Tiger-Eye Review—East/West Divide Edition
November always brings back memories for me, not only for the games in the Amen corner of Auburn’s season but also from a seminal moment in my life as a soldier. Twenty-nine years ago this month, the world I lived in irrevocably changed in a way that I had never dreamed possible. On the night of 9 November 1989, the dividing line known as the Berlin Wall began to crack and come down, and the border I had known my entire life and had pledged to defend for seven years was erased in seemingly the blink of an eye.
From my days as an Army dependent viewing it for the first time in the late 1970’s to my time as a tanker, both enlisted and later as an officer on REFORGER exercises, the German countryside was one that I expected would be forever split between East and West. No amount of arguing or conversation could have convinced me otherwise as I knew in my heart that a force of 25 full strength front-line Soviet divisions in East Germany wouldn’t just melt away in the summer sun without a fight. The Cold War would likely go hot one of those days, and readiness for that moment consumed my entire professional mental picture as it had my father and two brothers before me in their times.
It just goes to show that even your most tightly held convictions need to be re-examined from time to time with the facts.
In a similar vein, my own disparaging of the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference needs to be redressed in light of this season’s numbers. For one, both East and West have ranked teams: four for the West, three for the East. But further down the spectrum, there is a disturbing trend that cannot be ignored. Yes, the bottom of the conference has teams from both divisions: Tennessee, Ole Miss and Arkansas. But the numbers I can’t shy away from are Five and Nine.
Five is the total of interconference victories by SEC West teams versus Nine interconference victories by SEC East teams. What makes that total worse is that four SEC West teams were blanked by both of their SEC East opponents: Auburn, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Not a single SEC East team lost both games to SEC West opponents.
Prior to this year I could point to strong indications of a distinct Western advantage based on the quality of play over the last couple of years between the divisions of the Southeastern Conference. But what I’m seeing now is a slight advantage to the East based on head-to-head competition and much more even levels of efficiency from team to team.
This is not to say that Georgia has much hope in the championship game as Alabama has dominated every single team it played by at least three scores, but the idea of the SEC West being called the “toughest division in NCAA football‘ may need to be retired for the present time. That may have been the case in the recent past, but it simply cannot be justified in this new age of SEC Football after the coaching changes between 2014 and 2018.
That’s my piece of the Wall, chipped off by my niece who was a senior attending the Berlin American High School in late 1989.
SEC West Offense
The Iron and Egg Bowls proved to be a step backwards for both Ole Miss and Auburn in terms of offensive production. While both teams struggled in the red zone, for the Tigers this was mostly evident in yards per play, and for the Rebels it was third down. In both cases, what was supposedly considered to be the strength of the team, preseason, evaporated in their rivalry games.
And for Alabama and Mississippi State? A slight uptick for the Starkville Dawgs, but absolutely no change for the Tide’s numbers. This was a “normal” game for their quarterback, including his last three touchdowns being completed in just ten plays from scrimmage and in under four minutes of actual game time. This is what he’s been doing to teams all season long. You can point out his record 5 passing touchdowns against the Tigers, but don’t overlook that Tua had four touchdowns per game against three other SEC teams this year (Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M) and was usually pulled out by halftime in other games.
The marathon LSU–Texas A&M game was another historic one, but surprisingly it didn’t result in that much difference in the final numbers for either team. All in all, not much is happening offensively to crow about in the West.
SEC West Defense
Defensively, only Texas A&M had much change in terms of overall numbers, most especially in points scored and third-down conversions allowed. Auburn suffered a bit in yards per play in the second half avalanche of offense by Alabama. Overall only Texas A&M saw significant change to its season numbers, but that’s what a basketball game’s worth of points will do to you late in the year.
Quick note, neither LSU or Texas A&M basketball teams had that many points against each other in their last game on January 6th of this year (the Tigers won 69–68). Of the first six games of this current season, the Aggies football team scored more points per game than all but one of the Aggie roundball contests.
SEC East Offense
You would think a four-score beat down of your state rival that you outgained by 250 yards would improve your offensive numbers, but Dan Mullen’s Gators had no fewer than four red-zone possessions that resulted in just six points against a hapless Florida State team that seemed intent on giving up the ball as quickly as possible (nine Seminole three and outs).
Georgia had better luck against Georgia Tech, and Kentucky had its way with Louisville. Vanderbilt became bowl eligible for just the second time in five years as the Eastern Division showed dramatic improvement on offense this year. It will remain to be seen if that helps in the bowl season as the lion’s share of bowl-eligible teams are from that division this year.
SEC East Defense
Four teams showed marked improvement on defense in their final games, with Missouri showing some teeth in its contest against Arkansas. In terms of the most improved team in the league, I would say that the Eastern Tigers from Columbia have a lock on that title. Just three points separate them from being a 10-win team, and if you take away turnovers points against Georgia and Alabama, Missouri played both division champions better than just about anyone in the conference.
If there is a challenger to Georgia next year, don’t discount what Mizzou has accomplished in 2018. Mullen and Muschamp may have better reputations, and Mark Stoops has definitely put on a show this year in Lexington, but in terms of steady and quantitative improvement, Barry Odom is starting to show some real promise in his first head-coaching role.
State of the Conference
The East/West divide blurred somewhat this year. My interpretation of potential in the early season was based upon prior years in which the SEC West dominated the East both in terms of quality of play and direct head-to- head competition. That has been proven wrong at least for the head-to-head play and gradually as the season progressed on the quality of play. As we reach the end of the season, I have to admit, however grudgingly, that the East is definitely on the rise, and the West teams, outside of Tuscaloosa, have not lived up to their potential or expectations of their fans.
This is not to say that the East is significantly better, only that it has marginally improved from the last few years. Likewise, the West has regressed slightly, so across the conference there is a parity of quality and at a lower tier than the last ten years or so. The slide is distinctly measurable in terms of statistics, even if the national polls have yet to reflect this narrative.
When will the polls match what these statistics are measuring?
Good question, and the answer will be the upcoming bowl season in which opponents are usually matched in terms of conference rankings. Prior to 2014 it was almost a given that the Southeastern Conference would dominate other conferences in the bowl season based upon the quality of play within the SEC. However, since 2016 that hasn’t been the case. SEC teams have lost more bowl games than they have won for two straight years. Let that trend extend to this year, and I think the national media, coaches and most importantly the CFP will notice and respond accordingly.
Media interpretations are built on reputation. Places like USC, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and even the service academies are pigeon-holed into expected performance levels that take a great deal of argument and proof before being changed. Witness the long slide of USC after the Lane Kiffen disaster. For two years the Trojans held onto top ten preseason rankings until the slow reality of consistent blowout losses finally caught up. Likewise, Central Florida is closing on two full seasons without a loss and STILL can’t seem to be noticed by anyone to allow even a whiff of reaching the CFP.
The media, coaches and playoff committee are still human-based evaluations, and as with any committee selection, bias is inevitable and long lasting. The problem facing the Southeastern Conference is that the league is on the verge of tipping that long-standing bias it has enjoyed since the early ‘aughts with poor bowl season performances of recent memory. Once that bias is tipped, it will likely take just as much effort (2–3 years of excellent play) to re-establish any reputation that is lost.
You can’t just imagine away the other side of the conference any more. We’re all one as of now. (Actual East German map from 1984).
As a companion piece to this post, please see my Flowers in the Snow essay from 1999.