Monday Down South: Alabama's plug-n-play offense defies gravity
Weekly takeaways, trends and technicalities from the weekend’s action.
This is just Bama’s offense now
Alabama 41, Georgia 27. College football is designed to abide by certain rhythms. Players come, players go. Some years the offense ebbs, some years it flows. You set a few records, then you take a step back. Maybe a couple of steps, who knows. Maybe your quarterback is a star, and maybe (probably) the guy who comes after him is just a guy. Maybe you lose, I dunno, let’s say, the most prolific passer in school history along with 3 other first-round picks in the same draft class, and you need a little time to get reoriented in their absence.
Or maybe you’re Alabama, and you just keep on rolling like the rules of gravity stopped applying to you years ago.
GOODBYE JAYLEN WADDLE! 90 YARDS TO THE HOUSE! pic.twitter.com/SCaA6rYY9e
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 18, 2020
In fact, at this point, it’s tempting to chalk up Saturday night’s 41-point, 564-yard incineration of the SEC’s best defense as just another in an endless series of examples of Bama being Bama. This is an offense that’s averaged 45+ points on well north of 500 yards per game each of the past 2 seasons, and that just hung 63 on Ole Miss in the highest-scoring game in SEC history. Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris were certainly known quantities coming into the season, as was an offensive line that returned 4 full-time starters. And the Tide actually retained their offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, for the first time since 2016.
But let’s be real: The transition from Tua Tagovailoa, blue-chip legend, to Mac Jones, 3-star placeholder, was not supposed to look like this, not really, or at least not against a legitimately elite defense like Georgia’s. Putting the torch to Ole Miss is one thing; lighting up the Bulldogs is bona fide Heisman territory. Jones finished with the most passing yards (417), most yards per attempt (13.0), highest completion percentage (75.0) and best overall passer rating (219.5) of any opposing QB with more than 10 attempts against Georgia in more than a decade – better than Tua in either of his outings against UGA, better than Baker Mayfield in the January 2018 Rose Bowl, better than Joe Burrow in last year’s SEC Championship Game, across the board. For the season, Jones is No. 1 nationally in each of those categories except passing yards per game, where he ranks No. 2.
How much credit for that is due to the system? To the abundance of surrounding talent? In the long run, Jones may even rank toward the bottom of the starting lineup in terms of athletic upside and pro potential. (Although that’s highly debatable after Saturday night.) To an opposing defense, though, what difference does it make? As long as Jones is making the throws, the abundance is the whole point. Smith, Waddle and John Metchie III – already a well-established deep threat after less than a month in the starting rotation – are collectively averaging 18.0 yards per catch with 11 TDs and 21 plays of 20+ yards, more than any other SEC team. (Not any other SEC trio; more than any other SEC team.)
And that comes at the same time that Harris, often the forgotten man last year, is beginning to fulfill his destiny as a high-volume workhorse: He’s logged 58 touches the past 2 weeks for 358 yards and 6 TDs, the most productive 2-game span for any individual Tide back since Derrick Henry’s 2015 Heisman run.
🐘 Jaylen Waddle
🐘 @DeVontaSmith_6 @AlabamaFTBL is the first SEC team over the last 20 years with a 400-yd passer, two 150-yd receivers and a 150-yd rusher in the same game 🔥 pic.twitter.com/PiCdiSokma
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 19, 2020
Acknowledged: It’s early. In the past, Alabama’s most explosive offenses have eventually run out of steam against Playoff-caliber opponents, as in the Jalen Hurts years, or been handcuffed by some combination of injuries and untimely turnovers, as we’ve seen the past 2 years. (Bama is -4 in turnover margin in its last 3 losses, including 3 pick-6s; the lone giveaway on Saturday night came on a deflected pass on the first play of the game, which the defense immediately avenged with the first of its 3 interceptions.) The defense’s descent into mediocrity reduces the margin for error and puts pressure on the offense to be as close to perfect as it can be almost every week. And there’s always the possibility in a national championship scenario – assuming this chaotic, covid-ravaged season makes it that far – that Clemson or Ohio State’s offense comes just a little bit closer.
Between now and then, though, the odds of LSU’s highly flammable defense managing to contain this group, or of Auburn’s struggling offense somehow keeping pace, are significantly lower than they were just a couple of weeks ago.
For now, anyway, none of Alabama’s last 6 regular-season opponents are ranked in the updated AP poll. Georgia, which dropped just one spot from No. 3 to No. 4, was the big test, and the Tide passed it with ease. There’s a very good chance they’ll have to pass it again in December in the SEC title game, by which point either or both teams might be in a different place than they are at midseason. But for now, Bama is on track to be one of the great passing teams the league has ever seen.
Pushing Bennett past the limit
Alabama outscored Georgia 21-0 in the second half, which made it easy to forget the Bulldogs actually led the game at the break, 24-20. (A false positive, so to speak.) That edge was largely a reflection of their success on the ground: Prior to Bama’s go-ahead touchdown with 4 minutes to play in the 3rd quarter – see above – UGA had churned out a solid 145 yards on 5.8 per carry (not including sacks), most of it courtesy of lead backs Zamir “Zeus” White and Kendall Milton, a true freshman. They weren’t ripping off big gains, but against Alabama, they couldn’t have asked for a better number.
That all changed the moment the scoreboard flipped. From that point on, although the game was still very much within reach, Georgia ran just 3 times for 14 yards (again, not including sacks), opting instead to put the comeback effort on the arm of Stetson Bennett IV … who proceeded to finish 4-for-12 with a pair of back-breaking interceptions over the Bulldogs’ final 3 possessions.
The Alabama defense is starting to feel it. pic.twitter.com/Tucz0p8wjL
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) October 18, 2020
Georgia fans heard plenty the past few years about the “Fromm Line,” based on the fact that from 2017-19 UGA was 36-1 when Jake Fromm attempted 30 passes or fewer and 0-6 when he was forced by the situation to go over that mark. (And it was always forced.) The “Stetson Line” appears to fall in exactly the same place, for exactly the same reason: Anything above it is almost always by necessity rather than choice.
That wasn’t quite true on Saturday night, given that Georgia still had plenty of time after falling behind 27-24 to stick to the full playbook. But it wasn’t a desperate gamble, either. Aside from having several passes swatted at the line of scrimmage (including one that was subsequently picked off on the Bulldogs’ opening series), Bennett had played relatively well to that point, going 5-for-8 on 3rd-down conversions with a pair of touchdowns, including an 82-yard haymaker to RB James Cook that took advantage of an obvious mismatch vs. Bama LB Christian Harris in single coverage.
But, you know, it sure would have been nice to have a legitimate pro prospect to lean on in crunch time rather than a former walk-on making his first road start opposite a blue-chip defense. Bennett doesn’t have to be defined forever by his scrappy underdog status, but the failed comeback on Saturday night was the first time this season he’s looked out of his depth athletically – the batted passes, especially, emphasized his diminutive stature in the pocket – and it served as a sharp reminder of why Georgia was so determined in the offseason to add the likes of Jamie Newman and JT Daniels. Not for the sake of getting past Arkansas and Tennessee: For the sake of crunch time at Alabama.
Bennett has earned the right to remain QB1 going forward, and there’s no reason to think the Bulldogs can’t run the table over the next month-and-a-half with him playing as well as he has to date. (Barring a major upset, Florida is the only notable challenge over the last six games.) Long-term, though, the defense and ground game can only carry the team so far before it finds itself in another high-scoring game that requires the quarterback to do more than just move the sticks. Can coaches still trust Bennett to be a reliable downfield playmaker if/when Bama rolls back around, or beyond that in a Playoff game? Kirby Smart may say yes, but if he’s not considering how to begin getting Daniels up to speed for a potential switch now would be a good time to start.
Can Auburn fix Nix?
South Carolina 30, Auburn 22. The Bo Nix Experience at Auburn remains a frustrating one, and not entirely for reasons within his control. Specifically: Why was this kid hyped as a 5-star recruit?
Seventeen games into his career, we’re still waiting for a glimpse of exactly what the recruitniks saw in Nix as a blue-chip prospect. He’s not especially big. He’s not especially fast. He doesn’t have a cannon for an arm or a feathery touch on deep balls. And the coach’s kid qualities that might elevate his game above his athletic limitations — accuracy, consistency, composure — are not at all evident in his production.
So far this season he ranks 13th out of 14 SEC starters in both yards per attempt and overall pass efficiency, and dead last in completion percentage. That represents a decline from his mediocre freshman output in 2019 on all counts, in what was supposed to be a breakthrough campaign as a sophomore.
Saturday’s loss was another boiling-point moment in a season that’s shaping to be almost nothing but. Angst was already running high after a wipeout loss at Georgia and a narrow escape vs. Arkansas; with a chance to get on track against the Gamecocks, Nix instead was off-target and out of sync, finishing 24-of-47 for 272 yards (5.8 per attempt) with 1 touchdown to 3 interceptions. (He also ate 3 sacks for the third consecutive game.) After a fast start, the downfield passing game for much of the day seemed to consist primarily of lobbing the ball in the general vicinity of Seth Williams — who did his part, delivering Auburn’s biggest play of the game when he bailed out his quarterback on an off-balance, jump-ball heave for a 44-yard gain in the 2nd quarter — or scrambling ineffectually when that was off the table. At one point in the second half, Nix and Williams got into a heated exchange on the sideline as offensive coordinator Chad Morris intervened.
Some frustration on Auburn's sidelines after that last offensive possession. Chad Morris trying to be the mediator between Bo Nix and Seth Williams.pic.twitter.com/ve1NWgRoVv
— Josh Vitale (@JoshVitale) October 17, 2020
And for the second week in a row, Nix lost the thread as the clock wound down on a last-gasp comeback bid, hopelessly attempting to run for the sticks on 4th-and-5 from the Carolina 12-yard line as time expired. Unlike his gaffe in the closing seconds against Arkansas, this time the refs weren’t available to save him from himself.
All of which, again, may play differently if he hadn’t been saddled with what increasingly look like unrealistic expectations at the outset of his career. Nix can still be a quality SEC starter who keeps his playmakers involved and adds some value with his legs. But the real above-the-fold talents on Auburn’s offense are Williams and freshman RB Tank Bigsby, whose 111 rushing yards vs. the Gamecocks on just 16 carries kept him atop the league leaderboard for all-purpose yards. For future reference, any game in which Nix has 3 times as many pass attempts as Bigsby has touches is unlikely to end well.
Tennessee turned the wrong corner
Kentucky 34, Tennessee 7. Look, was it wrong to suggest the Vols had earned some glimmer of cautious optimism on the strength of an 6-game winning streak to close 2019? No – especially after they extended the streak to 8 with wins in their first 2 games of 2020. Was it smart? Also no! For all of the ostensible progress over the past year, the last 2 weeks have left Jeremy Pruitt’s team in more or less exactly the same place it was at this point on the calendar in each of the past 2 seasons.
And for all of the other issues that have plagued Tennessee in that span, the malaise still begins and ends behind center. QB Jarrett Guarantano, God bless him, has never discerningly progressed over the course of 29 career starts, and Saturday’s turn against the Wildcats will go down as one of his worst.
— CFB Pylon (@TheCFBPylon) October 17, 2020
Oh no, indeed. That was the first of 2 pick-6s by Kentucky on consecutive series, a new low even for a 5th-year senior who has endured more than his fair share. (The back-to-back INTs followed another self-inflicted gaffe: On the previous series, Guarantano lost a fumble when he had the ball knocked out of his hand by his own running back, who attempted to receive a handoff just as Guarantano was attempting to throw a quick, apparently ad-libbed pass into the flat. But UK’s offense failed to turn that giveaway into points.) Worse, the socially distanced crowd in Neyland Stadium was immediately reminded why Guarantano remained atop the depth chart in the first place when backup JT Shrout came on to throw another pick on his first and only attempt.
Guarantano dutifully returned to finish with his worst passer rating in a start (82.8) since 2017 and the worst grade of his career according to ESPN’s Total QBR (4.4 out of a possible 100). Following a run-heavy touchdown march in the 2nd quarter, his last 4 possessions yielded 1 first down and 4 quick punts before he handed the reins to true freshman Harrison Bailey in garbage time. Afterward, Pruitt frankly described the QB situation going forward as “undecided.”
That’s familiar territory. From a certain angle, it was still possible to make out the outline of the kind of solid, trench-oriented outfit that Pruitt has invested in. RB Eric Gray (24 carries for 128 yards) and LB Henry To’o To’o (8 tackles, 2 TFLs) are rising stars who have largely fulfilled the hype as sophomores. In general, the ground game and defense played well enough to give the Vols a chance to win in the same fashion as their Week 2 romp over Missouri – Kentucky finished with just 294 yards of total offense and a long gain of 25.
The difference is that, in the first 2 games, Guarantano looked like a seasoned vet who was comfortable in his limited role and no longer prone to kind of explosive mistakes that have defined so much of his tenure as the Vols’ starter. After 6 turnovers in the last 2 games, all but one of them leading directly to points for the opposition, it’s hard to see how they can continue to trust him to be that guy on anything more than a strictly provisional basis.
Woo Pick Sooie
Arkansas 33, Ole Miss 21. I’ll admit, along with a lot of other people, I wasn’t bowled over by Arkansas’ decision to hire Sam Pittman – a career o-line coach with no head-coaching or coordinator experience outside of a brief stint as head coach at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College in 1992-93 – to oversee one of the steepest rebuilding jobs in modern SEC history. It took him all of a month to relegate the skeptics to Freezing Cold Takes. Even if the don’t win another game, the 2-2 Razorbacks have already exceeded expectations and cemented their status as the most improved team in college football.
Sure, much of the credit goes to the face of the rebuild, grad-transfer QB Feleipe Franks, who has quickly stabilized a basket-case situation behind center. But the real revelation has been the defense under first-year coordinator Barry Odom: Through 4 games Arkansas is 5th in the SEC in scoring defense, 4th in yards per play allowed, and 1st in pass efficiency D – an astounding turnaround in a category in which the Razorbacks ranked dead last each of the previous 3 years. Not coincidentally, they also lead the conference in takeaways, including an FBS-best 10 interceptions; 9 came in the wins over Mississippi State and Ole Miss, 3 of which they’ve returned for touchdowns.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 17, 2020
Saturday’s win, like the upset in Starkville, was another bend-don’t-break masterpiece. Although Ole Miss’ high-octane offense ultimately finished with 442 total yards, Arkansas successfully limited big plays – the Rebels’ longest gain was a 47-yard run on a fake punt – and forced QB Matt Corral to sacrifice explosiveness for patience and consistency. He demonstrated neither, serving up 6 INTs on 38 attempts after throwing just 1 pick in his previous 88 attempts this season. The same offense that scored almost every time it touched the ball against Alabama didn’t find the end zone in Fayetteville until well into the 3rd quarter and never seriously threatened Arkansas’ lead.
Rather than the reliable doormats they were supposed to be, Pittman’s Razorbacks are already on the verge of breaking into the middle class in a year when it seems like most anything can happen. They’re an inadvertent whistle at Auburn away from a 3-1 record, unthinkable just a few weeks ago. The remaining schedule on the other side of this weekend’s open date doesn’t offer any gimmes, by any means, but doesn’t look quite as daunting as did at the start of the season, either. A Nov. 21 visit from LSU looks like a very winnable game right now. If you needed any more proof of just how unmoored this season is from rational expectations, there you have it.
Honorable Mention: Auburn RB Tank Bigsby, who continued his Freshman of the Year campaign with 111 yards and 1 TD on 6.9 per carry in the Tigers’ loss to South Carolina. … Auburn LB Owen Pappoe, who was credited with 10 tackles, 1 PBU and an interception. … Texas A&M LB Buddy Johnson, who led a stellar defensive effort in the Aggies’ 28-14 win over Mississippi State with 12 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and 2 PBUs. … Tennessee LB Henry To’o To’o, who was (as usual) one of the few bright spots in the Vols’ loss to Kentucky, racking up 8 tackles with 2 TFLs. … Kentucky LB
Jamin Davis, who had 12 tackles in addition to a pick-6 in the Wildcats’ win in Knoxville. … Ole Miss LB Ryder Anderson, who finished with 13 tackles and 2 TFLs in the Rebels’ loss to Arkansas. … South Carolina DL Keir Thomas, who finished with 8 tackles and 2 sacks in the win over Auburn. … Georgia punter Jake Camarda, who averaged 49 yards on 4 punts against Alabama, dropping 3 of them inside the Bama 20-yard line, as well as booming 4 touchbacks on kickoffs. … And Arkansas DB Hudson Clark, a former walk-on who declared Fayetteville a NO FLY ZONE prior to the season and delivered Saturday with 3 of the Razorbacks’ 6 INTs against Ole Miss, including the game-clincher in the 4th quarter.
The best of the week.
1. Alabama QB Mac Jones and WRs DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Jones was as impressive as anyone could have realistically expected in the Tide’s win over Georgia, finishing 24-of-32 for 417 yards and 4 TDs, but his electric wideouts deserve a lion’s share of the credit, combining for 238 yards of those yards and 3 of the 4 touchdowns on 17 catches. Even when they’re covered, they’re open.
DeVonta Smith is really, really good…that's really all you can say. pic.twitter.com/rIYop9K6zM
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 18, 2020
2. South Carolina CB Jaycee Horn. Horn gave up 1 long completion on a jump ball and was flagged once for holding, but otherwise won the war against Auburn WR Seth Williams, holding Williams without a catch on 8 of 9 targets in man-to-man coverage.
Horn, son of Joe, hauled in the first 2 interceptions of his career and broke up 4 other passes, including a tip that led to a 3rd INT by teammate Jaylin Dickerson. Factor in his contributions in run support, and you have a banner day all the way around for one of the league’s rising stars.
— Oliver Davis II (@I_Am_OD3) October 17, 2020
3. Arkansas LB Grant Morgan. Morgan, playing with his left arm practically immobilized, nevertheless racked up a whopping 19 tackles in Arkansas’ win over Ole Miss — 3 of them for loss — and effectively put the game away with a pick-6 on the Razorbacks’ 5th interception of the game. He was credited with 2 additional PBUs, for good measure, on a great day for the defense.
4. Arkansas WR Treylon Burks. Burks, my preseason pick for Offensive Breakout Player of the Year, continues to make me look very smart. The freakish sophomore stole the show against the Rebels, accounting for 137 receiving yards on 11 catches, 46 rushing yards on 4 carries, and the indisputable Catch of the Year of the Week, which might just hold up as the actual Catch of the Year.
Treylon Burks, this is insane. pic.twitter.com/uSyVwybTnN
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 17, 2020
5. Alabama RB Najee Harris. It was easy to overlook Najee’s workmanlike role amid the fireworks in the passing game, but he played a central role in cementing the win over Georgia, churning out 152 yards on a career-high 31 carries (4.9 ypc) with a touchdown. Fourteen of those carries came on Bama’s last 2 possessions in the 4th quarter, which covered 20 plays in all and drained more than 11 minutes from the clock.
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The scoring system for players honored in Superlatives awards 8 points for the week’s top player, 6 for 2nd, 5 for 3rd, 4 for 4th, 3 for 5th, and 1 for honorable mention, because how honorable is it really if it doesn’t come with any points? The standings are updated weekly with the top 10 players for the season to date.