Tiger Eye Review – Dead-End Edition
The 2020 season is still ongoing, but what we’ve learned as we come to the middle of the Southeastern Conference schedule is as different as black and white or light and shadow in a classic film noir motion picture. Few could imagine some of these mid-season realities such as only two conference teams able to keep opponents from scoring three touchdowns a game, and one of those teams sporting a .333 winning percentage.
It’s not like any other conference is doing any better. The Big 12 is a big stinking mess, the Pac-12 has barely begun and did you ever believe a November day would dawn in which you could discuss things like an undefeated Northwestern or better yet an undefeated Indiana in the same breath as winless Penn State?
Neither did I. But then again, neither would I have ever imagined Nick Saban stating publicly that defense “just isn’t as important” as it once was.
What century/planet is this?
Which brings up a point about the 2020 season. From what I’m seeing in the numbers game to game, week to week, what has happened in previous seasons is not at all what is happening now in 2020. This is a season that all you remember from the past is out the window, and the reality is what is staring us in the face as we witness it. Nothing is a holdover from last year, just ask Ed Orgeron.
What the future holds for the conference next year and beyond is debatable, but what is not debatable is how teams are playing the game this week and in the next few weeks. This is where we are collectively as a conference, heading to the second half of the season with only two clear above-average leaders. Viewing this reality without any prejudice or supposition has been hard, but it’s a necessary step if we are to understand where the game is headed in the SEC.
We as a conference are how we collectively play the game, today, right now. The past is what it was. This is where the teams are today. And as always, the standard of excellence is below.
The Look You Get when Everything You Once Believed in Is Lost. Let’s Call It the Thousand-Yard-Georgia Stare
SEC West Offense
Offense is definitely the story of the season this year. The key to so many games and team tendencies all seems to come down to whether you can move the ball consistently and score when opportunity arises. While defense still matters, the better teams this year are those who can get their teams into the red zone and once there be able to score.
No better statistics are evident in the above table than the 3rd Down and red zone TD percentages. It’s what has been keeping Auburn in games and Mississippi State and LSU well out of any discussion about the SEC West. If there is a separation statistic evident between success and failure this year, it is one of those two. Both tell the tale of how well your offense is performing, whether by turnover or by virtue of your own production.
SEC West Defense
Not that defense doesn’t matter, but side by side this season, it is definitely the offense that has the upper hand. That being said, even in a shootout scenario, having a decent defense can potentially make a huge difference in a game. Even in the event of repeated red-zone possessions for your opponent, if you can limit it to field goals instead of touchdowns, that will generally tip the game decidedly in your favor.
This has been the story for Arkansas’s surprising turnaround this year, and, even though Alabama has a better defense overall, that is the key factor in the Razorbacks’ three wins this year—the defense being able to get that one stop more than the opposition in the red zone.
But that doesn’t mean all is wine and roses in the SEC West. The defensive hole that many of these teams are in doesn’t seem to be filling anytime soon. While it might play significantly in a game here and there (like, hopefully, the Iron Bowl), I just don’t see a defensive recovery for any single team in the West this year. We are what we usually do, and in 2020 that means letting the other team move the ball and score fairly often.
SEC East Offense
Remember what I said about third down and red-zone TD’s? Turns out there is only one SEC East team that does both well. What we all used to believe was that a solid and consistent ground game will win games so long as your defense is decent. Not so much in the year 2020. Turns out that a strong and explosive passing game is what is most needed, and that is something the Georgia Bulldogs just don’t possess. For that matter, not many other teams in the SEC East do either.
Except, of course, the now division-leading Gators. Go ahead and ink that reservation in Atlanta for Florida. There doesn’t seem to be any offense left on its schedule that can hold a candle to Trask and Company. While South Carolina seems to be doing OK, it is just “OK” and simply will not be able to compete.
Everyone else? In trouble with a capital “T”. It’s not looking good for any other team and while it’s unlikely there is any “hot seat” talk for Kirby Smart, a LOT of other coaches won’t be able to say the same as the season comes to a close. The disparity between the top and middle of the division is just that large.
SEC East Defense
Let’s put the above graphic into perspective. The best defense in the SEC East? It’s not Georgia but the Wildcats from Lexington. Why? Not shown in the above graphic is the difference between the best run defense in the East and the best pass defense in the East. Kentucky is not only at the top of the division, they’re also best in the Southeastern Conference at pass defense. Second? Arkansas. Third and fourth are also in the West (MSU and Auburn).
Georgia? Tenth in the conference in pass defense. While this is more than evident now, this may have been obscured by the teams it played earlier in the year. Its four wins? Against teams in the bottom half of passing offensive stats. The two losses are to the teams with the best passing attacks in the conference.
How does this play forward? Defense might matter in the conference championship, but it will be what the rush/coverage capability is between the two teams that reach there. But I doubt the rest of the SEC East will have much say in the matter. Florida is in, Georgia is out.
State of the Conference
With the fall of Georgia into the pit of mediocrity, we’re left with the idea of an almost certain dead end of inevitability for the conference championship. While not absolutely certain, as the other three ranked SEC teams still have a mathematical chance of getting to Atlanta, it’s not a realistic hope when the two division leaders each own a two-game lead over their rivals with just four games left in the season.
But what the above graphic shows is that even those two teams have deep flaws defensively. It is not only possible but expected that teams will score on both Alabama and Florida, sometimes easily. The only saving grace is that both of those teams are a lock to score at least a touchdown or more a quarter, and often are capable of twice or three times that rate of production.
But the realization that there are twelve terrible defensive squads in the Southeastern Conference, and the best two defensive squads are sitting at a collective .500 (6–6), is a sobering prospect for not only the rest of the season but throughout the bowl season and into 2021.
The offensive explosion, limited as it is to just four teams, is not really a celebratory moment for the conference as a whole. It is indicative that the most difficult and time consuming process of building a championship team may be the defensive secondary followed closely by the defensive line. Both seemed to have suffered the most in terms of preparation for the 2020 season across the entire conference. It may give rise to an observation that a former strength of the conference is now its greatest weakness.
This is not a pleasant consideration for the future of the conference. However glitzy your recruiting prospects may be for offensive players, I think the future of the league depends on how defenses evolve. I’m hoping the pendulum will swing back eventually to how talent is pursued/developed in defensive backfields from team to team. That will be the difference between a return from out of the dead end that the ACC has sped down for the last decade.
The Lesson from This Season? You Can’t Rely on the Past. Times Have Definitely Changed and We Need to Move On.
The Dead End was an early film noir effort by celebrated director William Wyler. Not known for the genre, his prewar portrayal of the streets of New York was highly faithful to the play upon which the movie was based. His camera work was excellent, and the performance of Humphrey Bogart as the grim, embittered gangster whose mystical belief of his lost youth is shattered again and again by his own shortcomings is a perfect match with this week’s theme.