The SEC's Orientation Week is finally upon us. New conference members Texas A&M and Missouri will play host to Florida (3:30 p.m. ET) and Georgia (7:45 p.m. ET), respectively, on Saturday. These games have long been topics of conversation for any numbers of reasons -- Can "the spread" (as if A&M and Missouri actually ran the same offense) work in the SEC? Are the newcomers physical enough to succeed? Is it good for the conference is the newbies win? -- and the SEC has figured out one more way to dominate conversation during the football season. Each game has a pretty clear key, and really, it has little to do with physicality or the spread offense.
Florida At Texas A&M: The Big Play
For so many reasons, big plays should be considered the deciding factor in Florida's inaugural trip to College Station on Saturday afternoon. To a large extent, explosiveness is a key in every game, but it goes double in this one for a number of reasons.
Reason No. 1: Florida's offense relied on them heavily in Week 1. As I mentioned on Friday, Florida running back Mike Gillislee gained 98 of his 148 yards in four carries (of 15, 17, 28 and 38 yards) and gained just 50 in his other 20. In that same article, I suggested that the Gators' offense might not be as bad as we thought last week, but it is still early; whatever upside this unit might have, we are probably still a few weeks away from seeing it all come together. For now, Florida is still going to have to rely on explosiveness to mask a lack of efficiency.
Really, it is probably the same story with the Florida passing game; Jeff Driskel completed 10 of 16 passes for 114 yards. His completion rate was over 60 percent, which is decent, and his 6.4 yards per pass attempt suggest the Gators were playing it safe through the air for the most part. They were playing it safe, but they weren't very good at it; Driskel completed a 50-yard touchdown pass to Frankie Hammond, Jr., early in the fourth quarter, and without that play, Driskel's numbers fall from a semi-efficient 6.4 yards per pass to a woeful 3.6. It helps the Gators that Driskel was officially named Florida's starter this week (unlike last week, when both Driskel and now-backup Jacoby Brissett were each announced as starters, causing one of Week 1's larger collective Twitter facepalms), but it's not like that will immediately cure all their ills.
Reason No. 2: Texas A&M's offense will need them as well. Despite last year's late-game issues, and despite the redshirt freshman starting at quarterback, I have made it known that I think pretty highly of this year's A&M squad. Johnny Manziel is indeed a first-time starter (and there are certainly easier first-week tasks than facing the Gator defense), but the weapons around him will give him a chance to succeed. First, he has one of the nation's best offensive lines in front of him. For all the Aggies' struggles last year, the line was as good as advertised, and juniors Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews might be one of the three or four best tackle duos in the country. In addition, Manziel will have senior wideouts Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu to target and running backs Christine Michael (solid when healthy … and rarely healthy), Ben Malena and Trey Williams (a five-star freshman) with whom to share the backfield. New head coach and Air Raid legacy Kevin Sumlin has a lot to work with on the offensive side of the ball, and since last week's game versus Louisiana Tech was postponed due to Hurricane Isaac, the Aggies have the element of surprise in their favor -- they have film on Florida, and Florida has none on them. (The flipside, of course, is that the Gators got a chance to work out some kinks last week, and A&M did not.)
As interested as I am in A&M's offense, it still could lose its effectiveness if forced to grind out longer drives. Give a freshman quarterback more chances to make a mistake, and he might eventually accede to your demands. If A&M is able to gash Florida's defense for bigger plays here and there and shorten drives, however, the Aggies could thrive.
Reason No. 3: Neither defense was exactly perfect at preventing big plays. Florida's pass defense last year was strangely mediocre considering the supposed talent on hand. In Week 1, the Gators held Bowling Green quarterback Matt Schilz to just 204 yards in 49 pass attempts (4.2 per pass), so perhaps that is a sign of improvement, but in 2011 Florida ranked just 46th in Passing PPP+ (big-play prevention); the entire secondary was a bit shaky outside of safety Matt Elam. A&M's defense, meanwhile, was a healthier 25th in Passing PPP+, but they slid significantly astime went on and the Aggies have to replace three starters in the secondary. In fact, if the most recent depth chart holds true (PDF), the Aggies' starting cornerbacks are sophomore Deshazor Everett and true freshman De'Vante Harris. If Gillislee can run just well enough to force A&M to adjust, the Gators could take advantage of youth on the edges and gain big yards in a small number of plays.
In the end, you will probably be able to figure out who won this game simply by counting the number of big plays on offense (we'll define that as gaining at least 15-20 yards), defense and special teams. Again, that goes for most games, but with neither offense likely to grind out efficient, error-free drives, it is a vital key here.
Georgia At Missouri: Standard Downs
Despite the conventional wisdom suggesting that Missouri's only edge comes on offense, when you compare last year's Georgia and Missouri teams, you see that each defense held more individual advantages than you might think. Georgia's stellar 2011 defense was better than Missouri's offense in most general categories as well as in the air, while Missouri's defense was quite stellar at stopping the run where Georgia's offense couldn't move the ball on the ground. The personnel has changed since last year, obviously, but while Week 1 told us very little about these teams, it did suggest that both defenses will still have quite a stout advantage on standard downs.
A reminder: I define "standard downs" as all first downs, second-and-6 or fewer and third-and-4 or fewer. Everything else (second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more) are passing downs. The reason for these names should be quite obvious; the defense holds significant advantages over the offense on passing downs, but those who can stay "on schedule" and in standard downs are going to be the ones most likely to stick to the gameplan and move the ball in a variety of ways. The defense is on its heels a bit on standard downs, forced to fear both the run and pass (for some teams, at least).
For both the Georgia and Missouri offenses, standard downs are vital. Georgia's offense ranked 15th on standard downs last year; they passed a lot early in downs to keep pressure off of quarterback Aaron Murray, and it paid off. Despite a woeful ground game, the Bulldogs ran just enough to distract defenses and gashed opponents with intermediate passing. With freshman running back Todd Gurley looking fantastic against Buffalo last week, and with other options like Ken Malcome looking solid as well, early signs are that Georgia might run the ball far better this year than it did in 2011. Considering that, it is quite conceivable the Dawgs could have a top-10 offense on standard downs. What we don't know, however, is if Georgia is ready to improve on its No. 43 ranking on passing downs, especially if star receiver Malcolm Mitchell is both gimpy and playing a lot on the defensive side of the ball.
Meanwhile, Mizzou's defense thrived on passing downs in 2011. The Tigers ranked just 35th on standard downs, decent but unspectacular against the run and the pass. But with a trio of solid cornerbacks (led by all-Big 12 junior E.J. Gaines), steady safety play and at least a decent pass rush, they ranked ninth in the country on passing downs. If they can knock Georgia off-schedule early and force Georgia to either take more chances downfield with the pass or play things as conservatively and run-heavy as it did last year on second- and third-and-long, the Tigers can keep the Dawgs off of the scoreboard. But if the Georgia ground game is working, and the Dawgs are able to test Mizzou's green new safeties with play-action passing, they could post a big number on the scoreboard.
The same concept works out when Mizzou has the ball. The Tigers had an outstanding ground game in 2011, mixing some of the nation's best run-blocking with a heavy dose of fullback-sized quarterback James Franklin and running backs Henry Josey and Kendial Lawrence. Josey was spectacular before suffering an awful knee injury versus Texas, but Lawrence came into his own when Josey went down; in his last five games, Lawrence has rushed 76 times for 495 yards (6.5 per carry) and scored five touchdowns. Mizzou has a wealth of efficient options in Lawrence, sophomore running back Marcus Murphy (two punt return touchdowns a week ago) and a big, deep receiving corps. They will mix the run and short screens until you prove you can stop it, and when they get your linebackers and safeties sucked closer to the line of scrimmage, they will take advantage with big, deep threats like Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington and freshman Dorial Green-Beckham.
But while the Tigers ranked 14th on standard downs last year, they placed only 66th on passing downs. Forcing James Franklin to become one-dimensional limits some of his strengths, and if last week is any indication, passing downs may be a weakness for Mizzou once again. That's good news for Georgia, which should have a solid pass rush (led by outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, of course) and enough of an advantage in the trenches (both offensive lines in this game are banged up and potentially significant weaknesses) to make Mizzou pay for falling off-schedule.
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