SEC Week 4 Primer: Notre Dame has the chip on its shoulder, but Georgia has the players
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: Notre Dame at Georgia (-14.5)
It’s a nonconference collision of 2 instantly recognizable brands ranked in the top 10, which means legitimate Playoff implications. No other regular-season matchup in college football this year will pit 2 head coaches or 2 starting quarterbacks who have previously led Playoff runs at their current schools. More than that, though, no other matchup will carry quite as much intersectional baggage.
There’s no reason to be subtle about this: Every game is important for Georgia’s larger goals, but in terms of broader national perception there’s no doubt that It Just Means More for Notre Dame. The double-digit point spread should tell you all you need to know about where the Fighting Irish stand in the public’s mind relative to the real contenders. And for good reason, because the public has spent the better part of 2 decades now watching the Irish repeatedly bite the dust in their biggest games, against the SEC and everyone else.
By no means is this a Brian Kelly thing. Last year’s semifinal flop against Clemson is the salient data point for the current team, but that’s mostly because it continued a longstanding trend of futility against elite competition.
Since 2000, Notre Dame is 6-25 against top 10 opponents (as of kickoff) under 4 head coaches, losing by nearly on average by nearly 2 touchdowns per game. In the same span it’s 0-6 in major (BCS and Playoff) bowls, losing by an average of 24 points.
Prior to last year’s win over then-No. 7 Stanford — which went on to finish unranked — the Irish had lost 14 of their past 15 vs. top 10 opponents going back to 2005. That’s also the last time they beat a top 5 team. In the meantime, they’ve lost 10 consecutive, 8 by double digits.
Not that anyone playing Saturday night cares about the final scores of games played when they were in grade school, nor should they. The Irish do care, however, about their chances of playing for a national championship in 2019, which will effectively drop to zero if they fail to overturn the prevailing narrative in what might be their only opportunity against a Playoff-level opponent.
Georgia can absorb an early upset and still have a path to redemption by winning the SEC; the Bulldogs’ put-up-or-shut-up moment will come in the conference championship against Alabama or LSU. For Notre Dame, this is it.
The stat: 29
That’s the most pass attempts Jake Fromm has recorded in any of his 26 wins as Georgia’s starting quarterback. In fact, he’s hit that number twice: In the Bulldogs’ wild, overtime win over Oklahoma in the 2018 Rose Bowl, and in his first career start earlier that season, a 20–19 win at … Notre Dame.
Fromm was hardly the star of the show in that one, finishing with 141 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT on a paltry 4.9 yards per attempt. But it is telling that 2 years later the Jake Fromm Rule remains very much in effect: Par for the course in Georgia’s offense is about 20 passes (give or take), and the higher Fromm goes above that number the worse the implications are for the team. When he attempts 30 or more, the Bulldogs are 0-4.
Of course, that says much less about Fromm, a potential first-round talent who is more than capable of holding his own in a shootout — even if he’s rarely had the chance — than it does about UGA’s run-first philosophy in general.
On that front, the Dogs are off to a fine start, averaging an SEC-best 286.7 yards over their first three games on a healthy 7.6 per carry, and that’s with the electric D’Andre Swift (290 yards on 9.4 ypc) yielding the bulk of the workload so far to the less heralded members of the rotation in blowouts.
Notre Dame’s defense, on the other hand, has looked surprisingly vulnerable against the run: Both Louisville (249 yards on 5.3 ypc) and New Mexico (212 on 4.6) averaged more yards per carry than any non-option offense the Irish faced in 2018 except Clemson.
In fairness to ND, that’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison given that UL and UNM featured their quarterbacks in the running game in a way Georgia does not; also in fairness, those offensive lines posed nowhere near the physical challenge that Georgia’s mountainous front will on Saturday night, especially now that 6-7, 340-pound RT Isaiah Wilson is expected back after sitting the last two games with a bad ankle. The strength of the Irish defense is the veteran pass-rushing trio of Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, and Daelin Hayes, seniors who boast 24 career sacks between them and pose a significant threat off the edge on passing downs. The challenge is getting the Bulldogs into passing downs in the first place.
The big question
Can Notre Dame’s receivers win 1-on-1 matchups?
Short answer: Don’t count on it. The Irish’s inability to create even a sliver of downfield separation was a glaring issue in the Cotton Bowl beatdown vs. Clemson, and the top target in that game, 6-4 Miles Boykin, left early for the next level. Junior QB Ian Book is a smooth, efficient operator in the pocket with enough mobility and wherewithal to make plays on the fly — dude is 12-1 as a starter for a reason — but he’s not about to scare Georgia’s blue-chip secondary as a physical specimen, and unless you think last week’s explosive outing against New Mexico is sustainable against a much higher level of competition, none of the surrounding cast is very likely to, either.
The possible exception is senior Chase Claypool, a 6-4, 230-pounder in the Boykin/Michael Floyd mold who’s on track for a breakout season after significantly improving his production in each of the past 2. He’s not a threat to outrun either of UGA’s starting corners, Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell, on downfield shots, but he does the possess the size, body control, and catch radius to win in jump-ball and back-shoulder situations. Claypool’s presence makes it a particularly bad week for Campbell, a former 5-star recruit who appears to be rounding into form after losing his starting job late last season as a true freshman, to be dealing with an ankle injury; his lanky, 6-2 frame is an ideal counterpoint to Claypool’s length on the outside.
If Campbell is unavailable, Georgia will rely on a JUCO transfer (DJ Daniel) or a true freshman (Tyrique Stevenson) to fill the void in the first significant action of their careers. In that case, it’s no secret which side of the field Book will be targeting.
The point spread has moved rapidly in Georgia’s direction, surpassing 2 touchdowns at midweek despite opening at just –10.5 on Monday. Some of that has to do with Notre Dame’s reputation in big games, and big games against championship-caliber SEC powers, in particular, regardless of the matchup in question.
Without knowing anything else about these lineups, specifically, it’s broadly understood by everyone that the Irish’s biggest weaknesses in this kind of game — overall team speed and depth — are Georgia’s biggest strengths. Even the as-yet-unproven gray areas of the Bulldogs’ depth chart (wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback) are all blessed with former 5-star recruits vying to make their move. Notre Dame doesn’t have a 5-star recruit on its roster.
It’s possible that the talent gap is exaggerated, especially along the lines of scrimmage, and the Irish will have more success both establishing and stopping the run than they did in the 2017 meeting, when they were outrushed 185 yards to 55 (including negative yardage on sacks). Fromm’s rapport with this group of wideouts, gifted as they are, is still mostly hypothetical. But then, so is the notion that ND has the manpower to hold athletes like Swift, George Pickens, and Jermaine Johnson in check.
Georgia 35, Notre Dame 18.
In a game as evenly matched as this one, the outlook boils down to one question: How much do you trust Bo Nix in his first true road game in a hostile environment?
Your mileage may vary. On one hand, Nix’s production through 3 weeks looks like you’d expect from a true freshman quarterback still finding his footing: He comes in at or near the bottom of the SEC in virtually every category, including pass efficiency, where he ranks last among starters by a significant margin.
On the other, he immediately won over the fan base in his debut by rallying the Tigers from a 15-point deficit against Oregon in an NFL stadium. A big-game atmosphere isn’t going to be new to him and might actually bring out his best.
At any rate, Nix’s counterpart on Saturday, Kellen Mond, remains a bit of an enigma himself, even heading into 25th career start. The Aggies were hoping for a breakthrough in Year 3, but Mond mostly flunked his first big test at Clemson; now he’ll be operating the rest of the season without starting RB Jashaun Corbin, who’s out for the year with a hamstring injury. The memory of last year’s collapse at Auburn doesn’t inspire confidence, either.
At his best, Mond is a dynamic player who gives A&M a chance against almost any team in the country, especially in Kyle Field. We’ve still only seen fleeting glimpses of that ceiling, though, and it’s anybody’s guess which version is going to show up from one week to the next. It won’t necessarily require his best to win Saturday if the defense holds up its end of the bargain — on that front, early returns in the Clemson loss were more encouraging — but something in the vicinity in the Aggies’ first big SEC West showdown would be a welcome sign that all that potential can still pay off yet.
The verdict: Texas A&M 27, Auburn 25
There’s a plausible argument to be made that Tennessee is not quite as deep in the hole entering conference play its 0-2 start implied. The opening-day humiliation against Georgia State was a fluke; the Week 2 collapse against BYU obscured the fact that the Volunteers outplayed the Cougars overall and (according to ESPN’s win probability metric) had a 99.9 percent chance of closing out the victory before the horrendously timed but essentially random coverage bust at the end of regulation. Last week, the Vols took out their frustration by beating the doors off Chattanooga while BYU validated the comeback in Neyland by pulling another upset over USC. In spite of everything, both of ESPN’s advanced metrics, FPI and SP+, still rank Tennessee as a top 40 team.
Do you buy that? The oddsmakers clearly don’t, installing the Vols as 2-touchdown ‘dogs against a Florida outfit that (a) has overcome its own share of issues in come-from-behind wins over Miami and Kentucky, and (b) is hanging its hopes on a quarterback making his first start at any level since he was a freshman in high school. Kyle Trask was the hero of last week’s 29-21 escape in Lexington, coming off the bench to rally the Gators from an 11-point deficit following a gruesome injury to starter Feleipe Franks; for a redshirt junior, he’s also played astonishingly little competitive football after serving as a backup to more physically gifted QBs for the past 7 years.
Dan Mullen said earlier this week that he openly discussed the possibility of Trask transferring for more playing time at the end of last season, which, hey, more power to him for sticking it out and preparing to take advantage when his moment arrived. But that isn’t a conversation a coach has with a guy he envisions as his future starter against a key division rival.
Then again, Franks didn’t exactly set the bar high in his run as QB1, and based on Trask’s abbreviated turn at Kentucky the drop-off is likely to be minimal — if there’s a drop-off at all. On Saturday, he’ll have an enviable group of receivers at his disposal, a favorable crowd behind him, and a beleaguered defense on the other side of the ball. The entire Swamp will be rooting for him to take the job and run with it.
The verdict: Florida 32, Tennessee 17
This line surprised me on the heels of the Bulldogs’ lackluster effort against Kansas State, and what surprised me more is that the advanced stats seem to back it up: FPI and SP+ both like the Bulldogs in this one even more than Vegas does, and Jeff Sagarin sets the spread in roughly the same place. MSU fans, especially, got bad vibes from the K-State loss, but that setback and Kentucky’s near-miss against Florida didn’t narrow the preseason gap in these systems as dramatically as might be expected.
That calculation could change depending on the status of Mississippi State QB Tommy Stevens, who has left each of the past 2 games early with a nagging shoulder injury and remains “day-to-day.” (Aren’t we all.) He was replaced in both cases by true freshman Garrett Shrader, whose performance has been… interesting, to say the least. But Kentucky is also starting a backup QB, grad transfer Sawyer Smith, whose otherwise positive outing against the Gators was marred by 4 turnovers. The defense is still taking shape after an even bigger exodus from last year’s overachieving unit than the one in Starkville. And the Bulldogs boast one key asset that the Wildcats do not: The SEC’s leading rusher, Kylin Hill, whose highlight reel through 3 games is even more impressive than his stat line.
The verdict: Mississippi State 29, Kentucky 20
Last year’s meeting in Carolina was the strangest game of the season, a bizarre, back-and-forth affair involving a Biblical deluge, swamp-like field conditions, weird camera angles on TV, a series of special teams gaffes, an hour-plus weather delay with 2:41 remaining in regulation, a 57-yard, go-ahead field goal immediately after play resumed, and a successful 2-minute drill orchestrated by a 5th-year quarterback making his first and only career start to set up the game-winning kick on the opposite end. The Gamecocks won, if you’re keeping track, but frankly it was more fun if you weren’t. There were no broader ramifications whatsoever.
So the first thing to know about this year’s edition is that, yes, the forecast for Saturday does call for a chance of scattered thunderstorms. The second is that Carolina’s Ryan Hilinski has the makings of the next big thing behind center. He’s joining Bo Nix and Sawyer Smith on the “Quarterbacks Making Their First Road Start” tour, although in Hilinski’s case, going to Columbia, Missouri, might not strike him as intimidating after passing for 324 yards and 2 TDs in a spread-covering loss to Alabama. (A backdoor cover, but still.) Going up against a Mizzou secondary that ranks 2nd nationally in pass efficiency defense will be a good test of where he stands, and vice versa.
The verdict: Missouri 36, South Carolina 24.
I look at these teams and I reflexively think “shootout.” But the fact is that both come into this one with much more accomplished defenses than offenses. Under head coach Justin Wilcox, the Golden Bears have turned the tables on their high-flying rep, boasting one of the stingiest defenses in the Pac-12. Cal ranks 15th nationally in team defense per FPI and SP+, having held 14 of their past 16 opponents at or below 24 points.
That streak includes a 15-14 win at USC last November that snapped a 14-year losing streak in the series and a 20-19 upset at Washington in Week 2 that unfolded in the middle of the night following a weather delay. Senior LB Evan Weaver was the National Defensive Player of the Week following the U-Dub win, cementing his status as the lynchpin of the unit and a potential All-American.
The flip side of that turnaround is a moribund offense that doesn’t even crack the top 100 in the advanced metrics. It’s one thing to win with 20 points at Washington; winning with 27 points against UC-Davis and 23 against North Texas is another story.
Sophomore RB Christopher Brown Jr. has shown some promise as a workhorse, which fits with a style of play that emphasizes chewing up clock over explosiveness. A handful of big plays and an efficient afternoon in the red zone may be all the Rebels need to get by.
The verdict: Cal 23, Ole Miss 20.
— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) September 15, 2019
Southern Miss doesn’t have a prayer of slowing down Bama’s offense, which can strike any time it wants in any way it wants. The Golden Eagles do have playmakers, though, notably sophomore WR/KR Jaylond Adams, who has emerged from a medical redshirt in 2018 to stake his claim as one of the most explosive players in the country: Through three weeks Adams leads the nation in return touchdowns (two kickoffs, one punt) and all-purpose yards (597), with six receptions of 20 yards or longer — one more than Jerry Jeudy on 6 fewer catches.
The verdict: Alabama 51, Southern Miss 16.
The Commodores were torched their last time out for 509 yards and 5 TDs passing by Purdue’s Elijah Sindelar in a 42-24 loss. If Joe Burrow comes up short of those marks, it’s only because LSU reins him in after halftime.
The verdict: LSU 48, Vanderbilt 17.
The Razorbacks might be struggling, but there’s struggling and there’s struggling: San Jose State hasn’t won on the road since 2016 or beaten a major-conference opponent since 2006. Those streaks aren’t going to end in Fayetteville, but if they somehow did Chad Morris might not survive the weekend.
The verdict: Arkansas 37, San Jose State 19.
Week 3 Record: 10-1 straight-up / 4-7 vs. spread
Season Record: 28-6 straight-up / 14-20 vs. spread