SEC races take shape early with two gigantic matchups

Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2004

Two Southeastern Conference contenders will take giant steps toward division titles Saturday.

No. 5 LSU plays at No. 14 Auburn, in a game matching SEC West favorites. Meanwhile, in Knoxville, Tenn., the annual early season meeting between No. 11 Florida and No. 13 Tennessee will give the winner a headstart in the East.

That is, if the games are played. With Hurricane Ivan heading for the Gulf Coast and expected to make it's way through Alabama and Tennessee this weekend, there's a possibility both games could be postponed.

''Ultimately, we want to play the game but only if it's safe for our fans, players and people traveling to and from the game,'' said LSU coach Nick Saban, who estimated he has about 20 players from the New Orleans area whose families have been evacuated because of the coming storm.

If weather permits, Saturday's games will be the SEC opener for all but Auburn. Clearly, it's too early for the winners to start making plans for the conference title game -- Georgia will have much to say about which teams end up in Atlanta -- but there's no doubting the importance of these matchups.

Recent history suggests Auburn-LSU could be a letdown. The last six meetings have been decided by at least 12 points. Last season, it was LSU over Auburn in Death Valley, 31-7.

''I just thought it was a good old-fashioned whipping,'' said Auburn offensive line coach Hugh Nall, who doubled as the Tigers' offensive coordinator last season.

The Vols and Gators series has been dominated by road teams lately. In four straight meetings the visitor has gone home with a victory.

Tennessee's hopes are pinned on freshmen quarterbacks. Brent Schaeffer and Eric Ainge shared the job and performed well against UNLV in the opener. This will be far different.

''It's a big game for both teams in the Southeastern Conference and in the Eastern Division,'' Florida coach Ron Zook said. ''It's an opportunity for us to see where we're at.''

And, maybe, where they're going.

The picks:

Saturday

No. 1 Southern California (minus 26) at BYU

Matt Leinart has 35 TD passes and three INTs during USC's 11-game winning streak ... USC 42-10.

Oregon (plus 28) at No. 2 Oklahoma

Ducks had seven turnovers in opening loss ... OKLAHOMA 52-28.

Marshall (plus 18 1/2) at No. 3 Georgia

Can Herd rebound from heartbreaker at Horseshoe? .. GEORGIA 38-14.

Louisiana Tech (plus 30 1/2) at No. 4 Miami

Tech RB Ryan Moats is nation's leading rusher (257 ypg) ... MIAMI 48-14.

No. 5 LSU (plus 1 1/2) at No. 14 Auburn

Should be wet and sloppy field ... AUBURN 17-12.

No. 21 Maryland (plus 6 1/2) at No. 7 West Virginia

Terps have routed Mountaineers three times in last two seasons ... WEST VIRGINIA 33-28.

UAB (plus 24) at No. 8 Florida State

Chris Rix received vote of confidence after latest Miami meltdown ... FLORIDA STATE 30-3.

No. 9 Ohio State (minus 2) at N.C. State

Wolfpack took Buckeyes to three OTs last year ... N.C. STATE 23-21.

No. 11 Florida (plus 3) at No. 13 Tennessee

Gators welcome Vols freshmen QBs to SEC ... FLORIDA 14-10.

Akron (plus 31) at No. 12 Virginia

Cavs have 11 rushing TDs in two games; had 17 all last season ... VIRGINIA 45-10.

No. 15 Utah (minus 19) at Utah State

Utes and Aggies play for 104th time; Utah has won six straight ... UTAH 44-16.

No. 16 Iowa (plus 1) at Arizona State

Sun Devils' 21-2 loss at Iowa last year set tone for disappointing season ... ARIZONA STATE 23-21.

San Diego State (plus 21) at No. 17 Michigan

Aztecs D could give recovering Wolverines problems ... MICHIGAN 27-10.

Portland State (no line) at No. 19 Fresno State

Bulldogs get well-earned breather ... FRESNO STATE 48-7.

No. 20 Wisconsin (minus 10 1/2) at Arizona

Without injured RB Anthony Davis, Badgers lack punch ... WISCONSIN 22-14.

No. 22 Minnesota (minus 3 1/2) at Colorado State

Running Gophers vs. passing Rams ... MINNESOTA 34-33.

No. 23 Boise State (minus 28 1/2) at UTEP

Broncos have won last two meetings by combined 109-24 ... BOISE STATE 53-16.

No. 25 Memphis (minus 22) at Arkansas State

Tigers celebrate first time in rankings ... MEMPHIS 52-12.

Last week: 18-5 (straight); 14-7-1 (vs. points)

Season: 36-6 (straight); 19-19-1 (vs. points)



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