Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Four Recap
L.G. Patterson/Associated Press
That was more like it. For the first time this season, Auburn looked the part in all phases in a 51-14 splattering of a truly wretched Missouri team. We'll break that down and examine the rest of the college football world after a pretty exciting weekend. Some of the nation's big dogs flexed, but there were a couple of upsets and a handful of games that came right down to the wire. Let's hit it.
A week after frustrating the universe in a 24-10 win over mediocre FCS opponent Mercer, and two weeks after essentially running aground at Clemson, the Auburn offense showed up and showed out in the team's SEC opener. Granted, this was against a Missouri team that isn't only the worst team in the SEC, but may be one of the worst teams in any Power Five conference. But this is the kind of progress that fans wanted to see last week, and it was a nice way to stem the tide of negativity that's surrounded the program since the Clemson game.
Statistically, the game looks a good bit closer than the 51-14 final score would indicate, though Auburn still had the edge on the stat sheet. The visiting Tigers outgained the home team 482-340, though that margin was skewed by Auburn taking advantage of several short fields on offense and Mizzou rolling up some yards on the AU backups in the second half. Auburn also outrushed Missouri 263-124, with the orange-and-blue averaging a very impressive five yards a carry in a game where they also spent much of the 4th quarter plowing into the line to bleed out the clock. The teams' passing numbers were fairly similar, with Auburn airing it out for 219 yards to Mizzou's 216, but a huge disparity in yards per attempt (10.4 for Auburn, 5.5 for Mizzou) shows how much more efficient the visitors were through the air on Saturday night. But the biggest stat came in the turnover column, where a week after Auburn was -5 in turnover margin, the team was +4 in Columbia, with no picks or fumbles lost on the night.
The return of Kerryon Johnson played into some of the statistical information I laid out in the previous paragraph. We haven't seen KJ since early in the season opener, and he's been missed. With Kamryn Pettway carrying almost the entirety of the rushing load the last two weeks, he was rested in favor of Johnson and other RBs who haven't been seeing many totes the last two weeks: Kam Martin (who actually lead the team in rushing), Devan Barrett, and Malik Miller. But one thing that Kerryon has consistently brought to the team since he arrived in 2015 was on full display in this contest, his goal line skills. While he only finished with 18 carries for 48 yards (and 2.7 yards per carry), he punched in five touchdowns (Auburn's first five TDs), going for a full Al Bundy in the first half and adding another score early in the 3rd quarter before sitting the rest of the game. In an odd turn from traditional expectations, it's seemed that big, bruising Bubba Pettway is actually a more effective back in the open field, using his power and burst to turn routine rushing attempts into big gainers, while the fast, slippery Kerryon is more effective in short yardage, as he just seems to have this innate ability to find whatever space he needs and slide through it for the necessary yards. Many Tiger fans are super over the various wildcat formations that Gus Malzahn seems to favor, but the one featuring Johnson has been far more effective than the others over the years (Kodi Burns, Michael Dyer, Kiehl Frazier, Chandler Cox, etc).
And to Gus' credit, he said he would play more running backs this week, and he did. I don't know why Kam Martin got banished to the land of wind and ghosts after the Georgia Southern game, but it was good to see him back. He's little, but he has a burst. Malik Miller picked up 40 yards late in the game when Auburn was playing out the string, and true freshmen Devan Barrett and QB Malik Willis got their first turns at carrying the football in this one. It was also nice to see Auburn attacking Mizzou wide so effectively. Eli Stove is the only receiver who's listed as having a carry (on multiple jet sweeps), but Auburn also ran a very jet sweep-like shovel pass play that counted towards the passing numbers. I know Ryan Davis caught one of these, and I think a couple other players may have gotten a catch this way, too. The Tigers have been a little too in love with the jet sweep and similar wide runs in years past, but it was sorely missing at Clemson and needs to be utilized here to take advantage of the hot fire speed of guys like Stove, Martin, Noah Igbinoghene, and Ryan Davis.
Jarrett Stidham had a very efficient game, following up last week's 32-37 performance with a 13-17 night. He played turnover-free, hit a bomb to Nate Craig-Myers (second TD of Nate's career), and showed some solid mobility, picking up 35 yards on five carries with no sacks. This kind of efficiency was pretty specifically what we were promised when he transferred in, and bodes well for Auburn's future (even if he's done it against lesser competition). And like I mentioned earlier, we got our first look at Malik Willis, now Auburn's only other scholarship QB aside from Stidham. (Neither player was in the program last year). For a hot second, it looked he'd hit a bomb on his career pass, but his TD throw to Griffin King was disallowed due to a penalty, which was the correct call. A called running play became a run-pass option, but took too long and resulted in OT Wilson Bell being caught downfield. Still, it was a nice throw from the kid, and he'll have plenty of chances to find his rhythm on those RPOs going forward.
The offensive line, which took a lot of heat after the Clemson game, played better last week, and played even better than that this week. Last week's injury to Darius James cause a shuffling of the deck up front, but the Tigers seemed more than fine with the results. Jacksonville State transfer Casey Dunn started at center, and previous center Austin Golson kicked outside to right tackle. It's a lineup I like, even if it's the reverse move from what seemed to jump-start the line last year, when Golson moved from tackle back to center and James cracked the starting group. We'll need more data than we've seen in a game-plus with this bunch, but the early returns are promising. No sacks on Stidham is especially important, as the lack of depth at QB for Auburn has become a pressing concern.
Defensively, Auburn was productive yet again. and Kevin Steele was able to get a lot of young guys some valuable experience on the road. (And as opposed to last week, Mizzou kept trying to compete clear through to the end.) Richard McBryde played in place of Tre Williams at LB, and showed up on several plays early. Good to see some of that depth in the linebacking corps. It's also always good to see Big Marlon Davidson out there, as he always seems to be making plays. Buck end Jeff Holland also seemed near unblockable for long stretches of this game. Several young guys got the kind of work that we thought they'd get last week, and it was mostly encouraging. Mizzou did toss a TD pass to J'Mon Moore over freshman Traivon Leonard, but that's the kind of experience Leonard can use. In addition to him, Tyrone Truesdell, T.D. Moultry, Jordyn Peters, John Broussard, and new to defense Jason Smith all registered tackles, with Peters picking up a pretty awesome sack of Drew Lock in the 4th quarter. The Tiger defense did allow more yards to Mizzou than they have to anyone else, but again, much of that came when the 2s and 3s were in. Auburn is still pretty elite on that side of the ball. It was also nice to see the Tigers force some turnovers and help out the offense. Carlton Davis came up with a pick to set up a short field early, which Auburn cashed in, and then a pretty questionable fumble call later became a long return for Marlon Davidson and another short field.
The biggest development in the kicking game was perhaps a regaining of mojo on the part of Daniel Carlson. He blasted through field goals of 41, 52, and 54 yards, and has hopefully shaken off whatever yips he had that led to a couple of misses against Georgia Southern and Mercer. We'll need him going forward. Ian Shannon seems passable at punter, and Auburn continues to not allow any returns in that phase of the game. Our return game seems fairly unspectacular, but avoiding turnovers is paramount on special teams, and Stephen Roberts has protected the football on punt returns thus far. (Ryan Davis fumbled on a return last week.) I credit Mizzou for attempting that fake punt in the 3rd quarter (Barry Odom's in serious danger of losing both his team and his fanbase and that kind of crazy move seemed solely designed to keep his kids invested), but Auburn sniffed it out well and set up another short field in the kicking game.
This wasn't a perfect game, and Mizzou is so bad it's hard to know what to make of the W, but the men in white played like a highly-ranked football team for the first time this year (at least in all phases). College football, much more so than the NFL, is a confidence game, and this kind of effort will breed confidence. After the Clemson game, I said that Gus Malzahn offenses have a tendency to improve after the first few weeks, and it appears that that's happening. It also appears that Chip Lindsey's fingerprints are showing up more in the passing game, which was a big offseason storyline. I'm not going to start looking for playoff tickets just yet, but with the rest of the conference in the state that it's in, Auburn has a chance to get on a roll here in October and see what happens in November. Next week's tilt with a less trendy Mississippi State squad will still be a test, but after the results in both teams' games on Saturday night, it's a test that Auburn looks more than capable of passing.
Around the SEC
Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald
A reasonably interesting weekend throughout the conference saw a wild shootout in Jerry World, an excruciating loss for Kentucky, some uninspiring non-conference suckouts, and a couple of statement wins from the big boys. Let's rank 'em. (Again, we try for more objective metrics in these rankings, so don't go nuts that Bammer isn't at one.)
1. Georgia Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0) - The Dawgs hunkered down all over the other Bulldogs, as Mississippi State's post-LSU glee turned to horror between the hedges. Georgia was balanced on offense, Jake Fromm was efficient throwing the football, and the ground game rolled up 203 yards on the State defense. Beyond that, though, Kirby Smart's defense completely handled the explosive Bully offense. 280 yards allowed isn't completely eye-popping, but UGa held State to 6-16 on 3rd downs and just 103 yards passing, and they picked off Nick Fitzgerald twice. In other news, the Notre Dame team the Bulldogs narrowly defeated on the road in week two has blown out everybody else and re-entered the polls, making Georgia's win up there look pretty sexy. With the rest of the East in disarray, there's no excuse for the Dawgs not to make it to Atlanta, no excuse at all. They head to Knoxville this week to potentially put another nail in Butch Jones' coffin (2:30 CT on CBS).
2. Alabama Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0) - Alabama seemed a little perturbed on Saturday. Just a wee bit. The Crimson Tide ground poor Vanderbilt into a fine paste in Nashville. The stats from this one are ludicrous, even more ludicrous than the 59-0 score. Bammer gained 38 first downs to Vandy's 3 and were 9-15 on 3rd down, with Vandy going 1-11. Bama rolled up 677 yards of offense and allowed just 78. 496 of the Tahd's yards came on the ground (7.5 yards per carry), with nine players getting a carry and seven of them ripping off a ten-plus yard carry. Bama possessed the ball for 42:55, compared to 17:05 for the 'Dores. This wasn't quite Michigan's romp over Rutgers last year, but this was just plain ugly (and will certainly reappear in the Massacre Island section). Real talk, Alabama's the best team in the league, but Florida State's loss on Saturday weakens that win and the other teams the Tide have played aren't all that great. Georgia has done more on the field (wins over ND and State) and gets the nod, though Bama has plenty of chances to rectify that going forward. Ole Miss won't really move the needle much when they visit Bryant-Denny this week (8 CT on ESPN), and I fully expect more Pachyderm dominance.
3. Auburn Tigers (3-1, 1-0) - What a difference a week makes, huh? Really, Auburn played well Saturday, but this ascension has more to do with the rest of the conference. Don't look now, but the rest of the SEC looks like butt. There are some teams that have the opportunity to improve, with some already improving (Auburn among them), but this is a league that needs some work. The Auburn defense continues to be a standout, and with the offense progressing, the Tigers are still a team that has a lot in front of it for the rest of the season. A visit from Mississippi State this week (5 CT on ESPN) gives AU another shot to assert itself in league play.
4. Florida Gators (2-1, 2-0) - On paper, UF looks like a reasonable pick for the four-spot. By the eye test, um...no. An ugly loss to a pretty strong Michigan team is at least somewhat forgivable, and the wins over Tennessee and Kentucky have been hairy, but they count all the same. A week after Feleipe Franks tossed an early season-saving Hail Mary to beat UT, Luke Del Rio comes out of the bullpen to engineer a comeback at UK. In many ways, this game is more about what the Wildcats didn't do than what the Gators did do, but this was a massive W for Jim McElwain's squad. Again, Florida has a strong defense, and everything they wanted to play for this season is still on the table. By the metrics, they'd rank ahead of Auburn, having played three Power Five teams and no chump teams, but Auburn has shown much more improvement, and it's hard to rank a team this ugly even this high, much less higher. What's left of Vanderbilt hobbles down to the Swamp this Saturday (11 CT on ESPN), which is extremely fortuitous timing for the Gators.
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1) - Strange how a team can get molly walloped like State did and still hold at five, but that's just the SEC world we're living in. The Bullies' visit to Athens leaves us with several questions. Is it just that Georgia's that good? Was this effort an aberration for State? Is LSU (more on them later) terrible? Can State pick up the pieces before heading to Auburn this weekend? These are all valid queries. After playing so well in the first three weeks, the State offense turned to mush at Sanford Stadium Saturday night, with the team just looking like they simply aren't ready for prime time. It's hard to square how they could so easily manhandle LSU then themselves get so easily manhandled, but it could be a sign of us heading for a bit of a weird year in the conference. State can still make some noise in the West, but they'd better regain their form of two weeks ago in a hurry as the third game of a brutal stretch in the schedule sends them to Jordan-Hare this Saturday (5 CT on ESPN).
6. LSU Tigers (3-1, 0-1) - LSU looks completely ordinary, but still checks in at six. The Syracuse team they beat Saturday night is pretty bad, having already lost at home to Middle Tennessee State earlier this year. Otherwise, they've beaten a similarly bad BYU team and FCS foe Chattanooga and lost badly at State. Highly touted freshman QB Myles Brennan did get some action Saturday and tossed a pick. Statistically, the Tigers didn't look especially noteworthy anywhere, and really haven't looked superlative at anything all year. We know they have loads of talent, but it doesn't appear to really be showing up. Again, the Mississippi State team that tomato-canned them just went to Athens and got squished. Troy visits the bayou this Saturday (6 CT on ESPNU) before the meat of the conference schedule comes up in October. LSU should be better than this, and while they still have their chances, they need to get a move on.
7. Kentucky Wildcats (3-1, 1-1) - Yeeesh. For most of Florida's now 31-game winning streak over UK, it's been powerful Gator teams led by Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer laying the smackdown on badly overmatched Wildcat squads. But scattered through there have been a few gut punches (UK's choke job in 2003, the missed delay of game penalty in 2014). This has to be the worst of them. A UK team that had legit designs on contention in the East had this game in their pocket and just let it go. Not covering a guy at all on the game-deciding touchdown is brutal, then UK's whole final possession was even more brutal (a big Gator roughing penalty canceled out later by an even bigger ticky-tack Wildcat holding call to knock UK out of realistic field goal range). This is one of those losses that makes fans feel like the sun's not gonna come up the next day. UK hosts Eastern Michigan this weekend (3 CT on SEC Network), and then hosts Missouri the next week, so they get a couple of chances to get right. How they respond to this horrid loss will possibly define their season.
8. South Carolina Gamecocks (3-1, 1-1) - South Carolina finally got to step down into the world of non-Power Five competition this weekend and very nearly biffed it against Louisiana Tech. A week after poor placekicking helped doom them against Kentucky, Parker White hit a 31-yard field goal to pull the game from the fire Saturday afternoon (he did miss two kicks earlier in the game, though). Cocky outgained La Tech, but not by a staggering margin, but they weren't efficient on offense. Along with the two missed FGs, they also fumbled once in Bulldog territory. We can allow them a little bit of a hangover after opening with three straight important games, but this was very uninspiring. Really, the best thing that happened on Saturday for SCar was NC State's win at Florida State. That win in the season opener will play well for the 'Cocks all year. This week sees SC head back into conference play with a very intriguing matchup at Texas A&M (6:30 CT on SEC Network). That's a big game for both squads.
9. Tennessee Volunteers (3-1, 0-1) - If you thought Auburn's win over Mercer last week was ugly, Tennessee was more than willing to do the Tigers one better. UMass is abominable, arguably the worst team in the FBS, and there's no reason at all for the Vols to be messing around with a team like the Minutemen. I know UT was feeling down after the Florida loss, but they flirted with abject disaster in this game throughout. The stat sheet shows how evenly played this was, with Tennessee outgaining UMass only 319-281. It's hard to point to any one area where the Volunteers failed (as opposed to Auburn's turnover woes against Mercer), they just looked listless and bored from start to finish. This, of course, does nothing to ease the pressure on Butch Jones, and I could totally see this weekend's visit from Georgia (2:30 CT on CBS) being the end of the line for him if his team doesn't play with a lot more passion.
10. Texas A&M Aggies (3-1, 1-0) - What to do with the Aggies? Apart from Bama, Georgia, and maybe Auburn, they may be the only other team in the league who feels really good about what happened this weekend. Just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, Texas A&M defeats Arkansas in Arlington. From an individual player perspective, the performance of Aggie QB Kellen Mond could be the biggest development in the league from Saturday. He went 14-27 for 216 yards and 2 TDs through the air (with a pick) and ran ten times for 109 yards, too. (He also had a touchdown carry disallowed due to poor officiating.) In total, the Aggies ran for 285 yards, a huge development for a program that sometimes acts like it's allergic to running the football. And of course, Christian Kirk is a bad, bad man at receiver and kick returner. The defense still looks like poop, but as a team, they're showing signs of life for the first time since the 3rd quarter at UCLA on opening weekend. (And really, that 4th quarter is the only thing keeping them out of the polls right now). Will it be enough to save Kevin Sumlin's hide? We'll start to find out when South Carolina visits College Station this Saturday (6:30 CT on SEC Network).
11. Vanderbilt Commodores (3-1, 0-1) - Vandy called down the thunder, and then they got it. The 'Dores got their doors blown off by Alabama in an ugly whomping that hopefully for Vandy doesn't linger over them next week or even subsequent weeks. Yeah, you had a nice 3-0 start and beat a solid Kansas State team, but check yourselves a little bit. I went over the stats in the Bama entry, and yeah, they're heinous if you're a Vandy fan. I don't put all that much stock in ESPN's suddenly ubiquitous QBR metric, but I feel pretty confident that your QBs having a 6.4 (Deuce Wallace) and 3.1 (Kyle Shurmur) in that category is bad. Ralph Webb led the Commodores with 20 yards on six carries. Two receivers tied for the team lead with 14 yards on two catches. They averaged 1.7 yards per pass attempt and 2.5 yards per rush. The list of gnarly stats goes on. For Vandy, this week is all about recovering from the embarrassment (both physically and mentally), as they have a date with Florida in the Swamp coming up (11 CT on ESPN), followed by a visit from Georgia. The SEC may be a little down, but it can still gang up on you like no either league.
12. Ole Miss Rebels (2-1, 0-0) - The Rebels took 'er easy this weekend after losing at California in week three. Shea Patterson can play, but I can't vouch for much else on the Ole Miss roster, and once again, I have to mention how poorly coached they appeared to be in Berkeley. But hey, good news, they visit Alabama (8 CT on ESPN) this weekend! Wait... That's not good news. That's not good news at all. Patterson's good enough to possibly throw a fright in any opponent, but Matt Luke has to keep things together for a team with little to play for and a likely beatdown upcoming.
13. Arkansas Razorbacks (1-2, 0-1) - One of these days, the Pigs are going to beat Texas A&M, but it's looking increasingly unlikely that Bret Bielema will be around to see it. While Kevin Sumlin didn't coach himself off the hot seat on Saturday, ol' Beluga has definitely coached himself on it. Arkansas' defense, which played so well in the loss to TCU, got straight up worked by Kellen Mond and the Aggie offense. Encouragingly at least, the porcine offense rolled up big numbers just two weeks after laying an egg at home against the Horned Frogs. The Aggies are definitely talented, and TCU's now looking like a major national player this season - so it isn't like Arky's just lost to bums - but this is already looking like yet another year where Bielema can't get the program over the hump. That won't stand for a whole hell of a lot longer. A visit from the other Aggies, New Mexico State, could help ease some tensions this week (11 CT on SEC Network).
14. Missouri Tigers (1-3, 0-2) - God, Missouri's bad. I mean, Auburn did a lot of good things on Saturday and looked legitimately encouraging, but Mizzou is just wretched. Barry Odom's already feeling some major heat in year two, as the fans looked like they wanted no part of that game after about 20 minutes. Odom was dealt a bad hand when he took over for the abruptly retiring Gary Pinkel amidst all the racial unrest on campus two years ago, but this program is completely unrecognizable from the one that played in consecutive SEC title games. They stink at everything. They get two weeks to heal from their latest beatdown before traveling to Kentucky. 3-9 seems like a very likely possibility, and that's giving them a win at Connecticut just before Halloween. That is by no means a certainty.
Calling All Stations
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
A decent weekend slate yielded some intriguing results, perhaps top-lined by Penn State's last-play win at Iowa. James Franklin has been a bit of a tool in recent weeks, but his team gutted out a tough win in a very difficult environment, with RB Saquon Barkley having a huge night to make an early Heisman impression. The Nittany Lions appear to be the early class of the Big Ten.
Flow-klahoma State had looked like the Death Star through three weeks, but TCU found their exhaust port and exploited it. The Froggies got outgained, but were balanced on offense and played for more disciplined than the Pokes. The Cowboys had twice as many penalties and turned the ball over four times. The Frogs also possessed the football for over 39 minutes in this game. Very much a Gary Patterson-type win, and it puts Texas Christian right in the thick of the playoff race. They visit Oklahoma on Veterans Day.
Speaking of the Sooners, they had all the trouble they wanted with what had been a godawful Baylor team Saturday night. OU put up big numbers on offense as you'd expect, but the defense allowed 463 passing yards and 523 total yards to the Bears in the 49-41 win. Recall that Baylor lost to Jerry Falwell's tax write-off university in week one. It doesn't make me forget that Oklahoma won at Ohio State two weeks ago, but it's still not the best look.
Elsewhere, Florida State's first game in three weeks didn't go well, as old nemesis North Carolina State upset the 'Noles in Tallahassee 27-21. That was a tough hand for Jimbo Fisher and his team to play, having lost Deondre Francois so late in the opener and with all the upheaval getting in the way of getting backup James Blackman ready. Still, FSU's title hopes are pretty much dashed in their first games.
Some late developments in the Pac-12 saw newly-ranked Oregon lose a shootout with Arizona State in the desert and Washington remind everybody why they were in the playoff last year with a clinical smothering of Colorado.
Massacre Island Recap
It really doesn't seem possible that, according to the stats I'm looking at, Alabama only had one tackle for loss against Vandy, but that's what ESPN's box score is telling me. For Vandy to only have 78 yards of offense, allowing just one TFL doesn't seem believable. But yeah, this game was so much of a massacre, Nick Saban smiled on the sideline. Bammer can act like they were above Vandy's talk during the week and that it didn't affect them at all, but come on. They took a perverse glee in that clobberin'.
Not quite a massacre, but a surprise beatdown on Friday night saw a Virginia team that lost to Indiana at home go out to the smurfturf and smack around Boise State 42-23. It was 42-14 until about two minutes remained in the 4th. I don't especially care about either team, but that score legit threw me when I saw it on ESPN's bottom line Friday night.
Speaking of surprise beatdowns, remember when Maryland won at Texas in week one? Well, they just got run out of their own stadium by UCF. The Knights, like Miami and Florida State, hadn't played since week one due to Hurricane Irma. Didn't seem to faze them, though, and we have another screwy result to try and reconcile going forward.
With more conference games on the schedule, there were fewer comical thumpings this week, though Bama's win over Vandy and mighty Utah State's 61-10 road win at San Jose State definitely qualify as massacres, both coming on the road and in conference play. Tough day for the 'Dores and the Spartans.
Well, that just about does 'er for this week's recap. The Tigers of Auburn shook off a little rust and looked explosive and balanced on offense for the first time this year. Obviously, more improvement can be made going into next week, but this should be an immeasurable confidence booster for a team that needed to respond after the last two games. Mississippi State doesn't look near like the world beater they did against LSU, but they're a wounded, dangerous team. They know they'll need to win at Jordan-Hare to have any shot in the West, so I expect their best effort this coming week. Let's hope Auburn can build on this blowout win and play like one of the league's favorites week in and week out from here. The conference is pretty forgiving this year, and the Tigers can definitely go on a roll before hitting the Amen Corner Georgia/Bama swing at the end of the year. For the first time since the preseason, it feels like Auburn may hit that stretch with something meaningful to play for.