Monday Down South: Harold Perkins raises the bar as LSU's SEC West crown raises the stakes
Weekly takeaways, trends and technicalities from the weekend’s action.
Harold Perkins has arrived
The postseason picture is firming up and LSU is riding high. Remember when this was a rebuilding year? That was barely a month ago! In the meantime, the Tigers have won 4 straight, clinched the SEC West, entrenched themselves in the top 10, and carved out a direct path to the playoff – all in defiance of nondescript expectations and a forgettable, 4-2 start to the season. Brian Kelly, object of so much offseason mockery, can talk however he wants.
So, in keeping with the spirit, before we get around to the, uh, slightly less optimistic business of sizing up their looming showdown with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, let’s start this week with the highest note of the Tigers’ 13-10 win at Arkansas: The emergence of true freshman LB Harold Perkins Jr. as a full-blown problem for the rest of the league for the foreseeable future.
Harold Perkins is going to be so good?
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 12, 2022
If QB Jayden Daniels is the face of the team’s ascent, Perkins is turning out to be the enforcer. The only 5-star signee in LSU’s 2022 class, Perkins was one of Kelly’s first big recruiting wins, flipping his commitment from Texas A&M a week before signing day. He spent the first half of the season flashing in a part-time role, averaging 19 snaps per game over the first 6 in edge, off-ball and nickel roles. Usually, that would be a sign that coaches haven’t quite decided yet whether they have an oversize safety on their hands, a conventional linebacker, or an undersized pass rusher.
In Perkins’ case, his combination of size and speed renders the distinction irrelevant. In the past 2 games following LSU’s open date, he’s graduated to a full-time role that divides his time between all three positions – 37 snaps off the edge, 47 as a box linebacker, and 48 in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus – and wreaked havoc from all of them, cementing his reputation almost overnight as a natural playmaker whose skill set falls somewhere between Micah Parsons and the Honey Badger.
Reckless comparisons for a player so early in his career? Sure, yeah. The exuberance that comes with watching a talent like Perkins coming into his own is part of the point. The sky is the limit, and the gap between potential and reality is closing fast.
Back in Week 3, he left a mark in his first SEC game, finishing with 5 QB pressures (per PFF) and 2 sacks in LSU’s win over Mississippi State. He recorded his first career interception against Auburn, on a trick play gone horribly wrong. In the first game of the current winning streak, he generated 4 pressures against Florida on just 9 pass-rushing snaps. He followed that up with 6 pressures against Ole Miss and 7 in his Week 10 breakout against Alabama, including 3 hits and a sack in each game.
His primetime harassment of Bryce Young on one of the longest nights of Young’s career felt like an arrival, and set the stage for Saturday’s monster performance in Fayetteville: 7 pressures, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and one eye-opening feat of athleticism after another. Arguably Perkins’ best rep of the game, an apparent strip sack that might have ended Arkansas’ comeback bid midway through the fourth quarter, didn’t even register in the box score after it was ruled an incomplete pass on review:
Harold Perkins has completely taken over this LSU-Arkansas game⭐️
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 12, 2022
So, with the game on the line on the Razorbacks’ next possession, he just … did exactly the same thing again, at the expense of a third-year, 4-star right tackle who outweighs him by 127 pounds, only a step faster this time to clinch the win and the division:
Harold Perkins. Again.
? ESPN pic.twitter.com/0KZbc9ihfT
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) November 12, 2022
He may as well have called his own shot. On a day that reportedly began with Perkins battling the flu, that’s how it ended: With the youngest player on the field asserting himself as the best.
The really frightening part is how much room he has to grow beyond the “my god, a freshman” phase, in every sense. Perkins is 18 years old. At (officially) 6-2/220, he’s still relatively light in the pants to play in the box, much less on the edge, and reliant on raw speed to blow past blockers before they can engage; he might be a couple of years and a couple hundred hours in the weight room away from consistently holding up as a complete, take-on linebacker rather than strictly a “see ball, get ball” style chaser.
He’s just getting his feet wet in coverage. And to the extent that he’s taken opposing offenses by surprise, he certainly won’t anymore. Double teams and Perkins-proofed game plans await.
But the list of players who arrive at that point in their career this early is a short one. Even with the phenoms and freaks, the schedule for emerging as a next-level difference-maker is Year 3. If he gets there in Year 2, he’s ahead of the curve. If he gets there in 2 months, he’s a born star. Perkins is there, right now, with barely 300 college snaps under his belt. And unfortunately for everyone on LSU’s schedule through 2024, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
First glance: Can LSU block Georgia?
As long as we’re on the subject of LSU as a Playoff contender, the enthusiasm over Perkins’ national coming-out party at Arkansas shouldn’t obscure the other side of the coin: The Tigers needed every last play that he made because their own offense was struggling to make any of its own, especially in the passing game. Jayden Daniels, coming off 3 highly efficient outings against Florida, Ole Miss and Alabama, was anything but on Saturday, turning in abysmal numbers in terms of passer rating (88.2) and Total QBR while finishing just 8-for-15 for 86 yards and throwing his second interception of the season.
That was largely due to pressure, which arrived early and often. On a dozen pressured dropbacks, Daniels was sacked 7 times, scrambled on 4 more, and managed to get off a single incomplete pass. That’s on the heels of games in which he was sacked 6 times by Alabama, 4 times by Ole Miss and 5 times against Tennessee, all in Baton Rouge. For the season, Daniels has taken more sacks (40) than any other Power 5 quarterback and has the highest pressure-to-sack ratio, defined as the percentage of pressure that result in sacks. For all his escapability, Daniels has been corralled at a higher rate under duress (34.5%) than any other full-time QB in a major conference. Against Arkansas, that number was over 50 percent.
Second of the day for Pooh, our SEVENTH overall pic.twitter.com/Ks51zb6hcs
— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) November 12, 2022
To some extent, that’s life behind a line with 2 true-freshman tackles, one of whom, RT Emery Jones, PFF has down for an alarming 25 pressures and five sacks allowed. But the interior hasn’t exactly been a rock, either (see above), and against Georgia, they’ll face the unenviable task of taking on the nation’s premier interior pass rusher, Jalen Carter, before they can even begin to worry about the myriad other ways the Dawgs can get to the quarterback. (Ask Tennessee.)
There are plenty of other concerns from LSU’s perspective, including the Tigers’ surprising lack of downfield juice despite an abundance of gifted wideouts. At first glance, though, protecting Daniels long enough to get the ball downfield in the first place stands out as the biggest, reddest flag the SEC Championship matchup has to offer.
Tennessee: Sitting pretty (probably)
Tennessee rebounded from its Week 10 flop at Georgia by hanging 66 points (most against an SEC opponent) and a school-record 724 total yards on Missouri, a message to the CFP committee that the Vols’ offensive prowess survived the beatdown in Athens intact. At 9-1 with no chance of playing in a conference championship game and presumptive wins over South Carolina and Vanderbilt on deck, Tennessee is effectively in the clubhouse with 2 marquee wins (over Alabama and LSU) offsetting its lone defeat.
UT also benefited from a random outbreak of chaos in the Pac-12, where Oregon and UCLA both suffered their second loss of the season on Saturday night, thereby significantly reducing the chances of a 1-loss Pac-12 champ potentially leaping Tennessee in the CFP rankings. Only USC (9-1) still has access to that path, and to survive it the Trojans have zero margin for error against Notre Dame, UCLA and an opponent to be named later in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Assuming they win out in suitably comfortable fashion, the Vols need some combination of these 4 results to feel good about their chances of securing 1 of the 4 Playoff slots:
- Georgia over LSU. Not that Tennessee has any interest in seeing Georgia again, but the fact is the Bulldogs are so far ahead of the pack that (like last year) they’re probably a lock for the CFP field regardless of the result in Atlanta. An upset by LSU would almost certainly punch the Tigers’ ticket without eliminating the Dawgs, very likely leaving the Vols in the cold unless every other domino falls their way.
- A USC loss. A strong finish that results in the 12-1 Trojans claiming a conference championship will very likely vault them ahead of Tennessee. A second loss in the next 3 weeks neutralizes that threat, no matter who administers it.
- A TCU loss. The Horned Frogs are undefeated at 10-0, but don’t have any wins as good as Tennessee’s over Alabama or LSU and don’t have a chance to get one. If the run the table, of course, they’re a lock. But a loss in any of their last three games (including the Big 12 Championship) should leave them looking up at the Vols.
- A Michigan/Ohio State loss in the Big Ten Championship Game. A pipe dream, considering the Wolverines and Buckeyes are both vastly better than whichever offensively challenged Dodge Grand Caravan of a team winds up representing the Big Ten West. But a hypothetical stunner in Indianapolis would knock the OSU/Michigan winner down several pegs at the worst possible time, and if it came down to deciding between the Vols and a tarnished B1G East champ it (again, it won’t) that’s an argument Tennessee has a fair chance to win.
The Vols could also stand to see the Ohio State/Michigan game turn into a blowout, in either direction, just to make sure the loser is clearly out of the picture and not in line to benefit from any “it’s a shame one side had to lose” sympathies that might follow a classic. But considering the odds of LSU, USC, and TCU all winning out are relatively distant, Tennessee is in good position for the No. 3 or 4 seed to fall safely in its lap.
Turning point of the week
Missouri looked briefly like it was going to give Tennessee a run for its money in Knoxville, scoring on its first possession out of halftime to narrow the Vols’ lead to 28-24 midway through the third quarter. That margin held for all of 2 plays, when the Tigers became the latest defense to leave Jalin Hyatt inexplicably wide open for a long, uncontested touchdown …
HYATT HOUSE CALL pic.twitter.com/zr8468VjxK
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 12, 2022
… and suddenly the rout was on. From that point, Mizzou didn’t score again, while Tennessee hung another 31 board on scoring drives consisting of 3, 8, 4, 2, and 5 plays, respectively, en route to a 66-24 final score that betrayed no hint of having ever been close.
The week’s best individual performances.
1. LSU LB Harold Perkins Jr. Are we buying the line that Perkins, who was apparently sick himself before his dominant turn at Arkansas, didn’t know who Michael Jordan was when Brian Kelly mentioned the famous “flu game” in the 1997 NBA Finals?
Brian Kelly said Harold Perkins was sick before the game with the flu.
Told him MJ played his best game ever when he was sick.
Perkins: “Who’s MJ?” pic.twitter.com/QQ9GQxJTuA
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) November 12, 2022
OK, the kid was born in 2004, but given that Michael Jordan is in the running for the title of Most Famous Person On Earth, I think we can chalk this up to either a) a joke about Perkins’ youth that wasn’t meant to be taken at face value, or b) an exaggeration of his response. It’s not hard to believe that a teenager hasn’t heard of the Flu Game — actually the Food Poisoning Game, if you take Jordan’s word for it — or that “MJ” wouldn’t automatically ring a bell. Right? I don’t think I’m prepared to confront the alternative just yet.
2. Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker. If voters were wavering after last week’s no-show against Georgia, Hooker emphatically restated his Heisman case against Missouri, bombing the Tigers for 355 yards and 3 TDs on 10.1 per attempt in a blowout. (He added a 4th touchdown on the ground.) The majority of that output went to his top two receivers, Jalin Hyatt and Bru McCoy, who combined for 257 yards on 16 catches — the 6th time in 10 games this season that 2 Tennessee receivers have combined for 200+ yards.
3. Georgia DT Jalen Carter. Carter spent the first half of the season battling a lingering knee injury, and has dedicated himself since to reminding everyone that he remains the most unblockable interior d-lineman in the college game. In last week’s win over Tennessee, he set the tone with a monster strip sack in the first quarter, then put the game on ice by forcing a second fumble in the fourth. In Saturday’s 45-19 win over Mississippi State, he was even more active, registering 2 tackles for loss, his second sack in as many weeks, and 5 stops (defined by PFF as tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense based on down and distance).
Jalen Carter is just TOO quick ? pic.twitter.com/igJ3P9h8He
— NFL Rookie Watch (@NFLRookieWatxh) November 13, 2022
Count me among the believers who insist that if he hadn’t sprained his knee on literally the first snap of the season against Oregon, Carter would be at least a dark-horse Heisman candidate representing the dominant unit on the nation’s dominant team. As it stands, he’ll have to settle for being one of the most coveted prospects in next year’s draft.
4. Florida’s ground game. All 6 of the Gators’ wins this season have been productive, run-first affairs, and none more so than Saturday’s 38-6 romp over South Carolina. Between them, the 3-man rotation of Anthony Richardson, Montrell Johnson Jr., and Trevor Etienne combined for a season-high 357 yards and 3 TDs on 7.6 per carry, the largest chunk of that coming on an 85-yard touchdown run by Etienne that put them up 21-0 in the first quarter and effectively ended any suspense about the outcome. Along with last week’s well-balanced, 41-24 win at Texas A&M, that may be our best example yet of the best-case scenario for Billy Napier’s offense. If he has his way, every Florida game will unfold as closely to that script as possible.
5. Vanderbilt QB Mike Wright. Vandy! The Commodores snapped a 3-year, 26-game SEC losing streak Saturday at Kentucky, dealing the Wildcats one of their worst losses of Mark Stoops’ tenure in a 24-21 upset. Wright, starting in place of the injured AJ Swann, was the man of the hour, accounting for 310 yards (184 passing, 126 rushing) and 2 touchdowns, including a 59-yard sprint that kicked off the scoring for the ‘Dores in the first quarter.
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) November 12, 2022
Trailing 21-17 in the fourth, Wright oversaw a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that featured a 40-yard completion on 4th-and-11 and the game-winning strike to his top receiver, Will Sheppard, with 32 seconds to play. Wright has bounced in and out of the starting job over the past two years, never managing to hold it for more than a few weeks at a time on a provisional basis. As of roughly 4 pm ET on Saturday afternoon, he is firmly in until further notice.
Honorable Mention: Alabama DL Byron Young, who had an active afternoon at Ole Miss with 11 tackles, a forced fumble, a deflected pass, and a clutch sack that helped seal a 30-24 Bama victory. … Auburn DL Colby Wooden, who led the Tiger’’ assault on Conner Weigman with 7 QB pressures and a strip sack. … Auburn RBs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter, who racked up exactly 121 yards apiece against the Aggies on a combined 6.7 per carry. … LSU RB Josh Williams, who ran for a career-high 122 yards and a touchdown on 6.4 per carry against Arkansas. … Ole Miss RB Quinshon Judkins, who gashed Alabama for 135 yards and 2 short TDs in a losing effort. … Kentucky RB Chris Rodriguez Jr., who held up his end of the deal in the Wildcats’ loss to Vanderbilt, running for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns on 9.0 per carry. … Texas A&M DB Antonio Johnson, who stood out on an otherwise dismal night for the Aggies with 10 tackles, 2 TFLs, and a forced fumble at Auburn. … Tennessee DE Tyler Barron, who had 4 TFLs and a sack opposite the Vols’ offensive bonanza against Mizzou. … Missouri QB Brady Cook, who set career highs for total offense (323 yards) and QBR (83.3) in the loss. … And Georgia WR Ladd McConkey, who accounted for 141 yards in the Bulldogs’ win at Mississippi State: Half of it coming as a receiver, and the other half coming on a 70-yard touchdown run out of halftime that extinguished any flickering hopes of an upset.
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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.
Fat guy of the week
Florida DT Desmond Watson. At 6-5, 415 pounds, Watson has drawn attention early in his career mostly for his galactic dimensions, but he’s beginning to emerge from a curiosity into a legitimate force in the middle of the Gators’ defensive front. Against South Carolina, he played a big role — literally and figuratively — in holding the Gamecocks to 44 yards rushing, earning the weekend’s top overall PFF grade for any FBS player (95.7) on just 17 snaps. At one point, Big Dez ripped the ball from the hands of the Gamecocks’ Jaheim Bell at the line of scrimmage, spun out of the scrum like a dog who just snatched a pork chop off the counter, and produced this instantly iconic photo:
To his credit, Spencer Rattler actually managed to hold his own enough to get the big man to the ground at the Carolina 12-yard line, although Florida scored a few plays later to extend its lead to 31-6. In the end, Saturday was a light day’s work for Watson, who averaged nearly twice as many snaps over the Gators’ first nine games. As long as his conditioning holds up, keeping him on the field should be a much higher priority.
Obscure stat of the week
Ole Miss was 0-for-3 on 4th-down conversions against Alabama, the first time in Lane Kiffin’s tenure the Rebels have failed to convert at least once when going for it multiple times. They opened the game with a turnover on downs, coming up short on 4th-and-2 at the Bama 12-yard line, and closed it with back-to-back fourth-down failures on their final two possessions.
SEC Power Rankings
Updating the food chain.
1. Georgia (10-0). Dawgs are not above playing with their food on occasion, but right now the only other team that even seems capable of making it interesting against the defending champs in a game that matters is Ohio State. (Last week: 1⬌)
2. Tennessee (9-1). Vols put together 8 extended touchdown drives against Missouri covering 65+ yards, although your definition of “extended” may vary: 3 of those drives took three plays or less, and none took more than 2:30 off the clock. (LW: 2⬌)
3. LSU (8-2). An SEC road win to clinch the division is an SEC road win to clinch the division, but the offense’s struggles at Arkansas marked the first time in the current winning streak either side of the ball has regressed from one week to the next. (LW: 3⬌)
4. Alabama (8-2). Bama’s offense has regressed significantly this season in the absence of a reliable ground game or reliable receivers, or reliable anything outside of the quarterback. Even when his numbers are down, though, Bryce Young still does a handful of things in every game to remind you he’s the best player on the field. (LW: 4⬌)
5. Ole Miss (8-2). Rebels have still never made it as far as the Egg Bowl with a shot to win the West. After blowing a second-half lead against Bama, Lane Kiffin sounded like a man who realizes he may only have so many opportunities to get over the hump. (LW: 5⬌)
6. Florida (6-4). Gators have played 2 of their best games the past 2 weeks in convincing wins over Texas A&M and South Carolina and have a chance to be one of the few teams in the league that feels good about their direction heading into 2023. But that will require beating a Florida State team that’s on a significant upswing lately itself. (LW: 8⬆)
7. Mississippi State (6-4). Bulldogs will beat East Tennessee State this weekend to improve to 7-4, setting up a Thanksgiving trip to Oxford that will largely determine whether this season goes down as a step forward in Mike Leach’s third year or a collapse following a 6-1 start. As it should be.
8. Kentucky (6-4). Half the conference has sweated out the prospect of falling victim to the inevitable Vandy upset and Kentucky finally took that bullet. Will Levis is not right physically. Somehow the Wildcats are still not in as bad a shape as the rest of the teams immediately below them. (LW: 6⬇)
9. Arkansas (5-5). Razorbacks still have some fight but bear little resemblance at this point to the outfit that cracked the top 10 for a couple of weeks in September. With Ole Miss and Missouri on deck, bowl eligibility is hardly a foregone conclusion. (LW: 8⬌)
10. South Carolina (6-4). Similarly, it’s going to be hard to convince anyone this offseason that the Gamecocks were actually ranked for one week in late October. At least they’re going to a bowl game, although on the other side of their season-ending dates against Tennessee and Clemson they won’t necessarily feel good about it. (LW: 10⬌)
11. Auburn (4-6). Tigers fans were deep in their feelings Saturday night after interim coach Cadillac Williams led his alma mater to its first win in 6 weeks, which, fair enough: It’s been that kind of year. Still, if they’re going to get carried away and promote a familiar face with relatively minimal coaching experience to the full-time job in a fit of emotion, at least wait until he beats Alabama to do it. (LW: 13⬆)
12. Missouri (4-6). Mizzou bid against itself to give Eli Drinkwitz a $2 million raise and lost its next game by 42 points. He’ll have to run the table, including a bowl game, to even up his overall record through 3 years. (LW: 12⬌)
13. Texas A&M (3-7). It’s impossible to imagine the Aggies have sunk low enough to lose as an approximately 5-touchdown favorite against UMass, right? We’re all totally sure there’s no way that can ever happen? OK, just checking. (LW: 11⬇)
14. Vanderbilt (4-6). It’s official: The streak is dead.
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) November 13, 2022
Twenty-six consecutive conference losses falls well short of the SEC record of 37 straight, set by founding member Sewanee from 1933-39, a run of futility that was never in real danger and probably never will be. But at least the ‘Dores can stop thinking about it for a little while. (LW: 14⬌)
Moment of Zen of the week
Jaxson Dart was okay after this facemask penalty. pic.twitter.com/U9o1QXCxgP
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 12, 2022
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