SEC Coming Attractions: Struggling Ds; QB that's primed to own Week 3
One week is ripe for knee-jerk reactions. Two weeks? The reactions are still knee-jerk, but at least they're a little more informed.
What we're seeing from the SEC in the early goings are some defenses that are, well, lacking.
The league has four units that are currently 87th or lower -- Mississippi State (87), Arkansas (89), Vanderbilt (98) and South Carolina (120) -- and while that's only one more than a year ago when it had three, the overall rank of SEC defenses is currently 51.9 compared to 44.4 at this time in 2013.
There are highs, including Florida -- and this can be chocked up to the full-on knee-jerk reaction department -- leading the nation in defense after its lone game, and improvement by Georgia and LSU barely missing a beat after its latest NFL defections.
But the overall tone, especially when veteran QBs like AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel and Aaron Murray are gone, is that the a league that was once defined by its defenses isn't holding it down like it was during its run of national titles.
Case in point: three seasons ago, the SEC had just two Ds that were in the bottom half of FBS, a figure that rose to six last in '13 and so far this year sits at five.
One of those defenses in particular looks like it could be in for another rough week, which takes us to the first key storyline as we open up this week's Coming Attractions. So take your seat, silence your phones and note the nearest exit.
Texas A&M's Kenny Hill torched South Carolina for 511 yards and three touchdowns, then a week later East Carolina's Shane Carden followed by racking up 321 yards and two scores. The common thread there is the up-tempo spread offense, something No. 6 Georgia -- which the 25th-ranked Gamecocks face Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium -- doesn't have. But the Bulldogs do possess a deep, Todd Gurley-led running game that is going to draw the attention of a South Carolina D that's allowed 150.5 per on the ground (74th). That could open the door for Georgia's veteran QB Hutson Mason to have a defining game. The fifth-year senior was steady in Week 1 against Clemson, going 18 of 26 for 131 yards, but not dominant. But should he come close to what Hill and Carden were able to do against the Gamecocks and the Bulldogs will find themselves squarely in the driver's seat in the SEC East. Keep in mind though, the Bulldogs haven't won in Columbia since 2008.
Grab Your Popcorn: With Mason primed to steal the show in this East clash, we turn our attention to the summer's best scene-stealing performance, which came via a walking tree voiced by Vin Diesel. Hopefully, Mason's postgame presser will include more than him saying more than "I am Groot."
The first taste of the Gators' offense with Kurt Roper at the helm was impressive as they totaled 655 yards in a rout of Eastern Michigan. While the play of QB Jeff Driskel, who hit on a career-high 31 passes -- he threw the ball up 45 times, 12 more than any other game in his Florida tenure -- is getting plenty of attention, it's what Demarcus Robinson's performance could mean to the Gators that should have Gainesville giddy. The true limitation of Florida since the days of Percy Harvin and Riley Cooper has been an inability to stretch the field vertically, and the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Robinson did exactly that against Eastern. He caught six passes for 123 yards, marking just the third time since 2009 that Florida had a wideout with more than 120 yards (Solomon Patton had six catches for 124 last year vs. Arkansas and Andre Debose had 151 yards on three receptions in 2011 against Furman). While Kentucky (2-0) isn't expected to contend in the East just yet, it has allowed just one TD through the air so far and is 29th in pass efficiency D (101.3), so it should be a stronger test of where the Gators are, and how much damage the explosive Robinson can inflict in the SEC as Driskel's top target.
Grab Your Popcorn: 'Friday Night Lights' running back/bad boy Tim Riggins was unwittingly transplanted to Mars and was asked to be the savior of a raced called the Tharks ... or something like that. The plot was really confusing. Anyway, could Florida be seeing the emergence of the star its passing game has been waiting for?
Because we can't spend every week in this space debating the state of the Crimson Tide's QB battle -- for the record, Blake Sims has simply looked like he belongs in the spot, no matter how much Nick Saban appears to want to keep the door open for Jacob Coker -- another intriguing competition is going on in the Alabama backfield. Last season, T.J. Yeldon's 207 carries were 115 more than second-closest Kenyan Drake, making it the third-highest discrepancy in Saban's seven seasons. Only 2009, when Mark Ingram had 126 more than Trent Richardson and '11, with Richardson getting 188 more than Eddie Lacy, were higher. But early on, Yeldon has 39 carries, with Derrick Henry getting 22 and an emphasis to take pressure off the Tide's QBs means neither isn't likely to turn into a workhorse. As Henry's carries continue to grow with the QB play in flux, he and Yeldon could legitimately challenge Eddie Lacy/Yeldon in '12, who were separated by 29 carries, for the narrowest margin between backs under Saban.
Grab Your Popcorn: Sylvester Stallone is the centerpiece star of 'The Expendables' franchise, but it certainly feels like he's sharing the top billing with Jason Statham. The Crimson Tide's RBs are the same, as Yeldon has the best Heisman Trophy odds (20/1), but Henry (33/1) isn't far behind for carries or possible hardware.
A 20 1/2-point underdog as they head to Norman, the Volunteers face a gigantic hurdle if they're to move to 3-0 for the first time in 10 years and the upset is likely too much for Tennessee at this stage under Butch Jones. But from a micro-level, the can the Vols break through against a No. 4 Oklahoma defense that has yet to allow an offensive TD in the first half? The Sooners have outscored their opponents 62-3 through two quarters, with those three points coming via Louisiana Tech in Week 1 with two seconds left in the second quarter. While Tennessee has looked improved in Jones' second year, especially on defense, the offense hasn't been as impressive, scoring 36 points (48th) vs. Utah State and Arkansas State as the 88th-ranked running game (139.0 per) has struggled behind a new-look line. The next three games, as the Vols follow the Sooners with a trip to Georgia and then Florida in Knoxville, will truly tell us where this program is at in Year 2 under Jones. But for now, let's see if they can end the Oklahoma defense's first-half domination.
Grab Your Popcorn: Prison-break movies have given us classics -- 'Cool Hand Luke,' 'The Shawshank Redemption,' 'The Great Escape,' and on and on -- but considering the complex gameplan and strokes of luck it would seem to take to score on the Sooners vaunted D, we'll go with a movie with a convoluted scheme. And clay chickens. Lots and lots of clay chickens.
The Razorbacks brought an end to their 10-game losing streak, taking out their frustrations on Nicholls State last weekend, but there are still the matters of beating a an FBS squad -- something Arkansas hasn't done in 11 games -- and a Power 5 school -- which it last did Oct. 13, 2012 against Kentucky a span of 14 games. Bret Bielema's Hogs would seem capable of delivering a victory that would fill both of those voids as they head to Texas Tech on Saturday. The Red Raiders, 107th against the rush, gave up 178 yards to Central Arkansas and 277 vs. UTEP, and now they face Alex Collins (199 yards and three TDs on 23 carries), Jonathan Williams (177 and two TDs on 11) and a Razorbacks ground game that is 11th in the nation (324.0). On the flip side, Arkansas is still struggling against the pass, ranking 89th (250.5) and Kliff Kingsburgy's Air Raid is dropping 365 ypg on defenses. But if Arkansas can control the clock, they could at least take the burden of that D and close out another skid.
Grab Your Popcorn: So Bielmea and the Razorbacks aren't living on the street a la Billy Ray Valentine, but they've been down on their luck with a golden opportunity in front of them against a team that last year rose to No. 10. Let's just hope SEC commish and Mike Slive and Big 12 counterpart Bob Bowlsby aren't making a Randolph and Mortimer Duke-style bet on this one.