LSU takes on undefeated Tide next Saturday
Every autumn for almost a decade, the Southeastern Conference’s burnished credentials stemmed from consistency.
The brand of football played between the hedges, on the Plains or on muggy nights in Death Valley carried nostalgic cache.
Hoisting up seven consecutive Swarovski-crafted crystal footballs after BCS national titles testified to its superiority — a mantra SEC fan bases are legion in literally spelling out as testament to their greatness.
The routine: The two teams standing at November’s end pack their bags for Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game with a BCS title shot up for grabs.
“It’s always tough in this conference,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “This is the month champions are decided.”
So, it’s odd to peck this out, but the order that defined the conference and the core components of its character are under assault.
Entering the season’s most vital month, Alabama — some things never change — is the conference’s lone hope to extend its reign.
Supposedly the sowing of spread offenses at Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Missouri coupled with the plethora of senior quarterbacks to ravage defenses might be to blame. Nine weeks into the season, though, the crude metrics don’t totally bear it out. Defenses are only giving up 380.4 yards per game, 7 yards fewer than last season, and scoring is relatively level at 24.8 points allowed.
Maybe it’s simply a visceral response to the style of play, at points drawing more from the spread-it-out, sling-it-around approach of the Big 12.
Whatever the root cause, coaches are asked the same brand of questions each week by reporters: What is going on? Sighs before replies tell you the issue has been gnawed on and barely any gristle is left on the bone.
The chatter now: As the sport bids adieu to the BCS, the dawning of the College Football Playoff may leave the SEC like Rome fending off invading barbarians.
Simply gaze at the Eastern Division, a kingdom where law and order appears to have broken down.
Missouri, a poor peasant beaten and bludgeoned last season, is doling out comeuppance. Its wrath wasn’t forecast back in July. Remember? Writers, myself included, picked them sixth.
As Alabama coach Nick Saban pointed out, chastising us with a stat, the SEC media is 4-17 in picking the conference winner.
Until kicker Andrew Baggett doinked a 27-yard chip shot off an upright in a 27-24 double overtime loss to South Carolina, coach Gary Pinkel had his crew pointed to Pasadena. Never mind Mizzou still has the SEC crown in play.
“We’re practicing well and focused,” Pinkel said. “There’s a lot out there. Why would we be crying in our tears over something that happened a couple days ago?”
In the other Columbia, South Carolina’s upset loss at Tennessee was blotted out. A Week 2 loss at Georgia remains, but with the Bulldogs sitting at 4-3 and the Gamecocks holding two SEC losses, their hopes are alive.
It’s also a point drowned out by the chorus from the hype machine ripping defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the likely top pick in the NFL draft, as a loafer, a big softie or simply mailing it in until Roger Goodell calls his name. Flippantly, coach Steve Spurrier speaks as if the man-child and Gamecocks have been humbled.
“Our players know we’re not any big, powerful mighty team — pretty much anybody can beat us,” Spurrier said. “We’ve got a lot of goals that are in reach now. Whether or not we can hit them or not, we’ll find out.”
Florida and Georgia are simply consulting the same survival guide Mizzou left dog-eared and on loan. Combined, they’ve lost 12 starters to season-ending injuries, including stars such as Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley and Georgia running back Keith Marshall.
“It’s one of those years,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the game. You’ve got to coach through it. We don’t make excuses around here.”
The intrigue in the East is largely local. So it falls to the West Division to keep chaos from reigning. Or, heaven forbid, Ohio State.
That’s still Bama’s job, but the Tide might need a clean sweep to take the field in the Rose Bowl.
Outside of a 628-yard blip against Texas A&M, the Crimson Tide’s defense ranks sixth nationally and leading the way by ceding 9.8 points per game. Strip away the shootout against the Aggies, and Nick Saban’s offense helmed by quarterback AJ McCarron has outscored opponents 301-36.
Potential land mines exist but are clearly marked: against LSU and a Iron Bowl road trip to Auburn.
LSU’s offense, once risk-averse and loathing of the forward pass, is putting up 480 yards and 40.2 points per game. Only its defense, central in rendering opponent’s dreams dead on arrival is, gulp, average.
That’s if you consider No. 24 nationally average, but the pass rush has been flaky, tackling at the second level dodgy and communication in the secondary patchy. Still, the Tigers sit at 7-2, aspiring to spoil Bama’s threepeat plot.
“In this schedule, and in the schedule that’s been here the past nine years, you always play your best teams on the back end,” Miles said. “It’s an exciting piece of time because it really kind of puts you where you’re going to finish.”
Maybe Auburn, revived at 7-1 in its first year under Gus Malzahn, can match Bama’s brawn with its 315.4 rushing yards per game. Perhaps, but an average defense might get drowned in a deluge.
Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel can only provide entertainment and staggering yardage totals, an 0-2 record against Alabama foes ruling out the Aggies. Ole Miss, a trendy preseason pick, sits at 5-3 and can’t play spoiler.
“You have to condition yourself in the early stages of building a program to be happy where you are,” Rebels coach Hugh Freeze said.
For the SEC, that might mean watching Oregon in its DayGlo vestments tangle with Jameis Winston-led Florida State.
Pride, for the SEC, was rooted in the fall — a season now tinged with a bit of uncertainty. So grit your teeth and shudder, everyone outside of Tuscaloosa, and choke out three simple words:
Roll. Tide. Roll.