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    The Monday "Three and Out"

    By: Eric SanInocencio
    SEC Digital Network

    Birmingham, Ala. – For the first time this year, it finally felt like fall. Driving on my way to work, I started to notice leaves changing colors. I actually wore jeans this week when I headed out at night, and brought a jacket with me just in case.

    We have been playing Southeastern Conference football for nearly two months now, but this is the first week it actually felt like that should be the case. Fall is my favorite season of the year, and I’m glad it is finally here.

    When football season officially begins, it is hard to see the finish line down the road. The SEC features 12 games a week at that point, none in conference play, and the Georgia Dome seems far off in the distance. That isn’t the case now, as the schedule has shrunk and Atlanta is getting closer.

    Who took steps in that direction this week? Let’s find out in this version of the “Three and Out”.

    First Down: Connor Shaw Earns The Job

    South Carolina’s Connor Shaw has had an interesting past two weeks. After spending the first five games of the season as a casual bystander, the sophomore quarterback is now in the spotlight. He is the starting man under center for the 12th ranked Gamecocks, and in the middle of a well publicized switch at the game’s most scrutinized position.

    Former signal caller Stephen Garcia, who I’ve referenced here many times, is no longer at the helm. Despite Garcia’s inconsistency, head coach Steve Spurrier’s squad still got off to a 4-0 start, sitting among the nation’s top 10 squads. Many writers opined that USC won in spite of Garcia, but no changes were made. Shaw sat and watched.

    That all came crashing down on October 1st. After another ugly Gamecock offensive performance, this one resulting in a 14-9 loss to Auburn, the legions of USC fans were restless. Garcia continued to struggle, and many fans and media members began to call for Shaw. Spurrier himself began to field questions from the press on this very issue.

    After much public debate, the “Head/Old Ball Coach” (I'm not sure which name it is now) made the switch. Shaw took the field with the first team as the starter against Kentucky. Shaw excelled, throwing four touchdowns while leading USC to a convincing 54-3 victory. The SEC recognized him as “Offensive Player of the Week”, as the Flowery Branch, Georgia, native passed for 311 yards.

    Statistics weren’t all that Shaw provided in my mind. Watching the Gamecocks in their win over the Wildcats, you could see a change in personality. The usually tense atmosphere surrounding the South Carolina offense was gone, replaced by a freewheeling mentality that people expect to see from a Spurrier coached team.

    You can make the argument that the pressure wasn’t as high because of the opponent, but after weeks of an unbalanced attack (Marcus Lattimore left, Marcus Lattimore right) the playbook was alive.

    Despite the Auburn loss, USC was still 5-1, and in complete control of their destiny back to Atlanta. In an ironic twist, Garcia was officially dismissed from the team a few days later, ending his tumultuous era at South Carolina. Spurrier effectively passed over the keys to Shaw, both on the field and in the locker room.

    The first true test of Shaw’s mettle came this week in Starkville. On the road for the first time as an SEC quarterback, Shaw was headed into hostile territory. How would Shaw hold up? Did Spurrier really make the right move?

    For three and a half quarters, I don’t think I could have given you a definitive answer. Shaw struggled, as both quarterbacks did, to hold on to the football and effectively move the chains. Mississippi State bottled up Lattimore, forcing Shaw into the uncomfortable role of having to do it all. A smart move by MSU head man Dan Mullen, as Shaw had yet to prove that he could win a game by himself. For those first three and a half quarters, it didn’t look like he could.

    But, quarterbacks are defined by the fourth quarter (ask Tony Romo). They are judged by the ability to lead in a final drive, to engineer the late comeback and win the game. After a State field goal gave them a 10-7 lead, Shaw had his moment.

    With 9:44 left in the game, Shaw huddled with his teammates at their own 21-yard line, 79 yards away from victory.

    The uncertainty about Shaw’s experience, Spurrier’s decision to give him the reins of the offense, it all came down to this. With a talented SEC defense on the other side of the field, could Shaw do it? Was he the guy for South Carolina? We quickly found out.

    He was masterful, orchestrating a 12-play drive, culminating in a four-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery. Perhaps more importantly, that drive took six minutes off the clock, erasing nearly half of the final quarter. Shaw did it with both his arms and his legs, finding creative ways to pick up first downs. The drive was bookended by his arm though, as he began it completing a 19-yard pass and ended it tossing that fade to Jeffery.

    Media and fans have been calling for Connor Shaw to be South Carolina’s starting quarterback for a long time. In the aftermath of a key 14-12 win in Starkville, it might have been the first moment when Shaw truly deserved the job.

    Second Down: Scouting The Heavyweights

    It seems like the entire college football world is counting down to November 5th. No matter which poll you look at, Alabama and LSU are at the top, considered two of the best teams in the country.

    Both took care of business on Saturday, picking up conference wins in rather dominating fashion. LSU unveiled its two-quarterback system a little further, as Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson combined to put up 38 points against Tennessee. Alabama relied on its defense, and the legs of Trent Richardson, powering through an undermanned Ole Miss squad 52-7.

    Nothing to see here right? With both teams winning in blowouts, you’d think there isn’t much to analyze. Not true. Watching a team play is an opportunity to break them down, to see what makes them great.

    I put my “coaching hat” on Saturday afternoon, watching both games and trying to find areas that could be vulnerable in the future.

    Here’s what caught my eye.

    --- If You Are An Alabama Fan (Richardson And A Cloud of Dust)
    LSU has a vaunted defense. They are littered with future NFL draft picks, and might be the only team (other than your favorite) that can solely rely on its defense to win a National Championship. But, Tennessee exposed a chink in that armor on Saturday, a small deficiency that can perhaps be exploited by one of Alabama’s strengths.

    The Volunteers ran the ball well, netting 111 yards on the ground against LSU. Tauren Poole had some individual success, running for 70 yards a touchdown.

    Again, not a Heisman caliber performance, but Tennessee’s running game isn’t nearly as good as Alabama’s.  As a matter of fact, the Vols are the league’s worst rushing offense, gaining only 84 yards on the ground per game.

    Alabama is the SEC’s best, gashing teams for over 215 yards per game. Trent Richardson, who to me is the conference’s best shot at winning a Heisman Trophy, is on a roll, having run for over 100 yards in six straight games.

    Alabama can run the rock with the best of them. After Tennessee’s success doing the same in a losing effort against LSU, Crimson Tide fans should see a possible opening for when these two squads meet in three weeks.

    --- If You Are An LSU Fan (Score Early And Often)
    I compared Alabama’s defense a few weeks back to a video game team, and that comparison makes even more sense with the way they’ve played lately. In the Crimson Tide’s seven games this year, they have given up a total of 49 points. I wasn’t a math major, but I think that is a touchdown per game. Considering some of the offenses they’ve matched up with (Arkansas, Florida) that’s pretty impressive.

    What makes Alabama’s defense special is their ability to adapt, making adjustments on the fly to what teams are trying to do to them. What that means is that they become harder to score against as the game goes on, wearing you down on both sides of the ball and capturing the win. This is an NFL type formula, and Nick Saban uses it in college better than anyone.

    If they have shown any hole at all, it is that it takes a small amount of time before they become totally locked into what the other sideline is up to. In two of their four SEC games this year, the Crimson Tide gave up a touchdown on their opponent’s first possession. Against Arkansas, they gave up a score in the first quarter, as the Razorbacks were tied with Alabama after the opening stanza. Against Florida and Ole Miss, Saban’s squad gave up scores less than four plays into the game. Alabama’s defense is susceptible, well as susceptible as an all-time great defense can be, early in the ballgame.

    This vibes well with LSU, as the Bayou Bengals play their best football while ahead. Other than against Oregon (the first game of the year), LSU had jumped out to leads against every other opponent. In critical matchups against West Virginia and Florida, LSU outscored both teams a combined 51-10 in the first half.

    To the average fan, Alabama and LSU did everything they needed to Saturday. But, what we can learn from these wins is that each squad still has kinks to work out before they are completely ready to square off in Tuscaloosa in November.

    Third Down: The “Ides Of The SEC”

    I saw the movie “Ides of March” this week, a political thriller centered on a presidential campaign. The film featured a who’s who of big name actors, including box office stars like George Clooney.

    What made the picture great (one of the best films I’ve seen in years), wasn’t the star power at the top, it was the depth that shined beneath the scenes. The two “nominees” for the White House were the back story, and rarely featured outside of Clooney’s character, Governor Mike Morris. The plot of the film centered on the details, where a pair of campaign managers (Ryan Gosling and Paul Giamatti) waged tactical war on each other’s candidates.

    It gave you a look behind the curtain seldom seen in politics, a glimpse at the second tier work needed to achieve an election victory. The everyday public fails to realize that voting for a candidate is rarely about the person they see on a poster, and more about the young interns and decision makers that run his message. It was a fantastic film to see.

    While watching games this Saturday, the thought occurred to me. What teams would fit the version of the “Ides of the SEC”?

    This analogy works because you have to two main “candidates”, Alabama and LSU, squads everyone mentions as the league’s main attractions. You can argue about which team is better, but no reasonable college football fan can debate that any other SEC squad deserves to be mentioned in that class.

    While that may be the common sense approach, it obscures the fact that the SEC is deeper than people realize. When you have two dominant programs that appear so much better than everyone else, it is easy to hold everyone else to that standard. That may not entirely be fair.

    Remember, the SEC’s depth will play a part in whether Alabama or LSU (or any SEC Champion) will reach New Orleans for a shot at the National Title. BCS rankings involve human polls and schedule analyzers, combining different formulas to decide the country’s top two teams.

    The stronger the conference is from top to bottom, the better each victory for the SEC’s champion looks. This will be even more important should either LSU or Alabama lose a game, since their strength of schedule could potentially vault them over an undefeated team from inferior conferences. Having a strong “second tier” separates this league from the rest of the country, giving the SEC a built-in advantage over the field. That depth is crucial and has been a key in the league’s success. In the SEC, you are forced to compete against great programs, which only make you better.

    So, who is next? That is a question I’m not sure we can answer at this point, but still it can be fun to try and figure it out.

    After the undefeateds, two SEC teams sit with one loss. South Carolina, fresh off their victory over Mississippi State, leads the Eastern Division and is 5-1 overall. Arkansas, who had a bye this week, is also 5-1, their only blemish coming at the hands of Alabama. Both teams have quality wins (USC over Georgia, Arkansas over Auburn) and are ranked in the nation’s top 15. Let’s dig further.

    Georgia, back from a 0-2 beginning that was supposed to end the world, is now 5-2. More importantly, they are 4-1 in the SEC, and are a serious threat to go to Atlanta. Auburn, who was supposed to be in the midst of a rebuilding year, is 5-2, having defeated South Carolina and Florida.

    How do we decide who among this group who is best?

    Watch your television.

    The best part about the SEC is that these teams decide it on the field, week in and week out. Georgia still plays Auburn, South Carolina plays Arkansas, not to mention some of them will strap it up against Alabama and LSU. That’s just the way this league works.

    Not to spoil the movie, but in the end, the “Ides of March” election is decided by the stronger “team”. In the SEC, it will be a group of squads that decide how the league’s top “candidates” (Alabama and LSU) are viewed on a national stage. Let’s make sure the SEC fans get out the “vote”.

    Plays Under Review

    --- I spent most of Saturday night watching the Auburn-Florida game, and only caught the final seconds of a crazy finish in Nashville. Georgia fought off a late blocked punt to beat Vandy 33-28. Commodore head coach James Franklin has his team playing well, and other than a loss at Alabama have been in every game this season. What a great game in Nashville.

    --- I didn’t mention it in “First Down”, but South Carolina star running back Marcus Lattimore left the game late with an apparent knee injury. We found out Sunday that Lattimore is out for the season. Big loss for the Gamecocks.  I wish him a speedy recovery.

    --- If you haven’t seen Trent Richardson’s touchdown run against Ole Miss, you missed a thing of beauty. You know how some players have that Heisman moment? Kind of like Mark Ingram’s tip toe run against Florida in the SEC Championship Game or Desmond Howard striking a "Heisman" pose against Ohio State. That was Richardson’s moment. He has to be near the top of the Heisman voting right now. As a comparison, Richardson has more rushing yards at this point in the season than Mark Ingram did in 2009, the year he was named college’s top player. What a beast.