Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week One Recap
Welcome back. Did you enjoy your long weekend? (Note - This column will normally appear on Mondays, but was pushed back to accommodate the UT/Tech game.) It was a fun, kinda crazy first weekend (with the potential to have been extremely crazy). Let's dive in, shall we?
The Tigers more-or-less cruised to a 41-7 win over a severely overmatched Georgia Southern team. In the preview, I mentioned that the Eagles are a team trying to re-establish an identity, and that was plainly evident every time they had the ball in this game. The Auburn defense looked every bit of the deep, fast, nasty unit that fans have been anticipating. Aside from strong showings from pretty much everybody in the front seven, the thing that stood out the most to me was the discipline the Tigers played with. Playing an option-heavy offense like Georgia Southern can often be a trap (one that Eagles' opponents have fallen into in the past), especially with a big game coming up in the following week. While the coaches would never admit this, I'm certain that they'd begun implementing their Clemson gameplan at least to some extent before this game kicked off. Teams like Georgia Southern often thrive on that sort of lack of focus, using their option attack to rip through an unprepared defense. Not so in this one, as Auburn played fast, aggressive, physical, and most of all, smart on D. This all bears out statistically, as the Tigers held the Eagles to 78 total yards, 8 passing yards (and less than one yard per attempt), and 70 rushing yards (1.5 yards per rush). The Eagles were 0-15 on 3rd down, and the Tigers racked up 12 tackles for loss (with 5 sacks among them). It was a thoroughly dominant effort from the defense, with eight different players notching at least half a TFL.
But of course, the main attraction was to be the Auburn offense, and the grades there are decidedly more mixed. New signal-caller Jarrett Stidham had an uneven debut, and the Auburn passing game as a whole didn't seem all that different from the fairly frustrating attack of past years. In all, Stidham went 14-24, with 185 yards passing, two passing TDs, one TD along with 17 yards on the ground, a pick, and a fumble lost. The Tigers' leading receiver was former walk-on Will Hastings, who had four catches for 68 yards and a touchdown (on perhaps Stidham's prettiest pass of the night). This is all basically OK, but obviously expectations were running high coming out of August camp. At the end of the day (trademark Dabo Swinney), Stidham hasn't played live game football in well over a year, almost two. Maybe he just needed to knock off the rust. But the jury is definitely still out when it comes to the new look Auburn passing attack under Chip Lindsey.
Receiver-wise, Hastings led the way, as mentioned (weessshhhh, white lightnin'). Darius Slayton was also targeted quite a bit, and he had a very up-and-down game. A missed interference call early cost him a shot at a touchdown, and he also had a drop and lost a fumble mixed in with his three catches for 43 yards. Ryan Davis scored Auburn's other TD through the air, taking a drag route to the house behind some solid downfield blocking. Eli Stove also had 3 catches, and new face Sal Cannella had one early catch plus a big drop later. Kyle Davis (along with Bubba Pettway and Sean White) was suspended for the game, in classic Gus Malzahn, "that man has a rare talent for obfuscation" fashion. That leaves Nate Craig-Myers (zero catches) as a significant missing man in the offense. We heard a good bit of praise for him in the offseason, and we know what kind of a recruit he was. Here's hoping Auburn can find a way to use his talents going forward.
The running game was its usual productive self. The absence of Pettway was only somewhat noticeable, as Kerryon Johnson and Kam Martin were asked to run the ball between the tackles much more than they normally would be. Kerryon showed explosiveness on two big runs, with the second one leading to a hamstring injury. How much that persists will be something to keep up with for the rest of the season. Martin fumbled once (with Auburn recovering), but had a nice game otherwise. He has speed to burn and wasn't afraid to stick his nose in there on those runs up the gut. Read this excellent piece on him and remember what he and so many Texans are going through right now. Malik Miller and true freshman Devan Barrett also saw some action, which should help give everyone a sense of the depth Auburn has at RB. The offensive line played generally fine, but Stidham saw a bit more pressure than I'd like, and the run blocking was good but not great. More than perhaps any other unit, OL play needs rhythm and consistency to really hit that next level, so let's see how they progress over the next few weeks.
Special teams were a little spotty, largely due to Daniel Carlson's two uncharacteristic missed field goals. He did make two, plus all five PATs, but it's a credit to his excellence that misses from 53 and 46 yards out seem so disappointing. Ian Shannon punted once for 42 yards, which is fine, but let's see how he does next week in Death Valley East. Coverage was fine, and Javaris Davis had a decent kickoff return. Stephen Roberts returned punts, but only actually returned one, fair catching or letting all the many other punts go. Holder Tyler Stovall did have to handle one lousy snap, so let's hope that's corrected before next week, too. All in all, it was a decent first game, with some areas needing a little of that "teams improve more from week one to week two than any other week" treatment. Let's hope Stidham feels more comfortable next week. He seemed a little tentative in the pocket, not feeling the rush on some plays and not being patient enough on others. The receivers need to be able to get open more, as it seemed most of the pass plays took a long time to develop. If you're one to believe that Auburn was holding back a little bit with Clemson upcoming, then I'd expect to see a much different passing offense next week, maybe one that has a few more wrinkles that Auburn observers aren't used to. Obviously, going to Death Valley will be tough, but I'm also not ready to proclaim them as contenders on the strength of a waxing of Kent State. This is a winnable game, but Auburn definitely has to tighten some things up (and get Bubba and Kyle Davis back) to get that W.
Around the SEC
From FOX TV broadcast
Well, it was mostly a great week for the league...mostly. (Hat tip to Newt.) Alabama came out and did Alabama things, nobody lost to a non-Power Five conference team, and South Carolina secured the most important win for any team in the league. The almost noxious politicking between the different conferences will begin in earnest over the next couple of weeks, but week one starts to bring shape (and volume) to those arguments, and the SEC managed the long weekend fairly well...with a couple of pronounced exceptions. For our check on the league as a whole, I'm going with power rankings (because college football doesn't have enough rankings). These will be based on as objective of metrics as possible, which will correct as the season goes on, so don't try to read to much into this first batch...i.e. the teams that lost go to the bottom, even if I feel they will surpass some of the 1-0 teams before it's all said and done. Also, wins over Power Five competition count for more than wins over lesser teams.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (1-0 overall, 0-0 in SEC) - As loathe as I am to praise Bammer, they sit at number one after an impressive, if boring win over Florida State in Atlanta. For Nick Saban, this is probably the best kind of win, one where his team gets a big W and all kinds of praise from the national media, but they also have enough trouble spots that he can be surly and go on about the process. For both teams, injuries are the biggest concerns emerging from this game. FSU losing QB Deondre Francois for the season with a torn patellar tendon hurts their playoff chances far more than losing to Bama. The Tide's loss of two linebackers for the season isn't as bad by comparison, but it definitely hurts, even if LB is a position where Saban stacks up stud prospects like cordwood. The Pachyderms play Fresno State at home next Saturday (2:30 CT on ESPN2).
2. Tennessee Volunteers (1-0, 0-0) - The Big Orange nudge just ahead of South Carolina for second on the strength of me feeling like Georgia Tech is better than NC State. It's a toss-up really. Either way, the Vols overcame a very strong effort from the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta to win in two overtimes. Problems? Sure, there are problems. The D got trounced by the option all night, only really bowing up on the game-deciding two-point conversion. The offense did next to nothing until around the 3rd quarter, but really came alive down the stretch in what was a pretty fantastic game. Real options at QB, RB, and WR emerged, and the "Fire Butch Jones" talk has to wait at least until the Vols head to The Swamp in two weeks. Before that, though, the mighty Sycamores of Indiana State (sans Larry Bird) travel to Knoxville this week for a little tune-up action (3 CT on SEC Network).
3. South Carolina Gamecocks (1-0, 0-0) - While Alabama's win over Florida State plays heavily in the national discussion, South Carolina's victory over North Carolina State in Charlotte was the most meaningful win of the weekend for any SEC program. Will Muschamp did solid work to squeeze a bowl berth out of the Gamecocks last year, and this win gives their postseason aspirations for this season a huge boost. QB Jake Bentley (from Opelika High School) looks like the real deal, and Deebo Samuel continues Cocky's recent tradition of having highly athletic, creatively named athletes at receiver (remember Pharoh Cooper?). The hardest thing for them may be a relatively tough opening stretch that sees them follow up this neutral site game against NC State with back-to-back divisional dates with Missouri and Kentucky. Taken individually, those teams are all beatable, but put together in the first three weeks of the year, and they could ruin Carolina's chances of making a run in the East before it starts. SCar's at Mizzou this week at 6 CT on ESPN2.
4. LSU Tigers (1-0, 0-0) - The non-interim portion of the Coach O era on the Bayou began with a long, slow exsanguination of BYU. Having already seen a little bit of the Cougars this year (they beat Portland State last weekend), I didn't feel much like they'd challenge the Tigers. Similarly to Auburn, there wasn't much of a distinction between LSU's new offense and their old one, but that didn't matter since BYU never managed to cross midfield at any point in the game (yikes). The Bayou Bengals can probably dial up a similar win next week when FCS opponent Chattanooga choo-choos their way down to Red Stick (6:30 CT on SEC Network's alternate channel), but the trip to Starkvegas in week three will likely require a little more flash on offense. Honestly, the most interesting part of this game was the Coach O impersonations. (Allison Williams' was the best.)
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs (1-0, 0-0) - And here we begin a long stretch of trying to figure out who's win over a patsy was the most impressive. Counting against State is that their win came against an FCS team (Charleston Southern), but counting for them is that they probably came out of the gates as fast and as dominant as any SEC team this weekend. I didn't figure the Buccaneers to be a Massacre Island invitee this week, but I may have been mistaken (more on that later). The Bullies allowed only 33 total yards, recorded two safeties, and took a 35-0 lead into the half. Charleston Southern averaged less than half a yard per carry on the day. State will see a bit of an uptick in competition next week at Louisiana Tech (6:30 CT on CBS Sports Network) before a huge jump the following week when LSU comes calling.
6. Auburn Tigers (1-0, 0-0) - I pretty much covered everything about Auburn in the above section, but I should note that they land at number six due to the four other programs' wins over Power Five teams (yes, BYU counts as a Power Five win), and State's unrelenting domination from the jump in their win. A win at Clemson next week (6 CT on ESPN) would be enough to place Auburn at the top of these rankings (a road win over a P5 opponent as strong as Clemson is as much as you can ask for at this juncture in the season).
7. Kentucky Wildcats (1-0, 0-0) - UK slides in at seven on the strength of a narrow road win at Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles upset the Wildcats last year, and frankly, this is the exact kind of game that UK has lost far too many times under Mark Stoops. I say that to say this is a sneaky important win for the Kentucky program. I'm bullish on the 'Cats this year, eyeing them as a potential dark horse in an SEC East chock full of potential dark horses. It would've been soooo Kentucky to lose this game and throw a big, fat wrench in any of that thinking. I'm still on board whatever train you could say UK has, but I'd definitely like to see some improvement next week against Eastern Kentucky (11 CT on SEC Network). They follow that up with a huge two-game swing against South Carolina and Florida.
8. Vanderbilt Commodores (1-0, 0-0) - Like Kentucky, Vandy went on the road and vanquished a foe from a lesser conference, and like Kentucky, Vandy exorcised some demons in the process. Middle Tennessee State has been a thorn in Vandy's side for years and years, so any win over the Blue Raiders can't be taken for granted. But this year, Vandy took care of business, putting MTSU away 28-6. Statistically, the Commodores weren't amazing, but they did hold a normally strong Blue Raider offense to 0-12 on 3rd down. If there's something to worry about, the 'Dores only ran for 71 yards despite the presence of the excellent Ralph Webb in the backfield. Not sure what to make of that. Alabama A&M comes calling this Saturday (3 CT on SEC Network's alternate channel), with a visit from Kansas State and Bill Snyder's old pullovers looming in week three.
9. Arkansas Razorbacks (1-0, 0-0) - The Hogs got a reasonably lopsided win over Florida A&M on Thursday, though unlike, say, Mississippi State, the Sausage got off to a bit of a sluggish start (7-0 after one quarter, 21-0 at the half). But wouldn't you know it, Arky came out strong in the second half and showed some nice offensive balance (236 yards rushing, 179 passing), and now get a long week of preparation for Texas Christian this week. In what seemed like an upset at the time, the Hogs hopped on the Frogs last year in Fort Worth for one of Bret Bielema's better wins as head coach in Fayetteville. I'm not quite sure what to expect from Beluga's boys this year, but this Saturday (2:30 CT on CBS, where the great Brad Nessler will debut as Verne Lundquist's replacement) will go a long way toward giving me a good idea.
10. Georgia Bulldogs (1-0, 0-0) - UGa took down past giant-killer Appalachian State 31-10 on Saturday, though starting QB Jacob Eason was injured (by a late hit) in the process. Now, the offense seemed to move better after true freshman Jake Fromm came in to replace Eason, and I'm sure we haven't heard the last of this controversy. Fromm will definitely get the start this week at Notre Dame (6:30 CT on NBC), but Eason is expected back before the season ends. Georgia has some things to work on, as they turned the ball over twice against the Mountaineers and racked up 8 penalties. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel looked the part, though, and nothing will help Fromm more on the road in South Bend than a strong running game. Also, who the hell knows what to expect from the Irish this season? This should be an interesting game.
11. Ole Miss Rebels (1-0, 0-0) - Well, my possible upset didn't materialize, as Shea Patterson and the Rebels took care of South Alabama 47-27. We had a pretty good idea that Patterson was legit, and his 28-35, 429 yards, 4 TDs line didn't do anything to dispel that notion. But what of the rest of the Rebs? Their leading rusher had 34 yards and their defense didn't exactly shut South down (though this was a 47-13 game before the Jaguars pushed across two TDs in the final nine minutes). More observation is needed, though I'm not sure what we'll learn when Tennessee-Martin visits The Grove this Saturday (11 CT on SEC Network's alternate channel). A week three visit from the same Cal team that won at North Carolina on Saturday will tell us a lot more.
12. Missouri Tigers (1-0, 0-0) - Well, Mizzou should certainly be fun at least. 72 points and 815 total yards sure are nice, as are going 8-12 on 3rd down and having your QB throw for 521 yards and 7 TDs. But allowing 43 points, 492 total yards, and 8-16 on 3rd down against an FCS opponent is just ugly. Barry Odom is a defensive guy, and the Mizzou of recent years has been defined by a strong defensive line. None of that was on display in Columbia on Saturday, and given what South Carolina looked like against NC State, this Saturday's visit from Cocky (6 CT on ESPN2) could be an absurd shootout. Matchups with Purdue, Auburn, Kentucky, and Georgia follow, so the Tigers better get to work on that defense ASAP.
13. Florida Gators (0-1, 0-0) - Whelp, that was ugly. Michigan didn't play an especially good game in Arlington on Saturday (back-to-back pick sixes at one point), but it didn't much matter as the Gators committed an affront to offense for a full four quarters. As I mentioned in the weekend preview, Florida is the one major SEC power to have built its historical identity on offense, not defense. Looking back at the program since Tim Tebow graduated, you wouldn't be able to tell. The defense played fairly well Saturday, but this extended offensive terrible-ness is going to get Jim McElwain in trouble, even with a couple of division titles in his back pocket. Florida just hasn't looked competitive offensively with the elite teams in almost a decade now, and that will not stand (even if it's not all Coach Mac's fault). But UF didn't have the worst weekend of any SEC team, nor is McElwain's seat the hottest around the league.
14. Texas A&M Aggies (0-1, 0-0) - Dear Grodd, that was terrible. The Aggies turned a typically dominant early season effort into one of their late October/November turn-back-into-a-pumpkin games in the span of just over a quarter. Some of those touchdowns were egregious. Like this one. Or this one. Kevin Sumlin's already getting blasted by school regents, who are themselves being blasted by others. It's a huge mess, far worse than if they had lost more conventionally to UCLA. But don't forget, the Bruins went 4-8 last year and are coached by Jim Mora, Jr, who may be a worse coach than Sumlin (or anyone). There's very little good to be found here, made worse when the Ags lost two players (including starting QB Nick Starkel) for extending periods of time due to injury. The season isn't over (and that's something the Aggie coaches are definitely working overtime to impress upon their players), but I can't imagine it starting much worse. Nicholls State rolls into College Station this Saturday (6 CT on ESPNU), hopefully giving Kellen Mond and the Aggies a chance to right the ship.
Calling All Stations
Across the country, there were several games that had upset potential, but saw the favorite finally begin to flex its muscle in the second half. Indiana battled Ohio State for a half. Utah State battled Wisconsin for a half. Rutgers ran out of gas against Washington. Western Michigan pushed USC into the 4th quarter. And on and on it went, with Purdue the only team able to push a highly-ranked team (Louisville) all the way to the wire. (Texas' loss doesn't count, as the Longhorns shouldn't have been ranked.) From the Power Five ranks, the best games came on Sunday and Monday, with A&M's epic collapse against Josh Rosen and UCLA happening at the same time as a very evenly matched and tightly contested bout between Virginia Tech and West Virginia (the Hokies won), with Tennessee and Georgia Tech following with a double overtime thriller on Monday. ESPN's tried to sell this as a magical week of college football, but it was really just fine. I've seen better opening weekends and worse ones. Fortunately, week two this year should be stacked, with the aforementioned Auburn-Clemson, Georgia-Notre Dame, and TCU-Arkansas games being joined by Oklahoma-Ohio State and Stanford-USC, among others.
There were some excellent happenings off the beaten path, though. USC lining a blind man up at long snapper in the fourth quarter against Western Michigan was a really sweet story. Liberty University, not even a full FBS school yet, upset Baylor in Waco to spoil Matt Rhule's debut as the Bears' head coach. (Add it up, and it's tough to say who's in worse shape - Texas, Texas A&M, or Baylor. Maryland was straight up the better team in Austin, while A&M may have sealed their coach's fate and Baylor's loss just adds to the extended period of SHAME the school brought upon itself with its heinous conduct under Art Briles.) But Howard University's win over UNLV has the numbers behind it. Caylin Newton, younger brother of Cam, led Howard to the largest point-spread upset in history. (There have been some huge upsets that didn't have a line in the past, as most games against FCS opponents don't feature a line. But Vegas home team UNLV always gets a line, and now gets to be part of history.) Caylin threw for 140 yards and a TD, and ran for 190 yards and 2 more scores. Those kind of numbers sound familiar.
Massacre Island Recap
I predicted Arkansas to send FAMU to Massacre Island, and while 49-7 is pretty one-sided, from the SEC realm, Charleston Southern stands as our island tourists for the week. I figured the Bucs, usually a strong FCS team, would avoid total embarrassment against Mississippi State, but only gaining 33 yards in 60 minutes is worthy of the Platinum Club at the Massacre Island Resort & Spa.
Nationally, Liberty emerged victorious from the Massacre Island forecast, taking down Baylor. Kansas State beat Central Arkansas 55-19, but there were worse massacres to be found. For week one, our Massacre Island Travel Planner of the Week is Duke of all teams. The Blue Devils won the battle of Durham over North Carolina Central 60-7. There were other, more sizable beatdowns this week, but getting 60 hung on you by Duke is never a good look, even given the Dookies' recent pigskin competence.
Looking even more in depth takes us down to Division III, where St. John's of Minnesota laid down a 98-0 carpet bombing on St. Scholastica. You don't just roll into Collegeville, Minnesota (no, seriously) and expect to waltz out without being crushed by 98. The total yardage numbers were lopsided, just not as much as you'd think (562-52). Still, it was 98-0 with about 10 minutes left in the game, and the Johnnies killed the clock instead of continuing to kill the...whatever St. Scholastica is. We're not gonna look to D-III much, but this was truly worthy of an all expenses paid trip to Massacre Island for the...(looks it up)...the Saints. Well, I suppose I could've just guessed that.
Truly, though, the real massacres this week may have been going on in the stands...
Let's Get Ready to Rumble
For humanity's sake, I'd rather this not be a regular feature of this column, but there were some major throwdowns in the bleachers this week. The fight involving a couple of Alabama fans trying to take on a whole section of Florida State fans in Atlanta Saturday night got a little more media attention. Kudos to the 'Nole fan who started a sarcastic "Ala-Bama" chant after the two Bammers were escorted away by security. Too bad your season's already over, bro.
There was also a lesser fight at the Florida-Michigan game in Arlington. The woman at the center of it will likely be starting at QB for the Gators by mid-October.
But the real main event was this frat boy royal rumble at the Ole Miss-USA game. Unlike the other two fights, this was a battle amongst members of one fanbase, proof that football does not in fact unite us all. Surely we could figure out whose dad's dealership was worth more some other way, guys. Odd how the strong Christian example set by Hugh Freeze didn't seem to rub off on these particular fans.
Anyway, let's hope the long weekend settles everybody's blood a little bit. Week two is on its way, and we need everyone in game shape. Check back in on Thursday for the week two preview, folks.