With Florida’s season frozen for now, let’s take some time to assess where the rest of the division is in relation to the Gators. UF has already defeated South Carolina, and Vandy is a mess on a couple of levels. We’ll leave them out for the moment. Here is where the rest of the teams are through four weeks of the SEC schedule.
Stetson Bennett is doing very well considering the circumstances. He’s the former fourth-stringer, running an offense that no one got spring practice on that was designed for not one but two other quarterbacks (Jamie Newman and D’Wan Mathis) with completely different skill sets.
“Considering the circumstances” doesn’t mean “in an absolute sense”. Against Alabama, he looked like a former fourth-stringer running an offense that’s being adjusted on the fly by a new coordinator. His passing success rate for the first half was 30.8%. It finished at 28.6%. To my eye, it didn’t look like he reads the whole field based on some wide open targets apparently didn’t see. He’s not good enough to make UGA a national title contender this year.
The run attack kept the Bulldogs in the game for as long as they were, though it hasn’t been superlative in every contest. Alabama’s linebacker play is shockingly bad by its own standards for the second year going. In Georgia’s 27-6 smothering of Auburn, the Bulldogs’ run game was more than adequate but not outstanding. Tennessee held lead back Zamir White to 2.3 yards per rush on 22 carries, though the other tailbacks had fine games in much more limited duty.
Bennett can still hit those 15-19 yard in routes to tight ends over the middle that Georgia has been picking up first downs with since 2002, and the defense is as good as advertised against everyone but Bama’s NFL receivers. They’re still the frontrunner in the division for a reason, but they’re also in that frustrating zone of being near but not up to Alabama’s quality.
It says something about how the SEC has changed in recent years that Kentucky going full-on into run ‘n defense mode counts as zigging while the rest of the conference zags. I think they’d like to throw more than they have the past couple years, but the ground game is their strength. Terry Wilson ran for more yards on Ole Miss (129) than he threw for in the Wildcats’ wins over Mississippi State (73) and Tennessee (101).
There’s a video on ESPN’s website right now from one hot take show or another with Matt Stinchcomb arguing that UK should be undefeated right now. There’s a case to be made they should’ve beaten the Rebels, for sure. Asim Rose celebrated a long run before making it in the end zone and getting caught from behind just shy of pay dirt. He fumbled it away stretching for the goal line two plays later. Top it off with a shanked extra point in overtime, and it was a classic “this is why you’re Kentucky” game.
The case that UK should’ve won over Auburn is a bit more tenuous. The ‘Cats did toss an interception the play after what appeared to be a touchdown, and they did fail a fake punt that set the Tigers up for a 27-yard touchdown drive. Giving Kentucky the first score and taking away Auburn’s still puts them a point or two short. Call me less impressed by that half of the contention.
UK’s advantage is that it knows exactly what it is. No one would ever accuse this team of not having an identity. But for all their feisty self-confidence, they’re still limited in what they can do. Tennessee did the worst possible thing by spotting them 17 points. UK will happily sit on that kind of lead forever. It was after falling behind by two scores in the second half that UK felt the need to fake a punt at its own 30 against Auburn because they’re really not built to come from behind.
If they could only stop giving games away, they could solidly be one of the top teams in the East. Again, though, that’s why they’re Kentucky.
Eliah Drinkwitz comes off the Malzahn tree, riding in the Gus Bus in 2004 at Springdale High School and then at Auburn and Arkansas State from 2010-12. He picked up some Boise State influence working for Bryan Harsin from 2013-15. His name was well known as an up-and-comer in coaching circles way back before he got his first Power 5 coordinator job at NC State in 2016. He has a good offensive pedigree, is what I’m saying, and it’s slowly starting to show through.
The Tigers were cannon fodder for Alabama in their opener. It happens. The second game, a 35-12 loss to Tennessee, brought what appears to be a permanent quarterback change from junior Shawn Robinson to redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak. After Robinson helmed a pair of futile drives, Bazelak came in and engineered a couple of long field goal drives to close out the first half (more on this in a sec). A big play gave way to a run-run-pass-punt sequence to begin the second half, but then Bazelak led a touchdown series and a pair of sustained drives that ended in a pick and turnover on downs.
Bazelak guided the Tigers to a 45-41 shootout win over LSU, but it shouldn’t have been that close. Mizzou’s offense was vastly more efficient, outgaining the Bayou Bengals by more than 100 yards, but butterfingers on a punt and two offensive series gifted LSU 17 points. Those three scores covered all of 37 combined total yards.
The Mizzou defense couldn’t get Tennessee off the field because it allowed 4/4 fourth down conversions, much like what Florida’s defense went through against South Carolina. The Tigers shut down LSU in ten third down conversion attempts in a decent bounce back performance the next week, unlike what UF did against Texas A&M. The 24 offensive points allowed were the least of the year, though; Bama put 28 on them in the first half alone, and Tennessee scored a touchdown or two in every quarter. The defensive line is particularly thin right now.
Barry Odom’s firing after 2019 was controversial, not obvious, and, if you believe some reports, the result of office politics accidentally snowballing out of control. He didn’t leave behind a wreck, and Drinkwitz retained the Tigers’ old defensive coordinator. It’s not a strip-it-to-the-studs rebuild, and they’ve been building with each game. If Bazelak keeps growing in confidence and level of play, they’re no one’s easy out. Except Alabama. Which happens.
Jarrett Guarantano is the SEC East’s Kellen Mond. There’s a really good quarterback in there, and he comes out just enough that you can see why he has played so much for so long. But when Mond has a down performance, it’s because he dinks and dunks all game and still gets 300 yards on 48 attempts. The bad Guarantano can appear on any snap and will uncork a ball far out of bounds, directly to a defender, or to the widest open patch of grass.
It must be killing Jeremy Pruitt because what his team needs more than anything is a low-variance quarterback. It needs someone who will be steady, because like so many former Saban assistants, he wants to win with running and defense.
He’s not like Kirby Smart, who at least has tried to get dual-threat guys even if he can’t hold onto them long enough to get them to start. He’s not Will Muschamp, who has flailed around trying several different offensive philosophies with the wrong guy for them every time. He just wants to win like it’s 1998, but his young signal callers won’t get good enough, fast enough and no one comes from the portal. He’s stuck with Guarantano through 2020, and thanks to the eligibility mulligan everyone’s getting, it could be through 2021 too.
The thing of it is that, despite his abrupt firing of his defensive line coach, he has a good defense. It held Kentucky under five yards per play with his offense gifting the Wildcats their first 17 points last weekend. It’s bad for UT to lose to UK under any circumstances — it’s a real Thing there, more than just a standard conference power imbalance effect like what Florida football has with the ‘Cats — and 34-7 at home is extra bad. It was mostly the offense’s doing.
He’s not going to get better than Georgia is at doing what he wants to do, and he’s not going to pass Florida without any ability to develop a quarterback. Unless Pruitt is willing to change what he’s been working toward for three years, he’s stuck at third place at best.
There’s no reason to think Florida can’t just outscore three of these four teams if need be. Missouri could get shootout-y and Kentucky has the line play to make things frustrating. And Tennessee, well, there’s a lot of time for that team to rebuild its confidence or straight up collapse between now and December. The Gators have better players than all three of those outfits, so talent should win out.
UF can’t count on the same against Georgia, obviously. It can’t even learn that much from the Bulldogs’ loss. UGA went in thinking they needed to throw to beat Alabama, which is what everyone has had to do to beat Alabama in recent years. They didn’t adjust to the reality of Bennett not being up to the task and the run game’s proficiency until after the half, but pass plays killing drives on third down and the Bama lead growing forced them to abandon the run again late.
UGA won’t look at Florida and think it has to throw to win. It’ll line up and throw five running backs at the Gator defensive front and expect disaster if Bennett has to attempt more than about 15 passes.
Florida’s offense getting a lead early would be helpful because, like Kentucky but to a lesser degree, Georgia is not a team that excels when trying to come from behind. The Gators might be able to do it too if the defense can get a stop or two, maybe on a turnover or something.
Mizzou and UK will put up real fights in completely different ways. UT is an unknown. And Georgia? It is beatable, but maybe not in a way this year’s Florida team can do it. That’s where Florida stacks up in the East at present.