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SEC Football Week 13 Preview: The Iron Bowl, the Golden Boot and Other Rivalries

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No one has stopped him so far this year. Can Bama?
No one has stopped him so far this year. Can Bama?

All games are Saturday unless otherwise noted. We'll start the Weekend Open Thread at 2 p.m. ET on Friday, then keep bumping it up to the top of the page when other things are posted as necessary. We'll be around, keeping up with all the action on the busiest weekend of the year.

THE MOST IMPORTANT IRON BOWL SINCE THE LAST ONE
2 Auburn at 10 Alabama / 2:30 p.m. ET Friday / CBS

What a difference a year makes. Last year, of course, Alabama was the team carrying national-title aspirations, if only they could get through the Iron Bowl and then win the showdown with the SEC East champion in Atlanta. Auburn had muddled through a season that was by no means terrible, but also wasn't particularly good. It's not that the Tigers didn't have a chance to win the game -- but they weren't going to. Right?

Until the last two minutes of the game, it looked very much like the Tigers might win the game. With 1:24 left, Greg McElroy hit Roy Upchurch for the game-winning touchdown, the winning score in the Tide's come-from-behind 26-21 win.

The parallels should be pretty obvious at this point. Auburn is the national-title contender this year, Alabama's record is better than Auburn's in 2009 but still somewhat disappointing and Auburn will be the visiting team for this year's edition of the Iron Bowl. The only difference is that there seem to be a lot of people expecting Auburn to get upset this weekend, or at least to come dangerously close to it before the game is over.

And I understand some of the reasoning for that. After all, Auburn is going up against a defense that is still one of the best in the SEC. The two games the Tide lost were against teams that rely pretty heavily on their defense and running games to win, and while the Tigers have the latter, they most assuredly do not have much in the former.

Except that defensive line, or at least what will be left of it for the first half of the game. The rushing defense for Auburn is actually quite good, and they get their fair share of sacks, pressuring the quarterback even more than that statistic might suggest. Which is another thing that South Carolina and LSU did right when they faced the Tide -- the Gamecocks sacked McElroy seven times in Columbia and the Bayou Bengals tackled him for a loss three times in Baton Rouge.

And despite the quality of the Alabama defense, I still think they're going to run into the same problem that every one of Auburn's opponents has this year: How do you stop a quarterback who runs like a Brinks truck and passes relatively efficiently? Nick Saban might be the one person in the country who can come up with an answer. But I'm not sure that even he can slow Cam Newton down enough for the win.

Auburn 28, Alabama 27

THE PIGS MIGHT FLY, BUT THEY PROBABLY WON'T WIN
7 LSU at 12 Arkansas / 3:30 p.m. ET / CBS

This is a fascinating clash between two almost complete opposites. LSU is the best defense in the SEC; Arkansas is the highest-octane offense outside of Auburn. The Hogs pass their way to victory; whatever success the Bayou Bengals have on offense can largely be attributed to the run game. Sure, both offenses look to be getting better at what they don't do well -- especially Knile Davis' reinvigoration of the Arkansas ground game. But we still know what each of these teams will rely on when they're looking for a key drive.

Some of the inherent craziness has gone out of this game with Houston Nutt going to Oxford, but it's still one of the more underrated rivalries in the conference. The games are generally close, they do sometimes mean something, and there was a history of playing each other before Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992 and the unwieldy trophy was introduced in 1996.

LSU can give itself the best chance of winning by borrowing a page from Mississippi State's playbook: Run the ball early and often. There's no need to get cute and try to catch the Razorbacks off-guard by throwing the ball all over the place. (You would think this would be obvious, but it is Gary Crowton we're talking about here.) If LSU runs the ball and eats up clock, and if the defense can lock down for at least a couple of quarters, then the Bengals might be able to get a big enough early lead. Though, as Mississippi State proved, it's not easy to get a big enough lead when it's Arkansas you're facing.

Thing is, I think they can do it. Sure, there's always the chance that Ryan Mallett could come out and have one of the best games of his life against a great LSU defense, and then all bets are off. But very few people have made much money betting against LSU for now, and I'm not going to try to be the first.

LSU 24, Arkansas 17

CAN THE SEQUEL BE BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL?
25 Mississippi State at Ole Miss / 7 p.m. ET / ESPNU

There are a few mirror-image games this year, as we have already seen and will see again in a minute. This is one of them. Last year, the Rebel Black Bears were headed to the Cotton Bowl for the second straight year and putting together a season that was good despite not delivering on SEC Championship dreams. They breezed into a game against a 4-7 Mississippi State team that was, at best, supposed to give Ole Miss a good game. State won by two touchdowns.

And here we are again. With the year ending and the Western Division Bulldogs having at best an 8-4 record -- if they win this game -- a trip to the Cotton Bowl isn't impossible, but is unlikely. That said, the best postseason bid since at least the 1999 Peach Bowl is a near-certainty. One of the few things that could derail that would be losing this game. By the way, Ole Miss' record right now is 4-7.

Part of me wants to give Houston Nutt to get the upset that he's been lacking this year. But I was also a South Carolina fan during the Tyrone Nix years, and I remember what happened whenever Nix's teams faced a run-heavy offense run by an accomplished play-caller. It was akin to the feeling of watching someone run over your dog, stop, and then back over the dog again. Nix's passing defense has been the target of the much of the criticism lobbed in his direction this year because it is truly awful, but his running defense has been mediocre at best. And Chris Relf showed last week that even he can dissect a subpar passing defense.

Sure, it's a rivalry, and you never know what might happen when the Golden Egg is up for grabs. And Nutt is a wily head coach, which is one of the reasons that we've been waiting for his upset this year. But sometimes, the better team just wins the game anyway.

Mississippi State 37, Ole Miss 17

HERE WE GO AGAIN
18 South Carolina at Clemson / 7 p.m. ET / ESPN2

And another sequel. Last year, it was Clemson that was headed to its first-ever conference championship game and having the kind of season that could change a program's trajectory. The Gamecocks were 6-5, and fans were simply relieved that the team had already wrapped up a trip to the postseason ahead of what was likely to be a shellacking. Even I picked Clemson to win the game -- and I never pick Clemson to win this game. And, besides, they always won.

The result was a 34-17 waxing ... by South Carolina. The Gamecocks ran over, around and through the Clemson defense -- and this was in the days before Marcus Lattimore. Kenny Miles did much of the carving on the ground, with Stephen Garcia and Stephon Gilmore throwing in some yardage from the quarterback/wildcat quarterback position.

Now, of course, it's South Carolina that finally got a program-defining divisional title. It's Clemson that is 6-5 and finishing a season the Tiger faithful would just as soon forget. And the game is in the Upstate after having been in the Midlands last year.

But the numbers this year still skew against the unranked team. Clemson is not particularly good in the passing game, which is the worst part of South Carolina's defense. Even the Tigers rushing attack is fairly mediocre, and the Gamecocks are great at shutting down the run. But Clemson does have this going for it: As it prepares to face one of the most efficient passers in the country, it has a defense that actually does pretty well as limiting the quarterback's effectiveness. And the Tigers have been holding opponents under 17 points per game.

Still, I can't as a fan do anything but expect the magical ride to continue. A close one.

South Carolina 24, Clemson 20

THE ZIP IS GONE
Florida at 21 Florida State / 3:30 p.m. ET / ABC or ESPN

This is a hard game to preview. Both of these teams are good or at least above-average teams, but neither of them strikes me as particularly great. Both are going through transitional years, Florida after losing Tim Tebow and Florida State after the retirement of Bobby Bowden. This game has no wider significance beyond the simple hatred that each team has for the other. And that's probably enough to keep fans glued to the television, but I'm not sure how much there is for the rest of us.

There's just not much pizazz here. Florida's offense is pretty mediocre; and Florida State's isn't that much better. The Florida defense is pretty good/ The Seminoles' defense does some things well -- except defend the pass. Which means that, for Florida's purposes, Florida State's defense is also pretty good.

The Gators might have a little bit more to play for here, just based on where the season now stands. Florida can still keep this season from getting to lows not seen since the Ron Zook Era. But they must win here and in the bowl game to avoid the worst record since Urban Meyer arrived in Gainesville. The question is whether players pay attention to milestones like that, and whether it makes a difference if they do. Otherwise, "let's go to Tampa instead of to Atlanta" seems like a less-than-compelling rallying cry.

Not that Florida State doesn't have its own reason to try to win this one: A losing streak in the rivalry that dates back to 2003. Over those seven years, Florida has basically established itself as the preeminent program in the state, and Florida State is the one poised for now to end the monopoly. They will need to wait at least another year.

Florida 20, Florida State 17

GOING FOR 26
Kentucky at Tennessee / 12:21 p.m. ET / SEC Network

Part of what you think about this game boils down to how important you think motivation is. Because the Vols seem to have motivation in spades: Going to a bowl game likely requires a win in this one. Sure, there are amorphous postseason implications of the game for Kentucky to consider, but they are amorphous; no one knows if a loss is the difference between Nashville and Memphis or between Memphis and Birmingham.

But then there's that streak. The last 25 times these teams have played, the Wildcats have left as the losers. Almost all of the players on the Kentucky roster -- if not all of them -- were not even alive the last time that Kentucky won this game. The question is whether that acts to motivate a team or to kill its hopes. After all, a similarly lengthy break from defeating Florida didn't seem to help the Cats when they faced the Gators this year.

The most interesting factor in this game is the revival of the passing offenses for both of these teams. The much-criticized Mike Hartline of Kentucky is the 24th-ranked passer in the country this season, in part because he has 22 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Meanwhile, Tennessee's Tyler Bray has passed for 880 yards, 10 touchdowns and two picks over the last three games -- all wins against what could be the worst part of Tennessee's schedule.

If you look at yardage, Kentucky's passing offense is better than Tennessee's. But, unlike a lot of fans, I prefer passing efficiency when looking at how well quarterbacks do and how well opponents defend them. (Why? Because they take into account completion percentage, yardage on a per-pass basis, touchdowns and interceptions.) In that measure, Tennessee wins.

Which is what happens in this game as the streak survives -- narrowly.

Tennessee 32, Kentucky 28

THE LAST-GASP BOWL
Georgia Tech at Georgia / 7:45 p.m. ET / ESPN

Talk about a couple of lost seasons. Georgia Tech won the ACC last year, and followed that up with a regular season that will at best be 7-5 -- which might be enough to win the ACC sometimes, but not this year -- and could finish at .500. Georgia needs a win here to get to bowl eligibility in what is easily the worst season of Mark Richt's time in Athens. Whether Richt was on the proverbial hot seat was a topic of debate in the offseason, but he clearly was after the loss to Colorado. A win here and in a bowl game could help him avoid being on an even hotter seat when 2011 begins.

One of the most surprising aspects of last year's game is how effectively Georgia flipped the script -- running for 339 yards on 44 carries against the much-touted triple-option offense employed by Paul Johnson at Navy and Tech. The Yellow Jackets got their own yardage in, but not nearly to the same extent as they likely expected after watching the Dawgs defense get pureed throughout the year. (Tech's rushing in the game: 205 yards on 51 carries.)

Could Georgia do the same thing this year? Maybe. Tech is 81st in the nation at defending against the run, allowing 171.1 yards per game. Thing is, they're pretty mediocre against the pass as well. So while there's been a lot of talk -- and rightly so -- about Todd Grantham's ability to stop the triple-option, Tech has its own issues to work on to make sure they can contain a decent running attack regaining its health and an improving young quarterback.

I don't see this as a low-scoring game, but I also don't think it will necessarily be a barn-burner. The specifics of Johnson's offense might not be what Grantham was used to facing every week in the NFL, but Grantham has almost a year to get used to the differences between the college game and the pro level, and it would be malpractice for him to not have a decent gameplan.

The question, from this seat, appears to boil down to whether Richt can push this team for one more week. It's clear that he found some way to spark this team after the Colorado loss, given the way he leveled teams that Georgia would have narrowly defeated the way it was playing before then. A.J. Green also helped, and he will help Aaron Murray on Saturday -- just enough to match last year's score.

Georgia 30, Georgia Tech 24

THIS WOULD BE A MUCH BETTER BASKETBALL GAME
Wake Forest at Vanderbilt / 7:30 p.m. ET / CSS

There is a reason to watch this game. There almost has to be, because it is being played and televised and people will watch it. It's certainly not that both teams are 2-9, Wake getting there with a nine-game losing streak and Vanderbilt entering on a six-game skid. It's not because the two have been defeated by a combined 392-126 over the last 10 games they've played. And it's not to see offense; both teams rank in the bottom 20 of the NCAA when it comes to yardage.

Yes, this game looks to be just as awful as you might expect it to be. There is hope for a lot of points, if a very thin one: The defenses are almost as bad as the offenses. To have an entertaining game here, we might have to cheer for defensive failure on a massive scale to avoid a reprise of the 3-2 game.

But we're more likely to see a low-scoring game. Both teams gain much of their yardage by running, which they do better than passing -- which is not the same as saying they do it particularly well. The quarterbacks spend a lot of time looking at the sky; Vanderbilt has seen its signal-caller sacked an average of three times a game, and Wake has failed to effectively pass-block 2.3 times each game.

Vanderbilt 13, Wake Forest 10