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The 2016 SEC Football Season Book: Chapter 2

The Razorbacks follow one of their lesser-known traditions, while the Volunteers look to regain their momentum. And Georgia ...

NCAA Football: Nicholls State at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The second week of the college football season always includes market corrections. Often, the correction is to check an overreaction to the first week performances, and there were a couple of examples of that kind of correction in the SEC over the weekend. Georgia’s struggle to overcome Nicholls proved that perhaps the Bulldogs were not an unappreciated front-runner in the SEC East, looking to grab the division back from the preseason favorite in Knoxville. And more fans watched the Volunteers reassert themselves as contenders than had ever watched a college football game live before.

There was another kind of correction that took place in Fort Worth, Texas. It was subtle, and it might end up amounting to nothing. But Arkansas provided the first bit of evidence that they might be able to do better than the preseason consensus that placed the Razorbacks fourth in the SEC West, and dangerously close to fifth. The game that provided the boost to the idea of Arkansas as a contender included a rarity for Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks, and one of the program’s many bizarre quasi-traditions.

Bielema’s victory over TCU wasn’t quite unprecedented, but it was extraordinarily rare for the former Wisconsin coach since he came to Fayetteville. Before Saturday, Bielema was 1-6 against Power 5 teams in the month of September. That’s a winning percentage of less than 0.143. The double-overtime win against the Horned Frogs isn’t proof by itself that the Razorbacks will be playing for Atlanta deep into the season, but it’s enough of a change to get noticed.

One thing that wasn’t a shift for Arkansas was how they won the game: After regulation. Since overtime debuted in 1995, the Razorbacks have played more overtime games than any team in the nation save Tennessee, which has also played 18. There have been three seven-overtime games in college football history; Arkansas has played in two of those. In all, Arkansas has played 44 overtime periods, including six last season. Houston Nutt might be gone, but Arkansas’ penchant for waiting until literally the last possible chance to grab a win hasn’t changed.

Arkansas Overtime Games

So when Austin Allen dashed for five yards at the end of the second overtime to clinch the win against TCU, he was joining a long heritage of overtime heroes for Arkansas. And it continued what had been a brilliant second half from Allen. In the first two quarters, Allen was 5-of-10 for 55 yards. After halftime, he was 12-of-19 for 168 yards and three touchdowns. He nearly doubled his passer rating (96.20 in the first half, 189.54 afterward). Yes, the Hogs ran for almost 4.2 yards a carry — but this is Arkansas under Bret Bielema; no one doubts they can run.

Where Arkansas can be dangerous in the SEC West is if Austin Allen can have an entire season like Brandon Allen had late last year, when he became one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. Balance for the sake of balance is a dangerous rabbit for any college football team to chase, but having more than one way to score is useful when the schedule includes teams like Alabama — especially if you want to beat them in regulation.

The next test for Arkansas comes not this weekend but the next, when the Razorbacks face Texas A&M. Both of the last two games between the Hogs and the Aggies have gone to overtime, and A&M is the only team that has a winning record against Arkansas after regulation.

Another reason that Arkansas’ win was so notable was the lack of meaningful games around the SEC West, and the conference generally. Mississippi State was the only other team in the division to play a Power 5 opponent, if South Carolina this year can still be described as such. Texas A&M, Ole Miss, LSU, Auburn and of course Alabama hammered midmajor or FCS opponents. Missouri and even Vanderbilt dispatched overmatched foes with relative ease.

Georgia also played a team that was supposed to be overmatched. “Ease” was not a word that could be used to describe the Bulldogs’ efforts on Saturday.

Anyone who watched Tennessee need overtime to get past Appalachian State on the first night of the college football season, followed a couple of days later by Georgia’s victory over North Carolina, might have come away thinking that the Dawgs and not the Volunteers were the favorites in the SEC East. The second weekend switched the situations — Tennessee taking on an ACC team, Georgia matching up with a lightly-regarded opponent — and switched the results. And it was not any lightly-regarded opponent that Georgia was facing.

Every week, Jeff Sagarin ranks 253 Division I football teams across both subdivisions. Like any ranking method, objective or subjective, there’s room to disagree with some of the specific results. But generally speaking, it’s one of the better ways out there to get the broad outlines of how good or bad a team is in comparison to all the other Division I teams out there. (Side note: This is not to say anything about the S&P+ ratings, which focus on FBS teams.)

Coming into the game against Georgia, Nicholls — a college in Thibodaux, Louisiana, with fewer than 5,500 undergraduates — stood at 240th in the Sagarin ratings. The quarterback for the game against Georgia was true freshman Chase Fourcade. The Colonels now sit at 211th in Sagarin’s ratings, having jumped 29 spots on the strength of a loss to Georgia. And the “how” of that loss is one of the reasons for the change.

The Bulldogs only trailed in this game once, for about a minute late in the third quarter, before Jacob Eason hit Isaiah McKenzie on a 66-yards touchdown pass that gave Georgia the lead for good. But the supposedly far superior team needed all 16 of its third-quarter points to outlast the Colonels and win, 26-24.

NCAA Football: Nicholls State at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia running back Nick Chubb, who saw a streak of 100-yard rushing games end when he ran for 80 yards on 20 carries, said Nicholls “out-hit us for the entire game, almost.”

“I’m disappointed we didn’t go out and execute. We’ve got to perform better. We didn’t perform the way we should have,” Kirby Smart said, but there was reason to believe that he secretly enjoyed one of the opportunities the game gave him.

Smart, after all, comes from the coaching tree of Nick Saban — most recently seen poor-mouthing Alabama as the Tide continues harvesting the dreams of its opponents. The Bulldogs don’t suffer the damage that a loss would have done, but Smart and his players no longer have the excuse of complacency.

Nicholls is also the only team from outside the Power 5 that Georgia faces in the first seven weeks of the season. After the opener against UNC and this past weekend’s game, the Bulldogs now go to Missouri and to Oxford, followed by a home game against Tennessee. By the time that stretch of games is over, it will be clear whether the SEC East front-runner is in Knoxville or Athens.

Or perhaps Gainesville. It’s almost surprising that none of the preseason rankings collected by Stassen had the Florida Gators defending the SEC East. Tennessee drew first place in all but one of the projections, and Georgia got the other one. Almost surprising because Florida didn’t always look formidable during its run to the SEC Championship Game last year — but the SEC East winner has only been a truly elite team a couple of times over the last several years.

One thing that most preseason projections would have expected was a Florida win over Kentucky. The Wildcats haven’t beaten the Gators since the president’s approval ratings were about to take a big hit — the president being Ronald Reagan, who had just acknowledged the Iran-contra affair. Reagan probably felt better at that moment than Kentucky felt this week.

The Gators started off the game on a 45-0 run, which didn’t end until the Wildcats scored with 4:27 left in the game. Kentucky quarterbacks completed six passes — three to members of the Kentucky roster, and three to members of the Florida roster. The Gators had half as many first downs (28) as the Wildcats had passing yards (55). Florida outgained Kentucky 564-149. The Gators punted once (it was a touchback, if you were wondering).

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the kind of game that would make you wonder about Mark Stoops’ job security, if he didn’t have a $12 million buyout. But the size of buyouts dwindle over time, and Stoops’ will only protect him for so long — perhaps until the Kentucky losing streak against Florida hits 31 with no further signs of progress.

The Wildcats were not the only team hit with their first conference loss Saturday. South Carolina fans might have seen a small flicker of hope when the Gamecocks beat Vanderbilt — tabbed by a few bold preseason predictions as a potential bowl team — in Nashville on the first night of the season. Market correction: South Carolina is still a team in the first year of a rebuilding exercise overseen by Will Muschamp, a contractor with a sizable list of complaints piled up at the Better Business Bureau.

On the other side of the field was a team already worried that its dreams had crumbled in the first week of the season — Mississippi State, last seen losing at home to South Alabama. Market correction: The Bulldogs probably aren’t going to win the SEC West this year, but they’re still better than this edition of the Gamecocks.

By the end of the first half, Mississippi State was up 24-0. South Carolina would not score until there were five seconds left in the third quarter, at which point a rally seemed relatively unlikely. If there was a warning for the Bulldogs, it was that the broad contours of the game were similar to the shape of the South Alabama game: Get a lead and then coast in the second half, giving the opponent hope. The Bulldogs just managed to keep the Gamecocks from catching up despite scoring just three points in the second half.

South Carolina might also have gotten something out the game: A quarterback. The starter in Starkville, Steve Spurrier recruit Perry Orth, seemed overwhelmed and even out-of-place during the first half. So the coaches went with true freshman Brandon McIlwain, a dual-threat quarterback, in the second half. McIlwain wasn’t great, but he was solid: 11-of-22 for 126 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for 33 yards on nine non-sack carries.

The market will likely catch up with McIlwain at some point too; tougher opponents than Mississippi State are ahead, and the transition to full-time starter — if that’s indeed in McIlwain’s future — can be a difficult one in the SEC, or any Power 5 conference. But if you’re a Gamecock fan looking for a place to invest your hope, McIlwain’s probably the smartest play you’ve got right now.

One thing that was almost certain about the Battle at Bristol — the college football game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech held at a race track — was that the event would set a new attendance record for the sport. Bristol Motor Speedway is a giant structure, built for a sport that regularly attracts some of the largest crowds of any live event in the nation. And the announced attendance for the game between the Volunteers and the Hokies, clocked at 156,990, did set a new mark for fans at a college football game. There were almost as many racing puns used to describe the game.

At first, the events on the field looked like the continued unraveling of what was supposed to be a dream season for Tennessee. In the last eight minutes of the first quarter, Virginia Tech scored twice, including a 69-yard touchdown run by Travon McMillian. Maybe the Volunteers’ preseason hype had been just that.

And then it wasn’t. Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans fumbled at the Hokies’ 16-yard line, Tennessee took over at the 5, and Joshua Dobbs tossed it to Jauan Jennings for the first of several Volunteer touchdowns. A 40-yard run by Dobbs and a 38-yard touchdown pass to Josh Malone were the highlight plays on the next Tennessee drive. At halftime, the Volunteers had a 24-14 lead, and they would win the game by an even more lopsided scored, 45-24.

NCAA Football: Battle at Bristol-Tennessee vs Virginia Tech Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

“We were finally able to run the football and play Tennessee style of football,” said Butch Jones, the architect of the recruiting classes that have done as much as anything to fuel the perception that the Volunteers could return to prominence.

There were still a few cracks that could be found in Tennessee’s facade for anyone looking hard enough — Dobbs went 10-of-19 passing for 91 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, which is neither terribly impressive nor terribly troubling. And Virginia Tech did manage to gain 400 yards on 73 plays; the Hokies averaged almost a half a yard more per offensive snap than did the Volunteers.

But Dobbs also ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns on 12 non-sack carries. Jalen Hurd added 99 more yards on 22 rushes. And 139 yards of Virginia Tech’s offense came on its two scoring drives in the first quarter. Remove those two drives from the equation, and the Hokies actually gained about a yard less per play than the Volunteers.

As nearly 157,000 fans made their way out of the stadium, Tennessee once again looked the part of contender in the SEC East, if nothing else. But the Volunteers know as well as anyone how dramatically things can change from one week to the next. Market corrections cut both ways.