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Week 9 Preview -- World Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party Gets Motivated

Weekend Open Thread begins at 11 a.m. ET

World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party: Georgia vs. No. 2 Florida (Jacksonville), 3:30 p.m .ET, CBS

It's been a month since Florida looked like the juggernaut that everyone expected at the beginning of the season; 10-point margins of victory or less against three straight teams, two of them unranked, will do that to anybody. And while Kentucky doesn't exactly look like a terrible team this year, there are still questions about whether the Wildcats are the kind of upper-half SEC team that has given Florida fits this year. UK remains the only SEC to lose to the Gators by more than 10.

It seems like's it been a month since Georgia has played a game that was regarded as relevant before kickoff. After all, the back-to-back trips to Tennessee were supposed to be uneventual, even if the showdown with the Vols in Knoxville ended up being one of the swing games of the season as far as our perceptions. Then the Dawgs took a week off, probably a welcome development given how the season was going to that point, before emerging for what is almost universally recognized as the most important game of the season and one of the more momentous of the Mark Richt Era. Not because of its impact on the standings; almost everyone expects the Gators to win the division sooner or later. But Richt's critics are growing, even if they remain on the fringe of the Georgia fan base, and nothing will shut them up like a victory against Florida.

If Florida has looked unimpressive against every above-average SEC team they've played, though, Georgia has looked uneven against almost every SEC team they've played period. Only the 34-10 win over dreadful Vanderbilt, a team that consistently scares any team ahead of it in the league standings, looks even moderately impressive. Either the offense or defense has disappeared or failed in each of the team's six other games, and both melted down in the shelling in Knoxville.

And the results don't lie; aside from passing yardage, rushing defense and sacks on both sides of the ball, Georgia fails to rank in the top half of the conference in any major stastistical category. Their passing defense has been eviscerated and the running game has fallen to last in the league. Pair that with the 112th-ranked turnover margin in the nation and you can see why the Bulldog faithful are downtrodden this season.

By comparison, Florida's problems seem rather tame. The Gators rank first or second in the SEC in nine of the 13 offensive or defensive categories tracked by the NCAA. Only passing yardage and sacks allowed rank outside of the top three in the league. No, the offense hasn't been quite as explosive in terms of points as some of the Gator faithful would prefer, but the handwringing seems a bit overwrought.

How do you factor in the various motivational ploys attempted by the two teams in the run-up to the game? That seems to be the million-dollar question. If the Dawgs do take umbrage at Urban Meyer's prodigious use of timeouts to get playing time for the eighth string last year, the question is whether they can turn that into enough of a psychological edge to overcome the gaping statistical disadvantage they face. The Gators have tried to counter by dredging up the memories of the Riot by the River in 2007. But if Lane Kiffin's comments and the return of the wounded Tim Tebow weren't enough to spur the offense to great things, why should we expect a two-year old incident to do the job?

All of which makes this as mysterious and intriguing a game as any this week and maybe any in the season to this point. A cold-blooded view of this game demands the selection of the Gators, but nobody's winning this one by 16 points.

Florida 24, Georgia 13

No. 21 South Carolina at Tennessee, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN /

If by some bizarre series of events one of the teams in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party doesn't win the East, the winner of this game is the likeliest bet to do it. More probable is that these teams are playing for second place in the division and a chance at the Capital One Bowl or a bid in the Outback depending on where the other players are headed when the season is done.

Not that either of these teams would walk away from that possibility. The Gamecocks' best seasons since entering the SEC have ended in Tampa and a visit to Orlando would be gravy. Even playing in Florida would have to be considered an accomplishment for Lane Kiffin in his first season and maybe an indication that the hopes Tennessee fans have pinned on him aren't just the dreams of homers.

Setting up the implications of the game are important, if for no other reason than that it promises to be less than scintillating football on the field. Both teams are defined by mediocre offense and solid defense in combinations that lead to ugly wins that please fans far more than impartial observers. The Vols' 45-19 win against Georgia is the best win on either team's slate by miles, and Tennessee has shown little evidence that it can reproduce that kind of sustained success on both sides of the ball.

South Carolina, for its part, has mastered the art of winning without any bells and whistles. The 16-10 win against Ole Miss looks better than it did a couple of weeks ago, but the Gamecocks spent last weekend trailing Vanerbilt before ending up with a 14-10 win. So is the 6-2 record a mirage built on smoke and mirrors or some sort of lower-quality version of 2006 Florida?

Tennessee has outscored South Carolina by almost 6 ppg this season, but only outgains them by 19 ppg. If the Gamecocks can turn up their red-zone scoring a bit, they can wipe out that advantage and maybe reverse it. But South Carolina fans have been waiting for that to happen for several weeks now; a Monte Kiffin defense is less than an ideal place for it to start. This might seem like a homer pick. If so, fine; I'm thoroughly confused by this game.

South Carolina 18, Tennessee 16

No. 25 Ole Miss at Auburn, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC Network /

Well, Tommy Tuberville finally did leave one of these programs in a pine box, but it was a metaphorical pine box and the program he was leaving was located in the Greater Opelika Area and not in Oxford. So perhaps there's not as much personal animosity in this rivalry this year, but it's still an important game in the SEC West. Ole Miss needs to win out to have a credible shot at going to Atlanta, and even that might not be enough.

The Rebels come in having won their last two games by a combined score of 78-30, a feat that seems somewhat less impressive when you consider that the opponents were UAB and Arkansas. But for a team that couldn't score points against any competent defense for the first half of the season, even blowing out Arkansas' suspect defense was something of an accomplishment. If QB Jevan Snead can keep progressing and the defense keeps up its solid play, Ole Miss will have a great shot at a good season.

Auburn is moving in the other direction. The Tigers have lost their last three in a row, scoring 23, 14 and 10 in outings against Arkansas, Kentucky and LSU respectively. It seems that Gene Chizik's rebuilding project will take more than one year after all.

Ole Miss 23, Auburn 9

Mississippi State at Kentucky, 7 p.m. ET, FSN /

Kentucky is still something of a mystery this season, though we at least have a reason after the Auburn game to think that the Wildcats are a decent team. Aside from that victory, though, indicators are few and far between. UK lost to three of what are generally regarded as the four best teams in the conference and have so far swept through a nonconference schedule packed with cupcakes so sweet diabetics were advised not to watch the games.

Quick: Which of these teams has the better offense statistically? If you said Mississippi State, you're correct. Not only that, but the Western Division Bulldogs are only allowing 5 ypg more than the Wildcats. These are actually two fairly evenly matched teams. If anything, you might have to give the advantage on paper to State.

Not that this game should sneak up on Kentucky by any stretch of the imagination. After last week's heavyweight bout with Louisiana-Monroe, UK goes from playing Mississippi State this week to facing scary FCS foe Eastern Kentucky next week. The Wildcats will be reminded this week why they build schedules like they're afraid of playing real teams.

Mississippi State 17, Kentucky 14

No. 11 Georgia Tech at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m. ET, CSS /

Since when did Georgia Tech rejoin the SEC? All three of the Yellow Jackets' FBS nonconference games feature SEC opponents: at Mississippi State, at Vanderbilt and vs. Georgia. This is by far the most lopsided of those three games, though it's not the biggest advantage Georgia Tech has ever had on an opponent.

You know all about Georgia Tech's vaunted flexbone system: 291.6 ypg, second in the nation only to Nevada. The defense has been mediocre, but when you can score 32.6 ppg on offense that doesn't catch up to you much; Tech's only loss was at Miami.

Vanderbilt comes in at 2-6 with wins over a bad FBS team and an FCS team and almost nothing working on either side of the ball. But they somehow keep the other team from scoring large numbers of points. That won't be enough against Georgia Tech.

Georgia Tech 27, Vanderbilt 6

Tulane at No. 10 LSU, 8 p.m. ET, PPV /

If it weren't for the Razorback's entry this week for worst game in the history of the conference, this would be the least watchable matchup this week. Tulane has won twice this year, against FCS's McNeese state (by 10!) and at Army. Those also happen to be the only two games the Green Wave has lost by less than three touchdowns. But it is the last game in this series for the foreseeable future. So there's that.

LSU 42, Tulane 14

Eastern Michigan at Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU

If Arkansas was going to play an FBS team this weekend, it could hardly choose an easier one than Eastern Michigan. The Eagles are ranked 181st in Division I by Jeff Sagarin; there are only 120 teams in the FBS, and according to his rankings they are the worst of the bunch and worse than 61 FCS teams. These are the games you almost want the home team to lose.

Arkansas 58, Eastern Michigan 3

BYE: No. 1 Alabama