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Chicken-Fried Questions, Week 7: Taking a Look at SEC Quarterbacks

Chicken-Fried SEC Questions For Week 7:

1. Florida coach Jim McElwain continues to be roasted for his dull offense and a passing game that looks like something you’d see in a high school game. What’s the problem?

Well, first of all, Florida’s offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has been criticized for not setting up the Gators’ young quarterback, Feleipe Franks, with more easier, high-percentage throws. Nussmeier may be the big problem here.

But let’s go back in history. Florida’s passing game would be a lot more advanced if Will Grier was playing quarterback. After the 2015 season, rather than reinstate Grier to the program, McElwain chose Luke Del Rio to take over at quarterback.

In 2015 Florida was 6-0 with Grier, a redshirt freshman at the time. He was playing well, and the future seemed bright. But Grier was suspended for a year by the NCAA for taking a banned supplement, and McElwain moved on.

Florida could have welcomed Grier back to the program, and he wanted to return. Speaking to Matt Hayes of the Bleacher Report in a revealing “As Told To” piece written more than a year ago, Grier described his final meeting with McElwain, who by then was busy recruiting Feleipe Franks. 

“I decided to have one more meeting, man-to-man, and ask McElwain what the future held. I kept asking him what I could do to make it work there. He finally ended up saying, “Maybe a fresh start isn’t the worst thing.” He said that, and I said, “So I guess that’s the move.’  It was obvious he didn’t want me there. I will never understand why. I never thought McElwain appreciated anything I did.”

After serving his suspension, Grier was recruited by a bunch of Power 5 programs, including Ohio State. Grier committed to West Virginia, and it looks like a good decision. In five games as the starter, Grier has completed 64 percent of his passes, thrown for 16 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions, and is is averaging a strong 9.21 yards per passing attempt. His 1,740 passing yards rank 11th nationally.

And Florida?

McElwain’s team is 16-10 since Grier’s 6-0 turn as their starter.

Since Grier threw his final pass for the Gators they rank 88th nationally in yards per passing attempt, 97th in passing yards per game, 98th passer rating, and are 108th in touchdown-interception ratio.

This is the ugliest stat of all: After Grier, Florida’s scoring average per game (21.8 points) ranks 117th among 129 FBS teams.

And when the Gators have allowed more than 14 points in a game during this time, they’re 3-10.

2. The increasingly desperate Tennessee coach Butch Jones is making a change at quarterback and will have a new starter in place for Saturday’s game against visiting South Carolina. Will it matter?

First of all, if Jones can’t get a home win against S.C., he may get the big haircut next week. Bye-bye time. Buyout time. Leaving time. Recent reports out of Knoxville depict Tennessee players fighting each other in practice and getting injured in the bouts.

Jones continues to say head-scratcher (and stupid) things like this gem … when asked about the distribution of practice reps for certain players, Jones said:

“You don’t have to get a physical repetition to get a rep; you can get a leadership rep.”

Um, what the hell is a leadership rep?

Jones will bench ineffective starter Quinten Dormady and go with former 4-star recruit Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback against South Carolina game. On the surface the moves makes sense because Guarantano is more suited to run Tennessee’s spread offense. He has good running ability. But the passing accuracy will likely be a problem. More than anything, Jones made this decision to deflect some heat and redirect the attention to something else, because fans and media love to talk about a new quarterback.

The Vols are 0-2 in SEC play so far. And circling back to last season, they’ve lost six of their last eight conference games.

With quarterback Joshua Dobbs running the Tennessee offense during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the Vols were tied for 26th nationally with an average of 35.8 points per game. This year Tennessee is ranked 97th offensively with an average of 24.2 points/game. 

3. Early in the season Auburn fans were going ballistic over head coach Guz Malzahn’s tedious offense. Are they still howling on The Plains? 

Nooooo ….

Things have changed. Dramatically. The 10th-ranked Tigers are gobbling up swaths of  yardage and cranking out a copious amount of points now that transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham has mastered the offense. Auburn is hitting up defenses for more big plays than all but a few teams nationally. The Tigers have 21 plays of 30+ yards, which ranks first in the SEC and sixth nationally. They’re first in the SEC and third in the nation with 14  plays of 40+ yards. And they are first  in the SEC and third overall with nine plays of 50+ yards.

After a sluggish launch, Auburn’s new attack averaged 48 points per game in three emphatic stompings of SEC victims Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Auburn already had a ruthless defense and a vigorous rushing game in place. And now Auburn is restoring the forward pass to the offense, and the result is an average of 35.8 points per game, which would be the highest since quarterback Nick Marshall led an attack that averaged 39.5 points for War Eagle’s 2013 SEC champion.

4. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman in 2016. The hope, coming into 2017, was that Hurt would improve his downfield passing accuracy. Is it coming alone? 

Short answer: No.

CFB Film Room posted Hurts’  splits based on the length of the passing attempts. Hurts is on target on short throws (72.5%) and passes dumped off behind the line of scrimmage (93%). But on throws that travel 20+ yards through the air, Hurts has connected on only 2 of 18. He’s been OK, not great, on throws covering 10 to 19 yards, completing 12 of 20.

No. 1 Alabama probably doesn’t need Hurts to win games by passing, but you never know. There may come a time when  the Crimson Tide down by six points, with the clock under two minutes, and passing is the only way to win.

Alabama was never in any trouble in last week’s 27-19 win at Texas A&M. But the Aggies did a nice job defensively, limiting Bama to it’s second lowest totals of the season in points and total yards (355.) Hurts completed 13 of 22 passes with one touchdown but a low YPA of 5.59. Hurts was sacked three times.

But I should also point out that Hurts has slightly improved his completion percentage, YPA and passer rating compared to last season. And he hasn’t been intercepted; last season Hurts was picked off seven times.

And of course Hurts is an exceptional runner, ranking fourth nationally among quarterbacks with 517 yards. He’s averaging 7.5 yards per rushing attempt and has Roll-Tide in for five rushing touchdowns.

Here’s another thing to consider: Alabama has actually scaled back the offense this year under new coordinator Brian Dabol, relying on more of a standard ball-control approach that has fewer read-option plays and deep throws for Hurts. It’s a lot more conservative than what we saw with Lane Kiffin running the offense for Nick Saban … and that’s the point. Dabol’s offense fits Saban’s preferences. And when your offense has running back Damien Harris averaging 8.5 yards per rush, with 7 touchdowns, why use a more exotic offense? 

5. Our friend Dennis Dodd of CBSsports.com reported that Penn State officials are “preparing for Texas A&M to make a run at hiring James Franklin” should coach Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies part ways.  What’s up with that?

Intriguing, no? Now that Franklin has brought Penn State all the way back from  one of the most depressing downturns in program history, would he really leave Happy Valley to take the Texas A&M job? I don’t know. But this is big-time college football, which is a big business for FBS programs. A business that brings in enough revenue to fund the annual budget for the entire athletic department. And with mountains of cash left over.

If Texas A&M wants to break away from Sumlin — TBD — the Aggies and their powerful and wealthy boosters can afford to buy any coach, no matter what it takes. Of course, it depends on who receives the offer, and whether the coaching candidate really covets the A&M gig.

Franklin is excellent, charismatic, entertaining and has proven he can handle the SEC’s rugged terrain. As the coach at Vanderbilt for three years (2011-2013) Franklin coached the Commodores to a 24-15 record, two nine-win seasons, an appearance in three straight bowl games, and two finishes in the final AP Top 25 poll. I don’t know if you are familiar with the incredible difficulty of winning at Vandy, but let’s put it this way: before Franklin arrived in Nashville in 2011, Vanderbilt was in the pits, with one winning seasons since 1984, and two winning seasons since 1976. Franklin’s work there was profoundly good. And he left Vandy to rescue Penn State after a once-proud program had been ripped apart by scandal and severe NCAA penalties. Last season PSU went 11-3, won the Big Ten championship, and ended up ranked at No. 5 in the final AP Poll. This year, the Nittany Lions are 6-0 and ranked at No. 3.

As Dodd reported Franklin agreed to a three-year extension earlier this year that’s worth $19.75 million. The new deal — tacked on to this existing contract — takes Franklin through the 2022 season. But a time when we’re seeing so many athletic directors agree to give their head football coaches ridiculously lavish buyouts — $12 million for Ed Orgeron, really? — Franklin is a bargain. And that’s an understatement, because his buyout is only $2 million.

It may not reach that point. A young Texas A&M team is getting better by the week, and that’s lowered the heat for Sumlin … well, at least until the next Aggies’ loss to a team that’s deemed equal or inferior. And considering where Franklin has taken the Penn State program, you’d have to assume that he’ll receive a generous contract adjustment to stay.

But has the A&M lost much of its luster? Maybe. Coaches have noticed the disgusting treatment of Sumlin by loony-tunes fans  and saw a Texas A&M regent go after Sumlin on social media after a season-opening loss at UCLA saying (in closing) … “In my view he should go now. We owe it to our school and our players. We can do better.”

For what it’s worth, Franklin was quick to douse this particular brushfire.

He mentioned his Pennsylvania heritage (born in Langhorne, Pa), cited Penn State’s national ranking, and pointed to the program’s recruiting success. And in the Tweet, Franklin implied that the rumors were planted by a recruiting rivals or rivals.

Finally … a bonus question:

6. What special kind of hell will Mizzou walk into Saturday night in Athens, Georgia?

Gonna be real hot in there.

Georgia is 6-0. 

The No. 5 team in the nation.

A defense that has allowed only four offensive touchdowns through six games, and only one TD in the past 12 quarters in non garbage time.

A defense that’s given up 10 points per game, which is 2nd best in the nation to Penn State.

A pack of Dawgs who ranks third nationally in total defense, second in scoring defense, and fifth in both rushing defense and pass efficiency defense.

According to the advanced metrics formula FPI, Georgia has the No. 1 defense in the nation.

On offense, running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are churning out big yards with the help of an improved offensive line. The Dawgs rank fifth among Power 5 teams with 268.3 yards rushing per game. That sets up a lot of high-percentage throws off play action for true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm.

The special teams are sound.

Second-year head coach Kirby Smart, formerly the longtime defensive coordinator at Alabama, is well on the way to building Tuscaloosa East.

Georgia has destroyed its first three SEC opponents — Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt — by a combined score of 117 to 17.

Good luck to Mizzou, which enters Athens as a 31-point underdog.

The ESPN power index gives Georgia a 97.3 percent chance to win this game.

Have a safe trip, Mizzou.

Thanks for reading …

–B

More: Wheeler’s Friday Football Frenzy and Picks: Packers Are Too Good, Sooners Take Red River Showdown

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