South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson was getting a haircut late last week when the conversation turned to the most popular topic in Columbia, S.C. The lady with the scissors wanted to know if her customer thought the Gamecocks could beat Georgia. “She didn’t have any idea who I was,” Thompson said. “Which is good.”
Thompson replied that he thought South Carolina would indeed beat Georgia. “You’re the first person to tell me that,” his stylist said.
That the Gamecocks were considered underdogs in their own town only fueled Thompson more, which isn’t always the best thing for a quarterback who normally runs hot. “He’s an amped kid,” quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said. “He gets really fired up. He’s one of those guys. Then he settles down as the game goes.”
That’s a great trait for a nose tackle, but not necessarily for a quarterback. It can add a little too much juice on early throws, which can put a team in a deep hole. Thompson knows this, so he was praying for God to calm his nerves on Saturday.
Thompson started in place of the injured Connor Shaw at Clemson in 2012 and won. Later that season he threw the game-winning touchdown pass in an Outback Bowl victory over Michigan. But those two moments do not come into play when a quarterback is facing his first do-or-die divisional game as a starter. “He hasn’t played a ton of football,” Mangus said. “Just because he went the distance and won that game a couple of years ago in the upstate, everybody assumes he’s played a bunch of football. But it’s still his first full year of starting. I expect to see him settle into that role.”
Thompson may have done that this weekend. Mangus and South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier knew their quarterback was running cool enough to win when Thompson hit a few medium-range throws over the middle early. The question was whether the defense could hold up its end of the bargain in a game in which both offenses were clearly better than both defenses. Thompson threw for 271 yards with three scores. South Carolina’s offensive line mauled the Bulldogs and paved the way for Brandon Wilds (6.6 yards a carry). The defense -- with an assist from an odd Georgia play call on first-and-goal from the four-yard line, followed by an intentional grounding call that really wasn’t -- made a stop when it absolutely had to, and the Gamecocks escaped with a 38-35 win. “Sometimes, all you can say is it was our turn to win,” Spurrier said. “We were meant to win this game.”
That 52-28 opening-night shellacking from Texas A&M on Aug. 28 felt so far away. Suddenly, the Gamecocks’ future spread out before them. They likely would have been doomed with a loss to the Dawgs, but now they remain alive in the SEC East title hunt. So, did Spurrier discuss his team’s place in that race after the win? “I didn’t say a word about that,” Spurrier said. “We’re just happy to win a ball game.”
Spurrier was wise to ignore the larger implications of the win. For a game that feels like it means so much in the grand scheme, it has recently been a pretty terrible indicator of who will represent the SEC East in Atlanta. The last time the winner of the Georgia-South Carolina clash represented the East was 2010. The matchup is meaningful, but, with the exception of ‘12, it happens so early that it merely sets the table for things to come.
South Carolina should have a good idea where it stands in the divisional race by the end of September, which may come before or after Thompson settles into his role. The SEC scheduling lords have deemed that the Gamecocks will play exactly half of their conference schedule and half of their division slate by the final week of this month. They visit Vanderbilt on Saturday, and the following week they’ll host Missouri. The Tigers won the East last year and might be just as good this fall, but for some reason all the attention has gone to Georgia and South Carolina. While the eyes of the nation were focused on one Columbia, Mizzou was busy dismantling a decent UCF team 38-10 in the other. The Tigers will have their shot in Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 27. Two weeks later they’ll host Georgia in the land of Shakespeare’s Pizza. After that, the race may reset yet again.
Coaches in their one-game-at-a-time bubble usually don’t think of such things, but the idea of quarterback Maty Mauk throwing and backs Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy running against a defense that allowed Georgia to go 5-of-13 on third-down conversions -- including two particularly egregious ones -- will not appeal to Spurrier when he flips on the tape next week. “If we could stop some people on third down, we’re not that bad a defense,” Spurrier said on Saturday. “We’re really not.” Later, he flashed back to one especially galling conversion by Todd Gurley. “When Georgia runs a sweep on third-and-16 and we’ve got him hemmed up and he reverses field and gains 17 or 18 yards, that’s bad defense.”
There are probably no perfect teams in the SEC East, but there are a few pretty good ones. That’s what makes the division so interesting -- and potentially so wild going forward.
Hogs overcome stomach punch
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema doesn’t want to be misunderstood, because he knows that happens fairly often. “Hell, I love the nine-minute drive at the end of the game,” he said on Sunday. “Don’t get me wrong.”
Still, something in the Razorbacks’ 49-28 win at Texas Tech made the coach even happier than a running game that averaged 6.8 yards on 68 carries. It was the way his team handled an early-game situation that would have crushed the 2013 Hogs.
The Arkansas defense provided the ideal start against an up-tempo offense. It forced the Red Raiders to go three-and-out in 44 seconds on their first possession. “All of a sudden the punt bangs off one of our corners [and Texas Tech recovered],” Bielema said. “What a way to start the game.” Four plays later, the Red Raiders were in the end zone. “We just got punched in the stomach,” Bielema said.
But the Razorbacks didn’t buckle. Linebacker Brooks Ellis forced a fumble on Texas Tech’s next possession, and teammate Taiwan Johnson recovered on the Red Raiders’ 13-yard line. Jonathan Williams found the end zone from six yards out two plays later to even the score. It was the first of five Arkansas touchdown drives that did not include a pass. “Our guys didn’t flinch, man,” Bielema said. “It just set the tone for the day.”
His team’s response satisfied Bielema more than any statistic ever could. The staff has been building a culture for 20 months, and this was the result. “We’ve been preaching about being your brother’s keeper,” Bielema said. “Just put your hand on the shoulder of the guy next to you and give him a lift when he needs it.”
That didn’t happen last season when the Razorbacks went 3-9. Bielema never seemed to doubt it would happen eventually, but to see the Hogs come together on the road against a quality opponent only reinforced his belief that the program can turn the corner. “As coaches, you can talk about it all the time,” Bielema said. “Until they actually do it …”
Now they’ve done it.
East Carolina goes for the knockout
Were East Carolina coaches crazy when they opted not to go for an easy three points in the second quarter with a three-touchdown lead at Virginia Tech? After all, that would have made the end of the Pirates’ 28-21 victory a lot less stressful.
When coach Ruffin McNeil authorized his offense to go for it on fourth-and-two at the Virginia Tech 11-yard line with his team up 21-0, he was sticking to a game plan that had roots in what his staff considered missed opportunities the week before in a 33-23 loss at South Carolina. The Pirates led that game in the second quarter, but couldn’t hang on. They decided if they grabbed an early lead in Blacksburg they would go for the throat. “If we’re going to win, Ruffin kept telling the team and the staff, you’ve got to go take it,” offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “On the road, you’re going to have some tough things go against you. You have got to go take it.”
Riley said the Hokies didn’t adjust their defense much during the game. They stayed in the double eagle (nose tackle and twin three-techniques) that served them so well in a 35-21 upset of Ohio State. Pirates quarterback Shane Carden quickly took advantage of the one-on-one coverage matchups that are the tradeoff for an abundance of pressure on the passer. Later, the Pirates stalled. But they never stopped taking shots. “We said we were going to be aggressive, and we were,” Riley said. “We stuck to that even in the second quarter and third quarter when it didn’t work out for us. We stayed with it the whole time, and I think that’s why our guys were mentally at a good point when we got the ball at the end.”
On the first play of East Carolina’s final offensive possession, Carden found wide receiver Cam Worthy for a 31-yard gain. The Pirates’ fast pace got to the Hokies, who were called for having 12 men on the field on consecutive plays. On the drive’s second snap, Carden hit Worthy for a 28-yard gain to the one-yard line. Carden walked into the end zone on the next play.
The Pirates went for the blowout and came up short, but they left Blacksburg with something nearly as good -- a huge road win.
Projected College Football Playoff
As a reminder, this projection is based only on games that have been played this season. If your team is unbeaten and isn’t listed below, that’s because your team probably hasn’t notched an impressive enough win yet. Don’t worry. We do a new projection every week, and no one on the selection committee cares what I think.
The Ducks fell behind Wyoming on Saturday before pouring on 27 second-quarter points and racing to a 48-14 win. With all due respect to Gurley, a healthy Marcus Mariota is the most versatile offensive weapon in the country. The question is whether he can stay healthy through a grinding Pac-12 schedule. The first test should be the easiest. This week the Ducks face Washington State, which notched its first win on Saturday following losses to Rutgers and Nevada.
A 34-10 win over Tennessee doesn’t necessarily prove the Sooners are capable of contending for the national title, but the way Oklahoma has won each of its games to date suggests it won’t drop any that it shouldn’t. The Trevor Knight-led offense is versatile and consistent, but defense looks like the Sooners’ biggest strength. With Jordan Phillips pushing the pocket inside, Eric Striker rushing the passer from the edge and Geneo Grissom doing a little of everything, Oklahoma can frustrate foes into making mistakes that allow the Sooners’ offense to get back on the field.
That skill will get tested on Saturday in Morgantown. West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett doesn’t get rattled easily. He hung tough as a Florida State redshirt freshman hovering around 150 pounds -- he has celiac disease, but hadn’t been diagnosed at the time -- starting in place of the injured EJ Manuel at Clemson in 2011. Trickett also looked fearless when he opened this season against Alabama and threw for 365 yards in a 33-23 loss. The Sooners will have to stop Trickett and an offense that ran 111 plays in a nail-biting 40-37 win at Maryland on Saturday.
3. Florida State
The Seminoles may wind up getting a tougher test from Notre Dame on Oct. 18, but no league game means more than their matchup with Clemson on Saturday. The winner has the inside track on the Atlantic Division title, which Florida State probably needs to win if it hopes to repeat as national champion. The ACC has gotten better -- witness Boston College’s thumping of USC on Saturday -- but probably isn’t good enough yet that a team that doesn’t win its division would qualify for the playoff.
4. Texas A&M
The Aggies will play three consecutive games away from Kyle Field, which should allow the grounds crew to repair the playing surface. The grass, which has been in place since August after being ripped out during the venue’s massive renovation, looked like a polo field during Texas A&M’s 38-10 win over Rice. Only no one came out to replace the divots. The Aggies shouldn’t have much trouble with SMU this week, but they likely watched Arkansas crushing Texas Tech with great interest. Texas A&M faces the Razorbacks at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 27. It also has reason to be concerned about freshman wide receiver Speedy Noil, who was taken from the sideline to the locker room in the third quarter on Saturday with an undisclosed injury. The Aggies have not had tight end Cam Clear (ankle) since early in their season-opening win at South Carolina.
The poll ballot
Shots of a partially built Millennium Falcon leaked last week from high above the set of Star Wars: Episode VII. In honor of this visual verification, here is a list of the most important members of the Rebel Alliance. (By “most important,” I mean “coolest to 8-year-old Andy.” This has nothing to do with the chain of command.)
1. Han Solo (He gets the girl. End of discussion.)
2. Luke Skywalker
4. Princess Leia
5. Lando Calrissian
7. Admiral Ackbar
8. Nien Nunb
9. Wedge Antilles
10. Mon Mothma
1,246,985. The Ewoks
Play of the week
The most controversial play call in South Carolina’s win over Georgia was Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s decision to call a pass instead of a Gurley run on first-and-goal from the four-yard line in the fourth quarter. While it would be great to break down what might have happened on a Gurley carry, this section only addresses plays that were actually called. So, let’s look what South Carolina called on first-and-10 from Georgia’s 24-yard line with 13:11 remaining and the Gamecocks nursing a three-point lead.
Thompson lines up in the shotgun alongside tailback Wilds. South Carolina has an attached tight end on the right side with two receivers spilt wide on the right. The fullback is on the right, too, outside the tight end and off the line of scrimmage. That’s a lot going on to the right. And, since the right side is also the wide side of the field, there is no question as to which direction Georgia’s strength call will go. Which is exactly what Spurrier wants.
With most of Georgia’s resources dedicated to defending the right side, the Gamecocks’ best offensive linemen -- left tackle Corey Robinson and left guard A.J. Cann -- have relatively simple one-on-one matchups for the zone play that is called. Robinson has to kick out Jack linebacker Jordan Jenkins. Cann has to move end James DeLoach somewhere. It doesn’t really matter where, which is the beauty of the play. Cann can take DeLoach wherever he wants to go, and Wilds will read the block and choose the hole.
Wilds is South Carolina’s best tailback at reading zone plays. He usually chooses the correct gap. Here, he faces a choice of the playside B (between guard and tackle) or the backside A (between center and guard). Meanwhile, Georgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera faces the same choice. For Wilds, it becomes a little like the end of the Eliminator on American Gladiators. One gap contains a guy ready to splatter him, and another is wide open.
Wilds chooses correctly and bursts through the playside B gap. Herrera gets trapped in the backside A gap. Once Wilds breaks through, he has only Damian Swann left to beat. He accomplishes this with a stiff arm. Then it’s into the end zone for what would be the game-winning 24-yard touchdown to cap a four-play (all rushes), 58-yard drive that completely demoralized the Georgia defense.
Big Ugly of the week
This week’s honoree is East Carolina defensive tackle Terry Williams. After sitting out the Pirates’ first two games with a leg injury, Williams returned this week to clog both A gaps and frustrate Virginia Tech’s offense. The 6-foot-1 Loganville, Ga., native is a leverage nightmare for taller centers and guards, and his strength and bulk make him almost impossible to move. On Saturday he had five tackles and half a sack. His impact was far greater. He helped the Pirates limit the Hokies to 2.8 yards a carry. East Carolina lists Williams at 353 pounds, But Virginia Tech’s linemen probably beg to differ. “That,” Riley said, “might be conservative.”
1. Steve Sarkisian has a bye week to unravel the mystery of how his team could limit Stanford to 128 rushing yards on Sept. 6 and then turn around and surrender 452 to Boston College seven days later. Sarkisian seemed bewildered following Saturday’s 37-31 loss as he tried to reconcile the fact that USC looked sharp early and then fell apart after Sherman Alston ripped off a 54-yard touchdown run to give the Eagles their first lead shortly before halftime. The Trojans still had a chance in the fourth quarter, but Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy ran for a 66-yard score with 3:30 remaining to shut the door on USC. “When you’re running the ball well, it kind of feeds itself,” Sarkisian said afterward. “The quarterback got confidence running it. The running backs got confidence running it. We started to lose that confidence, and, inevitably, they wore us out.”
2. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz tried to ice Iowa State kicker Cole Netten with seven seconds remaining on Saturday, calling a timeout milliseconds before a snap that resulted in a kick Netten missed wide left. Or at least it was called wide left. It very well may have been the football gods finally catching up to the Cyclones for this over-the-upright moment in their double-overtime upset of Oklahoma State in 2011. At any rate, none of it counted because Ferentz called timeout. Netten lined up the 42-yarder again, split the uprights and sealed the 20-17 win for Iowa State.
Ferentz was asked about his kicker-icing decision. “At the end? I mean, there's not a lot of -- it’s a 50-50 shot, you either call a timeout or you don't. We called a timeout. We had one left, and that’s the reason I called it.” Spoken like a man who would be owed about $220,000 a month until January 2020 if he got fired.
3. Charlie Strong knew his new team had a lot to learn, but Saturday’s coin toss made it clear that Texas’ players need to re-learn everything. Starting with the coin toss. Teams that win the toss can elect to kick, receive or defer their decision to the second half. Teams either choose to receive or defer. No one ever chooses to kick, and with good reason. That gives the opponent the ball in the first half and a choice to receive in the second. (Which the opponent would certainly take.) Saturday, UCLA won the toss and deferred. It went without saying that the Bruins would choose to receive in the second half. So naturally, Texas would choose to receive in the first half. Except Desmond Jackson, a Texas junior defensive lineman, chose to kick. After the referee switched off his microphone and explained to Jackson what that meant, Jackson still chose to kick. “I said, ‘What happened?’” Strong recalled after the game. “He said, ‘I don’t know, coach. I was just so hyped up and I just … they looked at me, and they said, ‘You want to receive the ball or do you guys want to play defense?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, we want to play defense.’ I said we lost the toss.”
4. It isn’t clear whether both No. 1 quarterbacks and a key starting linebacker will be on the field when UCLA faces Arizona State in Tempe a week from Thursday. Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley hyperextended his non-throwing elbow in the second quarter of Saturday's win over Texas and had to be replaced by Jerry Neuheisel, but Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports cited a source as saying Hundley would recover in time. Meanwhile, Arizona State lost its offensive (quarterback Taylor Kelly) and defensive (linebacker Laiu Moeakiola) captains in a 38-24 win at Colorado. Kelly’s right foot injury looked especially bad. In his postgame radio interview, Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said the pair would be “absolutely fine.” Then, on Sunday, an Arizona State spokesman told Arizona Republic beat writer Doug Haller that Graham wouldn’t make any more comments regarding the injuries until after the UCLA game.
5. If not for turnovers on Saturday, Rutgers would be the lone unbeaten in the Big Ten East Division. Unfortunately, quarterback Gary Nova -- who had thrown only one interception in his first two games this season after throwing 10 in Rutgers’ final five last year -- threw five picks to Penn State defenders. Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood was quick to point out that not all of the interceptions were Nova’s fault, but Flood is understandably concerned that the ball keeps winding up in the hands of the other team’s players in Rutgers’ most important games. (Seven of Nova's 10 interceptions toward the back end last year came in losses to Louisville and Houston.) After the game, Flood sidestepped a question about whether he might consider playing another quarterback. “Not right now. We just got done playing a really emotional game,” Flood told reporters. “We’re going to look at the film. We’re going to evaluate every player in the program on the film and then we’ll make the personnel decisions on Sunday and Monday. But I say that right now, just getting out of that game. It’s just too emotional a situation right now.”
6. When freshman safety Drue Tranquill flipped his commitment from Purdue to Notre Dame last November, he probably didn’t expect to play in the secondary against Boilermakers so soon. After all, Notre Dame was deep at that position group. Tranquill would likely play on special teams, but cracking the two-deep would take time. However, due to circumstances both common and uncommon, Tranquill played safety in Notre Dame’s 30-14 win. Austin Collinsworth was supposed to be the starter, but he hasn’t played because of a knee injury. His replacement, Max Redfield, got tossed from Saturday’s game because of a helmet-to-helmet hit on Purdue quarterback Danny Etling. Nicky Baratti replaced Redfield and promptly re-injured his surgically repaired shoulder on his first play. Suddenly, Tranquill was in alongside Elijah Shumate, and he finished with four tackles despite not taking many reps with the defense in practice.
“He did great. He doesn't know what he’s doing, but he’s awesome,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly cracked of Tranquill. “He’s running around there. I say that kiddingly because he does know what he's doing. But we’re trying to really keep it simple for him out there. He was such a locked-in kid. We’re able to do some things with him, and he’s only been here, what, eight, 10 weeks? Where would we be without that young man? It’s really pretty incredible.”
7. After a triple-overtime 36-30 escape against Kentucky that kept Florida coach Will Muschamp’s continued employment safe for the moment, Muschamp said he doesn’t feel relief after games. He only sees how much his team needs to work. Still, the scare didn’t sap Muschamp of his sense of humor. “More than anything, we missed some football [by canceling] the Idaho game,” Muschamp said. “We figured we’d give y’all an extra shot of some ball. Paying the fans back.”
Muschamp also disagreed with the notion that officials bailed out the Gators in the first overtime. The play clock appeared to expire on a fourth-down play with Florida trailing 27-20, but referees didn't blow the whistle. On that down, quarterback Jeff Driskel lofted a nine-yard touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson (15 catches, 216 yards, two scores) to keep Florida alive. “I certainly know,” Muschamp said, “that our officials would have blown it dead on us if had not gotten off in time.”
8. Speaking of less-than-inspiring wins by SEC East teams, Vanderbilt claimed its first win of the Derek Mason era by storming back to beat UMass 34-31. The game might have set football back several decades, but it did provide one lasting image.
9. Congratulations to Colorado School of Mines coach Bob Stitt on his 100th career win, which he earned on Saturday when the Orediggers raced to a 46-0 victory over William Jewell College. Mines ran 91 plays and rolled up 508 yards as Stitt joined the triple-digit club. If Stitt’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s your favorite Air Raid coach’s favorite coach. Earlier this season, Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital used a Stitt play to torment South Carolina.
10. Remember kids, go B1G or go home.
What’s eating Andy?
Why do we need the Ray Rice video to understand that a man should never strike a woman? This isn’t complicated. Spurrier said it best at a press conference last week. “The only good thing about that video is that people around the country are shocked that this does happen,” Spurrier said. “Of course, I've had a rule here ever since I've been here. If you ever hit a girl, you're not going to play on our team. You're finished. We’ve lost two players. One was about seven years ago. One was about nine years ago. So we’re not going to have a guy on our team that has done that. And I can’t understand that why every coach doesn’t have that rule and why every company doesn’t have that rule for their employees. I think it would put a pretty good end to this stuff. It really is amazing that America has put up with it or compromised. That is something that should never happen.”
What’s Andy eating?
Patrick, the bartender at The World Famous in Athens, Ga., offered a few instructions when he set down the Chicken and Waffle Club Sandwich. “It’s like a food grenade,” he said. “When you pull that stick, it’s like pulling the pin.”
Feel free to re-read that quote. It’s a good one, but I don’t expect you gave it your full attention. I imagine your brain stopped working at the words “Chicken and Waffle Club Sandwich.” Yes, that’s essentially what you think it is. It’s a boneless fried chicken breast with a drizzle of hot sauce accompanied by lettuce and bacon and served between two quarters of a Belgian waffle dabbed with bourbon maple butter. It’s divine, and Patrick was entirely accurate about the grenade part. After I finished, I needed to be scraped off the floor.
Did I mention The World Famous serves that incredible edible edifice until 2 a.m. six nights a week and until midnight on Sunday?
Yes, the nation’s quintessential college town has a bar that serves white-tablecloth- quality grub alongside hey-what-would-happen-if-we-tried-this cocktails from lunch until last call. On my visit to Georgia last week, I also had fried pickled okra. Fried okra is a classic Southern side dish. Pickled okra is a classic Southern snack. Fry pickled okra, and you have beer’s best friend. Or maybe you want the steamed pork buns. Patrick called these “little pillows of heaven,” and his descriptions remained spot-on. Later, when I inquired about the poutine -- which I had not ordered -- Patrick decided I had to try at least a fraction of an order. When I dine for these reviews, I don’t tell anyone where I work or what I’m writing. Patrick was simply trying to make sure a first-time visitor sampled a popular seller from the menu. This is great business. It helps that he presented a bowl of hand-cut fries smothered in beef gravy and mixed with cheese curds. That’s what poutine is, and other than John Candy, it is Canada’s finest contribution to the world.
It tasted as you might imagine hand-cut fries with beef gravy and cheese curds would taste -- as if I’d died and gone to the most delicious part of Quebec City. At this point, I feel it’s necessary to reiterate that THIS PLACE SELLS CHICKEN, BACON AND WAFFLE SANDWICHES AND GRAVY CHEESE FRIES AT 1 O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING. GOD BLESS AMERICA.
Before I left, I sampled the signature cocktail. This is the Tango Whiskey Foxtrot. It mixes whiskey from the well -- you won’t need to bother with a call brand -- lemon, maraschino liqueur and ginger ale in a glass rimmed with Tang. That’s right, the powder form of the drink that astronauts took to the moon. A couple of those might put a diner on the moon, but fortunately the world’s most decadent club sandwich and poutine will provide all the gravity he needs to return to earth.