Tiger-Eye Review—Final Note Edition
Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes – Ludwig van Beethoven
As the great Doc Severinsen once asserted to Johnny Carson in an on-show dialogue, there are high notes and higher notes, but there is always an inherent risk in hitting them.
Auburn’s final game did end the season on an exceptionally high note, one of the most remarkable in our long history, but other teams in the conference had variable outcomes that on the whole were almost as surprising as the Tigers’ steamrolling of the Boilermakers.
On one hand, the Southeastern Conference’s East Division had two significant wins in the bowl season, a remarkable blowout and a hard-fought thriller. A resurgent Florida team demolished a top-ten Michigan team in the second half of the Peach Bowl. The Wolverines’ only previous losses were a narrow one-score loss to Notre Dame and to Big 10 champion Ohio State. In the Citrus Bowl, Kentucky completed a Cinderella 10-win season with an exciting finish against a scrappy Penn State team while Benny Snell Jr. set the school record for rushing yards.
On the other hand, the other three SEC East teams lost in spectacular fashion, leaving their fans shaking their heads in disbelief.
For three quarters of the Sugar Bowl, the second best team in the SEC looked downright bad. The Dawgs couldn’t score, lost two interceptions and the league-leading rushing attack gained just 72 yards in three quarters. What did Kirby Smart do then? He abandoned the run. Georgia attempted just one rushing play in its last four possessions—a five yard scramble by Jake Fromm to the Georgia 19. Then, every play was a pass, and the Texas Longhorns knew it.
Two other East teams lost shootouts with Big 12 teams—Vanderbilt to Baylor in the Texas Bowl and Missouri to Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl. But the real surprise was the egg laid by the so-called Gamecocks in the Belk Bowl against an inspired Virginia team. The normally prolific Jake Bently, who torched Clemson’s defense for over 500 yards of offense in late November, could barely manage 200 at the end of December against a much less capable defense.
Things were better in the West as every team but Mississippi State won its respective bowl game. LSU and Alabama handled both Central Florida and Oklahoma adequately, each winning by two scores. Texas A&M finished strong by blowing out NC State in the Fiesta Bowl. Even Mississippi State’s game was almost understandable as penalties and a late red zone interception allowed a scrappy Iowa team to gain and hold the lead, despite being held to -15 yards rushing and barely 200 yards of total offense by the conference’s best defense.
But where does this leave the conference? Does a 6–5 bowl record re-establish the SEC’s dominance again after two previous troubling sub-.500 bowl seasons? What do four losses by SEC East teams say about an SEC East that dominated all but one SEC West team in the regular season?
Gearing up for next year. This ought to be fun.
Note: teams in red lost their bowl games. Teams in italics weren’t selected for bowl games.
SEC West Offense
In retrospect, there were several surprise endings to the season in the SEC West. Just about everyone was blown away by Alabama’s rise on offense—better than 10 points per game and almost two yards per play over last year. But also remarkable was Auburn’s claw back to average and Texas A&M’s return to offensive prowess as the season progressed. After dismal mid-seasons, both teams showed marked improvement in the bowl season and are poised to enter 2019 with a degree of hope that seemed very distant in mid-October.
Among the other West teams, Arkansas has the longest road to recovery after plummeting to the basement in nearly every offensive statistic throughout the year. When your opening day starting quarterback (Cole Kelley) ends the year as a scout team tight end, you know you’ve got troubles with a capital T.
SEC West Defense
Defensively, Mississippi State was the clear leader of the Southeastern Conference. This was the success story of the year in terms of coordinator statistics. Bob Shoop took a middle-of-the-road defensive unit and whipped it into a dream team in just eleven months, improving in nearly every measurable data point.
Except two. The same two that sank them in the Outback Bowl—penalties and turnovers. Over 70% of lost turnovers and 60% of the penalty yardage this season were in the Bullie’s four conference losses.
For the rest of the division’s bowl teams, defense was the most common attribute across the board. In fact, its absence marks the teams who didn’t go bowling this year.
SEC East Offense
See anything strange about the SEC East offensive statistics? That remarkable offensive prowess that dominated the SEC West defenses didn’t seem to result in bowl victories this year. At least not against Big 12 or ACC teams.
Even Kentucky’s remarkable dream season is somewhat subdued when you consider that Benny Snell might take his talent to the NFL and losing two key wide receivers might be enough of a blow for the ‘Cats to fade from the limelight in 2019.
But the real story is Florida’s return to power this year. Probably the most successful turnaround in the conference for a first year coach.
SEC East Defense
But the rest of the division is mired in mediocrity and failure on the defensive side of the ball. Everyone can run and pass on them and score with abandon once in the red zone. Only Missouri’s offense kept it afloat throughout the season.
State of the Conference
We reach the end of the season, and what is most remarkable to me is the way in which the best teams of the season fared in the postseason. Two of the top three and three of the top five lost decisively in December and January. Even more stunning—the most consistent and balanced offense and the best defense lost quite convincingly.
Even the undefeated, number 1 ranked and favored team in the College Football Playoff final is showing remarkable shortcomings on defense in December that just may prove significant in its final game this year. Most especially if that dynamic offense stumbles in any way like it did in the conference championship game or the second half of the Orange Bowl.
The rest of the conference? Perhaps it’s time to look at what occurred on both sides of the ball and show the path for each team between January 2018 and January 2019.
In this graphic, I’ve tried to show the changes on both offense, defense and in total for every team in the Southeastern Conference. I also added the change in win totals for the year from last year. The results show the improvements and shortcomings for each team in the 2018 season.
The best head coaching performances are clearly Dan Mullen at Florida, Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, and my favorite for the Bear Bryant award this year: Bob Stoops at Kentucky. In each case, their teams improved remarkably on both sides of the ball and in the win column. But even though Florida’s six-win difference from 2018 to 2019 is the best of the league, it was with a deeper bench and recruiting classes over what Kentucky was able to field, and the early September win by the Wildcats in the Swamp proved to be no fluke.
Jeremy Pruitt’s efforts at Tennessee deserve honorable mention with victories over Auburn and Kentucky, but simply putting out a dumpster fire would have almost the same effect. What happens next year will be the true test of his ability.
The offensive slides for Auburn and Arkansas were well documented throughout the season. These teams showed the worst number drops between 2017 and 2018. But the real surprise for me were the slides in both win totals (Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina and Arkansas) and, most especially, the slides on defensive efficiency for three specific teams: Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Keep in mind, these teams are coached by arguably the best defensive minds in the SEC: Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp. The fact that each of these coach’s teams are showing significant shortcomings and differences between their 2017 squads and the teams they coach today is the surprise statistic that I see at the end of the season.
Articles abound on the prowess of the Alabama offense this year, but that has overshadowed a significant drop that may play havoc for the Tide in this weekend’s game. Clemson has its own issues statistically, but they are not as significant as the dip in the numbers that I see from the Alabama defense.
Will it prove decisive? I’m not quite sure. But it will be interesting to watch as the game unfolds.
And if I were a betting man, I’d be sorely tempted to put some money on Cousin Clem’s Tigers and the spread in that final game.
Big Al might need a little TLC if they do come up short.
Greatest Bama offense and quarterback—no Heisman trophy, no national title.
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