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Vols guard against another big letdown

Last weekend, Tennessee finally got the reprieve it needed to play for the SEC championship and a possible bowl alliance berth. This week, the Vols get a dangerous non-conference opponent.

No. 8 Tennessee (6-1) plays host to No. 24 Southern Mississippi (6-2), a team with a giant-killer reputation, 4 p.m. Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

"Be hungry, be humble and keep fighting has kind of been the way we've approached it," said Tennessee coach Philip Fulmer, whose team assumed the driver's seat in the Eastern Division after Florida's 37-17 loss to Georgia.

And don't forget, it was this point last year that Tennessee fell to unranked Memphis. Vols players say they won't let something like that happen again.

"I don't think the leaders on this team will let us slip and fall," defensive end Jonathan Brown said. "We'll push each other. We know what's out there for us. We don't want to let a team like Memphis creep in here and beat us like last year."

Though a loss to the Golden Eagles would do nothing to damage Tennessee's goal of making its first trip to the SEC title game in December, it could knock the Vols out of the Top 10. The fallout might be an SEC champion only slightly more appealing to the bowl alliance than the Big East champion.

WILD, WILD WEST: With three weeks left in the regular season, all six teams in the Western Division are in the hunt to play in the SEC Championship Game.

Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State each have two losses, while Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas have three apiece. A pair of games this week should help sort things out, though. Arkansas (3-4, 1-3) plays at Ole Miss (4-3, 2-3) at 7 p.m. today on ESPN, and No.

14 LSU (6-2, 4-2) plays at Alabama (4-4, 2-3). A loss would eliminate Arkansas, Ole Miss or Alabama.

BIG DAWG: Jim Donnan may be in only his second season at Georgia, but he is completely cognizant of the impact of his team's win over Florida.

"You don't have to be at Georgia but one day to know what the Georgia-Florida rivalry means, particularly when you've lost for seven straight years," said Donnan, whose team jumped to No.

9 in the AP poll.

"I've known since the first day I was hired what was involved in that. Certainly, it helps our kids' confidence. It keeps us in line to have an outside chance of getting in the playoff game for the SEC championship, and it places us in a position where we've got some credibility with high school recruits."

FRESHMAN UNDER FIRE: Its hope of a bowl game nearly gone, South Carolina (5-4, 3-4) will have to play a freshman quarterback for its final two games against Florida and Clemson.

Junior quarterback Anthony Wright, a two-year starter, was lost for the season after tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee in Saturday's loss at Tennessee. Redshirt freshman Vic Penn will take over, backed up by freshman Phil Petty.

"Vic is a field general and plays with a lot of confidence," coach Brad Scott said.

THEY EARNED IT: Georgia senior Hines Ward was named the league's offensive player of the week for tallying 203 all-purpose yards against Florida.

It's the second time this season a player has been honored for his performance against the Gators. Last month, LSU cornerback Cedric Donaldson was selected for his two huge interceptions in the Tigers' 28-21 win over Florida.

_ JOANNE KORTH, TIMES WIRES

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