Tiger-Eye Review—On our Way Edition
The top teams in the Southeastern Conference are on the way up in a big way. Six teams are riding waves of fan and media expectation, nationally ranked and living life in the fast lane. However steep the incline ahead, there is strong support at home, favorable statistics showing a range of capability both in and out of the conference arena. Even normally critical pundits are pointing to the rankings where half the top ten are SEC teams from every point of the compass and expressing how strong the conference obviously is.
And yet, the same cannot be said of the bottom eight teams of the league. They have taken a big step back from the level of expectation normally allotted SEC teams at the start of October. In any other year, these teams might have one bad loss or even be one bad play from perfection by the start of conference play.
But that’s not what is happening this year. In fact, the top six teams in my numbers have just one loss collectively. The bottom eight? Twenty-two losses, an average of just under three apiece at the start of the second month of the season. Every one of the underachievers has at least one nonconference loss. Some have two.
What’s going on?
What used to be a given about the Southeastern Conference teams was that they would dominate everyone and give each other a couple of hard-fought losses while other conferences had one or two competitive teams that would coast into high-stakes bowl games or national championship races. That hasn’t happened this year. To be sure, those at the top end are as fiercely dominant against all comers, be they power five or other FBS teams of note. Those few teams are playing at a very high level of competence and skill. But at a certain point, the quality drops off dramatically, and a gulf is forming between the haves and have nots that is widening as the season progresses.
Take a look at what is showing in this week’s numbers.
The standard of play
Look! There’s another top ten opponent ahead!
SEC West Offense
Alabama and LSU are still topping the charts after a bye week for the Bengals and an Ole Miss punching bag for the Tide. But based upon this last weekend, there’s a new kid in town, and he’s growing up before our very eyes. Auburn’s offense has transformed from a mistake-prone-timing, mismatched collection of parts to a well-oiled and highly efficient machine. This is just in time for the biggest games on the schedule—a brutal road series before the final November showdowns of Amen Corner.
The rest of the West? Somewhat lost in the spinoff of the early season and doomed to a series of blowouts and poundings by the big three as the season breaks down. It’s only week five, and the four bottom teams already have ten combined losses. This won’t get any better before November, and it might mean up to three SEC West teams will have under six wins by the end of the season. Bowl eligibility might become an insane issue before long.
SEC West Defense
Defensive numbers suffered a bit this last week among the teams that played. Auburn gave up yards and scores late in the game, as did Alabama, as both teams rotated their benches throughout the game. In many cases, those yards and first downs were against third-string talent.
The rest of the division is seeing a drop due to more competitive conference play. However, there are still fairly high numbers in key categories: 3rd down and red Zzone, for instance. It is still a core trait of the SEC West—good defenses for the most part.
SEC East Offense
In the East there are only two good offenses, with Missouri only having to be good to be competitive due to scheduling. I’m planning to watch their numbers as the Florida and Georgia games approach as that will be a better guide to what their chances are.
The rest of the East is also doomed to be cannon fodder for the other three. Again, bowl eligibility is looking like a real concern for the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference. If these numbers continue, you’re going to see some odd pairings come bowl season. And, likely, some fairly odd results.
SEC East Defense
Again, the separation between the top three and bottom four is widening greatly, and it’s only October. Three teams are sporting super-hero capes and the rest are using matador capes as the opposition runs past their defensive players. Olé!
In all seriousness, expect this line of numbers to continue with few changes as October comes and goes. I don’t expect much change relative to the final numbers as I don’t see any surprise resurgence from the bottom or a sudden drop from the top. The chasm between is just too large to bridge one way or the other.
State of the Conference
Six teams above and eight teams below. That is the split between the top remaining teams in the SEC and the lower also-rans. You can see it most clearly in the above table. The dropoff is immediate behind Missouri and continues down the cliff rather precipitously. Eight efficiency points separate the top six teams. Eight points below that encompass only two other teams: Texas A&M and Mississippi State. Then the numbers really begin to bottom out.
Where does this leave us? Well, I think there will be a slight shuffle above for the division and conference titles and likely a mad scramble below for the magical six wins for bowl eligibility and not much else this year. The quality of play is so far apart as to make the conference almost a shell of its former competitive self.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had this building up over time since about 2016 with the wholesale changes in coaching staffs that occurred back then, but it has never been this stark a difference this soon in the season. This might have previously happened in mid to late November, not the end of September. I haven’t seen this great a gap between the haves and have nots so early in any season since 2000.
However, as concerning as the above is for the conference in general, I can’t help feeling the Tigers are on a roll. Gus is calling plays again and having a blast, the team is tightly focused and performing well, and we look poised to go on to great things. Which is why I chose the great Western musical, Paint Your Wagon, as the theme this week. I couldn’t get the theme song out of my head when looking at the numbers (or the idea that Bo Nix just might be the kid Horton Fenty that Ben Rumson takes under his wing—unbelievably good at everything).
Where am I goin’?
I don’t know
When will I be there?
I ain’t certain
What will I get?
I ain’t equipped to say
But who gives a damn?
Who gives a damn?
Who gives a damn?
We’re on our way
Paint Your Wagon (I’m On My Way) lyrics
I’ll be happy just to reach the bye week unbeaten with no injuries. War Damn Eagle!
Note: want to watch something fun? Take a look at some of the SMU offensive series in their first couple of games. Seem familiar? Rhett Lashlee is lighting up the scoreboards just like Gus is doing in the SEC. But the way he is doing it is equally impressive. Watch the play of its quarterback, linemen and running backs. Very interesting to compare and contrast to the Tigers.