We know for sure that the SEC East champion will be set from the winner of the South Carolina-Florida game. Beyond that, the game is full of all kinds of storylines. Can South Carolina win its first East title? Can Steve Spurrier beat his alma mater to do it? Will Florida come all the way back from that three-game losing streak to win the East? Is the three quarterback system really viable against anyone but Vandy?
My biggest questions is this: can South Carolina's defense stop Florida? The Gamecock defense fell apart in the second half against Kentucky back on October 16, and aside from its game against Vandy, it hasn't been the same since. It allowed some big plays to Tennessee's otherwise putrid offense, and Arkansas shredded it last week. That unit is reeling.
Its saving grace is that it's very stout against the run. It's not just a "why run when you can throw?" kind of deal; the Gamecock defense is second in the conference in fewest yards allowed per rushing attempt. Florida, as always under Urban Meyer, tries to set the tone with the run to open up the pass. That plays into the strength of the Carolina defense. Plus, big special teams and defensive plays against Vanderbilt last week masked the fact that John Brantley had a pretty lousy game. He's not coming into this match up red hot or anything.
Of course, that Gamecock defense could use a little more help from its offense. It hasn't been sharp since the first half of that Kentucky game, with slow starts against Vandy and Tennessee preceding a virtual no show against Arkansas. As good as Stephen Garcia, Alshon Jeffery, and the passing game have been, this team needs Marcus Lattimore to maximize its potential. He managed less than three yards a carry on Arkansas before getting hurt. Lattimore will have to pick up those tough yards and first downs to put pressure on Florida and keep his defense off the field.
I'm not entirely sure how Florida's offense is working better while rotating three quarterbacks instead of two, but it is. The Gators went for 450 and 480 yards against Georgia and Vandy, the first time they've hit 450 in consecutive SEC games since doing it against Arkansas and LSU in 2008. The defense has been up and down in Teryl Austin's first year on the job, but it's been up for five of its last six halves.
Florida's a touchdown favorite at home, and that's probably reasonable all things considered. South Carolina has an excellent shot at winning this one though, which should go down to the wire.
If Auburn can win its rivalry game with Georgia, then the Tigers sew up the SEC West crown and lock the SEC Championship Game into stone. I think the real key to the game is Cam Newton, and not in a generic, "he's the best player on the field" kind of way.
Georgia's offense has turned out to be pretty good. The Bulldogs have scored 30 points in five straight games for the first time in school history. Aaron Murray has looked more like a veteran than the freshman he is, and with a better first half from him against Florida, UGA would be rolling onto the Plains with a five game winning streak. Georgia's line should be stout enough to slow down Nick Fairley some, and if you can do that, you can torch Auburn's defense. A.J. Green should have a field day if Murray gets any time to throw.
Georgia's defense has had some bumps in the road along its switch to Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme, but overall it's been better than I think anyone expected. Georgia is fourth in the conference in yards allowed and fifth in the conference in points allowed in SEC play. Both of those marks are much improved over the defensive disaster of the previous two years. The Bulldogs allowed no more than 31 points in regulation, one instance of which was heavily aided by garbage time scoring.
That brings me back to Newton. Apparently the likelihood of his presence in tomorrow's game is somewhat up in the air now that Auburn's official response about his eligibility has changed to "no comment." That's a big reversal from Gene Chizik's emphatic pronouncements of earlier in the week. I'm going to assume for now he's going to go.
Newton is the reason why I think Auburn will take this one. Georgia's defense, for all its improvement, has struggled with mobile quarterbacks this season. Colorado's Tyler Hansen gave the defense fits when he got on the move, and Florida's Trey Burton went for over 100 yards against the Bulldogs. If he wants to, Newton could probably outdo their combined output of 161 yards rushing. If Georgia has to give run support some extra attention, that will open up things for Newton to do with his arm.
One thing Georgia has that Auburn hasn't seen in SEC play yet is an elite edge rusher. Auburn has vanquished Chris White and Drake Nevis already, but those guys do their work up the middle. UGA's Justin Houston has the speed and athleticism coming around the end to give Auburn a new look to deal with and put the pressure on Newton for a change. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen, but it's at least a new puzzle for Newton and Gus Malzahn to solve.
Ultimately, I think that yes, the SEC Championship game will be set this weekend.