Tiger-Eye Review—Wild-Side Edition
If you look around at the various sports publications and commentaries this November, you’ll notice a growing discussion surrounding and focusing on the expectations of what the College Football Playoff will look like in 2019. But as compelling as that outcome might be, what I see is a change of a different sort. I see a distinctive change in the style, activity and success for various Southeastern Conference teams and the thought of this has me wondering where this conference is headed. Will it be back to established trends of the last twenty or thirty years or off into a new wilderness of the unknown?
The wild nature of this potential change is centered on many of the tried and true expectations that we’ve come to know and love about our favorite teams and the conference in general. It comes to life in phrases that have become mantras among the talking heads like “Defense wins Championships,” “If they can’t score, they can’t win,” “Three yards and a cloud of dust” and my old favorite “A Thousand Yard Rusher.”
The last one was always an historic and critical aspect of any SEC team. Do you have a thousand yard rusher? Then you must have an effective offense against SEC defenses.
At least, that has been the story in the past. But that isn’t necessarily the story today. As the last two weekends of the 2019 season approach, the SEC has just eight players on eight separate teams either surpassing or within reasonable reach of 1,000 rushing yards on the field of play (i.e., over 800 yards gained with two games remaining).
One of those players is a backup quarterback. Five are on teams that are not currently bowl eligible, and no fewer than three of those players won’t be in a bowl game this year, no matter how their teams compete in the last two games of the season.
The game and the conference teams themselves are changing dramatically and in ways we’ve rarely seen in the recent past. The quality of play is expanding into new areas, and the dynamics of winning, effectiveness and play styles are remarkably different. In many other ways, the quality of play is diminishing sharply, and the truths we’ve come to expect from the last three decades of SEC play may be coming to a sharp and abrupt end.
That wilderness seems to be fast approaching, and the conference may be headed to an even wilder finish.
The standard of play
Is it time to play like the wild bunch we really are?
SEC West Offense
Alabama’s and LSU’s offenses are still performing at an elite level as the final two weeks of the regular season dawn. There is little room for these numbers to rise or fall, despite the unease about the loss of Alabama’s starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for the season. Both are so far above the threshold measurements in each category, the level set the last ten seasons will likely rise even further at the end of the season. They’ve changed the calculations that much.
The third team in the West worth noting is Texas A&M. The Aggies are still a potent threat to Georgia when they visit Athens this weekend. While not the same threat level the Dogs will face against LSU in Atlanta, this might still be a very important spoiler to ensure a wild finish for the season.
SEC West Defense
The second set of numbers to consider for the Texas A&M–Georgia match this weekend is the defensive numbers they’ve shown all season long. While Georgia had three touchdown drives last weekend against Auburn, those were the only times it crossed midfield. While the Aggies aren’t quite at the level of Auburn’s defense, they are quite good and very capable. Coupled with the offensive numbers above, this might be an ambush game for Georgia. Speaking of Auburn, the defensive numbers after the Georgia game are almost unchanged from just about any week this year. It was a loss but not due to the Auburn defense. It remains the best in the West and close to the best in the conference.
The surprise numbers? The ones that point to Alabama as having only the third best defense in the SEC West and just an average defense in the Southeastern Conference. The numbers above don’t lie. By the statistics I look at, Alabama has only the seventh-best defense in the SEC. This is a fundamentally different Alabama team than we’ve become accustomed to witnessing, and now that it potentially might take a step back offensively, this might be important these last two weeks.
SEC East Offense
The key understanding to the numbers above is that the Georgia offense finally faced a strong defense that matched them strength to strength for its style of offense. In just one single late season game, the impact was enough to drop Georgia below Florida in efficiency. Prior to that, the Bulldogs were making a statement but only against SEC East defenses. Now that they’ve faced Auburn, have Texas A&M this weekend, and LSU in Atlanta, it will be interesting where this team ends up in relation to the rest of the conference.
Other than Florida, which seemed to have gotten its offense on track, the rest of the SEC East is in offensive free fall. No one is moving the ball effectively, and now that Georgia has seen a severe drop in efficiency against the SEC West, we might have cause to doubt the numbers in the next table. Is this a reflection of good defense, or just terrible offensive output other than in Gainesville and Athens?
SEC East Defense
Although Georgia’s and Florida’s defenses seem as good as advertised, Missouri’s highly rated defense belongs to a .500 ball club that will likely struggle to become bowl eligible, and South Carolina’s above-average defense will spend bowl season with channel remotes in their hands. Vandy will too, and the remaining two teams are solidly at .500 as well.
How will this play out? Well, one team will finally become bowl eligible this weekend as Missouri (5–5) hosts Tennessee (5–5). One of thoese teams will win, and the other will have to try again the last weekend of the schedule to secure a bid. That will still leave Kentucky hoping for a favorable game of the two left on its schedule. Even at this late date, there is still a chance we could still have up to four teams from the SEC East sitting home for the holidays. Not good.
State of the Conference
If you look at the Conference numbers, you see a strange pattern emerging. Two good teams, three bad teams and two terrible teams in the East. In the West you have two elite teams, two good teams, two bad teams and only one terrible team.
Do you see anyone playing elite football on both sides of the line of scrimmage in any semblance of balance? Do you see any of those elite teams focusing on rushing first to set up the pass or leveraging a run-stop defense to force teams to throw as a key to victory?
Neither do I.
I see two elite offenses capable of beating just about anyone in a scoring shootout. I see a few other teams with the capability to stop you defensively and grind through a low-scoring game by holding out just one drive/play/series longer than its opponent.
What is missing is a team with excellent numbers on one side coupled with above average to excellent numbers on the other as has been fielded by this conference nearly every year since 2004. The lone exception was Auburn’s 2010 offense, whose defensive numbers look eerily similar to the 2019 version of the LSU Tigers. Even the Auburn 2013 team had better defensive numbers than this year’s Bengal team.
Make no mistake, the Bayou Bengals are entirely capable of running the table all the way through the CFP. They are that good offensively. But this type and style of football has been exceptionally rare in this Conference. The fact that we have two teams displaying the same tendency in the same Division is quite remarkable—and somewhat troubling.
Especially when it coincides with the disparity of numbers East–West and the relative win-loss records of the lower end of the conference. The quality of play across the conference has shifted downward for so many teams, and the style of ball being played is changing for even the topmost teams. I’m not sure where this is going to lead the Southeastern Conference in the future, but we’re likely in for a wild finish no matter how it pans out in the long run.
A new wilderness may be on the horizon