Biggest flaw for every SEC championship contender
The SEC title race just got off the starting blocks, but there already has been some jostling.
LSU’s upset loss to Mississippi State on Saturday, in the opening week of SEC football 2020, helped prove once again how difficult it is going to be to go undefeated in this conference.
Going 8-0 in the SEC regular season, then winning the title game in Atlanta, has been hard but not impossible. LSU did it last year on its way to the College Football Playoff national championship and the Tigers also went unbeaten against SEC opponents in 2011 (until losing to Alabama in the rematch at the BCS title game). Alabama pulled off the unbeaten feat in 2018 and 2016; Auburn ran the table in 2010.
But those are the only examples in the past 10 years. Now, 2020 is asking contenders to do even more: To go 10-0 in the league, without the benefit of nonconference games (especially early) to work out the kinks. With a conference-only schedule, the demands will be unrelenting.
After one week, it is impossible to say that anybody looks perfect, or that there is even a decent chance that some team will go 10-0 in the SEC then win the title in Atlanta. Teams usually show flaws early, and Saturday’s Week 1 was no exception.
So let’s look at possible SEC title contenders and the flaws they showed in Week 1, starting with the East Division.
Georgia: Running efficiency
Just 121 yards on 42 carries. A 2.9-yard per carry average. A long run of 20 yards. That was the rare scenario Georgia’s coaching staff will surely be looking at when it breaks down video of Saturday’s 37-10 victory over Arkansas. That lack of productivity in the running game is stunning from a Bulldogs team that has thrived on churning out tough yards on the ground in the past several years. What’s worse is that Saturday’s performance came against a Razorbacks team that ranked dead last in the 14-team SEC in rushing defense (as well as scoring and total defense) last season.
Florida: Stopping star receivers
Elijah Moore had 10 catches for 227 yards for Ole Miss in a losing effort against the Gators. Ole Miss had 443 yards passing and 613 total yards, nearly as many as Florida’s 642. The Gators were humming on offense, but they had to be to stave off their hosts in Oxford. Those numbers might be more understandable against a high-volume passing attack, but Ole Miss only threw it 33 times. That’s 13.4 yards per attempt, the highest average against UF since the Gators allowed 15.3 ypa against LSU in 2011. Moore is excellent but Florida will face more like him so the Gators have work to do.
Alabama: We’re looking ….
If we wanted to nitpick, we could point out that Missouri had 187 yards of offense on its final 3 drives combined against Alabama. But the Crimson Tide were leading 35-3 before that and Mizzou had just 135 yards on its first 7 drives combined. Nick Saban will find reason to have some teaching moments in the video room, but it’s not like the Bama defense gave anybody a real reason to worry yet. As for the offense, 414 yards and 9.5 per play is decent, but not spectacular (especially not 3.1 yards rushing per carry). The opener gave Alabama a list of areas to improve on but nothing to panic over.
Auburn: Ability to sustain drives
The ideal Auburn plan would be to pound foes on the ground while quarterback Bo Nix and new offensive coordinator Chad Morris find their groove. The good news for the Tigers was that Nix had 233 yards and 3 touchdowns passing in Saturday’s win over Kentucky. The bad news was that Nix also led Auburn in rushing with just 34 yards on 5 carries and the Tigers had the ball for just 23:31. The Tigers will very much want someone — Shaun Shivers, D.J. Williams or Tank Bigsby — to take over as a top running back (or have two players do so). But nobody made a case to be that guy at RB against the Wildcats.
LSU: Pass defense
How could it be anything else? KJ Costello set an SEC record for passing yards in a game, with 613, in his Mississippi State debut. One can hear the rejoinder: “Wait a second, MSU threw 60 times!” Yes. But that’s still more than 10 yards per attempt; 10.2, to be exact. In LSU’s past 74 games before Saturday, only Alabama in 2019 had more than 10 passing yards per attempt (10.45) against LSU. The Tigers got away with it in that game because of their once-in-a-generation offense. But the Tigers don’t have Joe Burrow any more to help them dig out of such defensive lapses.
Texas A&M: Offensive cohesion
The Aggies simply did not put it together enough on offense against Vanderbilt. Texas A&M had a decent day on the ground with 187 rushing yards on 27 attempts, including 117 yards on just 8 carries for Isaiah Spiller. But a bigger problem was volume, or lack thereof. The Aggies had just 55 plays on offense, their fewest since Nov. 17, 2018, when they had 54 against UAB. A&M outgained Vanderbilt 376-255 on Saturday, so the defense did its part in victory. But those offensive numbers won’t do against almost any other SEC opponent.