Week 6 SEC Primer: Another test for Tennessee, another chance to make the next one even bigger
Breaking down the weekend’s SEC slate, all in one place.
Game of the Week: Tennessee (–3) at LSU
For Tennessee, 4-0 and ranked No. 8 in both major polls, everything is on the table. The Volunteers passed their first 2 legitimacy tests, outlasting Pittsburgh in overtime and Florida in a raucous, big-game atmosphere in Knoxville, turning QB Hendon Hooker into a legitimate Heisman contender in the process. And while we can’t declare them all the way back until they go toe-to-toe against Alabama and/or Georgia, for those games to be as meaningful as they used to be when Tennessee took its relevance for granted, a win in Baton Rouge is the next level the Vols must clear. Get to 5-0 with Bama on deck, and next Saturday will be the biggest event in Neyland Stadium in close to a generation.
LSU, which just cracked the AP poll for the first time this season at No. 25, isn’t thinking quite as big — although it might be if it had finished off its wild opening-night comeback against Florida State, the botched PAT at the end of regulation in that game being the only thing standing between the Tigers and a perfect record. In the meantime, wins over Mississippi State and Auburn have steadied the vibes, and the pending collapse at Texas A&M has opened a lane for LSU to emerge as a dark horse in the West. If nothing else, a top-10 win in his 1st try would go a long way toward reassuring the home crowd that Brian Kelly is cut out for the SEC.
The stat: 4.05 points
That’s the average points per possession scored by Tennessee’s offense this season, according to efficiency guru Brian Fremeau, good for 4th nationally behind only Ohio State, Georgia and USC. That represents a nearly 40 percent increase over last year, when the Vols ranked 17th at 2.92 points per possession.
At this point in the season, the number is skewed, obviously, by blowout wins over Ball State in the opener and Akron in Week 3; Tennessee scored almost every time it touched the ball in the “competitive” portions of both of those games. (Fremeau’s numbers exclude garbage time.) But it held up in the win over Florida, when the offense scored 38 points on 9 possessions (4.22 ppp) and didn’t punt once despite starting all but 1 drive inside its own 40-yard line. The Gators successfully limited Hooker’s opportunities with the ball, racking up a 10-minute advantage in time of possession and punting only once themselves. But they never really stopped him, as reflected in his 461 total yards. Every chance an opposing defense has to get the Vols off the field is an urgent one.
The big question: Is LSU’s passing game OK?
QB Jayden Daniels has been knocked out of each of the past 2 games with assorted aches and pains: He left the Tigers’ Week 4 win over New Mexico with a sore back after taking one too many gratuitous hits with the game well in hand, and lasted just long enough in last week’s come-from-behind win at Auburn to oversee the go-ahead touchdown drive in the 3rd quarter before sitting out the 4th due to a sore knee. Kelly confirmed this week that Daniels will play, but his mobility (his best asset) and his durability are both concerns.
More importantly, so is his rapport with his wide receivers. Between Kayshon Boutte, Malik Nabers, Brian Thomas Jr., Jaray Jenkins and Jack Bech, LSU’s depth at the position was supposed to be arguably the team’s biggest strength. It has not been, to say the least. Big plays have been few and far between — the Tigers have just 9 completions of 20-plus yards, easily the fewest in the SEC — and no individual wideout has been immune from the overall dysfunction. The ostensible headliner, Boutte, was visibly frustrated in the opener against FSU and has averaged just 8.6 yards on 9 catches since; after scoring 9 touchdowns in the first 5 games last year, he has yet to hit paydirt once. Against Auburn, the wideouts as a group dropped as many passes they caught (4) and accounted for a grand total of 32 yards. That’s combined.
It’s impossible to imagine a rotation with that much talent and no reported injuries achieving that level of futility 2 weeks in a row, especially against a Vols defense allowing more than 300 yards per game through the air. But it’s impossible to imagine it keeping pace with an offense as productive as Tennessee’s without more downfield juice, too. Kelly explicitly stressed this week that Daniels (who, to his credit, has yet to throw an interception after throwing 10 picks last year with Arizona State) needs to be more aggressive and “on that edge” between confidence and recklessness. Daniels has stayed about as far from the edge as possible, but if he can find that space without crossing the line, the results with this cast could still be as explosive as they were supposed to be.
The key matchup: Tennessee OTs Gerald Mincey and Darnell Wright vs. LSU edge BJ Ojulari
Mincey, a 3rd-year transfer from Florida, mans the left side of the line; Wright, a former 5-star recruit with 33 career starts under his belt, mans the right side after holding down the LT job in 2021. Both are listed at 6-6, 335, and neither has allowed a sack this season in a combined 282 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. In Ojulari, though, they’re lining up opposite one of the best pure pass rushers in the college game. In the 3 games he has played (vs. FSU, Mississippi State and Auburn), he has wreaked havoc in all of them, chalking up 18 QB pressures, 5 sacks and — when his team desperately needed a play — the “strip 6” that sparked last week’s rally at Auburn.
What. A. Play.
? ESPN pic.twitter.com/tihmFnoFIq
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) October 2, 2022
Hooker has been sacked 9 times through the first 4 games, a big improvement over the SEC-worst 41 sacks he took last year. Of the 31 dropbacks on which he has faced some type of pressure, PFF has marked Hooker as responsible for only 1 of them (as opposed to his protection), the lowest “allowed pressure” rate in the SEC. He’s getting rid of the ball on time and scrambling significantly less often. That needs to continue, because any hesitation or lingering in the pocket where Ojulari is involved is a disaster waiting to happen.
Tennessee’s offense is on track for a special year: 1st nationally in total offense, tied for 2nd in scoring, 3rd in offensive SP+, 5th in yards per play. Those are the kinds of numbers Josh Heupel was hired to deliver. And although they’re bound to return to earth as the degree of difficulty rises in the conference slate, Hooker’s hyper-efficient performance against Florida (with his best receiver, Cedric Tillman, on ice) was a glimpse of what the Vols are capable of. If LSU’s defense is better than Florida’s, it’s not by nearly enough to bail out another sketchy offensive outing like the one it turned in at Auburn. If they’re going to be more than a fringe top-25 team, the Tigers have to get more explosive, starting now.
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• Tennessee 31 | LSU 27
Bryce Young‘s status remains a mystery. He is listed on the weekly depth chart, for what it’s worth (not much), and Nick Saban has been relatively nonchalant about the severity of Young’s sprained shoulder, repeatedly describing the situation this week as “day to day.” Young participated in practice to an unknown extent (“He’s doing some things,” per Saban), and his availability on Saturday night is looking like a game-day decision. If colleges put out official injury reports like the NFL, he’d be designated “questionable.”
At any rate, the very large point spread indicates that Vegas a) assumes Young is playing; b) doesn’t expect much dropoff from the reigning Heisman Trophy winner to largely untested backup Jalen Milroe in his 1st career start; or c) doesn’t think Texas A&M has much fight left in it either way. It’s tempting to compare the Aggies’ situation to the same point on the calendar last year, when they kicked off against Bama as unranked, 18-point underdogs and sprang the upset of the year. They went into that game with the same 3-2 record, the same looming question mark behind center, the same furious speculation over Jimbo Fisher‘s job security, and the same sinking feeling coming off a bad loss to Mississippi State that the season was already a lost cause. Instead, they responded with the biggest win of Fisher’s tenure.
But the idea of the current team pulling off the same ambush on the road is a much harder sell. The Saban-era Tide have never lost 2 in a row to the same opponent. Opposite a more competent offense, A&M’s defense might have enough going for it to keep the score plausibly within reach, especially if Young is on ice. Opposite A&M’s actual offense, plausibility doesn’t stretch that far.
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Alabama 32 | • Texas A&M 13
Georgia’s defense has allowed exactly 22 points each of the past 2 weeks to Kent State and Missouri, more than it allowed in any game last year except the SEC Championship loss to Alabama. Bama was also the only opposing offense in ’21 to eclipse the Kent/Mizzou average of 5.5 yards per play. Maaaaybe replacing 6 1st-rounders and the coordinator from one of the dominant units of the past decade isn’t as easy as “next man up,” after all.
Anyway, once again this week the comparison is only relevant to the margin of victory. Auburn’s offense did show some signs of life last week behind QB Robby Ashford, who led 3 extended scoring drives in the 1st half against LSU but still found ways to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot in the course of blowing a 17-0 lead. Ashford is nowhere near ready to carry the offense with his arm in his first road start. The Tigers’ best assets on offense are still the running backs, Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter, but beyond the possibility of popping a big gain or 2 — and even with the Dogs’ dominant DT, Jalen Carter, on the shelf — the notion of “establishing the run” against Georgia remains strictly hypothetical.
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Georgia 37 | • Auburn 16
Outside of Tuscaloosa, the other big QB status report this week involves Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson, who sat out the end of last week’s loss to Alabama after banging his head on the turf during a sack. (Jefferson actually exited for 1 play, then came back on 3rd down to loft a badly off-target pass in the end zone; he didn’t return after that.) Coach Sam Pittman pointedly avoided the word “concussion” this week, but he confirmed that Jefferson hit his head, has been limited in practice and will likely be a game-time call in Starkville. Meanwhile, the point spread has moved nearly a full touchdown in Mississippi State’s direction since opening at MSU –3.
If Jefferson is out, the Razorbacks will go with either 5th-year transfer Cade Fortin, who finished the Bama game, or redshirt sophomore Malik Hornsby, whose handful of snaps this year have come exclusively at receiver and running back, or some combination thereof — whoever has “the hot hand,” in Pittman’s words. Both could play in a kind of pocket/Wildcat rotation. If It comes to that, though, it will just be another reminder of how valuable Jefferson is for his ability to do both.
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Mississippi State 34 | • Arkansas 26
Missouri has missed huge opportunities each of the past 2 weeks, biffing not just 1 but 2 game-winning plays against Auburn and blowing a 10-point 4th-quarter lead against Georgia. The Tigers’ chances of landing on the right side of the line in Gainesville might hinge on the status of the SEC’s leading receiver, Dominic Lovett, who’s 50-50 to play Saturday after leaving the UGA game with an apparent ankle injury. He was sorely missed in the 2nd half of that one, and will be again if he can’t go against the Gators.
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Florida 31 | • Missouri 23
Ole Miss is generally cast as a high-flying, shootout-friendly outfit, but so far this version doesn’t fit the stereotype at all: The Rebels rank in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense (7th), yards per play allowed (11th) and defensive SP+ (16th) while putting the ball in the air less often than any SEC offense except Arkansas. There’s still plenty of time for that to change, but probably not against the league’s resident doormat.
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• Ole Miss 38 | Vanderbilt 17
The scouts are here for the quarterbacks, Will Levis and Spencer Rattler, both of whom are on the clock as 2023 prospects. But the 2 most intriguing talents on the field might be a couple of hyped young wideouts, Kentucky’s Barion Brown and South Carolina’s Antwane Wells Jr., who have made a fast impression in their 1st year on campus. Brown, a top-100 prospect from Nashville, broke out in a big way last week in the Wildcats’ loss at Ole Miss, accounting for 245 all-purpose yards on just 5 touches as a receiver and return man; for the season, he already has 5 plays of 50-plus yards, most in the nation, 4 of which came against the Rebels.
Kentucky true freshman WR Barion Brown is an explosive special team weapon. All of his plays from his game against Ole Miss. Enjoy! ? pic.twitter.com/8ccVRdEgyI
— Brandon Lejeune (@DevyDeepDive) October 1, 2022
Wells, a transfer from James Madison who had a brief but prolific career in the FCS ranks, is a couple weeks removed from his Week 2 statement game at Arkansas, where he hauled in 8 catches for 189 yards and 1 touchdown. He has been quieter since, but he still comes in as Carolina’s leader in both categories. If the Gamecocks have an upset in them, he’ll have a big part in it.
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• Kentucky 29 | South Carolina 20
Week 4 Record: 5–0 straight-up | 2–3 vs. spread
Season Record: 38–6 straight-up | 17–25 vs. spread