We’ve heard the mantra for so long, it’s now a cliche: “The game is played for sixty minutes or longer. Whatever is shown on the scoreboard at the end is what counts, not before.” Nowhere was that more true than in the games played this last weekend. The SEC played a series of big games against power five conference teams whose match ups seemed to mirror bowl-game-like scenarios from the past.
Unfortunately, those games revealed that the SEC’s historical power might be a thing of the distant past. Because what was most evident this last weekend to me was not how the SEC has changed from the heady days of eight straight national campionships, but how little it has changed from the more recent history of last year.
You can talk all you want about the number of field goals that doinked off SEC goal posts this weekend or rehash the Mountaineer Miracle (or Wolverine Woe) game at Ann Arbor in 2007 when mentioning the Tennessee game. But there’s no hiding the fact that the SEC of old is not the SEC we saw play on this big game opening weekend of 2016. It’s not enough to compare the USC and UCLA losses for the Pac-12, or the fact that only Rutgers and Northwestern lost among the Big 10, or even how close the games were between the ACC and the SEC. The real story is not what happened just this last weekend but what HAS happened ever since the beginning of last season.
When viewing the play and result of these games in conjunction with last year’s trends, it becomes less of an indication of first-game jitters as it is simply a continuation of troubling tendencies established as early as last September and continued throughout last season.
Self reflection is useless without objectivity
The Big Wins
Alabama’s hard-hitting defense and big plays STILL seem to be hiding a very inefficient and remarkably error-prone offense, especially evident in the first half against the Trojans. However, it does look like …
that combined with an NFL-level defense, will be enough for Alabama to win just about every game this year (Dammit!). The Crimson Tide defensive line spent so much time in the Southern California backfield, I began to wonder if the Trojan running backs were holding signs that said. ‘Free beer with every hit!‘ It’s the only explanation I could find for the speed and depth of their penetration. The fact that nearly every Trojan receiver was blanketed every play didn’t matter when USC quarterback Max Browne had an average of only 1.5 seconds each play to find one open.
Granted, Florida had a easy time with University of Massachusetts, but then again the Minutemen have had only an 8–41 record over the last five years. That doesn’t really tell us much about the Gators, which is frighteningly similar to last year. There’s still no telling what may happen in or out of the Swamp this year. It’s a complete mystery.
The Narrow Wins
Georgia and Texas A&M both had hard-fought quality wins over decent teams, but even in victory there are some troubling issues. The Bulldogs have a strong running back in Nick Chubb but questions at quarterback remain, and at 32 carries for a single running back, Kirby Smart’s team is just one injury away from being a middle tier offense supported by a decent defense. Texas A&M can battle hard when the time comes, and its victory over UCLA was very impressive, but except for three key interceptions, the Aggie secondary seemed to be dissected for much of the game.
Both of these key faults are merely carryovers from last year. Don’t believe me? Nick Chubb accounted for 46% of Georgia’s offense on Saturday, a 10% increase over his contribution last year before his injury. UCLA’s Josh Rosen threw for 343 yards in Saturday’s game – precisely the same average passing yards surrendered per game last year by the Aggies, second worst in the SEC.
Arkansas can win a close one with a mid-tier Conference USA team, and Tennessee can (barely) beat a Sun Belt team of the same caliber. Hooray. It doesn’t necessarily reflect much confidence in the conference brand, especially since the lone inter-conference game was a lackluster performance and narrow squeak of a game where South Carolina and Vanderbilt simply reinforced the idea that the best days of the conference are now an aging memory.
The Narrow Losses
These were the troubling games. LSU delayed the start of the Fournette Show for so long that it eventually became the For Naught Show. Even when he got started, as difficult as he was to stop, he was the only bright spot in an ineffective and lackluster LSU offense, accounting for over 75% of the positive yards by the Tiger offense. As for Ole Miss Schizophrenia, she really isn’t someone (or sometwo) new, she’s that same bat-crazy last minute desperation prom date that beat Alabama handily last September only to lose badly to Memphis in October. This year her antics were just condensed into a single head-scratching one-night stand where the idea of handcuffs seemed much less a kinky accessory and more just a prudent safety precaution.
Speaking of schizophrenia, did you hear? Auburn has a quarterback question. Don’t you wish that question could be answered? Some day? Some time this year would be nice. Just sayin’…
The Big Losses
To call the Missouri loss ‘much of the same‘ is somewhat deceptive. There was some ghost of improvement on the offense. Quarterback Drew Lock improved as the game progressed, but it was still a matter of Missouri’s woes on defense that sank its chances in the game with West Virginia.
But the repeat of last year’s tendencies was dramatically underlined by the two shockers that Kentucky and Mississippi State succumbed to. 313 passing yards and 400+ yards of True Blue Wildcat offense might sound OK, but keep in mind that the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles haven’t had a win over a power five conference in nearly five years and haven’t beaten an SEC team in over fifteen. Saturday in Lexington it did both, scoring 34 unanswered points guided by the offensive coordinator Kentucky fired last season (Shannon Dawson). Ouch.
But even that pales in comparison to what happened to Mississippi State at home on Saturday. South Alabama has NEVER beaten a power five team before in its entire history as a team. Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs were its very first victory over one. They’ve had previous intermittent success over the Texas States, Georgia States, maybe even Kent States of the world from time to time, but Mississippi State? At home in front of a sellout crowd? Yeeesh.
The Silver Lining
But there was a bit of repeating history that was welcome this last weekend. Auburn has linebackers once again. Linebackers who can plug holes and tackle well. And it has a secondary, a little undersized and challenged at times, but very hungry and resourceful. But the real beauty was a defensive line and pass rush not seen on the Plains since the glory days of the Tuberville era. With those players on the field, Auburn had enough to challenge the #2 team in the nation to the last second of a home game.
And that my friends is the very thing that has been missing these oh so many years. I have little doubt the offense will shake out once the season progresses. I’m positive Coach Gus Malzahn is aware and cognizant of all that went right or wrong over the weekend, and I have little doubt the troubles on offense will be addressed very shortly. But I also know that Jordan-Hare Stadium has regained a measure of its storied history and I for one am looking forward to every game this team plays. There is a will and a confidence evident in our defense that HASN’T been there in a long time.
In short, there is some history that I’m OK with repeating.
We just need to get back to where we were on both sides of the ball