College Football

Around the SEC: Week 13

After a week off for Thanksgiving, Around the SEC is back for one final rendition. Rivalry weekend for the SEC started off with an Arkansas blowout of Missouri 28-3, a fitting end to this season and Gary Pinkel’s career; a solid defensive effort that got zero help from their offense while playing a miserable game in the freezing rain.

Saturday, the SEC started off strong, trying to avoid the ACC sweep. Kentucky jumped out to a 21-0 lead over Kentucky, South Carolina capitalized on Clemson turnovers to keep the game close, and Florida held Florida State scoreless in the first quarter. All good signs to start off the day, but alas, Louisville would roar back in a 38-3 run, Clemson scored late to pull away from South Carolina, and Florida State would end up winning 27-2 against the Gators. Luckily, Georgia Tech proved again why they’re one of the worse ACC teams, losing 13-7 the Georgia Bulldogs, thus avoiding the ACC sweep from last year.

As for the inter-conference rivalry games, fans were treated to a much more competitive weekend than one would expect. Alabama didn’t completely blow out Auburn on the road, LSU overcame a three game losing in their 17-9 win over Texas A&M, and Mississippi State made things interesting late after allowing 21 unanswered points to Ole Miss to start the game. Really, the only duds of the weekend were Arkansas-Mizzou, Florida-Florida State, and Tennessee’s 53-28 throttling of Vanderbilt. Some of the close games weren’t nearly as exciting as others (looking at you Georgia-Georgia Tech and Texas A&M-LSU), but they still provided a close enough score in the fourth quarter that a comeback was realistic.

After a crazy weekend in college football, here on my thoughts on some of the storylines from the week.

 

1. LSU tried…and failed.

From the start, it never looked like LSU AD Joe Alleva would get away with his coup and fire Les Miles. It was a head scratcher to begin with, and the loud Twitter masses rightfully proclaimed this was a stupid move. The case against Miles was him not being able to coach up to the recent potential of his recruiting classes or beat Alabama in recent years. There’s some truth to that, as Miles has had a Top 10 recruiting class over the past three years, and finished outside the AP Top 10 at the end of the season in each of those years. However, Miles has a winning percentage of .725 over that period, and currently has the #1 recruiting class in the nation.

This really boils down to Miles not winning the national championship every year, which is an absurd expectation. The list of coaches who win greater than 70% of their games is extremely short, and that list gets even shorter when you tack on Miles’s recruiting accolades.

Holding your coach to a “title-or-bust” mantra when they face Nick Saban every year is an extreme level of expectations, one that maybe only Nick Saban himself could match. Alleva and his corner of boosters now have themselves in a sticky situation, they can try firing Miles next year if he has another eight win season, or see the error in their ways of getting rid of a coach who wins well over half his games. For now, the opening round has been settled. Alleva handily lost, and will retreat to his side of the battlefield to lick his wounds. If Miles publicly demands reparations in the form of a new contract or facilities, Alleva might have to concede those. However, I don’t think this war is over. When egos and big money is at stake, nothing like this ends just with the snap of the fingers and a win over a conference opponent. Come this time next year, either Alleva or Miles is gone.

 

2. Speaking of head coaches…

The coaching carousel took no days off this year, with coaches being hired and fired almost at the conclusion of games on Saturday. Literally hours after the conclusion of their final game and firing their head coach, Iowa State announced they’d hired Toledo’s Matt Campbell to take over for Paul Rhoads. Just like that, the gun fired and AD’s were off to the races looking for their next head coach to market as the savior to their fan base.

Going back and looking at recent history, there hasn’t been such a glut of coach-needy schools like this before. There’s at least 15 schools right now with vacancies at the head coach position, and that number might rise over the next couple of days. The thing is, with this many spots open, there’s just not that many great head coaches available out there. There’s maybe 3 or 4 guys right now who could come in and win six games right away, and another 3 or 4 who can post a winning record two or three seasons down the road. That means the number of quality coaches tops out at around eight, leaving half the schools with also-rans or someone totally inexperienced. If your team is nestled within that upper half of coach needy schools, you’ll probably be fine and at least get somebody semi-competent. However, those schools in the bottom 50% (UCF, Rutgers, Memphis), will either have to get very creative with their hires, or accept some coach from a Power 5 school who’s barely above .500 in his career (Hey, Al Golden!).

The massive migration of coaches and assistants from school to school might be one of the defining moments of the decade for college football, in a similar way to the realignment of the SEC and Big 12. Texas A&M and Missouri leaving for the SEC allowed for a network like the SEC Network to become a more viable option, opened the door for more TV revenue, brought about the term “Power 5”, and generally changed the way people view college football. While this massive exodus of coaches might not carry the same weight in terms of dollar amount, there’s a possibility traditional powerhouses like Georgia or USC fall from their yearly dominance, leading to rise of other non-traditional powers similar to Boise State in the mid-to-late 00’s.

 

3. The SEC is still top dog.

I got into the debate of “is the SEC really the best conference?” with buddy who’s a Florida State fan and loves it when the ACC takes down the mighty SEC. We came to the conclusion that the SEC still remains the best conference in football, but not by much. The best way to think about this is in terms of a 0-10 scale. Most conferences will have a 9, a pair of 7’s, and then a whole bunch of teams in the 3-6 range. Take the ACC for instance, Clemson is a 9, FSU and North Carolina are 7’s, and really everyone beneath that is in that 3-6 range. You can apply this system to the majority of conferences in college football, and you’d probably find the same results.

The SEC however, has their 9, an 8 , and a whole bunch of 7’s. The SEC West really carries the conference in this system, but the East has a couple decent teams. Here’s how I’d rank the teams: 9) Alabama; 8) Ole Miss; 7) Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi State; 6) Georgia, Texas A&M; 5 and Below) Missouri, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Kentucky, South Carolina. The SEC simply has a higher floor than most other conferences, thanks to their proximity to the top recruiting states, the deep pockets of boosters and the SEC Network, and history and tradition of SEC football (which is a very real allure to recruits).

While the SEC might not be as top heavy as Big 10, the dichotomy between the top teams and lesser teams is much smaller than every other conference in the college football landscape.

 

4. Where does the conference go from here?

The SEC still retains its title of top conference, but it won’t be confused with the conference from the BCS era the fielded multiple championship contenders. The rise of coaching camps has led to other conferences dipping into Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, major recruiting states for SEC schools. The arms race in facilities has also swayed potential recruits away from the Southeastern Conference.

Since football is a quarterback driven sport, the best area to look at will be who’s graduating and who’s coming in at the position. The best quarterback in the SEC, Dak Prescott, will be on an NFL roster next season; leaving a considerable hole to fill at that position. Also, gone will be Kentucky’s Patrick Towles, Arkansas’ Brandon Allen, Alabama’s Jake Coker, and Florida’s Will Grier will have to sit out the first seven games of the season due to a suspension for using PEDs. Prescott, Allen, Coker, and Grier all quarterbacked four of the top six teams in the conference, and outside of them the only other signal callers who inspired confidence was Chad Kelly at Ole Miss, Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs. That much turnover at such an important position is bound to bring about some struggles, especially early in the season.

The conference isn’t devoid of talent at the position, Kelly, Allen, and Dobbs are good quarterbacks in their own right, and there’s some young talent spread around. A&M has Kyler Murray waiting in the wings, and he’ll benefit from an offseason to put on weight and gain experience. Missouri’s Drew Lock is a former Elite 11 participant, and was thrust into the starting gig due to the suspension of Maty Mauk. Alabama will have the opportunity to get an extended look at Blake Barnett in the spring, who pushed Murray for the ranking of top quarterback recruit. There’s plenty of talent, it’s just young and inexperienced for the most part.

The SEC next year will look a lot like it did this year, a strong West division making up for a lackluster SEC East. Alabama and LSU will come into the season as favorites for to make the College Football Playoff, and Texas A&M will get some sleeper hype as will Tennessee. Until Grier comes back, Florida’s offense will struggle, and probably will continue to struggle in Grier’s first couple starts. It’s doubtful much changes from this year to the next, but two years down the road when this bevy of talented yet youthful quarterbacks have real experience, expect the SEC to return to it’s 2011 form. There’s a situation in 2017 where the SEC could have six teams in the AP Top 25, including two or three in the Top 10. SEC fans aren’t known for their patience, but if they stick it out through this season, 2017 looks very promising.

 

5. My College Football Playoff Selection

After watching Oklahoma play in person, I’m sold on them for the second spot in the playoff. Clemson struggled against a very bad South Carolina team, while Oklahoma went 3-0 versus Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State. Oklahoma absolutely shredded Oklahoma State, a team getting consideration for a playoff spot as of two weeks ago, and made them look like Kansas.

Alabama didn’t do anything this week that would knock them from the top spot, and I expect them to throttle Florida in SEC Championship Game. Alabama’s body of work looks very similar to Ohio State last year. They lost early to a conference rival, but rebounded with two months of dominant play. Alabama has looked every bit the part of national title contender, with dominant wins over five ranked teams this season. The committee has already said it’s about who you beat, not who you lose to; and by that logic Alabama deserves a shot at the national title, regardless of what the SEC haters say.

While Clemson’s victory over South Carolina was close, it didn’t do enough damage to knock the Tigers out of the playoff. Clemson still holds wins over Notre Dame and Florida State, and will play for the conference title in the ACC Championship Game against North Carolina next week. Clemson’s play has had a lot of variance from week to week, but ultimately they’ve gotten it done when it matters. However, if Clemson were to lose to UNC on Saturday, we might be looking at very different playoff grouping.

The fourth spot is more fluid than the top three, and I’m giving it to Michigan State…for now. They’ll play Iowa in the conference championship on Saturday, which is essentially the play-in game for the final playoff spot. I’m giving this spot to Michigan State over undefeated Iowa mainly because they hold wins over Michigan, Ohio State, and Oregon. Michigan State also just throttled Penn State 55-16, and their only loss came against Nebraska on a missed call on a scoring play in the final seconds of the game. Going into the final week of the regular season, Michigan State is playing some of the best football in the country, right up there with Alabama and Oklahoma. That’s a factor the selection committee will take into account, and it’s the reason they get the final spot in my playoff bracket.

My picks:

  1. Alabama
  2. Oklahoma
  3. Clemson
  4. Michigan State
  5. Iowa
  6. Ohio State
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