SEC: Kentucky Wildcats
3. Have you heard? Lane Kiffin is returning to Tennessee on Saturday. OK, you're probably tired of hearing about it, but if you haven't read it yet, do yourself a favor and go read Jon Solomon's piece on the Alabama offensive coordinator. In it, Kiffin's mother Robin says she's "scared to death" for her son's safety and wishes he would coach from the press box against the Volunteers. Even athletic director Mike Hamilton says he wishes Kiffin's first game against Tennessee would have been in Tuscaloosa, not Knoxville. It's certainly an intriguing storyline and one to keep an eye on this weekend, but don't expect more than the normal heckling from Vols fans. I'm more interested to see how Kiffin's offense fares on the road.
Around the SEC
- The Alabama players don't mind the hecklers. They've heard it all before.
- Gus Malzahn, Steve Spurrier meet in a matchup of offensive innovators.
- Vandy quarterback Johnny McCrary to make first career start at Missouri.
#UGA coach Mark Richt told me he's optimistic on Todd Gurley's reinstatement and "hopefully we'll know sooner rather than later"— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) October 22, 2014
We'll just have to look forward to Week 9 for some better SEC entertainment.
Game of the week: No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 24 LSU
Now this should be fun. Night games at Tiger Stadium usually are. Two straight wins have LSU feeling good and back in the rankings. The Tigers are also back on the fringes of the SEC West race and could throw a giant wrench into the Magnolia State love-fest by upsetting the Rebels. The jury is still out on LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings, who didn't have to do much to beat Florida (110 yards passing) or Kentucky (120 yards passing). The Ole Miss defense, however, promises to give the Tigers their toughest test of the season. This unit is operating at peak performance at just the right time for a visit to Baton Rouge. The Rebs allowed zero rushing yards -- ZERO! -- to Tennessee last Saturday and have given up just six touchdowns in seven games this season. It should be a brawl in the Bayou.
Player under pressure: Maty Mauk, Missouri
The Tigers' gunslinging quarterback has been humbled and harnessed in his last two games -- a disastrous 34-0 home loss to Georgia in which he had five turnovers, and a goofy 42-13 win at Florida in which he was 6-of-18 passing for 20 yards and an interception. Mauk's and Missouri's seasons are nearing a crossroads. After playing what he called the worst game of his life against UGA, Mauk overcame a shaky start at Florida and played in control while the Gators self-destructed. The good news for the Tigers offense is that Mauk & Co. will have a solid chance to work out their issues against Vanderbilt, which will bring one of the worst defenses in the SEC (allowing 415.9 yards a game) to Columbia, Mo.
Coach under the microscope: Lane Kiffin, Alabama
The Tide's offensive coordinator might not have circled the third Saturday in October on his calendar, but you can bet 100,000 ticket-holding Volunteers fans sure did. In 2009 Kiffin coached his one and only season at Tennessee. He was full of promises, bravado and hot air. Other than some solid recruiting, the highlights of his 7-6 season were wins over Georgia and South Carolina and a near-miss at Alabama. Who can forget Bama's Terrance "Mount" Cody swatting away two Tennessee field goals in a 12-10 victory? Well, other than Kiffin? Now that he's back in the SEC, patrolling the Alabama sideline and steering its inconsistent offense, the vitriol is sure to reach a fever pitch on Saturday. Hundreds of students rioted when news broke of Kiffin's sudden departure in 2009. How are they going to treat his return?
Storyline to watch: Division dominance
The SEC West is a powerhouse. The East is a house of cards. So the story goes, and it doesn't seem likely to deviate with No. 1 Mississippi State visiting Kentucky and South Carolina traveling to No. 5 Auburn. The East has lost six of seven cross-division games so far this season, most of them with lopsided results. The much-improved Wildcats were riding high at 5-1 before being thrashed by LSU. Now they'll have to contend with Dak Prescott and his steamrolling MSU offense. South Carolina has the worst defense in the SEC and might need a miracle on the Plains to keep up with Auburn's offense. Don't look for the division script to flip this week.
Intriguing matchup: LSU offense vs. Ole Miss defense
As previously described in our game of the week entry, LSU can't expect much from its quarterback in Saturday's matchup against the fearsome Rebels defense. It gives Ole Miss a tremendous advantage to be able to stack the box against the run, but LSU has the horses to give the Rebel defense its toughest test of the season. Tigers senior RB Terrance Magee is coming off a career game with 220 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. He makes a fine pairing with freshman stud Leonard Fournette, LSU's leading rusher with 544 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. If the Tigers can establish the run against Ole Miss it could open up some play-action passing or at least give Jennings a chance to take some shots with the very capable Travin Dural, a sophomore wide receiver with 26 catches, 665 yards and seven touchdowns. It all starts in the trenches.
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.
One of these teams will be bowl eligible by the end of Saturday night, while the other will start looking over a tough second-half schedule and hoping another win is on there somewhere.
Let’s take a look at four key factors in Saturday’s game:
Contributions from newcomers: A unique attribute that both of these teams share is how heavily their offenses rely on players who are filling new roles.
True freshman have accounted for 22 of LSU’s 31 touchdowns, and they have actually scored 16 of those touchdowns. Freshman running back Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 140 yards and scored twice against Florida, has six touchdowns. Receiver Malachi Dupre has four, and running back Darrel Williams three. Quarterback Brandon Harris has passed for six touchdowns and run for three.
After he rushed 27 times against Florida, one of only nine backs ever to run more than 25 times in a game under LSU coach Les Miles, keep an eye on whether the Tigers use Fournette as the feature back again. Previously they had distributed carries among Fournette, Williams and seniors Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee.
The Tigers have already played 17 true freshmen this season, which is the most for any LSU freshman class under Miles.
Kentucky, meanwhile, is also getting a majority of its production from players who didn’t play for the Wildcats in 2013. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard (38-282, 3 TDs) and freshman Stanley Williams (23-202, 2 TDs) help Kentucky newcomers account for 73 percent of the team’s rushing yards. Players who didn’t play for Kentucky last season have also accounted for 67 percent of its points (147 of 171).
Williams, who also leads the SEC with an average of 36 yards per kickoff return, had a big game last Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe. He ran seven times for 104 yards and a touchdown and also returned the opening kickoff 75 yards.
Rare air for Kentucky: In Mark Stoops’ second season, the Wildcats are vastly improved from their back-to-back two-win seasons of 2012 and 2013. In fact, they would be undefeated today if their upset bid at Florida hadn’t fallen just short in a 36-30 triple-overtime loss.
They haven’t been on the road since that painful loss in The Swamp, so posting a win Saturday at Tiger Stadium would be an even greater milestone for Stoops than Kentucky’s thrilling 45-38 win over South Carolina two weeks ago.
It would also secure Kentucky’s first four-game winning streak since 2008, its first three-game SEC winning streak since 2006 and its first 3-1 start in SEC play since 1999.
If the Wildcats are 6-1 by the end of Saturday night, it would be only the fourth time since 1950 that Kentucky had won six or more games in the first seven games of the season.
A remarkable turnaround by Kentucky’s secondary is the driving force in its success generating turnovers. Of Kentucky’s 16 takeaways, 11 have come on interceptions -- a total that is fourth nationally and second on the SEC behind Ole Miss’ 12. Kentucky had just three interceptions in the entire 2013 season.
Junior college transfer A.J. Stamps is the Wildcats’ leader in pass coverage, notching three interceptions and six passes defended.
Safety Marcus McWilson and linebacker Josh Forrest both returned interceptions for touchdowns last week against Louisiana-Monroe, marking the first time since 1986 that the Wildcats had two pick-sixes in a game.
LSU has been more balanced in turnovers, both in its takeaways and giveaways. The defense has generated 16 turnovers (eight fumbles and eight interceptions) and the offense has committed eight turnovers (four fumbles and four interceptions).
Linebacker Kwon Alexander is one of the Tigers to watch on the turnover front. He forced a fumble that Danielle Hunter recovered and returned for a touchdown against Mississippi State and then forced a Jeff Driskel fumble last week in Florida territory that led to a short touchdown drive.
Safety Rickey Jefferson made a key late interception against the Gators to set up Colby Delahoussaye’s game-winning field goal. Jefferson and cornerback Tre'Davious White are tied for the team lead with two interceptions apiece.
Pounding the run: If Kentucky is to win on Saturday, its success in the running game will almost certainly be a deciding factor.
The Wildcats have one of the SEC’s most balanced offenses, but LSU has been much more vulnerable against the run than the pass. The Tigers are 12th in the SEC against the run (175.6 yards per game), but boast the conference’s top pass defense (157.7).
Don’t be surprised to see the Wildcats feed Williams and Heard, have Jojo Kemp take direct snaps and even run a bit with quarterback Patrick Towles in an effort to duplicate previous teams’ successes running against LSU.
The Wildcats also must do a better job on the ground against the run-heavy Tigers. South Carolina ran for 282 yards against Kentucky two weeks ago, led by 183 yards and three touchdowns from Mike Davis. LSU runs the ball more than any SEC team; its 332 rushing attempts are 43 more than the next-closest team. So the Wildcats know that slowing down Fournette and Co. is their No. 1 task.
Kentucky is eighth in the SEC in run defense at 152.0 ypg. LSU is sixth in the league in rushing offense (209.1), but had one of its best outings of the season against Florida. Although the Gators have one of the toughest defensive fronts in the league, LSU ran 50 times for 195 yards.
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.
Speaking of up-and-down quarterbacks, Missouri's Maty Mauk knows the feeling. He had a solid start to the season but had a dismal day in a 34-0 loss to Georgia last week. After a five-turnover performance against the Bulldogs, Mauk said he's aware of the criticism from some fans, who wanted Gary Pinkel to yank him, but it doesn't faze Mauk. Pinkel said it never crossed his mind and offered a vote of confidence to the quarterback, saying "He's our guy." Mauk and the Tigers will have a chance for redemption when they head to The Swamp to take on Florida. The Gators know firsthand that Mauk can play after going for 295 passing yards against Florida last season.
The Todd Gurley autograph saga continues. Georgia officials met with NCAA officials in Indianapolis on Thursday and gave us an update -- in the form of no real update. In a statement, Georgia said "there is no news at this time and no further comment necessary." An NCAA spokesperson did note that it is awaiting a request for reinstatement from Georgia. If the Bulldogs are to make such a request, they have to resolve any issues surrounding his eligibility before doing so. For what it's worth, coach Mark Richt tweeted early Thursday morning that he's "not anticipating [Gurley's status] to change this week."
Around the SEC
- So where did Bo Wallace's game ball from the Alabama game go? Follow its journey.
- Former South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia said he saw players take money for autographs "all day, every day."
- Nick Chubb isn't the only freshman making an impact at Georgia.
- LSU's running game poses a big challenge to Kentucky's defense.
- Tennessee's beat-up backfield hoping to step it up this week.
- Nick Saban talks about Alabama's offensive line issues.
Nick Saban smiling. pic.twitter.com/7Cz5NhKalb— TexAgs (@TexAgs) October 16, 2014
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.
He played for Hal Mumme, considered the godfather of the offense that had a reverberating impact on college football, at Kentucky in the late 1990s. Brown has run the system throughout his seven-year career as an offensive coordinator. Like most Air Raid disciples, he has put his own spin on the attack and it continues to evolve in his second season as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator.
So it was only natural that, when Kentucky scored a landmark win over South Carolina on Oct. 4, it did so thanks in large part to … the Wildcat formation?
Mumme, now the head coach at NAIA school Belhaven, noticed.
“It's funny,” Brown said. “He texted me after the South Carolina game and it was a good text. He was basically saying, 'The No. 1 thing is to win.' He wants to throw the football, no question. But he wants to win and he likes being different. And the Wildcat deal is a non-traditional way, so I think he can relate to that."
With Kentucky (5-1) serving as one of the best stories in the SEC and a game away from bowl eligibility, who are we to argue? The Wildcats are averaging 36.5 points per game and have scored more than 40 in their last two. Solid quarterback play from sophomore Patrick Towles and depth at running back and receiver, thanks in part to an influx of talent from Mark Stoops’ recruiting classes, have made a night-and-day difference for Kentucky’s offense compared to where it was at this time last season.
Brown’s standard offensive principles remain intact. The Wildcat is simply something different to throw at teams and something he has used since his first year as an offensive coordinator at Troy. But against South Carolina, it was particularly successful.
That night, sophomore running back Jojo Kemp put together a career-best performance, much of it running the Wildcat. Initially planning to only use it a handful of plays, Kentucky leaned on the formation, particularly in crunch time, and continued to use it as they had success. Kemp wound up with career-highs in carries (17), rushing yards (131) and rushing touchdowns (three) in the emotional victory.
“Jojo is great; he played awesome,” Towles said. “Without him, I don't know if we win that football game.”
Brown, who said he likes to use the Wildcat formation occasionally, figured it wasn’t broke so there was no sense in fixing it.
"Going in, I thought we'd use it between six and eight snaps a game,” he said. “We used it in short yardage and to get Jojo Kemp some touches. And then we got there in the fourth quarter [vs. South Carolina] and we hit it on a short-yardage play for a 10-plus yard gain. Then on first down, I stayed in it, and we hit it for another big gain, and from there it just became, 'Hey, they aren't stopping it; let's keep doing it and make them stop it.' Fortunately for us, they didn't that night."
Kemp’s season-high workload was well above his usual carry total (he hasn’t had more than nine carries in any other game this season) but he answered the bell every time, and produced results like this.
“I got tired a lot of times,” Kemp said. “But I had to suck it up and go out there and be a man."
The formation also yielded a perfectly-executed trick play in which Towles, who usually motions out to line up as a receiver in the formation, took a handoff on a reverse and threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Ryan Timmons. The play gave Kentucky a lead early in the second half and provided a spark.
“We worked on that play about 25 times in practice that week, it was good every time, we executed it every time,” Towles said. “[Brown] called the play, I told our offensive line what we were going to run and we had done it so many times that it was kind of second nature.”
The formation has only been one element of a successful offense that was in the bottom four in the SEC in most statistical categories a year ago but has climbed to the middle of the pack in the league so far this season. Kentucky has been solid defensively this season and the Wildcats are developing an offensive identity to match.
As they head into a crucial game at LSU on Saturday night, the Wildcats are looking to build on their surprise first half of the season. They’re not satisfied, though. They want more.
"We're excited, but we're focused,” Towles said. “Nobody came into the season wanting to win five games. We want to win every game we play.”
With Mike Slive announcing that this will be his final year as SEC commissioner, speculation has naturally turned to who will replace him. The odds-on favorite many have pointed to nationally is SEC executive associate commissioner and chief operating officer Greg Sankey. The praise from colleagues is effusive, from commissioners of other conferences to athletic directors within the SEC. Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said "Bottom line, I think he has the potential to be one of the truly great leaders in intercollegiate athletics." Sankey has strong credentials and his day-to-day handling of SEC operations while Slive worked on major projects in recent years certainly makes him a natural fit.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs are talking a lot about No. 1 these days since they hold the top spot in the national rankings. As Mullen and his quarterback, Dak Prescott discuss the situation, they're saying all the right things about staying focused, not paying attention to the noise, etc. What's more important than what they say is how they react to the spotlight. Handling success can be a challenge. I have no doubt that Mullen, who has been on a national championship team at Florida, knows how to navigate this and meet that challenge. It'll be fun to watch as the Bulldogs experience life on top.
Around the SEC
- When it comes to Todd Gurley's status, Mark Richt kept it simple: ‘If he’s eligible to play, he’ll travel. If he’s not, he won’t travel.’
- More praise for outgoing SEC commissioner Mike Slive. Take a bow, Slive. You've earned it.
- Which coaches have done the best job this year? Here's a ranking of the top five to this point in the season.
- Gus Malzahn said if Auburn doesn't take care of its business, "It doesn't matter" where they are in the College Football Playoff rankings when they debut.
- Ole Miss' "Landsharks" should be poised for a big day versus Tennessee.
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."
Here are five SEC true freshmen who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from last Saturday:
RB Nick Chubb, Georgia
What he did: With Heisman Trophy frontrunner Todd Gurley suspended indefinitely and Keith Marshall and Sony Michel injured, Georgia turned to Chubb to carry the load in the backfield, and he exceeded all reasonable expectations. Chubb carried the ball a whopping 38 times for 143 yards and a touchdown in the Bulldogs’ 34-0 win over Missouri and also caught four passes for 31 yards.
What it means: Gurley’s status remains unclear and it doesn’t look like Marshall or Michel will be available Saturday against Arkansas, so Chubb and Brendan Douglas need to be ready for another heavy workload. As good as they were against Mizzou, the Bulldogs will be much better off when their backfield depth gets back closer to normal.
RB Leonard Fournette, LSU
What he did: Fournette had previously split carries pretty evenly with LSU’s three other tailbacks, but he got by far the most touches while making his first college start against Florida. Fournette ran 27 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns against the Gators, the most rushing yards in a game by an LSU true freshman since 2003. He also had 85 yards on kickoff returns.
What it means: We’ll see whether this was a one-game thing or whether Fournette will now be LSU’s feature back. This was easily his best game as a Tiger after a relatively quiet first half of the season – even if he has led LSU in rushing in six straight games and ranks third in the SEC in all-purpose yards at 136.9 ypg.
RB Stanley Williams, Kentucky
What he did: Sure, the competition wasn’t outstanding, but Williams was one of the stars of the Wildcats’ 48-14 win against Louisiana-Monroe. He ran seven times for 104 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, and also returned a kickoff for a 75-yard gain.
What it means: The exciting freshman showed once again how many ways he can affect a game. He has made big plays for the Wildcats already on the ground, in the passing game and as a return man, making him one of Kentucky’s players to watch when it visits LSU for a key conference game on Saturday night.
P J.K. Scott, Alabama
What he did: Scott punted a career-high eight times against Arkansas and landed seven inside the Razorbacks’ 20-yard line -- all of which were downed inside the Arkansas 15. Scott netted 44.2 yards per punt to raise his season net punting average to 43.1, which ranks fourth nationally. Scott was named Ray Guy Award Player of the Week on Monday for his play against the Razorbacks.
What it means: Specialists usually don’t get enough attention on lists like this, but Scott has been outstanding all season for Alabama. He leads the SEC with an average of 46.7 ypp, with eight of his 19 punts going for 50-plus yards and 12 landing inside the 20. Alabama has had its problems on special teams, but Scott and the SEC’s leading punt coverage team -- the Crimson Tide leads the league with a 43.1 net punting average -- have been outstanding.
WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M
What he did: There wasn’t much for the Aggies to brag about in their home loss to Ole Miss, but Noil continues to impress with his playmaking ability. He caught 11 passes for 105 yards against the Rebels and also returned three kickoffs for 68 yards and two punts for 19 yards.
What it means: Like Kentucky’s Williams, Noil is quickly emerging as one of the SEC’s top all-purpose performers. He ranks seventh in the league with 121.2 all-purpose ypg and has picked up his receiving production in recent weeks. The Aggies have plenty of strong options in the passing game, but Noil is becoming one of the best.
DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: Recorded three tackles and a sack for a 12-yard loss in a loss to Ole Miss.
DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss: Recorded two sacks for 26 yards in negative yardage in a win against Texas A&M.
RB Dallas Rivers, Vanderbilt: Ran 11 times for 47 yards and a touchdown and returned two kickoffs for 30 yards in a win against Charleston Southern.
RB Derrell Scott, Tennessee: Played for the first time this season and led Tennessee with 42 rushing yards on nine carries in a win over Chattanooga.
CB Jalen Tabor, Florida: Posted seven tackles, including a sack for a seven-yard loss, and broke up a pass in a loss to LSU.
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.
12:00 PM ET UAB Arkansas 3:30 PM ET 1 Mississippi State Kentucky 4:00 PM ET Vanderbilt Missouri 7:15 PM ET 3 Ole Miss 24 LSU 7:30 PM ET South Carolina 5 Auburn 7:30 PM ET 4 Alabama Tennessee