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Down to the Final Quarter: Random SEC Thoughts

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We come down to the final three games of what's been a fairly stagnant Southeastern Conference race. Not a lot has changed since midseason -- the 2011 SEC has a well-defined upper class of LSU and Bama, a well-defined lower class of Kentucky and Ole Miss (more on Vanderbilt later) and a big middle class of varying degrees of mediocrity. There's only one real marquee out-of-conference win this season, LSU over Oregon, along with a couple of nice, but not earth-shaking wins like Bama over Penn State and Arkansas over Texas A&M, but two huge losses in Georgia to Boise State and Auburn to Clemson. Still, the bowl matchups will present something of an opportunity to change that perception relative to the rest of the country.

  • Arkansas...Potential key player for the ‘Backs as they try to see if they can erase the memory of that Bama butt kickin' and squeak into a division championship: Dennis Johnson. I've always been a fan of the oft-injured all-purpose back -- he runs very hard for a smallish back and catches the ball well. He's had 567 all-purpose yards in the last three games with two touchdowns, and he's the only other player that's shown any pop in the Arkansas backfield, aside from Joe Adams on the occasional reverse or speed sweep. And Bobby Petrino's offenses are always at their best when they can run effectively. The passing is almost a given at this point. And you can bet Petrino saw LSU's linebackers bust coverage on Trent Richardson out of the backfield last weekend.
  • Alabama...The Crimson Tide will not lose in Starkville this weekend. I am sure of this. That said, Bama might want to shore up how they play the speed option, because they're going to see a lot of it. Mississippi State has averaged 189 rushing in their last three, with 6 touchdowns, and have thrown for 546 yards in the last two. Yeah, those two were against Kentucky and Tennessee-Martin, but the point is that the offense seems to be finding something of a groove. And State is a program that is in desperate need of a marquee win over a school that isn't from Mississippi.
  • Auburn...It's hard to believe that a Gus Malzahn offense is actually ranked behind LSU right now in total yards per game. As I've noted before, it shows the value of experience (and, of course, having Cam Newton at quarterback). Auburn has young quarterbacks, young offensive linemen and young receivers. Michael Dyer is the whole show right now, and he's about to run into another tough defense in Georgia's. Does Clint Moseley have some real potential, or did he just get to play against Ole Miss recently? We're all about to find out. Two games stand between a mere "minimally bowl-eligible rebuilding season" and something that creates some real optimism for 2012 for Auburn.
  • Ole Miss...Speaking of the Reb-bears, let's pour out a little brown liquor for the Right Reverend. Next season will represent the first time in 13 years that he won't be a part of our lives here in the SEC, and whether we're willing to admit it or not, he'll be missed. Let us begin the campaign now, for him to permanently join the ESPN College Gameday team. If there's anybody that can fill Lee Corso's mascot head (since I assume Brian Wilson plans on sticking with this baseball thing for a while and won't be available), it has to be this man:
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  • Florida/South Carolina...Who else is ready for an early morning race to the middle with South Carolina? Florida is caught in what is turning out to be a surprising rebuild, while South Carolina is starting to look a lot like the 2009/2010 LSU teams -- a lot of peripheral talent around a pretty rough quarterback situation and an offense not designed to support it.
  • Vanderbilt/Kentucky...Who wants to join Ole Miss in the conference cellar? My guess is, Vandy will win and keep their bowl hopes alive. Jordan Rogers has had at least 280 yards of offense in each of his last three games (HEYDIDYOUKNOWHISBROTHERISWHYNOIHADNOIDEA), and the Commodores are one of the four defenses in the league averaging seven or more tackles-for-loss per game. Defensive ends Tim Flugger and Rob Lohr (11 and 11.5 TFLs each) are making a hard case for all-conference honors, as is cornerback Casey Hayward. But can Vandy overcome Wake Forest or Tennessee to get that sixth win? It sounds crazy to suggest that the more likely win could be against the Volunteers, doesn't it?
  • Tennessee...Speaking of the folks in Knoxville, it's starting to look like the Derek Dooley era is very much going to be a test case for administrative patience. They face a likely loss to Arkansas this week, and they'll need to sweep the final two against Kentucky and Vanderbilt just to get to .500. They'll beat Kentucky, because that's just what Tennessee does every year (if the Wildcats somehow manage to win that game, clearly the Mayan calendar is right about the end of the world), but Vandy won't go down easy. Everybody understood that while Tennessee had some good young talent on hand, there wasn't nearly enough of it to have major expectations this season. And then there were the hits of losing Janzen Jackson, Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray (though he may return by the Vanderbilt game), losses that would be difficult anywhere, but are near insurmountable for a team with UT's lack of depth. Dooley is safe for this season, but one has to wonder what the threshold of progress will be in 2012.