A look around the SEC

Take a team-by-team look at the SEC.

Originally Published: November 17, 2004
By Chris Low | Special to ESPN.com

Will Georgia be able to shake off the loss to Auburn? Can Mississippi State really win five games? Where is LSU heading for the postseason? Is Phillip Fulmer on the hot seat? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.

Alabama got an apology from the SEC office, but the Crimson Tide would have preferred a win.

Bobby Gaston, the SEC's coordinator of football officials, said pass interference should have been called on LSU's Corey Webster after he pushed down Alabama receiver Keith Brown in the end zone in the third quarter.

Alabama was leading 10-6 at the time, and Webster returned the interception to the LSU 44 to help turn the game around. The Tigers went on to win 26-10.

Gaston said side judge Blake Parks' view of the play was blocked by Brown and that he couldn't change position because he was responsible for goal-line coverage.

"With the mechanics that we use, we should have gotten that play," Gaston said. "It just so happens that the receiver and defender were straight-lined down the goal line from where he was. There's no excuse for us not being able to see it."

Referee Penn Wagers headed up the crew for the Alabama-LSU game. He was also the referee for the Florida-Tennessee game where a clock error by officials provided the Vols with extra time at the end of the game to drive for a game-winning field goal. Parks was not a member of that crew.

"I saw what everybody else saw," said Alabama coach Mike Shula, when asked about the non-call. "If you're asking me to comment on the officiating, I'm not going to."

  • The Alabama offense was already limited enough with a healthy Spencer Pennington at quarterback.

    Pennington, though, heads into this weekend's Auburn game at less than 100 percent. He came out of the LSU game with an injured left shoulder and bruised ribs.

    Pennington has been limited in practice this week, but Shula said he expects Pennington to be able to play in the game. Marc Guillon would be the backup, although Guillon has been slowed by a torn back muscle.

    The Crimson Tide are last in the SEC and 113th nationally out of 117 Division I-A teams in passing offense.

    Arkansas Houston Nutt doesn't want any part of the bowl talk. The only thing he's interested in talking about this week is Mississippi State.

    The Razorbacks (4-5, 2-4) need to win their last two games against Mississippi State on the road this weekend and against LSU in Little Rock on Nov. 26 to qualify for the postseason.

    Nutt has led the Hogs to a bowl game all six years on the job. Arkansas has never gone to a bowl game in seven consecutive seasons.

    "It's been our goal," said Nutt, whose Hogs snapped a four-game losing streak last Saturday with a 35-3 blowout of Mississippi. "We started out 3-1 and thought it would absolutely be no problem. But right now, I just have blinders on, just totally one game at a time.

    "Mississippi State is all we can think about because we're not good enough to look two weeks or three weeks down the road."

    Winning out in November is never easy, especially when it's just to keep your season afloat. But the encouraging part for the Razorbacks if they can handle Mississippi State is that they get LSU in Little Rock. The Hogs are 17-0 under Nutt in Little Rock.

  • The way Arkansas jumped on Ole Miss last weekend might have surprised some people, but not Nutt.

    He had a good feeling about his team after seeing the Razorbacks go back to the practice field with a sense of purpose following their fourth straight loss.

    "There are not many days of practice left," Nutt said. "There are only two more games guaranteed. They understand, and it's real clear. To go out and practice as hard as they did last week after four losses ... they deserved a reward."

    The Razorbacks have not played particularly well on the road this season. Florida and Auburn piled up a bunch of points early, and South Carolina scored in the final minutes two weeks ago.

    "We've not won on the road this year, and that's not like us," Nutt said.

    Auburn's chances of playing for a national championship may come down to the computers.

    The Tigers, after hammering Georgia 24-6 last week, are now tied with Oklahoma for the No. 2 spot in the Associated Press poll and are two points behind the Sooners in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' poll.

    What's hurting Auburn, though, is that Oklahoma is No. 1 in the average of the computer polls used in the BCS standings. Unless the Sooners drop out of that top spot in the computer polls, it's going to be difficult for the Tigers to catch them in the final BCS Standings.

    "We have beaten three Top 10 teams at the time that we played them," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "I don't think anybody else has done that. That's what I look at as a coach when I'm voting.

    "I can't fathom any SEC team not getting a chance to play for the national championship if they go undefeated."

    Tuberville joked that he can't even turn on his computer. But what won't be a joke is how much Alabama would love to ruin the Tigers' national championship hopes.

    "I think we've still got a lot of work to do," Tuberville said. "We've got a tough schedule, so we'll know a lot more three weeks from now."

  • What a difference a year makes.

    This time a year ago, Tuberville was instructing his players to ignore the rumors and wondering down deep when and where he would be coaching again.

    "It was tough because we thought it was over," Tuberville said. "It was a real tough scenario to go through."

    Only two nights before Auburn's 28-23 win over Alabama, former Auburn president William Walker and outgoing athletics director David Housel made the infamous plane trip to visit with Louisville coach Bobby Petrino about Tuberville's job.

    Since that attempted coup, the Tigers are 12-0 and in the thick of the national championship race this season.

    "I always respected (Tuberville). I respect him even more now for staying with us, even though they plotted to get him out of here," Auburn receiver Courtney Taylor said. "It takes a bigger man to stay here and face everything that went on here during that time. I love the man."

    In a league full of quality running backs, Florida's Ciatrick Fason has been one of the best this season.

    He leads the SEC with 1,070 rushing yards. He's averaging 5.9 yards per carry and has scored nine touchdowns.

    His greatest challenge, though, may await this weekend. Florida State's defense has gobbled up Florida runners over the years.

    The Seminoles have the nation's top-ranked defense against the run. And not since Fred Taylor ran for 162 yards in 1997 has a Florida running back gained more than 82 yards against Florida State.

    "We are going to take whatever they give us," Fason said. "If they give us the run, we'll take it. If they give us the play-action pass like they did last year, we'll take that."

    This could be Fason's last shot at Florida State. He will decide after the season whether or not he will leave for the NFL draft.

  • The coaching rumors are swirling in Gainesville and will continue to swirl until after the season.

    The latest was reported on a Web site devoted to covering the Gators. The report said that there was an agreement in place for Utah's Urban Meyer to become the next coach at Florida.

    Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley quickly shot down the report and repeated his earlier stance that Florida won't interview anybody until after the season.

    "Any reports that indicate we have talked to or reached agreements with any current collegiate coaches are false," Foley said in a statement.

    Foley said he will not contact any coach until after that coach's regular season is complete. For the record, Utah's regular season ends this Saturday when the Utes face Brigham Young, and Meyer remains the heavy favorite to be the Gators' new coach.

    The Bulldogs have an extra week to digest their 24-6 whipping at the hands of Auburn last Saturday.

    Georgia was never in the game, and after an open date this weekend, will close the regular season with a home game against rival Georgia Tech.

    The obvious question is what motivation is out there now for the Bulldogs (8-2, 6-2). They're out of the Eastern Division picture unless Tennessee falls flat on its face and loses to both Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

    "If we can win out, we can still finish in the Top 10, and that's a worthy goal," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We are down to one regular-season game. It's a home game, a game against the arch-rival. It's Senior Day. All those things should help us get excited about that game."

    Georgia's most likely postseason destination is the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., or the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. The Bulldogs played in the Capital One Bowl last year, and LSU has the inside track to go to Orlando this year if the Tigers can win their remaining two games.

  • The news wasn't all bad for the Bulldogs in the aftermath of the Auburn loss.

    Three of their top juniors indicated they would return for their senior seasons, although those things have a way of changing as the deadline for declaring for the draft nears.

    Safety Thomas Davis, considered the top NFL prospect on the team, said earlier this week that he was inclined to come back and try to win a national championship. That's after reports surfaced the week before the Auburn game that Davis was leaning toward turning pro.

    Linebacker Odell Thurman and offensive guard Max Jean-Gilles also said they would like to come back.

    "I am feeling like there is a lot of unfinished business we have at the University of Georgia," said Davis, who was twice caught out of position on touchdowns by the Tigers. "I am definitely thinking about coming back right now. I still want to win the national championship. That was my goal coming in here. That is our goal. We are going to come back and try and make a run at it."

    The specter of a 1-10 season is gone. Kentucky receiver Glenn Holt made sure of that last weekend when he pulled in a wobbly 25-yard touchdown pass from Shane Boyd to beat Vanderbilt 14-13.

    The Wildcats (2-8, 1-6) now have a week off before ending their season on Nov. 27 at Tennessee.

    "All I can say is that we didn't quit," Kentucky cornerback Antoine Huffman said. "Nobody knows how many guys we had out there playing hurt. With a record as bad as ours, all we've got right now is each other, and we played for each other."

    The ironic thing is that Kentucky finally caught a break on the game-winning play. Quarterback Shane Boyd was drilled by Vanderbilt's Jovan Haye as he released the ball. The pass fluttered to the back of the end zone, and Vanderbilt Dominique Morris mistimed his leap. He actually spun around 360 degrees, which took him out of the play.

    Morris said he was pulled down by Holt, who said he simply wrestled the ball away.

    "After all the things that have happened to us this season, we were due for some good fortune," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said.

  • Despite mounting apathy by the fans, Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart has said a couple of different times that Brooks' job is not in jeopardy.

    Of course, that could change if Barnhart leans on Brooks to fire his offensive coordinator, Ron Hudson. Brooks has said he would walk away if he's forced to make changes on his staff.

    Barnhart and Brooks had a meeting on Tuesday. Barnhart had planned meetings with all of his fall sports coaches.

    Brooks was tight-lipped about what was discussed in his chat with Barnhart, who has also come under fire by the Kentucky fans.

    "It was just a meeting like we have periodically throughout the year," Brooks said. "We just talked about where the program is, where it's been and where it's headed."

    Brooks wouldn't say if any staff changes were discussed, but repeated his stance that he wanted to be the one to make those decisions.

    LSU might not be in a position to defend its SEC championship or national championship, but the Tigers are in prime position to go to the conference's best non-BCS bowl.

    If LSU (7-2, 4-2) can win its remaining two games against Mississippi at home this weekend and Arkansas in Little Rock on Nov. 26, it's likely that the Tigers will spend the holidays in Orlando, Fla., at the Capital One Bowl.

    LSU hasn't been to a Florida bowl since playing in the old Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa in 1989. The Capital One Bowl would love to get an LSU team that won the national championship a year earlier and was riding a six-game winning streak.

    LSU's competition for a Capital One Bowl berth would be Georgia and Tennessee. The Bulldogs, however, played in Orlando a year ago, and the Vols were there in 2001.

  • It's becoming increasingly clear that the Tigers are winning in spite of their quarterbacks.

    Redshirt freshman JaMarcus Russell started against Alabama and completed just 5-of-10 passes for 92 yards. One of those was a short toss to running back Joseph Addai, who turned it into a 35-yard touchdown.

    Senior Marcus Randall relieved Russell in the second quarter and threw just four passes the entire game. Both quarterbacks missed open receivers against the Crimson Tide, and Russell was sacked three times.

    "We've got to get some faith, trust and confidence in these quarterbacks," said LSU coach Nick Saban, who's gone back and forth between the two all season. "We've got people wide open, and we can't get them the ball. We've got good skill players that make plays, and we're not getting them the ball. It's a confidence thing."

    Mississippi can forget about the postseason. The 35-3 loss to Arkansas last weekend left the Rebels (3-6, 2-4) in unfamiliar territory.

    For only the second time in David Cutcliffe's six years in Oxford, Ole Miss won't be going to a bowl.

    "The balloon definitely burst," said Cutcliffe, whose Rebels have beaten only Vanderbilt, Arkansas State and South Carolina this season.

    It only figures to get worse. Ole Miss travels to LSU this Saturday, and the Tigers are hoping to close the season in style and earn a bid to the Capital One Bowl.

    The body language of the Rebels last week wasn't promising, which wasn't lost on Cutcliffe.

    "It was a very disappointing loss because everything was in place," Cutcliffe said. "We were fighting to stay eligible for the postseason and were playing to improve our Southeastern Conference record.

    "Playing well in the month of November is critical because that's what people always remember. We played like a team that didn't know what was at stake."

  • The surest sign that a team is close to packing it in is finger-pointing. The Rebels were playing a little bit of the blame game last week in the aftermath of their third straight loss.

    Defensive end Cory Robinson said part of the reason Ole Miss gave up so many big plays to Arkansas was because of "bad calls" from the press box.

    Offensive guard Doug Buckles said there seemed to be a lack of understanding of down and distance during the game.

    Cutcliffe, naturally, wasn't amused.

    "I'm not concerned with players questioning anything," he said. "Their job is to play. I don't care a whole lot about that. Sometimes that's expected when things don't go well. When things don't go well, everybody has an opinion."

    Mississippi State
    Now that the Bulldogs have tasted a little success, there doesn't seem to be much need for artificial motivation.

    In other words, don't tell Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom that his club can play the role of spoiler this weekend against Arkansas. The Razorbacks need to win their remaining two games to qualify for a bowl.

    "This is about us winning a ballgame," said Croom, whose club is coming off an open date. "This is an SEC game against a very good opponent. That's what I look to. I look at our enjoyment sake and not to make other people miserable. I look at what we get out of winning."

    Mississippi State (3-6, 2-4) has played well in its last three games. The Bulldogs beat Florida and Kentucky and hung around with Alabama for a while before the Crimson Tide pulled away.

    By winning these next two games against Arkansas and Ole Miss, Mississippi State could get to five wins. Who would have ever dreamed that was possible back on Sept. 18 after the loss to Maine?

    "Our record is not what we expected," Croom said. "I told the players that people remember what you do in November. How we finish the season is really important."

  • Mississippi State junior running back Jerious Norwood rates up there as one of the comeback players of the year in the league.

    After a slow start, he needs just 83 yards to become the sixth player in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He's rushed for 917 yards and is averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

    "I still don't know how he does the things he does," Croom said. "He's a slasher, but also runs with power. He can be elusive at times. He has a good burst. All of that is wrapped up in a body that you think there is no way."

    Croom said the 6-foot, 192-pound Norwood is one of the most intense competitors on Mississippi State's team.

    South Carolina
    The general consensus in South Carolina is that Lou Holtz will retire at season's end.

    He's certainly done nothing to dispel speculation that he's calling it quits. The real drama surrounds Holtz's replacement.

    Steve Spurrier is seriously considering the South Carolina job (assuming Holtz is finished), and there are some who think it's all but a done deal.

    Spurrier's older brother, Graham Spurrier, told the The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., that this isn't just a passing interest.

    "There's no doubt that he'll definitely have serious talks with South Carolina if Coach Holtz resigns," Graham Spurrier said. "But there may be other ones, too, that might interest him.

    "Everyone's talking about (possible openings at) Penn State and Texas, but I don't think he's going to leave the Southeast. It'll be the Southeast, and South Carolina, it's a great school. They've got some talent there. They've got the funding. It's a good situation for anybody, I would think."

  • One thing's for sure concerning Holtz's future. He wants no part of walking away following another loss to Clemson.

    The Tigers humiliated the Gamecocks last season with a 63-17 rout in Columbia. Holtz vowed afterward that would never happen again.

    This Saturday, South Carolina plays at Clemson, which needs a win to become bowl eligible. The Gamecocks could jump into the Peach Bowl mix and maybe even the Outback Bowl mix by beating the Tigers and getting to 7-4.

    Any bowl would be interested in hosting Holtz's final game. But that's too far down the road for Holtz's interests. He can only think about one thing this week -- 63-17.

    "Well, it's still a game, and it's still not a matter of life and death. It's still put in proper perspective," Holtz said. "But more than any other game ... I've never wanted to win a game as much as I do this one."

    Holtz is just 1-4 against Clemson. The Gamecocks have lost seven of the last nine games in the series.

    How bad would a loss to Vanderbilt be for Tennessee's football team?

    Leave it to senior linebacker Kevin Burnett to describe the fallout.

    "We have to take the mentality, 'It's do or die now,'" said Burnett, the Vols' outspoken two-year captain. "Not just us, but this could mean jobs. If we don't go to the SEC championship, there's a good possibility the coaching staff will lose their jobs because of that.

    "I mean, we've got problems (if the Vols lose). That's how we look at it. To be serious, if Tennessee loses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky, we will have some problems."

    Burnett wouldn't get much argument from the Vols' fans, although it's not the kind of billing you hear every day for a college football game.

    The Vols have won 21 straight over the Commodores and need to win one of their last two against Vanderbilt and Kentucky to clinch a trip to the SEC championship game.

    Asked if he really thought jobs would be at stake if the Vols lost, Burnett responded, "I don't know. If I was the athletic director ... yeah."

    At least he's honest.

  • The Vols continue to plan as if Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer will both be out through the SEC championship game.

    Of the two, there's a better chance that Schaeffer could return for the Dec. 4 game than Ainge. Schaeffer broke his collarbone on Oct. 30 against South Carolina. Ainge separated his right (throwing) shoulder on Nov. 6 against Notre Dame.

    For the time being, though, Rick Clausen is the Vols' quarterback. The younger brother of Casey Clausen spent the open date in Knoxville last weekend working on his timing with several of the receivers.

    The second half of the Notre Dame game was Clausen's first meaningful playing time since the 2002 season when he was still at LSU.

    Fifth-year senior C.J. Leak has moved back to quarterback, but offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said this week that Leak was a long way from being game-ready.

    "I think C.J.'s done a nice job since he's come back," Sanders said. "He needs a lot of work before he's up to the level he would need to be at to play. We always say if guys give us a chance to win, they'll play, and I'm not sure he's at that point right now."

    If only Vanderbilt could do away with the fourth quarter.

    The Commodores have outscored their opponents 172-167 in the first three quarters this season. But in the fourth quarter, the Commodores have been outscored 78-7. And in SEC games, they've yet to scratch in the fourth quarter and have been outscored 43-0.

    Kentucky rallied for a 14-13 victory last weekend over Vanderbilt, which faces Tennessee at home this Saturday.

    The Commodores (2-8, 1-6) are desperately seeking answers to their fourth-quarter woes.

    "We've addressed it every way we know how to address it right now," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. "We talked about it. Some games, we try not talking about it. I think mainly it's a product of not being confident enough right now.

    "I think fatigue has a little bit to do with it, and if it's not totally physical fatigue, it may be mental fatigue. But I think confidence is the main thing."

    Vanderbilt has led four SEC games at halftime this season, including three in the fourth quarter.

  • The Tennessee-Vanderbilt game hasn't provided much drama the last three years, but you'd never know that by the ticket prices.

    The Vols have won the last three games by a combined 110-0 margin, but the ticket prices for this year's game at Vanderbilt Stadium were jacked up to $55 apiece. For a little perspective, that's more than a ticket to the SEC championship game will cost this year.

    This will be the first game against Tennessee on Vanderbilt's campus since 1998. The last two have been played at the Titans' stadium in downtown Nashville.

    Tennessee fans have typically gobbled up most of the tickets for games at Vanderbilt. In 1998, when the Vols were unbeaten and on their way to a national championship, 90 percent of Vanderbilt Stadium was orange.

    There could be more than a few empty seats this year. Some 5,000 tickets remained earlier this week.

    Chris Low covers the SEC for The Nashville Tennessean.

    Chris Low | email

    ESPN Senior Staff Writer