- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Will Florida's players rally around Ron Zook? Can Marcus Randall spark LSU's offense? Can Auburn avoid letdown? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
The hits keep coming for Alabama, which is coming off a crushing 17-13 loss at Tennessee last Saturday.
The Crimson Tide learned earlier this week that starting fullback Tim Castille will miss the rest of the season after tearing ligaments in his right knee against the Vols. Castille had done a little bit of everything for Alabama this season and had scored six touchdowns.
He's the third marquee offensive player the Tide has lost for the season due to a knee injury. Quarterback Broyle Croyle was injured in the Western Carolina game and tailback Ray Hudson against Kentucky.
Even with some of the injuries, Alabama is a quarterback away from being a 9-2 team this season.
Croyle meant that much to the Crimson Tide, and Spencer Pennington has been that limited. Pennington had chances to make Tennessee pay last Saturday, but missed too many open receivers in key situations.
Alabama (5-3, 2-3) will be off this Saturday, but needs only to beat Mississippi State at home on Nov. 6 to become bowl eligible. The Tide closes the season at LSU on Nov. 13 and home against Auburn on Nov. 20.
Mike Shula won't win SEC Coach of the Year honors, but he deserves a few votes. His defensive coordinator, veteran Joe Kines, has also done one of his better coaching jobs.
Without much help from the offense, the Tide is playing lights out on defense. They lead the country in total defense after holding the Vols to one offensive touchdown and 195 yards of total offense.
With a healthy Matt Jones, Arkansas still has a chance to win three of its last four games and qualify for a bowl game.
Without Jones (or with a gimpy Jones), the Razorbacks can go ahead and start planning to spend the holidays at home for the first time in the Houston Nutt era.
The Razorbacks (3-4, 1-3) have been to a bowl game all six years under Nutt, but have backed themselves into a corner this season. They have an open date this weekend and then have to find three wins in their final four games against South Carolina, Mississippi, Mississippi State and LSU.
As Arkansas fans saw last weekend, there's not much hope without Jones, who isn't practicing this week to rest his strained hamstring.
Once the SEC's leader in total offense left the game last Saturday against Georgia, the Razorbacks were finished. Redshirt freshman Robert Johnson played the last two series and was sacked twice.
"It takes us out of our game when (Jones) isn't full speed," Nutt said.
One of the most remarkable recoveries of the season was by Arkansas freshman running back Peyton Hillis.
Thought to be lost for the season, Hillis came back and played some last week against Georgia. He broke three transverse processes in his lower back three weeks earlier.
"If we can get everybody healthy during the off week, then we'll be all right," Jones said.
The Razorbacks would like to know what it's like to start a game briskly on defense. They've given up more than 300 yards of total offense in the first half in each of their last three games.
Auburn can clinch the SEC's Western Division championship by winning at Mississippi this weekend -- and it's not even November yet.
The Tigers (8-0, 5-0) haven't been threatened since slipping past LSU 10-9 on Sept. 18. They've won their last five games by an average margin of 29.8 points and routed Kentucky 42-10 last Saturday.
This is clearly a national championship caliber team, but the BCS standings right now aren't making anyone on the Plains giddy. The Tigers are fourth in the latest standings and will probably need Oklahoma or Southern Cal to lose to have a realistic chance at moving into one of the top two spots in the final standings.
With Election Day just around the corner, Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville is already doing some subtle politicking.
"I'd be shocked if a team ever went through their schedule in the SEC, won an SEC championship game and be 12-0 and not have an opportunity to win a national championship," Tuberville said.
While senior quarterback Jason Campbell is deservedly getting most of the props for Auburn's success, the depth and versatility of the Tigers' front seven on defense can't be denied.
Remember, this is a defense that lost big-play linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas to the NFL.
But players such as redshirt freshman defensive end Quentin Groves have stepped in and made an immediate splash. Groves contributed four of the Tigers' eight sacks last week against Kentucky.
If Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley were suiting up for Georgia this weekend, the Bulldogs might really be in trouble.
Foley's meeting with the Gators' players turned heated earlier this week when he told them of Ron Zook's firing.
The meeting didn't last long, and some players walked out. Others suggested had it lasted any longer that Foley might have needed to be in full pads for protection.
"It's basically just telling the players, '(Expletive) you all. I don't care about your season anyway,' " junior safety Jarvis Herring said.
The Gators' emotions will be off the charts to start the game Saturday. Of course, you have to wonder how long that will last. Sometimes, that can be brittle emotion. But they've made it clear this week they will be playing for Zook.
Too bad they weren't as passionate about playing for their coach a week earlier when Mississippi State pinned an embarrassing 38-31 beating on the Gators.
"We're still proud of him being here for us and finishing out coaching the season for us," defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. "That just shows that he's not a quitter, so we just can't quit on him. We feel like we have to win this game for him."
When Zook was hired at Florida, defense and special teams were supposed to be his strong suit.
He hired a defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong, who built one of the best reputations in the league for his work at South Carolina. Strong was even being mentioned in some head coaching searches.
But ultimately, shoddy defense was one of the main factors in Zook and his staff's demise this season.
Forget for a moment that Mississippi State beat Florida. That was shocking enough. But the way the Bulldogs beat the Gators was the real story and speaks to what were obviously deeper issues at Florida this season.
Mississippi State lined up and pounded Florida. The Bulldogs rushed for more than 100 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
Georgia head coach Mark Richt, echoing some of the same sentiments of his predecessor at Georgia, Jim Donnan, would like to see a Georgia flavor to the Cocktail Party.
Since 1933, the Florida-Georgia game (aka the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party) has been played in Jacksonville, Fla., which Richt thinks is a distinct disadvantage to the Bulldogs.
The recent record certainly says so. Florida has won the last six games in this series and 13 of the last 14.
"It's a neutral site, but it's in Florida," Richt said. "I would like to see us play at a neutral site in Georgia as well."
The only option would probably be the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The game is under contract to remain in Jacksonville through 2006.
Despite the turmoil at Florida, Georgia has its own demons to overcome this week. The Bulldogs have seemingly invented ways to lose to the Gators.
Richt addressed the drought before reporters could even ask him it, and receiver Fred Gibson admitted everyone was "so uptight" about the Florida game.
To get away from some of the hubbub the night before the game, the Bulldogs are staying this year in St. Augustine, Fla., rather than Jacksonville.
Even though Georgia is a touchdown favorite in the game, Richt has tried to paint the Bulldogs as the underdog.
"How can you feel like you're the team that is supposed to win when you just haven't won it?" Richt said.
Freshman tailback Danny Ware, who bruised his lung for the second time this season last week against Arkansas, will play Saturday against Florida.
That's good news for the Bulldogs, who've been at their best with Ware in the lineup. Freshman Thomas Brown, though, has rushed for 100 yards in each of his last two games.
Any time the dreaded vote of confidence is aired publicly, that's usually not a good sign for the recipient. Simply getting to that point where an administrator feels like he needs to speak up is a bad omen.
With his team struggling at 1-6, Kentucky's Rich Brooks says he's not going anywhere. This week, his athletics director, Mitch Barnhart, and university president, Lee Todd, also expressed their support.
The Wildcats, just 1-12 in SEC games under Brooks, travel to Mississippi State this weekend.
"We've got a coach we want," said Barnhart, who's not going to win any popularity contests himself with Kentucky fans. "We're not in the market for a coach. We're going to work hard, recruit hard and bring our young players along."
Todd said the after-effects of the NCAA sanctions can't be denied. The Wildcats were docked 19 scholarships over three years for violations that occurred during the Hal Mumme regime.
"I'm as big a football fan as anybody, and I want to see this program get back in a winning tradition, and I know that both Mitch and Coach Brooks want to as well," Todd said.
How bad has it gotten on offense for the Wildcats?
They're 116th in total offense among 117 Division I-A teams. The only team worse is Duke. Too bad they can't square off in basketball.
Against Auburn, 13 of Kentucky's 14 offensive possessions covered a total of 30 yards. The Wildcats are averaging just 260.4 yards per game.
Offensive coordinator Ron Hudson told reporters this week in Lexington that firing him wasn't the answer.
"Is Rich Brooks going to fire Ron Hudson?" Hudson said. "I think Rich Brooks know that's probably the worst thing he could possibly do."
Hudson said an Auburn coach, after seeing the Wildcats in pre-game warm-ups last week, said, "Wow, you've got your work cut out for you."
Brooks said he will decide closer to game time whether he will start quarterback Shane Boyd, who's been plagued by a shoulder injury. Boyd's backup, Andre Woodson, was sacked seven times against Auburn and lost two fumbles.
After a season of uncertainty at quarterback, LSU head coach Nick Saban made it clear prior to the Troy game that Marcus Randall was his guy.
Not only was he the guy against Troy, but he saved the Tigers. His 30-yard touchdown pass to David Jones with 2:18 left was the game-winner. Randall threw for a career-high 328 yards on 24-of-37 (with three interceptions), and LSU needed every one of those yards. The Tigers' running game netted just 57 yards on 36 carries.
Randall has been at his best in the hurry-up offense this season and also took the Tigers down the field against Florida in the final minutes.
In typical Saban fashion, he's not ready to commit to Randall for the rest of the season, at least not publicly. JaMarcus Russell didn't play at all against Troy, but Saban said he hasn't forgotten about Russell.
How is it possible to out-gain a team by more than 250 yards and still need a game-winning touchdown pass in the final minutes?
LSU nearly found out the hard way last week in a 24-20 win over Troy. The Tigers turned the ball over four times and are last in the SEC in turnover-margin. They have 19 giveaways this season and only 12 takeaways.
"If we keep doing things wrong on offense, we're going to keep turning it over," Saban said.
LSU has orchestrated eight fourth-quarter comebacks in Saban's five seasons in Baton Rouge, and three of those have come this season.
Along with the win over Troy last weekend, LSU also beat Oregon State 22-21 in overtime to open the season and rallied for a 24-21 win at Florida three weeks ago.
Ole Miss is out of wiggle room as the Rebels head into their final four games of the season.
If they're going to have a chance to play in their fifth bowl game in David Cutcliffe's six seasons at Ole Miss, they have to win three of their last four games.
Even though the Rebels lost 21-17 two weeks ago to Tennessee, Cutcliffe thinks his team's confidence has improved.
"We will have to play our best game of the season to beat Auburn," Cutcliffe said.
After Auburn's visit to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium this Saturday, Ole Miss plays at Arkansas on Nov. 13, at LSU on Nov. 20 and faces Mississippi State at home to close the season on Nov. 27.
Cutcliffe isn't tipping his hand on what he's going to do at quarterback, even though redshirt freshman Robert Lane appears to have the most potential.
The Rebels have used three quarterbacks in their last two games -- Ethan Flatt, Micheal Spurlock and Lane.
"We're trying to find the best guy for each situation we face," Cutcliffe said.
The open date couldn't have come at a better time for the Rebels. They had a chance to get starters such as receivers Mike Espy (ankle) and Bill Flowers (lacerated kidney), defensive end Jayme Mitchell (knee), safety Kelvin Robinson (shoulder) and offensive tackle Tre Stallings (ankle) all a little closer to 100 percent during the off week.
Place-kicker Jonathan Nichols had also been plagued by a toe injury. Cutcliffe said an MRI was negative, and Nichols returned to practice this week.
No need to rub your eyes. Mississippi State is a 3-point favorite this week against Kentucky.
That's right, the same Mississippi State team that had evoked questions recently about the worst team in SEC history.
Now, the Bulldogs have a chance to go on a two-game winning streak after shocking Florida 38-31 last week and ultimately costing Ron Zook his job.
"We've handled adversity pretty well. Handling success can be more difficult," said first-year Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom.
The most remarkable thing about Mississippi State's upset of Florida was that the Bulldogs didn't fade in the fourth quarter. It was almost as if they expected to win, even though they had lost five straight.
"It was an emphatic validation that the plan we have in place will work and is on schedule," Croom said.
Similar to the Bulldogs, junior running back Jerious Norwood had become the forgotten man. He squeezed out 281 yards rushing in his first five games, although he did average 4.6 yards per carry.
But in his last two games, Norwood has resembled the big-time runner the Bulldogs thought they were getting when they signed the Parade All-American. He's rushed for 375 yards, including 174 last week against Florida.
"We've been doing the same thing all year," said Norwood, whose 37-yard touchdown run was the game-winner against the Gators. "We haven't changed anything. We had some bad luck at the beginning of the season. Hopefully, we can keep doing what we've been doing."
Norwood, who's a little smaller than the bigger backs Croom prefers, has suddenly rocketed to fourth among the SEC's leading rushers. He needs just 346 yards to become only the sixth Mississippi State player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
If you listen to South Carolina head coach Lou Holtz, the Gamecocks might have to go recruit a quarterback from the intramural fields this week.
But, then, it's never quite as bad as Holtz paints it.
Senior quarterback Dondrial Pinkins has returned to practice this week after partially tearing his rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder and will play Saturday. He's missed the last two games.
Pinkins said he winced a couple of times earlier this week on long throws, but added, "I feel it about five to 10 seconds and it goes away completely, and I'm ready to go."
The Gamecocks rallied to beat Kentucky 12-7 last week with fourth-team quarterback Mike Rathe leading the fourth-quarter comeback.
Backup quarterback Syvelle Newton, the Gamecocks' best run-pass threat, injured his ankle against Kentucky. He's been limited this week in practice and is questionable for the Vols.
Blake Mitchell also played some at quarterback against Kentucky, but was ineffective.
The Gamecocks' best hope to end their 11-game losing streak against the Vols is to turn loose junior receiver Troy Williamson.
Because of South Carolina's instability at quarterback, Williamson hasn't gotten as many chances as some of the other marquee receivers in the league. But opposing defensive coordinators certainly know who he is.
Of Williamson's 26 catches, six have been for touchdowns. He averages an SEC-leading 25 yards per catch and has four touchdown catches of 55 yards or longer.
"We ain't played anybody who can run like him," Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "He can flat run by you. Usually, when you think of that speed, you don't think of a guy
being 6-2 or 6-3. He's a 6-3 guy who can run by you in a hurry."
Tennessee's running game hasn't been the same since right guard Cody Douglas was sidelined with a mid-foot sprain.
Douglas hopes to return to the lineup this Saturday against South Carolina after missing the last two games against Alabama and Mississippi. The Vols averaged just 2.5 yards per carry in those two games and were totally shut down on the ground last week by the Crimson Tide.
"If I had a magic wand just to heal him right away, I'd do it in a heartbeat," said tailback Gerald Riggs Jr., also Douglas' roommate. "Cody is just one of those guys that when he's not there, you notice a difference. Not to take anything away from those other guys, because they're playing hard."
Ideally, the Vols would like to return to the same lineup they started with in the first four games -- Michael Munoz and Arron Sears at the tackles, Rob Smith and Douglas at the guards and Jason Respert at center. Sears, who's also been injured, had to play three different positions in the Alabama game.
The Vols have allowed just 37 defensive points in their last three games, and in the process, have racked up 11 sacks, 25 tackles for loss, six turnovers and scored a defensive touchdown.
"It's really amazing what they've accomplished, particularly with the number of injuries and guys fighting through injuries and still playing," Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "You could see it coming. You could see it everyday in practice, those guys getting better."
Defensive coordinator John Chavis said the improvement starts up front with the play of tackles Jesse Mahelona and Justin Harrell.
"The two reasons are Number 55 (Mahelona) and Number 92 (Harrell)," Chavis said. "They're the two reasons we've improved so much on defense. The big key is what they're getting done for us right now."
Tennessee is 35-0 under Fulmer against its remaining four opponents this season – South Carolina, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
"That doesn't mean anything," junior linebacker Omar Gaither said. "We could be 0-35, and it wouldn't matter. This season is different. Our goal is to get to the SEC championship, and we have to beat these teams to do that."
Even a win-starved program like Vanderbilt can get caught looking ahead occasionally.
The Commodores allowed 460 yards of total offense last week to Division I-AA opponent Eastern Kentucky, but managed to hold on and prevail 19-7.
Of course, at Vanderbilt, there's no such thing as an ugly win.
"Our guys hung in there and played when they had to," Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson said.
The only thing more porous than the Vandy defense was the stands. A season-low crowd of 16,500 was announced for the game, but the actual attendance might have been less than 10,000.
Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler is quietly having a solid season. He enters the LSU game this weekend having thrown 102 consecutive passes without an interception.
He's third in the league in total offense (213.2 yards per game) and sixth in the league in pass efficiency (140.5).
Running back Kwane Doster, who rushed for a season-high 117 yards against Eastern Kentucky, should be ready to go against LSU after suffering a thigh bruise last week. He had his leg wrapped after the game and during Sunday's practice.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The Nashville Tennessean.
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