Sunday, September 11, 2011
What we learned in the SEC: Week 2
By Chris Low
Fresh off a couple of wild ones, we take a look back at what we learned in the SEC in Week 2:
1. Auburn’s pride is alive and well: You don’t win as many games in the fourth quarter as Auburn has in the past two years without a pride that runs deep and the kind of resolve that only gets stronger when things look bleakest. A lot of the names have changed on the Plains, but nothing has changed when it comes to this team’s ability to make plays in the fourth quarter to win games. Sure, the defense has given up a ton of points and a ton of yards through two games. But when the Tigers have to make a play, somebody is there to make it. That somebody Saturday was sophomore safety Ryan Smith, who’d yet to make a tackle on defense coming into this season. And for that matter, he didn’t even go through spring practice because of personal issues. But with Mississippi State’s 240-pound quarterback Chris Relf barreling toward the goal line on what would be the final play of the game, Smith delivered a textbook tackle and stuffed Relf mere inches from the goal line, preserving Auburn’s 41-34 victory. They may be living dangerously, but the Tigers just keep on winning. And in case you hadn’t heard, that’s 17 in a row, the nation’s longest active winning streak.
AJ McCarron was cool under pressure against Penn State on Saturday.
2. McCarron’s the man: His statistics weren’t eye-popping, but the way AJ McCarron managed the game, ran the offense and made key throws told you all you needed to know about the Alabama quarterback battle. There no longer is a battle. McCarron is the Crimson Tide’s quarterback. On the heels of five turnovers by the Tide in the opener, McCarron didn’t throw any interceptions Saturday in the 27-11 win over Penn State, and he also didn’t take a sack. His arm strength and accuracy were on display when he threaded a 5-yard strike to tight end Michael Williams for Alabama’s first touchdown. There was a lot of restlessness among Alabama fans about the need to settle on one quarterback, either McCarron or Phillip Sims. But Alabama coach Nick Saban wanted to see them both in games, and now that he has, it’s McCarron’s show. That doesn’t mean Sims will be forgotten about. Saban is smart enough to know that somewhere along the way you’re probably going to need your second quarterback to come in and win a game for you, which is why the Tide will continue to develop both quarterbacks. But two games into the season, we have our answer on who the starter will be.
3. Winning ugly: South Carolina has given up 79 points in its first two games and has been asleep at the wheel in the first quarter in each of those games. Yet the Gamecocks are 2-0, both wins coming away from home, and haven’t come close to playing their best football yet, particularly on defense. They’re more talented than they’re playing on defense but have made enough big plays to get by. That’s a formula that usually catches up with you in this league. Still, the Gamecocks head home for four straight games after outlasting Georgia 45-42 on Saturday. They’ll be favored in all four games -- Navy, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Kentucky -- and could easily go into that Oct. 15 game at Mississippi State with a 6-0 record. But to do something really special this season, they’re going to have to start playing more consistently in all three phases and eliminate some of the busts on defense. Ellis Johnson, the Gamecocks’ assistant head coach for the defense, didn’t mince words following the Georgia game. “I’ve never been so proud of a bunch of a kids, but at the same time, so disappointed in some of them,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some guys playing really well, but we’ve got some guys out there that can’t function right now. … There were times when some of our best players had a chance to make a play and would get the water cut off. They’re not getting it done.”
4. Georgia’s not dead yet: The Bulldogs might have dug themselves a 0-2 hole, but they improved as a football team in Saturday’s 45-42 loss to No. 12-ranked South Carolina and will be a tough out the rest of the way if some of their younger talent continues to develop. There’s no question who Georgia’s top playmaker is. Freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell rushed for 118 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown, and he also caught a 17-yard touchdown pass. He’s going to improve and really opens things up for this offense. The Bulldogs also need to make a commitment to getting Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith more touches on offense. Todd Grantham’s defense took a big step forward and gave up only three touchdowns. One of those came after South Carolina returned a fumble 56 yards to the Georgia 5. Three of the Gamecocks’ touchdowns were nonoffensive touchdowns. It’s not going to be easy for the Bulldogs these next few weeks, and the climate won’t be real pleasant in and around Athens. But if they can stick together, they can be a factor in the East race. Their schedule isn’t a monster the rest of the way, and there’s no denying the talent on this team.
5. Vols flying under the radar: The 2012 season was supposed to be the year when Tennessee would return to serious contention in the SEC. But after two games this season, it’s obvious the Vols are plenty explosive on offense, improving on defense and dead-set on being a factor in the East race this season. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray has been sensational. He threw four more touchdown passes Saturday in Tennessee’s 45-23 win over Cincinnati and has now thrown 22 touchdowns in his past seven games dating back to last season. He has NFL arm talent, but has also been much more accurate this season. As good as Bray has been, his receiving tandem of Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers have been just as impressive. There hasn’t been a better combo in the SEC to this point or a combo that complement each other as well as Hunter and Rogers do. The real season for Bray, Hunter, Rogers and the rest of the Vols begins Saturday in Gainesville. Second-year coach Derek Dooley is still looking for his first signature win since coming to Knoxville. Getting it in the Swamp would be a heck of a place to do it, especially when you consider that Tennessee has lost six in a row to Florida.