Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Ten Recap
Auburn got the job done, which is a pretty apt description for a fairly 'meh' win at Texas A&M. At least that's how it felt on the surface. The team got off to a bit of a slow start, and then had to hold off a brief charge from the Aggies in the second quarter before making some big plays and building up a nice lead. It wasn't a perfect effort by any stretch, and there are legitimate concerns with how, say, the defense played Saturday, but it should be noted that the Tigers went on the road in the conference without their best fastball available and still won by 15 points over a decent team. How much that will help this coming week, when #1 Georgia drops by for a quick how-do-you-do, remains to be seen.
We'll start with the question marks and work our way to the exclamation points. First up, the special teams. They'll actually show up in both columns this week, but let's examine the bad first. Daniel Carlson is an excellent kicker, one of the best in the country. With a weapon like him at our disposal, the Tigers cannot afford to have that weapon neutralized by shoddy blocking up front on field goals. Six potentially important points went by the boards because A&M bull rushed up the middle and then later had a guy come unblocked off the edge. That's on film for Georgia and Alabama to study, and given the premium that points are likely to come at in those games, this needs to be corrected. Let's keep our clear advantages (Carlson normally being one of them) as advantages. Beyond that, even though it was late and the game was essentially over, the Tigers allowed another long kick return, this one setting up A&M's last score. A punt return helped doom Auburn in Baton Rouge a couple weeks ago, and I would've hoped it'd be the last time we'd have to worry about the return game, but apparently not. (Arkansas housed a kickoff against AU two weeks ago.) Again, this could be a huge issue over the next three weeks.
The second major bother from the game is the Auburn defense. After looking so electric in September, Kevin Steele's group grew much leakier in October. Big plays are a legitimate concern, and A&M struck with three of them on Saturday. If you look at the statistics, the Tigers had a clearer advantage than maybe it seemed while watching the game, but the 62-yard TD pass to Damion Ratley and three long plays by Trayveon Williams (a 41-yard shovel pass catch and run, a 40-yard run, and the 72-yard kickoff return) all helped the Aggies steal some points without having to drive the length of the field. Now, A&M always is a team with serious big play potential, but this isn't something that's just started. Arkansas had a 40-yard run and a 100-yard kickoff return. LSU had a 70-yard run from Russell Gage and four catches of 29 yards or more from DJ Chark (plus a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown). Ole Miss had four 25+ yard plays. State had three. Mizzou had three 20+ yard catches. Big plays can completely submarine any chance Auburn has at either Georgia or Bama (and they've played a pretty big part in some of Bammer's recent victories over the Tigers). The defense hasn't been especially great at forcing turnovers, and without getting those kinds of big plays, they can't allow many big plays either. They're the main difference between the defense of the last few weeks and the one from the first few weeks.
On the good side, Kerryon Johnson continues to be outstanding. As discouraging as the news of Kamryn Pettway's injury was, KJ came out and kicked butt for the Tigers yet again, as he continues a campaign that removes any shred of doubt about whether or not he has the skills to be an every down running back in the SEC. 29 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, plus 5 catches for 29 yards and another score. Considering that he's missed two games, look at his per game numbers. He's 11th in the country with 124 rushing yards per game, and he's the only player averaging more than 2 touchdowns per game who's played enough games to reasonably qualify for such a stat. I really think he'd be getting at least some Heisman love if he hadn't missed those two games in September, and he may still get into the discussion if he can ball out against Georgia and Bammer. He's been incredibly good for Auburn this year, which is good since Pettway's been injured to some degree all season and the coaching staff seems almost allergic to playing any other running backs at times.
Of course, Jarrett Stidham and the passing game also showed up on Saturday. All in all, the Tigers rushed for 228 yards and threw for 268, which is impressive balance for an offense that still has the tendency to go into a run-only shell from time to time. Stidham was his usual efficient self, going 20-27 with three TD passes. He also added 27 yards on the ground, with a 24-yard scamper showing enough foot speed to at least make defenses kind of respect him on zone read plays. That could loom very large over the next three weeks. Good to see Darius Slayton, who can still be a little hit-or-miss sometimes, step up and pick up some of the deep threat slack that was left when Kyle Davis was kicked off the team. And all Auburn fans need to stop and appreciate Ryan Davis, who's our best receiver and has been low-key essential to Auburn's success this year. He consistently makes tough catches, plays a lot bigger than his small frame would suggest, and is a threat to turn any touch into a big play. He's been especially useful in possession play and goal line situations, when you'd normally think a big, tall guy might be the target. But consistently there's Davis, finding just enough space to make a much-needed catch-and-run. In this case, I'm specifically referring to his tougher-than-it-looked catch for a 4-yard score on 3rd down in the 3rd quarter. It was a good route on a good play design by Chip Lindsey, but Davis made an excellent adjustment to catch the ball when it was thrown behind him. That's the kind of play Auburn often frustratingly misses out on, but Davis delivered as he has for the whole season.
I bagged on the special teams for some errors earlier, but credit must be given to them for the biggest play of the game, the blocked punt just before halftime. Give Gus Malzahn some props, too, as he was aggressive with his timeout usage on defense after the long touchdown pass to Slayton on the previous possession. The defense came through for him (thanks partially to some weak sauce playcalling from A&M), and Auburn wisely decided to go full-bore at the punt. The quick double shot of the bomb TD to Slayton and the blocked punt recovered for another score put A&M on the back foot for the rest of the game. What had been a sluggish, frustrating effort quickly turned into an 8-point lead with Auburn set to receive the opening kickoff of the second half. (The teams exchanged 3-and-outs before Auburn cashed in another touchdown.) We give Gus enough crap for the stuff he does wrong (which we should), but we should also give him credit for the stuff he does right. (Also congrats to Malik Miller, who recovered the punt for his first career touchdown. Not sure anyone would've guessed it would come that way.) The punt return unit got a freebie later, too, when pressure on Aggie punter Shane Tripucka caused him to kick the ball into his own upback, giving the Tigers a short field. The offense gobbled that short field up in three plays (NOM NOM NOM) and the score was 35-13.
As you may be aware, Georgia comes to Jordan-Hare this week. Auburn turned in a B or so effort in College Station and it was enough to get the W, but that likely won't be the case this week. We'll get into the matchup this week more in depth on Thursday, but I'm very curious to see how Bulldog QB Jake Fromm handles the pressure from Auburn's front seven. Seeing Tre Williams and Tray Matthews back out there on Saturday was nice, and I hope they feel even better going into this weekend. The Tigers need to be as close to full-strength as possible, and hopefully a healthier defense will play more like the one we saw in September.
Around the SEC
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Hey, Alabama beat LSU again. Weird, huh? Here's a quick take on the SEC bowl picture.
Bammer and Georgia are still thinking playoff, and with the Big Ten East wipeout we've seen over the past two weeks (all four contenders now have two losses), the chances of the league sneaking two teams into the playoff only grow. (The Pac-12 and Big 12 were also huge winners as a result of that.) Georgia's worst-case scenario realistically is losing at Auburn and then to either Auburn again or Alabama in the SEC Championship Game (which the 'Dawgs punched their ticket to on Saturday). That would obviously knock the Bulldogs out of the playoff, but they'd still be an attractive Big Six Bowl team. Win them all or lose just once, and the 'Dawgs are probably playoff-bound.
Alabama's in much the same position, though the chances of them being left out of the playoff are a little higher than Georgia's. A loss at Auburn and it's possible that the Tahd don't make it to Atlanta. If that happens, they could get bumped down to third in the SEC playoff pecking order, and it could open the door to other conferences getting their champion in in Bama's place. (That scenario would be juicy just to see how the media-driven benefit of the doubt Bama usually gets will play up against the selection committee's vague-ish criteria.) Win the division, and I don't see much chance of the Tide not making it to the playoff, even with a loss to Georgia in Atlanta. Even losses to both State and Auburn probably still leave Bammer in a Big Six Bowl.
Auburn does now control its own destiny again, so maybe Gus Malzahn wasn't incorrect a few weeks ago, he was just ahead of the game. If the Tigers win out (no small task), I think the orange-and-blue make it to the playoff, even with two losses. It's not a lead pipe cinch, but it's very likely. Split the two big games, and Auburn probably goes to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, with an outside shot at a Big Six game. Lose both and the Tigers could still end up in Orlando, but also may be looking at somewhere like the Outback Bowl.
I think Mississippi State is Auburn's biggest competition for the Citrus Bowl. The Bullies absolutely should finish 9-3. A three-loss State team would probably get the call over a four-loss Tiger one, so that could put State in Orlando. Should they drop one of their final three games, however, they fall into the vagaries of the SEC's conference-aided bowl selection system, which would probably be unkind to the them. When it comes to perception, State's always fighting an uphill battle.
LSU should definitely wind up at 8-4. If they do, the Outback Bowl or Texas Bowl seem like likely landing spots for them, with the Citrus Bowl an outside possibility. Their biggest competition for these games will come from the SEC East, with South Carolina looking like an 8-4 team in the making. Kentucky had a shot at 9-3, but biffed it hard against Ole Miss this past weekend. The relatively lesser national cache of those two schools will almost certainly shuffle them down below LSU in the pecking order. I'm figuring the Belk and Taxslayer Bowls for them, in some order.
Drop down another rung and find Texas A&M, who's headed for 7-5 and a new coach probably. They've probably been heading to the Texas Bowl for several weeks now, but the Liberty or Music City Bowls are also a possibility, and who knows if one of the Florida bowls might feel froggy and want to make a play for an Aggies program they don't normally get to see. Below them is the Pit of Uncertainty (trademark pending), which houses Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and suddenly resurgent Missouri, although anyone would look resurgent playing Florida right now. It's likely that one of these teams squeezes into a bowl, and hopefully for the league, more than one manage to pull it off. They all also play each other a bunch over the next three weeks (Mizzou literally plays the other three teams), so they'll get a chance to settle it on the field. (Except poor Arkansas, who probably has two whompings coming from LSU and State.) If pushed, I say Vandy and Mizzou make it to the postseason, with Vandy staying home at the Music City Bowl and Mizzou headed to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl. It's not looking great for the league to fill out the Birmingham and Independence Bowls right now.
Drop down far enough, past an Ole Miss team stuck in self-inflicted limbo, and you'll find the smoldering ashes of Florida. What was one a legitimate SEC title contender now appears to be the league's worst team. After being annihilated by Mizzou last week, another likely smackdown awaits at South Carolina. They play UAB the week after that, and I have serious doubts about them winning that game right now. UAB did not have a football team last year and they now appear to have a decent shot at beating Florida in the Swamp in two weeks. Ye Gods.
Calling All Stations
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Any ol' teams can get into a defense-optional, flag-football-esque pinball game, but when Oklahoma and Oklahoma State do it, there's an art to it. Bedlam was especially bedlam-y this year, as OU and the Pokes officially supplanted Okie State and Texas Tech as the Big 12-iest of Big 12 rivalries. The Sooners won 62-52 in a game that featured over 1350 yards of offense, 10 touchdown passes, a QB that threw for 598 yards, four 100-yard-plus receivers - including a guy who rolled up 265 yards - and a 228-yard rusher. Gaze upon this box score, ye mighty defensive coordinators, and despair! A relatively sedate first quarter (OU led 14-10 after one period) turned into a bonkers second quarter. Baker Mayfield ran for a 7-yard score with 14:53 left in the first half. OSU responded with a TD of their own 46 seconds later. 1:17 after that, the Sooners hit an 84-yard bomb for a score. 1:41 further on, the Pokes scored again. Less than three minutes after that, the Sooners re-re-answered, then 56 seconds after that, the Pokes re-re-re-answered. It'd be an eternity of six minutes before anybody scored again, just so everyone in Stillwater could catch their breath. The game went from 14-10 to 35-31 in seven minutes and 37 seconds. That's six touchdowns combined. The defensive players were probably all too demoralized from gazing upon the masculine majesty of Mike Gundy's mullet to muster up any resistance.
Elsewhere, Clemson and Miami grabbed their respective divisions by the short-and-curlies with wins over North Carolina State and Virginia Tech respectively. Miami was especially impressive in a methodical takedown of the Hokies. They now get a visit from Notre Dame in a massively important game.
The Big Ten, as referenced above, got savaged this past weekend. After the thrilling win over Penn State, Urban Meyer and Ohio State went to Iowa and got powerbombed (more below). Penn State, who would've had an opportunity to regain some position in the division, lost a weather-delayed game at Michigan State, who now control their own destiny in the division even though they lost at Northwestern last week. Along with Michigan, all four major programs in the East now have two losses, which likely rules them all out of the national title race. Wisconsin remained unbeaten, and at least will now likely get to play two ranked teams this regular season since Iowa and Michigan have returned to the poll, but still their atrocious schedule means they have to play error-free to make it to the promised land. The Big 12 gains from this development, as it clears an easier path for a one-loss Big 12 champ (Oklahoma or TCU, who play each other this week) to make it to the playoff. The all-but-completely-written-off Pac-12 also gains, as Washington still has life, even though they opened at #12 in the last week's initial playoff poll.
Massacre Island Recap
Ha ha ha ha ha, Ohio State got sent to Massacre Island. And what's worse, they got smoked by a Big Ten West team. The Buckeyes didn't get routed on the stat sheet so much in their 55-24 drubbing at Kinnick Stadium, but they played horribly sloppy football. 9 penalties for 95 yards and 4 interceptions spelled doom for tOSU, and now it's very unlikely anyone will get to complain about them being in the playoff this year.
Let's Get Ready to Rumble
With the exception of an ugly incident at the Virginia Tech-Miami game, most of the fisticuffs occurred in the NFL this past weekend. Whatever s***-talk Jacksonville's Jalen Ramsey was sending AJ Green's way was so bad that Green lost his mind and started punching Ramsey's helmet with his fists. That's...not smart, but Green was apparently a race car in the red Sunday. (Warning: Very foul and very '90s language at the link.)
The Cardinals and 49ers also got into a skirmish that ended with Cardinals DL Frostee Rucker tossing 49ers RB Carlos Hyde aside like a sack of taters. Nothing much special about this one, with some of the guys probably intentionally getting ejected because they didn't want to watch the rest of the game any more than the three fans in attendance did.
The big one came in New Orleans' win over Tampa Bay. All NFC South games are pretty chippy, with Bucs games being especially so. Jameis Winston started things off with a bizarre pregame speech that was likely intended to fire his team up, but instead just seemed to confuse everybody. The Bucs looked to be in a fog as they were dismantled by the quietly resurgent Saints, and then things went sideways when Winston, injured and out of the game, tried to give a wet willie(?) to Saints DB Marshon Lattimore, who was then blindsided by Bucs receiver Mike Evans. Things didn't improve from there. Whoever could've predicted that Famous Jameis would turn out to be a baffling toilet man in the pros?
Well, that's all folks. This week is a huge one for Auburn and for several other teams around the country. I'll be back to set it all up on Thursday.