Week 11 SEC Football Preview: The Future of the East and Cam Newton

Weekend Open Thread posts at 11 a.m. ET

WE'VE SEEN THIS ONE BEFORE
22 South Carolina at 24 Florida / 7:15 p.m. ET / ESPN

This has never really worked out well for the Gamecocks before. In 2000, the No. 21 Gamecocks rolled into the Swamp needing a win against the No. 5 Gators to take the SEC East for the first time in school history. They left having lost 41-21. Lou Holtz and Co. would try again the following year, though the stakes were not as clear and the game ultimately would mean nothing. That season, No. 14 South Carolina had lost at Arkansas and at Tennessee by a combined 10 points en route to a 7-2 record when they faced Florida at home. Steve Spurrier led his team to a 54-17 rout, leaving a shellshocked Lou Holtz nearly speechless in his postgame press conference.

And here we stand at the crossroads again. If Florida wins on Saturday, it will be merely the next episode in the gut-wrenching life of a Gamecocks fan. This season has featured almost all the same sour notes as the Lou Holtz Era teams: A close loss on the road to an elite team, a close loss on the road to a team that never should have defeated South Carolina, and a blowout at home to a ranked team that almost no one saw coming -- at least not by the final margin. A loss would be more of the same for South Carolina. Gamecock fans go back to hoping for an eight-win regular season and a ninth in the bowl game, a nice ranking somewhere in the high teens or low 20s, and more promises to build for next year.

A South Carolina victory, though, could very well shake up the SEC East for more than a year. Spurrier would be able to recruit with the kind of buzz at his back that he hasn't had since 2005 or 2006, with a credible sign of progress to show to recruits wondering if it can ever be done in Columbia. The questions about whether the Head Ball Coach could sustain the progress would not be gone, not by a long shot. But there would now be an answer to those who constantly question South Carolina's ability to get things done: We've now done it when everything is perfectly lined up for the program. Now it's time to see if we can do it when a few of the dominoes aren't falling in our favor.

And it's not like South Carolina hasn't almost done it before, hasn't almost upset a Florida team cruising to the SEC Championship Game and a chance for a national title. Last season, in fact, maybe ten feet was the difference between a Stephen Garcia pass going for a first down on a potential game-winning drive and the interception that ended the game. And we all surely remember 2006, when a title-bound Florida team needed every last inch of Jarvis Moss' wingspan at home to block the game-winning field goal in a 17-16 victory.

For Florida, this game is also an important milestone in the history of the program. Win, and Florida can rightly claim to be the undisputed Emperor of the SEC East, even in what is almost universally regarded as Urban Meyer's worst year at the helm. If Florida can win even after it loses all three games against the SEC West -- something no team in the history of the division has ever done -- then Meyer has effectively ended all hopes of anyone winning the division for quite some time. Sure, Georgia might grab a division title here or there, with a Tennessee trip to Atlanta every now and then. But you can almost pencil Florida in as the division champion every year and force another team in the East to prove you wrong first.

In my heart, of course, I want the Gamecocks to win. Back before the season began, I chose Florida to win this game and the SEC East. The analyst in me looks at a secondary that looked eager to avoid form tackling during the Arkansas game and an offense that looks lost if Marcus Lattimore and says, No way. It's a nice season for South Carolina, but nothing more. The magical season ends here, and the Gamecocks will have to settle for another surprise season with an ending that's far from a surprise.

Florida 24, South Carolina 17

LEAKERS NEVER PROSPER? NOT QUITE
18 Mississippi State at 12 Alabama / 7:15 p.m. ET / ESPN2

And here we have another kind of game that will define two programs, a pair of teams that seem to be passing each other in the proverbial night.

On one side, we have Mississippi State, in the middle of its best season in at least a decade. On the other side, we have Alabama. This year's Tide team has proven to be a pretty good SEC team, but nothing particularly special. This is not the next chapter in Nick Saban becoming the next Bear Bryant. If a biopic of Nick Saban is ever made ("I Don't Have Time for This ... : The Nick Saban Story"), this will be the character-building adversity part in the middle of the movie.

Again, it's not that Alabama is bad -- far from it. It's just that they're not Alabama, or not the Alabama we've gotten used to over the last two years. In retrospect, all the warnings of those who didn't want to hype this program as a surefire repeat No. 1 were remarkably prescient. The defense is young, talented -- and remarkably green. The offense is not going to be an even better version of last year's. It really is hard to be that good for that long without a down year at some point.

And now, all the goals are practically off the table. There will be no BCS championship for the Tide, and even if Auburn folds down the stretch, the most likely team to represent the West in Atlanta is LSU. For all this team could have to prove at this point of the season, it has remarkably little to prove.

The Western Division Bulldogs, though, have plenty left to prove. There are still people who don't believe in this team, for some reason. The only intangible working against State is the Cameron Newton insanity that seems to be swirling almost as intensely around Starkville as around Opelika. Here's guessing that Dan Mullen has been able to keep the story at just enough distance to focus his team. The upset of the week.

Mississippi State 20, Alabama 13

YOU DO REALIZE AUBURN HAS A FOOTBALL GAME THIS WEEKEND, RIGHT?
Georgia at 2 Auburn / 3:30 p.m. ET / CBS

Who wins this game might come down to whether or not Cameron Newton plays. Not because I think that Auburn is necessarily a worse team than Georgia without Newton, though they are definitely a worse team without their star quarterback. As good as Newton is, one of unfortunate effects of his magical season is that it has overshadowed a wealth of talent Auburn has on both sides of the football.

But I'm not sure that Auburn without Newton can overcome the gut punch that would be losing its charismatic about 24 hours or less before the Tigers take the field. The magnitude of that loss, that late in the season, with that much on the line -- it would be too much for any team in the country, much less one that relies on Newton as much as Auburn does.

The thing is -- as someone who has followed this story closely almost since it broke, I simply don't know. I have no idea whether Newton will play today. Auburn might decide that it can't win the SEC or national championships without him, so it's best to try and win with him and then wait to see if the NCAA can find enough to nuke the 2010 season out of existence. Or they might decide that wisdom is the better part of valor and try to win without him, hoping that it can get through at least the next three games (counting a trip to Atlanta) at the same time that the NCAA is working more quickly than it has ever worked before. And unless you're Gene Chizik and Jay Jacobs, it's impossible to know what they're going to do by kickoff, if they even know themselves.

So one side of me says to guess that Auburn will play Newton and judge the score then. Another side says to count the quarterback out and take a shot from that standpoint. A third says to do both, pick a score with and without Newton -- but that just feels like copping out.

In that case, best to go with the status quo and believe that Newton will play. He fires up the troops, the distractions almost prove too much for the Tigers, then they find a way to win in the end.

Auburn 24, Georgia 23

RACE FOR MEDIOCRITY
Mississippi at Tennessee / 12 p.m. ET / CBS

I wish there were a nice way to phrase this, but there really isn't one: Both of these teams are just not very good. In fact, this could almost be described as a game to decide which team is average and which team is downright bad. And we still don't know if the only thing that seemed to save Ole Miss' season after the season-opening debacle against Jacksonville State -- Jeremiah Masoli -- will even be a factor in Saturday's game.

But if you have to select which team has been less terrible this year -- and it's a really close race here -- I think you have to go with Ole Miss. The can at least do something well on a week-in, week-out basis: Run the football. How much of that they can do if they have to go without Masoli is an open question. My gut feeling is that he probably doesn't play, and that probably changes things. But no University of Mississippi athletic trainer am I.

The game is in Knoxville, where Houston Nutt's teams have never done particularly well -- or at least, never won no matter how well they might have played, and that's about all I've really got to go on here. The dream of a bowl for Tennessee lives for another week, while the climate will be seem to Houston Nutt to be getting remarkably warmer.

Tennessee 13, Mississippi 12

UGH VS. MORE-UGH ... OR IS IT THE OTHER WAY AROUND?
Vanderbilt at Kentucky / 12:21 p.m. ET / The SEC Network

This is one of those games that, even before the season, you knew Joker Phillips had to have. The Wildcats are 5-5 overall, with only a game at Tennessee to go. The thing you must realize is that Kentucky never beats Tennessee -- never. Tennessee could come in with 12 scholarship players still glowing from a recent nuclear holocaust in Knoxville -- and the Vols would still win. So UK needs this one.

Vanderbilt, meanwhile, needs to not be Vanderbilt. Aside from sacks and tackles for loss, the Commodores literally rank better than 87th in the nation in no major offensive or defensive statistical category. Which is difficult to do in its own way, not that we should be encouraging them to continue.

Kentucky at least has some reason to believe it can score, and being subpar at defense is not as much of a concern against Vanderbilt as it might otherwise be.

Kentucky 31, Vanderbilt 10

NEXT ...
UTEP at 14 Arkansas / 7 p.m. ET / ESPNU

Hey, UTEP is actually bowl-eligible this year. Sure, Arkansas-Pine Bluff of the FCS and New Mexico -- which really should be in the FCS this year -- are among its wins, but it's worth noting. It's also worth noting that UTEP's passing defense is ranked 52nd nationally.

Arkansas 54, UTEP 20

THEM AGAIN?!?
Louisiana-Monroe at 5 LSU / 7 p.m. ET / ESPN3.com

Please do not watch this game unless you're an LSU fan. There are things you can do that will prove more productive to society. Like planning a bank heist. Neither team is particularly exciting, even if LSU is actually pretty good. And with ULM actually playing in its third game against an SEC team this season, it's time for all of us to say "Enough."

LSU 24, ULM 5

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