10 biggest takeaways halfway through 2014 SEC season
1. Even SEC teams with loaded recruiting classes struggle to replace elite NFL talent.
Exhibit A: LSU’s offense.
Exhibit B: Texas A&M’s offense.
Exhibit C: Missouri’s entire team.
2. A four-team playoff was way overdue, and it may be time to start looking at eight.
A loss at No. 1 Mississippi State or at No. 3 Ole Miss should under no circumstances ruin a team’s chances of competing for a national championship. Remember when the biggest arguments of the BCS era centered on what to do if three strong teams finished the year undefeated? Right now, it takes luck and a relatively weak schedule for a single power-conference team to make the postseason without a loss. Good luck finding the latter in the SEC, especially in the West.
3. Defense still matters in the SEC.
For posterity’s sake, remember these names: AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, Connor Shaw, James Franklin.
That’s arguably the most accomplished group of starting quarterbacks to leave the conference in one year in the history of the SEC.
Scoring is up — SEC teams are averaging 34.8 points per game as opposed to 31.7 last season — though this year’s number should shrink after several more weeks of conference play.
But the top four scoring defenses are Ole Miss, Alabama, Georgia and Auburn. The top four offenses include Texas A&M and Arkansas. In 2014, good defense beats good offense. Just look at the 35-7 fourth-quarter lead the Rebels held on the road on the Aggies.
4. Missouri and Texas A&M aren’t as far along as the last two years indicated.
Johnny Manziel and the Aggies pinched Alabama in Tuscaloosa and snagged a Heisman Trophy in 2012 after SEC expansion. Missouri won the SEC East and finished in the Top 5 of the Associated Press Top 25 in 2013 after a 12-win season.
The transition from the Big 12 wasn’t so hard after all. Right?
Turns out it’s not so simple.
Texas A&M is a hot program. Kevin Sumlin and his Swagcopter are competitive with every program in the nation in recruiting. The program is rolling in money right now and in the middle of an extensive stadium renovation. Right now, Texas A&M has as much of an argument as Texas and Baylor as the state’s best program. But the Aggies have been a disaster on defense, and the sleek offense (especially minus Manziel) hasn’t proven it can survive a physical, brutal SEC in October and November.
Meanwhile, Missouri has faded this season after a magical 2013. The team can’t fill its stadium and doesn’t rank in the top half of the conference in recruiting. While Texas A&M hasn’t done enough to convert hype into on-field performance, Missouri doesn’t have enough buzz as a program.
5. James Franklin was a darn good college coach.
To be fair to Derek Mason, he lost a chunk of talent to the NFL, to graduation, to suspension and from Vanderbilt’s recruiting class after Franklin left.
But the Commodores have gone from a nine-win team to a nine-loss team in a single season.
Franklin can’t work miracles, and we’re seeing proof of that this year with Penn State. But it’s hard to imagine the ‘Dores turning the ball over seven times and losing to Temple, 37-7, at home to open the season, or squeaking out wins against UMass and Charleston Southern.
The jury’s still out on Mason (though a guilty verdict could come back at any time). But Franklin has earned as much respect as a good CEO of a program in his absence as he did while he resided in Nashville.
6. Alabama isn’t the same team as it was during its run of national championships.
The Crimson Tide still have talent. Plenty of it.
But this program used to decimate mediocre power conference teams like West Virginia and Arkansas. There was a nastiness to the defense and a business-like proficiency to the offense. The offensive line single-handedly beat teams outside the Top 25 and gave the team an advantage against the best. Nick Saban’s teams always looked more prepared and more disciplined.
Sustaining a level of success where you’re better than 127 other teams, most of whom also spent millions and millions of dollars trying to beat you, is next to impossible. But, all due respect to Saban, fans have a right to complain when you take a team as talented as any in the nation and make them seem pedestrian at times while pocketing the richest coaching salary in the country.
7. Mark Stoops, Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze are the hot coaches.
In a conference with Saban, Sumlin, Steve Spurrier, Les Miles and Gus Malzahn, the coaches in Kentucky and Mississippi are the ones grabbing headlines and showing up in national columns.
It helps to succeed against relatively lower expectations. Then again, you don’t think Rebels fans expected a lot from Freeze after a top-ranked recruiting class in 2013 and a preseason ranking?
And even if the Wildcats finish 6-6, a 5-1 start after a 2-10 season is a major step forward. Impressive stuff from those three. But it also speaks to the talent they’ve been able to procure and develop.
8. Injuries have yet to play a major factor.
The most significant injury for the SEC at this point may be Ohio State QB Braxton Miller.
Todd Gurley missed significant time due to injury a year ago, and quarterbacks Mettenberger and Murray tore ACLs. Jeff Driskel broke his leg, and what seems like the entire Florida offense suffered season-ending injuries. Attrition was a word that applied to pretty much every team.
This season, major injuries haven’t had a huge impact. Malcome Kennedy and Speedy Noil have each missed a few games for Texas A&M. Missouri lost a starting offensive lineman to an ACL tear. Alabama lost Kenyan Drake to a gruesome leg injury. But no team has been devastated through half the SEC season.
9. The SEC East is in turmoil.
Spurrier outcoached Mark Richt badly in Georgia’s only loss. The Bulldogs look like they’ll play without Gurley for a second consecutive week due to suspension. Hutson Mason can’t win games like Murray could. Even Jeremy Pruitt hasn’t been able to turn this undisciplined collection of athletes into a championship caliber defense.
Yet UGA is the most likely team to win the conference, according to many metrics. Vanderbilt is terrible. Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina and Missouri are a fraction better than mediocre on good days and a fraction worse on bad days. The Bulldogs would finish fifth or sixth in the SEC West. The SEC championship game could be ugly.
10. The 2014 season runs through the state of Mississippi.
That’s not just in the SEC. That’s nationally.
With all respect to the state of Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss are the best pair of state schools in the country right now.
The Heisman Trophy, the SEC West and the College Football Playoff will go through the Magnolia State, whether you like it or not.
Bonus: That SEC Network, doe.
I hope you enjoy Paul Finebaum and Tim Tebow. If not, you’re pretty miserable as an SEC fan.