- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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Another good weekend of SEC football is approaching. Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:
1. Tide-Tigers showdown: It doesn't quite have the heft that it had in 2011 ("Game of the Century") or maybe even last season (both teams were ranked in the top five), but Alabama-LSU is still a big deal and it will still be the center of attention Saturday night. It's the only game Saturday between two teams in the Top 25 and No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) will try to remain undefeated in pursuit of a third consecutive BCS title. The last time these teams played in Tuscaloosa was in 2011, and LSU won 9-6 in overtime. So Les Miles' crew won't be fearful of going into Bryant-Denny Stadium. Even if the No. 13 Tigers (7-2, 3-2) were to repeat that feat, they'd need the Crimson Tide to lose once more to have a chance to get into the SEC title game, but regardless, Saturday night should serve us some compelling theater.
2. Franklin or Mauk? Missouri coach Gary Pinkel indicated that starting quarterback James Franklin is getting closer to being able to play after injuring his shoulder Oct. 12 versus Georgia, but to this point it's unclear whether he will get the start or play or if Pinkel will stick with freshman Maty Mauk. The Tigers are 2-1 in Mauk's three starts, and he had his best game so far last week in a 31-3 win over Tennessee, throwing for 163 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 114 yards. The No. 8 Tigers (8-1, 4-1) are at Kentucky, a team that struggles against the pass (the Wildcats allow 9.6 yards per pass play in SEC games, worst in the league), so it'll be interesting to see what Pinkel decides to do.
3. Is Texas A&M's defense really improved? The past two weeks have been good ones for the much-maligned Texas A&M defense, as the Aggies have held their past two opponents to a combined 31 points. They've held both opponents under 350 yards, under 130 rushing yards and have forced at least three turnovers in each of the past two weeks. The caveat? Both teams (Vanderbilt and UTEP) had freshman quarterbacks who were making their first start. Vanderbilt's Patton Robinette and UTEP's Blaire Sullivan don't exactly strike fear in the mind of a defensive coordinator, but Saturday when the No. 15 Aggies (7-2, 3-2) host Mississippi State, they could face a talented signal-caller in Dak Prescott, a dual threat who leads the Bulldogs in passing and rushing.
4. Will Prescott play? It has been an emotional week for Prescott, who lost his mother, Peggy, to cancer. Coach Dan Mullen and several Bulldogs joined Prescott for the funeral Wednesday, and Mullen has said that he won't rule out Prescott for Saturday's game but wishes to give his quarterback privacy to make the decision on his own. If he doesn't play, the Bulldogs will turn to Tyler Russell, who started the matchup between these teams last season but has suffered through myriad injuries this season. If Prescott does play, it could be quite the emotional boost for the Bulldogs (4-4, 1-3).
5. What's next for Tre Mason? The Auburn running back is coming into his own as of late. He's third in the SEC in rushing yards with 921 and had a huge day last week at Arkansas, compiling 168 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries. On Saturday, he faces a Tennessee rushing defense that is actually last in the SEC (201.67 yards allowed per game), behind even Texas A&M (200.89), the team that has spent most of the year in the bottom of the league in that category. Could be another big day for the junior running back.
6. Florida attrition: Injuries have been a curse for Florida all season long and this week the Gators lost another starter, offensive tackle Tyler Moore, for the rest of the season with a broken arm as the result of a scooter accident. He's the 10th player and sixth starter to suffer a season-ending injury and those players have made a combined 84 starts in their career. The Gators (4-4, 3-3), who host Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4), are now without their three most experienced offensive tackles: Moore, Chaz Green and D.J. Humphries.
7. Nkemdiche inside: Ole Miss true freshman defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the country in the 2013 class, will move over to defensive tackle this week when the Rebels (5-3, 2-3) host Arkansas (3-6, 0-5). According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, defensive line coach Chris Kiffin suggested the move could be permanent, saying, "Maybe that's Rob's future, so that's where we're at right now." The 6-foot-5 Nkemdiche is 280 pounds.
8. Another strong finish for Vanderbilt? The Commodores (4-4, 1-4) haven't quite had the step up that some might have thought they would after going 9-4 last season, but coach James Franklin noted this week that right now, Vandy has the same record at this point in the season that it did last year. The Commodores proceeded to win five straight games, including their bowl game, to close out the year. Can they finish strong again? They'll have to start with a road win at Florida Saturday if they're going to repeat that feat.
9. How will Tennessee respond? The Volunteers have made significant strides this season, beating a ranked team (South Carolina) and coming close against another (Georgia), but the past two weeks have been rough with blowout losses at Alabama and Missouri. With the Volunteers returning home, can they find some more magic when they host No. 9 Auburn?
10. Tuneup for Georgia: The Bulldogs get an FCS foe this week in Appalachian State. It should be a short day for the starters and comes at a good time, because the Bulldogs will turn around and travel to Auburn the following week. Expect the Bulldogs to take care of business here against the Mountaineers, who are 2-7.
1dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf
2dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf