SEC football superlatives Week 9: Ole Miss’ dunk contest, Tennessee’s resilience

The SEC’s largest question loomed over the game once called the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party last weekend — how would No. 1 Georgia fare in its first game without star tight end Brock Bowers? And against rival Florida, which was coming off back-to-back wins?

Asked and answered. By Saturday evening, the Bulldogs scored 43 points, racked up nearly 500 yards of total offense and improved to 8-0, just in time for the initial College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday night.

That’s not to say Georgia toppled a world-beater in Florida, which at 5-3 and with games against Missouri, LSU and Florida State remaining might be a .500 team when the regular season is done. But Georgia’s dominant performance marked the third straight win by at least 17 points after a 27-20 scare at Auburn in Week 5 and provides evidence that this could still be an elite-level offense without Bowers.

As it stands today, Georgia ranks fourth nationally in total offense (506.5 yards per game), seventh in scoring offense (40.4), fourth in passing offense (334.2 yards per game), third in third-down offense (56 percent) and fifth in time of possession (33 minutes per game). Only LSU boasts a better offense in the SEC, but Georgia is significantly better on defense, ranking eighth nationally in total defense (272 yards allowed per game) and first in third-down defense (25 percent).

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck trails only LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels in passing yards and completion percentage. Transfer receiver Dominic Lovett’s role has increased over the past few weeks and mainstay Ladd McConkey is finally healthy, tallying 135 yards against Florida. Bowers’ replacement, sophomore Oscar Delp, also flashed with a big one-handed catch.

Georgia still has challenges ahead. The next three weeks feature home games against Missouri and Ole Miss, followed by a road game at Tennessee. All three opponents should be included in the CFP rankings on Tuesday and are playing for New Year’s Six positioning and more. That stretch will help the weak strength of schedule notion working against the Bulldogs.

Georgia’s emphatic win sets the stage for the latest SEC Superlatives ahead of this weekend’s big matchups of Georgia-Missouri, Alabama-LSU and Ole Miss-Texas A&M.

Best Celebration: Ole Miss

From Georgia’s savage pads, Miami’s turnover chain, Colorado’s turnover throne and more, teams have found ways to reward players for big plays, but the honors are usually reserved for defenders who create turnovers. Not at Ole Miss, where the program debuted the touchdown dunk for players who reach the end zone — which the Rebels did plenty of in their 33-7 win over Vanderbilt.

Best bounce-back win: Tennessee

The Volunteers were in a tough spot coming off a disappointing loss at Alabama that included a blown 20-7 halftime lead. Yet they traveled to Kentucky and found a way to hold on late for a big 33-27 win.

Most encouraging was the balance the Vols had been lacking on offense finally arrived. Quarterback Joe Milton was 17-of-20 passing coupled with Tennessee’s more than 250 yards rushing. On defense, Tennessee stifled Kentucky’s running game (72 yards on 24 carries).

Tennessee plays UConn next before facing Missouri and Georgia back to back.

Best show of school spirit: Auburn

This is taking “It Just Means More” to another level. There’s a strip of road in Auburn, Ala., complete with rumble strips that play the school’s fight song when cars drive over them. The next time Auburn wins a big game, expect that strip to be ringing all night.

Best performance in a losing effort: Devin Leary, Kentucky

The Leary many were expecting entering the 2023 season arrived Saturday, albeit in the loss to Tennessee. He passed for 372 yards (the second-highest mark of his career), a pair of touchdown passes and completed more than 70 percent of his passes.

For the season, he’s completing 57 percent of his passes, and Kentucky has lost three in a row. However, there’s reason for optimism that Leary’s success will continue.

Stat trend of the week: Mississippi State’s pass defense

Since 2000, the Mississippi State pass defense has allowed a 57 percent opposing completion rate on average. Only 10 times has the defense allowed 60 percent or higher, and never has it allowed higher than 65 percent in a single season.

This year’s pass defense? Allowing a whopping 72.8 percent completion rate. The Bulldogs fell at Auburn last Saturday 27-13, with Tigers quarterback Payton Thorne completing 20 of 26 passes (77 percent) for three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Prior to the game, he had completed 60 percent of his passes only three times this season.

Milestone achievement of the week: Ainias Smith, Texas A&M

Another week, another highlight reel play for Smith — this one a long catch-and-run in a much needed 30-17 win over South Carolina. Surprisingly, it was Smith’s first receiving touchdown this year. But his impact in 2023 has been felt in multiple ways, and Saturday, he joined elite company.

Smith’s 119-yard day moved him into the top 10 all-time at Texas A&M in all-purpose yards. He has 3,683 yards, which ranks ninth: 2,181 receiving yards, 1,112 return yards and 390 rushing yards.

That touchdown reception also moved him ahead of legendary Mike Evans for eighth-most receiving touchdowns in school history (18).

Phrase of the week: “Plankton mentality”

Motivation can come from a variety of sources, and Auburn defensive back Jaylin Simpson found his in the TV show “Spongebob Squarepants.” Last week, leading up to the Mississippi State game, Simpson posted a series of photos on his Instagram account, one of which was of Plankton, a famous character in the show whose sole purpose was to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula. Simpson explained his rationale later in the week.

“Since I’ve been knowing Plankton, dude just got one goal, man: get that Krabby Patty formula,” Simpson said. “He don’t stop, no matter what. Every episode, he’s on it. We gotta get that Plankton mentality every game. We gotta get that formula every game.”

Auburn’s social media team had some fun with it after the win over Mississippi State. Auburn is officially 1-0 in the Plankton mentality era.

(Photo of Joe Milton III: Jordan Prather / USA Today)

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