GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 17: Running back Chris Rainey #1 of the Florida Gators has his facemask grabbed by defensive lineman Malik Jackson #97 of the Tennessee Volunteers during a game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 17, 2011 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Florida simultaneously defeated Tennessee and kept them in the game, while Vanderbilt started out 3-0 and the defending champions of each division looked less than impressive in the Palmetto State.
Well, Florida not being the de facto favorite in the SEC East was nice while it lasted. Sure, you can point out that South Carolina's loss to Navy wasn't actually that unimpressive, or say that the Gamecocks still have the talent to rebound and win the division. And all of that might be true -- but Florida's win over Tennessee, even after the Vols roared back in the second half to avoid a blowout, has to give a lot of folks pause about writing off the Gators this year.
There's early sorting in each of the conference's divisons right now, one that will continue this weekend when Alabama and Arkansas collide in Tuscaloosa. But the SEC East is shaping up as another Florida-versus-South Carolina battle, with Tennessee, Georgia and maybe even surprising Vanderbilt all ready should one of the front-runners fall. This weekend, it looked a lot more like the Gamecocks might stumble than the Gators.
WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' RUNNING BACKS. ON SECOND THOUGHT --
Florida 33, Tennessee 23
Remember when Tennessee seemed to mint great running backs, guys like Travis Henry and Arian Foster and Jamal Lewis? Yeah, that Tennessee is pretty much dead. The Vols had minus-9 yards on 21 carries in Saturday's showdown with the Florida Gators. Their top rusher, Tauren Poole, carried the ball nine times for 18 yards. The longest run of the day for Poole or anyone else went 10 yards.
Which made the loss of Justin Hunter early in the game that much worse for Tennessee. Tyler Bray still had a decent enough day against the Gators -- he was 26-of-48 for 288 yards, three touchdowns and two picks -- but the loss of Hunter is always going to be a what-if moment for the Vols. Then again, Hunter would not have been in a position to tackle Chris Rainey, so his absence might not have meant that much.
Rainey had 212 total yards and an 83-yard touchdown catch to lead the surprisingly competent-looking Florida offense. (Maybe there is something to that "decided schematic advantage.") John Brantley was 14-of-23 for 213 yards and two touchdowns. As for the defense ...
Well, let's just say the game might have been a little bit more of a blowout if Florida had been able to avoid committing 16 penalties for 150 yards, including seven pass interference flags and another holding flag in lieu of pass interference. That took away from an otherwise-impressive showing in which the Florida defense bottled up Tennessee and held them to 279 total yards.
For now, Tennessee gets a week off to try to find a running back. Florida heads to Lexington to take on Kentucky and its amazing disappearing offense.
BREAK UP THE COMMODORES
Vanderbilt 30, Ole Miss 7
It's not often that you see a quarterback thrown five interceptions. That's because generally, after the third or fourth pick, the coach goes to the quarterback and says, "Son, it's not your day." Not so for Houston Nutt, who decided to stick with Zach Stoudt through three interceptions and a variety of other horrors, then go with Randall Mackey for a while, then begin rotating the two with little rhyme or reason (at which point Stoudt threw two more interceptions).
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, was doing something very unVanderbilt -- running a relatively competent offense. The Commodores churned out 387 total yards on the afternoon, including 169 rushing yards on 11 carries by Zac Stacy, whose only real mistake Saturday was an ill-advised pass to regular starting quarterback Larry Smith on a trick play. In Stacy's defense, Larry Smith didn't exactly look like Larry Fitzgerald out there.
But that was also one of the few false notes for Smith, who was 13-of-20 for 103 yards on the day. If Vanderbilt can keep playing defense like they played against Ole Miss, and if Stacy can continue to play well, that's all Smith really needs to do. Those are two big "ifs," of course.
This leads to something that has to be one of the rarest things in the history of the SEC. This weekend, a 3-0 Vanderbilt will face a 3-0 South Carolina for at least a share of the lead in the SEC East. Read that sentence again. And remember that we're talking about football. Interesting times, indeed.
TOUCHDOWNS ARE OVERRATED
LSU 19, Mississippi State 6 (Thursday)
Let's be charitable and say that points were at a premium in the Thursday night game. Or let's not, and we can all laugh at the fact that neither of these teams scored a touchdown until the fourth quarter. Yes, these teams kicked a combined six field goals in a game that would seem to undermine the idea that Dan Mullen or anyone else associated with this mess is an offensive genius.
In fact, the Western Division Bulldogs managed just 193 yards of total offense for the entire game. LSU shut down the running game, which ground out just 52 yards on 34 carries, and the passing game was a disaster in its own right. (Though why Dan Mullen thought the answer to Chris Relf's struggles was to go to the guy who Relf beat out in practice, I'll never know.)
By comparison, LSU's modest offensive output looked like something out of the Pac-12. Jarrett Lee was 21-of-27 for 213 yards, a touchdown and the obligatory interception that he is contractually required to throw every time he starts a game. Spencer Ware churned out 107 yards on 22 carries, and that proved enough to give LSU 361 total yards, which was obviously going to be enough to defeat whatever State was able to put together.
Mississippi State gets to recover this week against another team from Louisiana -- in this case, Louisiana Tech -- while LSU gets a preview of what could be the 14th SEC team when the Tigers travel to Morgantown to take on West Virginia.
TIGERS LOSE TO THE TIGERS
Clemson 38, Auburn 24
When your opponent takes 92 offensive snaps in a regulation game, it's not hard to figure out which side of the ball is to blame for the loss. Auburn's defense has always been its Achilles' heel -- it's now allowed 30 or more points in seven of the Tigers' last 10 regular-season games -- and it caught up with Auburn on Saturday in the Upstate.
And the biggest problem they had was Tajh Boyd, who's not ever going to be mistaken for Cam Newton but shares the ability to hurt teams with both his arm and legs. Boyd was 30-of-42 for 386 yards and four touchdowns while running for 30 yards on seven carries. Overall, Clemson obliterated the Auburn defense for 624 yards. While none of the Clemson runners crossed the 100-yard mark, they combined for 238 yards on 50 carries.
Not that the offense had that much luck. Auburn was outscored 31-3 after the 8:54 mark of the second quarter, which means the offense was getting shut down as well. The only player with stats that can't be defined as pedestrian was Michael Dyer, who ran for 151 yards on 16 carries. And 52 of those yards came on a touchdown run early in the first quarter.
Of course, none of that will likely matter when Auburn hosts Florida Atlantic this weekend. But it could be another story entirely when the SEC schedule begins again.
MURDER IN COLUMBIA
Marcus Lattimore 24, Navy 21
Do not believe Steve Spurrier when he says he likes Marcus Lattimore, because Spurrier spent the better part of Saturday trying to kill the young running back. Lattimore ran the ball 37 times in the narrow win against Navy, gaining 246 yards and three touchdowns and essentially singlehandedly winning the game against the Midshipmen. Which is all well and good as far as getting another victory goes. But when it comes to finding sustainable ways to win games, asking your star running back to carry the ball 35-40 times a game is generally not high on the list.
Which is odd, because Stephen Garcia actually had his best game of the year Saturday night. Granted, the sample size is small and unimpressive, but at least he completed more than half his passes. But Garcia, 18-of-25 for 204 yards, also threw an ill-timed interception at the goal line early in the second half that prompted Spurrier to shift to a Lattimore-only offense.
So South Carolina's game-winning drive went like this: Garcia pass to Lattimore, Lattimore run, Lattimore run, Lattimore run, pass to Nick Jones, incomplete pass, pass to Jones, Lattimore run, Lattimore run, Lattimore run, Lattimore run, Lattimore run, Lattimore run, Garcia run, Lattimore run for the touchdown.
It's easy to sympathize with Spurrier in this situation -- how do you not give a back as talented and durable as Lattimore the ball when you're trying to defeat an upset-minded team that famously knocked the Gamecocks out of the national title hunt in 1984? But Lattimore isn't durable enough to carry the ball 400 times this year -- no human being is.
The Gamecocks face another team that has soured a couple of seasons this weekend when they welcome undefeated Vanderbilt to Williams-Brice Stadium.
WHERE OFFENSE GOES TO DIE
Louisville 24, Kentucky 17
If future historians are wondering at what point offensive football hit its nadir, we humbly suggest the third quarter of this game, when Kentucky gained minus-4 yards over the course of their 12 plays. Really, though, they can just look at any quarter played this year by Kentucky, which has seemed to find new ways to redefine awful all year long.
Neither of these teams is going to produce any Heisman contenders on offense -- you'll recall that Louisville couldn't outscore FIU in the game before this one -- but Louisville did just enough to get by Kentucky. Morgan Newton went 27-of-41 for 255 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but got very little support from his offensive line. Not that Newton always needs his offensive line to unimpress -- this is a guy that fell on his back taking a snap earlier this year.
So SEC East teams don't need to worry that Vanderbilt has looked marginally competent this year. Kentucky has volunteered to take their place, and will begin those duties when they open SEC play at home against Florida this weekend.
Arkansas 38, Troy 28: Don't read too much into the fact that Troy outgained Arkansas by three yards in this one; the Trojans are not as bad as most Sun Belt teams, and will generally get their yards regardless of the opponent. The only possible source of concern is that Troy averaged more yards per carry rushing than the Razorbacks, but that's still not necessarily cause for alarm. We'll find out a lot more about Arkansas this weekend, when they go to Tuscaloosa for the showdown with Alabama.
Alabama 41, North Texas 0: The Tide spent Saturday pureeing the Mean Green in a way that's impressive even by cupcake standards. Two Alabama players, Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson, rushed for more than 150 yards and an average of more than 15 yards a carry. Five receivers had at least one catch of more than 15 yards. A nice tune-up for the game against Arkansas, but not much else.
Georgia 59, Coastal Carolina 0: Whatever you want to say about cupcake games on principle, no team needed a win this weekend more than Georgia -- and Coastal Carolina delivered. Aaron Murray had a chance to get back on track (18-of-26, 188 yards, three touchdowns), the beleaguered running game had a solid showing (41 carries, 194 yards, four touchdowns) and the Dawgs prepared to travel to Oxford.