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.
You can’t keep the monster in his cage
It looked like Todd Gurley wasn’t going to get a chance to run free. Halfway through the first half, Georgia’s star tailback had only four carries. Then he decided to take matters into his own hands. On special teams, he fielded the kickoff and found daylight. Splitting the middle of the field, he sprinted 100 yards for the touchdown. It wasn’t fair. A guy that big isn’t supposed to run that fast. The 226-pound junior couldn’t be caught as he ran 100-plus yards without being touched. It was one of those Heisman Trophy-type moments. All that was missing was the stiff-arm pose.
Georgia runs it down Clemson’s throat
Georgia telegraphed what it was doing. The Bulldogs were running the football, no matter what. And Clemson couldn’t do a darn thing to stop it. Gurley carried for two, then 38 yards to start the drive. Sony Michel then came in and went for six yards. Hutson Mason got in on the action, picking up a yard of his own. Michel then came back and showed off his wheels and reeled off a 17-yard gain. Gurley, now facing a gassed defense, took care of the rest. With the front seven overloaded to his right, he took the pitch that direction, cut back and caught Clemson sleeping. He found daylight in the middle of the field, made a safety miss and went 18 yards to pay dirt. The touchdown pulled Georgia ahead by two scores. But more importantly, it proved Clemson didn’t have an answer for a determined Bulldogs offense.
And then it happened again
How would you like to face Nick Chubb after Gurley, Keith Marshall and Michel have been pounding the rock all night? How would you like to tackle that 228-pound beast? The true freshman running back couldn’t be corralled by Clemson all night. And when he took the handoff with his team up 10 points, he decided to finish the job, this time showing off his wheels and his strength running through tackles. He shook four Clemson defenders’ grasp, hit the edge and took off. He went 47 yards for the touchdown that put the game away for Georgia.
Gurley isn’t to be outdone
What more can we say? Gurley played like he was trying to win the Heisman Trophy in one game and did a good job of stating his case. Midway through the fourth quarter, you’re not supposed to have the gas to run like this. You’re not supposed to slip a bunch of tackles and go 51 yards that quickly. But Gurley isn’t normal. By the time the night was over, he had 298 total yards and four touchdowns.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Gurley ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns, returned a kickoff 100 yards for another score, and No. 12 Georgia gained some early style points in the national race with a 45-21 victory over No. 16 Clemson on Saturday night.
If rating Heisman Trophy favorites after Week 1, Gurley would surely be among the favorites. He made the most of his limited touches on a sweltering night, averaging 17.2 yards every time he got his hands on the ball. He set a school record for all-purpose yards with 293, breaking the record of 290 set by Rodney Hampton in 1987.
Georgia (1-0) broke open a game that was 21-21 at the half, shutting down Clemson (0-1) and a fast-break offense that didn't look nearly as effective without Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins.
Gurley pretty much finished off Clemson by himself, scoring on runs of 23, 18 and 51 yards.
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