Are we having fun yet?

A couple of top-15 matchups, a top-10 team against an undefeated team in Lexington and a Tiger Bowl? Those are the types of Saturdays we dream of when we’re sitting there in June and doing those countdowns to the start of the season.

We saw the gap between the elite and the very good. We saw what happens when a bad run defense meets an emerging backfield. We saw what happens when a coach promises a popcorn-worthy showing and … well, let’s just say he didn’t deliver.

Anyway. Here’s 1 thing I learned from every SEC team in Week 5:

Alabama — That’s what defensive adjustments look like

I’m old enough to remember when Alabama’s run defense was an obvious weakness. My how things can change in 2 weeks. Against Ole Miss, we saw Henry To’o To’o, Phidarian Mathis, Christian Harris and that entire Alabama front 7 make a loud statement. Holding Ole Miss to just 2.3 yards per carry was darned impressive. The Rebels came into Saturday as the No. 2 non-service academy rushing offense in college football. By day’s end, that was an afterthought.

If Alabama is going to tackle in space like that and dominate on 4th down, yes, that does change its upside. Shutting down an elite ground attack, given what awaits in the SEC West, was an important sign. Nobody should’ve watched that game and thought, “Hey, there are 3-4 SEC rushing attacks who can gash Alabama.” At least, not the Alabama defense we saw on Saturday.

Arkansas — So … that’s the gap

If you thought that the Hogs were ready to compete for an SEC title, well, Saturday was a reminder that the elite are elite for a reason. It’s partially, as Shane Beamer said, Georgia having 100 5-star guys. It’s also coaching and development. Right now, advantage Georgia. That was clear by day’s end. We saw on those first 2 series that it was going to be a long day for Arkansas’ offense, which had earned a lot of praise for punishing a pair of top-15 teams. Georgia ain’t your standard top-15 team.

This doesn’t wipe away the start, which was Arkansas’ best since 2014. It doesn’t mean the Hogs were a fraud, either. It means they ran into a better team, and in their first true road game, it was an uphill climb from the jump. It isn’t back to the drawing board, either. But at the same time, Arkansas saw what happened when it was in a hole early. That was the first time against a quality opponent when game flow really didn’t work in the Razorbacks’ favor. Offensive adjustments are needed if Arkansas is going to hang around in the SEC West race.

Auburn — Bo Nix ain’t done

Listen. I’ve been as critical of Nix as anyone. I thought TJ Finley would start, and we’d be moving on from the Nix era at Auburn. And so naturally, he went out and played the best game of his career. He was, in every way, a star. That was the most Johnny Manziel we’ve ever seen from the Auburn quarterback.

Unreal, man.

If you would’ve told me that Auburn won at LSU for the first time in the 21st century, I would’ve assumed it was either Finley getting a homecoming or Tank Bigsby going off. Nope. That was all the Auburn defense and Nix making plays. He was impossible to sack. It seemed like LSU had him dead to rights a dozen times, and even when he didn’t make a miraculous completion, he still avoided that devastating play. Jarquez Hunter had the run down the sideline to set up his go-ahead score, but other than that, my goodness. Nix was special. To go from getting pulled to delivering that? They’ll be talking about that one on The Plains for a while.

Florida — Kiss that repeat East title attempt goodbye

Remember all that praise I gave Dan Mullen for calling a fantastic game plan against Alabama and Tennessee? Well, Saturday against Kentucky was a different story. Emory Jones wasn’t necessarily a disaster, but the mistake he made on the J.J. Weaver interception was exactly what we’ve seen from him when he has been at his worst. That is, not making the right read on a throw to the middle of the field. Anthony Richardson got only 6 touches, too. If he was 100 percent, that can’t happen.

We finally saw a team contain Florida’s ground game, and now, the Gators are sitting here in early October out of the East race. This is the earliest that has been the case during the Mullen era. Even worse was the fact that it happened at the hands of Kentucky … in Lexington … where Florida hadn’t lost since 1986. That’s gonna be a tough pill for Mullen to swallow. We’ve never seen Mullen face this type of criticism this early into a season. Interesting times await the Florida coach.

Georgia — That’s what a national championship-caliber team looks like

Georgia fans, you might not like this comparison. But consider the context, especially with Stetson Bennett IV at quarterback and not JT Daniels. That felt like 2009-12 Alabama. UGA took a fun story and humiliated a darned good football team. It made scoring points look about as difficult as hurdling a 50-foot wall. Every time Arkansas tried to get cute with a bubble screen or a swing pass, there was a swarm of UGA defenders who were on the spot.

Arkansas bludgeoned a pair of top-15 teams with the ground game. Against Georgia? Yeah, 2.6 yards per carry. What about the rise of KJ Jefferson? Well, he had 1 pass play longer than 20 yards all day. There was nothing doing, and I’m not sure how much Jefferson’s bruised knee made a difference. Nakobe Dean and Nolan Smith reminded us all why this Georgia defense is as good as it gets. They made life easier on a Georgia offense that didn’t have Daniels (lat injury). Bennett had a 27-0 lead even though he needed only 4 complete passes to get there.

Anybody doubting the Dawgs’ national championship chops based on these first 5 games has another thing coming.

Kentucky — It IS actually possible for the Cats to hold on against Florida in Lexington

I kept waiting for it. A targeting penalty to extend the game? A walk-off interception? A live mascot kicking a field goal to win it? Nothing seemed out of the question. Up until Jacquez Jones deflected that pass on 4th down, I assumed Kentucky was gonna Kentucky. I’ll be honest. Even when Will Levis took that final knee, I thought back to the Mizzou game when he bobbled the snap in victory formation. But nope, not this time.

Kentucky’s defense deserved to win that game. Eight stops within the 10-yard line? Absurd. Kentucky forced Emory Jones into a key turnover late, and Mark Stoops totally outcoached Dan Mullen. Kentucky’s defensive game plan was excellent, and against the top non-service academy rushing attack in the country, the Cats held strong. It’s a win to allow only 171 on the ground to Florida. Josh Paschal lived in the backfield, and he got the blocked kick that Kentucky fans won’t forget anytime soon.

There’s a new No. 2 team in the East.

LSU — When you can’t run the ball, you can’t even beat Auburn at home

How do you lose to a rival at home for the first time this century? Struggle immensely to run the football. Again. LSU played with a lead nearly that entire game, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Its ground game woes were evident. Had it been able to control the clock better and prevent Auburn from dropping as many as 9 (!) into coverage, LSU would’ve put that one on ice. Instead, 52 rushing yards was all LSU could muster. And sadly, all of that came in the 2nd half. No run went for longer than 11 yards, which meant that Max Johnson’s throwing windows were few and far between.

Loss No. 2 was a crusher because of what lies ahead for LSU:

  • at Kentucky
  • vs. No. 10 Florida
  • at No. 12 Ole Miss
  • vs. No. 1 Alabama
  • vs. No. 8 Arkansas

There’s no “get-right game” for LSU’s rushing attack. Kentucky just held the best non-service academy rushing offense to more than 130 yards below its season average. Those teams are a combined 20-4. This is starting to feel like the exact type of season LSU was hoping to avoid.

Mizzou — So … Steve Wilks needs to figure this out in a hurry

Or else he’ll be one-and-done at Mizzou. It’s as simple as that. You can’t get trucked on the road for 275 on the ground and win. You definitely can’t get trucked for nearly 300 yards in the 1st half at home and win, either. Mizzou’s run defense entered Saturday allowing 267 yards per game vs. FBS competition. Then Saturday happened. A Tennessee team still searching for its identity talked trash and then rolled into Columbia like it owned the place. Surrendering 458 rushing yards is an embarrassing response from Wilks’ defense.

Wilks came to Mizzou with an NFL pedigree, and he wasn’t shy about wanting to force turnovers and be aggressive on defense. That’s all well and good. But when you get punched in the mouth in the ground game like that yet again? Well, let’s just say public support isn’t working in Wilks’ favor.

MSU — Will Rogers is figuring this out

Hey. Nine days ago, A&M had the No. 1 pass defense in America. The fact that Rogers dinked and dunked his way to 408 is still darn impressive. Better yet, the fact that he didn’t throw a pick with 59 pass attempts was encouraging. An improved offensive line certainly helped, as did the increasingly valuable Makai Polk, who went off for 126 yards and 2 scores. The Cal transfer has become the unquestioned go-to target for Rogers.

What’s becoming clear is that the Air Raid identity is all over MSU. Rogers is learning how to avoid those catastrophic mistake like taking a brutal sack or getting greedy. He’s staying within himself, and MSU is benefitting from it. MSU got a much-needed victory to end the 2-game skid ahead of Alabama, which might just be a touch better of a defensive challenge than A&M was.

Ole Miss — Well, the offense is mortal

Before Saturday afternoon at Tuscaloosa, we hadn’t really seen anyone stop Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby. At least not in 2021. Matt Corral deserved Heisman Trophy love, and he still does. But was Saturday a bit of a wakeup call? For sure. Kiffin promised a popcorn-worthy showing, and instead, his offense was starved for a key play to stop the bleeding in the 1st half. Those deep shots weren’t there, and Corral couldn’t get enough time to throw against Alabama’s pressure, which sped him up without sending extra help.

So was the nation’s No. 4 rushing offense a fraud? Not at all. It just saw what happens when it runs into an elite front. The Ole Miss offensive line was overmatched, and after those first 2 conversions on 4th down, it really couldn’t create the needed space. Nothing really fooled Alabama, either. Only 1 play went for 30-plus yards. That’s not going to beat No. 1 on the road.

Still, though. Don’t sell your stock in the Ole Miss offense.

South Carolina — We’re apparently still doing the ‘drop the ball before the goal line’ thing

Ugh. Yes, this happened.

So a little context. This was on a play in which South Carolina, up 20-14, forced a fumble on a sack and then recovered the fumble, only to later fumble, recover and then, well, that. The ball went out of the end zone for a touchback, too. No touchdown. Jahmar Brown will be in the dog house for a while after that. The good news for South Carolina? It didn’t cost the Gamecocks the win. South Carolina’s defense was excellent, and Jaylan Foster was huge for Shane Beamer’s squad.

Here’s the frustrating thing, though. As great as it was for South Carolina’s defense to hold steady like that, it’s alarming that the Gamecocks couldn’t score a touchdown in the 2nd half. The ground game still can’t get going, and the fact that it was held to just 102 rushing yards against Troy only added to the belief that it’ll be tough sledding all year offensively. But hey, if you force 4 turnovers every week, you’ll give yourself a chance.

Tennessee — This ground game needs to be the identity moving forward

I’m just gonna say it. I think Tennessee’s offense looks a whole lot better when Joe Milton isn’t out there throwing balls out of the stadium. Just a thought. The Vols’ ground game, with Hendon Hooker as the starter, can be awfully good. Tiyon Evans went off right after he predicted that they would “have some fun” playing against Mizzou’s run defense. Um, yep. I’d say running for 458 yards is “fun,” especially when 156 of those came from Evans.

It wasn’t just Evans. It was that everyone who touched the football for Tennessee had running lanes. Unfortunately, the Vols lost Jabari Small to an injury in the 1st quarter. That was about the only blemish on a day when it felt like the Vols got anything and everything they wanted. That game script won’t work against a team like Georgia, but while the Vols work to add the passing game identity needed to execute Josh Heupel’s offense, that ground game can do some heavy lifting in Year 1.

Texas A&M — The passing game didn’t find the solution after Arkansas

Woof. That was a bad loss, and it really wasn’t difficult to find the source of blame. The passing game failed. Zach Calzada deserves blame, Jimbo Fisher deserves blame, Darrell Dickey deserves blame. You knew it was gonna be a long day for the passing game when Calzada’s first pass was picked off. He just can’t get those chunk plays without wide-open throwing windows, he doesn’t sense pressure particularly well and A&M really doesn’t scheme reserves open well enough.

Calzada has 4 touchdowns in 3 games against Power 5 competition. That’s not going to cut it in the SEC West. A&M went from a top-7 team to being at the bottom of the division in a matter of a couple of weeks, and who comes to town next? Alabama. Even worse for Fisher is that he really doesn’t have any other options with Haynes King still working his way back from injury. Could you play true freshman Eli Stowers against Alabama? Well, maybe if he hadn’t been splitting time at tight end and quarterback.

Things aren’t turning around in College Station anytime soon.

Vanderbilt — Miracles do exist

It was everything we could’ve ever hoped for. Vandy, protecting a lead against UConn on a last-ditch drive, had one of the most embarrassing defensive plays one can have. On 4th and forever, Vandy’s 2 defenders both had a chance to catch a total jump ball. They didn’t, but the UConn receiver did. A few plays later, a quarterback keeper gave UConn the lead. It would’ve almost been too Vandy to lose like that.

But nope. Never count out the Dores. At least, not when UConn is in town. For the first time in the 2020s, Vandy found a way to put together a last-minute drive to win it. Joseph Bulovas sent the Nashville “crowd” into a frenzy after UConn’s interim coach attempted to ice him THREE times. That’s right. Someone wanted to watch UConn-Vandy forever. Vandy’s 8-game home losing streak came to an end, and Clark Lea got one he desperately needed. Perhaps $1 tickets won’t be available for Vandy’s next home game.