Week 4 of the college football season will be headlined in the Southeastern Conference by a matchup between arguably the two best teams in the West.
Arkansas, home of perhaps the country’s No. 1 offense, will have a chance to shake up not just the SEC, but also the national polls when it welcomes defending BCS champion Alabama.
And while those two square off, division rival Louisiana State will duke it out with visiting West Virginia in an intriguing non-conference meeting.
Meanwhile in Gainesville, Florida has the dreaded “sandwich game” against Kentucky. One week after visiting rival Tennessee and seven days before traveling to Alabama, the Gators will do all they can to keep their focus on the Wildcats.
WEEK 4 (Sept. 25)
KENTUCKY (3-0, 0-0 SEC) at FLORIDA (3-0, 1-0 SEC)
Breakdown: When he coached Florida, Steve Spurrier once said that you can get a team to play at an emotional peak six times each season, but the rest of the time it will have to get by on talent, preparation and the right game-day decisions. Knowing Florida will be as fired up as possible for trips to Knoxville (Sept. 18) and Tuscaloosa (Oct. 2), would it be fair to expect the Gators to look at Music City Bowl regular Kentucky the same way? Probably not, but it shouldn’t matter. The Wildcats do feature two of the SEC’s most exciting individual talents in receiver Randall Cobb, an All-American candidate, and running back Derrick Locke, still one of the conference’s faster players, despite multiple knee injuries. However, the defense finished 11th in the SEC against the run (and last in sacks) a year ago and was flat-out dreadful when the Gators delivered a 41-7 whipping in Lexington last year. Really the only thing UK fans had to cheer for in that game was the hit Taylor Windham delivered to Tim Tebow that gave the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner a concussion. The biggest difference between these two teams for decades seemingly has been overall speed. The Wildcats are getting faster, but the Gators have elite speed. Once again, that should be a huge difference-maker as Florida wins for the 24th time in the series.
Player of the Game: Gator tailback Jeff Demps, the nation’s fastest player, will have two touchdowns of 60-plus yards en route to running for 187 yards on just nine carries in UF’s share-the-carries rotation.
The Pick: Florida 42, Kentucky 20.
ALABAMA (3-0, 0-0 SEC) at ARKANSAS (3-0, 1-0 SEC)
Breakdown: The Crimson Tide begin a three-game stretch where they play quite possibly three of the conference’s four best teams (they would be the fourth in that group) in the Razorbacks, Florida and South Carolina. And this one might just be the biggest test for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s young unit, which replaces nine starters from the 2009 team. Alabama dominated last season’s meeting, winning 35-7. But one year later Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and the country’s top collection of receivers will be looking to turn the Tide (which only returns only one starter in the secondary—standout strong safety Mark Barron) and put Alabama in position to play for the SEC Championship. With that said, as good as the Hogs look like they should be on offense, they have a questions on a defense that ranked last in the SEC in passing yards allowed (248.5 yards per game) and gave up at least 27 points five times (including to Eastern Michigan) a year ago.
Player of the Game: With a promising and deep defensive line rotation suddenly proving to be top-level SEC-caliber against the run, Arkansas will defend ‘Bama backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson pretty well, holding the talented duo to a combined 155 yards and two touchdowns. However, despite a dress rehearsal a week earlier against Georgia’s likely All-American A.J. Green, the Razorbacks will have no answers for Crimson Tide stud receiver Julio Jones. The 6-foot-4, 211-pound junior will catch 10 passes for 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns on his way to being named the national player of the week.
The Pick: Alabama 45, Arkansas 41
WEST VIRGINIA (3-0) at LOUISIANA STATE (2-1, 2-0 SEC)
Breakdown: Give the schedule-makers in Baton Rouge credit for giving their fans a pair of fun non-conference games in North Carolina (Week 1) and West Virginia. For that, meetings with McNeese State (Oct. 16) and Louisiana-Monroe (Nov. 13) can be forgiven. The Mountaineers will be led by the ridiculously talented Noel Devine, a North Fort Myers product who is probably the second-best tailback product (behind former Clemson star C.J. Spiller) the state has produced in the last five years. By this game the seven new defensive starters LSU will be acclimating should be comfortable with their roles, and WVU fans hope the same can be said for new quarterback Geno Smith. The 2009 Mountaineers went 3-1 in arguably their four biggest games (Connecticut, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Rutgers), all of which were decided by four points or less. However, they struggled with name non-conference foes, losing to Auburn, and Florida State. Nine starters return for WVU’s defense, which looked great some weeks (allowing a combined 29 points to Marshall, Syracuse and Louisville) and awful others (giving up a combined 104 points in losses to Auburn, South Florida and Florida State) but mostly was mediocre (teams scored between 20 and 24 points six times) in 2009.
Player of the Game: LSU linebacker Kelvin Sheppard will do a little bit of everything, recording nine tackles and a sack, while also forcing a fumble and intercepting a pass. Biggest of all, he will help limit Devine to 78 yards on 18 carries (though he will return a kickoff for a score).
The Pick: Louisiana State 27, West Virginia 17
SOUTH CAROLINA (3-0, 1-0 SEC) at AUBURN (3-0, 1-0 SEC)
Breakdown: One week after defeating Clemson, the Tigers will go for a State of South Carolina sweep when the Gamecocks come to town. This will be the season’s first road trip for Spurrier’s crew, which was just 1-4 away from home (0-4 in conference) in 2009. However, one recent constant for the Gamecocks has been their defense, which ranked 13th and 15th nationally the last two seasons. Auburn, on the other hand, ranked 11th in the SEC defensively and had some brutal performances (625 yards given up against Northwestern, 61 combined points allowed to Ball State and Furman). Entering this one, look for the Gamecocks to be in the Top 25, and coming off the defeat of Clemson, expect the Tigers to also either be in the poll or near the top of “also receiving votes.”
Player of the Game: South Carolina junior quarterback Stephen Garcia will deliver a quality performance, completing 19 of 27 for 263 yards and three touchdowns to offset four field goals (two from beyond 45 yards) by Auburn’s Wes Byrum.
The Pick: South Carolina 27, Auburn 19
GEORGIA (1-2, 0-2) at MISSISSIPPI STATE (1-2, 0-2)
Breakdown: This is a must-win for both teams and should be a real dogfight (pun intended). At this point, Georgia’s Bulldogs will have lost tough conference games to South Carolina and Arkansas, while MSU’s Bulldogs will have fallen to Auiburn and LSU. Perhaps the biggest advantage either team will have will be Georgia receiver A.J. Green, who is 6-4, against Mississippi State cornerbacks Maurice Langston and Corey Broomfield, who aren’t bad players, but each gives up six inches in height to the athletic, future NFL first-rounder. Look for this to be the first in a five-game winning streak for the Bulldogs … of Athens.
Player of the Game: Green will catch eight passes for 139 yards and a touchdown, despite constant double teams. He’ll get the slight nod over tight end Orson Charles, who will catch four passes for 67 yards and two touchdowns.
The Pick: Georgia 38, Mississippi State 21
The Rest of the Games: Mississippi 35, Fresno State 10; Tennessee 41, UAB 17; Vanderbilt is off.