Roanoke's Around the SEC: Bye week

Last year our staff made particularly good use of our bye weeks. It is easy to forget that on our way to a 9-4 finish, we stood at a shaky 3-3 in 2013 at our half-way point. We had modest wins over Austin Peay, UMass and UAB - and demoralizing losses to Ole Miss, South Carolina and Missouri.

The first bye of 2013 came after a particularly defenseless 51-28 drubbing at the hands of Mizzou - we devoted the bye to change and it worked. Dedicated to a more aggressive defensive scheme, we responded the next week with an inspired victory over Georgia. Our second bye followed another slip-up at Texas A & M. We responded with a ball control offensive scheme that throttled Florida in Gainesville. As it turned out, we would not lose another game all season.

We enter the first bye week in 2014 with a 2-5 record, including a slim, one-point win over Charleston Southern last week. Charleston Southern out-gained us, held us below 300 yards of total offense, crushed us in time of possession and shut us out in the second half. This was not a confidence builder - especially on offense..

The narrow escape over Charleston Southern did include some positives - and the main one was the play of Johnny McCrary. It is hard to know exactly what McCrary did to get banished to the doghouse - whatever it was, he emerged just in time. McCrary was mobile and impressive in his first meaningful action at qb. He had good field vision and exhibited poise under pressure - he saved the game with a late scramble and throw near his own end zone in our final drive. He also had obvious chemistry with C.J. Duncan who turned in a stellar performance with seven receptions for 119 yards and a TD.

I am optimistic about Patton Robinette being back this week. But if he is not, McCrary has played his way up the chain. Freshman running back Dallas Rivers also made an impressive contribution - bowling over smaller Charleston Southern defenders in our late, backs-against-the-wall six minute drive. It was good to see that when the game was on the line, we were wise enough to resort to power running. We continue to fail to run misdirection or sweeps. Watching the misdirection and deception inherent in Charleston Southern's creative running package left me hoping - in a week of potential change - that our offensive brain-trust might resort to some "dual threat" innovation this week.

Other positives last Saturday included Tommy Openshaw nailing kick-offs as well as field goal attempts. Special teams also contributed a nice (and ultimately critical) two point conversion. (Special teams, however, was not all rainbows and unicorns - the blocked punt at the close of the half was just terrible football... Another near turnover by the punt team was averted by Darreon Herring's alert play.) Our defense held Charleston Southern to 2 of 14 on third down - a huge step forward. While it is easy to quibble about Charleston Southern's total yardage, our D did hold the creative Bucs to 13 offensive points. Ja'karri Thomas had his best game of the year, Taurean Ferguson grabbed a key INT. Nigel Bowden, Torren McGaster, Caleb Azubike and Vince Taylor turned in solid games.

Still, there are nagging negatives: did I mention that Charleston Southern shut us out in the second half? Moreover, we only had seven first downs going into our final drive. We accumulated a rag-tag ten penalties. Incredibly, for the fifth time this season we allowed a touchdown with under a minute left in the first half - a feat all the more discouraging since the opponent only had the ball on two of these five occasions.

It wasn't pretty. But we won. And, ultimately, that is the most important thing. It is something we can build on during an off week.

* * *

The SEC schedule presents three East-West match-ups. All are interesting - and all must be viewed in light of the fact that no SEC West team has lost a single game all year outside their division. This stat will be sorely tested this Saturday when Georgia ventures to Fayetteville. Arkansas is riding a 15 game SEC losing streak. They are due. Georgia turned in an inspired performance last week, dominating Missouri 34-0 without Todd Gurley. The problem is - it is hard to play back-to-back long-distance SEC road games. And Georgia's success last week came in dismantling Mizzou's self-destructing passing game. Arkansas will focus on running the ball down Georgia's throat - and Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams are hard to handle. Georgia was just fired up enough last week to let down against the hard-luck Razorbacks who have not won in conference since the 2012 campaign. I am going with the perfect storm/ no Gurley upset. Pick: Arkansas 31, Georgia 27.

Kentucky is 5-1 as they head to Baton Rouge. I am still haunted by our worst offensive game plan and performance of the year in Lexington - was it a self-inflicted wound or was UK actually good? I am still not sure - but it clouds my belief in the Cats. LSU, likewise, has been hard to gauge this year. After no-show appearances against MSU and Auburn, LSU was reeling before their big win in Gainesville last week. The Bengal Tigers looked renewed and Kentucky has not yet won a game on the road. The Vegas spread is LSU by 10 1/2 - which seems too high. Pick: LSU 33, UK 27.

Tennessee's front-loaded SEC schedule sends the Vols to Oxford this week. Bo Wallace & Co. are playing great football. Tennessee is playing consistently good football - which is not good enough to beat this Mississippi team. Ole Miss is favored by 17 which, again, seems high. The Vols may keep this one close for a while - but Ole Miss specializes in breaking open close games late. Pick: Ole Miss 30, UT 21.

Alabama hosts Texas A&M and, consistent with the theme of the week, Bama's 12 1/2 point spread seems high. Bama won on fumes last week at Arkansas. Injuries are piling up, and the offense's struggles suggest some creeping doubts on the Lane Kiffin front. Look for Bama to return to its old school, smashmouth roots this week. There is a history for A&M to save their best shot for Alabama - but the Aggies are on a two-game schneid. Facing Angry Bama in Tuscaloosa is not what the doctor ordered. Pick: Alabama 27, Texas A&M 21.

Missouri and Florida round out the intra-conference schedule. This is a death-match between two underperforming squads. Missouri is coming off a 34-0 shellacking in which their offense was helpless at home. Florida basically snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against LSU last week - Florida's inability to close the deal last Saturday seems to confirm that the Gators have slipped. Will Muschamp is still fighting for his job - but he will definitely need a realtor if the Gators cannot beat Missouri. Treon Harris is unsuspended for this one - and it will make a difference. Pick: Florida 35, Missouri 17.

Bye-rested South Carolina - still in shock from its fourth quarter collapses against Missouri and Kentucky - welcomes Furman. Timing is everything - and this one should get ugly. Pick: South Carolina 54, Furman 17. Mississippi and Auburn join us on the couch this week-end.

Let's hope our staff is scheming some inspiring change on this important bye week. We have been a second half team each of the last two years. I still feel like there is enough talent on this squad to make the second half interesting. The problem is, there seems to be a wide confidence gap between this year's squad and the previous two. Confidence comes from success - and I know a Houdini act against Charleston Southern is not the sort of win that breeds swagger. But a loss would have been much, much worse.

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