The Hangover: Brick by brick, Florida ruining Tennessee's rebuilding process
On the strength of Florida’s upset victory at LSU in Week 12, the Gators are going back to the SEC Championship Game this season.
Despite the fact that UF won the East a year ago, most of the preseason prognosticators gave the benefit of the doubt to up-and-coming Tennessee. Fourth-year coach Butch Jones had the superior roster and got Florida at home.
But the Gators took a jackhammer to the Volunteers’ brick-by-brick rebuilding process — even after losing at Neyland Stadium — and proved to be more resilient in the face of adversity. UT fans will point to the fact that injuries decimated the depth chart on the defensive side of the football, and they’re not wrong, of course.
However, UF was missing a handful of key contributors on defense Saturday in Baton Rouge and still found a way to tame the Tigers.
The Vols were a soap opera off the field, too. Running back Jalen Hurd, a preseason all-conference selection, quit the team on the tail end of a three-game losing streak. Clearly, the locker room wasn’t unified.
For the most part Florida had no such drama, even though there were plenty of opportunities for it to manifest. Neither Luke Del Rio nor Austin Appleby ever really got the offense in gear from the quarterback position. Similar to Tennessee, there were a stunning amount of health issues — to the point of it almost being comical — on D.
Unlike Jones, who at times came unglued just like his team, McElwain was able to ride the ups and downs with his folksy demeanor.
Jones bought himself a long leash by hammering home the idea that a rebuild of this magnitude is a long and arduous process. But clichés and coachspeak aside, 2016 was when it was all supposed to come together. And it didn’t.
McElwain inherited a Gators program in relative disarray as well after the failed Will Muschamp regime. Yet somehow he’s immediately delivered back-to-back division titles with a roster perhaps even more imperfect — certainly at QB — than UT’s. For whatever reason, McElwain’s rebuild didn’t require nearly as many bricks.
Does this say more about the job McElwain has done in Gainesville or the job Jones hasn’t done in Knoxville? You decide.
Program by program, here are some of the more memorable nuggets and tidbits that I scribbled into my Week 12 notebook.
Only leading Chattanooga 14-3 at halftime, Alabama coach Nick Saban surely tore his team a new one in the locker room.
The way Saban operates, that’s probably the way he wanted it. With the Crimson Tide coming off a 51-3 destruction of Mississippi State, getting fired up for the Mocs wasn’t going to happen. But Saban relishes any chance to preach his Any Given Saturday philosophy, even if his team appears to be borderline unbeatable at this point.
‘Bama turned it up a notch in the second half and eventually won 31-3. Saban’s preparation for next week’s Iron Bowl is now that much easier.
Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams III went wild in a 58-42 win over Mississippi State with 16 carries for 205 yards and 4 touchdowns.
On his first eight rushing attempts alone, Williams (above) racked up 191 yards and all four of his scores. In addition to his ground-and-pound prowess, he even threw a 1-yard TD to tight end Austin Cantrell with a Tim Tebow-like jump pass. Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema let him try again later on a 2-point conversion, although that one failed.
With just one game left in the regular season, Williams is a pleasant surprise as the SEC’s leading rusher with 1,209 yards.
Quarterback Jeremy Johnson has been the subject of ridicule from inside and outside the Auburn program for two years now.
Inheriting the starting job from the departed Nick Marshall in 2015, Johnson had looked so good previously in a backup role that he got some preseason attention from Heisman Trophy voters. But when it was time to do it for real, he was awful and got benched. Most of 2016, he’s been little more than an observer.
But Johnson got the start in a 55-0 washout of Alabama A&M on Senior Day, and it was nice to see him play well with 3 total touchdowns.
Aside from the occasional big play from receiver Antonio Callaway, Florida’s offense has had no explosiveness this season.
While Callaway was held to 2 catches for 12 yards in a 16-10 victory over LSU, the Gators’ lone TD came on a 98-yard lightning strike from Appleby to true freshman wideout Tyrie Cleveland. Not only was it a brilliant grab by Cleveland over his outside shoulder, but he shed a tackler and did a high-wire act down the sideline to stay in bounds afterward.
With upperclassmen like Brandon Powell and Ahmad Fulwood proving to be unreliable, Cleveland needs to become a bigger part of the game plan.
At only 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, Georgia’s Isaiah McKenzie is at a disadvantage trying to be the primary threat in any passing game.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs have to make more of an effort to get the ball into McKenzie’s hands. In Saturday’s sleepy 35-21 win over Louisiana-Lafayette, he scored twice in the first quarter without running a route. His first touchdown came on an end-around that went for 55 yards, and the second was a nifty 82-yard punt return.
Still, he only got 5 touches the whole game: 2 carries, 2 catches and the lone return. That number needs to double.
Instead of focusing on Kentucky’s rushing offense, which was again fantastic, let’s focus on the Wildcats’ rushing defense.
At home against Austin Peay, which arrived in Lexington with an 0-10 record at the FCS level, UK dug itself a 13-0 hole before waking up and rolling the rest of the way 49-13. The ‘Cats allowed 257 yards rushing in the game, and that figure wasn’t inflated by a long run or two. The Governors’ longest gain went for 20.
Fourth-year coach Mark Stoops likely bought himself some job security by becoming bowl eligible. His D should be better by now, though.
Interim coach Ed Orgeron (below) is a good man and kept LSU afloat in the wake of the Les Miles firing, but a new philosophy is needed in Baton Rouge.
Trailing by six and requiring a touchdown to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, the Tigers looked anything but composed running their two-minute offense. Time was wasted. Confusion was everywhere. Only needing 1 yard on the final play, the pitch went one way but Derrius Guice was expecting to run the other. Stuffed. Ballgame.
Texas is going to fire Charlie Strong any moment. The Bayou Bengals must offer Houston’s Tom Herman the world before the Longhorns do.
True freshman quarterback Shea Patterson was unable to pull a rabbit out of his hat this time, as Ole Miss was dismantled at Vanderbilt 38-17.
Even if Patterson only completed 20-of-42 passes, he did throw for 222 yards and 2 TDs without an interception. But his numbers would’ve been a lot better had his receiving corps showed up in Nashville. Aside from tight end Evan Engram, who had another productive night, Patterson’s pass catchers were all thumbs.
The Rebels desperately need to win the Egg Bowl next week and earn a bowl berth. Patterson must get those extra practices.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was unstoppable with 328 yards passing, 131 rushing and 6 total touchdowns.
But if the Bulldogs are going to be this bad on defense, then Fitzgerald doesn’t have a chance to actually win games. Arkansas threw for 303 yards, ran for 357 more and scored on nine of its 11 possessions. The Razorbacks averaged 8.7 yards per carry and 11.7 yards per pass. MSU should be embarrassed by that effort.
Austin Allen of the Hogs has been beaten up more than any QB in the league this season, but the Dogs hardly touched him.
Speaking of lackluster defensive efforts, Missouri somehow dropped a game in which it threw for 320 yards and ran for 420 more.
Losing the turnover battle 4-0 didn’t help, and neither did the Tigers allowing 609 yards of total offense themselves in a 63-37 defeat at Tennessee. Mizzou was supposed to have one of the better D-lines in the country this season, but the Volunteers averaged 8.6 yards per carry. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs was only sacked once, too.
Keep in mind that the Vols have been terrible along the offensive line most of 2016. Pass rusher Charles Harris simply has no help.
True freshman tailback Rico Dowdle didn’t get his first carry until Week 5, but how he has three 100-yard rushing games in his past four.
He did a lot more than hit the century mark in a 44-31 win over Western Carolina, too. Dowdle exploded for 226 yards and a pair of scores on 21 carries, which took a lot of the pressure off fellow frosh Jake Bentley in the passing game. A.J. Turner, another freshman, got into the act with 97 yards on the ground of his own.
Suddenly, this Gamecocks offense appears to have a few playmakers. The defense, on the other hand, still has plenty of work to do.
Even if Tennessee ultimately came up short in its bid to win the East, I maintain my belief that Hurd quitting the team was a positive.
The Volunteers have run the ball with reckless abandon since their starting tailback decided to take his ball and go home. Dobbs (above) had a career-high 190 yards rushing against Missouri. Former reserves John Kelly and Alvin Kamara, who are apparently fine with the system Hurd complained about, combined for another 156.
The Hurd dilemma could’ve ripped this squad apart. Instead, the Vols appear galvanized. Jones should be commended for that.
Even if it came in a 23-10 yawner over UT-San Antonio, NFL scouts had to have been drooling over defensive end Myles Garrett’s performance.
Texas A&M’s feared pass rusher was credited with a career-high 4.5 sacks. Twice he’s had 3.5 in a game, the first time as a freshman against ULM and the second as a sophomore against Nevada, so he’s a monster against inferior competition. Only twice in three years has he had multiple sacks against SEC-caliber blocking, though.
Still, Garrett will be in the running for No. 1 overall in the draft this spring since the quarterback class is mediocre at best.
Seemingly for the first time all season, Vanderbilt demonstrated the ability to take shots down the field and make plays vertically.
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur put together arguably his most impressive stat line to date, connecting on 17-of-30 passes for 273 yards with 2 TDs and 0 INTs. Four Vandy receivers reeled in a completion of 19 yards or longer, which helped open holes for Ralph Webb in the running game. Finally, the Commodores were balanced offensively.
Shurmur’s TD-to-INT ratio for 2016 is back on the positive side at 7-to-6. Maybe there’s room for him to grow after all.
Saturday’s affair between Florida and LSU was a matchup of ex-Purdue quarterbacks. Austin Appleby and Danny Etling were once teammates in West Lafayette, but now they’re leading the Gators and Tigers, respectively. That got the attention of the most decorated QB in Boilermakers history, future Hall of Famer Drew Brees.
Two Purdue transfers starting against each other today.. Danny Etling at LSU and Austin Appleby at Florida. You're welcome SEC!
— Drew Brees (@drewbrees) November 19, 2016
Appleby was a forgettable 7-of-17 for 144 yards with a TD, while Etling was a pedestrian 14-of-25 for 204 and no scores. While Appleby was the winner, the credit goes to his running game, defense and special teams.
Among the Power 5 conferences, the SEC is the only one not to have a 1,000-yard receiver at this point of the season.
The Big 12 has three already. The ACC has two. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have one each. Engram is presently atop the SEC with 926 yards receiving, but he departed the Vanderbilt contest early with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Whether he suits up for the Egg Bowl next week remains to be seen.
Missouri’s J’Mon Moore, Mississippi State’s Fred Ross and Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk all have 800 and change, so they’re within striking distance.
“If you’re not really ready to play and you don’t prepare well to play, it’s very difficult when you don’t have high energy and intensity to compete in this kind of a game. The other team has a historical moment when they come to play you. They can make history by doing something special.”
— Alabama coach Nick Saban on his club’s early struggles against Chattanooga
- Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts deserves to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion. He threw 3 more touchdown passes against Chattanooga and didn’t commit a turnover. He’s now accounted for 30 total TDs and has done so taking remarkably good care of the ball from week to week.
- LSU running back Leonard Fournette wasn’t supposed to play against Florida due to a nagging ankle injury, but he begged to suit up after getting in a pregame shoving match with the Gators. Nonetheless, he was ineffective. Actually, it was a careless gamble on Orgeron’s part.
- Dobbs has refused to mail it in after a three-game losing skid and Hurd’s defection cratered Tennessee’s season. He has 9 TD passes against only 1 INT in his past three outings, plus he’s added 4 scores on the ground. Dobbs now leads the SEC with 24 touchdowns through the air.
- There are six 1,000-yard rushers in the conference, and two play for Kentucky. Stanley “Boom” Williams had already cracked quadruple digits, and then Benny Snell joined him with a 152-yard day against Austin Peay. Never before have the Wildcats had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.
- LSU cornerback Donte Jackson had a game to forget against Florida. Not only did he give up the long catch-and-run score from Appleby to Cleveland in the third quarter, but he fumbled a kickoff late in the fourth that let the Gators extend their lead from three points to six.
- With Mississippi State falling to 4-7, the Bulldogs are now the second team in the league that will fail to reach bowl eligibility. Missouri is out of it at 3-8. Ole Miss is 5-6 and needs another W. Vanderbilt is also 5-7, but five wins might be enough due to its APR standing.