SEC Championship Week: Perceptions vs. Reality
The SEC Championship Game has arrived and Alabama and Florida square off for the eight time in the title game. Here is a look at some of the perceptions surrounding the SEC this week and what their realities truly are.
PERCEPTION: FLORIDA HAS NO CHANCE IN THE SEC TITLE GAME
This one isn’t going to be close. Alabama is on a mission, winning nine in a row since losing to Ole Miss in Week 3. Florida, conversely, is coming off a drubbing at the hands of rival Florida State, and has limped into the postseason by after narrow wins over Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida Atlantic. The Gators offense with quarterback Treon Harris is anemic at best, with their lone strength coming in the form of RB Kelvin Taylor, who goes up against the nation’s top run defense. Florida as the SEC East champs is a nice, feel-good story for McElwain during his first year in the Swamp, and the Gators have plenty to build on. But Florida is going to take its lumps against an Alabama team that is going to be playing with a chip on their shoulder after having their College Football Playoff résumé questioned all week.
REALITY: SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…
If Florida wants to hang with Alabama in the title game, it’s going to be up to the Gators defense to keep them in the contest, which it’s more than capable of doing. The key is shutting down superstar RB back Derrick Henry, who has eclipsed 200 yards on the ground in three of his past four games. Jim McElwain’s squad possesses the second-best defense in the conference when it comes to limiting opponent’s running games (No. 7 nationally). The Gators held Ole Miss, the lone team to dole Alabama a loss this year, to a paltry 69 rushing yards. Florida has surrendered just four 100-yard performances to running backs this season, including to LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd and Ralph Webb of Vanderbilt. If they can slow Henry, the Gators should be able to keep quarterback Jake Coker honest with a defense that leads the SEC in turnover margin with 10 more takeaways than giveaways. Plus, there’s always that added element that the Alabama coaching staff could be somewhat distracted 0ver potential job changes in the very near future.
PERCEPTION: ALABAMA DOESN’T BELONG IN PLAYOFFS
The message boards have had a field day with this one all week as the nation is seemingly split on whether Alabama deserves one of the four College Football Playoff spots. The Crimson Tide are nothing more than a bloated, overrated product of a conference riding the coattails of past performance, rather than individual merit. Alabama got fat on a weak conference and even weaker out-of-conference schedule — lest we forget that they lost to Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa. If the playoff committee does its job correctly, then the likes of Michigan State, Ohio State or even North Carolina should be in and not the Tide.
REALITY: YES, YES THEY DO
Not only does Alabama deserve to be in, Nick Saban’s squad should be considered a favorite to win its 16th claimed national title. At least that’s what Vegas thinks, setting Alabama’s line at +130 to win it all. Clemson, the next closest team, by comparison comes in at +650. Of course, games aren’t played in a sports book. But that doesn’t take away from what the Tide has been able to accomplish this season. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 in the SEC) owns the No. 2 toughest strength of schedule this season, according to ESPN. A win over Florida in the SEC Championship would give the Crimson Tide its sixth win over a ranked opponent this year. Saban’s defense ranks No. 2 overall in the nation behind Boston College and is tops against the run in the FBS. Offensively, RB Derrick Henry leads the nation in rushing and should run all the way to New York to join the Heisman Trophy candidates. Behind Henry, the Bama offense ranks No. 3 in the SEC in scoring offense. There’s not much more you can ask of Alabama, which certainly deserves a shot in the playoffs.
PERCEPTION: IT’S A DOWN YEAR FOR THE SEC
Alabama is the only team in the conversation when it comes to SEC dominance this season, and even the Crimson Tide have their share of issues. The conference isn’t just having a down year, it’s having one of its worst as potentially four teams in the SEC East alone will miss out on a bowl game.
REALITY: YEAH, BUT IT’S NOT AS BAD AS YOU THINK
The term “a down year” is a relative one. There’s no surefire calculable way to determine whether a conference is having a good or a bad year. But now that the regular season is in the books, we can examine several factors to paint a broader picture of the SEC. With the conference beating up on one another per usual, one way to examine the SEC is by out-of-conference record. If that’s our barometer, then, yes, it’s a down year for the SEC. The conference finished the 2015 campaign with a 45-10 record in out-of-conference games. It’s the lowest combined out-of-conference winning percentage since Missouri and Texas A&M joined the mix in 2012 – but barely and by less than a percentage point. The SEC finished 46-10 against outsiders just two years ago in 2013. Otherwise, the SEC went 48-7 in 2014 and 48-8 in 2012. It’s a small sample size, but it appears the SEC goes up and down every other year. As far as bowl teams go, this year’s SEC is looking at 10 postseason-worthy teams — potentially 11 if 5-7 Kentucky is awarded a bowl due to a lack of bowl-eligible teams. That would mark the second-most bowl teams in a single season during the era of the 14-squad SEC, one less team that qualified in 2014 and more than the 2013 (10 teams) and 2012 (nine teams) seasons. If we just want to look at head-to-head matchups, then the SEC collected big out-of-conference wins over Arizona State, BYU, Louisville, North Carolina and Wisconsin with losses to Louisville, Oklahoma and The Citadel.