Josh Kendall

SEC’s opening weekend gives hope to Gamecocks

One week into the college football season, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp is already defending his league. That’s not a great sign for the Southeastern Conference, but it might work out pretty well for Muschamp’s Gamecocks.

“Our league is strong,” Muschamp insisted Sunday, after a long weekend in which it didn’t look it.

The lowlights:

▪ Unranked Wisconsin 16, No. 5 LSU 13

▪ South Alabama 21, Mississippi State 20

▪ Southern Miss 44, Kentucky 35

The not-so-greats:

▪ No. 9 Tennessee 20, Appalachian State 13, OT

▪ Arkansas 21, Louisiana Tech 20

▪ West Virginia 26, Missouri 11

▪ Florida 24, UMass 7

The MAC was the only conference with a worse first-week record than the SEC.

“Regardless of what happened in this first weekend, we still have a bunch of good players and a bunch of good coaches,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

That work in the immediate future looks less daunting than it did a couple days ago, though, because the two worst outcomes of the first week for the SEC came from South Carolina’s next two league opponents. The Gamecocks play at Mississippi State on Saturday and at Kentucky on Sept. 24.

Let’s take a look at the Bulldogs’ first. The Jaguars didn’t get lucky. They just flat beat Mississippi State, dominating time of possession 36:41 to 23:19, not benefiting from any turnovers and finishing within three yards in total offense (382-379). Starting quarterback Damian Williams, who took over for starter Nick Fitzgerald, led the Bulldogs in passing (143 yards) and rushing (93 yards).

As for the Wildcats, it was worse. The Golden Eagles offense is coordinated by Shannon Dawson, who was fired from the same job by Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops last year after just one year in Lexington. Dawson got his revenge Saturday as his offense ran 96 plays to Kentucky’s 50. The Golden Eagles had 32 first downs to the Wildcats’ 14, converted 9-of-14 third downs, held the ball twice as long as the Cats and outgained Kentucky 520-409.

The only bright spot for the Wildcats was new starting quarterback Drew Barker. The one-time South Carolina recruiting target threw for 323 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. There aren’t any Kentucky fans talking about those numbers this week, thought. The number they are talking about is 58.

The Wildcats have been outscored 58-0 in the second half of the last two games going back to last year’s season-ending loss to Louisville.

As bad as those games were, they weren’t as bad for the SEC as the LSU game. Nobody expected Mississippi State and Kentucky to be any good. It was different with the Tigers, who have Leonard Fournette and a supposedly offensively enlightened Les Miles. LSU was supposed to challenge Alabama for the SEC West title. It couldn’t even challenge the Badgers, who held the ball more than 36 minutes and made a lot of mistakes in the red zone that kept the game from being a complete blowout. And one of LSU’s two scores came on an interception return.

Even the teams that escaped embarrassment have concerns moving forward. Tennessee was outrushed 184-127 by App State, Florida led UMass just 10-7 entering the fourth quarter, and Arkansas gained fewer than 300 total yards and trailed midway through the fourth quarter against La. Tech.

There were some bright spots for the league. The joyless death machine that is Alabama football absolutely demolished Southern Cal 52-6. The Crimson Tide had a 465-194 total yards advantage and may have found their quarterback in freshman Jalen Hurts, who came relieved starter Blake Barnett and finished with 118 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and rushed for 32 yards.

No. 18 Georgia beat No. 22 North Carolina 33-24, and Bulldogs running back Nick Chubb looked like he’s fully back from last season’s knee injury. Chubb rushed for 222 yards.

Unranked Texas A&M beat No. 16 UCLA 31-24 in College Station, Texas, and Auburn gets some credit for hanging around with No. 2 Clemson in a 19-13 loss despite a crazy quarterback rotation that saw four Auburn players take a snap from behind center.

“It was not a good performance for the SEC,” SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy said Monday on ESPN Radio. “I think a lot of people who follow the conference were shaking their head and scratching their heads at the same time.”

USC at Mississippi State

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field (55,082), Starkville Miss.