Mark Green Picks the SEC: Week Eight

Mark Green analyzes and makes predictions on this week's Southeastern Conference matchups.

Stage two of this college football season is now in full swing. No longer is the story so much about returning starters as it is about emerging stars.

Old position weaknesses are in the process of improving as new talent learns the hard lessons of the gridiron, and coaching strategies change by the week, by the hour, by the play. Sometimes a young team finds itself and catches a winning blaze. Sometimes a veteran senior team will, after a tough loss, lose heart and play out the season in disappointment. October is the month of change. Growth, death and rebirth. Flux.

With that in mind, its time to consider the monumental task of deciphering the likely outcome of the Irish and the English, the North and the South, David and Goliath, Alabama and Tennessee and Auburn and LSU. What means nothing now is what happened during the crusades of September when teams modeled game-plans around pre-season expectations both of themselves and of their opponents. New trends are about to emerge, but they will not be unconnected to history. They never are.

The third Saturday in October has also changed from the Orange-Red, tough-guy clashes of the days of Neyland and Bryant, to the modern age of Alabama exposed. Exposed for unethical recruiting tactics, long-entrenched at the Capstone but ignored in Birmingham. The tyranny of huge winning streaks by Alabama over its chief SEC rivals has been replaced of late by a mile-wide dominance of the Red Tide by the Orange teams, who, filled with hate and revenge, exact their bitter justice almost constantly.

The environment is not as it once was in Knoxville, where there was respect and admiration. Vol Coach Phil Fulmer's Tennessee program has turned the good buddy back slap into the two-fisted face slap. The adolescent, chauvinistic envy and peer-obedience that UT once displayed toward Alabama has been replaced with a drooling, slobbering, continuous spit in the face. No respect. None at all.

Erik Ainge could see playing time at quarterback for the Vols on Saturday.

But after all the cheating, lying and probation; after all the one-night cheap hotels and dates with Destiny and the NCAA; and after a revolving door of Bryant wannabe coaches who still seem to come and go, Bama football, like Rodney Dangerfield, has pulled through anyway. She now stands on two feet, wobbly to be sure, yet somehow confident of a perceived birthright, no more legitimate than the sons of former players unmarried, but nevertheless taught like patriotism to children in the trailer parks and the public schools alike. The old slogan, out of mothballs now, can be read on the cover of Sports Illustrated and on the yellowed pages of the Birmingham News and even the Montgomery Advertiser. Look hard and you can make out the letters: "Bama's best; pee on the rest!"

But, not so fast, my friend. There is yet an orange blaze burning in the pumpkin-sized belly of the Beast of the East. And Hell hath no fury like a Hillbilly scorned. Tennessee 24, Alabama 22.


ARKANSAS at GEORGIA

Over in Athens, GA, the stuck Pig wanders into the Bulldog pit dripping from a 34-17 gash inflicted last week at the home sty by Auburn. The undefeated Dawgs smell blood and are looking to the polls for enough points and respect to catapult them into a season's-end shot at the National Title. What a sad condition to be in. And what a fruitless search this could turn out to be.

Meanwhile the Arkansas running game, featuring super frosh Darren McFadden, must dealt with, and Georgia is playing without as many as three injured front seven starters. There is always danger when a team can run on you. Fortunately for Georgia, Arkansas cannot stop Thomas Brown, Danny Ware or Kregg Lumpkin either. Georgia 31, Arkansas 27.


VANDERBILT at SOUTH CAROLINA

Vanderbilt began this season the way they were supposed to begin the last, by winning its opener and demonstrating enough of a positive attitude to carve out a winning season and possible bowl berth. South Carolina foiled that hope in 2004 and Vandy must travel to Columbia for a rematch this Saturday.

Neither team is a thing like the teams that played a year ago. South Carolina is showing signs of forming a new passing personality under new Ball Coach Steve Spurrier, while Vandy has managed a balanced offense behind senior quarterback Jay Cutler and running backs Cassen Jackson-Garrison and Jeff Jennings. Bobby Johnson's defense has a new star as well in freshman safety Reshard Langford, who could become the most heralded Commodore defender since linebacker Jamie Winburn.

If VU is to make it to a bowl after the season, this game once again becomes the challenge that must be met. What would you do with a second chance? Vanderbilt 34, South Carolina 31.


Houston at MISSISSIPPI STATE

Rumor has it that Sylvester Croom will shuffle his lineup on offense in an effort to generate double digits on the Bulldog side of the scoreboard. A move like starting freshman sensation Derek Pegues on the offense might pay huge dividends for State down the road.

Fact is, if something drastic isn't done to improve the playmaking ability of the MSU offense soon, the visiting Houston Cougars may also count the Bulldogs among their victims in 2005. Mississippi State 24, Houston 23.


KENTUCKY at OLE MISS

Richard Brooks' Big Blue Wildcats have stumbled onto hard times as a direct result of a lack of football talent. Rebel Head Coach Ed Orgeron, meanwhile, hasn't yet read the chapter on offense in his Ole Miss football manual, and thus has lost in a straight line since the seasoning-opening 10-6 smashing of Memphis.

Kentucky coach Rich Brooks has seen his team struggle throughout the season.

If ever there was a game to demonstrate why defense is more important to winning than offense, however, this one is it. Relief for the Rebels is in sight. Ole Miss 31, Kentucky 17.


AUBURN at LSU

When conference realignment took over in the SEC, one of the many forced rivalries that sprang up amongst the new divisions was Auburn-LSU. On the rare occasions that the two teams had met previously on the gridiron, the outcomes of those games were almost always surprising and often lopsided.

Bert Jones and LSU, for example, exacted a 31-7 whipping on the eventual 10-1 Tigers in 1972 That Auburn team was known as Shug's "Amazins," who later went on to capture the Iron Bowl that year by humbling second-ranked Alabama in Legion Field 17-16 on two fourth quarter blocked punt touchdowns.

The famous Earthquake Game of 1988 occurred when quarterback Tommy Hodson and the LSU Tigers shocked Auburn 7-6, a blemish that may well have cost that AU team a shot at National Title.

Since that time, there have been burning buildings, burning Tiger tail vans, rocking buses and lit celebration cigars, not to mention the most amazing interception-filled, come-from-behind victory ever in 1994, that kept Auburn's unbeaten streak intact for yet another game on the way to 20 straight. Crazy. Violent. Beyond impossible. But all true. Auburn-LSU.

Lest we forget, before Nick Saban, Carnell Williams and Matt Mauck, this was a game that used to go to the underdog, or at least the unexpected visitor. In 1997, Dameyune Craig led an astonishing 4th-quarter game-winning drive in Baton Rouge against Gerry DiNardo's Diesel-powered Bangals. In '96 and '98, the Tigers were not so fortunate as favorites in Jordan-Hare.

This season, Auburn again stands on the outside looking in, as if the world has forgotten the great accomplishments of the 2004 undefeated Tigers. Little regard and less respect can be found for the 5-1 Tigers as they fly on game day into Baton Rouge, the land that Katrina wrought, for a Saturday evening "Best of the West" contest on big screen television.

LSU coach Les Miles is in his first season at LSU.

All the talk down South seems to be centered around Alabama, LSU and Georgia, with LSU and Alabama shaping up for what is supposed to be the division title game in Tuscaloosa on Nov 12. The winner of that game is assumed to be going to Atlanta to face a probably undefeated Georgia Bulldog team for all the marbles in the SEC Championship Game.

What no one seems to believe in, or perhaps even be interested in, is an Auburn team that has won 20 of its last 21 games, one with enough defense, offense and coaching to inflict a loss on any team on its schedule. No one seems to recall that AU Offensive Coordinator Al Borges is 1-0 as an underdog at AU (Tennessee in Knoxville in 2004), and, until Nick Saban's tenure in Baton Rouge, LSU's poor home field record in big games.

What people are pointing to is the monstrously talented LSU defensive front seven, featuring NG Kyle Williams and DT Claude Wroten. Linebackers Ali Highsmith and Cameron Vaughn are playing up to the level of recent Tiger greats Bradie James and Lionel Turner. Safety LaRon Landry looks like yet another LSU All-American in the secondary.

LSU's offense relies on the strong passing arm of QB Jamarcus Russell.

On offense, there is long-armed wicked step-brother, Jamarcus Russell, who plays behind a veteran offensive line and alongside veteran running backs Justin Vincent and Joseph Addai and a bevy of extremely talented wide receivers.

Indeed, there is a lot to talk about in Purple Tigerland besides Hurricane Katrina.

In truth, despite a penchant for mistakes, turnovers and whole quarters of lapsed concentration, LSU has to be considered the most dangerous and talented team in the SEC. Physically the Bengals are a match for anyone, including top-ranked Southern Cal. The defense has made minced meat of preseason All-SEC quarterbacks Chris Leak and Jay Cutler. They have punished opposing offenses that have dared to run, holding opponents to a mere 62 yards per game on the ground.

Mentally the Bengal Tigers can be had. But despite five turnovers, they still managed a four-point win over nemesis Florida last week. That speaks volumes.

What we have here is King Kong. A football army of such immense physical proportion that even the great gridiron generals tremble at the challenge to stop him, no matter how insignificant his intellect.

Nevertheless, like David in the face of Goliath, Auburn stands ready, willing and believing. Auburn 24, LSU 20.

Editor's Note: Mark Green posted a 4-0 mark last week to improve his record for the season to 43-7 (.860).


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