For now, though, let’s recap some of what we’ve learned so far about the SEC of 2014.
Alabama -- particularly its reconstructed secondary -- had all sorts of problems against West Virginia and its vaunted passing game. Defending league champ Auburn remains an offensive juggernaut, but its defense got manhandled at times early by an improving Arkansas offense. And LSU was on the verge of getting blown out early in the second half before a fake punt gave the Tigers some life, helping them rally from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24.
With Texas A&M and Georgia also making statements with impressive wins in their season debuts, it’s evident that nobody has a cakewalk to reach Atlanta. The preseason favorites all have questions to answer, and there are several candidates to rise from the middle of the pack to challenge them.
Heisman hopefuls make moves: Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill wasn’t the only SEC player to jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards and three touchdowns on 44-for-60 passing had to go down as one of the most impressive starting debuts in recent memory. But he had company among SEC offensive standouts.
Todd Gurley broke Rodney Hampton’s Georgia record with 293 all-purpose yards against Clemson -- 198 on the ground and 100 more on a kickoff return for a touchdown (he lost five yards receiving). Between his running and a dominant second half from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, the Bulldogs were able to bury Clemson 45-21.
Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 122 yards in the second half against Arkansas and finished with 26 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown as Auburn held the Razorbacks scoreless in the second half to put away a 45-21 win.
Quarterback races progress: Hill made as emphatic a statement as possible about his status as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback after winning a preseason battle. But some of the league’s other QB races remain, well, unclear.
Blake Sims (24-33, 250 yards, INT, plus 42 rushing yards) did a fine job in taking nearly every snap in Alabama’s win over West Virginia. And Patrick Towles (20-29, 377 yards, TD, plus a 23-yard rushing score) was outstanding in Kentucky’s rout of overmatched Tennessee-Martin.
But then a couple of QB battles don’t seem resolved at all. LSU’s Anthony Jennings played most of the game against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily before closing with a flourish. He finished 9-for-21 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. However, freshman Brandon Harris looked lost during the one series he was in the game, so he doesn’t appear to be a better option right now.
Vanderbilt also faces a bit of a quandary at the position. Stephen Rivers (12-25, 186 yards, INT), Patton Robinette (4-6, 38 yards) and Johnny McCrary (0-3, 2 INTs) all played, but nothing went right for the Commodores in a 37-7 loss to Temple.
We’ll see how Tennessee’s Justin Worley fares on Sunday night after winning the Volunteers’ preseason QB battle.
Bad teams are better: Arkansas and Kentucky -- two teams that went winless in SEC play a season ago -- made it clear that they will be tougher in 2014.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Kentucky’s 59-14 win over UT-Martin. We probably shouldn’t read too much into a blowout against a middling FCS program, after all. And yet the Wildcats showed off some impressive new weapons.
How about Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard taking his only two carries for touchdowns of 73 and 43 yards? And Towles connecting with 10 different receivers? It was an impressive debut to be sure.
Even in a losing effort, Arkansas’ physicality had to be what Razorbacks fans wanted to see from a club that lost nine straight games to close out the 2013 season. They pushed Auburn around for a portion of the game and were still thinking upset until Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead made it a two-touchdown game by returning a deflected pass for a score with 2:39 left in the third quarter.
Auburn really can pass: We heard all offseason that Auburn would put the ball in the air more frequently this season, and it looks like the Tigers have the pieces in place to do that.
Junior college transfer D'haquille Williams was outstanding in his Auburn debut, catching nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for 293 yards and a pair of scores. The ground game is still the Tigers’ calling card (Auburn rushed for 302 yards), but they’re going to be even tougher to defend if they keep throwing like this.
ATLANTA -- We got a little bit of a shootout inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday, but No. 2 Alabama prevailed with a 33-23 win over West Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. Season openers can be tricky -- and sometimes ugly -- and Alabama, which is a favorite to make the College Football Playoff, had a relatively up-and-down performance in the ATL, but will head back to Tuscaloosa 1-0.
New starting quarterback Blake Sims had some rough moments against West Virginia, but regrouped well and made some big plays throughout the game with his arm and legs. Finding All-SEC receiver Amari Cooper was smart (12 catches for 130 yards), but handing the ball off to his running backs really paid off, especially when he gave the rock to Derrick Henry halfway through the third quarter.
1. Hustling Henry
Let's face it, the third quarter of this game started off a little stale. After seeing 37 points and 500 yards of offense in the first half, we got a failed fourth-down attempt and a missed field goal. Then, things started clicking for the Crimson Tide on their second drive. With Alabama moving at will against the Mountaineers' defense, Sims handed the ball off to the super sophomore, who immediately cut to his left. As a hole opened up, Henry put on the jets and flew through both lines before pushing off one last defender and leaping into the end zone to put Alabama up 27-17 with 7:44 remaining in the third quarter. Alabama only managed two more field goals after Henry's score. It proved to be the biggest score of the game for the Crimson Tide, as they fought off a valiant comeback effort from the Mountaineers.
Henry: "It was the outside zone play and the tight end made the block and I just read it. I hit the hole and [went] right into the end zone."
Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen: "It gave us more energy and more focus because once we make a big play, we want to capitalize on it and try to keep that momentum going. It really got the momentum in our favor when Derrick scored."
Right tackle Austin Shepherd: "I think we were going 'Speed Ball' or something and we were just trying to wear West Virginia down so we were just going fast. I guess the hole opened and he got out there and made it work. We were just trying to attack and we did. ... We were trying to punish them, man. Every chance you got, drive them into the ground, get in their hand and they'll start thinking about it and finally they'll wear down."
2. Slippery snap
Henry's play didn't officially put the game away for Alabama, but a bad snap from West Virginia center Tyler Orlosky severely hurt the Mountaineers' chances of pulling of a major upset Saturday. With Alabama clinging to a 30-20 lead with 14:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers closed in on what should have been another touchdown drive. Quarterback Clint Trickett had already marched his offense down to Alabama's 5-yard line and after two tough incomplete passes that took two touchdowns off the board, Trickett lined up in the shotgun, only to have Orlosky send the snap soaring over his head and outstretched arms. The ball hit the ground and rolled a bit before Trickett landed on it 19 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The play took the Mountaineers out of touchdown range and forced them to kick a field goal. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen could barely stand to look at the field after Trickett collapsed on the ball. It swallowed up all the momentum the Mountaineers had and clearly sapped some of the offense's energy. Only a couple plays later, West Virginia got the ball back by way of a Sims interception, but went three plays and punted.
Linebacker Denzel Devall: "We just use things like that to keep boosting us up. No matter how bad things may seem or go, we just keep fighting. That's the main thing. Once we saw that happen, we just knew we were doing something good [next]."
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama rushed for 158 yards in the second half
Alabama won its season-opener on the strength of its running game and a smart passing game plan. However, its defense left something to be desired. Here’s a look at what you need to know about the Tide’s opening game.
Second-half rushing surge
Alabama returned to its bread and butter in the second half, pounding the ball up the middle with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, who combined for 152 yards in the final 30 minutes. Alabama rushed for 109 yards between the tackles in the second half against West Virginia, slightly better than the 106 yards per game the school averaged on such rushes last season.
Yeldon and Henry each rushed for over 100 yards in this game, the first time those two rushed for 100 yards in the same game. Alabama only had two games last year in which it had two rushers crack the century mark.
Sims keeps it simple
Blake Sims completed 73 percent of his passes in his first career start for Alabama. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin kept the game plan simple, with just four of Sims' 33 pass attempts traveling 15 or more yards downfield.
Sims also relied heavily on Amari Cooper. He was 12 of 15 for 130 yards when targeting Amari Cooper and 12 of 18 for 120 yards when targeting everyone else.
Unlikely defensive struggles for Alabama
West Virginia's Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards against Alabama, the third-most passing yards allowed by the Tide in the Nick Saban era and over double what it allowed per game last season (180.3 yards). The only quarterback to throw for more yards against a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team was Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, who threw for 464 yards against the Tide last season. Big plays also hurt Alabama as the Mountaineers had 17 completions of 10 yards or more, the most the Tide allowed since the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
ATLANTA -- Blake Sims was good enough to finish his first start at quarterback for Alabama, getting plenty of help from Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, and the second-ranked Crimson Tide held off West Virginia 33-23 Saturday.
Sims was 24-for-33 for 250 yards and added 42 running, playing the entire game. The fifth-year senior beat out Florida State transfer Jake Coker for the start. Tide coach Nick Saban had suggested both quarterbacks would play, but Sims never came out.
Yeldon (126 yards rushing and two touchdowns), Henry (113 yards rushing and a score) and Cooper (12 catches for 130 yards) provided plenty of support. Alabama needed all the offense it could get because West Virginia found plenty of soft spots in the Tide's D.
The Mountaineers' up-tempo spread gave Clint Trickett his pick of open receivers, and he took advantage with 365 yards passing.
College Football Minute
Suspended Idaho 0 Florida 0
Final Tennessee-Martin 14 Kentucky 59 Final South Dakota State 18 24 Missouri 38 Final West Virginia 23 2 Alabama 33 Final Arkansas 21 6 Auburn 45 Final 16 Clemson 21 12 Georgia 45 Final Southern Miss 0 Mississippi State 49 Final 14 Wisconsin 24 13 LSU 28
Final 21 Texas A&M 52 9 South Carolina 28 Final Boise State 13 18 Ole Miss 35 Final Temple 37 Vanderbilt 7