THE BALANCE OF POWER SHIFTS IN THE WEST
Alabama 24, LSU 15
Consider that before the beginning of last season, LSU had been to the SEC Championship Game in four of the last seven seasons while Alabama had not gone to Atlanta in early December since 1999. The Bayou Bengals won three of those appearances and used their 2003 and 2007 showings to launch LSU to national titles. LSU lost only nine SEC games from 2003-07, no more than two in any one season and none to Alabama.
Two years later, LSU is no longer the pre-eminent team in the SEC West; Alabama is. The Tide has defeated the Tigers in two consecutive seasons -- the first time Alabama has done that in a decade. The Tide has gone 14-0 in regular season SEC games over the same time frame and lost only to eventual national champion Florida in last year's SEC title bout.
And with a solid junior quarterback and superstar sophomore running back likely to return next year, there's little reason except defensive attrition to believe that Alabama won't at least be a strong favorite to repeat next season. After all, those offensive starters helped ring up 452 yards of total offense Saturday, including Greg McElroy's above-average outing (19-of-34, 276 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) and Mark Ingram's latest Heism@n statement (22 carries, 144 yards).
Meanwhile, LSU still seems adrift in some respects. QB Jordan Jefferson was OK before he left the game (10-of-17, 114 yards, 1 TD), and Charles Scott was having a solid day (13 rushes, 83 yards) before his likely college career-ending injury. Once both stars were out, the Tigers offense wasn't able to score enough to stave off Alabama's rally.
The unacknowledged interception near the end of the game -- and it was an interception -- will get a lot of attention after the previous officiating problems in the SEC, and it should. But that's not why LSU lost this game. The Tigers lost because Alabama is just a little better than they are right now. And that doesn't look to change anytime soon.
KO IN FAYETTEVILLE
Arkansas 33, South Carolina 16
If this was, as the announcers incessantly reminded us Saturday, a game between two of the up-and-coming teams in the SEC, give the first round to the Razorbacks by knock-out. Sure, Arkansas only outgained South Carolina by 25 yards and gained the same number of first downs (17) as did the Gamecocks, but after the Gamecocks scored 13 seconds into the third quarter to take a 16-10 lead, Arkansas blocked the ensuing extra point and proceeded to blow out the Gamecocks 23-0 for the rest of the game.
Ryan Mallett had no touchdowns or interceptions but still threw the ball for gobs of yards, going 23-of-27 for 329 yards against a Gamecocks defense that was one of the best in the league until twin demolitions against Tennessee and Arkansas. TE D.J. Williams, missing in action for the first eight games of the season, grabbed seven catches for 137 yards.
The defense for Arkansas wasn't sterling against one of the SEC's most anemic offenses, but they came up with the plays when needed: three of South Carolina's five first-half possessions ended in punts and the defense picked what would have been a go-ahead TD in the third quarter.
For South Carolina, the defense contributed mightily to losing this game by allowing 405 yards. The rushing numbers weren't quite as bad as they look; take out the two sacks for a loss of 16 yards and the 32-yard loss on a snap that shot over Stephen Garcia's head late in the game, and the Gamecocks rushers gained 101 yards on 23 carries during a game in which South Carolina trailed for the last 24:43. But when the best thing that can be said about your rushing attack during the 10th game of the season includes the phrase "take out ... the 32-yard loss on a snap," your football team has deeper issues. (In fairness to the Gamecocks, the normal center was out of the game at the time and a valiant effort to recover the snap by Garcia before it made its way into the end zone for a safety was in vain.)
One of those issues is an overreliance on Alshon Jeffery. The freshman and future star had another great day (5 receptions, 116 yards, 1 TD). But the semi-regular throws to Jeffery in the end zone have become predictable, and one of those attempts led to Garcia's lone interception (overall: 20-of-34, third straight 300+ yard passing game with 327, 1 TD, 1 INT). And it's not like Moe Brown or Weslye Saunders are chopped liver; both are more than capable of taking some of the load off of Jeffery. So why did they only have three receptions between them? And why did the Gamecocks' other talented freshman, Tori Gurley, have one catch? At least, in the 10th game of the season, the South Carolina coaching staff figured out that Bryce Sherman might be someone they want to get the ball to. And it only took 117 all-purpose yards.
WHAT DO WE HAVE TO DO TO MAKE YOU PEOPLE HAPPY?
Florida 27, Vanderbilt 3
There's not much for Florida to complain about in this performance: outgaining Vanderbilt by 176 yards and allowing just three points would count as a great game in most SEC teams' books. The Commodores are a trickier win than most non-SEC fans give them credit for being, and supposedly better teams have starting losing to Vanderbilt with frightening regularity over the last few years.
But this is Gainesville, and any victory over Vanderbilt that includes scoring fewer than 30 points isn't much of a victory at all -- meaning Steve Addazio is still one of the least popular coaches on a Top 5 team. Tim Tebow was an efficient 15-of-20 for 208 yards and 1 TD, but was allowed to stay in the game just late enough to draw criticism but not to make the game a complete laugher. (John Brantley in relief: 3-of-3, 19 yards.)
As for Vanderbilt: What's left to say about the Commodores? The hopes of back-to-back bowl games had already ended by the time they visited the Swamp and the 199 yards of offense proves that they still have just as far to go to catch the elite in the SEC East as they did before last season's breakthrough winning record. They still play disciplined football -- two penalties and one turnover -- but that's enough when the others guys make up one of the best teams in the country.
MR. WEST REQUESTS YOU REMOVE YOUR PLAYERS AFTER THE FIRST QUARTER
Tennessee 56, Memphis 28
By the time the Vols were leading 42-7 at the half, it was easily time to call off the dogs. Memphis head coach Tommy West, canned after the debacle on Rocky Top, probably wishes Lane Kiffin had done so earlier, but you can't blame the other team for running up the score in the first half.
Yardage-wise, this wasn't quite as thorough a shellacking by Tennessee as you might think. Tennessee outgained Memphis 566-403 and gained just two more first downs (29-27). But take those numbers into account with this grain of salt: Tennessee covered 367 yards with its first half drives; Memphis gained 84.
Jonathan Crompton continued his unexpected second-half resurgence -- or perhaps "surgence," since there's little for Crompton to "re-" -- going 21-of-27 for 331 yards and 5 TDs. The Vols ground game "only" picked up 137 yards and 2 TDs on 33 carries. But that's the only nit you can pick about a game where Tennessee did what it should to prove that the early-season predictions of gloom were overstated.
THEY WON THE FIRST HALF
Auburn 63, Furman 31
The good news for Auburn is that the halftime score was 42-3 and the 28-21 second-half advantage for Furman was largely the result of playing everyone except the first row against the Paladins. But that still means that, from all appearances, the non-starting portion of Auburn's roster isn't capable right now of defeating an FCS team. This does not bode well for the future. All that aside, Chris Todd showed he's still the No. 1 surprise quarterback of the year, going 17-of-18 -- that's right, he threw just one incompletion -- for 256 yards and 4 TDs. Were he a Florida quarterback, he might have gone 37-of-38 for 523 yards and 9 TDs. Neil Caudle also did well (10-of-12, 117 yards) in significant action as a signal-caller, while the rushing attack gained 282 yards and 5 TDs on 39 carries. And the defense did only allow 266 yards despite giving up so many points. Still, 31 points.
THAT WAS EASY. SORT OF
Georgia 38, Tennessee Tech 0
It's easy to be critical of an SEC team that decides to place an FCS cupcake on its schedule -- especially one from another state, where there's no historical or geographical reason for doing so -- but Georgia needed this one. The Dawgs' much-criticized defense limited Tennessee Tech to eight first downs and 55 yards, including -13 rushing on 31 carries. Georgia also rolled up 469 yards, including 304 rushing on 39 carries divided among nine Dawgs. But to nitpick: UGA still lost the turnover battle, with one interception from Logan Gray and no turnovers forced against an FCS offense. Granted, the Golden Eagles only had 47 offensive snaps in the game, but Georgia's problems in forcing the other team to give up the ball early continued. The Dawgs are dead last in FBS with six turnovers forced. That's two behind the four teams tied for 116th and 21 back of No. 1 Ohio.
WHEN GETTING THERE IS ALL THAT MATTERS
Kentucky 37, Eastern Kentucky 12
Kentucky's probably happy to outgain anyone by 180 yards this season, particularly given the fact that their starting lineup has begun to look like an Alamo movie after the Mexicans attack. But a 25-point win over a 5-4 FCS team is still not the kind of game you expect from an SEC East team with bowl aspirations. This is part of why Kentucky schedules games like these; the only way for a team like the Wildcats to make the postseason in one of the toughest divisions in college football is to load up on the empty carbs of cupcakes. But UK still allowed Eastern Kentucky to rush for 127 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. The win still counts -- which is more than some SEC teams can say about their confectionary victory this week -- and Kentucky will in all likelihood defeat Vanderbilt this weekend to clinch bowl eligibility. That doesn't make them a good team, and the results Saturday just prove that.
THEY ALL COUNT THE SAME. EXCEPT WHEN THEY DON'T
Ole Miss 38, Northern Arizona 14
This game literally doesn't count. Well, it technically does serve as Ole Miss' sixth victory on the year. But because the Rebels have already played one FCS team this year, they still need a seventh win to get to a bowl game. So why even go through the exercise? Was there not a single Sun Belt or MAC team willing to jettison some other game to play the Rebels after Ole Miss found themselves lacking a 12th opponent? In any case, Ole Miss might not want this game to count. It wasn't one of the team's finest hours. The Rebels only outgained the Lumberjacks 425-354, lost the time-of-possession battle by more than 10 minutes and were still tied with Northern Arizona late in the second quarter. Under normal circumstances, Ole Miss might be able to comfort itself by saying a win's a win. But what do you say when you can't even resort to that cliche?