Playing the 'what if' game for every SEC team this season
At the end of each season, every team can look back to one issue or a single play that made a huge difference in its season. In some cases, between a championship and bitter disappointment.
Let’s take a look back at one “what if” for every SEC team in the 2015 season.
What if the Crimson Tide’s loss to Ole Miss cost it a berth in the SEC Championship Game? Let’s face it, the only reason the Tide made it to Atlanta was Arkansas’ fluky victory over the Rebels, courtesy of a fourth-and-25 conversion on a blind lateral in overtime. What would the College Football Playoff committee have done if a 10-2 Ole Miss team with a loss to Memphis were the SEC West representative in the conference championship game? Would the committee have had the courage needed to bypass the Rebels, head-to-head winners at Tuscaloosa, over the Tide? Or would Ole Miss, with a victory over Florida in the title game, been chosen, too?
What if the Razorbacks convert a first-and-goal at the Toledo 3-yard-line into a touchdown rather than a field goal in the fourth quarter? After Alex Collins was stopped for no gain on first down, Brandon Allen passed incomplete then Collins was dropped for a 5-yard loss. The Hogs had to settle for a field goal that cut Toledo’s lead to 16-10 with 9:30 left. A touchdown would have cut the lead to 16-14 and allowed the Hogs to kick a chip-shot field goal rather than go for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the Toledo 7 in the last two minutes. Arkansas scored on only 1 of 5 trips into the red zone, leaving coach Bret Bielema to tell reporters, he was going to have to “re-examine the red-zone package.” If Arkansas beats Toledo, momentum may have propelled the Hogs past Texas Tech the next week, and perhaps past Texas A&M the week after that. Instead, Arkansas opened the season at 1-3.
What if Jeremy Johnson would have been as effective as Gus Malzahn thought he was going to be prior to the season? Believing the hype about Johnson, SEC media picked Auburn to win the West Division, an absolutely ridiculous pick looking back. Slipping past Louisville and Jacksonville State in its first two games, Auburn’s offense was awful in losses to LSU and Mississippi State that exposed all the preseason hype as unfounded. Plus, Malzahn wouldn’t be searching for a quarterback for next season.
This one is easy. What if Will Grier hadn’t been suspended for PED usage? The Gators were 6-0 and the offense was scoring. Florida beat Ole Miss 38-10 with Grier, who gave the Gators a capable passing attack. Once he was gone, Florida opponents stacked the line and stacked up Gators running backs. But let’s place the blame where it belongs — with Grier. He broke the rules. Who knows how good he would have been without the banned substance?
Common theme here. What if the Bulldogs had a solid quarterback? They were good enough to go 9-3 without a consistent passing game. With Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Keith Marshall and Brendan Douglas running behind a solid offensive line, all the Bulldogs needed was a passing game to keep defenses off-balance. But outside of Greyson Lambert’s 24-for-25 day against South Carolina, the Bulldogs couldn’t put together a passing attack. As a result, they were blown out by Alabama and Florida and blew a big lead against Tennessee. When the season was over, Mark Richt was gone after 15 seasons.
What if the Wildcats had found a way to beat Florida in September rather than drop a 14-9 decision? Kentucky looked like a much-improved team in the first half of the season, racing out to a 4-1 start before the bottom dropped out. The Wildcats had two scoring chances in the fourth quarter and had to settle for field goals each time. The first drive, a 14-play, 75-yard march, reached the Florida 2 before it was stopped. Patrick Towles, who completed only 8 of 24 passes on the day with two interceptions, threw two incompletions down by the goal line.
OK, the obvious is what happens to Les Miles if Texas A&M beat the Tigers in the finale? But sticking to quarterbacks, what if Brandon Harris develops into a consistent passer? No offense to Derrick Henry, but Leonard Fournette is the most dominating running back in the country. Given a passing game to keep defenses from stacking the box against him, the Tigers might have run the table after an 8-0 start. Instead, the lack of a passing game triggered calls for Miles’ job and helped send the Tigers into a three-game tailspin.
OK, another team affected by the blind lateral. What if the Rebels find a way to recover Hunter Henry’s toss, or stop any Arkansas player — especially Alex Collins — from scooping it up and running for the first down? With a victory over the Hogs, the Rebels’ convincing victories over reeling LSU and Mississippi State put them in the SEC Championship Game with a chance to win their first conference title since 1963.
What if the Bulldogs managed to kick a winning field goal in the final seconds to beat LSU in the season’s second week? Do they ride the momentum and put up a better effort two weeks later in their loss to Texas A&M? It didn’t happen. Given one last chance to pull out the game, the Bulldogs drove from deep in their territory into long field-goal range. But three incompletions by Prescott — and a 5-yard delay of game penalty — forced the Bulldogs to try a 52-yard field-goal attempt on the game’s final play that barely missed.
What if the Tigers hadn’t juggled their veteran offensive line? Returning four starters from a from a division-winning team, Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Henson and line coach A.J. Ricker played musical chairs with their offensive front around standout center Evan Boehm. Connor McGovern’s move from right guard to left tackle didn’t work out. A mediocre offense in 2014, the Tigers were terrible this season, averaging only 13.6 points per game. Mizzou quarterbacks were sacked 30 times and constantly under pressure.
Here’s another chance to point toward the quarterback position. Instead, let’s ask what if Steve Spurrier had sacked up and stuck out the season? Would the Gamecocks have lost five of their last six, including the embarrassing loss to The Citadel? Spurrier was clearly disinterested in coaching a bad team at age 70. But by staying until the end of the season, he could have helped the Gamecocks avoid a complete freefall. Spurrier’s experience could have been enough to lift the Gamecocks past Citadel, maybe past Texas A&M or Tennessee as well.
The Volunteers lost four heartbreakers, blowing leads each time. So let’s start with the first — it set the trend. What if the Vols held on to beat Oklahoma rather than squander a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter and lose in overtime? A victory over the Sooners — a team in the final four — would have provided confidence and momentum needed to get over the hump in close games. Butch Jones’ conservative play calling in the fourth quarter didn’t help. If the Vols hold on against Oklahoma, maybe they pull out a victory against Florida, Arkansas or Alabama.
What if Kyle Allen hadn’t played catch with the Alabama secondary? The Aggies took a 5-0 record with victories over Arizona State, Arkansas and Mississippi State into their clash with an Alabama team that had lost to Ole Miss. Allen’s four interceptions — three were returned for touchdowns — sent the Aggies season spiraling downward. Allen lost his confidence and eventually his job to Jake Hubenak and Kyler Murray. The Aggies never recovered. They could have survived a loss to Alabama, but not with a trio of pick-6 returns.
What if the Commodores could have held on to beat Florida? It took a 43-yard field goal with 2:22 left by limping kicker Austin Hardin, who was shaky before an injury, to pull out the game for the Gators. Vanderbilt improved throughout the season, led by a fantastic defense. Winning at The Swamp would have been a signature victory for Derek Mason and his rising program.