The attention shifts away from Alabama and Florida this week because they both face the kind of nonconference games the rest of the country gives the SEC so much grief about.
The timing’s not too bad, though. Both teams can use a breather with the SEC championship game just around the corner.
The marquee game this week features LSU traveling to Ole Miss. The winner can lay claim to being the SEC’s third best team and will also move to the head of the list for a Capital One Bowl invite.
Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 12:
1. An updated roster at Alabama: It’s not a matter of whether the starters will finish the game against Chattanooga, but whether they finish the first half. Especially those players who have been fighting off nagging injuries, look for them to play just enough to stay game ready. There’s no need to push it in a game like this. Plus, it’s a perfect opportunity to get some younger players into the game that you’re going to need down the road. The fourth quarter might resemble the final quarter of the A-Day Game in terms of all the unfamiliar jersey numbers on the field.
2. An updated roster at Florida: Remember all the buzz about possibly seeing John Brantley against LSU when Tim Tebow was coming off his concussion? Well, Florida fans ought to get a heavy dose of Brantley against Florida International this weekend. Tebow has already taken a ton of hits this season, and there’s no way the Gators are going to take any chances with him. He’ll probably be done by halftime. It’s also a chance to get some of those younger receivers into the game and maybe rest some of the veteran defensive players who’ve been slowed by injuries.
3. Going bowling: Tennessee can become bowl eligible by winning this weekend, and Arkansas can improve its standing in the SEC’s bowl pecking order by winning. The Hogs face Mississippi State in Little Rock, while the Vols take on Vanderbilt in Knoxville. Mississippi State, meanwhile, is eliminated from bowl contention unless the Bulldogs can win over the Hogs at War Memorial Stadium. Mississippi State would then have to win on the final weekend of the regular season over Ole Miss to become bowl eligible. Currently, nine teams in the SEC are already bowl eligible. Vanderbilt is the only team that’s been eliminated.
4. Magnificent McCluster: Already one of the most exciting players in the country, 5-foot-8, 170-pound Dexter McCluster has been one of the hottest players in the country the past few weeks. He has 591 rushing yards in his last three SEC games to go along with six touchdowns. He’s coming off a school-record 282-yard performance against Tennessee where he scored four times, including a 71-yard run that will be a fixture in Ole Miss highlight packages for a long time to come. Even though he carried it 25 times last week, McCluster ought to be plenty fresh for LSU and the rest of the season. He had double-digit carries only once in his first six games.
5. Porter’s days dwindling at LSU? He’s been one of the key pieces to LSU’s coaching staff under Les Miles, but Larry Porter is now one of the leading candidates for the head coaching job at Memphis. A former running back at Memphis, Porter is widely viewed as one of the top recruiters in college football. His handprints were all over the class the Tigers brought in last year that was ranked No. 1 nationally by ESPN’s Scouts Inc. Porter coaches the running backs at LSU and also has the title of assistant head coach. It may be just a matter of time before he’s heading up his own program at his alma mater.
6. Big test for Jones: Tennessee was missing its starting free safety last week, and you see what McCluster did to the Vols. LSU free safety Chad Jones is now the guy responsible for making sure that McCluster doesn’t poster-ize the Tigers, too. Jones won’t be the only one trying to slow down the red-hot McCluster. He’ll have some help from his LSU defensive mates, who’ve been stingy against the run all season. LSU has allowed just three rushing touchdowns, which is tied for the SEC low with Florida, but McCluster poses the kind of big-play threat that can make any defense look silly.
7. Dixon vs. Mallett: It’s the classic run vs. pass matchup. Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon is second in the SEC in rushing and averages 120.2 yards per game. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett leads the SEC in passing with an average of 288.2 yards per game. Dixon may end up being the Bulldogs’ best defense against Mallett, who’s already set or matched 10 different school records this season. If Dixon can pound away at the Arkansas defense and help Mississippi State play keep-away, Mallett won’t get as many chances. Dixon has been a workhorse for the Bulldogs, carrying the ball 204 times. The only person to carry it more in the SEC this season is Auburn’s Ben Tate, who has 205 carries.
8. Berry bids adieu: He’s not officially saying this will be his Neyland Stadium farewell, but you know it will be. Tennessee junior safety Eric Berry is projected to be one of the top handful of picks in April’s NFL draft, meaning the chances of him hanging around for his senior season are remote at best. Berry has been a wonderful player for the Vols. He’s been an even better representative of the university and has gone out of his way to do everything with class. He insists that he’s not thinking of this as his final home game and instead just wants to soak everything up and enjoy the moment. Either way, he’ll go down as one of the finest to ever wear the orange.
9. Georgia leaning on the run: With star receiver A.J. Green out with a shoulder injury, the running game becomes more important than ever for the Bulldogs this weekend against Kentucky. The good news is that they’ve been running it better these last few games and have seemed to find the right combination up front. Georgia coach Mark Richt said one of the keys was moving sophomore Cordy Glenn back inside to guard from tackle, and freshman running back Washaun Ealey has also added some pop to the Bulldogs’ running game. They’ve averaged 191.7 yards on the ground in their last four games.
10. Cobb-Locke duo carrying Wildcats: Kentucky is holding its breath that Mr. Versatility, Randall Cobb, will recover from his shoulder injury well enough to be able to play Saturday against Georgia. He’s been the heartbeat of this team all season along with junior tailback Derrick Locke. They rank No. 3 and No. 4 in the SEC in all-purpose yards. Cobb is averaging 148.1 yards per game and Locke 146.1 yards per game. When healthy, they pose an ominous challenge for any defense, and both players are also extremely involved in special teams. Between them, they’ve scored 18 touchdowns this season.