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Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach hugs safety Marcus Murphy (7) after an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. Mississippi State won 44-34. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Following a 24-3 win over Auburn in 1998 in which his Gators were outgained by nearly 100 yards in the second half, former Florida football coach Steve Spurrier said, "Statistics are for losers and assistant coaches. Head coaches worry about wins and losses."

May I introduce the most meaningless stat in Southeastern Conference history: LSU leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 9.0 yards a game.

The return of SEC football to our lives this weekend brought about the familiar — Alabama's ownership of Eastern Division teams and South Carolina fans writhing over another tough defeat — and one eye-popping upset with Mississippi State's 44-34 aerial display at the expense of defending national champion LSU in Baton Rouge. The Bulldogs arrived as 16.5-point underdogs under their Pac-12 transfer duo of coach Mike Leach (Washington State) and quarterback K.J. Costello (Stanford), who proceeded to shred the Tigers for 623 passing yards and instantly set a new single-game league standard.

When asked what made him realize he could throw against an LSU secondary without star cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., Leach responded, "Trial and error would be the best way to describe that."

Costello's dynamic SEC debut — he completed 36 of 60 passes and threw for five touchdowns while getting intercepted twice — resulted in the Tigers becoming the first reigning champ to lose its season opener the following year since the 1998 Michigan Wolverines.

"Credit to Coach Leach for having his team ready to play," LSU counterpart Ed Orgeron said. "They just beat us. No excuses."

Saturday's MSU-LSU game, however, did take a somewhat exhausting three hours and 56 minutes to complete. Leach's Bulldogs are scheduled to host Feleipe Franks and Arkansas this Saturday night at 7:30, so there's no telling when that thing will conclude.

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Saturday contained a pair of throwback looks that were incredibly well done.

Georgia's red britches to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the 1980 national champions were sharp, even if the players wearing them weren't. The Bulldogs produced 68 first-quarter total yards and 73 first-quarter penalty yards, a recipe that led to a 7-0 deficit against an Arkansas team that entered with 19 consecutive conference setbacks.

Though Georgia would eventually cruise to a 37-10 win in Fayetteville, the Bulldogs are moving forward with quarterback uncertainty after redshirt junior and former walk-on Stetson Bennett replaced struggling redshirt freshman D'Wan Mathis, who had earned rave reviews in the preseason. Southern California transfer quarterback JT Daniels still hasn't been medically cleared from last season's torn ACL, leaving fifth-year coach Kirby Smart with an interesting week before Auburn invades.

"We did not play clean today," Smart said when asked about switching quarterbacks. "We didn't execute well, and it's not all D'Wan's fault. We tried to inject some energy, and you do that sometimes to try and get some enthusiasm."

Who could have predicted Georgia's quarterback conversation of Daniels and Jamie Newman at the beginning of this month giving way to Bennett and Mathis?

Speaking of Auburn, eighth-year coach Gus Malzahn deserves props for dressing up like Pat Dye, the legendary Tigers coach who died earlier this year. Dye, who often wore a tie with a short-sleeve shirt, guided Auburn to four SEC titles in a seven-year stretch during the 1980s.

Of course, dressing up like Dye and losing would not have provided the same punch, but Auburn broke free from an 8-7 halftime lead against Kentucky and won 29-13 inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Sophomore Bo Nix became the second Auburn quarterback ever to throw three touchdown passes against the Wildcats. His father, Patrick Nix, was the first during a 42-21 win at Lexington in 1995.

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Alabama has now won 28 straight games against teams from the East following Saturday night's 38-19 win at Missouri.

The Crimson Tide last lost a cross-divisional game in 2010, when they were upset at South Carolina 35-21. Their streak is an SEC record, shattering the previous mark of 16 set by Tennessee against West members from from 1994 to 1999 that included SEC title-game wins in 1997-98.

Alabama had touchdown drives of 66, 66, 91 and 75 yards during the first half and took a 35-3 lead early in the third quarter behind the play of starting quarterback Mac Jones, who completed 18 of 24 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. Five-star freshman Bryce Young replaced Jones with the Tide up 32 points and completed 5 of 8 passes for 54 yards, with the offense managing a lone field goal the rest of the way.

"We probably sacrificed a little bit offensively by giving him the opportunity," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He was obviously a little anxious out there in terms of how he played, but it will be something he can learn from."

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Costello's record-setting day puts him in the favorite role for SEC offensive player of the week, but quarterback Kyle Trask and tight end Kyle Pitts sure had fun in Florida's 51-35 win at Ole Miss that spoiled the debut of Rebels coach Lane Kiffin. Trask completed 30 of 42 passes for 416 yards and a whopping six touchdowns, while Pitts had eight receptions for 170 yards and four scores.

Perhaps Costello and Trask could share the weekly league honors, but here's an early vote for the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Pitts as the league's biggest mismatch issue each and every Saturday.

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The opening SEC Saturday had two 7-5 halftime scores, with Arkansas leading Georgia and Texas A&M leading Vanderbilt in a game the Aggies eventually won 17-12.

That added to the oddity that has been 2020, as did the capped crowds around various league venues.

"It didn't feel normal," Saban said. "I think it's a little different playing without fans and without that enthusiasm. The spirit of the game was different, but I don't think the competitive spirit was any different from what it ever is."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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