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September 25, 2008

SEC: Alabama, Georgia living up to hype

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10

Anyone analyzing the Southeastern Conference schedule before the season would have noticed the potential for two huge interdivisional matchups this week.

Only one of them has lived up to its preseason billing.

The Alabama-Georgia game actually has exceeded expectations now that it pits two top-10 teams against each other. Georgia entered the year the No. 1 team in the nation, but Alabama has emerged as one of the season's big surprises after going 7-6 last fall.

But the Tennessee-Auburn showdown doesn't look nearly as interesting as it seemed last summer. This game was supposed to match the preseason Western Division favorite against the reigning Eastern Division champion. Now it matches an Auburn team coming off a disappointing loss to LSU against a Tennessee squad that has dropped two of its first three games.

Instead of determining a favorite to win the league title, the Tennessee-Auburn game merely will decide which team joins Mississippi State as the SEC's biggest disappointments. In fact, you can make a pretty convincing argument that Tennessee is one of the nation's most disappointing teams so far.

No wonder the Volunteers are feeling defensive.

"We've won 148 football games in my time here at Tennessee and lost a lot less than that," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "We didn't just all of a sudden get stupid as coaches. We know what we're doing, and we're going to go to the practice field and correct and work and put our football team on the field with the best advantage we can possibly have.

"I do believe in this football team. I'm very committed to this football team as to how they've gone about their business in preparing. The simple matter of fact is that we've got to play better in our ballgames."

While Tennessee is fighting to stay relevant and Auburn is trying to keep its Western Division title hopes alive, Georgia and Alabama enter the weekend with much greater aspirations.

The Bulldogs are trying to solidify their status as one of the favorites to win the national title. Alabama wants to show it belongs alongside LSU, Florida and Georgia as the SEC's elite teams. An upset of Georgia could even make Alabama a player in the national championship sweepstakes.

Ole Miss at Florida, 12:30 p.m.
Tennessee at Auburn, 3:30 p.m.
Arkansas at Texas, 3:30 p.m.
Western Kentucky at Kentucky, 7 p.m.
UAB at South Carolina, 7 p.m.
Mississippi State at LSU, 7:30 p.m.
Alabama at Georgia, 7:45 p.m.

Georgia coach Mark Richt acknowledged the importance of this game by announcing the Bulldogs would wear black jerseys for it. Georgia introduced the black jerseys last year in a 45-20 triumph over Auburn and wore them again in a 41-10 Sugar Bowl trouncing of Hawaii.

"There's no way you can't be high on emotion with this game, knowing what's at stake in the SEC and how competitive it is," Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran said. "With it being a night game and wearing our black jerseys, it's going to be an awesome atmosphere. It's going to be high in emotion and high in intensity. We've got two good teams, good defenses, good offenses. It's going to be awesome."

  • Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno vs. Alabama run defense: Alabama's chances of pulling the upset Saturday depend in part on whether the Tide can hold Moreno in check the same way they suffocated Clemson's rushing attack earlier this year. Alabama ranks eighth in the nation against the run and has allowed just 2.2 yards per carry and 55 rushing yards per game this season. Terrence Cody and Co. allowed zero net rushing yards in a season-opening 34-10 victory over Clemson. Of course, it helped that James Davis and C.J. Spiller combined for just eight carries against Alabama. Moreno figures to handle the ball three times as often Saturday. If Moreno rushes for at least 125 yards, he should boost his Heisman Trophy stock as well as Georgia's national championship credentials. If Moreno gains less than 3 yards per carry in an Alabama win, the Tide wrecks a Heisman candidacy and establishes themselves as a dark-horse contender for the national title.

  • South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia : This former four-star prospect has earned more attention for his problems off the field than his prowess on it, but the redshirt freshman finally gets a chance to make the right kind of headlines this week. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has said that Garcia will play quite a bit Saturday against UAB. The Gamecocks have struggled to find consistency at the quarterback position all season, as Chris Smelley and season-opening starter Tommy Beecher have combined to throw nine interceptions. If Garcia plays well Saturday and stays out of trouble off the field, he could finally give Spurrier the quarterback he's been seeking for his entire South Carolina tenure.

  • Alabama RB Glen Coffee rushed for 162 yards Saturday in a 49-14 victory over Arkansas. Coffee is averaging 8.6 yards per carry. Auburn DT Sen'Derrick Marks already has seven tackles for loss to rank 11th in the nation in that category. Florida WR Brandon James scored on a 78-yard punt return and set up a touchdown with a 52-yard kickoff return Saturday in a 30-6 victory over Tennessee. James has returned two punts for touchdowns this season. Florida ranks second in the nation in turnover margin. Georgia LB Rennie Curran has recorded three sacks and 26 tackles over his last three games. Georgia QB Matthew Stafford has thrown five touchdown passes without an interception this season. LSU RB Charles Scott has reached the 100-yard mark in three straight games and is averaging 9 yards per carry. LSU CB Chris Hawkins had two interceptions Saturday in a 26-21 victory over Auburn. Ole Miss DT Peria Jerry has 4 tackles for loss over his last two games. Vanderbilt CB D.J. Moore leads the nation with an average punt return of 29 yards. Vanderbilt FS Ryan Hamilton picked off three passes and scored a touchdown in a 23-17 victory over Ole Miss. Vanderbilt kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt is 7-for-7 on field-goal attempts this season.

  • Arkansas QB Casey Dick threw three interceptions against Alabama. Arkansas has allowed 10 sacks in its first three games. Washington and San Jose State are the only FBS teams giving up more sacks per game. Mississippi State kicker Adam Carlson is 2-for-5 on field-goal attempts this year. Mississippi State QB Wesley Carroll has gone 24-of-47 for 198 yards with three interceptions and no touchdown passes over his last two games. Mississippi State has scored a total of 23 points in its three games against FCS opponents. Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton has thrown four interceptions and two touchdown passes this season.

  • "I'm sure there are a lot of people questioning, now that we have lost a game, why did we do this? As a head coach, you are always looking for ways to do better and looking for ways to improve. Again, I look at the overall aspect of what we are doing. No. 1, recruiting. What are the high school kids looking at on their level and what they are learning and what type of players you can recruit. There is no doubt that the wave of the future is what we are doing on offense. Is it perfect? No, we are not perfect. We are going to have to tweak it as we have every week." -Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville on his team's move to a spread offense.

    "What about it? Yeah. Have you seen some of my highlights? He makes plays. We know how good he is. We know he's a great player and he's well respected. We're going to get after it. That's all." -Alabama CB and PR Javier Arenas to BamaOnLine.com, in response to a question about whether he has seen Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno's highlights.

    "This season is not over by a long shot. If anybody's counting us out, I think they'd be making a serious mistake." -Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom. The Bulldogs have lost three of their first four games.

    "I really do not remember about that or not at this time. I really don't recall." -Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead to GatorBait.net, about a passage in Bruce Feldman's book "Meat Market" in which he's quoted as saying that Florida coach Urban Meyer told him he was recruiting Tim Tebow as a linebacker. Snead verbally committed to Florida, but he signed with Texas after Tebow also committed to the Gators. Meyer has denied telling Snead he was only recruiting Tebow as a linebacker.

    "It's not just last year. Most coaches are this way. A lot of people are this way. Back when I was in high school, they said our team wasn't very good when the first group of us started there. We turned it around and ended up one of the best teams in the state my junior and senior years. Then they said you'll never get a scholarship. Well, I did. Then it was, 'You'll never play at Tennessee.' When I became the head coach, it was, 'Well, he's a line coach (with) no experience. He'll never make it.' '' -Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer to VolQuest.com about his history of overcoming adversity.

    "It feels good. I feel like we're getting some recognition across the country, but that's not the main thing for us right now. We want to go to this bowl game that we've all been talking about for so long. We talk about it all the time." -Vanderbilt FS Ryan Hamilton to The (Nashville) City Paper about the Commodores' No. 21 ranking in the Associated Press poll, which represents their first appearance in the national polls since 1984. Vanderbilt hasn't earned a bowl bid since losing 36-28 to Air Force in the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl.

  • ETC.
  • Legendary Georgia play-by-play broadcaster Larry Munson has announced his retirement effective immediately. Munson, who turns 86 on Sunday, had broadcast Georgia games for 43 years. Kentucky will play without injured QB Randall Cobb, LB Micah Johnson and DT Ricky Lumpkin on Saturday against Western Kentucky. All three have high ankle sprains. OT Garry Williams is expected to return this week after missing two games with a knee injury. The SEC owns a 25-4 record in non-conference games and leads all leagues with its .862 non-conference winning percentage. Arenas and Justin Woodall scored on interception returns against Arkansas last week, marking the first time in school history that Alabama has returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game. Alabama has outscored opponents 64-0 in the first quarter this season. Florida is the only team that hasn't turned the ball over this season. Keiland Williams' 22-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd last week marked the first time an LSU running back had thrown a touchdown pass since Kevin Faulk did it against Mississippi State in 1996. Vanderbilt has trailed in every game it has played this season. The Commodores remain unbeaten in part because they have outscored teams 51-10 in the second half.

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10

    Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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