Things aren't quite over yet, but we could know by the end of the week who will face off for the 2010 SEC Championship in Atlanta in December. South Carolina and Florida will meet this Saturday in an unexpected and probably dreadful game for the SEC East title; meanwhile, Auburn needs only to defeat likely heavy underdog Georgia to clinch the SEC West and leave just two more obstacles in the way for a trip to Glendale and a potential national title.
But as always, the SEC is more than just a race for the trophy in Atlanta. There are subplots -- Nick Saban's latest return to Death Valley in LSU, a showdown in a manufactured rivalry between South Carolina and Arkansas that now has a bit more juice to it, Vanderbilt's annual return to being a basketball school -- that are almost as interesting as the news on who's best-placed for a run to the Georgia Dome.
So there was plenty of the unexpected this week, and there will likely be more before the season is over. Last year's inevitable marches by Alabama and Florida are more the exception than the rule; if history tells us anything about the SEC, it's that there's still a little fun to be had.
LSU 24, Alabama 21
Calling it a mid-game offensive revival might be a bit much, but the splits for LSU's beleaguered offense are almost unbelievable: In the first half, the Tigers gained just 95 yards; the total for the second half was 338, which would have been the third-most productive game of the year for LSU all on its own. And this came against the once-vaunted Alabama defense.
The 225 net rushing yards were the most Alabama has allowed all year and knocked the Tide into the bottom half of the league when it comes to stopping the run. The Tide has also allowed 159 yards rushing to Tennessee and 146 to Duke. It's the kind of thing that people don't look at much when you're working on a lengthy streak of games in which you haven't allowed a single person to run for more than 100 yards. But Alabama's run defense problems were hard to ignore Saturday.
Also hard to ignore were the big plays; Alabama allowed plays that covered 29, 19, 75, 41, 18, 19, 23 and 47 yards -- in the second half alone. If you thought those kinds of huge chunks of real estate were hard to gain against a Nick Saban defense, you were far from alone -- but it seems that this year is the kind of year for strange things like that to happen.
Meanwhile, the Alabama offense appears to be sputtering. It's powerful running game was limited by injury and held to 102 yards. Greg McElroy was 21-of-34 for 223 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT -- but was sacked three times, and continued to look as lost as he has in the pocket maybe since he started playing.
Which brings us to LSU's Jordan Jefferson, who might very well have played his best game at quarterback. Jefferson was 10-of-13 for 141 yards and a touchdown; he also ran for 27 yards on seven carries. The passing performance included a 75-yard touchdown strike to Reuben Randle to give LSU the lead in the third quarter.
The loss somewhat flips the script in the SEC West and the BCS -- it is now LSU that is in place to take the Sugar Bowl berth if Auburn goes to the BCS Championship Game, and the Tigers need less help than Alabama does if Georgia and then the Tide can defeat Auburn over the next few weeks. A team whom everyone thought was a joke a few weeks ago -- their coach literally eats grass! -- seems to be back to the days when 10-win seasons were routine. And the Tide looks like its in the need of some retooling to prepare for next year.
It was a sort of redemption for some of the besieged LSU coaches and players, and the fans who stood by them -- not that And The Valley Shook is going crazy and asking for Gary Crowton to stay or anything.
Enough kudos can't go around to Jordan Jefferson for standing tall, enduring criticism and stepping up to play his best game of the season today. To Jarrett Lee for playing poorly in his opportunities only to rally and make his biggest throw at the biggest moment to help ice the game for LSU. To Gary Crowton for doing whatever the hell he did to help the LSU offense pick it up this week (I still would like to see him elsewhere this offseason).
For Alabama fans, it apparently feels something like the end of the world. Roll Bama Roll:
I said we'd find out what we were made of when we went to Baton Rouge, and we sure as hell found out, didn't we? And Auburn is booking hotels in Atlanta as we speak.
LSU can take things relatively easy next week as honorary SEC member Louisiana-Monroe in the Warhawks' third game against an SEC team this year. Alabama has a home game against Mississippi State that is a lot trickier than it looked at the beginning of the year.
GUESS WHICH TEAM IS MATHEMATICALLY ELIMINATED FROM THE SEC CHAMPIONSHIP
Arkansas 41, South Carolina 20
You're humble correspondent isn't fond of these November games against cupcakes which tell us nothing about -- Oh, I'm sorry. That was an SEC team that Arkansas played against Saturday night. My mistake.
It looked like a pastry-induced blowout. The Razorbacks piled up 443 yards on the game -- 6.5 yards per play. They punted twice and held a nearly 10-minute edge in time of possession, despite Bobby Petrino's rapid-fire offense. Arkansas shredded the Gamecocks normally reliable red-zone defense, scoring on five of six opportunities, with four of those visits resulting in touchdowns.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson reportedly joked after the game that the turning point was "Kickoff." But that probably absolves Steve Spurrier of a mind-boggling decision borne of the Head Ball Coach's infamous impatience, something he has largely been able to rein in at South Carolina. Down 17-7 in the second quarter, which his team facing a fourth-and-6 on its own 38-yard line, Spurrier called for a fake punt. It went nowhere and led to an Arkansas touchdown. It was 24-7, then 24-10 at halftime after a promising South Carolina drive ended with a last-second field goal.
Even when things were going wrong for Arkansas, they were going right. In the third quarter, with South Carolina down 24-10 and desperately needing a turnover of some kind to swing the moment, Ryan Mallett through an interception. But on the third play of the following drive, Stephen Garcia gave it right back by throwing a pick of his own. Five plays later, Arkansas cashed in with a touchdown. The game was essentially over.
And so the inevitable South Carolina November implosion continued apace, with the offense having another off-again night in its struggle for any kind of consistency. The Hogs shut down both phases of the Gamecocks' attack, allowing Garcia to rush for 54 yards in exchange for clamping down on injury-hobbled Marcus Lattimore, who managed just 30 yards on 11 attempts. Garcia completed less than half his passes and had two interceptions to go along with his one touchdown throw. If this was South Carolina's preparation for a season-defining clash with Florida, things are not going to go well for the Gamecocks' in the Swamp.
While Arkansas can't go to the SEC Championship Game this year, it nonetheless feels to Arkansas Expats like the Razorbacks have turned a corner.
Last night's win was one of the most complete games, if not the most complete game, the Hogs have played in the SEC under Petrino. It is clearly the best road victory by far. I think we saw the team, minus the penalties and the late Tyler Wilson fumble for a touchdown, that Bobby Petrino has been trying to build since he arrived in Fayetteville.
South Carolina fans over at Garnet And Black and elsewhere are turning on Steve Spurrier while they try to pick through the wreckage and think of a way to salvage the season with a chance at the conference championship on the line .
This was largely an execution loss. The players were generally either hurt or playing flat. Stephen Garcia had an off night. Pass protection was horrible. Marcus Lattimore was sluggish / hurt. Our receivers played more or less like they did last year against UConn. Our secondary is completely depleted, doesn't know how to tackle, and commits stupid, needless penalties. Hopefully some of these things will improve with a title on the line next weekend.
Well, if that's all that needs to be fixed ...
As noted, South Carolina is headed to Gainesville for the
Tribute to Mediocrity SEC East Championship Game. Arkansas braces for an invasion of Fayetteville by an actual cupcake, UTEP.
URBAN MEYER HAS A CHALLENGE, AND HE WILL USE IT
Florida 55, Vanderbilt 14
Meanwhile, the other team in the race for the SEC East spent the early afternoon destroying the closest thing the SEC has to an actual cupcake: Vanderbilt. Special teams players should either never watch this game, or watch it as an example of how not to play their positions. But otherwise, it was your standard Florida rout of the Commodores.
Florida apparently was out to prove it was back in every way. The Gators outgained the Commodores 480-109. John Brantley was okay, and his stat line (11-of-18, 157 yards, 2 TDs) was actually slightly better passing than new fan favorite Jordan Reed (11-of-19, 120 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT). But Reed also ran for 84 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries -- and so there is a hope for South Carolina after all: If Florida fans go mildly insane and start a quarterback controversy with a ticket to Atlanta on the line.
One other way Florida tried to prove that it was back: Urban Meyer is still very much a -- what's a polite way to put this -- person with a complete lack of compassion. With Florida holding a 41-0 lead late in the first half, Vanderbilt apparently fumbled at its own 23-yard line. The officials missed it, or perhaps intentionally disregarded it because they have hearts. Meyer challenged the call, got the ball back -- and then ran the ball four times without getting a first down. During his halftime interview, in a different context and an apparent complete lack of self-awareness, he actually said: "I just want to not disrespect anybody."
What do you even say about Vanderbilt at this point? They gained 63 yards passing and 46 yards rushing. In a game in which both teams were trying to prove their special teams were less competent than the other side's, the Commodores were the winner in that department. And they now have one healthy scholarship running back. If there is good news for Vanderbilt, it's that they only have three games to go, and one of them is against Tennessee.
Alligator Army is largely blase about the shellacking, with plenty of nits to pick as Florida heads toward its most important game of the year.
UF had a punt and PAT blocked, while Janoris Jenkins' fear of the ball led to him backing away from an easily catchable ball, only to see it bounce off a Gator blocker. Jenkins cannot return punts, when Andre Debose and Rainey are around to return. On offense, UF came out flat, scoring only 7 points (off a 3-yard field due to a punt block) in the first quarter. UF still struggles with blitz pickups. Brantley, mean while, could start looking over his shoulder. He is still too wild, especially when compared to the missiles Reed was throwing. Brantley is still the starter, but it does raise the possibility of Reed seeing more time as Tebow Lite, with a more accurate arm.
Florida has won their last two games, after losing three consecutive games. But they will need a much more complete game to defeat South Carolina next week.
That is disputable, given how South Carolina played Saturday night.
Vanderbilt fans, as shown by this poll at Anchor Of Gold, are ready to move on to something else.
Oy. A trip to Kentucky is on the schedule, but it doesn't seem that a lot of fans will be following the goings-on.
DISTRACTION? WHAT DISTRACTION?
Auburn 62, Chattanooga 24
One of the many reasons to be skeptical of the idea that the Cameron Newton story is some sort of carefully orchestrated media leak is that it came before the team's game against Chattanooga. If the Tigers had been distracted -- what was it supposed to do? Make them only win by 20?
We'll never know. Auburn looked anything but distracted as it dropped a sledgehammer on the Mocs, ringing up 628 yards of total offense and scoring touchdowns on its first six drives of the game. (We're loosely interpreting the word "drive" here; that list includes drives of two plays for 62 yards, three plays for 50 yards, two plays for 83 yards and one play for 49 yards.) Newton was 15-of-21 for 317 yards and 4 TDs and added 24 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. (It would be 50 yards if you take out his three sacks.)
Just how easy was this win for Auburn? We'll let Track Em Tigers answer that question for you.
Only 6 running plays total were called for top backs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, but those went for 131 yards, or 21.8 yards per carry. Despite the limited carries, Auburn still topped the 300 yard rushing mark for the 5th game in a row, and the 7th time in 10 games.
Things against Georgia this weekend will presumably be a bit more difficult.
DOES ANYONE ELSE HAVE DEJA VU?
Georgia 55, Idaho State 7
We continue our pastry-leveling tour with Georgia, who scored 55 points in the first three quarters before politely allowing Idaho State to get on the board in the fourth, when I believe the secondary was composed entirely of season-ticket holders. Georgia churned out 450 yards of total offense, with 11 players running the ball (counting sacks) and 10 players notching at least one reception. The Dawgs punted once in the first 35:55 of the game. Georgia forced eight three and outs.
It was a much-needed win for the Dawgs, who face two traditional rivals needing a victory against one of them to go to the postseason. The Mayor, though, makes it clear at Dawg Sports that a waxing of Idaho State is about as far away from a surprise as you can get.
The visitors are who we thought they were, and this game was what we expected it to be. Of course, the last time this Georgia squad dropped a 55-7 drubbing on a patsy opponent, the Bulldogs followed up that lopsided victory with a four-game losing streak, so I would prefer to err on the side of believing this game served its intended purpose but ultimately was meaningless.
This week: One of those rivalry games that we mentioned, as Georgia travels to the Greater Opelika Metropolitan Area to take on the undefeated No. 2 Auburn Tigers.
A WIN IS A WIN. IN A WAY
Kentucky 49, Charleston Southern 21
Kentucky actually started a bit slow against Charleston Southern, with the Buccaneers holding to a 14-14 tie into the second quarter. The Wildcats scored the next three touchdowns, then pulled away for good with 14 points in the fourth quarter. Things look a bit more impressive in the box score, where Kentucky outgained Southern 502-269 and grinding out 228 rushing yards. Still, it was not quite the dismantling we've come to expect from SEC teams that run into outmanned FCS schools.
Kentucky fans are starting to consider their chances to not just go to a bowl, but do something they haven't done in 26 years.
The 'Cats now sit at 5-5 with Vanderbilt -- who took a major beat-down from the Florida Gators today -- coming to Commonwealth next week, and two weeks later, UK travels to Knoxville in an attempt to do the seemingly impossible ... send the Vols home unhappy.
A Sea Of Blue has the schedule down pat: Vanderbilt is next.
WHAT IS THIS 'WINNING' OF WHICH YOU SPEAK?
Tennessee 50, Memphis 14
All of your "Tennessee should join Conference USA" jokes became obsolete during the second quarter, when the Vols poured on 27 unanswered points to make the game a 40-7 laugher as they headed to the locker room. (Your humble correspondent, of course, is above such petty jokes. Nope. Didn't make any.) Actually, the entire game went: Memphis touchdown, 50 points for Tennessee, Memphis touchdown. Makes a nice set of bookends for the Tigers, but not much else. During that 50-point Volunteer run, Memphis' drives ended: punt, interception, punt, interception, fumble, punt, end of half, punt, punt, interception, fumble, downs. This is not what you would call winning football -- unless, of course, you are a Volunteer fan.
And that might be an unfamiliar feeling for the Knoxville faithful, but Rocky Top Talk is going with it.
For now, we're just going to enjoy winning. Remember winning? It's awesome. [...]
But for now...it's been six weeks. I don't care that it was Memphis. Winning is fun. We should try it more often...and hopefully, we're about to.
Tennessee welcomes Ole Miss to Knoxville this weekend.