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SEC Notebook: Alabama rolls back into national title picture
By THE SPORTS XCHANGE
Alabama reasserted its position in the SEC with a dominating performance in a 38-10 rout of Georgia, the Crimson Tide’s biggest margin of victory over an opponent ranked in the Top 10 in program history.
Florida emerged as a contender in the SEC East after being picked to finish fifth in the division with its 38-10 dismantling of previously unbeaten Mississippi.
And Tennessee failed to hold onto another double-digit lead, losing 24-20 to Arkansas at home yet, and suddenly those trendy preseason picks favoring the Vols for the East title look pretty shaky.
And this on just the first Saturday in October.
Of those three developments, the Gators’ performance probably is the most surprising.
With a new coach and a young team, they didn’t figure to do much at all this season, but with Georgia’s loss to Alabama, they are the only team in the East that has yet to lose.
Of course, a huge challenge is coming up.
After a trip to Missouri, which looked like a revived team after getting its running game going in a 24-10 victory over South Carolina, the Gators play LSU in Baton Rouge and then take a week off before meeting Georgia in their annual clash in Jacksonville on Halloween.
First-year coach Jim McElwain’s players also are facing the challenge of handling their new-found success. Are they up to it, or will they encounter the same kind of tumble Ole Miss apparently has taken since its mid-September win at Alabama? (The Rebels struggled in their win over Vanderbilt before the debacle in Gainesville.)
“We’ll find out,” McElwain said. “It’s new, and yet, I’m kind of excited about it. That’s a good thing. Yippee.”
Meanwhile, Alabama showed it has recovered from its loss to Ole Miss with its domination at Georgia. The Tide is lurking right behind undefeated LSU and Texas A&M in the West.
“I think we’ve improved,” Tide coach Nick Saban said of his team. “I think we’re getting better. I think it’s one game. I think we have to show that we can play with consistency. I don’t think we finished the game like we needed to, which is something we need to learn from.”
The Tide is in a much better spot than Tennessee. The Vols fell to 0-2 in the East with their loss to Arkansas, which entered the game in Knoxville on a three-game losing streak.
“I love these kids and our character’s being tested,” Vols coach Butch Jones said. “Our competitive character is being tested. Our fortitude’s being tested. All you can do is keep working and work your way through it. I don’t know. The opportunities are there. We just have to go make them.”
ALABAMA (4-1, 1-1)
Game: Alabama 34, Georgia 10. The Crimson Tide thoroughly dominated the rainy day, harassing Georgia quarterbacks into three interceptions and recording two sacks and also scoring touchdowns on a blocked punt (freshman DB Minkah Fitzpatrick) and SS Eddie Jackson’s 50-yard interception return. Junior RB Derrick Henry rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown, senior QB Jake Coker passed for one touchdown and rushed for another, and freshman WR Calvin Ridley had five receptions for 120 yards and a score.
Takeaway: Early stops on defense set the tone for Alabama. The Tide held the Bulldogs to three-and-outs on six of their first seven possessions in the first half while building a 24-3 halftime cushion. “I think it was huge,” coach Nick Saban said of the impact of the defensive plays. “Momentum is big in a game like this. We put together a good drive, and then we made a couple of big plays, and that sort of changed the game completely.” The Tide gave up 146 yards to Georgia RB Nick Chubb, but 83 of that came on his run near the end of the third quarter. Take that away and the Tide held the Bulldogs to just 216 yards in total offense the rest of the day. “I thought our defensive front seven did a great job,” Saban said, “and I thought we played well in the secondary as well.”
Next: Vs. Arkansas, Oct. 10.
ARKANSAS (2-3, 1-1)
Game: Arkansas 24, Tennessee 20. The Razorbacks controlled the tempo of the game with a crushing ground attack behind junior RB Alex Collins (27 carries,154 yards) and freshman RB Rawleigh Williams (14 carries, 100 yards) that gave them a more than 10-minute advantage in time of possession and limited the Vols to just four possessions in the second half. The defense forced the Vols to punt from their own seven-yard line on the first of their two possessions in the fourth quarter and then came up with a big sack on the final one to put the Vols in a deep hole.
Takeaway: Despite entering the game on a three-game losing streak, the Hogs kept their composure after giving up two early scores to the Vols. “We’re down 14-0 and our offense takes it the length of the field and scores a touchdown,” Arkansas coach Brad Bielema said. “It kept anybody from flinching, and we did a really nice job of responding from there on out.” The Hogs’ defense nailed this one down after a couple of miscues special teams — one of them on Bielema — gave the Vols late chances. “That’s the defense I know,” senior SS Rohan Gaines said. “Like I said a couple of years ago, I’m tired of being a secret. We are a great defense, and tonight I feel like we showed it.”
Next: At Alabama, Oct. 10.
AUBURN (3-2, 0-2)
Game: Auburn 35, San Jose State 21. Sophomore RB Peyton Barber rushed for five touchdowns, the most touchdowns for an Auburn player since Carnell “Cadillac” Williams scored six times against Mississippi State in 2003, and the Tigers needed pretty much all of them. The visitors had closed to within 28-21 with 5:38 left in the game when Barber responded by scoring on a 36-yard run just two plays after the Tigers had recovered the onside kick attempt.
Takeaway: This game, Barber said, was about “really making our mark and showing we’re a downhill team.” The Tigers ran the ball on 48 of their 58 plays as redshirt freshman QB Sean White threw only 10 passes, completing six for 108 yards. Barber logged 28 rushes for a career-high 148 yards. RBs Roc Thomas and Kerryon Johnson combined for nine carries for 60 yards, White had 18 on four, and WR Ricardo Louis had four carries for 17 yards. But this one was all about Barber. “We knew he had the chance to be a very good running back,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “The thing that stands out to me about Peyton is it is very important to him. He reminds me of Cameron Artis-Payne, about the importance of the game, the team, and everything that goes with it. He shows great toughness. He ran the ball extremely well and hard.”
Next: At Kentucky, Oct. 15.
FLORIDA (6-0, 3-0)
Game: Florida 38, Mississippi 10. The Gators jumped on the visiting Rebels for two first-quarter scores and a 13-0 lead, then broke the game open with two touchdowns in the second quarter, one on sophomore WR Brandon Powell’s 77-yard catch and run. The Gators made up for their own problems running the ball (84 yards) by holding the Rebels to just 69 yards and came up with four turnovers, three on fumble recoveries, while not losing any.
Takeaway: It was reported just a couple of days before the game that up to 21 players, including starting quarterback Will Grier, were suffering from flu symptoms for the Gators. It turns out, the “bug” seemed to serve like a pick-up-up for the Gators, leading Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze to quip afterward, “I hope we have a bunch of guys get the flu next week.” Grier was 24-of-29 passing for 279 yards and four touchdowns — all in the first half –and didn’t throw an interception. “That was sure a lot of fun,” coach Jim McElwain said. “Really happy for our fans and for these kids who have accepted the challenges that we have put forth and really invested in themselves and each other.”
Next: At Missouri, Oct. 10.
GEORGIA (4-1, 2-1)
Game: Alabama 38, Georgia 10. The Bulldogs never had anything going on a consistent basis offensively, managing only 299 yards in total offense with a big chunk of that coming on running back Nick Chubb’s 83-yard run late in the third quarter for the game’s final points. The Bulldogs had no takeaways and no sacks and gave up touchdowns on a blocked punt and an interception return.
Takeaway: Coach Mark Richt was succinct in his summation of the beating the Tide delivered to his Bulldogs, who came into the game a slight favorite. “We got whipped,” Richt said. “We all know it, and we’ve got to do something about it.” Take away Chubb’s long touchdown run and the Bulldogs managed only 216 yards in total offense. QB Greyson Lambert, who was near perfect the previous two weeks (33-of-35), was only 10-of-24 passing for 86 yards with an interception and also lost a fumble. His backup, Brice Ramsey, completed only one of his six attempts and had two picked off. “It was a tough one,” Lambert said. “My hat’s off to their defense. They came ready to play, and we just did not execute, whether it was communication or X’s and O’s, we did not do our job.”
Next: At Tennessee, Oct. 10.
KENTUCKY (4-1, 1-1)
Game: Kentucky 34, Eastern Kentucky 27 (OT). The Wildcats scored two touchdowns in the final five minutes of regulation to send the game to overtime, then won it on junior QB Patrick Towles’ second touchdown pass to sophomore WR Dorian Baker and Cory Johnson’s fourth-down sack of EKU QB Arie Beasley in the extra period. The Wildcats trailed 27-13 before engineering touchdown drives of 75 and 39 yards in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
Takeaway: It certainly wasn’t looking good when the visiting Colonels scored to take a 14-point lead with under eight minutes left in the game, but Towles said he never lost faith that the Wildcats would win. “There was never any point where I thought we were going to lose the game,” he said. “And I honestly believe that. There were probably 20,000 people who did, but that wasn’t me. And that’s not our team. Our team, we’re going to fight no matter who it is, no matter who we’re playing.” Towles found Baker for a five-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 52 seconds left in regulation, and Kentucky’s defense finally managed to stop an EKU offense that had rushed for 180 yards on the night. “We had some guys step up and make some plays late,” coach Mark Stoops said.
Next: Vs. Auburn, Oct. 15.
LSU (4-0, 2-0)
Game: LSU 44, Eastern Michigan 22. The Tigers rushed for 399 yards and held the visitors to just 255 yards in total offense, but an interception set up a cheap touchdown that allowed the Eagles to close to within three points, 17-14 late in the second quarter. The lead was 20-14 at the break, then sophomore RB Leonard Fournette opened the second half with a 75-yard touchdown run to get things going the Tigers’ way again.
Takeaway: With Eastern Michigan bringing the nation’s worst run defense to Baton Rouge, it figured that Fournette would have another big game, and he didn’t disappoint. With 233 yards on 26 carries, he became the first back in SEC history to post three consecutive 200-yard rushing games. Fournette, who had rushed for 244 yards at Syracuse and 228 against Auburn, said setting the record was a “special feeling” and credited his offensive linemen for their effort. “It’s not just me,” he said. “They made history with me. I congratulate them and thank them for protecting me and blocking for me.” One of those linemen, RT Vadal Alexander, said Fournette is more comfortable with the offense this season. “The more comfortable he gets,” Alexander said, “the more freakish and electric he gets as a player.”
Next: At South Carolina, Oct. 10.
MISSISSIPPI (4-1, 2-1)
Game: Florida 38, Mississippi 10. The Rebels went to the locker room down 25-0 at the halftime break after their first six drives ended in four punts, a lost fumble that set up a Florida touchdown and a missed field goal from 29 yards out. Junior QB Chad Kelly was 26-of-40 passing for 259 yards and a touchdown but was intercepted once and sacked four times.
Takeaway: The Rebels let this one get away early. It was 13-0 less than nine minutes into the game after the Gators recovered RB Jaylen Walton’s fumble at the Ole Miss 24-yard line and the deficit grew to 25-0 at the half. “They came out on all cylinders,” junior TE Evan Engram said. “The crowd was behind them. We hurt ourselves early in the game, putting ourselves back with negative plays, tough situations, second-and-15s. We really hurt ourselves tonight, but they came to play and put a lot of pressure on our offensive line. They came here to play, and we hurt ourselves as well.” The Rebels managed to overcome a sluggish performance the week before against Vanderbilt, but seemed lost against the Gators. “Difficult night,” coach Hugh Freeze said. “They beat us in about every facet of the game that you can imagine.”
Next: Vs. New Mexico State, Oct. 10.
MISSISSIPPI STATE (3-2, 1-2)
Game: Texas A&M 30, Mississippi State 17. The Bulldogs fell behind 17-3 early in the second quarter and were never able to overcome that early deficit despite the efforts of senior QB Dak Prescott. Prescott passed for 210 yards and rushed for a team-high 96, but he also missed an open receiver early on for a potential tying touchdown.
Takeaway: Two key turnovers kept the Bulldogs from mounting a second half comeback. Down 24-10 at the halftime intermission, they lost the ball on junior WR De’Runnya Wilson’s fumble after a long completion to A&M’s 46-yard line on their first series of the third quarter, and the Aggies cashed in with a field goal to make it a three-score game. On their next series, freshman RB Aeris Williams lost a fumble on first down at A&M’s 11-yard line, and the Aggies recovered at their three. Those mistakes and the inability of the defense to come up with stops — the Aggies rushed for 194 yards and passed for 322 — proved too much to overcome. “When you’re on the road, you can’t come in and play the way we were playing and expect to win,” coach Dan Mullen said. “It was pretty simple. They played better than we did tonight.”
Next: Vs. Troy, Oct. 10.
MISSOURI (4-1, 1-1)
Game: Missouri 24, South Carolina 10. After taking a 17-10 lead into halftime, the Tigers shut down the visiting Gamecocks in the second half, coming up with interceptions on their first three defensive series of the third quarter. The Tigers cashed in on only one for points with RB Ish Witter scoring from a yard out to cap a 69-yard drive, but that was enough to seal the win.
Takeaway: With junior Maty Mauk suspended, Drew Lock became the first freshman to start at quarterback for Missouri since Corby Jones started against Oklahoma State in 1995, and coach Gary Pinkel called the game accordingly. With his defense in command, Pinkel played it conservatively for Lock, who attempted only nine passes, completing five, over the last two quarters. “But I thought he really carried himself well,” Pinkel said. “I thought that was good. He did a lot of good things and he has a lot of ability.” The Tigers also had their best rushing game of the season, compiling 163 yards on the ground with Witter leading the way with 98 yards on 17 carries. “There were creases there today that I could’ve run through,” Pinkel said in praising his line’s play.
Next: Vs. Florida, Oct. 10.
SOUTH CAROLINA (2-3, 0-3)
Game: Missouri 24, South Carolina 10. The Gamecocks trailed only 17-10 at halftime but turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions to start the third quarter. The Tigers enjoyed only a one-yard advantage in total offense with 299 yards to South Carolina’s 298, but didn’t have a turnover.
Takeaway: Coach Steve Spurrier wasn’t all that happy with the officiating in the Gamecocks’ loss, though he acknowledged bad calls were “not what beat us.” Two calls in particular stood out. One came in the first quarter when his defense came up with a near sack of Mizzou QB Drew Lock, but officials ruled Lock stopped at the one-yard line. Spurrier thought Lock could have been called for intentional grounding in the end zone, which would have been a safety and two points for the Gamecocks. The second play came in the fourth quarter when WR Pharoh Cooper was flagged for offensive pass interference, negating a 25-yard completion to teammate TB Rod Talley. “That was a tough call,” Spurrier said. After an incompletion on third-and-21 on the ensuing play, the Gamecocks had to punt and Missouri ran the final 6:42 off the clock. Actually, a third call, a personal foul against WR Matrick Belton that negated a roughing-the-passer violation against Missouri, also upset Spurrier. “They said Matrick blocked a guy, and he was out of bounds and he gave him a little shove like that,” Spurrier said. “That was the explanation I got.”
Next: Vs. LSU, Oct. 10.
TENNESSEE (2-3, 0-2)
Game: Arkansas 24, Tennessee 20. The Volunteers had no answer for Arkansas’ running game as the Razorbacks rushed for 275 yards with two running backs, junior Alex Collins and freshman Rawleigh Williams, going over the 100-yard mark with 154 and 100, respectively. The Vols had two chances to overcome a four-point deficit in the fourth quarter but had to punt from their seven-yard line on one series and saw their final three plays end in a sack and two incompletions. The Hogs then ran the final 2:26 off the clock.
Takeaway: For the second consecutive week and third time this year, the Vols had an early double-digit lead, scoring on Evan Berry’s 96-yard return of the opening kickoff and an 89-yard drive on their first offensive series for a 14-0 lead, but still went into halftime tied at 17-17. The visiting Razorbacks got the only touchdown of the second half with Collins capping an 80-yard drive with a one-yard run in the third quarter, and the Vols added only a field goal on their four possessions of the second half. They started those drives at their own 24, 6, 7, and 14 yard lines. Coach Butch Jones noted those factors and “critical plays at critical stages, too many dropped passes” in his assessment. “That changed the complexion of the game,” he said, “and they did a good job.”
Next: Vs. Georgia, Oct. 10.
TEXAS A&M (5-0, 2-0)
Game: Texas A&M 30, Mississippi State 17. Sophomore QB Kyle Allen passed for 322 yards and two touchdowns and the Aggies took advantage of two fumble recoveries to start the second half to keep the visiting Bulldogs at bay. They scored only two field goals over the final two quarters but that and the two takeaways were enough as the defense gave up only one touchdown over the final two periods.
Takeaway: The turnovers were the key for the Aggies to maintain a comfortable cushion. It was the second straight week they have enjoyed such an advantage. They also came up with two takeaways in an overtime win over Arkansas the week before. “It was big,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. “We talk about turnover margin and the last two weeks were plus-two in each game against an SEC opponent. If we can maintain that level, it certainly helps. To win the turnover battle, we’ve won the last two games that way. We didn’t necessarily get points off of it, but we did flip the field.” The Aggies were able to get a field goal following the first fumble recovery to go up 27-10. They didn’t score after the second recovery inside their own 10-yard line, but they did move out to midfield on Allen’s 49-yard completion to junior WR Josh Reynolds and backed up the Bulldogs to the one-yard line on P Drew Kaser’s 40-yard punt.
Next: Vs. Alabama, Oct. 17.
VANDERBILT (2-3, 0-2)
Game: Vanderbilt 17, Middle Tennessee State 13. Down 10 points in the fourth quarter, the Commodores got a 29-yard touchdown run from sophomore quarterback Johnny McCrary with 6:14 left and a 39-yard TD dash from sophomore RB Ralph Webb with 1:12 remaining for their first win over an FBS opponent this season. Webb rushed for 155 yards on 25 carries and Vandy’s defense held the Blue Raiders to 34 net yards rushing and an average of just 1.5 yards per carry.
Takeaway: Vandy turned the ball over three times, but managed to overcome their own bobbles by coming up with two takeaways of their own, recovering fumbles at their own 36 and 2-yard lines to stop Blue Raiders’ drives. “This was an ugly football game with the turnovers and miscues,” coach Derek Mason said. “We had an inability to convert offensively on third down and defensively to get off the field. They gave us a great ballgame, but at the end of the day, our football team grew up tonight. It was the first road win since I have been here, and that’s huge for this young football team.” The Commodores converted only seven of 17 third down situations and held the Raiders to just a field goal and touchdown in three trips into the red zone.
Next: At South Carolina, Oct. 17.
–In the ongoing duel between sophomore Heisman candidate running backs, LSU’s Leonard Fournette came out ahead of Georgia’s Nick Chubb even though Chubb tied Herschel Walker’s program record with his 13th consecutive 100-yard rushing game.
Chubb rushed for 146 yards in the Bulldogs’ 38-10 loss to Alabama Saturday, but 83 came on one run late in the third quarter after the issue had long been decided. He averaged just 3.3 yards per carry on his other 19 rushes.
“Those guys are big and physical,” Chubb said of the Alabama defenders. “I know they were coming downhill strong and tackling us pretty well.”
Fournette rushed for 233 yards and also had a long run, a 75-yarder on the first play of the second half to get the Tigers headed toward their 44-22 victory over Eastern Michigan.
“Leonard is liable to do something like that at any time,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “There is not a time when you hand him the ball that he doesn’t have an opportunity to hit a home run. I anticipate those kind of things will happen.”
–Missouri’s Drew Lock enjoyed the upper hand as he and South Carolina’s Lorenzo Nunez made some SEC history with the first matchup of true freshman quarterbacks in conference annals.
Lock passed for only 136 yards but completed 21 of his 28 attempts and most important didn’t have an interception in the Tigers’ 24-10 victory. He had two touchdown passes.
“Drew did some really good things for a young player,” Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said.
Nunez passed for more yardage (172 to Lock’s 136) while completing 15-of-24 attempts, but he also threw three interceptions on South Carolina’s first three drives of the second half.
“We wish he had thrown those in a little different spot, and we’ll go back and watch the tape,” coach Steve Spurrier said. “We had some guys open, I think, and we’ve got to get the ball to the open guy at the right time.”
Nunez had one completion for a touchdown when RB Shon Carson caught a deflected pass and took it into the end zone.
–After a lackluster (but winning performance) the week before against Louisiana-Monroe, Alabama QB Jake Coker redeemed himself in the 38-10 rout of Georgia.
Coker was 11-of-16 passing for 190 yards and a touchdown in sloppy conditions and also rushed six times for 28 yards a touchdown in outplaying Georgia’s tandem of Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey.
“The quarterback did a fantastic job,” coach Nick Saban said. “We moved the ball effectively on offense. We made a couple of explosive plays.”
One of those explosive plays was a 45-yard touchdown pass to freshman WR Calvin Ridley that gave the Crimson Tide a 24-3 lead.
“It was awesome,” Coker said. “Ever since I was little I’ve dreamed of beating Georgia and all of those good schools, so this was pretty sweet.”
–Arkansas had to overcome a couple of special teams’ woes, one of them self-inflicted, before surviving a 24-20 victory over Tennessee.
The Hogs had a field goal blocked that could have given them a more comfortable seven-point lead in the third quarter, then came up a yard short of the first down when coach Bret Bielema called for a fake on a short field goal attempt in the fourth quarter.
“There was no explanation on what happened with that first one, with that botched field goal, so I thought we’ve been running that fake and it looked good,” Bielema said. “They normally had rushed that wide outside corner almost every snap. They pulled him out on that play for whatever reason, and they made a good play.”
Defense saved the Hogs. They allowed Tennessee only one first down following the block and forced the Vols into a three-and-out following the unsuccessful fake.
–With an open date coming up before hosting Alabama, Texas A&M put itself in a great position in the West Division race with the 30-17 victory over Mississippi State.
The Aggies are one of two undefeated teams in the division (LSU is the other) as they head into a bye week before hosting Alabama.
“For us right now there are lot of things we can improve on. I’ve said it a couple times, but to get to where we are now playing the quality of opponents we have played and getting to a bye week, it was important,” coach Kevin Sumlin said of the win over the Bulldogs. “Physically we’re going to get some people back.”
Against Mississippi State, the Aggies were without WRs Speedy Noil and Jeremy Tabuyo and LB Otaro Alaka to undisclosed injuries, and RB James White twisted his ankle during the game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “We’re probably going to need to put on two red wristbands this week.” — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who said the Hogs wore red bracelets all week to remind them that winning on the road in the SEC is a “big deal.” The Hogs play at Alabama next.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 5 IN THE SEC:
1. Never count out Alabama until the Crimson Tide is really out. The Tide recovered from a September loss to Mississippi last year to make the first College Football Playoff and looks capable of pulling off the same feat again this year.
2. Auburn’s Peyton Barber may be the most overlooked running back in the conference. Most of the attention is going to LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Alabama’s Derrick Henry, but Barber topped the 100-yard mark rushing for the fourth time in five games with 147 yards in the win over San Jose State.
3. Maybe Florida QB Will Grier should catch the flu more often. Early week speculation had it that the redshirt freshman might not be available against Ole Miss because of the bug, but play he did, passing for four touchdowns in the first half alone.
4. A win is a win is a win. Yes, Kentucky was “fortunate” — the most used word after the game — to get the overtime victory over Eastern Kentucky when a loss to the FCS could have been devastating to the team’s psyche as well as its postseason outlook, but the victory gets them to within two of the six wins needed for bowl eligibility at this early stage.
5. Watch out for Missouri. Not that the 14-point win over South Carolina was a dominating performance, but the Tigers got a boost from the running game, which welcomed back RB Russell Hansbrough from an ankle injury, and that should enhance their chances in the mixed-up East race.