Tiger-Eye Review—Peanut Stand Edition
Is this all we’re playing for now?
I seen a peanut stand, heard a rubber band
I seen a needle that winked its eye
But I be done seen ’bout ev’rything
When I see an elephant fly
Dumbo by Walt Disney Pictures
Songwriters: Ned Washington / Oliver Wallace
It’s been that type of season. Very strange and surprising at times, and inexplicably unnerving at others. Just when you have an idea of what you think will happen there is a seismic shift in the other direction. A team that should win a game suddenly loses, and an unlikely team turns the table and spins your head. Vanderbilt’s win in overtime against Mississippi falls into this category, along with Arkansas playing extremely tough for a quarter and then free falling into the abyss for the next 45 minutes against Mississippi State.
I have to say that Tennessee’s game against Missouri fits this description too. Mizzou had two unexpected losses to two marginal East teams that it should have dominated, and Tennessee had convincing victories over Auburn and Kentucky but came up short against everyone else. By rights this should have been a close shootout with Guarantano picking apart a fairly porous Mizzou secondary, and Drew Lock doing the same against the men in safety orange. But Guarantano was injured early, and Tennessee endured yet another blowout with the return of Derek Dooley to Neyland Stadium, wearing black and gold as Missouri’s offensive coordinator. The Vols should have seen that coming. No true UT blowout can happen without a Dooley in the building.
Good luck to anyone betting in Las Vegas on the SEC games this year. For that one crazy guy who put down a $100 bet on The Citadel going into the locker room at halftime with a 10–10 tie against Alabama, feel free to buy that Lamborghini Aventador Coupé now. I think you might have enough for a week’s supply of gasoline while you’re at it.
But not two weeks. Let’s not get carried away. Happy flight down the highway, buddy.
Speaking of flying, the Alabama air attack for the season has passed another milestone—AJ McCarron’s 30 passing TD’s is now in second place behind Tua Tagovailoa’s 31 for an eleven-game season, a new Alabama record. With at least three and possibly four games remaining, Drew Lock’s 2017 SEC record of 44 passing TD’s is well within discussion range, and certainly the Tide’s quarterback can pass Andre Woodson’s 2007 second-place mark of 40 TD’s with ease. He won’t catch Colt Brennan’s NCAA record of 58 TD’s in 2006, but against SEC defenses, it’s a distinction that should resonate with Heisman voters.
Yet another disappointment for the year for Auburn fans. The Tide might have its third Heisman trophy winner at the coveted position of quarterback when the year is done. What makes it worse, is those would be in just a single decade since Nick Saban was first hired (2009–2018). Only Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy has done that before, and that was over half a century ago (1947–1953). The Irish actually had four winners in a ten-year period when Leahy recruited for them, but Terry Brennan was the Irish head football coach in 1956 when Paul Hornung won the fourth trophy.
Nick Saban surely has Alabama flying high this year.
I still say that little Nicky isn’t too comfortable with this. Look how tightly he’s hanging on. Picture Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
SEC West Offense
Other than an overall padding of statistics by virtue of games against out-of-conference opponents this week, there weren’t many changes from last week’s numbers. The lone exceptions were Ole Miss and Arkansas both sliding still further backwards. But even those were surprising based upon how those games were played.
Still, it is worth noting that no one other than Alabama seems to be doing well on offense in the West. While the Rebels can move the ball on big plays, they are still struggling on third down and in the red zone against good defenses. Everyone else is just average to poor when they have the ball.
SEC West Defense
The one redeeming aspect of play in the West is the defensive strength of nearly everyone outside of Oxford. Even Arkansas can point to some level of ability when not chasing after receivers on 80-yard touchdown catches or running back on the field after its offense has turned over the ball yet again.
It is a tough road schedule for any team in the West with this many quality teams, which makes Alabama’s play on offense all the more remarkable and frustrating to witness. If the Tide’s playing at this level against the best the SEC West can show on defense, there’s no telling how much they’ll score in the CFP if invited.
SEC East Offense
It’s remarkable what a good game against the likes of Idaho, Chattanooga and UMass can do for your offensive stat sheet in just a week’s time. But that is what you see from the Gators, Gamecocks and Dawgs this week. Missouri’s and Vanderbilt’s improvements have more meaning as at least those numbers were against conference opponents.
The curious results are from the Kentucky game against Middle Tennessee. Benny Snell had a hundred-yard game, but it was much tougher than expected, and the Wildcats were actually out gained by a pass-happy Blue Raider team against what should have been one of the better SEC East defenses.
SEC East Defense
This is the surprise finish for conference play for most of the Eastern division. The best two defenses are equal or worse than at least five SEC West teams. The disparity between offensive output and defensive play might seem par for the course when compared to the early ‘aughts when Spurrier, Pinkel and Richt were coaching their respective teams, but that is an unjust comparison.
What we’re seeing now is not great offenses with only adequate defenses, but barely above average offensives coupled with very poor defensive play with an incredible number of scores and yards in and out of conference play. The 4–8 Minutemen of UMass were gaining over 7 yards per play on the Dawgs, and the Blue Raiders had over 6.5 yards per play against the Wildcats. Both of those teams combined for 50 points on what are ostensibly the “best defenses” in the SEC Eastern division.
State of the Conference
Despite the padding for the final easy games, the results are much the same as the last few weeks, further underlined by the gap in efficiency from the very top to the average and from the average to the bottom of the conference. And those gaps are widening as the season closes.
A couple of points may come and go for some teams as the regular season ends, but what is crystal clear is that the Southeastern Conference is not anywhere in the vicinity of where it was five years ago. This is setting up for a troubling bowl season and playoff tournament, and not in the good-feeling “we’ve-got-two-in-the-CFP!” sort of way that last year ended. What will likely happen is that only Alabama will progress to the CFP and every other SEC team will go into the bowl season as a barely above-water favorite or even as underdogs.
This is uncharted territory for the Southeastern Conference, and something that even the polls haven’t yet grasped or are reflecting yet. These are not well-playing teams right now. In fact, many of the SEC teams are some of the weakest representatives that we’ve ever sent into the bowl mix, especially in the case of LSU and Kentucky whose W–L records don’t really reflect the quality of football they’ve both been playing the last three months.
Not to mention, the last week of the season has yet to be played. We might still see a couple of upsets. Unlikely, but for an Auburn fan, such events are well within the scope of previous Iron Bowls. I still remember with glee a tiny true freshman Tre Smith running wild on a top-ten ranked Alabama in 2002.
Maybe I should have a talk with that guy in Vegas…
High flying is all fine and good, but can you swim with me in the Iron Bowl?