Sunday, October 4, 2009
What we learned in the SEC
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
On a weekend when No. 1-ranked Florida was idle, the rest of the league had the spotlight to itself.
LSU made good on its end of the bargain, setting up a huge showdown of top 5 teams in Tiger Stadium next Saturday night. Auburn is obviously serious about making some noise in the Western Division race, and Alabama rolls into its toughest road test of the season at Ole Miss on the heels of another runaway victory.
Here’s a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 5:
1. Resolve over luck: LSU has been called overrated, even lucky by some. Could it be, though, that these Tigers simply know how to win? There’s something to be said for having the ability to make plays when you need them, and LSU has certainly shown that ability in starting this season 5-0. It hasn’t always been pretty and hasn’t always been textbook. But the bottom line is that different guys have stepped to the plate all season long for LSU when called upon. In the 20-13 win over Georgia, it was senior running back Charles Scott who came through, but what about the poise of sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson in those final minutes? And do the Tigers win without freshman Rueben Randle’s sweet 16-yard catch over the middle on third-and-10 in the drive to go ahead 12-7? LSU coach Les Miles said it best: “Our football team, if you turn your back on them, they’re going to beat you up and steal a victory.”
2. Quick-strike Tide: After seeing Alabama mash people on offense a year ago, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this version of the Crimson Tide is a bit different. And nobody at the Capstone is complaining. This team can score points in bunches, and everybody gets into the act. The most encouraging thing about Saturday’s 38-20 win over Kentucky was that the offense sort of bumbled along in the first half, but the Crimson Tide still managed to send the Wildcats reeling with a head-spinning flurry that turned a 7-6 game into a 31-6 romp in a span of fewer than five minutes of actual game time. Alabama had ranked 11th in the SEC in takeaways entering the game, but scored 17 points off turnovers. The 45-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Courtney Upshaw with 21 seconds to play in the first half is the play that broke Kentucky’s back, but then Mark Ingram answered for the offense with a 32-yard touchdown run in the first 80 seconds of the second half. The Crimson Tide can get you in a lot of different ways.
3. Early dibs to Chizik: Everybody wondered which one of the three new head coaches in the league would make the quickest impact. We now have our answer. Gene Chizik has Auburn 5-0 and playing the kind of football they’re used to on the Plains. The Tigers beat Tennessee 26-22 on Saturday night in their first road game of the season and are building confidence each week. That’s the thing that jumps out when you talk to any of the Auburn players right now, how confident they are in Chizik, his staff and the system. The defense isn’t dominant, but has been good enough so far. And Gus Malzahn’s offense epitomizes balance. Quarterback Chris Todd hit 19 of 32 passes against the Vols for 218 yards, and running back Ben Tate rushed for 128 yards. The 459 total yards by the Tigers were the most Monte Kiffin’s defense has given up this season by more than 100 yards.
4. Props for Ole Miss’ defense: While there’s still some concern in Oxford about the Ole Miss offense, specifically quarterback Jevan Snead’s inability to put together a whole game, it’s time to give it up for Tyrone Nix’s defense. The Rebels have played well enough on defense this season to still be unbeaten right now. The 16-10 loss at South Carolina was hardly their fault, and the D was dominant Saturday in a 23-7 victory at Vanderbilt. Granted, the Commodores aren't going to be confused with an offensive juggernaut, but the Ole Miss offense put the defense in some tough spots in the second half, and Nix’s guys responded every time. There are a lot of teams who’d be willing to trade for the Rebels’ front seven on defense, which is the best thing Ole Miss has going for it next Saturday entering one of the biggest games the Rebels have played at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in the past 40 years. Beating Alabama starts up front on defense, and Ole Miss has what it takes there to get it done.
5. Tough season for the Vols: It’s shaping up as what could be a second straight non-winning regular season for Tennessee following the 26-22 home loss to Auburn. The Vols (2-3, 0-2) will have a difficult time getting out of October with a win. Georgia comes to town next weekend, and then Tennessee goes to Alabama following a bye and gets South Carolina at home on the final day of the month. There were some good signs against Auburn. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton played the best game of his career against an SEC opponent, and Tennessee has continued to get after people. Lane Kiffin has seen to it that this team is going to play hard. But as the losses and injuries continue to mount, you wonder if the Vols will be able to sustain that same intensity. If they can get to 6-6, that could still get them into a bowl game, which would be huge with all the younger players playing key roles this season. But they sure don’t want to be 2-6 heading into that final month. They need to find at least one win somewhere in October, and that won’t be easy.