Weekly takeaways, trends and technicalities from the weekend’s SEC action.
The first rule of opening day: Don’t get carried away. It’s Week 1. We don’t know yet what we don’t know. Circumstances change. Teams evolve, devolve, and fall through random trap doors over the course of a season. They discover their identity somewhere in the middle, or lose it. New starters grow into their roles. Freshmen come around. Injuries take their inevitable toll. The fate of the entire team occasionally rests with the kicker. Heroes become goats, and vice versa. Whatever happens, proceed with caution.
The second rule: When a team like Georgia shows you who they are, it’s probably safe to go ahead and believe them.
Obviously, where the Kirby Smart-era Dawgs are concerned we’re no longer dealing in hypotheticals. Last year, their suffocating, 10-3 win over Clemson on opening night doubled as a mission statement, setting the tone for the rest of a defensively driven, counterrevolutionary run to the national title. The offense turned out to be much better than the lopsided debut suggested (it would have been impossible not to be), but the defense was undeniably the heart and soul of the campaign from the beginning to the end. For the 2022 edition, which opened its title defense projected as a double-digit favorite in every regular-season game, Saturday’s 49-3 disemboweling of Oregon was a new statement — one that announced loud and clear to the rest of America that this version of UGA is a fully operational Death Star across the board.
The defense, rolling out seven new starters under new coordinators Will Muschamp and Glenn Schumann, betrayed no hint of growing pains, forcing turnovers on 2 of Oregon’s first 3 offensive possessions (Bo Nix, hello) and holding the Ducks out of the end zone for the first time since 2017. Any lingering doubts about where the newcomers fell on the learning curve were eased in the first dozen or so plays and erased entirely by the fourth quarter. The offense, with the majority of last year’s lineup intact under third-year OC Todd Monken, was closer to a revelation. Defying their conservative rep, the Bulldogs spread the field, put the ball in Stetson Bennett IV’s hands from the jump, and achieved liftoff.
Their first 6 offensive possessions before Bennett called it a day yielded 6 touchdowns on sustained drives covering 85, 92, 56, 75, 64 and 75 yards, respectively, consisting of nearly twice as many passes (31) as runs (16). Looking every bit the part of a franchise QB, Bennett was 4/4 on 3rd-down conversions, connected on 6/8 passes that traveled 10+ yards downfield, and finished with a career-high 368 yards on 11.9 per attempt. He spread the wealth, hitting eight different receivers including running backs and tight ends. He made all the right decisions, including a couple of throwaways under pressure that accounted for 2 of his 6 incompletions. He also flat-out made plays.
Are we finished yet with the “game manager” business? Because it certainly appears that Bennett is, and with the full blessing and trust of the rest of the team. This space was as guilty as anyone last year of dismissing the former walk-on as a long-term solution for an outfit with Georgia’s expectations, and as far as the next level all the standard concerns about his Rudy-esque size and arm strength still apply. But at some point the results have to speak for themselves.
At this point, dwelling on the few remaining Stetson skeptics, if there are any, runs the risk of arguing with no one. Bennett finally proved in last year’s Playoff wins over Michigan — the best performance of his career prior to Saturday’s — and Alabama that he’s capable of leveling up against stacked defenses in high-stakes situations. Oregon’s not quite on that level, but the Ducks aren’t chopped liver, either; 11 of their top 15 defenders in terms of snap counts vs. Georgia are former 4- or 5-star recruits, all of whom came into the game with prior starting experience. At no. 11 in the preseason AP poll, they represented the highest-ranked opponent on UGA’s regular-season schedule; at No. 7 in 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite, they’re arguably the most talented, too. Monken and Bennett roasted them like some sacrificial offering from Conference USA. The film eaters at Pro Football Focus rang the Ducks up collectively for 20 missed tackles.
Before the season, it was tempting to look at the attrition from last year’s championship team and take for granted that the Bulldogs were due for at least a marginal step back. In college football, chaos comes for everyone. The rest of the SEC East is on the upswing, with above-the-fold quarterbacks at Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Like any other contender, Georgia is not immune from suffering a random lapse in a rebuilding year, for no reason in particular. Maybe they still are — again, it’s a long season, and one game is one game. Maybe Mario Cristobal saw the writing on the wall in Eugene when he decided to bail out last winter for the Miami job. Maybe Oregon made a huge miscalculation in hiring rookie head coach Dan Lanning from Smart’s staff to replace him.
Or, just maybe, in defiance of the laws of rebuilding, the Dawgs really are that good. If there’s a crack in the facade, it certainly wasn’t visible on Saturday, when all of the ostensible question marks were answered with gusto. Bennett’s stock only keeps going up. The surrounding cast is a nightmare to defend. The defense, until further notice, remains the defense. Anything can happen. But if this team so much as breaks a sweat before it arrives at the SEC Championship Game, it will be a massive upset.
Even by LSU standards, the final 4 minutes of Sunday night’s insane, 24-23 loss to Florida State were … well, insane. Right up there with the 7-OT game at Texas A&M and some of the crazier finishes of the Les Miles era, which is really saying something. Brian Kelly might turn out to be a perfect cultural fit, after all.
The game started slurring its speech with a little over 2 minutes to play, with LSU trailing 24-17 but preparing to get the ball back after forcing Florida State’s offense to go 3-and-out. The offense, coming off 82- and 75-yard touchdown drives on its previous two possessions, was finally lathered up after managing a solitary field goal in the first 40 minutes. Instead of a shot at a game-tying drive, however, disaster: Sophomore Malik Nabors, who’d previously muffed a punt in the first half, gakked up another one at the worst possible moment, gifting the ball back to the Noles inside the LSU 10-yard line.
At that point, with 2:15 left and LSU down to 2 timeouts, FSU could have easily drained the clock to roughly a minute before tacking on the clinching points. The Tigers’ situation was so desperate that ESPN’s color guy, Greg McElroy, pleaded with them to concede a touchdown just to get the ball back with (theoretically) enough time to score twice. But then, suddenly, that wasn’t necessary: On 3rd-and-goal, Florida State RB Treshaun Ward gakked it right back, resurrecting LSU’s microscopic comeback chances at its own 1-yard line with 1:20 to play.
From there, LSU QB Jayden Daniels proceeded to engineer what might have been, under different circumstances, a legendary drive to cap his first game as a Tiger. Already hot from the previous 2 touchdown drives, Daniels connected on 7/8 passes for 66 yards, ran for 38 more, and moved LSU to the doorstep of the tying score with 1 second on the clock. After a long, tense and convoluted review that we’re not going to even begin to unpack here — in the end, officials reaffirmed the spot at the 2-yard line and the lone remaining second, allowing LSU one final snap — Daniels hit paydirt, finding a wide-open Jaray Jenkins in the back of the end zone with triple-zeroes on the clock. The dramatic, improbable score tied the game, sending it to over– wait, hang on just a second, before we move on to extra time, there’s still the extra point to take care of first. Surely a mere formality!
As berserk as the final act was, the final play was not entirely random. Earlier in the game, Florida State’s Jared Verse had blocked a field-goal attempt just before halftime by crashing through the left side of the line. (Verse, fulfilling the preseason hype that followed his transfer from the FCS ranks, was generally unblockable throughout the night wherever he lined up.) After the game, Brian Kelly told reporters that led to a change in the field goal/extra point protection, which broke down on the decisive PAT when true freshman wing Mason Taylor (No. 86, on the left end) made the cardinal sin of blocking out instead of down, leaving the more direct path to the ball wide open. “That didn’t work,” Kelly said, stating the obvious.
An awful lot in this game didn’t work. LSU’s first possession was derailed in a goal-to-go situation when sophomore OL Garrett Dellinger, playing center for the first time in his life, sent Daniels scrambling after a wild snap. For most of the first 3 quarters, Daniels was erratic and out of sync with his receivers, especially headliner Kayshon Boutte, who had a couple of uncharacteristic drops and an obvious miscommunication with Daniels on a would-be touchdown pass that Boutte didn’t bother to get his head around to look for. Boutte, playing in his first game since a torn ACL cut his sophomore campaign short last year, finished with a disappointing 2 catches for 20 yards, both late in the game, and his frustration was palpable in his body language. (There were hints during the offseason that Boutte and Kelly didn’t have the smoothest relationship; inevitably, his no-show on Sunday night enflamed transfer speculation that, as of this writing, remains just that. The NCAA recently approved new transfer windows that restrict transfers during the regular season.) Two kicks blocked, 2 punts muffed, 4 sacks allowed, blown coverage on Florida State’s first touchdown — a sloppy night across all phases.
It’s no solace, but the fact that LSU had as many glaring issues as it did and still nearly crawled out of the grave to pull off a monumental comeback says something about something. (Although possibly more about Florida State and its assorted curses than about the Tigers.) Daniels weathered two-and-a-half meh quarters and strengthened his grip in the job in the fourth. The raw materials have never been in doubt. And of course, it was only the first game under a new head coach. But boy, did it look the first game under a new head coach.
College football is long overdue to reassess targeting penalties, specifically by drawing a distinction between more or less routine collisions that might technically fit the language in the rule book — the majority of targeting calls, it seems — and truly dangerous and/or dirty hits that need to be legislated out of the game. The flag on LSU’s Ali Gaye for attempting to fuse his skull with Florida State QB Jordan Travis’ in the third quarter was an increasingly rare example of the latter.
It’s almost impossible to get people to agree what targeting even is, much less how it should be enforced. So any collision that inspires universal consensus that the guy who instigated it deserves to get the boot is as egregious as they come. Gaye’s shot on Travis (who didn’t appear to miss a beat, fortunately) easily qualified. He missed the rest of the game and will sit out the first half of next week’s date against … uh, Southern?
Anyway, the fact that the consequences for such a blatant offense are the same as the consequences in the many more marginal cases like this one…
… is a gap that’s begging to be closed. It’s understandable that the NCAA and other invested parties are reluctant to agree to anything that might plausibly signify a rollback of rules aimed at player safety, even if it’s only with an eye toward potential liability in future lawsuits. A handful of lawyers speaks more loudly in this case than hundreds of thousands of nonplussed fans. But a “Tier 1” penalty for justifiably ejectable hits and a “Tier 2” penalty for the routine stuff is sitting right there. It’s not the latter doesn’t deserve to be addressed. It’s just that, in this case, one size does not fit all.
Is it possible to talk or write about Anthony Richardson without coming across like you’re sizing him up for Valhalla? His performance in Florida’s 29-26 win over Utah certainly didn’t make it any easier.
Statistically, Richardson was efficient but not spectacular, finishing 17/24 passing for 168 yards (no TDs, no INTs) with another 106 yards and 3 TDs rushing. At this stage of his career, as a redshirt sophomore who just played his first game as the Gators’ undisputed QB1, he’s clearly more comfortable as a runner than as a passer. As an athletic specimen, however, even the raw, unfinished product is a force.
Florida scored touchdowns on 4 of its 8 full possessions against the Utes, including back-to-back 75-yard touchdown drives on its last 2 possessions to take and retake the lead in response to Utah touchdowns going the other way. The enormous talent he flashed in just a handful of appearances last year is real.
He’s so gifted as a runner, and so obviously possesses all the tools to make the leap as a passer, that it’s tempting to feel like that leap is right around the corner. Patience is advised. Under Billy Napier, the Gators will be a run-first team in a similar vein to their identity under Dan Mullen, with the Richardson playing a feature role in the rotation alongside Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson Jr. and explosive true freshman Trevor Etienne, Travis’ younger brother. As long as defenses respect his arm, he has plenty of time to continue to grow into that aspect of his game while continuing to inflict most of his damage on the ground. And polish or no polish, there’s more than enough there to respect.
No one has ever doubted Bryce Young’s elusiveness in the pocket, which frequently jumped off the screen in 2021 and did again in the first half of Alabama’s 55-0 annihilation of Utah State.
Still, despite his obvious athleticism, he was a relatively reluctant runner last year, finishing with exactly zero rushing yards on the season after subtracting negative yardage on sacks, and he was a non-entity in the designed run game. (PFF had him down for 11 designed runs all year, including fumbled snaps.) In that context, his rushing line on Saturday — 107 yards and a touchdown on 4 carries before sacks — ought to raise some eyebrows. Most of that number came on one play, a 63-yard scramble in the second quarter on which Young spotted a seam off the left side of the line, outran the Aggies’ designated QB spy to the sideline, and instead of cruising out of bounds turned the corner to find himself all alone in the open field for a huge gain. But he also found daylight on scrambles of 18 and 22 yards in the first half, both of which eclipsed his longest gain on the ground in ’21 (16 yards), in addition to a 4-yard TD run to open the second half on what turned out to be his final snap of the night.
Does any of that reflect a fundamental shift in Alabama’s offense or the QB’s role in it? Not really. It’s not news to any defense in America that Bryce freakin’ Young can (potentially) run. It also had nothing to do with the play-calling. OC Bill O’Brien has spent most of the past 20 years in the NFL and has not suddenly added an option package to his repertoire; all of Young’s runs vs. Utah State came via scrambles. Young wants to market himself to the next level as a polished pocket passer with plus mobility in a pinch, not as an athlete who bails at the first sign of trouble, and at 194 pounds has no incentive to expose himself to any more hits than absolutely necessary.
Does it scare the hair off opposing defensive coordinators anyway? Of course. It was bad enough knowing Young can run. Knowing he will run just adds one more element to the already overwhelming futility of game-planning against him.
Carolina Block Party. After 8 months of anticipation, Spencer Rattler’s South Carolina debut was a forgettable one: He was picked twice and averaged a pedestrian 6.1 yards per attempt against Georgia State, a double-digit underdog from the Sun Belt. Shane Beamer’s emphasis on the kicking game, on the other hand, paid off with interest. In the first half, the Gamecocks’ first touchdown of the season was set up by a successful fake field goal that gifted the offense 1st-and-goal at the GSU 2-yard line. In the second half, with the game still very much in doubt, the Gamecocks blocked 2 punts, returning both for touchdowns that made the 35-14 final score look considerably more comfortable than it was.
A tip of the cap as well on the special-teams front to junior kicker Mitch Jeter, the only FBS kicker in Week 1 to nail 2 field goal attempts from 50+ yards out. It might be slightly premature to declare the triumphant return of Beamer Ball just yet. But considering Carolina recorded four kick/punt blocks last year, it’s definitely on the cusp of becoming A Thing. Monday Down South will continue to monitor the situation.
Georgia DL Jalen Carter. Carter barely registered on paper against Oregon, credited with a single tackle in the conventional box score and 2 QB pressures per PFF on 30 snaps. On film, the future first-rounder feasted as usual.
No. 71 for Oregon, Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu, is a former 4-star recruit listed at 6-6, 330 pounds. Saturday was his 17th career start. PFF graded him as Oregon’s best offensive lineman on the day. It was that kind of day.
Missouri was miserable against the run in 2021, firing its defensive line coach at midseason and going on to finish 124th nationally in rushing defense — dead last in the SEC. New year, fresh slate: In their 52-24 win over Louisiana Tech, the Tigers allowed a grand total of 8 rushing yards on 0.36 per carry, best in the nation on both counts.
The week’s best individual performances.
1. Georgia QB Stetson Bennett IV. Unlike a lot of upperclassmen in the graduate phase of their careers, Bennett just keeps getting better. Beyond the logistical crunch it created in roster management, the “super senior” experiment in the wake of the free COVID year might turn out to be even more consequential in terms of actual performance than anyone expected.
2. Alabama QB Bryce Young. As smooth as Young’s game is, his seamless transition from Fun Bryce to Business Bryce is on another level.
This week’s line: 295 total yards, 6 total touchdowns vs. Utah State. I anticipate he’ll be above the fold here this season more often than not.
3. Ole Miss RB Zach Evans and LB Khari Coleman. Evans and Coleman both transferred to Oxford from TCU, and both made an immediate impact in the Rebels’ 28-10 win over Troy. Evans, especially, lived up to the hype, racking up 130 yards on 6.5 a pop and leaving would-be tacklers crashing into each other like anonymous cartoon henchmen:
On the other side, Coleman was credited with 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and 4 QB pressures, for good measure. The Trojans’ only touchdown came well into garbage time.
4. Arkansas DB Dwight McGlothern. McGlothern, an LSU transfer, started in the nickel role in Arkansas’ 31-24 win over Cincinnati and locked it down, allowing 1 reception (for 12 yards) on 7 targets. He also recorded his second career interception, returning it 51 yards to set up a short-field for the Razorbacks’ first touchdown.
5. Georgia DB Christopher Smith. Smith led the highlight reels against Oregon with his second-quarter interception off Bo Nix, the official death knell for the competitive portion of the game. In addition to the pick, he finished with 6 tackles (including 1 for loss), a pass broken up, and a 92.1 PFF grade — the top individual grade of any individual SEC defender in Week 1.
Honorable Mention: Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson, who accounted for 285 total yards and 4 touchdowns (1 passing, 3 rushing) in the Razorbacks’ win over Cincinnati. … Mississippi State QB Will Rogers, who was 38/49 for 450 yds and 5 TDs in the Bulldogs’ 49-23 win over Memphis. … Auburn RB Tank Bigsby, who ran roughshod in the Tigers’ 42-16 romp over Mercer, finishing with 147 yards, 2 TDs, and an FBS-best 13 missed tackles forced per PFF. … Auburn edge rushers Eku Leota and Derick Hall, who combined for 11 QB pressures and 2 sacks against Mercer. … Texas A&M WR Ainias Smith, who hauled in career highs for receptions (11), yards (164) and TDs (2) in the Aggies’ 31-0 win over Kent State. … And Florida QB Anthony Richardson, who reinforced in the Gators’ win over Utah that the best is yet to come.
Updating the food chain.
1. Alabama (1-0). Nick Saban opened fire last week at the blatant disrespect fans and media were demonstrating toward Utah State, an opponent that in 2021 won its conference and finished in the Top 25. On Saturday night Bama led the Aggies 55-0 after 35 minutes.
1a. Georgia (1-0). The Bulldogs’ dominance begins with the surplus of blue-chip talent, but it doesn’t end there. The starting QB is a former walk-on and his primary receiver is a former 3-star whose other FBS offers were Vanderbilt, Georgia Southern, Kent State and Army.
3. Texas A&M (1-0). There wasn’t much Haynes King could have conceivably done to blow a shutout win over Sam Houston, but despite a solid stat line overall (20/31, 364 yards, 3 TDs) King’s 2 interceptions against the Bearkats stand out. In 2 full games as a starter — Saturday and last year’s season opener vs. Kent State — he’s thrown 5 INTs in just 66 attempts.
4. Florida (1-0). As far as expectations are concerned, beating a top-10 opponent at home in the first game of your first season in a rebuilding job is part blessing, part curse. Take care of Kentucky this weekend, at home, and a 7-0 start heading into the Georgia game is not out of the question.
5. Arkansas (1-0). Cincinnati is a major TBD case after losing the core of the last year’s Playoff run, but a win over a reigning Playoff team is a win over a reigning Playoff team. Arkansas’ offense was perfectly balanced with 224 yards rushing and 223 passing.
6. Tennessee (1-0). How long do you think Ball State worked on whatever this is?
Not long enough. The Vols scored on the next play and kept on scoring in a 59-10 massacre.
7. Ole Miss (1-0). There were fewer fireworks in the passing game than the Rebels are used to, but the revamped offense was perfectly cromulent against Troy with 4 extended touchdown drives in the first 6 possessions and no need to press with a comfortable lead thereafter.
8. Kentucky (1-0). The outcome was never really in doubt in the Wildcats’ 37-13 win over Miami (Ohio), but suspended RB Chris Rodriguez Jr. was conspicuous in his absence: The rest of the backfield rotation averaged a meager 3.6 yards per carry with a long gain of 9. Mark Stoops hasn’t confirmed how many games Rodriguez will miss in response to a DUI arrest in May, but most of the indications out of Lexington are that it’s expected to be more than one.
9. Mississippi State (1-0). Throughout his career Mike Leach has consistently ridiculed the idea of time of possession as a relevant statistic — he once called it “entirely idiotic” — but that doesn’t mean his teams can’t be good at it. The Bulldogs led the SEC in TOP last year at a little over 33 minutes per game, and hogged the ball for a whopping 41:11 in Saturday’s blowout win over Memphis, converting 11-of-13 3rd downs in the process. Whoever said the Air Raid isn’t a ball control offense?
10. LSU (0-1). You can change the coach, but you can never change the pure unadulterated chaos that is the beating heart of LSU football. It’s in the blood.
I spent the fourth quarter accounting for 167 yards and 2 TDs and he just… missed the extra point.
– – –
11. Auburn (1-0). As always, demolishing Mercer means very little going forward, but is certainly better than not demolishing Mercer. San José State’s up next before the Tigers’ first real test against Penn State.
12. South Carolina (1-0). The job of a major college football coach is a relentlessly competitive, 24/7/365 grind performed under the scrutiny of thousands of unforgiving strangers, often at the expense of mental and physical health and always at the expense of a normal home life. Nobody anywhere is having more fun doing it right now than Shane Beamer.
13. Missouri (1-0). All eyes in the Tigers’ opener against Louisiana Tech were on 5-star freshman Luther Burden III, the No. 1 wideout in the 2022 class. Although all 3 of his receptions on the night came within 2 yards of the line of scrimmage — he was 0-for-3 on targets beyond 20 yards, including a drop — Burden was still a factor, scoring twice in the win: First on a short throw into the flat in the second quarter on which he made 4 tacklers miss after the catch, and again later in a Wildcat role near the goal line. The degree of difficulty is only going to go up, and Mizzou’s capacity to push the ball downfield with Brady Cook and/or Jack Abraham behind center most likely is not. But as a rule, any meaningful contribution by a freshman receiver is a reassuring sign that he’s on the right track.
14. Vanderbilt (2-0). The Dores are 2-0 for the first time since 2018, with QB Mike Wright accounting for 10 total touchdowns in the wins. Don’t ask who they’ve played, just be happy for them.