SEC INSIDER

SEC Notebook: Gators closing in on East title

The Sports Xchange

November 01, 2015 at 12:33 pm.

Oct 31, 2015; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Florida Gators running back Kelvin Taylor (21) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs during the second half at EverBank Stadium. Florida Gators defeated the Georgia Bulldogs 27-3. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 31, 2015; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Florida Gators running back Kelvin Taylor (21) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs during the second half at EverBank Stadium. Florida Gators defeated the Georgia Bulldogs 27-3. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Back in July, media covering SEC football rated Florida no better than the fifth-best team in the East Division, a long, long shot to make it to the SEC Championship Game.

Now, with a month left in the regular season, the Gators are one victory away from officially punching their ticket to Atlanta after disposing of Georgia 27-3 on Saturday.

Their first-year coach, Jim McElwain, is not surprised.

“Yes,” McElwain replied when asked if he thought before the season that his team had a chance to make it to Atlanta. “Yes, I did.”

Why?

“Because I don’t expect to lose, and I think we should never come into an event thinking we are going to come in second,” he said. “One thing you learn real quick in this business is that there are no participation remedies.

“Doesn’t matter who we play. We go in with the mindset that we are going to put a plan together and do whatever it takes to win the football game.”

The domination of Georgia in the annual rivalry came just two weeks after the Gators stumbled at LSU. McElwain said the Gators simply learned from that defeat and kept moving forward.

“So, you ask if I am surprised, I am not,” he said. “It is just how we are built.”

With a 5-1 conference record, the worst the Gators could finish in league play would be 5-3 should they lose both of their remaining SEC games against Vanderbilt at home and at South Carolina.

Three other teams also could finish 5-3 in conference play, and Florida holds the tiebreaker over two of them, having notched wins over Tennessee and now Georgia. The third is Vanderbilt, which retains the mathematical possibility of getting a share of first place in the division but would have to win out to do so.

Stranger things have happened in college football this season, but that would be venturing into the supernatural. The Commodores are only 1-3 in the SEC and 3-5 overall after being shut out at Houston.

Who Florida’s potential opponent in Atlanta on Dec. 5 will be, however, remains very much in doubt.

LSU remains in the driver’s seat with a 4-0 conference record headed into its upcoming clash with Alabama, which is 4-1. Mississippi also is 4-1 after its 27-19 victory at Auburn. Both LSU and Ole Miss can win the division by winning out. Alabama not only needs to win out but hope that somebody knocks off Ole Miss.

That’s because the Rebels hold the tiebreaker over the Crimson Tide by virtue of their win over Alabama in September. If Ole Miss wins its three remaining games against Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State, the Rebels will earn their first championship game berth.

Three other teams — Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Mississippi State — remain mathematically in the West race with two conference losses each, but a lot of weird things would have to happen for them to get to Atlanta. Not as weird as Vandy getting a share of the East crown, but weird nevertheless.

ALABAMA (6-1 3-1)

Game: Idle.

Next: Vs. LSU, Nov. 7.

ARKANSAS (4-4, 2-2)

Game: Arkansas 63, Tennessee-Martin 28. RB Alex Collins ran for 173 yards and five touchdowns — the latter a career-high for the junior — and QB Brandon Allen passed for 265 and two more scores in the rout. A 28-point second quarter helped the Razorbacks to a 35-14 lead and, after the visiting Skyhawks scored on their first possession of the second half, the Hogs ran off four unanswered touchdowns.

Takeaway: The victory over the FCS Skyhawks won’t do anything for Arkansas’ standing in the conference, but it was a necessary one for the Hogs’ postseason chances. “It’s a win that we prepared for and earned and expected to get,” coach Bret Bielema said. “You wanted to come out of here injury-free and you wanted to feel good about what you did. It’s going to be very apparent now to have the right preparation. We’ve got to scale back a little bit just because you’re going into Week 9 of the season and you’ve got to be smart about what you’re doing as coaches and players. To have two back-to-back road games is a task in itself.” The Hogs need two wins in their final four games to get to the six-win level for bowl eligibility, and the next two are at Mississippi and at LSU. The Hogs finish at home against Mississippi State and Missouri.

Next: At Ole Miss, Nov. 7.

AUBURN (4-4, 1-4)

Game: Mississippi 27, Auburn 19. Redshirt freshman QB Sean White threw his first touchdown pass of the season — a 47-yard strike to WR Ricardo Louis — but the Tigers never could get a consistent ground game going and had to settle for field goals on their three trips into the red zone. They ended up with just 125 yards on the ground with 91 of that from RB Jovon Robinson, who saw his most extensive action of the season (18 carries) after battling nagging injuries all season.

Takeaway: Failures on third and fourth downs were critical for the Tigers. They converted only 2-of-15 third-down opportunities and failed on both of their fourth-down gambles, including one in the first half that Ole Miss cashed in one for a tying touchdown with under four minutes left in the second quarter. “You aren’t going to beat many people when you go 2-for-15 on third downs,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “Coming into this game, we were either at the top or one of the tops in the league on third downs. I thought that was a huge factor in the game.” Auburn had converted 46.7 percent of their third downs through their first seven games, which led the SEC and was 14th in the country.

Next: At Texas A&M, Nov. 7.

FLORIDA (7-1, 5-1)

Game: Florida 27, Georgia 3. Florida’s defense completed dominated Georgia, forcing five turnovers and holding the Bulldogs to a meager 223 yards in total offense and a field goal. RB Kelvin Taylor rushed for 121 yards and two touchdowns and WR Antonio Callaway had 110 yards and a touchdown on three receptions to lead the Gators, who got their first score when DB Nate Washington recovered Georgia’s muffed punt in the end zone.

Takeaway: The Gators had some questions about their offense with Treon Harris starting his second game at quarterback following the suspension of Will Greer, but Harris did just what was needed. He was only 8-of-19 passing for 155 yards but didn’t throw an interception and had a 66-yard completion to Callaway for a touchdown and a 13-0 lead. He also had 39 yards rushing, including a 19-yard scamper. “Treon made some plays when he had to, and, guys, at the end of the day the guy’s 2-0 in this ballgame as a starter,” coach Jim McElwain said. Harris was the starter when Florida beat Georgia 38-20 last year. “That means something,” McElwain said. “I am proud of him.”

Next: Vs. Vanderbilt, Nov. 7.

GEORGIA (5-3, 3-3)

Game: Florida 27, Georgia 3. Georgia got a sign things weren’t going to go its way when RB Sony Michel’s 27-yard run to Florida’s 45-yard line on the Bulldogs’ first offensive play of the game was negated by a holding penalty. The Bulldogs ran only 18 offensive plays in Florida territory, and five of those were courtesy of a fumble recovery at the Gators’ 25-yard line that led to their only points of the afternoon, and another eight were in the last quarter with the issue no longer in doubt.

Takeaway: For a second consecutive game, Georgia failed to score a touchdown. Its defense made three field goals stand up for a 9-6 victory over Missouri on Oct. 17, but the Bulldogs managed only one field goal against the Gators, not nearly enough. “We played hard, but we have to be more productive, obviously,” coach Mark Richt said. “Offensively, we have to get first downs and we have to get points on the board. We struggled in that area. We couldn’t get much running the ball, and there were some batted balls. A lot of times those things fall incomplete, but tonight they landed in their hands.” The Bulldogs turned the ball over four times on interceptions and managed only 223 yards in total offense with a meager 69 rushing.

Next: Vs. Kentucky, Nov. 7.

KENTUCKY (4-4, 2-4)

Game: Tennessee 52, Kentucky 21. The Wildcats got an early break when DT Cory Johnson returned a fumble for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, and they later went up 14-10 when QB Patrick Towles scored from a yard out, but the rest of the night belonged to the Volunteers. The Vols were up 24-14 at the half and put the game away with a 28-point third quarter when Kentucky’s special teams gave up a 100-yard kickoff return and an 84-yard punt return.

Takeaway: This was a pivotal game for the Wildcats, and it pivoted the wrong way, putting in jeopardy their hopes of making the postseason. Big plays were killers. In addition to the big kick returns, the Wildcats also gave up a 75-yard touchdown pass, a 63-yard pass that set up the Vols’ third touchdown, and a 37-yard touchdown pass, not to mention an interception that left the Vols’ needing only four yards for a touchdown. “It’s not acceptable,” coach Mark Stoops said. “It’s not OK. And not very pleased. There are a lot of things that we need to do better that we will. It starts with me. I’ve got to do a better job of getting the team prepared, our coaches prepared, and not a very good effort.” The Wildcats need two wins in their last four games to get to bowl eligibility.

Next: At Georgia, Nov. 7.

LSU (6-0, 4-0)

Game: Idle.

Next: At Alabama, Nov. 7.

MISSISSIPPI (7-2, 4-1)

Game: Mississippi 27, Auburn 19. QB Chad Kelly threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns in guiding the Rebels to their fourth 500-yard game of the season (558 total yards) and first against an SEC opponent. Ole Miss’ defense held the Tigers to just 125 yards rushing and stopped them twice on fourth down situations, the last with only 3:06 remaining in the game.

Takeaway: LSU coach Les Miles is known as the “Mad Hatter” for some of the gambles he takes, but Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze may be challenging him for that role. Freeze went for the first down on three fourth down situations, converting a fourth-and-2 at Auburn’s 41-yard line on a drive that eventually led to a touchdown and 10-10 tie. They came up short on a fourth-and-1 at Auburn’s five-yard line when Kelly was stopped short on a sneak. “The score was 13-10,” Freeze said. “Our defense was playing really good. We felt like we could go for it instead of kicking a field goal and making it a one-score game. We wanted to make it a two-score game. A two-score game can really change the game and was the most important.” The Rebels also came up short on fourth down on their final series but it came with just eight seconds left and left the Tigers deep in their own territory.

Next: Vs. Arkansas, Nov. 7.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (6-2, 1-2)

Game: Idle.

Next: At Missouri, Nov. 5.

MISSOURI (4-4, 1-4)

Game: Idle.

Next: Vs. Mississippi State, Nov. 5.

SOUTH CAROLINA (3-5, 1-5

Game: Texas A&M 35, South Carolina 28. The Gamecocks jumped in front 14-7 early but fell behind 35-21 when the Aggies scored on a long interception return. The Gamecocks had their first two possessions of the fourth quarter end in three-and-outs, and their final series went bust when QB Perry Orth was intercepted for the second time.

Takeaway: Orth had a mixed day with the two interceptions taking away from his overall game. He was 15-of-24 passing for 192 yards with a 47-yard completion to WR Hayden Hurst setting up one score and his 66-yard run setting up another. Interim coach Shaw Elliott credited Orth with playing “pretty well,” but he lamented the interception that the Aggies ran back for a touchdown. “Oooh, man, if he could have that one throw back,” Elliott said. “Sometimes you get focused on one individual, and we had another wide open receiver right behind him that would have been the tale of two plays right there. Hit the guy behind him and he goes for about 30 or 40 yards. It was just one of those misreads. He took a chance and the guy stepped in front of him and made a great play and took it back for a touchdown. That was definite a momentum-killer right there. ”

Next: At Tennessee, Nov. 7.

TENNESSEE (4-4, 2-5)

Game: Tennessee 52, Kentucky 21. The Volunteers broke the game open by scoring 45 points over the second and third quarters, getting touchdowns on pass plays covering 75 and 37 yards (WR Josh Malone and RB Jalen Hurd, respectively), a 100-yard kickoff return (DB Evan Berry), and an 84-yard punt return (DB Cameron Sutton). In addition to passing for 233 yards, QB Joshua Dobbs scored on runs of 28 and 1 yard.

Takeaway: After blowing double-digit leads in three of their four losses, the Vols are hitting their stride. “Our players have been through a lot this year and it’s kind of galvanized us as a football team and a football program.” coach Butch Jones said. “I’m really proud of them for that. We have a one-game approach. It doesn’t matter who our opponent is. Whether it’s Kentucky, it doesn’t matter.” The Vols need two wins to reach bowl eligibility, and with three of their next four at home (South Carolina, North Texas, and Vanderbilt) and the lone road game at struggling Missouri, those two wins seem well within reach.

Next: Vs. South Carolina, Nov. 7.

TEXAS A&M (6-2, 3-2)

Game: Texas A&M 35, South Carolina 28. True freshman QB Kyler Murray rushed for 156 yards and passed for 223 in his first start in leading the Aggies to 544 yards in total offense. After scoring on three consecutive offensive possessions, the Aggies added another score on NB Donovan Wilson’s 60-yard interception return to make it a 35-21 game, and the defense shut out the visiting Gamecocks in the fourth quarter, forcing two punts and coming up with an interception on the final series.

Takeaway: The Aggies simplified their running game during the week and went to a fast tempo offense, running 48 plays in the first half and 82 for the game. Obviously, Murray liked it. “Kyler is comfortable in that setting,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. “The coaching point was be quick but not in a hurry. He was able to communicate with the players, and I thought did a great job of communicating with us during the game. The biggest thing he did was not force the game, not force things but let the game come to him.” Murray had a 10-yard touchdown pass to WR Josh Reynolds to start the scoring and a one-yard touchdown run to break a 21-21 tie midway through the third quarter.

Next: Vs. Auburn, Nov. 7.

VANDERBILT (3-5, 1-3)

Game: Houston 34, Vanderbilt 0. The Commodores couldn’t get anything going offensively against the unbeaten Cougars, managing a season low of only 185 yards in total offense and suffering their first shutout of the year. The Commodores turned the ball over once on a fumble at Houston’s 29-yard line and three times on interceptions, one of which the Cougars returned 55 yards for a touchdown.

Takeaway: Vandy started true freshman QB Kyle Shurmur for a second consecutive week, and both he and sophomore Johnny McCrary, who had started the first six weeks, struggled. Shurmur completed only 3-of-11 passes for 20 yards with an interception. McCrary was 2-of-9 for just 24 yards with two interceptions. “We have to get better play out of the quarterback position, and not only that, we have to give him a better platform,” coach Derek Mason said. “We have to be able to move the pocket a little bit. I believe the platform for the quarterback was the same all night, and they kept coming with seven- and eight-man pressure, bringing it up the gut and going zero coverage.” The one bright spot offensively was RB Ralph Webb’s 99-yard rushing night.

Next: At Florida, Nov. 7.

NOTES, QUOTES

–Maybe giving a little-used quarterback his first start of the season with Florida as the opponent wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Desperate to get more out of the position after his team went without a touchdown the previous game, Georgia coach Mark Richt gave junior quarterback Faton Bauta the call when the Bulldogs took on the Gators Saturday over Greyson Lambert, who had started the previous seven games, and Lambert’s backup, Brice Ramsey.

Bauta’s previous action had been as the holder on place kicks. He came into the game with five pass attempts in his career, all in mop-up duty last year.

Not surprisingly, he struggled against the Gators, throwing four interceptions and completing just 15-of-33 pass attempts for 154 yards in Georgia’s 27-3 loss.

“Faton fought hard, and he’s a very competitive guy and has a lot of outstanding leadership skills,” Richt said. “Some balls didn’t bounce the right way. We had a couple of drops and there were some misfires too.

“We’ll have to look at the film, but overall I liked his competitive spirit and I like the fact that he competed the entire game.”

Richt said the decision to start Bauta went back to the close competition in fall camp.

“You’re wondering if Faton should’ve been the choice somewhere along the way,” Richt said. “We gave Greyson an opportunity, and we told him to hang loose. Same thing with Brice. We felt like Faton performed well enough to get the nod, and that’s what we did.”
–Mississippi WR Laquon Treadwell might have had a little extra incentive for a big game against Auburn. Treadwell suffered a season-ending broken leg in last year’s loss to the Tigers, but he said that was not a motivating factor.

“No, this wasn’t a revenge game,” he said after catching seven passes for 114 yards and a touchdown in the Rebel’s 27-19 victory. “We knew we were going to have to go out there and battle. They were going to try to win just as much as we were going to try to win.

“We just knew it was a 60-minute game, and we had to play lights out and depend on each other, and that’s what we did.”

It was a “team” thing, he said.

“It’s a great win,” he said. “I think the team needed it and we needed it. It’s another step, another win.”

In addition to his catches, Treadwell also completed a 21-yard pass to RB Jaylen Walton, making him 2-for-2 passing for the season. He had a 68-yard touchdown pass to WR Quincy Adeboyejo to open the scoring in the loss to Memphis.

–Redshirt freshman QB Sean White was a game-time decision for Auburn against Ole Miss because a knee problem that had limited him through the week, and he ended up as one of three players to take snaps for the Tigers on offense.

Junior QB Jeremy Johnson and freshman RB Kerryon Johnson also served as triggermen for the offense. Jeremy Johnson threw three passes, completing one to WR Tony Stevens for a 44-yard gain to ignite the drive for the Tigers’ final field goal. He also gained15 yards on four runs.

Kerryon Johnson ran from the wildcat formation and rushed five times for a net seven yards.

White took the majority of the snaps despite being hobbled — he wore a knee brace for all but one series — and was 12-of-28 passing for 258 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was sacked three times.

“I couldn’t move around sometimes as much as I wanted to,” White said. “I was still able to play. I felt fine. Sometimes I can’t step into it as much as I want to. But I was able to go. There are no excuses.”

Said coach Gus Malzahn: “He is a champion.”

–Sophomore Evan Berry’s 100-yard kickoff return in Tennessee’s 52-21 win at Kentucky was his third runback for a touchdown this season and the fifth 100-yard return in Tennessee history.

It tied Willie Gault’s single-season school record for most kickoff returns for touchdowns set in 1980.

Berry’s return was the only one for Tennessee all evening. Kentucky’s other three kickoffs reached the end zone for touchbacks. Berry said the coaches are OK with him bringing the ball out of the end zone rather than taking a knee for a touchback.

“They just give me the green light to do whatever,” he said. “We practice it enough, and I know my decisions and how to judge the ball.”

Berry is the younger brother of Eric Berry, an all-American for the Vols and a Pro Bowl safety for the Kansas City Chiefs who returned six kickoffs for 132 yards in his collegiate career.

Evan Berry has 16 returns this year for 681 yards (42.6 average) and had scores against Western Carolina (88 yards) and Arkansas (96).

“He had that look in his eye,” coach Butch Jones said of the return against Kentucky. “He was going to bring it out regardless.

“We have a lot of confidence in him and our entire kickoff return unit. We invest so much time in that and every time we go out on the field to return a kick, whether it’s punt return or kickoff return, everyone on our sideline expects a big play.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: “Not good. We lost, and all that counts are wins and losses.” — Georgia QB Faton Bauta evaluating his performance in the Bulldogs’ loss to Florida.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 9 IN THE SEC:

1. The SEC champion may not make the College Football Playoff. Mississippi, a two-loss team, could win the conference title by winning out, but the committee easily could pass on the Rebels and select a one-loss LSU or Alabama for one of the playoff’s four spots.

2. What is it about young quarterbacks for Texas A&M making their starting debuts against South Carolina? Last year it was sophomore Kenny Hill who passed for a school-record 511 yards in a 52-28 rout of the Gamecocks in his first career start, and this weekend it was freshman Kyler Murray running for 156 yards and passing for 223 in a 35-28 win over the Gamecocks in his first career start.

3. Maybe Kentucky should petition to get out of the SEC East. The Wildcats lost for the 30th time in the last 31 meetings with division colleague Tennessee after losing their 29th in a row to East leader Florida in September.

4. Florida could be headed for a rematch in the SEC Championship Game. The Gators, who pretty much have the East sewn up, haven’t played Alabama but have met the other two West contenders, losing to LSU 35-28 and beating Mississippi 38-10.

5. Georgia WR Malcolm Mitchell’s comeback season is being lost because of the Bulldogs’ slump. After dealing with injury issues the last two years, the senior has 39 receptions for 565 yards and four touchdowns after making four catches for 60 yards in the loss to Florida — the Bulldogs’ third defeat in their last four games.