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Week 9 SEC Preview: Florida and Georgia in an Elimination Cocktail Party; Can Ole Miss Upset Auburn?

The Weekend Open Thread posts at 11 a.m. ET

Florida vs. Georgia / 3:30 p.m. ET / CBS

There are some games that retain their mystique even when one or both teams aren't great. The Iron Bowl and Ohio State-Michigan are on that list. So is the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

True, neither Florida nor Georgia is ranked right now, though the winner has a chance to get back into the Top 25 either this week or soon after. And yes, even the winner is going to be at best tied for first with a South Carolina team that has the tiebreaker against Georgia. But the Cocktail Party is still the Cocktail Party -- the efforts of Mike Slive, Michael Adams and Bernie Machen notwithstanding -- and this game is actually incredibly important in the SEC East and the rivalry.

First of all, the team that loses is out of the race for the East. There are no qualifiers on that statement; lose, and the goal that each of these teams starts out with as the baseline for a successful season is off the table. Winning doesn't guarantee that either team will win the East -- Florida still needs a win against South Carolina and Georgia needs some help -- but a loss ends the dream without any intervening events.

But this is also an important game in the rivalry. Everyone knows that Florida has been able to pencil in the annual trip to Gainesville as a victory for a long time now. And now, with the exception of the Zook Era, Florida is as mediocre as it's been in a long time. Even Zook was 2-1 against the Dawgs. If Georgia can't win this game now, with the Gators at a low point, is it ever going to get back on the right side again?

And this game is important to Georgia in another way. Urban Meyer has earned a down season this year, and not even the most rabid Florida fan is going to say that he should be fired at the end of the year. (Steve Addazio is another story.) The likelihood that Mark Richt is going to be giving a pink slip at the end of the year is dramatically down from where it was a few weeks ago, but a win against Florida would basically eliminate it. It would also scale back the hot-seat discussion for next season as long as the bottom doesn't fall out for the rest of the year.

But even if we take the intangibles out of the equation, I'm still not sure that Florida can keep up with the Dawgs on offense. Georgia gets a big win.

Georgia 24, Florida 20

2 Auburn at Ole Miss / 6 p.m. ET / ESPN2

This could be the game, you know. Houston Nutt springs a big upset every now and then, and no upset would be bigger than the Tigers, ranked No. 2 in the polls and No. 1 in the BCS. Auburn is on the road, and they're No. 1. We all know what that means. (Or doesn't mean.)

Except Houston Nutt almost never upsets the team you expect him to upset. His brand of craziness is based at least in part on the unexpected, and at this point nothing about the upset of Auburn would be the least bit unexpected. It's been the first "upset alert" issued by every ESPN analyst, and it's at the top of even the casual fan's games that might go the other way.

And when you look at the match-up on paper, there are not the kind of warning signs you would need to see for an upset. Ole Miss is only average against the run, allowing 125.0 yards per game; I think we all know what Cameron Newton thinks about that. And while Ole Miss' offense is pretty good, it is built on the rushing game that Auburn's defense is actually pretty effective at stopping.

If there is some hope for Ole Miss, it's that Auburn hasn't really blown away a BCS opponent all year long. The Arkansas game was pretty close until the inevitable implosion of an offense being lead by an inexperienced back-up quarterback turned the game into a rout. And as bad as Ole Miss has been this year, it has yet to lose a game by more than two touchdowns.

So give them a chance to keep this game closer than you otherwise might think. I would say closer than the experts think, but the experts are generally picking the upset here. In this case, they are once again wrong.

Auburn 34, Ole Miss 28

Kentucky at 21 Mississippi State / 7 p.m. ET / ESPNU

Since these two teams because permanent rivals in 1992, only five times have both been at or above .500 when they played. So this is a rather big deal in the history of the series.

On the other hand, these are two teams moving in very different directions. The loss to Georgia last week showed Kentucky that this year is probably yet another year to make a bowl game at points north of Florida, and continue a string of winning seasons that is actually impressive for Kentucky -- but not much else. The Wildcats have a bad habit of ringing up points, but only after digging a hole that is almost always too big for them to get out of.

Mississippi State has been uneven in 2010, but seems to be finding its footing. The Western Division Bulldogs have not lost a game since mid-September. And while their win against UAB was less than impressive, I'm not sure that State doesn't find a way to lose that game in years past. There are still some question marks in the early part of the schedule -- how do you only score 14 against that Auburn defense? -- but recent weeks have been enough for them to get a pass on those questions for now.

Not for too much longer. The schedule gets notably tougher after this week for State, with a trip to Tuscaloosa, a home game against Arkansas and then the Egg Bowl in Oxford. If the Bulldogs go 1-2 against those teams, this game could be the difference between an above-average season and a good one. If they can go 2-1, it could mean the difference between good and great. In any case, it will set a tone of some sort for the rest of the year.

Oddly, the same thing might be able to be said about Kentucky. The different directions? That also applies to the future schedule, which gets markedly easier for the Wildcats after this week. (And for the most part, it's actually not their fault at this point of the season.) Home games against Charleston Southern and Vanderbilt are next, followed by a trip to Knoxville for the year ending game against the Vols; a win here could make a huge difference in how Kentucky remembers the season.

My guess? The Wildcats remember it fondly.

Kentucky 40, Mississippi State 34

Tennessee at 17 South Carolina / 12:21 p.m. ET / SEC Network

This series has actually been remarkably close in recent years. Two of South Carolina's four wins against the Vols have come in the last five years; you know it had to please Steve Spurrier to go 2-2 against Phil Fulmer and be the only coach in Gamecocks history to defeat Tennessee twice.

In that sense, last year's game was a setback for South Carolina. The 18-point loss marked the largest margin of defeat since the winless season of 1999 and marked only the second time since that game that the Gamecocks had lost by more than a touchdown. Even in what was a rebuilding year for Tennessee, South Carolina was unable to overcome its history of losing in sometimes bizarre ways to the Vols.

And here we are again. Tennessee is definitely in full-blown rebuilding mode, on its third head coach in as many years. The Vols are depleted almost across the depth chart after having gone through two cycles of the attrition that normally hits any roster when a new coach comes in. There are three statistical categories in which Tennessee even cracks the top half of the SEC: passing offense, passing efficiency defense and net punting. Only in the latter do they rank better than sixth, and even in that category they are fifth.

At the same time, some very good teams have traveled to Knoxville and been in a game for the first half, only to win when the depth issues start kicking in. (See: Alabama and Oregon. Florida would have made the list at one point, but, you know ...) And of course there was the game at LSU, but I don't think we can really take anything away from that other than the fact that Les Miles is insane and the Tennessee coaching staff has trouble counting. Okay, so maybe the last part is important.

The question is, is South Carolina good enough to overcome adversity or a difficult first half? Only at Vanderbilt has South Carolina gone into the locker room without a lead. We know that this team can lose a game when it has the halftime lead; what we don't know is whether it can win a game if the other team is hanging around longer than expected.

South Carolina 20, Tennessee 19

Vanderbilt at 20 Arkansas / 7 p.m. ET / FSN

What can you really say? Things haven't been easy for Vanderbilt this year, to put it as kindly as possible. Aside from their win against the reeling Rebels, the Commodores haven't been within two touchdowns of an SEC opponent all year. The South Carolina game was close later than it should have been, but one has to wonder how much comfort that is for Vanderbilt fans who are used to moral victories, and probably sick of them. Vanderbilt is near the bottom of the league in every category except turnover margin and punting -- the latter probably a strong point because they've had so many opportunities to practice it.

Which is what gives this game the feeling of a waxing about to happen. Vanderbilt is seventh in the conference in passing defense in the league, but only because teams haven't needed to throw that much. They are ninth in terms of passing efficiency defense, which is probably the truer measure here. Ryan Mallett is ninth in passing efficiency. In the nation.

Vanderbilt will come close to its season high in points against BCS competition this year. It won't do them any real good.

Arkansas 40, Vanderbilt 24