Monday Down South: Absent Rivalry Week drama, let the Sugar Bowl debate begin
Well, it’s come to this. With one week to go in the regular season the SEC — the self-appointed center of the sport, around which so much of the national conversation has revolved over the past decade — is largely an afterthought. Sure, there’s the compulsory awe over Alabama’s consistency through the years, and over the massive gap the Tide have put between themselves and the rest of college football. But as we hit the home stretch, the distance is so vast that it’s almost impossible to make out any compelling signs of life on the other side.
Contrast that with the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12, where nothing has been decided and the intrigue has built to a looming climax over the next two weeks. In the SEC, the stakes on Thanksgiving weekend amount to in-state bragging rights and not much else.
Both division races have been decided, heralding a massacre: The championship rematch between Alabama and Florida on Dec. 3 is such a foregone conclusion that the Crimson Tide are already being sized up for posterity.
Ditto this weekend’s Iron Bowl, where Bama opened as an 18.5-point favorite in a game that appears to have no bearing on its postseason fate. (The playoff prediction model at FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Tide a 74 percent chance of making the final four even if they somehow lose to Auburn.)
There’s no consensus Heisman front-runner clearly destined for the ceremony in New York. None of the league’s full-time head coaches is feeling enough heat to drive speculation over his immediate future, and whatever chance Ed Orgeron still had of shedding the “interim” tag at LSU was snuffed out Saturday in the Tigers’ loss to Florida.
Ten of 14 teams have already clinched a bowl bid; only two, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, will be playing for eligibility this weekend. In the former case, Vandy could lose to Tennessee and still potentially qualify based on its academics. In the latter, Ole Miss might be better off punting on a bowl game, anyway, while it still has the chance.
If there’s any remaining drama to be wrung out of the regular season, it’s essentially the race for second place, and for the automatic bid to the Sugar Bowl that comes with it. Even when it’s not hosting a playoff semifinal, the Sugar still holds a traditional place of pride for the SEC, like the Rose Bowl does for teams in the Big Ten and Pac-12, as the longstanding destination for the conference champ. This year, like last year, the presumptive SEC champ has bigger fish to fry. But there are still five teams plausibly in the running for the league’s ticket to New Orleans, listed here in order of best position (that is, the team with the most control over its postseason options) to worst:
1. Florida. Don’t worry: I’m not about to suggest Florida has a real chance to upset Bama, or even to score on Bama without considerable help from the defense and special teams. In clinching the East, though, the Gators moved to the front of the runner-up line with fewer losses (two) and the highest non-Bama ranking this week (13th) in both the AP and Coaches’ polls. That’s a very different vibe for a team that entered the weekend ranked 21st, decimated by injuries, and pegged as a two-touchdown underdog in hostile territory.
That could all change very quickly this weekend in Tallahassee, of course, where Florida is a seven-point dog against FSU and no closer to filling the holes in the depth chart. Still, given how far the Seminoles have strayed from preseason expectations, another scrappy, defensively driven upset on the road is hardly out of the question. Neither is a reasonably competitive effort in Atlanta, which (assuming a win over Florida State in this scenario) would leave the Gators with a compelling Sugar Bowl case at 9-3. That’s not likely, as the point spreads suggest. But the opportunity is in front of them.
2. Auburn. For Auburn the equation is straightforward: Beat Bama to move to 9-3, and — barring an even more unlikely upset by Florida seven days later — the Sugar Bowl awaits. How much stock you’re willing to put into that scenario is up to you, but I’ll have more on the Tigers’ chances in Tuscaloosa later in the week.
3. Texas A&M. A&M’s standing with the committee is a little tougher to gauge: After two weeks of listening to complaints that they were overrated in the playoff rankings, the Aggies plunged an incredible 17 spots last week, from No. 8 to 25, on the heels of their third consecutive conference loss. Even with a couple of cupcake wins mixed in to stave off a full-blown losing streak, the old “November Swoon” narrative is back in full force.
As quickly as it fell, though, a win on Thursday night against LSU could send A&M’s stock back in the right direction, and also force the committee to reassess a résumé that includes head-to-head wins over (hypothetically) LSU, Auburn, and Tennessee. That last one is crucial, because for reasons I don’t understand the Vols leapt six spots ahead of A&M last week in spite of their loss in College Station. If both teams finish 9-3, that order will be much harder to justify.
4. Tennessee. Admittedly, I seem to be in the minority in that assumption: Based on most of the snap bowl projections this weekend (including our best guess here at SDS) the Vols have the inside lane on New Orleans, needing only to a) Beat Vanderbilt this weekend, b) Watch Bama take care of business against Auburn and Florida, and c) Maintain their edge over A&M in the final playoff poll. The first two items on that list are very likely; the third is trickier, unless the Aggies render the question irrelevant by losing to LSU.
So yes, as it stands, Tennessee looks like the safest Sugar Bowl bet. Whether that would be enough to absolve Butch Jones for failing (again) to win a ripe-for-the-picking East Division is an open question.
5. LSU. At 6-4 with losses to Auburn and Florida already on the books, it’s probably safe to rule out the Tigers from the New Year’s Six conversation altogether. A couple of caveats, though: First, despite the lack of interest from the other human polls this week (LSU is 25th according to the AP, unranked by the coaches) we don’t know how much the Florida loss is going to hurt the Tigers in the rankings that actually matter. And advanced stats still love them — LSU ranks in the top 10 this week according to S&P+, Jeff Sagarin, SportsReference.com’s Simple Rating System, and ESPN’s Football Power Index. That makes it the best non-Bama outfit in the SEC in each of those systems, a distinction that could conceivably catch the eyes of the more analytic-minded members of the committee.
And second, of the five teams listed here the Tigers have arguably the most realistic chance to rise with a win in College Station. Where Florida and Auburn are facing year-end blowouts, and Tennessee won’t get much juice from dispatching Vanderbilt in a crowded time slot, LSU has a big, national stage all to itself on Thanksgiving night to make its final case. If upending the Aggies was enough to save Les Miles from the firing squad last year, maybe sending off Coach O in the Superdome isn’t that farfetched as it seems.
Around the conference.
FLORIDA 16, LSU 10
Statistically, this is the kind of win that looks so improbable on paper that it’s almost more impressive than a conventional beating. Consider that LSU outgained Florida by 153 yards of total offense, averaged almost a full yard more per play, and amassed an eight-minute advantage in time of possession; to overcome all of that, the Gators managed to force and recover a pair of fumbles as well as two turnovers on downs, both of them goal-line stands. Altogether, LSU mounted five drives that crossed the Florida 15-yard line and only found the end zone on one of them.
In the past I’ve tinkered with a statistic I call “wasted yards,” meaning yards gained that don’t result in points. In this game LSU failed to score on drives that covered 63, 73, and 74 yards, respectively. That adds up to 210 wasted yards, more than enough to make up the difference in what the respective offenses actually gained, and a lot more that didn’t lead to as much on the scoreboard as they could have. They also settled for a field goal at the end of a 79-yard drive.
To be fair, the Gators left plenty of points on the field, too, settling for field goals on all three of their trips inside the red zone. (Right up to the final gun, I was certain Florida would regret settling for field goals within scoring range on its last two possessions of the game, leaving them with a very surmountable 16-10 lead rather than attempting to put the game away, which seemed like a very Florida way to blow a late edge. I was almost right.)
But they certainly maximized their only successful pass of the day, a 98-yard touchdown heave from Austin Appleby to Tyrie Cleveland that obscured an otherwise futile afternoon through the air. And although it didn’t end with a touchdown, Florida’s only sustained drive — a 15-play, 70-yard slog that set up the go-ahead field goal — wound up consuming more than half the fourth quarter.
So the more forgiving way to look at the final score is as a very Florida way to manufacture a must-have road win despite the numbers, and despite a casualty list a mile long. That’s not a sustainable model for beating FSU or Bama, of course, especially if Appleby is as hapless in those games as he was Saturday outside of the long touchdown pass. But it was good enough to win the East for the second year in a row, which must still count for something.
TENNESSEE 63, MISSOURI 37
This game yielded, without a doubt, one of the wildest box scores I’ve ever seen.
Seriously: Missouri gained more yards, and more first downs, than any SEC team has gained in any game this season … and lost … by 26 points. That is beyond bananas. Running backs Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter combined for 388 yards rushing, on a little more than 7 per carry, and the final score wasn’t even competitive. How is that possible?
The most obvious explanation, as usual, is turnovers: Mizzou committed four, Tennessee none, and the Vols converted two of the Tigers’ giveaways directly into touchdowns via a short field and a pick-six, respectively. Beyond that, it was sheer quantity over quality as the score got increasingly out of hand — in the end Missouri got off an incredible 110 plays, the most of any FBS team this season in a regulation game. Tennessee finished with fewer yards, but averaged considerably more per play (9.1 to Mizzou’s 6.7) and scored touchdowns on all but one possession after halftime.
Anyway, that’s how a team with a 1-6 conference record, which had yet to top 30 points in any of those games before this one, currently leads the league in total offense. It’s a foundation to build on, but the efficiency needs a lot of work.
ARKANSAS 58, MISSISSIPPI STATE 42
Continuing the theme, here’s another game that flouted common defensive decency at every juncture. Just a few highlights of many:
1. The Razorbacks scored eight touchdowns on 11 possessions, didn’t punt once, and didn’t commit a turnover. They only failed to score twice, on a missed field goal in the first half and a clock-drilling drive to end the game:
2. Arkansas had seven possessions in the first half and at least one 30-yard gain on all of them. Running back Rawleigh Williams III racked up 190 yards and four touchdowns on his first eight carries.
3. Although Mississippi State was much slower to get revved up in the first half, after halftime both teams scored touchdowns on every single possession.
4. Between them, quarterbacks Austin Allen and Nick Fitzgerald completed 41 of 58 attempts for 631 yards, four touchdowns and no picks, good for a combined efficiency rating of 184.8. Fitzgerald added 131 yards and four touchdowns rushing for Miss. State.
With all that offense, the pivotal moment may have been a “surprise” onside kick by Mississippi State in the second half, which it briefly looked like the Bulldogs recovered; at that point, they’d just cut the lead to 16 points and stood a good chance of cutting into it further with back-to-back possessions. Instead, the recovery was overturned on review (the ball traveled about 9.99 yards before the MSU recovery, not the full 10 required) and Arkansas proceeded to slam the door on the ensuing possession. None of this was for the faint of heart.
Time to rethink … Ole Miss’ optimistic finish.
Like a lot of people, I was all aboard the Shea Patterson bandwagon last week after watching the Rebels’ five-star freshman lead a fourth-quarter rally at Texas A&M in his first career start. For a quarterback who was preceded by such massive hype to fulfill it so soon promised big things ahead, and gave Ole Miss fans a reason to remain invested in the rest of this disappointing season as it was refashioned as an investment in the future.
All of that is still true after Saturday’s 38-17 flop at Vanderbilt, but not to the same degree — the future might be a little more distant than expected, and the defensive rebuild much steeper. Patterson was okay, for a freshman (he didn’t commit a turnover) but much more inconsistent and erratic than the emerging star we saw at A&M; meanwhile, the defense was trashed by an extremely pedestrian Vandy attack for season highs in yards (481) and points against an SEC opponent.
In that context, this week’s Egg Bowl date with Mississippi State seems less like a coming-out party for Patterson in his first home game than a meeting of two hapless defenses going nowhere, at the end of a season they’d just as soon be over and done with. The rivalry stuff in that game matters, as always. But it won’t have anything to say about 2017 except how much work there is to be done.
The best of the week…
Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett. Before Saturday, the Aggies’ elite edge rusher was mired in a month-long, injury-plagued drought since his last official sack, a result of his decision to finish the season on a bad foot. So much for just muddling through: Against UT-San Antonio, Garrett looked like his usual, disruptive self, harassing the Roadrunners to the tune of eight tackles (seven solo), 4.5 sacks (a career high), and a forced fumble in a 23-10 A&M win. He looked he was having a pretty good time doing it, too.
The sudden sack spree brought Garrett’s total for the year to 8.5 — nowhere near his stated preseason goal of 20 sacks, but good enough to pass Reggie White into sixth place on the SEC’s career list. That’ll do.
Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs. Even amid the bonanza that was the Tennessee/Mizzou box score, this stat line jumps off the page: In his final home game, Dobbs accounted for 413 total yards, five touchdowns, and a sky-high pass efficiency rating of 198.3, all without committing a turnover for only the second time this season. Nearly half of that output came on the ground (Dobbs racked up a career-high 190 yards rushing), with a good chunk of that coming on a 70-yard TD run that opened the floodgates early in the fourth quarter:
Five total touchdowns. What a night for the @Vol_Football QB. https://t.co/N3Cqz6mNc4
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) November 19, 2016
Even against the most generous defense in the league, that open-field juke is nasty business.
LSU DE Arden Key. A mainstay in this space, Key delivered one of his most productive games of the year against Florida with eight total tackles, two TFLs, a sack, and a pair of QB hurries in the loss. The sack brought his season to 10, keeping him within striking distance of both the current SEC lead and the single-season LSU record, set 27 years ago. Still just a sophomore, so get used to it.
Arkansas RB Rawleigh Williams III. I rewatched all five of Williams’ touchdowns against Mississippi State and determined that MSU defenders did in fact lay a hand on him on one of them, a 72-yarder on the second play of the game. Just barely, though, and nothing more than a hand:
That was about as much as resistance as the Bulldogs put up in the first half, before they decided to just wave Williams on through to the top of the conference rushing charts.
Mississippi State WR Fred Ross. Ross was a first-team All-SEC pick in 2015 and almost certainly will be again after hauling in 10 passes against the Razorbacks for a career-high 171 yards and two scores — not a bad way to go out in your last home game, if not for the scoreboard. He already owned most of Mississippi State’s receiving records, and in a year that really hasn’t seen an individual pass-catcher rise above the fold, Ross is the only player in the conference who ranks among the top three in receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
MISCELLANEOUS POWER RANKINGS
The best things in the SEC this week.
1. Alabama’s Front Four. Chattanooga reportedly prepped for the Tide’s overwhelming superiority in the tranches by instructing its own defensive line to line up offsides during practice. Which … kind of worked? The Mocs didn’t accomplish much on the ground in a 31-3 snoozefest, but they are the only team this season to hold Bama without a sack. (Last Week: 1)
2. Nick Saban’s Obligatory Agitation With His Team’s Effort Against a Hopelessly Overmatched FCS Patsy. There have been so few opportunities this year for Saban to truly humble his charges for falling short of the eternal standard of greatness. So with Alabama leading just 14-3 at the half, he rose to the moment in quintessentially Saban-esque fashion:
Nick Saban seems unhappy. pic.twitter.com/GcB4roBYCd
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) November 20, 2016
You know he loves it. (LW: Unranked)
3. Josh Dobbs Leading Rocky Top. In one sense, monster performances like the ones Dobbs has delivered the past two weeks against Kentucky and Missouri only make his UT career more maddening in its inconsistency — where was this guy against Texas A&M, or South Carolina, the games that wound up costing Tennessee the East? In the really long run, though, Vols fans have come to recognize him as a model citizen who helped lead the program out of the post-Dooley doldrums, and his Neyland Stadium farewell left no doubt that he’ll be remembered fondly for it.
This is how Dobbs gets to leave Neyland Stadium. pic.twitter.com/IRxw2X7y7E
— Paul Fortenberry (@Volquest_Paul) November 20, 2016
On the list of Volunteer QBs Dobbs will fall somewhere between Peyton Manning and Tyler Bray, which in the current phase of Tennessee history is all they could have asked for. (LW: Unranked)
4. The Legend of Leonard Fournette. Fournette’s last-second decision to suit up against Florida despite a nagging ankle injury didn’t yield a gutsy performance for the ages or anything — he looked hurt, finishing with 12 carries for 40 yards before calling it a day — but the buzz when it turned out he was going to give it a go after all was a testament to his reputation in its own right. (LW: 2)
5. This Photo of Jordan Scarlett. We know what it looks like on TV. But what does 22 carries for 108 yards with a long gain of 13 yards feel like? Via the Associated Press’ Josh Herbert, pretty much exactly like this:
Yesterday @osgators said Jordan Scarlett ran like a possessed man. Maaaaan if this ain’t possessed idk what is. (Via @TheBullGator) pic.twitter.com/ZIGb59HkpF
— Patrick Pinak (@pinakk12) November 20, 2016
Yeah, I think it’s fair to assume he’s earned the starting role. (LW: Unranked)
7. The Next Generation of Quarterbacks. It was a muted day for the league’s quartet of freshman starters, even Jalen Hurts, who certainly didn’t save his best for Chattanooga. Instead, this week it was the sophomores’ turn to show out — Nick Fitzgerald, Kyle Shurmur, and Drew Lock all had huge games by their respective standards — further advancing the notion that the next two years are going to be much better ones for the position than 2016 has been. (LW: 4)
8. Shea Patterson’s Manziel-ian Flair. It’s a lot less fun when you lose by three touchdowns to Vanderbilt, but the more we see of Patterson, the more appropriate all the Manziel comparisons that accompanied his debut begin to seem.
Whatever else he achieves in more conventional terms, or doesn’t, that kind of off-the-cuff stuff will never get old. (LW: 5)
9. The Orgeron Effect. He was always a long shot, and at 3-3 whatever momentum Coach O had toward landing the full-time gig has been stopped deader than LSU’s last-gasp attempt at the goal line. Still, record notwithstanding, LSU has been a better team over the past two months than it was in September, and wherever Orgeron goes from here he can always take solace in the fact that it could have been much. much worse. (LW: 3)
10. Smokey In a Sweatshirt. That’s all, just Smokey in a sweatshirt:
Smokey cheers for the #Vols in his sweater during #TENNvsMIZZOU. @knoxnews pic.twitter.com/2SaS5rnS2z
— Brianna Paciorka (@bpaciorka) November 19, 2016
Now, officially, winter is coming. (LW: Unranked)