With the last dumpster full of empty bottles, discarded programs, hotdog wrappers and other assorted debris safely deposited in the landfill, and the last drunken Virginia Tech fan released from the Fulton County jail, it is time to survey the results achieved by SEC teams on opening weekend of the college football season, and make predictions for weekend number two.
Vanderbilt at LSU
When was the last time that a Vandy / LSU game promised to be the game to watch in the SEC?
LSU managed to return from Seattle with a win over Washington, but did so without its swagger. Only the disparity in raw athletic ability between the Tigers and the Huskies, who are burdened by four years of woefully poor recruiting by the departed Ty Willingham, allowed LSU to salvage a victory.
To say that Washington outplayed LSU is an understatement. A team on a 14-game losing streak piled up 478 yards of total offense, had more yards rushing than LSU, made 25 first downs, converted 11 of 19 third downs and outscored the Bayou Tigers 10—7 in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, out on West End Avenue we might be seeing another Music City Miracle in the making as Vanderbilt dominated Western Carolina. The ‘Dores offense, led by the freshman tandem of Zac Stacy and Warren Norman, rushed for 433 yards -- the second highest total of rushing yards in the nation last weekend.
How can you tell that this Vanderbilt team may not be like previous editions? Consider this: The ‘Dores had only one lost fumble while recovering three from the Catamounts, VU was only penalized three times for 24 yards, and in the second half, Vandy held the football for nearly 21 minutes.
So what does this mean for the game this Saturday? The combination costume party and gourmet ethnic food festival that is an LSU home football game will be in full swing when the ‘Dores arrive in Baton Rouge. No doubt, the LSU players will be aware of the harsh criticism their sloppy performance in Seattle has provoked.
As much as my heart would like to pick the Commodores in an upset, my head tells me that despite the great strides Bobby Johnson has made in recruiting and coaching, LSU still has the talent advantage over Vanderbilt. Can Vandy pull the upset? Can the ‘Dores go on the road into a hostile SEC environment and beat a team that is only two years removed from a BCS title? If the difference in the game comes down to coaching, Vanderbilt will win. If not … The pick: LSU to win late.
South Carolina at Georgia
Georgia was the lone SEC team to taste defeat last weekend, and the Dawgs’ loss to Oklahoma State was well deserved. In spite of an excellent 11-play, 80-yard opening drive that resulted in a touchdown, Georgia ultimately proved to be unable to sustain a credible offense.
Meanwhile, on Thursday night, Steve Spurrier’s Fighting Chickens beat North Carolina State in a defensive contest reminiscent of an era before spread offenses, “Wild [fill in the mascot]” formations and high-octane passing games.
The winner of the game in Athens this weekend will have the inside track to finish in the No. 2 spot in the SEC East. Before the season I picked Georgia as the runner-up to Florida with South Carolina coming in third. Don’t be surprised if South Carolina leaves Sanford Stadium with a perfect record, but prudence leads me to give Georgia the edge that comes from playing at home. The pick: Georgia.
Mississippi State at Auburn:
With its 24-point victory over Louisiana Tech, Auburn first-year head coach Gene Chizik raised his career victory total from 5-19 to 6-19, and the Auburn folks are deliriously happy. “Auburn football is fun again,” declared the Montgomery Advertiser, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Auburn sports information department.
Mississippi State, the other reclamation project in the SEC West, rolled out a similar performance against Jackson State. The Starkville Bulldogs amassed 410 yards of offense on their way to victory. But the win was tainted by 12 penalties and four fumbles, two of which were lost.
So neither team has been truly tested. Both teams are under the leadership of new coaching staffs. Between the two, State has the more proven quarterback in Tyson Lee. MSU’s advantage at the most critical position, along with the advantage the Bulldogs enjoy on the sidelines with first-year head coach Dan Mullen, are enough to overcome any edge that Auburn might enjoy from playing in the cow pasture that is Jordan Hare Stadium. The pick: Mississippi State.
UCLA and Tennessee
A couple of years ago, I was reading a UT Game Day program prior to kickoff and found a section devoted to “Interesting Facts About Neyland Stadium.” Until I read that, I had no idea that Neyland was the home of “the world’s largest ‘Vols’ sign.” Imagine that! You are probably just as stunned by this fact as I was. I had thought that maybe the “Vols” sign in London’s Trafalgar Square was the world’s largest.
Last Saturday, the world’s largest “Vols” sign and the Volunteer faithful willing to attend a game against a Division I team ranked 120 out of 120 witnessed UT beat the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. They also witnessed their team commit two turnovers on three fumbles and an interception the first two times they had the ball.
They also had to endure watching Western hold UT scoreless in the first quarter and match the Vols point for point in the third. In addition, Tennessee committed four turnovers in the game; two Jonathan Crompton interceptions, a lost fumble and a turnover on downs on the UT side of the 50-yard line.
But for the life of me, I can’t fathom the thinking behind Lane Kiffin’s decision to attempt a pass on 4th and 4 from the UT 46 yard line with a four-touchdown lead on the first possession of the second half. Memo to Kiffin: that kind of “Riverboat Gambler” junk will get you beat by any team in this league.
By comparison, out in Pasadena, led by redshirt freshman Kevin Prince at quarterback, UCLA beat San Diego State 33-14. The Bruins special teams unit contributed to the point total with a blocked field goal attempt returned for a touchdown.
Like the Vols, the Bruins are committed to a youth movement. A total of 17 true and redshirt freshmen started or saw significant action in UCLA’s season opener. Look for UCLA’s freshmen to outplay UT’s freshmen. Players who are accustomed to playing in the Rose Bowl — even first-year players — will not be intimidated by Neyland Stadium, no matter how large the “Vols” sign is. The pick: UCLA.