Tiger-Eye Review—Dark-Night-into-Day Edition
At last we’ve arrived at Rivalry Week in the Southeastern Conference. In the East it has less meaning than it does out West. In the East, by the last week of the season, the conference race is finished, and most of the division is scheduled to play outside state rivals. While these are never lightly considered games to the fan base, they hold much less anticipation this year than in previous seasons. The Atlantic Coast Conference has seen far better days, and that is most definitely true for both Georgia Tech and Florida State this year. Louisville looks somewhat better, but it’s become painfully obvious there is only one team worth notice in that conference, and the game it plays this weekend is against its state rival, which is also sliding backwards at a furious pace.
But not so in the West. While the division title is held by LSU, there is a lot more on the line for each team’s final game. Alabama must win, and win big, to keep its College Football Playoff hopes alive, and Auburn is primed to stop that from happening. LSU also needs to hold course and prevail over a tough Aggie team just a week before facing the Georgia Bulldogs in Atlanta. Mississippi State is also in a must-win situation, hoping to become bowl eligible against a running Ole Miss team that invades its home field on Thanksgiving Day.
For Auburn, no Iron Bowl is small, especially in Jordan-Hare Stadium, but a coveted New Year’s Day bowl game is on the line, and a chance to knock Alabama down and out of contention for the College Football Playoff is too good a chance to let go lightly. A win could indeed turn dark night into day and be just the thing to carry into the bowl and recruiting seasons for 2020.
Think the season is over out West? Better reconsider.
SEC West Offense
As the Iron Bowl dawns, it’s clear that the Alabama offense is the star of the show. Its the second best offense in the SEC West, capable of dynamic play from nearly every angle. Tua might be out, but there are ten more players capable of putting up big yards every game. Auburn’s offense has improved and can potentially target a less than stellar Bama defense, but the story will inevitably center on what the Alabama offense can or cannot do at Jordan-Hare stadium.
The Egg Bowl pits two remarkably paired teams for Thanksgiving. Ole Miss isn’t going to the postseason, and the Bullies are on the verge of joining the Rebs on the couch for a not-so-happy-New-Year. The key game this weekend? Texas A&M at LSU. Let the Bengals slide ever so slightly and they could find themselves in a cage fight just a week before the SEC Championship. Lose one or both, and they might be shut out of the CFP at the last.
But I doubt that will happen, not the way the Bayou Bengals have been playing.
SEC West Defense
Here is where Auburn fans have expressed hope as the Tigers enter the Iron Bowl. Alabama’s defense is definitely not what it has been in the past. If anything, the helmets have switched from the 2010 Iron Bowl in which a dynamic Auburn offense met a brick wall Bama defense and for much of the game couldn’t accomplish all that much. The question here is, what can the Auburn offense leverage from the Bama defense?
For the Egg Bowl, Ole Miss has a slight edge on offense, and Mississippi State has a slight edge on defense. But all in all, it looks like a coin flip difference. LSU and Texas A&M is a slightly different story. The Aggie defense is solid and capable, and depending on how tightly it covers the LSU receivers, the game might turn into another low-scoring single-score fight like the Auburn game.
Don’t count the Aggies out on this one. They might not win, but I believe they’ll make it a tight game.
SEC East Offense
With four teams in the SEC East playing out-of-conference rivals, there isn’t much to contemplate about the division race. Both Tennessee and Kentucky became bowl eligible last week, and the only questions that remain are whether Tennessee and Missouri can pull out wins against the likes of Vanderbilt and Arkansas. For Tennessee it will mean a seven-win season, and Missouri can wheeze across the line of bowl eligibility at the last.
But do look at the paucity of offensive effort in the East. There really isn’t much going on for anyone. Despite the CFP rankings, Georgia hasn’t been putting up numbers like the other CFP hopefuls, and a loss in the SEC Championship will take the Dawgs right out of consideration. Who will replace them? Not a two-loss Alabama, that’s for sure.
If that happens, and the above is the reason, look for rapid changes on this side of the ball for nearly every team in the East. They’ll see the LSU model and want to copy it.
SEC East Defense
I believe that some of these numbers are inflated due to problems on offense, especially in the case of South Carolina and Missouri. When faced with good teams, they’ve both wilted. Georgia’s defense is legitimate, and Florida’s pass rush is legendary, especially on the edge. Tennessee’s numbers have been growing as the season has progressed and are finally looking respectable.
State of the Conference
With only the final week of conference games in the West and a couple more in the East, what you see above may be the limit of the 2019 season.
The conference championship attendees may have been decided, but how they enter and exit that game and the results of the remaining rivalry games in the season are never something to take for granted. However unlikely, there remains at least a chance that the Texas A&M–LSU game or the Iron Bowl could throw a laughter-filled plot twist into the College Football Playoff calculations that will turn the 2019 season on its collective ear.
This is actually normal. The same could happen this weekend in Ann Arbor, Stillwater or even Columbia, South Carolina. An upset in a rivalry game is good for the soul from time to time. It happens many more times than is ever expected year to year.
This is the entire reason we watch these games, no matter how well or poorly each of the teams are expected to play. The ball still has to be snapped, handled well and carried across the goal line. Tackles will still have to be made, either in the open field, on a shoe string or even (dare I say it?) on a failed field-goal attempt.
Else you run the risk of having everything you’ve worked for go up in a cloud of smoke. So, no matter how favored one team is over another, the games are played for a reason—college football games are never decided on expectation, only in execution.
Victory comes from some unlikely players from time to time. Often unexpectedly.