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  • Thanks to a couple of shrewd coaching hires (Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart) and a handful of cross-division upsets (by Florida and Kentucky), the SEC's less vaunted division looks ready to be a power player again. Plus, the heat rising on head coaches elsewhere, a new (but familiar) College Football Playoff projection and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.
By Andy Staples
October 07, 2018

The crowd at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium produces a certain sound when Florida is truly playing well. It falls somewhere between “I can’t hear” and “standing next to an F/A-18 as it takes off from an aircraft carrier.” For a time Saturday, it felt as if the crowd might never reach that level. It fell nearly silent early in the third quarter when Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks—while getting crushed by LSU defensive end Breiden Fehoko—threw a pass directly to LSU safety Grant Delpit in the end zone.

But when Florida cornerback Brad Stewart Jr. intercepted Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow late in the fourth quarter and raced 25 yards into the end zone to seal a 27–19 win, the denizens of The Swamp finally rose up and roared. “We have the lead and we get punched in the face,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said of a back-and-forth fourth quarter. “And we didn’t flinch.” It wasn’t Tony George’s-pick-six-against-Peyton Manning loud or Jarvis Moss-blocks-Ryan Succop’s-kick-to-save-a-national-title loud, but it was a sound they haven’t made in Gainesville in a long time. They started making that sound again in Athens last year. They’re making it in Lexington this year, too. And it raises one intriguing question: Is it possible the SEC East doesn’t stink anymore?

This may sound a tad reductive since a team from the division (Georgia) did come within a play of winning the national title last year, but the numbers suggest the division has been mired in a massive slump for most of the playoff era and the Bulldogs’ breakthrough was only the tip of the spear. The development of a veteran group in Lexington and the shift of one of the league’s best head coaches from the West division to the East might finally have broken the curse that afflicted the division.

How bad has the SEC East been? Including SEC title games, the East went 15–45 against the West from 2014 to ’17. An East title had been rendered so meaningless that the program that won the division in ’15 and ’16 (Florida) fired its coach in ’17. Georgia’s SEC title and subsequent College Football Playoff run last season marked the first time since the birth of the playoff that an East team had made either the final four or a New Year’s Six bowl. Of the four Power 5 leagues that are split into divisions, only the SEC East produced fewer than two participants in a New Year’s Six game in that span. That’s right, even the ACC Coastal (’14 Georgia Tech and ’17 Miami) and the Big Ten West (’15 Iowa and ’16 and ’17 Wisconsin)—the butts of every college football division joke—have produced more good teams than the SEC East in the playoff era. 

So far this year, the East is 3–1 against the West thanks to Florida’s wins against Mississippi State and LSU and Kentucky’s win against Mississippi State. The Wildcats could have bolstered the division’s case Saturday, but their coaches briefly forgot star tailback Benny Snell was on the team and they lost in overtime at Texas A&M. This week brings more chances for the East to prove itself. Georgia goes to LSU. South Carolina hosts Texas A&M. Tennessee—which contributed an SEC 0-fer to the East’s ledger in 2017—visits suddenly crashing Auburn. Missouri, meanwhile, visits Alabama.

O.K., forget that last one.

Alabama is clearly the nation’s best team at this point in the season, so Missouri and Tennessee probably aren’t going to help the East much when they play the Crimson Tide. But given the starts by Georgia, Kentucky and Florida, it’s possible the East has three teams in the SEC’s top five and maybe even three in the top four. We’re all assuming Georgia will make either the playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl, but it seems quite possible Kentucky or Florida could finally give the East a second member in the club. 

So what happened? How did the division finally snap back into respectability?

It started in December 2015 when Georgia hired Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to replace Mark Richt. The Bulldogs have perhaps the best recruiting ground in America, but they needed a coach who could cultivate it the way Nick Saban has cultivated the territory around Alabama. Smart, who played at Georgia and then spent eight years as Saban’s defensive coordinator, was the perfect choice. Meanwhile, Mark Stoops and his staff were developing a talented group in Lexington. Kentucky’s case is different than Georgia’s or Florida’s because it must cycle up to special seasons, but looking down the remainder of the schedule, we could be in the midst of such a season. Florida hired Dan Mullen from Mississippi State. Until Smart got Georgia rolling, Mullen was widely regarded as the second best coach in the SEC (accounting for degree of difficulty, of course) behind Saban.

Mullen’s ability to squeeze more out of Franks than the previous staff did is a sign that things should get better in Gainesville. (And while everyone is happy now, check back after the Georgia game to see if the sky is falling as it was following the loss to Kentucky on Sept. 8.) Recruiting dropped off during the Jim McElwain era and the surplus of Will Muschamp-era recruits McElwain inherited has run dry, so Mullen will have to work to restock the roster in a way that makes the Gators competitive with LSU, Georgia and Alabama on a year-in, year-out basis. That’s the expectation at Florida, something Mullen remembers well from his stint as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator for two national titles in four seasons in Gainesville. Mullen also will have to prove he can beat Florida State—for national prestige purposes and for recruiting purposes. The Gators haven’t beaten the Seminoles since 2012, and they haven’t come within two touchdowns since Muschamp was fired. Fortunately for the Gators, Florida State seems to be doing all it can to help narrow that gap this season.

Another reason for the resurgence in the SEC East is a dip in the SEC West. Arkansas has bottomed out, creating an analogue to Vanderbilt. Ole Miss, because of the firing of Hugh Freeze, NCAA sanctions and other football-related reasons, has faded to the background. Even Auburn, which last year beat both teams that played for the national title and won the SEC West, is struggling at the moment to move the ball. Meanwhile, what Mullen was giving Mississippi State is now going to Florida. A few years ago, when even the worst team in the West was pretty good, it served to make the East look absolutely abysmal. But now the pendulum seems to be swinging back.

It’ll be up to the teams in the East to keep that momentum going.

College Football
Heisman Trophy Watch: Oklahoma's Loss Pads Tagovailoa's Lead Over Murray

A Random Ranking

My kids have recently discovered Rugrats on Hulu, and it made me realize that between my kids and their parents, we span every generation that has been targeted by Nickelodeon shows. So here are the top 10 Nick shows since the channel debuted.

1. Spongebob Squarepants
2. You Can’t Do That On Television
3. The Ren And Stimpy Show
4. Double Dare
5. The Loud House
6. Doug
7. All That
8. Clarissa Explains It All
9. The Fairly Oddparents
10. Hey Dude

Projected Playoff

Though there was plenty of action just below the No. 4 spot in the rankings, not much changed at the top other than a switch of jersey colors for one semifinal.

1. Alabama (6–0)
Last week: 1
Last game: Beat Arkansas, 65–31
Next game: Saturday vs. Missouri

Nick Saban probably didn’t care about the backdoor cover by Arkansas, but he probably cared deeply that an opponent cracked 30 against the Crimson Tide. That frustration likely will be taken out on Missouri. But it will be fun to watch Tua Tagovailoa face off against a quarterback (Drew Lock) who could be a top-10 pick come April. 

2. Notre Dame (6–0)
Last week: 3
Last game: Beat Virginia Tech, 45–23
Next game: Saturday vs. Pittsburgh

O.K., now we can really take seriously the idea of Notre Dame going undefeated and making the playoff. But the Fighting Irish will have to stay on high alert the remainder of the season. Two years ago, Pittsburgh shocked Clemson in Death Valley but didn’t derail the Tigers’ national title run. If the Panthers did the same thing to Notre Dame this week, the Irish might not get the same chance to make the playoff.

3. Ohio State (6–0)
Last week: 2
Last game: Beat Indiana, 49–26
Next game: Saturday vs. Minnesota

It took the Buckeyes into the fourth quarter to put away Indiana, and some lingering concerns about Ohio State's defense are the only reason I flip-flopped the Buckeyes and the Fighting Irish. There are no concerns about Ohio State’s offense, though. Indiana plays decent defense, and Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins averaged 10.3 yards per pass attempt and threw six touchdown passes Saturday.

4. Georgia (6–0)
Last week: 4
Last game: Beat Vanderbilt, 41–13
Next game: Saturday at LSU

This scenario—with Alabama and Georgia in the playoff—probably only happens if they meet in the SEC title game as undefeated teams or if they are 12–0 and 11–1, respectively, and the 11-1 team wins close. That means Georgia needs to be on high alert heading to Baton Rouge to face an LSU team that played its worst game of the season in a loss at Florida. Tiger Stadium is one of the nation’s most hostile environments for a visitor, and Georgia will be dealing with a team that knows it doesn’t have another mulligan.

Big Ugly Of The Week

The draftniks and the rank-and-file college football fans are discovering Florida edge rusher Jachai Polite all at once, so expect to hear the 6'2", 242-pound junior’s name a lot in the next few months. Few players this season have been as disruptive. Polite leads the nation with four forced fumbles, and the biggest one may be this strip sack of LSU quarterback Joe Burrow in the first quarter of Florida’s 27–19 win on Saturday. 

Florida recovered that fumble, stopping what had been an all-too-easy drive for LSU. Given that the Tigers had raced down the field for a touchdown on their first possession, a similar end to that second drive might have put the Gators in too deep a hole.

So why is Polite, who has six sacks among his 7.5 tackles for loss, just making a name for himself now? He missed the last third of last season with an injury, and he was still carrying the weight he had needed to play defensive tackle as a freshman. Now slimmed down by 25 pounds thanks to the elimination of his beloved Swedish Fish—and other sweets—from his diet, Polite is content to feast on quarterbacks.

Three And Out

1. Oklahoma’s defense has dragged down the Sooners’ offense for years, but Saturday’s woeful performance against Texas may have spelled the beginning of the end for defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. It was a little surprising that Lincoln Riley didn’t make defensive staff changes after last season. After all, had Oklahoma’s defense been even a little serviceable in the Rose Bowl, the Sooners would have beaten Georgia. They might have even won the national title because in that bizarro world, Jalen Hurts would have led Alabama’s offense to some points in the first half of the national title game and might never have been pulled in favor of Tagovailoa. 

Oklahoma’s offense is off-the-charts great, so the Sooners likely can win a lot more games this season. But they’ll struggle against their best opponents because when a defense is good enough to slow that offense even a little—as the Longhorns were Saturday—the opposing offense can shred the Sooners’ defense and win in a shootout. The Texas offense is much better this season than it was in coach Tom Herman’s first year, but it shouldn’t average 6.7 yards a play against a team that fancies itself a playoff contender. The Longhorns averaged 5.3 yards a play and 28.8 points a game entering Saturday. They should never have been able to beat a team with an offense that averaged 9.2 yards a play in the game, but Oklahoma’s defense made that possible.

You know it’s bad when the former players have turned.

Twitter

2. Speaking of coaching tenures that may have run their course, Bobby Petrino’s time in Louisville could be growing short. Six days after gagging up a lead against Florida State, the Cardinals got crushed 66–31 at home by Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets averaged 8.3 yards a carry against coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense, which looked as if it hadn’t practiced against the option. 

Why did this get so lopsided? Probably because Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson has been waiting years to do this to VanGorder, and no one in college football holds a grudge quite like Johnson.

3. Miami got sad news on the day that the Hurricanes roared back from a 20-point deficit to beat Florida State. The Miami Herald reported Saturday that a neck injury will end the football career of Miami receiver Ahmmon Richards. Richards had NFL talent, but repeated injuries made it difficult for him to showcase it. Miami officials wouldn’t confirm the Herald’s report on the record, but Richards posted two tweets Saturday night that suggest he is done with football. Best of luck to Richards in whatever he chooses to do next.

What’s Eating Andy?

When I get delayed at the airport, I usually just catch up on Netflix. The New Mexico Lobos have a lot more fun. We give you… The Thunder From Albuquerque.

What’s Andy Eating?

I admired my restraint as I surveyed the refrigerated case in the back of Portland’s Pot ’N’ Spicy. Had I wanted to, I could have taken more than a dozen pork belly skewers, handed them to the nice lady at the register and said “Deep fry these, please.” And she would have taken them back to the kitchen, where they would have been fried to a crispy gold with the fat creating a luscious molten coating for the tender chunks of meat. Then she would have charged me 99 cents for each skewer. You read that correctly. Ninety-nine cents.

Andy Staples

That wouldn’t have been fair to my stomach, though. Because as wonderful as deep-fried pork belly is—and make no mistake, it is incredible—I owed it to the old reliable gut to sample the other creatures in the case. So I grabbed a catfish skewer to deep fry, and then I went exploring to create my ideal hot pot.

I grabbed beef skewers. I grabbed chicken skewers. I grabbed skewers of small, peeled shrimps. I grabbed skewers that each contained one giant head-on shrimp. Then I handed those to the nice lady and asked for the rice noodles—which were free thanks to the volume of skewers I grabbed—in a hot broth. Then this conversation happened:

Her: You want medium.

Me: No. I think I want hot.

Her: I think you want medium. Hot is very spicy.

Me, remembering that I have survived the face-melting XXX Hot at Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville: I’m pretty sure I want hot.

Her: You suuuuuuuuuuuuuure?

Me, wondering why she has that mischievous gleam in her eye: Maybe I’m not so sure.

Her: So medium.

Me, defeated: Medium.

Andy Staples

She was 100% correct, by the way. I had a redeye flight in three hours, and the only ones who would have suffered more than me had I ordered hot would have been the people in the four nearest rows. My first slurp of the oily, slightly sweet, and spicy-even-for-medium broth proved her point. I tried some of the chicken and a bite of noodles. Then I realized I needed to be more patient. The skewered meat and the noodles needed time to soak in that broth.

Had I come with a big group, this would have been the time for meaty conversation. Since I was alone, I settled in and read Ben Reiter’s fascinating story on the Cardinals employee who hacked his way into the Astros’ database.

By the time I was done, the beef, chicken and shrimp had soaked up all the broth they’d need. Each chopstick load of noodles packed a wallop. I didn’t regret my decision to not ask them to bring me all the pork belly they had.

But next time I might just clean them out. 

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)