Week 2 SEC Primer: Georgia-Auburn is earlier than ever and just as meaningful
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: Auburn at Georgia (-6.5)
Even at this fledgling stage of the season, a collision of top-10 teams with zeroes in the loss column means Playoff implications. Besides despising one another in the way that only neighbors who have faced off 116 times in 118 years possibly can, the Tigers and Bulldogs both have designs on a championship and precious little margin for error.
For Auburn, the trip to Athens is arguably the most important game on the schedule outside of the Iron Bowl – the first and probably the fiercest of the dates that will define the Tigers as also-rans or serious contenders. They’ve rarely been the latter: Although Gus Malzahn‘s teams have spent time in the top 10 in every season of the Playoff era, they’ve yet to finish with fewer than 4 losses in any of them, and have only made it as far as the SEC Championship Game once, in 2017. Not coincidentally, that’s also the only season in the past 6 in which Auburn beat Georgia. Getting past the Bulldogs is a crucial bellwether.
For Georgia, a little reassurance is in order. Although the final score in last week’s 37-10 win at Arkansas tells the story of a properly lopsided romp over the league’s reigning doormat – the final margin hit the point spread almost exactly – in real time it felt closer to a narrow escape. UGA trailed at the half, 10-5, and outside of a brief 3rd-quarter rally the revamped offense under first-year coordinator Todd Monken looked listless and out of sync. Given that Monken was hired specifically to fix an offense that too often looked listless and out of sync in 2019, the belated separation on the scoreboard wasn’t much solace.
Of course, even an outfit as brimming with blue-chip talent as Georgia can’t afford the luxury of quibbling over style points against the likes of Auburn. But this is the type of early showdown that can set the tone for the rest of the season. And it will be an awful lot easier to imagine the Bulldogs running the gauntlet if they seize the opportunity to make a statement.
The stat: 101.6
That was Bo Nix‘s 2019 passer rating against ranked opponents (based on the final AP poll), a difference of nearly 50 points vs. his rating against the bottom half of the schedule.
Against Georgia, specifically, Nix turned in his most high-volume/low-efficiency stat line of the season: 30-of-50 for 245 yards (4.9 per attempt) with 1 TD in a 21-14 loss in which Auburn trailed 21-0 and didn’t sniff the end zone until the 4th quarter. Only 10 of those 50 attempts resulted in a first down, and only 3 gained more than 15 yards.
Another statistical footnote from that game: Nix was also the Tigers’ leading rusher, eking out 50 yards (not including sacks) on a day that saw the running backs collectively average 2.6 yards per carry with a long gain of 9. If that line sounds familiar to Auburn fans, it should – it’s virtually identical the team’s output on the ground in Saturday’s season-opening win over Kentucky, in which Nix had a team-high 35 yards while the backs managed just 2.0 a pop with a long gain of 11.
Nix put on a few pounds from Year 1 to Year 2, looks sturdier, and has an opportunity to make big strides as a passer. Based on the opener, his chemistry with high-flying junior WR Seth Williams has the makings of one of the most productive and entertaining connections in the country. (Especially in the red zone.) But this isn’t a system that calls on the quarterback to account for more than 80% of the team’s total offense, as Nix did in the opener, and can’t be expected to function at that level of imbalance for long. Without at least some semblance of a ground game, the entire offense is fighting an uphill battle.
The big question: How big is the JT Daniels’ effect?
Stetson Bennett IV clearly outplayed freshman starter D’Wan Mathis at Arkansas, coming off the bench to throw for 211 yards and 2 TDs and lower the entire state of Georgia’s blood pressure in the process. But Bennett, a former walk-on with a limited ceiling athletically, has never factored in as a long-term solution for a team that lives in Playoff-or-bust mode, and with Daniels’ long-awaited medical clearance this week expect Bennett to be back on clipboard duty Saturday and for the foreseeable future. UGA listed all 4 scholarship quarterbacks (including true freshman Carson Beck) as co-starters on the updated depth chart, but there’s really only one choice.
It’s true that Daniels struggled to live up to his 5-star recruiting hype at USC; although he won the starting job outright in 2018 as a true freshman, he ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in both pass efficiency and QBR while posting a 5-6 record as a starter. As a sophomore, he suffered a torn ACL in the first game and subsequently watched a far less heralded prospect, Kedon Slovis, take command of the job in his absence.
When he signed on with Georgia in the spring, Daniels was widely expected to spend this season backing up another transfer, Jamie Newman, and although he’s split first-team reps in practice following Newman’s decision to opt out, he still hasn’t played in a live, full-speed situation in more than a year.
QB JT Daniels pour WR Amon-Ra St. Brown. TD Trojans ! 44 yards.
UCLA 14, USC 10 pic.twitter.com/6aGZJVnhst
— TBP College Football (@thebluepennant) November 17, 2018
Still, Daniels stands to offer the offense what Bennett and Mathis cannot, and what Jake Fromm arguably could not last year: A big-time arm capable of consistently challenging opposing secondaries downfield. The reluctance and/or inability to go deep was a constant source of frustration throughout 2019 – especially when Alabama and LSU were simultaneously laying waste to every passing record in the book – and hit home especially hard in the SEC Championship flop vs. LSU. The offseason additions of Monken, Newman and later Daniels were aimed squarely at juicing up that aspect of the attack with freak-show sophomore WR George Pickens on the other end.
Pickens did haul in a touchdown in the opener from 19 yards out, extending his streak to 5 consecutive games with a TD catch dating to last year. (The last opponent to hold him out of the end zone: Auburn.) But there were no real fireworks to speak of, and if there are going to be this season it’s almost certainly going to be Daniels who supplies them. Even a brief glimpse of big-play potential against a defense as stingy as Auburn’s would be a satisfying start.
Auburn-Georgia is traditionally a low-scoring, late-season slugfest – Oct. 3 marks the earliest meeting ever, and the first time they’ve met prior to November since 1936 – and regardless of the date, both sides should be just fine with the slugging part. The defenses are ahead of the offenses right now by a good distance, and neither offense is likely to feel compelled to push the envelope with its young quarterback unless it’s absolutely necessary.
That said, the raw talent on hand always lends itself to some explosive possibilities, and whatever other issues Georgia might have it still has more of it. As long as that’s the case the series will continue to belong to the Dogs.
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Georgia 20, Auburn 16
Texas A&M at Alabama (-17)
It’s never a good sign when a senior coming off his 35th career starts needs a “vote of confidence” from his head coach, but that’s where things stand with Kellen Mond after a rocky opener against Vanderbilt — the Commodores arrived in College Station as 30.5-point underdogs and proceeded to push A&M to the final possession despite scoring just 1 offensive touchdown themselves.
In many ways, quarterback was the least of the Aggies’ issues (although Mond did lose 2 fumbles), especially given that he’s working with an essentially brand new group of wideouts. But the feeling of stagnation in College Station is palpable. Mond is 3-9 career as a starter vs. ranked opponents (based on their rank at kickoff), including a 1-5 record last year, and outside of a) a memorable performance in a losing effort vs. Clemson in 2018, and b) the 7-overtime epic vs. LSU later that season, he hasn’t done much to move the needle in any of them.
— Casey Baker (@CaseyBake16) October 8, 2017
In fact, Mond has played relatively well against Alabama, accounting for 251 total yards in 2017 as a true freshman, 294 yards in 2018, and 354 last year, which represented more than 90% of A&M’s total as a team. In 2018 he broke off the longest run the Tide allowed that season. But at no point were the Aggies in position to plausibly win any of those games, all of which they trailed at some point by at least 21 points. Most of Mond’s output vs. Bama has come in catch-up mode, a running theme of his career.
If there’s still a corner left for Mond to turn as a college QB, an early, potentially season-defining trip to Tuscaloosa would be the ideal time and place to do it. If not, the hints that Jimbo Fisher is beginning to think about turning the page might start getting a lot less subtle.
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Alabama 37, Texas A&M 17
South Carolina at Florida (-18)
After last week’s 51-point, 642-yard bonanza at Ole Miss, there are no further questions about Florida’s offense — at least, not against a defense that just gave up 31 points to Tennessee. The Gators’ defense, on the other hand, consists almost entirely of question marks after yielding 613 yards on 7.9 per play vs. the Rebels, including 7 plays (all passes) that gained 30 yards or more. South Carolina QB Collin Hill managed just 1 of those against the Vols, but connected on 8 completions in the 15-25-yard range, and with senior WR Shi Smith he has a proven weapon in the slot who’s more than capable of filling the niche that Ole Miss’ Elijah Moore exploited on his way to a huge day in the opener.
How the Florida secondary responds will go a long way toward telling us whether the opener was just a blip for an otherwise solid group or a warning sign of things to come in the Gators’ bid to win the SEC East.
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Florida 38, South Carolina 23
Missouri at Tennessee (-11.5)
In last year’s meeting, Jarrett Guarantano arguably salvaged his Tennessee career by bombing Mizzou for a career-high 415 yards and 2 touchdowns at a moment when the Vols were unsettled behind center from one week to the next. In the meantime Guarantano has yet to leave the starting lineup again, overseeing a 7-game winning streak that incredibly ranks as the longest active streak of any Power 5 team. (Well, unless you count Notre Dame, which has won 8 straight, but let’s not.) Presumably, that run won’t last much longer with Georgia and Alabama looming in the next month. But every week that it survives is one step closer to UT either slowly but surely reasserting itself as an SEC power or getting abruptly smacked back down to size in short order.
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Tennessee 27, Missouri 20
Arkansas at Mississippi State (-18)
Sure, it would be an extremely Leachian thing to do to follow up a potentially program-making upset over the defending national champion on the road with a complete flop at home against a team on a 20-game conference losing streak. But KJ Costello is no fly-by-night quarterback, and Mississippi State’s oft-maligned receivers were a revelation against LSU, running Leach’s system to near-perfection their first time out against ostensibly superior athletes in the Tigers’ secondary. The Razorbacks may not be as bad as their record this season (unlike the past 2, when they were somehow worse), but the Bulldogs’ up-and-coming status has already been solidly confirmed.
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Mississippi State 44, Arkansas 19
LSU (-20.5) at Vanderbilt
This is a more meaningful trip than any Nashville visit should ever be for LSU, as the Tigers resolve to put last week’s debacle in Starkville behind them by taking it out on the Commodores. LSU also got good news this week re: all-cosmos cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. is expected to play after missing the opener due to an unspecified illness that reportedly waylaid him less than 24 hours before kickoff. His presence should instantly solidify a unit that was incinerated on national TV and go a long way toward making that experience the outlier. If it can’t manage that against a Vandy offense starting a true freshman quarterback … yikes.
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LSU 41, Vanderbilt 13
Ole Miss at Kentucky (-6)
Kentucky got some long-overdue news this week with word that Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood will be eligible to play the rest of the season, finally ending a saga that should have been resolved months ago. (It’s hard to come up with another reason the decision was delayed just long enough to prevent Gatewood from playing against his former team in the opener than that the SEC felt obligated to do just that.) Just how much that development actually affects the Wildcats’ offense remains to be seen. The incumbent, Terry Wilson, has a lot of playing time under his belt and looked generally solid in last week’s 29-13 loss at Auburn, accounting for 281 total yards; on the other hand, he committed 2 costly turnovers that cost Kentucky points in the first half (via interception) and set up a short-field Auburn touchdown in the second (via fumble).
Wilson has the experience and the 12-4 record as a starter to go with it; Gatewood has the upside. And if Wilson’s experience isn’t preventing him from committing crippling, ill-timed mistakes, maybe it’s time to go in the other direction.
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Kentucky 31, Ole Miss 27
Week 1 Record 6–1 straight-up / 3–4 vs. spread