You can still learn things from Cake Week.

Again, I call it Cake Week as opposed to Cupcake Week because I think the SEC needs a rebranding. Cupcakes aren’t easy to eat, or at least I thought. I had a few listeners of The Saturday Down South Podcast share with me, a bearded man, that the best way to eat a cupcake is to cut the cake part in half, and then place one layer on top to create an icing sandwich. It changed my life.

I learned something this week.

Here’s what I learned about actual football things during Cake Week:

Alabama — Bryce Young isn’t having any of your ‘boring’ Heisman discussion

All Young did on Saturday was break a 52-year-old Alabama record for passing yards in a game and finish with the 2nd-most passing yards ever by an SEC QB. No big deal. Just another day at the office for the Heisman favorite. On a day in which CJ Stroud made his best case in Ohio State’s rout of Michigan State, Young was nearly perfect. With the exception of a bad sack he took in the red zone, he was in total control. He delivered 2 beautiful deep passes to Jameson Williams, 1 of which was dropped in a bucket against double coverage.

I mean, this is silly.

If not for a fumble by Cameron Latu on the goal line, Young would’ve finished with 6 touchdown passes against a respected Arkansas defense. His ability to sense pressure and buy time is 2nd to none. That, we already knew. But watching him continue to grow with his accuracy and understanding of the offense is what’s taking his game to the next level. This is by no means a vintage Alabama defense/offensive line/secondary, but Young is somehow exceeding the hype.

Get him and Will Anderson Jr. to New York.

Arkansas — The days of getting their teeth kicked in are over

Those are Sam Pittman’s words, and hey, they’re good enough for me, too. Even in the midst of a 7-3 start, we were still wondering what Arkansas was gonna look like against a top-5 team after how quickly the Georgia game got out of hand. Against Alabama? KJ Jefferson, Treylon Burks and that Arkansas team just kept fighting. It’s one thing to play down to the wire against Mississippi State or LSU. It’s another to do that against Alabama.

And as crazy as it sounds on a day in which Young was brilliant, I actually didn’t think the defense gave up by any stretch. Montaric Brown had that strip and recovery when it looked like Alabama was about to make it a 2-touchdown game. That’s what he has been doing all year. Tre Williams kept battling with a 3-man rush, Grant Morgan was in the backfield, and Hayden Henry was again getting from sideline to sideline.

Burks, along with so much of the Arkansas defense, will likely be gone at season’s end, but that felt like a foundation game for Pittman’s team. Jefferson just earned himself a whole lot of offseason hype for how well he showed out against the Tide. What a feat by Pittman to narrow the gap so quickly between Arkansas and the class of the SEC West.

Auburn — TJ Finley’s first start at Auburn was _______

Not an end to those 2nd-half woes. At all. Some of that was on him with his inability to handle pressure, which we saw at LSU, and some of that was on the game plan. Mike Bobo and Bryan Harsin failed down the stretch. It’s as simple as that. With 5 minutes left in a 4-point game, Bobo called 4 plays, and none of them were to Tank Bigsby, who was magnificent when given the opportunity. But then on 4th and 8 from their own 38 with 3:30 to play, Harsin elected for a punt.

Because of that controversial overturn on the muffed punt, Auburn never got the ball back. Finley never got a chance for a late go-ahead drive, though given the way Bobo had called that game, how much faith could you have had in him? In Auburn’s last 4 2nd halves, Auburn’s offense:

  • A) Scored 12 total points
  • B) Scored on 3 of 22 drives
  • C) 3 fumbles, INT, missed FG
  • D) Turned ball over on downs twice
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

Harsin went from being an SEC Coach of the Year candidate to losing 3 in a row with 2 blown double-digit leads. Life comes at you quickly in this league.

Florida — Dan Mullen’s nightmare is far from over

Go figure that Florida’s defense actually showed up after taking last week off. This week, in a game that was sitting there for the taking, Mullen found a new way to lose. A walk-off 2-point conversion in overtime was … new. And telling. It was an incredible call from Eli Drinkwitz, but let’s think about why Florida was in that position in the first place. Mullen clearly didn’t trust Emory Jones to make plays. This tells you all you need to know.

And here’s the thing. If your defense of that is “well, the offense was struggling in the red zone and the defense was playing well,” think about this. Mullen has a quarterback in Year 4 in his system, and he still has no faith in him in those spots. And did it cost him? Perhaps. If he goes aggressive there and Jones throws a back-breaking interception in the final minute, that comes back to Mullen, too.

He’s now 2-9 in his last 11 against Power 5 competition, he’s 0-7 in 1-score games in the last 2 years, and in 2021 he went 2-6 against SEC competition, which was the Gators’ worst conference record since expansion in 1992. Florida went from hanging around with Alabama and feeling incredibly encouraged to being a 5-6 team in need of a win against Florida State just to earn a bowl berth. How the mighty have fallen.

Georgia — George Pickens is at least dressing again

I was wondering if we were going to see that on Saturday. As The Athletic’s Sam Emerson reported, Pickens dressed for the 1st time all year. Flexibility with roster size — compared to 70 players on the traveling roster — allowed for that to happen. Pickens didn’t play, but that’s at least the first step in getting him back for the postseason after he tore his ACL in spring camp.

Some skeptics might say that Pickens’ lack of rapport with Stetson Bennett should cap any optimism about him taking the passing game to the next level. It’s a fair point considering that Pickens didn’t really take off until JT Daniels became the starter. But the difference is that Bennett has been exceptional on deep passes this year. Entering the weekend, Pro Football Focus had Bennett as the nation’s most accurate passer on throws of 20-plus yards. Even if Pickens isn’t a bonafide WR1 from the jump when he returns, he’s going to add something this offense lacked as someone who can win 50-50 battles. That’s a scary thought.

Kentucky — Chris Rodriguez’s great year continues to be a ‘yeah, but’

As in, “Yeah, but he can’t hold onto the football.” Once again, Rodriguez coughed it up in costly fashion. Instead of waltzing in for his 2nd touchdown of the day, he got the ball poked out from behind him. For the 6th time this year, Rodriguez fumbled. For the 3rd time this year, he fumbled inside the 5. That’s wild.

It’s too bad, because from an overall production standpoint, Rodriguez is having the exact year Kentucky fans were anticipating. He came into Saturday over 1,000 yards, with an outside shot at the program’s single-season rushing record (1,600 yards). The yards after contact are there, and he falls forward as well as anyone in the country. The problem? For whatever reason, it just seems like when he’s fighting for extra yards, he lets his guard down. It’ll be the knock on Rodriguez when he leaves for the next level.

Rodriguez’s fumbling issues have been a microcosm for this 2021 Kentucky offense. In many ways, Liam Coen’s transformation has yielded excellent results. It was a 56-point performance, so we’re nitpicking a bit here. But a team that was -13 in turnover margin entering Saturday — and was somehow 7-3 — had 2 more turnovers against a 1-win New Mexico State squad. Yet still, it clinched win No. 8. Just bizarre.

LSU — Garrett Nussmeier is redshirting, which means I have no idea what to make of this QB situation

Nussmeier is apparently taking advantage of the 4-game redshirt rule. It makes sense in a way. Why burn a year of eligibility when you don’t know if you’re going to be starting for your next coach? But at the same time, why, then, did he get such significant work last week against Arkansas? It’s bizarre. We know that Myles Brennan entered the transfer portal, Finley is obviously long gone and Max Johnson is the only other scholarship quarterback currently on the roster.

Johnson hasn’t been the problem with this LSU team, so it was strange to see him take the heat he did amidst LSU’s struggles. But now, he’s likely going to be locked in a competition with Nussmeier, along with any potential transfer that a new coach brings in. I suppose just like last year, Johnson will get an opportunity to end the season and impress a new offensive coordinator.

Mizzou — Eli Drinkwitz gets his ‘how do you like me now’ game after all!

I was waiting for it. You know. Drinkwitz’s “how do you like me now” moment. He’s got that now.

What a call it was by Drinkwitz to go for the 2-point conversion there AND to execute the throwback screen. If Drinkwitz comes up short, he gets blasted for not giving the ball to Tyler Badie. Instead, Badie was the decoy, and Connor Bazelak’s roller-coaster day ended on a high with a walk-off win to clinch bowl eligibility.

Last year, Drinkwitz’s “how do you like me now” game came early against LSU. This year, it was against a Florida team that dominated last year at The Swamp. Oh, and Mullen may or may not have started a brawl and then pulled out his Darth Vader costume for Halloween in the postgame presser. So naturally, Drinkwitz had the light saber and hoody ready to roll.

THIS is the best version of Drinkwitz. Amazing.

MSU — Will Rogers’ rise into the record books reached a new level

I’m old enough to remember a time when MSU couldn’t block a 3-man pass rush, and we couldn’t really expect Mike Leach’s offense to look the part against a lesser opponent. Simpler times, these are. Now, Rogers is all about pitch and catch. Oh, and he’s all about breaking Dak Prescott’s records. Perhaps it was inevitable when Leach signed on to be MSU’s head coach, but it took until Year 2 for his signal-caller to become the program’s single-season record holder for passing touchdowns and passing yards.

That’s not to take away from Prescott’s numbers (29 touchdown passes and 3,793 yards in 2015), but let’s be real. Rogers was always going to break them. The only question now is how much Rogers will separate himself. He’s at 4,113 yards and 34 touchdown passes with 2 games left. It’s not crazy to think he could hit 5,000 yards and 40 touchdown passes. Just for a little perspective? Gardner Minshew had 4,779 yards and 38 touchdown passes during his breakout season with Leach at Washington State in 2018. Rogers is worthy of national praise for the year he’s having.

Ole Miss — Matt Corral’s last home game was … a slog

Lane Kiffin himself said afterward that Ole Miss’ offense didn’t do what it was supposed to do. He’s right. In Corral’s final home game before he heads off to the NFL, there was a simple plan — get a big lead early and rest the starters with a short week coming up. Instead, Ole Miss was playing its starters essentially the entire game because it couldn’t keep its foot on the gas against Vandy. The running game struggled to get going, and despite what the final number said for Vandy, Ole Miss just couldn’t get off the field on 3rd down. Corral even made an uncharacteristically bad read on a red-zone pick.

On the bright side, Ole Miss locked up its 1st unbeaten home finish since 1992. Corral didn’t appear to aggravate his ankle injury, so that was a win. And ahead of the Egg Bowl, yeah, the offense was a bit conservative. It would’ve been nice for Ole Miss to not go 30 minutes without a touchdown, but that wasn’t the case. The good news is that a New Year’s 6 Bowl is still very much up for grabs on Thursday in Starkville. That’s about as much as Ole Miss could’ve hoped for when 2021 began.

The program can get its first 10-win regular season in program history. Not too shabby.

South Carolina — Bowling?! Bowling!

So think about this. With a 1st-time head coach, South Carolina was a 2-win team that entered the year ranked No. 125 out of 127 FBS teams in percentage of returning production. The Gamecocks are down to their 3rd-string quarterback. The regular season over/under win total was 3.5. Five weeks ago, South Carolina had to turn to a grad assistant to lead a last-minute touchdown drive just to earn its 1st SEC win … and it was against Vandy.

Since then? South Carolina has beaten Florida and Auburn. That’s darn impressive. Even on a night in which Tank Bigsby was the best version of himself, the Gamecocks prevented him from truly taking over. Jason Brown overcame a bad early interception, and he avoided the colossal mistakes while sprinkling in some impressive throws on the move, including the go-ahead score. After the Florida win, it was clear that Shane Beamer’s team was totally bought in. We’ll see if that includes a win against Clemson. Either way, what a turnaround it has been.

Beamer was overcome with emotion after Saturday’s win, and understandably so. You can bet a whole lot of people in Blacksburg wish they could’ve hired Beamer last year.

Tennessee — Georgia didn’t break the Vols

Yeah, it was South Alabama. At the same time, the last thing you wanted to see was Tennessee have to grind out a 2-score win. Instead, the Vols did whatever they wanted all night. Hendon Hooker got big throwing windows, Jabari Small got chunk plays without Tiyon Evans, and Tennessee’s defense didn’t look like a gassed group after a Saturday with Georgia. Instead of letting South Alabama climb back in the 2nd quarter, the Vols shook those post-1st-quarter woes in a big way.

And hey, Saturday clinched bowl eligibility. It’s wild to think that Tennessee still has a favorable shot to reach 8 wins. That was Jeremy Pruitt’s best season in 3 years in Knoxville. Considering all the roster attrition in Knoxville, that’d be a remarkable Year 1 feat for Josh Heupel.

Texas A&M — DeMarvin Leal has played his last home game because he’s off to the NFL

Yeah, it was inevitable. Was that still a development? Sure.

Leal revealed this week that he would be playing in his last home game, which essentially meant that the All-SEC defensive lineman is off to the NFL. Naturally, the future 1st-round pick got a sack in his Kyle Field sendoff. Good. He deserved that. Leal has been a durable, indispensable piece of Mike Elko’s defense. He has 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss this year, and he has 12 career sacks and 24 tackles for loss. But numbers don’t really tell the full story with Leal. It’s hard to define a guy who plays inside and outside while seemingly never taking a play off.

The Aggies are likely going to lose a bunch of defensive production to the NFL, but no player will be tougher to replace than Leal. The guy has lived up to the 5-star hype. He’s everything A&M fans could’ve hoped for back when he committed to the program in April 2018. Jimbo Fisher said that Leal helped establish the program in his culture. Don’t be surprised when he does the same exact thing in the NFL.

Vanderbilt — There’s an actual offensive identity with Mike Wright

I continue to be impressed with the 2nd-year signal-caller. He provides the element of mobility that Vandy needed with that porous offensive line, but it’s becoming more than that. Chris Pierce is making back-shoulder grabs and looking like he’s totally on the same page with Wright. The Vandy wideout finished the night with 10 catches for 113 yards. On a night in which Ole Miss was favored by 5 touchdowns, Vandy possessed the ball for nearly 39 minutes. Wright helped Vandy convert 12 3rd and 4th downs. That’s why Ole Miss didn’t get the Senior Night it was hoping for ahead of a short week.

I thought Wright should’ve started against Kentucky last week, and it was nice to see his performance rewarded again. It’ll be interesting to see if Vandy can follow a similar approach against a Tennessee team that doesn’t care about time of possession. Vandy’s last chance at an SEC win might be a long shot, but at the very least, Clark Lea’s team is playing its best ball at the right time.