Tiger-Eye Review—Final Stretch Edition
Three quarters of the season is in the history books of the Southeastern Conference, and the championship game is set between the two division champions. But this does not mean the season is finished in terms of emotion, drama or excitement. The teams still have important games to play that will have national importance and impact.
The numbers suggest that there may be some last minute twists and surprises yet to be determined. There is also a clear differentiation of quality between East and West that is magnifying as the season ends. With the exception of Alabama, the East plays offense and the West plays defense. On the other side of the ball, with very few exceptions, both divisions struggle to be average.
And the Tide? Annoyingly good at just about everything, and flat out outstanding on offense in a way that is truly remarkable. This is a once-in-a-generation team being led by a phenomenal quarterback who has yet to have a bad game in his relatively short career, despite playing some of the best defenses in the conference. In addition to being incredibly efficient, big plays seem to fall out of the sky early in games this season, and it seems that when you blink twice in the first quarter, Alabama is ahead by two touchdowns.
Downright discouraging, but I would be amiss if I didn’t mention it in my weekly review. Way back in 2012 in my first Cafe Malzahn article, I mentioned that Nick Saban had a usual choice of quarterback:
His usual brand of quarterback (it doesn’t matter which, let’s call him John-Parker-McElCarrron for short) starts to lose that brutal efficiency when forced to throw medium-to-long distances for 1st downs, and his teams are clearly out of their depth when attempting to come from behind with a big play.
It is unlikely that Saban will have any other type of quarterback. You won’t see a Cam Newton, an RGIII or even a Johnny Football at Tuscaloosa as Saban doesn’t recruit them. He wants what he wants, and gets what he wants: a “Yes Sir, No Sir” 6′ 1″ 200 lb Boy Scout who can hand off the ball or throw a tight spiral 20 yards to a given target every time. He is about as personable as a lamp post and will do what he’s told without any questions or feedback. John-Parker-McElCarrons are churned out a dozen at a time, and Saban picks them up with spare change from a vending machine in the Athletic Complex.
I hereby take back those words with a healthy slice of crow pie. Looks like he DOES recruit other quarterbacks, dammit.
SEC West Offense
LSU’s inability to slow the Alabama offense significantly other than in the end zone means that there are really just two above average offenses outside of Tuscaloosa in the entire Western division. The rest of the pack is just average at best. Even then, there isn’t much to be said between the low and high end of the range. Old Miss can score and drive, but they can’t seem to push the ball across the goal line well enough to win games. As paltry as the rushing yards were for Auburn this week, they were about 15% superior to LSU’s output.
I’m not making this up. Both teams had fewer than 20 yards on the ground on Saturday, a bold double underline to my season long contention that these two teams are mirror images of each other. The one factor that differs is that Jarrett Stidham seems to find receivers when in the red zone. Auburn just struggles to get there in the first place.
As for Alabama? Still scoring two touchdowns more per game than any previous Tide team in history, and a light year better than any team Nick Saban has ever coached. This is not just a tweak of what he’s done before, but a wholesale tectonic shift to the way this man coaches football—and however ecstatic the fans are on that side of the state, you can see in every press conference his reluctance to embrace the moment. He’s never been here before, and I think it bothers him to some degree.
More on that in the coming weeks prior to the Iron Bowl.
SEC West Defense
If you were to highlight one common factor in the SEC this year it is the number of quality defenses playing in the West. Even Arkansas is showing teeth, lately. Despite being blown out in nearly every game on the scoreboard, the Razorbacks have forced many teams to earn their victories. The same goes for Mississippi State but on a higher level. You beat the Dawgs by neutralizing Nick Fitzgerald and scoring on some big plays because you’re just not going to grind it out on the ground against them.
For the most part, that’s the issue for many of the teams in the West. If they’ve lost to anyone but Alabama, it’s usually been a shortfall on offense plus a few key plays that got by some of those very good defensive units. It usually wasn’t a beatdown or a high-scoring runaway game (outside of the Alabama games, that is). Everyone else found it hard sledding west of the Chattahoochee.
SEC East Offense
In the SEC East, Missouri is picking up steam but much too late in the season to catch the Bulldogs. Had they found their rhythm early enough, the Tigers might have been a better bet to challenge Georgia, but they drew that game early and were unable to capitalize on their offensive success throughout the season. Everyone else is rather pedestrian with South Carolina emerging as a later contender, too.
Not sure what to think of Florida and Kentucky. They each had flashes during the season, but more often than not failed to show up in important games. I’m not sure why that is. Kentucky can run the ball but struggles to find open receivers once the run is stopped for any reason. In Florida’s case, the Gators always seem to wilt when down a touchdown or more. Not sure if Dan Mullen hasn’t yet found his groove or if the players aren’t ready to buy in to his staff’s methods. But in both cases, the teams can’t seem to engineer anything when the chips are down.
SEC East Defense
On defense, the SEC East has just three barely above average squads, led by Kentucky. But after the Wildcats, not a single SEC East defense ranks better than any SEC West defense outside of Arkansas. All six SEC East defenses are below the remaining six SEC West teams by the numbers. And those numbers are significant. A touchdown more a game, a yard more per play and nearly 10% more 3rd downs happen against SEC East teams than those in the West.
When will this become evident? I think this week in Athens and in the SEC Championship game. While I can’t say that Auburn will win or lose, I will say that I suspect Georgia’s loss to LSU wasn’t nearly the fluke it seemed at the time.
State of the Conference
Much as I’d like to see it otherwise, I can’t avoid giving credit where credit is due. The Tide is a championship-level team, and there isn’t another team in the conference that can legitimately be compared to them. No other team is playing at that level on both sides of the ball. No other team can point to any semblance of balance between offense and defense at even an average level.
The SEC is playing ball with problems all around the league. If a team has a quality offensive or defensive unit, it’s hampered by a mediocre or poorly playing counterpart. Teams play two to three quarters of excellent football, but either shoot themselves in the foot with penalties or turnovers or simply let won games slip from their grasp.
Auburn’s wild ending to the Texas A&M game is merely one example of this. Another was LSU’s improbable win in Auburn, Florida’s win in Baton Rouge, Kentucky’s one-point victory over Vandy, and the list goes on. Big plays have turned games on their heads. Teams who were down and out have fought back and won repeatedly all around the conference.
Everywhere that is, but in Tuscaloosa. There it has yet to happen. No one has given the Tide a decent game or a run for their money. Not a single team has managed to play within three touchdowns all season. In fact, the Tide has averaged a five-touchdown margin of victory for the first nine games of the season.
Will that change in the coming weeks? Unlikely, but not impossible. We’ve seen these things happen before. A dominant team can stumble, an underdog can surprise and upset a heavy favorite, even at home. This is college football after all, and no matter how the odds are stacked, it is still a game played by young men with athleticism, skill, and heart.
Of the three, the last is often the most important.