I was encouraged by what I saw against Western Kentucky. After a disappointing 2014, the big question last Thursday was, is the 2015 squad moving in the right direction? The answer was largely: “yes.” There was improvement in almost every area except two: turnovers and red zone execution.

Unfortunately, in those key departments, we frequently proved to be our own worst enemy in our opening game. OC Ludwig did come up with a plan that dominated time of possession – we held the ball for over 36 minutes. We also moved the ball effectively between the twenties. Our offense out-gained WKU 393 yards to 246 yards and won the first down battle 20-11. In the first half, our offense went wide and tried the edges successfully. Then we simply stopped – and reverted to last year’s love affair with “testing the middle.” Our running backs gained 111 yards on 33 carries – or 3.3 yards per run. That is not great – and even worse when WKU’s well-publicized defensive problems are considered. McCrary ran 8 times for 66 yards – or over 8 yards per carry. One would think using the read option or rolling McCrary out as a dual threat would be suggested by these stats – but we did not adjust. Our refusal to rely on what was working resulted in WKU repeatedly putting eight in the box. Our predictability – or lack of imagination – led to frustration for much of the night. Nowhere was poor execution more evident than in the red zone where we had numerous empty trips. To put a bow on the predictability moniker, WKU defenders crowed post-game that they knew exactly what play was coming on the two point conversion because Wisconsin film showed Coach Ludwig regularly used this play out of the same formation.

To be fair to our offensive braintrust, better execution could have led to more points. A lot more. A sure touchdown was dropped. A chip shot field goal was missed. McCrary’s two red zone INTs were inexplicable brain freezes. Moreover, at the six inch line on a second down scramble if McCrary had simply stretched the ball for a TD, the second INT would not have even happened. Vandy left a lot of points on the table.

Brief flashes of failure should not overshadow that Johnny McCrary did a lot of good things – throwing for 217 yards and running for another 66. It was decision-making and reads where things went awry. (That is why it is nice to open with Elon or Western Carolina.) McCrary’s uncertainty led to throws frequently being late – leading to both key INTs. He missed Latevius Rayford, open by ten yards, by throwing the ball into the cheerleaders. When Ralph Webb scampered free on a broken coverage we whiffed again. There were many throws into double and triple coverage. Some of these dangerous throws were the result of our young receivers failing to get separation – others resulted from the QB staring down a primary receiver.

Trent Sherfield, DeAndre Woods and Chris Kentera looked good as receivers. Sherfield, in particular, looked like a weapon – but his blocking needs to improve (he had a big holding penalty, and got lucky on another one.) Steven Scheu drew frequent attention from WKU and had a quiet night. McCrary hit ten different receivers (including the two point try) which is a good sign.

Georgia’s defense brought heat against ULM last week. The Dawgs come fast – which means McCrary is going to have to make even quicker decisions next Saturday. If we continue to try to run power sets – eschewing misdirection, wide receiver screens and use of the whole field – it will be a long, slow beating. Coach Ludwig is smart – and surely was disappointed by our failure to run block effectively. If we could not get it done versus WKU, he knows he will need to resort to Plan B against bigger, stronger SEC defenses. I will be interested to see what he comes up with – and I suspect it will look more like our last drive than the early fascination with running between the tackles.

Vandy’s defense was stellar – and also fun to watch last Thursday night. WKU’s high powered offense was shut down for most of the game. The Hilltoppers punted ten times. Coach Mason employed mass movement and multiple substitutions to keep WKU’s highly-touted QB Brandon Doughty off-kilter. There were so many outstanding efforts, it is hard to single out individuals. While Oren Burks, Andrew Williamson, Darreon Herring and Torren McGaster stood out, big plays came from all over. Newcomer Nehemiah Mitchell looked solid and the Smith Brothers impressed in cameos. Ryan White, Tre Bell and Tre Herndon also made their marks. Run support and sure tackling were routine – and the aggressive scheme was an unmistakable upgrade over last season’s approach. Noticeably, our third down stops – WKU was 2 of 11 – were very good. In the second half, Jeff Brohm’s no huddle adjustment slowed the flow of substitutions and resulted in less movement. After a dominant first half in which WKU was held to only 46 yards, the Toppers ended the night with 246 yards of total offense. The defense played well enough to win this game. A stat that stood out: we ran 76 offensive plays to WKU’s 53. The blueprint for how Coach Mason wants to win was followed – our offense just forgot to score.

It will be easy to write off this solid defensive effort if Georgia drops 50 points on us. But on the right day Georgia might drop 50 on the Titans. The Dawgs’ O-line is the best we will face. The three NFL RBs are quick and tough to bring down. QB Grayson Lambert, a doe-eyed game manager at UVa last year, has the luxury of protection and open receivers now. His back-up Brice Ramsey looked sharp opening day, too. When everyone is keying on the run – passing is much easier. We will have our hands full with Georgia’s offense – but anyone who does not see defensive improvement over last year was not looking very hard.

One area where improvement was questionable was special teams. Blocking on returns was sub-par. Kick-offs were not deep. On coverage, some great individual efforts led to tackles – but lanes were open and sometimes sloppy. We had a special teams turnover – and a bad snap contributed to a missed chip-shot field goal. As it turned out, we could have used those three points. After watching film, look for Georgia to come after our kickers – and snap off some returns, too. We need major tightening up in the special teams arena from week one to week two.

Pick: Georgia 41, Vandy 17.

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There are several big conference match-ups this week – and the most “interesting” one is in Columbia, South Carolina. Both Kentucky and Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks stumbled through choppy opening night efforts – but both pulled out the win when it counted. Kentucky shocked Carolina last year, winning late 45-38 – and that is not something the Head Ball Coach forgets easily. Vegas likes the Gamecocks by 7½. Victories in the SEC will not come easily for either club this year – and this game means a lot. When the dust settles, Pharoh Cooper is worth a TD – and Carolina’s opening night defense looked to be genuinely improved. Pick: Carolina 31, Kentucky 25.

LSU’s opening game was rained out – which means their new QB, Brandon Harris, did not get a tune-up before starting a road contest at Mississippi State. While the Dawgs have Dak Prescott, there are too many newcomers for MSU to match up favorably with the Bengal Tigers. MSU’s visit to the Top 25 should be a brief one. Still, the opening “bye” does not help LSU – and Vegas only favors Les Miles’ club by 4. I like LSU by more than 4. Pick: LSU 24, MSU 16.

A few hours east of Nashville, Tennessee hosts Oklahoma on Saturday night. The Sooners struggled in the first quarter on opening night before subduing Akron 41-3. Ultimately, OU’s QB Baker Mayfield threw for 388 yards. This should be a concern for the Vols’ staff as UT’s secondary looked unsettled against Bowling Green. Vegas sees this game as a “pick ‘em.” Add to the equation Bob Stoops’ tendency to bad-mouth the SEC and we have the makings of a barnburner. Pick: Oklahoma 31, UT 24.

The remaining SEC schedule looks like a batch of pay-check games, although East Carolina is a decent opponent for Florida. The match-up in Gainesville turns out to be a re-match of last year’s Birmingham Bowl game (won by Florida 28-20.) If frosting a cupcake is any indicator, Florida looks to be improved under new Coach Jim McIlwain. Pick Florida 34, ECU 19. Middle Tennessee dropped 70 on Jackson State last week – and visits Tuscaloosa this Saturday. Bama looked for real against Wisconsin. Pick: Bama 48, MTSU 10. Toledo was struggling at home with Stony Brook before their game was cancelled by weather: that does not bode well for this week’s journey to Fayetteville. Arkansas buried UTEP in their opener and is favored by 21½ over Toledo. Pick: Arkansas 52, Toledo 20.

Of all the SEC teams to send out flares last week, Ole Miss’ went the highest. Despite his long list of off-field shenanigans, QB Chad Kelly looked very sharp in dismantling UT-Martin. With Ole Miss’ great defense, the Rebel Bears become a true threat if Kelly can continue to hit receivers as coolly as he did last Saturday. Mrs. Roanoke continues to believe that scoring 76 against an over-matched opponent is bad karma – especially when her Skyhawks are the victim. But Ole Miss will not need karma versus Fresno. Pick: Ole Miss 45, Fresno 17. Texas A&M also qualifies as a team that looked like overachievers on opening day – they throttled much-hyped Arizona State. This week Ball State visits College Station. Pick: A&M 49, Ball State 14. Missouri travels to Arkansas State on their early season cupcake walk. This is really smart scheduling – a sure win, plus road experience prior to SEC play. Pick: Mizzou 41, Arkansas State 10. Auburn won their big match-up with Louisville opening day – but raised a lot of questions doing it. Auburn faces LSU next week and has some kinks to work out. Expect a rough outing for Jacksonville State. Pick: Auburn 55, Jax State 12.

I will not end with some pithy, hopeful comments about containing Georgia. Last year when we played a great team, MSU picked us apart like they were torturing a bug. Georgia is probably the best team we will face this season. We need to acquit ourselves much better than we did in Starkville last year. Of course, that bar is pretty low. Top Stories