End of First Quarter, Who’s Really Still in the Game?

Lyn Scarbrough

September 19, 2017 at 10:24 pm.

Sep 16, 2017; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs (49) puts the pressure on Colorado State Rams quarterback Nick Stevens (7) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Photo Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 16, 2017; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs (49) puts the pressure on Colorado State Rams quarterback Nick Stevens (7) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Photo Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Many times, maybe most times, you can’t tell what the outcome of a game will be at the end of the first quarter.

Take this past Saturday. East Carolina led Virginia Tech, 17-7, after 15 minutes. The final … Hokies 64, Pirates 17.

Tulane led Oklahoma in Norman, 14-7, in the first quarter. The final … Sooners 56, Green Wave 14.

Even the smaller schools aren’t immune. The Michigan Tech Huskies led after one period over the Grand Valley State Lakers, 7-0, before being crushed, 42-7, in their Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference opener.

So, while it’s no guarantee of the final outcome, evaluating the first quarter can give insight into what might happen by halftime.

With three games of the 12-game schedule in the books for most SEC teams, which teams are really still in the game after the first quarter?

The Favorites are still Alabama and Georgia.

The Crimson Tide, everybody’s preseason choice, is still favored by a majority of voters in the national polls. The wins have been impressive on the scoreboard and Bama should stay at the top until somebody proves they shouldn’t be there. This team shouldn’t have a weakness and shouldn’t lose a regular season game.

But, is everything as it should be? Alabama ranks 64th nationally in total offense despite having played two non-powers (Fresno State, Colorado State) at home and its pass completion percentage ranks 40th nationally.

The defense, acclaimed as football’s best, has raised even more questions. Fresno State, which entered this season with the nation’s longest losing streak, had 18 first downs and almost 300 yards at Bryant-Denney two weeks ago. Last Saturday, Colorado State had 22 first downs, almost 400 yards and converted on 10 third downs.

Still, being realistic, there’s nobody before December that should be favored over Alabama. The record should be 12-0 heading into the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. Right now the polls say this is the No. 1 team in the country, but after watching Clemson, Oklahoma, Penn State and Oklahoma State, it hasn’t looked that way on the field.

Like Bama, Georgia continues to look like the best team in its division. The Bulldogs have the SEC’s most significant non-conference road victory, winning at Notre Dame. This may not be a championship contending Fighting Irish team, but it is Notre Dame, and the ‘Dawgs played with a first-time starting true freshman quarterback and had to come from behind late.

Both favorites face what could be challenging tests on Saturday, each playing one of the teams that have been …

Pleasant Surprises … Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Kentucky.

On paper, Vandy could present a big hurdle for Alabama, which plays in Nashville. The Commodores rank No. 1 nationally in total defense, No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 1 in fewest passing yards allowed, No. 2 in tackles for loss and in the Top 30 in rushing defense. They are 3-0 for the first time since 2011; their win over Kansas State was the first over a ranked non-conference team in 70 years. And, the ‘Dores feel like they have something to prove. Despite everything listed here, they were left out of this week’s Top 25. In fact, six other SEC teams are ranked above them and they opened as an 18-point underdog to Bama at home.

Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, the game isn’t played on paper. Look for Alabama to get it together, the Commodores to meet reality and the Crimson Tide to comfortably cover the line. But, bowl eligibility for Vandy does look more plausible
now than it appeared three weeks ago.

The visiting Bulldogs have a better chance to pull the upset in Athens. Mississippi State has the SEC’s best quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald and his supporting cast is playing much better than predicted. Nobody was surprised at the 2-0 start, and a few picked the win over LSU … but not 37-7.

State will travel from Starkville with momentum and confidence. Opposite Fitzgerald is a unit that is No. 4 nationally in total defense, No. 6 in passing yards allowed, No. 6 in scoring defense and in the Top 30 in rushing defense. This is not a one-man team. If State can win in Sanford Stadium, they will become the most likely threat for Alabama in the division … at least for another week. (The Tide plays in Starkville on Nov. 11.)

The third pleasant surprise team, Kentucky, has the best chance to make a statement – and end one the most dominating streaks in college football – when Florida plays in Lexington. The Gators have won 30 consecutive games against The Wildcats. That losing streak is the longest in the nation and the longest in Southeastern Conference history in any series.

But things seem different this time. Florida, with zero offense in the season-opening disaster against Michigan, avoided back-to-back losses to Tennessee on a miracle game-winning Hail Mary pass with no time remaining. The Gators had only 14 first downs and were outgained on their home field by the struggling Volunteers. The Wildcats (3-0, 1-0) with a win at South Carolina picked up its second road victory of the season and is in position to become Georgia’s biggest threat in the division with a win.

The Gators are among several conference teams that could still be league contenders, but must overcome weaknesses that have caused legitimate questions.

Auburn may be the biggest mystery after one quarter. Despite the 2-1 start and national ranking, many fans are critical, near hostile, in voicing the dissatisfaction that has come from an 11-sack outing at Clemson and five lost turnovers against Mercer which caused a dominating game on the field to have a shockingly dangerous margin on the scoreboard.

Defensively, few have been better. After three games, the Tigers are No. 2 nationally in total defense, No. 6 in tackles for loss, No. 9 in fewest passing yards allowed, No. 11 in scoring defense and No. 12 in rushing defense. And, that comes despite playing at Clemson, the team that one week later amassed 610 yards and scored 47 points in massacring Louisville on the road. The kicking game is solid and the offense has been adequate against opponents not named Clemson. This team could win a lot or lose several more. By halftime of the season, fans will have better idea of which will be right.

After the debacle in Starkville, there may be only one solution for LSU – fire Les Miles … oh, never mind …

So what other solution can the Tigers find? This is an extremely young team, playing as many as 20 freshmen. Even so, you can’t explain away a 30-point loss. Thirty points! To Mississippi State!

Fortunately, Syracuse and Troy come to Baton Rouge before the end of September. While nothing is certain … just ask Baylor … LSU should be 4-1 before playing at Florida and entertaining Auburn in early October.

When Texas A&M and Arkansas meet in Arlington, Tex. on Saturday, this will determine which team realistically stays alive and which one has a head coach with his seat getting hotter. The Aggies have already suffered the second greatest comeback defeat in college football history to UCLA, a team that lost to Memphis a few days ago. The Razorbacks were hammered, 28-7 at home, by TCU, a team they beat on the road last season. Critics are loud in College Station and Fayetteville.

Ole Miss lost to California on the road in a game that it led 10-0 after one quarter (there that is again), and led 16-0 at intermission before the Bears outscored them in the second half, 20-0. With no bowl trip possible, NCAA action ongoing, and facing trips to Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky and Mississippi State, positive results by halftime of the season, or most anytime, don’t seem likely.

In the East, South Carolina’s high hopes came crashing down as Kentucky stopped several late Gamecock scoring threats in the upset win, while Carolina was losing Deebo Samuel, the SEC’s most dynamic scoring threat, for the season with a leg injury. But, rebounding by the season’s halftime is not out of reach. The ‘Cocks next three games are winnable, before the last six games that are more challenging.

Tennessee has an off week to recover from the gut-wrenching loss in Gainesville. Not really, the Volunteers play UMass, but that’s about the same thing. After that, it’s Georgia and South Carolina in Knoxville, then at Alabama and at Kentucky. If more than one of those is a loss, the coach’s seat will be getting hotter there, too.

Then, there’s Missouri. The team that opened the season with 72 points and 815 total yards against Missouri State, had three points and 203 yards against Purdue.

Three points! Against Purdue! At home!

Missouri won’t contend for any titles and almost for sure won’t play a game after the week of Thanksgiving. But, the Tigers do host Auburn, Florida and Tennessee. A win over any of those would make its season and there are still a few other possible wins.

The SEC’s second quarter starts on Saturday. If it’s anything like the first one, there will be more surprises, more disappointments and many more answers when the conference reaches halftime.