After a week or two of less-than-fascinating weeks in the SEC (still, those weeks had important things happen), this week we are back to the SEC being a 12-team dogfight. There are five SEC games this week, and although LSU is not a combatant in any of them, it will still be a big week in the SEC.
Literally every one of the 5 SEC games this week features two teams playing for something tangible. Some are playing for a shot at going to the SEC Championship Game (Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida). Some are playing just to improve bowl position (Auburn, Kentucky, South Carolina, Bama, Arkansas). Some are fighting to reach bowl-eligibility (Vandy, MSU). Only Ole Miss is relegated to playing for pride, and they're off this week. This is another one of those good weeks where pretty good matchups aren't on regular television.
Bama at Mississippi State, 11:30am Lincoln-Financial Sports. This game is only being broadcast around half of the SEC territory, plus on GamePlan, because of LF's plan to do split-coverage this week. It's one of those weeks where I really wish ESPN would have picked up two of our games, and I'm not sure why they didn't.
Anyway, like a lot of MSU's games, this is a classic tortoise-hare matchup. MSU brings its basic but effective offensive scheme of running Anthony Dixon left, right, and middle while mixing in the occasional pass to this game, while Bama brings its powerful passing attack and big play ability. All of Mississippi State's big plays come on defense, and they tend to win by getting a lot of turnovers and playing with a lead. Bama, though not a great team, has done a very good job of avoiding turnovers. Can MSU win? Absolutely they can, but it could just as easily be a blowout in Bama's favor (and by "blowout", I mean a 2-touchdown or more victory).
What's at stake: MSU is playing for a chance at a bowl game. They are sitting at 5 wins, and I think to really lock up a bowl game, you need 7 this year. MSU gets Ole Miss and Arky to close out the season, and they need two wins. It will be very tough, but not impossible, if they don't get one here. Bama is sitting at 6 wins, so they're looking to lock up a bowl game and still have a realistic chance at a pretty decent bowl game like the Cotton, Peach (refuse to call it Chick-Fil-A), or one of the Florida bowls. They get UL-Monroe next week, so they aren't exactly in danger of failing to get to 7 wins, but this game will mean a lot for their bowl position.
Arkansas at Tennessee, 11:30 Lincoln-Financial. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure I won't have a chance to see this game, and that's too bad. We have two teams with a combined 12-6 record, one of whom still has a chance to win the conference, and it's not going to broadcast even all around the South? Where is ESPN on this?
I think Tennessee is in big trouble here. Their defense is not strong, and Arkansas looks to be resurgent, with their 450-something yards of rushing last week and the return of Marcus Monk. Tennessee will have to play the best defensive game of its season to hold Arkansas to under, say, 4 touchdowns. The good news for Tennessee is that the Arkansas defense was absolutely abused by Bama's passing game earlier this season, and Tennessee's passing is just as good if not better. Even Blake Mitchell passed for 364 yards and made 51 attempts without an interception. This could be a high-scoring shootout.
What's at stake: Tennessee controls its destiny to get to the SEC Championship Game, which means they still have a realistic chance at winning the conference and going to a BCS Bowl. They could also conceivably collapse down the stretch and miss a bowl game entirely. They do not have a rent-a-win left on the schedule and they are sitting at 6 wins. Without beating either Arkansas, Vandy, or Kentucky, they could miss out on bowl-season all together.
Arkansas is in similar position, except that they have no chance at the SEC Championship. They could still end up at a New Year's Bowl though, and it starts with a win here. If there is a loss here, they're looking at a reasonable chance of staying home. They close out the season with games against MSU and LSU. Nothing will be easy for them, but their win against South Carolina last week resurrected their season. They need to keep it going if they want to go bowling.
Kentucky at Vandy, 1:00 GamePlan. Kentucky is reeling, and Vandy is coming off a blowout loss to Florida. Three weeks ago, Kentucky had beaten LSU and was looking like a real threat to win the conference. Now, they have lost two in a row and they're out of the race. Vandy has been an enigma as well. Kentucky still has its powerful offense, though it certainly laid an egg in its last game against MSU. Kentucky's too powerful on offense to let Vandy beat them unless they make the kinds of mistakes they made against Mississippi State. Vandy just isn't athletic enough to stay with them. But of course, they did make those mistakes against MSU and there's no reason it's impossible to believe it will happen again. Vandy, like MSU, is good enough to take advantage of Kentucky mistakes to steal a win.
What's at stake: Kentucky needs a win to ensure a bowl game, and they close out the season against ranked teams Georgia and Tennessee. If they're going to a bowl game, they NEED to win this game. They can't finish the season with 6 wins and a five game losing streak and hope to get an invite. This is a team with a season on the verge of collapse, but they could still salvage it and set themselves up for something nice. If they win here, they develop the confidence necessary to have a realistic shot at a split of the final two games, and they'd be looking at a nice bowl game. Lose here, and the downward spiral continues, ending possibly in oblivion.
Vandy is playing for bowl-eligibility, and they still have a shot to pick up another win down the stretch in games against Tennessee and Wake Forest. Seven wins is not out of the question for them, but I think they need to start here if they are to get it. They may be playing for a chance to go to the I-Bowl at this point, or the Liberty Bowl, but any bowl for Vandy is a big season.
Auburn at Georgia, 2:30pm CBS. This is a HUGE game, and a good matchup. Both of these teams, if they win out, have a realistic shot at a BCS bowl game, and Georgia could still win the SEC if they catch a break from Tennessee. Georgia is an interesting team that sometimes looks awful (vs. Tennessee) and sometimes looks like a borderline great team (vs. Florida). Knowshon Moreno is a huge find at running back, and he's likely to be an All-SEC selection at this point despite being only a redshirt freshman. Auburn, of course, has recovered from their slow start to the season to become a very formidable team, solid in all phases. It's on national television and you better believe I'll be watching.
What's at stake: well, like I mentioned, a potential BCS-bowl for the winner and a chance for the conference championship for Georgia. The winner has a chance for a season most anyone would consider an unambiguous success. The loser will be looking pretty far down the bowl-ladder. Both teams have bowl games locked up at this point, but either team could end up in the I-Bowl or the Music City Bowl if they finish the season weak.
Florida at South Carolina, 6:45pm ESPN. South Carolina is reeling, and Florida is Florida. South Carolina, like Kentucky, looked so very good until mid-October, but a 3 game losing streak has killed their chances at a conference championship, and probably has all but destroyed their chance for a New Year's Day bowl. A few weeks ago, I would have told you this was an even-money game. Now, it clearly isn't. But South Carolina is just as talented as they were a month ago, and they still have a very good running game, a decent passing game, and a tough defense. I don't know why they're struggling so much right now, but if they're going to pull out of it, they need to do it now. Florida, of course, has a mismatch whenever they let their QB run, but he hasn't been strictly healthy. Florida with an unhealthy Tim Tebow is a pretty ordinary team (good enough to crush Vandy though).
What's at stake: Florida still has a realistic chance at playing for the SEC Championship. They just need to win this game and hope Georgia and Tennessee lose a game down the stretch. The East could conceivably be decided this week, then. Florida is sitting at 6 wins, but they finish the season with Florida Atlantic and Florida State. Even with a loss here, they are going to reach at least 7 wins, and probably 8, so they aren't really playing for a bowl game here. But they are definitely playing for bowl position. A BCS game is still in reach, either automatic or at-large if they miss the SECCG. USC is playing for a bowl game and to resurrect their season. With a win here, they would spoil Florida's dreams of winning the conference, and they would give themselves a real shot at getting to 8 wins and a very nice bowl. With a loss here, and a loss to Clemson two weeks from now, they probably stay home with a 5 game losing streak.