Tennessee vs. Florida: This game will define both programs’ seasons, with the winner becoming a bonafide SEC East contender. It will define the futures for two unstable coaching regimes hopeful to make a statement. Derek Dooley inherited a bad situation at Tennessee. His onslaught of optimistic slogans, sartorial selections and miscellaneous weirdness has just made it worse. Under him the Vols are 13-14 overall, 10-14 vs. FBS teams and 4-13 against SEC opposition. A dump truck of potpourri can’t mask the stench of those two seasons. Standards have clearly fallen. Without a nine-win season to show progress, he will not be moving forward.
Tennessee has a high-powered offense. Quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarelle Patterson are the best trio outside USC. All three may be first-round draft picks. Dooley needs to win one of Florida/Georgia/South Carolina/Alabama. The Gators at home look like the most prime target.
Florida needs this win as well. Spoiled by Meyer and Spurrier, Gator fans are accustomed to winning and to explosive offense. Under Will Muschamp they have received neither. They went 6-6 in the regular season last year. Three of the wins came against Florida Atlantic, UAB and Furman. They beat one bowl-bound team, 6-6 Vanderbilt. Their Charlie Weis offense was not just slower-paced. It was ugly, like two sagging geriatrics making a sex tape.
The Gators have been stable in wins over Bowling Green and Texas A&M this season, though by no means convincing. This is a school that, after two eight-win seasons, fired Ron Zook midway through the third. Muschamp has not even attained that level of success. With LSU, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida State still on the schedule (not to mention Missouri and Vanderbilt), Florida could place themselves in a bad place dropping this game. Some fans may already have checked out. UF returned tickets to Tennessee for this game. They also weren’t all that enthused about watching the Gators play Bowling Green at home.
Florida has not lost to Tennessee since 2004. Turning the Gators over would be a benchmark for how far the Vols have come or, perhaps more accurately, how far Florida has fallen.
Alabama at Arkansas: Most thought this would be a huge game in March and a moderately significant game in August. After last weekend? Not so much. We’ll spoil any latent suspense. John L. Smith will not be returning in 2013. With Arkansas’ star quarterback Tyler Wilson out, the only real debate will be what the spread should be and whether Alabama covers. It is hard to see Razorbacks’ defense putting up much resistance. ULM thoroughly beat them, threw for more than 400 yards on them and were not afraid to let that game go to overtime on the road against them. Arkansas has looked better against the run, but they have not had Alabama running against them. Um…yeah…Roll Tide.
Notre Dame at Michigan State: Both teams have strong defensive fronts. Neither quarterback has shown he can throw downfield with any conviction. This could be ugly and close. Staring at this ugliness, a track record of close games – nine of the last 12 decided by one score or less – and a heavy, ungrounded, public lean we took the points. A couple interesting facts from ESPN’s Matt Fortuna: Notre Dame has not started 3-0 since 2002 and three of Michigan State’s six night games under Mark Dantonio have been decided on the final play.
USC at Stanford: The Cardinal are trying to sweep Matt Barkley. USC criticism has been overstated. Lane Kiffin’s team handled Hawaii thoroughly. They then flew across the country for a weird neutral site game, broken up by a weather delay and kept a tight game plan to get out with a win. That said, their talented but thin defense has not looked that imposing. Stanford’s physicality can give USC problems up front on both sides, whether those problems will cancel out the Trojans’ massive athleticism advantage on the perimeter is another question. Despite the home field advantage, Stanford must execute perfectly to win this game. Last year they needed more than a little bit of Luck.
Team Most in Need of a Win: Auburn. The Tigers lost their first two games to Clemson and Mississippi State. They face ULM, a team that just upset Arkansas. They have LSU and the Razorbacks the two games following. Not to mention their two SEC road trips followed by Texas A&M. Gene Chizik is just 14-12 against FBS teams without Cam Newton. That record could take a significant hit this season, at a time where Alabama is hitting an all-time peak.
Avoid Under Any Circumstances: Virginia Tech at Pitt.
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