It’s East-West showdown day in the SEC, with two key games featuring contenders from opposite divisions. The highlight game is LSU-Georgia (3:30, CBS). One year ago these two teams faced off in October and it was one of the ugliest games of the year. A 52-38 Bulldog victory no doubt had many fans exulting in an up-tempo style of play, but it had many of us cringing and wondering if some of the SEC’s greatest men, like Bear Bryant or General Neyland were turning over in their graves.
Whatever your opinion on the style of play, there’s no denying this is a game of consequence, whose results will likely be felt in December when bowl matchups are being slotted. It’s not must-win—neither LSU nor Georgia has lost a conference game and both could still win their divisions by running the table hereafter. But it is more likely that these two teams will be focusing on prizes short of the SEC title. It could be an at-large bid to the BCS. It could be a trip to the Capital One Bowl on January 1, the SEC’s top prize after the BCS games are full. Georgia got that date in Orlando last year, while LSU had to settle for the Peach. So while this isn’t a “monster game” so to speak, it’s pretty important.
Neither team has really looked great so far. Georgia, to its credit, has gone out played good non-conference competition. They lost at Oklahoma State and barely scraped by Arizona State at home. They’ve also beaten South Carolina, winning a 41-37 shootout against a Gamecock squad that’s otherwise played defensive games. It shows that the Bulldogs haven’t changed much from last year’s game, and also that they have the ability to force the tempo. LSU had a pedestrian win up in Washington and was lucky to escape Mississippi State last week. This matchup jumpstarts important Octobers for both schools. Georgia goes to Tennessee and then has its neutral-site showdown with Florida at the end of the month. LSU has Florida at home coming up next and a trip to Auburn in two weeks. If they are still breathing in the West, Alabama will await them in November.
I don’t have a strong opinion on who will win this one, so I’ll lean Georgia based on homefield. I like the way Joe Cox has played, ably stepping in for Matthew Stafford. But I remain convinced that if the Bulldogs do not get more consistent defense they are begging to get beat, and not just by the Floridas and Alabamas of the world. It’s just a question of whether LSU has what it takes to beat them in Athens. They haven’t shown it thus far in 2009.
Auburn-Tennessee will be ESPN’s prime-time game and this one will provide a real test for Lane Kiffin. He lost to UCLA and was written off. Then he came back and played Florida tougher than expected and got kudos in the press. Now he’s playing an SEC game at home against a team he should be at least evenly matched with. Kiffin needs this game. And elsewhere in the conference, two other SEC West contenders have what look to be easy road trips. Ole Miss goes to Vanderbilt looking to bounce back, while Alabama goes to Kentucky. Florida has a bye week, a very well-placed one, as Tim Tebow recovers from the concussion he suffered last week in Lexington.
The other half of the national championship game picture, Texas, is also off this week. It’s again a quiet week in the Big 12, who starts conference play later than most leagues. There are two interesting non-conference games. The big one, Oklahoma-Miami will be discussed in more detail tomorrow. The other is Texas A&M’s visit to Arkansas. The Aggies hired former Green Bay Packer coach Mike Sherman, a man I always liked and am pulling for in College Station. He goes toe-to-toe with another former NFL coach in Bobby Petrino. The Hogs have homefield in this ESPN2 game (7:30 ET) and have to be given the edge, but given that they’ve lost at home to Georgia and were uncompetitive in a loss at Alabama, they haven’t done anything to suggest that they’re ready to take care of business.
Over in the Big Ten…
The SEC teams we discussed are looking to fill slots in the Capital One & Outback Bowls on January 1. Their opponents are Big Ten teams and four teams angling for those spots take the field against each other in the noon ET time slot. Wisconsin goes up to Minnesota, for the first Big Ten game at the Gophers’ new stadium. This one should see a lot of points scored. The Adam Weber-to-Eric Decker combination is a potent one in the Twin Cities, and the Wisconsin pass defense has been suspect. But their pass offense has not, and Scott Tolzien looks capable of winning an air war. This game is just the appetizer for a huge week in the Wisconsin-Minnesota border war: Don’t forget the Packers visit the Vikings on Monday Night Football for their first showdown with Brett Favre in the purple-and-gold. Minnesota fans are aiming for a clean sweep of their rival to the east and hoping the Twins can steal a division title on the final baseball weekend of the season. Great week to be a sports fan in Minneapolis.
Michigan-Michigan State is the other key rivalry game. The Spartans have seen their season slip away early, losing three straight. But they’re only 0-1 in Big Ten play and beating their rival would soothe a lot of ills. Michigan is still perfect on two counts—they haven’t lost yet and they haven’t played defense yet. For Saturday, I’ll bet that the first of those streaks will come to an end. This is part of a big sports weekend in Detroit—they get their rivalry football game and it’s the Tigers trying to hold off the Twins.
Penn State goes to Illinois in a game that will tell us a lot about the Nittany Lions. We know that the Illini are not very good. If Penn State is ready to get back in the conference race, they will win this game decisively. If it’s a nailbiter, it suggests PSU is a middle-of-the-pack entity.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the big ABC prime-time games, as well as check in on the Pac-10, ACC and Big East.