Week 3 SEC Primer: Tennessee's big test at Georgia is a year in the making
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: Tennessee at Georgia (-12.5)
For Georgia, a program that lives in Playoff-or-bust mode, the Vols are one more obstacle to clear on the way to much bigger goals. For Tennessee, a program that’s been outscored by UGA 122-26 over the past 3 seasons, saving face against the Bulldogs is the goal.
Relatively speaking, Tennessee is in a good place right now, ranked 14th in the latest AP poll on the strength of an 8-game winning streak dating to last October; that’s tied with Notre Dame for the longest active streak among Power 5 teams, a sentence I could not have imagined writing a year ago. At this point on the calendar in 2019 the Vols were 6-11 overall under coach Jeremy Pruitt and coming off back-to-back humiliations at the hands of Georgia (43-14) and Florida (34-3), ostensible rivals that, along with Alabama, have consistently owned Tennessee for more than a decade. The margins in those games were getting worse, not better, and the same could have been said for Pruitt’s chances of surviving to see Year 3.
In retrospect, last year’s lopsided loss to Georgia was a nadir and a turning point: In the year since, Tennessee is 9-1 with the only loss coming 2 weeks later at Bama. And although none of the wins in that span have come against a ranked or otherwise notable opponent, there’s no question for anyone who follows the program that the team they watched steamroll Missouri last week, 35-12, had quietly come a long, long way from the one they watched hit the skids a year ago. Saturday will be the first real gauge of just how far that it is relative to their rivals, and of just how far they still have to go.
The stat: 171.3
That’s Georgia QB Stetson Bennett IV’s passer rating on 3rd downs, easily his most efficient number by down over the first 2 games. Against Auburn alone he connected of 7-of-10 attempts on 3rd down, converting all 7 with 5 completions of 15+ yards and his only touchdown pass of the night.
In fact, small sample size notwithstanding, the worse the situation the better Bennett has performed. On 3rd-and-long (7+ yards to go), specifically, he’s 6-of-9 for 116 yards, including arguably his 2 most impressive throws in the win over Auburn — the first, a cool-headed, on-the-run strike to his favorite target, Kearis Jackson, after eluding a free rusher from his blind side on 3rd-and-10 in the 1st quarter…
Stetson Bennett spins away from Big Kat Bryant👀
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 4, 2020
… and the second, a picture-perfect, 3rd-and-9 lob into the end zone to George Pickens in the 2nd quarter, at the expense of Auburn’s best corner, Roger McCreary:
Right in the bread basket to George Pickens 🍞 pic.twitter.com/xbZJjOSrTB
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) October 4, 2020
Later on, Jackson helped pad the numbers by turning a short screen pass into a 22-yard gain on 3rd-and-21 early in the 4th. By that point, though, the Bulldogs had already seen more than enough to anoint Bennett as the clear-cut QB1 until further notice.
For now, Bennett — a former walk-on who barely registered in the Bulldogs’ offseason plans, having been deliberately buried on the depth chart by the arrival of touted transfers Jamie Newman and JT Daniels — still makes for a better underdog story than he does a budding Heisman candidate after his first career start. There are still valid concerns about his arm strength and durability at (officially) 5-11, 190 pounds, and, down the line, his play-making potential against Playoff-caliber defenses on the order of Alabama’s or Clemson’s.
As Jake Fromm can attest, when the stakes are as high as they are at Georgia, even a home-grown fan-favorite can find himself on the hot seat in short order. And if (when?) those doubts arise the Bulldogs still have options in Daniels and D’Wan Mathis.
What we can definitely say after Saturday is that Bennett’s mental preparation and apparent unflappability are key assets on an offense that boasts a lot more talent than experience. (Only one starter vs. Auburn, junior center Trey Hill, started a majority of UGA’s games in 2019.) A primetime date with Auburn is a big stage; he owned it, most obviously on the pivotal plays that made the difference in extending or extinguishing drives, even when the down-and-distance was stacked against him. If he’s in it for the long haul, a repeat performance vs. the Vols would be a nice way to ease any lingering doubts before Bama raises the bar.
The big question: Is Tennessee’s offensive line for real?
It’s been a long time since anyone thought of Tennessee’s o-line as a strength, especially the people obliged to root for it on a weekly basis. But even jaded Vols fans were intrigued by the potential of the 2020 front, a unit that features seven players with significant starting experience under their belt and, with the addition of Georgia transfer Cade Mays, four players who began their careers as 5-star recruits. Mays debuted in the starting lineup last week at right tackle after finally being cleared to play by the SEC, and the result against Mizzou was a widely acknowledged butt-kicking: As a team, Tennessee churned out 247 yards (not including sacks) on 5.3 per carry, one of the best outings of Pruitt’s tenure by either measure, with much of that output coming the old-fashioned way.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 3, 2020
After years of futility on the ground, the smashmouth approach is an identity that suits the Vols’ personnel — Mays and LG Trey Smith are two of the nastiest and most physically overwhelming blockers in the college game, flanked by two of the most touted young tackles in sophomores Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright — as well as Pruitt’s predilection for a run-oriented, ball-control attack in the vein of the early Saban-era offenses at Alabama, where Pruitt cut his teeth as an assistant. When it’s rolling as efficient as it was vs. Missouri, it also serves to protect QB Jarrett Guarantano, who has reemerged from a midseason benching in 2019 as a steady, veteran hand whose priority is to avoid big mistakes that put the defense in a bad position. Tennessee hasn’t committed a turnover this season.
Of course, all of the above is much easier said than done against Georgia’s relentlessly deep front seven, which if anything has been even more suffocating against the run in the early going than it was last year when it led the nation in rushing defense. Auburn effectively abandoned the run in the first half, finishing with 39 yards on a meager 1.8 per carry. If Tennessee suffers a similar fate Guarantano’s chances of picking up the slack with his arm aren’t much better than Bo Nix’s.
Surprisingly, Saturday will be just the second time since 2006 Georgia and Tennessee have met as ranked teams. (The first: 2016, when No. 11 Tennessee memorably stunned No. 25 Georgia on a Hail Mary.) If the Vols are as far along as they hope in Pruitt’s third season, that will be the new normal for just as long. But as wide as the gap has been between these teams since that incredible ending 4 years ago, this still feels less like a genuine upset bid than a “just keep it close” bid by an outfit that remains at least another year or two.
Georgia’s offense, which is still in rebuilding mode itself, might oblige. Georgia’s defense? Not so much. The Bulldogs’ depth and talent edge over Tennessee’s skill players should give Bennett and Co. as much breathing room as they need.
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Georgia 31, Tennessee 17
Florida (-6.5) at Texas A&M
Florida’s passing game is on fire to open the season; so is Texas A&M’s secondary after getting absolutely torched for 435 yards on 16.1 per attempt at Alabama. You see where this is going.
While the Gators don’t have anywhere near Bama’s game-breaking speed at receiver (with the possible exception of the electric Kadarius Toney in the slot), what they lack in pure blazers they more than make up for in size: Between Trevon Grimes (6-4/218), Jacob Copeland (6-0/203), Justin Shorter (6-5/225) and the unstoppable Kyle Pitts (6-6/246), nearly every receiver who’ll see the field is a blue-chip talent who’s been around the block and poses serious matchup issues for any defense. Even beyond Pitts, the indisputable headliner, this is one of the deepest and most complementary groups in the country.
A&M’s receivers are still finding themselves. The Aggies lost all four of the primary wideouts in last year’s rotation over the offseason, and it shows – the new group consists entirely of second-year targets who have averaged a pedestrian 10.7 yards per catch over the first 2 games with just 2 receptions of 20+ yards and 1 touchdown. Demond Demas, a 5-star freshman, has been a no-show to date. Kellen Mond has better chemistry at this point with sophomore TE Jalen Wydermyer, who has served strictly as a move-the-sticks option underneath, and sophomore RB Ainias Smith, the only player on the offense at the moment who even remotely resembles a big-play threat.
Barring an inexplicable collapse on the part of Kyle Trask and/or turnaround by A&M’s defense, the offense will need to put up a big number just to compete, probably accompanied by a career day from Mond. Florida’s defense is no powerhouse itself, but at no point in Jimbo Fisher‘s tenure have the Aggies demonstrated the capacity to hit the gas when it counts. There’s no reason to expect the current lineup is going to be the one to start.
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Florida 37, Texas A&M 24
Alabama (-23) at Ole Miss
The only drama in Oxford is the weather, which could potentially shift the kickoff time to avoid the remnants of Hurricane Delta or, at worst, push the game to Sunday or Monday. Otherwise, the situation on the field is straightforward: Ole Miss’ defense – the same unit that has given up 48, 66, 62, and 59 points to Alabama the past 4 years – has already been shredded in its first 2 games for 400+ yards passing (by Florida) and 400+ yards rushing (by Kentucky) in consecutive weeks. Depending on its mood, Bama is capable of hitting either benchmark with plenty of room to spare.
Ole Miss’ offense vs. Bama’s defense is a more interesting dynamic, if only for the prospect of watching Lane Kiffin call plays against his former mentor/antagonist, Nick Saban. Saban, of course, has never lost to a former assistant and is almost certain to extend that streak. But Kiffin’s offense is off to a fast start behind QB Matt Corral, the highest-rated quarterback nationally according to ESPN’s Total QBR metric, and has flashed enough firepower via RB Jerrion Ealy, WRs Elijah Moore and Jonathan Mingo, and TE Kenny Yeboah to imagine them spicing up a monotonous series of Alabama touchdown drives. If so, the only question then is whether they’re able to inflict enough damage early enough in the proceedings to actually make the Tide sweat.
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Alabama 48, Ole Miss 26
Mississippi State at Kentucky (-2)
A collision of contrasting styles, pitting the SEC’s most pass-oriented team (Mississippi State) vs. its most run-oriented (Kentucky) with a point spread that nearly amounts to a pick ’em. The collective shrug from Vegas is partly a reflection of the offsetting strengths of the offenses. Mostly, though, it’s a reflection of the uncertainty surrounding the Bulldogs: Which version of this team is going to show up?
The outfit that dropped 44 points amid a flurry of big plays on LSU in the opener, snapping the nation’s longest active winning streak in the process, looked like a threat to trade touchdowns with any team in America. The one that duffed its way to 14 points in a stunning home loss to Arkansas – thereby snapping the nation’s longest active in-conference losing streak – looked like a threat to finish in the league cellar. And the one that posted both of those results in a span of 1 week is capable of just about anything on any given Saturday.
One positive aspect of the upset at LSU that did carry over: Success against the run. Across both games, the Bulldogs have allowed just 143 rushing yards (including negative yardage on sacks) on an FBS-best 1.9 per carry. Kentucky’s multi-faceted attack will challenge that, but if MSU holds up well enough to put the game on Terry Wilson‘s arm on obvious passing downs it has to like its chances.
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Mississippi State 30, Kentucky 27
LSU (-20.5) at Missouri
This game moved from Baton Rouge to Columbia due to Hurricane Delta, currently bearing down on the Louisiana coast, but as far as the outcome goes the change of venue is a footnote. LSU’s overhauled lineup is still smoothing out the wrinkles; Mizzou at this point under first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz is almost nothing but wrinkles, up to and including the new quarterback, redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak, who’s set to make his first career start after playing most of last week’s 35-12 loss at Tennessee. Aside from tackle-machine LB Nick Bolton, the Tigers don’t have anything in particular to hang their stripes on.
An area to keep an eye on for LSU is the pass rush, a major question mark coming into the season which has the makings of an emerging strength. DEs Andre Anthony, Ali Gaye, and BJ Ojulari are off to a promising start, turning in a collectively stellar night (3 TFLs, 5 QB hurries) in last week’s win at Vanderbilt on the heels of Pro Football Focus singling out Gaye on its national Team of the Week for his effort in the Tigers’ opening-day loss to Mississippi State. Gaye, a JUCO transfer who was born in Gambia, and Ojulari, a true freshman descended from Nigerian chieftains, are both raw talents only beginning to glimpse their next-level potential.
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LSU 38, Missouri 16
Arkansas at Auburn (-14)
The Razorbacks’ upset at Mississippi State was all the more remarkable for the fact that they gave up a single play of 20+ yards to an offense that had generated 15 of them against LSU, an eye-opening turnaround for a unit that ranked next-to-last in the SEC last year by allowing 70 plays of 20+ yards. For Bo Nix, coming off a dismal performance at Georgia, Arkansas may not be the automatic confidence-builder he bargained for.
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Auburn 34, Arkansas 13
South Carolina (-13) at Vanderbilt
South Carolina might represent Vandy’s best chance for a win this season — which is not the same thing as a good chance — but the urgency lies with the 0-2 Gamecocks to get on the board themselves. Will Muschamp’s job (and Derek Mason’s) may be safer in a pandemic year than it would be otherwise. But there’s “safe” and then there’s “lose to a bad version of Vanderbilt starting a true freshman QB” safe, for which he likely doesn’t qualify. He’d best hope he doesn’t have to find out.
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South Carolina 29, Vanderbilt 10
Week 2 Record 5-2 straight-up / 4-3 vs. spread
Season Record: 11-3 straight-up / 7-7 vs. spread