1 key area every SEC team must improve this offseason
Every team has a weakness, even if its deranged fan base thinks it doesn’t.
Sometimes, it’s easy to spot. Other times, it takes some digging to find. Regardless, the problems exist.
Certain teams have multiple weaknesses while stronger teams have very few. My goal was to find the most blatant one that has hindered success and hurt teams in their losses.
Here is one key area every SEC team must improve this offseason.
Weakness: Punt returning
Yes, there is something Alabama needs to improve. Coach Nick Saban’s squad is averaging only 7.77 yards per punt return this season, good for 60th in the country. The Crimson Tide have yet to score off a punt return in 2017.
In 2016, Alabama was fifth in the country at 15.53 yards per punt return with four touchdowns. In 2015, the Crimson Tide averaged 12.70 yards and had five touchdowns. They were top five in 2013 with three touchdowns. This is a major part of Alabama’s special teams that has been missing.
Weakness: Opponent’s third-down conversions
It was hard to lock down one category that Arkansas needed to improve because the Razorbacks were abysmal in so many areas. I’ve harped on Arkansas’ inability to get to or protect the quarterback multiple times this season, so it was time to critique the Razorbacks in another category — getting off the field on third down.
Razorback opponents converted 47.53 percent of the time; Arkansas ranked 120th of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Razorbacks ranked last of all the SEC teams in this category. TCU converted an astounding 71.43 percent against the Razorbacks on third down in a win this season.
Weakness: Opponent kickoff returns
CBS broadcasters Gary Danielson and Brad Nessler mentioned this flaw several times in the “Iron Bowl.” Trevon Diggs had a return of 55 yards when Alabama was down only 20-14. But the Tigers escaped that drive unscathed after a bobbled snap from holder JK Scott.
Auburn is dead last in the nation in this category at No. 129, giving up 28.10 yards per return in 2017. Surprisingly, the Tigers have yielded just one touchdown. Now that Gus Malzahn is remaining as Auburn’s coach, this should be his No. 1 priority to fix moving forward.
Weakness: Scoring offense
Florida was outscored by every FBS team in Florida. The Gators were ranked 109th nationally as they scored 22.1 points on average in 2017. Against ranked opponents, the Florida offense floundered even more, putting up an average of 16.6 points in those three games.
Last season, the Bulldogs were among the best in the country in this category — ranking inside the top 20. This season is a different story. Georgia doesn’t have a multitude of weaknesses, but committing infractions on the field could haunt them in the College Football Playoff if the Bulldogs don’t shore up.
Through 13 games, Georgia is averaging 6.4 penalties and losing 56.2 yards a game. Versus ranked opponents, the numbers increase — 7.5 penalties and 81.75 yards on average. In the Bulldogs’ only loss this season, in the first meeting against Auburn, they committed seven penalties and lost 75 yards. Like Saban, Georgia coach Kirby Smart is a perfectionist and these infractions drive him up a wall during games.
Weakness: Red zone touchdowns
The Wildcats had a hard time putting touchdowns on the scoreboard this season, partly because they were ineffective in the red zone. That can be misconstrued, considering Kentucky was scoring at a 92.31 percent rate when it got within the 20-yard-line. But the 61.54 percentage of scoring touchdowns is what killed them this season. That stat ranks outside the top 60.
Coach Mark Stoops’ squad has little room for error to being with. Not taking advantage of key opportunities hurt them several times during the 2017 regular season.
Weakness: Third-down conversions
Danny Etling and the offense struggled with this scenario most of the season. They ranked 68th out of all FBS teams, converting only 40 percent of their third downs. In its losses, LSU converted 12 of 41 attempts. Maybe the biggest example is when the Tigers went 0-for-9 versus Troy at home.
Weakness: Passer rating
Nick Fitzgerald played high school in a wing-T offense, a major difference from the system he plays in now. He ended the 2017 regular season with a 117.55 rating. The Bulldogs don’t throw the ball a whole lot, but a 55.6 completion percentage is also grounds for just criticism.
With Dan Mullen moving on to Florida, it will be interesting to see how Fitzgerald matures at the position moving forward. Mullen has been a quarterback guru and his departure could stunt Fitzgerald’s growth. If Fitzgerald wants to move on to the next level, he needs to improve a lot — mechanics, timing, etc.
Like Fitzgerald with his 11 interceptions, Drew Lock has made some questionable throws this season. He has thrown 12 interceptions, including two to a crummy Arkansas defense. Lock had a streak where he tossed an interception in five consecutive games. The junior must make smarter decisions if he wants to flourish in the NFL.
Weakness: Rushing defense
Ole Miss has had a colossal amount of defensive problems this year. The Rebels’ biggest hindrance has been their inability to stop teams from “pounding the football on ’em.” The Rebels only beat out Tennessee among SEC members in this category, giving up 245.33 rushing yards on average to rank 124th in the nation. They couldn’t stop opposing offenses from punching it in, allowing 29 rushing touchdowns.
Weakness: Opponents’ third-down conversions
The Gamecocks have played well at times on defense, but not when the down marker shows a “3.” Amazingly, South Carolina is worse than Arkansas in this stat. It has allowed opponents to move the chains 42.5 percent of the time on third down. Against ranked opponents, the number increases to 51 percent.
Pick a stat, Tennessee probably is ranked low in that category. The Vols went 0-8 in the SEC for a reason. They were terrible in 2017.
Weakness: Rushing yards per attempt
Before diving into the stats, I just assumed the Aggies had a strong rushing attack with Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford. Bad assumption.
Texas A&M has averaged only 4.02 yards per carry this season. That average is 87th best, so not great. The Aggies didn’t run the ball much compared to other teams, but the running backs didn’t take advantage of their opportunities.
Weakness: Scoring defense
Derek Mason’s defense took a massive step back in 2017. The Commodores started hot, allowing 13 total points through the first three games. They were a train wreck after that, giving up 40-plus points five times. Ranked SEC opponents had their way with the Commodores, scoring an average of 47.3 points.