Now that spring football is over and the silly season has begun – May 1-August 1 when players are more likely to be arrested for lack of supervision – it’s time to crunch some numbers and answer the big question for each SEC football team for 2017.
ALABAMA: The number that stands out is 11.9, as in 11.9 per pass reception for Alabama’s receivers in 2016. That’s down right pedestrian and an indicator that Alabama really didn’t trust Jalen Hurts to throw much more than a 2-inch pass. As we saw in the national championship game against Clemson, the Tigers were willing to stack the box and play the Bama receivers one-on-one on the outside because they didn’t believe (correctly) Hurts could hurt them downfield. Calvin Ridley, who is as talented as any receiver in the SEC, averaged only 10.68 yards per catch. Hurts is a terrific runner but can he throw the ball effectively enough to back the safeties off the line of scrimmage?
ARKANSAS: Bret Bielema-coached teams are going to run the football, throw effectively off play action and score points. That’s never going to be a problem. Go over to the other side of the ball and you need a math major to add up all the problems, but let’s start with the number that tells why Robb Smith departed and why Paul Rhoads is the new defensive coordinator. It’s 5.91 as in 5.91 yards per rushing attempt. No, that’s not what Auburn averaged per carry. That’s what opponents averaged. Texas A&M, which really didn’t run the ball all that well, averaged almost 10 yards per carry and Auburn ran for 543 yards. Can the Razorbacks hold opponents to less than 150 yards per game rushing and something less than 4.5 yards per attempt in 2017?
AUBURN: Gus Malzahn brought in a new offensive coordinator to cure a passing game that averaged just 169.5 yards per game. The Tigers think the answer to the passing woes is Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, who threw for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015 as a true freshman. Stidham is being hailed as maybe the best QB in the SEC for 2017 and he may live up to the expectations, but isn’t this a lot of pressure for someone who was throwing against bad Big 12 defenses and started only three games?
FLORIDA: When your offense averages only 344 yards and 23.9 points per game, the last thing you can afford is giving the ball away but that’s exactly what quarterbacks Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio did in 2016. Appleby threw seven in nine games while Del Rio threw eight in six games. The good news for the Gators is barring a visit from faith healer Ernest Aingley, Del Rio won’t be ready to play in September and Appleby has graduated. We know Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask have stronger and more accurate arms than either Appleby or Del Rio. Can they protect the football in 2017? Florida should be quite good if they can.
GEORGIA: Two numbers stand out when you look at Georgia – 55.1 and 11.86, as in 55.1% accuracy for quarterback Jacob Eason and only 11.86 per reception for his wide receivers. The combination of Eason’s inability to throw accurately on a consistent basis and his receivers inability to get open had plenty to do with the Bulldogs averaging only 24.5 points per game. Georgia’s got Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in the backfield but can Eason find anyone open and if he does, can he get the ball to them accurately? Maybe a bigger question is can Eason beat out early enrollee freshman QB Jake Fromm? If Fromm wins the job he will still have to find someone open and that might be difficult.
KENTUCKY: Kentucky averaged 30.3 points and 420.2 yards per game in 2016. This is in spite of turning the ball over a whopping 28 times. The Wildcats threw 12 interceptions and fumbled the ball away 16 times. In all but two games Kentucky turned the football over at least twice. For the season UK finished -7 in turnover margin. Can they protect the football this year? If they want to repeat last year’s bowl season they better.
LSU: Even though Leonard Fournette is gone, everybody knows LSU is going to run the football. There is very little – if any – drop off with Derrius Guice getting the carries. LSU is probably going to average more than 225 yards a game running the football. The question is can they average at least that much throwing it? The Tigers had the long distance receivers last year and defenses had to play eight in the box to stop the run yet LSU averaged only 190.1 yards passing and had only 12 touchdown passes
MISSISSIPPI STATE: In Mississippi State’s two biggest wins over Texas A&M and Ole Miss, Aeris Williams ran for a combined 331 yards and three touchdowns. In MSU’s other 11 games, Williams was good for 379 yards and one TD. Nick Fitzgerald ran for 1,375 yards and 16 TDs and passed for 2,423 and 21 more TDs last year. Everybody knows what he can do and they’ll gear their defenses to stop him. Can Williams become that second member of a 1-2 running punch that makes the Mississippi State offense dynamic?
MISSOURI: When the 2016 season began, Missouri had the fewest career starts on the offensive line than any team in Division I. That line gave up only 14 sacks all season as Mizzou transformed from a team that averaged only 13.6 points and 280 yards per game in 2015 to one that averaged 31.4 and 500 yards in 2016. Quarterback Drew Lock could play his way into the first QB taken in the 2018 NFL Draft. He’s Missouri’s meal ticket to a bowl game. Can the Tigers give him the kind of protection he had last year?
OLE MISS: When you score 32.6 points per game, you should win a lot of games. That is, unless your defense does an incredible imitation of a sieve, which is what Ole Miss did last year when it gave up 34 points in a 5-7 season. Out went DC Dave Wommack and in came Wesley McGriff. Can McGriff cobble together a front seven that can hold teams to less than the 246.33 yards per game they averaged on the ground last year when they averaged more than 34 minutes time of possession? If he can’t Ole Miss won’t be able to get anyone off the field. Again.
SOUTH CAROLINA: South Carolina’s season turned around when Jake Bentley, who should have been a high school senior, took over as the starting QB in game six. The Gamecocks promptly won four of their next five games and qualified for a bowl game. Bentley is the real deal but the Gamecocks have to run the ball to help him out. Last season they averaged just 134.38 yards per game and only 3.68 per carry. There is talent at running back in sophomore Rico Dowdle and UNC transfer Ty’Son Williams. The Gamecocks have runners, but do they have blockers who can get the job done?
TENNESSEE: Last spring UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop declared that nobody was going to run on the Vols in 2016. Three teams ran for more than 400 and two of them were Kentucky and Missouri. The Vols gave up 5.0 per carry and 28 rushing touchdowns. Opponents held the ball for more 32:35 per game, largely because the Vols couldn’t stop anyone from running. The UT offense won’t be nearly as explosive this year, which means the defense will have to pick up the slack. Can they?
TEXAS A&M: John Chavis made his reputation both at Tennessee and LSU with fierce defenses that gave up yards on the ground grudgingly. He’s supposed to be a genius but in his three years on the job the Aggies have been gouged consistently on the ground. Last year opponents sliced the Aggies for 191.77 yards per game on the ground with Mississippi State running for 365 and Alabama 287. Alabama’s defense, by the way, gave up only 63.93 per game. Can the Aggies stop the run this year? If they can’t Chavis and HBC Kevin Sumlin will be looking for work for 2018.
VANDERBILT: Compared to the previous two seasons, Vanderbilt had an explosive offense last year when it averaged 23 points per game. Don’t laugh. They averaged 15 the year before and 17 the year before that. The offense got better and it figures to get better again. It’s over on the defensive side and particularly in the passing game where Vandy has to get better. The Commodores gave up 20 touchdown passes, picked off only five and got to the quarterback for only 15 sacks in 13 games. The offense will be better but don’t think it will be explosive. Can the defense muster up a pass rush and do a better job playing the football when it’s in the air this year?
TAMPA JUDGE RECUSES HERSELF
Hillsborough County Judge Margaret Taylor tried to do some damage control Thursday by submitting an order of disqualification that removes her from a case involving USF football player LaDarrius Jackson. When Jackson appeared in court Wednesday on charges of sexual battery and false imprisonment, Taylor lectured him about how his actions made her ashamed she was to be a USF alumnus. Fair enough. Jackson embarrassed everyone at USF. Taylor, however, crossed a line that didn’t need to be crossed when she lit into first year USF coach Charlie Strong.
Taylor said it was clear that Strong doesn’t have control over his football team and went on to say, “I would implore you to think long and hard about whether being head coach at USF is a good fit before any other members of this community have to suffer at the hands of one of your players.”
That was way, way over the line. Strong took over at USF just a few months ago and Jackson is a player he neither recruited nor has coached prior to this spring. If Taylor knew anything at all about Strong then she would know that he’s a tough disciplinarian who got run out of Texas essentially because he dared to clean up the mess left behind by Mack Brown. At Texas, just as he did at Louisville before, Strong ran off the players who weren’t willing to play by his rules and given time, I’m sure he’ll do the same at USF. To criticize Strong as Taylor did before he’s really had a chance to implement his system shows a serious lack of maturity and understanding by this judge.
At least she did the right thing by recusing herself before she made a bigger fool of herself.
I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP …
LaVar Ball, father of former UCLA star Lonzo and the same guy who made a $1 billion take it or leave it offer to Nike, adidas and Under Armour (they left), unveiled the ZO2 shoe line of his Big Baller Brand Thursday. The shoes debut at $495 a pair although there is an autographed pair that will sell for $995 and flip flops that go for $220. The Big Baller Brand website describes the shoes as “microfiber python texture” with a “Delorean finish,” whatever that is. T-shirts and caps go anywhere from $38 to $100.
The most expensive pair of Air Jordans runs you $400.
LaVar’s son is a very talented kid, but if you are an NBA GM you have to be shaking your head and asking yourself if Lonzo is worth the price of dealing with LaVar.
SEC HOOPS NEWS
Tennessee landed the point guard it wanted so badly when juco Chris Darrington (6-1, 175, Toledo, OH/Vincennes, IN Vincennes University) committed on Thursday. Getting Darrington means Rick Barnes won’t have to play a true freshman at the point next season.
Missouri signed graduate transfer Kassius Robertson (6-3, 175), who averaged 16.1 points per game and shot 41% from the 3-point line last season at Canisius. That gives the Tigers 12 on scholarship with one open. Cuonzo Martin should hear from Jeremiah Tilmon (6-10, 225, East St. Louis, MO) this weekend. If he signs, then that’s a pretty good indicator that Jontay Porter (6-10, 240, Columbia, MO) will not reclassify for 2017.
LSU solved its roster problems on Thursday when Kieran Hayward (6-4, 195) announced he will transfer out. Will Wade is now at the NCAA scholarship limit of 13. As a freshman last season, Hayward averaged 8.2 minutes, 1.2 points and 1.1 rebounds per game.
Kentucky is in the hunt for Mount St. Mary’s transfer Miles Wilson (6-5, 190), who averaged 11.8 points and 3.9 rebounds as a freshman. North Carolina State, Virginia, Miami and UMass are also in the hunt.
Georgia gymnastics reminds me of the post-John Wooden days for UCLA basketball after the firing of Danna Durante for a sixth place finish in the NCAA Championships. Durante is the second coach in eight years who didn’t live up to the high bar set by the retired Suzanne Yoculan, who won 10 NCAA titles including the last five in a row before she decided she’d had enough. Since Yoculan retired Georgia hasn’t even won an SEC title much less an NCAA championship.
At Vanderbilt they’re surveying the alumni about the future of football, more specifically the future of decrepit and inadequate Vanderbilt Stadium. Among the choices are serious upgrades to the current stadium, building a new stadium somewhere on campus, moving football to an off campus stadium or doing nothing at all. I’m not a Vanderbilt alum so I don’t get a vote, but the smart thing would be to upgrade the current stadium. They really don’t need anything much bigger than the 41,000 seats they have now but they sure could do a lot to make it a more pleasant place to see a ball game. If you’ve ever been there then it’s not difficult to understand why Derek Mason complains that the current ball yard really hurts recruiting.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Lonzo Ball’s dad has priced a pair of ZO2 shoes at $499. What’s the most you’ve ever paid for a pair of sneakers, running shoes or basketball shoes?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
The late, great McKinley Morganfield set the blues world on its ear for more than 50 years. Most people knew him by his nickname Muddy Waters. His influence on blues and rock and roll is immeasurable. BB King, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers and Jimi Hendrix are just a few of the artists who were inspired by Waters. Today’s music is one of the last concerts he did at the 1981 Chicago Fest where he played with Johnny Winter.