Y'all Play Nice: Who's The SEC's Star?
Just smoke and mirrors on the Plains?
Every week, CFN's Doc Harper and Russ Mitchell break down the SEC games you need to watch, the SEC questions you want answered, and of course, the SEC Power Rankings. All things SEC from two different SEC writers, with two different SEC points of view. One of 'em always right. Now y'all play nice.
It's with a heavy heart that we bid farewell to Brian Harbach, my colleague on YPN for nearly half a decade. Brian will still pop in from time to time to say hello and share his SEC wisdom with y'all...but with every closed door another one opens. Please join me in welcoming Doc Harper. Doc’s a seasoned SEC writer and a fun Twitter follow who has been covering the Arkansas Razorbacks for the past several years. Yes, those Razorbacks. YPN throws him a lifeline just in the "Nick" of time.
3 SEC QUESTIONS THAT NAG MORE THAN YOUR EX
(i) Who had the best performance in Week Three?
You wouldn’t be wrong if you chose Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, with his stellar 11-of-16 for 189 yards and two TDs to zero INTs performance in sending Arkansas back to the Stone Age…except it came at the expense of an Arkansas pass defense that ranks dead last in the conference. Nor would you be wrong if you selected Florida signal caller Jeff Driskel, who led another second half road comeback and posted the following impressive stat line: 14-of-20 for 219 yards, two TDs to zero INTs, and a QB passing efficiency rating of 195...except that he wasn’t even the most dynamic player on his own team. Eight different Florida players contributed to their 336 rushing yards on Saturday, but none were more important than junior Trey Burton, who scored two clutch touchdowns – the second on an 80 yard, untouched sprint down the sidelines which swung the momentum squarely in favor of the Gators. Burton would have rushed for 10,000 yards on his three carries against the Vols, if not that he was stopped by the end zones.
Not a player but a team: Florida. The Gators were on the road for a second straight game and in the conference’s biggest match-up of the week, and they pulled out another come-from-behind win. There was some real energy in Knoxville for the first time in forever, and the Vols even found themselves the favorites going in. Florida could have mailed it in down 20-13 in the third quarter when they were stopped on a fake punt...however, the defense had another second half stop, and Jeff Driskel and Trey Burton made more than enough big plays down the stretch to make it read like a box score blowout. The Gators showed an ability to take a hit and keep coming - an ability that Tennessee obviously doesn’t have.
(ii) Outside of anything/one from Fayetteville, what has been the most disappointing aspect of the first quarter of the season?
I have half a mind to take Vanderbilt with this pick, although both early season losses came against decent, undefeated teams, the Dores were winning in the fourth quarter of both of them, and it is still Vandy. Instead, we’ll take the obvious choice: the Auburn Tigers were expected by many (if not this analyst) to have a bounce back season in 2012, and the Tigers did at least make a game out of their opening loss to a better Clemson program. But since then it’s been downhill with a bullet.
Despite several “successful” recruiting classes, Auburn finds itself relying on far too many underclassmen, as upperclassmen have either washed out or failed to live up to expectations. The patchwork offensive line has struggled to protect the inexperienced and often confused sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frasier. Ontario McCalebb is once again matching his career average of seven yards per carry, but he doesn't get enough of them. And the supposed strength of this team, it’s many returning defensive starters, have yet to gel under the watchful eye of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Auburn is nearly a three touchdown underdog this Saturday hosting an LSU program that has just lost its starting running back and is moving several players around on its limping offensive line. A blowout loss to the Bayou Bengals, combined with a few more lackluster efforts the likes of which we saw against State and ULM, and this is going to be one very uncomfortable offseason for head coach Gene Chizik.
I really thought Auburn would be better. I know, but I believed Frazier would show material improvement over his freshman year. When Gene Chizik didn’t name a starter until as late as possible, I just thought it was one of those old football ploys in which a coach tries to keep his players motivated by thinking the job is still up in the air. But maybe it was. They’re letting Frazier pass more this year, but Auburn’s ranked 113th in the nation in passing yards and averaging only 160.7 yards per game. That average includes a trick play in which Frazier actually caught a 33-yard pass from Quan Bray.
Frazier is a great athlete who can make things happen with his legs, but the Tigers haven’t been able to block for him. If Frazier doesn’t improve with his passing and the team can’t get him in the open field more, it’s hard to see Auburn going better than 6-6 at this point.
(iii) What every SEC fan should be talking about after Week Three, but isn’t?
Well, that leaves out anything to do with how good Bama and LSU are, how beat up South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw is, or the questionable fortitude of his opposing quarterback this Saturday, Missouri’s James Franklin… (i) Don’t look know, but Bama quarterback A.J. McCarron is putting up a Heisman-esque performance, even in a Nick Saban offense. So far on the young season, the junior quarterback is 36-of-56 for 607 yards, with a 64% completion percentage and seven touchdowns against zero interceptions. Through three games, his 2012 QB passing efficiency rating is a breathtaking 197. It’s true the best passing efficiency defense he’s faced is Michigan’s (43 in the nation); nevertheless, McCarron’s production, confidence and leadership have him on pace for a special season…and a trip to the Downtown Athletic Club… (ii) Interestingly, though, this Bama team only ranks in the top five nationally in three categories: in passing efficiency and scoring defense it’s ranked third, and in turnover margin the Tide is tied for best in the land… (iii) Through the first 40 minutes of the Tennessee vs. Florida game Saturday, the Vols had 24 rushes to 26 pass attempts, the lead (20-13), the ball (near mid-field, following a failed fake punt attempt) and the momentum... (iv) …in the game’s remaining 20 minutes, Derek Dooley’s offense ran the ball only four times and the wheels came off the cart. The Gators took them back to Gainesville, along with Tennessee’s pride. On Wednesday, Dooley said that to beat the SEC's best the Vols can't be throwing the ball 45 times, and he'd have liked to have a few of those series back. They say the first step to fixing a problem is awareness, so there's that... (v) Speaking of “wheels off”…how are those business decisions working out for Arkansas AD Jeff Long?... (vi) Staying with the Hogs, don’t look know but Arkansas’ next opponent, Rutgers, has ten upperclassmen among its 11 defensive starters, and is currently ranked ninth in the nation in rushing defense and tenth in total defense. As of Wednesday, quarterback Tyler Wilson has yet to be cleared for Saturday… (vii) Explain this to me: the privacy of the woman who took the spy photos of Princess Kate is being protected, for now. Ironic, huh… (viii) LSU lost another starter this week when it was announced tailback Alfred Blue will be out an unknown number of weeks with an injured knee. If Blue fails to return, that makes 12 players that have fallen off the active 85 man roster since August 1. Add to that an offense line juggling two more banged up players to compensate for the season-ending injury to starting LT Chris Faulk, and some folks in Red Stick are unfurling the caution flag… (ix) In our inaugural installment of “Introducing the World of CFB Outside the South”: the University of Maine mascot is Bananas the Bear. That’s it. Got nothing else for you… and (x) The SEC currently has two teams ranked in the top 25 in total offense (UGA 20 and Ole Miss 25 (nope, Bama is 69)), and only four teams ranked in the top 25 in total defense (LSU 4, Bama 6, Vandy 11, Missouri 20)…You see that Vandy bit there, UGA fan?
Dan Mullen has Mississippi State rolling again. After struggling in 2011, the Bulldogs have looked sharp so far this year, similar to their 9-win season in Mullen’s first campaign in Starkville. The final score against Troy wasn’t particularly impressive, but it was on the road on State was playing mostly vanilla schemes. More relevant is the degree to which State made Auburn look completely inept in Week 2 (Auburn may very well actually be inept anyway, but still). If you look at Mississippi State’s schedule, they should be the favorite in the next four games leading into a match-up with Alabama October 27 in Tuscaloosa. Back in August, Russ called them 7-0 to start the season, then 0-5 to wrap things up... The Bulldogs aren’t ready to beat Alabama right now, and they should be underdogs for that game in Week 9, but they can still improve quite a bit between now and then whereas Bama is largely playing at the top of its game. State will be an interesting team to watch. They may also put the final nail in Derek Dooley’s orange coffin when the Vols come to Starkville on October 13.
IN FOCUS: Which SEC Coach/Player is in the Week Four Spotlight?
James Franklin, Head Coach, Vanderbilt – If we lacked courage, I’d have simply stopped at the name and covered my bases – given there is swirling controversy regarding the tenacity of the Missouri quarterback of the same name (and which Mr. Harper tags below). Instead, we’ll go with the Commodores head man. After convincing the South that Vanderbilt was no longer a doormat, Franklin will have to live up to these higher expectations. The program failed down the stretch in its first two games, allowing fourth quarter come-from-behind victories to both SC and Northwestern. Good teams to be sure, but losses nonetheless. Vandy’s defense has played remarkably well, particularly its pass defense (ranked third in the nation), which will help them on Saturday between the hedges. But so far Vandy’s offense has underperformed, and that's with an upperclassman-laden backfield and experienced receiving corps. There have been too many dropped passes and too many failures with execution for an SEC team to flourish – particularly for a team like Vandy trying to chart a new course. Moral victories are cheaper than Thursday night $0.05 beer on campus…will Saturday be another bender for the Commodores? (Nod to LSU's new starting running back Kenny Hilliard.)
James Franklin, Quarterback, Missouri – Fairly or unfairly, Franklin ignited a controversy for choosing not to take a pain shot that would have enabled him to play against Arizona State last week. People are questioning his toughness and dedication to both the team and sport. As of Thursday morning, Franklin is slated to start this weekend when the Tigers travel to the first Columbia. Missouri managed to pull out a tight victory over the Sun Devils without him, but you have to wonder how much the attention to this has distracted Franklin and the Tigers as they prepare for their first SEC road trip against South Carolina. He’ll have an opportunity to shut everyone up if he plays and if he performs well against the Gamecocks. And he better, because Missouri doesn’t want to start SEC play 0-2. After all the excitement over the last year created by joining the SEC, you have to wonder if it will start creeping in their heads that the pundits and fans were right when they said Missouri wasn’t "SEC ready". If the Tigers lose to South Carolina, there will be significant pressure on Franklin and Co. to beat Vanderbilt in two weeks...since Alabama comes to town the week after that.
SEC POWER RANKINGS
1 Bama – Haven’t shut out three consecutive teams since 1966
2 LSU – Another week, another Tiger injury
3 Florida – Too soon???
4 Georgia – Still have little faith in this OL
5 Miss State – Gave up nearly 600 yards to Troy
6 SC – Trench play will be better than Mizzou’s
7 Tennessee – Can they shake off a disappointing second half collapse to bitter rival Florida?
8 TAMU – We still have questions about Manziel’s durability, but so far so good
9 Vanderbilt – Total Defense currently ranked 11 in the nation. Enough to stop UGA?
9 Auburn – What’s Chizik’s buyout again?
9 Arkansas – Rutgers has an upperclassmen-laden defense, particularly good at Run D
9 Missouri – An underrated coach… An overrated quarterback???
13 Ole Miss – At least the offense is good.
14 Kentucky – 41 rushing yards, at home, against the Hilltoppers
1 Alabama – Handed Hogs their worst home defeat in lifetimes, plural
2 LSU – RB stable takes a hit with Blue’s injury but depth should cover
3 Georgia – Offense is clicking. Can defense hold up its part?
4 South Carolina – Need to look good against Mizzou to get rid of bad Vandy aftertaste
5 Florida – Couple of impressive road comebacks on their resume
6 Miss State – Averaging nearly 200 rushing yards per game
7 TAMU – No SEC team is looking forward to playing Manziel for the next 3-4 years
8 Tennessee – Can the Vols rebound or will the bottom fall out?
9 Missouri – The 4+-hour CBS game; Over/under on Verne chortling Columbia v. Columbia?
10 Vanderbilt – Franklin needs to prove substance to mirror his style
11 Ole Miss – Put up 31 points on Texas…but gave up 66
12 Auburn – Needed trick play & Hail Mary just to get to OT w/ ULM
13 Kentucky – Joined Arkansas in the “Beat By Sun Belt” Club
14 Arkansas – Losing QB no excuse to get outscored 73-0 over last 5.5 qtrs (sans OT)
THREE GAMES TO DVR
1) Missouri vs. South Carolina, Saturday, 3:30 PM ET | CBS. This is a bad SC secondary, missing another starter in the suspended D.J. Swearinger. It won’t matter. Nor will it matter if Missouri quarterback James Franklin plays. Missouri will not run the ball enough to keep the SC linebackers honest, so they will cheat back in pass coverage and support the secondary. SEC football is won in the trenches and while we’re not enamored with SC’s OL, it’s better than Missouri’s starting five – in week three all five starters were playing out of position from where coach Pinkel thought just three weeks prior. Guard Jack Meiners is supposed to return from injury for the Tigers, but even that doesn’t lift Missouri to parity. As for the defensive line, Carolina’s is the conference’s second best. ‘nuff said. For his sake, keep your fingers crossed that SC quarterback Connor Shaw can exit this game on his feet…
Pick: South Carolina 31, Missouri 17
2) Vanderbilt vs. Georgia, Saturday, 7:45 PM ET | ESPN2. Vanderbilt’s total defense is currently ranked the 11th best in the nation, and it's passing defense is third best. That includes surrendering two fourth quarter leads to 3-0 Carolina and 3-0 Northwestern – the latter in Chicago. Unfortunately for the Dores, while its defense is playing better than average football, it’s offense is sputtering. Benching quarterback Jordan Rodgers for the Presbyterian game last week was as much motivation for the entire offense as it was anything directed at Rodgers. Expect Vandy’s D to play UGA well, but expect Georgia’s D to play Vandy even better.
Pick: Georgia 27, Vanderbilt 13
3) LSU vs. Auburn, Saturday, 7:00 PM ET | ESPN. There’s a reason why Old Man football is decided in the fourth quarter… Expect a tighter first half than most are predicting, with the visiting Tigers pulling away after halftime. Miles will let Mettenberger off the leash for a few down field bombs, but for the most part it’ll be a lot of activity in both A gaps...even without injured starting tailback Alfred Blue, who might be out until the first week of November. LSU's Kenny Hilliard will have a great game getting most of the carries, just like his breakout performance last year against Auburn. Michael Ford will replace Blue's speed on the edge. Spencer Ware will come in during the second half to be another battering ram. And "freshman" Jeremy Hill will leave Auburn fans longing for the Williams/Brown years with his 4 or 5 carries.
Pick: LSU 41, Auburn 10
1) Missouri vs. South Carolina, Saturday, 3:30 PM ET | CBS. After a disappointing performance against Georgia, the Tigers look to get their first SEC win on the road against the Gamecocks. This is also the first chance South Carolina has had to showcase itself since the opening night sluggishness they displayed against Vanderbilt. If South Carolina truly is a top 10 team, they’ll win by a couple of touchdowns and Marcus Lattimore will jump start his Heisman campaign. If the doubters are right, it could be a close game, like when Carolina lost at home to Auburn last year...
Pick: South Carolina 38, Missouri 17
2) Vanderbilt vs. Georgia, Saturday, 7:45 PM ET | ESPN2. If Vanderbilt starts out 1-3, will James Franklin still be on the short list for every job opening? The Commodores will attempt to slow down Georgia’s offense and show that its offensive outburst last week wasn’t simply because Georgia was playing an incredibly weak team…
Pick: Georgia 31, Vanderbilt 20
3) LSU vs. Auburn, Saturday, 7:00 PM ET | ESPN. If LSU is as good as everyone thinks they are, this will be ugly. But you have to watch just to see how LSU performs on the road in the SEC this season…that or because it's hard to take your eyes of a train wreck.
Pick: LSU 38, Auburn 7
Russ Mitchell is the lead SEC Columnist for CFN. Follow him @russmitchellcfb
Doc Harper covers the SEC for CFN. Follow him @doc_harper