Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Three Recap
Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
Well, it's a win. It may be the ugliest win in Auburn history, but it's a win. We'll talk the Tigers overcoming five turnovers to beat Mercer, some interesting goings-on in SEC play, a statement win from Clemson, and more in our week three post-mortem. Shall we begin?
I'm gonna have to hold my nose while I write this, but the important thing to remember is that Auburn did, in fact, win Saturday, and so continues the school's streak of wins over non-major conference competition. The last time Auburn lost a game to a team that's not currently in a Power Five league was in 2007 when South Florida beat the Tigers in OT. At that time, the Bulls were in a major conference (the Big East, they reached as high as #2 in the polls that season). Auburn's last loss to a team that wasn't in a major league came back in 1991, when Southern Miss beat the Tigers for the second consecutive year. As for FCS (formerly 1-AA) teams, Auburn has technically never lost to one, as that division was created in 1978 and none of its schools have taken the Tigers down since. Not that there haven't been some close calls. Jacksonville State had Auburn slap beat in Jordan-Hare as recently as two years ago before the Tigers rose from the dead to win in OT. Appalachian State, then a 1-AA school, had Auburn on the ropes in 1999 before a late TD pass to Ronney Daniels put AU in front. There have been other examples, each one ending the same way, with an Auburn win.
So with all that said, this game was never as in doubt as the ones I mentioned above. Auburn's chance of winning was near 100% throughout, even as scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity went by the boards. The Tiger defense - the same one that held Clemson to 14 points in Death Valley last week, the same offense that rampaged through Louisville like the Dothraki Saturday night - was never going to let Mercer actually win. They're just too good, which is nice because Auburn's offense and special teams are wide awake nightmares right now.
First, the good. On offense, the Tigers moved the ball. Hell, they basically moved the ball at will for much of the game. Auburn rolled up 510 yards of offense, compared to 117 last week. They were efficient on 3rd down, going 12-17, while the Bears went 6-18. That kind of number is encouraging, even against an FCS team. Jarrett Stidham really flung the ball all over the yard Saturday, going 32-37 for 364 yards. 9 different receivers caught passes. Bubba Pettway rumbled for over 100 yards and 3 scores. And a week after allowing 11 sacks against Clemson, Auburn yielded only one on Saturday. All that stuff's nice and all...
...But now, the bad. Auburn turned the ball over five times, with five total fumbles (four lost) and a pick. There were six penalties. Auburn turned the ball over five times. The Tigers only averaged 3.4 yards a carry on the ground. Auburn turned the ball over five times. The running game only produced one play that gained 10 or more yards. Auburn turned the ball over five times. The only RB with a carry was Pettway. Auburn turned the ball over five times. Daniel Carlson missed a short field goal that would've effectively ended the game. Auburn turned the ball over five times. Auburn appeared to leave yards on the field in the punt return game. Auburn turned the ball over five times. There was a fumble on a punt return, which put the defense right back on the field after having held on the previous possession. Auburn turned the ball over five times. Auburn turned the ball over five times. Auburn turned the ball...
Sorry, I got stuck in a Shining-loop. (I shouldn't have laid off the TV and beer.) But seriously, it looked like Auburn was playing with a greased pig out there. Stidham's pick was irritating, but easily explained. He stared down his receiver, and the defender made the read. It happens. Fumbling five times doesn't just happen, though. Pettway fumbled on a handoff he never fully controlled, but three different receivers just didn't protect the football in traffic on four separate occasions. (Ryan Davis fumbled twice, but one went out of bounds before leading to further calamity.) To an extent, this was just one of those days, but sweet sassy molassy, hold on to the damn football.
While ball security can and will be a focus this week in practice, the sluggish running game may be a bigger concern over the long run. Last week, we all bagged on the passing game after laying an egg at Clemson. I know this was Mercer, but the passing game showed more life this week than it has in either of the first two games, with more intermediate routes and quick, short throws to get Stidham comfortable in the pocket. I mean, the aerial attack didn't suddenly look like the '84 Dolphins or anything, but there was marked improvement. The running game, though, is looking like a sore spot. Getting chunk plays on the ground is a huge part of the Gus Malzahn offense, and Auburn just isn't doing it. It's one thing to get held down by Clemson, but just one double-digit gainer on the ground against Mercer flat out sucks. Again, Bubba was the only back to get a carry, and I understand that the game was never out of hand and Kerryon Johnson was hurt, but what's happened to Kam Martin? Devan Barrett was thrown passes, but can't take a handoff? Malik Miller anyone? Again, I know this game was closer than the coaches wanted all the way through, but Auburn just hasn't had a change of pace in the running game at all over the last two weeks, and it's pretty obvious that Pettway isn't 100%. Martin saw plenty of action against Georgia Southern with Bubba suspended and Kerryon hurt, but his lack of touches since seems to indicate that he may be in the dreaded doghouse. It's the only logical explanation.
Whatever's going on needs to be addressed and addressed quickly, because SEC play starts this week. Now, Missouri appears to be, by far, the worst team in the conference, but Mississippi State soon follows, and they look as scary as they've ever looked in my lifetime. And things won't get much easier from there. I suspect that this will be an extremely tough week of practice for the team, as more listlessness like we saw today could send the cheese sliding completely off the cracker. One thing that's always played in Malzahn's favor is that his teams have always competed. There've been games where the team has been embarrassed (at LSU in 2015 being a prime example, at Georgia in 2014 being another), but the team has always regained its competitive edge. And given what happened in 2012, that can't be underestimated. But if this was the response to last week, then how the team responds to this next week could speak volumes. Let us all remind ourselves that this team traded blows with a Clemson squad that looks like it's going to fly into the playoff, so it isn't as bad as it necessarily looks. But whatever voodoo is haunting the team right now has got to go. This dog ain't gonna hunt in the SEC.
Around the SEC
Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate
We had an interesting mixture of conference and non-conference games this week around the league. Vandy did something it hadn't done since Harry Truman was president, and two big matchups in the East gave us an early sense of who's in the mix over there and who isn't. But the biggest story in the conference happened in Starkvegas, and we'll be getting around to the winning team in that matchup very soon. As always with these rankings, they're based on more objective metrics than necessarily my (or general) opinion, so don't get too freaked out about them.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (3-0 overall, 0-0 in SEC) - Alabama turned in the lazy, Nick Saban-infuriating effort against a lesser non-conference foe that it always turns in at least once a year. Still, they blew out Colorado State 41-23, and Saban will have plenty to chew his players out for, which makes this almost a perfect situation for him. A long touchdown pass from Jalen Hurts to Robert Foster pushed Bama ahead by 14 with a minute left in the first half, and the Tide ran it out to as much as a 41-10 lead before the Rams pushed across two 4th quarter touchdowns, much to the chagrin, I'm sure, of the Bammer coaches. 2nd quarter sluggishness aside, the Tahd certainly look the part. They head to Vandy this Saturday afternoon (2:30 CT on CBS), where they should have no problems, but the Commodores ought to at least make them earn the W. (Note - This game should not be the CBS game, but the Eye loves them Bammer ratings.)
2. Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-0, 1-0) - OK then. I thought State had a shot at LSU, but hot damn. LSU didn't have a shot at State. Nick Fitzgerald announced his presence with authority, and we were reminded how scary a Dan Mullen-coached team can be if he's got a quarterback. But there was a lot more here. Aeris "The Mad King" Williams ripped off 146 yards on 23 carries against the athletes LSU has on defense, and State averaged 5.9 yards a pop on the ground overall. The Bullies physically controlled the Bayou Bengals in a way that still seems strange. This win puts MSU right in the national discussion, and they have a couple more chances to make statements before September is up, starting with a trip to Athens to take on the other Bulldogs this Saturday (6 CT on ESPN).
3. Georgia Bulldogs (3-0, 0-0) - The 'Dawgs started a touch slow against Samford on Saturday night, but still led 21-7 at the half and won 42-14 in the end. This game provided Georgia a nice opportunity to settle in after the big win at Notre Dame, and they took advantage by managing the snap counts for several of their stars. Jake Fromm only attempted 13 passes, but still threw for three scores. Now, that's all well and good, but Mississippi State rolls in this weekend (6 CT on ESPN) with all the momentum in the world. Georgia's gonna have to ramp things back up and play their best game of the year to win. After what State did physically to LSU, they will provide a more daunting challenge to UGa than anything Notre Dame could do two weeks ago.
4. Kentucky Wildcats (3-0, 1-0) - After looking like a pile of manure against Eastern Kentucky in week two, UK did everything it had to do to win at South Carolina on Saturday night. For their fourth straight win over Cocky, the 'Cats were balanced on offense (169 yards passing, 184 rushing), and badly outrushed the Gamecocks (184-54). They also managed 3rd down far better (UK was 9-16, SCar was 3-12) and rode the leg of stud kicker Austin MacGinnis. Basically, with the exception of two turnovers, the Wildcats did all the things you need to do to win on the road. This is a team that should absolutely challenge for the division title, and winning in Columbia was step one. Step two is finally, finally defeating Florida, who comes calling this Saturday night (6:30 CT on SEC Network). If the 'Cats can beat the Gators for the first time since the Reagan administration, they'll begin to separate themselves from the rest of the division (except maybe Georgia).
5. Vanderbilt Commodores (3-0, 0-0) - Vandy checks in at numero cinco after beating their first ranked non-conference opponent since 1946. Yep, Harry S Truman was president, the Cold War was just beginning, and Bill Snyder was entering his third year as coach at K-State (he has an old bowl pullover to prove it). It was a hella ugly win, but I'm sure Derek Mason and his squad will take it. A visit from Alabama on Saturday afternoon (2:30 CT on CBS) will probably bring the Commodores back down to Earth, but make no mistake, this was a massive victory for Mason and his program. Even with a wide open East, I don't think they have the athletes to actually win this thing, but they'll definitely have a say in who does.
6. South Carolina Gamecocks (2-1, 0-1) - This was a tough L for South Carolina to take, as Kentucky didn't really do anything special to get the win. They just out-executed Cocky from stem to stern, with the graduation of star kicker Elliott Fry after last season really hitting SCar hard in this one. Multiple missed kicks, an injury to Deebo Samuel, and an ineffective running game doomed the 'Cocks, and put them behind an early 8-ball in the East. Even with the loss Saturday, however, they still have beaten two Power Five teams away from home, and Will Muschamp's squad has a good shot at a solid bowl game. Louisiana Tech rolls into Williams-Brice this weekend (2:30 CT on SEC Network), which will help the bowl cause further. Let's just hope QB Jake Bentley gets some work in with the theatre department before the Gamecocks resume conference play in two weeks at A&M.
7. Florida Gators (1-1, 1-0) - What a difference one play makes. Florida wins on a Hail Mary, putting them right up at the top of the early division standings. Tennessee had seized momentum in the 4th quarter, but somehow let somebody get behind the defense in that situation, and UF gets a chance to right the ship and try and further figure out its offense. A loss to UT wouldn't have ended the season (they lost last year to the Vols and still won the East), but it would've really put the screws to a team beleaguered by Michigan's defense and Hurricane Irma in previous weeks. A trip to Kentucky is in the offing this week (6:30 CT on SEC Network), and yet again, the Gators seem vulnerable. But they've won all those recent battles with Kentucky when they've seemed ripe for the picking, just like they've won all the other games against UK in their 30-game win streak. Win another one, and Florida yet again becomes one of the heavy favorites in the East (maybe the favorite, depending on what happens in Athens.)
8. Tennessee Volunteers (2-1, 0-1) - Again, what a difference one play makes. Tennessee straight-up should've beaten Florida in the Swamp, no two ways about it. The Vols had every seeming advantage in this one going in and couldn't take advantage. (I know they were worried about a field goal with :09 left, but dear Grodd, don't let anybody get behind you!) Again, one game does not a season make, and the Vols still have a lot to play for going forward, but a loss like this one will only make the chorus calling for Butch Jones' head that much louder. An absolutely putrid UMass team visits Rocky Top this weekend (11 CT on SEC Network) before the Vols receive a visit from Georgia in two weeks. A loss there may all but seal Jones' fate.
9. LSU Tigers (2-1, 0-1) - A loss like that makes you re-think everything you'd thought about a team. I really believed Mississippi State was going to either beat LSU or come really close Saturday night, but I never expected that kind of whoopin'. The BYU team that LSU beat in week one looks terrible, and nothing can really be gleaned from their yawner of a win over Chattanooga. This week's matchup with Syracuse (6 CT on ESPN2), another bad team, won't tell us much either. Seeing a Bayou Bengal team get manhandled like that by someone who isn't Alabama (or occasionally Auburn or Florida) is jarring. All of Coach O's momentum from when he was interim coach last year and at USC has receded, with thoughts of the coach who ran Ole Miss into the ground now returning the SEC fans' minds. The Tigers won't get a chance to change the conversation until the trip to Florida in three weeks at the earliest.
10. Auburn Tigers (2-1, 0-0) - I struggled a bit trying to rank the teams through this stretch of the poll. LSU and Tennessee's losses were conference losses, which makes them more damaging, but I ultimately decided to reward them for wins over Power Five competition. (Also, this poll doesn't matter, so I'm not going to go crazy over-thinking it.) Auburn's defense is still better than anything either of those teams have shown thus far, and may be a better individual unit than anything anybody in the conference has with the exception of Alabama. (And the Tiger D may be in legit competition with Bama's.) The offense couldn't move at all against Clemson, then couldn't hold on to the ball against Mercer. A trip to Missouri (6:30 CT on ESPNU) may be just what the doctor ordered, as they certainly appear to be the worst team in the league. It bears repeating, whatever Auburn needs to get figured out needs to happen before State visits Jordan-Hare in two weeks.
11. Ole Miss Rebels (2-1, 0-0) - I know it's kicking them when they're down a little bit, but the Rebs did not look like a particularly well-coached team in Berkeley Saturday night. The clock and game management towards the end was mystifying, and Ole Miss racked up penalties like Halloween candy. Cal is an OK enough team (they had already won at North Carolina), but this is still a fairly weak loss for the conference to take against another Power Five league. Shea Patterson definitely has skill (and probably feels a little abandoned after the whole Hugh Freeze thing), but this team seems to still have the worst aspects of the program under Mr. Freeze (lack of discipline, not physical enough), but none of the redeeming qualities (aggressive defense, reliably explosive offense). They get a bye before visiting Tuscaloosa in two weeks. Good luck with that.
12. Arkansas Razorbacks (1-1, 0-0) - I don't know if Hog fans are running quite hot enough to make this week's tilt with A&M in Jerry World (11 CT on ESPN) a true "loser leaves town" match, but it's close. With the Bacon coming off a bye, the Aggies both in total disarray and beset by injuries at QB, and the notion that Arkansas has to finally beat A&M at some point, there's no excuse for Bret Bielema and his team if they can't win this one. While he may not be on the hottest seat in the country, in the conference, in the division, or even in the stadium on Saturday, a loss here could change that real quick. On a sartorial note, the Piggies are essentially wearing red Dallas Cowboy uniforms this week to honor alumni Jerry Jones and his taxpayer-funded, suburban palace. Maybe that'll help 'em get a big W. (Of course, wearing regular Dallas Cowboy uniforms didn't help the actual Cowboys this week, so maybe it doesn't matter.)
13. Texas A&M Aggies (2-1, 0-0) - Fortunately for Kevin Sumlin and the general sense of order in College Station, the Aggies were able to eventually, somewhat reluctantly gig Louisiana-Lafayette this past Saturday. A 21-14 halftime deficit turned into a 45-21 victory, and QB Kellen Mond (AKA the only healthy QB they have right now) seemed to settle in as a passer after a couple of real rough outings throwing the football. This is all an improvement on the doldrums the Aggies were in before the second half on Saturday, but they can wind up right back in the gutter in a hurry if there isn't serious improvement against Arkansas (11 CT on ESPN) this week. Given the mood around the program (that one regent who wanted Sumlin fired after the UCLA game just bought a tank...no s***), another L here might be just enough to see the higher-ups down there make a chance, huge buyout or no huge buyout. There are tastier matchups in the league this weekend, but this one will definitely be the most desperate.
14. Missouri Tigers (1-2, 0-1) - This team just looks like it needs a hot meal. The SEC's other other Tigers spent their Saturday afternoon getting freight-trained by Purdue at home, and now look unequivocally like the league's worst team. They've already fired their defensive coordinator, and after blowing up for 72 points and video game-style numbers against FCS foe Missouri State in week one, their offense has been held to 16 points combined by decided non-juggernauts South Carolina and Purdue, with both games at Mizzou. A visit from Auburn (6:30 CT on ESPNU) probably won't improve matters this weekend, as despite the visiting Tigers' own issues, they are very likely the best team Missouri will have played thus far. It appears that a very long year has only just begun in the Show-Me State.
Calling All Stations
Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press
What seemed like a solid, if not spectacular weekend slate turned kinda bonkers as the day went on. (More on that in a moment.) In the ABC Game of the Universe, however, there was no such drama. Clemson, fresh off their gritty win over Auburn, brought the pain, the noise, the funk, the house, the fire, and several other things that forensics have yet to identify in a mighty thumping of Louisville on the road. Clemson's defense looked every bit as good against reigning Heisman Trophy-winner Lamar Jackson as it did against Auburn the previous week, and Kelly Bryant and the offense looked infinitely more explosive than they had just seven days prior. (Note - Yes, Auburn's defense is quite good.) We, collectively, have made of Dabo Swinney quite a lot over the years (he makes it easy sometimes), but damn, he's built a beast of a program if they can replace what they lost so easily. (What they lost was extremely good.) That was a statement win from the Tigers, and yes, Bobby Petrino still eats expletive deleted in big games.
The crazy came rolling back in just a bit later (having already visited us for the UCLA-Memphis shootout and the Florida Hail Mary), mainly when what had been a pretty boring Texas-USC game suddenly got set to Lucy in the last minute of the 4th quarter. It wasn't the 2006 Rose Bowl-style instant all-time classic that both ESPN and FOX seemed interested in playing it up as all week, but that was a wild finish. (Complete will full-volume Gus Johnson yelling.) USC's mercurial nature could be a problem for them down the road in a deep Pac-12, and Texas can build on that loss. The other big late development was San Diego State upsetting Stanford in the Veronica Mars Bowl. (Now if they can only defeat Hearst College, they'll win the Cult TV Show Cup.) For their efforts, the Aztecs vaulted into the national rankings, while Stanford's loss doesn't reflect any better on USC than the Trojans' own narrow escape.
Also, a kid in Division III kicked a ball twice on the same play. So that was cool, even it wasn't technically legal.
Massacre Island Recap
Through all that zaniness, there were quite a few frog-stompings this weekend, thus keeping the Massacre Island tourism industry flu-uuush with ca-aaash. I thought Virginia Tech might struggle a bit at East Carolina, a place that has been unkind to them in the past, and they did early, trailing 17-7 at the end of the 1st quarter. Then the Hokies ripped off 57 unanswered points to win 64-17. Yeah, allowing 57 points in three quarters will getcha every time there, ECU. Why don't you go on and sail that pirate ship of yours straight on to Massacre Island.
Marvelously mulleted Mike Gundy and Flow-klahoma State get bonus points for dropping a bomb on a Power Five team in their own house, as the Pokes poked the almighty crap out of Pitt. The Panthers scored just before the half to trim the Cowboys' lead to 49-14. It ended 59-21. While I can't speak much to the quality of opponents T. Boone Pickens State has played, they've looked pretty darned impressive in their three wins. For those looking ahead to Bedlam (and anyone following the Big 12 probably should already be), OSU hosts Oklahoma on November 4th.
Wake Forest doesn't often beat teams 46-10, so maybe it's time to re-think some s***, Utah State. And while Wake's religious, in-state brethren Duke didn't quite massacre Baylor as predicted, they did win 34-20. West Virginia and Oklahoma's routs of Delaware State and Tulane, respectively, were both on the Massacre Island watch list for this weekend, but seemed kind of perfunctory. High expectations will get you, I guess. Also as predicted, Penn State squashed Georgia State 56-0. But Big Ten massacring duties fell to Rutgers, who got maybe the all-time Massacre Island invitation last year, but turned it around and laid down the boogie on poor, poor, pitiful Morgan State on Saturday to the tune of 65-0.
Out west, UTEP fired offensive coordinator (and former Florida OC) Brent Pease yesterday following a 63-16 loss to Arizona (cause I guess he's to blame for them allowing 63 points), and ESPN2 made us suffer through Utah's 54-16 smoking of San Jose State.
But the presumed massacre-ees scored one for themselves Saturday, in the form of Northern Illinois upsetting Nebraska 21-17 in Lincoln. This loss does very little for Husker coach Mike Riley's job security, as he got the whole "Son, I am disappoint" routine from his AD after the game. Les Miles was calling the game for FS1, and several Nebraska fans seemed plenty fine with the idea of him coming down out of the booth to coach the team at halftime. (Les' son plays for NU, and he was openly rooting for the Cornhuskers during the broadcast.) So gather round, ye sons of wayward, paycheck-seeking, rent-a-victim programs. Let the Huskies of NIU be your guiding light this week.
So now we've rehashed an ugly Auburn win, gone over the pretty underwhelming SEC power rankings, and covered all the teams who got righteously stomped this weekend. We'll call it a day for now, but conference play for the Tigers starts next week. Mizzou may not be much, but other teams down the line will be. Kevin Steele's defense should be enough to keep Auburn from joining the ranks of the massacred, but if the offense doesn't get out of its tailspin (yeah!), Gus Malzahn may be right there alongside your Kevin Sumlins and your Mike Rileys in the joke columns. Avoiding that should've started Saturday against Mercer, but now it starts this coming week on the road. A crisp performance will get everyone believing in AU again, but now they've just got to show us one. I'm back on Thursday with the week four preview. Push the button, Frank.