Weekly takeaways, trends and technicalities from the weekend’s action.

In this week’s … edition of Monday Down South …

  • Alabama’s wide receiver angst
  • Auburn dreams of Kiffin
  • Players of the week and updated power rankings

… and more! But first:

Dawgs’ beat goes on

From the moment he agreed to be Georgia’s head coach, people have been describing Kirby Smart’s mission as an effort in reverse engineering the suffocating, physically imposing Alabama teams where he cut his teeth as defensive coordinator. Kirby’s teams, the line goes, succeed because they’re built in Bama’s image. As the years go by, though, the shape of that dynamic has slowly changed. With a little distance, maybe it’s time to start thinking that it always should have been the other way around.

After all, when the Dawgs evoke those vintage Crimson Tide teams, as they did to extremely powerful effect Saturday in a 27-13 beatdown of Tennessee, the common link is not Nick Saban or Bama, which began its evolution from a defensive juggernaut into a spread-passing juggernaut pretty much as soon as Smart left in 2016, but Kirby himself. Smart spent 8 years as Saban’s DC in Tuscaloosa, from 2008-15, roughly mirroring the last 7 years at his alma mater, and at its best, his defense now bears all the hallmarks of his defense then, back before anybody really thought of it as his. Statistically dominant, yes. Stacked with a surplus of blue-chip talent at every position, of course. But also patient, methodical, and inescapable, like a boa constrictor slowly squeezing the life out of an increasingly frantic victim.

Unless you’re specifically rooting for them, it is not fun to watch. Never has been, although it’s not always obvious at first just how grim the proceedings are going to be. The dismantling of Tennessee in the season’s most anticipated game to date was an anticlimactic masterpiece in the genre. The Vols were well-cast as the irresistible force to UGA’s immovable object, boasting an offense ranked No. 1 nationally in both yards and points per game and which had looked more explosive by the week. They scored first, capitalizing on a fumble on Georgia’s opening possession to go up 3-0, and immediately began to feel the squeeze. Their next 3 possessions were all quick punts, answered by 3 equally quick Bulldogs touchdowns; Georgia went up 21-3 less than a minute into the second quarter on Stetson Bennett IV’s third TD of the half, which would be the last for either side until well into garbage time. In between, the Dawgs spent the vast majority of the afternoon in suffocation mode.

Stuck playing catch-up, the same warp-speed video-game unit that just a few weeks ago seemed to dial up giant swathes of open grass at will en route to 52 points against Alabama found itself scratching and clawing for every yard. Hendon Hooker, arguably the best deep-ball passer in the college game, was just 1-of-5 on attempts of 20+ yards, the lone completion coming much too late to matter. His receivers averaged just 8.5 yards per catch, barely half their season average; Jalin Hyatt, the breakout star of Tennessee’s breakout October, was a non-factor.

Meanwhile, Hooker was pressured on 21 of his 47 dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, including seven sacks by six different UGA defenders. The Vols burned nearly 5 minutes off the clock to kick a second field goal, another 5 only to wind up punting, and 6 minutes on a tortured, last-gasp drive that ended with a turnover on downs. For an offense that made it look so easy in its first 8 games, there was suddenly zero margin for error, and plenty of error to go around.

In 22 games under Josh Heupel, Saturday was the worst in almost every category that matters: Points, total yards (289), yards per play (3.9), pass efficiency (113.3), 3rd-down conversions (14.3%), etc. Between the scoreboard, the deteriorating weather, the relentless pass rush, and the bloodthirsty crowd, by the fourth quarter Tennessee was in its own version of hell. For Georgia, it was barely distinguishable from any other regular-season game.

Smart’s defenses have been doing some version of this on a more or less weekly basis for 15 years now, often in front of millions who come away as bored as they are impressed. For most of his tenure in Athens, his reluctance to embrace a more aggressive downfield passing scheme like the ones Alabama and LSU rode to national championships was regarded as the major liability of a defensive coach too stubborn to adapt. He has made some concessions on that front, hiring Todd Monken to bring the offense into the 21st Century and embracing spread concepts like expanding the quick passing game as an extension of the run. It paid off in last year’s national championship run, and this year’s attack has taken another step forward even without a heavy-usage individual star who shows up on leaderboards and Heisman lists. Despite throttling down against the Vols, Georgia is still averaging 41.0 points and leads the nation in total offense vs. FBS opponents.

But Smart’s vision has always kept the defense at its heart, and as the explosion in offensive production that defined the past decade continues to level off, his commitment to what got him to this level continues to be vindicated. It won him his national title, and on the biggest stage of the regular season, in a game where it was widely assumed the Bulldogs would have to be at their best offensively to have a chance, the defense seized the opportunity to reassert itself as the dominant unit in college football.

They could still face a challenge to that assumption on the way back to the peak, most obviously from Ohio State’s next-level passing game in a hypothetical collision in the Playoff. (With Alabama’s unusually early exit from the CFP picture and Tennessee looking overmatched, Bulldogs-Buckeyes is the most likely championship game matchup by a wide margin.) If and when they get there, though, there’s no doubt which side of the ball will be the catalyst. As if on Kirby’s watch it could have been any other way.

Alabama has work to do at wideout

LSU’s 32-31 win over Alabama put the Tigers in the driver’s seat in the SEC West, marking the first of what they hope will be a long list of milestone victories under Brian Kelly. It also effectively eliminated the Crimson Tide from the national championship equation at the earliest point on the calendar in more than a decade, and all but guaranteed that Bryce Young — the most polished quarterback of the Saban era, and arguably the most accomplished — will leave campus without a national championship ring in 2 seasons a starter.

In a disappointing season, no position has been more disappointing than wide receiver. Typically, Alabama has had the luxury of taking its wideouts for granted: Prior to this year, at least 1 future first-round receiver has been on the roster in every season since 2012, and frequently more than 1. If anyone in the current crop is going to keep that streak alive, though, they’ve got a long way to go. The void was the big, red-alert question coming into the year, one the Tide tacitly acknowledged by adding 6 new players to the WR room via the transfer portal and the incoming recruiting class. No one has emerged from the pack: The team’s leading receiver in terms of yards, sophomore Ja’Corey Brooks, ranks 15th in the SEC, and the leader in receptions, true freshman Kobe Prentice, ranks 29th. There’s no steady possession type, no proven deep threat, no one whose YAC potential scares defenses in space. As a group, they’ve yet to graduate from the “potential” phase, and the drop-off from the typical Bama standard has been enormous.

The loss in Baton Rouge was a low point. Even when not being hounded by LSU’s pass rush, Young and his receivers were visibly out of sync, connecting just 11 times for 135 yards. Remove one big play, an ad-libbed, 41-yard touchdown on which Young spectacularly danced his way out of the grasp of multiple Tigers to find Brooks waiting all alone downfield, and that drops to 10 catches for 94 yards. None of the wideouts who saw the field caught a majority of the passes targeted in their direction; Brooks alone was targeted 17 times (including the broken play TD) with just 7 catches. Instead, Young was forced to manufacture the majority of the passing game with his running backs, Jahmyr Gibbs and Jase McClellan, and TE Cameron Latu, a trio that accounted for 18 of Young’s 25 completions and 188 of his 328 yards.

Receiver will be a major priority in the portal again this winter, although it will be a matter of adding quality, not quantity. There’s no shortage of bodies, most of whom came with high enough marks as recruits to remain in the mix at least through the spring.

The one departure you can take to the bank, other than Young’s, is offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. The bar at Alabama is set at the highest rung, and among the fan base, O’Brien has been in the crosshairs all year. (Maybe don’t call 51 passes in a close game when you’re struggling to complete them? I dunno, I don’t get paid $1.1 million.) Now, with the usual postseason goals all but out of reach, the pressure to move on will be overwhelming.

O’Brien’s name has been connected to various head-coaching vacancies, most notably Georgia Tech (where he’s a former assistant) and Nebraska — an ideal scenario for Saban, who’d much rather keep his track record of coordinators leaving for head-coaching jobs intact than have to fire a guy who called plays for a Heisman Trophy winner. One way or another, expect O’Brien to be making tracks soon either for the NFL or for the top job at a school that’s going to give him a contract it immediately regrets.

Obtaining Lane proceeds vainly on The Plains

Is Auburn a better head-coaching job than Ole Miss?

In a vacuum, definitely. In the past 50 years (that is, since integration) Auburn has 7 SEC championships, 6 top-5 finishes, 3 Heisman Trophy winners and the 2010 national championship — all columns where Ole Miss comes up empty. Prior to the doomed Bryan Harsin, each of the previous 4 Auburn head coaches since 1993 had an undefeated season or appearance in the national championship game; Ole Miss in the same span has yet to finish with fewer than 2 conference losses or win its division. And while all of those coaches were ultimately fired in the end, their counterparts in Oxford have come and gone at an even more dramatic rate. Auburn boasts significantly more revenue and a significantly higher recruiting budget, and that’s before accounting for the opportunities associated with NIL. Historically, it’s possible to win big with the Tigers on a level the Rebels have rarely glimpsed.

Is Auburn a better job than Ole Miss if you are Lane Kiffin, today, in November 2022? That’s a more interesting question. Kiffin, who has been front and center in the initial speculation over who will replace Harsin in a few weeks, is not weighing his options in a vacuum. He’s weighing it against the situation he’s already in, right now, which happens to have a lot going for it: Job security, a major financial commitment from the university, a high profile in a league where explosive growth in revenue sharing and media visibility have closed the gaps that separated the Have and Have-Not programs 25 years ago. And then there’s the simple fact that the Rebels are winning.

The Kiffin experiment has paid off in both directions. In Year 3, Ole Miss is already a Top-25 program with plausible staying power, having sustained the momentum of last year’s Sugar Bowl run despite dramatic turnover across the two-deep and the coaching staff. As it stands, the Rebels (8-1 with Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State ahead) are only an LSU loss from potentially controlling their own fate in the West and the Playoff race; regardless of how the rest of this season unfolds, they’re not going anywhere next year with QB Jaxson Dart, RB Quinshon Judkins and the vast majority of the current lineup likely back. (Factoring in the free COVID year, 20 starters in Ole Miss’ most recent win at Texas A&M are eligible to return in ’23, although some attrition is inevitable.)

They’re certainly closer to a breakthrough at the moment than Auburn. Man for man, the difference between the Tigers’ baseline talent level, which ranks 18th nationally according to 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite, and the Rebels’, which ranks 22nd, is negligible, and more fluid than ever in the age of the portal. Past trends don’t necessarily have any bearing on what happens next.

If you were in Kiffin’s shoes, would you cut the project short and liquidate your investment for the promise of bigger and better things at Auburn, in the current state of Auburn? The catch is, we’re not in Kiffin’s shoes. Speculate over the dynamics of enough head-coaching rumors over enough years and you’ll learn the hard way to never say never. Auburn and its new athletic director need to make a splash with this hire, and if Kiffin is the splashiest name they can come up with they have every reason to make him say no.

Kiffin, who has never exactly been known for his loyalty, might look at the opportunity on The Plains, and look at how a brief run of success at Ole Miss ended for David Cutcliffe, Houston Nutt and Hugh Freeze, and decide it’s time to get while the getting’s good. Either way, the fact that his name has gotten the traction that it has will force Ole Miss to pony up an obscene amount of cash to keep him, or to go after someone else who doesn’t feel like a major step down.

If it comes down to money, well, Auburn has more. If it’s about winning, betting he can take a hypothetical future version Tigers to a level he can’t take the actual Ole Miss team he has right now would be a heck of a gamble for a guy who’s already in the black.


The week’s best individual performances.

1. LSU Edge BJ Ojulari and LB Harold Perkins. LSU’s triumph over Bama started up front, with a pass rush that harassed Bryce Young from the jump and never allowed him to settle into a rhythm: Young faced pressure on 21 of his 55 dropbacks, per PFF, managing just 4 completions on 18 attempts under duress. Scratch the surface of those numbers, and you’ll find Ojulari and Perkins — an aspiring first-rounder on one side, and a 5-star freshman on the other just beginning to come into his own as an every-down player. Between them, Ojulari and Perkins accounted for 14 pressures and both of the Tigers’ sacks on the night, along with 9 stops (defined by PFF as tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense based on down and distance). Perkins’ 67 snaps against the Tide represented easily his most extensive action of the season, announcing his arrival as a full-blown problem just as Ojulari’s career is hitting the home stretch.

2. Georgia DL Jalen Carter. Carter spent the first half of the season idling due to a nagging knee injury, but his return to full-time duty against Tennessee was worth the wait. He set the tone for the rest of the afternoon on the Vols’ third offensive series, when he roared past his block, flattened Hendon Hooker in the end zone, and jarred the ball loose to force an apparent safety in a display of raw physical dominance.

OK, let’s be real here: An obvious safety, which officials declined to award for reasons nobody quite grasped, spotting the ball at the 1-yard line instead. (Not that it mattered; the subsequent punt set up Georgia’s offense with a short field, it cashed in on the first play thereafter, and the rout was on.) Carter later forced a second fumble in the Vols’ backfield in the fourth quarter, cementing the victory as well as the best individual PFF grade (92.7) of any FBS defender in Week 10.

3. Florida QB Anthony Richardson. Gas up the bandwagon! Coming off an underwhelming October, Richardson delivered his first “unlimited upside” performance in weeks against Texas A&M, accounting for 279 total yards (201 passing, 78 rushing), four touchdowns, and zero turnovers in a 41-24 win in College Station. The viral highlight, as usual, was a breakaway, 60-yard TD run in the first half that featured his electrifying combination of size and speed in the open field — his fourth run of the season of 40+ yards. But the play that had the draftniks humming was Richardson’s second touchdown pass in the third quarter, a 3rd-and-long strike on which he casually eluded two unblocked rushers off the edge (who then crashed into each other like cartoon henchman) and fired a 20-yard rope to his right while drifting off-balance to his left.

Richardson made a very similar play earlier this season against Tennessee, which prior to Saturday was exhibit A of his ability to maneuver the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield and finding an open receiver outside of the structure of the play. Of course, ability has never been the question. Before they convince him he’s ready to make the leap, Billy Napier should be reminding him as often as possible that what really matters is consistency within the structure, and that it’s at least another year away.

4. Alabama RB Jahmyr Gibbs. Gibbs held up his end of the deal against LSU, running for 99 yards on 6.6 per carry while adding 64 more on a team-high 8 receptions out of necessity. Blitz pick-ups notwithstanding — pass pro is not a strength, let’s leave it at that — few players offer more versatility with the ball in their hands: Of the 25 FBS backs over 1,000 yards from scrimmage this season, Gibbs is one of only two (along with Northwestern’s Evan Hull) who’s earned at least 30% of his total as a receiver.

5. Auburn Edge Derick Hall II. Auburn’s trip to Mississippi State was an emotional roller coaster, even before you account for the fact the Tigers were just a few days removed from firing their head coach. They fell hopelessly behind in the first half, trailing at one point 24-3; rallied in the second, eventually pulling ahead 33-30 with a little over a minute to go; and ultimately lost anyway, falling 39-33 in overtime. Amid the chaos, Hall was his usual disruptive self off the edge, generating six QB pressures, six stops, two sacks, and a forced fumble in another losing effort. Along with Texas A&M RB Devon Achane and Missouri WR Dominic Lovett, he’s a no-brainer finalist for the Patrick Willis Award, awarded at the end of the season by Monday Down South to the conference’s best player on a bad team.

Honorable Mention: Georgia RB Kenny McIntosh, who accounted for a team-high 109 scrimmage yards (52 rushing, 57 receiving) on 12 touches against Tennessee, his first 100-yard outing since the season opener. … Georgia DB Javon Bullard, who had 7 tackles and 2 sacks from his nickel role, both coming on the game-clinching drive in the fourth quarter. … Mississippi State LB Tyrus Wheat, who had 4 tackles for loss, including a couple of sacks, in the Bulldogs’ OT win over Auburn. … Florida DE Princely Umanmielen, who had 6 pressures, 2 TFLs and a strip sack in the Gators’ win at Texas A&M. … Arkansas LB Drew Sanders, who stood out on a dismal afternoon in Fayetteville with 4 TFLs in the Hogs’ 21-19 loss to Liberty. … Kentucky LB Trevin Wallace, who was credited with a team-high 9 tackles and 3 TFLs in the Wildcats’ win over Missouri. … South Carolina WR Antwane Wells Jr., who put up 110 yards and 2 TDs on 4 catches in the Gamecocks’ 38-27 win at Vanderbilt. … LSU DB Jarrick Bernard-Converse, who picked off 1 pass, broke up 2 more, and allowed just 2 receptions on 7 targets in the Tigers’ win over Alabama. … Bama’s pass-rushing rotation of Will Anderson Jr., Dallas Turner, and Byron Young, who combined for 13 QB pressures and 4 sacks. … LSU QB Jayden Daniels, who accounted for 277 yards and 3 TDs, plus the game-winning 2-point conversion, under heavy pressure in every sense of the word. … And Alabama kicker Will Reichard, who was 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts, including a clutch 46-yarder at the end of regulation that sent the game to overtime.

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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.

Obscure stat of the week

Missouri’s offense allowed 9 tackles for loss (including 2 sacks) in a 24-17 heartbreaker against Kentucky, matching a season high and bringing the Tigers’ season average to an SEC-worst 8.44 TFLs per game. That’s on pace for the highest per-game average for any SEC team since 2011, when Ole Miss allowed 9.0 TFLs per game in its final season under Houston Nutt.

SEC Power Rankings

Updating the food chain.

1. Georgia (9-0). The nation’s most talented roster counts for a lot, but it’s always worth remembering that neither the starting quarterback nor his favorite target were offered a scholarship by another Power 5 school. (Last week: 1⬌)

2. Tennessee (8-1). Hendon Hooker’s Heisman campaign may be on life support, but like the Vols’ Playoff hopes it’s not dead yet: He still ranks among the national leaders in total offense, Total QBR, and overall efficiency, and ought to be due for a strong finish against the bottom half of the division. A seat in New York is still on the agenda. (LW: 2⬌)

3. LSU (7–-). Tigers control their fate and Brian Kelly can talk however he wants. (LW: 4⬆)

4. Alabama (7-2). Both of the Tide’s losses have come down to the last play against top-10 opponents, but then so did their uninspiring wins over Texas and Texas A&M. Even if they win out to finish 11-2 — not a given with a trip to Ole Miss on deck — the 2022 team is neck-and-neck with 2010 as the most disappointing outfit of the Saban era. (LW: 3⬇)

5. Ole Miss (8-1). Blowing a 17-3 lead in Baton Rouge is going to haunt the Rebels for the rest of this year and maybe a few more to come. (LW: 5⬌)

6. Kentucky (6-3). Punter Colin Goodfellow made one of the plays of the day late in Kentucky’s win at Missouri when, with the Wildcats clinging to a 24-17 lead, he chased down a wild snap, gathered the loose ball on the run, and managed to get off a wayward but legally valid punt as a Mizzou rusher arrived at full speed.

The hit drew a flag for roughing the kicker — the correct call by the book, despite the botched snap and the very real possibility that Goodfellow might attempt to tuck and run in that situation — giving UK a fresh set of downs with a little over 2 minutes to go; that allowed the offense to run the clock under 40 seconds before punting it away with too little time for the Tigers to mount a coherent drive to force overtime. For his efforts, Goodfellow was carted off the field with what appeared (but has not been confirmed) to be a serious injury, while Kentucky fans expressed their gratitude by wiring him beer money via Venmo. (LW: 6⬌)

7. Mississippi State (6-3). On a strange night, no moment in the Bulldogs’ overtime win over Auburn was stranger than MSU kicker Massimo Biscardi pulling off a surprise onside kick after tying the game with 30 seconds left in regulation. Apparently, it was even a surprise to Mike Leach, who told reporters after the game it was an attempted squib kick that just happened to come off at the perfect angle to smack a stunned Auburn player in the chest. (LW: 7⬌)

8. Florida (5-4). Gators are not about to pretend a 4th-place finish in the East is anything to write home about, but the prospect of a 4-0 November capped by a win over an upwardly mobile version of Florida State will do for now. (LW: 9⬆)

9. Arkansas (5-4). Razorbacks outgained Liberty by 123 yards, but only as the result of a couple of too-little, too-late touchdown drives at the end of an otherwise stagnant afternoon. The ground game never got untracked, yielding season lows for rushing yards (144) and yards per carry (3.4) before the Hogs were forced to abandon it altogether. Up next: Spoiler dates against LSU and Ole Miss. (LW: 8⬇)

10. South Carolina (6-3). As always, beating Vandy is notable mainly for the relief that you didn’t go down as the team that somehow didn’t beat Vandy. But locking in bowl eligibility against the Commodores was also crucial with the Big Orange stretch of the schedule — Florida, Tennessee, and Clemson — leaving little margin for error over the next 3 weeks. (LW: 10⬌)

11. Missouri (4-5). Mizzou announced a contract extension for coach Eli Drinkwitz just before Saturday’s loss to Kentucky, locking him up through 2027 and officially dousing the hot seat as the Tigers limp toward a likely losing record in Year 3. Yes, most of those losses have been competitive, and occasionally very weird. But with Drink’s overall record in Columbia underwater (15-17) and recruiting lagging — 247Sports currently rates Missouri’s 2023 class last in the conference with six weeks to go until signing day — it’s hard to take a long-term show of confidence very seriously. (LW: 12⬆)

12. Texas A&M (3-6). Aggies were prepared to sacrifice the record for the sake of getting freshman QB Conner Weigman up to speed, but with his absence Saturday due to the flu the loss to Florida was just another tick in the wrong column. A&M’s 5-game losing streak is its longest since 1980. (LW: 11⬇)

13. Auburn (3-6). Last year, the Tigers blew a 28-3 lead vs. Mississippi State in a loss that signaled the beginning of the end for Bryan Harsin. This year, they came within a hair’s breadth of pulling off a comeback from 24-3 down vs. Mississippi State in the first game of the post-Harsin era. That probably doesn’t mean anything, but at least it felt like something for a few minutes, which made it arguably the high point of the season. (LW: 13⬌)

14. Vanderbilt (3-6). Commodores’ 3-1 start feels like a long time ago. In 6 games vs. Power 5 opponents they’re getting outscored by 27.5 points per game, slightly worse than last year’s margin of 26.2 ppg. (LW: 14⬌)

Moment of Zen of the week

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