First and 10: Nobody can match the SEC's elite teams. And nobody's close, either
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
We’re deep into October and three weeks from the release of the first College Football Playoff poll, and it’s time for some serious soul searching in advance of the madness that is finding four teams to play for it all.
You say the SEC is top-heavy with only three elite teams and a whole lot of average below. I say, the SEC is top-heavy only because of the bar it must reach: the SEC of years past.
Then I’ll hit you with this: Show me any other Power 5 conference with more than three elite teams.
“There are a lot of teams at this point in the season,” said South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, “still trying to figure it out.”
And a lot who aren’t what we think they are.
A look at the Power 5 conferences, and how each stacks up heading into a crucial stretch of October games (for arguing purposes with your non-SEC buddies):
The elite: Alabama, Georgia.
Still trying to figure it out: Auburn, LSU.
The breakdown: Alabama (FSU with a healthy quarterback) and Georgia (at Notre Dame) have two of the biggest wins of the season in any conference to date. They’ve also dominated everyone else they’ve played, and clearly pass the eye test.
Auburn, meanwhile, hasn’t won a game of significance but played well in a loss to Clemson and appears to be making an important turn on offense (more on that later). As bad as it has looked at LSU – the Mississippi State and Troy losses were two of the worst this season in any conference – a talented team has a chance to change momentum this week against Auburn.
The elite: Penn State.
Still trying to figure it out: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State.
The breakdown: Penn State is playing like a team still pissed about last year’s College Football Playoff snub – trust me, I’ve talked to coach James Franklin at length about this; they’re still really pissed – and will have a strong enough resume to put them on top of the first CFP poll with wins over Michigan and Ohio State over the next three weeks.
The rest of the Big Ten is the great unknown. Wisconsin has played no one of significance, and won’t until the middle of November. The Badgers don’t play Penn State, Ohio State or Michigan State this season, and the next four games are Purdue, Maryland, Illinois and Indiana.
Ohio State was blown out at home in its only significant game of the season (Oklahoma), has played no one and gets its first chance at redemption Oct. 28 against Penn State. Michigan’s offense is horrendous, and Michigan State’s resume is beating a team (Michigan) that can’t score points.
The elite: Washington State, Washington.
Still trying to figure it out: USC.
The breakdown: If you’re comparing resumes, there is little doubt Washington State is the best team in the conference. The win over USC, and the dominant performance at Oregon makes this Mike Leach team look a lot like his 2008 Texas Tech team that nearly had enough to play in the BCS National Championship Game.
Washington doesn’t have a win of significance, and won’t play a team that will press it until at least mid November (at Stanford), and probably not until the last game of the regular season (Washington State). USC has been too inconsistent, but gets a big opportunity in two weeks at Notre Dame.
The elite: Clemson.
Still trying to figure it out: Miami, Virginia Tech.
The breakdown: All Clemson has done is beat Auburn, and win in two brutal environments (Louisville, Virginia Tech) with a young quarterback playing for the first time on the road. And the defense; mercy, the defense.
Miami has a win over hobbled Florida State and nothing else – and gets Georgia Tech this weekend in a testy game it must win to avoid becoming the same Miami of the past decade. Virginia Tech has a strong win over a good West Virginia team, and the winner of the Hokies-Canes game on Nov. 4 figures to be the ACC’s second elite team.
The elite: TCU.
Still trying to figure it out: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State.
The breakdown: I’m still trying to figure out TCU. This isn’t the dominant TCU teams of the past, but wins over Oklahoma State and West Virginia are good enough to push the Frogs to the top of the Big 12. Either Oklahoma has throttled back since beating Ohio State, or both the Sooners and Buckeyes aren’t as good as we think. Either way, it’s perplexing.
2. The SEC vs. The Bar, Part II
The next trendy argument you’ll hear when CFP reveals its first Playoff poll and both Alabama and Georgia are in the top four: No conference will ever get two teams in the playoff.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the Ohio State Buckeyes – the one team, more than any, that has benefited from the CFP selection committee’s ability to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants. Metrics, be damned.
In 2014, the CFP proclaimed that conference championships were critical, and used that criteria week after week in the Baylor-TCU argument while the Big 12 refused to say it would crown Baylor conference champion (based on head to head win over TCU) if both teams finished with one loss.
That allowed Ohio State, with the worst loss of the three teams, with the worst strength of schedule of the three, to earn the No. 4 spot in the CFP. Two years later, Penn State beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten East Division and the conference championship – but Ohio State was chosen ahead of the Big Ten conference champion based on eye test.
The point of that exercise: The CFP has already opened the door to doing whatever it wants. If Alabama and Georgia are unbeaten and playing in the SEC Championship Game, you better believe the loser – in a close game – can hop one (or two) one-loss Power 5 champion.
Remember, this Playoff was invented after the 2011 season, when two teams from the same conference (Alabama, LSU) played in the BCS National Championship Game. Precedent is never a bad thing.
3. The one that got away
We can talk all day about Florida’s problems on offense, and how coach Jim McElwain was hired to rebuild it and it hasn’t happened.
We can talk about a coordinator (Doug Nussmier) not giving quarterbacks easy throws – outside of quicks to the perimeter — to gain confidence and momentum (see: slant, curl and dig routes), or the loss of critical players to suspension.
Here’s what seems to be constantly overlooked in the process: McElwain chose quarterback Luke Del Rio over Will Grier to lead his offense after the 2015 season – and the ramifications have been felt all the way into 2017.
There’s no denying the impact of that decision: Florida was 6-0 under Grier before he took an NCAA banned supplement and was suspended for a year. The Gators are 16-10 under McElwain since.
I talked to all involved in this decision – Grier and his parents, and McElwain for a piece I wrote at Bleacher Report – and it was clear that Grier wanted to return to Florida (and wasn’t demanding a guarantee of playing time), but McElwain wanted to move on. He’s the coach, his decision.
Two Florida staff members told me Grier wasn’t a good influence in the locker room; wasn’t a leader and liked to stay at home with his then girlfriend (now wife) instead of bonding with his teammates. Grier laughed at that assessment, and said he’d still be in Gainesville today – instead of putting up ridiculous numbers at West Virginia (1,740 yards, 16 TDs) – if McElwain hadn’t told him “a fresh start was best for everyone involved.”
Now Florida is left with this: another offense ranked statistically in the 100s out of 130 FBS teams, no Del Rio (injured, out for the season) and a team desperate for any semblance of consistency on offense.
4. It begins and ends with defense
For those who believe offense is the new defense (and the key to winning a championship), I give you Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.
Three weeks into the season, Fitzgerald was putting up big numbers and his offseason work to become more of thrower (accuracy and velocity) was moving along at an impressive clip.
Then came the defenses of Georgia and Auburn, and the decline in production has been as drastic as defining.
Three games vs. Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech and LSU: 543 yards, 7 TDs, 1 INT, 61 percent completions, 156.7 pass efficiency rating.
Games vs. Georgia and Auburn: 240 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT, 44 percent completions, 68.4 pass efficiency rating.
That’s why Alabama, Georgia and Auburn are the elite of the SEC. All three teams are among the top six in the nation in scoring defense, and top 13 in total defense.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Texas A&M (+3) at Florida
- South Carolina at Tennessee (-1.5)
- Auburn at LSU (+9)
- Arkansas at Alabama (-30)
- BYU (+21.5) at Mississippi State
Last week: 4-1.
Season: 16-14 (.533)
6. Team Turmoil
Let’s not mince words: If Tennessee can’t win at home this weekend against South Carolina, Vols coach Butch Jones won’t make it to Monday.
His players are fighting in practice (and injuring each other), and he continues to shower his wise words on those who will listen — “You don’t have to get a physical (repetition) to get a rep; you can get a leadership rep.”
Now this: The Vols will start former 4-star recruit Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback ahead of Quinten Dormady. The same Guarantano who has looked overmatched in spot duty this season.
On a positive note, Guarantano is a better fit for Jones’ spread option offense (he’s a willing/dangerous runner), but he’s still developing as a thrower.
7. Winning vs. losing vs. the media
Nick Saban tells the media they’re selling rat poison to his team by telling them how good they are, and everyone nods and laughs and moves along their merry way.
Butch Jones tells the media enough is enough, and it’s all-out war.
Moral of the story: win games. A lot of them.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Hey Matt: I don’t know if I can stand another second half of the season implosion from my Aggies. Please help me off the ledge.
— Sharon Jenkins, San Antonio
Sharon: Let’s take baby steps, shall we? First, Texas A&M wasn’t humiliated by Alabama last weekend. In fact, the Aggies were competitive and had a chance in the fourth quarter. Even Nick Saban thought so, considering his “rat poison” speech to the assembled post-game media.
At this point, every week is must-win for coach Kevin Sumlin, and the Aggies can’t lose this week to a Florida team with a one-dimensional offense. Like it or not, these are the games Sumlin has to win because these are the teams he’s chasing among the SEC elite (the Gators clearly aren’t there this year) on the field and in recruiting.
There are two critical games remaining after this week (Auburn, LSU), and let’s face it, it’s not really about how many games he wins. It’s about who the Aggies beat.
I’ve said all along that three games will dictate his ability to keep his job (Alabama, Auburn, LSU) and that he needed to win two of the three. See where that leaves him?
9. Numbers game
11.8. The average yards per attempt by Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, more than double what it was after the first two weeks of the season.
And that’s not a bad sign going into Auburn’s first real test in a month this weekend at LSU.
Understand this: average yards per attempt is an important stat (NFL scouts eat it up) because it shows the ability of the quarterback to throw downfield. After two games, Stidham had a yards per attempt average of 5.5 yards, and everything Auburn was doing was bunched between the numbers.
The Tigers have spread it out some since (not as much as they could), and Stidham has responded with a better yards per attempt than when he was at Baylor (11.61) in the Bears’ wide-open passing offense. One bit of hesitation: the increase has come at the expense of Mercer, Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss – not exactly bastions of defense.
But don’t underestimate the value of confidence built in not only the quarterback, but with receivers and the guy calling plays (you don’t really think Gus Malzahn doesn’t call plays, do you?).
10. Quote to note
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, on his weekly call-in show with Tom Leach, talking about the surprising negativity surrounding an impressive 5-1 start to the season: “Can I leave and go back to the office and just find a way to get better? It’s just so negative. I just want to go back to work so I don’t have to read or hear about it.”