THIS SHOULD MAKE IT EASIER TO CONTROL EXPECTATIONS
Ole Miss 21, Oklahoma State 7
Part of the preseason hype surrounding Ole Miss in 2009 came from the Rebels' performance in the Cotton Bowl in January, where they scored four times in just more than 12 minutes to take the lead and defeat Texas Tech. Safe to say that won't happen again in 2010.
This might be too harsh, but it's not unfair to ask if anyone other than Dexter McCluster, Shay Hodge and Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter really wanted to be there Saturday. The two teams combined for a disastrous 12 turnovers -- yes, a dozen -- including eight interceptions, four of which should have removed any notion Jevan Snead had of going into the April's NFL Draft. The normally reliable Joshua Shene missed both of his field goal attempts.
Marshay Green had 106 yards on four kick returns, but aside from that McCluster and Hodge were the only ones on either side of the field with more than 100 all-purpose yards. (Hunter had an even 100.) The
only player to complete more than half of his passes best completion percentage belonged to Keith Toston -- who is a running back and attempted just one pass. Not to downplay his accomplishment. Toston was also the only player with a passing touchdown.
It was, at least in one sense, an "exciting" game. The two teams almost went to overtime tied 7-7 before Ole Miss Dexter McCluster and Patrick Trahan scored twice in the last four minutes to make the scoreboard look better. (Trahan is a defense player and, it should be noted here, scored on a fumble return.)
Where does this leave Ole Miss if Jevan Snead does come back? It depends on which Snead returns in 2010. If it's the quarterback who turned his season around in 2008 and helped the Rebels win last year's Cotton Bowl, maybe Ole Miss could actually make the West interesting; if it's the quarterback who threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (20) in 2009, making the Cotton Bowl again might even be a tall order.
DOES THE DRAFT REALLY MATTER?
Arkansas 20, East Carolina 17 (OT)
The role of potential upstart in the SEC West next year was already beginning to fall to Arkansas, as long as Ryan Mallett doesn't decide to go the NFL next year. But what happens to a team whose championship buzz is supposed to depend on the offense if the offense is less than impressive?
After all, Arkansas was 0-for-13 on third-down conversions Satuday against East Carolina, Mallett completed less than 42 percent of his passes and Arkansas was outgained by 110 yards in a game in which they gained just 283. And the MVP was arguably East Carolina kicker Ben Hartman, who missed four of five field goals, including a 35-yarder in overtime that would have extended the game.
Perhaps Arkansas can take solace in the 17-point third quarter, including coming from behind down 10-0 and then 17-10, but a similar performance in Memphis against East Carolina hardly made Kentucky a competitor in the SEC this season. In fact, the numbers from the two games are eerily similar, save one thing: Kentucky didn't have a +2 advantage in the turnover margin, completed more than half its passes and converted seven third downs. (And Hartman made both his field goal attempts.)
That's not a very good historical comparison, of course. The East Carolina teams involved in those two teams are different, as are the situations of last year's Kentucky and this year's Arkansas, and bowl games are often bizarre. But this was not an overwhelming start to a supposed run for Atlanta.
If Mallett declares for the NFL Draft, all that talk will likely be moot. But the Liberty Bowl gave us a reason to be skeptical about Arkansas even if he returns.
NOT 'BIGGER' THAN THE BIG EAST
Connecticut 20, South Carolina 7
There had been some thought -- even in the Georgia and Tennessee corners of the blogosphere -- that South Carolina might be a sleeper pick in the SEC East next year. If this was their audition for the role, then we can officially retire that offseason meme now.
The trademark South Carolina defense, which has been the best part of most of Steve Spurrier's teams in Columbia, wasn't great but also wasn't the reason the Gamecocks lost this game. The Huskies gained 253 yards on 70 offensive plays, or less than four yards a snap. Connecticut made the most of those yards by scoring 20 points, but the Gamecocks defense kept them off the board for more than 25 points during one stretch of the game.
The offense simply couldn't be bothered to score. After what had seemed to be a solid season for Stephen Garcia and his teammates, including the 34-17 shellacking of rival Clemson, the offense suddenly seemed to regress back to what we saw in the 2009 Outback Bowl: Garcia was 16-of-38, thanks in part to nine drops, and was the leading rusher with 56 yards. South Carolina's lone touchdown came with less than 3:30 left on the clock in the fourth quarter, at which point a 20-point comeback was impossible.
Much of the problem could be traced back to the main issue during much of Spurrier's time at South Carolina: The offensive line. As mentioned, Garcia's receivers didn't help him much, but neither did the fact that he spent much of the day trying to throw while running for his life. Apparently, the offense spent too much time watching the Sugar Bowl the night before.
Senior offensive lineman Garrett Anderson thought the Gamecocks overlooked UConn (8-5), which tied for fourth in the supposedly inferior Big East.
"I think we didn't take it as serious as we were supposed to," Anderson said. "I think a lot of guys thought that since we were in the SEC and they're in the Big East that we should have won. That we were supposed to win. And we didn't have to earn the game."
Spurrier, who had recently expressed hope that South Carolina would "go big" sometime soon, was instead left to apologize to fans who had trekked to Birmingham only to watch another late-season or bowl loss by his team.
None of this is to say that the Gamecocks can't have a decent season next year, or even a good one. Lower-tier bowl games are notoriously bad leading indicators. But if South Carolina ever hopes to do more than return to Birmingham, it will have to find a way to play much better than it did Saturday.