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The 2016 SEC Football Season Book: Chapter 1

A look at the first week and what it means for the big picture

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

This is a new feature I’m trying this season, with each week serving as a “chapter” of the larger story of the SEC season. I have to apologize for this being so late in its inaugural outing; I hope to post future installments on Monday, but the Ole Miss-FSU game and recovery from Hermine delayed this one. The idea is to see if this approach can teach us anything about the big picture as we go along. That said, to Chapter 1.

There was nothing particularly notable about Baylen Buchanan’s appearance in Tennessee’s game against Appalachian State, except that Buchanan seems to have been the youngest Volunteer to play Thursday night. But Buchanan is also an example of why 2016 was one of the most anticipated seasons for Tennessee football in years.

The last time Tennessee won the SEC championship, Buchanan was two weeks shy of turning six months old. That Volunteer team would go on to win the national title a month later. Since then, Tennessee has been back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game three times, and lost each time. And every other team that has ever represented the SEC East in that game has been there since the Volunteers’ last appearance.

The game against Appalachian State, though, represented the beginning of the best chance for Tennessee to change that in quite some time. Neither Kentucky nor Vanderbilt has ever been to the SEC Championship Game. Georgia has a new coach. Missouri has a new coach. South Carolina has a widely-mocked new coach and is coming off a disastrous 3-9 season. Among the teams with any track record of ever having won the division, only Florida — which resembled nothing as much as an episode of MacGyver while making its way to the SEC East title last season — has the same coach as it did a year ago.

And there was something else fueling Tennessee fans’ hopes: If there is one thing that head coach Butch Jones does extraordinarily well, it is recruiting. Since Jones was hired by Tennessee in December 2012, he has overseen a dramatic improvement in the Volunteers’ recruiting numbers.

SEC Recruiting Rankings for SEC East, 2012-2016
SEC East Blue-Chip Percentages, 2012-2016

There were times over the last 18 years when Tennessee has seemed precariously close to become Notre Dame South, a prestigious program that could indeed get back to get but might never regain what it was. If that seems a bit harsh —- Tennessee’s most recent history has been among the harshest periods for one of the great conference powers in years.

During Alabama’s infamous Dennis and the Three Mikes Era, the Tide’s winning percentage was .549; during Phillip Fulmer’s last season, Lane Kiffin’s layover in Knoxville and Derek Dooley’s tenure, Tennessee’s winning percentage was .452. Throw in Jones’ first year, and that number falls to .446. Alabama never had consecutive losing seasons over its longer down period (1997-2006); Tennessee had a losing record in all but one season over its down period (2008-2013). At Florida, the other marquee conference program to go through rough patches in recent years, Ron Zook and Will Muschamp had one losing season between them.

Since the SEC Championship Game was introduced, neither Alabama nor Florida has gone 18 years without a conference title; neither has gone as long without placing first in their division. (This being Alabama, a first-place finish in 2002 did not yield an appearance in the title game because of sanctions.)

Given the recruiting numbers and the tumult around the division, it seemed like Tennessee had a perfect (if somewhat narrow) window to once again assert itself as a conference and national powerhouse. The bumper crops of 2014 and 2015 are juniors and sophomores, Jones only misses being the longest-tenured SEC East coach by about a month, and Tennessee’s nine-win season in 2015 was the most successful campaign since 2007.

And then the game against Appalachian State — almost a footnote to what the night actually represented — began, and Tennessee ran into the hard reminder that the first week of the season is a treacherous time in college football. Tennessee forced the Mountaineers into a three-and-out, but Cam Sutton fumbled the football away on the punt, and Appalachian State needed five plays to turn that into a touchdown. About midway through the second quarter, with their lead at 7-3, the Mountaineers would drive 77 yards for another touchdown, and the would-be SEC East champions found themselves down 14-3, where the score would remain until halftime.

Depending on the traffic, it can take less than three hours to drive from Knoxville to Nashville, though the football traditions in the two cities are about as far apart as possible. Tennessee has seen very few difficult years in football except for the recent struggles; Vanderbilt has seen very few good years in football except for a recent boomlet under former coach James Franklin. The Commodores were also daring to wonder about the chances of a turnaround this season under Derek Mason, though it still wasn’t clear whether that possibility was based on something real or simply represented another triumph for hope in its long battle with the Vanderbilt experience.

Early on, it seemed that the Commodores had more reasons for their more modest hopes for 2016 — a bowl berth — than the Volunteers had for the dreams of a run toward the national title. Unsurprisingly, Will Muschamp had proven unable to provide a jolt to the moribund South Carolina offense. And while the Gamecocks defense seemed to be performing better than the unit had done during many of its games the year before, Vanderbilt still managed to grind out a 10-0 lead at halftime. When the third quarter ended, it would still be 10-3 in favor of the Commodores. Beat South Carolina, and a narrow trail to the postseason might open up.

Around the same time, Tennessee was beginning to turn things around against Appalachian State. A 39-yard field goal late in the third quarter cut the Mountaineers’ lead to 13-6. Less than four-and-a-half minutes into the fourth quarter, Joshua Dobbs stepped back and uncorked a long throw to Josh Malone, who turned almost entirely around to catch it and then turned around again to dash toward the end zone, a hapless Appalachian State defender having slipped off of Malone as he made the catch near the 20-yard line.

Neither team would score again in regulation, and Tennessee would end up with the first drive in overtime. On a third-down play, Dobbs ran to his right and went airborne in an attempt at a touchdown. The Mountaineers stopped Dobbs, but not the ball, which popped out of Dobbs’ hands and tumbled into the end zone, where several players fell on it. Jalen Hurd ended up with the ball, giving Tennessee a 20-13 lead. The Mountaineers would fail to score in their overtime, and while the end of the Volunteers’ dreams now seemed far more probable, it would have to wait for another night.

A change was also taking place in Nashville, this one harming the home team rather than helping it. The Gamecocks, who had yet to put together a drive of more than eight plays or 31 yards, suddenly found something that bore a passing resemblance to offensive rhythm. A 10-play, 47-yard drive that started early in the third quarter ended with a field goal. South Carolina’s first drive of the fourth quarter covered 84 yards in nine plays, and the game was tied until Elliott Fry — perhaps the best remaining player on the Gamecocks, the only catch being that he is the place-kicker — drilled a 55-yard field goal with less than a minute left to give his team a 13-10 victory.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t as dramatic as the beatdown his first Florida team administered to Florida Atlantic for Will Muschamp’s head coaching debut, but even Derek Mason-coached Vanderbilt is no FAU, and it had the same effect: It won Muschamp at least a week as free from critics as he will likely ever be at South Carolina. Even if no one outside Columbia was quite ready to say that the Gamecocks had a shot at a bowl yet.

Meanwhile, the Commodores were suddenly on the edge after one game. Others would soon join them.

Any SEC fan who’s been watching the league for a decade or more remembers the old Jefferson Pilot games, which frequently aired at noon and had a broadcast quality slightly higher than your average cable-access program. And while JP (later Lincoln Financial) no longer has any SEC games and the Three Daves have gone their separate ways, there are still reasons to fear noon upsets.

It seemed like Mississippi State wouldn’t have to worry about this on Saturday. The Bulldogs led 17-0 at halftime against South Alabama, and while that wasn’t incredibly impressive against a team that had a losing record in the Sun Belt last year — well, it was worth remembering that Mississippi State was playing without Dak Prescott for the first time in years.

Even when South Alabama’s Josh Magee snagged a 20-yard touchdown pass to cap off an eight-play drive by the Jaguars, the Bulldogs simply answered with a field goal. 20-7. Nothing to worry about. Except it was the last time Mississippi State would score. And two of South Alabama’s next three drives ended in touchdowns after covering a combined 170 yards.

The Bulldogs followed that up by driving to the 11-yard line for a game-winning field goal attempt — that clanged off the left goalpost to make the Jaguars’ victory official.

Other SEC teams weren’t having much better luck. Despite gaining 462 yards, Missouri fell to West Virginia in a 26-11 game that was (fortunately for them) tucked away on FS1. LSU would score all of its points against Wisconsin in the third quarter, but lose 16-14. In later games, Arkansas needed a touchdown in the fourth quarter to edge Louisiana Tech, 21-20. Kentucky would allow Southern Miss to score 34 unanswered points in a 44-35 Wildcats defeat that dissolved whatever goodwill Mark Stoops still had in Lexington — though, fortunately for the Kentucky head coach, did not dissolve the buyout terms in his contract.

It was not unanimously bleak. Florida beat Massachusetts in a 24-7 win that might have been underwhelming were it not for the chaos elsewhere. Auburn’s offense and quarterback situation were dispiriting in a 19-13 loss to Clemson, but dropping a game to a national-title contender by six points while slowing down one of the more explosive offenses in the game is at least better than losing to a team from the Sun Belt. Georgia would need a 19-point rally to beat North Carolina — but, again, context.

The game that stuck out as something different and nothing different at the same time was Texas A&M’s ambush of UCLA. The Bruins, led by Jim Mora the Younger (not Jr.), came into the game as the team to beat in the Pac-12 South. By the end of the third quarter, it was 24-9 Aggies.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Texas A&M Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

This being Texas A&M, the Bruins managed to tie the game at 24 by the end of regulation. And this being Texas A&M, the division contenders went down in overtime, once again raising the question of what to expect from the Aggies in 2016. By now, perhaps, everyone had learned not to put too much stock in early returns from College Station.

The notes of hope in some other parts of the conference were tones of caution at Texas A&M. It’s only the first game.

And then there was Alabama. The iconic play of the game — to the extent that any play in a 52-6 game is iconic, and if excluding personal foul penalties involving damage to sensitive parts of the anatomy — was probably when USC punter Chris Tilbey mishandled the snap shortly after the half, and fell on it at the 13-yard line, giving Alabama quick rout to a touchdown that put the Tide up 31-7.

But anyone who has watched Alabama for long enough knew what was about to happen shortly before halftime when, just after the Tide extended its lead over the Trojans to 10-3, Marlon Humphrey picked off a ricocheting pass and returned it for a touchdown. That was the starting point: Alabama gets a lead and begins to turn up the pressure. Mistakes (and sometimes, groin-stomps) ensue.

NCAA Football: Alabama vs Southern California Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, Nick Saban steps off the gas somewhere around the 40-point mark. But Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was infamously fired at the airport by USC, so there would be no informal mercy rule on Saturday night. Alabama would roll up 465 yards of total offense (to 194 for the Trojans) and score 38 unanswered points between Southern Cal’s two field goals.

On a tumultuous day for the SEC, Alabama throttled an out-of-conference opponent in the big game of the first weekend. The Tide continues to defy the laws of football physics.

There was one other contest left, this time a change of pace for the SEC, with Ole Miss playing Florida State in the annual Labor Day game. There again, an early lead fell apart. The Rebels were leading 28-6 late in the second quarter, and wouldn’t score again until FSU had piled up 39 points. The Seminoles won, 45-34. Among the reasons? Three interceptions by Ole Miss’ quarterback, Chad Kelly, who was brilliant and backfiring in turns.

Perhaps Alabama isn’t the only constant in the SEC. There’s still something steady about the ability of a Rebel quarterback to keep both teams in the game. And there’s still the question of what to make of Texas A&M’s latest season-opening victory against a would-be contender.

The voters in college football polls might have learned their lesson, at least with regard to the Aggies. A&M still moved into the polls, but only to No. 20. But then, all it took was a single win over Notre Dame to get Texas from unranked to No. 11. Wisconsin vaulted into the Top 10 on the strength of its victory against LSU.

All of that could be premature. While the Aggies are unique in the way they have gone from impressive opening to mid-season collapse for three straight years, they are following a story that is almost as old as the sport, or any sport. Things are never as good or as bad as they look after the first week.

Hope for some and warning for others.