What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

Two of the best teams in the league are off this week. Alabama and LSU both take a break before getting it on next week in Baton Rouge.

The top team in the league, not to mention the top team in the BCS standings, hits the road. Auburn travels to Ole Miss on Saturday.

Here’s a look at what to watch this week in the SEC:

1. Feeling the grind: This will be the ninth straight week that Auburn has played without a bye. It’s about this time that the proverbial piano really starts to jump on an SEC team’s back when it hasn’t had a bye. The Tigers have attempted to play more guys on defense. But with some of the injuries they’ve suffered, there simply isn’t a lot of depth at linebacker or in the secondary. Cornerback T’Sharvan Bell, who didn’t play last week with a hamstring pull, is probably a game-time decision this week. Outside linebacker Daren Bates is also a question mark after injuring his shoulder in the LSU game.

2. Taking to the road: The schedule has been about as travel friendly as it gets to this point for Auburn. This will be only the Tigers’ third game away from Jordan-Hare Stadium this season when they travel to Ole Miss on Saturday. They’ve been a different team on the road, although most teams are. Auburn held on to beat Mississippi State 17-14 in Starkville the second week of the season. Cam Newton was held to 70 rushing yards on 18 carries in that game and didn’t score a rushing touchdown. Three weeks ago, Auburn nipped Kentucky 37-34 in Lexington on Wes Byrum’s 24-yard field goal on the last play of the game. So both of the Tigers’ road ventures this season have been harrowing.

3. Masoli’s momentum: Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is coming off his best game of the season in last week’s 38-24 loss to Arkansas. Auburn hasn’t faced a dual-threat quarterback of his caliber this season. Masoli racked up a career-high 425 yards in total offense against the Hogs, including 327 yards passing and 98 yards rushing. He’s one of only four quarterbacks in the country to average at least 50 rushing yards per game and 180 passing yards per game. Auburn has given up 14 touchdown passes, which is the most in the SEC.

4. King’s return: Georgia tailback Caleb King returns to the lineup for the Bulldogs after being suspended the past two weeks. They may need him, too, because Washaun Ealey has been slowed this week in practice by a knee injury. He said he sprained his MCL in the fourth quarter of last week’s 44-31 win over Kentucky. Ealey has rushed for 100 yards in each of the two games King missed and scored five touchdowns last week. Still, Georgia would prefer to have both of them healthy and keep a fresh back in the game at all times. Ealey said he will definitely play against Florida, although he may not start.

5. Passing the buck: Florida hasn’t had much success throwing the football this season and enters Saturday’s game ninth in the SEC in pass efficiency. Quarterback John Brantley is averaging just 180.8 passing yards per game and has thrown six touchdown passes and five interceptions. The Gators have struggled to get much of anything going down the field in the passing game, but that’s where Georgia has been vulnerable. The Bulldogs are 11th in the league in pass efficiency defense and have given up 12 touchdown passes, the third most in the league.

6. On the receiving end: David Paschall of The Chattanooga Time Fress Press asked Kentucky coach Joker Phillips this week if he could ever remember a season when there were this many elite receivers in the league. Phillips agreed that you go up against one every week and that's what sets this season apart is all the long, athletic receivers in the league. Phillips’ top playmaker at Kentucky, Randall Cobb, is one of the best do-it-all players in college football. But picking the top two receivers in this league right now would be an impossible task when you start trying to sort it out among Alshon Jeffery, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Chris Matthews, Darvin Adams and Cobb.

7. Finishing the deal: It’s that time of the season again for South Carolina, the time of the season that hasn’t been especially good to the Gamecocks. They face Tennessee on Saturday night in the first of three straight SEC games that will determine whether or not the Gamecocks will make their first-ever trip to the SEC championship game. Their fate is in their own hands. History is working against them. Going back to the 2000 season, they’re just 7-22 in SEC games played the final weekend of October and extending through the month of November. In the past four years, they’re just 2-10 during that same span. Simply, they haven’t finished very well, and that has to change if the Gamecocks want to be in Atlanta on Dec. 4.

8. Distracted Hogs? Arkansas starting defensive tackle DeQuinta Jones was arrested this week and charged with marijuana possession. The Hogs are pretty deep at the tackle position, although the distraction of having a player arrested during game week on drug charges is never ideal. The Hogs could also be without junior receiver Joe Adams, who’s been slowed by an ankle injury and has missed the past two days of practice. Greg Childs was also nursing an ankle injury suffered in last week’s Ole Miss game, but returned to practice Wednesday and looks like he’ll be able to play.

9. Slowing down the Cats: Mississippi State has tackled well for most of this season. The exception was last week’s 29-24 win over UAB when defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said the Bulldogs missed 11 tackles, including four on one play. They look to extend their winning streak to six straight games Saturday when they take on a Kentucky team that has specialized in making people miss. Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said he’s still unsure if leading rusher Derrick Locke will be able to play after missing the past two weeks with a shoulder stinger. But Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews have been two of the most dynamic receiving threats in the league, and Mike Hartline is the SEC’s hottest quarterback right now after passing for more than 700 yards and eight touchdowns in his past two games.

10. Kitchings’ debut: Next up is Des Kitchings. He takes over a Vanderbilt offense that has been held to seven points in the past two games and has been painful to watch for most of the past two seasons. The Commodores are last or next to last in the SEC in just about every major offensive category. Coach Robbie Caldwell decided it was time to give Kitchings a shot and elevated him to offensive coordinator this week from his position as running backs coach. One of Kitchings’ priorities Saturday against Arkansas and for the rest of this season will be to generate some drives and keep the offense on the field. The Commodores are 118th nationally in time of possession. Look for running backs Warren Norman and Zac Stacy to take on increased roles.