Plenty at stake for SEC's regular-season finales
By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Southeastern Conference has played significant games every week for the last six seasons.
This week might be bigger than any of the others.
Yes, the league that has won five consecutive national championships and had a regular-season matchup dubbed "The Game of the Century" earlier this month has as many meaningful games this weekend as any weekend in recent years.
In addition to Arkansas-LSU, which will help determine the Western Division race, the league has renowned rivalries on tap, long winning streaks at stake and plenty of postseason implications on the line.
The No. 3 Razorbacks and the top-ranked Tigers get the weekend started Friday with a game that has turned out to be as relevant to the conference and national championship pictures as the much-hyped LSU-Alabama game three weeks ago. LSU can secure a spot in the SEC title game with a victory. The Razorbacks need to win and have Auburn upset No. 2 Alabama the following day to definitely reach Atlanta.
And there are several scenarios involving the Bowl Championship Series national title game, including the premise that the game could pit two SEC teams that don't even play for the league crown.
"I have to be real honest with you. I have not been able to internalize any of that," LSU coach Les Miles said. "I can tell you one thing. We're going to play this very talented team in our stadium. ... Frankly, it is one of those games that you look forward to playing."
The winner of the Iron Bowl, the annual in-state rivalry game between Alabama and Auburn, has won the last two national championships and could be a factor again.
"I feel like all SEC teams and rivalries are kind of like this," Crimson Tide linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "You get all the energy up for that game, and then you win that game, you go off and have so much steam so you go off to the SEC championship and then the national championship."
It doesn't work like that everywhere.
Tennessee, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt all need wins to become bowl eligible.
The Volunteers (5-6) play at Kentucky (4-7), a team they have beaten 26 times in a row. It's the longest active winning streak in the country in an annually played series.
"I expect for Kentucky to come out and try to be spoilers for us," Vols defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "They don't have a bowl game, but that doesn't mean they don't have anything to play for. They can kind of say, 'Oh yeah, we didn't go to a bowl game but neither did Tennessee because we beat them. ...'
"We can't take Kentucky lightly because, if we do, they'll beat us. They'll be happy they beat us and we'll be sad because we'll be sitting at home in December."
The Bulldogs (5-6) host in-state rival Mississippi in the Egg Bowl. The teams have one SEC victory between them this season, making this the least attractive matchup, but Mississippi State desperately wants to make back-to-back bowl games for the first time in more than a decade.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, has lost 13 consecutive conference games but would love to send fired coach Houston Nutt out on a positive note.
"A lot of the guys had a little extra bounce this week," Nutt said.
Vanderbilt (5-6) has made a bowl game just once since 1982. The Commodores lost close games to Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee this season, leaving them with a must-win scenario against Wake Forest.
"More than ever, it's a one-game season," Vandy defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. "We have to win this in order to go to a bowl game. We have to be ready."
Assuming the league gets two spots in the BCS for the sixth consecutive season, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt would need wins for the conference to fill all of its bowl slots.
No. 13 Georgia, No. 14 South Carolina and Florida have just as much to play for Saturday.
The Bulldogs (9-2), the SEC East champs who have a chance to wreak havoc on the national championship picture next weekend in Atlanta, have won nine in a row and are looking to maintain that momentum against Georgia Tech.
"It's a good week to play football at Georgia," Bulldogs linebacker Christian Robinson said. "There is a lot riding on this game, and the team is ready."
The Gamecocks (9-2) already have made school history by winning nine games in consecutive years for the first time. They can add to that accomplishment by winning a third straight game against rival Clemson for the first time since 1970, and by winning 10 games for just the second time in school history (1983).
"Conference play is important, but at the end of the year, this turns into the biggest game," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "If you're not in a conference championship game, this becomes the biggest game of the year for us."
Florida (6-5) can say the same thing about its in-state rivalry game against Florida State. The Gators have dropped five of their last seven games and finished below .500 in conference play for the first time since 1986.
The Gators can salvage their worst season since with a victory.
"It would make everything better," quarterback John Brantley said.
AP Sports Writers Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C., Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., and John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)