Where did the first two months of the season go?
November is suddenly upon us, and we take a closer look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 10:
1. Round 3: It’s the third meeting in 12 months between Alabama and LSU, the SEC’s two behemoths. The Tigers had a two-game winning streak going against the Crimson Tide until last season’s bitter 21-0 loss in the BCS National Championship Game. It’s a loss that has eaten at the LSU coaches and players, especially after they won 13 straight games last season against a killer schedule and then played so poorly in New Orleans. Tiger Stadium will certainly be a factor. It always is, but Alabama has shown a propensity to go on the road and play well. This is a huge game for the SEC in terms of the national title picture. If Alabama wins, the Crimson Tide will be a heavy favorite to get to Miami and play in the Discover BCS National Championship Game. If LSU wins, the SEC probably will be on the outside looking in this season unless two of the unbeaten teams (Oregon, Notre Dame and Kansas State) lose.
2. Talent in the trenches: Alabama’s offensive line versus LSU’s defensive line. There could be as many as eight players in those two units on Saturday night who will be selected in the top three rounds of the NFL draft, including six in April 2013. Both of LSU’s defensive ends, Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, are first-rounders. The same goes for Alabama guard Chance Warmack, who’s the top interior offensive lineman in college football. Alabama center Barrett Jones, who’s proved he can play anywhere on the offensive line, is a projected second-rounder along with Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker, while LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan is also probably a second-rounder. The two sophomores may be the most physically gifted of the bunch -- Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson.
3. Help for Mettenberger: While a lot of eyes will be on LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger and whether he can play more consistently, the real issue will be how well the Tigers play around him. Mettenberger hasn't gotten a lot of help from his receivers this season, and they’ve dropped way too many passes. What’s more, LSU will need its best game in pass protection. The Tigers have thrown the ball more this season as promised by Les Miles. They just haven’t connected on a lot of big plays down the field. That has to change if they’re going to win Saturday.
4. Stingy defenses: Good luck in scoring points in bunches against Alabama or LSU. The Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense and haven’t allowed more than 14 points against an SEC opponent since the end of the 2010 season. The Tigers are ranked No. 9 nationally in scoring defense and have gone 21 straight games without allowing anybody to score more than 22 points against them. In six of their eight games this season, they’ve held their opponents to fewer than 20 points. So in other words, don't be surprised if we see another battle of field goals on Saturday night.
5. Winning the turnover battle: Not only has Alabama been good at forcing turnovers, but the Crimson Tide are equally good at capitalizing on them. Alabama has forced 23 turnovers this season, which is the fourth-most among FBS teams. The Crimson Tide lead all FBS teams with 125 points scored off those turnovers. LSU, on the other hand, has allowed 40 points off turnovers this season, which is 18 more than it allowed all of last season.
6. The real Georgia defense: The Bulldogs finally played up to their talent level on defense last week in a 17-9 win over Florida. Can they keep it up? They’re going to have to if they want to get back to Atlanta for a second straight year, and it starts this week against an Ole Miss offense that will look to spread out the Bulldogs and play at a lightning-fast pace. The Rebels are averaging 32.4 points per game and seem to be hitting their stride. Georgia senior safety Shawn Williams challenged his defensive teammates last week publicly, and it seemed to work. We’ll see whether the Bulldogs can continue to play with that same intensity and same consistency. From a talent standpoint, they’re as good as anybody else in the league.
7. Containing Johnny Football: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel leads the SEC in rushing with 793 yards and would be the second quarterback in the past three years to lead the league in rushing. Auburn’s Cam Newton did so in 2010 with 1,473 rushing yards. Manziel is also chasing Newton’s single-season SEC record for total offense. Newton amassed 4,327 yards in 2010, and Manziel has 3,009 yards this season with five games to play (counting the bowl). He’s gained 537 of his 793 rushing yards on scrambles, which means Mississippi State had better take away his running lanes Saturday night and keep him in the pocket.
8. More of Moore: While Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and the LSU tandem of Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo get most of the publicity, Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore has been the SEC’s most productive big-play defender this season. He’s up to No. 4 on Mel Kiper’s latest Big Board and is third among FBS players with 10.5 sacks. Moore also leads the SEC in hurries and knockdowns with 21. Clowney and Arkansas’ Trey Flowers are tied for second, each with 18.
9. Dooley’s dilemma: There’s no doubt that Tennessee’s Derek Dooley is coaching to save his job these last four games. A loss to anybody in November would pretty well seal his fate. But if the Vols can win out and finish 7-5, Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart may not be as quick to pull the trigger on Dooley as most of the Vols’ fans would be. On the scoreboard, there hasn’t been much evidence that Tennessee has made strides. The Vols have lost 12 of their past 13 SEC games, but they have been more competitive and had chances to win against nationally ranked foes Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Hart isn’t talking about Dooley’s future, but several close to the situation think he would lean toward the side of giving Dooley a fourth season if the Vols can finish strong.
10. Winning on the road: Vanderbilt travels to Kentucky this weekend and can win its second SEC road game, which would be the first time since 2008 that the Commodores had won twice in the SEC away from home in the same season. They beat Ole Miss and Kentucky on the road in 2008 and finished 4-4 in the league. It’s the only time in the past 28 years that Vanderbilt has finished with a non-losing record in the league. But a win over Kentucky on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium would even Vanderbilt’s SEC record at 3-3 this season with games remaining against Ole Miss on the road and Tennessee at home.