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October 5, 2009

Monday with Mike: SEC takes center stage

If you're a college football fan, get ready for a lot of "Will he play this week?" and "Can they win if he doesn't play?"

This is a big week in the SEC, which means the health of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow will be a talking point for the next six days.

This also will be a big week in the Big Ten, with Wisconsin traveling to Ohio State and Michigan playing at Iowa. But three of the nation's top four teams will be in action in two SEC games, so that trumps all.

No. 4 LSU plays host to Florida on Saturday in what is expected to be the top-ranked Gators' toughest road test of the season. In addition, Ole Miss plays host to third-ranked Alabama in a must-win game for the Rebels. Let's look at the two games.

LSU is coming off a last-minute win at Georgia. What the Tigers did in the first 52 minutes isn't going to scare Florida, which had a bye week. But what they did in the final eight will, as will the thought of playing in Death Valley at night. LSU has a 32-game winning streak in Saturday night games at home.

The Tigers scored two touchdowns in the final 2:53 Saturday to ease past the Bulldogs. LSU didn't do much offensively until those two final drives -- more than a third of its offense came on those possessions -- but the Tigers' defense put the clamps on a solid Georgia offense throughout. LSU's rushing attack came alive late, and sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson made some nice, safe throws to keep the chains moving.

Florida's defense is much better than Georgia's, and Florida's rushing attack is much better than Georgia's. But the Gators' passing attack has a ton of questions -- and there's also the question of whether Tebow will play. He suffered a concussion in a rout of Kentucky on Sept. 26 and has been off-limits to the media since.

All the reports from Gainesville have him progressing nicely. Unless Florida officials are hiding something, you'd think he would play against LSU. But does the offense change? Florida basically is a physical, power-running team this season (and was for a great part of last season), and Tebow's presence gives them option capabilities. But will Florida coaches risk calling a lot of read-options because of Tebow's concussion? Florida has the speediest tailback duo in the nation in Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey, but their effectiveness would be lessened if foes didn't have to worry about Tebow keeping the ball and running for 4 or 5 yards.

If Tebow can't play? His backup, John Brantley, is not a good runner; Brantley running the option scares no one. Brantley is a pure passer, but Florida's wide receiver corps remains a work-in-progress. And while UF's offensive line has been shaky in pass protection, LSU has managed just five sacks this season.

Good news for Florida is that LSU's run defense has struggled a bit this season. Mississippi State and Washington each ran for more than 150 yards on LSU. Opponents can exploit the Tigers' linebackers in space, and Florida's offense is based on exploiting mismatches.

Offensively, LSU's high mark this season was its 368 yards against Georgia. But piling up yards against the Bulldogs isn't that big a deal this season. Before that output against Georgia, LSU's season-high in offense was 330 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette. LSU's rushing attack is averaging just 135.4 yards per game and its passing offense is at just 186.2 yards per game.

Those numbers won't scare the Gators, who might have the most talented defense in the nation. Florida has, by far, the best secondary the Tigers will have seen. UF cornerbacks Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins thrive in man coverage, plus both are strong in run support.

LSU has allowed 13 sacks, so you can expect Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to be more aggressive with his blitz calls. In addition, look for Florida to use a lot of its "Joker" package; it's a 3-3-5 set where each lineman is an end and each member of the back eight has blitz potential.

Still, stats can be a crutch. The one overriding factor will be home-field advantage -- or, rather, the advantage LSU receives from playing at night. LSU was 1-3 in the SEC at home last season, but each of the losses came in a day game. Tiger Stadium is a different animal at night. The fans are loud, and Tigers players seem to feed off their energy. A fast start by Florida will quiet the crowd. But the longer it stays close, the more of an impact the crowd can have -- especially if Florida is without Tebow.

The crowd also should be a factor in Oxford, Miss., when the Rebels look to beat the Tide. Ole Miss has beaten Alabama just once in the past seven seasons, and that was in 2003 - when the Rebels had Eli Manning. This season's Ole Miss team was thought to be the best Rebels outfit since the '03 team, complete with a Heisman Trophy sleeper at quarterback in Jevan Snead.

But Snead and the Rebels have been far from impressive in starting 3-1. The loss at South Carolina carries far more weight than any of the wins (over Memphis, FCS member Southeastern Louisiana and Vanderbilt). Snead has thrown nine TD passes but also five picks, and he hasn't played a defense nearly as good as Alabama's yet.

Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain - as expected - has played at a high level, and new strong safety Mark Barron has been a big-play guy. Tackle Terrence Cody is a one-man roadblock in the middle of the line, and neutralizing him is vital for Ole Miss if it wants to run the ball inside.

Dexter McCluster, who will line up in the backfield and in the slot, is Ole Miss' biggest playmaker. He has had just 42 offensive touches this season, but he needs at least 15 -- and, better yet, closer to 20 -- on Saturday for Ole Miss to sufficiently challenge Alabama's defense. Brandon Bolden is a solid between-the-tackles running back, but he's not a breakaway threat.

Shay Hodge is the Rebels' best wide receiver, but you can expect Alabama defenders to be all over him. Ole Miss doesn't have a legit No. 2 guy on the outside. In addition, the offensive line is a concern. While Snead has good mobility, Ole Miss has allowed eight sacks and Alabama already has 15 this season. End Marcell Dareus has led the way with 3.5.

If Ole Miss is to pull the upset, it will be because of a big game from its defensive line. The Rebels have a deep, experienced front. End Greg Hardy is the big name, but there is a solid four-man rotation at end, and junior tackle Jerrell Powe is beginning to live up to his immense high school hype. There's a lot of beef in the middle of the line, which is where Alabama wants to run.

If the Tide runs effectively, they will win in a rout. Mark Ingram has been steady in his first season as the starting tailback, and true freshman Trent Richardson -- a five-star recruit -- is becoming more comfortable with the offense by the week. Plus, quarterback Greg McElroy has performed beyond expectations. One reason for that is he has not been pressured. Hardy and his running mates need to make sure McElroy is aware of their presence.

One Tide offensive player who has been surprisingly quiet is wide receiver Julio Jones; he has nine receptions, with one going for a touchdown, in four games. He hasn't been 100 percent healthy, but you still have to figure that if a big catch needs to be made, Alabama will be throwing his way.

While home-field advantage will be big for LSU and Ole Miss, ultimately it will come down to which team makes more plays. And in the key SEC showdowns this week, look for the visiting team's players to make more. The predictions are Florida by six and Alabama by 10.

What now, Sooners?
So, how good is Oklahoma? Both losses have come by one point. But the victories have come against Idaho State, a bad FCS program, and Tulsa, a mid-level C-USA team this season.

The Sooners obviously miss Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham. Now, they'll be without wide receiver Ryan Broyles -- their best deep threat -- for four to six weeks with a fractured left shoulder suffered in Saturday's loss at Miami. That puts the onus on the Sooners to produce on the ground, but the offensive line still is trying to come together. There are four new starters this season, and Miami took advantage Saturday night by applying consistent pressure on quarterback Landry Jones. UM often had nine or even 10 guys in the box, but OU coaches still tried to run. One reason is that Jones simply didn't have a lot of time to throw; another is that without Broyles, no opponent is going to fear OU's deep passing game.

On the other side of the ball, Miami also took advantage of Oklahoma's linebackers in the running game and with some short passes. Jacory Harris threw two bad picks early on deep throws, so UM coaches basically eliminated those calls from the playbook the rest of the game.

Oklahoma plays Baylor next week, and that game should be easy because without Robert Griffin, the Bears just aren't that scary. But then comes the annual showdown with Texas - followed by a trip to Kansas. Two weeks after the Lawrence visit is a trip to play Nebraska. And lurking late are games against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

Oklahoma has been to three consecutive BCS bowls and six in the past seven seasons. That streak almost certainly will end, and given the offensive issues, a 9-3 record looks like the best OU can hope for this season. And a 7-5 mark is a possibility.

Stuck in the mud
North Carolina went into the season as a sleeper in the ACC title race, but the Tar Heels (3-2 overall, 0-2 in the ACC) are going to have trouble finishing in the top half of the Coastal Division unless their offense gets in gear. The Heels rushed for 39 yards in Saturday's embarrassing 16-3 home loss to what had been a reeling Virginia team.

In the past two games, the Heels have run for 56 yards and scored 10 points in losing to UVa and Georgia Tech by a combined 40-10.

UNC has rushed for 500 yards in five games. However, more than half that total -- 261 -- came in the opener against FCS member The Citadel. In its three games against Big Six conference opponents, UNC has rushed for 91 yards.

Defensively, the Heels have been stout, allowing just 251.2 yards per game.

UNC coach Butch Davis knows there's no mystery to his team's problem. "We've got to find a way to play better on offense," he said after Saturday's loss. "We've got to find a running game, and we've got to be able to block people at the point of attack."

The offensive line hasn't jelled, which has stymied the rushing attack. And junior T.J. Yates isn't the kind of quarterback who can beat good teams with his arm, especially with a rebuilt receiving corps. Thus, opponents crowd the box, shut down the run, and then send the house at Yates when he has to throw.

Things should be easy next week, when the Heels play FCS member Georgia Southern. What had been an anticipated showdown with Florida State on Oct. 22 has lost a lot of luster. Good news for the Heels is that FSU's defense is mediocre. But then comes a closing stretch that includes matchups with Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College and N.C. State, which hammered the Heels by 31 in Chapel Hill last season.

If UNC were in the Atlantic Division, it would have a legit shot at the division title, even with its offensive problems. But it looks as if the Heels are a fourth-place team in the Coastal Division.

That means we'll have to wait until next year for UNC's "breakout" season under Davis.

Grid bits
We bashed California last week and are going to bash the Bears again this week. How in the world does a supposed national title contender lose by a combined 72-6 in back-to-back games? Well, obviously the Golden Bears were -- once again -- way overhyped. Cal managed just 492 combined total yards in losses to Oregon and USC. Both teams shut down Cal running back Jahvid Best -- 102 rushing yards in the two games -- and quarterback Kevin Riley again showed he was not ready for prime time by going a combined 27-of-71 for 322 yards and one pick in the losses. Riley is an effective passer when Best is gobbling up chunks of yardage. But when Riley has to produce, he can't. Two weeks ago, Cal had legit hopes of finishing the season in Pasadena -- either in the national title game or in the Rose Bowl. Now, the Las Vegas Bowl beckons.

Houston had been one of the most impressive teams in the nation through three games, stunning Oklahoma State, then beating Texas Tech to spark hopes of a BCS bid. Alas, a Conference USA foe reached up and bit the Cougars on Saturday night. Actually, "bit" is too mild a term; UTEP took a chunk out of Houston, rolling up 581 yards of offense in hammering the Cougars 58-41. UTEP was coming off a 64-7 loss to Texas in which the Miners managed just 53 total yards. But they had no problems slicing and dicing a Houston defense that had done solid work against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. UTEP junior RB Donald Buckram ran for 262 yards and four TDs. Houston hadn't allowed a team to rush for more than 194 yards going into the game. Buckram's yardage total was exactly 100 less than he had amassed in his career. Houston's focus now turns from earning a BCS bid to winning Conference USA.

First-year Clemson coach Dabo Swinney got into it with a reporter last week after Swinney noted his 2-2 team was only about eight plays away from being undefeated. A reporter then asked Swinney if much had changed from Tommy Bowden's tenure, since Bowden often noted that his teams were just a few plays away from accomplishing big things. Swinney can expect more questions about his team this week after the Tigers fell 24-21 at Maryland. Clemson managed just 274 yards of offense against a Terps defense that had given up at least 32 points in each of its first four games. Fifteen of Clemson's last 18 plays were run in Maryland territory, including 11 inside the Terps' 33, but the Tigers managed no points on those possessions. Clemson is 1-2 in the ACC, but the Atlantic Division race is such that the Tigers still are very much in it. To stay in it, the Tigers need to at least split their next two games, against Wake Forest and Miami.

Illinois is struggling at 1-3, and coach Ron Zook is in full-fledged bunker mode. Zook was famous at Florida for basically saying folks were either for him or against him -- players, media and fans alike -- and that kind of talk now is emanating from Champaign. The Illini fell at home Saturday to Penn State, but they do have three winnable games in a row -- Michigan State this week, followed by trips to Indiana (Oct.17) and Purdue (Oct. 24). Zook says his players are staying together -- but you have to wonder. "When I walked out of [the locker room], they were saying all the right things," Zook told the Chicago Sun-Times. "'There could be some splintering. You [media] guys are going try to splinter them. Everybody is." Yeah, OK, coach.

Navy won its seventh consecutive game over Air Force and its 14th in a row over other service academies when it beat the Falcons 16-13 in overtime. (Neither team did much offensively, as there was a combined 449 yards of offense.) The victory gives the Midshipmen a huge advantage in their quest for a seventh consecutive Commander-in-Chief trophy, which goes to the service academy with the best record in their three-way competition. Army is the weakest of the three academies, and it's hard to see the Black Knights beating Navy (3-2) this season. Indeed, Navy looks to be in a good spot to finish the regular season at 9-4. The toughest remaining games are a home game against Wake Forest (the teams split two meetings last season, including a win by Wake in the EagleBank Bowl) and a road game against Notre Dame. Navy has won at least eight games in six consecutive seasons, and that number almost certainly will increase to seven seasons in a row.

North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson's NCAA-record streak of passes without an interception came to an end in the second quarter of the Wolfpack's 30-24 loss to Wake Forest. He had thrown 379 passes in a row without a pick. He also was intercepted late in the game in the end zone to end the Wolfpack's comeback hopes. Wilson's last interception had come in the third quarter of a game against Clemson on Sept. 19, 2008.

The Nevada-UNLV game was tied at 21 at halftime and at 28 late in the third quarter, but a four-touchdown fourth quarter carried the Wolf Pack to a 63-28 victory that further put UNLV coach Mike Sanford on the hot seat. Nevada redshirt freshman Mike Ball, who had carried once for no yards this season, ran 15 times for 184 yards and five TDs to lead the Wolf Pack, who had three players reach the 170-yard plateau. Starting running back Luke Lippincott ran for 170 yards and a score, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran for 173 yards as Nevada piled up 559 rushing yards and 773 total yards. It is believed to be the first time one team had three players rush for at least 170 yards in the same game. So, how was Nevada so dominant on the ground? "I need to watch the tape. I can't answer that question," Sanford said. Nevada didn't punt, but lost four fumbles and committed 15 penalties (for 169 yards) to keep UNLV in the game.

Stan Parrish hasn't been the winning head coach in a game since Oct. 18, 1986, when his Kansas State team whipped Kansas. Since then, as a head coach at K-State and now Ball State, he has been involved in 33 consecutive games in which his team has lost (32) or tied. Ball State looked as if it was going to win Saturday, but it went south suddenly. The Cardinals took a 30-29 lead over Toledo with 42 seconds left on a 10-yard TD pass from Kelly Page to Torieal Gibson and a two-point conversion run by MiQuale Lewis. But Toledo's Kenny Veal returned the ensuing kickoff 34 yards to his 49, then Rockets quarterback Aaron Opelt hit Stephen Williams on a 51-yard touchdown pass on first down. Ball State's safeties were in the middle of the field, and Williams blew by cornerback Koreen Burch on a go route down the sideline. It was Opelt's fifth TD pass of the day and Williams' second TD catch to go with 231 yards on 10 receptions. "I'm strapped to a degree because some of what I've got is what I've got," Parrish told the Muncie (Ind.) Star Press about his defense after the game. Ball State started 12-0 last season before finishing the season with two losses, and the Cardinals are 0-5 this season. It's not inconceivable that they finish 0-12, though 2-10 seems more likely.

Cincinnati had the ball for just 19:09 of its 37-13 victory over Miami University. Last week, the Bearcats had the ball for just 16:18 in a 28-20 victory over Fresno State. But the amount of time spent on the field didn't bother Cincinnati's defense Saturday, as the Bearcats came up with six sacks in the fourth quarter. UC had 10 sacks for the game and now has 21 for the season.

Ohio State's 33-14 victory at Indiana was the Buckeyes' 16th consecutive Big Ten road victory, one shy of the league record set by Michigan (1988-92). Ohio State has an excellent chance to tie the record; its next league road game is against Purdue on Oct. 17. To set the record, the Buckeyes will have to win at Penn State on Nov. 7.

Georgia Tech junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt had by far the best passing day of his career against Mississippi State, going 11-of-14 for 266 yards and a touchdown in a 42-31 win. Nesbitt's previous career high was 141 yards in the season-opener against Jacksonville State. His previous career high against a FBS school had been 150 in last season's Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to LSU. Of Tech's 35 completions this season, 24 have gone to Demaryius Thomas.

Boise State muddled past FCS member UC Davis -- Broncos coach Chris Petersen's alma mater -- and as a result, the Broncos fell from fifth to sixth in both media polls. Virginia Tech moved past them into fifth. But the Hokies weren't exactly impressive, either, winning by eight over Duke. Hmmm -- you don't suppose the poll voters were looking for a reason to drop Boise, do you? Houston, by the way, dropped out of both polls because of its loss to UTEP. Oklahoma State -- which Houston beat in Stillwater -- is 13th in the coaches' poll and 15th in the AP poll.

Bad news for Southern Miss is that sophomore quarterback Austin Davis will miss the rest of the season with a ligament injury in his foot suffered in the Golden Eagles' surprising loss to UAB last Thursday. Davis had thrown 10 TD passes and two picks; his replacement will be junior Martevious Young. Davis was a great fit for coach Larry Fedora's offense, and his injury gives East Carolina a clearer path to the East Division title in Conference USA.

The first BCS standings of the season come out Oct. 18. The first Rivals.com 1-120 rankings come out Oct. 12, which is next Monday.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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