In reality, we were never in this game – down 21-0 in the first quarter. There was one brief glimmer of hope: with the game still scoreless, Torren McGaster – who has been one of our best players the last three weeks – stepped in front of a Hutson Mason pass for a sure pick-6. The ball clanked off his hands – and things went downhill from there. In our opening four drives Wade Freebeck was 1 of 6 throwing; we were 0 for 4 on third down, and we amassed 25 total yards. Things did eventually get better. There were several offensive positives as the game unfolded – Stephen Rivers came in at QB for a stint and showed some flashes of impressive touch. We also had some quick throw answers to the blitz. Again, a glass half-full outlook would applaud these adjustments – but a half empty advocate might wonder where any of those calls were the week before when we actually had a chance to win?
The story of the game was that our defense was not up to stopping Georgia’s potent running game – but who is? Todd Gurley is an outstanding player – and Nick Chubb is not chopped liver either. We did not do a bad job against Georgia’s middling passing attack. Hutson Mason threw for only 121 yards – Gurley, himself, threw for 50 out of the wildcat. Nigel Bowden, Zach Cunningham, Adam Butler, McGaster and Jamel McIntosh were impressive. Giving up 44 points is never a positive – but after the first quarter, Georgia’s offense only put up 16 points.
While noting brief periods of lucidity on offense, the truth is Georgia’s defense is not particularly good. In fact, the entire SEC East is so mediocre this year that a three loss team could be representing the East in the Championship game in December. The East’s futility makes our own ineptness all the more frustrating: it is a year of opportunity squandered.
This fact became all the more clear to anyone who watched the Kentucky-South Carolina game Saturday evening. Kentucky was helpless against Carolina’s running game. Mike Davis eclipsed his career yardage best – as the Gamecocks rolled to 31 first downs. Our offense recorded 8 first downs in Lexington a week earlier by insisting on utilizing the pass. Andre Ware, the “tell it like it is” announcer for the Georgia game, summed up a lot of fans’ frustrations with the offense. On our opening drive, our lack of protection against the blitz left him murmuring, “Are you kidding me?” He expressed exasperation when we tried repeatedly to throw on third or fourth and short – when our backs run for five yards per carry. When Rivers got pulled, Ware said, “It just makes you want to throw your hands up” trying to figure out the Vanderbilt quarterback situation. He held his tongue when we ran a key third down play with only 10 offensive players on the field.
Most confounding of all was a fourth and 2 play-call in Georgia territory with the score 27-10: Rivers ran a bizarre, slow-developing throw back pass that resulted in a spirit-crushing, game-ending pick-6. To make matters worse, Coach Mason confided after the game that Rivers had read the play-sheet upside down. Despite the oddness of the call, players in the huddle assumed it was “situation normal” and went with it. Rivers had been banished to the sidelines after pitching a fit over goal-line calls against Ole Miss: he ran the play. The coaches saw it was wrong as the team lined up – but no one thought to call time out on a critical fourth down. For good measure we ran this throw back play again later – this time with better results (it was merely incomplete.)
I am tired of being negative about this football season. Yet the staff keeps handing me material. Our offensive stats do not lie. Of 125 teams in FCS statistics, we are 116th in offensive scoring; 122nd in third down conversions; after leading the nation in fourth down conversions last year, we are tied for 119th this year. We are tied for 117th in first downs. We are tied for 117th on first down offense. We are tied for 115th in most interceptions with 10 (against 3 TDs.) We are 107th in rushing offense; 112th in passing offense. With our decent performance versus Georgia, we moved up to 99th in time of possession.
This week we get a 5-0 Charleston Southern team that is coming off a bye. They run some triple option which is always a difficult week of preparation. We are favored by 25 – but even Vegas probably thinks we will have sense enough to run over the smaller opponent. I worry we will try to hone our pocket passing skills early and keep Charleston Southern in the game – much as we did the last time we were favored versus UMass. If this happens, we have a bye week afterwards for some kind of change to be imposed. Pick: Vanderbilt 37, Charleston Southern 20.
Here is a surprise: something positive. I think we are at the bottom at this moment. The second half of this season will be better – which won’t be hard. At some point in the next two weeks a sense of urgency or self-preservation is likely to kick in on the offensive staff – we are bound to eventually run the plays that fit our talent. At least that is what I have to keep telling myself. John Wooden once said: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” I think that is where our offensive brain-trust is right now. Having entered the season knowing it all – they need to adjust and then truly buy into the change.
In the West, all the games this week are big. Ole Miss follows up the wild win over Bama with a huge trip to College Station. A&M looked invincible early – but the Aggies seem flawed lately. A&M’s receiving corps recorded nine drops in Starkville last week – and their defense looked shaky for the second week in a row. Still, Ole Miss will now begin to feel the pressure of actually being a national contender. The schedule-maker did Ole Miss no favors with a road trip to A&M following the Bama game. Pick: Ole Miss 37, A&M 28.
The biggest game of the week is Auburn at Mississippi State. Both squads come into this one not only undefeated, but red hot. State throttled Kevin Sumlin’s squad last week while Auburn crushed LSU. State has played back-to-back emotionally draining games. It is really hard to play three A+ games in a row. Auburn is already road-tested and Vegas sees the Tigers as 3 point favorites. My gut tells me Auburn’s recent huge-game experience gets them out of Starkville on top. My brain, however, vetoes my gut. MSU’s defense has been really impressive the last two weeks and the home crowd makes a difference. Pick: MSU 34, Auburn 31.
Two additional Conference tilts present intriguing match-ups. Arkansas is always sky-high for Bama – and Bama is beat up, emotionally drained and on the road for the second week in a row. Arkansas’ running game is a sobering problem – and the Razorbacks are vastly improved, despite a 14 game SEC losing streak. When is the last time Bama lost two in a row? That is an easy one. Last year – after the crushing loss to Auburn, they threw a shoe in the Sugar Bowl. After last week’s crushing loss, another SEC road trip is not what the doctor ordered. The Tide is better than Arkansas – but I put them on upset alert anyway. Pick: Bama 35, Arkansas 31.
Then you have LSU’s journey to Gainesville where the Bengal Tigers are two point favorites. The tension in the UT-Gator match-up last week was palpable. The crowd’s chants were x-rated. Florida won – but looked offensively anemic doing it. Shut-out for three quarters, Will Muschamp brought in a freshman QB, Treon Harris, to replace Jeff Driskel. It worked, thanks to a key Vol turnover. The spark from Harris’ performance, however, was quickly extinguished by the young QB’s suspension the next day. So Driskel returns to QB for the Gators – but his confidence has to be rocked. LSU is in a funk itself – the kind that comes from having half your roster drafted by the NFL several years in a row. LSU is rebuilding more than reloading this year – the Tigers’ lines are inexperienced and they have some QB issues as well. Muschamp seems to be aware that he is coaching to keep his job – and his team rose to the occasion in Knoxville. Of course, the pressure may be greater at home? Florida’s defense – which is stocked with NFL talent – should be the difference here. On the other hand, there is the fun fact that no SEC West team has lost a single game to anyone outside the SEC West yet this year. Pick: Florida 17, LSU 14.
Several out-of-conference match-ups should pad conference records this week. UT-Chattanooga visits Knoxville where things could get ugly. Pick: Vols 45, Mocs 7. UL-Monroe visits Lexington where UK is riding a 4-1 record. Pick: Kentucky 33, ULM 17. Charleston Southern rounds out the SEC visitors list. How our offensive brain-trust approaches this game could tell us even more than the game’s outcome. Will we try to “perfect” the pocket passing scheme of the doomed as we did in Lexington – or will we adjust to letting the talent do what it does best? This latter approach is certainly long overdue.