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October 9, 2008

SEC: Recent national champions collide

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big East | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10

Is there a "Game of the Century" in the SEC this week? Maybe not.

But this weekend's contest between LSU and Florida is the type of matchup that only comes around once every couple of decades.

This Saturday night showdown at the Swamp marks the first time the national champions from the previous two seasons have faced each other since Notre Dame defeated Miami 29-20 in 1990.

"Make no bones about it this is a fun game to play," LSU coach Les Miles said. "You play in the SEC, you play classic matchups, and you better enjoy this one."

Florida must win Saturday to maintain any realistic hope of winning the national title, though LSU proved last season that a two-loss team isn't necessarily eliminated from the championship sweepstakes.

The Gators lost their last home game 31-30 to Ole Miss. Although Florida has scored at least 26 points in each of its five games, the Gators' offense has come under fire for inconsistency and the inability to utilize the team's wide assortment of weapons.

"The one thing you have on offense right now is a bunch of extremely competitive people that want the ball, want to contribute, want to do this and that, and if it doesn't score every time, it feels like the weight of the world is on their shoulders," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "I can see that. As a result, there are penalties or (a lack of) execution."

While Florida's relative struggles on offense have come under scrutiny this season, Miles doesn't see much reason for criticism.

"Florida is a tremendous team, in my opinion," Miles said. "They don't have any weaknesses. They're nationally ranked at No. 11, which is probably underselling them some. I think they're as talented a football team as I've seen."

Recent history suggests the Gators will have a breakthrough performance this week. A rivalry that once favored the road team now has the hosts feeling right at home. The road team won four in a row in this rivalry from 2001-04 Florida even beat LSU at Death Valley in 2003 to hand the eventual BCS national champions their only loss but the home team has won the past three meetings.

  • Florida QB Tim Tebow vs. LSU defensive line. Tigers DT Ricky Jean-Francois' comments this week about LSU wanting to take Tebow out of the game added spice to a matchup that already carried plenty of intrigue. Jean-Francois, Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman help give LSU more star power than just about any defensive line in the nation, though the Tigers currently rank only 70th in the nation in tackles for loss and 78th in sacks. Tebow hasn't dominated defenses quite as much as he did last season, but he remains a matchup nightmare for any defense in the country. Tebow performed the first of his trademark "jump passes" during a 23-10 victory over LSU two years ago. Tebow threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third score against LSU last season, when the Tigers rallied for a 28-24 victory. This game could come down to which of those two forces delivers a breakthrough performance Saturday.

    South Carolina at Kentucky, 12:30 p.m.
    Vanderbilt at Mississippi State, 2:30 p.m.
    Tennessee at Georgia, 3:30 p.m.
    Arkansas at Auburn, 5 p.m.
    LSU at Florida, 8 p.m.
    Mississippi State QB Tyson Lee . After displacing Wesley Carroll as Mississippi State's No. 1 quarterback, Lee delivered a respectable performance in his first career start. Lee went 17-of-26 for 175 yards with a touchdown pass and no interceptions in a 34-24 loss at LSU. Lee now will try to help last season's SEC surprise ruin this season's Cinderella story. Vanderbilt's secondary has played a huge role in the Commodores' 5-0 start. SEC quarterbacks have thrown a combined eight interceptions and three touchdown passes against Vanderbilt this season, and Ole Miss and Auburn went a combined 22-for-47 through the air for only 202 yards with six interceptions and one touchdown pass. If Lee can limit his mistakes and complete more than 60 percent of his passes, Mississippi State could pull a surprise at home this week.

  • Alabama RB Glen Coffee has run for 466 yards and five touchdowns in his past three games. Arkansas RB Michael Smith is averaging 105.8 rushing yards and 42.8 receiving yards per game. Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams has caught at least four passes in each of his five games this season. Florida WR Percy Harvin has caught a touchdown pass in three consecutive games. Harvin also has rushed for 150 yards on 22 carries during that three-game stretch. But he has missed practice this week with an injured ankle. Georgia receiver A.J. Green has caught a touchdown pass in back-to-back games. Georgia LB Rennie Curran has 23 tackles in his past two games. Kentucky RB Derrick Locke leads the nation with an average of 38 yards per kickoff return. LSU running back Charles Scott has rushed for at least 102 yards in each of his four games. Vanderbilt cornerback D.J. Moore leads the nation with an average of 28.5 yards per punt return. Vanderbilt FS Ryan Hamilton has collected 16 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and three interceptions in his past two games.

  • Arkansas kicker Alex Tejada has missed all three of his field-goal attempts this season. Auburn QBs Chris Todd and Kodi Burns have combined to throw six interceptions and only five touchdown passes this season. Auburn kicker Wes Byrum has gone 1-for-4 on field-goal attempts in his past four games. Byrum's missed extra point accounted for the final margin Saturday in a 14-13 loss to Vanderbilt. After having 12 touchdown runs and two touchdown catches last season, Tennessee RB Arian Foster still hasn't reached the end zone this season.

  • "If we get a good shot on (Tebow), we're going to try our best to take him out of the game. With his size and his heart, it's hard to get a clean shot. If he does get hurt, there's a trained medical staff at Florida, so you can go to the training room on Sunday."
    LSU defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois to The Orlando Sentinel.

    "We never go into any football game trying to hurt a player from the other team. My comments in regard to Florida quarterback Tim Tebow were misinterpreted and were intended to reflect the style of football that we play at LSU. We have great respect for Tim as a player and a competitor. By taking him out of the game, I meant as a defense we are going to try to make him ineffective. I'm sorry that my initial comments were interpreted another way."
    Jean-Francois in a statement he released later in the week.

    "(Jean-Francois) wasn't meaning it like a lot of people took it. You try to use anything as motivation, too, but I don't think he really meant everything he said. Part of it's true. We do have a good training staff."

    "Right now the big thing is that we're not playing as well as we need to on third down. Our third-down conversions are poor. We're a really good first-down team. We're consistently putting ourselves in second-and-4, second-and-3. It's almost like if we don't convert on second down, we put ourselves in a hole on third down."
    Tennessee offensive coordinator Dave Clawson to VolQuest.com. Tennessee has a third-down conversion percentage of 32.9 to rank 11th in the SEC.

    "After evaluating where we are at this point of the season offensively, I felt it was in the best interest of the Auburn football program to make this change. I'm not satisfied with where we are, and I am personally going to take a larger role with the offense the remainder of the season. We are going to work harder than ever to make sure we consistently improve as we move forward."
    Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville on the decision Wednesday to fire offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who was hired before last season's Chick-fil-A Bowl to bring the spread offense to the Plains. Auburn is ranked 104th in the nation in scoring and in total offense.

    "We want to go to a bowl just like everyone else does, (but) we don't point to six wins. We try to point to each week's game. This is our sixth game. That's what we're more concerned about. Our guys are smart. You can't hide it from them. They know the situation. They know the deal, but I don't think they're obsessed with trying to get the sixth win. They're just trying to get better."
    Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson. Vandy (5-0) has endured 25 consecutive losing seasons and is seeking its first bowl bid since 1982.

    "What they're doing is what we did last year."
    Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom to The Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss., about Vanderbilt's surprising start.

  • ETC.
  • After opening the season at wide receiver, Auburn's Mario Fannin has returned to running back - the position he played last season. Georgia FB Brannan Southerland is expected to return to the offense Saturday against Tennessee. Although he has played special teams, Southerland hasn't played one snap on offense this season while recovering from a foot injury. Georgia LB Rennie Curran has a knee injury that leaves him doubtful for this week. Darryl Gamble probably would start in his place. Tennessee has suspended reserve OT Ramone Johnson and G Darius Myers for the Vols' next two games, against Georgia and Mississippi State. Vanderbilt has trailed at some point in each of its five victories this season. The Commodores are outscoring teams 58-10 in the second half. Only one of Florida's five opponents this year has started a drive in Gators territory. Kentucky CB Trevard Lindley had three pass deflections last week against Alabama to give him 29 for his career, breaking Antoine Huffman's school record. LSU RB Charles Scott is the first Tiger to begin a season with four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances since Charles Alexander in 1978. Tennessee has allowed only one touchdown run all season.

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big East | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10

    Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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