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Random Thoughts from Around the SEC

LSU refuses to go silently into that good night while South Carolina fizzles in Baton Rouge, but the real SEC stretch run is just now beginning.

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Alabama: AJ McCarron injury induced instant panic attacks in Tuscaloosa, but back-up Blake Sims has looked viable in limited duty. Road trip to Missouri turned into a snoozer, but the gauntlet run begins now for the Tide, with the four toughest games on the regular season schedule all coming in the next four weeks. Tennessee will be the single toughest pure match-up, even if not so in overall opponent quality, and a victory in Knoxville won't come without a fight. The Vols offensive line and passing game will easily be the best ‘Bama has seen to date, and while the Tennessee defense is terrible, the burden could be placed on the Alabama offense to produce big points, which is not a role it has traditionally relished. Essentially a four-game season for the Tide at this point, and ‘Bama must win them all to have any reasonable chance at reaching Miami.

Arkansas: Tyler Wilson posted a Run-and-Shoot style stat line against a laughable Kentucky program. Back-to-back wins came against the worst of the worst in the SEC, so don’t reach too much into that alone, but Arkansas has at least put themselves in position to potentially reach a bottom-tier bowl game, which is more than most anticipated a couple of weeks back. In more pertinent news, Arkansas is making it clear that they want to hire a new head coach by December, which indicates that they want to get out in front of the head coaching market with several other major programs also potentially having coaching vacancies.

Auburn: Benching of Khiel Frazier provides no offensive spark, and Auburn once again collapses late on both sides of the football. A certain degree of coaching turnover is all but guaranteed at this point, but the real question is whether Chizik will return. Previously I’ve thought he would see one more year, but a loss to Vanderbilt – who is somehow a seven-point favorite – would probably cement his abrupt termination come early December. As of right now, there are only two winnable games of note remaining on the schedule (Vanderbilt and Texas A&M), and if Chizik drops both of those his return is almost impossible to fathom. While the 2010 national championship will give him the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to envision any real scenario under which Chizik returns for 2011 if Auburn finishes up this season 3-9 overall, 0-8 in the SEC, and with ugly losses to both Georgia and Alabama, which is precisely how the season will end if he loses to both Vandy and A&M..

Florida: Jeff Driskell leads the Gators to victory yet again, and at times he is the only impact player of note on the offensive side of the ball. Victory over Vanderbilt was closer than many anticipated, but a certain degree of drop-off was to be expected after the physical slugfest against LSU. Key game for the Gators this weekend against South Carolina, and a legitimate opportunity to solidify their status as national championship contender. A win won’t come easy, but if the Gators can find a way to get it done they likely play in Atlanta come December.

Kentucky: Joker Phillips will all but certainly be fired at the end of the season, provided that he can even survive that long. As the case last week, Kentucky is simply not relevant enough at this point to justify any further comment.

LSU: With the season on the line in Baton Rouge, LSU played accordingly, dominating South Carolina on both sides of the ball, particularly at the line of scrimmage. The scoreboard was closer than it otherwise should have been, which was due to another ugly interception by Zach Mettenberger and a special teams breakdown in the return game. The offensive line played tremendous football, and that will be the key moving forward. Mettenberger is clearly a liability and the passing game is largely impotent, so this team will go just as far as the defense and the running game can take it, and it will take that level of performance from the big uglies up front if LSU expects to reach Atlanta. Coming out party for Jeremy Hill, and speaking of, if the offense does not have a coming-out party of its own against Texas A&M this weekend, odds are it will never happen this season. With the win, once again the Alabama showdown is for all the marbles.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze continues to have the Rebels playing over their heads, and with the upset win over Auburn, Ole Miss has a legitimate chance at reaching a bottom-tier bowl game. This team is unlikely to get the scalp of any quality opponent, but given all of their various shortcomings the debut campaign under Freeze has gone as well as anyone in Oxford could have hoped. The late touchdown run by Jeff Scott was an impressive cap to an already strong performance. Bye week this weekend for the Rebels, who must find a way to beat Arkansas the following weekend if they expect to make a bowl game.

Mississippi State: Knocking off Tennessee was easily the biggest win of the year in Starkville, though I saw nothing that led me to believe that the Bullies would beat either Alabama or LSU. Tyler Russell played at a high level, though most tend to do that against a hapless Tennessee defense. After holding Tyler Bray to 148 yards on 24 passing attempts, the MSU secondary should be lauded as the best in the SEC. MSU gets another cupcake this weekend, and will come into Tuscaloosa 7-0 and ranked nationally in the top fifteen, but they draw Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU in the three weeks thereafter. Maybe Dan Mullen and company can make some noise against the better teams in the conference, but I tend to think we’ll see a late season fizzle in Starkville.

Missouri: Disastrous season continues with a thumping from Alabama, though there is hope that James Franklin returns this weekend from a sprained MCL. Hapless Kentucky ought to provide some relief this weekend, but at 3-4 with games left against Florida, Tennessee, and Texas A&M, Mizzou will need to pull at least one upset down the stretch just to see Shreveport in late December.

South Carolina: Gamecocks follow up a dominating performance over Georgia with a dud in Baton Rouge, and as Steve Spurrier indicated the following day, LSU simply played like they wanted it more. Late interception by Connor Shaw doomed South Carolina, but the bigger problem all night was the inability to find success in the running game with Marcus Lattimore. A win in Gainesville this weekend all but certainly puts the Gamecocks in Atlanta, but even so a wasted opportunity in Baton Rouge for Spurrier and company.

Tennessee: Somehow, someway, after the loss to Mississippi State, the Vols are only 1-10 in their last 11 SEC games, and that one win came in overtime against Vanderbilt. Much like Auburn, hard to believe this program has struggled this much. The typically potent passing game was shut down by the MSU secondary, and the defense was terrible as usual. At 3-3 with games left against Alabama and South Carolina, the best-case scenario in Knoxville is perhaps 7-5, which may not be enough to save Dooley. It’s relatively clear that a November loss would doom Dooley’s tenure, but it’s possible that he may also have to pull off a big upset over Saban or Spurrier to return for 2013.

Texas A&M: Near disaster avoided in Shreveport after blowing a massive lead against Louisiana Tech, though in fairness Tech is far a better team than many give them credit. Johnny Manziel continues to compile massive numbers, but he’s doing so in large part against a slew of bad defenses, so perhaps we ought to view it all with a skeptical eye. LSU comes to College Station this Saturday in what is a huge opportunity for the Aggies. A&M almost took out Florida, and LSU could likewise be pushed to the limit.

Vanderbilt: Give the ‘Dores credit for taking Florida down to the wire, but once against Vandy comes up lame on the big stage. Kind of hard to believe that Vanderbilt could be that big of a favorite against Auburn, but betting action set aside the path to reaching a bowl game will be exponentially more difficult without a win over the Tigers. All of the remaining regular season games are winnable for the ‘Dores, but truth be told their biggest potential impact on the SEC down the stretch could be earning opposing coaches a pink slip. Looking at you, Gene Chizik and Derek Dooley.