- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Just because it's the bye week in Tuscaloosa, Ala., it doesn't mean all is lost. Nick Saban and Alabama have Saturday off, but an astute fan of the Crimson Tide will have plenty to pay attention to around the SEC.
With that in mind, we set out to deliver an Alabama-centric primer for all the weekend's action. Here are six games every Tide fan should watch:
No. 7 Texas A&M vs. Sam Houston State: Oh, Johnny Football, you're a never-ending source of consternation these days. Whatever you do, however nonsensical or ill-advised, the cameras will be watching. And so will we. So pay attention Tide fans, but not just to the gimmicks on the football field. Pay attention to the X's and O's, too. The Aggies are next on Alabama's docket. Without former franchise left tackle Luke Joeckel, how will the protection hold up? Without pass-rush specialist Damontre Moore, how will the defensive line perform? And without veteran wideout Ryan Swope, how will the receiver corps look? Say what you will about Manziel's talent -- it cannot be understated -- but the team he returned to in College Station, Texas, this offseason was not the same one he played with a year ago. Watch closely for how he and the offense as a whole perform, and pay even closer attention to the play of the front seven on defense. Alabama's offensive line struggled against Virginia Tech's front seven a week ago. Will the Aggies have the playmakers up front to replicate that success?
Tennessee vs. Western Kentucky: Butch Jones couldn't have asked for a better debut against Austin Peay, trouncing the Governors 45-0 at home to start the season. Quarterback Justin Worley threw for three scores and didn't do anything to lose the starting job while Raijon Neal rushed for 141 yards behind what looks to be one of the best offensive lines in all of college football. But there was never much doubt the Vols could handle lowly Austin Peay. And it looked like Week 2 might set up favorably, too, but that was before Western Kentucky upset Kentucky. Bobby Petrino welcomed himself back to the game in a big way, and now he has a chance to make an even bigger splash against Tennessee. Watch for how the Vols offense moves the ball against better competition. After all, UT lost its top three pass-catchers from a season ago. And pay close attention to the secondary, which was one of the worst in the SEC a season ago. Petrino will be balanced on offense, but he'll likely take some shots downfield to see how far the Vols secondary has come.
Mississippi State vs. Alcorn State: To put it plainly, Mississippi State's offense looked bad against Oklahoma State in the Bulldogs' season opener. Scoring three points against a team that gave up more than 28 points per game a year ago was underwhelming. Tyler Russell couldn't move the ball through the air, and the offense couldn't finish off drives. And with Russell out against Alcorn State because of a concussion, it remains to be seen how Mississippi State's offense will respond. Dak Prescott will step in under center and might be able to provide a spark for the offense with his ability to move the ball with his feet. If he does, we could be looking at a two-quarterback system come Week 3. Dan Mullen needs to find someone, anyone, who can move the ball downfield. But don't flip channels when the Bulldogs defense comes on the field. Geoff Collins' bunch played well against Oklahoma State, but after losing starting safety Jay Hughes for the season, the secondary, which lost three of four starters from a season ago, has to prove itself more now than ever.
LSU vs. UAB: Give Les Miles credit for going to Texas and beating a good TCU team to open the season. The game wasn't always pretty for the Tigers, but the offense looked improved, and the defense showed plenty of promise. Should LSU generate that killer instinct, it could be a dangerous team come SEC play. The one player to watch against UAB is Zach Mettenberger. LSU's senior quarterback threw the ball well against the Horned Frogs and looked like a different player than we saw a year ago -- decisive, efficient, confident. If he keeps that up and progresses into a consistent 200-yard passer, LSU could finally have the type of balanced offense its been in search of for what seems like a decade now. We know the Tigers will be good on defense, run the ball well and have the playmakers on the outside. It all comes down to the play of the quarterback for LSU to take that next step.
Auburn vs. Arkansas State: The Gus Malzahn era at Auburn got off to a so-so start in Week 1 against Washington State. There was the good: the running game did well and the defense created turnovers. And there was the bad: Nick Marshall was underwhelming under center, and the defense, while explosive, did surrender plenty of yards through the air. All in all, though, the Tigers looked like a better team than they did a year ago. But Week 2 will be a big test. Not only is it the final game before the start of SEC play, but it's also Malzahn's turn to face his former team, Arkansas State. And make no mistake, the Red Wolves are a dangerous football team. Auburn should be able to move the ball against Arkansas State, but the real test will come on defense. The Red Wolves, who averaged close to 400 yards per game a season ago, put up 62 points in their opener and will have the added incentive of facing a coach that bailed after just one season.
No. 11 Georgia vs. No. 6 South Carolina: Whoever wins this game could wind up representing the SEC East in the conference championship, though Florida, obviously, will have something to say about that. Nonetheless, the Georgia-South Carolina game is one to pay close attention to. Georgia, which nearly beat Alabama a year ago, is in a tough position coming off a loss to Clemson to start the season. Starting off 0-2 could crush its title hopes in a hurry. South Carolina, though, is sitting pretty coming off a strong win against North Carolina in Week 1. Steve Spurrier's offense was explosive, the running game was effective, and the defense played well against the Tar Heels. But against Georgia we'll see if that growth is real. South Carolina still has question marks at linebacker and receiver, and while the Bulldogs' defense is young, it's still chocked full of talent. Getting Josh Harvey-Clemons back could be the boost Georgia has been missing.
3dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough