College football returned for the SEC on Thursday night, though a few teams would probably have preferred a few more days to prepare. And Mark Richt might wish the season had never started.
But for SEC fans, it was a long-awaited end to a monthslong famine called the offseason. Talk about Texas A&M moving to the SEC if you want -- and I have a feeling we will be in the next few days -- and continue to listen to the stories about the scandals rocking the sport if you must.
But the games are back. And all that other stuff would be meaningless were it not for the games.
HOW LSU ROLLS
LSU 40, Oregon 27
To some degree, it's not really a surprise that LSU defeated Oregon by a deceptively low 13 points while gaining just 273 yards. This is how LSU wins games in the Les Miles Era. Even in the national championship season of 2007, the Tigers ranked fourth in the SEC in total offense and fifth in passing -- not shabby numbers by any measure, but also not dominant. The passing efficiency was a relatively pedestrian 133.61, though that's a far cry better than the 97.87 Jarrett Lee rang up in Jerry Jones' Deathstar on Saturday.
No, the Bayou Bengals win with defense. When that unit is as nasty as it was in 2007 and as it looks to be this year, the Tigers are going to contend for the national title. That explains why even those who might have been skeptical about LSU before Saturday's game were jumping on the bandwagon shortly thereafter.
Not that the total offense number of 335 yards against Oregon looks all that impressive -- until you consider that the Ducks' offense that returns its Heisman-contending running back and great quarterback from a unit that tore off almost 530.7 yards a game last year. Only one opponent held Oregon to as few or fewer yards last year: Cal, in the infamous phantom injury game.
That doesn't mean that LSU can run through the SEC West's defensive lines while passing for 98 yards. At some point, even a powerful defense like LSU's needs some offensive help, and a one-dimensional offense that counts on running the ball will make things that much easier for opposing coaches like Nick Saban when the time comes.
But for the moment, at least, it looks very much like the defense will be good enough to make up for a lot of offensive shortcomings. A few more yards here and there, and it might be difficult for anyone to stop the Tigers.
LSU fans are understandably excited about a team that seems to have clamped down harder than last year's version.
This time, LSU got up big and then stayed up big. When Oregon cut the lead to 13, LSU responded and closed the door.
That's what great teams do. Oregon is a very good team. LSU, my friends, feels like a great team.
That great team faces Northwestern State next week. Northwestern State is not a great team.
MARK RICHT HOT SEAT INDEX: MARK RICHT
Boise State 35, Georgia 21
Last year, we spent a couple of weeks ranking Mark Richt on a hot seat index that compared him to other coaches. That's kind of pointless this year, because Richt has become the prototypical coach on the hot seat, and the game against Boise on Saturday simply cemented that status.
Georgia wasn't actually all that bad, statistically. The Broncos only outgained the Bulldogs by 17 yards. But the Broncos also made better use of their yardage, gaining 24 first downs to Georgia's 13 as the Dawgs went 3-of-17 on third and fourth down.
And there was a stretch of the game, during which Boise went from a 7-0 deficit to a 28-7 lead, when it looked like Georgia was powerless to stop the relative upstarts from the Mountain West. In that time, which started with about five minutes left in the first quarter and finally ended with a little more than three minutes left in the third, Boise's drives ended on four touchdowns, two turnovers and one punt. And while it's admirable for the Georgia defense to cause turnovers, you have to be able to stop offenses that aren't making a mistake if you're going to sustain success.
Yes, Aaron Murray has had better games (though one can reasonably ask what he's supposed to do when getting sacked five six times). Yes, the rushing game gained a grand total of 57 yards when Brandon Boykin's one rush for 80 yards is taken out of the equation. Boykin is a cornerback, in case you're wondering, which gives you an idea of the depth issues the Dawgs now face in the running back corps. But Todd Grantham's high-priced defense is going to have to start showing returns at some point. Otherwise, both he and Richt are going to be out of a job when the season ends.
Even over at Dawg Sports, which has been a reliable ally of Mark Richt throughout the last couple of troubled years, a consensus is brewing that Richt's running out of chances.
This, I believe, was the beginning of the end. ... You can like it, dislike it, or be uncertain about it, but this exhibition by the Bulldogs and their coaches means it is more likely than not that Kirby Smart is going to be introduced by Greg McGarity at a news conference in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall this December. In saying so, I am neither advocating nor opposing a position; rather, I am stating what I believe to be the truth.
Next week, the Bulldogs play host to South Carolina. Speaking of ...
WHAT THE BLUE BLAZES WAS STEVE SPURRIER THINKING?
South Carolina 56, East Carolina 37
Steve Spurrier would not be the first coach to be tricked by a young quarterback's performance in fall practice, though you would expect more from a veteran head coach and supposed offensive guru. And it's impossible to tell how much his relationship with Stephen Garcia, which was best described as "fraught" even before an eventful offseason, played into Spurrier's decision to tap Connor Shaw for the start in the season opener over Garcia.
But it was unquestionably a terrible mistake that almost had disastrous consequences for the Gamecocks' national hopes. Shaw was 2-of-8 in a terrible opening quarter, and most published assessments of his demeanor on the field involve woodland creatures crossing major traffic arteries. Oh, and East Carolina, a Conference USA team that had a losing record in 2010, at one point held a three-score lead on the defending SEC East champions.
Then, Garcia came in, and all of the issues that plagued the team seemed to come to a screeching halt. (Except the special teams problems, which have plagued Spurrier's Gamecocks teams from the beginning of his tenure in Columbia. The game featured the first kick return of any kind for a touchdown since before Spurrier started leading South Carolina in 2005.) The offense went on a 56-14 tear to turn an upset special into a runaway win -- the final ECU touchdown was scored in garbage time. And Garcia himself ran for two touchdowns, including a 32-yard dash for the Gamecocks' first points of the night, and threw for another.
The only lingering question from the game is whether Spurrier can avoid becoming his own worst enemy again this year. The last time he threw Shaw into a game in a fit of pique against Garcia was last year's first game against Auburn, when the young quarterback promptly threw two interceptions that ended South Carolina's hopes of winning that one. (This is separate from the showdown in the SEC Championship Game, a contest that South Carolina would likely have only won if a dysentery epidemic took hold on the Auburn sideline shortly before the game.)
There's still a decent chance that Connor Shaw will be a great quarterback -- some day. But Saturday night proved that day hasn't come, and Spurrier can only hurt his team by pretending that it has.
After getting over the, um, interesting first quarter, South Carolina fans are guardedly optimistic.
Obviously, the first quarter was an unmitigated disaster, but considering the Shaw experiment, I'm going to chalk it up as an anomaly. Carolina outscored ECU 56-20 after the first quarter, and the last 7 ECU scored were a gift from our soft coverage. That kind of explosion impresses me. It's a sign of what this team is capable of.
Again, a trip to Athens that could show a lot more of "what this team is capable of" -- one way or the other -- is up next.
AND THE OFFENSE FALLS APART
BYU 14, Ole Miss 13
Ole Miss might wish it had stuck with playing Boise State this weekend, which was the arrangement before ESPN got involved. After all, at least then fans could have comforted themselves by pointing out that they lost to a top-five team.
Instead, they got to watch the Rebels' offense fall apart against BYU. Barry Brunetti lasted three pass attempts -- completing two of them for four yards -- before he was pulled. The running game ground to a halt to the tune of 64 yards. Two plays covered more than 20 yards. Were it not for Charles Sawyer's 96-yard interception return, the Rebels might not have scored a touchdown.
Sure, the defense only allowed 316 yards to the BYU offense. But when your longest drive of the night is 70 yards, goes for a field goal and is the only possession of the night during which you gain 50 yards, there are problems on the offensive side of the ball.
And while the offense wasn't overwhelming last year, it was perhaps the least of Ole Miss' problems. Unless the defense has completely turned around -- to LSU-style levels -- it could be an even longer season in Oxford this year than last. For a lot of Ole Miss fans, it wasn't even clear that such a thing was possible absent Ed Orgeron being head coach.
At least this weekend brings a visit from Southern Illinois, which should be one of the few sure wins on the Rebels' schedule.
SO, HOW'S THAT DEFENSE OF THE NATIONAL TITLE GOING?
Auburn 42, Utah State 38
Simple fact: Auburn got statistically dominated by a mid-tier WAC team and needed to pull off an onside kick to avoid losing at home. Now, that doesn't mean that the Tigers are doomed, though it certainly doesn't look good for their chances. But no matter how many silver linings you come up with, the Tigers got outgained 84 yards and lost the first down battle 27-17 in what should have been an easy win even for an Auburn team expected to have a letdown season after winning the national title.
The Tigers led this game for about seven minutes. Total. When the Aggies went up 38-28 late in the fourth quarter, it looked like this game was going to be the upset of the week. Luckily for Auburn, they had a perfect onsides kick up their sleeves. Unfortunately, teams that are a lot more likely to beat Auburn later in the year will now be on the lookout for that kick.
Not everything was bad. Barrett Trotter (17-of-23, 261 yards, 3 TD) actually had a decent day as the starter for the Tigers. But the longest run of the day for Auburn was 14 yards, and Chuckie Keeton pretty much carved up the Auburn secondary, which was good enough for Rivals.com National Player of the Week honors. And that ought to be memorial enough to just how much Auburn needs to improve before it hits the SEC part of the schedule ... this week.
Our Auburn blog finds the Tigers to be "a work in progress."
As fans, it's time to lower expectations. As weird as it sounds, Auburn is still a project in the making. It's almost like someone interrupted our regularly scheduled program last year and now we've returned to our rebuilding process.
The next step in that progress is hosting Mississippi State on Saturday.
THE ADVANTAGE OF GOING FIRST
Kentucky 14, Western Kentucky 3 (Thursday)
In a way, Kentucky has to be thankful that it took the field a couple of days before Auburn's near-debacle. Because almost losing to Utah State at home is narrowly worse than just barely defeating Western Kentucky on a neutral field, at least when the other team goes last and helps people forget just how bad you looked.
So let's remind ourselves, dear reader, of just how offensive the Wildcats' offense was on Thursday night. Kentucky had 190 yards of total offense against a team that averaged allowing twice that last year -- while playing most of its games against Sun Belt teams. Take out the longest run of the night and Kentucky had 38 yards on 32 carries. Bobby Rainey of Western Kentucky ran for more yards (105) than the entire UK offense. Morgan Newton had a 69.16 quarterback rating and actually fell over for no apparent reason on one play.
Was it all bad for the 'Cats? Really, it pretty much was. Fans could console themselves by touting the performance of the defense, but Western Kentucky ranked eighth in total offense in the Sun Belt last year. And when you're reaching that far for comfort, maybe it's time to admit that changes are needed if the team's going to avoid a long season.
To their credit, Kentucky fans are able to find silver linings.
It's easy to get down on this team after that lousy performance, but after almost 24 hours, I am able to detect many more positives than I was last night at 1:15 AM. This was a very poor effort, but it should not define our season.
Not yet, anyway.
Central Michigan travels to Lexington this weekend for a game that could be interesting on so many levels.
Alabama 48, Kent State 7: Don't read too much into this game, but there were some troubling signs for the Crimson Tide despite the lopsided scores. A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims threw two interceptions apiece and Trent Richardson averaged 2.8 yards a carry despite scoring three touchdowns. But Marquis Maze -- who will need to be a big part of the offense this year -- had 118 yards receiving and a touchdown and the defense limited Kent State to 90 yards, including minus-9 rushing. Kent State was 5-of-24 on third and fourth down. It's looking like we could have another 3-2 this year. But it could be the de facto SEC West Championship Game. The Tide heads to Happy Valley this week to take on a real opponent in the form of Penn State.
Arkansas 51, Missouri State 7: In what could loosely be called his first game as full-time starter for the Razorbacks -- this was Missouri State, after all -- Tyler Wilson looked solid, going 18-of-24 for 260 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The running game could use a little work (3.1 ypc), but that's not an insurmountable issue for a team. We won't get any real answers about Arkansas' new-look offense until they play Alabama on Sept. 24, at which point they will have had plenty of time to work out any kinks. Including this week's game, which includes an ever so slight increase in degree of difficulty; the opponent is New Mexico.
Florida 41, FAU 3: It's FAU. Let's get that out of the way first. Then again, if you look back at Florida's harrowing win against Miami (OH) last year, Gator fans were probably happy to watch an easy blowout in this season's opener. And easy it was, with Florida romping for 468 yards of total offense thanks to a decided schematic advantage -- including 30 first downs -- and the defense locking down and limiting FAU to 137 yards. That includes 30 yards of rushing on 30 carries. Can I get a "BOOM!"? UAB is this week's confectionery treat for Florida and its fans.
Tennessee 42, Montana 16: This game might not have been as statistically dominant as you would think -- the Vols had only one more first down than Montana and "only" outgained them by less than 100 yards -- but the main purpose in all of these games is to win them and get out without any major damage or showing too much of the playbook. Mission accomplished. Tyler Bray and Tauren Poole both had solid nights statistically, though some Tennessee fans are grumbling about the running game overall, and two receivers that will need to be huge contributors if Tennessee will exceed modest expectations (Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers) both hit 100 yards on the night. Cincinnati travels to Rocky Top this weekend for a slightly more meaningful interconference showdown.
Vanderbilt 45, Elon 14: Elon got clobbered by Vanderbilt. Sort of. The Phoenix had one more first down (17-16) and more total offensive yardage (323-309) but turned the ball over three times. Then again, if you look at a typical SEC team's score against Vanderbilt and its box-score stats, it's not that much of a surprise that the Commodores were able to annihilate an opponent when they only fell a bit short of them statistically. And James Franklin's first game as Vandy head coach featured the kind of explosive plays (a 44-yard pass!) that had become something of a rarity in Nashville. UConn visits Vanderbilt this week. No, it's a football game and not a basketball game. We checked. Twice.
Mississippi State 59, Memphis 14 (Thursday): It's worth remember that Memphis is an absolutely dreadful team, the kind that can offer a BCS league $10 million a year to take it and still get turned down. So it doesn't mean much that Mississippi State crushed them with 336 yards passing and 309 yards rushing while coasting to a win. Yes, quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard had big nights. But we'll get a true test for Mississippi State's offensive power when they go up against Auburn this weeke-- you know, forget I was even about to say that.