KEEPING AN ENEMY CLOSER THAN YOU MIGHT LIKE
Florida 29, Mississippi State 19
That this game was so close really doesn't come as too much of a surprise. After all, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen probably knew as much about Tim Tebow as anyone else on the planet save Tebow and Urban Meyer, an advantage that's particularly pronounced when play a Florida team so dependent on the Golden Tebow.
But there's good reason for Florida fans to be as concerned as they now appear to be with the Gator offense. As someone who watched most of the game Saturday, I was actually somewhat surprised to learn that Florida ran for 249 yards on 47 carries. Part of that stems from the red-zone woes that gave the entire offense an air of ineptitude; part of it also probably comes from Tebow's passing issues (12-of-22, 127 yards, 2 pick-sixes).
And the meeting was perhaps closer than the final margin might suggest. The game was at one point tied 13-13, in large part because of Florida's own mistakes. The Gators still won the turnover battle -- Tyson Lee threw three interceptions -- and the game was not really over until a dubious interception-turned-"touchdown" by Florida's Dustin Doe in the fourth quarter. Even then, Tebow's second pick-six of the night gave the Western Division Bulldogs a moment of hope, even if that ended with the failed two-point conversion that left Mississippi State behind by 10.
One wonders if this is a temporary problem for Florida caused by Mullen knowing how Tebow thinks as opposed to a more permanent issue -- Mullen knowing how Meyer thinks. If it's the latter, then Saturday indicates that the Gators could have a problem with State for years into the future.
That's a problem Florida has the luxury of putting off until next year. Which is good. The Gators have enough to worry about right now if they're going to save the high hopes for this season.
DID ANYBODY WIN THIS ONE?
Alabama 12, Tennessee 10
It isn't hard to make the case that Tennessee outplayed Alabama in this game, at least offensively. The Vols outgained the Tide (341-256), gained more first downs than Alabama (20-16) and scored the game's only touchdown. Jonathan Crompton had a higher passer rating than Greg McElroy (things I thought I'd never say) and Alabama failed to complete a pass play for more than 19 yards.
So when Tennessee recovered the on-side kick, it suddenly seemed like they might pull off the upset. Simply move the ball down the field and kick a FG and the Vols would give Lane Kiffin a 1-0 record against the No. 1 Crimson Tide.
We all know what happened next. Mt. Cody entered Alabama lore by blocking his second kick of the day and preserving the 12-10 victory before running down the field without his helmet and sparking a series of events that ended with the losing coach earning his second reprimand from the SEC.
It's worth emphasizing that this is the second straight game in which Tennessee played much better than almost anyone expected them to. I don't buy that either team played particularly well, especially when it came to moving the ball, but limiting Alabama's offense to four FGs and moving the ball well enough to keep the game competitive was an accomplishment. Paired with the 45-19 waxing of Georgia two weeks ago, the close loss suggests that Tennessee might be able to make a late-season run, even though it's not yet clear just how good they could be.
The Tide, meanwhile, seems to be going in the opposite direction. Only the offensive incompetence of Ole Miss allowed Alabama to easily win that game, while South Carolina shot itself in the foot enough times to remove every toe and still had a chance to tie the game late. Now we have the third reason in as many weeks to think that Nick Saban's team might not be quite as good as we believed a couple of weeks ago.
Tennessee says they won't count a moral victory from the loss, and we should probably take them at their word. But Alabama should learn a lesson from what you might be able to call a moral loss.
THE PARTY'S OVER
LSU 31, Auburn 10
We'll get to the impressive performace by LSU in one of the more surprising games of the weekend in just a moment, but consider where Auburn is at this moment. The offensive turnaround that many saw in Auburn's early success has hit its low ebb; the Orange and Blue Tigers generated just 193 yards on 61 plays Saturday and turned the ball over three times en route to arguably the worst defeat of the young Gene Chizik Era and the second time in three games that Auburn lost by three TDs. The longest play of the night was 17 yards.
Back to LSU. The Bayou Bengals were more impressive than they have been on offense at practically any other point this season: 376 yards, 22 first downs and a solid performance from Jordan Jefferson (21-of-31, 242 yards, 2 TDs). The only quibble would be the running game's rather modest 122 yards on 32 carries and the continued disappearing act of Charles Scott, but when the offense has been as troubled as has LSU's, small problems can be forgotten for a day.
Auburn, now 2-3 in SEC play, has now been practically eliminated from the SEC West conversation. LSU is still very much alive at 4-1, but still has the most important games in the division ahead of it: at Alabama, at Ole Miss and against Arkansas. The Yellow and Purple Tigers' chances are much better if the offense performs like it did Saturday.
'WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' STYLE POINTS'
South Carolina 14, Vanderbilt 10
After losing their last two meetings with the perpetual underdog Commodores, the Gamecocks were going to take a win against Vanderbilt however they could get it. That's good, because this was your typical Vandy near-upset: South Carolina outgained the 'Dores by 158 yards, had a five-minute advantage in time of possession and should have won by almost any statistical measure you use, but ended up winning in the fourth-quarter on a 43-yard pass from Stephen Garcia to Alshon Jeffery.
While winning was the goal in this game and the Gamecocks now sport a 6-2 record, you have to wonder if South Carolina can continue to win games with tough defense and an offense that seems incapable of actually scoring. You can say that yards will bring points eventually, but Gamecock fans have been waiting for that to happen for several weeks now, and it hasn't. Garcia is already rivaling the inconsistent Blake Mitchell for the best passer Spurrier has ever had in Columbia (Saturday: 22-of-33, 312 yards, 2 TDs, no turnovers, 166.08 rating), Jeffery has been amazing in recent weeks and a running game is beginning to emerge. But where are the points? After all, the scoreboard is what decides who wins the football game -- not the stat sheet.
Vanderbilt is largely playing out the string on this season, with a 2-6 record meaning the only path to a bowl game would be to sweep games against Georgia Tech, at Florida, against Kentucky and at Tennessee. That seems, to say the least, highly unlikely. They've found a nice running back in Warren Norman, but the rest of the offense needs to be completely overhauled if the 'Dores want to return to a bowl game in less than a quarter-century.
STILL GLAD YOU GOT RID OF HIM?
Ole Miss 30, Arkansas 17
By the time Ole Miss had taken a 17-0 lead with a little bit more than four minutes left in the first half, you got the feeling this game was pretty much over. And the result was decided, but the Rebels continued to pour on the yards, totaling 553 yards for the day in a game that might have gotten even more out of hand had Ole Miss not turned the ball over three times.
While Snead is held accountable for two interceptions the way these things work, he wasn't necessarily responsible for either and had one of his best days in a long time (22-of-33, 332 yards, 2 TDs). But the star was Dexter McCluster, the all-purpose player who generated 260 yards rushing and receiving while scoring a TD. He averaged almost nine yards a touch and was responsible for the Rebels' longest reception (64 yards) and run (19 yards).
Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett, meanwhile, was erratic and sometimes highly inaccurate en route to a day where he completed just more than a third of his passes. His receivers didn't exactly help him, dropping some easily catchable passes, and a running game rendered worthless by the big halftime lead was also a nonfactor (45 yards on 22 carries). The Razorbacks need to turn things around quickly; their defense isn't going to win many games, and at this rate their offense won't either.
THE WILDCATS TAKE ON ONE OF THEIR TOUGHEST NONCONFERENCE OPPONENTS
Kentucky 36, Louisana-Monroe 13
With Louisville reduced via Kragthorpe'ing to a state in which even the Sun Belt would likely decide not to invite the Cardinals into their league, Kentucky's out-of-conference schedule has officially gone from "joke" to "stand-up comedy routine." Scheduling four completely overwhelmed schools to pair with a couple of SEC wins and go to a bowl game ought to be against the rules -- but it's worked well for the Wildcats for going on four years at this point, so why stop now? (And don't miss the blockbuster game against Eastern Kentucky in two weeks.)
That said, the Warhawks actually outgained UK by 47 yards in this game, had more first downs and were better on third-down conversions than the Wildcats. So maybe "completely overwhelmed" isn't quite the right way to describe Louisiana-Monroe -- and maybe that signals some trouble for Kentucky down the road?
Probably not. There's still a sixth win on this schedule somewhere if you assume that Eastern Kentucky is victory No. 5, which means UK will be bowling again at the end of the year. Scheduling this way might not be humane, but it's effective.