- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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When you’re hot, you’re hot. And when you’re not, you’re not.
We look back at Week 6 in the SEC.
SEC quarterbacks: We had a pretty good idea that the big three in the SEC -- Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Georgia’s Aaron Murray -- could stack up with any quarterback triumvirate in the country. But the quarterback play throughout the SEC has been outstanding this season, and the weekend’s games were another example of how deep, versatile and talented this crop of quarterbacks really is. Murray was as clutch as clutch could be in engineering the drive to tie the score at Tennessee (with all of his top playmakers on the bench) and forcing overtime. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger just gets better every game. He was 25-of-29 against Mississippi State for 340 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Don’t forget about Missouri’s James Franklin, either. He has accounted for 15 touchdowns in five games for the unbeaten Tigers and tossed four touchdown passes without an interception at Vanderbilt on Saturday. Is there a tougher and more team-oriented quarterback anywhere than South Carolina’s Connor Shaw? He returned from a sprained throwing shoulder a week earlier and rolled up 312 yards in total offense against Kentucky. Florida’s Tyler Murphy looks as though he has been there the whole way for the Gators. He was 16-of-22 for 240 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against Arkansas. Auburn’s Nick Marshall was masterful in executing the zone-read against Ole Miss and rushed for a team-high 140 yards and two touchdowns. Don’t look now, but the SEC suddenly has become a quarterback league.
Missouri: The first season in the SEC might not have been what Missouri bargained for a year ago with all the injuries and a disappointing 5-7 finish, but the Tigers are cruising right along this season after thumping Vanderbilt 51-28 on the road to remain unbeaten. Missouri wasn’t on much of anybody’s radar to start the season, and that has seemed to fuel the Tigers. They get a chance to make their biggest statement yet this Saturday at No. 7 Georgia.
Georgia’s health: As feared, the Dawgs lost running back Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley for the season to ACL tears suffered in the Tennessee game. Receiver Michael Bennett also injured his knee and will be out for a while. Running back Todd Gurley was nursing an injured ankle, and receiver Malcolm Mitchell was lost for the season in the opener with a knee injury after celebrating a long run by Gurley.
Auburn’s big-play defense: It looks as though the Tigers are beginning to settle in on defense, and you knew they would with Ellis Johnson and that veteran staff. They played much better in the second half two weeks ago at LSU and made one big play after another in the win over Ole Miss -- from Robenson Therezie’s 78-yard interception return for a touchdown, to six sacks (two by freshman end Carl Lawson), to a big stop on fourth down by safety Ryan Smith.
Mississippi State in the second half: The Bulldogs haven’t had trouble scoring points here lately, but they’ve been a no-show in the second half in all three of their losses. LSU outscored them 31-3 last week after halftime. Counting the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma State, Mississippi State has been outscored 55-10 in the second half in those three games. And in the fourth quarter, it has been even worse. They’ve been outscored 42-0 in their three losses.
Butch Jones’ message: Lost in Tennessee’s gut-wrenching 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia was a message from first-year coach Butch Jones to Vols fans that was unmistakable: He plays to win, and that’s the way it’s going to be on his watch. Tennessee went for it on fourth down three times in the fourth quarter, twice in its own territory, and converted all three. It wasn’t just that the Vols went for it on fourth down, but the play calls were absolute beauties. Tennessee is still a ways off from being an SEC contender, but Jones continues to grind away … and stack those bricks.
Vanderbilt’s defense: The Commodores offense also was slow to get out of the gate in the 51-28 loss to Missouri, but it has been a struggle on defense in all three SEC losses. Vanderbilt has given up at least 35 points in all three games and was barely even a speed bump for the Tigers, who didn’t trot out their punter until there were 10 minutes to play in the game.
Florida’s defense: Everybody is talking about all the big offensive numbers in the SEC this season, but Florida just might have the best defense in the country. The Gators uncharacteristically gave up a long drive to Arkansas to start Saturday’s game, but held the Hogs to 7 rushing yards in the second half. Florida ranks second nationally in total defense and fourth in scoring defense. The Gators have now gone 13 consecutive SEC games where they’ve held opponents to 21 or fewer points. Nobody else in the league has gone longer than one game.
South Carolina’s killer instinct: The Gamecocks can’t put anybody away, and that’s bound to catch up with them, especially with three straight road games in the next three weeks starting with Arkansas on Saturday in Fayetteville. They led Kentucky 27-7 entering the fourth quarter, but hung on to win by a touchdown. It was a similar story with UCF two weeks ago after giving up two late touchdowns, and Vanderbilt stormed back from a 28-0 deficit in Columbia the third week of the season.
Avoiding off-the-field drama: It has not been the best run for the SEC in terms of staying out of the headlines off the field. Last week, Alabama placed an assistant strength coach on administrative leave after he loaned safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix some money this summer. The Tide have filed a waiver to have Clinton-Dix’s eligibility reinstated. There was also an uproar at Ole Miss when allegations surfaced that members of the football team were making homophobic slurs at a play on campus based on the murder of a gay University of Wyoming student. Ole Miss officials investigated and said they found no evidence that players used any anti-gay slurs. You had the whole Johnny Manziel circus during the offseason and reports that he signed autographs for money. Alabama kicked four players off the team in February after they were arrested for robbing a student on campus. A Yahoo! Sports report in September alleged several former SEC players, including Alabama’s D.J. Fluker, Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox and Tennessee’s Tyler Bray, received extra benefits from former Alabama player Luther Davis, who was acting as a runner. Current Tennessee defensive tackle Maurice Couch was suspended after also being named in the report. The Vanderbilt rape investigation also remains open, and five players have been dismissed from the team.
6hSam Khan Jr.
8hDavid M. Hale