1 thing I learned about every SEC team in Week 4 of 2021
Four weeks in, I don’t want to speak in absolutes yet.
Like, I don’t want to say “Georgia vs. Vandy was the most lopsided matchup of the year.” We’re still too early in the season to say that. Now if I wanted to say “Georgia vs. Vandy was the most lopsided Power 5 matchup of the year so far,” then that’d be fine.
Sorry, Vandy. That wasn’t nice of me. I promise I’ll say something nice about the Commodores after a 62-0 loss.
As for everyone else, well, I can’t promise anything. There were some truly troubling Week 4 showings from SEC teams.
Here’s 1 thing I learned about each SEC team in Week 4:
Alabama — There was no Florida hangover
I meant from the physicality that Alabama dealt with last Saturday in Gainesville. I know. It wasn’t a loss. Still, as a massive favorite, could you picture what Nick Saban would’ve done if his team came out flat? Instead, Jameson Williams returned the opening kick for a touchdown (he had another one later along with a receiving score), Jahleel Billingsley was featured early and the rout was on. Perhaps more importantly? Alabama didn’t let Frank Gore Jr. and that Southern Miss ground game get going. At all.
Now that other team from Mississippi? Yeah, they’ll be a little tougher. But figuring some run game defense ahead of Lane Kiffin’s squad was a positive.
Arkansas — We’ve got ourselves a West contender
It’s one thing to beat Texas at home. It’s another to go to a neutral site and beat a No. 7 Texas A&M for the first time in a decade. Arkansas jumped out to a 17-0 lead, which was more than enough with how well Barry Odom’s defense frustrated Zach Calzada. The drop-8 coverage worked, in part because Tre Williams kept getting pressure on a 3-man rush. Outside of Isaiah Spiller’s 67-yard touchdown run, there was nothing doing for the Aggies. That Arkansas ground game travels, too. Before KJ Jefferson went down, he was again effective with his legs, but it was the long touchdown to Treylon Burks that really busted it open.
Think about this. The Hogs physically dominated a pair of top-15 teams and are sitting at 4-0. Hopefully Burks and Jefferson can return, but how can you not love what Sam Pittman’s team has been doing? Arkansas isn’t going anywhere in the West.
Auburn — TJ Finley? TJ Finley!
So remember how we talked about the Bo Nix leash in the offseason and what it would look like with Bryan Harsin? Well, we finally saw just how short it was. Turns out that getting smoked at home against Georgia State isn’t something Harsin tolerates. That gave us TJ Finley, which was a roller coaster ride that ended with the play of the year for Auburn:
Fourth down. Game on the line.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 25, 2021
They’ll be talking about that one for a long time. In the meantime, they’ll be talking about the quarterback battle on The Plains. Will Finley start against LSU next week? What a whirlwind that would be for the second-year signal-caller. But I wouldn’t be certain that Saturday’s heroics guaranteed him a starting spot against his former team. And to be fair, it wasn’t just Nix who struggled. Auburn got dominated in the trenches for far too much of Saturday’s showing. But Finley provided a spark and he made a highlight-reel play to salvage Auburn’s otherwise embarrassing day.
Florida — Emory Jones is figuring some things out
And so is Dan Mullen. Jones continued Florida’s winning streak against Tennessee, and he also became the second Florida quarterback to ever throw and run for 140 yards in a game. A certain “Tim Tebow” was the first. Jones wasn’t necessarily Tebow-like, but he was smart and dangerous in the open field. More importantly, he did that with Anthony Richardson again sidelined with the hamstring injury. Just as I said last week against Alabama, I don’t think it was a coincidence that Jones played well with Richardson unavailable.
Mullen isn’t going to dial up deep looks for Jones unless it’s looking off a safety and hitting a receiver deep down the sideline. That’s OK. We saw this offense find a nice rhythm, and it nearly hit 300 rushing yards on the ground against the nation’s No. 9 run defense. Jones has a major test with his first career SEC road start against 4-0 Kentucky. I’d feel better about him passing that than I did a couple weeks ago.
Georgia — You can do everything (even end-arounds) with Brock Bowers
He’ll paint your porch, put up your fence, pick your kids up from soccer practice and come back home in time to make a 5-course meal. Am I exaggerating? Not really. The true freshman tight end has been a revelation. He’s always open, and it turns out that Todd Monken can even dial up running plays to him. It’s funny because the Georgia staff believes he’s like George Kittle. Watching Bowers take an end-around for a touchdown — he had 3 total scores on the day — reminded me of a look we’d see Kyle Shanahan draw up for Kittle with the 49ers.
BROCK BOWERS ‼️ pic.twitter.com/MLsYkhEJQR
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 25, 2021
Bowers is already passed UGA’s entire 2020 tight end room total for touchdowns, and he’s now just 6 catches for 109 yards away from reaching those marks.
Kentucky — Mark Stoops’ defense can do some heavy lifting
It was all up to the Wildcats defense to pull it out on the road. By “pull it out,” that’s not a reference to Kentucky’s ball-security issues, but sheesh. That needs to be cleaned up. On a positive note, Yusef Corker and that Kentucky defense was everywhere. It seemed like Kevin Harris ran into a bevy of Kentucky defenders every time he touched the ball. Harris hit 210 against that group last year, and he finished Saturday with just 38 rushing yards. Luke Doty saw pressure, and outside of the first drive of the second half, South Carolina couldn’t get into any offensive groove.
That was a major bounce-back showing from the Cats on defense after a horrendous effort against Chattanooga.t
LSU — Zone coverage is more effective defending the Air Raid than man coverage
Oh, wait. We already knew this. Bo Pelini didn’t know this, but the rest of the world did.
Credit new LSU defensive coordinator Daronte Jones for running the exact opposite defense that his predecessor ran en route to allowing an SEC record number of passing yards against Mike Leach’s offense last year. This year, LSU was content to play drop-8 coverage and even without Derek Stingley, it was far more effective than last year. It didn’t matter that LSU didn’t really have much of a pass rush. Cordale Flott forced a fumble and picked off a pass in leaping fashion. Neil Farrell got push up front. More importantly? LSU held strong in the red zone up until those last couple drives. That’s a major “this isn’t 2020 anymore” type of game.
MSU — SEC West play didn’t help Mike Leach turn any narratives around
To be fair, facing the best division in the sport is a tough time to figure things out. Like, how do you score in the red zone? How do you actually run the football against a 3-man pass rush? How do you find a weird way not to shoot yourself in the foot in the 4th quarter? It wasn’t a great showing for the Leach brand. LSU adjusted after last year’s historically awful defensive showing. MSU moved the ball, but Will Rogers got greedy a few times and the same issues resurfaced. Chunk plays were too difficult to come by. The run game is still basically non-existent. And why Leach challenged that onside kick was beyond me. It essentially ended the game with it costing MSU its last timeout.
Leach is now 2-2 and his offense has yet to play anything close to a complete game in Year 2. That’s troubling, especially for what awaits in SEC play.
Mizzou — This run defense is a work in progress, and that’s being nice
Look. We knew that Steve Wilks’ group was gonna try to take chances. Blitzes. Interceptions. Forced fumbles. That’s all well and good. You know what else is good? Stopping the run. Making open field tackles. Getting off the field.
That was a challenging task for Mizzou all day. Pat Garwo II gashed that Tiger front, and he was the leading rusher for an offense that racked up 275 yards on the ground. That’s what wiped away Mizzou’s comeback. As much as it might’ve frustrated Tiger fans that Connor Bazelak couldn’t stretch the field, you can’t win many football games getting beat up front like that. It felt an awful lot like what we saw against Kentucky when the Wildcats ran for 335 yards and really needed turnovers to get off the field. Nick Bolton’s absence is being felt on that Mizzou front 7.
South Carolina — Set your expectations even lower for this offense
I didn’t feel like Georgia was a fair barometer for the Gamecock offense. Shoot, none of the first 3 games were fair because Zeb Noland was the starter. In Luke Doty’s first start under Shane Beamer, it was a frustrating day. Dropped passes didn’t help, nor did another poor showing from the offensive line. Doty was put in some tough spots, but he’s really not precise enough to overcome those issues. He can’t beat you with his arm yet, and I don’t think he would’ve been able to even if guys held onto passes (the Jalen Brooks one on fourth down was a killer).
But beyond Doty, what worries me? The ground game. Kevin Harris ran for 210 yards against a mostly similar Kentucky defense in Lexington last year. This year, at home, Harris had 38 yards on 12 carries. Not a single run went for more than 10 yards, either. Yuck. Back injury or not, that’s a bad sign for the Gamecock offense with how much this passing game is struggling.
Tennessee — The run defense isn’t quite elite
I’ll say this. Even in a loss, Tim Banks’ defense is better than I gave it credit for. The Vols came into Saturday ranked No. 9 against the run. Florida, however, was No. 2 in FBS. It was a “something had to give” game. Unfortunately for Tennessee, the Vols’ previously stellar run defense gave. It gave way to nearly 300 yards on the ground. Tennessee couldn’t force Emory Jones into obvious throwing situations, and as a result, it struggled to get off the field throughout the second half. Florida had the chunk plays, and Tennessee didn’t have an answer.
The Vols have Tyler Badie coming up next. If they can’t figure out how to get some more push up front, the Mizzou standout will run wild like Jones did.
Texas A&M — Zach Calzada’s struggles are real … and so are Jimbo Fisher’s
I’m just gonna say it. I think Calzada and Fisher are a bad match. From a play-calling standpoint, I don’t like some of the spots that Calzada was put in, and I don’t really think his skill set works in Fisher’s offense. A&M struggled to protect him with a 3-man rush, and Calzada couldn’t get any high-percentage looks outside of dump-offs to running backs. Some of that is on Fisher. A lot of it is on Barry Odom, who did a tremendous job of making sure that Calzada’s throwing lanes in the middle of the field were few and far between.
Two things I didn’t understand? How Jalen Wydermyer went nearly 3 quarters without a catch and how Isaiah Spiller didn’t get a carry after running for a 67-yard touchdown. Unless he was hurt, that can’t happen. It was 1-score game and A&M had the ball in the 4th quarter. That’s inexcusable. Fisher’s team has 2 games against Power 5 competition, and it has 2 total touchdowns, both of which were by Spiller. That’s not all on Calzada. A lot of that is on the $90 million man.
Vanderbilt — It’s still gonna get worse before it gets better
It was 35-0 before you could say “Anchor Down.” It’s rough. It’s going to be a long year in SEC play. That much we know.
But I’ll say this. If there was a positive of a 62-0 loss, it was that Vandy had moments when it looked like it didn’t care what the scoreboard said. That 4th down stand when UGA was up 35-0 and in the red zone was a win, and seeing Cam Pierce nearly pull off a mini Odell Beckham Jr. grab was a positive. So was seeing how hard Michael Wright played even though he came in and had to battle that UGA front 7. I think there are better days ahead for Clark Lea’s team. They really couldn’t be a whole lot worse than that one.