As promised, the game-by-game review of Week 3 action in the SEC with the mysteries revealed about each team, with apologies to Agatha Christie.
APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH
Florida 23, Tennessee 13
Despite Lane Kiffin's protests to the contrary, it's hard to believe that Tennessee didn't do exactly what Urban Meyer said the Vols did: Make their first priority to keep things close. After all, despite being behind less than four minutes into the game and losing the tie for good with almost 13 minutes left in the second quarter, Tennessee ran the ball 32 times and passed it just 19.
There's a case to be made that this was the best way for the Vols to have any chance at the win; even with that limited aerial attack, Jonathan Crompton threw two interceptions and Montario Hardesty averages almost as many yards per rushing attempt (4.8) as Crompton did per passing attempt (4.9). But Kiffin had to consciously decide not to go out in a blaze of glory and hope that a bounce this way or that could win the game -- otherwise, the game plan makes no sense.
And that is one of the reasons this Tennessee team remains an enigma to me three weeks into the season and with two marquee games already played. After all, if Tennessee played Florida closer than expected, that would normally mean they would be a better team than predicted. But Kiffin's plan seemed tailored to keep the game close instead of win it and left us with little reason to believe that the main offensive problem -- the absence of a quarterback -- is only closer to being solved now than it was before the season began.
That same determination to keep things from getting out of hand also creates a giant question mark about Florida. After all, it's not like the Vols kept the ball out of Tim Tebow's hands for that long; Florida actually had a 5:20 edge in time of possession and ran a dozen more plays than did the Vols. But the Gators also weren't explosive when the offense was on the field, with only three plays of more than 15 yards and just one of those in the passing game.
If anything, the Florida offense now seems more reliant on Tebow than it was a year ago. Just half of Florida's plays against Tennessee last year involved the Golden Tebow running or throwing the ball (27/54) -- this year, that number was about two-thirds (43/63). That might be good news for Tebow's Heism@n campaign, but I'm not sure it's sustainable as a way for Florida to continuing winning once they start playing opponents who have more ambitious goals than keep the Gators from running up the score.
Georgia 52, Arkansas 41
The biggest question following Georgia this season might be whether the Dawgs can play an SEC game in less than three and a half hours. The 78-point game with South Carolina just missed the four-hour mark (3:54) and the 93-point shootout with Arkansas lasted 3:45.
But the better mystery might actually be the cause of those lengthy outings: Quite simply, can Georgia stop any offense not based in Stillwater? After all, the Dawgs allowed Arkansas just seven fewer points than did an FCS team two weeks earlier and limited South Carolina to just one fewer point than the Gamecocks would score against a Sun Belt defense the following week. True, it can be dangerous to draw too many conclusions from those types of comparisons between games. But if two is a coincidence and three is a pattern, Georgia is uncomfortably close to showing that its defense won't be able to slow down league opponents.
Arkansas' first outing against an FBS team, meanwhile, raised questions about the Hogs' defense as well. Georgia had 10 plays of 20 yards or more in the game and piled up 530 yards total. We all waited before the season to see if Bobby Petrino could match an expected offensive improvement with a better defense; we're still waiting.
Auburn 41, West Virginia 30
While I stand by my statement that Auburn has what appears to be the best resume in the country, that's not as much of a compliment in Week 3 as it might be later in the season. And there's room to question how much of the Tigers' success can be attributed to its foes, including the marquee win over West Virginia, aided by a mind-blowing six turnovers by the Mountaineers.
That's the kind of thing that allows you to make up for being outgained by more than 100 yards and gaining less than half as many yards per carry as your opponent (2.4 to 5.3 for West Virginia). While Chris Todd threw for nice yardage and TD totals (284, 4), he still completed just over half his passes. So how good is that new offense?
And how good can the Tigers be when their opponent isn't either an overwhelmed FBS or SEC school or handing them the ball every time they turn around?
THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS
Mississippi State 15, Vanderbilt 6
Something that had not completely sunk in until I took a look at the box score for this tilt between the Western Division Bulldogs and the Commodores: No one scored a touchdown in this game for the first 56 minutes. In fact, the TD-less stretch was well on its way to 57 minutes when Tyson Lee ran 22 yards for the game's first six-point score. No, you did not read that incorrectly. "Tyson Lee ran 22 yards." Mississippi State promptly missed the two-point conversion. Why the Western Division Bulldogs thought Vanderbilt would score two TDs in the final three minutes after failing to score any in the 57 minutes before then is anyone's guess, but I digress.
Now fans of the Western Division Bulldogs are left to ponder how much better their offense really is this year than it was during the long offensive winter of the Sylvester Croom Era. While Mississippi State gained 341 yards, okay considering who we're talking about here, QB play was erratic (10-of-18 for 81 yards) and almost a third of the Western Division Bulldog's rushing yardage came on three of their 56 carries.
For Vanderbilt, the mystery becomes how the Commodores can possibly make a bowl game. There are no guaranteed wins left on the schedule -- Vanderbilt will play its two least formidable foes, Rice and Army, on the road.
CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS
Kentucky 31, Louisville 27
Can Mike Hartline keep it up? That question might very well determine whether the Wildcats are for real this year. Through two games, the once-maligned signal-caller holds a 147.22 passer rating and holds a completion just north of 70 percent.
Then again, he's played Miami (OH) and Louisville, neither of which is expected to set the college football world on fire this year. If this is the real Mike Hartline for 2008, though, there's little reason to believe that Kentucky can't win seven or eight games at least and position itself for an mid- to upper-tier bowl bid.
DEATH COMES AT THE END
South Carolina 38, Florida Atlantic 16
A bit of a letdown might have been expected against the Owls after the Gamecocks' thrilling loss to Georgia the week before, but South Carolina came a missed extra point away from going into halftime tied with a Sun Belt team. This is not the way to convince everyone that your team is more shootout with the Dawgs than snoozefest with the Wolfpack.
Two questions will decide South Carolina's fate at this point: Can they shore up a defense depleted by injury, particularly in the middle? Early on, Florida Atlantic was having some success running straight at the Gamecocks, something that SEC teams will have more success continuing to capitalize on in the second half of games. And, is Stephen Garcia the real deal? All indications right now are that he is, but let's see how he does Thursday before crowning him the QB Spurrier has been looking for.
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE
LSU 31, Louisiana-Lafayette 3; Alabama 53, North Texas 7; Ole Miss 52, Southeastern Louisiana 6
These three games followed the same pattern: Established SEC power waxes Sun Belt/FCS foe. The questions are still there, though. For LSU: Can this team continue to win without getting at least 75 yards a game from Charles Scott? For Alabama: Is Greg McElroy as good as he looks? Because if so, we have a new favorite in the SEC. And for the Rebels: Would you kindly play someone so we can figure out what kind of a team you really are.