- Jeff Barlis, College Football
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The season is winding down, but the drama is ratcheting up. Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:
1. Auburn's revenge tour: It's not Alabama-LSU, but this week's marquee matchup does have one of those cool SEC nicknames -- "The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry" -- and a boatload of history. No. 25 Georgia pays a visit to No. 7 Auburn, "The Loveliest Village On The Plains" (there's another one of those nicknames). The rivalry dates back to 1892 with 116 meetings, and it couldn't be more hotly contested. The series is tied 54-54-8. This season, both teams have plenty to play for, as Auburn (9-1, 5-1 in the SEC) controls its destiny in the SEC West, and Georgia (6-3, 4-2) is still alive in the East. But the surprising Tigers clearly have momentum and something to prove to themselves, the SEC and rivals such as Georgia. That's right, this one is personal. Auburn's winless SEC season in 2012 was sealed by embarrassing losses to Georgia (38-0) and Alabama (49-0). The Bulldogs also have won six of the past seven games against Auburn.
2. Precursor to the SEC East conclusion: Missouri (9-1, 5-1) is in the driver's seat and is resting up this weekend before a fascinating final stretch that features two of its tougher challenges on the schedule -- at Ole Miss and versus Texas A&M. The Tigers are not to be taken lightly, but those matchups leave open the possibility of South Carolina (7-2, 5-2) or Georgia sneaking into Atlanta if Mizzou slips up. With a win in their final SEC game Saturday night against Florida, the Gamecocks could sit back and root against Missouri. The Bulldogs would be doing much of the same if they upset Auburn on the road and then close out their SEC slate with a win against Kentucky.
3. Style points for Saban? Somehow Alabama's win against LSU last weekend didn't resonate with the college football-viewing public, even though the Tide scored more points (38) than any game in the series since a 41-12 victory in 1947. Oh well, Nick Saban's perpetual pursuit of perfection persists. Perhaps he can convince the the nation's No. 1 team to be on guard for a letdown against Mississippi State, a team Bama has dominated during a five-game winning streak with a combined score of 155-34.
4. Nick Marshall vs. Georgia: Auburn's quarterback stood on the other sideline two seasons ago, as a defensive back, when his Georgia Bulldogs dismantled the Tigers 45-7. That game was in Athens, Ga., about three hours north of Marshall's hometown of Pineview, Ga. After he was dismissed by the Bulldogs for a violation of team rules in February 2012, Marshall went the juco route, became a QB and resurfaced at Auburn. It has been a pretty good move, as Marshall leads SEC quarterbacks with 734 rushing yards and ran for a career-high 214 yards last week, the highest individual rushing total in the conference this season and third all time among Auburn QBs. While Georgia's run defense has improved to fourth in the conference (giving up 126 yards a game), UGA has surrendered 17 rushing touchdowns. The Tigers have to be salivating at the thought of Marshall and the third-best rushing attack in the nation facing his old mates.
5. Sleeping giant could awaken: Speculate all you want about why South Carolina's all-everything defensive end Jadeveon Clowney isn't producing his usual havoc and statistics consistently this season -- teams are running away from him, he's facing double- and triple-teams, he's trying not to get hurt and risk the payday everyone expects in May. Whatever. Clowney doesn't have to worry about any of that against the wounded Florida offensive line Saturday. The Gators have lost three starting offensive tackles this fall and have moved 6-foot-4, 307-pound left guard Max Garcia into Clowney's line of fire at left tackle.
6. Streakin' Dores: Not much can top what Vanderbilt has already achieved this season, beating traditional East powers Georgia and Florida in two of its past three games. But a win against lowly Kentucky on Saturday would qualify the 5-4 Commodores for their third consecutive bowl game. Let's put that into perspective: Before back-to-back bowl appearances in the past two seasons, Vanderbilt had been to four bowl games in 120 years of football. Winning out -- which is certainly possible for a confident team that finishes with UK, Tennessee and Wake Forest -- would give Vandy 23 wins (with a bowl game still to play) in the past three seasons. That would be the best three-year stretch in VU history since Hall of Fame coach Dan McGugin went 24-4-2 from 1926-28.
7. Under-the-radar Rebels: Last week, Ole Miss became the latest team to handle a foundering Arkansas program that is winless in the SEC. It was the Rebels' third straight win, a streak that started with a signature upset of LSU and has given Hugh Freeze's upstart bunch a ton of momentum. The Rebs have been able to shake off the disappointment of three straight losses to three of this fall's SEC West heavyweights -- Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M. Now Mississippi has a solid chance to finish the season with six straight wins and 9-3 overall record. The task is not implausible, as Ole Miss plays host to Troy on Saturday, welcomes Missouri on Nov. 23 and wraps up its season with the Egg Bowl at Mississippi State on Nov. 28.
8. More pain for MSU? A difficult season could get tougher Saturday, as Mississippi State hosts No. 1 Alabama. The Tide will be the Bulldogs' sixth opponent currently among the top 18 in the AP poll, and the first five meetings didn't go so well. They gave up 85 points in the past two losses to two of the SEC's best offenses in South Carolina and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs did put up a good fight against the Aggies with 21 points in the fourth quarter of a 51-41 loss, but inspirational quarterback Dak Prescott (elbow) is questionable this week.
9. Whither James Franklin? Vanderbilt is no doubt relishing a breakthrough season, but might the Commodores be flying just a bit too close to the sun? Head coach James Franklin already has done what few could envision -- winning and recruiting at a school previously known for raising the collective GPA of the conference. But there could very well be a price for that success, as his name is popping up in early coaching searches. Franklin already has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the USC Trojans job. If you live in Nashville, Tenn., keep an eye on the silly season this December.
10. It's almost over: Five teams have their final bye of the season this weekend. Missouri is resting up to make its final push for an SEC East crown. LSU and Texas A&M are licking various wounds and lamenting the end of their West division hopes. Tennessee is looking to regroup after three straight losses, win its last two games and go to a bowl for the first time since 2010. And Arkansas is simply trying to find a way back into the win column after seven straight losses.