SEC prepares for Separation Saturday

Quiet celebrations, SEC defenses and the Big East were on target this week. SEC offenses, the ACC and riots were not, according to Mark Schlabach.

Updated: September 11, 2006, 5:33 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

There are seven games this weekend that match teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, so I'm sure the marketing folks at ESPN will come up with some flashy catchphrase like "Separation Saturday" to promote what promises to be the biggest weekend in college football this season.

Separation definitely will be the theme in the Southeastern Conference, where history suggests two games Saturday could decide which teams play in the Dec. 2 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. In the SEC East, No. 7 Florida plays at No. 13 Tennessee. In the West, No. 6 LSU plays at No. 3 Auburn.

In a conference with five teams ranked in the top 13 of the AP poll, there are no mulligans, especially this season.

"You look forward to playing an opponent in a game that really counts," LSU coach Les Miles said. "This one really counts. As much it is just one game in the standings, it is a very big one."

In the past 10 seasons, the winner of the Florida-Tennessee game has gone on to win the SEC East seven times. In five of those seasons, the division title was decided by one game. Likewise, the winner of the Auburn-LSU game has won the SEC West five times in the past six seasons. Four times in the past 10 seasons, the SEC West was decided by one game or a tiebreaker, with the Auburn-LSU winner claiming the division.

"It's the first big SEC game for us and them," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "It's an East Division game, and the consequences for both teams are significant. A lot of times, it's down to the winner of this game having a chance to win the division and play for the conference championship."

Les Miles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLSU coach Les Miles knows September games in the SEC can make or break a team's title hopes.
Auburn and LSU have been among college football's most impressive teams in the first two weeks of the season. Auburn beat Washington State and Mississippi State by a combined score of 74-14. LSU blasted Louisiana-Lafayette and Arizona by identical 45-3 margins.

Last season, LSU won 20-17 in overtime in Baton Rouge, La., after Auburn missed five field goals. LSU went on to lose to Georgia 34-14 in the SEC championship game.

"If you fall behind two games, which is basically what you do if you're the loser, it makes it pretty difficult," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "Both teams have had good teams the past few years. We've been the best two teams in the West. Whether it's that way this year, we'll have to wait and see, but that's the way it's been."

Georgia has won the SEC East in three of the past five seasons, but Florida and Tennessee might be the strongest teams in the division this season. The Volunteers already have played two big games, stunning then No. 9 California 35-18 in the opener and beating Air Force 31-30 in a game that was closer than many expected.

The Gators beat Tennessee 16-7 in Gainesville, Fla., last season, and Florida coach Urban Meyer would become only the fourth SEC coach to beat Fulmer in consecutive seasons (former Florida coach Steve Spurrier, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Georgia's Mark Richt are the only others to do it).

Florida has won nine of the last 13 meetings and might be catching the Volunteers at the right time. Tennessee lost its best defensive lineman, Justin Harrell, and cornerback, Inquoris "Inky" Johnson, to season-ending injuries in the Air Force game.

The Gators aren't the best team to play when having concerns about pass-rush and pass coverage. Florida ranks first in the SEC in passing offense (340.5 yards per game) and total offense (514 yards per game) and has converted 70.8 percent of its third-down plays.

Quarterback Chris Leak seems more comfortable in Meyer's spread offense, throwing for a career-high 352 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-0 win over Central Florida last week. With speedy freshmen Percy Harvin and Jarred Fayson joining a receiving corps that already included Andre Caldwell and Dallas Baker, the Volunteers must find a way to slow the Gators.

"They've got a lot of offensive weapons, there's no doubt about it," Fulmer said.

But Meyer knows playing at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium will be more difficult for his freshmen after playing their first two games at home. Florida has played 19 freshmen in its first two games, tied for third-most in Division I-A.

"We're going to count on 22 seniors," Meyer said during a teleconference with reporters Sunday. "There is no chance the young players will have any concept of what they're going to be stepping into. It's important for our seniors to get that point across. The only way to do that is to practice with the tempo and enthusiasm that you have to play with in a game like this. If you have a bad group of seniors, you won't be prepared."

On (and off) the Mark


On the Mark
Big matchups. You'll need multiple television sets this weekend, as it could truly be a weekend to remember. Florida at Tennessee. LSU at Auburn. Michigan at Notre Dame. Nebraska at USC. Oklahoma at Oregon. Clemson at Florida State. Miami at Louisville. Texas Tech at TCU.

Greg Robinson
Craig Melvin/US PresswireGreg Robinson's Syracuse squad hasn't won in more than a year.
Off the Mark
Syracuse at Illinois. The Orange haven't won a game in more than a year after failing to score from the 2-yard line seven times against Iowa. The Illini went on the road to Rutgers and got blasted, 33-0. At least the Illini were balanced, with 60 passing yards and 66 rushing. Syracuse has lost 11 games in a row, a school record. Illinois has lost its past 10 games against Division I-A competition.

On the Mark
Goal-line defenses. Georgia, Tennessee and Iowa all had impressive goal-line stands in preserving victories Saturday. The Hawkeyes mustered a stop for the ages, turning away Syracuse on seven consecutive plays from the 2-yard line to escape the Carrier Dome with a 20-13 double-overtime win. Georgia had two goal-line stands in its 18-0 shutout at South Carolina, forcing quarterback Blake Mitchell to fumble into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 1 and later turning away the Gamecocks on fourth down from the 2. Not to be outdone, Tennessee defensive end Xavier Mitchell stuffed Air Force's two-point conversion try with 1:35 to go in the Vols' closer-than-expected 31-30 win over the Falcons.

Off the Mark
Goal-line offenses. Syracuse's offense has left a lot to be desired in former NFL defensive coordinator Greg Robinson's two years at the school. The Orange have failed to gain 300 yards or more in total offense in 10 of 13 games under Robinson. The offense hit a new low against Iowa. Syracuse failed to score a point after each of Iowa backup quarterback Jason Manson's four interceptions and, worse, failed to score from the 2-yard line on seven consecutive plays in the second overtime. The Hawkeyes were penalized twice for pass interference in the end zone, giving Syracuse new life, but the Orange gagged and couldn't score.

On the Mark

Dennis Kennedy
Leon Halip/WireImage.com Dennis Kennedy scored a 1-yard touchdown on the last play to secure the Zips' victory.
Gutsy calls. Two coaches of teams from smaller conferences went for touchdowns, instead of field goals that could have tied the score, in the final seconds of road games at bigger schools. One play worked and the other failed, but both coaches should be commended. Akron's J.D. Brookhart made the right call when the Zips used their last timeout with 3.5 seconds to play at NC State. Trailing 17-14, Brookhart could have tried a short field goal to tie the game. Instead, Dennis Kennedy took a handoff and scored a 1-yard touchdown on the last play to give Akron a stunning 20-17 victory. Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry gambled, too, going for two points and the win at Tennessee instead of kicking an extra point that might have sent the game into overtime. Chad Hall took a pitch from quarterback Shaun Carney and didn't get far, but Air Force showed a lot of guts in coming back.

Off the Mark
Bad coaching. NC State coach Chuck Amato is on the hot seat again after the Wolfpack lost to a team they should have beaten. Amato chased the officials after Akron scored its game-winning touchdown. He wanted officials to review the play, but the Wolfpack already had used their three timeouts, so Amato couldn't challenge the play. Once again, NC State was ruined by stupid penalties. After Marcus Stone threw an 11-yard touchdown to Jamelle Eugene to go ahead 17-14 with 1:07 to play, the Wolfpack were penalized 15 yards for excessive celebration. That penalty allowed Akron to return the kickoff to its 33-yard line and set up its game-winning drive. It was the worst loss of Amato's mediocre tenure, which says a lot. In his six seasons, Amato has lost to North Carolina three times and Wake Forest twice.

On the Mark
SEC defenses. The top four teams in the SEC -- Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU -- are getting it done with defense. Each of those four teams ranks in the top 14 in total defense and the top seven in scoring defense. Auburn, Florida and Georgia tossed shutouts this past weekend, and LSU gave up only a field goal to Arizona. Not surprisingly, the defensive coordinators from those four schools are considered head coaching material: LSU's Bo Pelini, Georgia's Willie Martinez, Auburn's Will Muschamp and Florida's two-headed monster of Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison.

Off the Mark
SEC offenses. Four SEC teams rank 99th or worse in total offense. Mississippi State is 117th, dead last, and hasn't scored a point in two games this season. The Bulldogs have crossed midfield only four times and are averaging 161 yards offense. After losing quarterback Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt has returned to form, ranking 114th in total offense. Mississippi is 102nd, and South Carolina is 99th. Gamecocks quarterback Blake Mitchell hasn't directed a touchdown drive in 19 possessions this season, and South Carolina's only touchdown came on a trick play at Mississippi State. South Carolina's 18-0 loss to Georgia on Saturday night marked only the second shutout loss in Steve Spurrier's coaching career, the first in 193 games. "We had our chances," Spurrier said. "We're just stupid right now."

On the Mark

Steve Slaton
Christopher Gooley/US PresswireSteve Slaton and the Mountaineers make the Big East look good.
Big East. In the second season of Big East Lite, the depleted conference is proving to be better than expected. Six of its eight teams have unblemished records. West Virginia is ranked No. 5, Louisville No. 12. Rutgers and Pittsburgh are knocking on the door of the Top 25. The Big East can bolster its reputation further in three big matchups this week: Maryland at West Virginia on Thursday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET), and Miami at Louisville (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) and Michigan State at Pittsburgh on Saturday (ESPN2, noon ET).

Off the Mark
ACC. We're going to start charging ACC commissioner John Swofford rent for this space. A week after I wrote the ACC race would come down to three teams, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech, the Seminoles nearly lost to Troy. At least Clemson confirmed my belief that the Tigers aren't ready to challenge for the league championship. As for the rest of the ACC, Boston College is pretty good, Georgia Tech is OK, Maryland is mediocre, North Carolina is below-average, NC State is worse, Wake Forest is struggling, Virginia is bad and Duke is, well, Duke. Watch out Pac-10. You're next.

On the Mark
Ian Johnson. Maybe Dan Hawkins should have taken the Boise State tailback with him to Colorado. Johnson has run for 329 yards and seven touchdowns in the Broncos' first two games, stats that rank second in Division I-A. In Thursday night's 42-14 win over Oregon State, Johnson ran for 240 yards and five touchdowns. He gained 100 yards or more in only one game in 2005.

Off the Mark
Florida State's running game. The Seminoles are the worst running team in college football, averaging .87 yards per carry. They had 1 yard rushing against Miami, which was somewhat excusable because of the Hurricanes' great defense. But FSU wasn't any better running the ball in Saturday's 24-17 victory over Troy, with 45 yards on 28 carries. Senior tailback Lorenzo Booker is going to end up on a milk carton if offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden doesn't find ways to use him.

On the Mark
Quiet celebrations. Tiny Chadron State of Chadron, Neb., a Division II program, pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season Saturday. The Eagles traveled nine hours by bus to Bozeman, Mont., and upset Division I-AA Montana State, 35-24, a week after the Bobcats pulled the trick at Colorado. Shortly after the game, the Eagles reloaded their buses and made the long journey home, watching movies and sleeping most of the way. Their reward? The school used the $40,000 guarantee to purchase new uniforms.

Off the Mark
Ohio State riots. Ohio State is once again dealing with ill-behaved students after the No. 1 Buckeyes' 24-7 win at then No. 2 Texas on Saturday night. Police arrested 17 people, including five for arson, after 35 to 40 fires were set in a neighborhood occupied mostly by students. A dumpster was set ablaze, and two cars were burned. Three people were injured when they were hit by a car. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in the country and won a national championship four years ago. You've been there before, so act like it.

On the Mark
Hot coaches. Greg Schiano (Rutgers). Gary Pinkel (Missouri). Dave Wannstedt (Pittsburgh). J.D. Brookhart (Akron). Frank Solich (Ohio). Dick Tomey (San Jose State).

Off the Mark
Not-so-hot coaches. John Bunting (North Carolina). Chuck Amato (NC State). Al Groh (Virginia). Hal Mumme (New Mexico State). Phil Bennett (SMU). Walt Harris (Stanford).

On the Mark
New quarterbacks. Chase Daniel (Missouri). Matthew Stafford (Georgia). Mitch Mustain (Arkansas). Tim Tebow (Florida). Riley Skinner (Wake Forest). Thaddeus Lewis (Duke!). Stephen McGee (Texas A&M). Martin Hankins (Memphis). Ben Olson (UCLA).

Off the Mark
Not-so-great quarterbacks. Reggie Ball (Georgia Tech). Marcus Stone (NC State). Joe Dailey and Cam Sexton (North Carolina). Anthony Morelli (Penn State). Brent Schaeffer (Ole Miss). Chad Henne (Michigan). Anybody at Virginia.

On the Mark
Good special teams. BeamerBall is back. Virginia Tech blocked a punt for the second game in a row, this time getting one inside North Carolina's 10-yard line in its 35-10 win. Oregon had two big special-teams plays in its 31-24 victory at Fresno State. The Ducks scored the winning touchdown when kicker Paul Martinez scored on a 4-yard run on a fake field goal with 4:55 to go. Oregon also blocked a field goal to set up a touchdown.

Off the Mark
Bad special teams. What was Clemson thinking? The Tigers kept kicking it to Boston College's Jeff Smith, who averaged 42.6 yards on four kickoff returns. He returned the opening kickoff of the second half 96 yards for a touchdown after Clemson led 17-10 at halftime. Worse, the Eagles blocked an extra point in overtime to beat the Tigers 34-33 in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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