(Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE)
A month ago we found ourselves contemplating a disappointing 3-3 record, with a daunting slate of Georgia, @Texas A&M, and @Florida on the immediate horizon. We have learned a great deal about this team since then, and most of it is quite positive. First, when we play against a non-hurry up, non-spread offense, our defense is legitimately good.
A month ago we found ourselves contemplating a disappointing 3-3 record, with a daunting slate of Georgia, @Texas A&M, and @Florida on the immediate horizon. We have learned a great deal about this team since then, and most of it is quite positive. First, when we play against a non-hurry up, non-spread offense, our defense is legitimately good. This was easy to forget as hurry-up schemes with mobile QBs torched us through the first half of the season. Against more traditional schemes, our D-Line is suddenly very effective – and can batter a QB programmed to stay in the pocket. Our running game can be dominant – or at least dominant enough to carry us – when we have faith in it. When Austyn Carta-Samuels went down to injury we abandoned the gunslinger game plan and let our running game take on a more prominent role. We beat Florida handily while completing only six passes all day. Our O-Line can take over a game when we allow it to focus on blue collar run blocking. More importantly, when we do not fall behind early, we are not forced to pass – and it is when opposing defenses know the pass is coming that our match-ups against the blitz get trickier.
Finally, and almost as if a switch were thrown, the turnover gods have begun smiling on us since the second half of the Georgia game – we won the turnover battle against Florida 4-0. We forced five Texas A&M turnovers. Georgia offered up three give-aways and a botched snap. The results speak for themselves.
After orchestrating impressive wins over Georgia and Florida, praise also needs to go to the “game manager” Patton Robinette. He was cool under fire, elusive and turnover-free in Gainesville. While not flashy against the Gators, he and the O-Line and Jerron Seymour got the job done all day long. We converted 6 of 6 in the red zone with four TDs – and we converted 2 of 2 on fourth down against the number one fourth down defense in the SEC. It was a very poised performance. Give our coaches some credit, too – we are dangerous with a bye, and the offensive and defensive game plans worked to perfection against the Gators.
Coming off a big road win, it would be easy to suffer a let-down in the 11 a.m. game against 2-7 (0-5 SEC) Kentucky. This is, surprisingly, the first SEC game all year where Vegas has favored us, and we need to remain business-like. The Wildcats have been somewhat enigmatic in that I still see significant talent on their roster – but it consistently fails to translate into wins. UK has gotten killed at home in SEC play – losing by almost 30 points per game (to Bama, Mizzou and Florida.) Oddly, they have been fairly inspired on the road – playing both SC and MSU to the wire and losing by a touchdown or less. The bottom line is: UK has not won an SEC football game since 2011 when the Wildcats spoiled Tennessee’s year on the last day of the season. That is a long drought.
We can only hope that most of the match-ups that went so heavily our way last year will still be in play Saturday. In 2012 we rolled up almost 450 yards in a 40-0 knockout of the Wildcats. Our offense piled up 29 first downs as both the passing and running games clicked. UK will likely remember that rout (as we remembered our 2012 Athens fiasco) and the Wildcats should be heavily fired up for this game. At the same time, seven of their nine opponents have rushed for over 150 yards; six have thrown for over 250 yards. If we continue to take care of the ball, we should be able to put points on the board. The key on defense will be containing another running QB, Jalen Whitlow, who had 24 carries last week versus Missouri. Our recent run defense against Florida was stellar – eventually we need to translate that kind of performance into stopping a running QB.
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The big game in the East this week is Florida at SC. Coming off a bye, the Gamecocks close out their SEC season in this contest – if they win it, Missouri needs to win at Ole Miss and versus Texas A&M in the final two games of the season to claim the East title outright. Florida’s QB Tyler Murphy is banged up and questionable – nonetheless, I half-expect Florida to rise up and play an inspired spoiler role here, but they seem too depleted by injuries to finish the job.
Georgia, at 6-3 (4-2), is still theoretically in the title hunt if Mizzou collapses completely – but the Bulldogs travel to Auburn this week, where the Tigers boast a 9-1 record. Georgia’s receiving corps returns several injured players for this game. Auburn is still favored by 3½, but this is a tough match-up for Auburn on defense. Whoever prevails – it will be a high scoring affair. Auburn is riding a six game winning streak – but Georgia will be “almost healthy” for the first time in weeks. In a game this big, I hesitate to bet against Aaron Murray.
The last time Bama beat LSU, the next week provided a memorable hangover. Bama is favored by 25 in Starkville this week, and is probably safe here. MSU is decent, however – and desperately needs an upset win to reach bowl eligibility. This one could be tight for a half until Bama shakes off the cobwebs. Ole Miss should subdue Troy. Arkansas, LSU, UT, A&M and Mizzou get the week off. UT’s bye gives the Vols a week to heal and study our film – they cannot go bowling without beating us. If we take care of business, we can secure bowl eligibility this week, prior to our showdown in Knoxville.