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September 2, 2010

Week 1 preview in the SEC

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | MWC | Pac-10 | Others

Southern Miss at South Carolina, 7:30 p.m.
Miami (Ohio) at Florida, noon
Louisiana-Lafayette at Georgia, 12:20 p.m.
Kentucky at Louisville, 3:30 p.m.
Jacksonville State at Ole Miss, 3:30 p.m.
UT Martin at Tennessee, 6:30 p.m.
Memphis at Mississippi State, 7 p.m.
San Jose State at Alabama, 7 p.m.
Arkansas State at Auburn, 7 p.m.
Tennessee Tech at Arkansas, 7 p.m.
Northwestern at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m.
North Carolina vs. LSU in Atlanta, 8 p.m.

The SEC will be a quarterback proving ground this fall, and league quarterbacks other than Alabama's Greg McElroy and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett start having to prove themselves Saturday.

Mallett and McElroy are returning starters, and neither is in any danger of losing his job. But every other SEC team has quarterback questions and/or a new starter at the position.

Returning starters with something to prove are South Carolina's Stephen Garcia, Kentucky's Mike Hartline, LSU's Jordan Jefferson and Vanderbilt's Larry Smith. Unfortunately for that quartet, each will be going against at least a quasi-legitimate defense this weekend.

New starters at Auburn (Cameron Newton), Florida (John Brantley), Georgia (Aaron Murray), Mississippi State (likely Chris Relf), Ole Miss (Nathan Stanley) and Tennessee (Matt Simms) will be going against overmatched defenses and should have solid numbers in Week 1.

The toughest test of the weekend should be Jefferson's, whose Tigers are playing a North Carolina team that has as many as six potential first-round picks on defense. But UNC could be without as many as four or five defensive starters because of an ongoing NCAA probe, which would make things much easier for Jefferson on Saturday night in Atlanta.

Garcia is first up; his Gamecocks play host to Southern Miss tonight in the first ESPN game of the season. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier doesn't seem all that comfortable with Garcia -- wow, what a shock, huh? -- and Spurrier already has said that true freshman Connor Shaw will see action at some point against Southern Miss.

The new starters have varied backgrounds. Brantley is a fourth-year junior. Newton and Simms are junior college transfers. Stanley is a third-year sophomore. And Murray and Relf are redshirt freshmen.

Simms began his career at Louisville before transferring. Newton, meanwhile, was in the same signing class with Brantley at Florida; Newton played sparingly as a backup to Tim Tebow with the Gators in 2007 -- Brantley redshirted that season -- before moving on after an off-field incident.

The one thing to look for from the new starters are big numbers this weekend; given the opposition, if the new guys don't look sharp, that bodes ill for the rest of the season.

Best matchup: South Carolina CBs Chris Culliver and Stephon Gilmore vs. Southern Miss WR DeAndre Brown. Brown, a junior, is a potent mix of size (6 feet 6/239 pounds), strength and speed. He has averaged nearly 17 yards per catch in his career and has 21 career TD receptions. Culliver has moved from free safety to his more natural position of corner, and he and Gilmore should be one of the nation's best duos at cornerback. Southern Miss is going to have trouble running the ball on the Gamecocks, which makes hitting some big plays in the passing game vital for the Golden Eagles. That means the Gamecocks must keep Brown under control.

Player on the spot: South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia. Garcia is headed into his junior season, but coach Steve Spurrier evidently remains unconvinced Garcia can get the job done. Spurrier already has said true freshman Connor Shaw is going to see time in the opener, and a quick hook of Garcia could further damage the quarterback's psyche and might mean Shaw becomes a much more important player than originally planned.

Numbers game: With three TD passes against Tennessee Tech, Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett would move into a tie for fourth place on the school's career TD pass list. Mallett threw 30 TD passes last season, his first with the Hogs. Clint Stoerner leads with 57, followed by Matt Jones with 53, Casey Dick with 47 and Barry Lunney Jr. with 33.

What they're saying

"It's great to be undefeated and in a great mood. This is awesome. ... Now we have to play." -- Georgia coach Mark Richt, on every team having high hopes before the season

"I've always said in the past that when you open with a team that the players have a tremendous amount of respect for because of their national reputation, you get a little better attention to detail in the entire offseason, in spring practice and in fall camp because they are geared up for that game." -- Alabama coach Nick Saban, on opening instead with lowly San Jose State

"I hope it's real hot. I hope it's nasty." -- Florida coach Urban Meyer, on the weather for Saturday's game with Miami (Ohio). The temperature is expected to reach about 95 during the game, which kicks off at noon

"My thoughts are similar to the other seasons that I've started. But I'm sure maybe Saturday morning, I'll be hugging the toilet somewhere. ... Haven't done that in a long time, since I was a player." -- New Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, joking with reporters about how he is preparing for the first game

"I'm just shocked and disappointed. I've done everything I can to follow the rules." -- Ole Miss QB Jeremiah Masoli, who was denied eligibility for this season by the NCAA on Tuesday

Etc.: Reigning Heisman winner Mark Ingram will miss Alabama's opener against San Jose State with a knee injury. Tennessee's game against Tennessee-Martin is the Vols' first against a FCS/Division I-AA school. With Joker Phillips at Kentucky and Charlie Strong at Louisville, this marks just the second time in college football history that two black coaches have faced off in a season opener. In 1999, Jerry Baldwin of Southwestern Louisiana (now called Louisiana-Lafayette) and Bob Simmons at Oklahoma State met in an opener. Phillips and Strong coached together under Lou Holtz at South Carolina in 2002. Phillips was the wide receivers coach, while Strong was the defensive coordinator. Florida is missing its starter (Xavier Nixon) and backup (Matt Patchan) at left tackle. For the opener, RT Marcus Gilbert is switching to the left side and RG Maurice Hurt is sliding outside to start at tackle. Jacksonville State could use as many as four running backs against Ole Miss, and one who is almost sure to see time is Darius "Tig" Barksdale, who was dismissed from the Ole Miss program in August and transferred to Jacksonville State. He had been a safety at Ole Miss. "I wish nothing but the best for Tig," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. "I want him to do good. I don't want him to do real, real good [Saturday]." Nutt's first two seasons with the Rebels have produced consecutive nine-win seasons for the first time at Ole Miss since 1961-62. Tennessee's coach in the opener in 2008 was Phil Fulmer. Last season, it was Lane Kiffin. This season, it's Derek Dooley. The SEC should get off to a good start in non-conference play this weekend. Last season, the SEC set a league record with 48 non-conference wins (against 10 losses). Auburn is the only school in the SEC that returns its entire full-time coaching staff from the '09 season. Mississippi State's game with Memphis is the first of three non-conference games for the Bulldogs this season against Conference USA schools. They also play Houston and UAB. Auburn has 11 players on its roster who already have graduated; Tennessee has nine. Those schools are second and third nationally in that category, behind only Boston College (14).

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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