By: Barrett Sallee
A lot of mysteries will be solved this weekend in the SEC, when several teams face their toughest challenges to date. Is the SEC home to the most overrated team in the nation? Will an undefeated team get the respect it deserves? Can a National Title contender recover from a devastating injury? Here are the three most important things to keep an eye on in week five of SEC action:
Number Four? Really???
The 2008 season was one to forget for LSU. Coming off their second National Championship and third SEC Championship this decade, the Tigers limped down the stretch, finishing with five losses, and an SEC record under .500 for the first time since the Gerry DiNardo era.
But all is right in the world now. After all, LSU is undefeated, ranked fourth in the nation, and right in the thick of the SEC and National Championship picture, right?
Well, not so much.
The gap between #4 LSU and #3 Alabama is about as big as the gap between the health care proposals of the Republicans and Democrats. Anyone who's watched this LSU team play this year can see that this team isn't playing like the fourth best team in our great nation. Not even close.
They saw the Washington Huskies, who just went to Palo Alto and got Harbaughed, out-gain them by over 150 yards. They needed three goal line stands and some spotty play-calling from Dan Mullen in the final minutes to hang on to a road win over Mississippi State, a team that Auburn rolled over, around and through to the tune of 49 points.
Just how bad has it been? LSU is last in the SEC and 105th in the nation in total offense, averaging just 310 yards per game. They are 10th in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 130 yards on the ground per game. This is a team that has All-SEC RB Charles Scott and senior Keiland Williams toting the rock. Not good.
Their defense hasn't been much better. They rank ninth in the league in total defense, ninth in rushing defense, 10th in passing defense, last in sacks and 11th in opponents third down conversion percentage. They've put up those numbers against four pedestrian teams: Washington, Vanderbilt, Louisiana-Lafayette and Mississippi State. Combined record – 8-8.
Number four in the nation? Those numbers suggest more like fourth in the SEC West.
On The Road Again...For The First Time
The last SEC team to hit the road, excluding teams that have played at neutral sites, might be the team that needs a road test the most. The Auburn Tigers look to validate their early-season success Saturday night, in Knoxville, against the Tennessee Volunteers.
Auburn has received very little credit for its 4-0 start, which includes a 41-30 win over West Virginia – a team that will likely contend for the automatic BCS spot out of the Big East; and a dismantling of the same Mississippi State team that took LSU to the brink last weekend.
The Tigers boast the nation's third most prolific offense, averaging 526 yards per game; and the SEC's most opportunistic defense, grabbing 12 turnovers on the season.
During the last two games, both West Virginia and Ball State have stacked up against the Tiger rushing attack, which averages 261 yards per game. That hasn't been an issue for QB Chris Todd. All he's done is put up games of 284 and 287 yards, with nine touchdown passes and only one interception in that two-game span.
But Tennessee's D isn't West Virginia or Ball State.
The Vols did the impossible two weeks ago, using their stifling defense to control the tempo vs. Tim Tebow and the mighty Florida Gators. For the season, the Vols rank eighth in the nation in total defense, allowing just 233 yards per game.
New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will likely apply the same game plan as the Mountaineers and Cardinals did – stop the run and force Todd to win it. That's how it's going to be all year against Auburn. If the Tigers can do it on the road in front of 100,000+, they will match their win total from a year ago, and be well on their way to a New Years Day Bowl.
The Loss Of Hightower Is Big For Bama
Over the last year and change, Alabama's resurgence back to national prominence has been due, in large part, to a stellar defense anchored by their linebackers. That anchor is a bit loose nowadays, after sophomore Dont'a Hightower suffered ligament damage in his left knee during Saturday's win over Arkansas. Hightower will miss the remainder of the season.
In his stead, the Crimson Tide will likely start senior Cory Reamer at the "Will" linebacker spot this weekend vs. Kentucky, the spot formerly occupied by Hightower. But don't be surprised if Alabama head coach Nick Saban shuffles his lineup around a bit, and you see Courtney Upshaw in that spot at various times.
How the Tide rush defense is affected by the loss of Hightower will be very interesting to watch this weekend vs. Kentucky. Derrick Locke is a pretty solid running back for the Wildcats. The junior, who is coming off of a knee injury that ended his 2008 campaign, is averaging nearly five yards per carry this season.
Last season, the Wildcats almost completely abandoned the run, and still managed to nearly upset the Crimson Tide in a 17-14 loss in Tuscaloosa. At that time, the Tide was only beginning to roll. These days, they look more like a well-oiled machine. We'll find out this weekend if the loss of Hightower throws a wrench in the works.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/BSallee_CFN
Three & Out Archive:
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes - September 30, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes - September 27, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes - September 23, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes - September 21, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes - September 17, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes - September 13, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes - September 10, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes - September 7, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes - September 3, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Media Days, Day 3 – July 24, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Media Days, Day 2 – July 23, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Media Days, Day 1 – July 22, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – April 16, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – April 12, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – April 9, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – April 3, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – March 30, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – March 26, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – March 18, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – March 15, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – March 11, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – March 7, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – March 3, 2009
Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes – February 28, 2009
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