Tiger-Eye Review—Habitual Vice Edition
Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual—Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is sometimes very hard to face facts. One of the temptations of my analysis that I keep experiencing every season is motivation to excuse or qualify early outlier data by considering where the data originates. Did the team in question play a cupcake or highly rated team? Is the collected data applicably accurate or over-inflated due to the quality of play on the other side of the ball? Sometimes this is the case when a team has some gaudy numbers well over the mark, but just as often this is the case when a team struggles in a close game against a reportedly “good” team. The perception of quality of opponent during an early close game will sometimes cause me to overlook what is right in front of me on the page.
Time and again I discover that a strong tendency in middle- to late-season games was clearly evident from the start of the season for certain teams. No other game this weekend illustrated this anomaly more than Saturday’s newly dubbed ‘Tiger Bowl” hyped by CBS between Auburn and LSU. When I reviewed the play of the game with statistics gathered from other games the two teams played this year, I came to a sobering realization.
These two Tiger teams don’t play offense very well. Granted, they’ve had some close games against some high-caliber defenses, but even with their respective intervening cupcake games, the first three games of the season paint a picture that doesn’t quite measure up to the accolades being heaped upon the two programs, their quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, offensive lines and coaching staffs, either for the victorious or the defeated Tigers. Neither are the relative national and various “power” rankings indicative of what my numbers are showing me about either of these teams.
What I keep having to remind myself year to year is that the numbers I’m looking at aren’t a direct indication of the relative quality of play between teams in a specific game, nor are they an indication of which team will win a contest between two opponents but a reflection of the overall efficiency of play by both the offense and defense of a given team from the start of the season. While the numbers can vary between weeks as the season progresses, some key factors have the potential to illustrate tendencies from the very start. It is these tendencies that point to what is going well and what is not going well with greater accuracy as the season progresses.
The measure of greatness.
Continued after the jump
What are we shooting in the barrel this week?
SEC West Offense
As you can see from this table, neither team of Tigers is playing offense all that well this year. In fact, they’re resting comfortably at the bottom of the division along with the hapless 1–2 Razorbacks. Both LSU and Auburn are showing very consistent play on defense game after game, but offensively neither team is displaying the ability to make third downs, score in the red zone or move the ball effectively on drives. Granted, other teams around the conference have issues that seem to vary depending on their opposition, as was evident in the Alabama–Mississippi game. The vaunted offensive prowess that Ole Miss was showing early on came to an abrupt halt once it faced a quality defense. Jordan Ta’amu’s efficiency and yards per pass was halved by the Alabama defense. But be that as it may, it doesn’t excuse the fact that both LSU and Auburn are consistently struggling when they have the ball even when playing substandard opposition.
Know who is playing offense efficiently? Mississippi State, Alabama and Texas A&M. Not only are those teams playing well against low-ranked teams, they also show much the same production against more efficient and relatively higher-ranked teams. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald not only has more carries per game (17) and more total yards (266) this season but a higher yards per carry (7.82) and more rushing touchdowns (4) than every single starting Auburn running back. He’s also passed for more yards per game than Jarrett Stidham, despite having only played in two of his team’s three games.
SEC West Defense
Defensively, the SEC West is still a very tough division, only showing one poor defense at Ole Miss and one average defense at Arkansas. LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn are nearly identical in talent and efficiency, well above average, but still not the elite of the division. That title belongs to both Alabama and Mississippi State. Both teams are playing lights-out ball with little indication of any apparent problems from top to bottom.
If you’re looking closely the key statistic for Auburn on defense is the variation on third down efficiency and the uptick of yards allowed per play. Neither Washington nor LSU are proving to be the most efficient offensive powers this season, and the tendency for our Tigers to let teams keep drives alive on 3rd down and long (either through penalties or inefficiency) is a growing concern. This may come back to haunt us in late October and, especially, November. It hasn’t reflected on the chart yet, but we’re just one bad game away from going yellow on certain categories on defense.
SEC East Offense
Georgia’s dominance is unwavering and will likely be unquestioned until at least October when it plays its first cross-conference game. Once past Missouri the Bulldogs’ schedule is light enough not to worry overly much until the LSU game in October and the Auburn game in November. That being said, both Missouri and Kentucky are proving to be remarkably efficient on offense. Both teams will likely get the first test of their accumulated statistics this weekend as Kentucky travels to Starkville and Missouri hosts Georgia. But be that as it may, the numbers suggest both of those games may be closer than anyone would have guessed preseason.
For the rest of the division, Florida bounced back, Vanderbilt took Notre Dame a bit further than was comfortable for the Irish faithful, and South Carolina missed playing due to Hurricane Florence. Tennessee blanked a very poor UTEP team, but the offensive numbers for the Vols have yet to crawl out of the basement of the SEC, even with their out-of-conference win. What will happen when they face the East division plus the two West division teams from Alabama? Likely a deep contemplation on the status of the coaching staff during the off season.
SEC East Defense
Again, the long pole in the tent of the East is the Dawgs. There really isn’t any comparison. Georgia is by far the best defense in the East. But do look at what Vanderbilt has achieved so far, even after losing a close game to Notre Dame. The Anchor Clankers aren’t doing too badly and may surprise a team or two this year. With a draw of Arkansas and Ole Miss from the West, they just might be the surprise dark-horse contender from the East.
All the rest of the teams have some glaring shortcoming on defense, either yards per play or 3rd-down troubles. At this point there doesn’t seem to be much competition to win the division, and with the strength of play and public acclaim all going to the SEC West this year, there is little likelihood of anything more than a favorable nonCFP bowl game up for grabs after Georgia goes to the SEC Championship game in December. There just isn’t enough draw to notice much more from the East.
State of the Conference
As it turns out, the numbers do indeed point to four top teams in the conference whose play on offense and defense are solid from top to bottom. Unfortunately for Auburn, they are not the same teams envisioned in the preseason rankings. What we’ve learned in the first quarter of scheduled games is the realization that neither LSU nor Auburn can safely be considered “power teams” despite their current rankings. The two teams’ defenses are certainly potent, and, other than a troubling habit of committing costly penalties, are showing their prowess quite well.
The trouble is, the two Tiger offenses are much less capable then their current poll rankings would indicate. Neither team is showing the capability to run the table in the division the rest of the season. With the rise and established efficiency shown by Mississippi State and Texas A&M, the season going forward may be a bit more difficult than what was first anticipated by the media. It is just not being proven from game to game that these problems will go away.
Likewise, whatever happens in the East, it will probably be Georgia going to Atlanta and some other team coming in a distant second place. No other achievement is likely or looked for out of the Eastern division. There just isn’t any other team remotely close to competing with Georgia without two or more unlikely upsets.
Keep in mind, this is not set completely in stone. Key upsets could occur in either division, and Auburn or LSU could suddenly take off offensively and become highly competitive as the season progresses. It happened just last year with Auburn after the early close loss to LSU. However, it must be said that was facing entirely different division and conference opposition than what is being shown in the early games this year. Mississippi State seemed relatively strong early last year but not at this level of efficiency. Texas A&M was in free-fall, and even Alabama showed surprising weaknesses on offense that presaged what the Tide had issues with in the Iron Bowl.
That is most certainly not the case currently. What is being displayed in the month of September is that both sets of Tigers may have to struggle mightily just to be in the top half of the division and move mountains to be competitive for the division or conference titles. There are a lot of games still to be played, but there is also a great deal of work to accomplish for either of these teams to live up to their current rankings.
We’ve got some work to do before we can get in the driver’s seat