The Weekend Open Thread begins at 11 a.m. ET
THE KIND OF FIERCE NEAR URGENCY OF NOW ... AND LATER
Auburn at Georgia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 / ESPN360
This begins perhaps the most important stretch of Mark Richt's career at Georgia. In all likelihood, Richt will still be coaching in Athens come 2010. But what happens over the next three games will help determine what shape Richt will be in when next season begins. If Richt is determined to hold onto Willie Martinez, his seat will be ablaze if Martinez's defense doesn't close out the year in strong fashion. Even a solid end to this season might not be able to persuade the Georgia fan base to give Richt a long leash if Martinez remains.
Of course, if Richt is persuaded to fire Martinez after the season -- or if the defensive coordinator decides on his own to leave Athens -- then the next few games might be moot. The offense will get a pass as long as Martinez is there to serve as a goat. And because it's not clear how much more receptive the Dawgs faithful will be to a 6-6 or 7-5 regular season with a bowl berth than to a 5-7 mark at the end of the year, the impact of defeating Auburn won't be known until the year is done.
For Gene Chizik, every additional win is pretty much gravy at this point. The 7-3 record for the Tigers is well ahead of where most expected Auburn to be at this point -- the wag might point out that it's more wins than Chizik had in both season at Iowa State combined -- and locking up an 8-win season would make his first year in the Greater Opelika Area an unquestioned success. Auburn fans might find out sooner rather than later whether Chizik can continue that without Gus Malzahn, but that's a problem for another day.
The only real question about this game is not whether it will be an offensive or defense struggle, but exactly how much of an offensive battle it will be. Auburn's offense is ringing up more than 450 yards per game, which is fortunte considering that the Tigers are allowing more than 360 on defense. This is the team that allowed Furman to score 31 points, after all, and even Georgia's 88th-ranked offense ought to be able to move the ball with relative ease.
But it's hard to see the Dawgs keeping up with Auburn for long enough to win the game. If a mediocre offense like Georgia's can expect some success against a defense like Auburn's, what can the Tigers anticipate from an opportunity to play the Dawgs' much-maligned D? Close, but an Auburn win.
Auburn 52, Georgia 48
GIVE US ALL YOUR TOUCHDOWNS
Tennessee at Ole Miss, 12 p.m. ET, CBS
When CBS arranged for a double-header this weekend, it's hard to believe that they had this game circled as one of the possible selections. After all, Ole Miss would be contending for an SEC West title while Tennessee would be searching for bowl eligibility, right? Nobody expected this to be a competitive game -- did they?
Instead, Ole Miss holds a better overall record (6-3 to 5-4) but the same SEC mark as Tennesee (2-3). And the Rebels are considered a disappointment already, the Vols have further convinced their fans that Lane Kiffin will bring SEC gold back to Knoxville. After all, if he can turn Jonathan Crompton into an SEC-caliber quarterback, what can't the man do?
Control the actions of all of his players, apparently. That's probably to be expected -- for all the flak some coaches take for disciplinary problems, it was impossible for Kiffin or any other coach to keep the perfect streak going forever. But having three players arrest for armed robbery is enough to distract any team, and maybe just to derail Tennessee's magical season for a day.
Ole Miss 24, Tennessee 21
DON'T DO IT
No. 1 Florida at South Carolina, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
If you want to be really bold this weekend, this is your upset pick. The Gamecocks defense comes in after a couple of weeks of subpar performances but still a solid unit. And we've all heard ad nauseam about the problems with Florida Addazioffense -- dive!
But even if South Carolina is able to slow down the Gators, or if Florida assists the Gamecocks in that cause, how exactly will Carolina score? After all, the Florida defense isn't exactly a slouch, and the promising group of Stephen Garcia and Co. is still more potential than reality at this point. The Gamecocks don't have much trouble getting to the red zone, or at least didn't until recently. The issue is scoring once you get there. And the scoreboard is still how the game is decided.
The game is certainly a trap for Florida -- away from home in an underrated SEC venue; the SEC East wrapped up; and that guy on the other sideline with more than enough incentive to remind the folks in Gainesville just how good he is. The good thing for the Gators is that there's no one there to spring the trap.
Florida 17, South Carolina 5
RUN BABY RUN
No. 2 Alabama at Mississippi State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
If you're a fan of running backs, this is the game for you. Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon would be the undisputed best running back in the league were it not for Alabama's Mark Ingram. You'll remember that Ingram remains the SEC's only Heisman contender at this point and one of the main reasons that Alabama is still undefeated despite the recent inconsistency of their passing game.
The Western Division Bulldogs have actually been surprisingly good on offense this year after the despair of the Croom Era. Dixon is a big part of that, but so are the other runners on Mississippi State's offense, who have combined for more than 90 yards per game in their own right. The passing game has been far worse.
Not that it matters much; Alabama's defense is too difficult for almost any team in the country no matter how they choose to attack. Ingram will make his yards agains the Bulldogs and the Tide defense will continue to shine. Nick Saban clinches the first back-to-back 10-win seasons of his career.
Alabama 31, Mississippi State 13
SOMEBODY HAS TO SCORE EVENTUALLY
Kentucky at Vanderbilt, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC Network / ESPN360
Let's face it; neither of these teams is going to score an avalanche of points this weekend, in part because they haven't scored an avalanche of points so far this weekend. UK is scoring a touch over 27 points a game, even after playing a nonconference schedule with more cupcakes than your local grocery store. Vanderbilt is scoring less than 17 a game, which is more than they scored against Army.
Both teams have a decent running game and no passing game to speak of. Neither team has impressed on defense, but that's not really all that significant in this game because of the offensive issues. This is the kind of game that's decided by a mistake here or a big play there, not by sustained drives that end in touchdowns.
But that's okay. Neither of these teams is going to turn their noses up at an SEC win. Especially not Kentucky, which clinches a bowl berth with a victory.
Kentucky 10, Vanderbilt 3
DEFENSE WINS EASY NONCONFERENCE GAMES
Louisiana Tech at No. 9 LSU, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
As if there was ever any doubt, Jarrett Lee will start this game for the Bayou Bengals. Not that it really matters -- there's nothing in the records of either of these teams this year that indicates offense will decide this one. Both teams are range from mediocre to abysmal at scoring or even moving the ball, but LSU has the much better defense. That should be enough to decide the game even if there weren't the gaping talent difference between a WAC team and one from the SEC. There is one warning sign with Lee playing: Louisiana Tech has 10 interceptions this year.
LSU 27, Louisiana Tech 7
AIRING IT OUT
Troy at Arkansas, 7:30 p.m. ET, CSS / ESPN360
The last time you saw Troy, they were losing by 50 to Florida. Since then, the other Trojans have reeled off seven straight wins -- granted, against UAB and a half-dozen Sun Belt teams -- scoring fewer than 30 points just once. Of course, going to Arkansas State is a bit different than going to Fayetteville, but the point remains that Arkansas is the only place in the SEC where the scoreboard operator is likely to be almost as busy Saturday as his counterpart at Sanford Stadium. If Arkansas' defense is terrible, then the Razorbacks' passing and pass efficiency defense is awful. Guess what Troy's speciality is.
Arkansas 40, Troy 37