I'm actually starting to miss Thursday night SEC games. Sure, the opening week Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday marathon was a bit much, but having the odd Thursday matchup provides for a little more television coverage of the SEC grid.
This week, thanks to 4 in-conference games and several teams seeing bye weeks, there are only 5 games on tap. Three of them will be televised at least regionally, and only South Carolina @ Ole Miss will be regional-television-coverage free among the intra-conference contests. Let's get to the action:
Florida @ Arkansas, 11:30am Central, Raycom Sports
In terms of talent disparity, this is closer to Florida vs. Random Not-Very-Good Mid-Major University than to a titanic clash of conference powers. Arkansas actually has a somewhat adept passing game this year, and we will be watching to see if they expose any weaknesses in Florida's pass defense. While Florida couldn't effectively defend the forward pass last year, they are currently #2 in the conference in passing defense, and that's with having played some respectable competition.
Given the fact that Florida is much better than Arkansas in all phases, and the fact that Florida will be highly motivated coming off of its loss to Ole Miss, I don't expect that this game will be close. Florida will run away with it, but they will also come out of this one more beat up than they already are.
We will be waiting to pounce.
South Carolina @ Ole Miss, 1:00pm Central, ESPN Gameplan or ESPN360.com
This is another fairly interesting matchup, particularly if South Carolina really has found its quarterback in Stephen Garcia. Poor quarterback play has plagued South Carolina at times this season (as had poor offensive line play, but a mobile QB can alleviate some of the problems that come with that). At the same time, they have some dangerous receivers, particularly if Kenny McKinley can ever return to form. He was pre-season All-SEC but has been hampered by an injury since the 3rd game of the season.
Ole Miss is, I think, a pretty solid team, but South Carolina remains something of a mystery. Are they the terrible team I saw lose to Vandy early in the season, or are they the much better team that put a scare into Georgia? For that matter, is Ole Miss the team that turned the ball over at every turn against Vandy, or are they the team that took down Florida.
Sadly, this is probably the most intriguing matchup of the week, and it's not on television.
Kentucky @ Alabama, 2:30pm Central, CBS
I can't say that the CBS game has any kind of heavy intrigue this week. Alabama has proven to be quite good, and while I have certainly learned the lessons of USC and Florida, and for the matter LSU and Kentucky last year, this is not the same Kentucky team that played a monster game against us last year. They're wearing the same uniforms, but almost all of the best players from that Kentucky team are gone. Andre Woodson, Jacob Tamme, Keenan Burton, Raphael Little, Wesley Woodyard, Steve Johnson. Those guys are all gone. They've started the season 4-0 and they're statistically one of the best defenses in the conference, but that's deceptive. They haven't played anyone with a pulse yet.
What they have managed to do is run the ball pretty well. Their top running backs are averaging about 6 yards per carry between them, and they've scored 8 touchdowns on the ground compared to 4 in the air (and 3 "other").
Alabama, of course, recently discovered how to stop the run. You plug in an athletic nose tackle who also happens to be pushing 400 pounds and tell him to disrupt everything. If I'm Bama, I stack the run and dare Mike Hartline to try to beat me himself.
This is one of those games that, to me, look like mismatches on paper once you get past Kentucky's unbeaten record. Kentucky's 4-0 record is not nearly as impressive as Alabama's 5-0 record because Kentucky hasn't played anyone, while Bama has beaten Clemson and Georgia, two teams with national championship aspirations this year. Of course mismatches on paper don't necessarily mean that much, but this is a relatively low-percentage game for Kentucky.
Auburn @ Vandy, 5:00pm Central, ESPN
I like this game better than the CBS game, because it appears to be a little more competitive. Vandy may be no great shakes, but they've been solid defensively while figuring out how to score just enough points to win on offense despite a decided lack of game breakers on that side of the ball.
This is a team that is 7th in scoring offense and 7th in scoring defense in the conference and yet they've made it to 4-0 and they're 2-0 in the SEC, sitting alone atop first place in the SEC East.
I'm not going to discount their chances here. They don't have the talent of Auburn, but they also don't have the internal strife or the burden of expectations. Now, Auburn's defense might just come out and manhandle them while refusing to give up a yard, allowing Auburn to win this one with 14 points or so, but it's also possible that Vandy could turn some big defensive plays into scores, and win with the running game, much like Mississippi State did last year.
I think this Vandy team is indeed the 2007 Mississippi State Bulldogs of this year. Despite a talent deficit, they figure out how to win games. by figuring out how to get teams to play their worst against them. I don't know if it's a skill or if it's just blind luck, but it's worked so far.
Auburn, for their part gets another chance to get their offense on track. It will be interesting to see if that passing attack can go anywhere this week, but I would not expect a breakout game from them.
Northern Illinois @ Tennessee, 6:00pm Central, ESPN Gameplan or ESPN360.com
We know I've made Tennessee my pet team this year because I keep advising Phillip Fulmer to clean out his locker room of whatever cancers are holding them back, but he keeps not doing it.
This looks like it could be the ULM @ Bama of this year. Northern Illinois, despite their 2-2 record, actually looks like they could be a decent team. They've lost to Minnesota and Western Michigan, two not-so-bad programs that are a combined 8-2 this year, while beating up on patsies Indiana State and Eastern Michigan.
Combine a potentially not-so-bad mid-major team with an SEC program in almost unprecedented early-season locker room turmoil and you have the recipe for an upset.
Not that I'll be watching, mind you, but I will be paying attention to the score across the crawl, if it's even shown.