SEC Pecking Order To Be Determined This Weekend
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
College football remains a sport that relies on beauty pageant-style judging to rank its teams and decide which ones get to contest its championship. Though the Bowl Championship Series has injected a measure of objectivity into the process through the use of computer polls, it is the human votes that still carry the most weight.
It can be hard to take the polls seriously when they continue to churn out results such as Ohio State (who struggled with Ohio and were destroyed by USC) ahead of Penn State (who have destroyed three straight opponents). So one should not assume the SEC is that much better than any other conference, particularly the Big 12, simply because it has five teams in the AP’s top 10 this week. The good news? With conference play upon us, the polls can finally start to judge teams on more than reputation. The SEC takes center stage this week with two enormous league games, while its highest-ranked team, Georgia, takes a rare non-conference road trip. By Sunday, we’ll have a much better idea of the conference’s pecking order and overall strength.
No. 4 Florida (2-0) at Tennessee (1-1)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS
Though it has been surpassed in reputation and results by Florida and LSU, Tennessee did manage to capture the SEC East last season before falling to national-title bound LSU in the league title game. One reason the Vols were overlooked was their performance against Florida, a game in which Tennessee melted down like a Wall Street investment bank, during a 59-20 loss in Gainesville.
This year did not get off to an auspicious start, as Tennessee lost in overtime to UCLA despite snatching four first-half interceptions. That defeat took on more ominous tones after UCLA was annihilated by BYU, 59-0, in its next outing.
Florida has had no such problems, opening with wins over Hawaii and Miami, although the latter game was closer than the 26-3 final score would indicate.
Tennessee’s defense will pose the greatest challenge Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has seen thus far. The Vols have already produced six turnovers — returning a pair of interceptions for touchdowns — and seven sacks in two games.
Tebow should have running back/receiver Percy Harvin at full strength this week. Harvin is an X-factor, a matchup nightmare for defenders wherever he is deployed and one of the fastest, most elusive players in college football. Tennessee will have to account for him on every play.
Florida’s defensive vulnerability is its secondary, but Tennessee will lean on the run game with Arian Foster to try and keep the game from falling onto the shoulders of inexperienced quarterback Jonathan Crompton.
No. 6 LSU (2-0) At No. 10 Auburn (3-0, 1-0 SEC)
Saturday, 7:45 p.m., ESPN
Good defense, or awful offense? For all the talent in the SEC, its best teams tend to produce a few ugly games each season. Such was the case last week for Auburn, which gutted out a 3-2 win at Mississippi State in a contest in which the punters were the most potent offensive weapons.
The annual duel of the Tigers in the SEC West is not always pretty, but it’s often the most important game in the division. The last time these teams met at Auburn, the home team claimed a 7-3 slugfest to continue a home-winning streak over LSU that dates to 1998.
That run is not likely to continue unless Auburn can generate some points out of its new spread offense. Auburn is averaging just 162 yards passing per game, and LSU will be by far the best defense it has faced this season.
Most observers dismissed LSU’s chances for a repeat national title right around the time presumptive starting quarterback Ryan Perilloux was dismissed from the team. But the Tigers are still loaded with NFL-ready talent, giving quarterbacks Andrew Hatch and Jarrett Lee time to grow. A win in this game would put LSU right in the thick of the national-title discussion, as it would for Auburn.
Last year’s matchup between these teams was one of the season’s most thrilling games, as LSU coach Les Miles cemented has reputation for bold play-calling by eschewing a tying field goal and throwing deep for the wining touchdown in the final seconds.
No. 3 Georgia (3-0) at Arizona State (2-1)
Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC
What looked to be a marquee non-conference game took a major hit when Arizona State lost at home to UNLV last Saturday, part of a miserable day for the Pac-10. Those distracted by USC’s easy rout of Ohio State may not have noticed the rest of the conference going 2-7, including 0-4 against the Mountain West.
Still, Georgia needs to be on upset alert, and would love nothing more than to use the national-television spotlight to make the case that it is the best team in the SEC as its ranking would suggest.
To this point, Georgia has been effective, if not always picturesque. The Bulldogs hung on to beat South Carolina 14-7 last week, aided by a fourth-quarter fumble at the Georgia goal line. Georgia sometimes plays to the level of its competition, both up and down, but taking Arizona State lightly would be a mistake. The Sun Devils can be explosive on offense, with quarterback Rudy Carpenter averaging 325 yards passing per game.
Georgia should take a lesson from Tennessee. The Vols failed to stick with their power running game against UCLA, and it played right into the Bruins’ hands. Arizona State’s front seven is vulnerable to the run, and the linebackers are banged up. Georgia coach Mark Richt should use standout tailback Knowshon Moreno liberally. The result might be the kind of game that puts Moreno at the top of Heisman watch lists.
Mr. Levine is a writer for FootballOutsiders.com.