1 thing I learned about every SEC team in Week 9 of 2020 – Saturday Down South

Like any football fan, I’ll always be happy with 6.

By 6, I mean 6 SEC games. Somehow, someway, that’s what we got on Saturday. That happened despite the fact that teams like MSU, Arkansas, Mizzou and Kentucky were dealing with major outbreaks.

And was it the best football? No. You could tell that a handful of the SEC’s top teams were coming off long layoffs.

But I’ll always be happy with 6.

We got 12 SEC teams in action on Saturday, and after a major midseason lull in terms of actual games played, there were plenty of things to dissect:

Alabama — Not much rust for the Crimson Tide defense

Early on, we saw Alabama struggle to get off the field against Kentucky. But basically after that moment when Kentucky sent that field snap all the way to Mobile, it was all she wrote. You could make the case that was the best defensive showing of Alabama’s season. Yes, it was Kentucky, who has the worst passing defense in the SEC by a long shot. I get that. Still, that was the type of performance you hoped to see from the Alabama secondary.

Somewhat quietly, I think Alabama’s secondary has been phenomenal this year. Patrick Surtain is maximizing that wealth of potential and is now the league’s top corner, Malachi Moore is already one of the better safeties in the league and if Jordan Battle is going to jump routes like this, well, forget about it:

(He should’ve had a second pick-6 later on a jumped route, but he was a half-second late.)

On a day in which you saw both Florida and Ohio State struggle to slow down the pass, don’t take a performance like that for granted if you’re an Alabama fan.

Arkansas — The Hogs still can’t buy a call

Between that non-overturned fumble and the Jalen Catalon targeting call — which athletic director Hunter Yurachek already spoke out against — Saturday was a frustrating day for Arkansas vs. SEC officiating (it was bad officiating all around). It might not have been the same sort of obvious game-determining calls that we saw against Auburn, but Hog fans still booed the officials as the clock hit zero in Saturday’s loss. Given the year that’s been, I can’t say I blame them.

I don’t necessarily think there’s some conspiracy theory to prevent Arkansas from winning. If you think about it, the Hogs are a much better storyline for the SEC than an Auburn or LSU team who isn’t in Playoff contention. Keep that in mind.

Still. Sooner or later, a game-changing call will benefit Sam Pittman, who is still my SEC Coach of the Year.

Auburn — A little rust? Sure, but not 60 minutes worth of it

Did the Tigers fall behind by 10 at home after going 3 weeks between games? Yep. Did the Tigers also then score 27 consecutive points en route to a 2-score win against Tennessee? Yep. Auburn’s run defense without K.J. Britt remains an issue, but that secondary continues to deliver. Smoke Monday’s 100-yard pick-6 was the monumental game-changer. Owen Pappoe’s pressure certainly helped, too.

That was a game in which Auburn could’ve been in serious trouble after losing Tank Bigsby to a hip injury early. That wasn’t necessarily a banner day from Bo Nix, either. But between the wide-open touchdown from Anthony Schwartz and the string of defensive stops to start the second half, that was more than enough to beat a 1-trick Tennessee team. The Tigers are firmly in the Top 25 heading into the Iron Bowl, which didn’t always seem like a forgone conclusion.

Florida — The Gators aren’t a finished product on the offensive line

An area where we’ve seen major year-to-year improvements from Dan Mullen’s team is up front. Kyle Trask has been protected well, and while this ground game isn’t about to yield a 1,000-yard rusher, it’s mostly been effective when called upon. Against Vanderbilt on Saturday, it felt a bit like 2019 at times. That’s on a day in which Florida had 173 rushing yards, though I’d argue a good amount of that felt like second-effort runs from Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis.

Against Vanderbilt’s 3-man front, I thought there were a few too many times when it looked like the Gators were a bit overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage. I know. Trask was only sacked once. But that’s the type of game in which you’d expect Florida to dominate in the trenches against a Vandy defense that’s been depleted all year. That didn’t necessarily happen on Saturday.

Georgia — JT Daniels is ready

The biggest thing we learned all week was about Daniels and how comfortable he looked in his first start at Georgia. The USC transfer settled into the game nicely and started showing off that 5-star arm. How successful was it? That was the first time a Georgia quarterback hit the 400-yard mark since Aaron Murray in 2013. Yeah, that’s something.

Daniels looked like someone who had an entire spring and fall with the wideouts. Jermaine Burton has never looked better, and George Pickens played arguably the best game of his frustrating 2020 season. Todd Monken’s offense looked right. Granted, it was against an MSU squad who only had 49 scholarship players available and was missing multiple starters on the defensive line.

Still, Georgia fans are always going to have the “what might’ve been” with Daniels, and understandably so. We don’t know what exactly his health was in practice, and one would think that Smart would’ve turned to him had he seen that type of effort. Probably. Daniels said he’s been cleared since Arkansas and that it was a coach’s decision not to play him. That’s a tough look for Smart given what we’ve seen from the quarterback position in recent weeks.

Kentucky — Those defensive issues were a legit concern

The Wildcats were down 10 players because of COVID-related issues, so you knew the deck was stacked against them defensively. Never mind the fact that just 9 days ago, the Wildcats owned the SEC’s No. 1 scoring defense. Saturday at Alabama turned into a frustrating realization. That is, Kentucky’s defense isn’t very good when it can’t get turnovers (sans that Kelvin Joseph interception against DeVonta Smith). I suppose we didn’t necessarily learn that. We did, however, see it play out against the nation’s best offense.

Before the Vandy game, Kentucky had only allowed 31-plus points in 2 of the previous 33 games. The Wildcats matched that in the last 2 games. That doesn’t bode well for next week against Florida.

LSU — Hey, is that … grit?

I didn’t know if LSU had unofficially opted out in 2020. Given what we saw against Auburn a couple weeks ago, it was fair to wonder if the Tigers were going to be willing to play 60 minutes. And in a game in which they lost both Eli Ricks (targeting) and Derek Stingley (injury), LSU did something it hasn’t done all year — it found a way to rally late.

Think about it. Vanderbilt and South Carolina were both blowout wins in which everything came easy. Mizzou and MSU were winnable games in which the Tigers didn’t deliver anything close to a complete performance, and naturally, they ended up in the loss column. Credit T.J. Finley for engineering the go-ahead drive that’s eluded LSU all year.

That felt like a game that Arkansas was going to come back and win, and not the other way around. Perhaps if a call or 2 had gone their way, that would’ve been different, but that’s not LSU’s fault. Ed Orgeron hasn’t had many moments where he deserved praise in 2020, but keeping his team engaged enough to rally on the road against a pesky Arkansas team was perhaps his most impressive accomplishment of this frustrating season.

MSU — The Bulldogs haven’t opted out of 2020

With 49 scholarship players, MSU didn’t have to play that game. Lord knows the Bulldogs would’ve had every excuse in the book had they gone out and gotten smacked by Georgia. That, however, didn’t happen. The run defense was exceptional, and while Daniels did his thing, let’s not overlook the fact that MSU had a chance to win that game late. Did it happen? No, but when you’re sitting on 2 wins and down to 49 scholarship players, that performance could’ve been significantly worse than what it was.

Credit Zach Arnett for having that MSU defense ready to roll against a talented Georgia offensive line. That’s not necessarily a game that’s going to show Mike Leach is well on his way to building a giant in Starkville, but those are the key “are they still buying in” moments that you hope to see in Year 1. Tip of the cap, MSU.

Mizzou — The defense does travel

I love what we’ve seen from Nick Bolton and this Mizzou defense during some key moments in 2020. We saw that pass breakup on the goal line at the end of the LSU win. On Saturday, we saw Devin Nicholson step in front of Luke Doty’s pass to close the door on what would’ve been a somewhat improbable South Carolina win. Instead, it turned into the Tigers’ third win of the season, and first road win of the Eli Drinkwitz era.

Did it help Mizzou that Shi Smith went down in the first few minutes? Absolutely. But they totally contained Collin Hill and while Doty found some running room with his legs, he led 1 touchdown drive. I’m not sure Ryan Walters gets enough credit for the job he’s done with a Mizzou defense who looks like one of the league’s better units.

South Carolina — Luke Doty is QB1 for the rest of 2020 … but who knows after that

It’s telling that a guy walks off the field with 1 touchdown drive having thrown a game-ending interception … yet he’s clearly the guy. Doty is, as many South Carolina fans have been hoping for, entrenched as QB1. At least he should be. As much as Mike Bobo loves Collin Hill from their days at Colorado State, even he can’t argue that Doty provides a different sort of spark. It was needed after Smith went down early.

Doty’s running ability makes him a much more dangerous weapon than Hill, who has fallen off significantly in terms of passing efficiency. There’s no reason not to give him the ball each game moving forward.

As for beyond 2020, it’s too difficult to say if Doty is going to mesh will with Will Muschamp’s replacement, who figures to be an offensive mind. That’s the strange thing about Doty’s performance. As much as fans want to trust in “a glimpse of the future,” the future is totally up in the air right now.

Tennessee — Even Eric Gray going off can’t save Tennessee from being Tennessee

I thought Gray was fantastic. He moves so effortlessly that he makes a 30-yard run feel like it’s 10-15. One would think that with Gray going off against the Auburn defense, Jim Chaney would stick with that, right? Well, 1 ill-timed pick-6 and that was all she wrote. Irrelevant was the fact that Gray finished with 222 yards from scrimmage. Tennessee had just 17 points to show for it.

The Vols’ second-half adjustments continue to be an embarrassment. In addition to losing their 5th game in a row by double digits — that was the first time in program history that happened — the Vols have been outscored 108-14 in the second half in the last 5 games. That’s hard to do. That’s not just quarterback play, either. That’s dysfunction from the top down. If that continues against Vandy, perhaps Tennessee will start thinking awfully hard about that $13 million buyout for Pruitt.

Vanderbilt — I’m a Ken Seals believer

I’ve been a little bit in “wait-and-see” mode with the true freshman. His first game north of 150 yards came against that awful Ole Miss defense. But since then? Three of his last 4 games were 300-yard performances, and he also had multiple passing scores 3 times during that stretch. I thought even in a 17-point showing against the Gators, he looked the part. He didn’t get rattled by Todd Grantham’s pressure, and he stepped into throws with confidence.

The connection that Seals and Chris Pierce Jr. have is obvious (he’s got 5 scores in that 4-game stretch). Perhaps finding that go-to option has been the difference. Whatever the case, Seals has the look of a guy who is going to improve a lot once he actually gets a normal offseason and Vandy develops some talent at the receiver position.

In a year in which we’re seeing coaches like Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt show such hesitancy to start true freshmen, Seals is proof that a pandemic-fueled offseason shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for turning to a first-year signal-caller.