should be better on defense with end Sweet Pea Burns and safety Mike Williams leading the way, as well as seven other returning starters, but the Wildcats won't have enough to slow down the Louisville offense.

UNLV at Tennessee

Sunday, 7 p.m. ESPN2

Phil Fulmer wasn't kidding when he said the Vols had some concerns about the quarterback play in spring training. When Tennessee takes the field on Saturday, his starter is expected to be a true freshman--Brent Schaeffer or Erik Ainge.

Schaeffer, who will likely get the start, is a mobile quarterback while Ainge is a pocket passer. C.J. Leak, who was thought to be the starter heading into fall practices, has been working at safety and tight end.

The Vols will come out in a retro look, wearing jerseys styled like the ones they used in the 1970s. They will likely use an old-school offensive attack as well, pounding away at the Rebels' defense with tailbacks Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs Jr. while trying to ease in Schaeffer and Ainge.

UNLV can't be overlooked though, just ask Wisconsin. The Rebels came out of Madison with a 23-5 win last season, and will look to do the same in Knoxville. Strong safety Jamaal Brimmer has 27 tackles for a loss and six picks in the last two seasons. If he can rattle the freshman quarterbacks, things could get interesting on Ole Rocky Top.

Louisiana-Monroe at Auburn

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. PPV

The good news for ULM is that the Indians return most of their starters from last season. The bad news is that those same starters finished the season 1-11, including a 73-7 thumping on the Plains.

Carnell Williams (24) made Auburn fans happy by returning for his senior season.

The Indians only managed 151 total yards of offense in last year's game, but they were without the services of their starting quarterback, Steven Jyles, who missed the trip because of a death in the family. Jyles is an athletic quarterback who could hurt defenses running as well as throwing. Todd Berry takes over as the offensive coordinator this season for the Indians after serving as head coach of Army the last four years. The Indians are expected to spread the field and run some option on offense, which could cause problems for Auburn's rebuilt front seven.

Even if the Indians' offense can manage to find the Auburn end zone a couple of times, it shouldn't matter as the Auburn offense will be too much to handle. Running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown will likely score early and often in first-year offensive coordinator Al Borges' West Coast system. Fifth-year senior quarterback Jason Campbell, as well as redshirt freshman Brandon Cox, will likely spread the ball around to a variety of receiving targets, including Williams and Brown out of the backfield. Cox, who hasn't played in a regular season game since the 2001 season, likes to throw the deep ball and should get opportunities to do that on opening day. Although it is unlikely the Tigers will score anywhere near 73 points, the second team offense will likely have an opportunity to show what it can do.

This game will be a good test for Auburn's defense as it will face a similar quarterback, Omarr Conner, next week in Starkville when the Tigers play Mississippi State. Although Auburn should get a chance to play a lot of second and third team guys, this one may be tougher than people think against what will be a fresh and possibly highly-motivated group of visitors from Monroe.

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