Two Conference Games to Watch
Florida at LSU (3:30 ET/CBS) –
Florida’s murderous month of October continues as they face their second SEC West opponent in as many weeks. Despite some early fireworks, the Gators were bruised and battered on Saturday night as they fell 38-10 at home to Alabama, a squad many believe to be among the two best teams in the nation right now. Based on early returns, we can’t argue that the Tide is probably among the nation’s elite. So what does Florida do for an encore? They hit the road to play the other “best team in the country” in the Bayou Bengals. Rest assured, there’s no rougher two-game stretch in the country this season – at least until Tennessee repeats the feat in two weeks. LSU had an early wake-up call in a rare morning kickoff at Tiger Stadium as they sleepwalked through a 35-7 trouncing of Kentucky that was never in doubt. LSU still continues to sputter at times offensively, but there’s no denying that the overall talent level across the board will be weighted heavily toward their sideline in every game before the much-anticipated Nov. 5 clash in Tuscaloosa. Defenses like the one LSU trots out simply don’t come around often.
Which team overcomes their sudden issues at quarterback the quickest? As of five days ago, John Brantley and Jarrett Lee had quietly put together two of the more impressive early-season resumes among the signal-callers in the SEC. Lee had directed his team to the top of the national polls while efficiently managing an LSU offense that didn’t need to put up many points in the first place. Brantley had seemingly shaken off a lot of the issues that plagued him in a dismal 2010 season, and he was adequate if not impressive in the first half against Alabama. Both quarterbacks rank among the nation’s top 50 in passing efficiency and had taken firm control of their respective offenses. Two different sets of circumstances may sideline Lee and Brantley on Saturday night, though.
You wouldn’t expect the nation’s No. 1 team to have quarterback issues this late into the season, but Jordan Jefferson’s return from the judicial abyss last week has potentially raised some eyebrows and question marks around the LSU offense. The unit has been workmanlike all season, but let’s face the facts: it’s not been truly dynamic in any phase, and it’s probably not good enough right now to win a national title on its own. Ranking 90th in FBS netting just fewer than 350 yards per game, the unit stalled out numerous times against Kentucky. Lee completed only 38 percent of his passes for 169 yards, and he looked as shaky as he has at any time in an otherwise solid season so far. Enter the embattled and newly liberated Jefferson, and you could have the recipe for a quarterback controversy if the issue isn’t handled delicately. To the surprise of many, Jefferson logged situational snaps on Saturday with only a few days’ practice and even plunged in for a first quarter touchdown. Jefferson entered the game to a mixed chorus of cheers and boos, but if Lee struggles again on Saturday against the Gators, the groundswell of support for Jefferson (last year’s starter) may grow again.
Florida has a different set of issues at quarterback. Brantley led Florida on a couple of early scoring drives against Alabama, electrifying the crowd by hitting Andre Debose with a perfect strike on the game’s opening play. Debose streaked past Dre Kirkpatrick for a 65-yard touchdown, and Brantley finished the half 11-of-19 for 190 yards and the score. But in Florida’s final possession of the half – a bizarre series that saw the Gators drive deep into Alabama territory and included two sacks and a perplexing fumble that nearly turned into an Alabama touchdown – Brantley was dropped deep in his own backfield and landed awkwardly on his leg. After spending a few moments on the turf, he was helped to the locker room clearly in pain, and any chance Florida had at mounting a second half comeback limped out with him. Enter true freshman star Jeff Driskel. If the blue-chipper thought facing Alabama’s defense at home during mop-up time of a game that had already been settled was difficult, his perspective on the definition of that word might change a bit this week. LSU’s ballhawking secondary and aggressive front four could make life miserable for him, and you can expect Charlie Weis to dial back on the playbook to make things as simple as possible for Driskel. To have any chance whatsoever, Florida has to keep Driskel protected. He was hit plenty even in limited action against Alabama, and the viable options behind him drop off significantly. With Brantley out indefinitely, Florida needs to weigh the remainder of its season against this game while doing all it can to hang tight in Tiger Stadium.
LSU is undoubtedly in a more enviable position than Florida at the quarterback position entering the game, and that advantage should be the difference here. They’re playing at home, with two healthy SEC veterans on their bench, against a decidedly less aggressive defense than the one Driskel should face. Charlie Weis made his intention of throwing the “kitchen sink” at Alabama known last week. If he’s wise, he’ll only bring a couple of forks and spoons with him on the plane this time. The Gators will look to establish the running game that was among the nation’s best but suddenly went AWOL against Alabama, and they’ll do everything they can to let their defense keep them in it until the final ten minutes. With Brantley, this game would have been very interesting. It might still be, at least early. Florida comes in banged up, though, and an 18-year-old in front of 90,000 well-oiled LSU fans could make things get ugly in a hurry if Florida doesn’t take care of the football.
OKTC Prediction: LSU 28, Florida 13
Auburn at Arkansas (7 ET/ESPN) —
Auburn’s defensive revival against South Carolina will be put to the test in a major way as they face the high-powered passing attack at Arkansas under the lights in Fayetteville. The Tigers absolutely shut down the SEC’s best running back/receiver combo in Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. How much of that was a product of measured improvement and how much was a result of Stephen Garcia being, well…Stephen Garcia…is debatable. At any rate, Auburn’s young defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage all day, and they’ll need to replicate that performance while applying more pressure than they have all season if they want to stand a chance this week. On the other side of the matchup, Arkansas got up off the mat in breathtaking style overcoming an 18-point halftime deficit in Dallas against Texas A&M. After being steamrolled for seven straight quarters of play over three games, the Arkansas defense finally came up with a few consecutive stops and allowed its prolific offense a chance to assert itself late. While both defenses showed some fire last weekend, the offenses will again be the focal point in an SEC West showdown that suddenly has a bit more punch to it than it might have a few days ago.
Will there be enough lights on the scoreboard? Last year, these teams combined for 108 points and 1,036 yards in a thrilling game that lasted almost four hours. The 108 combined points remain the most in a non-overtime game in SEC history. For perspective, the two schools combined for only 112 points in a basketball game a few months later in February. Cam Newton and Auburn put up 28 points in a bizarre final period to seal the deal, and this year’s game promises to feature another offensive clinic.
So far in 2011, Arkansas is averaging 470 yards of total offense each game while putting up 39 points a contest. Auburn is a bit more modest in both categories but is still plenty potent as nets 370 and 30 on average. Factor in that the two defenses both rank 75th or worse in FBS in yards allowed, and you begin to get the feeling this one may be another shootout. Arkansas passes at will, and lately, Auburn’s running game has been methodical with Little Rock native Michael Dyer leading the way. Auburn fans called for more carries for the sophomore, and they got that and then some as he rushed 41 times for 141 yards on Saturday. Expect him to put on a show as he returns to play in his home state for the first time since spurning the Razorbacks a couple years ago.
A key in this game may be the health of Auburn’s wide receivers. Trovon Reed and touchdown machine Emory Blake are both nicked up and may miss the game. If they’re both sitting or don’t make the trip, you can bet Arkansas Defensive Coordinator Willy Robinson will stack the box in an attempt to shut down Dyer while forcing another Auburn receiver to step up and make plays downfield. Barrett Trotter was uninspiring for most of the afternoon against South Carolina, so the Hogs may choose to put the game in his hands the way South Carolina did while hoping to get the final stop that the Gamecocks couldn’t muster.
Auburn’s doubters were silenced a great deal when they went into Columbia and came out with a win. In this space last week, we hinted that while it would be somewhat unlikely, we wouldn’t be totally shocked if Auburn managed a win versus South Carolina despite an almost unanimous expectation for a blowout of the Tigers. The uncertainty of Garcia and Auburn’s knack for finding ways to win close games were the key backbone of that logic. Make no mistake, though, that there were open targets running in Auburn’s defensive backfield for much of the day. Garcia just couldn’t get the ball to them. Tyler Wilson, on the other hand, is surgical with the football and has four receivers who are all as capable of getting open and making plays as South Carolina’s best target, Jeffery. We weren’t shocked that Auburn beat South Carolina. This week, though, we would be absolutely floored if the Plainsmen pull off a second road win in as many weeks. Everyone’s smart enough at this point to not doubt Gene Chizik, but Arkansas’ offense should have a field day here. Bobby Petrino will look to avenge the embarrassment of last year’s blowout loss, and he’ll get the job done at home.
OKTC Prediction: Arkansas 42, Auburn 24
Others Quick Reads:
Georgia at Tennessee — Georgia’s last two trips to Knoxville have been absolute disasters, as the ‘Dawgs lost by margins of 21 and 26, respectively. It’s almost a guarantee that if a similar result occurs this weekend, it will be Mark Richt’s last opportunity to get blown out in Neyland. Derek Dooley is still looking for a signature win after 17 games at the helm of the UT program. The Bulldogs have been uninspiring in consecutive weeks in wins against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, but this is still a huge rivalry game for the both teams. It would still be a program-building win for Dooley, and with dates against LSU, Alabama and Arkansas on the horizon, it might be his last chance to get a defining win against the upper half of the conference this year. Georgia looks to get back squarely in the East race with a win.
As good as Tyler Bray is, Tennessee must be able to run the football against Georgia to have a chance, something they could not do a few weeks ago in Gainesville (where they finished nine yards in the hole on the ground for the day.) The Vols are ranked 98th in the country in rushing, and despite their problems, Georgia’s defense has been serviceable for the most part. Still, though, Tennessee has gamebreakers in its passing game that might be the difference in this one. If the Vols run just enough to keep Georgia’s defense honest, this could wind up being the win the Vols have been waiting for. Look for Dooley’s team to break through by breaking a big play in the air late to take this one.
OKTC Prediction: Tennessee 26, Georgia 23
Predicting the Rest:
Alabama 34, Vanderbilt 7
South Carolina 21, Kentucky 10
Mississippi State 34, UAB 17
Season Prediction Record: 17-6
Season ATS: 10-12-1