SEC East comes into focus Saturday when Georgia meets South Carolina
Every season -- every weekend, even -- for nearly a decade, we’ve been given a reason to respect and marvel at the conference tucked away in the most humid corner of this country.
The SEC is dominant, we hear. Their athleticism runs rampant over teams raised on corn or coal or ocean mist, we see.
And our senses do not lie.
But can that apply to an entire conference? Are our minds just misinterpreting the exploits of a sliver of its members as a reason to laud and fear the whole group?
For many, the SEC’s much-heralded six-year run of national champions has pushed the conference to a new level, hovering above the rest of college football and other storied programs. But, most of that dominance -- and most of the respect it garners -- were earned by the overpowering defensive linemen and stout safeties in the conference’s westernmost division. The West has captured the past three national championships and four of the past five. The lone “blemish” was Urban Meyer’s second title at the helm of Florida in 2008.
And the past three SEC championship games -- purportedly the most important annual contest outside of the national championship game -- have been blowouts. Alabama, Auburn and LSU triumphed against Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, respectively, by an average margin of 30 points. Not what you’d expect from the game that decides the preeminent team among the nation’s toughest collection of football programs. For the past few years, the East, too, seems to have been looking up at the West, not hovering above the crowd alongside it.
But, this year, is the once-mighty East climbing? Has anything changed? Top-ranked Alabama and No. 4 LSU find themselves in familiar positions in the national rankings. But look at their heels. You’ll see a Bulldog and a Gamecock there, nipping away after trailing well behind for half-a-decade. Fifth-ranked Georgia and No. 6 South Carolina boast their strongest squads in recent memory.
But, like Bama and LSU, they both can’t go undefeated; they have to play each other.
One will emerge with a blemish on Saturday night when the two clash in Columbia, S.C., and may find the road to Atlanta a perilous one. The other will boast the most important win of the year by any SEC team (until Alabama and LSU dig in on Nov. 3.) This game affords South Carolina and Georgia -- both with dynamic offenses -- a chance to put a scare into their defensive-minded brethren in the conference’s other half.
The Gamecocks, led by Marcus Lattimore’s 358 yards, have won the past two matchups against Georgia. South Carolina QB Connor Shaw has only tossed four incomplete passes in the past two weeks. But the Bulldogs have an offense to match; they lead the nation in plays of more than 20 yards. Quarterback Aaron Murray is the third-rated passer in the nation and Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- a pair of explosive freshmen running backs -- lead the Bulldogs 11th-ranked rushing attack.
If they want to be held in the same regard as LSU or Alabama, one of these teams will have to win definitively on Saturday. One of these teams will have to show that “dominant” applies to both sides of the conference. One of these teams will have to put on a show to ensure that the SEC Championship Game is no mere formality on a team in crimson and white or purple and yellow’s march to the crystal football.
All of that said, we can’t forget about Florida, which also may contend for a berth in the conference title game. But first, it must survive a gauntlet akin to the one overmatched working-class people had to run on American Gladiators. (Nitro! Laser! Titan!) Fourth-ranked LSU, No. 6 South Carolina and No. 5 Georgia are penciled in for October. And don’t forget No. 3 Florida State lurking in the season finale. LSU is first up this week. A game that I’d once assumed would be a blowout has grown far more intriguing. The Gators have outperformed expectations, posting impressive wins at Tennessee and Texas A&M, while LSU is looking nearly mortal (vulnerable only in the Achilles' tendon) after the vaunted Tiger defense surrendered 22 to Towson last week and inexperienced QB Zach Mettenberger barely survived his first SEC road game -- a near loss to Auburn. We know the defenses will show up; LSU and Florida have the nation’s ninth- and 10th-best scoring defenses, respectively. We know the running games are solid; the teams stand 18th and 20th nationally on the ground. So this one will be decided by the men under center. Both Mettenberger and Florida’s Jeff Driskel are first-year starters who will face the fastest defenses they’ve ever seen. For the quarterbacks, as is often the case in the SEC, victory lies more in limiting mistakes than making plays.
What do you have for an encore, Mr. Smith? Geno likely won’t be able to match or exceeds last week's numbers because, if he did, we’d have to take him to the Pentagon to run tests to ensure he’s not an alien. But expect West Virginia’s triggerman to do damage to Texas’ 64th-ranked defense, which yielded 301 passing yards and a pair of scores to Oklahoma State freshman J.W. Walsh last week. That said, Texas’s ninth-ranked scoring offense, which has posted a healthy 47.3 points-per-game, will probably enjoy their afternoon at home against West Virginia’s defense, which sits third-worst in the nation in yardage allowed and 96th in points against. We’re not going to see 70-63 on Saturday, but don’t be shocked if these two squads come a few touchdowns shy.
Will the Pac-12 make up its mind? Who is good? Who is mediocre? I want answers! Everyone beats everyone in this conference that’s starting to look as deep as the Mariana Trench. (Wikipedia has your answer on that one.). Stanford beats USC then loses to Washington? UCLA knocks off Nebraska but falls to Oregon State? Arizona topples Oklahoma State but gets surprised at home by Oregon State? What is going on here? Arizona’s trip to Stanford this week will help settle some of the confusion in the pecking order. Should Arizona lose, it’ll be the Wildcats’ third consecutive conference defeat, telling me RichRod needs a year or two to get his recruits in before the Wildcats can count themselves as contenders. A Stanford loss, which would mark the Cardinal’s second consecutive defeat to a conference underdog, tells me the USC game may have been a fluke. We’ll need a whole season to figure this conference out, but this game will help solve one side of the Rubik’s Cube.
This weekend might be the Big Ten’s last chance to put a blemish on Urban Meyer’s record in his first season in the conference -- in only his second conference game. Well, look ahead. As of this week, Nebraska is the lone ranked team left on Ohio State’s schedule. Wisconsin and Michigan await at season’s end, but both have fallen out of the rankings after losing a pair of games each. The Buckeyes already passed their second-toughest test of the season against Michigan State. Saturday night, they take the final exam -- though it’s only midseason -- when Nebraska’s fifth-ranked rushing offense heads to Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes are 20th against the run this year and did bottle up Le’Veon Bell last week, holding the big back to 45 yards on 17 carries. They’ll need more of the same if they hope to keep Nebraska at bay.
Apparently Texas Tech head coach Tommy Tuberville wasn’t informed that you’re supposed to play with nine defenders in the Big 12. So far this year, it seems like he’s fielded 13. Tuberville made his name as the head man at Auburn, where tackles-for-loss draw more acclaim than completing a 25-yard out. Texas Tech stands No. 1 in the nation in total defense by a 24.1 yard-per-game margin over second-ranked Alabama. The Red Raiders are allowing only 3.12 yards-per-play, again best in the nation, and have yielded only four plays of 20 yards or more, half of what the likes of Alabama and Florida State have given up. But Texas Tech has yet to square off against an elite offense. The Sooners may not have an elite attack -- Oklahoma mustered only 19 points against Kansas State and stands outside the top 20 in scoring offense -- but they’re still potent. Oklahoma needs a win to stay in the Big 12 title hunt, while a Texas Tech victory would be a warning shot to the rest of the conference that the Red Raiders have regained form.
Notre Dame has allowed only three touchdowns through its first four games. The nine points per game the Irish are allowing put them third in the nation in scoring defense. Michigan and Michigan State mustered only nine points -- combined -- against the Irish. Notre Dame is fourth nationally in turnover margin and has 13 takeaways. This helps you stay undefeated when you have an identity crisis at quarterback and the nation’s 97th-ranked offense. But that staunch defense will get its first true test on Saturday when the volatile Miami Hurricanes storm into Chicago. Miami has scored at least 38 points in four of its five games this season. If Miami does manage to put up a few scores, can Notre Dame’s offense keep pace? That unit’s struggles put tremendous pressure on superstar linebacker Manti Te’o and the rest of the defense to maintain Notre Dame’s undefeated season and top-10 ranking.
Look at the overarching stats and try to find an explanation for Oregon State’s undefeated start -- perhaps the most impressive in the nation with wins against Wisconsin, UCLA and Arizona -- and you’ll have trouble coming up with anything compelling. The Beavers stand 39th in scoring defense, 71st in total defense, 84th in scoring offense and 26th in total offense. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that Oregon State’s defense holds steady on third downs. The Beavers are second in the nation, having allowed a mere eight conversions in 39 attempts (20.5 percent). Those stops have yielded 20 punts from opponents through three games. All those stops have let Oregon State’s proficient, if not spectacular, offense control the ball and, more importantly, the clock. The Beavers lead the nation in time of possession, averaging nearly 36 minutes a game. Holding onto the ball that long should equate to a bevy of wins.
I haven’t given much love to kickers this year, so here you go: Northwestern’s Jeff Budzien has converted on all 11 of his attempts. As a team, Northwestern is 12-for-12. The Wildcats also happen to be undefeated. Coincidence? Likely not. Kicking in the college game is far shakier than in the NFL -- nationally, kickers are converting only 69.3 percent of field-goal attempts this year -- so a reliable college kicker can give his team breathing room, especially in close games. Thus far, three of Northwestern’s five wins have come by ten or fewer points. Eight of Budzien’s 11 field goals came in those tight contests. A few misses, and the Wildcats might not be the lone undefeated, bowl-eligible Big Ten team.