On the Cusp of... Something

I was pretty critical of Jordan Jefferson after the Vandy game, and for good reason.  He stunk it up in that game.  In this game, he did everything that was asked of him.  Granted, not much was asked of him, but he did everything well.  Even his incompletions were usually not due to poorly thrown passes (one drop, one tough but catchable pass, a couple where he was hit as he threw, and a tipped pass come to mind).  There were even a couple really nice throws in there (the 3rd down strike to Rueben Randle comes to mind).  The staff cut down Jefferson's responsibilities in the passing game, and he responded by meeting those responsibilities admirably.

Which brings me to my thesis statement:  this team can still be either very good, or only so-so.  I think as currently constituted, this is a team that can be in the top half of the SEC and perhaps be one of the best without further improvement.  We can ride a fast and opportunistic defense, good special teams, and a pedestrian offense to victories over Tennessee, Ole Miss, McNeese, and ULM fairly easily as long as we don't have a flat game in there.  I would say at this point, without improvement, that our tilts against Arkansas, West Virginia, Florida, and Auburn are more-or-less even-money games, and if we played Bama next week we would be big underdogs.

So, without improvement, figure we get wins in our 4 games where we'll be big favorites and wins in 2 of the 4 in which the teams are roughly equal, and a loss to Bama.  That makes for 9 wins and a very solid bowl game, but not enough to truly compete for the SEC Championship.

However, I think this team is very close to being special, and maybe they will get there.  Jefferson's decent game is encouraging, but he has still not exactly put up the kinds of passing numbers that will make opposing defenses respect our passing game.  In his 17 career starts, he has thrown for 200 yards or more exactly 4 times, and now we seem to have settled in on being a run-first, pass-infrequently team.  The problem here is that our offensive personnel (outside of the QB position) does not seem to be geared towards being a run-first team.  We have outstanding receivers in Toliver and Randle, and a huge run-after-catch option in Shepard, but our running backs (I am sorry to say) are only so-so. 

Stevan Ridley is a fine player who gives his all, but outside of one really nice run against Vandy, he has been a 4-yard-per-carry back.  While 4 yards per carry is pretty good in the NFL, it's only OK in college.  To illustrate, in our much-maligned rushing attack of 2009, Charles Scott averaged 4.7 yards per carry, and Keiland Williams averaged 5.8 yards per carry.  In 2008, Scott averaged 5.4 yards per carry and Keiland Williams averaged about 5.0.  In 2007, Jacob Hester averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and Scott/Williams averaged almost 7.0 yards per carry. 

This team is really built to be an explosive passing team with a good enough running game to keep the defense honest.  Instead, because the coaches have little faith in Jefferson, we are forced to feature our running game, which is really nothing special, and use our passing game sparingly despite having stellar talent on the outside.  It's a situation that is far from optimized, but if Jefferson can continue improving like he did from week 3 to week 4, just to the point where we can have a roughly 50-50 run-pass split where we can make maximum use our most talented players, we will be a much improved team.

And if we improve, we could end up steamrolling teams like Arkansas, Auburn, West Virginia, and Florida (all of whom look very beatable if we play well), and really challenging Bama for the top spot in the conference.  We are on the cusp, but have to go over that cusp in order to meet our goals. 

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