By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
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Birmingham, Ala. – This week just felt different.
After completing a historic 10-day span, each day this week seemed to take on a different aura at the office. It was almost as the SEC Digital Network was in “detox” mode, clearing out the system after a calendar full of new schools and “Armageddon” matchups.
That didn’t mean there weren’t tons of events taking place. Men’s and women’s basketball tipped off in earnest this week, with several great storylines already forming in the early portion of the schedule. Cross country and soccer began postseason play, competing for the SEC on the national stage.
In addition to that, I spent most of the week getting to know our newest addition
. What I have learned about the SEC’s two newest members (as of July 1, 2012), Texas A&M and Missouri, is that their fans are super pumped to be a part of this family. I can’t tell you how many emails, tweets and messages
I’ve gotten from Columbia (Missouri) this week, people asking me everything from what it is like to be in the SEC to what can they do to help the league’s current fans understand more about them.
The Texas A&M faithful were the exact same when they were announced some time back
, with the “Aggie Family” welcoming us in as much as we did for them. These two schools, their alumni and current students want to be in the SEC, and that makes it even easier to open your arms during the transition.
As our own Ron Higgins mentioned in his SEC “Traditions” column this week
, change isn’t always bad. New can mean better. The great part is the unknown that awaits us, a new chapter forged in the name of the “SEC”. We are watching college athletics history. That is exciting.
But, those two football teams aren’t a part of the SEC yet, so this week features the familiar favorites that have made the league the best in the nation.
What contests caught my eye? Find out in this week’s “Three and Out”.
First Down: Where Did This Georgia Team Come From?
About five minutes into the Georgia-Auburn game, I was sure we were in for a shootout. On the opening drives for both teams, each offense methodically went down the field, scoring with an apparent ease that looked like it would last all day.
But, something happened.
As the Georgia offense continued their onslaught, the Tiger attack went into hibernation. Before you had a chance to look, Mark Richt’s Bulldogs went into halftime with a 35-7 lead. During the intermission, I spoke with my boss, as we commented on league’s games for the day. As our conversation turned to the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry”, he threw out a sentence that stuck in my head. As I mentioned that I was surprised about the 35-7 score, he said…
“Where did that Georgia team come from?”
A fair question, seeing as how many left them for dead two games into the schedule (for the record, I said they were still very much alive
). That seems like a long time ago, with Georgia having reeled off eight straight wins since.
While you can say their schedule was one of the easier in the SEC, or that they didn’t have to play the league’s current big “three” (Alabama, Arkansas and LSU), you cannot question Georgia’s stature as the East’s best team right now. With one conference game left to go, the Bulldogs are one win over Kentucky from making a miraculous comeback that will land them in the Georgia Dome for the fourth time in school history.
I feel like I’ve been down this road before, and perhaps we have. But still, it appears as the nation put far too much stock in two early losses, condemning the Bulldogs before the calendar turned to October. What we have learned from SEC history and the current BCS era is that it is always better to lose early, knowing that time and wins can always get you back in the hunt.
Give Richt credit, because preaching patience in the face of a 0-2 start isn’t an easy task. In the instant gratification society we live in, each game’s outcome can be the end of the world. Keeping young men focused in the face of exaggerated calls for a new football staff says something about their head coach.
If Richt’s message was a return to Atlanta, he is now one game away from reaching that goal. From the “eye test”, you begin to wonder how this Georgia team looked so overmatched in their opener in the very Georgia Dome they hope to return back to on December 3rd. Was Boise State just that good? Or was Georgia just not ready for prime time back then?
The Bulldogs today look extremely talented, led by a quarterback that is in the top two of the SEC (with Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson). Murray had a record setting Saturday, passing Matthew Stafford for most touchdowns thrown in a season at Georgia
. They also feature an athletic defense, one which stifled one of the conference’s best and most complicated offenses to defend.
Not to look ahead, but how would Georgia matchup with LSU/Arkansas/Alabama in the SEC Championship Game?
We truly don’t know. The evolving schedule that made it so Georgia didn’t play those three this year gives us a sense of uncertainty should the Bulldogs make it to Atlanta. I’m not saying the Richt’s crew can or should win that matchup.
I’m simply saying that if you told anyone other than the staunchest Georgia fans that we’d be having this discussion in September after their 0-2 start, I’m not sure they would have believed it.
Second Down: ”Armageddon”, A Week Later
You had to expect it. After months of hype and a record setting viewing audience for the “Game of the Century”, both LSU and Alabama returned to the field a little sluggish a week after the fact. In understandable fashion, both squads struggled early, taking some extra time to find that special gear that makes them two of the best in the country. The end result was typical though, as Alabama and LSU captured victories once again.
The difference between LSU and Alabama were the opponents, as one faced an out of conference team (LSU played Western Kentucky) and the other squared off against a dangerous bunch from Starkville (Alabama played Mississippi State). While LSU could, theoretically, take time to impose its will over Western Kentucky, Alabama had to be much more careful.
The Crimson Tide not only faced a formidable opponent in Mississippi State, but they had to play them on the road. In this conference, any game away is in a tough environment, and it can be difficult to escape with a win. Starkville is no exception. Remember, this Mississippi State team played that same LSU squad which now sits atop the BCS rankings to a 19-6 finish (loss) back in September.
Turns out that Alabama’s matchup against the Bulldogs looked a lot like LSU’s, a defensive struggle that saw Nick Saban’s team escape with a 24-7 victory
. Despite that aforementioned slow start and some missed field goals (stop me if you have heard that before), Alabama survived a good defensive effort by Mississippi State.
Trent Richardson once again showed why he should be involved in any Heisman conversation, as he shouldered Alabama’s offensive load in the face of repeated eight man fronts. With Andrew Luck and Stanford losing Saturday night to Oregon, Richardson’s stock in the voter’s eyes had to have risen.
To me, Richardson should be the Heisman front runner.
What he is doing right now is incredibly impressive. He routinely faces defenses geared to stop him first, and yet he still finds creases to pick up yardage. In a superhuman feat, Richardson nearly outgained the entire Mississippi State offense, gaining 127 total yards as opposed to State’s 131.
LSU had the easier time of it, picking up a 42-9 win over Western Kentucky
. While the Bayou Bengals were supposed to win, and were able to hit the “cruise control” a little earlier due to their competition, we still learned something about LSU going forward. Jordan Jefferson, who entered the season as the starter but was forced aside due to legal issues, is now back under center for head coach Les Miles.
Jefferson has been a much maligned quarterback during his LSU career, but his dual-threat ability makes the Tiger offense much less predictable. Even though Jarrett Lee played incredibly well during his time as the top signal caller, his struggles against Alabama (two INTs) reaffirm that Jefferson is LSU’s best shot to win.
You have to remember, when you are dealing with defenses with the caliber of athletes that LSU and Alabama have, all of sudden scoring 30 points a game isn’t necessary.
These two defensive units are so talented; essentially all the offenses have to do is manage the game to win. Whether that magic number for points is 10 points, or possibly 14, you have to feel that no team in the country is going to have its way with either defense. So, as an offense, your job turns to taking care of the ball and executing short field opportunities. Jefferson, with his added running ability, makes that task easier.
For those hoping for the “rematch”, you got some good news this past Saturday night. Not only did undefeated Stanford lose (to Oregon), but so did perennial BCS buster Boise State (to TCU). There is just one major BCS team undefeated (other than LSU) standing in the way of the “Game of the Century” part two.
Oklahoma State, who is having a fantastic season, sits ahead of Alabama in the BCS rankings
. The Cowboys still have one big hurdle left to clear though, as they will square off against in-state rival Oklahoma in “Bedlam” in a few weeks. How many Alabama fans will be rooting for Oklahoma on that day?
Should the Cowboys lose that game…..can you say “rematch”?
Third Down: A “Historic Playoff” Game In Nashville
The term “playoff” is mentioned quite a bit in college football. Not because such a system exists, but because the ongoing debate of whether there is need for a “playoff” is constantly argued about by fans. The dialogue rages on about whether college football should have one or not, both sides clinging to their beliefs that the current system or the playoff format is the only way to go.
Not that I’m going to get into that argument here, but the fact that the word “playoff” hovered around this week’s matchup between Vanderbilt and Kentucky made it all the more interesting. This “playoff”, however, referred to bowl eligibility, and how these two teams needed this win to get closer to postseason play.
Going to a bowl game can be the culmination for a successful season, an end of the year reward for solid play. For Kentucky and Vanderbilt, two SEC squads that don’t have long standing football tradition in their corner, a bowl game trip means that much more. It signifies progress, and a chance to carry the conference flag against other teams around the country. A win would get each closer to that goal, so this “playoff” feel added extra drama to an already historic day.
The “historic” part of the game in Nashville featured the two head coaches. Whether you understand why or not, the fact that this was the first time in SEC history that two African American coaches competed on the field is significant.
After a story appeared on our website talking about the matchup of Franklin and Phillips
, conversations started on the league’s official Facebook page about what the news meant
. Some understood why it was important; others questioned why there was a need to specify skin color as a matter of public record. Being a minority myself, I can sympathize with both sides. However, the fact remains that the hierarchy of the collegiate sports we follow still don’t adequately represent the athletes that play them.
Though there is more emphasis placed on inclusion, and the diversity numbers are growing, the fact that just 14 percent of football coaches at the Division I level are minority is an issue. When placed in the context of the over 50 percent of African Americans on the field playing college football, there is still a ways to go.
I’m glad that people today are getting comfortable enough to wonder why it is important that we mention race. The fact that this discussion has gotten to that point is a great thing. But, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to be done in this area, and Saturday’s footnote was an important moment in SEC history.
As for the game on the field, if this was a true “playoff”, than Vanderbilt advanced. Behind the combination of Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy, the Commodores offense was too much for Kentucky. After jumping out to a 24-0 lead at the half, Franklin’s bunch continued to pour it on en route to a 38-8 win.
Rodgers continues to impress as Vandy’s signal caller, even breaking out a popular family tribute after a Commodores score. Rodgers showed off the “championship belt” celebration, a signature move coined by his Super Bowl MVP brother Aaron.
In what has been a month full of near misses for Vanderbilt, this was as complete a performance as the Commodores have had all season.
More importantly, Vanderbilt picked up their fifth win, and now are just one victory away from bowl eligibility. Two games remain, giving Franklin a couple of chances at getting to that six win platform. While it won’t be easy, with two road games at Tennessee and Wake Forest looming, the fact that Franklin, in his first season, has his team this close is quite the accomplishment.
I know that Les Miles, Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino are likely ahead of him in the SEC Coach of the Year pecking order. That being said, I think you can make a strong case for what Franklin has done this year. If you are a Vanderbilt fan, you have to feel good about the future of the program.
Plays Under Review
--- Nice win by new SEC member Missouri over Texas
. Nice to see the future Eastern Division squad picking up a top 25 victory.
--- South Carolina isn’t eliminated yet, staying alive after winning a 17-12 slugfest versus Florida
. It is always big news when USC head coach Steve Spurrier takes on his former team, and yesterday was no exception. Spurrier now has a two-game winning streak over his alma mater, and pushed Florida to an under .500 record in the SEC for the first time since 1986.
--- The "Three and Out" will take the week off next Monday. Me and the family are enjoying a nice little vacation, heading south of the border for some rest and relaxation. While I'm sure you'll miss me terribly, I'll be back in time to preview the last two weeks of the season.