Cafe Malzahn – Just Dessert or Just Deserts?
Where is it? Can't it get here any Sooner?
So the end of the season is upon us. As proprietor of Cafe Malzahn, I’ll leave it up to you, the readers, to decide which spelling applies – Just Desserts/Just Deserts.
At issue is the refinement of the Auburn fan palate. Some of the Auburn faithful savor the sweetness of a January 2nd Bowl as a fitting end to the season. Others have been soured by the results of the last two conference games in which the Auburn offense failed to make any headway for significant portions of the game. Still others taste bitterness in that the highest ranked SEC team outside of the playoffs has four losses and is representing the Conference as damaged goods. There even seems to be an undercurrent of distrust and dismay that such an invitation rewards what is being perceived as an underachieving Auburn team.
I have to admit, on the surface there seems to be some truth to this. The failure of the vaunted Auburn offense to gain a first down in two separate halves of the last two conference games is troubling in the extreme, especially given that the most productive offensive game in the entire conference this year was against another SEC West team just a month earlier.
Why the discrepancy? Are we so lacking in depth that injury to one or two key players makes the difference between gaining 540 yards on the ground and beating Arkansas by 50+ but just achieving 66 rushing yards and losing by three scores to Alabama? Or losing by six points to Georgia, who has the exact same number of wins as Arkansas?
This has troubled many fans, myself included. I know that Sean White and Kamryn Pettway were hurt and unable to take the field, but should that have halted the Gus Bus as easily as it did? Should we not have had more consistency on the field of play this year (and 2015, for that matter)?
Other teams seem able to have some level of stability around the league, don’t they?
Hold that thought a moment. I’ve got a few things to show you after the break.
Contending for the Conference title is what all of us want, Charlie.
As always, this is the Cafe Malzahn standard by which all teams in the conference are evaluated. It is derived from the accomplishments of SEC Champion teams from 2006 until 2015 and then graduated down to illustrate good and average teams from the not-so-good ones.
Consistency was my initial thought when I started to look at the 2016 regular season. Auburn wasn’t the only team on my mind in that respect. I related very early in the season how schizophrenic Ole Miss’ game performance had been in the first few games, and it didn’t improve much as time went by. Likewise, I noticed several other teams who weren’t playing as well as they had in the recent past, even those who hadn’t had a coaching change, although those teams that did change coaches tended to struggle mightily but in different ways.
Take a look at the SEC West offenses. I mentioned before about how I imagined every team’s early numbers weren’t likely to prove indicative of what the season would bring.
Turns out I was right. Not very flattering is it? Alabama is clearly the Best of the West both in scoring and third down conversions. Much as I hate to admit it, this is truly a championship team in all areas. Attribute it to a good quarterback and line or give Lane Kiffen his due, but whatever the reason, they are certainly vastly improved from 2015. Auburn is good, but those inconsistent games show up in the season total by dropping the Auburn 2016 team to a good but not great squad. The same goes for LSU and Texas A&M. Both had flashes of greatness in certain games but not in every game this year. They would shine one week and be absolutely flat in others, even against similar competition.
One curious fact does show up here, however. All SEC West teams have remarkably good Yards Per Play numbers, well above average. Strangely, that isn’t translated into scoring or other production numbers, but it is possibly the best indication of the inconsistency of play by everyone except Alabama in terms of 3rd down conversions. Most of these teams would have big plays and yet stall in drives and not score.
In the East, it is a different story. Teams outside of Knoxville, Tennessee on that side of the conference are clearly struggling to move the ball. With only a couple of exceptions, the entire East is having a tough time in all aspects of offensive production. It’s messed up like a soup sandwich. Only the Vols showed any sort of consistency over time, and even they seem to struggle on third down.
Defensively the West was remarkably strong by virtue of three key teams.
Alabama, LSU and Auburn all have championship level defenses that are at the top of the conference in efficiency. Even A&M put up some decent numbers. The rest? Both Mississippi teams and Arkansas have a great deal of work to do in the offseason. Especially troubling was the precipitous fall of the Ole Miss defense over the last two years. To go from the best defense in the conference in 2014 to nearly the Worst of the West in 2016 takes some doing. It’s going to be a long 2017 season for each of those teams if they don’t show some improvement.
But the East has even less to celebrate. The short side of the conference has just one team with a championship defense, three barely above-average teams and three absolutely pitiful defenses to show for it all. What makes these numbers truly difficult to explain is that the three most productive offenses on that side of the conference have almost nothing on the defensive side of the ball. In two cases (looking at you, Kentucky and Mizzou) the defenses even allowed more points than their top performing SEC East offenses generated.
I don’t know about you, but that just strikes me as very bad news.
Which brings me to my next point. I’ve been doing the Cafe Malzahn for four years now, running my numbers every year since Gus became the Auburn head coach in 2013. In that time I’ve seen teams rise and fall, including Auburn. With the departure of the Mad Hatter, there has been a nearly 100% turnover in coaching around the league, leaving us in the curious situation in which the two longest tenured coaches in the SEC haven’t even reached double digits with their teams yet.
Where has that taken us as a league and a brand in the NCAA? Far afield than where the SEC was in 2013, let me tell you.
Let’s look at all the Conference offenses over the past four years. Taking the very simple measure of 12 points to represent championship level, 9 to 11 points to indicate a strong contender, and above 6 as a good team, I show the following numbers across the SEC year by year since 2013
Interesting, no? In 2013, there were no fewer than four championship level offenses in the league. Two more contenders and at least 8 total teams well above average. That dropped dramatically in the following years, especially in 2015 and 2016. We now have a situation in which the offensive output is little better than any other conference around the nation.
How about defense?
This was the most dramatic turnaround for me. From few good defenses to a flood of overachievers in 2015 (part of those paltry offensive numbers no doubt) to a rather surprising concentration of quality in just four teams this year.
But when you look at the combination of both of these graphs, it really jumps out at you.
This was the shocker for me. I’ll go ahead and voice the obvious conclusion from this data. Hard as it is for me to admit, the chart above shows that the SEC is no longer the toughest, most dominant conference in the FBS. Whether that means a long trend or just a single underachieving season is unknown, but the data is clear. What started as a series of losses in the 2015 bowl season has continued until this day in 2016. The SEC consists of one clear championship level team and just three contenders in a rather large sea of mediocrity. Auburn’s ranking is not a fluke, an oversight nor a mistake. Good or bad, we are the second best team on the field of play in the SEC.
Collectively, since 2014 the entire Southeastern Conference has become exactly what the fan base used to decry and deride in the other four power conferences—one big fish, a couple of meaty sidekicks and a host of mediocre teams that fuel that one team’s rise in the rankings. This is the state of the conference in 2016.
In many cases the fall is dramatic. I can only describe Mississippi State’s drop in offensive productivity as having “Dak Prescott withdrawal” symptoms (although the line that blocked for him is gone too). Based upon what he’s doing for Dallas as a rookie, I’m inclined to pin much of the Bulldog woes on that, but logically that can’t be the only reason for State’s struggles. Ole Miss has also dropped like a stone from relevancy to mediocrity or worse on the defensive side of the ball, and both Georgia and Missouri seem to be suffering growing pains under new coaching staffs. The only inexplicable underachiever is Tennessee, who should have been an island of stability under their unchanged coaching staff after three solid recruiting years.
The most striking feature of this? The teams that showed dramatic improvement from 2015—LSU, Alabama and Auburn. They were the only ones that showed more than a couple of digits difference in quality. All others either stayed about the same or dropped precipitously. In fact, judging from the last four years, there are only four teams that have been regularly at or near the ‘contender’ level of quality throughout. Care to guess who those teams are?
You got it. Those three West teams and Florida have been the only constants in the sea change going on in the Southeastern Conference. Keep that in mind the next time you consider the quality of the job that Gus Malzahn has done in this league and the impact of any future coaching change. Could we be better under CGM? You betcha, and I’d love to see us challenge for the championship next year. I’m even looking forward to it. But I’m also very aware that judging from the volatility of the teams around the league, an 8–4 season and a trip to the Sugar Bowl is not bad at all.
So savor that sweetness in January. Things could be so much worse, looking at what is happening elsewhere around the conference. You could be having to match your palate with whatever gruel they happen to serve in such august establishments like Shreveport, Legion Field or Jacksonville.
Bleah. No thanks. I’d rather have Sugar instead.