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Is The SEC Down Or Has The Power 5 Caught Up With The SEC?

January 12, 2015

                                                                                                                         photo credit Joe Faraoni// ESPN Images


by Lisa Horne

For the second consecutive year, an SEC football team will not be crowned champion.


The SEC is still college football's heavyweight. It's not going to go the route of the Big East. But the SEC does have a few warts that need to be excised if it wants to get back in the title game.


The offenses


The power running game was the SEC's bread and butter. Slow, time-consuming marches down the field that wore out opposing defenses were the SEC's calling card.


When the SEC added two Big 12 teams to its conference in 2012, most SEC fans thought the Missouri Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies would flounder amongst the league's Big Boys.


In their inaugural season in the SEC, the Aggies lost to Florida and LSU by a combined eight points but beat No. 1 Alabama 29-24.  The fast, no huddle spread offense led by Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel frustrated defenses. Alabama head coach Nick Saban was not a fan and even went so far as to insinuate that these offenses could jeopardize player safety.


Missouri also enjoyed success in its new home. The last time the Tigers were crowned a conference champion (outside the SEC) was in 1960 when they were playing in the Big Eight. Missouri—not Florida, Georgia or South Carolina—won the SEC East outright in 2013-14.


What happened?


First, smash mouth football doesn't win games when you're down 14 points with less than three minutes left in regulation. Second, SEC defenses are not very efficient in stopping dual-threat quarterbacks and up-tempo offenses.


The defenses


Remember when SEC defenses struck fear in opposing offensive coordinators? Maybe there was fear because the league's offenses were so one dimensional that the defenses weren't really challenged?


In 2013, lowly Washington State took Auburn, the eventual SEC champion, to the brink before losing 31-24 at Auburn. It beat USC the following week and still struggled to get bowl eligible in the Pac-12. Washington State gave Auburn fits but four Pac-12 teams scored at least 50 points on the Cougars.


SEC fans claim other teams wouldn't be able to handle playing the grind of SEC football week in and week out, but would Auburn be able to play week in, week out in the Pac-12?


In 2011, prior to conference expansion, the SEC's highest-ranked offense was No. 29 Arkansas. Five of the top 10 defenses in FBS were from the SEC. It was argued that the dearth of highly ranked SEC offenses was due to its highly tauted defenses.


College football got snookered by the talking heads and so-called experts.


In the 2010 season, Auburn went 13-0 in the SEC and played Oregon in the BCS Championship. Auburn's offense averaged almost 500 yards per game and was nationally ranked seventh. Oregon's defense was ranked 34th and widely panned as "soft." But Oregon played against prolific Pac-12 offenses while the SEC did not. 


Auburn racked up 519 yards against the Ducks and won 22-19 after a Wes Byrum walk-off field goal.  But if the Ducks' defense was so soft, why did the Tigers' offense exceed its 500 yards-per-game average by only 19 yards?


The lack of prolific offenses in the SEC coupled with soft non-conference schedules have inflated the SEC's defensive statistics. The Game of the Century between Alabama and LSU in 2011 highlighted this perfect storm. 


The narrative for the final 9-6 overtime victory by LSU was that it was a great defensive game. It was a fool's argument. 


LSU had struggled offensively against a 7-6 Mississippi State team. Against the FCS's Northwestern State, it could only produce 400 yards.  LSU mustered up 273 yards against the Oregon Ducks whose defense yielded an average of 390 yards per game.


Yes, the Tigers beat the Ducks 40-27 but several unforced turnovers by the Ducks were a huge factor in LSU's win. SEC defenses were good, but those eye-popping stats were largely a result of playing against mediocre offenses.


In 2014's postseason, nine SEC teams gave up more offensive yards than their season's per-game-average.


LSU's defense was ranked first in the league averaging 316.8 yards per game but it gave up 449 to Notre Dame. Alabama averaged 328.4 but gave up 537 to Ohio State. Ole Miss averaged 329 but yielded 423 to TCU and Florida averaged 329.8 but gave up 536 to East Carolina.


The SEC's reputation as a defensive juggernaut had kept Alabama—and its brethren—at the top of the polls. Remember, Mississippi State was ranked No. 1 at one point in the 2014 season. Pundits west of the Big Muddy were skeptical.


The warning signs were there.


Missouri lost to lowly Indiana, Alabama lost to Ole Miss, Auburn should have lost to Kansas State, Mississippi State struggled against UAB, Texas A&M struggled against ULM, Georgia lost to South Carolina, South Carolina lost to Kentucky and Vanderbilt lost to Temple.


The SEC wants to play smash mouth football. But other Power 5 conferences are now dictating the terms of getting into the College Football Playoff.


Stop the hurry-up offense. Defend the pass, triple option and the zone read. Recognize that SEC speed is a myth perpetrated by biased media and fans.   


The Big Ten's reputation as an extinct dinosaur may have lulled Alabama into complacency in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Ohio state's perimeter running game was lethal and actuially made Tide linebackers look, well... slow. After the Crimson Tide's loss to the Buckeyes, Saban looked like the kid who got picked last when choosing sides for basketball. Alone, defeated and wondering if he'll ever get (back) in with the cool kids. 


Smash mouth football is dead.


The Big Ten once had a stranglehold on college football playing smash mouth football. But football has a cyclical nature and the league ditched its three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust philosophy and reinvented itself. See Michigan State for proof.


The SEC blazed trails in the BCS era but it still lags behind in other areas. The conference was last to launch its own network. Eight of its 14 schools play a cupcake in November. All of the schools have four non-conference opponents on their schedules.


The Big 12 and Pac-12 play three non-conference games and the Big Ten is going to the same format in 2016. The ACC and SEC are still holdouts but neither conference can rest on its laurels in defense of its scheduling practices anymore. Not after this season's semifinals' outcomes. 


If the BCS system was still in place, Alabama and Florida State would be playing in the title game. The semifinals exposed the flaws of the BCS and college football is for the better.


Two Power 5 teams are playing in the inaugural College Football Playoff and neither is from the SEC.


The Big Ten and Pac-12 didn't catch up to the SEC.


They're looking at it from their rear view mirrors. 




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