Week 3 Primer: Expect the unexpected in the absence of a marquee matchup. Just not from Bama
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: Alabama (-25.5) at South Carolina
Not especially high, let’s be honest, unless something insane happens. Bama hasn’t lost to an unranked opponent in more than a decade; South Carolina, a massive underdog to begin with, is starting a true freshman quarterback in his first SEC game. As Games of the Week go, not the stuff of an impending classic.
This being college football, of course, insanity is not completely out of the question: There are zero games anywhere in the country this weekend pitting two Top 25 opponents, which should set off the upset siren for every big favorite. The last weekend that failed to deliver any ranked-on-ranked action, in October 2017, yielded 7 losses by ranked teams, 3 of which were favored by at least two touchdowns. That was typical — just One of Those Saturdays.
Each of the last 5 times there was a weekend without a ranked matchup, at least 2 ranked teams lost to NR teams. 9/25/04 was last weekend without a ranked matchup that every ranked team won. That weekend #1 USC needed a 4th qtr TD to beat Stanford 31-28 as a 22.5 pt favorite.
— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) September 11, 2019
Fans on both sides remember well Alabama’s last trip to Columbia, in 2010, a landmark upset that snapped a 19-game Bama winning streak, knocked the Tide from No. 1, and announced the Gamecocks’ arrival as an SEC East power under Steve Spurrier. The circumstances then were much different — that version of Carolina was ascendant, ranked 19th coming in with a win over Georgia and last-second loss to Cam Newton-led Auburn already under its belt, as well as a depth chart full of future draft picks; the current version is less than 2 weeks removed from blowing a double-digit lead vs. North Carolina. But it is a reminder that the more predictable this sport seems sometimes, the weirder it’s about to get. Even when Nick Saban is involved.
The stat: 4.2 yards per carry
That’s the combined average by Alabama’s top 2 running backs, juniors Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr., in the Tide’s first 2 games, nearly 2 yards per carry below the average for Bama’s “starting” RBs over the previous decade. (Defined as backs who averaged at least 7.5 carries per game over a full season from 2009-18, including QB Jalen Hurts in 2016-17.) Granted, that’s based on a small sample size: Harris and Robinson were both suspended for the first quarter of the season opener against Duke and have just 44 carries between them. And it likely says more about Alabama’s unsettled offensive line than it does about the backfield. So far, Bama has divided relevant snaps at the three interior line positions among five different players (Matt Womack, Chris Owens, Emil Ekiyor, grad transfer Landon Dickerson, and true freshman Evan Neal), while a 6th member of the rotation (Deonte Brown) remains on ice due to an NCAA-mandated suspension. The latest depth chart lists all 5 as potential starters.
Still, Harris and Robinson are being graded on a steep curve and neither has broken a 20-yard run or otherwise moved the needle to the extent that Bama has come to expect against the likes of Duke and New Mexico State. As a team, the Tide’s rushing output has been distorted a bit by big plays in the screen game (see Henry Ruggs III’s 75-yard catch-and-run TD to open the scoring against NMSU, which went into the books as a lateral) and by backups in garbage time (see Keilan Robinson’s 74-yard run to cap the scoring against NMSU). Even Tua Tagovailoa got in on the party last week with a 25-yard TD scramble, the second-longest run of his career. A more productive down-to-down effort from the bell cows against a solid South Carolina defensive front would be a welcome development.
The big question: Will Ryan Hilinski survive?
Hilinski was a hyped recruit who enrolled early, made an immediate impression, and looked sharp last week in his college debut, a 72-10 laugher at the expense of Charleston Southern. Long-term, the outlook is all positive. Short-term, he’s a true freshman quarterback facing a Nick Saban defense in his first SEC game. The outlook is not positive.
The list of rookies who have found themselves in Hilinski’s shoes is surprisingly short: In Saban’s 164 games as head coach Alabama has faced just 6 true freshman starters, and 2 came in the past 2 national championship games against Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. (Not included: Texas’ Garrett Gilbert, who came off the bench early in the Jan. 2010 BCS title game in place of Colt McCoy.) In the regular season, there’s Mississippi State’s Wesley Carroll in 2007, Penn State’s Robert Bolden in 2010, Auburn’s Jonathan Wallace in 2012, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond in 2017, and … that’s it. Throwing a fledgling QB to the wolves to have his confidence ripped to shreds in front of 80,000 people is a scenario most coaches would do anything to avoid.
With senior Jake Bentley officially out for the season, Will Muschamp has no choice. By all accounts, Hilinski is mature beyond his years, and he has a couple of legitimate weapons at his disposal in WRs Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith. But the realistic goals for Saturday are (1) Remain in one piece, (2) Avoid turnovers, and (3) Put together a respectable drive or two, or connect on a handful of throws, that offer a glimpse of his potential. In that order. Anything beyond that will be impressive.
No surprises here. The implications of a South Carolina upset would be compelling in a lot of ways, but the odds are so remote they’re barely worth contemplating. Tagovailoa hasn’t been nearly as aggressive pushing the ball downfield in the early going as he was last year; if the ground game continues to lag Carolina’s defense may have enough juice to keep it interesting into the second half. If Hilinski is overwhelmed it could get ugly fast. Either way, Saban’s winning streak against his former assistants is about to hit 17 games and counting.
Alabama 40, South Carolina 10.
Kentucky is off to a reassuring start, covering the spread in both of its wins over Toledo and Eastern Michigan. Somehow, that only makes drawing a bead on this one that much harder.
The Wildcats were already something of a blank slate after losing most of the key pieces from last year’s 10-3 breakthrough, and that was before incumbent QB Terry Wilson was ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. His replacement, grad transfer Sawyer Smith, isn’t exactly a novice — he was 5-2 as a starter last year at Troy after taking over the starting role at midseason — but found himself the odd man out in the Trojans’ quarterback competition and has no relevant experience against Power 5 opponents. (He did log 3 attempts in a 2016 loss at Clemson.) Meanwhile, RBs Asim Rose and Kavosiey Smoke look like competent successors to Benny Snell Jr.; Lynn Bowden Jr. has resumed his role as the team’s most versatile big-play threat; and 6-foot-5 WR Ahmad Wagner, a converted basketball player, has begun to emerge as a perennial mismatch on the outside who towers overs opposing corners.
Sawyer Smith's first completion is a 54 yard TD pass to Ahmad Wagner. That will do. pic.twitter.com/TrD0VQSmcv
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 8, 2019
With Wilson entrenched behind center, there was a real chance this offense could actually turn out to be an upgrade over the one-dimensional 2018 attack. Without him, it’s anyone’s guess.
From Florida’s perspective, though, the exact same thing can be said for the Gators’ prospects with Feleipe Franks, who has struggled against Kentucky each of the past two seasons and remains an enigma from one week to the next. The Wildcats were always much more likely to regress on defense than offense, if only because last year’s D was arguably the best in school history; already, Toledo and Eastern Michigan have both narrowly eclipsed UK’s 2018 averages for yards and points allowed. But that doesn’t mean they’re not still capable of making the Gators sweat out another slugfest if Franks is off his game.
Verdict: Florida 27, Kentucky 16.
The top priority for Mississippi State is the health of QB Tommy Stevens, who left in the first half of last week’s 38-15 win over Southern Miss with a shoulder injury. Stevens said this week that he feels good and expects to play; if not, the job will fall on either true freshman Garrett Shrader, who acquitted himself week against USM, or junior Keytaon Thompson, who recently rejoined the team after contemplating a transfer. Regardless, K-State can count on getting a heavy dose of RB Kylin Hill, who turned in a career day against the Wildcats in 2018 and is off to a dominant start in MSU’s first 2 games.
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) September 8, 2019
Priority No. 2 is forcing Kansas State QB Skylar Thompson out of his comfort zone, which he has yet to leave in the Wildcats’ blowout wins over Bowling Green and Nicholls State. K-State easily topped 300 yards rushing in each of those games — a mark it hit just once last year — with a thoroughly revamped ground game powered by grad transfers James Gilbert (Ball State) and Jordon Brown (North Carolina), who are averaging 8.1 yards per carry between them. Their success has made life much easier for Thompson, who has seen big initial leaps over last season in completion percentage, TD rate, yards per attempt, and overall efficiency. He ranks No. 1 nationally according to ESPN’s Total QBR metric, up from 47th.
Yes, at this point that probably says more about the competition than it does about how far the Wildcats have come under first-year coach Chris Klieman. If the Bulldogs are expecting the same offense that they stuffed in a sack last year in Manhattan, though, they might be in for a surprise.
Verdict: Mississippi State 31, Kansas State 20.
The Red Wolves have a reputation for offense, and new starting QB Logan Bonner is off to a decent start is in his bid to uphold it: Three different ASU receivers have already hauled in at least a dozen receptions apiece, not including former Oregon/Texas A&M transfer Kirk Merritt, a first-team All-Sun Belt pick in 2018. (Merritt didn’t touch the ball in the season opener, a last-second loss against SMU, but had four catches and a touchdown in last week’s win over UNLV.) The headliner of that group is senior Omar Bayless, who has been on the receiving end of 5 of Bonner’s 6 TD passes; at 6-3, 207 pounds, he checks the size and production boxes for the next level and will be looking to play his way onto scouts’ radars.
Verdict: Georgia 45, Arkansas State 17.
The Razorbacks lost in Fort Collins last year in humiliating fashion, blowing an 18-point lead in the second half against a team that went on to finish 3-9. Virtually nothing has gone right for them since, including last week’s 31-17 debacle at Ole Miss, which was significantly worse for the offense than the score indicates. (Arkansas’ only offensive touchdown came on a meaningless garbage-time drive in the final minutes.) A&M transfer Nick Starkel will replace Ben Hicks behind center Saturday in an effort to provide some semblance of a spark in a game that might mean more to coach Chad Morris’ status than meets the eye: With another winless SEC campaign looming, dropping another nonconference game to a Mountain West also-ran — in front of the home crowd this time — would be a good way to get the torches and pitchforks warmed up.
Verdict: Arkansas 27, Colorado State 23.
Kent State at Auburn (-35.5)
This game shaped as a homecoming of sorts for Kent State QB Woody Barrett, a former Auburn signee in the class of 2016, but it might be on less favorable terms than he’d hoped: Barrett barely played in last week’s overtime win over Kennesaw State, abruptly snapping a streak of 13 consecutive starts. If it’s not Barrett, the Golden Flashes’ fate will be in the hands of junior Dustin Crum, whose list of offers coming out of high school was slightly less impressive.
Verdict: Auburn 48, Kent State 9.
This will be the last weekend for these types of games until November, thankfully.
Verdict: LSU 58, Northwestern State 3.
And so forth…
Verdict: Texas A&M 52, Lamar 6.
And so on …
Verdict: Ole Miss 41, SE Louisiana 13.
Verdict: Missouri 45, SE Missouri State 14.
Verdict: Tennessee 34, Chattanooga 10.
Week 2 Record: 11-1 straight-up / 4-7 vs. spread
Season Record: 18-5 straight-up / 9-13 vs. spread