What to watch in the SEC, Week 8

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

By this time next week (actually Sunday), we'll have our first look at the BCS standings, meaning Alabama will almost certainly be perched near the top if the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide can take care of business Saturday at home against Ole Miss. Taking a page out of Nick Saban's lesson plan, what's it really mean if the Tide are holding down one of the top two spots with so much football left to be played? Well, South Carolina debuted at No. 6 in the BCS standings a year ago and never won again in losing five straight and not even making it to a bowl game. Nobody is suggesting that kind of collapse is looming for Alabama. Nick Saban has this team dialed in. But it is a reminder that a lot can happen in these next seven weeks. Here's a rundown of what to watch this week in the SEC:

1. Eroding support for Fulmer?: Still looking for his first SEC win of the season, embattled Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said confidently Thursday night while taking a break from making recruiting calls, "We're not close to being dead yet." Somebody might want to tell that to his athletic director, Mike Hamilton, who during an extensive interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel this week discussed hypothetically how a change might be made before the season was over and even confirmed that some boosters had already discussed Fulmer's replacement with him. Hamilton later denied that he was trying to publicly lay the groundwork to fire Fulmer, although the timing of his comments was certainly odd. The bottom line: Fulmer and the Vols (2-4, 0-3 SEC) desperately need a win Saturday at home against Mississippi State.

2. The Saban influence: Coming off an open date, not only is Alabama as healthy as it's been, but Saban's had an extra week to ensure that his unbeaten Crimson Tide don't get ahead of themselves. "Coach Saban's constantly talking to us about that, and this team has bought in," Alabama junior offensive tackle Andre Smith said. "As long as you're a true competitor, there's always room for improvement. You can win the U.S. Open one weekend. But the following weekend, the field is back there wanting to eat you up. That's the way we're looking at it."

3. Searching for Greg Hardy: Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt would like to know where Hardy disappeared to last week against South Carolina. Hardy simply can't shake his "play when he wants to" persona. When he's on, he's one of the best pass-rushers in the SEC. The Rebels need him to be on Saturday, similar to the way he was a year ago against the Crimson Tide when he had 13 total tackles, including five for loss and three sacks. Hardy's at his best coming off the left edge, which means he won't be matched much against Alabama star left tackle Andre Smith. But the Rebels are moving him around more than they did a year ago.

4. Opportunity knocks for Mr. Garcia: His time is finally here. Stephen Garcia was the savior off the bench last week when he led South Carolina to a come-from-behind victory over Kentucky on the road. Now, it's his show. The redshirt freshman quarterback gets his first start against defending national champion LSU, which hasn't been as salty on defense as the Tigers' talent suggested they would be at the beginning of the season. Garcia is already a household name among South Carolina fans (thanks in part to his off-the-field escapades). If he wins this game, go ahead and erect his own wing in the school's football hall of fame.

5. The Bulldog Shuffle: This changing up the offensive line is becoming a weekly drill for Georgia, which plans to go with its fourth different left tackle of the season Saturday against Vanderbilt. Vince Vance went down with a season-ending knee injury last week, meaning sophomore Clint Boling will slide over from right guard. The Bulldogs opened the preseason with Trinton Sturdivant as their left tackle, but he blew out his knee in a scrimmage. They then moved Kiante Tripp from right tackle to left tackle, moved him to tight end and now back to left tackle this week for depth. Vance had moved over to left tackle from left guard. Whatever Georgia offensive line coach Stacy Searels is making, it's not enough.

6. LSU's secondary is on the clock: Les Miles sounds like he's getting a little antsy, a little restless. He's seen far too many mistakes and busts in the LSU secondary this season for his liking. It's not all young players, either. The Tigers gave up the 70-yard touchdown pass to Percy Harvin last week on a ball that was batted by Danny McCray. Senior free safety Curtis Taylor was supposed to be helping on coverage deep and was instead covering a shorter route. Miles has said he won't be hesitant to try different personnel. The last thing LSU can afford against South Carolina is to give up big plays, and you know the Head Ball Coach has already found a few ways to attack that secondary.

7. Don't bury the Commodores yet: Those were Bobby Johnson's words following Vanderbilt's loss last week to Mississippi State. It was a bad loss, maybe the kind of loss that would have sent the Commodores reeling in past years. But Johnson likes the resiliency of this club and its willingness to prepare the same every week. Plus, Vanderbilt goes into the Georgia game knowing this is a team it's fared well against the last few years. The Commodores won on their last trip to Sanford Stadium in 2006 and were driving for the winning score last season before fumbling inside the 10, opening the door for the Bulldogs to drive the field in the final minutes and kick the winning field goal as time expired. With Mackenzi Adams stepping in at quarterback, the Commodores think they will be able to keep the Georgia defense from loading up as much because of his ability to throw the ball from the pocket.

8. Offensive nirvana?: Honestly, it might just be downright offensive watching the Mississippi State and Tennessee offenses on Saturday. The Bulldogs are ranked 103rd nationally in total offense and the Vols 104th. In scoring offense, the Vols are tied for 108th and the Bulldogs tied for 113th. On third down, Mississippi State is converting just 36.3 percent of the time and Tennessee 32.9 percent of the time. Both teams, though, are on their second quarterback, which has helped some in recent weeks. Tyson Lee replaced Wesley Carroll for the Bulldogs, while Nick Stephens supplanted Jonathan Crompton for the Vols. Do we see another 3-2 game in the ninth?

9. Fresh off the Cobb: If ever Kentucky could use an infusion of offensive energy, it's now. Freshman Randall Cobb will take over the marquee role at receiver that was occupied by senior Dicky Lyons Jr., who was lost last week with a season-ending injury. Cobb should be back pretty close to 100 percent after suffering a high ankle injury earlier in the seas
on. The Wildcats are going to need all the offense they can get down the stretch, and he's their most explosive threat. Look for them to go to him often Saturday against Arkansas, and he's also going to continue to get a few touches at quarterback. The best way to get a stagnant offense going is hit a few big plays, and Cobb has that ability. He's going to return punts this week, too.

10. Petrino returns to the Bluegrass State: There won't be any welcome back parties for Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino ... from Kentucky fans or Louisville fans. But the Wildcats are looking forward to getting a shot at Petrino. Many of the players on Kentucky's team were involved with Petrino one way or the other during the recruiting process when he was at Louisville. They also remember what Petrino did to them on the field. He was 4-0 against the Wildcats, and his teams never trailed in any of those games. This is a chance for Petrino's Hogs to build on the momentum of their 25-22 road win last week at Auburn. It's a chance for Rich Brooks' Wildcats to repay a few old debts. "I would love to tell you -- off the record -- what I think of Coach Petrino. He's a great football coach. Let's leave it at that," Kentucky defensive tackle Corey Peters (a Louisville high school product) told the Louisville Courier-Journal.