This Thursday night match-up features two teams trying to make a difference in their post-season plans. The season started with such promise for the Razorbacks, but they have fallen from the top 10 and the SEC title hunt altogether. Memo to the rest of the conference: "Don't go into overtime with the Hogs!" It is difficult to understand why Arkansas does so well in OT, but there is not a more consistent team in the country when it comes to the extra stanza. Last week's 7-OT game set records in length and scoring of a D-1 game.
Lou Holtz always says the game with Arkansas is personal. He had a great run while at Arkansas and always looks to extract a little revenge when the two squads meet up. USC found their offense last week and nearly pulled out a last minute win over Mississippi. The Gamecocks defense got an extremely slow start and spent nearly all of the first half on the field. USC will face a better defense this week in Little Rock, so Skip Holtz may need to add a new wrinkle or two.
Houston Nutt is 15-0 at War Memorial Stadium. Despite the short week and the long exhausting marathon win over Kentucky, this should be a game the Hogs win. USC has had some difficulties stopping the run as we all saw last week. Mississippi's 3rd team tailback, Tremaine Turner, looked like Bo Jackson breaking tackle after tackle. Matt Jones and company will need to score, but not quite as much as they did last week. This one should be another see-saw affair, but the Hogs win it late on the strength of their running game.
Arkansas 24 USC 20
Mississippi vs. Auburn
The Tigers exploded last week against hapless UL-Monroe. Apparently the loss at LSU has rejuvenated the Auburn defense. ULM is no comparison to the firepower they'll face this weekend from Mississippi and Eli Manning. With the exception of the LSU loss, Auburn has played their best football the past few weeks. The inability to show some balance was exploited by LSU. That must be corrected if Tubby wants to rain on the Rebel parade.
Chris Collins is making everyone nervous. Collins has caught fire and is making the UM offense even more formidable. Collins has always been steady and has big-play ability, but the performance he put on last week against South Carolina was nothing short of spectacular. USC just couldn't cover him. He was open all day. Compounded with a nice ground game the Rebels seemed to have the game well in hand before the defense let up. The defense's play was so pathetic that the coaching staff has reopened competition for starters in the secondary. The defense must play better if the Rebels have a chance to win this one.
This game will be won or lost on Mississippi's ability to move the football. The Auburn secondary is suspect and Eli Manning is just the person to exploit that. Auburn gets good push and can generate pressure from their front seven without a lot of blitz packages. If Eli has time he will slice Auburn up. If Auburn can stop the run and force the Rebs to be one dimensional, they game is theirs. I don't think UM can slow down the Auburn running game, so this one may become a shoot-out. Tubby will play keepaway to limit Eli's touches, but don't count the Rebels out if they get the ball back down a score in the final minutes. Based on recent history, I have to go with Auburn making the plays and making the SEC West wild again this year. If the Tigers lose, the SEC West is a two-team race.
Auburn 31 Mississippi 27
Vanderbilt vs. Florida
Florida is on fire. Since a home loss to Mississippi, Florida has defeated three straight top ten teams. The tricky thing is they did it away from the friendly confines of the Swamp. Road wins at LSU and Arkansas coupled with the win last week over Georgia in Jacksonville have the Gator fans chomping. There should be a three-way tie for 1st in the SEC East with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all having identical records of 6-2. The Auburn Tigers should have something to say about this potential tie as they still have Georgia on their schedule. Assuming we end in a tie, there will be some major controversy, especially if the decision is made by the athletic directors of the other SEC East schools. I wonder what the SEC would do if the vote ended 1-1-1?
Vanderbilt is mired in yet another abysmal season. The 'Dores have been playing for next year for 21 years now. They are a young team and most of the kids next year will be Bobby Johnson's players. Vanderbilt needs a win in conference to have something to build on for next year, but the prospects for that elusive breakthrough SEC win look extremely thin this week.
Chris Leak appears to be settling in nicely behind center. He has tremendous poise for a freshman and has a silky smooth delivery. He should get plenty of practice this week throwing against Vanderbilt, but it will be the Gator running game on showcase in the second half. Florida is a big favorite in this one. I'm sure they'll win, but it may not be as convincing as one would think.
Florida 31 Vanderbilt 14
Tennessee vs. Miami
Turmoil abounds in Knoxville. Rumors continue to circle head coach Phil Fulmer. This has been a distraction and this season has been full of them. The Vols are still in the thick of things regarding the SEC East, but any hopes of any real national recognition died a long time ago. Duke hung right in there with Tennessee last week, before relenting late. This week, the Vols must have a better effort.
Miami may have seen their national title hopes dashed by a blowout loss to Va. Tech. The Miami offense and special teams doomed the team to a huge loss and their first regular season loss under Larry Coker. They will look to bounce back at home against national power Tennessee. This may sound horrible from an SEC fan, but Miami is in a different league than any team in the SEC right now. I know Florida gave them all they wanted, but when the game was on the line, Miami roared back. Florida could not contain them.
Miami at home against a mediocre Tennessee team; I like their chances. Tennessee has had trouble stopping the run and I'm sure that fact's not lost on the 'Canes. This one was billed early in the year as a game with national implications for both teams. Now that the game is upon us, Miami is the only team still in the hunt and they need some help to make it to the Sugar Bowl. Look for Miami to survive the early onslaught and Randy Shannon's defense should take over after that.
Miami 31 Tennessee 17
Alabama vs. Mississippi State
For the first time since 2000, Alabama visits Scott Field. What a distant memory that game seems now. The white towels, the crowd chanting "JACK-IE, JACK-IE", and Bulldog fans everywhere hoping Coach Sherrill wouldn't take the head job at Alabama. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and the fortunes of the Bulldogs are much different than on that proud day.
This weekend features the bottom two teams in the SEC West looking to put the other in the cellar for the season. Alabama will bring Shaud Williams to Starkville in hopes of capturing Alabama's second SEC win of the year. Mike Shula knows his team can't make any post-season plans, but his squad desperately needs a win. With injuries and attrition, the QB position has been decimated. Brodie Croyle will basically have to go it alone. If the Tide has watched any film, Croyle's biggest responsibilities may be to hand off right or left.
Mississippi State enjoyed a little rest and relaxation this past weekend as the walking wounded attempted to heal not only their bodies, but their spirits. It has been an emotional year for these players. The anguish of losing the coaches who recruited you, the excitement of learning a new system, the drama of college football itself, another losing year, and the retirement of Coach Sherrill. It has been a long year already. Now more than ever these players need our support. The pressure to save Coach Sherrill has been replaced by the desire to send Jackie out with a win or two. This weekend we should see some inspired Dogs.
The Bulldogs have some shuffling to do on the offensive line due to some injuries. Blake Jones and Will Rogers aren't 100%, so fan favorite Chris McNeil will see some playing time. The key in this game will be the trenches. Both of these teams want to control the line of scrimmage, so these injuries are huge.
I think the Dogs will come out fired up, but with all the injuries, depth and fatigue will be a factor. Alabama can run the football and with the success Carnell Williams had I'd be surprised if Alabama threw more than 4 times in the 1st half.
Alabama 23 Mississippi State 17
A few final points I'd like to pass on. There have been some strong and sharp criticisms made in reference to the fans that have stood behind this team. Those criticisms are unwarranted. Jackie is leaving the program whether we want him to or not. Let the man leave in Peace. He has earned that. The booing and complaining won't make the season end any faster. If you don't want to go cheer for the team stay home, three of the next four games are televised. I for one would rather be thought a fool because of my loyalty to my team than to jump ship and be branded a traitor. This isn't any easier on any of us. It's painful all they way around. We've had the NCAA investigation, Jackie's retirement announcement, the infighting among the Bulldog faithful, and now the coaching search. Guys, we're supposed to be a family. Now more than ever Bulldog fans need each other. It's time to put the bickering to bed!
The line between Bulldogs and Rebels has almost become transparent. I know we have some stray Dogs out there and in a lot of ways they're worse company than the Rebels. People, this is only college football and I can assure you no one and I mean no one feels these losses worse than the coaches, players, and their families. They're not trying to lose! I know I won't change anyone's mind about any of this, but if you don't enjoy following this team then don't ruin it for the rest of us. We've been down before and I'm sure before we're done we'll be down again. It's real easy to support a consistent winner year after year. I wish we had that, but we don't. I'd rather have a few high ups and low downs than a lifetime of nothing special. All sunshine and no rain makes a desert. That's what being a fan is really all about, hanging in there through the rainy seasons.
Until next week,
Steve Robertson is a free-lance correspondent who writes The Robertson Report for the premium site portion of Gene's Page. Steve's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.