Two matchups between unbeaten teams, one in the Western Division and one in the Eastern Division, highlight Week 4 in the SEC.
Here’s a look at what to watch:
1. Tide stingy at home: Scoring points against Alabama has never been easy, certainly not since Nick Saban arrived. But scoring points against the Crimson Tide at home has been nearly impossible. Beginning with the 2008 season, Saban’s second on the job, Alabama has given up more than 20 points at Bryant-Denny Stadium only once, and that one time came last season when Auburn rallied from a 24-0 deficit and won 28-27. Arkansas has specialized in scoring points under Bobby Petrino, but it’s been tough sledding for the Hogs against the Crimson Tide. In three games under Petrino, they’ve never scored more than 20 points against Alabama and managed only a field goal in the second half last season in a 24-20 loss.
2. Downright special: The area of the game that Arkansas has to win Saturday if it’s going to take down No. 3-ranked Alabama is special teams. The good thing for the Hogs is that they’ve been pretty special in most facets of special teams, particularly the return game. Joe Adams is one of the most feared open-field runners in the league and returned two punts for touchdowns in the opener. He’s averaging 19.6 yards a return to lead the SEC, and getting a big return from him would be huge for the Hogs this weekend. They also lead the league in kickoff returns, averaging 33 yards a return. Freshman Marquel Wade took one back 85 yards for a touchdown in the New Mexico game. Petrino hired John L. Smith prior to the 2009 season to upgrade special teams, and the former Michigan State and Louisville head coach has delivered.
3. Third and not so long: It sounds simple enough, but the key to beating Alabama is staying out of third-and-long. And the truth is that it’s anything but simple. Petrino said one of the things the Crimson Tide do better than anybody else is create negative plays on first and second down to force third-and-long situations. That’s when they dial up their pressure. Petrino said it’s imperative that the Hogs are in third-and-5 a lot more than they’re in third-and-10. Arkansas is second in the SEC through three games in third-down conversion (48.6 percent), but has had very little success on third down against Alabama. The Hogs are just 9-of-41 (21.9 percent) against the Tide the last three seasons.
4. Shepard’s return: LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee gets another speedy playmaker to throw to when junior receiver Russell Shepard returns for the Tigers against West Virginia after serving an NCAA-mandated suspension the first three games. One of the things that stuck out to LSU coach Les Miles this past spring and preseason was how much better Shepard became as a true wide receiver. A former quarterback, Shepard improved his route-running and became a more technically sound receiver. He’s electric in the open field, and it will be interesting to see what LSU’s new offensive brain trust (Greg Studrawa and Steve Kragthorpe) has devised to get Shepard the ball. He has to be more consistent in catching the ball, but should be now that he’s had two years of working exclusively at receiver.
5. Flirting with disaster: Is this the week for South Carolina? The Gamecocks have picked up a dangerous habit this season of playing to the level of their competition, and they’ve come a little closer each week to losing the game. You can hear the frustration in Steve Spurrier’s voice, and he understands fully that Vanderbilt’s not a team to mess around with. The Commodores, who’re also 3-0, beat the Gamecocks in 2007 and 2008, and the combined score between these two teams the last four seasons is dead even – 58-58. Both teams have made a ton of big plays on defense this season. South Carolina has three defensive touchdowns, and so does Vanderbilt. The two defenses have combined to force 21 turnovers (12 by Vanderbilt and nine by South Carolina). Something says protecting the ball will be mighty important in this one.
6. Tackling Lattimore: South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore has already carried the ball 87 times this season and leads the country with 534 rushing yards. The 230-pound sophomore is at his best after contact and wears down defenses with his ability to pick up extra yards after the initial hit. Vanderbilt has enough confidence in its cornerbacks that the Commodores will probably free up safety Sean Richardson to act more as a linebacker in this game and walk him up closer to the line of scrimmage. Of course, that invites South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia to throw the ball, and Garcia has not been overly sharp through three games. The Gamecocks would like to get junior receiver Alshon Jeffery more involved, which will probably be their answer if the Commodores do load the box. Jeffery has been held to one touchdown catch in the first three games. He’s due for a big game.
7. Block that kick: Florida was one of the best teams in the business at blocking kicks under Urban Meyer, and it also looks like that’s going to be one of the Gators’ strengths under Will Muschamp. They’ve already blocked two punts this season, one of those by Chris Rainey last week in the Tennessee game. They go up against Kentucky this Saturday, and the Wildcats’ special-teams units are probably having nightmares right now. Counting field goals, Florida has six blocked kicks against Kentucky dating back to the 2006 season -- four blocked punts and two field goals.
8. No more picks: Ole Miss offensive coordinator David Lee is hoping less is better. He said he’s reduced the playbook by about 30 percent and totally eliminated one pass protection heading into Saturday’s game with Georgia. Quarterback Zack Stoudt had protected the ball well in the first two games, but threw five interceptions last week in the 30-7 loss to Vanderbilt. That five-interception performance continued what’s been a plague for the Rebels. In their past 28 games, which dates back to the start of the 2009 season, they’ve thrown 40 interceptions. A big part of the problem this season is that they haven’t been able to run the ball nearly as well as they thought they would. Ole Miss is 11th in the SEC in rushing offense and averaging just 109 yards per game.
9. Georgia hurting up front: Georgia’s offensive line has been beset with injuries and defections the past couple of years, and there was another one Wednesday in practice when starting right guard Chris Burnette injured his knee. Georgia coach Mark Richt said he didn’t think it was a serious injury. But just having Burnette go down with any degree of injury is a blow. Already, the Bulldogs had been playing without starting left guard Kenarious Gates, who hurt his ankle in the opener against Boise State. Gates was able to make it through practice Wednesday, so Richt is hopeful of having at least one of his starting guards available Saturday against Ole Miss. Senior center Ben Jones could move over to guard, but the Bulldogs would prefer to keep him at center.
10. Going back to basics: Preseason camp ended back in August, but try telling that to the Auburn players. After a brutal defensive performance last week in a 38-24 loss at Clemson, Auburn coach Gene Chizik went back to more of a preseason camp-mentality this week in practice, which meant a lot more hitting and a lot more tackling. The Tigers’ tackling hasn’t been up to par in any of their first three games and was especially bad last week. It’s really been a struggle for Auburn’s secondary, although Auburn didn’t have any sacks or quarterback pressures in the loss to Clemson. So obviously it’s not just one area of the defense that’s not getting it done. The Tigers have simplified some checks on defense, hoping some of the younger players will play faster and more instinctively.