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November 17, 2011

Week 12 preview in the SEC

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

The SEC has had a lot of interesting and competitive weekends this season.

This isn't one of them.

Four league teams welcome in FCS opponents. LSU is playing at Ole Miss, which is coming off a 20-point loss to Louisiana Tech. Arkansas is playing Mississippi State, which has scored all of 63 points in its past five league games. Tennessee plays host to Vanderbilt, which has served as the Vols' personal in-state punching bag in 33 of the previous 35 seasons. In addition, the intrigue in that game surrounds whether each team can become bowl-eligible this season, which means that outside state borders, no one really cares.

THE SCHEDULE
The Citadel at South Carolina, noon
Kentucky at Georgia, 12:20 p.m.
Georgia Southern at Alabama, 1 p.m.
Samford at Auburn, 1 p.m.
Furman at Florida, 1 p.m.
Arkansas vs. Miss. St. in Little Rock, 3:30 p.m.
LSU at Ole Miss, 7 p.m.
Vanderbilt at Tennessee, 7 p.m.
That leaves - ahem - Kentucky at Georgia as the game of the week, solely because the Bulldogs clinch the SEC East title with a victory. (Truthfully, assuming Georgia doesn't decide to play as if Ray Goff has returned as coach, the game should be about as competitive as your kindly, church-going grandmother vying with Jets coach Rex Ryan in a profanity throwdown.)

Georgia (8-2) has won eight in a row and is looking for its first nine-game winning streak since the 1982 Bulldogs went 11-0.

Georgia is aiming for just its third outright division title; the others came in 2002 and '05. This would mark the fourth season the Bulldogs advanced to the league championship game; they went in 2003 because they owned the tiebreaker over Tennessee.

"We know what's at stake," Georgia coach Mark Richt said early this week. "I think our guys are going to continue to stay focused. I can't imagine them going backward now. We're in a good place right now."

Best matchup: Vanderbilt's run offense vs. Tennessee's run defense. Vandy is averaging 162.4 rushing yards per game overall, and that number is 147.1 in league games. The Vols are allowing 166.0 rushing yards per game overall, but that figure jumps to 189.7 in conference games. Tennessee would much rather the Commodores have to rely on QB Jordan Rodgers' arm rather than their rushing attack. The Vols' pass defense has been solid, and their secondary likely would win most of their battles with Vandy's receivers.

[Huguenin: BCS rankings and analysis]

Player on the spot: Mississippi State RB Vick Ballard. He is averaging just 62.3 rushing yards per game in SEC action, and any shot Mississippi State has at keeping it close against Arkansas rests on its offense moving the ball effectively on the ground. But throw out Ballard's 135-yard performance against Auburn in Week 2, and he has rushed for more than 68 yards in a league game once, against woebegone Kentucky.

Keep an eye on: Possible injuries in the four games against FCS opponents. Each of the four SEC teams playing a FCS opponent this week has a rivalry game next week: Alabama at Auburn, Florida State at Florida and Clemson at South Carolina. Coaches need to make sure their starters stay sharp, but they also have to weigh the risk factor of leaving the starters in too long. If a starter is hurt Saturday, you can be sure the first question at his coach's news conference will deal with why the player was even in the game at the time of his injury - no matter when the injury occurred.

Numbers game: South Carolina (8-2) has posted six SEC wins for the first time and has a chance to win at least nine games overall for just the fourth time in school history. The Gamecocks posted a school-record 10 wins in 1984 and have won nine games on two occasions - first in 2001 and again in 2010. If South Carolina beats The Citadel on Saturday, it would give the Gamecocks 18 wins over the past two seasons, the most in back-to-back years in school history.

Quotes of the week

"It really doesn't matter who we're playing against. If you put it in baseball terms, you're in the seventh or eighth inning and you're up to the plate and the game's tied and you have a guy on base. It really doesn't matter who is pitching. It's all about you doing the best you can as a hitter. That's kind of where we are as a team right now. We've got to focus on being led by the goals and things that this team has an opportunity to accomplish and technically do a good job of getting our players ready to play in this game." - Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose teams plays Georgia Southern on Saturday

"I think one of the common denominators is when something negative has happened, usually a turnover of some sort or a big play versus the defense. We've had a hard time coming out of that. It's been kind of a tailspin that's been hard for us to get out of. It's happened on both sides of the ball." - Auburn coach Gene Chizik, on his team's struggles on the road, where they went 1-4 this season

"LSU looks so good, so fast and so quick at every spot. Their defensive line, linebackers and secondary are all good. They have length and are taller guys - except for 'The Honey Badger,' Tyrann Mathieu. He is something else. What a ballplayer. He is fun to watch. This guy will take the ball from you, knock the ball down, intercept the ball, disrupt the punt-return guy and make him fumble and run it in. He is just a ballplayer." - Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, whose team plays host to LSU this week

"There is a really fine line from being 5-5 and possibly 8-2. There is a really fine line. Again, it goes back to what I said earlier; it's those eight, 10 plays in a game and you have to make them. You have to put your guys in situations to be successful. That's my job." - Florida coach Will Muschamp

"We were very fortunate to not play LSU or Alabama. Georgia didn't have to play them either. I think Arkansas is better than Ole Miss this year, and we played Arkansas, obviously [and Georgia played Ole Miss]. That's just the way it happened. Georgia has been fortunate, too. I think their coach will tell you they won two or three that could've gone the other way. Sometimes you just play it out, and if it was meant to be maybe you'll win it, like it was for us last year with a 5-3 record. This year, we're 6-2 and maybe it's not meant to be." - South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier

Poll watch: The SEC leads the way with six teams in the BCS standings, including LSU at No. 1, Alabama at No. 3 and Arkansas at No. 6.

Etc.: Ole Miss has suspended starting QB Randall Mackey and leading rusher Jeff Scott for Saturday's game with LSU for violating team rules. Samford coach Pat Sullivan will be honored before his team's game at Auburn for the 40th anniversary of his Heisman-winning season of 1971. Sullivan became Auburn's first Heisman winner as a senior that season. Tennessee QB Tyler Bray, who has missed the past five games with a thumb injury, could return Saturday against Vanderbilt. The Vols were 1-4 in those games, with the only win coming over Middle Tennessee, and scored a total of 23 points in the four losses. Vandy TB Zac Stacy has nine rushing TDs this season; that's the most by a Commodores running back since Jamie O'Rourke scored 12 in 1974. Florida is last in the SEC with seven TD passes. The last time the Gators didn't throw at least 10 TD passes in a season was 1988, when they threw just three. Florida threw just 12 TD passes last season; that was the first time the Gators hadn't thrown at least 20 since 1989. Arkansas has returned five kicks for touchdowns in 2011 (three punts, two kickoffs), which is the most in the NCAA. The Razorbacks are tied for the NCAA lead with three punt-return touchdowns. Arkansas is the only team in the nation with multiple punt-return touchdowns and multiple kickoff-return touchdowns in 2011. Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vandy are each 0-3 on the road in league games. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is 43-0 all-time in games against schools from outside the Big Six conferences, including a 17-0 mark with the Gamecocks. LSU is 50-4 in night games under Les Miles. LSU has won 18 consecutive night games, a streak that dates to the 2009 season. Alabama will be looking to set a new senior-class wins record on Saturday against Georgia Southern. The 2011 senior class has won 45 games since the start of the 2008 season and has equaled the mark of the 1994 senior class. Tennessee (4-6) must beat Vanderbilt on Saturday and Kentucky next week to become bowl-eligible. Tennessee has won 27 of its past 28 games against Vanderbilt and is 23-2 against the Commodores at Neyland Stadium since 1961. LSU is going for just its second 11-win regular season in school history; the other was in 2003. Overall, LSU has won at least 11 games six times in its history. Sullivan isn't the only Auburn connection on Samford's coaching staff. Samford running backs coach James Joseph played for Auburn from 1986-89 and is 10th in Auburn history with 2,264 career rushing yards. And Samford defensive coordinator Bill D'Ottavio and Auburn coach Gene Chizik were at UCF together from the 1999 to 2001 seasons. Chizik was the Golden Knights' defensive coordinator and D'Ottavio was UCF's linebackers coach. Arkansas is trying to finish unbeaten at home for the first time since 1999. Alabama's game against Georgia Southern matches the No. 3 team in the BCS standings against the No. 3 team in the FCS rankings.

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

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