1 thing I learned about every SEC team in Week 3 of 2020
Call it “tiebreaker week.”
For many teams, that’s what Week 3 was: a chance to break the tie after some good and some bad to start off 2020. For teams like MSU, Auburn and LSU, that was a major narrative. Maybe what we saw will shape their 2020 outlook. Certainly, it can impact how fans feel if they’ve seen two duds compared to one banner day.
Looking at you, LSU.
For others, it wasn’t so much about breaking the tie as it was about trying to keep the momentum rolling. Perhaps “tiebreaker week” was more like “avoid the letdown” week. Alabama, Florida and Georgia know a thing or two about that.
So what did we learn in Week 3?
Alabama — Elite defense? Yeah, about that …
I’m old enough to remember a time when a running back racking up 100 yards against the Alabama defense was an all-world feat. Ole Miss had not one, but two backs do that. As great of an offensive performance as that was for Alabama, that was the ultimate “this is why Pete Golding shouldn’t have his current job” game. There were coverage breakdowns, horrible tackling and guys out of position all night.
Not only was that the most points ever allowed by Alabama to an unranked team, it was also the first time an unranked team put up 500 yards of offense against Alabama since the 2003 Iron Bowl (via The Athletic’s Matt Brown). The issues that were supposed to be solved with getting healthy in the front seven are still a problem. Instead, this had a very 2019 vibe to it. Alabama is fortunate to have such a dominant offense right now, because that was an alarmingly bad defensive performance against an explosive Ole Miss offense. And no, I don’t think you can just say it was Ole Miss having Alabama’s defensive signals.
Something tells me it’s about to be a different kind of practice week ahead of Georgia.
Arkansas — The Hogs are finding new ways to lose … but in a good way
That sounded like a slight. It’s not. Losing like that is a whole lot better than getting blown out by Western Kentucky. Yes, I thought Arkansas got robbed and Bo Nix’s spike should’ve been ruled a fumble. Yes, I think it’s still okay to be encouraged by the fact that with the exception of one half of football so far, Arkansas has looked like a legitimate SEC team. That, after the past three years, is progress. Of course, we’d be having a much different conversation if Arkansas were sitting at 2-1 having beaten Chad Morris’ new team. It almost happened … without Rakeem Boyd … again.
Credit Feleipe Franks for playing incredibly well against one of the sport’s best defensive minds in Kevin Steele. And wow, Treion Smith looks like a major weapon even if Boyd comes back next week. If I’m an Arkansas fan, I’m frustrated but plenty encouraged by that start.
Auburn — The Tigers are finding new ways to win … but in a bad way
The Tigers got lucky. It’s as simple as that. Had that call been properly made with the spike going backward, I believe we’re discussing a 1-2 team that just lost to Arkansas. The troubling thing is that Auburn was even in that position. The offense was fine — 6.3 yards per carry was an upgrade after the Georgia performance — but more concerning was the fact that they let Franks throw the ball all over the place. And while the loss of K.J. Britt was clearly concerning, it was still baffling to see how sloppy Auburn played at times. That secondary got shredded for 10.6 yards per pass attempt. That was after Stetson Bennett IV lit up the Tigers.
A win is a win, but Auburn has some major issues to get ironed out if it wants any chance of staying alive in the SEC West race.
Florida — This ain’t 2019 LSU, folks
Why? Because the defense is more like 2013 Georgia. Not sure what I’m referencing? It was Todd Grantham’s last defense at Georgia. It was, in a word, atrocious. It was young, undisciplined and downright frustrating. That’s the story of Florida’s 2020 defense so far. We know that this group needs to be able to generate pressure, but it wasn’t just that. That was a group of Aggies pass-catchers that was desperate for answers, and Florida made Caleb Chapman look like an All-American. It was a rough day for Marco Wilson and that Florida secondary.
But we’re talking about trying to win an SEC road game while allowing 12-of-15 on third downs. “Third and Grantham” was third and automatic on Saturday, which doesn’t bode well for what lies ahead. Then again, it’s not like LSU can stop a nosebleed, either.
Georgia — The halftime adjustments don’t just apply to Arkansas
It’s one thing to flip the script at halftime against the SEC team that hasn’t won a game in three years. It’s another to do that against the SEC team with the longest active win streak among Power 5 teams. We saw Georgia play with a different kind of speed in that second half, especially on defense. It’s amazing what happens when you generate pressure up front. Azeez Ojulari and Monty Rice were darn good with that, and as a result, Georgia left no doubt as to whether Tennessee was on its level.
Let’s not overlook how impressive it was that Georgia allowed -1 rushing yards to a Tennessee team with that ground game. It just didn’t seem like there was any running room, clear window or easy first down for the Vols in the second half, which wasn’t the case at all in the first 30 minutes. The Dawgs have now won two of their first three games after going into halftime with a deficit. A 62-6 second-half advantage for Georgia is a credit to Kirby Smart making all the right adjustments so far.
Something tells me that’ll be just a little more difficult next week in Tuscaloosa.
Kentucky — The defense isn’t feeling sorry for itself
I wondered about that after what was a frustrating start to 2020. The ‘Cats struggled late in each of the first two weeks on the defensive side, and finally, they closed out an SEC game. Boogie Watson had himself an SEC Defensive Player of the Week kind of night, as did Josh Paschal, who was a yard from capping a pick-6. The fact that Mike Leach’s offense was held without a point for the first time in his 19 seasons as a head coach was quite the feat for Mark Stoops’ group.
On a day when defenses seemed to be so 2010s, Kentucky played a brand of football that we’ve been waiting for all year. Go figure that Kentucky won a game by 22 points despite gaining only 157 yards. That defense won’t forget that performance anytime soon.
LSU — Yes, the defense can get worse
Think about this. Bo Pelini’s defense has allowed an average of more than 600 yards in non-Vandy games, both of which were against new SEC coaches with new quarterbacks coming off a pandemic-impacted offseason. Uh, not great! Take your pick, because it’s not just youth for this defense. It’s JaCoby Stevens getting totally fooled on a flea-flicker. It’s Derek Stingley Jr. making a couple of horrific attempts at open-field tackles. Without Mizzou fumbling left and right, LSU wouldn’t have even had a chance for a potential game-winning score.
Ed Orgeron didn’t fire Matt Canada midseason. They figured out a way to coexist. With Pelini, it’s hard to imagine this continuing without some major changes ahead. This look says it all:
— Hilary Scheinuk (@hscheinukphoto) October 10, 2020
Yeah, that’s the look of someone who was paid $2.3 million and is now leading one of the SEC’s worst defenses. Woof.
MSU — Um, so maybe the SEC does have Mike Leach figured out
Again, that was the first time in 19 years as a head coach that Leach’s offense didn’t score a point. His offense had 6 (!) interceptions. It’s baffling to think that K.J. Costello went from rewriting the SEC record books to two weeks later having 7 interceptions, losses to Arkansas and Kentucky and just 14 total points. Nobody is playing man coverage like LSU did the rest of the season, and if they do, their credentials deserve to be questioned.
Leach spent all week saying that if dropping eight players into coverage was the remedy to shutting down the Air Raid, they would’ve been out of business decades ago. I’m not saying he was dead wrong, but you can’t look at how much success defenses have had against MSU the past two weeks and chalk it up to dumb luck. Clearly, adjustments need to be made. MSU’s receivers aren’t getting separation, and Costello is forcing throws. This is a pivotal time for Leach early in his SEC tenure.
Mizzou — The Eli Drinkwitz experiment is working
How do I know that? Well, a quarterback in his first start of the year was without two of his top receivers (Damon Hazelton and Keke Chism), and Mizzou nearly put up 600 yards of offense against the defending national champs. Yes, the LSU defense is a nightmare. But it’s partially a nightmare because you have offensive minds like Drinkwitz who know how to scheme. Connor Bazelak was throwing into wide-open windows all day, and it wasn’t just one guy. Six Mizzou players had at least 45 receiving yards. That’s not just a physical mismatch. That’s scheme. So was Larry Rountree III breaking off 119 rushing yards against an SEC team, which he did once all last season.
The Tigers are facing an uphill battle, especially if the contact tracing absences continue. But man, that was as good a sign as Mizzou could’ve hoped for early in the Drinkwitz era.
Ole Miss — Ain’t no stoppin’ the Lane Train
Even mighty Alabama, who I thought would have the SEC’s best defense this year, didn’t really have any way of slowing down the Lane Train. Lane Kiffin’s offense was electric on a national showcase. Matt Corral wasn’t scared of anyone. If anyone was wondering if there would be some dropoff against elite competition, I think Corral answered that question with ease. That was exactly the type of performance Kiffin could’ve hoped for from Corral and Co.
It’s one thing to light up the scoreboard against a struggling Florida defense or Kentucky, but to do so against Nick Saban? That’s different. Ole Miss is averaging 42 points per game to start off the Kiffin era. If there were anything resembling a defense in Oxford, we’d be having a much different conversation right now.
South Carolina — Kevin Harris can take over a game
If there was ever a time for that to happen, Saturday was it. Against a Vandy team with just 56 scholarship players active, Harris was set up to thrive. Sure enough, that’s exactly what the emerging back did. It helps when you get blocks like this:
KEVIN. HARRIS. UNTOUCHED. 😤 pic.twitter.com/zMwPbBdhn2
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 10, 2020
Harris is quietly establishing himself as one of the league’s best backs. That’s consecutive games with 100 rushing yards AND 4 catches. It has been a hot minute since South Carolina had a back they could turn to like that. The sophomore is going to give South Carolina’s offense a much better shot of staying on the field against formidable SEC foes … which seems especially true after some of the defensive performances we saw this week.
Tennessee — The Vols aren’t East contenders yet
Those first 30 minutes wouldn’t have made me say that. Then the second half happened. Tennessee doesn’t have that depth yet, and it was obvious. They couldn’t get anything going with Jarrett Guarantano once Georgia’s pressure started ramping up. He’s still not the guy you want making those key decisions with limited time to throw. And Tennessee isn’t good enough to beat a team like that while being one-dimensional. What was actually a solid defensive performance for a bit quickly turned into a painful reminder.
The Vols didn’t face anyone near Georgia’s level during that eight-game winning streak. That, unfortunately for Tennessee, is the thing standing in the way of a trip to Atlanta. At least, it is until further notice.
Texas A&M — A&M can do the little things against an elite foe
I ripped A&M last week. Well, specifically Jimbo Fisher. I said we needed to stop making excuses for him after an embarrassing collapse against Alabama. Against Florida, A&M looked like a team that stopped feeling sorry for itself. It did little things like convert third downs, make field goals and not make back-breaking turnovers. It takes a disciplined team to go 12-for-15 on third downs against a top-5 team, even one with a defense as bad as Florida’s.
But the little things are having someone like Caleb Chapman step up. It’s forcing a fumble in a key moment of a game. It’s not getting one-dimensional while down 2 scores. That’s what has been lacking from the Aggies against top-5 foes under Fisher. His team finally put it all together, and that’s why it finally got over the hump.
Vanderbilt — This run defense is in massive trouble
That’s not to take away anything from Kevin Harris, but, um, yikes. Going that far untouched was troubling. South Carolina hasn’t imposed its will with the ground game against an SEC foe like that in quite some time. The Gamecocks had 289 rushing yards, 171 from Harris. Vandy was playing that game with just 56 scholarships as a result of contact tracing. Derek Mason’s team clearly doesn’t have the depth to overcome that, even in what appeared to be a winnable game against South Carolina. And after watching what Mizzou did on Saturday, the Commodores’ odds of stopping the run and winning an SEC game this year are looking worse by the week.