Tiger-Eye Review—Meat of the Schedule Edition
We have arrived at the point of the season where conference dynamics and competition hit full stride. October is the month of decision in the Southeastern Conference. Other than one or two contests, every single game across both divisions will be an interdivision or cross-division showdown of talent week to week. Few if any of the preseason or early season hopes and dreams are realized this month, and by the end the path of the conference leaders is generally established. Not to say November won’t bring a final down-to-the-wire resolution, but by then it will be down to the chosen few teams who distance themselves from the pack in the month of October.
At this point, both the East and West division races are still in doubt. Although each has a heavy favorite, there are still some strong possibilities that may turn on every weekend game this month. Last year’s title game was between two one-loss teams after no fewer than two surprise upsets of #1 ranked teams by the Auburn Tigers. In 2016, a two-loss Florida Gator team competed as division champion. In 2010, Auburn faced a three-loss South Carolina team. While such a three-loss team could be reasonably considered eliminated from the championship race, I’m beginning to have my doubts about whether that wouldn’t remain a possibility east of the Chattahoochee River.
The outcome of this week’s games will tell a full chapter of the 2018 story. LSU begins a grueling span of games that includes both its scheduled East Division teams and Mississippi State, followed by a much-needed bye week. Texas A&M also does the same, only with a bye week before Mississippi State. Tennessee gets to play the entire state of Alabama plus South Carolina at home. Those teams have the most challenging schedules in October, but they are by no means the only ones who will be challenged.
It is the month of decisions. While it can be either a month of achievement or one of failure, it nevertheless is the pivotal moment on the schedule of college football. Every team enters with a shot at the title game, however long or unlikely. It makes October my favorite month of the year as it means anything is still possible. Any issues or achievements are still subject to change. The door of possibilities is still opened wide enough for any team to make it to the top, and it will only close by degrees with every passing week.
Analysis of each SEC team including upcoming games after the jump.
Savoring the upcoming menu of games
SEC West Offense
The key result from this week’s games was a general worsening of issues across the board (except for Alabama). LSU showed some improvement but not by much. Texas A&M and Auburn showed marked decline even in victory as their early season tendencies seemed to worsen with time. Also, the effect of losing for both Mississippi teams is definitely taking the shine off their early season numbers. Third downs are a particularly vulnerable mark for just about every team this season. With the defensive prowess on the next table, it will seem an area of concern going forward.
SEC West Defense
Here also some interesting changes are occurring. Alabama is continuing to slip ever so slightly on defense. Third downs and touchdowns in the red zone are likely nagging Nick Saban, even if the media and fans (or opponents) aren’t seeing it yet. The interesting thing to note is that Mississippi State has two embarrassing losses by two-score margins yet is still showing very impressive efficiency on defense.
How is this possible? Big plays. The last two Kentucky scores that put that game out of reach and the lone Florida touchdown were on plays that originated just outside the Bulldog’s red zone. This brings up the key element in this weekend’s game in Starkville. That big play ability will likely be the difference in the Auburn–Mississippi State game. If neither team can generate it, look for a defensive struggle to match that 3–2 game in 2008.
SEC East Offense
In the East, the Midnight Train to Georgia is still chugging along at a frightful pace with nothing showing up so far to stop it. But then again, the defenses that have faced it aren’t exactly the cream of the East. They’re less Gladys and more the Pips. In fact, they represent the bottom half of the division, including Vanderbilt this weekend. Likewise, other than Missouri, who made it uncomfortably close, Georgia has only faced the lower teams in the bracket, meaning that starting the week of Halloween, its schedule will get demonstratively more challenging.
Kentucky and Florida are both works in progress. At times, Kentucky is simply on fire, both productively and emotionally. That seems like a team on a mission with something to prove. Florida? Who knows. They looked so bad against Kentucky, but maybe the following weeks have shown that Dan Mullen has his team where his teams always seem to be—also-rans that occasionally ambush the unwary division leader.
Sec East Defense
These are the surprising numbers to see at this point in the season. Defense has been a recurring sore spot for many of these teams the last four years. But, now it seems that all but Missouri woke up sometime in September and realized that defense can actually be part of the game plan for an SEC East team that doesn’t wear red. Who knew THAT would happen?
In all seriousness, I believe Kentucky and Florida have really talented defenses. We’ll find out this weekend at both the Swamp and Kyle Field. Of the two SEC West teams, I think Texas A&M will come out the worse for wear. The LSU–Florida match is a little close to call, as the voodoo that they do is always unpredictable, unlikely and improbable. It’s one of my favorite games to watch as I really don’t care who wins or loses, which gives me a chance just to watch the show.
State of the Conference
Logic tells me that, while these numbers can change some, the tendencies shown are likely persistent enough that unless there are drastic and sustained changes in key elements of a team’s game throughout the month, we’re seeing the numbers coalesce to where they’ll likely sit at the end of the season. Alabama will face Georgia in Atlanta, and the rest of the teams will be scrambling for those “other” bowl games in January.
And yet, …
There is still a nagging suspicion that we’re likely going to have some key surprises this month of October. Those surprises are what keep me glued to the television, laptop, tablet, and even my phone as each Saturday plays out. I know this will happen, I just struggle to see what the numbers are showing me now as I try to anticipate where the month will lead us.
Can Auburn turn around its offense? Will Georgia or Alabama hit a speed bump to upset their plans for Atlanta? Will Kentucky keep rising through the season for a clean shot at the championship? If so, hand Coach Stoops the Bear Bryant Coaching trophy. You know, the one that every Auburn coach since Terry Bowden and not a single Alabama coach since Gene Stallings has won? Oh, and while you’re at it, give Benny Snell a front row seat and his turn at the podium that December night in the Big Apple. Because they both would have earned those awards if Kentucky pulls this thing off.
Doubt it? Yeah, and I would have bet the bank that an 0–3 Old Dominion team wouldn’t have a chance against any power 5 team with only a second string quarterback fresh off the bench taking his first career start. But that is college football, and those things tend to happen from time to time as improbable and impossible as it may seem in the moment.
It’s why I watch, and hope and pull for my team regardless of any numbers, odds or rational thoughts at my disposal.
Here’s to another successful night in Starkvegas