The Hangover: SEC West may come down to Alabama, Auburn in Iron Bowl
For three quarters at Death Valley, the underdog Tigers proved that they have every bit as much talent as the favored Crimson Tide.
However, the fourth quarter was the story Saturday in Alabama’s 10-0 victory over LSU. Scoreless through three frames, the Tide had the coaching and quarterbacking necessary to prevail. The Bayou Bengals were lacking in both departments.
‘Bama coach Nick Saban — with an assist from offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin — put the game in the hands of Jalen Hurts, who made up for a mediocre performance throwing the ball with some fancy footwork. He scored the only touchdown of the night on a 21-yard scamper and then set up a clinching field goal with several designed QB runs.
Meanwhile, the Bayou Bengals weren’t able to squeeze anything out of Danny Etling. Under constant pressure from Alabama’s relentless pass rush, he answered Hurts’s TD with an INT. The resulting 3-pointer turned a one-score game into two.
RELATED: Jalen Hurts unfazed by Death Valley
While LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron may be a native son of Louisiana, the key to solving the Crimson Tide isn’t a Cajun accent.
Now with two losses in SEC play, the Tigers are no longer a factor in the West. When coupled with Texas A&M’s upset at the hands of Mississippi State, Week 10 brought some much-needed clarity to the division race.
Assuming everything stays on its present course — don’t assume anything, though; ask the Aggies — the West will be decided on rivalry weekend in the Iron Bowl. After a shaky start to the season, Auburn appears to have found its stride and is 5-1 in conference action. ‘Bama, of course, is an unblemished 6-0.
The Tigers need to survive an inconsistent Georgia team next week in Athens. If they do, a Nov. 26 trip to Tuscaloosa then becomes a winner-takes-all affair. Nobody will be watching closer than the College Football Playoff committee.
Program by program, here are some of the more memorable nuggets and tidbits that I scribbled into my Week 10 notebook.
For the first time, Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough looked like a worthy successor to former Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
Even though Scarbrough got most of the preseason press in the Crimson Tide backfield, he has spent a lot of time on the sideline watching Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs be much more productive with the ball in their hands. Only once coming into the LSU game had Scarbrough (below) received double-digit attempts on the ground.
But the 6-foot-2, 228-pounder ran angry Saturday with 11 carries for a hard-earned 52 yards. When Scarbrough runs behind his pads, look out.
Don’t let these millennials tell you that time of possession is a meaningless stat in today’s day and age of wide-open football.
Arkansas almost doubled Florida in that department in a 31-10 victory, possessing the football for 39:21. As a result, not only did the Gators not have much of time to mount drives offensively, but defensively they wore down in the second half. The game-sealing 41-yard TD run by Rawleigh Williams III came against a tired unit.
Additionally, UF’s merciless pass rush only managed a single sack. The Hogs’ commitment to the run game was rewarded.
Whether it was an undisclosed injury or a double-secret-probation suspension, Auburn quarterback Sean White sat out the first half vs. Vanderbilt.
Tigers coach Gus Malzahn kept the news to himself all week, as even the ESPN broadcast had no idea until just before kickoff that John Franklin III would start under center. But we learned very quickly that there’s more to running the offense on The Plains than handing off to the bruising Kamryn Pettway.
Franklin was awful for 30 minutes. Fortunately, White came to the rescue after intermission. This team can’t win without him.
Speaking of quarterbacks, it’s a mystery why Florida coach Jim McElwain didn’t go to the bullpen for backup Austin Appleby.
At no point in the loss to Arkansas was Luke Del Rio even remotely effective. For the second week in a row, his first pass of the game was intercepted. Only this time, it was returned 24 yards for a touchdown by Santos Ramirez. From start to finish, Del Rio was indecisive, inaccurate and immobile, yet McElwain didn’t flinch.
While Appleby proved to be no better earlier in the season with Del Rio sidelined due to injury, he should’ve gotten a shot in Fayetteville.
After combining for just 22 yards on 12 attempts a week ago, Georgia running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel simply demanded the ball.
They looked like their old selves once again in a 27-24 win at Kentucky, totaling 212 yards on 40 carries. Finally, quarterback Jacob Eason didn’t have to win it all by himself for the Bulldogs and actually had time in the pocket to throw effectively. He did so on the final drive, which resulted in a game-winning field goal.
UGA’s offensive line, the subject of ridicule following last Saturday’s defeat at the Cocktail Party, bounced back in a big way.
Meet the new Kentucky, same as the old Kentucky. Yet another potential program-defining win slipped away in the fourth quarter under coach Mark Stoops.
Back at Media Days in July, Stoops spoke with a clear frustration in his voice when asked about his team’s inability to finish games. Up 21-16 on Georgia entering the final frame, the Wildcats were outscored 11-3 the rest of the way and failed to reach bowl eligibility for the first time during the Stoops regime.
Stoops has done a commendable job narrowing the talent gap in the SEC. That being said, a coaching gap still remains.
For the first time all year, Hurts experienced some trouble on read-option decisions. LSU defended the play beautifully.
With the Tigers defense forcing Hurts to keep the ball in the belly of his running back and taking away the keeper, Kiffin moved on from the read-option in the fourth quarter and opted for designed power runs for Hurts off the edge. With a head of steam and more room to operate, he got to the second level for several big gainers.
Credit the Bayou Bengals for diffusing one of Alabama’s most dangerous weapons. Kiffin had another card to play, though.
The script was flipped in Oxford. Instead of the Rebels building a big lead early, they actually trailed Georgia Southern 21-10.
Fortunately, Ole Miss looked like Ole Miss again in the second quarter, scoring touchdowns on four consecutive possessions. The average length of each drive was 1:25. Quarterback Chad Kelly had a hand in three of those TDs, running for two and then connecting with tight end Evan Engram on a 38-yard catch-and-run.
Unlike many of the Rebs’ opponents in 2016, the Eagles didn’t mount a furious rally in the second half and went home quietly.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is limited as a passer, as most of his throws are predetermined or require a single read.
But as a rusher, he’s really a handful at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. Fitzgerald first carry against Texas A&M went for a 74-yard touchdown run, and that was just a sign of things to come in a 35-28 triumph. He finished with 182 yards on 20 attempts, his third consecutive game with 100-plus and multiple TDs on the ground.
Nevertheless, if he wants to take the next step, then he must become more effective going through progressions from the pocket.
Before the season started, we were led to believe that Missouri had one of the premier defensive lines in the conference.
But in a 31-21 loss to South Carolina, the Tigers gave up 174 yards on the ground. The Gamecocks came into the contest with the worst rushing attack in the league by a wide margin, averaging an anemic 113.3 yards per game. Mizzou couldn’t get off the field defensively and lost the time-of-possession battle 36:10 to 23:50.
Missouri defensive end Charles Harris, the leader of the group, has 5.5 sacks in 2016. However, 5.0 came in two games.
It’s definitely time to start taking South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley seriously after his third win in three starts.
To date, he’s a 73-percent passer with a perfect touchdown-to-interception ratio of 6-to-0. Even if tight end Hayden Hurst has seen his production take a hit with Bentley under center, wide receiver Deebo Samuel is suddenly one of the SEC’s brightest. He’s now caught 8, 8 and 9 passes since the latest switch at QB.
Beyond his physical gifts, Bentley also plays with an infectious enthusiasm. The ‘Cocks are feeding off his energy, too.
Yes, it was only Tennessee Tech. The Volunteers are supposed to handle a team like Tennessee Tech to the tune of 55-0.
That didn’t stop Tennessee from struggling mightily with the pair of non-Power 5 opponents it faced earlier this season in Appalachian State and Ohio. After all the drama on Rocky Top in the wake of running back Jalen Hurd’s ugly departure, opening up a can of you-know-what is exactly what coach Butch Jones needed.
No Hurd? No problem. Third-stringer John Kelly needed just 7 carries to rush for 104 yards, most notably a 73-yard TD.
Texas A&M looked like a different team earlier this season thanks to its ability to both run the ball and stop the run.
But the Aggies couldn’t do either Saturday in Starkville. Mississippi State outrushed them better than 3-to-1, 365 to 117, which went a long way toward determining the victor. Since his 217-yard explosion against Tennessee, A&M running back Trayveon Williams has only 100 yards combined on the ground his past three games.
The Bulldogs averaged 6.3 yards per run facing a Texas A&M defensive line that is limping to the finish line, figuratively and literally.
Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen gets more headlines, but Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham (below) is the top defender in the SEC.
The conference’s leading tackler was credited with 9 more stops at Auburn, albeit in a 23-16 loss. Cunningham single-handedly gave the Commodores a chance to tie the game late when he spectacularly blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter, which prevented the Tigers from turning a one-score lead into two.
There’s nothing Cunningham can’t do in coach Derek Mason’s imaginative scheme. He’s worthy of All-American consideration.
In what was a strong performance defensively for Mississippi State, safety Mark McLaurin registered 3 tackles, a sack and the game-clinching interception of Texas A&M quarterback Jake Hubenak, who took over for an injured Trevor Knight.
We not shocked we just trusted the process ???‼️ #HailState Forever ??
— Mark Mclaurin (@_young_star11) November 5, 2016
Even though the Bulldogs are still a long shot to go bowling this holiday season, coach Dan Mullen needed a signature win and delivered one.
Alabama’s streak of scoring a non-offensive touchdown in 10 consecutive games was snapped in Baton Rouge. This year alone, the Crimson Tide scored 5 times on fumble returns, 4 times on interception returns and 3 times on punt returns in their first eight games. They had been averaging 1.5 TDs per game on defense and special teams alone.
Trevon Diggs, taking over punt-return duties for the explosive-but-injured Eddie Jackson, had just 1 yard on 2 attempts.
“We didn’t come in here feeling like an underdog. We went in there expecting to beat the crap out of Florida, which we did.” — Arkansas S Santos Ramirez
- With a 93-yarder against Mississippi State, Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk is now the only player in America with 3 punt-return touchdowns. All have come in the past two games.
- Pettway, the SEC’s leading rusher with 1,106 yards on the ground, came up lame against Vanderbilt on a 60-yard gallop in the fourth quarter. A pulled hamstring is a good guess.
- For the first time this season, Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs finished a game without being intercepted. He threw for 3 scores vs. Tennessee Tech and only saw one pass fall incomplete.
- Engram reeled in 4 balls for 75 yards for Ole Miss against Georgia Southern. With 775 yards receiving in nine games, he’s the sole player in the conference on pace to crack 1,000.
- Kentucky’s Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benjamin Snell Jr. are now Nos. 4 and 7 in the league in rushing, respectively. No other member school has two rushers in the Top 10.
- Not only does Florida struggle to throw it, but it can’t run it either. In the Gators’ past two games, they have 62 carries for 112 yards. That’s an average of 1.8 yards per rush.