SEC 360: The 10 most important things in Week 1
This Saturday, Week 1 of the SEC football season is busting up on the scene like Al Czervik at Bushwood Country Club.
Hey Wang, what’s with the pictures? It’s a pah-king lot!
Oozing with aplomb, teams from the greatest college football league in the history of mankind will furnish intriguing pigskin action, from the cold air of the Rocky Mountains to the torrid pavement of Hot-lanta. Fans, decked in their respective gear and ravenous for action after a 9-month hiatus, will gobble up football this weekend as if it were a Thanksgiving casserole.
Hook my friend up here with the whole schmear!
“But Al,” you say, “there are so many games and so little time! Can you whittle it down for us, O Great Swami of SEC football? Can you tell us the most important things so we won’t miss the good stuff?”
Of course I can. That’s as easy as a 4-footer for Judge Smails (and hopefully by now you are picking up on the Caddyshack references).
1. Gus Malzahn’s “Hot Seat”
Auburn’s theme song for the 2019 season ought to be “Stuck with You” by Huey Lewis and the News. Because whether the Tigers win the natty or go in the proverbial tank, the reality on The Plains is that Gus Malzahn’s $26 million-plus contract is too much chicken to trade. OK, enough about that.
Malzahn’s real hot seat involves quarterback development and late-season inconsistency that has plagued his teams for the past few years. Does he possess the offensive elasticity to develop a precision passer in a system that has benefited run-oriented quarterbacks? Word on the street is that Bo Nix has the ability to be all-time, but how he fits into Gustav’s system might ultimately determine his greatness.
Contestant: “Team that can be the biggest SEC spoiler for $1,600, Alex.”
Alex: “They play on The Plains and roll Toomer’s Corner.”
Contestant: “What is Auburn?”
Yes, Auburn is the one team that can mess up the whole darn SEC shootin’ match. If somebody (Auburn) can step on a Duck (or what?) this Saturday, a gallery of winnable games lies in wait until the meeting with LSU on Oct. 26. That’s a winnable game, too, if Gus can figure out the algorithm to avoid his team’s schizophrenic history. Eleven wins are possible with this team, but so are 7 wins, depending on which identity Auburn decides it prefers.
2. Alabama’s running game
It’s hard to believe that going into 2019 there are concerns about the running game at RBU. You might not be too concerned, but I am.
The ground corps suffered more than a glancing blow when all-world freshman Trey Sanders went down in fall camp with a season-ending injury. As I type, we learned that veteran running backs Najee Harris and Brian Robinson will be suspended for the first half of the Duke game. The reason? Reportedly, they were a “no show” for a team function. Not a good way to start a season in which you have something to prove. Here’s why: WR Jerry Jeudy touched the ball more times than Brian Robinson last season.
Opposing fans laugh at Alabama fans’ perpetual urging to rundabawl, but they have a point: Alabama needs to get back to its running game roots — and quickly. The Crimson Tide have proven to be at their best when they offer a balanced attack. Last season, ‘Bama was a bit prodigal in their offensive identity, going pass-happy under the Locksley system. Sure, Tua Tagovailoa feasted throughout fall on the long buffet of patsy defenses, but in the end, Alabama’s heavy reliance on the air strike was not enough to overcome the top stoppers in the country.
- Alabama had more passing first downs (195) than rushing first downs (155) last year.
- Alabama had more passing touchdowns (52) than rushing touchdowns (33) last year.
- 4,854 of Alabama’s 7,380 total yards in 2018 were through the air. That’s good for 65.7 percent. You do the math on the rushing game percentages.
Lastly, the “Running Back by Committee” phase of Alabama football needs to be over. Hopefully a feature back will emerge whose first name is Najee and last name is Harris. OC Steve Sarkisian ought to stuff the ball in his breadbasket at least 300 times and make him the Heisman contender no one is talking about.
After Najee serves his suspension, thank you very little.
3. Year 2 Boys
Jeremy Pruitt, Dan Mullen, Jimbo Fisher, Joe Moorhead and Chad Morris are entering Year 2 of their respective contracts. The mulligan year is over and this season will count.
So what? So let’s dance!
Simply put, Fisher and Mullen’s teams are on a different plateau: These two ball coaches are trying to elevate their teams from “above average” to “elite” status, while the others have a bit farther to go up the conference totem. Unfortunately, Tennessee and Arkansas, once formidable programs, have wrecked in the SEC’s quagmire of mediocrity and it’ll take more than a winch to get them out.
Last year Tennessee demonstrated one flash of greatness with an impressive win at Auburn, but Arkansas posted its worst record (2-10) in the 114-year history of its program. Morris needs to get the paddles out quickly to shock his program back to life. Pruitt’s guts and determination will probably get UT to 7-5, but that’s still not where angry and tired Vols’ fans want their program to be.
Moorhead seems to be an odd fit in Starkville, but something tells me he is going to surprise everyone before it’s all said and done.
Regardless, they’ll all need to keep in mind these profound words: The man worthwhile is the man who can smile when his shorts are too tight in the seat.
4. Alabama’s defense
Coming in at dead last on my worry list is the play of No. 13 for Alabama, Tua Tagovailoa. Tua probably won’t post as gaudy a numbers as last season, but for sure he will still get an ‘A’ on his report card at the end of the semester.
What does concern me is a defensive unit that gave up 28, 34, and 44 points in its last 3 outings and lost the Outland Trophy winner to the New York Jets.
While Alabama’s run defense has been excellent during the Saban era, its pass defense has often been susceptible and has a tendency to surrender a ton of yards when it faces a good quarterback. (Don’t think so? Just look at the numbers Johnny Manziel, Nick Marshall, Chad Kelly, Deshaun Watson, Trevor Knight, Jake Fromm, Kyler Murray and Trevor Lawrence posted against the Tide). Precision passing has proven over and over to be Alabama’s Achilles’ heel.
Since 2013, Alabama has allowed 40 points in 8 instances. And after leading 28-0 in the CFP semifinal against Oklahoma, the Tide gave up 78 points across the next 6 quarters. I don’t care how you spin it, that’s just not championship defense.
DC Pete Golding is tasked with finding answers in 2019. Maybe Alabama can mysteriously channel its 2011 toughness. Maybe headhunting and flying all over the field can become popular again in Tuscaloosa. Maybe Golding can identify dudes who are severely offended when the opposing team breaches the swatch of turf they are charged to defend.
And after the heartbreaking injury to Dylan Moses, those dudes better come in a hurry.
5. Deathly quiet
You get the feeling that something good is about to happen in Baton Rouge. After Ed Orgeron stumbled around the head coaching circuit ungracefully, it appears as though he’s finally found his footing at LSU. Recruiting is up, excitement is up, and you get the sense that one day or another, Orgeron is going to slip up and beat Alabama.
Feeling cute … might beat the Tide later, IDK.
October of last year gave us a sense of what Orgeron’s team was capable of — and that’s manhandling a great Georgia football team. November reminded us that Alabama is still the class of the West.
What will happen with 16 returning starters? Anything is possible, really.
Stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball, Ed.
Be. The. Ball.
Heck, LSU will be as talented as anyone it faces. And Orgeron might be just enough crazy to get all of that talent to believe.
6. Enjoy your Week 1 cakewalk, the Gauntlet’s coming
Besides the marquee matchups taking place in Atlanta and Dallas, there are several head-scratchers on the Week 1 SEC slate. For instance, why would Missouri agree to play at Wyoming? I mean, nothing like opening up in Laramie, the epicenter of college football.
How about Mississippi State versus Louisiana at the Superdome in New Orleans? That’s about as bizarre a game as I’ve ever heard.
All jokes aside, this year’s SEC gauntlet will have a separating effect. Every team will have to endure its own crucible, whether that challenge is offered in a 2-, 3-, or 4-game stretch. Don’t believe me? Let’s let the experts talk for a second. According to ESPN’s Power Football Index, South Carolina has the toughest schedule in the country, and it’s easy to see why. The Gamecocks are staring down the barrel of the 3-headed dragon that has all but ingested the rest of college football: Clemson, Georgia and Alabama. The Gamecocks also go to College Station and open with Mack Brown’s North Carolina Tar Heels.
Auburn endures a savage 5-game stretch starting Sept. 21, when the Tigers travel to College Station to face A&M. The next week, a home game against Mississippi State is followed by Florida, Arkansas and LSU away. An off-week is tucked nicely into that span and Arkansas won’t offer much resistance, but by that time Auburn’s SEC fate could already be sealed.
LSU’s gauntlet occurs in late October and early November. It faces Florida at home on Oct. 12, travels to Mississippi State the next week, and has Auburn at home on October 26. After its standard off week, the Bengal Tigers travel to Bryant-Denny, the last place LSU beat Alabama … in 2011.
Mississippi State has a rough stretch as well. From Oct. 12-Nov. 16, the Bulldogs face Tennessee in Knoxville, LSU at home, Texas A&M in College Station, Arkansas in Fayetteville, and Alabama at home.
What about Texas A&M? Does Jimbo Fisher’s Year 2 schedule benefit him? Not really.
The teams that were in the CFP National Championship Game last year? Yep, ol’ Jimbo has to face them. The Aggies travel to Clemson (gulp) on Sept. 7 and face Alabama at home on October 12 (double gulp). Sandwiched in between are home games with Auburn and Arkansas, but the way the schedule ends for the Aggies is as much of a nightmare, as they face Georgia and LSU in Athens and Baton Rouge, respectively.
Florida has Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia in succession, Georgia has Florida, Missouri, Auburn and Texas A&M in succession, and Tennessee has Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Alabama in succession.
You say, “Well it’s the SEC, Al. What do you expect?”
Every year, gashes are left behind as programs lose players to graduation, transfer and the NFL Draft. But this preseason the losses seem to be more pronounced.
Everyone is talking about the hollowing out of Georgia’s receiving corps. Indeed, losing Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin and Riley Ridley cut a wide swath, but freshman George Pickens, whom Smart snatched from Saban Country in Hoover, Ala., is the heir apparent. Overall, Georgia is going to be fine because it has Jake Fromm under center. Pull someone from the nursing home to play wideout and QB1 will get 6.
Kentucky will have to mitigate the loss of 2 of the best players in program history in Benny Snell and Josh Allen, and running back Jashaun Corbin will have to step up and replace the loss of Trayveon Williams at A&M. Ole Miss lost key starters Greg Little, A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf — and 3,900-yard passer Jordan Ta’amu.
What about Alabama? When Nick Saban released Alabama’s depth chart last week, we discovered that Quinnen Williams’ replacement was true freshman D.J. Dale, who measures in at 6-3 and 323 pounds. Given time to work out the kinks, Dale should be fine.
But perhaps the largest sinkhole was left at Mississippi State. Besides losing a virtual law firm of defenders — Simmons, Sweat & Abram — the Bulldogs will feel the inevitable ache that comes with losing Nicky Starkville, also known as Nick Fitzgerald. How will Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens perform in his place? Does Joe Moorhead have enough hosses in his arsenal to tell opposing offenses once again, You’ll get nothing and like it!
8. Quarterback play
Let’s pretend SEC quarterbacks are Mercedes-Benz vehicles. If you could divide up the conference’s signal callers, how would they rank?
One of the more inexpensive (but still very good) classes of Mercedes is the C-Class. This year, Bo Nix at Auburn, Tommy Stevens at Mississippi State, Ben Hicks at Arkansas, and Matt Corral (career 16-for-22 and 239 yards) at Ole Miss will make their debuts. Since all are unproven, let’s put them into the C-Class, but expect Nix to emerge as the best of that bunch. Vandy, remaining coy, hasn’t yet named a quarterback, but you can expect Riley Neal or Deuce Wallace to fall into the C-Class category as well.
Missouri’s Kelly Bryant, who will be making his SEC debut in quite an odd locale (referenced above) has caused the biggest stir in our E-Class quarterbacks performing in Week 1, but LSU’s Joe Burrow comes in at a tight second after his auspicious oration at SEC Media Days. Joining this pair is Florida’s Feleipe Franks, who evidently — talking into the camera and pumping himself up — mistook the Florida-Miami game for a Vince McMahon production in Week 0. Rounding out the field is the milder trio of Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano, Kentucky’s Terry Wilson and South Carolina’s Jake Bentley. A good crop, no doubt, but QBs that need to move up a rung to take their teams to greater heights in 2019.
Kellen Mond, Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm are the S-Class of the entire fleet. Mond is the most athletic and has a huge upside. Fromm is much more than a game manager and can be absolutely surgical in his passing game, as he was in the first half against Alabama last year. But Tua is the only one who can go to bed at night knowing he has a national title and is the only one who knows what it’s like to be in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. Hobbled by injuries late last year, Tua should post insane numbers again this season.
After all, a healthy Tagovailoa is a dangerous Tagovailoa.
9. Erasing ghosts?
Jake Fromm is 0-for-2 against Alabama. Ed Orgeron is 0-for-3 against Alabama. And it’s been pretty much a given that Georgia and LSU will have to go through the Crimson Tide to get to glory. But do they?
How about this scenario: LSU wins the West outright and faces Georgia in the SEC Championship Game? That’s a relatively simple scenario, but given Alabama’s looming presence for the past, oh, 13 years or so, seems so unlikely.
Don’t be surprised if it happens. And don’t think for a second Georgia has forgotten what happened last October in Baton Rouge.
10. The rise and hopefully not fall of the Crimson Empire
History tells us that all dynasties eventually fall. Is this happening to the Crimson Tide? Was the Clemson game a portentous symbol of the decline of the Saban era in Tuscaloosa?
Look, no one from Florence to Scottsboro to Dothan to Mobile wants to say that, but that’s what people in Alabama are silently thinking to themselves.
Sadly, fall camp has decimated Alabama’s defense and raised serious doubt as to whether the Tide can bus through the country on its “Revenge” tour. And my, do we have a long season ahead of us, folks.
Nick Saban turns 68 years old this fall. Most coaches, by age 70, are enjoying the retired life of golf outings and civic club requests. Great coaches are the rare exceptions, refusing to go gently into that good night. Bobby Bowden became the oldest coach to win a national championship in 1999 when the then-69-year-old coach of Florida State led his team over Virginia Tech, but then he lingered around a bit too long and tinkered with his legacy. Joe Paterno wasn’t going away until scandal retired him in 2011. A fatigued Bear Bryant stepped down in 1982 and passed away a month later.
Do not expect Saban to go quietly, either. But something tells me he’ll learn from past legends and end things appropriately and wisely.
For now, let’s look on the bright side. Alabama not winning the national title this year might not be a bad thing. It means that Saban will probably keep hanging around for at least another year.
So the Tide has got that going for them. Which is nice.