Editor's Note: Mark Green's record for the season is 70-22 (.761) after picking three of the four games correctly.
This Turkey Day game used to decide the best team in Mississippi. Now it may decide the worst. State is in such a funk that senior RB Dontae Walker walked off the team during Senior Day last week amidst a chorus of home-town boos. That may be the ultimate symbol for Jackie Sherill's team, which, like its old Bear-trained coach, is listing toward the shank of the evening that used to be Bulldog Football.
Ole Miss, too, is here to celebrate a season-gone South five games ago, and is still struggling to become bowl eligible after looking like a shoe-in. Eli Manning will have to play better than he did last week when he all but gave LSU the game in Baton Rouge (a 14-13 LSU victory). The good news for Mississippi is that State is this week's opponent. Ole Miss 45 Miss State 29.
In Anthony Burgess's novel, A Clockwork Orange, the main character revisits the scenes of his former crimes and does painful penance for every one of them. So it has been in 2002 for the Great Pumpkin of Tennessee. Huffing and puffing, sideline dancing and goal line prancing, the head coach's frustration has boiled over during this worst season of the Fulmer era. Four glaring losses to Miami, Florida, Georgia and Alabama all but wiped out the rural fan support for last week's Vanderbilt game where only 40,000 fans showed up for the Vols' 24-0 win in Nashville. In Fulmer's defense, perhaps no conference team has suffered the quantity and quality of injuries that befallen the Vols this season.
Counting heads in Knoxville this Saturday may be more interesting that keeping score as the UT ground game has replaced the once pass-happy offense of QB Casey Clausen and WR Kelley Washington. Both have been injured much of the year, and Washington sustained a career-threatening neck injury, from which he has yet to fully recover. Clausen cracked a collarbone and sprained an ankle a few weeks back, but should play Saturday against the 'Cats. He played last week, but was not particularly impressive, especially in the absence of a reliable receiver.
What has been reliable for UT, however, is the running TB Cedric Houston,without whose return from injury, Tennessee would have been staying home for the holidays this year. His elusive and powerful style gave the Vols the winning edge in games against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Vandy, and his 74-yard run against Miami was the Vols' best and biggest offensive play by far against the Hurricanes.
Kentucky has had a dream season, beginning with its season-opening upset of hated rival Louisville. QB Jared Lorenzen and RB Artose Pinner have guided probation-plagued UK to seven wins this year, but the season may well be better remembered for the one that got away against LSU two weeks ago. The pain of that "Hail Mary" loss would be much relieved, however, if the Wildcats could find a way to win this week in K-town. And you can bet the effort will be there for Coach Guy Morriss and the Big Blue. KENTUCKY 30, TENNESSEE 27.
After 20 years of frustration, the Georgia Bulldogs will finally get to play for the SEC Championship in nearby Atlanta two weeks hence. But first of all, the heavily favored Dawgs must take on a very frustrated and upset-minded Georgia Tech Yellow jacket team in Athens this Saturday. Coach Chan Gailey has had a rough start to his ACC career, but a win here would make all the difference for his future in Atlanta. In that sense, this is a trouble spot for a very over-confident Bulldog team. But Georgia Tech is no Auburn. CBS will be there again to document that fact. GEORGIA 27, Georgia Tech 17.
The Bengal Tigers visit Little Rock, where Arkansas never loses, Friday afternoon for a CBS-televised one-game SEC Western Division playoff with the 8-3 Razorbacks. Neither team looks as good as they did earlier in the season, but LSU has been downright mediocre of late, losing 31-0 to Alabama and 31-7 to Auburn while eking out a 14-13 win over Ole Miss and a last-play 33-27 miracle win over Kentucky in Lexington.
Neither have the Pigs impressed with a 26-19 win over pitiful Mississippi State and a 24-17 home win over bottom-feeder Louisiana-LaFayette. The winner of this game will make its second appearance in the SEC title game, with LSU being the reigning SEC Champion. That piece of experience may be the only thing the Bengals have going for them Friday, as Marcus Randall has failed so far in his bid to successfully replace the injured Matt Mauck at quarterback for LSU.
Despite the Pigs' poor play in recent weeks, there is no reason to believe LSU can reverse the Little Rock trend, even with all that pressure piling up on the home team. ARKANSAS 24, LSU 20.
The Gators, under first-year coach Ron Zook, have had the wildest of rides in 2002. QB Rex Grossman, a pre-season Heisman candidate, disappointed in the early-season loss to Miami, but has been the key ingredient to big wins over Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee. Even without Steve Spurrier, Grossman has stepped up and engineered a near-SEC Championship season for 8-3 Florida. Only inexplicably poor showings against Ole Miss and LSU have held the Gators back from their normally dominant position in the conference.
The 8-4 Florida State Seminoles, meanwhile, look to be a program in decline. Despite another ACC Championship, and despite a near upset of number one Miami, the Seminoles just haven't been their usual dominant selves in '02. To make matters worse, QB Adrian McPherson was kicked off the team this past week for serious violations of team rules. Re-enter Chris Rix, a hot-and-cold sophomore, who has enough experience to lead his team to a win Saturday, but has a history of making game-losing mistakes. This is a big game for both programs. A loss by FSU would make the argument for Zook that the Gators, not the ‘Noles are the up-and-coming competition for Miami in the state of Florida. A Florida loss brings out the "Fire Ron Zook" internet junkies. Should be interesting. FLORIDA 31 Florida State 24.
It is not certain whether Alabama will survive the Hawaiian Punch it received from Auburn's iron fist last Saturday in Tuscaloosa. The bruises are still fresh and tender, and a day-long plane ride will only serve to expedite the process of rigor mortis in a corpse so brutally beaten. And what about the ego? Can Fran and his once-proud Crimson Contingent get it up for one more Roll Tide on the shores of the Pacific where the waves sometimes rise above all human resistance? Tune in to ESPN for the battle of wits between a couple of boys named Sue, each with a man-sized chip on his soldier: Fran and June, in the war for self-respect. The Red Tide and the Green Rainbows. Merry Christmas, Bama. What a nice reward for a season so unsuccessfully concluded. Aloha. ALABAMA 36, HAWAII 31.