Column: 10 things I liked and didn't like from Week 12 in the SEC
It was Cupcake Week in the SEC, although some of those cupcakes were baked with razor blades inside.
The Citadel pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in college football this year, despite the fact that South Carolina is 3-8 and in freefall mode. The two Cocktail Party combatants, Florida and Georgia, were lifeless and needed overtime to beat lowly Florida Atlantic and pesky Georgia Southern, respectively.
Alabama (Charleston Southern), Auburn (Idaho) and Kentucky (Charlotte) all opened up a can on their overmatched opponents. There was more than enough drama to go around for one Saturday already.
With Rivalry Week set to be as exciting as it always is, here is what I liked and didn’t like from the best conference in America.
What I liked
1. Missed it by that much
My new favorite player in college football is Florida Atlantic’s Jaquez Johnson, who just about authored a program-defining upset for the Owls at The Swamp.
A quarterback in a fullback’s body at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds — he even wears No. 32 (to honor a high school teammate who was murdered) — Johnson fared better against a star-studded Gators defense than his counterpart, Florida’s Treon Harris, did facing FAU’s anonymous unit. While his 17-of-33 performance wasn’t overly impressive, he limited his mistakes and kept his team in the game.
Remember, the disastrous strip sack and ensuing 48-yard fumble return that led to Florida’s first points was with backup Jason Driskel at the controls, not Johnson.
2. Don’t you forget about me … don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III gets most of the publicity in the Florida secondary, and deservedly so since he’s likely a top 10 pick in the NFL draft this spring.
Nevertheless, fellow corner Jalen Tabor was the premier player on the field Saturday for the Gators. The 6-foot-1, 191-pounder was all over the place against Florida Atlantic, recording 5 tackles, 5 pass breakups and an interception — it wasn’t an interception so much him simply ripping the ball away from the wideout post-reception.
Unlike Hargreaves, who is a junior and on his way out of Gainesville before long, Tabor is still just a sophomore and only getting better.
3. Murphy’s Law
South Carolina got the tin-horn treatment Saturday from The Citadel, as the Bulldogs shocked the Gamecocks 23-22 at Williams-Brice Stadium despite attempting just three passes.
The Citadel ran the football a jaw-dropping 61 times for 350 yards, as both Tyler Renew and Cam Jackson topped triple digits. You would expect discipline from a military school, and that’s exactly how quarterback Dominique Allen ran his option attack — the same can’t be said for a South Carolina rush defense currently dead last in the SEC at 215.7 yards allowed per game.
FCS The Citadel takes down South Carolina thanks to this game winning 56-yd TD! https://t.co/xHwSlyXJGn
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) November 21, 2015
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks ran 25 times for just 72 yards against an FCS-level foe that does not feature a single defender on the roster bigger than 278 pounds.
4. Shoo, fly
Back to the topic of tin horns, Alabama’s 56-6 whitewashing of Charleston Southern went about as well as coach Nick Saban could have hoped.
The Crimson Tide scored 28 points in the first quarter and another 21 in the second, so after intermission Saban was able to rest a lot of his most important players — plenty of backups and a handful of walk-ons saw the field on Senior Day in Tuscaloosa. Quarterback Jake Coker only needed to throw 13 passes, while running back Derrick Henry took the rest of the day off after just nine rushing attempts.
Cyrus Jones stole the afternoon at Bryant Denny Stadium, returning not one but two punts for touchdowns.
5. Ignore the scoreboard
Missouri lost a 19-8 decision Saturday to a Tennessee team that’s now won four straight, dropping the Tigers to 5-6 on the season and further putting a bowl invitation in jeopardy, but that wasn’t the story in Columbia.
In his final appearance at home, coach Gary Pinkel was carried to the locker room on the shoulders of his players, the same players he supported off the field — it was a sensitive time, to say the least — despite their failures on the field in 2015.
He still has at least one more game to coach, as Mizzou travels to Arkansas for the regular-season finale, but Pinkel deserved all the love he was shown throughout the festivities at Memorial Stadium.
6. Shootout at the O.K. Corral
I can’t imagine there has ever been a game in the SEC’s current 14-team configuration that featured better quarterback play than what we saw Saturday in Fayetteville.
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott was 38-of-50 passing for 508 yards with 5 touchdowns and 1 interception — the INT was a deflected pass, by the way, and not his fault. The Haughton (La.) High School product added 46 yards and two more scores on 15 rushing attempts, as every facet of coach Dan Mullen’s offense ran directly through No. 15.
But, amazingly, he wasn’t the only signal caller at Frank Broyles Field to account for more than half a dozen TDs.
Brandon Allen of Arkansas was equally unstoppable, finding his target on 30-of-43 throws for 406 yards with 7 touchdowns and no interceptions. While he may not have added much as a ball carrier — 5 yards on a single carry — he showcased his own brand of versatility when he caught a two-point conversion as a receiver.
We already knew Prescott was a legit NFL prospect and worthy of a second- or third-round draft pick, but Allen had to have gotten the attention of some scouts in the press box.
7. Move over, Mannings
I’ve been hard on Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, mainly because he’s got a little too much gunslinger in him for my taste and tends to play loose with the football.
But I’ll be the first to admit he was on a mission Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, throwing for 280 yards, rushing for 81 more and accounting for four total touchdowns — all against an LSU defense that remains in the top half of the conference despite the current three-game meltdown. He broke the school’s single-season record for total offense along the way, a mark previously held by Eli Manning.
Kelly showed no regard for his own personal safety on an 11-yard TD run in the third quarter to make it a two-score game again, which is something all of his teammates will notice in the film room.
— Campus Insiders (@CampusInsiders) November 22, 2015
8. Three-point barrage
It’s a dubious mark for a coach like Kevin Sumlin, who is known as one of the top offensive minds in the country, but his kicker deserves some headlines.
Taylor Bertolet tied SEC and school records by kicking six field goals on seven attempts in a 25-0 shutout of Vanderbilt. The native of Reading, Pennsylvania, split the uprights from 31, 25, 46, 46, 41 and 23 yards against the Commodores, only missing from 35.
The Aggies pass defense did the rest, holding Vandy to a Georgia Southern-esque 23 yards through the air.
9. Dropping it in the bucket
Going back to Kyle Allen at quarterback over Kyler Murray, Texas A&M’s sole touchdown of the game was of the highlight-reel variety.
Allen hit Josh Reynolds down the right sideline on a go route for what ended in a 95-yard touchdown pass, and it was one of the better throws of the year in conference play — and not just because of the result. While Reynolds had only gotten a yard or two of separation, Allen dropped the ball perfectly over his receiver’s outside shoulder so the corner couldn’t make a play on it no matter how tight the coverage was.
Reynolds never had to break stride after reeling in the pass and cruised to six points.
10. Too little, too late
We finally saw the Jeremy Johnson we were supposedly going to see all season long in a 56-34 pasting of Idaho: two passing TDs and two more as a rusher for the much-maligned Auburn quarterback.
Still, Will Muschamp’s defense — which had been playing so much better in recent weeks — surrendered 479 total yards and 34 points to a Vandals offense that managed just 299 and 20, respectively, the week before at home against Appalachian State.
What I didn’t like
1. Bleeding orange and blue
If former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow attempts to be a member of the media now that his playing career appears to be over, then he can’t dress for television the same way he dresses for an alumni dinner in Gainesville.
Arguably the greatest Gator that ever played was on SEC Nation wearing a blue sportcoat, an orange-and-blue plaid tie and an orange pocket square. For all we know, he was wearing orange slacks and gator-skin loafers — with his two national championship rings attached to the tassels — under the desk.
We all understand Tebow is going to lean toward UF when making his picks every Saturday, but at least a feigned attempt to remain relatively unbiased would be appreciated.
2. Cut the check
Let me get this straight for the record: I hate all these matchups between FBS powerhouses and FCS sacrificial lambs.
That being said, without these seven-figure payouts — e.g., the ones doled out by Alabama and South Carolina last weekend — then the likes of Charleston Southern and The Citadel would never be able to pay the bills that come along with running an athletics department. It’s not like CSU is rolling in the revenue generated at 4,000-seat Buccaneer Field, which is considered tiny by Texas high school standards.
In a perfect world, FBS teams play a full 12-game schedule against other FBS teams, as there are still plenty of cupcakes (Charlotte, Idaho) out there to water down the intra-conference death march that is life in the SEC.
Not to mention the fact that losing to an FCS team, like the Gamecocks did Saturday, does nothing but give Clemson fans ammunition for the rest of time. Interim coach Shawn Elliott can kiss his hopes of taking over for the departed Steve Spurrier on a full-time basis goodbye — that clunker will forever stain his résumé.
While it’s fun to watch David slay Goliath from time to time, there’s simply no upside for SEC schools to continue with these matchups because a win is usually meaningless and a loss is always catastrophic.
3. Allergic to the end zone
We know South Carolina is one of the weaker teams offensively in the SEC this season, and those warts were impossible to ignore in the first half Saturday against The Citadel.
Three consecutive drives deep into Bulldogs territory resulted in nothing more than a trio of field goals, as Gamecocks quarterback Perry Orth was 1-of-5 passing for 5 yards inside the enemy 30-yard line on those possessions. Brandon Wilds — by all measures a talented back with a future in the NFL — gained 1 yard on his lone rushing attempt once the offense got into field-goal range.
Had Orth and Co. punched the ball into the end zone just once on those drives instead of settling for kicks, the result in the end may have been different for the home team.
— Collyn Taylor (@collynptaylor) November 21, 2015
4. Hyperbole alert
ESPN play-by-play announcer Taylor Zarzour referred to South Carolina wide receiver Pharoh Cooper as a “potential All-American” at least half a dozen times during the broadcast.
Cooper is a terrific player and will be suiting up on Sundays soon enough, but he is not going to make any All-American teams with 61 receptions, 887 yards and 7 touchdowns. Even if those are great numbers considering how inept the Gamecocks have been at quarterback most of the campaign, the 5-foot-11, 207-pounder is still just 39th in the nation in catches, 29th in yards receiving and tied for 37th in receiving TDs.
There are currently nine wideouts in the FBS ranks — including six from Power 5 conferences — with at least 1,000 yards and double-digit scores already, so the best Cooper can hope for is All-SEC alongside Laquon Treadwell of Ole Miss.
5. Harmless reptiles
Where or where to begin with the Florida offense?
A 2-8 Florida Atlantic program came to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium tied for 78th in the country in scoring defense (28.5 points allowed per game), 78th in total defense (412.4 yards allowed per game), 82nd in rushing defense (179.6) and 75th in passing defense (232.7). The Gators managed just 20 points and 253 total yards — 129 through the air, 124 on the ground — and needed overtime to post those anemic numbers.
The first half was especially brutal, as UF was shut out, gained a measly 69 total yards and converted zero third-down conversion attempts.
Quarterback Treon Harris completed only 8-of-17 passes, was sacked a handful of times and committed two turnovers, including a sloppy fumble that the Owls recovered in the end zone to tie the game in the fourth quarter. If he can’t decipher the FAU front seven, then almighty Alabama might hold UF to negative yardage in the SEC Championship Game next month — a shutout should be an even-money bet at this point.
The Gators possess one-score wins over East Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic this season, with four of those five Ws coming at home, making them maybe the least-impressive division champ in conference history.
6. Ain’t that a kick in the head
Florida kicker Austin Hardin missed two field goals and an extra point Saturday, yet incredibly he wasn’t the goat in the end. The PAT he had blocked in overtime gave Florida Atlantic a chance to steal the game 21-20, but luckily for him the Owls couldn’t cross the goal line in the driving rain.
It’s got to be hard for those Gator defenders to play so well Saturday after Saturday, all the while seemingly getting no help from the other two phases of the team.
7. Toothless tigers
Just how bad has it gotten for LSU? Quarterback Brandon Harris and running back Leonard Fournette got mixed up on a crucial fourth-and-goal call from the Ole Miss 1-yard line … coming out of a timeout, no less.
While Harris was running the signature call of the Tigers ground attack, the Power Pitch, Fournette wasn’t expecting the football to be tossed to him — he apparently thought he was a decoy on the play, which resulted in an 8-yard loss. A three-score game remained three scores, and the Tigers never threatened again in Oxford.
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) November 22, 2015
Only two plays earlier, also from the 1, Fournette fumbled the shotgun snap in the Wildcat formation and lost 2 yards. Three weeks ago he was a shoe-in for the Heisman Trophy, but now he’s not even a lock to get an invitation to New York as a finalist.
Three QBs in the Texas A&M-Vanderbilt contest combined to connect on just 23-of-52 throws all game long, and I’m guessing the uniforms had something to do with it.
The Aggies were wearing white jerseys, matching white pants and silver helmets, while the Commodores were wearing light gray jerseys, matching light gray pants and gold helmets. It was genuinely difficult to tell one team from another watching on television, so imagine what it must have been like for the players — especially the passers — during live action.
Shoe companies have too much influence in the on-the-field product, but you’ll never get that horse back in the barn with the amount of money being thrown at the decision makers on college campuses.
9. Do what you do best
On the first possession of overtime, Georgia Southern faced fourth-and-1 from the Georgia 16-yard line.
The Eagles, a tricky triple-option team, chose to run a keeper up the gut out of the Wildcat that was all too predictable once quarterback Favian Upshaw went in motion to the right. Running back LA Ramsby was crunched for a 3-yard loss — Bulldogs linebacker Leonard Floyd was unblockable the entire series — and ended the upset bid.
Georgia Southern could have become an honorary member of the SEC East by winning in Athens, as it was only two years ago when the Eagles shocked Florida in Gainesville.
10. If it ain’t broke…
Brandon Allen was having the game of his life and could do no wrong against Mississippi State, yet in the waning moments Arkansas coach Bret Bielema took the ball out of his hands.
Down 51-50 with 3:05 remaining on the clock, Allen drove the Razorbacks into the red zone in the blink of an eye with five consecutive completions for a total of 70 yards. But instead of letting his star signal caller continue to pick apart a deflated secondary, Bielema called for three straight running plays in the final minute — the Bulldogs burned a timeout after each — and sent out the field-goal unit.
Cole Hedlund’s 29-yard attempt was blocked by Beniquez Brown, preserving a crazy victory for Hail State.
Bielema has ping-ponged back and forth this year from conservative to gambler, especially in overtime, but Saturday he paid the price for playing it safe. Hedlund has made a grand total of one field goal this season from 30 yards and beyond — and only eight total in 11 games — so it’s not like he’s in the running for the Lou Groza Award.
Why Bielema eschewed Allen’s right arm in favor of Hedlund’s right leg is a mystery.