SEC: Arkansas Razorbacks
2. Bye weeks are a great opportunity for most teams to reboot and recharge. Florida, however, is not one of those teams. What's said to be good timing probably couldn't be any worse. There's no game to distract us. There's no opponent to focus on. The only stat to know is 38.9. That's UF's winning percentage since the start of the 2013 season. For the next week-plus, that's all we're going to hear about. We'll see tape of Jeff Driskel's mistakes and the reaction to Saturday's embarrassing loss to Missouri. Sure, a bye week means Florida can't lose another game, but it won't stop the bleeding. It won't stop the steady chorus of boos directed at Will Muschamp. It won't stop websites like HireDanMullen.com from popping up. Nothing about a week away will keep the wolves at bay. If anything, it will make their howls amplified.
3. It was a small nugget. In fact, it didn't even lead the story. But the fact that Korliss Marshall is suspended is news. As Bret Bielema said, he's out three to four weeks for unspecified reasons. But that's not the kicker. What should take you aback is what else Bielema said of the situation: "He’s only got one more opportunity to get it right. If he doesn’t get it right, it will probably be one of the saddest stories in my coaching career because he’s got a lot of talent, he’s got a great heart." Wow. That's sending a message. It sounds like whatever Marshall's done, it's not minor. Or at the very least it's the latest in a string of events. But either way, Bielema's right; if Marshall doesn't get back on the field for the Razorbacks, it's a shame. He has the potential to be an outstanding running back. The fact that we're already questioning the long-term viability of the sophomore's career is troubling to say the least.
Tweet of the day
We have a grand total of two players singing the alma mater. pic.twitter.com/7uBIEtQEnc— Sam Dakota (@thesamdakota) October 19, 2014
Each highly ranked team that loses -- hello, Baylor, Notre Dame and Oklahoma -- makes it seem like more of a possibility, but we’re not yet ready to project that half of the playoff teams will come from the SEC.
We’ll stick with top-ranked Mississippi State as the SEC's playoff pick for now, but Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia remain in the middle of the discussion as well. Those teams still have several key games ahead that will determine the top half of the SEC’s postseason pecking order.
Meanwhile, the bottom half of the pecking order should also become a source of late-season drama. After their losses on Saturday, we’re dropping Arkansas (3-4) and Florida (3-3) from this week’s bowl projections and adding Tennessee (3-4), although none of those teams is a sure bet at this point. Kentucky (5-2) gets to stay in, but the Wildcats are coming off a 41-3 loss at LSU and will face a challenging second half of the schedule where earning another victory (and achieving bowl eligibility) might be tough.
At any rate, there is assuredly plenty of movement ahead in these projections, but here is where we are entering the ninth week of the regular season:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Mississippi State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Ole Miss
Cotton Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Georgia
Citrus Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: LSU
Outback Bowl: Missouri
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Texas A&M
Belk Bowl: South Carolina
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Tennessee
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Kentucky
Alabama silenced its critics, for now: Nick Saban was a little irritated earlier this week by his fan base’s outsized expectations, which had many disappointed the Crimson Tide “only” beat Arkansas 14-13 (a week after Alabama lost to Ole Miss). Well, there’s nothing to criticize this week. Alabama played about as close to a perfect game as a team can. The Crimson Tide (6-1) had 602 offensive yards, converted 60 percent of their third downs, held Texas A&M to a meager 172 yards, had zero penalties and won the time of possession battle (36:31 to 23:29). Hard to be upset with 59-0. Although two undefeated teams are ahead of Bama in the standings, you never know what might happen. The No. 7 Crimson Tide’s playoff hopes are alive and well at the moment.
Texas A&M has serious soul-searching to do: It’s one thing to lose and quite another to be destroyed the way the Aggies were Saturday by the Crimson Tide. Kevin Sumlin used the words “embarrassing” and “unacceptable” in his postgame news conference, and those are pretty accurate. Alabama controlled the game in every phase while shutting out a Sumlin team for the first time in his seven-year coaching career. The Aggies (5-3) don’t have a game next week, and it’s a good time for them to reevaluate everything about their team, from top to bottom, to figure out why they’ve been dominated by three SEC West foes in the past three weeks.
Kentucky might be on the rise, but there’s still a long way to go: The Wildcats have been one of the surprise teams in the SEC this year, with their 5-1 start and talk of making a bowl game. The progress the program continues to make is admirable, and coach Mark Stoops should be commended for the job done so far, but after a 41-3 loss to LSU, it's clear there still is a lot of progress to be made. LSU handled its business and showed it’s in a different class than the Wildcats (5-2), at least this weekend. This should serve as a good learning experience for a young Kentucky team that still has a bright long-term future.
It’s not getting better in Gainesville anytime soon: There has been a lot of discussion about Will Muschamp’s job, and that isn’t going to die down after Florida’s performance against Missouri. The Gators were hammered 42-13 in their own backyard. What makes it even worse is the Tigers didn’t do it with offense -- Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk threw for only 20 yards and no touchdowns, and Missouri finished with a minuscule 119 offensive yards. The Tigers did their damage with a kickoff return and punt return for touchdowns (both courtesy of Marcus Murphy), as well as an interception return (Darvin Ruise) and fumble return (Markus Golden) for touchdowns. That’s ugly for Florida, who is 3-3 (2-3 in the SEC) with Georgia coming up in two weeks. It looks like it will only get worse before it gets better for the Gators.
Ole Miss’ offense doesn’t have to be great -- just good enough: The No. 3 Rebels (7-0) took some time to get started offensively, as they went scoreless in the first quarter against Tennessee and were down 3-0 in the second quarter. No worries when you “Landshark D.” The 27-yard Aaron Medley field goal was the only points the Vols would get, quarterback Bo Wallace started making some plays, and Ole Miss cruised to a 34-3 victory. The offensive numbers weren’t great (383 total yards for the Rebels), but more importantly, they committed zero turnovers and won time of possession. With the type of defense Ole Miss has (it held Tennessee to zero yards rushing and 3-of-16 on third-down conversion attempts), that’s a recipe for success.
This was supposed to be the upset pick of the week in the SEC. Many thought this would be the game in which Bret Bielema would notch his first conference win at Arkansas. The only problem was that No. 10 Georgia didn’t get the memo.
The Bulldogs -- sans Todd Gurley -- jumped out to a big 38-6 halftime lead and held off the Hogs in the second half to win 45-32 in Little Rock.
How the game was won: Where do we begin? Hutson Mason was sharp. Nick Chubb was on a different level. But for the second straight week, this Georgia defense set the tone early. Four turnovers forced, three sacks, a blocked extra point. The Bulldogs might have let their guard down at times in the second half, but it was still another impressive outing. Damian Swann led the way with 11 tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and an interception.
Game ball goes to: As good as Swann was on defense, Chubb was that much more impressive for the offense. The freshman carried the load once again with Gurley out, finishing with 30 carries for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Chris Conley deserves a shout out here as well. He had five catches for 128 yards and a touchdown for the Bulldogs.
What it means: The SEC East finally broke through against the West. This was the best and potentially only chance for the East to win a cross-division game this season, and Georgia got it done. It was also the first time a team from the West had been beaten by somebody outside of its own division this season.
Playoff implication: All of a sudden, Georgia looks like a serious contender for the College Football Playoff and can you imagine if Gurley comes back at some point this season? This team could challenge the Magnolia State for bragging rights in the SEC.
Best play: Have we mentioned Chubb’s name yet? The freshman had a lot of impressive runs on the day, but his 43-yard touchdown in the second quarter was Gurley-esque. He exploded through the hole, outran the Arkansas safeties and raced into the end zone untouched. The score put the Bulldogs up 17-6, and they never looked back.
What's next: Georgia gets a week off before its game with Florida in Jacksonville. Arkansas, who showed plenty of fight in the second half, will get UAB at home next week before a trip to No. 1 Mississippi State in two weeks.
Even if Georgia star tailback Todd Gurley remains suspended, the Bulldogs are coming off an impressive 34-0 win at Missouri where freshman Nick Chubb established himself as a workhorse back. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks haven’t won a conference game since beating Kentucky 49-7 on Oct. 13, 2012, with their conference losing streak growing to 15 games with last week’s 14-13 loss to Alabama.
Regardless of who wins, a streak will end on Saturday. Here are some key elements to watch in the game, with an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information group.
Run and run some more: Saturday’s game pits teams that have shared similar offensive philosophies this season. The question is who will do it better at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium when the SEC’s top two rushing offenses meet.
Everyone knows that ground-and-pound is Bret Bielema’s mantra, and the Razorbacks have embodied that philosophy by running the ball 64.6 percent of the time (268 runs in 415 plays). It might come as a surprise, though, that Georgia’s offense is just as run-heavy, keeping it on the ground on 64.3 percent of its plays (264 of 410).
The Bulldogs typically emphasize balance between the run and pass, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has leaned heavily on onetime Heisman Trophy frontrunner Gurley and a stable of talented running backs. With Gurley suspended indefinitely and Keith Marshall and Sony Michel out with injuries against Missouri, Chubb carried the load almost singlehandedly, totaling 38 carries and 143 yards and a touchdown.
Arkansas boasts one of the nation's best 1-2 backfield punches with Alex Collins (92-634, 6 TDs) and Jonathan Williams (86-569, 9 TDs), and that duo, coupled with an imposing offensive line, have helped the Razorbacks become the SEC’s top rushing offense at 278.7 ypg.
Georgia (275.7 ypg) is right behind Arkansas in the league rushing standings, with both teams having scored 21 rushing touchdowns and Georgia barely edging Arkansas in yards per carry (6.3 to 6.2).
Gurley vs. Chubb: If Gurley remains sidelined on Saturday -- and as of Thursday evening, Gurley’s status remained unclear -- Chubb (69-367, 3 TDs) and sophomore Brendan Douglas (and possibly J.J. Green, who practiced at running back this week after shifting to defense earlier this season) might have to carry the offense again. The duo combined for 208 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri, including a highlight-reel touchdown run by Douglas where he tried to jump over a Tigers defender and instead was hit in the legs and somersaulted into the end zone.
More impressive than Douglas’ acrobatics was Chubb’s tough running against the Tigers. He accumulated those 143 rushing yards despite being hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 22 of his 38 attempts. Gurley made it past the line of scrimmage before first making contact with a defender on 73 percent of his carries this season, compared to 52 percent for Chubb.
Bulldogs fans had been comparing the hard-running Chubb to Gurley since well before Georgia suspended the junior superstar while investigating whether he accepted money to sign autographs. Chubb’s production against Missouri was impressive, but he has enormous shoes to fill while trying to replace Gurley’s production (94-773, 8 TDs).
He’ll attempt to do that against an Arkansas defense that was stout last week against Alabama. On nine of the Crimson Tide’s 13 drives last Saturday, it failed to achieve either a first down or a touchdown -- its most such drives in any game since Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007 and the most by an SEC team in the last three seasons.
Further, Alabama had just 15 yards before contact on its 37 designed runs against Arkansas, its fewest in a game and lowest average in the last four years.
In other words, Georgia’s offensive linemen had better pack their lunch pails for this trip because producing against Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Arkansas’ front seven might be tougher than it was against Missouri’s.
Big-play Razorbacks? Considering its run-based philosophy, it might come as a surprise how frequently Arkansas manages to post a quick score. The Razorbacks lead the FBS with 13 touchdown drives that required three plays or fewer. The next-closest FBS programs are Michigan State and Baylor with 11 apiece.
Neither team has been especially explosive overall. Georgia has 87 plays that covered 10 yards or more and 26 that covered at least 20. Arkansas has 95 plays of 10-plus and 27 plays of 20-plus. The national averages for FBS teams are 88 and 29, respectively.
Quarterback play: The X-factors on Saturday might be which team gets the steadiest performance from its quarterback.
Arkansas’ Brandon Allen (79-137, 997 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs) has played better than he did last season, but still hasn’t been a game changer. For instance, he floated an across-the-field pass off his back foot that Alabama’s Landon Collins intercepted with 1:59 to play in last week’s narrow loss.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s Hutson Mason (91-129, 843 yards, 8 TDs, 3 INTs) has been the epitome of a game manager for the Bulldogs. Mason’s average pass has traveled 6.1 yards past the line of scrimmage, the shortest average distance for any Power Five quarterback with at least four starts. The return of previously injured receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley might help Mason stretch the field, however.
If the running game keeps working for these teams on Saturday, don’t expect to see Allen and Mason throw it around too often. But it might come down to which of them can make key completions -- or avoid costly interceptions like Allen’s last week -- with the game on the line.
Furman at South Carolina, SEC Network: Poor Furman, you couldn’t have picked a worse time to play South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been stewing the past two weeks about their loss at Kentucky. You think they will play with something to prove Saturday at home? For Mike Davis, Dylan Thompson and that offense, it’s a chance to put up a bunch of points and gain some much-needed confidence. For the defense, it’s a chance to take a step in the right direction and actually stop an opponent with some consistency. In reality, this game might as well be a scrimmage for South Carolina. But nonetheless, it’s an important springboard into the second half of the schedule, when the Gamecocks can either continue to circle the drain or rebound and regain the respect they have lost this season.
No. 10 Georgia at Arkansas, SEC Network: Time to find out the answer to the question that has been on the mind of SEC fans everywhere: How would Arkansas do in the dreadful East Division? The Hogs have played well this season, but haven't been able to overcome Texas A&M and Alabama. Against Georgia, will Bret Bielema’s squad break through? The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are riding high after a dominant performance at Missouri in which the absence of Todd Gurley was hardly felt in the final outcome. They now lead the East, and the race hardly appears close. Leonard Floyd and that defense will be put to the test, though. And Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason won’t face as porous a secondary as Missouri’s this time around.
Missouri at Florida, ESPN2: Watch out for turnovers. Florida and Missouri have combined to give the ball away 11 times in October alone. Just last week, Maty Mauk threw four interceptions against Georgia, and Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel had two costly interceptions against LSU. In other words, both defenses should be licking their chops. The difference in this game, however, could be the running backs. If Florida can establish the run and negate the pressure from Missouri’s Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the Gators should be in good shape. However, if Missouri can get Russell Hansbrough & Co. going, the pressure should fall off Mauk’s shoulders. It’s a lot of what-ifs, but for two teams headed in the wrong direction, should that really surprise you?
Tennessee at No. 3 Ole Miss, ESPN: The Vols have been knocking on the door this season, but the divide between competitive football and winning football has been tough to cross. Will they do it against No. 3-ranked Ole Miss? On the road? Now that’s asking a lot of Butch Jones' young squad, which is high on talent (Jalen Hurd, Cameron Sutton, etc.) but low on experience. The Rebs, meanwhile, have both confidence and experience on their side. If anyone thought their home win against Alabama was a fluke, they changed their mind after watching them go on the road and destroy Texas A&M. So long as quarterback Bo Wallace continues to take care of the football and that defense stays healthy, it’s hard to imagine Ole Miss having a hiccup game.
Kentucky at LSU, SEC Network: This game feels a lot like a battle of youth and momentum. On the one side, you have Kentucky, which has surprised many with the way it jumped out to a 5-1 record, most recently beating South Carolina at home. Patrick Towles has played well and the defense has been aggressive. But the Cats are young and don’t have pedigree on their side. On the other hand, you have LSU, which has gone from a dark horse playoff contender to unranked and outside the conversation in the West. But don’t count out Les Miles’ squad just yet. After beating Florida in The Swamp, the Tigers could have confidence going for them. And considering all the young talent in Baton Rouge, that is a scary thought.
QB: Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Bad Bo may be a thing of the past. The formerly inconsistent senior has strung together back-to-back big games when his team has needed them most. He’s currently No. 1 in the SEC in percent of completions gaining 10 or more yards (59.7).
Todd Gurley is the class of the SEC. But Collins is as good as anyone behind him. The true sophomore is fourth in the SEC in rushing yards (634) and ranks third in percent of runs gaining 5 or more yards (55.4). He’s physical (seventh in yards after contact), but he’s also explosive (17 runs of 10 or more yards).
WR: Travin Dural, LSU
But when you say “explosive” you better reference LSU’s sophomore wide receiver. Dural ranks first in the SEC in yards per reception (26.1), second in receiving yards (626) and second in receiving touchdowns (8).
TE: Steven Scheu, Vanderbilt
Not a lot of people are watching Vanderbilt this season, for obvious reasons. But you’re missing out on one of the most productive tight ends in the league. Scheu is second on the Commodores with 19 receptions, 269 yards and one touchdown. Imagine if he had a better quarterback throwing him the football.
OL: David Andrews, Georgia
Forget the Todd Gurley drama, Nick Chubb's emergence and Hutson Mason's inconsistencies. What’s really fueling Georgia is its offensive line Leading that charge is senior center David Andrews. He’s a big reason the Bulldogs rank 12th nationally in rushing yards and Mason has been sacked just eight times.
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
There are a lot of reasons why Arkansas is a better football team this season. The running game is obviously one of them. But the play on the defensive line, and the continued improvement of Philon, is another. Philon has an impressive 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this season.
LB: Xzavier Dickson, Alabama
Many around Tuscaloosa have been waiting for Dickson’s emergence at outside linebacker. It turns out he was waiting until his senior year. The Georgia native already has five sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss this season, blowing away his previous career totals.
CB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
While we wait for Tennessee to break through as a program under coach Butch Jones, there’s one Vol who has already announced himself to the SEC: Sutton. The sophomore corner has come up big in big moments this season. He’s hauled in three interceptions, defended seven passes and even had four tackles for loss.
S: A.J. Stamps, Kentucky
Ever wonder what’s caused the Wildcats to come on so strong this season? Look no further than Stamps, a junior college transfer who has solidified the back end of Mark Stoops’ defense. Stamps has 27 tackles, three interceptions and six passes defended.
K: Francisco Velez, Florida
If you didn’t know his story, reading it should be enough to make you want to root for the guy. If that’s not enough, consider that he ranks fifth in the SEC in field goals made (8), second in overall field goal percentage (88.9, minimum six attempts) and tied for first in field goals of more than 40 yards (8).
P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
It’s not about quantity for Foster. But when it comes to punters in the SEC with a minimum of 20 attempts, he ranks first in percent of punts inside the 20, first in average distance from goal after return and first in fewest punts returned.
KR/PR: Darrius Sims, Vanderbilt
Here’s another Commodore you’ve probably never heard of. Sims, a defensive back by trade, is first in the SEC in kickoff return yards (431), second in yards per kickoff return (30.8) and tied for first in kickoff return touchdowns (2). Nine of his kickoff returns have gained 20 yards or more.
The same can be said for the maturation and development of Georgia's defense, as communication has been the key to the vast improvements we have seen in the last couple of weeks.
Since closing the month of September by allowing 401 yards of offense and 32 points in a three-point win against Tennessee, the Bulldogs' defense has been outstanding the past two games. Georgia held Vanderbilt to 320 yards and 17 points, then went on the road to shutout Missouri, allowing -- wait for it -- 147 yards. Yes, the Bulldogs, who were dealing with the emotions of not having top player Todd Gurley, went into a hostile SEC environment and completely shut down the Tigers.
"The communication in the back end is getting better and better," Georgia coach Mark Richt said about the defensive improvements. "I just think they’re understand more what [defensive coordinator] [Jeremy] Pruitt wants back there, and they’re just doing a good job of getting each other on the same page."
Pruitt, in his first season at Georgia, hasn't been afraid to constantly change things up this season, as Georgia has displayed six different starting defensive lineups in six games. But what has remained constant is the goal to get tighter, more concise communication throughout the defense. The evolution of that has helped players know exactly where they should be and where others should be, defensive end Sterling Bailey said.
What has been so great about a more talkative defensive unit is that even when plays get called wrong or offenses throw some shifts or motions out there, guys are moving together in order to be on the same page. Players are starting to learn how to change at the last minute together.
"You’ve got to be able to make adjustments on the fly," Richt said. "If you don’t, you’ll get exposed."
Through the first four games, Georgia's defense was allowing an average of 338.8 yards per game, 4.7 yards per play, 22.8 points per game and had three interceptions. Take out that 66-0 win against lowly Troy, and yards per game increases to 379.7 yards, and points per game shoots up to 30.3. South Carolina and Tennessee averaged 6.2 and 5.1 yards per play, respectively, against the Bulldogs.
Since then, the Bulldogs have given up 233.5 yards per game, 17 points, 4.2 yards per play, and the opponents' third-down conversation rate decreased from 31.7 percent to 10 percent. Georgia also has five interceptions.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, opponents' points per drive against the Dawgs is down from 1.65 through the first four games to .65 in the past two.
Players are evolving within the defense, but they are also using their words more to make things work. They are asking teammates and coaches more questions. Guys are getting calls right more often. The Dawgs are now performing well, both physically and vocally.
"We know that when we communicate, we execute," Bailey said. "When we don’t, things fall apart.
"It’s helping us learn his defense a lot better."
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who has the pleasure of facing Georgia's improved defense on Saturday, has been very impressed with the improvements made under Pruitt, because Pruitt has been able to mold his defense around the talent of the players he has. There is no 'square peg, round hole' in Athens.
"He’s built a scheme there at Georgia that fits his personnel there," Bielema said.
It has only been two games, but Georgia's defense is thriving and generating a ton of momentum for a second-half push. Saturday presents the task of stopping an Arkansas offense averaging 278.7 rushing yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry. That sounds intimidating, but Bailey said this unit isn't worried about numbers anymore. It's concerned with talking itself into a dominating frenzy each week.
"We are not taking any steps back," Bailey said.
“I couldn’t put into words how proud I am of our guys,” Bielema said after the game. “As a coach, you sign up for this. I came here with a dream and an idea to do something, and it’s coming. I guarantee you it’s coming.”
The Razorbacks are still looking to give Bielema his first SEC win since arriving in Fayetteville prior to last season. They squandered a 14-point fourth-quarter lead against Texas A&M the week before, losing in overtime, and if it couldn’t get any worse, they lost by a single point, 14-13, to Alabama on Saturday.
“We took away that every opportunity is precious,” Hogs defensive end Trey Flowers said. “We know how close we are. We know how good we are and how good we can be. We just have to take advantage of every opportunity.”
On Sunday after the loss, Bielema wished two things for his players: (A) that he could take away the pain of defeat and (B) that he could give them a win. But he also made clear that a win has to be earned and if you don’t earn it, it usually doesn’t mean much in time.
“We did a lot of really good things [against Alabama], but we did enough to take it away from us,” Bielema said. “Don’t lose sight of what’s in front of you. Think big picture. It’s not necessarily the win. It’s the compound effect of what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been building to get that win that’s really what everybody is seeking.”
Still, that first SEC win will be sweet, and the Razorbacks will get another crack at it this weekend in Little Rock against Georgia.
The Bulldogs, who still don’t know the status of star running back Todd Gurley, are riding high after a 34-0 shutout win at Missouri, but head coach Mark Richt knows this Arkansas team is much better than its 0-3 conference record would indicate.
“It’s very impressive how they play,” Richt said. “You watch the Texas A&M game, you watch the Alabama game, obviously they could’ve won either one of those games. They were in great shape to be in position to win either one of those games or both for that matter.
“They’re on the verge of doing some big things, and we’re just trying to keep it from being at our expense.”
The question for the Razorbacks is not whether they can compete against a team like Georgia. The question is can they do it three weeks in a row? Can they get up for another big game after back-to-back heart-wrenching losses?
“It’s not difficult,” Flowers said. “We’re football players. We love playing football, so we love going out there and competing each and every week. Obviously, it’s just frustrating afterwards because of all the investments you put into it, but we’re going to get up. We’re going to play football. We’re going to compete week in, week out.”
And Flowers, who finished with eight tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack on Saturday, knows how rewarding it will be when Arkansas finally gets that SEC win.
“There’s going to be a lot of smiles around here, a lot of happy people, a lot of happy fans,” he said. “It’s going to be worth all the work.”
Scoring and yardage are both down halfway through the season in head-to-head conference play compared to where the league was at this point last year. On paper, defenses appear to be on pace to look more like they did in 2012 than 2013.
But the numbers – and there were lots of them – aren’t too far off from last season, compared to the halfway point and the final totals.
With nine teams breaking in new starting quarterbacks – five underclassmen – I wanted to see if there would be a drastic difference in how defenses looked statistically.
(Note: The numbers used in this research came via ESPN Stats & Information’s statistical database.)
SEC defenses are allowing 358.6 yards per game and 402.3 yards per game in conference play. Seven defenses are ranked within the top 50 in total defense; six made the cut halfway through last year. At this point last year, defenses were allowing 376.3 yards per game and 423.5 yards per game in SEC play. In 2012, when defense was king, those numbers were down to 361.3 and 373.8 at the end of the season.
Those numbers aren’t too far off, but it’s interesting that at this point last year, defenses were allowing 3.68 offensive touchdowns per game and 6.14 yards per play in conference play. At the halfway point in 2012, those numbers were 2.75 touchdowns allowed in league play and 5.31 yards per play.
Those numbers dipped slightly in 2013, as eight teams finished in the top 50 in total defense, meaning SEC defenses got better as the year progressed in a league that featured a plethora of talented, veteran quarterbacks.
Scoring is down at the moment, as teams are averaging 1.92 points per drive in SEC play, down from 2.21 last year. Teams are also scoring touchdowns on 24.4 percent of drives after scoring on 27.7 percent last season. Overall, teams are scoring 21.6 points per game on SEC defenses, which is down from 24.2 through Week 7 of last year. The total scoring percentage in league play for offenses is the same as in 2012 (31.9), which is down from 36.9 percent last year.
While the numbers show that defenses are steadily improving, it’s important to note that prolific offenses appear here to stay in a conference built on stout defensive play. That becomes obvious when you look at the fact that teams are allowing just 21.2 less yards per game and almost the same amount of yards per play and touchdowns per game while facing a less-heralded group of quarterbacks.
With more offenses implementing some sort of variation of the spread, teams should continue to move the ball. The addition of more tempo around the league has helped teams, too.
“There has been a push to more athleticism and speed," LSU coach Les Miles said of the evolution of SEC offenses. "We’ve tried to make that adjustment.”
Another interesting note is that takeaways and sacks are up for defenses in 2014, yet offenses are responding well. Defenses have forced 81 turnovers with 48 interceptions. Midway through the 2013 season, defenses forced just 63 turnovers (34 interceptions). In 2012, teams forced 88 turnovers (45 interceptions).
As for sacks, teams have 91 this year after having 90 at this point last year and 123 in 2012, when teams were allowing just 198.85 passing yards per game halfway through the season.
Pressuring quarterbacks is up, but teams are still averaging 234.6 passing yards per game (nearly 10 fewer yards than last year at this time) in SEC play. To Florida coach Will Muschamp, spread offenses help counter the pressure.
"The ball is out of the quarterbacks' hands quickly," Muschamp said. "Pressure is a little overrated, in my opinion, depending on the type of passing game and the passing concepts they're using. You have to be able to play man-to-man. You gotta be able to deny the ball, mix zone with that. It certainly can expose you, as far as deficiencies in coverage and guys who can't tackle in space."
As we go forward, it’ll be interesting to see if defenses continue to trend up or if offenses heat up. Last year, numbers dropped as defenses adjusted to such good quarterback play. Last year's experience isn't there, but could quarterbacks -- and offenses -- catch up to defenses by the end of the year with teams working in space more?
“It’s a different style of football,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who runs the spread. “... It gives some people advantages that years ago they didn’t have.”
“The defense figures it out and the offense goes and finds something else."
There's no doubt he will leave some massive shoes to fill, Slive also replaced a visionary leader. Roy Kramer, SEC commissioner from 1990 to 2002, expanded the conference to 12 teams, split it into two divisions and added the all-important conference championship game.
Slive took the league to new heights. Winning seven straight football national championships is a weighty legacy, but take a look at his track record in leading the SEC's business dealings: He negotiated a stunning 15-year, $2.25-billion TV rights deal with ESPN, expanded to 14 teams, launched the SEC network and more than tripled the total payout to member institutions from $95.7 million when he took over in 2002 to $309.6 million this year.
Slive became one of the most powerful people in sports. Naturally the announcement of his retirement was met with an outpouring of gratitude, admiration and exaltation.
The question on deck is who replaces this monolithic figure. The SEC presidents will decide on whom to hire, and the speculation has already begun. The ideas range from the light-hearted (Commissioner Steve Spurrier, anyone?) to the downright silly (Commissioner Lane Kiffin?) to the expected favorite (Slive's No. 2 man is SEC Chief Operating Officer Greg Sankey).
Whoever it is will have all the resources imaginable, greater autonomy and nothing less than the weight of the college football world bearing down. Good luck!
Around the SEC
- The league released the 2015 schedules for all 14 teams. It's 13 weeks long, which means only one bye week next year.
- Georgia RB Todd Gurley is still practicing, but coach Mark Richt says he has no idea when Gurley will play again. Sophomore J.J. Green has moved back to tailback this week.
- Tennessee hasn't beaten an SEC West team since 2010. Ole Miss is hosting the Volunteers on Saturday, and Tennessee native Bo Wallace isn't planning to take it easy on his childhood favorite.
- Missouri QB Maty Mauk had his worst start last week with five turnovers, but Tigers coach Gary Pinkel says, "He's our guy."
- It's official: Alabama coach Nick Saban is an automobile dealer. Of course they're luxury cars.
Spurrier on autograph signing: "I guess what happened with Manziel, these guys say, 'Well, the worst I am going to get is half a game.'"— Josh Kendall (@JoshatTheState) October 14, 2014
That won’t be an issue in 2015, with the usual slate of SEC-versus-Power Five opponent openers -- including Alabama-Wisconsin, Auburn-Louisville, Texas A&M-Arizona State and the Thursday night opener between South Carolina and North Carolina -- followed by three conference games and Oklahoma-Tennessee in Week 2.
After taking a quick glance at the schedules, here are a few more highlights and abnormalities:
- Georgia’s non-conference slate is nothing special (Louisiana-Monroe, Southern, Georgia Southern, at Georgia Tech), but Mark Richt’s Bulldogs might have drawn the toughest cross-division slates with dates against Alabama and Auburn. Kentucky drawing a Thursday-night matchup against Auburn and a trip to Mississippi State isn’t much of a favor to Mark Stoops, either.
- UGA-Alabama is one of the most interesting cross-division games on the list. The two programs haven’t met in the regular season since the Crimson Tide spoiled preseason No. 1 Georgia’s 2008 “Blackout” game at Sanford Stadium by jumping out to a 31-0 halftime lead. A few others of interest are Florida-Ole Miss (Oct. 3), Florida-LSU (Oct. 17), Alabama-Tennessee (Oct. 24), Georgia-Auburn (Nov. 14) and a Thursday-night game between Missouri and Mississippi State (Nov. 5).
2015 SEC cross-divisional games: Alabama (Oct. 3 at Georgia, Oct. 24 vs. Tennessee), Arkansas (Oct. 3 at Tennessee, Nov. 28 vs. Missouri), Auburn (Thursday, Oct. 15 at Kentucky, Nov. 14 vs. Georgia), Florida (Oct. 3 vs. Ole Miss, Oct. 17 at LSU), Georgia (Oct. 3 vs. Alabama, Nov. 14 at Auburn), Kentucky (Thursday, Oct. 15 vs. Auburn, Oct. 24 at Mississippi State), LSU (Oct. 10 at South Carolina, Oct. 17 vs. Florida), Ole Miss (Sept. 26 vs. Vanderbilt, Oct. 3 at Florida), Mississippi State (Oct. 24 vs. Kentucky, Thursday, Nov. 5 at Missouri), Missouri (Thursday, Nov. 5 vs. Mississippi State, Nov. 28 at Arkansas), South Carolina (Oct. 10 vs. LSU, Oct. 31 at Texas A&M), Tennessee (Oct. 3 vs. Arkansas, Oct. 24 at Alabama), Texas A&M (Oct. 31 vs. South Carolina, Nov. 21 at Vanderbilt), Vanderbilt (Sept. 26 at Ole Miss, Nov. 21 vs. Texas A&M).
- As usual, opening weekend is when most of the SEC-versus-Power Five games will occur, but there are others sprinkled throughout the schedule. Four SEC teams aren’t scheduled to play a Power Five nonconference game, while South Carolina (North Carolina, Clemson) is the only SEC team set to play two.
- We'll give Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks the early nod as the SEC team with the toughest nonconference schedule. In addition to the neutral-site game with UNC and home game against Clemson, South Carolina will host Central Florida and The Citadel.
2015 SEC-versus-Power Five: Alabama (Sept. 5 vs. Wisconsin in Dallas), Arkansas (Sept. 19 vs. Texas Tech), Auburn (Sept. 5 vs. Louisville in Atlanta), Florida (Nov. 28 vs. Florida State), Georgia (Nov. 28 at Georgia Tech), Kentucky (Nov. 28 vs. Louisville), LSU (Sept. 26 at Syracuse), Ole Miss (None), Mississippi State (None), Missouri (None), South Carolina (Thursday, Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina in Charlotte, Nov. 28 vs. Clemson), Tennessee (Sept. 12 vs. Oklahoma), Texas A&M (Sept. 5 vs. Arizona State in Houston), Vanderbilt (None).
- Texas A&M will actually leave the state of Texas only once in the first 11 weeks of the season (Oct. 24 at Ole Miss). Prior to its Nov. 21 visit to Vanderbilt, A&M will play seven home games and neutral-site games against Arizona State (in Houston) and Arkansas (in Arlington). The Aggies close the season on Saturday, Nov. 28 at LSU, not on Thanksgiving like this season’s finale with the Tigers.
- With SEC teams getting just one open date apiece in 2015, Ole Miss’ schedule looks like a considerable challenge. The Rebels will play for 10 straight weeks -- including road dates at Alabama, Florida and Auburn -- before taking the weekend off on Nov. 14. They will close the season with a Nov. 21 home game with LSU and the Nov. 28 Egg Bowl at Mississippi State.
Those are just a few of the details that jump out after taking a look at the SEC’s 2015 schedule. Check out the SEC’s official site to see each team’s individual schedule and a week-by-week slate for next fall.
Quick, someone check if Phyllis from Mulga is still breathing. Nick Saban isn't about to hear it from those crazed fans, though. He blew his top in yet another press conference eruption on Monday, saying, "It really sorta, if you want to know the truth about it, pisses me off when I talk to people that have this expectation like they're disappointed that we only won the game, 14-13, and in the way we played." The frustration Saban speaks of is obvious. But as Steve Spurrier found out when he built Florida into a powerhouse in the 1990s, out-of-control fan expectations come with the turf.
2. Speaking of crazed fans, a Tennessee supporter hoping to help his Volunteers in their game at No. 3 Ole Miss on Saturday posted a Snapchat photo taken in August of Rebels star defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche smoking from a bong. What started as a message board post on Sunday night naturally spread to social media. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze acknowledged it during his Monday press conference, saying, "I'm very aware of the picture and also when it was taken and where it was taken." He also said he is "super confident" the school's drug policies are being enforced properly.
3. From the "It was bound to happen" file: Some Florida fans have created websites called HireDanMullen.com and WeWantDan.com in hopes of persuading athletic director Jeremy Foley to fire coach Will Muschamp and hire Mississippi State's Dan Mullen. One of the sites even links to Foley's email address. If Muschamp is truly on his way out, Mullen does make a lot of sense with his success at MSU and as the offensive coordinator at Florida under Urban Meyer before that. In fact, the Gators offense hasn't done much since Mullen left. These new sites aren't much to look at, but they are reminiscent of the classic FireRonZook site, which has morphed into an anti-Muschamp site, by the way.
Around the SEC
- Suspended Georgia tailback Todd Gurley returned to practice on Monday. Former Bulldogs QB Aaron Murray said he can relate to Gurley's problem.
- The SEC announced Alabama's game at Tennessee on Oct. 25 will be played at night. Should be a low-key affair for Lane Kiffin's return to Neyland, huh?
- Auburn plans to do some self-reflection during bye week, while Gus Malzahn calls his second-half schedule the toughest in college football.
- Report: Bama TE Kurt Freitag was caught with 112 grams of pot and $4,661 in cash but not charged. Tweet of the day
Miles: "My kind of game is any game the Tigers win. I'll take it sliced, diced and salad on the side."— Ron Higgins (@RonHigg) October 13, 2014
Just as he started toward the backfield, Collins glanced at running back Jonathan Williams, with whom he was matched up man to man. At first, Williams appeared to be blocking, so Collins’ first thought was to come forward and take him on. When Allen took off to the other side of the field on third-and-10, it only made sense for Collins to pursue.
But just as he turned his body into position to rush, he looked at Williams again, who was too wide to be blocking and was now breaking off his block of the outside linebacker and sprinting for daylight.
Allen noticed the immediate space between the two and fired an ill-advised pass off his back foot and across his body.
Even with Collins turning at the last second, he ended up in great position to haul in the game-clinching interception in Alabama’s 14-13 win in Fayetteville.
"When you throw the ball across the field like that, it’s in the air for a long, long time and he recovered and made a great interception,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Yes, Collins almost got caught being a little too aggressive, but his instincts, speed and athleticism saved him and bailed out a team that had to claw its way to an ugly victory on the road. If Collins didn’t rebound late and find Williams, it’s very likely that the Hogs would have scored on a 77-yard pass because there was nothing but space between Williams and the end zone.
“There was nobody there, so I had to make a play or they’d have a touchdown,” a relieved Collins said.
The play saved Alabama’s SEC West chances and kept the Crimson Tide in the playoff picture.
But how Collins was able to react to two different things in only a matter of seconds was outstanding. A younger Collins might have committed 100 percent to Allen and the blitz, but this version decided to be patient. It was close, but Collins did as he was coached and stayed with his man, who did a very good job of delaying his route.
Collins had to completely turn his body around to find Williams before even trying to locate the ball. Once he found the ball, he had to regain his balance and time his jump. It helped that Allen’s pass lingered in the air, but without perfect timing, Collins could have overplayed the ball, giving Williams an easy catch.
“I saw the ball coming down and I just picked it off,” Collins said.
And saved Alabama’s season.
Final Furman 10 South Carolina 41 Final 21 Texas A&M 0 7 Alabama 59 Final 10 Georgia 45 Arkansas 32 Final Tennessee 3 3 Ole Miss 34 Final Missouri 42 Florida 13 Final Kentucky 3 LSU 41