SEC: Tennessee Volunteers
The Alabama at Tennessee game on Saturday night will feature two teams who appear to be on very different paths. For Alabama, the No. 4-ranked team in the country, it's near the top both on the field and in recruiting. For Tennessee, the Volunteers are 0-3 in the SEC and 3-4 overall. At first glance it looks like this could be a blowout; after all the SEC West has had its way with the SEC East this year -- and it still might be -- but Tennessee’s focus isn’t necessarily about making the college football playoff this year but rather competing and building for the future.
Under second-year head coach Butch Jones, Tennessee is taking its lumps, but with a top-five recruiting class last year and working on another top-five class this year -- the Vols are heading in the right direction. There is a new energy around the Tennessee program and it all starts with recruiting.
With 21 commits, including 17 ranked in the ESPN 300, Alabama is on pace for its fourth consecutive recruiting title. Tennessee, meanwhile, has 26 commitments, including eight ranked in the ESPN 300 and is hoping to bring in players who fill immediate needs and others who can add depth in key areas. The Vols lead the nation in true freshmen who have played with over 20 and several freshmen including Jalen Hurd, Todd Kelly Jr. and Derek Barnett have made significant contributions this year.
Alabama freshmen Cam Robinson and Tony Brown have also made an impact as freshmen, but with the depth Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the need for immediate impact players is far less necessary than what it is in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Instant impact recruit
It’s been more than four years now. Move on.
To those at Tennessee still clinging to their hatred of Lane Kiffin, get over it. Blaming him for years of mediocrity is foolish. It’s operating on the lowest common denominator, and you’re better than that.
Put it on Phillip Fulmer for leaving the cupboard bare. Put it on Derek Dooley for limping to a 15-21 mark. Put it on Butch Jones for not laying his coveted bricks fast enough, if you’re that impatient.
We get it, he done you wrong. But don’t be that guy. Don’t be head over heels for your significant other one minute, only to be broken up with and make an about-face the next. Don’t completely rewrite the history of your relationship. You loved Kiffin’s antics. He was foolish, brash and incompetent at times -- but you didn’t see it that way. You saw him as affable, your rogue coach fighting fire with fire.
You cheered him on when he accused Urban Meyer of recruiting violations.
You practiced singing "Rocky Top" all night long when he all but guaranteed a win over Florida.
You snickered and laughed with approval when you heard he told Alshon Jeffery that he’d end up pumping gas if he went to South Carolina.
He was wrong on all three counts. The rest of the SEC loathed him, but golly he was your man. He went 7-6, reached a bowl game and nearly beat eventual champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He had Tennessee headed in the right direction, you said. You didn’t care if he ruffled a few feathers so long as he won football games.
Until he left.
Then everything changed. Then he became the villain and you repainted The Rock from "Hail Kiffin" to something less salutatory.
But you should have known better. When the USC job came open, it was obvious he might go. It was home. He didn’t surprise you or anyone else when he eventually confirmed the news. Though his final news conference didn’t go well, at least he stuck around to try to explain himself.
In fact, if anyone has room to hate Kiffin, it’s Southern Cal. He was crushed under Hollywood-sized expectations, in spite of limited scholarships, and ended up the scapegoat of the post-Pete Carroll era. Under Kiffin's watch, USC's aura of dominance fell hard. But at Tennessee, he was only trying to help resurrect a once proud program. While it's true he left abruptly, the flames from those riots on Jan. 12, 2010, should be long extinguished by now. But judging by the vitriol this week, it doesn't appear that anyone's moved on.
When Kiffin returns to Neyland Stadium on Saturday as offensive coordinator of No. 4-ranked Alabama, don’t hold back. You can boo and heckle him all you want, but have some perspective. Tennessee has gone 24-32 since he left. The Vols were 5-7 the season before he arrived.
Taunt him because he’s wearing crimson. Jeer him because he failed at USC. Wave $14 at him for an unpaid haircut because it would be too funny not to.
Just don’t waste your energy hating someone who left more than four years ago, was fired from his last job unceremoniously and was rescued from the trash heap only to go back to being an assistant.
Think about it: knowing what we know now, where do you think the program would be had he stayed? He might have done everyone in Knoxville a favor by eventually paving the way for Butch Jones, who seems to be building a solid foundation for the future.
Saturday’s game shouldn’t be about Tennessee beating Kiffin. It should be about trying to beat Alabama. It should be about where Tennessee is heading now, not where it’s been in the past.
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
Here are five SEC true freshmen who stood out last Saturday (and five more worth mentioning):
RB Nick Chubb, Georgia
What he did: Chubb continued to give Todd Gurley the Wally Pipp treatment by carrying 30 times for 202 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ 45-32 win at Arkansas. He also caught a pass for an 8-yard gain. In the last two games, Chubb has run 68 times for 345 yards, and the Bulldogs have blasted Missouri and Arkansas on the road.
What it means: If and when Gurley returns to the lineup, he will obviously resume carrying the Bulldogs’ running game. But with the one-time Heisman Trophy frontrunner suspended and Sony Michel and Keith Marshall out with injuries, Georgia desperately needed Chubb to produce, and he has exceeded every reasonable expectation.
DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
What he did: Barnett logged his first game with double-digit tackles, recording 10 in a loss to Ole Miss, and also notched four tackles for loss and two sacks. The game wasn’t particularly competitive -- Ole Miss won 34-3 -- but Barnett clearly ranked among the Volunteers’ top defensive performers.
What it means: He hasn’t been getting the same kind of attention as Texas A&M freshman Myles Garrett, but Barnett might catch up soon. All of a sudden he’s second in the SEC with 9.5 tackles for loss, along with 38 tackles and three sacks.
DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss
What he did: In the Rebels’ win against Tennessee, Haynes finished with five tackles, 2.5 sacks and his first career fumble recovery. That continued a dominant recent run in which he has totaled 4.5 sacks in the last two games.
What it means: Haynes leads arguably the SEC’s top defense with 7.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He also leads the SEC with three forced fumbles. The Rebels already have a star-studded defense, and Haynes is quickly adding another name to the list of players to watch.
S Jamal Adams, LSU
What he did: The Tigers’ highest-rated defensive signee in a well-regarded 2014 recruiting class, Adams had his best game yet in a win against Kentucky. He finished with a career-high eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack, plus he delivered the key block that sprung Tre'Davious White for a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown.
What it means: Simply put, the energetic Adams is showing why those around the LSU program believe he is the next Eric Reid at safety. He is the Tigers’ leading tackler on special teams and is already a leader on their nickel and dime defensive groupings.
S Dominick Sanders, Georgia
What he did: Sanders started at safety for the seventh straight game and scored for the first time in his college career when he picked up a Brandon Allen fumble and returned it 54 yards for a touchdown. Sanders’ touchdown just before halftime gave Georgia a 38-6 halftime lead.
What it means: Sanders, who also made four tackles against Arkansas, has been one of the more reliable performers in Georgia’s depth-deprived secondary. The Bulldogs still have plenty to clean up on pass defense, but the overall defense continues to make progress under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
WR Kendrick Edwards, Arkansas: Caught a 4-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter as the Razorbacks attempted a late rally against Georgia.
QB Treon Harris, Florida: Rotated at quarterback with Jeff Driskel and finished 8-for-12 for 98 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and also rushed eight times for 26 yards.
RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: Ran 13 times for 40 yards and caught two passes for 19 yards in a loss to Ole Miss.
WR Josh Malone, Tennessee: Caught five passes for 75 yards in a loss to Ole Miss.
WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: Caught four passes for 32 yards and returned six kickoffs for 106 yards in a loss to Alabama.
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.
It was a defensive struggle early on, but Ole Miss gained some separation in the second quarter and eventually put the game away. There’s a reason the Rebels are ranked No. 3 nationally, and they proved it once again Saturday with a 34-3 win over Tennessee.
How the game was won: One word: Landsharks. This Ole Miss defense lived up to its nickname Saturday night with an absolutely dominant performance against Tennessee. The Rebels finished with nine sacks, three interceptions and held the Volunteers to 189 yards of total offense. There might not be a better defense in all of college football.
Game ball goes to: The pressure created up front was the difference in the game, but how can you not give the game ball to Senquez Golson? The SEC’s interception leader added two more picks, giving him seven on the season. That’s the second most in college football. He just seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
What it means: The Rebels were not as sharp on offense. They struggled out of the gates, and quarterback Bo Wallace completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes. If Saturday’s game showed us anything, it showed us that Ole Miss can still win football games even when the offense is a bit off.
Playoff implication: After back-to-back wins over Alabama and Texas A&M, this was a game in which Ole Miss could’ve let its guard down. But it didn’t. The Rebels took care of business and still control their destiny with just five games remaining. Win them all, and they're looking at the No. 1 seed in the playoff.
Best play: Both of Golson’s interceptions were impressive, but this touchdown catch (below) by Evan Engram took the cake. Ole Miss came out throwing after a turnover, and Wallace threw a ball that most tight ends would have no business catching. Engram isn’t most tight ends. He made an acrobatic catch in the end zone and put the dagger in Tennessee.
What's next: Ole Miss travels to Baton Rouge next week to face a young LSU team that seems to be improving with every game. The last time the Rebels played in Baton Rouge, they allowed a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds.
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.
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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.
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
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