By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. – YES! I was finally rid of all traces of last week’s illness. Back to my normal self, I concluded an impressive 36 hour stretch heading into the weekend, arriving back from my “Life In The SEC” trip to Athens just in time to watch some football.
This week was different in terms of schedule, with four early games getting the party started. Before Auburn and South Carolina hit the field for the traditional 2:30 pm CBS kickoff, most of the league had already played, leaving just a few key games remaining as nightfall came.
There were some monster matchups, or so we thought, dotting the prime time slots on the national networks. What did we learn from this past Saturday? Let’s delve into this week’s Three and Out to try and understand it all.
First Down: Alabama Takes First Shot, Punches Right Back
Teacher versus student.
Master versus Padawan.
Whatever you want to call it, Nick Saban got the best of first year Florida head coach Will Muschamp, as the Crimson Tide left “The Swamp” with a dominating 38-10 victory
. Saban and Muschamp, who have quite the coaching history together, competed on the field against each other Saturday, with the Alabama head coach defeating his former defensive coordinator.
Now, there isn’t any written formula for winning on the road in the SEC, but anyone that watches enough football can give you the general idea. When you are the visitor, especially at night in one of the conference’s biggest venues (Florida qualifies), you want to make sure you take the crowd out of the game early.
Well, that was the opposite of what happened to the Crimson Tide. One play into the game, a mere 30 seconds after opening kickoff, Florida launched a 65-yard touchdown pass, and “The Swamp” went nuts as the Gators took the lead.
Watching it unfold in front of me, I got a sense of this game’s pattern. Florida, the underdog (as much of an underdog you can be when you are undefeated, ranked 12th and are playing at home) went for the knockout punch, hoping to catch Alabama flat footed. It is actually not a bad strategy, considering the atmosphere and the talent of the team they were facing.
Beating Alabama is unbelievably difficult, and as I mentioned a week ago in this space, they are ungodly talented
. If the playing field is level, there aren’t many teams (maybe LSU?) in the country capable of winning. Florida knew that.
But, what championship teams learn to figure out, and I have no doubt that Alabama fits in this class, is how to take a punch. Much like a boxer in the early rounds of a fight, you have to learn how to respond and keep your composure when your opponent lands a solid shot on your chin.
Alabama took the first punch, and the Gators had a chance to add another haymaker soon after. This game was decided in Florida’s second drive. As crazy as it sounds, the Gators fate was sealed at the 5:19 mark in the first quarter.
After sustaining yardage down the field, Florida quarterback John Brantley faced a first and goal from the Alabama 9. On first down, Brantley found his talented running back, Chris Rainey in the flat.
Brantley, who has been accurate so far this season, fired wide, forcing Rainey out of bounds at the five. Had the throw been on point, Rainey walks in the end zone, Florida goes up 14-3, and Alabama might have been in trouble.
Instead, Florida was forced to kick a field goal, extending the lead to 10-3 and letting the Crimson Tide off the hook. As CBS analyst Gary Danielson would mention later in the telecast, he felt the only way Florida could win was if UF “did everything perfect”. That drive failed to reach pay dirt, and, in turn, it kept Alabama alive.
Now I’m not saying Florida would have won had they scored a TD and not a field goal, but the fact that Alabama had taken Florida’s best punch and was only down one score had to be troubling for Gator fans. The Crimson Tide evened the score at 10 in their next possession, and they never trailed again for the rest of the contest.
Once Brantley crumbled to the turf with an apparent leg injury right before the end of the first half, the end was already in sight. I told a worried Alabama fan that texted me during intermission not to be. The way the half played out, Alabama was in a perfect situation. The Crimson Tide was up 24-10, and they had simply shrugged off Florida’s best shot.
That’s how good Alabama is.
I know anything can happen between now and November 5th, but I am starting to see the LSU-Alabama matchup as the de facto National Championship game. No disrespect to any other undefeated teams out there, but to me the Bayou Bengals and the Crimson Tide are simply in a class of their own.
Second Down: Georgia Rises From The Dead
After the dust settled on the Saturday slate of SEC action, you might have been surprised to see who sat atop the Eastern Division. You might have had to squint, or perhaps do a double take to make out the name. Nested in a three-way tie at the pinnacle of the standings, the Georgia Bulldogs have risen from the dead.
No, seriously, Georgia is back.
Admit it. After a 0-2 start to the 2011 season, you wrote off the Georgia Bulldogs. They lost in a “home” game against Boise State and they shot themselves in the foot while falling to South Carolina. The vultures began to circle around embattled head coach Mark Richt, as the media and the fan base showed disgust with the early results.
However, Richt’s Bulldogs have re-emerged, digging their way out of a hole that many felt was too deep to recover from. After circling the wagons, Georgia is now above .500, with a schedule that gives them a chance to make a strong run at a trip to Atlanta.
The Bulldogs got that third win at home, a day after yours truly visited the Georgia campus for “Life In The SEC”
. I sat in the very spot that Aaron Murray would throw to twice in the first half
, as Richt and company defeated Mississippi State 24-10
Upon further review, perhaps Georgia’s early woes weren’t as alarming as they originally appeared. Maybe, just maybe, we were a bit too harsh after what we saw early in the season. Let’s break this down.
1. Boise State dominated Georgia. There is no way to explain or try to make excuses on why they lost. The Broncos outplayed Richt’s crew.
2. As I examined at the time
, Georgia essentially gave away the South Carolina game. The Gamecocks scored 28 points outside of their offense, including a fantastic run by a man weighing 280 pounds.
3. Since the 0-2 start, the Georgia defense has vastly improved. After the first two games, the Bulldog defensive corps was giving up 390 yards a game, and had trouble keeping opponents out of the end zone. Since the South Carolina loss, Georgia has allowed just 23 points in the past three games total. Both Ole Miss (183 total yards) and Mississippi State (213 total yards) failed to find rhythm offensively, putting less pressure on Aaron Murray to have to be superhuman to win ballgames.
Looking at the slate remaining, Georgia has to be considered one of the favorites to represent the Eastern Division in the SEC Championship. Yes, I’m serious. Here’s why.
1. We have no idea when Florida’s John Brantley will return to action after an ugly injury Saturday against Alabama. Florida has arguably the toughest three-game stretch of anyone in the nation, as the Gators will square off against Alabama (loss), LSU (#1 in the country) and Auburn (the defending National Champions). They also have to travel to South Carolina later in the season. You have to assume the Gators will not come through that stretch unscathed.
2. South Carolina has struggled mightily all year long. I made a strong case a week ago that they were lucky to be undefeated, having narrowly escaped games against Georgia and Navy. They have remaining road trips to Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi State on the schedule. Stephen Garcia appears to have regressed, and the Spurrier passing game has disappeared.
3. Georgia plays its two biggest remaining conference games (Auburn, Florida) at home, or in Florida’s case, semi-home. The Bulldogs don’t have to play Alabama, LSU or Arkansas. Road trips to Nashville and Knoxville don’t look near as daunting as what faces South Carolina or Florida.
Considering all that, which way would you go? I’m going to back Richt, Murray and the Georgia Bulldogs, which is an amazing statement considering where they were three weeks ago.
Third Down: Is Gene Chizik The Most Clutch Coach In America?
I’m asking the question.
Can anyone beat a Gene Chizik coached team in a close game?
Adding to the growing list of nail-biting wins for the Auburn head coach, the Tigers beat South Carolina 16-13 in somewhat of an upset Saturday
. After one of the ugliest offensive games I’ve seen all season, Tiger quarterback Barrett Trotter found tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen on the final drive to secure a big win for Auburn.
ESPN’s Skip Bayless likes to refer to the “clutch gene” as a way of deciding whether a player can succeed in the game’s final moments. Perhaps it is time we extended that conversation to coaches, as Chizik seems to be at the top of the list in that category. In this season alone, nearly all of Auburn’s wins have come in the final seconds, with Chizik’s squads finding a way to win in pressure filled situations.
Let me refresh your memory.
1. In the first game of the season, Auburn overcame a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes to defeat Utah State. The Tigers scored, recovered an onside kick, and then drove the length of the field for the win.
2. The very next week, Auburn stopped Mississippi State on the final play of the game to capture victory. The defense denied the Bulldogs from the one-yard line twice, including a fantastic tackle on the final play that left MSU signal caller Chris Relf on the one-inch line.
3. That brings us to this past Saturday, when Auburn scored on their final drive in a rematch of last year’s SEC Championship Game. In a game that featured more mistakes than actual offense, Chizik’s bunch found a way to navigate through a tough South Carolina defense to find the end zone with 1:38 left.
Folks, that is just THIS season. Chizik’s “cardiac kids” approach to winning is becoming legendary, and begs the question.: How do his teams continually perform so well in close games?
One only has to turn back the clock to January 10th of this year, as the Auburn Tigers captured a National Championship on a last second field goal to beat Oregon. Chizik did it again. Throw in a historic one-point win over Iron Bowl rival Alabama that same season for good measure. How is this happening?
Gene Chizik has 26 wins in his tenure at Auburn. In the 2 plus years (this is his third season) he’s been at the helm, the Tigers have reached heights many thought were not possible when he was first hired. He’s gone from being booed by his own fan base when he arrived to making Auburn a legit conference and national contender, and even sprinkled in a National Title win. There is no doubt that his ability to steward his teams through tight games has been the backbone of his success, and he continues to thrive in that role in 2011.
I broke down the numbers. Gene Chizik is 26-6 as Auburn’s head coach. 12 of those games, nearly half, have seen the Tigers win by seven points or less. Is that clutch enough for you?
Auburn controls its destiny in the Western Division, although it will be no easy task for them to return to Atlanta. Road games against Arkansas, LSU and Georgia remain, along with a date against rival Alabama later in the year. Despite what was widely viewed as a potential down year for Auburn, the Tigers sit at 4-1, the only blemish coming to a Clemson team that will likely be in the top 10 nationally by the time you read this. Not so bad.
I’ll say this. Auburn may not make a deep run in the SEC this year, but if your favorite team is in a close game with them in the fourth quarter, I don’t like your chances. I’ll roll the dice with Mr. Clutch himself, Gene Chizik.
Plays Under Review
--- In a game that will soon become part of the SEC schedule, Arkansas outlasted newcomer Texas A&M 42-38 in a shootout at Cowboys Stadium. The Aggies, doing their best to try and make a good impression on their new SEC brethren, stormed out to a huge lead but couldn’t hold off a Tyler Wilson comeback. I almost made this one of the Three and Out topics, but I ran out of room. Hats off to Wilson though, who set a school record in leading his Razorbacks back from the early deficit. Wilson shrugged off the cobwebs from last week’s Alabama game to light up Texas A&M. Well done sir.
--- I said in this very column one week ago that I didn’t think Alabama’s Trent Richardson would get enough carries to win the Heisman Trophy. Nick Saban must read this (I doubt it), as Richardson was featured prominently in the Crimson Tide’s thrashing of Florida. The junior runner from Pensacola, Florida, had 29 carries for 181 yards with two touchdowns. If he gets his hands on the ball that much going forward and Alabama stays undefeated (entirely possible on both counts), Richardson will surge up ballots in the coming months.
--- LSU won rather easily this week, but there could be controversy brewing in Baton Rouge. Jordan Jefferson, that announced starter going into the season, returned to the team after felony charges were dropped in his court case. Jefferson brings a unique skill set to the quarterback position, and saw action against Kentucky in a goal line package. Jarrett Lee has been solid at the helm for LSU, and now Les Miles will have to decide how to use both signal callers in the coming weeks. I doubt this disrupts how the offense will run, but it bears watching as the schedule unfolds.
--- Ole Miss kept me up longer than I’d like to be during the work part of my Saturday, going cross country to beat Fresno State 38-28. This was a much needed win for a program fighting to maintain confidence, and even though it isn’t the kind of win you usually brag about, I’m sure Houston Nutt will take it.
On a side note, for me, can we try and avoid Pacific Coast night games in the future? Just asking. Thanks.