What we learned about the SEC West in Week 3
Nothing is what it seems sometimes.
This time last week, we thought Auburn and Mississippi State had found their quarterbacks, while LSU was still looking for one. But after a week where LSU beat Mississippi State with new starter Danny Etling, giving the Tigers offensive balance while MSU’s Nick Fitzgerald struggled, that perception changed.
And things look a little more cloudy at Auburn, where the Tigers’ offense was stuck in neutral behind starter Sean White but seemed to get a boost from run-oriented John Franklin III in a 29-16 loss to Texas A&M.
So insert your clichés. Sure, every week is a season. Absolutely, you can’t read too much into one performance.
This is a year where a lot of SEC West teams are searching for an identity, and the identities seem to change weekly. Here’s what we learned about those identities this week.
Alabama: Much will be made of the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s backfield duo of Jalen Hurts (158 yards passing, 146 yards rushing) and Damien Harris (144 yards rushing), but in the 48-43 win over Ole Miss, one trend emerged that few are talking about: for the third week in a row, the defense scored a touchdown. The defense scored twice, once on a Da’Ron Payne fumble return and once on a Jonathan Allen 75-yard interception return. For good measure, defensive back Eddie Jackson added a TD on a punt return. The question is, is this an exciting development or one for concern? Alabama doesn’t win this game without those plays. Can the Tide count on continuing to make those plays? Or is that a sign of vulnerability?
Arkansas: No. 24 Arkansas played as a ranked team for the first time since early last season and looked the part in a 42-3 dismantling of overmatched Sun Belt Conference foe Texas State. Austin Allen (16-of-21 for 241 yards, 2 TDs) was efficient, Rawleigh Williams (19 carries, 121 yards, 2 TDs) was good and the defense created pressure and was solid. There are questions on the offensive line, but in a week where strengths couldn’t be identified while weaknesses could be exposed by a weaker opponent, the Hogs didn’t have many obvious flaws revealed.
Auburn: Gus Malzahn may be finding his seat getting warm after a 29-16 loss to Texas A&M that dropped the Tigers to 1-2. What might get him back in good graces is going back to what his offenses do best — running the ball. After starting quarterback Sean White was ineffective (126 passing yards on 27 attempts), running quarterback John Franklin III gave AU a spark late, mostly by running the zone-read option that Nick Marshall ran so well in 2013 and, of course, Cam Newton ran to perfection when Malzahn was his offensive coordinator. Franklin rushed for 47 yards and passed for 37 late in the game, leading AU to a touchdown and a long drive that stalled. It looks like the QB controversy is back on The Plains.
LSU: Two interesting facts emerged from Saturday for LSU regarding quarterback play. Quarterback Danny Etling found No. 3 receiver D.J. Chark three times for 52 yards and a touchdown in a 23-20 win over Mississippi State. Chark entered the game with one career catch and all four have been from Etling in the last two weeks. Meanwhile, TCU receiver John Diarse caught a team-high 7 passes in the Horned Frogs’ win over Iowa State. Diarse had the third receiver role last year at LSU and transferred, frustrated over the lack of pass-catching opportunities. The point is this: Etling, who completed passes to seven different receivers, distributes the ball to his receivers better than former starter Brandon Harris as Chark’s sudden production proves.
Mississippi State: Overwhelmed early in the 23-20 loss to No. 20 LSU, the Bulldogs proved one thing in rallying back late: MSU isn’t a team that will go away quietly. Damian Williams rallied the Dogs late by scoring a touchdown before MSU recovered an onside kick, scored again, then got a defensive stop that allowed an MSU team that was being dominated 23-3 in the second half to all of a sudden have a legitimate chance to win the game in its final possession. It didn’t happen, but it did send the message that Dan Mullen’s team will scrap this season, helping to make up for some obvious flaws.
Ole Miss: If you paid attention to the high-end talent Ole Miss lost to the NFL, you knew it would be tough for the Rebels to continue their two-game winning streak against Alabama. But Chad Kelly almost made it happen in a 48-43 loss, becoming the first quarterback to throw for three touchdowns twice against a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team. Kelly threw for a career-high 421 yards and also led his team with 48 rushing yards. While Kelly did hurt his cause with two turnovers for touchdowns, it was clear that the Rebels were overmatched in other areas. It’s looking like Ole Miss’ overall talent level may have dipped some, but Kelly will keep things interesting as the year goes on.
Texas A&M: If the No. 17 Aggies are to defy modest expectations, it’ll be through the improved play of John Chavis’ defense. And the Aggies’ defense looks much better in a 3-0 start, including a dominant effort in a 29-16 win at Auburn on Saturday. Myles Garrett continues to impress with two sacks and the Aggies gigged Auburn’s offense until late. It added up to a dominant day as the only hiccup was that the offense settled for five Daniel LaCamera field goals. Finish those drives with touchdowns and this would have been a complete blowout.