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Two Conference Games to Watch
Arkansas at Alabama (3:30 ET/CBS) – This game has become the SEC West’s premier early-season matchup. Despite Alabama running off a string of four straight victories, and five of the last six, Arkansas has proved a tough out for the Tide in each of those four losses but 2008. Even in 2009, when Alabama was on a run to the national title, Arkansas hung tough for a half in Tuscaloosa. The Hogs scored on the second play of last year’s tilt in Fayetteville and held a two-possession lead during the second half of the game before Alabama stormed back. In the rough and tumble West, this game can propel the victor to the driver’s seat of the division while making the loser’s margin for error almost nil throughout the remainder of the year.
Which set of inexperienced linemen will grow up in this game? The Arkansas OL or the Alabama DL? The matchup that will draw the most attention here is the one between Arkansas’ heralded QB Tyler Wilson vs. the Alabama secondary. The real battle, though, begins up front with a rebuilt Razorback offensive line facing a group of defensive linemen at Alabama who aren’t short on talent but don’t necessarily have much experience playing together.
Veteran Nose Tackle Josh Chapman returns to anchor the middle of the Tide’s defensive front, with Damion Square and junior college transfer Jessie Williams rounding out the starting group at the ends. Chapman has been through the SEC gauntlet before, but with the departures of Marcel Dareus and Luther Davis, this is Square’s first opportunity to shoulder most of the pass-rushing responsibility for the Tide D. Williams is a versatile talent who will move around quite a bit up front and, despite his position at end, will spend most of his time taking on double-teams at the three technique. Behind Williams and Square, newcomers like Quinton Dial, Ed Stinson, and Alex Watkins will serve as primary backups on the edge. The real wild card here for Alabama is Courtney Upshaw, a “Jack” linebacker who spends more time with his hand on the ground than not. Upshaw is by far the most experienced pass rusher Alabama has, and he’ll be counted on to disrupt Tyler Wilson’s time in the pocket.
With Arkansas starting a freshman and two sophomores up front, Alabama will key on showing Arkansas pressure packages they haven’t seen all year. Mitch Smothers will be a key component for the Hogs as he tries to protect the edge at one tackle spot. Alabama will bring Upshaw, and occasionally MLB Dont’a Hightower around his side to test his ability in pass protection. If Alabama can bring heat early and often, it may force Arkansas to bring in extra blockers along the front and become more conservative with their playcalling in the passing game, negating their talented quartet of receivers. Troy forced three sacks and one interception against the Razorbacks, so you’d expect Alabama to have similar success, but the Tide hasn’t rushed the quarterback particularly well so far even against pedestrian competition. If Alabama doesn’t get Wilson on the ground early, he may have a field day.
Can Bobby Petrino finally break through against Nick Saban, or will great defense trump great offense yet again?
Petrino has lost more times against Alabama (three) than any other team in his coaching career. In some ways, the two head coaches in this game share striking similarities. In others, they couldn’t be more different. Both are known as being strict disciplinarians who agonize over precision and execution. Both made well-publicized exits from the NFL after struggling at the next level, and both are known as being a bit gruff (to put it kindly) with the media. One coach is regarded as the best offensive mind in the SEC – the other as the top defensive coach in the conference. The common roadblock for Arkansas on the annual road to Atlanta has been the Crimson Tide. Petrino said earlier in the week that the rivalry hasn’t become “personal” between the two head coaches, but a fourth loss in a row to Alabama will likely mean another weekend spent in Fayetteville — not Atlanta — in early December for Arkansas. With a trip to Baton Rouge still looming off in the distance, a loss in this game may define Arkansas’ season. Alabama’s defense hasn’t faced a test like the one it will take on Saturday. Neither has Arkansas’ offense, though. It will be a tight game, and one mistake could decide the outcome. Alabama has won 22 of its last 23 in Bryant-Denny, and led by as many as 24 points in the only loss during that span – the infamous collapse last year against Auburn.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Arkansas 24
Georgia at Ole Miss (11:21am ET/SEC Network) —
Call this one the Pink Slip Bowl. Both head coaches may be on their way out by year’s end, but the loser here could absolutely be sent packing a bit sooner as a result. Houston Nutt and the Rebels face a dire situation after last Saturday’s epic beatdown at the hands of Vanderbilt. It was the largest margin of victory for the ‘Dores in a conference game in decades, and the Rebel faithful are seething. Things aren’t much better in Athens, where Mark Richt is facing a now-or-never situation after losing the conference opener to South Carolina in heartbreaking fashion. With both teams already in an 0-1 hole in the conference and sporting two losses overall, the pressure to win or be sent into a full tailspin is high. You have to start thinking it’s just not in the cards for whoever loses on Saturday, whether that’s Nutt or Richt. It’s as close to an employment elimination game as you’ll find.
Can Ole Miss generate any offense whatsoever?
Ole Miss has too many weapons to be this bad offensively. Their quarterback play has been erratic, and the top two running backs have been banged up, but with young receivers like Nick Brassell, Tobias Singleton and Donte Moncrief, the offense shouldn’t be this inept. The offensive line has talent, as well, but it’s not playing to its potential. The defensive unit is actually performing better than it did in 2010, though the results so far wouldn’t necessarily reflect their improvement. The defense can only hold on so long, though, as it showed in the game at Vanderbilt. Look for Ole Miss to try to shorten the field and slow down the game for Zach Stoudt. If he can get the ball into the hands of his playmakers quickly, Ole Miss has a chance. If not, they may be staring at another blowout. With a trip out west to Fresno State and then the balance of the SEC schedule looming, a home date versus a struggling Georgia team might be the last chance Nutt has to get this team back, offensively and mentally overall.
Who’s going to feel the pressure and cave first? Both teams, collectively, are total basketcases at ths point. Somehow, even with Georgia’s struggles and the fact they’re playing on the road, it seems like there’s a bit more pressure on the Dawgs to win this one. They looked at least somewhat respectable at times in losses to Boise and South Carolina. Ole Miss was physically manhandled by a Vanderbilt team who hasn’t beaten anyone in the conference other than Ole Miss in almost three full years. It was a humiliating and totally unacceptable defeat. In a game where both teams will be treading carefully and waiting for that first big mistake, the road team often pulls together and plays more loosely, especially in early games before the road crowd has a chance to really “get ready.” Ole Miss fans will be out for blood at the first sign of trouble for the home team, and Georgia is simply better across the board.
OKTC Prediction: Georgia 34, Ole Miss 16
Others Quick Reads:
Florida at Kentucky — Can Florida avoid a potential trap game as it travels to Lexington? After a thrilling victory at home over Tennessee, and with dates against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia coming up in October, the Gators must avoid a letdown here. In any other year, this could be an upset special. Kentucky is so hapless, though, there’s little chance this one stays closer than three touchdowns.
OKTC Prediction: Florida 41, Kentucky 10
LSU at West Virginia — With arguably the two rowdiest fan bases in the country watching their teams square off in Morgantown, the real winners late on Saturday night may be any fans who escape without being pelted with bags of urine or set ablaze. The dirtiest thing in the stadium will be LSU’s defense, though. WVU won’t be ready for the size and speed the Bengal Tigers will bring into Milan Puskar. Couches will burn, the Tigers will win…and at the end of the night, the Mountaineers still won’t have an invitation to join the SEC.
OKTC Prediction: LSU 26, WVU 13
Vanderbilt at South Carolina — Break up the Vanderbilt Commodores. The surprise team of the year in the SEC is on a roll not seen on the West End since the beginning of the 2008 season, a year that saw Vandy eventually make its way to an elusive bowl appearance. Vanderbilt doesn’t have to win Saturday at South Carolina. No one expects it. If the ‘Dores are remotely competitive in the game, they’ll still be able to build on the momentum they have now. If they somehow win? They’ll likely be left tied atop the East with Florida and two-thirds of the way to bowl eligibility. They can make a major statement, and a win would be astounding. A word of caution, though: South Carolina ain’t Ole Miss.
OKTC Prediction: South Carolina 30, Vanderbilt 14
Florida Atlantic at Auburn — Florida Atlantic ranks near the bottom of college football in most major categories. The Owls are dead last in the FBS in scoring offense and total offense, which means Auburn may have finally found an offensive unit it can actually stop. The Florida Atlantic defense is, statistically, even worse than Auburn’s as well. (Auburn is tied at 107th in scoring defense, with Florida Atlantic checking in at 115.) You’ve heard of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object? When FAU has the ball, you might see the most resistible force on the planet meet an absolutely movable object. What will give? Memphis and UAB could make strong cases, but right now the Owls are probably the worst team in the FBS. If Auburn doesn’t dispatch them with ease, things are worse on the Plains than we may have imagined. Auburn will score, score, and then score some more in this one.
OKTC Prediction: Auburn 56, FAU 9
Predicting the Rest:
Mississippi State 48, Louisiana Tech 20