Serious Saturday in the SEC

From Pac-10 parity to coaching karma to great SEC matchups, Mark Schlabach runs down who's on the mark -- and who's not.

Updated: October 3, 2006, 11:30 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Two weeks after Separation Saturday, things get downright serious in the SEC this weekend.

Three games featuring five teams ranked No. 13 or better in the Associated Press Top 25 poll could go a long way in determining which two teams will play in the Dec. 2 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

Chris Leak
Jason Parkhurst-US PRESSWIREChris Leak is looking forward to this week's SEC matchup with LSU.
No. 5 Florida hosts No. 9 LSU at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla., in what could be an elimination game for the Tigers. Having already lost to Auburn 7-3 two weeks ago, LSU (4-1, 1-1 SEC) can't afford to lose another conference game. If the Gators (5-0, 3-0 SEC) prevail, Auburn would then have to lose at least three times in SEC play for LSU to win the SEC West.

"It's a big SEC game," Gators quarterback Chris Leak said. "This is why you go to school at places like Florida and LSU. You want to play in big games like this."

The Gators' offense has performed much better in its second season under coach Urban Meyer, leading the SEC in total offense and averaging more than 30 points per game. But Florida hasn't faced a defense as menacing as LSU's, which leads Division I-A in total defense (193.4 yards per game) and is second in scoring defense (7.4 points per game).

"LSU is obviously known for having a great defense," Leak said. "They've got a lot of veterans. They're a very disciplined defense. You can tell just by watching them on film that they're very well coached. They run to the football and cover their areas very well."

The Gators might be without senior tailback DeShawn Wynn, who sprained his knee in last week's 28-13 victory over Alabama. Wynn's absence would put even more pressure on Leak, who has thrown an SEC-high 14 touchdowns with four interceptions. The Tigers have allowed only one touchdown pass in five games.

"They have changed some in their offensive scheme it appears -- a little bit more traditional, a little bit more two-back," LSU coach Les Miles said. "I think [Leak] has a strong arm. He can move his feet. He is very competitive. You have to keep him corralled."

If Florida falters, No. 13 Tennessee (4-1, 0-1 SEC) could climb back into the SEC East race with a win at No. 10 Georgia on Saturday night. The Volunteers lost to Florida 21-20 in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sept. 16, so a loss to the Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) would put them two games behind Georgia and possibly three behind the Gators in the league standings.

Tennessee has won its last two games against Marshall and Memphis by a combined score of 74-14.

"Pounding it against a team like Memphis is a lot different than pounding it against Georgia or Florida's front," Vols coach Phillip Fulmer told reporters on Sunday. "When we get to where we can do that a little bit better, then I'll put the stamp of approval on our guys up front. We're a little banged up and still trying like heck to get better. They did a good job this past week, so I'm not going to spoil their party. But we've still got a ways to go."

Georgia, which has struggled the last two weeks in wins over Colorado and Ole Miss, has won five of its last six games against Tennessee. The Volunteers won at Sanford Stadium 19-14 in 2004, when Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge was a freshman.

"There's a lot of things we've got to get better at, probably in a hurry," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "If we don't, we won't stay undefeated very long."

No. 2 Auburn hosts unranked Arkansas at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., the beginning of a stretch in which the Tigers (5-0, 3-0 SEC) will play five of their last seven games at home. The Razorbacks (3-1, 2-0 SEC) have lost their last three games against the Tigers, and haven't beaten a top-five ranked team since upsetting No. 5 Texas 38-28 on Sept. 13, 2003.

Auburn has won 20 of its last 21 games against SEC opponents, after escaping with a 24-17 win at South Carolina on Thursday night.

The Razorbacks are 2-0 in SEC play for the first time since 1998. They lead the SEC in rushing offense with 187.8 yards per game, and sophomore Darren McFadden has two 100-yard games this season after dislocating his toe during a fight before the preseason.

"It's a typical Arkansas offense," Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. "They're very physical up front. What I see is what I've seen for a long time at Arkansas. They're tough. They've added some things from a formation standpoint in the throwing game. They're doing a few different things."

On (and off) the Mark


On the Mark
With No. 3 USC looking, well, somewhat ordinary the last two weeks against Arizona and Washington State, this weekend's game between No. 11 Oregon and No. 16 California in Berkeley takes on even greater importance.

Nate Longshore
AP Photo/Don RyanNate Longshore has bounced back in a big way since Cal's loss at Tennessee.
The game figures to include a lot of scoring. Oregon is ranked No. 4 in Division I-A in total offense (497 yards per game) and sixth in scoring (40.3 points per game). California is No. 9 (452.2 yards) and No. 8 (38.4 points), respectively, in those areas.

California has bounced back remarkably well from its opening 35-18 loss at Tennessee. Running back Marshawn Lynch has four consecutive games with 100 rushing yards or more. Quarterback Nathan Longshore has completed 67.2 percent of his attempts with 1,221 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions since playing horribly against the Vols. Receiver DeSean Jackson has scored eight touchdowns in the last five games.

Not to be outdone, the Ducks' skill players have been lighting it up as well. Quarterback Dennis Dixon ranks eighth in Division I-A in total offense with 286.5 yards per game. Tailback Jonathan Stewart is averaging 114.3 rushing yards per game, and receiver Jaison Williams leads the Pac-10 with 115.5 receiving yards per game.

Oregon has won eight of nine games in the series and might have an edge on defense. The Ducks are allowing only 145.2 passing yards per game, tops in the Pac-10.

Off the Mark
Is there a softer 5-0 team in the country than No. 10 Georgia? A week after having to come from behind to beat Colorado in the final minutes, the Bulldogs struggled mightily in Saturday night's 14-9 victory at Ole Miss.

Heading into this weekend's key SEC contest against No. 13 Tennessee, the Bulldogs rank 89th in total offense (297 yards per game), 56th in scoring (25.6 points per game) and 90th in passing offense (163.6 yards per game, or, worse than Duke).

Is help on the way for Mark Richt's struggling offense? Senior quarterback Joe Tereshinski, who started the first two games at quarterback before badly spraining his ankle against South Carolina, returns to practice Monday and might be ready to start against the Volunteers.

When asked whether Tereshinski would be the starting quarterback against Tennessee, Richt said, "I wouldn't be surprised if he is.

"We're going to watch him real close. I think Joe needs to be really full speed if he's going to play in the game or start. It looks like he's going to be just fine."

In his absence, freshmen Matthew Stafford and Joe Cox have struggled. Stafford has completed only 48 percent of his passes for 485 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He threw for fewer than 100 yards in each of the last two games and was sacked three times.

"We've definitely got to get it going on offense," Richt said. "There's no question about it. I think they still know they can do it. We're getting ready to play a pretty good defense this week. I don't know if this is the defense for it to happen against."

Georgia at least has a slither of hope after its running game performed better against the Rebels. Junior Kregg Lumpkin, who is coming back from torn knee ligaments, ran for a career-high 101 yards against Ole Miss and displayed the power and speed he had before getting injured.

On the Mark
Northern Illinois tailback Garrett Wolfe can all but book his trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. Wolfe, the Huskies' sensational tailback, ran for a career-high 353 yards with three touchdowns on 31 attempts in Saturday night's 40-28 victory at Ball State.

Wolfe became only the ninth player in Division I-A history to run for 1,000 yards or more in his first five games and his 1,181 yards are the most among those players. Wolfe needs to average 206.7 yards in the Huskies' remaining seven games to break Barry Sanders' NCAA Division I-A single-season rushing record of 2,628 yards set at Oklahoma State in 1988.

Wolfe is averaging 236.2 yards per game -- more than all but six Division I-A teams and 75 yards more than Rutgers' Ray Rice, who is second with 161.2 yards per game. Wolfe is averaging more than 75 yards more than Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson (160.75 yards per game) and more than 90 yards more than West Virginia's Steve Slaton (145.75).

John L. Smith
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicJohn L. Smith wasn't smiling at the end of Saturday's game.
Off the Mark
If there are indeed football gods -- and the next time Duke scores a touchdown, I'll be a true believer -- then perhaps justice is being served at Michigan State and Texas A&M.

Remember when Louisville's players learned coach John L. Smith was bolting for Michigan State during halftime of the Cardinals' 38-15 loss to Marshall in the GMAC Bowl at the end of the 2002 season?

Likewise, remember when Dennis Franchione implored his players at Alabama, which was under harsh NCAA sanctions, not to leave and stick with Coach Fran and the Crimson Tide? And then many of those same players watched Franchione bolt for a $2 million salary at Texas A&M in December 2002, before Alabama faced the worst of its probation.

At Michigan State, Smith's program is in meltdown. The Spartans blew a 17-point lead in the second half of their 40-37 loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 23, and then slept through a 23-20 loss to Illinois on Saturday.

It was the Illini's first victory in a Big Ten road game since 2002. Illinois had lost 24 of its last 25 conference games before spoiling the Spartans' homecoming.

"All week. That's the way we practiced, what you saw," Smith told reporters after the Illinois loss. "We can't get them to go. And apparently I don't have the answer. We can't get them to go hard in practice, so we've got to continue to look for the answer."

The stunning loss was followed by an ugly scene at midfield, when the teams exchanged punches and shoves when Illinois players tried to plant an Illini flag at midfield.

John L. Smith, left.
AP Photo/Al GoldisJust when you thought the Spartans' loss to Illinois couldn't get uglier, a fight breaks out.
Afterward, Smith ended his postgame news conference by slapping himself in the face and saying, "I got hit," apparently a reference to Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis' claim that he got hit during a sideline scuffle involving Spartans receiver Matt Trannon.

Way to get over that loss, Coach.

It might get much uglier in East Lansing, Mich. The Spartans play at No. 6 Michigan on Saturday, then host No. 1 Ohio State on Oct. 14. They'll probably play the Wolverines without quarterback Drew Stanton (bruised ribs) and tailback Javon Ringer (sprained knee). Left guard Daniel Zynn broke his ankle and is probably out for the rest of the season.

Texas A&M fans might not ever get over the Aggies' 31-27 loss to Texas Tech, in which the Red Raiders scored the game-winning touchdown on Graham Harrell's 37-yard touchdown pass to Robert Johnson with only 26 seconds to go. The Aggies had kicked the go-ahead field goal less than two minutes earlier.

The loss dropped Franchione's overall record at Texas A&M to 20-20 in three-plus seasons. The Aggies might need to win three of their next four games -- at Kansas, at home against surging Missouri and road games at Oklahoma State and Baylor -- to save Coach Fran's job.

Texas A&M finishes the season with home games against No. 14 Oklahoma and No. 22 Nebraska and a road finale at No. 7 Texas.

On the Mark
Before the administrators at Michigan State and Texas A&M hand pink slips to their coaches, they might want to consider what coach Chan Gailey is doing at Georgia Tech.

Gailey, the former Dallas Cowboys coach, has seemingly been under fire ever since he replaced George O'Leary before the 2002 season. The Yellow Jackets finished 4-4 in ACC play in each of his first three seasons, then went 5-3 last year. Georgia Tech won seven games overall each season.

But since losing to Notre Dame 14-10 in its opener, Georgia Tech has won four games in a row, including a stunning 38-27 win at then-No. 11 Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets beat the Hokies at their own game, jumping to an early 21-0 lead (Virginia Tech hadn't allowed a first-quarter touchdown in 16 games; the Yellow Jackets scored three).

Georgia Tech blocked a punt to set up a touchdown, scored another touchdown on a fumble recovery and led 38-13 in the third quarter.

The Yellow Jackets moved into first place in the ACC's Coastal Division and are the only team on that side of the league without a loss in conference play. Georgia Tech has what is essentially a two-game lead over the Hokies and Virginia (the Jackets would have to lose two ACC games for either to win the division), as well as a one-game lead over Miami. The Hurricanes play at Georgia Tech on Oct. 28.

Off the Mark
Michigan State's loss to Illinois was ugly, but it wasn't the most expensive. TCU might have cost the Mountain West Conference between $14 million and $17 million by losing to BYU 31-17 in Fort Worth, Texas on Thursday night.

TCU
Vladimir Cherry/WireImage.comTCU lost to BYU -- and lost millions of dollars.
Before that loss, the Horned Frogs were around No. 15 in the BCS ratings projections and seemed poised to be an automatic BCS qualifier. Under the new BCS rules, a team from a non-BCS conference earns a spot in one of the four lucrative BCS bowl games by winning its conference and finishing in the top 12 of the final BCS ratings, or finishing in the top 16 and higher than the champion of a BCS conference.

TCU saw its 13-game winning streak end and fell to about No. 31 in the BCS ratings projections.

On the Mark
TCU's loss opened the BCS door for Boise State, which blasted Utah 36-3 in Salt Lake City on Saturday. The Broncos are 5-0 under first-year coach Chris Petersen and are projected to be around No. 18 in the BCS ratings.

Beating the Utes on the road appeared to be the Broncos' biggest obstacle to finishing undefeated. Boise State's remaining seven opponents have a combined record of 12-19 and only San Jose State (3-1) and Nevada (3-2) have winning records. But the Broncos still face two road games that might be potential stumbling blocks: at Idaho on Oct. 21 and at Nevada on Nov. 25.

Off the Mark
Which team is worse: Duke or Temple? The Blue Devils have been shut out in three of four games and are averaging just over three points per game. Duke is on pace to score 39 points this season.

The Owls rank 100th or worse in 14 of the 17 team statistics kept by the NCAA. Temple is last among 119 Division I-A teams in scoring defense, allowing 43.4 points per game. The Owls are on pace to allow 521 points this season. Louisiana-Lafayette set an NCAA record by allowing 593 points in 11 games in 1997.

On the Mark
Three 100-yard rushers at Clemson. Undefeated Wake Forest. Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson. Hot quarterbacks (BYU's John Beck, Ohio State's Troy Smith, Florida's Chris Leak, LSU's JaMarcus Russell, Tennessee's Erik Ainge, Wisconsin's John Stocco, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell and Kansas' Adam Barmann). Big-time tailbacks (Rutgers' Ray Rice and Brian Leonard, Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe, Michigan's Mike Hart, Penn State's Tony Hunt, Clemson's James Davis and Miami's Javarris James). Syracuse, San Jose State, Kentucky and SMU -- gasp! -- with winning records. Navy quarterback Brian Hampton. Big football weekend in, ahem, Winston-Salem, N.C. Great finishes at South Carolina, South Florida and Texas A&M -- all by the visiting teams. Virginia and Illinois (there, I said it).

Off the Mark
Bad letdown losses (Michigan State and Army). Georgia's receivers. Georgia's offensive line. Georgia's quarterbacks. Nebraska's defense. Virginia Tech's special teams. Phantom holding call at Ole Miss. Memphis' defense -- with and without Joe Lee Dunn. Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter. Fresno State (what happened to Pat Hill's program?). Winless Stanford.

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

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