We’re off and running in the SEC, and there’s already been plenty of drama.
Georgia receiver A.J. Green will miss the next three games because of an NCAA-mandated suspension for selling one of his jerseys. Ole Miss is still trying to figure out how it lost to an FCS team in the opener, and Les Miles’ heart is probably still beating fast after LSU tried to give one away to a depleted North Carolina team in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
Three conference matchups highlight Week 2 as we take a look at what to watch in the SEC:
1. Alabama’s home dominance: The Crimson Tide, who entertain No. 18 Penn State on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, have won 15 games in a row overall. They haven’t lost at home since Nick Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa, an embarrassing 21-14 loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Since that meltdown, they’ve won 15 in a row at home. And in those 15 games, they’ve given up more than 15 points only once, a 24-20 win over Ole Miss during the 2008 season. Ten times during their 15-game home winning streak, they’ve held teams to a touchdown or fewer. In fact, in their last seven home outings, they’ve only allowed a total of three touchdowns.
2. Clanging in Starkville: The cowbells will be out in force as college football’s national spotlight shines down Thursday night on Scott Field. Will the Mississippi State fans play by the rules and refrain from ringing them when Auburn has the ball? Stay tuned. More importantly, is Mississippi State ready to take that next step and win a game that would set off a different set of bells across the league, that the Bulldogs mean business this season in the Western Division race. Coach Dan Mullen likes the way his team has prepared during the short week. Keep an eye on Mississippi State defensive end Pernell McPhee and Auburn offensive tackle Lee Ziemba when they line up against each other, which should be often. That’s a battle that will be worth watching unto itself.
3. Defending the ‘D’: The statistics last week weren’t overly impressive for Auburn’s defense, especially the way Arkansas State moved the ball with its short passing game on the way to 323 passing yards. But coach Gene Chizik said it wasn’t all bad on defense, either, for the Tigers in their 52-26 season-opening win. They had four sacks and limited Arkansas State to just 43 yards rushing. Auburn was pretty conservative, too, and stayed in its base defense for much of the game. That’s sure to change Thursday against Mississippi State, and Chizik said there’s no question that the Tigers need to be better all the way around defensively, especially when it comes to defending the pass and creating turnovers. The Tigers didn’t force any turnovers in the opener. It also looks like they will be without suspended starting linebacker Craig Stevens for a second straight game.
4. Making a run on the Bayou: After seeing LSU’s near-collapse in Atlanta last week, it’s hard to fathom that this team will play with enough consistency to make a run. The Tigers did everything they could possibly do to lose the game in the fourth quarter to an outmanned North Carolina team, but managed to hang on. Maybe their bad quarter is out of the way. Maybe Miles will see to it that his playmakers get the ball. The bottom line is that this team is talented enough to reel off several wins in a row, and the schedule’s not that bad over the next month. After a trip to Vanderbilt this Saturday, LSU gets three straight games at home against Mississippi State, West Virginia and Tennessee. Is it too farfetched to think the Tigers could be 5-0 going into that Florida game on Oct. 9?
5. Covering for Green: Georgia made out just fine without Green last week, but that was against Louisiana-Lafayette. You can bet Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense, will crowd the line of scrimmage even more with Green out of the lineup this Saturday. The Bulldogs will be looking to loosen up that defense by hitting a few big plays early. Senior Kris Durham is off to a nice start, and sophomore Tavarres King is back after being suspended for the opener. The Bulldogs would love for this to be sophomore Marlon Brown’s coming-out party, while sophomore Rantavious Wooten has all sorts of speed. He just needs to prove he can consistently catch the ball. Junior Logan Gray has adjusted quickly to the receiver position, and maybe the Bulldogs try to get a few plays from cornerback Branden Smith on offense again. Tight end Orson Charles is another guy who could loom large in this game with his ability to create mismatches.
6. Urgent undertaking: Florida coach Urban Meyer says there has been a sense of urgency this week in practice. Sometimes a team needs a dose of reality to hit it squarely in the face before it can reach its potential. There’s no way the Gators are as bad as they looked on offense last week. They had 25 total yards at the end of three quarters, and it was debatable at that point if they were going to have more first downs or more fumbles. There were encouraging signs of life in the fourth quarter, but a better test will come Saturday against South Florida. It’s unfair to say that it was one or two things holding the Gators down, although a few more plays by the receivers would help everybody. They’re getting Frankie Hammond Jr. back from suspension this week, and do we finally get a look at Andre Debose?
7. Keeping it close: Tennessee is a two-touchdown underdog at home, which is unheard of at Neyland Stadium. Oregon has downplayed the effect the crowd will have, but what Tennessee has to do is make the crowd a factor, which means getting this game into the fourth quarter. The Vols may also have a secret weapon in first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, whose defense at Boise State shut down Oregon’s spread offense last season in a 19-8 win that saw the Ducks manage just 152 yards of total offense. Wilcox warns, though, that he’s not a magician and that the key to stopping any spread is making one-on-one tackles in space and being disciplined in your assignments.
8. Picking up the pieces: The sting of the loss to Jacksonville State in the opener is going to linger, even if Ole Miss goes on a mini-winning streak. And, really, the Rebels should go on a mini-winning streak when you look at their upcoming schedule. They travel to Tulane this weekend and then have Vanderbilt, Fresno State and Kentucky all at home before getting a bye week. The problem is that wins over any of those teams aren’t going to cancel out that loss to Jacksonville State in the minds of the fans. They’re games the Ole Miss fans will expect them to win. And if they lose one of these next couple … we won’t even go there. This is where we find out how strong this team is mentally, because the best thing the Rebels can do is keep their head down, do what it takes to win football games and not worry about anything on the periphery.
9. Adams the TD man: Arkansas junior receiver Joe Adams is a touchdown machine, and he’s only going to get better at finding the end zone. The Hogs are loaded at the receiver position, but coaches around the league fear Adams as much or more as any of them. He had two more touchdown catches in the opener against Tennessee Tech, averaging 23 yards on six catches. One of his touchdowns was an 85-yarder. The thing that makes Adams such a tough cover for defenses is that he’s electric after the catch. He’s now scored a touchdown in eight of the last 11 games in which he’s played and has scored a total of 10 touchdowns in those 11 games. He’s returning punts this season, too, so he’ll also get his chances in the return game.
10. Going for the throat: Several of the LSU players felt last week they had North Carolina by the throat and eased up in the second half, whether it was going away from their playmakers on offense, trying to get some of their younger guys in on defense or simply stumbling over themselves with turnovers and touchdown-nullifying penalties. The running game showed some flashes, which was encouraging. But sophomore receivers Russell Shepard and Rueben Randle still need more touches. They combined for five touches after the half against the Tar Heels. That’s after touching it a combined seven times in the first half and producing three touchdowns.