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As we enter week three of the college football season, we’re starting to find out which teams are for real and which teams may have some serious problems as they head into the meat of the season. OKTC takes a look at the top question marks facing a few SEC squads this week, and we predict each game of the weekend. What did we learn from weeks one and two, and what’s still left to be determined?
Two To Watch
Tennessee at Florida (3:30 ET/CBS) – As we enter the middle of September, it’s safe to say that both Florida and Tennessee have proved to be pleasant surprises in pairs of games against non-conference opponents. In Week Two, Tennessee was impressive in a dominant win over Cincinnati. In a game that many had circled as a potential upset, the Vols were able to withstand a few early miscues and rode yet another strong performance by sophomore QB Tyler Bray to an easy win in Knoxville. Florida hasn’t displayed many of the hiccups common to a new coaching regime so far in 2011. Their offense has been efficient and their defense spectacular in wins over Florida Atlantic and UAB. The Volunteers will prove a tougher test for Will Muschamp and Charlie Weis, but the ease with which they dispatched their first two opponents tells us a bit about the revival in Gainesville. They haven’t had any bumps in the road yet.
Can Tyler Bray be the real deal against real competition?
Bray’s stat line against Cincinnati was downright surgical as he completed 34 of 41 attempts for more than 400 yards. Bray leads the nation (with two others) having thrown seven touchdown passes in his first two outings. He’s completed nearly 80 percent of his passes and has thrown for right at 700 yards in 2011. In fact, in the seven games leading back to last season when Bray was named the sole starting QB (unseating Matt Simms in the process), his numbers are even more astounding. During that stretch, he’s thrown 23 touchdowns against only seven picks, completing 63 percent of his passes and averaging almost 320 yards through the air each game. More importantly – the Vols are 6-1 in that run, losing only in controversial fashion against UNC in the Music City Bowl. The only question left is – can Bray shine in a hostile road environment against a good team? His wins have come against the bottom feeders of the SEC (Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt) and some pedestrian non-conference opponents (Memphis, Montana and Cincinnati.) The game against Florida will be very telling. If he emerges with 300+ yards and a win, he might just be the best signal-caller in the best conference in college football.
Is Florida’ defense good enough to contend for the SEC East this year?
The Gators have put up some sparkling defensive statistics so far under Will Muschamp as they rank in the top 15 of most major national statistical categories. The return to a pro style offensive attack has undoubtedly benefited an ultra-talented defensive unit that took some lumps last year, particularly in the second half of the season. This group carried the team in the first half of 2010 but eventually faded down the stretch under the weight of an abysmal offense that couldn’t stay on the field. Quite simply, if the Florida offense can just be good enough to hold its own, the defense may be championship caliber right now. The Gators will see their first true test of the season as the aforementioned Bray comes to town. Tennessee will be committed to establishing the run, but Derek Dooley knows his only chance to really win is by keeping Bray’s hot streak alive. He’ll test Florida’s defensive backfield early and often. Florida surrenders only 175 yards per game so far this year, and they’ll need to keep UT’s rangy wide receivers in check to win this one. One area where the Gators have fallen short? Turnovers – forcing only one so far this season. They’ll also need to keep Bray under duress with pressure. The Gators are in the bottom half of FBS teams so far with only two sacks.
Does Derek Dooley’s signature win finally come this weekend?
Dooley’s struggles against quality opponents during his head coaching career have been well-documented. Those shortcomings were understandable if not forgivable at Louisiana Tech, but Vol fans have short memories. They expect wins over their traditional rivals, regardless of the circumstances. In a series where the Gators have run off six straight wins, UT’s last W over Florida has to be seeming a bit hazy for the Big Orange Nation about now. Dooley’s wins in 2010 came against teams that finished a collective 23-49. A win over Florida would prove that the regular season victory streak dating back to last year isn’t an aberration, and it would certainly send a warning that if the program hasn’t yet turned the corner, the corner is at least in sight. Muschamp and Dooley worked together under Nick Saban at LSU and then for a season with the Miami Dolphins, so you know they’ve both had this game circled since Muschamp was hired last winter. Dooley will get his first big win sometime this year, but with the way this series has gone in recent years, history tells us it won’t be this weekend.
OKTC Prediction: Florida 30, Tennessee 24
LSU at Mississippi State (8:00 ET Thursday/ESPN) – Mississippi State suffered a heartbreaking loss at Auburn on Saturday, falling short of an opportunity to win or send the game to overtime by literally a couple of inches. It was a loss that could potentially send the Bulldogs’ season into a tailspin if they don’t regroup quickly. The program had an awful lot riding on the game, and with No. 3 LSU coming to town after a short week of preparation, Dan Mullen’s team could be staring an 0-2 conference start (and almost assured elimination from SEC West contention by the end of week 3) in the face. LSU physically abused Oregon in Week One in what is still the most impressive performance of any team nationally to date. They were efficient in a 49-3 whipping of Northwestern State at home on Saturday.
Will Mississippi State be able to match LSU’s physicality up front? MSU’s game at Auburn was a slugfest that lasted nearly 4 hours – the longest game involving an SEC team so far in 2010 – that saw a number of Bulldogs go down with injuries. With a short turnaround against LSU, they’ll have to get well quickly because they’re likely to face the most physically abusive lines on both sides of the ball that they’ll come across all season. If MSU isn’t mentally and physically up for this game, it could get out of hand quickly.
Can the LSU quarterbacks manage the game well enough to win again away from home?
With Jordan Jefferson sidelined, the big question entering the season was whether LSU’s quarterbacks could control games and limit their mistakes while letting their defense grind opponents down. Jarrett Lee and Zach Mettenberger shared time almost evenly against Northwestern State combining to go 17 of 21 for 225 yards through the air. More importantly, neither have thrown an interception so far in two games. The bizarre series of miscues committed by Oregon in the opener really limited the amount of game pressure Lee felt, especially in the second half. The atmosphere in Starkville should be electric on Thursday night. The LSU defense and running games are good enough to win a national title. We should know a bit more about Lee’s ability to lead his team to those heights after this week. Mississippi State isn’t the best defense LSU will face. Far from it, in fact. So if Lee struggles in the Tigers’ first true road game of 2011, it could spell trouble. He won’t have to win the game, but he’ll need to maintain his form of the first two weeks to avoid losing it.
Can Chris Relf shoulder the load against a top 5 defense?
Relf took a beating at Auburn carrying the ball 27 times for 121 yards and passing it another 33 times for 195. The verbal beatdown he’s taken since as a result of the game’s final play has probably stung worse. The burden of being stopped just shy on what would have been a game-tying drive has to be shouldered by both Relf and Mullen. Even with talented players like Vick Ballard and Chad Bumphis as accompaniments, there’s no doubt that the Bulldog offense can only go as far as Relf will carry it. The question this week is, does he have anything left in the tank against a defense designed to punish ball-carriers and close passing lanes down in a hurry? Despite losing 29-7, MSU actually outgained LSU last year in Baton Rouge and netted more first downs in the loss, as well. Relf was stifled, though, contributing only 81 all-purpose yards while splitting time with Tyler Russell. His numbers will have to be appreciably better to stand a chance this week. MSU seems to have everything going against it – coming off an emotional loss, playing a national title contender and a tough scheduling quirk that provides a short week of prep. Our gut feeling tells us that typically when physically talented and mentally tough teams seem to have odds stacked against them, they play better than expected. We’ll find out this week if MSU, as a program, has what it takes to really compete in the SEC right now. It’s now or never.
OKTC Prediction: LSU 24, MSU 16
Other quick reads:
Can Ole Miss reverse its fortune versus Vanderbilt and in SEC openers?
Ole Miss has, almost inexplicably, dropped three of the past four and four of the last six meetings overall against Vanderbilt. The Rebels have dropped seven straight SEC openers since defeating Vanderbilt to open the 2003 season. Zach Stoudt is showing signs of promise as a quarterback, but Vanderbilt has looked much improved in its 2-0 start.
OKTC Prediction: Ole Miss 20, Vanderbilt 14
Will Auburn continue its 17-game win streak at Clemson in its first trip away from the Plains this year?
Despite countless heart-stopping finishes and near-losses, Gene Chizik and the Tigers haven’t been defeated on the football field in 655 days. This team has, seemingly, forgotten how to lose. They’ve developed an attitude and moxie over the past two seasons that makes them hard to ever count out. Clemson delivered one of the most serious threats to that run, bolting out to a 17-0 lead last year in Auburn before the first of many comebacks since then, and you can bet the ACC’s version of the Tigers haven’t forgotten that. Still though, Auburn is maturing as a team and has more talent across the board than Clemson, who has lost 14 in a row against the Plainsmen. Auburn will find a way to win yet again and extend that unbeaten streak at least another seven days.
OKTC Prediction: Auburn 44, Clemson 34
Will Kentucky and Louisville mutually agree to meet at midfield, give up football as a sport and put the rest of us out of our misery?
I’d challenge you to find a game that features teams with a combined 3-1 record that will look worse than this one. Or maybe, just maybe, two very big negatives will make a positive. In a vacuum, these offenses are absolutely terrible. Looking across the field at the opposing defense this weekend might be just what they both need to get off the deck, though. It should be, at the very least, an entertaining game. Or it might be absolutely dreadful.
OKTC Prediction: Kentucky 20, Louisville 17
Predicting the rest:
Alabama 49, North Texas 6
Arkansas 45, Troy 17
Georgia 56, Coastal Carolina 10
South Carolina 41, Navy 20