Tiger Eye Review – Lonely-Place Edition
As we approach the midpoint in this abbreviated 2020 season in the Southeastern Conference, some disturbing trends are becoming apparent. For one, the threat of interruption by COVID-19 related issues from false positives to rescheduled games was evident as four teams missed playing opportunities. How this will play out in the future is anyone’s guess, but suffice to say, there remains the chance of more interruptions at any time, and both teams and coaching staffs have to be flexible enough to anticipate an unintended bye week at any time.
Secondly, it is increasingly evident that defensive play conference wide has taken an unexpected turn for the worse. Few teams are performing at the level of expectation, and fewer still seem to be able to reach even the average level of classic “SEC Defenses” of previous seasons. Whether this is a lack of practice, resurgence of offensive prowess across the conference or some other explanation is unknown, but the stark reality is that no one seems to be able to influence games with defense in the manner we’ve all come to expect in the recent past.
This weekend’s games were no exceptions. Certain teams performed exactly as they had previously this season, improving or deteriorating at only minor levels from earlier games. Others had wildly divergent performances in one aspect of their game, but otherwise were unchanged from what we’ve seen from them all season. Georgia’s defense and Tennessee’s offense spring to mind in this respect. Both squads took huge hits in performance and expectations.
What does this mean going forward? From previous years, this is usually the point of the season in which drastic changes in performance are less likely to occur. But in this unique season that may be a premature expectation. With the added benefit of game film and experience, it is entirely possible that the surge of offensive play in the conference will begin to subside. Hopefully, this will not be in the manner of the Mississippi State collapse, but perhaps the defensive competency we’ve all grown to expect from the conference will begin to emerge as the various squads adjust going forward.
As always, the standard of excellence is as follows:
With One Team Standing Above the Rest, It’s Not Much of a Conference Race
SEC West Offense
If Alabama proved one thing this week, it was that its offense is absolutely as real as it appears. This is an elite squad as good or better than LSU’s amazing offense last year. From individual to unit strength, the Tide seems almost unstoppable, carving up an elite Georgia secondary just as easily as it had done to hapless Mississippi. Ole Miss took a slight hit in its loss to Arkansas, but is still a potent offense within the division. Texas A&M has been consistently good, but with a loss to Alabama, it would take an incredible series of upsets to take away Alabama’s reservation for the conference championship in Atlanta.
The rest of the division is in deep trouble, offensively. While Auburn’s offensive trouble could be partially explained by having played four of the top five defenses in the conference, it still doesn’t entirely explain the dropoff from last year’s level of play, especially with returning starters in the passing game. Nonproductive offenses in a year in which defenses are struggling is a recipe for disaster later on.
SEC West Defense
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an Alabama defense playing as poorly since the days of Mike Shula or Mike Dubose. But what does that matter when its offense is scoring nearly 50 points a game against just about everyone? This is most certainly not true for the rest of the division. As potent as the Ole Miss offense is, when your defense allows nearly 50 points per game, it doesn’t matter all that much what you can do on with the ball in your hands.
Don’t expect that Lane Train to go very far on just one rail.
Mississippi State has carved out a niche as a potent defense, but without a matching performance on the other side this will have little impact on its season. The real surprise in the first four weeks is how well Arkansas has played, and the emergence of Barry Odom’s defense this year is the Cinderella story of the year. The Razorbacks didn’t just stop Ole Miss, they cut its passing production in half and snagged as many interceptions in one game as the Rebels suffered all last season. Even more remarkable is that this level of play has been from a marginal talent pool as Arkansas has struggled to recruit for nearly a decade.
SEC East Offense
While only four teams played this week, the overall look of the East remains the same, offensively. Outside of Gainesville the common phrase that comes to mind is pedestrian. No one seems as capable as the Gators from possession to possession. Both Georgia and Kentucky are no better than average in performance, and inconsistency has plagued both South Carolina and Tennessee game to game.
How this plays forward is anyone’s guess. But it seems that the biggest question for the rest of the season will be who else can move the ball at pace with Florida or against the still potent Georgia defense?
SEC East Defense
Two things to take from the Georgia loss is that the Bulldogs are mortal and that the Kentucky defense might be quite close to them in both run defense and overall efficiency. With two common opponents between them, they were surprisingly even in performance. This will be interesting to consider as those teams play each other on Halloween. South Carolina is also a dark horse on the defensive side of the ball, and this might become important as the season unfolds.
Otherwise, with so few teams playing it is difficult to judge whether these numbers represent a true picture of the Eastern division. I think one more week of games ought to clarify the status of who can compete with the Gators or Bulldogs.
State of the Conference
It is indeed lonely at the top of the game. The stunning efficiency of Alabama’s offense over the best defense in the Southeastern Conference means that without a remarkable series of upsets, there is little chance of a close division race in the West this year. The remaining teams that Alabama faces all have two losses, and each would have not only to win over the Tide but win out their remaining remaining games as well. Even then, Alabama would have to lose a second time for any of those teams to go to Atlanta. It is just not looking likely at this stage of the season, at least not the way the Western teams have been performing so far.
Want to know who no longer feels lonely anymore? With the loss to Alabama, Georgia now is faced with the startling prospect of having to contend in its division every single week for the remainder of the season. Gone are the days in which it could coast into the Florida–Georgia Classic and then make hotel reservations in Atlanta. Not only is Florida now a direct threat, but every other team outside of Nashville is still very much alive in the division race. The Dawgs simply cannot afford to take any team or game for granted. They are just one upset away from irrelevancy, and if they don’t know it now, they will in a few short weeks.
The cross-division games are almost over, and the interdivision games are heating up. It is a contrast to previous seasons in that every game is on the line in the East, and the Western race is all but decided before the midpoint of the season. This is not normal.
What also isn’t normal is the relatively poor efficiency of the conference as a whole. These are terrible numbers on both sides of the ball. No single team is balanced in any way, shape or form. Not a single team is even above average within the conference in the context of the last decade. This is an unprecedented drop in performance from even last year’s surprising mediocrity.
The five best defenses in the conference have a combined .500 record (10–10). The third best offense has won just one game out of four. Teams stacked with deep-recruited talent have yet to emerge in terms of consistency, and a defense comprised of very few elite athletes and a bunch of lower graded recruits and walkons is now leading its division under a first-year defensive coordinator.
The Southeastern Conference may well be headed to a lonely place, but whether that destination is “National Championship” or “Irrelevancy” remains to be seen. Stay tuned.
In a Lonely Place is a relatively unknown Humphrey Bogart film that he enjoyed late in his career. It gave him a chance to play alongside an old friend from his early career, Robert Warwick, and featured Gloria Grahame as his co-star. A raw and powerful film, it stands as a prime example of the film noir genre with the two protagonists overwhelmed by their own passions and dark emotions.
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