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September 18, 2008
Consider this "Separation Saturday" in the SEC.
By the end of the week, we should have a much better idea about each of the division races. The winner of LSU's game at Auburn establishes itself as the team to beat in the West, though the Alabama-Arkansas winner also could have something to say about that. Florida's game at Tennessee should determine Georgia's most serious challenger in the East.
"When you look at the opportunity out there to start off with a big SEC game this early in the year, I think we'll find out a lot about ourselves and our football team," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.
If early season results offer any indication, the LSU-Auburn showdown could bring back memories of the last time these teams squared off at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn won that game 7-3 and survived a 3-2 slugfest with Mississippi State last week.
That 7-3 result symbolized the hard-fought nature of this rivalry. LSU and Auburn have split their past four meetings, with each game decided by six points or fewer.
"It's one of the best college football games of the last 10 years, there's no doubt about that," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "For some reason, a lot of these other games get built up, but there's not been a better football game year in and year out than the LSU-Auburn game. It usually comes down to one or two plays.
"If you like defense, watch this game. If you like athletic ability, watch this game. If you like excitement, watch this game. It's just an unbelievable scenario. And usually the game means something."
The LSU-Auburn game means plenty this year. So does Florida-Tennessee.
Tennessee is seeking revenge after losing to Florida each of the past three years, including a 59-20 thrashing at the Swamp last season. The Vols also need to regain the respect they lost by dropping their opener to a UCLA team that just fell 59-0 to BYU.
"I don't think anyone in the nation is giving us a chance, nobody that I've talked to," Fulmer said. "Maybe a couple of my buddies, and I think my wife. I'm not sure."
Of course, the losers of these two showdowns still could redeem themselves later in the season. Tennessee's blowout loss to Florida last year didn't prevent the Vols from winning the East and reaching the SEC Championship Game.
No wonder LSU coach Les Miles has carefully avoided exaggerating the importance of this week.
"It's definitely an important game," Miles said. "Honestly, though, it only counts as one."
Yes, it only counts as one. But it's an awfully big one.
Arkansas C Jonathan Luigs vs. Alabama NT Terrence Cody. Luigs won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center last season and has done his part to make sure Arkansas continues to run the ball effectively - even without Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in the backfield. Luigs helped pave the way for Michael Smith's 157-yard effort two weeks ago in a 28-27 victory over Louisiana-Monroe. As good as Luigs is, he's going to have his hands full Saturday against Cody, a junior college transfer who has made an instant impact in his first season at Alabama. Cody weighs about 370 pounds and has helped give Alabama the nation's top-ranked run defense. Alabama held Clemson to zero rushing yards in its season opener. Cody has a weight advantage of about 55 pounds, so Luigs might need some help handling him.
LSU RB Charles Scott. The Tigers haven't missed Jacob Hester much so far. Scott ranks sixth in the nation in rushing and has averaged an astounding 11.4 yards per carry. Of course, Scott has done all that against Appalachian State and North Texas. Auburn should provide an entirely different kind of test. Auburn is allowing just 1.8 yards per rush this year and limited Mississippi State's talented tandem of Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre to 54 yards on 23 carries last week. Auburn DT Sen'Derrick Marks leads the SEC in tackles for loss, while Auburn DE Antonio Coleman is tied for second place in that category. If Scott rushes for 100 yards this week, LSU probably wins this game. Then again, Auburn's defensive line is so good that it might not allow a 100-yard rusher all season.
Arkansas QB Casey Dick leads the SEC in total offense with 335 yards per game. He has gained 92.5 more yards per game than any other player in the conference. ? Auburn's Coleman has recorded a sack in each of his first three games. ? Florida DE Jermaine Cunningham has 2.5 sacks in his first two games. ? Florida P Chas Henry ranks second in the nation with an average of 48.3 yards per punt. ? Scott has rushed for 262 yards on only 23 carries and has cleared the 100-yard mark in each of his first two games. ? LSU WR Trindon Holliday is the nation's leading punt returner with an average of 40.8 yards per attempt. Holliday scored on a 92-yard punt return last week in a 41-3 victory over North Texas. ? Ole Miss has allowed only one sack. ? South Carolina has allowed an average of just 95 passing yards per game to lead the nation in pass defense. ? Tennessee SS Eric Berry has picked off a pass in each of the Volunteers' first two games. ? Vanderbilt LB Patrick Benoist has a total of 25 tackles in his past two games.
Auburn QBs Chris Todd and Kodi Burns have combined to throw just one touchdown pass. ? Kentucky K Lones Seiber went 2-of-6 on field-goal attempts last week in a 20-14 victory over Middle Tennessee. Seiber missed from 29, 33, 42 and 48 yards. ? Mississippi State QB Wesley Carroll has completed 50.7 percent of his passes, with four interceptions and three touchdowns. ? Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton has completed 52.8 percent of his passes, with three interceptions and two touchdowns.
? "They kind of gave up. Our whole program is about (when you're) backed up against the wall, you've got to keep fighting. We saw them give up. ? They quit playing." ? Florida LB Brandon Spikes to Florida Today - a newspaper in Melbourne ? about the Gators' 59-20 rout of Tennessee last year.
? "I read some comments that (Florida) made about this not being a rival game. This is a rival game. With that comment, it's pretty much saying they're overlooking us or they don't take us as seriously as Georgia. ? In the summer we had Tim Tebow's face posted up in the weight room, so when we lift, we know what we're lifting for. ? It's not going to be a game. It's going to be a war." ? Tennessee WR Gerald Jones to The Tennessean of Nashville.
? "If they do, it might be a mistake." ? Alabama's Cody to BamaOnLine.com, responding to a question about the possibility that Arkansas might try to have Luigs block him one-on-one this week.
? "We're so close. It's scary how close we are." ? Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin to AuburnSports.com, describing the state of his offense after a 3-2 victory over Mississippi State.
? "To be honest, I didn't even know who they played, but I was surprised when I heard UNLV got them. But when you win as many games as (Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson) has won, you know how to rebound from a tough loss, especially when you're playing a team that you've been looking forward to playing for a while. There may be even a greater sense of urgency now." ? Georgia coach Mark Richt to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Arizona State's 23-20 overtime loss to UNLV last week. Georgia plays at Arizona State this week.
The SEC has six of the top 13 run defenses in the nation. The SEC representatives in the top 13 include No. 1 Alabama, No. 5 LSU, No. 7 Kentucky, No. 9 Auburn, No. 12 Georgia and No. 13 Florida. ? Ole Miss DE Greg Hardy has practiced in pads this week and should make his 2008 debut Saturday against Vanderbilt. Hardy missed the Rebels' first three games after surgery for a stress fracture in his right foot. ? Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville hasn't indicated how he might use Burns this week against LSU, though he noted that Todd remains the Tigers' starting quarterback. Burns has thrown just three passes in Auburn's past two games. ? Florida WR Percy Harvin has indicated he is back at 100 percent and feels as good as he has since his sophomore year in high school. Harvin missed Florida's opener after offseason heel surgery, though he did play two weeks ago against Miami. ? Georgia's game at Arizona State this week represents the Bulldogs' longest trip since they defeated Virginia 37-14 in the 2000 Oahu Bowl. Georgia hasn't played a regular-season game this far from campus since a 10-3 loss at USC in 1960. ? Auburn's 3-2 triumph over Mississippi State marked the Tigers' lowest point total in a victory since a 3-0 win over Miami in 1974. ? Auburn opponents are 3-for-46 in third-down situations this season. ? LSU's victory over North Texas last week gave the Tigers 16 consecutive non-conference victories. That ranks second in the nation to Boston College's 18-game non-conference winning streak.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.