What we learned from the SEC in Week 3 - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

What we learned from the SEC in Week 3

© Auburn's Tre Mason gets tripped up during a run against Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 15. (Source: Todd Van Emst/Auburn University) © Auburn's Tre Mason gets tripped up during a run against Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 15. (Source: Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)
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The teams to beat are now clear following a couple of important early conference matches.

Below is the weekly list of what we learned from watching SEC games in Week 3.

1. Auburn should stop passing. As in, never pass. Ever. There are two reasons why Auburn (1-2, 0-1) should keep Kiehl Frazier as quarterback: 1. He completed a Hail Mary at the end of the first half against Louisiana-Monroe that was a lot more important than was realized at the time. 2. He can catch.

For those unfamiliar with football, quarterbacks aren't usually required to make catches, and that being one of his only positives is not good. It could be said that he can make a quick stutter step and elude a defensive lineman as he did on his touchdown reception in a 31-28 win over Louisiana-Monroe, but given his penchant for getting sacked this is not something at which he has proved to be adept.

In three games, Frazier has averaged 149 yards a game. That would be a good number for passing yards for a half. But to have balance in an offense, about 100 more passing yards a game are needed. Another telling stat is that Frazier's TD reception was for 33 yards. The leading Auburn receiver in the game had 34, though there were two of them.

By comparison, Onterio McCalebb had 128 yards rushing (2 yards less than Frazier had passing) and a touchdown, and Tre Mason rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown. Frazier also threw an interception that led to ULM taking the game to overtime.

There's only one problem with this plan: Auburn's defense hasn't proven it is good enough to hold up its end of the deal and keep the scoring low. So, on second thought, maybe Auburn should keep passing, but only on blind luck tosses to the end zone. Don't throw to Frazier, either. He's had some fumbling problems, so it's best to play it safe.

2. Alabama should stop passing, but for a different reason. The Crimson Tide's defense and running game are so dominant they don't need to pass.

At some point, there will be a time when they will need it, but until then, just grind it out, force turnovers and pound the opposing defense into submission. Eddie Lacy appears to be over his lingering injury after running for three touchdowns against Arkansas (1-2, 0-1), T.J. Yeldon shows all the promise of being the next big thing and the Tide's offensive line is considered one of – if not the – best in the country.

Until that passing game is needed, Alabama (3-0, 1-0) should be just fine keeping it on the ground. The passing game has shown it can be very effective, and if the defense doesn't have any game film to prepare for it, it could be even more effective.

Like a previous idea presented in What We Learned that the Tide could score 60 points a game running the wishbone (which is still fully endorsed, by the way), there is a 0 percent chance this happens. Alabama lost fullback Jalston Fowler for the season, so that's probably not as good an idea as it once was.

So, for now we'll let Nick Saban keep doing what he does, because it works.

3. There was smoggy smoke on Rocky Top. Tennessee has got to feel trapped like a duck in a pen after its 37-20 loss to Florida. The Vols (2-1, 0-1) are waiting for life to be simple again. Tyler Bray had his first hiccup, throwing his first two interceptions of the season against the Gators (3-0, 2-0).

The Gators proved wild as a mink and ruined what would have been a win as sweet as soda pop had Tennessee been able to pull it off.

The Vols' failure was largely a defensive one, as Florida could have easily had three 100-yard rushers (more on this later). Tennessee did get its rushing game going with Rajion Neal grabbing 87 yards on the ground, but he was still inconsistent, averaging 3.8 yards per carry with a long run of 20. That one run improved his average by almost a full yard.

Bray had his first game under 300 yards passing, throwing for 257 and he was unable to spread the ball around like in previous games, targeting Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson for more than half of his completions. He even threw one to coach Derek Dooley on the sideline in the fourth quarter, but we're attributing that to being distracted by Dooley's trademark hideous pants.

Bray had appeared nearly unstoppable under center, but against a tougher defense, the schemes Tennessee has converted flawlessly in its first two games seemed to unravel. Until it gets corrected – and next week against Akron will be a good time to do it – Bray will still dream about that.

4. Whoever sets LSU's schedule should be fired. It's disgraceful for a team that starts the season ranked in the top 5 to play a nonconference schedule fit for a mid-major. (Does anybody still say mid-major?)

There were some jokes floating around the Internet that ULM should join the SEC after its showing against Arkansas and Auburn. It won't happen, but a likely candidate – based on schedule alone – to trade places with the Warhawks in the Sun Belt is LSU.

The Tigers (3-0) have played North Texas, Washington and Idaho to start the year and have logged a total of 0 miles traveled. The list of other SEC teams who have not yet traveled from their own campus is Ole Miss, Missouri and Tennessee. All of those teams, however, have played a ranked team, which LSU has not done. Only Ole Miss and Kentucky join the Tigers in having yet to play a conference a game.

LSU does redeem itself by playing Auburn next week, but it follows that up with a game against Towson. Seriously, Towson?

Florida has taken the brunt of the vitriol aimed at SEC teams for favorable early scheduling, but in their first three games, the Gators played two conference games and two road games. It takes LSU twice as many games to reach both of those marks.

The Tigers' scheduling has been better than this in previous seasons so hopefully it's an aberration and not a trend.

5. The new guys are keeping up the conference's reputation. Like brothers, SEC teams are OK beating up on each other, but don't like outsiders doing it. Kentucky failed on this front, falling 32-31 in overtime against Western Kentucky. If you're keeping score at home, that's two nonconference losses for the Wildcats.

But Texas A&M and Missouri showed they can face outside competition and represent the conference well. Missouri handled Arizona State fairly easily until the fourth quarter, but held on for a 24-20 win at home. The Aggies trounced SMU on the road 48-3 in a game that would have been very good in the '80s.

Both teams had suffered disappointing conference losses at home last week and it's important for both to get back on track. It will be two weeks before A&M gets back to conference play, but Missouri faces South Carolina next week in its first road game.

6. Arkansas is hurting like a stuck hog. OK, that bad joke was way too easy, but it is no less true. After losing Bobby Petrino in the offseason after his motorcycle accident and the revelations that came to light after it, everyone thought Arkansas would have some problems as a result.

But Arkansas remained as talented as ever and was getting running back Knile Davis after an injury a year ago. Davis hasn't panned out nearly as well as he was expected to, and quarterback Tyler Wilson suffered an injury that still hasn't been defined.

Wilson left the game against ULM a week ago and missed the Razorbacks' 52-0 loss to Alabama. Without him, Arkansas' offense has been virtually nonexistent. It's hurt the defense, too, because it is forced to carry the load and stay on the field for long periods of time.

Wilson said after the loss to Alabama that he felt his teammates were giving up at times. If Wilson can't return next week against Rutgers, or if Arkansas can't get something positive going, it could be a long time before it happens again. The Razorbacks will follow that game with contests against Texas A&M and Auburn.

7. Florida has found its identity, and that identity is to just simply beat you. Florida may be the best second half team in the country. Following a defensive shutdown of Texas A&M a week ago, the Gators did almost the same thing against Tennessee.

The Vols led 14-10 at halftime, but by the start of the fourth quarter, Florida had taken a 27-20 lead and then tacked on 10 more in the fourth quarter. It could have been more, but the Gators elected to kill the clock.

Florida scored 24 unanswered points behind a dominant running game. Mike Gillislee gained 115 yards on the ground, Trey Burton had 91 and two touchdowns and quarterback Jeff Driskel had 81. It's beginning to look like all the Gators have to do is keep it close in the first half and then wear down the opposition in the second half.

That will get put to the test Oct. 6 when the Gators play LSU.

8. Special teams may be an issue later in the year. Tennessee missed an extra point that could have been a deciding factor in a close game with Florida and Arkansas could have gotten points on the board against Alabama if not for a missed field goal.

Alabama also missed a 51-yard field goal. The Tide would have gone undefeated last season if not for missed field goals, so that could still be an issue in close games.

Florida's Caleb Sturgis is a reliable option for field goals. With the types of games the Gators have found themselves in, that is a huge advantage.

9. We didn't really learn this, but SEC officials are terrible. It's been common knowledge for a long time, but the borderline incompetency of the referees was on full display this week in the conference's two most visible games.

Jeff Driskel stepped out of bounds four times on one run late in the Gators' game against Tennessee, but somehow none of those steps were seen as it was called a touchdown by an official on the field. Another official, however, saw it and after huddling up, got the call right.

Ole Miss had a touchdown throw called back on an offsides penalty by the Texas defense. It was ruled the infraction caused an Ole Miss lineman to move before the snap and therefore nullified the play, but it wasn't clear that was the ruling until after the Rebels thought they had scored, and even then it wasn't without some controversy.

But both of those plays pale in comparison to a three-play officiating disaster in Alabama's win over Arkansas. First, the Tide ran an interception back inside the 5 before replay overturned the call and gave Arkansas back the ball on fourth down. Despite the best attempts by Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson, who were calling the game for CBS, to ignore the obvious video evidence of the ball hitting the ground before it could be controlled, the replay official got it right.

But that trend would not continue. On the next play, a high snap over the punter's head resulted in an illegal kick when the ball was booted out of the end zone to prevent the Tide from gaining favorable field position. However, Alabama was not awarded a safety and the illegal kick was ruled to result in loss of down and the Tide took over with a short field.

An ESPN rules expert tweeted shortly thereafter "@CFBRulesExpert #ALAvsARK Illegally Kicking Ball. If in endzone = safety. If kicked thru endzone = safety. Either way, play was a safety."

Then on an Arkansas punt, a fumble was called and recovered by Arkansas. After the officials huddled together, the call was changed to the returner's forward progress being stopped before the ball came out. Considering the kick returner never even moved forward that's a ludicrous assessment, especially when it could have just been said his knee was down when the ball came out as replay clearly showed it was.

Arkansas challenged the ruling on the field, even though forward progress can only be challenged in cases of a touchdown or first down, as was tweeted by the rules expert following this breakdown as well. Arkansas was then charged a timeout when it shouldn't have been.

In no way did this affect the outcome of the game, but at the time, the game was far from being out of hand and was no less embarrassing to the conference's officials in a high-profile nationally televised game.

Even the NFL's replacement refs think that's bad.

10. A few teams are a tough defense away from being embarrassed (WARNING: Statistical analysis ahead. Proceed with caution.) Mississippi State is dreadful on third down, ranking No. 90 out of 120 teams. But as bad as the Bulldogs are, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida and Vanderbilt are even more dreadful.

Actually, dreadful is being nice. Florida is deplorable, horrendous, atrocious, incompetent and totally inept on third down. Get the point yet?

Here's the numbers on it: The Gators have converted 26 percent of their third-down attempts. That's 111th out of 120 teams. In the SEC, only Vanderbilt is worse. Arkansas and Auburn are only slightly better with 32 percent and 31 percent, respectively, placing them at Nos. 102 and 103.

Working up the list, Missouri is No. 97, Tennessee is 63, Alabama is 61, Georgia and South Carolina tie for 56, Texas A&M is 32, Ole Miss is 27, LSU is 20 and Kentucky is 18.

Clearly that isn't a telltale stat in every case, but some interesting trends have started to appear. Oregon and Florida State, the top two non-SEC contenders for a BCS championship game berth both rank in the top 20 while Southern California, who was upset by Stanford, is No. 109.

The difference from LSU at No. 20 (50 percent) to Alabama at No. 61 (41. 94 percent) is barely more than 8 percent, which is a difference of two conversions, but the difference from Alabama to Mississippi State at 90 is more than double that at just more than 16 percent. Additionally, only 9 percent separate the Bulldogs from Florida at 111. So even though there are 41 teams between the Tide and Tigers and only 29 between 'Bama and Mississippi State, the margin is much greater between the two.

So, what does this mean? Florida and Mississippi State have yet to play a challenging defense, and both are undefeated despite being woeful when it is most important. Arkansas has demonstrated the problems being bad on third down can cause. The Razorbacks were 3-for-14 in a loss to Alabama and 3-for-11 against ULM.

But it is defensive conversion percentage against that shows a real pattern. There, Florida State and Oregon rank Nos. 1 and 3 with South Carolina leading the way for the SEC at No. 11. LSU is No. 14 and Alabama No. 23. The difference in the top three SEC schools is just more than 3 percent. And despite being the best at converting third downs, Kentucky's defense is the worst in the SEC at stopping them, ranking No. 99 overall, only slightly behind Ole Miss at 92.

But the disparity is no more telling than it is with Michigan. In wins over Massachusetts and Air Force, Michigan was 5-for-11 and 7-for-11, but in a lost to Alabama, the Wolverines were 3-for-12. The Wolverine offense is No. 53 in converting third downs and No. 93 in stopping them.

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