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September 22, 2011

Week 4 preview in the SEC

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Vanderbilt is the only team in the country that already has surpassed its 2010 wins total. Heck, the Commodores already have surpassed their 2009 wins total, too.

In fact, the Commodores are just one win away from tying the combined number of wins they've had the past two seasons.

Georgia at Ole Miss, 12:20 p.m.
Arkansas at Alabama, 3:30 p.m.
Florida at Kentucky, 7 p.m.
Vanderbilt at South Carolina, 7 p.m.
Florida Atlantic at Auburn, 7 p.m.
Louisiana Tech at Mississippi State, 7 p.m.
LSU at West Virginia, 8 p.m.
Then again, when you have had back-to-back two-win seasons, surpassing that total isn't all that hard, even three games into the season.

So how good is Vandy? We should find out Saturday, when the Commodores travel to take on South Carolina, the preseason favorite to win the SEC East. A Vandy win would turn the division race into a free-for-all.

South Carolina is a 16-point favorite, but first-year Vandy coach James Franklin shrugs that off.

"If you ask our team, we don't really see ourselves as an underdog," he told reporters earlier this week.

Vandy is coming off a 30-7 victory over Ole Miss, which was the widest winning margin by the Commodores in SEC play in 40 years - since a 49-19 victory over Mississippi State on Sept. 25, 1971.

The Commodores have been excellent on defense, ranking fourth in the league and 10th nationally in total defense by yielding just 250 yards per game. Vandy has given up 42 points in three games, but that includes touchdown returns of a blocked punt and a fumble.

Vandy leads the nation with 10 interceptions and has a plus-six turnover margin. But South Carolina's offense is a huge step up in competition compared to Elon's, Connecticut's and Ole Miss', which are Vandy's three victims. Franklin is confident his defense can get the job done.

"We're going to play the way we play," he said. "We've got two pretty good corners [Casey Hayward and Trey Wilson], and I know they're excited about the challenge and the opportunity [to go against South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery]."

Still, Franklin also hinted that Vandy will unveil some new schemes. "Don't get me wrong: [Vandy defensive coordinator] Bob Shoop has a degree from Yale for a reason," he said.

Vandy is looking for its second4-0 start since 2005. South Carolina, meanwhile, is looking for its first 4-0 start since 2001, when Lou Holtz was coach.

The past two times the Gamecocks have opened 3-0, they have lost Game 4, to LSU in 2007 and to Auburn last season.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is 16-2 in his coaching career against Vandy, with both losses coming while he was with the Gamecocks. "A big ballgame this week with Vanderbilt" is how he described the matchup.

"Vandy comes in probably as upbeat and ready to play as they've ever been since I've been here," Spurrier said in his weekly SEC coaches' teleconference. "They're 3-0, just like us. We'll see if we can become the team that we were advertised to be in the preseason."

Arkansas at Alabama is our national game of the week, and we'll have a more in-depth look at that game Friday.
South Carolina's offense has been all about sophomore tailback Marcus Lattimore, who leads the nation in rushing at 178.0 yards per game. He was injured and missed last season's game with Vanderbilt.

The Gamecocks have surrendered 462 rushing yards the past two games, to Georgia and Navy.

"We haven't played very well," Spurrier said about his defense. "That's all you can say. Hopefully we start playing better. Until we do, it's just all hope. We all keep reading about all these NFL guys we have on defense, but we're not stopping people. We need to do it on the field. We need to have a good defensive game this week."

Best matchup: LSU secondary vs. West Virginia wide receivers. WVU coach/playcaller Dana Holgorsen is one of those offense-minded guys who doesn't really care if his offense is one-dimensional. Sure, he would like for his rushing attack to be productive, but if it takes 60 passing attempts to win a game, so be it. That might be what it takes against LSU. WVU is not going to be able to run against the Tigers, so expect WVU QB Geno Smith to put it in the air at least 50 times. He'll be throwing against the best secondary he sees all season. LSU has the best pair of corners in the nation in Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu, and Ss Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor are active and cover a lot of ground. Depth is excellent, too, and you'll see a lot of dime packages from LSU in an effort to combat WVU WRs Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Ivan McCartney and Devon Brown.

[Related: LSU defense young but hasn't lost its bite]

Player on the spot: Vanderbilt QB Larry Smith. As noted earlier, Vandy is winning with defense. Eventually, though, you have to assume the offense is going to have to do something. Is Smith up to the task? Vandy ran for 281 yards and had 387 total yards in last week's win over Ole Miss, yet the Commodores are just 99th nationally in total offense (318.3 ypg). They are 111th in passing offense (141.3 ypg), and you can bet veteran Gamecocks defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wants Smith to have to win the game for the Commodores. Smith, a senior, is a bad passer. He has completed just 48.3 percent of his passes in his career, with 14 TDs and 15 picks.

Keep an eye on: Florida's pass offense. Florida senior QB John Brantley has thrown for 637 yards (212.3 ypg) and is completing 65.3 percent of his passes. But wide receivers have caught just 22 of the 52 passes completed by UF's quarterbacks this season. TBs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps are the leading receivers and have combined for 19 receptions and two TDs; the Gators' other TD pass went to H-Back Trey Burton. Coordinator Charlie Weis says he isn't bothered by the lack of production from the receivers because Brantley simply is taking what opposing defenses have given him. Still, with games in October against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia, the Gators need to prove this weekend against Kentucky that they have faith in their wide receivers.

Numbers game: Every SEC team has played three games, and two teams - Alabama with 12 and South Carolina with 11 - have more than 10 rushing TDs. The flipside: Those two schools, along with Ole Miss, are last in the league with two TD passes. Georgia and Tennessee have thrown 10 TD passes each.

[Related: Week 4 viewer's guide]

Quotes of the week

"There are a lot of different things I feel like we can improve on, starting with tackling, as we all saw Saturday, but also little technique issues and some different things that we just obviously have to improve on. I don't think that's any secret; I think the whole world knows it." - Auburn coach Gene Chizik, on his defense

"I do enjoy road games. You get your 70 guys and you go on a business trip and there aren't a lot of things you have to do other than go and play the ballgame. There aren't any other responsibilities that I have personally or that the players have or that the assistant coaches might have. So it is nice just to gather up the team, gather up the troops and get busy." - Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team plays its first true road game this week

"We've got to get better, especially offensively." - Kentucky coach Joker Phillips

"I've been looking forward to this because I've been told Morgantown is a wonderful place to play. Their game-day experience is a lot like an SEC game. They have a crowd that is into their team and makes a lot of noise. Our guys enjoy that type of environment." - LSU coach Les Miles, on his team's game at West Virginia

"In the 1960s, it was an entertainment weekend. When the teams lost, it was always about doing better the following week and coming back to watch them. It is a different world now and everything is scrutinized down to every play call and rumor. Fans don't go for entertainment like they used to. Some do, but it is just a different world. Football is a big business. I feel the pressure every day when I wake up." - Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, on the difference between attending games now and when he was a child in the 1960s

"We don't go into the game thinking [Marcus Lattimore is] going to run 35 or 40 times. But when things start happening in the passing game, you wonder, 'Why in the world are those guys trying to pass?' So you end up running, running, running trying to win the game." - South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier

[Related: Week 4 expert picks]

Poll watch: The SEC has five teams in the top 15 of the coaches' poll - the most of any league. No other league team is ranked.

Etc.: Ole Miss AD Pete Boone on Monday held a news conference where he called Ole Miss' loss to Vanderbilt "unacceptable" and addressed his expectations for coach Houston Nutt moving forward. Ole Miss has not opened a season with consecutive league losses since 2007. But the Rebels also are seeking to snap a six-game losing streak in SEC home openers. Some observers have tagged Saturday's Georgia-Ole Miss game as the "Hot Seat Bowl." Richt doesn't think much of the name: "That was pretty easy to predict. You think they could have thought of something better than that. I think a couple of kindergarteners could have figured out that one." Florida has won 24 in a row over Kentucky. That's the nation's second-longest current winning streak against an opponent; the longest is Tennessee's 26 against Kentucky. In the Gators' current streak, they have scored at least 30 points against the Wildcats 18 times and at least 40 14 times, including each of the past four seasons. UF has held UK to 10 or fewer points nine times during that stretch, including three times in the past five seasons. Alabama has won 19 consecutive SEC openers. Auburn coach Gene Chizik said he and his defensive staff would simplify the defense this week against Florida Atlantic so his players could play more freely. Sophomore SS Demetruce McNeal: "With so many young guys playing, [coaches] just don't want a lot of thinking. That's what they feel has been going on." Tennessee sophomore WR Justin Hunter will miss the rest of the season because of a torn ACL suffered in the first quarter of last week's loss to Florida. Junior Zach Rogers likely becomes the No. 2 receiver, with true freshman DeAnthony Arnett likely to move into the No. 3 receiver role. Arnett had eight receptions for 59 yards against Florida. Mississippi State expects to have starting OT James Carmon back for Saturday's game against Louisiana Tech. He was injured in the first half of the Week 2 loss to Auburn, then missed last week's loss to LSU. But Mississippi State has lost starting G Tobias Smith for the season to a knee injury suffered in the first quarter against LSU. It's likely that C Quentin Saulsberry will slide over and fill Smith's spot. Saulsberry started at guard in each of the past two seasons; redshirt freshman Dillon Day then would become the starting center. Georgia TE Orson Charles had six catches for 109 yards and a touchdown in the opener against Boise State, but he has just two receptions for 42 yards in the past two games. LSU WR Russell Shepard, who was suspended by the NCAA for the first three games, will return this week. Auburn junior WR Emory Blake has at least one touchdown catch in six consecutive games, the longest streak by an Auburn player since 1980. It will be a Galt family reunion when Vanderbilt travels to South Carolina. Dwight Galt is Vanderbilt's director of performance enhancement. His son, Dwight IV, is an assistant strength coach at South Carolina. A younger son, Tommy, is an offensive graduate assistant for the Gamecocks. Alabama had four sacks in its season-opening victory over Kent State; actually, those sacks came in the first three quarters against the Golden Flashes. But the Tide has zero sacks in the past nine quarters; that covers 90 pass attempts. Ole Miss (1-2) has scored just one offensive touchdown in eight quarters against FBS teams this season. Offensive coordinator David Lee said early this week that he has eliminated about 30 percent of the playbook and simplified the protection schemes in an effort to ramp up the offense. Georgia's Shawn Williams will remain at linebacker at least until Christian Robinson and Alec Ogletree are able to return from their injuries. Once that happens, coach Mark Richt said he expects Williams to move back to safety. LSU could be without starting OT Chris Faulk this week; he suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter of last week's win over Mississippi State. If Faulk can't go, senior Greg Shaw would get the start. Kentucky defensive coordinator Rick Minter held the same position under Weis at Notre Dame in 2005-06, Weis' first two seasons as the Irish's coach. Weis fired Minter after the '06 season, which ended in a BCS bowl.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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