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September 29, 2011

Week 5 preview in the SEC

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The first month of Will Muschamp's inaugural season as Florida's coach has gone about as well as he could have hoped.

Florida is 4-0 and leads the SEC in total offense and is second in total defense. UF leads in scoring offense and is second in scoring defense. The Gators lead the league in sacks per game and in fewest sacks allowed per game. They lead the league in rush offense and are fifth nationally in rush defense, and Florida is the only school nationally not to have allowed a rushing TD.

THE SCHEDULE
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M in Arlington, noon
Mississippi State at Georgia, noon
Kentucky at LSU, 12:20 p.m.
Buffalo at Tennessee, 12:30 p.m.
Auburn at South Carolina, 3:30 p.m.
Alabama at Florida, 8 p.m.
Ole Miss at Fresno State, 9:15 p.m.
All those stats, though? Throw them away. The "real" season begins Saturday for the Gators, who face a tough quartet of opponents in October: vs. Alabama, at LSU, at Auburn and vs. Georgia in Jacksonville.

The true success of Muschamp's first season will be based on how his team does in October, not that Florida was 4-0 in September.

That the first opponent of the "real" season is Alabama is significant. Muschamp is a former assistant for Alabama coach Nick Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins, and he has said numerous times that Saban has been a huge influence on his coaching style.

"Philosophically, we're on the same page as far as what we want to be defensively from an identity standpoint," Muschamp told reporters this week. "The guy does a great job of managing his program from top to bottom ... and I have great respect for him."

Saban returned the favor.

"Will has done a really, really good job," Saban told reporters. "He's a great coach because he's a good teacher. He has a lot of energy and he gets along well with the players. He believes in discipline, hard work and things that are important to being successful. ... He has as much passion and enthusiasm as anyone you're going to be around."

But Muschamp, like Saban, tried to deflect the attention. "He or I will not take a snap Saturday night," Muschamp said. "My mindset is to do a great job for the University of Florida on Saturday."

[Related: Week 5 viewer's guide]

Given the similarities in the coaches, it's not surprising that both teams have strong rushing attacks and stout defenses. Alabama is second in the SEC in total offense and first in total defense; the Tide have the top scoring defense in the league, the No. 2 rushing attack and the No. 1 rush defense.

The Tide also pounded the Gators 31-6 last season in Game 5. Florida went into that matchup unbeaten, as well.

Florida's coaching change has led to philosophical changes. Muschamp brought in Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator, and Weis scrapped Urban Meyer's beloved spread option in favor of a pro-style attack. But the lack of a downfield passing game has been glaring for the Gators. They have as many TD passes as interceptions (four of each), and wide receivers have just 26 of the team's 60 receptions. Tailbacks Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps are the leading receivers, and they have been effective on swing passes out of the backfield while working against other teams' linebackers.

Demps has legitimate world-class speed - he finished fifth in the 100 meters at the U.S. Outdoor Championships this summer - and some UF players claim Rainey actually beat Demps in a friendly race a few years ago.

[Dr. Saturday: Will Muschamp does not appreciate your 'Star Wars' reference]

That pair also has rushed for a combined 731 yards and six TDs. But Alabama's tailback duo of Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy has combined for 806 yards and 12 TDs, and it's likely that their production against a young Florida defense - only one defensive starter for the Gators is a senior, and there are eight underclassmen who start - will determine the outcome of the game.

Florida's lack of success throwing the ball doesn't bother Muschamp.

"You got to be multiple when you play these guys," Muschamp said. "You can't be one-dimensional in what you do. But a lot of our offense has been attributed to the fact that the first four games, three of them were in hand by halftime, so we ran the ball in order to end the game."

And success through the air can be relative. Alabama also has four TD passes and four picks, and while Florida quarterback John Brantley has been criticized for his lack of production, his numbers stack up well against Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron's. McCarron has thrown for 770 yards and is completing 66.3 percent of his passes. Brantley has thrown for 752 yards and is completing 64 percent of his passes.

A big advantage for McCarron is that he will be throwing against a young Florida secondary (two true freshmen and two sophomores start), while Brantley will be throwing against one of the best secondaries in the nation, a group that starts four upperclassmen.

Weis told reporters that Florida would "throw the kitchen sink" at Alabama on Saturday. Chances are, Demps and Rainey will be in that sink.

Best matchup: Alabama offensive line vs. Florida defensive line. Florida hasn't allowed a rushing TD; the Gators are the only team in the nation that can make that claim. A big reason has been the play of a young but athletic defensive front (three sophomores and a senior start). The Gators are allowing 2.1 yards per carry and 56.5 rushing yards per game. Thing is, they haven't seen an offensive line nearly as talented or as physical as Alabama's. Despite Barrett Jones playing out of position at tackle (his natural position is guard, where he is one of the two or three best players in the nation), the Tide have run the ball effectively with Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy and have 13 rushing TDs. Florida has to get a huge game from its defensive line if it is to have any shot at the upset.

Player on the spot: South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia. Yes, Garcia could be spotlighted in this section each week, but this week, he really is on the spot. The Gamecocks are 4-0 despite Garcia, not because of him. Junior Alshon Jeffery is one of the best wide receivers in the nation, but he has just 14 receptions (and one TD) through the first four games because Garcia has struggled so much throwing the ball (Garcia is doing a nice job of handing off the ball to TB Marcus Lattimore, though). This week, Garcia gets to throw against Auburn's secondary, which, in the SEC, is the equivalent of throwing against air. Opponents are completing 67.7 percent of their passes against the Tigers, who have allowed six TD passes and rank 90th in pass efficiency defense. If Garcia struggles again, we may just see Steve Spurrier's head explode on the sideline.

[Y! Sports Shop: Show your school colors with college football team gear]

Keep an eye on: Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson. Wilson, a junior, made his first true road start last week, and it didn't go all that well in a 38-14 loss to Alabama. He was 22-of-35 and threw two TD passes, but his 22 completions traveled just 185 yards. His yards-per-attempt was a paltry 5.3 yards, and you're not going to beat the Tide dinking-and-dunking down the field. Plus, that's not Bobby Petrino football; Petrino football is throwing the ball downfield and making big plays. Wilson gets another chance in a big game Saturday against Texas A&M at a neutral site. A&M's secondary was torched last week by Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden. Can Wilson do the same?

Numbers game: Two sophomore quarterbacks could move up on their school's career TD pass list this weekend. Georgia's Aaron Murray already is fifth in school history with 35 TD passes. No. 4 is Mike Bobo, with 38. Bobo is Georgia's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. And Tennessee's Tyler Bray is 10th on his school's list with 28 TD passes. No. 9 is Jeff Francis, with 31. Tee Martin and Andy Kelly are tied for seventh with 32.

Quotes of the week

"As I said last year over and over again, we have been very strategic and thoughtful when we think about expansion. When A&M expressed interest in us, we felt by any measure it was a good fit, so we moved ahead. We have not been necessarily looking to expand. At some point in time, that may come to pass. But this isn't something that we feel we have to do right away. Clearly, scheduling with 13 [schools] is not easy, and we'll work through that. But we will remain very thoughtful and very strategic about what we do in terms of further expansion." - SEC commissioner Mike Slive, whose conference grew to 13 members earlier this week with the addition of Texas A&M

[Huguenin: Which states do CFB QBs come from?]

"It would be huge for our program if we could somehow put a together a clean game, both sides of the ball, which is what it will take to beat those guys." - Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, whose team plays at LSU on Saturday

"The speed of the game, it's kind of like lightning struck the outhouse and we were in it." - Kentucky defensive coordinator Rick Minter, after last week's game with Florida

"I want to talk a little bit about what we hope will happen in the game. Chris Relf, their quarterback, gets into his cadence and then he looks for the ball and it doesn't come and then he looks to the sideline. When he looks to the sideline, that's when we need the fans to go berserk because that's when they are going to try to communicate to the line what they're going to do. So we don't want them to be able to communicate well. We want them to have trouble hearing each other. We want offensive linemen to jump offsides. So, UGA fan base, that's the time to go crazy." - Georgia coach Mark Richt, on what he wants from the fans vs. Mississippi State

"I have to be honest: We take it as a compliment to the program and to this team. We don't feel that it is an extra burden or target on our back." - LSU coach Les Miles, whose team ascended to No. 1 in The Associated Press poll this week

"We're excited that they're coming into the conference. I think that's good for us. It's good for our recruiting. There have been a number of guys in the last three or four years that we didn't get to come here. They grew up watching Big 12 football and then chose a different school because they're used to it so much. All of the publicity, exposure, everything that we get now with A&M coming in from the state of Texas I think helps us a lot." - Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino

Poll watch: LSU is ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press poll, the first time the Tigers have been ranked No. 1 during the regular season since November 2007. LSU is 14-3 all-time in games played as the nation's top-ranked team, including a 2-2 mark under Les Miles.

Etc.: Georgia FS Bacarri Rambo had a big game in last week's victory over Ole Miss, with two interceptions, a pass breakup and four tackles. His performance becomes even greater when you consider he played just two days after his unborn son died because of late-pregnancy complications. Rambo decided to play only after talking about the situation with the team chaplain. Rambo to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I just said a little prayer every time before I went on the field. And I could hear his voice say, 'I'm watching you, Daddy. Go Daddy. Make me proud.' It just motivated me." ... This is the start of a tough October for Auburn, which plays four consecutive games against teams currently ranked in the top 20 of the AP poll, including three in the top 12 (at South Carolina, at Arkansas, vs. Florida and at LSU). ... South Carolina senior QB Stephen Garcia has 21 career victories; that's second on the school's all-time list. He trails only Todd Ellis (24), who now is the school's radio play-by-play man. ... Ole Miss is at Fresno State on Saturday; the Rebels never have played farther west than Wyoming (2004) and have faced only one other team from the state of California (Long Beach State, 1971). ... Florida and LSU are the only SEC teams to score first in each game this season. And LSU is the only SEC team to score on its opening drive in each game (two TDs, two field goals). ... Arkansas has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 21 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the SEC and the sixth-longest active streak in the country. ... In last week's victory over Ole Miss, Georgia had 56 rushing attempts, the second-most under Mark Richt. The most was 57 against Georgia Tech in 2002. ... Auburn WR Emory Blake has at least one touchdown catch in seven consecutive games, the longest streak by a Tigers player since 1971. ... South Carolina is 4-0 for the first time under Steve Spurrier. The last time South Carolina began the season 4-0 was in 2001, under Lou Holtz. ... Arkansas has started 3-1 for the second consecutive season, the first time since 2003 and '04 that that has happened. Arkansas started 4-1 last season, and the last time Arkansas started 4-1 or better in back-to-back seasons was 1988-89. ... Possible hope for Kentucky on Saturday? LSU is 48-4 in night games under Miles compared to an 18-13 record in day games. ... Tennessee is aiming for its first 3-1 start since 2006. ... South Carolina DL Melvin Ingram already has scored three times this season, including a fumble recovery in the end zone against Vanderbilt last week. The Gamecocks have four defensive TDs this season; they had six last season. ... Kentucky's last road win over a ranked team was in 2002, at No. 17 Louisville. UK's last road win over a ranked SEC team was at LSU in 1998. ... Mississippi State is playing at Georgia for just the 12th time. Both were charter members of the SEC, which began in 1932, but this will be just the 23rd meeting overall. Since conference expansion to 12 teams in 1992, Mississippi State has played in Athens only twice. ... Ole Miss played Georgia last week and gets Fresno State this week; both are nicknamed "Bulldogs," and Ole Miss has two more games against Bulldogs this season (Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State). ... Kentucky and LSU met annually from 1952 to 2002, but the schools have met just twice since, in 2006 and '07. ... Alabama has been ranked in 53 consecutive polls, which is the longest streak in the nation. The streak began with the first poll of the 2008 season. Boise State (50) and TCU (46) own the next-longest streaks. ... Former Georgia radio play-by-play man Larry Munson turned 89 Wednesday. If any football play-by-play man has a better "greatest hits" collection than Munson - well, let's just say it's hard to believe that is possible. Go to larrymunson.com and revel in the greatness. Maybe the best: Either his 1980 call of Lindsay Scott's touchdown during the win over Florida or the call at the end of the 2007 Georgia-Tennessee game, when the Bulldogs scored in the waning seconds to win it. Right after that TD, off the cuff, Munson exclaimed, "We just stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose."

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

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