What to watch in the SEC: Week 4

It’s the first really big weekend in the SEC, highlighted by Alabama’s trip to Arkansas and South Carolina’s trip to Auburn.

Here’s the Week 4 version of what to watch in the SEC:

1. Protecting Mallett: If you want to know how Arkansas fared late Saturday afternoon against Alabama without looking at the scoreboard, take a look instead at Ryan Mallett’s uniform and the number of turf stains it has on it. If the Hogs can protect him, he has a chance to do some damage against the Crimson Tide’s young secondary. A year ago, Alabama was able to frustrate Mallett not only by the pressure it brought, but also by disguising things and mixing up its coverages. You can bet Nick Saban’s going to dial up some blitzes the Hogs haven’t seen this season on tape, but Mallett is pretty slick in that pocket when it comes to buying just enough time and zipping it down the field. If the Hogs can keep him upright, they’ll have a chance to hit some big plays. On the flip side, if the Crimson Tide can get pressure with their front guys and not have to blitz much, then it’s going to be a long afternoon for Mallett and that Arkansas offense.

2. Third-and-long: There’s a reason Alabama has been so good at stopping people on third down under Saban. They’re masterful at getting teams into third-and-long situations, and that’s when they really like to tee off. The best way for the Hogs to avoid third-and-long is to have some success on first down. They didn’t run it particularly well in the win over Georgia, netting for just 53 yards on 23 carries. It’s going to be important in this game that Mallett hit his check-down guys and settle for the 4- and 5-yard gains. Senior tight end D.J. Williams figures to be a big factor in this game, too. There’s a reason Mallett went to him on the first two plays of the game-winning drive last week. At the end of the day, the Hogs are going to have to be able to run it some. Otherwise, they’re going to be living in third-and-long, and that’s never a good thing against the Crimson Tide.

3. Wrapping up: Arkansas is second in the SEC and tied for 10th nationally in total defense, but the real test comes Saturday against Alabama. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino reiterated this week that his defense was much better than it was a year ago. The Hogs have certainly tackled much better in the first three games, although you never really know what kind of tackling team you are until you try to tackle Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. They have combined for 422 rushing yards this season, and 195 of those yards have come after contact. Ingram had 70 of his 151 yards after contact last week against Duke in his first game back after missing the first two while recovering from knee surgery.

4. In a rush: Auburn boasts the No. 1 rushing offense in the SEC. The Tigers are averaging 259.3 rushing yards per game, and their 6-6, 250-pound quarterback, Cameron Newton, is a big part of that attack. He’s fifth in the SEC in rushing with 309 yards in three games. The Tigers face a South Carolina defense on Saturday that is No. 1 in the SEC against the rush. The Gamecocks are allowing just 59.7 yards per game on the ground and only 2.2 yards per carry. South Carolina and Alabama are the only two teams in the league that have yet to allow a rushing touchdown. So needless to say, something’s gotta give Saturday night on the Plains.

5. What might have been: Auburn had its sights set on landing both Mike Dyer and Marcus Lattimore during the recruiting process. The Tigers got Dyer and made a nice run at Lattimore, but he ultimately decided to stay in state and go to South Carolina. They will be paired against each other on Saturday. Lattimore is second in the SEC in rushing with 333 yards in three games. He’s a tackle-breaking machine. Dyer is 10th with 212 yards, and it sounds like he’s about to become the featured option in that Auburn backfield. Sit back and enjoy. We get an early glimpse into who really is the best freshman running back in the SEC.

6. Cobb vs. Jenkins: Two of the premier players in the SEC are likely to be matched up for at least part of the game Saturday in the Swamp. Kentucky likes to move Randall Cobb around, and this may be the game when we see him in the “WildCobb” formation for more than just a handful of plays. The Wildcats haven’t had to use that formation very much to this point. But when Cobb is lined up outside at receiver, look for Florida’s Janoris Jenkins to draw the coverage. Jenkins has established himself as one of the top cover cornerbacks in the country. He already has two interceptions, one he returned for a touchdown, and he’s also been one of the Gators’ better tacklers in the secondary.

7. Next up, Fresno: Remember when Ole Miss’ schedule almost looked cushy those first five games and the absolute worst the Rebels could be going into that Alabama game was 4-1? Well, the Rebels are 1-2 with home losses to Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt, and the best team they’ve played to date, unbeaten Fresno State, is coming to town this weekend. Pat Hill’s Bulldogs aren’t afraid to play anybody anywhere and have won six of their past nine games against BCS opponents. This may be the Rebels’ last chance to turn this season around. If they lose this one, they can just about count on finishing below .500.

8. Lining up with freshmen: Tennessee was already young and inexperienced in the offensive line coming into the season. But on Saturday against UAB, the Vols will take “young” to another level. Coach Derek Dooley said three true freshmen will be on the field for a large part of the game. Ja’Wuan James will make his fourth straight start at right tackle. James Stone will start at left guard for the injured JerQuari Schofield, who’s out for two or three games with a broken bone in his left foot, and Dooley said Zach Fulton would rotate in some at right guard. The Vols even pulled up true freshman Marques Pair from the scout team this week, and he could play some at left tackle.

9. Avoiding three in a row: Somebody’s going to be left standing with a three-game losing streak Saturday night in Starkville. If it’s Mississippi State, the Bulldogs are going to be hard-pressed to finish with a winning season. Even getting to .500 and making a bowl game wouldn’t be a guarantee at that point, which would be a real downer considering how well Mississippi State finished last season and how much the program has improved under Dan Mullen. It goes much deeper than that for Mark Richt and his Bulldogs if they lose their third in a row. At that point, the entire season could unravel. And if this winds up being a five- or six-loss season for Georgia, you can’t help but wonder what that means for Richt and his future in Athens.

10. Ford’s wait: Redshirt freshman running back Michael Ford was the rage of LSU’s spring practice. He was the offensive MVP of the spring game with 139 yards and seemed poised to play a big role in LSU’s rushing attack this fall. But through three games, Ford has carried the ball just three times, all three attempts coming at the end of the Vanderbilt game in mop-up duty. LSU coach Les Miles has said that he’d like to get Ford more opportunities going forward, and maybe this is the week against a salty West Virginia run defense ranked eighth nationally. The Tigers have been riding Stevan Ridley so far in the running game. He’s third in the SEC in rushing with 318 yards on 55 carries. Nobody else on the team has more than 17 carries, and that’s receiver Russell Shepard. The Tigers have certainly run the ball better this season, but there’s still room for Ford.