Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Five Recap
Butch Dill/Associated Press
Hey, that's more like it. A Saturday full of blowouts saw yet another one on the Plains late Saturday afternoon/early evening, as the Tigers of Auburn worked Mississippi State to the tune of 49-10. We saw some more beatings across the league, a huge upset in Baton Rouge, and another big road win against a quality opponent for Clemson, plus the weekend's best and possibly most important game late on Friday. Everybody into the pool.
The Tigers got off to a fast start Saturday with a 75-yard touchdown drive on the game's opening possession and hardly looked back from there. (And thank Zod Gus decided to go for that 4th and goal at the 1). All told, Auburn rang up 511 total yards and again showed some encouraging balance. The running game, keyed by a still not 100% Kerryon Johnson, tallied 244 yards, with KJ picking up 116, and Malik Willis, Eli Stove, Devan Barrett, Malik Miller, Jarrett Stidham, and a clearly limited Kamryn Pettway all receiving touches. (Lost among the good vibes from the game, whither Kam Martin? Word around the campfire is he may also be limited by injury, which would mean Auburn's top three options at RB are clearly hurting.) Meanwhile, Stidham and the passing offense tossed up 267 yards of their own, with Stidham being extremely efficient yet again. #8 went 13-16 for 264 yards and two touchdowns, with one lost fumble (that should've resulted in a TD for State, but they got jacked by some poor officiating). That's the kind of balance Auburn fans have been looking for for quite some time.
Defensively, Kevin Steele's men (Men of Steele, anyone?) were superlative yet again. State's excellent signal-caller Nick Fitzgerald went 13-33 for 157 yards, with a touchdown and two picks. He also ran for 56 yards on 13 carries. Clearly when you're playing State (this year or any year), mission number one is keeping their QB under wraps, and the Tigers definitely did that. (To be fair to Fitz, though, his receivers did him no favors, with several drops scattered throughout the game.) The Bullies did pile up 351 total yards, which is a good number compared to what Auburn's prior opponents have been doing, but holding an offense like this to 10 points is excellent work. All told, State was only 13-37 throwing the football (combining their two QBs), and while their receiver play is a major culprit, Auburn's pass defense generally had an excellent game, with the DL consistently pressuring Fitzgerald and the DBs holding up in coverage over and over and over again. We saw quality coverage work from Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, and Javaris Davis on the outside all night, and Jeff Holland continues to pay rent on opposing backfields in passing situations.
One stat that's misleading is time of possession. State held the ball for 34:20, holding an almost 10-minute advantage in that category. Over the years, we've heard that Gus Malzahn's offense doesn't value time of possession because of its hurry-up nature, but I think the difference here had less to do with Auburn running a hurry-up and more to do with Auburn's ability to pick up big plays. By my count, Auburn had seven 20+ yard plays in this one, with big gainers coming on the ground from Kerryon Johnson, Eli Stove, and Malik Willis, and though the air on passes to Darius Slayton, Will Hastings, Kyle Davis, and Stove. (State only two such plays, and neither went for TDs.) This is something the offense has struggled to create consistently since Nick Marshall graduated, and we've now seen them show up fairly regularly over the last two weeks. That's a huge key to what Auburn does, and it was on full display Saturday.
Another area where Stidham's development is helping is at receiver, where Auburn was able to put almost all the weapons on display Saturday. Kyle Davis caught a deep ball, and did some solid downfield blocking (especially on Ryan Davis' touchdown catch and run). Speaking of, Ryan Davis had six catches, including that aforementioned TD. Eli Stove picked up a couple of chunk plays through the air and one on the ground (though he did leave the field limping after his 30-yard run.) Darius Slayton re-emerged with a 49-yard catch on a wildcat reverse pass in the 1st quarter. And White Lightnin' Will Hastings put a great move on his defender and caught a 47-yard touchdown pass in the 2nd quarter. There were no catches for Nate Craig-Myers, leaving him one of the few guys who didn't get involved in the passing game in this one.
Special teams seemed a little underwhelming, as Auburn has yet to make a play in the return game, Daniel Carlson doinked a 51-yard field goal off the upright (and you saw Malzahn pass up a long field goal opportunity later in favor of a sky punt, which could be indicative of decreasing confidence in Legatron), and Aidan Marshall took over at punter and averaged just 36 yards a kick. Nothing here is especially alarming, but I'd like to see Auburn pick it up in these areas over the next month. On a good note, the Tigers sniffed out a fake punt for the second time in two weeks, with Daniel Thomas just out-working State on a fake in the 2nd quarter that appeared for a moment to be well-positioned for success (just like Mizzou's last week). That's a sign of a well-coached unit.
This was an immensely satisfying performance, as we've seen clear progression from the poor offensive effort at Clemson, to a more productive but sloppy performance against Mercer, to an encouraging showing against a putrid Missouri team, to now a truly impressive effort against State. (By the way, last two weeks aside, I still think State may be the fourth or fifth-best team in the league. They should finish 9-3.) With the rest of the conference looking the way it does, Auburn now looks at an October full of manageable league games before two huge contests against Georgia and Alabama in Amen Corner. These next few weeks are all about continued improvement, hopefully getting some guys healthier (Pettway doesn't look anywhere near 100%, maybe not even 75%), and staying focused against teams that don't appear to be in Auburn's class. After a crappy Ole Miss team visits Jordan-Hare this coming week, Auburn plays three consecutive conference road games (with a bye mixed in before Halloween). Those can't be taken for granted, and Auburn knows it has no margin for error if it wants to reach the playoff.
Around the SEC
Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News-Sentinel
Those guys protecting Butch Jones up there really earned their money Saturday. The big fish ate the little ones Saturday in the conference, but there was some movement in a few middle-of-the-pack matchups and an embarrassing black eye for the league in the bayou. Let's rank 'em. (Again, these rankings look at more objective metrics, like who you beat and where, but they become more in step with popular sentiment as the weeks pass.)
1. Georgia Bulldogs (5-0 overall, 2-0 in SEC) - An apparently excellent Georgia team remains at number one mainly because their wins over Notre Dame and Mississippi State carry a bit more weight than Bama's wins thus far. The Dawgs visited Rocky Top and slaughtered Tennessee (in a game that may have sent Butch Jones to the unemployment line), with Georgia rushing for almost 300 yards and Tennessee being held to 142 total yards. Freshman QB Jake Fromm is getting more comfortable as the starter and has the benefit of a strong running game and an even stronger defense. He hasn't been asked to do much yet, and may not need to until UGa plays Florida or maybe even Auburn. The Dawgs now encounter a long stretch of division play, which starts with a trip to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt this coming Saturday (11 CT on ESPN). The biggest game remaining is definitely the (don't call it a) Cocktail Party against Florida on 10/28. The Gators appear to be the only team who are even within shouting distance of Georgia in the East right now.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0) - Bammer's rampage continued with a 66-3 win over a poopy Ole Miss team. I love how ESPN spent the week talking about how Ole Miss beat Bama a couple times recently (2014, 2015), but didn't feel like talking about anything else going on with Rebels right now. The Tahd rolled up 613 yards of offense and rushed for 365 yards. The Bama defense held the Rebs to 0-13 on 3rd down and 0-2 on 4th down. I'm sure Nick Saban will find something to yell about (maybe the seven penalties?), but the Pachyderms flexed for the second straight week. They'll step up a bit in competition at Texas A&M this week (6:15 CT on ESPN), but the Aggies shouldn't pose too much of a threat to a team that's playing like this.
3. Auburn Tigers (4-1, 2-0) - The Tigers hold at three, and it's awfully hard to find any reasons why Georgia, Bama, and Auburn aren't the top three teams in the conference in some order. Like I mentioned earlier, I think State may end up being the fourth or fifth-best team in the league, and they've been blasted each of the last two weeks by Georgia and Auburn. If the Tigers can continue to showcase this kind of balance on offense to pair with what's certainly one of the very best defenses in the country, Auburn can go a real long way. An Ole Miss team with tire tracks still visible on 'em visits the Plains this week (11 CT on SEC Network).
4. Florida Gators (3-1, 3-0) - Jim McElwain can be criticized for many things (disciplinary issues, lack of offensive development), but he keeps his team ready to compete every week. Shuffling QBs, losing badly to Michigan, dealing with a hurricane, and not playing the only tune-up game the team had on the schedule in September, and the Gators still sit at 3-0 in the conference, with huge division wins over Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Luke Del Rio is again out for the year with a collarbone injury, so Feleipe Franks jumps back into the starting QB role, though with the way this season has gone, Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire may yet be a crucial figure for UF this year. The best news for Florida Saturday was the performance of the running game, with Malik Davis rushing for 124 yards and two TDs and Lamical Perine punching in three more scores. The absolute best thing for this team is if they can consistently run the ball and ease the pressure on whoever the quarterback is. A demoralized LSU team visits the Swamp this week (2:30 CT on CBS) for a game that both fanbases have had circled since last season's weather weirdness.
5. Texas A&M Aggies (4-1, 2-0) - What a difference a few weeks make, though I don't know if the Aggies should get too comfortable in this spot. Kevin Sumlin's tenure in College Station has been dog paddling to shore since that collapse at UCLA back in week one, and these two wins over Arkansas and South Carolina have helped push his Aggies toward bowl eligibility after a pretty awful start. There was never any question about Kellen Mond's talent, but his inability to throw was badly hamstringing the team early (their WRs are still among the best in the nation, but couldn't get the ball). But Mond is becoming a more confident and efficient thrower with each passing week, and despite the rocky start, he looks like the future for A&M at QB (of course, we've said that about Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen, and Kyler Murray before). Things get knocked up quite a notch (BAM!) when Alabama visits Kyle Field this Saturday night (6:15 CT on ESPN). You may have heard a little about them lately.
6. Kentucky Wildcats (4-1, 1-1) - For the second time this season, Kentucky looked like wet trash against a non-Power Five school and survived, this time holding off mighty Eastern Michigan 24-20. But after the abject horror of the 4th quarter last week against Florida, Wildcat fans should probably just take the win and move on. The 'Cats were outgained by EMU 312-228, and they only rushed for 53 yards (with five Eastern Michigan sacks skewing those numbers a bit). But whatever, they won, and Mark Stoops' bunch is now two wins from bowl eligibility. One of those wins is likely to come this week, when poor, poor pitiful Missouri visits Lexington (6:30 CT on SEC Network). Honestly, this squad still has the potential to win three or four more games, but I'd suggest they stop playing down to their competition.
7. Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-2, 1-2) - If only someone could've predicted that playing LSU, Georgia, and Auburn in consecutive weeks would be a problem. They check in at seven this week, but I really do think State may be the league's fourth-best team (or fifth, depending on what happens with Florida the rest of the year). They clobbered LSU two weeks ago (though recent developments have cast a shadow on that win), and it's distinctly possible, probable really, that Georgia and Auburn are surefire top 10 teams (and State visited both). Nick Fitzgerald is still a player, and there's some solid talent spread throughout the roster, especially for a program not known to beat you with recruiting. But they've run smack into two buzzsaws, and now get a much-needed week off to circle the wagons before a pretty lousy BYU team visits Starkvegas. Give-or-take the trip to College Station right before Halloween, Dan Mullen's team should be able to beat everybody they have left on their schedule except for Alabama (and that's at least a home game for them this year). I think a 9-3 year would be more than acceptable for the Bullies.
8. South Carolina Gamecocks (3-2, 1-2) - After listing Florida at four, let's be honest, the rest of this list is pretty dicey. I think highly of State, as mentioned above, but everybody else? Will Muschamp's Gamecocks land at the ocho on the strength of their win over North Carolina State to open the year, plus the fact that they've played four Power Five opponents in September. But losses to Kentucky and Texas A&M hardly inspire confidence, and the offense has completely lacked punch with Deebo Samuel on the shelf (and he's done for the year with a broken leg). Given the state of the rest of the league, Cocky still has a solid chance at going bowling, but only Wofford's visit in mid-November can be considered a sure win. A desperate Arkansas team visits Columbia this week (3 CT on SEC Network) for a matchup that could have a big hand in the postseason fortunes for both schools.
9. Vanderbilt Commodores (3-2, 0-2) - To give Vandy some praise, they put forth a solid, competitive effort in the Swamp Saturday, especially considering the epic whoopin' they took the previous week. The 'Dores pulled to within a touchdown with about three minutes left in the game, but Derek Mason's defense just couldn't stop the Gator ground game, with Malik Davis icing the contest with a 39-yard TD on Florida's ensuing possession. For their part, Vanderbilt could not run the ball again on Saturday, totaling only 46 yards on the ground. A team with Ralph Webb in the backfield should be better than that. Like the stretch Mississippi State just had, Vandy's going through a rough spell in the league, having lost to Alabama and Florida in consecutive games and with a visit from Georgia on the docket this week (11 CT on ESPN). There are wins out there for the Commodores to get after that, though, so Mason just has to keep his team's head above water for one more week.
10. Tennessee Volunteers (3-2, 0-2) - It speaks volumes about the state of the SEC right now that a team can play like UT has the last two weeks and still be listed as only the fifth-worst team in the league. This is almost entirely on the strength of their season-opening win over Georgia Tech (a game Paul Johnson has to be kicking himself for losing now). To add insult to injury, the school honored Peyton Manning for being elected to the College Football Hall of Fame before the game, then spent the rest of the afternoon dishonoring him. This team was quit when they walked into Neyland Stadium on Saturday, and they're twice as quit now. The Vols did nothing well Saturday, throwing for only 80 yards and running for only 62. The lone bright spot would be only allowing Georgia to gain 84 yards passing, but that hardly matters since they ran for 294. Oh, and the Big Orange also turned the ball over four times. In fact, their only 10+ yard gain ended with a lost fumble. Their center also snapped a ball right through his own buttcrack, which led to another, presumably smellier turnover. This was a horrid effort, and one that will likely put to bed any notions of Butch Jones coaching past this season (or maybe even past the rest of the day). They hit their bye this week, with a visit from South Carolina following. The thought of their visit to Tuscaloosa the week after that has to be completely horrifying for anyone in Volunteer Country right now.
11. Arkansas Razorbacks (2-2, 0-1) - If Texas A&M are the kings of fast starts and slow finishes, Arkansas' recent history of slow starts and relatively strong finishes makes them perhaps the only team down in this stretch of the rankings that has any real hope for the rest of the season. They really should've beaten the Aggies two weeks ago, but we say that every year. There are roster concerns right now that likely won't be fixed this season, and they have a nasty two-game swing against Alabama and Auburn coming up later in October, but seven or eight wins is still possible with their schedule. Consistency on both sides of the ball is a huge concern in the immediate, however, so addressing that needs to start at South Carolina this week (3 CT on SEC Network). The Alabama two-step follows, with the remainder of the slate from there likely determining whether Bret Bielema will still be coaching the Hogs in 2018.
12. Ole Miss Rebels (2-2, 0-1) - 12th last week, get beat 66-3, still 12th this week, but such is life right now in the SEC. The Rebels got absolutely annihilated at Bryant-Denny Saturday night in a game that it looked like most Ole Miss players wanted no part of. It was extremely likely that interim coach Matt Luke wasn't going to be the big cheese in Oxford after this season going in, but that's a definite now. The Rebs were clearly the inferior team against Bammer, but their lack of effort was visible early and often. I do feel for the players who got suckered into this by Hugh Freeze and are now left holding the bag, but dear Grodd, children are watching. It was illegal for ESPN to show that game in 17 states. Oh, and now they have to play Auburn on the road, too (11 CT on SEC Network). I'm sure that'll go just fine.
13. LSU Tigers (3-2, 0-1) - LOL. Remind me again why it was a good idea for LSU to hire Ed Orgeron. Sometimes these programs seem to think that they'll just be good forever no matter who the coach is, and any coaching change they make is only going to make things better. Uh, no. Letting Lester go last season was a perfectly defensible decision, but you can't fire a coach as accomplished as The Hat and then hire a guy who nobody else wanted. They was absolutely outclassed at State two weeks ago by a team that themselves got run out of two different stadiums the next two weeks. That could've been overcome, but losing at home to Troy? Nick Saban lost at home to UAB his first year on the bayou (and more famously lost at home to Louisiana-Monroe his first year at Alabama), but I don't see any reason to think that Coach O can engineer that type of turnaround. A roster of talented players is playing like a Sun Belt team, with multiple guys blatantly loafing around. The offense is a rudderless ship, looking somehow even worse than it did when it got Miles and Cam Cameron booted last year. Troy is a solid squad, all due credit to them, but that was just flat-out expletive deleted from the Tigers. They must now pick up the pieces and visit Florida this week (2:30 CT on CBS). After what's gone on between the two schools over the past year, LSU better bring it. Florida will absolutely embarrass them if given half a chance.
14. Missouri Tigers (1-3, 0-2) - And yet despite everything, all those other teams still look down to Missouri. It's saying something if you're the worst out of this crop, and Mizzou is very clearly the worst. They didn't play this past week, and will resume their 3-9 odyssey on the road at Kentucky this coming Saturday (6:30 CT on SEC Network). UK ain't no great shakes either, but there's nothing to indicate that the Tigers will win this game.
Calling All Stations
Young Kwak/Associated Press
Yarrrr! Cap'n Mike Leach and his Wazzu mateys shivered USC's timbers on the Palouse on Friday night. In what was probably the best and most important game of the weekend, the Cougars really outplayed the more talented Trojans, with WSU QB Luke Falk outshining SC's Sam Darnold in a matchup of guys who might be starting in the NFL next year. (They both could probably start for a handful of teams now.) USC was just off all night and hasn't really hit its stride this year under Clay Helton. The players are there, but they labored too much for their wins over Western Michigan and Texas, and a C+/B- effort wasn't good enough to beat the Cougars. For Wazzu's part, this may be the best all around team that Leach has had anywhere, with only that one really good Texas Tech team that had Michael Crabtree in 2008 being close. The Cougs can run the ball pretty well, have a behemoth offensive guard nicknamed "The Continent", and actually have a living, breathing defense. I don't know if they have the horses to actually win the Pac-12 (Washington is still very good and maybe should've been the league favorite all along), but it'd be a lot of fun if they did. If Leach's postgame interview features this quote after beating USC, I'd like to know what he'd say if his team won a playoff game.
Otherwise, Clemson did Clemson things at Virginia Tech Saturday night, and despite Bama's murdering and pillaging over the past few weeks, Dabo's boys are starting to garner serious consideration as the nation's actual best team. Most everybody else did basically what was expected of them on a Saturday that was long on blowouts. Speaking of...
Massacre Island Recap
We saw a trio of thumpings in the SEC, all detailed above, with Bammer's 63-point nuking of Ole Miss being the most lopsided of the bunch. The Tide averaged 10.3 yards per pass and 7.2 yards per rush against the Landshark defense (I know they voted to change their mascot to that, but can we stop with the Landshark crap?). Also island-bound is Rutgers, who got thwacked 56-0 at home by Ohio State (still better than last year, though). What exactly is the Big Ten getting out of having Rutgers in the conference? Occasional trips to picturesque New Jersey? Inquiring minds would like to know.
Let's Get Ready to Rumble
It's late and I can't find a video to link to, but take my word for it that Ivy Leaguers Dartmouth and Penn were engaging in verbal fisticuffs before their game Friday night. I like to think that they were just aggressively quoting Proust at each other.
In a decidely more blue collar brouhaha, a group of Tennessee fans threw down in the stands at Neyland during the Georgia debacle (which is strange, as shirtless men in checkerboard overalls are usually so dignified). Presumably, somebody up there said something nice about Butch Jones and Overall Man's fists started flying. I have my doubts about UT's players, but I'm even more confident that Overall Man is not a Champion of Life.
And with that kicking of Tennessee while they're down (but when are they not down these days), I'm done with this recap. Come back for the week six preview on Thursday.