THOUGHTS OF THE DAY; OCTOBER 9, 2018
After two straight wins over ranked teams, the critical task for the 14th-ranked Florida Gators (5-1, 3-1 SEC) this week is to maintain their focus, avoiding what some might think is the inevitable letdown when they travel to Nashville to face unranked Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-2 SEC), which is still searching for its first SEC win of the 2018 season. Human nature says the Gators are due to come out flat since they’ve been sky high three straight weeks in which they’ve taken down Tennessee in Knoxville, then 23rd-ranked Mississippi State in Starkville and then 5th-ranked LSU in The Swamp. Can the Gators maintain their focus one more week and rise to the emotional occasion to knock off the Commodores, setting up a real showdown in Jacksonville in a couple of weeks with 2nd-ranked Georgia (6-0, 4-0 SEC)?
What Dan Mullen has to sell his team on this week is to dig deep, find that emotional edge and leave it all on the field in Nashville since there is a bye week to recharge the batteries before the annual Cocktail Party. Rather than show the tape of Vandy’s blowout losses to South Carolina (37-14) and Georgia (41-6), he needs to show the Notre Dame game until every Gator has every single play memorized. In that game, Vandy had then 8th-ranked (now 5th) Notre Dame on the ropes in the fourth quarter before the Commodores stumbled, 22-17. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur lit up the Notre Dame secondary for 326 yards and a touchdown, which helped compensate for a mediocre ground game that averaged only 3.48 per carry (27 carries, 94 yards). Vanderbilt was done in by its inability to stop Notre Dame’s ground game (245 yards, 5.1 per carry).
Since that close call in South Bend, the Commodores have struggled on both sides of the ball. Forget that 31-27 win over D1AA Tennessee State. In two SEC losses they’ve allowed 534 (to South Carolina) and 560 (to Georgia) yards while combining for just 605 total yards offensively. So it’s easy to see why the tendency would be to take the Commodores lightly but that’s exactly what the Gators have to avoid. Mullen and his staff have to convince the Gators that Vanderbilt is (a) every bit as good as any of the three SEC teams the Gators have knocked off in the last three weeks and (b) that anything less than maximum effort will bring a halt to four weeks of improvement and momentum.
If you go by what’s on paper, this is a game that Florida should win by far more than the seven points the Gators are favored by. As Mullen knows so well, however, the games are played on the field and not on paper. Just in case he sees the Gators slacking a little bit in practice this week, he has to crack the whip and sell his team on the idea that they aren’t nearly as good as they think they are.
RANKING THE SEC TOP TO BOTTOM
1. Alabama (6-0; 3-0 SEC): Take a moment and consider this stat. Tua Tagovailoa has thrown 18 touchdown passes (zero interceptions) and only 25 incompletions. Tua’s efficiency has plenty to do with an Alabama offense that has the look of unstoppable at the midway point of the season. Bama is averaging 567.5 yards and 56 points per game. Imagine what those numbers would be if Nick Saban elected to play his first teamers more than about a quarter-and-a-half a game. Missouri comes to Tuscaloosa this week. It will be close for awhile. Then the whistle will blow and the ball will be kicked off to start the game. Bama is favored by 28 but probably scores at least 50 for the sixth time in seven games.
2. Georgia (6-0, 4-0 SEC): Either Georgia is that good or the Poodles have been feasting on six mediocre teams. Georgia might be that good but it doesn’t change the fact that this will be the first week to play a decent opponent. Beating LSU in Baton Rouge would be a huge step forward in Georgia’s quest to win the SEC and make it to the College Football Playoff for a second straight year. A loss wouldn’t be the end of the world but it would be a serious blow. Georgia understands the consequences and is a 7-point favorite.
3. LSU (5-1, 2-1 SEC): The best way to get a sour taste of defeat out of your mouth is to get back home and beat the #2 team in the nation with 100,000 semi-drunk and screaming Cajuns roaring their approval. If LSU can knock off Georgia in Death Valley this week, then they are right back in the national championship hunt. Lose and those dreams are over. Georgia is a 7-point favorite.
4. Florida (5-1, 3-1 SEC): A lot of folks gave the Gators up for dead after that week two loss to Kentucky. Well, here it is four weeks later and the Gators aren’t dead men walking. This week they go to Nashville to face Vandy, searching for their fifth straight win. The Gators are 7-point favorites and they probably win by at least two touchdowns if the pass rush (11 sacks last two games) gets cranked up and Kyle Shurmur spends a lot of time doing his feets don’t fail me now routine.
5. Kentucky (5-1, 3-1 SEC): The good news for Kentucky after its first loss of the season on the road in College Station is that there is an open date to get over losing a perfectly winnable game. It’s even better news that the next game is Vandy in Lexington. Win that one and the Wildcats are bowl eligible sooner than they’ve been in years.
6. Texas A&M (4-2, 2-1 SEC): The Aggies are far ahead defensively than they are on the other side of the ball. The offense would be a lot better if they could actually pass block. The Aggies have given up 21 sacks, tied for 122nd worst among the 129 Division I teams. Defensively, the Aggies travel to South Carolina this week on the heels of holding Kentucky to 14 points and 178 total yards. A&M is a 2-1/2-point favorite, which tells you the oddsmakers aren’t so sure they can sustain success two straight weeks.
7. Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2 SEC): Was Mississippi State’s defense that good or was Auburn that bad Saturday night in Starkville? Auburn was actually that bad, bad enough to give Joe Moorhead his first SEC win. They’ll have a week to bask in the glow of that win since it’s an open date, but next up is a trip to Baton Rouge for what is likely a night game at Death Valley. Enjoy the week Joe. You’ll have another face-to-face encounter with reality on October 20.
8. Auburn (4-2, 1-2 SEC): Jarret Stidham spends a lot of time on his back these days because that sieve of an offensive line charged with protecting him seems to specialize in whiffing. Luckily for the Tigers, they do play serious defense and that will keep them in ball games even with an offense that tends to resemble Florida during the Old Yeller era. Auburn gets Tennessee this week. The Vols are so bad that even Auburn, with its rotten offense, is a 16-1/2-point favorite.
9. South Carolina (3-2, 2-2 SEC): Now who would have thought the Gamecocks could beat Mizzou with career backup Michael Scarnecchia (one career pass prior to 2018) getting the start at QB? Against Mizzou, he was 20-35 passing for 249 yards with three TDs and zero picks. He might get the start this week, too, when the Aggies come to town. The oddsmakers must think Scarnecchia can be effective because the Aggies are only 2-1/2-point favorites.
10. Missouri (3-2, 0-2 SEC): The Tigers gave up 37 points in a monsoon when they lost to South Carolina. This week they get to travel to Tuscaloosa where a monsoon is probably the only thing that could keep Alabama from hanging 50 or so points and about 600 yards on them. Bama is favored by 28. Surprising that the point spread is that low.
11. Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-2 SEC): Which Vandy team shows up Saturday in Nashville? The one that had Notre Dame on the ropes in South Bend or the one that both South Carolina and Georgia blew out? The oddsmakers must think it’s the team that played so well in South Bend because the Commodores are only a 7-point dog at home. If they’re going to beat the Gators they have to keep Kyle Shurmur upright against a ferocious pass rush that has registered 11 sacks in the last two games.
12. Ole Miss (4-2, 0-2 SEC): The Rebels scored 70 and racked up 826 yards of offense on Louisiana-Monroe last week. They need to hang on to that memory because it’s now six straight SEC games against something other than matador defenses. Speaking of matador defenses, Ole Miss might be the only team in the country capable of making the Arkansas offense look really good. Obviously the oddsmakers think Ole Miss can outscore the Hogs because the Rebels are 6-1/2-point favorites in Fayette Nam this weekend.
13. Arkansas (1-5, 0-3 SEC): Folks in Fayette Nam are excited that the Hogs put up 31 points on Alabama. Although that might sound good there is a logical explanation. It’s not that Arkansas is good enough. It’s the fact Alabama got seriously bored. How else can you explain that Bama only scored 65? If Alabama had really been focused there would have been at least three or four more touchdowns. Arkansas will score some points this week but not because the offense is decent. It’s because Ole Miss ranks near the bottom (123rd out of 129) of the national total defense stats. Ole Miss is favored by 6-1/2-points and could light up Arkansas for 50 or more.
14. Tennessee (2-3, 0-2 SEC): The Vols haven’t won an SEC game since November 26, 2016. They won’t win this week, either. The streak will stretch to 12 when the Vols visit to unhappy Auburn this week. Auburn has a rotten offense thanks to an offensive line that couldn’t dominate a Pop Warner team but the Tigers don’t have to be good offensively this week. Their defense will be good enough to make the Vols look silly. The Vols are 16-1/2-point road dogs. Expect Auburn to cover.
SOME COLLEGE FOOTBALL THOUGHTS: Lincoln Riley fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops after the Sooners were torched for 48 points and 501 yards by Texas. Through six games, Oklahoma is allowing 27.3 points and 421 yards a game … Memphis running back Darrell Henderson is putting up scary numbers. Through six games he has 934 rushing yards on just 79 carries. That’s 11.82 yards per carry … After that scintillating offensive performance against Miami (200 total yards … that was sarcastic calling it scintillating), Florida State ranks 112th in total offense at 344 yards per game. What? Is Doug Nussmeier working for Willie Taggart? … Woody Hayes coined the phrase three yards and a cloud of dust. He must be rolling over in his grave at the thought his beloved Buckeyes have a QB (Dwayne Haskins) with 25 touchdown passes and we’ve just reached midseason … Alabama leads the nation with 40 offensive touchdowns. The Crimson Tide scored 64 last year but that was in 15 games … UCF, which has the nation’s longest winning streak (18 games) is averaging 574.4 yards and 48.6 points per game. Last year, with Scott Frost doing the coaching, the Knights averaged 530.5 yards and 48.2 points per game. Frost, by the way, is 0-5 at Nebraska with an offense that averages 21.8 points and 432.2 yards per game … Chip Kelly, who is also 0-5, has the 119th-ranked offense (344 yards) per game and the 124th-ranked scoring offense (18.4 per game).
RANDOM THOUGHTS: Drew Brees is now the all-time NFL leader in passing yardage after blowing past Brett Favre and Peyton Manning Monday night. Brees needed 201 yards to take the all-time lead. He threw for 363 as the New Orleans Saints torched the Washington Redskins, 43-19 … The Houston Disastros beat the Cleveland Indians, 11-3, Monday for a series sweep in their American League Divisional Series game. In the other ALDS game, the Boston Red Sox went up 2-1 on the New York Yankees with a 16-1 win at Yankee Stadium that included Brock Holt hitting for the cycle. C.C. Sabathia will try to keep the Yankees’ season from ending tonight while the Red Sox will try to end the ALDS with Rick Porcello on the mound … Over in the NL, it’s the Dodgers vs. the Milwaukee Brewers in the championship series after the Dodgers took out the Atlanta Braves, 6-2, to win the series, 3-1 … Dejounte Murray was the reason Tony Parker left the San Antonio Spurs for a free agent deal with the Charlotte Hornets. Now that Murray is done for the year with an ACL tear, the Spurs chances to make the playoffs for a 22nd straight year are in serious jeopardy … So far Jon Gruden’s return to Oakland has been crash and burn. The Raiders are off to a 1-4 start.