Exciting And Big Weekend For SEC Football

Phillip Marshall analyzes Auburn's road trip to Tennessee as well as other games in the conference.

As Tennessee was drubbing Auburn 24-0 at Neyland Stadium in 1999, an old friend who works for a Tennessee newspaper shook his head. "Remember what it used to be like when these two played?" he said.

Tommy Tuberville's first Auburn team, having lost starting quarterback Ben Leard the previous week, was no match for the Vols. About the only excitement generated for Auburn was when Tuberville banished kicker Damon Duval to the locker room in the first half.

From 1956 through 1991, Auburn and Tennessee played every year, usually in the first Southeastern Conference game of the season. Memorable games were the rule more than the exception.

Auburn goes back to Neyland Stadium on Saturday, and the old days are back. Both teams are unbeaten, both in the top 10. The winner will become a major player in the national championship race.

Who will win? There are ample reasons to support either team.

Auburn's defense has been dominant, the first team giving up just nine points in wins over Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State, LSU and The Citadel. Its offense has been good but not great. Tennessee's offense, behind quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer, talented receivers, big and fast running backs and an overpowering offensive line, has been all but stoppable in wins over UNLV, Florida and Louisiana Tech. Its defense has been shaky, even against overmatched opponents.

Each team has really been tested just once, Auburn by LSU and Tennessee by Florida. Auburn beat LSU 10-9 with a late touchdown drive. Tennessee beat Florida 30-28 on a field goal in the final seconds after horrendous officiating made it possible.

What that means for Saturday night isn't clear. Auburn has enough talent to break out on offense at any time. Tennessee has enough talent on defense to grow teeth at any time.

Auburn's West Coast offense, adding more bells and whistles each week under the guidance of its first-year coordinator Al Borges, would seem to have a clear advantage over Tennessee's defense. Tennessee's offense does not necessarily have a clear advantage over Auburn's defense.

Tennessee would seem to have the edge in special teams, though not a great edge. If the game were at Jordan-Hare Stadium or even on a neutral field, I would see Auburn as a clear favorite. But it's not. It's at Neyland Stadium, and that could be Tennessee's biggest advantage.

Neyland Stadium is unlike any other in the SEC. It is massive, officially seating almost 105,000. It seems to rise to the sky. The noise can cause all kinds of problems for opposing offenses. No current Auburn player has ever played there.

This game will probably turn on who is able to run the ball effectively, thus creating opportunities to throw the ball and make big plays.

It is often overlooked that the quarterbacks have a lot to do with that. Quarterbacks have the option to change on most running plays to attack the weakness of the defense. Campbell is a master at getting Auburn in the right play. For all their skill, there is no way Ainge or Schaeffer can match him.

If Tennessee is to be successful running the ball, it will have to be because its offensive line dominates Auburn's front seven. I don't see that happening.

Auburn's offense has enough veterans to deal with the noise. Tennessee has good running backs. Auburn has great running backs.

Tailback Carnell Williams rushed for 185 yards vs. Tennessee last season.

Any prediction on this game is fraught with peril. One turnover, one untimely penalty, could tilt the scales one way or the other. In the end, my guess is that Auburn's edge on defense and experience on offense will be the difference. Auburn 28, Tennessee 20.

Saturday will be one of the more significant early-season days I can remember in SEC football. In addition to No. 8 Auburn squaring off with No. 10 Tennessee, No. 3 Georgia will play host to No. 13 LSU and No. 16 Florida will play host to a surprising Arkansas team that is knocking on the door of the Top 25.

Because it's such a significant day, we'll take a look here today at the significant games. Last week's record was 6-2. For the season, it is 23-8.

LSU (3-1 and 1-1) at Georgia (3-0 and 1-0): It is a rematch of last season's SEC Championship Game. The Bayou Bengals and Bulldogs are probably the two most athletically talented teams in the league. And both have overpowering defenses.

UGA quarterback David Greene is looking for a better result this year vs. LSU.

LSU seemed to settle on Marcus Randall as its No. 1 quarterback in last Saturday's 51-0 demolition of hapless Mississippi State. Georgia has struggled mightily on offense, but Marshall coach Bob Pruett called the Bulldog defense maybe the best he's ever coached against. That defense, quarterback David Green and the homefield advantage give the edge to the Bulldogs. Georgia 16, LSU 14.

Arkansas (3-1 and 1-0) at Florida (3-1 and 1-1): Arkansas has maybe the most explosive player in the league in quarterback Matt Jones, but it also has a defense that gave up more than 300 yards in the first half alone to Louisiana-Monroe. Florida's defense is nothing to get excited about either, but the Gators don't lose often in The Swamp. Florida 31, Arkansas 21.

South Carolina (3-1 and 1-1) at Alabama (3-1 and 1-1): Alabama must win or see its season start to disintegrate. If quarterback Marc Guillon isn't more effective than he was at Arkansas, it'll be a long day for the Crimson Tide. Even with Ray Hudson rushing for 170 yards, Alabama scored just one touchdown in losing 27-10 to the Razorbacks. The Gamecocks are not a great team, but they are likely to make it tough on Alabama's running game. South Carolina 20, Alabama 17.

In other games:

Vanderbilt 28, Mississippi State 24

Ole Miss 31, Arkansas State 20

Kentucky 35, Ohio University 17.

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