Tiger-Eye Review — Animal Farm Edition
ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS—George Orwell, Animal Farm
The Tiger Eye Review looks at the Autumnal Equinox state of the conference as the teams cross the 1/3rd mark of the annual Southeastern Conference race. Four games into the season, the numbers are displaying either further proof or disproof of the hopes and dreams of various teams as we settle into the inter-division and conference competition around the league. For some teams, early hopes are either being confirmed as reliable or falling into disillusion, depending on individual favorite theories and expectations.
One thing to note, the numbers that I review will continue to be refined and are still quite variable depending on developments, improvements and most especially the health and welfare of the various players. Coaching changes may impact some team’s performances, but these are generally to a lesser degree than you would imagine. Shakeups of starting lineups in the absence of severe injuries from this point onward are fairly rare. Additionally, what the teams are doing now that the conference games have begun in earnest may vary less and less from the established achievements that I’ve noted. There is still a possibility that some teams will either blossom or fade well into the month of October.
In short, nothing is immune from change, even though the current numbers point to general trends across the conference. There still remains the possibility that what I show here will be markedly different as we approach the end of the season. But from this point onward, drastic changes become more and more difficult to achieve, and less and less likely to occur. Teams are settling into patterns that describe what is happening on the field. While surprises are still possible for any team with time on the clock and the right set of circumstances, it still boils down to players on the field doing what they do best—surprising us week to week.
Just ask Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Penn State or Florida. So long as there is a opening kickoff yet to happen on the field of play, just about anything is possible on any given Saturday. It’s why we love this game so much and don’t immediately hand over the CFP trophy based upon the results of the first week of the season. Any team can suddenly surprise us and turn it around to achieve greatness or failure
Call it a “Snowball’s Chance” if you will.
Every win is a gift—just don’t look it too closely in the mouth
If there was one statistic that jumps off the page at you it is this—through four games of the season, a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team is averaging over 50 points per game. To keep this in perspective, no Alabama team in the last decade and no Nick Saban team in history has averaged that number over TWO games, much less for four games in a row. He’s been tough on defense as a rule, but judging from the team’s recent history this is truly a remarkable change—a two-touchdown improvement game to game. But look at what is happening in the other measurements, still in green on the table. Most especially that coveted third-down conversion rate. It’s falling. Not a lot, but by a noticeable amount. Remember what Nick opined in his press conference about “what his team is doing wrong?” That might be what he’s alluding to. Stay tuned.
Beyond that, Auburn and LSU continue to woefully underplay their current national rankings on the offensive side of the ball. Even in lop-sided victories, the efficiency for both programs is abysmal. On the flip side, teams with significant losses like Mississippi State and Texas A&M aren’t yet showing deficiencies as a result of moving the ball, just in the final score. Even Ole Miss’ struggles with Kent State aren’t reflected in poor offensive play like the two Tiger teams. They have all moved the ball well and much better than Auburn or LSU.
Here is where the surprises are. Know who is playing at the top of the division and conference on defense? The Auburn Tigers. Next best in the division is Mississippi State and Alabama. Both Texas A&M and the undefeated LSU Tigers are fading fast. Bringing up the rear is Ole Miss. Arkansas improved slightly as a result of playing Auburn, but that might be a reflection of the poor Auburn offense more than any systematic improvement by the Razorback D. However much respect I have for John Chavis, I just don’t credit his cooking skills to warrant that brand of Chicken Soup based upon his list of ingredients.
The test of the numbers will come this weekend with the Arkansas–Texas A&M, the Florida–Mississippi State and the Ole Miss–LSU games. Auburn and Alabama both have lower quality out-of-conference opponents, but there will still be some value in the numbers they generate in those contests.
In the East, the emergence of Kentucky on the national scene is less of a rise in its statistics as a measure of consistency on both sides of the ball. Overall, the Wildcats are comfortably, but not remarkably, above average in nearly every category, and this has been a consistent measure week to week and game to game. They show nearly the same stats in every game be it a ranked or unranked opposing team. Benny Snell caused almost universal laughter at the SEC media days when he was widely quoted in saying he was the “best running back in the SEC.” But fewer and fewer fans of SEC East teams are laughing now that he’s begun to prove it.
Georgia might still be the top dog in the East Division, but that Wildcat is looking bigger in the rearview mirror than it did during the offseason. If the ‘Cats can hold steady the next two weeks, that November 3rd meeting in Lexington could be quite the contest as an upset by a one-loss Kentucky could leave the Dawgs out of Atlanta and likely out of the CFP if they don’t watch out. Additionally, if Florida and South Carolina can further stabilize on offense, we might yet have a division race in the East.
This is the true surprise about Kentucky—its defense is showing some impressive numbers game to game. While the ‘Cats still have a tendency to give up yards on third downs, they aren’t that far from being a top quality team if they tighten up these next two weeks and either win or split those games. With Tennessee and Vandy tanking, a single win against Carolina or Texas A&M will vault the Wildcats into a race that few saw coming until Missouri showed that it could move the ball on Kirby Smart’s defense.
Again, the numbers can still move and teams can rise and fall. While the Dawgs aren’t expected to be challenged the next two weeks against UT or Vandy, they still have LSU on the road and that jinx of a Jacksonville game with Florida following. And with Kentucky and Auburn in November, the odds are definitely changing for the Athens crowd and not in a good way.
State of the Conference
The biggest change from week to week? The number of teams that have slipped either up or down into just “average” across the conference. The undefeated teams span from the lowest of average up to the top of the chart, with the most efficient team on both sides of the ball having recently experienced a three-score blowout, and a 31-point winning margin was created by statistically one of the worst offenses to date.
What does this all mean? Possibly, that all teams are equally capable of defying predictions and the preconceived notions that we’ve held for some time. That Alabama is a predominantly defensive team. That Kentucky does well only against nonconference opponents. That “Running Back U” will continue to be associated with Auburn. That Georgia won’t face competition in the East this year. That “undefeated and highly ranked” may have little to do with how you play week to week—until it shows up in the worst circumstances in future games.
All of this points to a state of “More equal than others” that George Orwell illustrated in his classic analogy to the political and social outcome of the October Revolution. The ideals we all once held to be true may still be subject to further change or upheaval as the season progresses and as the games play out. Some changes may indeed be revolutionary and new. Others may simply be a reestablishment of previous norms, just with different window dressing.
“The creatures outside looked,…but already it was impossible to say which was which.”—George Orwell , Animal Farm
Great defenses win championships? Possibly, but I would prefer some further evidence.