Week 2 SEC Primer: A past and future rival gives Texas its first taste of life in the SEC
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: Texas (-6.5) at Arkansas
A rivalry with a long history and a rejuvenated future. As members of the old Southwest Conference, Arkansas and Texas played on a near-annual basis for 75 years, including a dozen meetings with both sides ranked in the AP top 10. (Five of those matchups came from 1969-80 alone, as intense a run as you’ll find in almost any rivalry.) With Texas’ pending defection from the Big 12, they’re on the verge of being reunited under the imperial SEC banner after 30 years apart. Who says conference realignment can’t honor tradition?
In the meantime, there are more pressing questions. Such as: Texas – Is It Back? The Longhorns’ obsession with national relevance has been a running joke for a decade, in which time they’ve sent three consecutive head coaches packing for the indignity of slumming it in second- and third-tier bowl games. Enter Steve Sarkisian, latest graduate of Nick Saban’s career rehabilitation program at Alabama and one of the most respected offensive minds in the game. At Bama, Sarkisian oversaw the two highest-scoring seasons in school history in 2019 and ’20, attacks that produced an incredible 8 first-round picks in the past two drafts.
Texas, for all its cachet as a recruiting power, has nowhere near that kind of abundance of talent at the moment. But it’s hardly bereft, either: The roster still rivals Oklahoma’s as the most stacked in the Big 12 on a blue-chip-by-blue-chip basis, and last week’s 38-18 win over Louisiana was as encouraging a debut as even the most entitled booster could have asked for. Every game on the schedule is winnable; it’s easy to get carried away. A 2-0 start, which Texas has managed just twice in the past 8 years, would make it that much easier.
Arkansas has no aspirations to relevance except as a would-be spoiler. The “moral victory” phase of the rebuild under coach Sam Pittman is over, but bowl eligibility in Year 2 is still going to require a couple of upsets. If Texas is one of them, it will make the Razorbacks’ season all by itself.
First Baptist Church in Fayetteville is ready pic.twitter.com/d7fFjdiQku
— Bunkie Perkins (@BunkiePerkins) September 7, 2021
The stat: 8.6 yards per touch
That’s Texas RB Bijan Robinson‘s average gain over the first 10 games of his college career, the best of any active FBS back with at least 100 career touches.
Despite the massive recruiting hype that preceded him, Robinson was limited by injuries and inexperience to fewer than a dozen touches per game as a true freshman. By year’s end, though, his star power was undeniable: In Texas’ last 4 games, he accounted for 651 yards, 6 touchdowns and 25 missed tackles on just 55 touches — 11 of which gained 20+ yards. After his electric finish in 2020, getting Robinson more involved as a sophomore was an obvious priority, and Sarkisian obliged in the opener by dialing his number 24 times for 176 yards and 2 TDs.
In Robinson’s case, it’s important to stress touches, not just carries. Although he looks the part of a classic workhorse at 6-0, 214 pounds, his skill set runs the gamut, from raw power to short-area shiftiness to big-play speed. He’s also a proven asset as a receiver, both out of the backfield and, as of last week, out of the slot.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 4, 2021
The list of guys with that blend of throwback size and spread-era versatility — thunder and lightning in the same package — is very short. But Sarkisian had one of those guys at Alabama in Najee Harris, whom he deployed to maximum effect the past 2 years. There’s nothing stopping Robinson from having the same kind of impact in Austin, or from eventually following Harris as a consensus All-American and first-round pick.
The big question: Is KJ Jefferson ready for primetime?
Sam Pittman cast a significant vote of confidence in Jefferson this offseason when he declined to pursue a veteran QB on the transfer market to fill the void left by departing starter Feleipe Franks. Already, he was forced to reaffirm that confidence this week following an underwhelming outing for Jefferson in the season-opener, a 38-17 win over Rice. The last thing either wants this early in the season is to be facing the same questions again Saturday night.
On the plus side, Jefferson is an intriguing asset as a runner. Against Rice, he accounted for 102 yards and 2 TDs rushing (not including negative yardage on sacks), with another long TD run that was wiped out by a holding penalty. At 6-3/245, his combination of size and wheels might be unmatched by any other quarterback in the country.
See ya ? pic.twitter.com/i0wSORvnUO
— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) September 4, 2021
As a passer, he’s a work in progress. Jefferson’s passing line in the opener (12/21 for 128 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) was a red flag even before applying the exchange rate to a Power 5 defense. His previous start, a 274-yard, 3-TD effort in a wild, shootout loss at Missouri last December, was more encouraging, and in fact might have been the main reason coaches felt comfortable anointing Jefferson as Franks’ successor. Without some signs of progress, though, that won’t guarantee him anything going forward.
Key matchup: Arkansas WR Treylon Burks vs. Texas CB D’Shawn Jamison
If Arkansas has an edge anywhere, it’s Burks, a 6-3, 225-pound specimen whose size, speed and elite catch radius pose severe matchup issues on a weekly basis. Jamison, a converted receiver with 20 career starts at corner and 3 career touchdowns in the return game, is a top athlete whose experience is due to pay off in a big senior year. He’s unlikely to give up much separation. At (officially) 5-10/184, though, he will be giving up somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 inches and 30 pounds when he draws Burks in coverage. Any realistic outline of an Arkansas upset involves exploiting that margin to the fullest.
Arkansas has come a long way from the rock-bottom outfit Sam Pittman inherited in December 2019 to be coming into a game like this as a single-digit underdog. Texas is a national brand sitting at No. 15 in both major polls; the Razorbacks haven’t beaten a team that finished with a winning record since 2016. (They have beaten a ranked opponent: No. 16 Mississippi State last year. But the Bulldogs, vastly overrated to begin with, spiraled out to finish 4-6.) The step up from comatose to competitive has been an achievement. The step up from competitive to actually beating quality teams is likely to take a little longer.
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• Texas 34 | Arkansas 24
Pittsburgh (-3.5) at Tennessee
Both quarterbacks in this game are avatars of their programs writ large. Pitt QB Kenny Pickett, a “super senior,” has more career starts (37) and snaps (2,678) as a Panther than any other active FBS quarterback who has spent his entire career at the same school; as a team, Pitt is a stable outfit under 7th-year coach Pat Narduzzi with relatively few transfers and ample starting experience across both sides of the ball.
By comparison, Tennessee QB Joe Milton III is a neophyte, with 6 starts and a mere 396 snaps to his credit as he attempts to reboot his career following a flame-out at Michigan; that tracks with a roster that was effectively rebuilt from scratch in the transition from Jeremy Pruitt to Josh Heupel. Behind center and elsewhere, the Vols are banking on raw, unproven talent over experience — not always a bad bet.
The Panthers do have one new face to keep an eye on: TE Lucas Krull, a sixth-year senior whose path to date has included stints as a JUCO baseball player, a rotational player at Florida, and an injury casualty in his first season at Pitt, in 2020. At 6-6/260, Krull has always had the look of an NFL tight end; as he’s grown into the position, it’s beginning to look like he has the game, too. He was touted as a breakout player in the spring and backed it up in the season opener with 5 catches for a team-high 54 yards and a touchdown. Against UMass, whatever. Against Tennessee, his stock could rise very quickly.
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Pittsburgh 26 | • Tennessee 24
Texas A&M (-17) at Colorado
From A&M’s perspective, all eyes in Denver will be on redshirt freshman QB Haynes King, the biggest X-factor in the SEC and arguably in all of college football. King’s first career start, a 41-10 win over Kent State, was effectively a wash, with the good (2 touchdowns, 15 completions of 10+ yards) negated by the bad (3 interceptions). Colorado’s defense likely isn’t that much of a step up that the Aggies can’t get by with their multi-faceted ground game if absolutely necessary. But every Saturday between now and their season-defining date with Alabama on Oct. 9 is an opportunity for growth he can’t afford to waste.
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• Texas A&M 37 | Colorado 17
NC State (-2.5) at Mississippi State
Two teams with 1-0 records and very different feelings about how they achieved them. NC State cruised through its opener, a 45-0 rout of South Florida in which the Wolfpack nearly doubled up USF in total offense, 525 yards to 271. In the meantime, Mississippi State sweated out its come-from-behind, 35-34 win over Louisiana Tech right down to the last possible second.
WALK-OFF FIELD GOAL BLOCK
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 4, 2021
NC State’s main attraction is the 1-2 backfield punch of Zonovan “Bam” Knight – and Ricky Person Jr., future pros who together have piled up 3,626 scrimmage yards and 30 touchdowns in their careers. Their combined output against USF (327 yards, 3 TDs) accounted for nearly two-thirds of the Wolfpack’s total offense, the kind of number you rarely see anymore from a couple of running backs. If that holds in Starkville, either the Bulldogs have managed to completely shut down the passing game or they’ve had a very long night.
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• NC State 30 | Mississippi State 23
Missouri at Kentucky (-5)
The first conference game of the season is a battle for the inside track on third place in the SEC East. It’s also the first real test of Kentucky’s new and improved passing game, which debuted to rave reviews in a 45-10 win over UL-Monroe. A visit from Missouri raises the bar significantly. By Saturday night we should have a much clearer picture of what QB Will Levis brings to the table over the long haul.
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Kentucky 29 | • Missouri 27
UAB at Georgia (-24.5)
How content is Georgia to continue leaning on its sweltering defense? The Blazers don’t pose a threat to put many points on the board – or any points, if UGA is especially dialed in — and the injury situation is only getting worse: Half the receiving corps remains on ice for various reasons, and QB JT Daniels is questionable for Saturday with a core injury, potentially leaving the offense in the hands of first-time starter Carson Beck. Not exactly ideal conditions for opening things up downfield for a team that’s not inclined in that direction, anyway. At least it shouldn’t take very long.
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Georgia 31 | • UAB 10
Florida (-29) at South Florida
A routine thumping of a thoroughly outmanned USF squad shouldn’t move the needle much. But this game is slated for a national audience on ABC, and once that audience gets a good look at backup QB Anthony Richardson against another bad defense, the speculation over his role and future in the offense are likely to reach a fever pitch. Emory Jones remains the starter, for now, and doesn’t seem likely to cede that status ahead of next week’s SEC opener vs. Alabama. Richardson, though, has the potential to be the kind of talent that best-laid plans must bend to meet.
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• Florida 44 | South Florida 13
South Carolina (-2) at East Carolina
The Gamecocks are optimistic that QB Luke Doty and RB Kevin Harris will be available vs. ECU after sitting out last week’s opener vs. Eastern Illinois with minor injuries. Unlike last week, their presence may be the difference in winning and losing in a game Vegas sees as essentially a pick ’em. Harris, especially, was the engine of the offense in 2020 and should immediately resume his role as chief workhorse.
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• South Carolina 27 | East Carolina 20
Vanderbilt at Colorado State (-7)
Colorado State was bad in its opener, getting run off its own field by FCS South Dakota State in a 42-23 loss that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Vanderbilt was worse, getting run off its own field by FCS East Tennessee State in a 23-3 loss that somehow lowered the bar for coach Clark Lea‘s debut season more than it already was. Somebody has to win this one, and either way, it may wind up being the only one they do.
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• Colorado State 26 | Vanderbilt 17
Mercer at Alabama (-56.5)
Last week Mercer walloped Point University, a tiny Christian school in Georgia not affiliated with the NCAA, by a score of 69-0. This week they get Bama in what might be the most dramatic week-over-week escalation in degree of difficulty in the history of organized sports. As usual, the only limit on the final score is the Crimson Tide’s sense of decorum.
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• Alabama 59 | Mercer 0
McNeese State at LSU (off)
The Cowboys’ trip to Baton Rouge is notable mainly for their starting quarterback, Cody Orgeron, son of Ed Orgeron. For the father’s sake, let’s hope that’s all anyone remembers about it.
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LSU 45 | McNeese State 13
Austin Peay at Ole Miss (off)
Austin Peay was a longtime Tennessee politician who served as governor in the 1920s — hence the nickname, Governors — and bore no resemblance whatsoever to the fearsome Monopoly Man depicted in the school logo. Disappointing.
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Ole Miss 48 | Austin Peay 16
Alabama State at Auburn (off)
Alabama State lost its last trip to Auburn, in 2019, by a final score of 63-9. For that meeting and this one Auburn will reportedly pay ASU a little over $1 million in all, which amounts to a significant chunk of the school’s entire football budget. That check is the only thing anyone should take away from this.
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Auburn 52 | Alabama State 3
Week 1 record: 11-3 straight up / 5-9 vs. spread