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October 21, 2010

Week 8 preview in the SEC

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | MWC | Pac-10 | Others

While everyone's focus has been on the Auburn-LSU SEC West showdown (we'll have a complete breakdown of that game Friday), a game that will go a long way toward shaping the East Division race has gone relatively unnoticed.

Ole Miss at Arkansas, 12:20 p.m.
LSU at Auburn, 3:30 p.m.
Alabama at Tennessee, 7 p.m.
South Carolina at Vanderbilt, 7 p.m.
Georgia at Kentucky, 7 p.m.
UAB at Mississippi State, 7 p.m.
Perhaps it's because every team is mathematically alive in the East race, even Tennessee, which is the only SEC team without a league win. How wide open is the division? If Vanderbilt beats South Carolina on Saturday, the Commodores -- who lost 43-0 to Georgia last week -- would be all alone on top of the division.

But, come on, Vandy isn't winning the division; Saturday's Kentucky-Georgia winner, on the other hand, has a shot.

UK opened 0-3 in SEC play, getting hammered by Florida (48-14), then losing shootouts to Ole Miss (42-35) and Auburn (37-34), Last week, after falling behind 28-10, the Wildcats surged back to stun East front-runner South Carolina 31-28 to give themselves a shot in the division race. After the game with the Bulldogs, the only league games left are against Mississippi State, Vandy and Tennessee.

Coach Joker Phillips fully embraces the title talk.

"Closer it gets to the game, we want to talk about it," he told reporters this week. "I want our guys to hear it. Usually you have coaches who say, 'We don't talk about it.' Here in Kentucky, we need to hear it. I think we need to hear it.

"So the closer we get to the games, especially Thursday, Friday, is when we start talking about it. In order to win it, we've got to continue to win now."

Georgia also opened 0-3 in league play, falling to South Carolina (17-6), Arkansas (31-24) and Mississippi State (24-12). But the Bulldogs have crushed Tennessee (41-14) and Vanderbilt (43-0) in the past two weeks to get back in the hunt. After the matchup with UK, Georgia has Florida and Auburn remaining in league play. Still, a team that was 1-4 has new life.

"Usually, it just comes down to whether or not you made the plays when you had to," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "The last couple of games we've played have been games where we started fast and kept the momentum and finished pretty fast. We've not won a game that's been tight. We have to learn to make the plays when they count the most."

In Georgia's three wins, the Bulldogs have averaged 46.3 points; in their four losses, they have averaged 17.3 points. In addition, in the wins, Georgia has allowed 7.0 points per game; that number is 25.3 in its losses.

"You look at them, and you say this could not be a team that's lost four games," Phillips said.

Georgia has been boosted by the return of junior wide receiver A.J. Green, who missed the first four games because of an NCAA-mandated suspension. He has 16 receptions and four touchdown catches in the past three games.

With 18 career touchdown catches, Green ranks fourth in school history. He's unlikely to catch Terrence Edwards (30) unless he returns for his senior season, but second-place Fred Gibson (20) and third-place Brice Hunter (19) are within reach this weekend.

While Kentucky's run defense isn't that good, the Wildcats have been stingy against the pass, allowing just 185.9 yards per game and eight touchdowns.

Georgia's pass defense also will get a test. Although Kentucky has more pass attempts than any team in the league (239), the Wildcats are tied for the league lead with fewest interceptions (three). The 1-2 receiving punch of Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews has combined for 73 receptions and 11 touchdowns.

Georgia is allowing 186.7 passing yards per game and, like UK, it also has eight picks.

Best matchup: Auburn offensive line vs. LSU defensive line. LSU DT Drake Nevis has played as well as any defensive lineman in the nation, and he will be a handful for Auburn's offensive interior. Nevis has good first-step quickness and also holds up well at the point of attack; he requires a double-team, which enables other linemen -- and LSU's linebackers -- a chance to make some plays. Conversely, Auburn's offensive line has been mashing people in the running game. Sure, Auburn QB Cameron Newton can make plays on his own, but you don't average 283.7 rushing yards per game -- which Auburn is doing -- without a big-time performance from your line. C Ryan Pugh, G Mike Berry and T Lee Ziemba are the three to watch.

Players on the spot: LSU QBs Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. Auburn's defense is, to be kind, inconsistent. Indeed, it is inconsistent enough that a mediocre LSU offense has a chance to do some damage. LSU RB Stevan Ridley has been a constant for the Tigers, but if they also can get production from either -- or both -- of their quarterbacks in the passing game, they'll be in good shape to pull the upset. Lee -- the "passing" quarterback -- was LSU's starter when it beat Auburn in 2008, while Jefferson -- the "running" quarterback -- started LSU's victory over Auburn last season. Jefferson has two TDs and seven picks this season, but he can be dangerous on the option. After seeing scant time since near the end of the 2008 season, Lee has become an important part of LSU's offense in the past three games. He is a competent passer, and LSU's explosive receivers get a chance to make plays when he is in the game.

Numbers game: Auburn QB Cam Newton has rolled up at least 200 yards of total offense in each of the Tigers' seven games this season. He has had at least 300 yards of offense in each of the past three SEC games.

What they're saying

"I can tell you there is a smile on the face of our guys as we go to work to recognize technique and assignments. The business of football might be a little more important this week." -- LSU coach Les Miles, on this week's showdown with Auburn

"We've got to look forward. We've got to tear the rearview mirror off and just look forward." -- Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, on bouncing back from the loss at Auburn

"Defensively, I keep using the word 'resilient' because here's what I like about our defense: They keep fighting, they're into the game, they know that during parts of the game they have to play better, they have to get things fixed, somebody has to make a play. ... We've made a habit, obviously, of making games really close, but a good amount of the time defensively when we seemingly haven't been playing well, somebody steps up at the end of the game and has been able to make a play." -- Auburn coach Gene Chizik, on his inconsistent defense

"Coach Joker Phillips is doing a great job over there. Of course, he's been there for quite a few years now. We know he was the coach-in-waiting, and he's not waiting anymore." -- Georgia coach Mark Richt

"I still get to talk to him on occasion, but I haven't talked to him in a couple of weeks. You have personal relationships with people and you have professional relationships with them. You have to compete against them, but that doesn't mean you have to dislike them or you can't appreciate or respect all that they've done for the years that they worked with you and the relationships you have with them and their family and everybody else." -- Alabama coach Nick Saban, on Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, who used to be a Saban assistant

"We're coming off of a little bit of success right now, and an important thing for our program is to stay focused on what got us here, which was the hard work all the players have put in up to this point. That has to be our number one focus." -- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen

"I heard a Rascal Flatts song on the radio today, 'Moving On.' That's what we have to do -- move on." -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, on rebounding from last week's loss to Kentucky

"Growing up, you always know about the 'Third Saturday in October.' We screwed that up when we added more teams [in the SEC]. But this is always one of the great traditions in college football, Tennessee-Alabama. It's what makes this place special. It's what makes the SEC special." -- Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, on the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry

"He came running toward me and I actually started running from him. He was all happy and stuff, and I didn't want him to fall on me." -- Alabama RB Trent Richardson, remembering 350-pound Terrence Cody celebrating after his clinching blocked field goal last season against Tennessee

"I think it has died down a little bit. I am sure there are a few people that still want to see Houston Nutt beat." -- Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, on returning to Arkansas to play his former employer this week

Etc.: Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett was knocked out of last week's loss to Auburn in the first half with a concussion, but he practiced Tuesday and is expected to play Saturday against Ole Miss. ... LSU is 7-0 for the first time since 1973. ... Mississippi State has won five in a row for the first time since 1999. ... Five of the past six Auburn-LSU games have been decided by seven or fewer points. ... South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia is 11-2 at home as a starting quarterback but 1-6 on the road. The win came at N.C. State in the 2009 season opener. ... Vanderbilt managed just 140 total yards in last week's loss to Georgia. Earlier in the season, Vandy was held to 135 yards of offense by LSU. ... Alabama has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 41 consecutive games, dating to a 131-yard performance by Ole Miss' BenJarvus Green-Ellis on Oct. 13, 2007. ... With a win at Florida last week, Mississippi State moved into The Associated Press and coaches' polls at No. 24 this week. It's the first time since Sept. 21, 2001, that the Bulldogs are is ranked in either poll. ... Ole Miss used a no-huddle offense with some success last week against Alabama, and offensive coordinator Dave Rader said the Rebels could use more of that scheme as the season progresses. ... Tennessee true freshman backup QB Tyler Bray was 8-of-12 for 81 yards last week in his first playing time since the opener against UT Martin. Vols coach Derek Dooley says he plans to play Bray on Saturday against Alabama. ... Only eight seniors have seen action for Vanderbilt this season. ... Mississippi State used senior CB Maurice Langston at wide receiver for several snaps in last week's win over Florida, and coach Dan Mullen said Langston could play both positions again this week against UAB. ... South Carolina true freshman RB Marcus Lattimore has scored 12 touchdowns; the school's single-season record is 16 by Harold Green in 1987. Tennessee's Reggie Cobb, who scored 20 times in '87, holds the league record for TDs by a freshman. ... Ole Miss starting G Logan Clair broke a bone in his ankle against Alabama and will miss at least a month. Freshman C A.J. Hawkins will take his spot and guard, and freshman Evan Swindall will start at center. ... South Carolina has lost seven SEC road games in a row. ... Kentucky junior WR Randall Cobb became the school's leader in career touchdowns last week. He has 33 TDs in 30 career games. ... Arkansas has had a 300-yard passer in a school-record six consecutive games. The Hogs have thrown for 300 yards in 15 of 31 games under coach Bobby Petrino. Before his arrival, that had happened just 16 times in school history. ... Alabama is playing its fourth road game in six weeks.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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