The big winner last week was LSU. LSU still has a shot of playing for the national championship against Oklahoma. The win didn't come easy for the Tigers. Mississippi came to play and played very well on defense. Eli Manning and company nearly mustered enough offense to win the SEC West, but their hopes sailed wide right and fell down flat late. You have to hand it to the Rebels they came to play. They did lose, and we do play to win, so there are no trophies for moral victories. They are a good football team, but just couldn't close the deal.
In what was called the biggest game in Oxford in 40 years, Mississippi sputtered to only 79 yards offense in the first half. Thanks to the lights out play of their defense, they were only down 10-7 at the half. They needed a few more plays in the second half, but seemed to Buckle under the pressure when the chips were down.
Matt Mauck, since the SEC Championship game of 2001, has disappeared in big games. Mauck missed the second half of last year, but in the three big games this season, Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi, Mauck has come up snake eyes. In two of the games, Georgia and Mississippi, he has struggled all day and then found a way to make a huge play late in the game to put his team ahead. If LSU is to march on, they must have more consistent play from Mauck. The defense can only carry them so far. Mauck must make some plays.
Georgia at Georgia Tech
The Bulldogs wrapped up SEC play last week and will turn their collective attention to the in-state rival Yellow Jackets. Last season, Georgia scored a huge 51-7 blow out win in the series. Georgia was a little more potent on offense last season with Musa Smith at tailback. Michael Cooper and company have been beat up most of the season, but all hands should be available this week.
Chan Gailey's Yellow Jackets are limping across the finish line still hoping to have a winning season. GT (6-5 4-4 ACC) has had their fair share of problems, but still may gain a bowl bid even with a 6-6 record. The biggest problem for GT has been the inconsistent play of the Ramblin Wreck defense. They looked great holding Auburn and Maryland to 3 points, but then gave up 41 to Duke and 39 to Clemson. The margin of loss in this one depends on which GT team shows up.
David Greene and company should have no problem in this one as long as they play their game. If they overlook the Yellow Jackets or let Super Star WR Jonathon Smith get behind the defense, this could be a good game. I expect this one to be close until Georgia slams the door shut early in the 4th quarter.
Georgia 33 Georgia Tech 17
Alabama at Hawaii
Once again the Crimson Tide scheduled their team a trip to Hawaii to offset the loss of bowl appearances under NCAA sanctions. I will again repeat my disappointment with the NCAA loophole. Hawaii was having very tough problems getting teams to come play in Hawaii. The NCAA allowed any team the ability to schedule a 13th game if they would be willing to play Hawaii non-conference. The jilted Bammers signed right up and could really care less if Hawaii ever pays back the return visits.
Hawaii nearly pulled the upset last season, but thanks in part to 4 Timmy Chang picks the Tide prevailed 21-16. This season, Hawaii (7-4 5-2 WAC) may be laying in wait for some payback. Alabama comes in at 4-8 on the season and may end up with a few nice pictures and a tail whipping. Junior QB Timmy Chang can throw it with the best of them. Under head coach June Jones, Hawaii is always one of the top schools in the country in passing offense.
Alabama better enjoy seeing the sights as this ball game will not be one worth remembering if Chang gets going. I liked Hawaii last year in the upset and they nearly pulled it off. This season, Hawaii should be expected to win and I believe they will. I think it's more important to realize that Alabama will lose 9 games in a season for the first time in forever.
Hawaii 28 Alabama 24
Florida State at Florida
Now if you really want to see an SEC team in the national championship game, you need to pull for Florida to win this one. The reason is simple: If LSU beats Georgia again it hurts LSU's BCS ranking, because another loss to LSU would knock Georgia far enough down the BCS standings LSU would lose their deduction for a quality win. Confused yet? Wait, there's more! LSU needs Florida to leap frog Tennessee in the BCS rankings, which would put Florida in the SECCG and preserve Georgia's quality win distinction for LSU. Florida currently has a 23.83 BCS ranking and Tennessee has a 17.97 ranking. Most experts believe a Florida win over FSU would be enough to vault the Gators ahead of the Vols in the BCS and into the SECCG. Then LSU could beat Florida and improve their strength of schedule as well as keep the .4 point deduction for the win over Georgia. The bottom line is that LSU needs to win out and hope that Florida, not Georgia, makes it to the SECCG.
Florida has been on a roll since an earlier loss to Mississippi. Despite losses to Miami and Tennessee, most Gators will consider this season a success if the Gators beat FSU and earn a berth in the SECCG. They've already defeated LSU once, so they could be in a good position to win the SEC and derail all plans of having an SEC team in the national championship game.
This game will boil down to which Chris can make the least mistakes. Chris Leak for Florida has been inconsistent, but he is learning on the fly. Chris Rix was so up and down and year ago he was benched in favor of Adrian McPherson before McPherson was dismissed for gambling. Rix has 12 ints on the season and turnovers will be crucial in this one. In both "big" games this season, FSU has choked. Miami blew out the 'Noles and Clemson put more than a few licks on the backside of FSU in their family feud. If recent history is any indicator, FSU will lose this one, too. One thing I can give Zook credit for, he is great at rallying the troops for big games like this one. I like UF one more time.
Florida 27 FSU 21
Tennessee at Kentucky
Kentucky is poised for a 4-win season like their brothers in probation, Alabama. The 'Cats are one and six in the SEC with their lone win coming in a 42-17 win over MSU. Tennessee needs this win to force a three-way tie in the SEC East and to have a share of the SEC East crown. A Vol loss would send Florida to Atlanta. And, as we discussed earlier, if Florida could leap frog the Vols in the BCS, then they would still get the trip to battle for the overall conference championship. With Georgia's win last week, Tennessee was eliminated for the outright SEC East title.
Tennessee has had their way with the Cats in the last two decades. The Vols have won 18 in a row in the series, which is the best stretch by either team. UT may be playing their best ball of the season these past few weeks. Casey Clausen deserves some consideration as the 2nd team All-SEC quarterback. He should have a chance to set himself apart from the field in this one.
Kentucky is very slow on defense and lacks any true playmakers outside of return man Derek Abney. Tennessee is too strong in the trenches for this to be much of a game. Had MSU not folded in the 2nd half UK would be winless in the SEC for the first time in a long time. Despite minor sanctions the Wildcat program has taken a step or two back. Things won't get much easier next year as they play without Jared Lorenzen. Look for Houston and Davis to get their numbers and UK to get out muscled most of the day.
Tennessee 38 Kentucky 14
Arkansas at LSU
Last season the Hogs had earned a berth in the SECCG after a win over LSU. The Tigers had a chance to put the game away and were unable to convert. On the next drive Matt Jones hit two desperation passes to win the game. I'm sure Nick Saban has shown that tape over and over this week to remind the Tigers of their bitter loss. LSU knows what's at stake and should have no problems getting up for this game.
Arkansas features the conference's #2 offense thanks to Matt Jones and Cedric Cobbs. Last week saw the Hog offense sputter for the first quarter but thanks to some beneficial MSU turnovers they were able to take control by halftime. The touchdown right before the half that put the Hogs up 21-6 seem to break the Dogs back. The Hogs will need to be equally opportunistic this week. LSU has a very formidable defense and will not be as forgiving as the struggling Dogs.
LSU will need better production from their running game and quarterback if they are to win this game. Nick Saban is 1-2 versus the Hogs and both losses have been huge disappointments. In 2001, LSU needed a win over the Hogs to punch their ticket to Atlanta. LSU has fared pretty well in must-win games this season and their maturity has brought them through some adversity.
I like LSU in this one. I can't see LSU struggling on offense two straight weeks. Last week saw LSU move the ball well between the 20s, but some untimely intentional grounding penalties and interceptions kept the game close. If LSU can stay out of 3rd and long and have both facets of their offense clicking, this one shouldn't be as dramatic as last season.
LSU 27 Arkansas 17
100th Egg Bowl
The long, winding, and bumpy road that has been the 2003 football season comes to an end this week before the homestanding MSU Thanksgiving night crowd. This game is big to the MSU family for a lot of reasons. This is Coach Jackie Sherrill's last game of his long and successful career. It's also the end of the Manning era at Mississippi. And it's the Egg Bowl.
Nothing gets football fans in the state of Mississippi more fired up than the words Egg Bowl! In what has become one of the most heated and hated rivalries in all of college football, there have been some great games the last several years. If you just look at the last several you can see why this series is so fiery.
In 1997, a late Hazelwood field goal comes up short and Patridge finds Peterson for two to earn a berth in the Motor City Bowl to play a Marshall team led by current NFL stars Chad Pennington and Randy Moss. In the meantime, the Bulldogs got to stay home for the holidays.
In 1998, MSU faced a Mississippi team short starting QB Romaro Miller. With a win the Bulldogs would clinch their first SEC West title and a trip to Atlanta to play #1 Tennessee. Behind the solid play of the Bulldog defense the Bullies clinched the West and got to celebrate in front of the Rebel faithful.
In 1999, MSU started the season 8-0 before dropping two straight. The Dogs found themselves on the short end of the stick deep in the 4th quarter. Wayne Madkin led the Bulldogs back to tie the game and then, on what many maroon and white faithful call the "Immaculate deflection", got the ball back in the waning moments to set up the game-winning Westerfield field goal.
In 2000, a flu-ridden Wayne Madkin came out of the locker room and away from IV fluids to stake the Bulldogs to a 16-0 lead only to see a running back from Lena, MS named McCallister bring the Rebs all the way back and go on to a 45-30 win.
In 2001, the MSU Bulldogs were mired in a horrible funk and only an Egg Bowl win would salvage anything of what had been a very miserable season. The biggest motivating factor for the Dogs was that an MSU win would eliminate the Rebels from a bowl game. Behind the hard running of Zo Miller and several picks by Bulldog defense the Bulldogs were victorious in an improbable win.
Egg Bowl 2002 found the Bulldogs still struggling and needing to extract some revenge to ease the pain. The game was competitive until the very end. A late Eli Manning TD pass on a slant route put the game away for good as the Rebs went on to a 24-12 win.
What will Egg Bowl 2003 bring to this long and thrilling series? Who knows, but if history is any indicator the game will be a good one to watch by fans of both teams. When rivalry games appear on the schedule the rest of the season means nothing. It boils down a lot of times to who wants it more.
This game is not a good match-up on paper. Eli is as lethal as any QB in the country and the Bulldog defense has had more then their fair share of problems in stopping the pass. MSU has had some success running the ball and on special teams. I think MSU can win both of those battles and make this one competitive. If we can limit Eli's touches and, for once, win the battle of turnovers, we can win this game, but those are two very big 'Ifs'.
LSU had a great game plan for Eli. Get in his face and put pressure on him. Make him uncomfortable and stop the run. They wanted Eli to drop back and throw it. Eli had 68 yards in the first half of that game, primarily because LSU never let him get in a rhythm. After LSU went up 17-7, they got softer on the coverages and let their guard down. On a 3rd and forever play Eli had single coverage with Bill Flowers. Once the pressure got there, Eli threw the ball up for grabs and Flowers made the basket catch.
That one play ignited the offense. They had only converted one 3rd down the entire game before that play and converted two more 3rd downs that drive alone to cut the score to 17-14.
After the change of possession, Eli kept clicking, but now the running game was open because the DBs had to respect the deep ball again. After the Nichols miss, LSU got back to their 50 states blitz package and the rest, as they say, is history.
I don't know if MSU has the talent or heart to pull that gameplan off, but I do expect the Dogs to bring it Thursday night. If we allow Eli to sit back in the pocket like a tobacco lawyer sipping mint juleps in the grove, we're in trouble. If we can get him on his back and have him pleading with the refs for help, we have a shot. Manning does not like contact and he said before the LSU game he doesn't like playing against teams that blitz a lot. No, I don't think he was playing possum either. See Egg Bowl 2001.
I know Jackie will be emotional and his players will be looking to send out their coach a winner. Mississippi will have a Manning at quarterback for the last time for at least 20 years or so and you know they'll be looking to kick Jackie in the rear on his way out the door. I know I'm a homer and I know I'm going with my heart more than my head, but I think Jackie and staff will pull out all the stops and somehow pull this game out. These games have all been real close the past few years even in the lean years. I think it boils down to 50-yard field goal by Smith in the final minute and he makes it.
MSU 34 Mississippi 31
Well, that's how I hope to see them. My 8-year old son Oni (pronounced AH-knee) will be making his first trip to Starkville. I thought the 100th anniversary of the Egg Bowl was a memory we could both look back on one day and be glad we went. When we bought our tickets way back in August, I thought it may be Jackie's last game as well. I knew there were a lot of reasons to go to the Egg Bowl and a lot of reasons to stay home. I know I haven't always supported the Bulldogs in my life like I should. There were times I was ready to throw in the towel in my early 20s and go root for somebody else, but that just didn't feel right. I felt like an imposter. If nothing else, Jackie Sherrill has helped me become a better fan and for that reason I'll be in attendance Thursday night tipping my cap and ringing my cowbell one last time for Jackie Sherrill. Thanks for the memories coach. We didn't have very many good ones before you came along.
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.