Sunday, September 20, 2009
What we learned in the SEC
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Could it be that the SEC isn’t Florida’s own little playground this season?
The league race looks a bit more wide open than it did this time a week ago after seeing the Gators struggle at home against Tennessee.
One game certainly doesn’t make a season, but what happened in the Swamp on Saturday was eye-opening to say the least.
Here’s a look at what we learned in Week 3 in the SEC:
1. No champagne bottles just yet: Contrary to what Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said leading up to the game last week, Florida isn’t ready to challenge the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers or the 1985 Chicago Bears as the greatest football team to ever play. The Gators have some obvious holes, the kind of thing that wasn’t going to show up in their first two exhibition games. With Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy gone, there’s nobody who really scares you at receiver, and the running game without Tim Tebow is hit and miss. Tebow is the great equalizer because he wills the Gators to first downs whenever they need them, but he can’t be expected to carry that kind of burden all season long. Moreover, how many more hits can he take? The guy is simply amazing. But in this league, taking on that many linebackers and safeties is playing with fire. Defensively, the Gators had better hope the 23-13 win over Tennessee was just an off day tackling, because they’re going to face offenses this season that will throw far more talent at them from the skill positions than the Vols did Saturday.
2. Monte’s the man: Now that Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has faced a real spread offense, I think it’s safe to say that he knows a thing or two about scheming up any offense -- spread, pro-style, wishbone, draw it up in the sand and go. Hey, Kiffin has been around the block a few times. While it’s true they don’t run a lot of the single wing in the NFL, there’s a reason that he arrived at Tennessee as one of the most renowned defensive minds in the game. Outside of that third quarter, his defense really did a number on Tebow and the Gators. They were able to get pressure from several different spots on the field, came up with key turnovers and stayed aggressive the entire game. Tennessee’s defense is for real, and as long as the Vols stay healthy, they’re only going to get better with Kiffin calling the shots.
3. No defense for Hogs’ defense: They love to squeal a certain chant in Hog Land. They’re just plain squealing right now. That defense doesn’t look any better than a year ago, maybe even worse. And the pass defense? Yeah, I hear you, Hog fans. What pass defense? Seriously, Arkansas is as bad on defense as it is good on offense. In losing 52-41 at home to Georgia, the Hogs were torched for 530 yards of total offense and 20 first downs. All six of Georgia’s touchdowns were 20 yards or longer, and three of them were at least 40 yards. Arkansas’ pass rush rarely got close enough to Georgia quarterback Joe Cox to breathe on him, as he had time to sit back there and throw to open receivers all game. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett is really good and is going to put up some big numbers this season. But how many shootouts are you going to win in this league? One thing's for sure. It looks like the Hogs are going to be in a lot of them.
4. Don’t forget about McElroy: As we look around the league the first three weeks and pick out the most impressive performers, Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy is right there at the top of my list. He’s been much better than I thought he would be at this point after not playing any meaningful snaps in college until this season, and he can make any throw. His passes are always on time, right where the receiver likes them, and he has great touch on the deep ball. He admits that he was a little shaky to start that game against Virginia Tech to open the season, and that’s understandable. But once he got rolling in that fourth quarter, he’s been as good as any quarterback in the league. In his last nine quarters, starting with the fourth quarter against Virginia Tech, McElroy is 44-of-57 for 502 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s spreading the ball around, using his running backs and the tight end and hasn’t really had the benefit yet of throwing to Julio Jones, who’s been slowed by a bruised kneecap. All in all, just a terrific start for the guy who threw 56 touchdown passes as a high school senior.
5. Dogs ain’t dead yet: Here’s hoping the Georgia players have torn up all the schedules. Looking ahead could really get depressing, because there’s no such thing as a break. Unbeaten Arizona State comes to town this weekend. But here’s the refreshing part for the Bulldogs: they’re still swinging. Sure, parental guidance is suggested for that pass defense, but this is a team that had every chance to hang its head coming out of that season-opening loss to Oklahoma State. But the Bulldogs have fought back to outlast South Carolina two weeks ago and beat Arkansas at its own game Saturday night in Fayetteville in a wild shootout. Cox has been a rock for this team, and coach Mark Richt obviously knew what he was talking about when he said there was a special blend of leadership on this club. It’s not a great team by any stretch, but it’s a team that’s had the resolve to claw out a 2-1 start when it just as easily could have been 0-3.