Derrick Henry’s accelerated Heisman case leads Week 11 ‘SEC Revelations’
Here are six “SEC Revelations” from the Week 11 slate of SEC action, a jam-packed countdown which couldn’t find adequate space to address the underrated greatness of Arkansas tailback Alex Collins (141 yards, 2 TDs vs. LSU) or the underwhelming nature of Auburn’s punt-coverage team.
1. Alabama’s blowout win should simultaneously mean everything and nothing to the College Football Playoff committee
Of the top four teams in the College Football Playoff rankings (Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame), the Crimson Tide easily produced the weekend’s most impressive victory — a 25-point road rout of Mississippi State. But it’s still hard to justify Alabama moving up to No. 1 come Tuesday night, for three plausible reasons, along with one tongue-in-cheek belief:
a) Clemson and Ohio State still have unbeaten records (both 10-0).
b) Citing the Associated Press Top 25 poll, Alabama boasts only wins over No. 17 LSU and No. 21 Wisconsin (we’ll address the Arkansas poll snub later). On the flip side, Alabama has seven top-40 victories over teams from ESPN’s Football Power Index, contributing to the Tide’s high strength-of-schedule ranking.
c) Of the six one-loss teams in the AP top 10 — Alabama, Notre Dame (5th), Oklahoma (7th), Florida (8th), Michigan State (9th), Baylor (10th) — the Crimson Tide would subjectively rank fourth in the unofficial category of “Most Respectable Defeat.” (For those with short memories, Ole Miss outlasted Alabama 43-37 on Sept. 19.)
d) The CFP committee might enjoy irking Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban for another week.
Regarding point C, Alabama stands as the only one-loss club that’s absolutely guaranteed a spot in the CFP semifinals (assuming no additional defeats). It’s the aura that comes with having Saban on the sidelines, blue-chip recruits at nearly every position, a TV-friendly schedule (does Verne Lundquist own a condo in Tuscaloosa?), an average road victory margin of 23.7 points (all SEC foes) and the current front-runner for the most prestigious award in college football.
Which brings us to …
2. Derrick Henry’s ‘Heisman moment’ occurred during the most unlikely of down-and-distance situations — a 3rd-and-9 call
Henry (nine receptions for the year) will never be confused with the nation’s best receiving running backs, versatile assets like Virginia’s Mizzell Taquan or Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. As such, the Alabama star wouldn’t seem like the best option on 3rd-and-long.
Nevertheless, with Saturday’s game still in doubt, the Crimson Tide tapped Henry as their third-down savior, ordering a seemingly pedestrian run up the gut during a supposed must-pass situation … and Henry rewarded such loyalty with a 74-yard touchdown run, transforming a reasonably close score (14-3) into a 21-3 thumping shortly before halftime.
Henry’s initial scoring run effectively put the Mississippi State game on ice. It might also be the signature memory of Henry’s Heisman Trophy campaign, with the junior tailback rolling for 204 rushing yards (and two touchdowns) and creating necessary space between him and the other Heisman hopefuls — including LSU’s Leonard Fournette (127 total yards, 1 TD vs. Arkansas).
Fair or not, Heisman voters like their award winners to be highly productive and full of highlight-reel goodness; and heading into Saturday, it could be argued that Fournette had proffered more ‘Heisman plays’ than his Alabama counterpart (cue the amazing touchdown run against Auburn).
But it’s likely a moot point now. Henry (1,458 rushing yards in 2015; TD runs of 74 and 65 yards against the Bulldogs; four straight games of multiple touchdowns) has his true Heisman moment … along with advantages in total touchdowns (19-17) and head-to-head supremacy. He might also end up as the SEC rushing champion, if that even matters to Heisman voters.
3. It’s fun to daydream about Vanderbilt catching fire and becoming bowl-eligible
Pick a game. Just about any game. This season, there have been long stretches of play when the Commodores offense — which currently ranks 116th nationally in yards per game (336) — has failed to get first downs. By extension, that lack of advancement explains the program’s 126th ranking (out of 128 teams) in points per game (15.4).
And yet, Vanderbilt (4-6, 2-4 in SEC play) still has a chance to go bowling, thanks to a first-rate defense and a conference schedule which doesn’t involve Alabama, LSU or Arkansas. On Saturday night, Vandy pulled out a 21-17 victory over Kentucky, relying on a time-tested mix of solid defense (limiting the Wildcats to 352 yards and forcing three turnovers), clutch playmaking (two goal-line stands and a game-ending sack of Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles) and tons of touches for Commodores tailback Ralph Webb, who scurried for 113 yards on 33 carries.
Quite simply, Vandy — a popular basement pick among SEC prognosticators during the preseason — could end up as one of the top feel-good stories in college football; but that applause only comes if the Commodores beat Texas A&M (home) and Tennessee (away) over the next two weeks.
It’s an ambitious proposition. But then again, Vandy has surrendered only 48 points in its last four conference outings. The defense can make this dream a reality.
4. The SEC title-game loser has essentially clinched a slot in a ‘New Year’s Six’ bowl
I greatly respect the bowl-projections work of CBS Sports writer Jerry Palm, but he’s way off in his current assessment of the New Year’s Six major bowls — with only Alabama (Cotton Bowl, as part of the College Football Playoff semifinals) and LSU (Sugar Bowl) representing the SEC.
Are the East-champion Gators exciting to watch? Not really. But at 9-1 overall (7-1 in SEC play), Florida has certainly done enough to merit a major-bowl bid — even with the October loss to LSU. And should Alabama (which still hasn’t clinched the West title) go down in the SEC championship, the Crimson Tide would be a no-brainer pick for the CFP selection committee (Sugar).
That’s not to mock LSU’s chances of finishing November on a high note and earning a spot in a major bowl. It’s just easier to imagine Alabama and Florida getting the ‘New Year’s Six’ bids — if only two SEC teams warrant invitations.
And beating Florida State on Thanksgiving weekend would further strengthen the Gators’ case.
5. It’s hard to envision an Auburn uprising in 2016, because of a daunting schedule
Auburn’s long-standing tradition of capping conference play with UGA and Alabama dates back to the 1962 regular season; and from 1999-2011, the Tigers found a rhythm with the Bulldogs/Crimson Tide finish — splitting the home/away obligations every year.
For example, when Auburn played UGA at home, it would subsequently travel to Alabama — and vice versa the following year.
But substantive change came three years ago, when the SEC added Texas A&M (West division) and Missouri (East division) as the 13th and 14th members. Consequently, the conference’s master schedule had to be adjusted, accommodating for two seven-team divisions, while preserving the permanent crossover rivalries that were already in place (Alabama-Tennessee, LSU-Florida, Auburn-UGA, etc.).
For Auburn, this created a good news/bad news situation for November: With odd-numbered years, the Tigers would host the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide; and for even-numbered years, Auburn would stack trips to Athens, Georgia and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Fast forward to Saturday’s broadcast of Auburn-UGA (the Bulldogs rallied for a 20-13 win): During a break in action, the CBS play-by-play announcer vaguely alluded to how the Tigers are primed for a bounce-back season next year, presumably because of the large number of starting returnees and/or infusion of blue-chip recruits, like 5-star defensive end Marlon Davidson (Greenville, Alabama) and 4-star wide receiver Eli Stove (Niceville, Florida).
Well, it’s great to be so optimistic about the Tigers’ chances for contending in the SEC West next season; but it’s also tough to readily endorse, given Auburn’s road slate of Mississippi State, Ole Miss, UGA and Alabama. Throw in home dates with Clemson and LSU — which may both garner top-5 preseason rankings next August — and a berth in the College Football Playoff seems like a long shot.
Plus, Auburn’s quarterback tandem of Jeremy Johnson (61 passing yards, 31 rushing vs. UGA) and Sean White (1 of 5 passing) must make monumental strides in the offseason, in terms of avoiding the 2016 grouping of bottom-tier SEC passers.
And that’s saying a lot … for a conference which only has one 3,000-yard passer this late in the 2015 season (Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly).
6. Arkansas warrants a place among the nation’s top 25 teams — regardless of how Associated Press voters feel
There are worse crimes in college football than losing to a Mid-American Conference team, especially a division leader with a history of upending Power Five teams. And yet, Arkansas still cannot shake the supposed stench of falling to Toledo (8-1 overall) on Sept. 12, just days after Hogs head coach Bret Bielema chided Ohio State for loading up on a steady diet of weaker teams — including two schools from the MAC (Western Michigan, Northern Illinois).
How else to explain Arkansas’ notable absence from Sunday’s AP Top 25, a countdown which includes four three-loss schools (Southern California, Oregon, Washington State, Ole Miss) but couldn’t find space for the four-loss Hogs?
For a moment, forget about Arkansas’ sluggish September (three straight defeats to Toledo, Texas Tech, Texas A&M). The Razorbacks opened October with a comeback win over Tennessee and then held a late third-quarter lead against Alabama the following Saturday, before losing in the end.
It’s worth noting: Both games were on the road.
The Alabama loss, while disheartening, might have sparked Arkansas’ current four-game win streak, which includes an easy romp of Tennessee-Martin, overtime victories over Auburn (four OTs) and Ole Miss and one seismic shakedown of LSU (Saturday night), with the Razorbacks crushing the Tigers by 17 in Baton Rouge, La.
What’s more, has anyone in 2015 produced a better set of back-to-back road victories than Arkansas — knocking off Ole Miss and LSU on consecutive Saturdays? Looking at the national schedules, only Oregon (close-shave road triumphs over Washington and Arizona State) and Clemson (58-0 rout of Miami, comeback win over North Carolina State) have comparable success stories away from home. And Baylor has a chance to eventually top all comers … if the Bears can win at Oklahoma State and TCU over the next two weekends.
The larger point: Strong finishers from power conferences deserve to be rewarded with Top 25 love; and Arkansas, with an average victory margin of 15.3 points since Oct. 24, might sit atop the current national listing of Top 10 Teams No One Wants To Play During Bowl Season.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.