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Lessons in SEC Football: Covid Craziness

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Halftime reading time!

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee
“What am I supposed to do now?!”
Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

The first round of games is getting to halftime. Vanderbilt has their regularly scheduled open date to follow the Covid-induced postponement of last Saturday’s game at Missouri. The typical mid-season assessment version of Lessons is going to be next week to lead in to the currently scheduled Ole Miss game. Today, as the title says, we are going to look around the league with a quick look at each team.

Alabama

Mac Jones has gone on an absolute tear with 3 straight games passing for more than 400 yards. The victims were Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Georgia. He became the first Alabama QB to top 400 yards passing in back to back games then added a third one for good measure. Oh, and he has done it with a a completion percentage at 78%. He is statistically superior or on par across nearly every statistic with Joey Burrow through 4 games. The Crimson Tide have the 2nd most passing yards per game at 393.0 and are 5th in terms of total offense at 561.3 yards per game. Somehow, this offense has gotten better post-Tua.

The defense has taken a step back though. The typically crushing Tide are allowing 5.9 yards per play. That average has them ranked 52nd in FBS with only 78 teams having played. You might think, as I did, that the Ole Miss game where they allowed 7.2 yards per play was heavily tilting the average, but they allowed 5.8 against Texas A&M and 5.9 against Georgia. It seems inevitable that Saban will keep improving that group, but it may not matter with the offense clicking like it is.

Arkansas

The Piggies do not suck! The Razorbacks beat both Mississippi schools and should have beaten Auburn if not for officiating incompetence. Sam Pittman has done an incredible job turning around a program that was in arguably worse shape than our own. For them, the numbers are less important than the competitive nature and results. A year ago, Arkansas had 3 SEC games they lost by 10 points or fewer while losing 4 by 30 or more. They also got drubbed 45-19 by a bad Western Kentucky team.

Auburn

“They are who we thought they were!” Yep, Auburn is still coached by Gus Malzahn. They played fairly well in a 29-13 win over Kentucky then had their offense completely shut down by Georgia in a 27-6 loss. As mentioned, the Tigers should have lost to Arkansas but got officiating help to have a chance to kick a game-winning FG in a 30-28 moral defeat. Most recently, Gus got outcoached by Will Muschamp in a 30-22 loss. All we are learning is that Auburn under Gus Malzahn is going to be infuriatingly inconsistent. With the exceptions of 2013 and 2017, Auburn has only been consistent in wasting talent. Even in 2017, they still choked away a chance at the CFP by losing 27-6 to Georgia in the SEC Championship game only 3 weeks after drubbing the Bulldogs 40-17.

Florida

The Gators are riding the Kyle Squared connection of Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts. Trask is completing 71.4% of his passes for an average of 9.7 yards which has led to 996 yards and 14 TDs yet only 1 interception and 4 sacks through 4 games. Pitts has 17 catches for 274 yards and 7 TDs. I am really not sure how good the defense is though, having allowed 35 to Ole Miss, 24 to South Carolina, and 38 to Texas A&M. I admittedly have not watched much of Florida, so my insights are limited.

Georgia

The Bulldogs were the first to show us that Arkansas would not be as terrible as last season before ultimately winning that game 37-10 then completely shutting Auburn down. Tennessee replicated the early troubles Arkansas presented before Georgia would pull away for a 44-21 win. Georgia flipped the script by being troublesome early then faded to lose 41-24 against Alabama. The big takeaways so far are that they need a QB to be a real national title contender. Stetson Bennett was amazing against Arkansas, Auburn, and Tennessee. He was very average against Alabama and threw 3 INTs. It was his first time being in a big game, so maybe he can use it as a learning experience. Bennett just seems like a good QB who can operate really well when things are perfect around him but falters when things get disrupted. The JT Daniels shadow looms, but his health is still a big question mark.

Kentucky

The Wildcats struggled against Auburn then absolutely torched Ole Miss…on offense. Kentucky put up 41 points on 7.5 yards per play for a total yardage of 559 with 408 coming on the ground. The problem was that the Rebel Bear Landsharks scored 42 points thanks to 459 yards of their own on 6.9 yards per play. Since then, Kentucky’s defense has allowed 7 points (Mississippi State’s 2 points came on a safety, obviously) and only 3.7 yards per play. The offense has stumbled though. In those same two games, the offense only had 3.9 yards per play. The point totals look good because of the short fields provided by great defense and turnovers. The offense is either going to bounce back or the defense is going to regress, but I have no idea which one it will be.

LSU

Joe Burrow and Joe Brady are gone. The defense is no longer hidden. Besides holding our offense to 7 points, they have allowed 44 points to Mississippi State and 45 points to Missouri. It turns out that first game was not a product of elite Moo State offense but instead of LSU’s defense being terrible. I guess Dave Aranda was important, too.

Mississippi State

Speaking of terrible, what happened to the Mike Leach offense we all saw Week 1 against LSU? With a 45-point game, the Bulldogs are still at 72nd in scoring offense. Remember, only 78 teams have played so far. In the 3 games since LSU, the State offense has scored 21 points with the other 9 points coming via a pick six against Arkansas and a safety against Kentucky. Imagine hiring Mike Leach and having a worse offense than Vanderbilt.

Ole Miss

Another “as expected” team is Ole Miss. They have scored 35, 42, 48, and 21 points. Unfortunately, they have allowed 51, 41, 63, and 33. Lane Kiffin is going to create offense, and they have some talent on that side of the ball. Defensively, the talent is…well not very talented.

South Carolina

The Game Penises stumbled out of the game with a 31-27 loss to Tennessee then played Florida tight before fading a bit in a 38-24 loss. They rebounded by destroying us 41-7 and kept their momentum going with a 30-22 win over Auburn. The Auburn win was heavily slanted by turnovers with 3 Bo Nix interceptions likely making the difference in an 8-point game. They seem like a bang average team, but the defense forcing turnovers is their key to success. Or playing teams down to 56 scholarship players.

Tennessee

Remember when Tennessee was leading at halftime over UGA? Things have changed since then. The Volunteers, especially Jarrett Guarantano, appear to be on the bring of imploding. Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt already fired the DL coach who was brought in to replace Tracy Rocker. Oops. The decision was reportedly made and communicated during the Kentucky game. Double oops!

The odd part is that both Eric Gray and Ty Chandler are averaging more than 4.5 yards per carry. The QB play in the last 6 quarters has been atrocious though. Guarantano fumbled then threw an interception on the first two Tennessee drives of the 2nd half against Georgia. He would fumble again later. That fumble was returned for a TD, which would become a theme that carried into the Kentucky game. Tennessee manage to punt on their first drive against the Wildcats, but Guarantano would then fumble (no TD) before throwing Pick Sixes on two straight drives. JT Shrout was inserted on the next Tennessee drive, and he threw an interception of his own! Guarantano came back out and went ½ for 4 yards on a 14-play TD drive. For the rest of the game, he was 2/4 for 8 yards before being replaced by freshman Harrison Bailey on the final drive.

Tennessee is not nearly good enough on the offensive line to be a team that cannot throw the ball. They are in real trouble on the field if they cannot figure out the QB play. Even worse, Pruitt does not seem like he handles adversity well. The defensive line may not have been great, but it was FAR from the biggest issue. Why fire a position coach when you owe him $820K to do so? You can easily limit his practical role then encourage him to find a job elsewhere in the offseason to avoid the buyout.

Texas A&M

The Aggies had a very slow start in their 17-12 win over Vanderbilt. They ran into Alabama and got predictably blasted 52-24. The Aggies then beat Florida 41-38 and Mississippi State 28-14. QB Kellen Mond has been up and down. He was very poor against us, decent against Alabama, fantastic against Florida (QBR of 94.4), and a little below average against Mississippi State. The defense seems to be about average, so their success relies on what Jimbo Fisher can get out of the talented by inconsistent Mond.

What matters to a Vandy fan?

Really, I think we have two big lessons so far while watching other teams. The first is that this season is completely bonkers. Weird, unexpected things are going to happen. Our game against South Carolina is a good example with how late a huge chunk of important players were removed, but other teams are dealing with the effects. No, they are not all doing well. Look at the unexpected losses. Missouri and Mississippi State have also both switched QBs, almost certainly due to limited time in summer and fall camps. I am not saying anything breaks Vanderbilt’s way, but embrace the insanity.

The second, and more important, point is that other teams are teetering. Mississippi State needs Rogers to provide a spark after looking pretty good against Texas A&M. Their offense had completely ground to a halt. Tennessee needs to stop turning the ball over, and especially allowing TDs directly from turnovers, while settling on a QB. Jarrett Guarantano has always been mercurial, and Pruitt and OC Jim Chaney have to find a solution either in how they handle him or by replacing him. We all know how the rest of the team can be dragged down by bad QB play killing confidence. Ole Miss needs to find a way to play defense, or even the Vanderbilt offense might be able to carve them up. Their offense will probably rip apart the Commodore defense, but the Rebel Bear Landsharks have been somewhat turnover prone while the Commodores have forced quite a few.

A lesser third lesson is hanging out there. At first, it looked like all of the new coaches had made huge improvements. Then we found out that Ole Miss is basically the same as they were before. Mississippi State might be worse by a big margin. Arkansas is WAY better. The crazy part is that the Razorbacks hired a career offensive line coach, though Pittman has served as Associate Head Coach, whatever that means for responsibilities. Mississippi State and Ole Miss hired huge names. It can be hard to know who will be the right coach until you see the changes in action.Again, embrace the insanity.