Weekend Open Thread posts at 11 a.m. ET
BATTLE FOR JERRY JONES' DEATH STAR INVITE
Arkansas at Mississippi State / 7 p.m. ET / ESPN
The winner of this game still has an outside shot at the Cotton Bowl, depending on how far the SEC is willing to let South Carolina fall (this is going on the logical guess that the Gamecocks lose the Championship Game). For either of these programs, that would be a sign of significant progress. For Arkansas, they will finally have gotten back to where they were when Houston Nutt left after then 2007 season. And the Hogs would still be lined up for a possible BCS berth if they can defeat LSU in the regular-season finale. For Mississippi State, even the Cotton Bowl would be the first time they've played on a postseason stage that big in quite some time.
This could actually be a tougher game than Arkansas fans would like. Despite a high-octane offense that forces opponents to try to keep up from the beginning of the game, the Razorbacks rank ninth in the SEC in rushing defense. Mississippi State does not pass. I mean this quite literally; Chris Relf only qualifies for being ranked in passing efficiency because the NCAA rounds up when calculating minimum attempts per game. (It's 15; Relf has 147 passes in 10 contests.)
With the emergence of a running game powered by Knile Davis, Arkansas now has a far more balanced offense. Davis has now rushed for at least 82 yards in his last six games, more than 100 yards in three of his last four games, and nine of his ten touchdowns in the last four games. Perhaps that is why the Hogs have gone from scoring 30.0 points per game in their first five contests to 45.8 points per game in their last five contests, because the level of opposition has not changed that much.
But this is still the beginning of the toughest part of the second-half schedule for Arkansas. Aside from the road game against South Carolina, the Hogs have faced Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and UTEP in their last four games. After this game in Starkville, the Razorbacks head back to Fayetteville for the showdown with LSU. (On Saturday. Again.)
There's really only two ways this game could go. It can be wildly entertaining and close, or an absolute blowout win by Arkansas that's over halfway through the third quarter. If Mississippi State can run the ball effectively and find some way to slow down the Ryan Mallett-fueled passing attack -- something that has not proven easy for the Western Division Bulldogs this year -- they could make a game of it. If they don't things will get out of hand quickly. Arkansas will win, but it won't be a shellacking.
Arkansas 40, Mississippi State 35
Ole Miss at LSU / 3:30 p.m. ET / CBS
Make no mistake about why CBS selected this game. It's not because it's the only matchup between ranked teams; that's Arkansas and Mississippi State. It's not even because of metropolitan ratings, not that this week's slate offers much in that department either. No, this is all about teh crazy. With Les Miles and Houston Nutt facing each other, it's not a question of whether something insane will happen; it's more a matter of how many insane things will happen.
On Ole Miss' side is Houston Nutt's ability to pull of the bizarrely-timed upset, and no upset would be more bizarrely-timed than this one. LSU is on the fringes of the national-title conversation, a mortal lock for a BCS bowl if Auburn simply wins out, building the kind of season that could shut up Miles' doubters for at least a month. Nutt has also defeated LSU the last three times he's faced a Miles-led Bayou Bengals team, from the 50-48 overtime thriller in Baton Rouge in 2007 that nearly knocked the Tigers out of the national championship race, to the 31-13 clobbering in Baton Rouge in 2008, to the two-point game last year that featured the worst late-game meltdown in Miles career.
But the fact is that the Rebels just aren't very good this year. Even with the supposed Jeremiah Masoli-led resurgence, and perhaps in part because of Masoli's concussion, Ole Miss is 1-4 over its last five games. The closest of those was a 13-point loss to Alabama. So while you could say that the last five games have been against very good opponents, that's not really the point. The Rebels haven't even been playing on the same field with those very good opponents.
If you want a reason why I don't bet on sports, this is it. I think this is the perfect set-up for Houston Nutt to spring the upset of the year. But I just can't see it happening, and so we'll tentatively call for another one of Nutt's surprise bids to come up short.
LSU 24, Ole Miss 20
WHO ARE THE COACHES IN THIS ONE AGAIN?
Tennessee at Vanderbilt / 7:30 p.m. ET / CSS
Here's something that's just kind of interesting, but probably won't have an impact on the outcome: This game has featured five different head coaches over the last three years. All rivalries are built on tradition, but this one has not recently been centered on stability. This time, it's first-year Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, a former lawyer, against first-year Vanderbilt head coach Robbie Caldwell, a former turkey inseminator. So call it the career-change bowl.
Tennessee comes in having taken the title of "hottest team in the SEC" away from Georgia; not coincidentally, they have also taken the title of "weakest recent schedule" from the Dawgs. The Vols have outscored their last two opponents 102-28 -- those opponents were Memphis and Ole Miss. Not that either of those teams are markedly worse than Vanderbilt, but that's something to take into account when you're trying to get some perspective on the offensive renaissance underway in Knoxville.
That said, the Commodores come into this game freezing. They haven't won a game since early October, have been defeated by less than 18 points just once in that stretch, and have seen three teams score more than 40 points against them. If Caldwell is kept on as head coach after this season, it's only because he was dealt such a difficult hand to begin with.
And so it's not that Tennessee has answered all the very real questions about the offense or the ability to win football games. It's that Vanderbilt has given no one any reason to think that they can win against an SEC opponent, aside from their victory against Ole Miss earlier this year.
Tennessee 42, Vanderbilt 14
THE OLD CAROLINA -- JUST FOR A DAY
Troy at South Carolina / 12:21 p.m. ET / SEC Network
In the past, South Carolina would have lost the game to Florida and returned to Columbia for a lackluster game against Troy, a team that is as solid as any team from the Sun Belt can be. The warning sign for the real USC is that the "other" Trojans are 13th in the NCAA in passing offense; the good news is that Troy is 103rd in total offense. This will be a less impressive game than you might think, but not because of the November slide that we've grown used to with South Carolina. Instead, it's probably going to be a bit of a letdown game after the first SEC East championship in program history. As the Gamecocks always do, they score a lot of these points late.
South Carolina 43, Troy 23
SOMETHING LEFT TO PLAY FOR?
Appalachian State at Florida / 12:30 p.m. ET / ESPN3.com
If Florida were not simply the more talented team on the field by a long shot, this might be a game to worry about. After all, the Gators have very little left to play for now that the SEC East is out of reach, and Appalachian State is 9-1 with its only loss coming in overtime. Otherwise, the Mountaineers have sliced through their other opponents with relative ease. But Appy State is still an FCS team, and Florida is no 2007 Michigan if for no other reason than there is no surplus of hubris in Gainesville right now. Is it possible for both teams from a pivotal game to have a letdown win with the margin built up in the second half?
Florida 52, Appalachian State 14