Tiger Eye Review – Killing Edition
Many things can be killed by singular events: hopes, dreams, confidence, expectations. Fans in both Gainesville and Knoxville can surely relate to this. So can those in Starkville, Mississippi—and that name now takes on new, ironic meaning after the effusion of excitement by that fan base on the results of its first game in this 2020 season in the Southeastern Conference. But as I look closely at those games, not all is what first impressions or even subsequent results indicate, and a closer dive into the basis of these observations is in order, if only to understand just how remarkably different this season is from the recent history of the conference.
But even the public admissions by coaches after some remarkable games is evidence that we’re in new, uncharted territory. Personally, I was surprised when Dan Mullen used his time in front of a microphone to, essentially, challenge his own University’s administration and the Southeastern Conference on the number of fans allowed in a stadium and its obvious impact on his team’s performance. But the actual shock of the week was Nick Saban’s postulating that a certain former member of his staff (cough, cough) may have used inside knowledge of his program to signal from the bench for the defensive sets his players were in.
The shock for me wasn’t his back-handed jibe at Lane Kifin (who likely deserves that and more), but the implied reality that Alabama HASN’T CHANGED ITS SIGNALLING ON DEFENSE IN AT LEAST FOUR SEASONS.
Lane Kiffin left after the 2017 season. If the Tide hasn’t changed its signalling since then, it is likely true that it has NEVER changed them. If I were an offensive coordinator currently assigned to a team in the SEC, I know I’d be locked in my film room the rest of this week and probably the next reviewing each and every defensive series by the Tide in the last ten years and correlating exactly what Lane Kiffin was doing last Saturday.
Watch this space. This season has barely begun and from what I’ve seen so far, the surprises in the future may be even more dramatic and impossible than what we’ve seen so far. If anything has been killed, it may be every preconceived notion we’ve ever learned from long history, both team to team and the conference as a whole.
Three Games Down, but the Season Has Just Begun
SEC West Offense
Alabama’s and Ole Miss’s offenses put on a truly remarkable show last Saturday. In terms of sheer offensive power both on the ground and in the air, it was something the SEC has rarely seen from any one team in the last 20 years, much less from two on the same field in a single game. But this was a Big 12 or Pac 12 style shootout in an SEC West game for all to see. That Alabama won that game is no surprise, but having Ole Miss carve up an Alabama secondary or for running backs to break into that same secondary on the ground, play after play, was. Texas A&M’s efforts against Florida should also be noted as even if Florida’s defense leaves much to be desired, Jimbo Fisher was still able to exploit it better than both Ole Miss or South Carolina.
Auburn’s offensive slide has been difficult to watch, but there have been some bright spots like Tank Bigsby and Anthony Swartz. While LSU is a far cry from what it was a year ago, that’s not what is losing ball games for them. Likewise, Arkansas isn’t good by any means, but it is at least consistent with what it achieved in the first two games.
But what is happening at Mississippi State is downright appalling. In just three games, its’ve gone from a 600-yard game to a 400-yard game to a game in which it never cracked 300 yards, despite running a dozen more plays than was done in the first game. Third-down conversions are even worse—from 50% in the first game to under 20% in the last game—all against two teams with combined 3–13 conference records from last year. And what did the head coach say? He’s going to re-tool his roster because he believes his players are at fault.
Uh-hunh, sure they are.
SEC West Defense
“Who are you guys, and what have you done with my defense?” This is question on the lips of nearly every fan who has watched the players trot off the field to the bench after an opponent’s long drive and subsequent score. Suffice to say, I never thought a day would dawn in which not a single SEC West team had a defense capable of keeping opposing teams from three scores in a game. Make that FOUR scores per game for Alabama.
Bear Bryant must be downright spinning in his grave.
Arkansas is still the most potent defense we’ve seen in the West, but that’s nothing to write home about. Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn are mere shadows of what they once were, and Ole Miss? Well, when you’d have better results by not fielding a defense at all and allowing your opponent to march down the field on repetitive 5-yard procedure penalties, something is dreadfully wrong about your approach to defense.
SEC East Offense
In a sudden flurry of points, the SEC East now seems alive with offenses that can move the ball and score at will, or in the case of Georgia, grind you down with three yards and a cloud of dust. But other than Vanderbilt, just about every team in the East is starting to show promise.
Not that offense will win every game as the Gators found out in College Station. But in the light of the lack of defense outside of Athens, having offenses that can score points is an infinitely better alternative than being unable to generate offense while your rival lights up the scoreboard
While Florida is by far the most productive, Missouri is showing promise, and most other offenses in the East can hurt you, especially on the magical third down.
SEC East Defense
Which is good, because other than the Dawgs, no one else seems to be bothering to field a defense worth mentioning. Kentucky and South Carolina are perhaps showing some promise, but the other three are even worse than winless Vanderbilt. Granted, it’s not the tire fire of Mississippi or LSU’s pass defense, but it’s so far from normal as to make one wonder what happened in the offseason. Even counting the lack of practice, lack of organized scrimmages, and various team disruptions, why should it show up on just one side of the ball?
State of the Conference
Speaking of killing, the reputation of the Southeastern Conference is yet another casualty of the 2020 season. Gone are the days of stout defenses coupled with ball-control offenses that grind both the clock and opposing teams with steady, efficient progress. As are coaching adjustments at halftime, deep benches and imposing home-field advantages in front of roaring crowds.
Instead, it is a dizzying medley of poor tackling, porous lines, out-of-place linebackers and badly beaten secondaries as fleet-footed receivers streak down the sidelines for 50, 60 or even 70-yard touchdowns. How bad is it? In three games, Alabama has given up eleven touchdowns, an average of 3.75 per game. Since Nick Saban has been coaching there, he has never fielded a defense that allowed more than two per game, and most of his defenses have allowed under 1.3 per game.
In 2011, it was under one per game in a 14 game season. All other numbers are comparable to a near doubling of the totals from 2011: yards, first downs, third-down conversion rate.
Not all teams have had this level of drop off, but outside of Athens, there has been a marked decrease in defensive efficiency for nearly every team in both divisions. When it all of this is aligned in the table above, the startling conclusion is that the Southeastern Conference is no longer fielding above average teams when compared to previous years. Not a single team is achieving even near the level it was playing last year, either in the early, middle or late season.
Maybe there will be a reset of the numbers I’m seeing in the coming weeks. Maybe this all can be written off with the limitations of the Covid-19-affected preparations for this fall’s games. Perhaps that is the explanation. But I still feel it is very curious that offensive power is less affected by this phenomenon.
In any case, we can only observe and note the statistics as the season progresses, and the future is unveiled. But even if it all normalizes, is has still been a crazy year in the SEC.
Before Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, or Barry Lyndon, before 2001 A Space Oddyssey, Dr. Strangelove, or even Paths of Glory, a young 20-something Stanley Kubrick wrote and directed this week’s theme: a classic film noir named The Killing with Sterling Hayden and some truly gifted character actors. All the hallmarks of a Kubrick film are present—a tight, cynical script; dehumanized, unsympathetic characters; bold lines and fluid camera work from low perspectives with vibrant closeups and minimal terse dialogue. Even the use of symmetrical, tightly focused backgrounds is evident.
There was even a cameo by a young comic just getting started in his career. If you look closely at the crowd reaction to the staged fight with Sterling Hayden by a door, there is a young Rodney Dangerfield (second row, next to the wall) reacting as the guards come out and Hayden slips in the door.