It is becoming increasingly difficult to make sense of anything that goes on in the SEC this year.
Consider: The West features an undefeated team that is allowing 367.9 yards per game on defense and another undefeated team that is gaining only 328.6 yards per game on offense. One team gained 566 yards this weekend and lost while another generated just 245 and won. Again, all of that going on in the West.
Meanwhile, the East continues to prove the point we made a few weeks ago: That it is a horrible division this year. Consider that the division leader lost to Kentucky. Kentucky! This is the school that has been comforting itself over the last few weeks with the thought that basketball season was on the way. Okay, scratch that. This is the school that has been comforting itself over the last few decades with the thought that basketball season was on the way.
All of which is actually kind of fun when you're able to just sit back and watch the games as an impartial observer. But when you're actually the fan of a team playing in one of these games, it's a nerve-wracking experience that is probably not good for the cardiovascular health of most fans. (And considering how much fried food the average Southerner consumes, this is not at all a minor consideration.)
So sit back as we try to explain another week of mayhem in the SEC. We can't promise it will make much sense, but we can promise that you will see something you didn't expect to see.
I THOUGHT MIDNIGHT MADNESS WASN'T FOR A FEW MORE HOURS
Auburn 65, Arkansas 43
Usually, when conventional wisdom says that two teams are going to spend most of the day scoring points, you get a defensive-minded game with no more than 40 points scored between the two. Not so with Auburn and Arkansas this weekend, who boldly set out to break the mold and left it on shattered on the floor.
Consider: 55 first downs, 1,036 yards and 108 points in between the two teams. There are WAC games with fewer points scored.
The 108 points, you might not be surprised to learn, is a record for a non-overtime SEC game. In fact, it would rank third among overtime games in SEC history. Some of the other records set during the game: Most completions in a game by Arkansas, most points in an SEC game by Auburn and most rushing yardage in a game against Arkansas by Auburn.
I'm not sure that there is enough space on the Internet to recap the entire game in a blow-by-blow fashion, so let's just hit some of the highlights from the stat sheet:
- It was 7-7 at end of the first quarter.
- There were four lead changes in the game.
- There were ten drives of 60 or more yards.
- Arkansas' backup quarterback Tyler Wilson's stat line: 25-of-34, 332 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INT. He was in the game because of a concussion to Ryan Mallett.
- Cam Newton ran for 188 yards and threw for 140 more; he had four total touchdowns.
- Auburn scored the last 28 points of the game -- part of a fourth quarter that included a combined five touchdowns.
- The game got away from Arkansas during a three-minute stretch of that fourth quarter, when Auburn returned an Arkansas fumble for a touchdown and turned two Arkansas interceptions into scores to increase the lead from one point to 22.
Because this is the SEC, no dramatic game can be without an officiating controversy or two. There were the questionable calls that you're bound to have in a game when the teams combine for 10 football fields worth of offense, but the worst came early, when Auburn running back Mario Fannin crossed the goal line for a touchdown. The only problem was that he forgot to bring the football along with him, dropping it around the 1-yard line. The referees very clearly did not whistle the play dead or call the play a touchdown on the field.
That is, until the head official announced to the stunned crowd that the play had been ruled a touchdown on the field -- which, again, it had not -- and that the play was now under review, giving officials a chance to correct what everyone could tell was a mistake. As the broadcasters blathered on about how the video evidence was inconclusive, those of us with eyes watched as multiple replays appeared to show the ball was out before Fannin crossed the goal line.
Unfortunately, the officials appear to have left their eyes at home, and confirmed the call on the field that they had never made that the play resulted in a touchdown. At this point, I fully expect an SEC official to call a missed field goal good. Oh, that happened?
Arkansas fans are really quite upset about this, but they're also trying to regain their balance.
I'm not quite sure what happened, but I think I just saw Ryan Mallett get knocked out, Tyler Wilson play absolutely heroically in relief, at least two horrible calls or non-calls that led to Auburn TDs and Cameron Newton rush for approximately 8,000 yards and score about 15 touchdowns.
Auburn fans are perhaps just as outraged, given that people now a reason to question what is arguably the most important win of the Tigers' season so far.
Why have replay officials, if they are too afraid to make use of it? I don't like Auburn wins tainted by the officials. I'd rather win or lose without help. There'll be a game down the road where this sort of chicanery bites us, as the bogus calls go the other way.
Arkansas now returns home to face Ole Miss. Auburn hosts LSU in the headline conference tilt this weekend. And, if there is any justice in this world, the referees from this game will be taken to Mount Inostranka.
THERE'S A FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING
Kentucky 31, South Carolina 28
It was perhaps the meme of the week in the SEC: Would South Carolina suffer from a "letdown" after upsetting No. 1 Alabama in Columbia the week before? After all, they were playing Kentucky in the middle of a 10-game winning streak against the Wildcats, the longest such streak the Gamecocks have ever been on against any of their SEC foes. And Steve Spurrier had yet to lose to Kentucky, having won all 17 games he coached against the Wildcats. Were the Gamecocks living on borrowed time? And would this mysterious letdown effect be all that was needed to bring that time to an end?
At least for a time, the answer to both questions seemed to be a resounding no. Little more than 3 minutes into the game, Marcus Lattimore ran 30 yards for the game's opening touchdown. About 7 minutes later, Stephen Garcia hit Alshon Jeffery with a three-yard touchdown pass, and the Gamecocks were up 14-0 before the first quarter was over.
Kentucky would turn an interception into a touchdown in the second quarter? Fine, South Carolina would score again. A South Carolina fumble would lead to a field goal? South Carolina would score another touchdown. And they would take a 28-10 lead into halftime.
In the second half, things started to come a little bit unglued. On South Carolina's first series, Marcus Lattimore limped off the field; it was only later that we would learn he had a sprained ankle. South Carolina would run the ball five more times all game, not including sacks.
Meanwhile, Kentucky was patiently coming back. Getting the ball back shortly after the Lattimore injury, the Wildcats engineered a 14-play, 95-yard drive to cut the lead to 28-17. Another South Carolina punt was followed by another Kentucky drive, this one covering 76 yards in eight plays. THIS ENTIRE TIME, Steve Spurrier is calling for Stephen Garcia to fire away instead of running and trying to bleed the clock. South Carolina lost the time of possession battle in the second half, 18:40-11:20 -- in a game in which they began the half leading by more than two touchdowns.
The two-point conversion on the second Kentucky touchdown drive of the half was no good, so South Carolina got the ball back with a five-point lead and 13 minutes left in the game. Garcia then ran the ball, fumbled it and recovered it four yards behind where he fumbled it. The Gamecocks then called three straight passes, one of which ended in a pass interference call on Alshon Jeffery, and punted the ball.
Kentucky couldn't score on the next drive and punted. The Gamecocks get the ball back, and four of the next five play calls are passes. At this point, it's harder to criticize this kind of play-calling in a five-point game. In any case, Kentucky gets the ball back with 7:31 on the clock.
You can probably tell where this is going. Kentucky drives down the field and Mike Hartline hits a wide open Randall Cobb -- yes, Kentucky's best offensive player by far was wide open on a game-defining drive -- for a 24-yard touchdown pass. Cobb then rushes for the two-point conversion, and Kentucky has a 31-28 lead.
South Carolina gets the ball back with a minute left and begins to drive the field. Every South Carolina fan knows what's going to happen as the Gamecocks get into Kentucky territory: Stephen Garcia is about to throw a season-altering interception. Every South Carolina fan is proven correct. With the ball at the Kentucky 20, with an easy field goal to tie the game all but set, the one thing Garcia cannot do is throw an interception in the end zone. Which he does with 4 seconds left to end the game.
Which is about as good as it gets for Kentucky fans -- well, outside of basketball season.
I guess as cathartic moments go, this one is about as satisfying as any I have dealt with in a long time, probably since 2007 when Kentucky finally defeated the Louisville Cardinals for the first time since 2002. ...
Gone is the 17-game winning streak by Spurrier, consigned to history by what was arguably a faux pas on his part, calling a late time-out that seemed unnecessary and ill-timed. Gone is the ten-game winning streak by South Carolina over Kentucky, similarly removed to the dust bin by a remarkable defensive performance in the second half by a much-maligned Kentucky defense that allowed 450 yards in the first half, mostly due to the heroics of Marcus Lattimore in the role of receiver utilizing the wheel route.
South Carolina fans, meanwhile, turned their anger on the man that had just delivered the biggest win in the history of the program.
However, where the blame deserves to go in this one is on Steve Spurrier. He deservedly took a lot of the credit for the Alabama win, and now he gets the blame for losing a game that we had no business losing, because he laid a huge egg in this one. ...
Spurrier completely abandoned the run once Lattimore went out of the game. Actually, let's be more precise -- losing Lattimore certainly had something to do with it, but Spurrier has done this several times now. This time, though, has to be the worst example, because it came in a situation where conventional wisdom says to run the ball. We had an 18-point lead. Our QB obviously wasn't playing his best game. We were playing against one of the worst rushing defenses in the country, a defense that we had carved up like swiss cheese with the running game in the first half. It was time to run the ball up the gut and get out of Lexington with an ugly win.
But Spurrier, who has openly talked about his disappointment about the lack of 50-point games during his time at South Carolina, was apparently willing to risk the game to run up the score. It was the kind of gamble that used to make Spurrier great, but it was one he lost this time.
South Carolina now travels to Nashville to play Vanderbilt. It is worth noting that the Gamecocks lost the last time they played Vanderbilt there. Kentucky welcomes Georgia to Lexington in what becomes a much more intriguing match-up than it looked like a few weeks ago.
THINGS GET STRANGE
Mississippi State 10, Florida 7
Now it was time for Florida to finally break its two-game slide and claim its rightful place as the favorite in the race for the SEC East. And they could have a better opponent for the task than Mississippi State, which hadn't won in Gainesville since 1965. Yes, it was time for order to finally be restored to the universe.
So much for all that.
In game that featured three scoring drives, Mississippi State did not cross the goal line in the final 45 minutes of the contest and yet managed to win. Actually, the Western Division Bulldogs only crossed the 50-yard line once during the last three quarters, though they also got the ball inside Florida territory once and at midfield another time.
There is really very little good that can be said about this game. The teams combined for three missed field goals, two of them by Florida. The Gators had four drives of 59 yards or more, were in Mississippi State territory five times, and came away with one touchdown. At the same time, the Bulldogs were once again turning the clock back on offensive football by 50 years. Chris Relf completed only four passes, in part because he attempted only nine.
One thing the Bulldogs can and will do is run. They did so 49 times for 212 yards and their sole touchdown. You might think that Florida is more physical and would thus gain even more on average against State than the Bulldogs did against them. You would be wrong. Florida rushed for 151 yards on 35 carries, giving them the same 4.3 ypc average that the Bulldogs had.
But lost Florida because it remained its own worst enemy. The Gators lost despite outgaining the Bulldogs by 116 yards, in large part because they turned the ball over twice and missed the pair of field goals. And unlike South Carolina, the Bulldogs were willing to wind the clock as long as they led.
Even State fans seemed to know that they had a little bit of help with this one.
But in the end, the Bulldogs prevailed with a win over a mediocre (at best) Florida Gator squad that clearly missed 2 things: Tim Tebow and Dan Mullen. And maybe Percy Harvin. And an offensive coordinator that knows what he is doing.
Both teams take a break next week, with Florida taking a bye and Mississippi State facing UAB.
A GAME NO ONE SEEMED TO ENJOY
Alabama 23, Ole Miss 10
Florida was not the only 2009 SEC Championship Game contestant that found itself in an ugly game against a team from Mississippi. Alabama welcomed Ole Miss to Tuscaloosa, if you can really welcome a team that has recently caused you fits. Eight of the last 13 games against the Rebels have been decided by nine points or less, including four of the last five. (Last year's game, played when Ole Miss was supposed to be the biggest challenge to Alabama in the West, was the anomaly.) And the game was against Houston Nutt, who's been known to pull an upset or two in his life.
When last we saw Alabama, you'll recall, they had lost to South Carolina in an upset that ended a 19-game winning streak and might have derailed their national title hopes. Part of the narrative of that game was the fact that Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson only got 17 carries for 64 yards, despite the fact that the running game has been a key part of Alabama's success.
The Tide's coaching staff did not make the same mistake this week. They gave Ingram and Richardson 26 carries, generating 105 yards. I suppose this is some sort of progress, but it's not going to get anybody any Heisman consideration. Greg McElroy, meanwhile, was 17-of-25 for 219 yards, 2 TDs and non interceptions, which you might think would inoculate him from rumblings of a quarterback controversy. But there are still complaints about his performance in Tuscaloosa, largely based on the four sacks he took, bringing his total for the last two games to 11.
Or maybe it's just that everyone was in a sour mood after a sloppy game. There were 20 penalties in this one -- 20 -- with Ole Miss drawing 12 flags and Alabama getting eight. There were 13 punts, at least in part because there were 18 drives of 30 yards or fewer, 10 of which failed to gain even 10 yards.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, returned to resembling a train wreck after having shown the first fitful signs of life in recent weeks. Jeremiah Masoli threw the ball 40 times, completing just 18 of those attempts for 110 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He was also the Rebels leading rusher with 40 yards on 10 carries. Tyler Campbell's longest punt was longer than all but one of Ole Miss' drives. Maybe they ought to take another look at the Rebel Land Shark.
In the middle of all this slop, the Tide took a 16-3 lead into halftime and pretty much controlled the game. The defense limited Ole Miss to 243 yards, an average of 3.7 a play, and the offense did just enough to get a win.
And while Roll Bama Roll isn't exactly exuberant with the win, they'll accept it.
After the thumping we received in Columbia, I imagine we will take a win any way we can get it at this point, but admittedly it was an ugly performance. Never underestimate the importance of getting a victory, even if it had the aesthetic value of an episode of Roseanne, and surely Ohio State and Nebraska would have given anything to have just won ugly yesterday. Nevertheless, if your standard is to play to a high level and play like a legitimate national championship contender, we fell far short of that standard last night.
Surprisingly enough, Ole Miss fans might have been a bit more pleased with the game (language warning).
Of course I don't like losing, but there were some things that we all saw yesterday which should give any Rebel legitimate cause for a bump, even slightly, in fan confidence and optimism. We lost to Alabama by thirteen points and struggled mightily against what may be the conference's best defense, but we weren't embarrassed whatsoever. An Ole Miss victory was never really out of reach and, while they never came, both Ole Miss and Bama fans watching could feel that one or two big plays out of the Rebels would have completely turned the game around.
Both teams face potentially emotional games this weekend, with Alabama traveling to Tennessee in a rivalry that continues to be named after the Saturday on which it no longer takes place and Ole Miss visiting Arkansas, where Houston Nutt apparently knows some of the people or something.
SO MUCH FOR THE HOT SEAT TALK. FOR NOW
Georgia 43, Vanderbilt 0
We're temporarily suspending the Mark Richt Hot Seat Watch. Because when the biggest complaint about a Georgia game this year is clock management -- and it's not LSU-level time miscues we're talking about -- that's a sign of improvement in Athens. Not that Mark Richt or anyone else should be applauded for calling all three first-half timeouts a little more than five minutes into the first quarter -- but this being 2010 Georgia we're talking about, Dawg fans will take that as the most glaring mistake.
It's hard to make many more mistakes than that and win 43-0 against an SEC team, even when that SEC team is Vanderbilt. Offensive questions? The Dawgs scored on seven of their first nine drives and piled up 547 yards of total offense. Some doubts about the new defensive scheme? Georgia limited Vanderbilt to 140 yards and a single third-down conversion en route to the shutout.
Vanderbilt's longest play of the day was 28 yards. The Commodores offense outgained Washaun Ealey alone by just 17 yards.
And it might just be time to just go ahead and say that Vanderbilt does not have a passing game. The Commodore quarterbacks (and wideout John Cole) combined to go 6-of-20 for 82 yards and an interception. Their combined passer rating was 54.44. For those who don't understand all the intricacies of quarterback rating, let me make this easy for you: A 54.44 is beyond awful. Not that bad quarterback ratings are new for Vanderbilt, which has a 98.36 on the season when the clobbering of Eastern Michigan is removed from the mix. And a 98.36 is still pretty bad. But 54.44 is still by far the lowest rating Vanderbilt has had all year. (The only team with a lower quarterback rating on the season than Vanderbilt? LSU.)
But back to Georgia for a moment: There will probably be a tendency among many to say that the turnaround is due solely to A.J. Green's return, and there's probably a lot of truth in that. That said, everyone appears to be playing better on the offensive side of the ball. The top two receivers for Georgia gained 182 yards -- and their names were Kris Durham (112) and Tavarres King (70). Yes, it's Vanderbilt. And yes, having A.J. Green in the game is going to give more room to the running game and more opportunities for your other receivers. But if they can't catch the ball and run with it, none of that is going to make a great deal of difference.
Aaron Murray was also very good in this game, going 15-of-24 for 287 yards and two touchdowns.
Of course, the true test of how much Georgia has turned things around comes in the next few weeks. Two of the four toughest defenses the Dawgs will face in terms of yardage per game remain on the schedule. The first two defeated Georgia.
Even so, Dawg fans are deservedly upbeat, with our own Kyle King at Dawg Sports declaring the rest of the year a new season for Georgia:
Yes, I know; Georgia’s two conference wins came against a pair of teams who now sit at 2-4, but it isn’t so much that the Bulldogs won as it is how the Bulldogs won. Even at home, even against struggling division rivals, winning back-to-back games by a combined 84-14 margin is impressive. ...
While I didn’t anticipate a four-game losing streak, I fully expected it would take a while for the Red and Black to come together as a team with a redshirt freshman quarterback and a completely new defensive staff implementing a completely new defensive scheme. While this team still has plenty of flaws, the marked improvement in the Bulldogs since their lackluster effort against Mississippi State is undeniable . . . and, all of a sudden, that loss to Mississippi State ain’t looking too bad, is it?
Next up for Georgia: Traveling to Lexington, where Kentucky will look to overcome the letdown effect of winning South Carolina's letdown game. Speaking of ... Vanderbilt returns to Nashville to host an angry Gamecock squad. That should work out well for them; actually, it might, given that the Commodores are 2-1 against South Carolina over the last three years and the East is the football equivalent of 52-card pick-up right now.
POINTLESS ROUT OF THE WEEK
LSU 32, McNeese State 10
Twice early in this game, McNeese State was actually leading, and non-LSU fans across the SEC had the same thought: Man, wouldn't it be great if this came down to another last-minute improv by comic genius Les Miles. Alas, it was not to be.
Instead, LSU ran over, around and through the overmanned FCS team, ringing up an unbelievable offensive output of ... 282 yards?!? The Tigers were 5-of-15 on third- and fourth-down conversions; meanwhile, McNeese State was 9-of-19. Let's be fair, though: South Carolina and Florida are among the teams that would gladly have posted a less-than-impressive win in exchange for having the "win" part of it.
There is, though, the continuing mystery of the quarterback depth chart at LSU. Why Jordan Jefferson is getting so much playing time is still a mystery to outside observers, but And The Valley Shook says his inclusion is part of the plan.
Jordan Jefferson, at this point isn't providing much more than window dressing and I have a feeling that may be all he is at this point. Something else for an opponent to prepare for. And for the time being, he's going to stay in the starter role for that very reason.
I'm still not sure what the opponent has to prepare for -- he's not really what you would call a running quarterback, as his long rush for the day of one yard highlights -- but the next opponent to prepare for both quarterbacks is Auburn, which will host LSU this weekend in the most significant battle in the SEC West race so far.