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Week 4 SEC Preview: Key Tests for ... Well, Everyone

The Weekend Open Thread posts at 11:30 a.m. ET

As the number of rent-a-rout games dwindle and conference games begin, we have a few teams that will face their first true tests and a few others entering games that will tell us how good (or bad) they really will be. Alabama and Arkansas play for the first major SEC West win of the year; Auburn and South Carolina are trying to prove that they are also contenders in their respective divisions; and Ole Miss is just trying to find the floor.

Alabama at Arkansas, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

This is your marquee game of the day and the CBS telecast -- for good reason. The winner becomes the de facto leader of the SEC West, but while it might be the most important game of the year for the division so far, neither team can lock things up with a victory. Both still have to play Auburn, LSU and enough challenging interdivision games that the other team could end up winning the ticket to Atlanta -- or both could end up staying home in early December.

But an early lead is better than no lead at all. If Alabama wins, the Tide will merely solidify their standing in the division and prove the old maxim that you have to beat the man to be the man. If Arkansas wins, things are wide open for Auburn and LSU to start drawing up increasingly plausible scenarios for a division title -- if, of course, they can somehow get past the Razorbacks.

This game appears to have avoided Year2's shootout maxim (If everyone expects a shootout, the game will not be a shootout) so far, in part because the focus of the offseason has been whether Arkansas can find a defense and everyone just sort of expects the Tide to have one. That, despite the fact that Alabama and Arkansas have both made offense their calling card this year: The game features the showdown between the only two SEC quarterbacks in the Top 30 nationally in total passing yards; two of the top three SEC teams in total offense; and two of the three SEC teams in the Top 15 in the NCAA in total offense. (The other, in case you're wondering: Kentucky, which racked up yardage as it gobbled its way through Lexington Pastryfest 2010.)

Then again, the defenses have been pretty good so far, if against only minimally impressive competition. (Real games for Alabama: 1, Penn State; Arkansas: 1, Georgia.) The Tide is No. 1 in the conference in total defense and yards per play, which probably doesn't surprise you; what might slightly shock you is that Arkansas is No. 2 in both categories.

So expect a relatively high-scoring game, but nothing like the meteor shower of points you might think. Both teams will move the ball enough to score points, but neither team will keep up a scoring rate that no one can hope to maintain the SEC anyway. And you still have to beat the man to be the man.

Alabama 35, Arkansas 21

South Carolina at Auburn, 7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

It's in 3D! Duck as Steve Spurrier throws his visor! Flinch as it looks like Cam Newton is throwing the laptop RIGHT AT YOU!

In all seriousness, this is the No. 2 game of the week for the very reason that it features two teams trying to convince us that they are at least the second-best teams in their division. It will likely not decide the fate of either Auburn or South Carolina; the Tigers still have to defeat Alabama and/or Arkansas (and likely the "other" Tigers), while the Gamecocks still need a victory in Gainesville unless Florida's offensive collapse really is as bad as it looks right now.

But both teams still have just enough questions and just enough skeptics to need a big win against an apparent contender from the other division to prove that they are -- in one of those sports terms that's annoying in part because it has no definition -- "for real."

In the preseason, I picked this as a "possible win" for Auburn, meaning that it was the closest thing to a toss-up, with the edge going to the Tigers. The season so far has only furthered the former part of that prediction; this is essentially a coin flip game in my mind. Is Auburn's defense going to show up when it runs into a decent SEC offense? Is South Carolina a decent SEC offense, particularly if the "give Marcus Lattimore 54 carries" offense doesn't work? So far, we really haven't had an answer to either question.

After tonight -- we might still be waiting.

Auburn 21, South Carolina 20

West Virginia at LSU, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Yes, this game will be a field manual for how not to manage the clock, but is that joke really funny the 432nd time? Okay, it probably is.

But there is a football game to be played before the last two minutes, so we'll try to focus at least a bit on that. Despite what you've heard about how bad the LSU offense is, the rushing offense isn't really all that bad; it's a respectable 32nd in the NCAA and fourth in the league. Oh, but the passing offense is absolutely terrible. The Bayou Bengals rank 115th nationwide in passing yardage -- out of 120 FBS teams -- and are dead last in the SEC.

So is it good or bad that LSU now faces a team that's mediocre in defending the pass in terms of yardage and awful in terms of passing efficiency -- where the Bengals are not last in the SEC ... but 11th. Especially because the Mountaineers also boast the eighth-best rushing defense in the country (admittedly: incomplete sample). And because West Virginia's offensive strength -- the pass -- lines up perfectly with the worst part of LSU's defense.

Yes, you are all entitled to make fun of me if I get this one wrong.

West Virginia 17, LSU 14

Kentucky at Florida, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU

The question above is facetious. No one actually expects the Wildcats to defeat Florida ... do they? This is a team that's lost to the Gators almost two dozen times in a row. They're going to the Swamp. Kentucky hasn't won in Gainesville since 1979.

The fact of the matter is, we don't really know how good either of these teams are. Florida answered some of its questions with the 31-17 win against Tennessee last week, but not all of them. And Kentucky has continued to follow the Bill Snyder Theorem of September Scheduling.

But, no, I'm not calling the upset. The game will be close, and I'd be nervous if I were a Florida fan. But Kentucky can't defeat Florida ... I think.

Florida 24, Kentucky 17

Georgia at Mississippi State, 7 p.m. ET, FSN

A small measure of concern might be starting to set in among Dawg fans and, um, Dog fans. Georgia has started the season 0-2 in the SEC for the first time in the Mark Richt Era, and Mississippi State's breakthrough 2010 season is looking a lot like it's not-quite-breakthrough 2009 season. (In fact, you could make the case that the Western Division Bulldogs look worse in 2010 than they did in 2009.)

So both of these teams are looking for a slight reversal in fortune, or at leas a reason to think that the bowl destination will be somewhere to the south of Birmingham. But the stakes are still very different because of the different levels of fan and player expectations at this point. If Georgia loses, the wheels could very well come off the season, while a Mississippi State loss just means that the goal of a bowl game is not much harder than we thought it would be at the beginning of the season.

Georgia 42, Mississippi State 24

UAB at Tennessee, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC Network

These are not the Blazers of recent history. They are less "epically awful" than simply bad. There are actually few statistical categories -- rushing offense, net punting -- in which UAB can claim to be in the top quarter of the nation. That's an improvement from recent Blazers history. Which is both the good news and the problem for UAB.

If ever a Tennessee coach and a Tennessee team have needed an easy win, it's Derek Dooley and the 2010 Volunteers. The UAB game is just about perfect.

Tennessee 48, UAB 13

Fresno State at Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m. ET, CSS

I'm not spending my time on a preview of an Ole Miss non-conference game until they prove that they deserve it.

Fresno State 32, Ole Miss 20