Posted: 7:00 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
I vote in the SEC Power Poll, administered by our friends at Team Speed Kills, and though I missed last week's poll, I'm going to do my damnedest to post a new draft ballot every Sunday so that y'all can go through and tell me what I got wrong.
We begin this week with what may be a controversial No. 1 team, and a caveat: We're working with small sample sizes, and trying to find differences between what I think are six of the top 12 or 15 teams in the country.
Yeah, I know that Alabama just won a shootout against a very good offense. I know that win came on the road and over a team that is no worse than a top-15 squad nationally, one that had a raucous, irrational crowd behind it and a 14-0 advantage before the game was 15 minutes old. I think Alabama's offense is actually really good, and that the concerns about that offensive line were more or less quelled by its excellent performance against Texas A&M.;
But I am not sold on Alabama's defense, not at all, after Saturday's game. Its inability to even slow Johnny Manziel (whose three errors were a) a bad decision and bad throw on a fade and b) a terrible decision and decent throw that a receiver bailed him out on and c) an almost perfectly thrown ball that hit a defender's helmet and turned into a pick-six) is troubling, even though Manziel is spectacular, because Alabama should have all the personnel and coaches available to do so. (Its complete inability to deal with Mike Evans is also bad, but no one else has a Mike Evans.)
A&M; didn't really try to establish a running game beyond Manziel running the read option (Aggies RBs had no carries of more than nine yards), and Manziel was often faking handoffs to no one and still effectively selling them; he was also able to find receivers running open all game long. This is an atypically poor defense for Nick Saban's powerhouse program, and Alabama was able to win Saturday based on its very good offense beating up on a bad defense — and if it was fine to worry a bit about A&M;'s defense after it was bad against Rice and Sam Houston State with pieces missing, it's right to worry a lot about that defense after Alabama aerated it at full strength.
Alabama's beaten two brand-name teams in Virginia Tech and Texas A&M;, but Tech is bad (never in it against 'Bama despite 'Bama's offense flatlining, a 15-10 win over East Carolina Saturday) and A&M; is bad on one side of the ball, and the big lead And The Valley Shook nods approvingly at was one that Manziel and the luck god spiting him handed the Tide. Being bearish on A&M; means I have to be at least a little bearish on 'Bama.
But I'm really bullish on LSU. The Tigers haven't really been threatened yet: 14 of TCU's 27 points against the Tigers came on a kick return and a drive set up by a bad fumble, and LSU has led 21-0 at the end of the first quarter against UAB and Kent State and gone on to win those two gimmes by 39 and 32 points. The Tigers' defense is very good, their offense balanced and explosive, thanks to Zach Mettenberger being as sharp in 2013 as he was erratic in 2012 and Jeremy Hill, who probably shouldn't be on the roster, being a load and a half at tailback. That's a very good team that has been more impressive, to my mind, than Alabama, at least so far in this season.
Do I think LSU beats Alabama every time the two teams meet, or even when the two teams meet in Tuscaloosa this year? Nah. But I think LSU wins marginally more than 50 percent of the games at a neutral site, and so LSU's my No. 1 and Alabama's my No. 2. For this week, anyway.
The Dawgs were off this week, but their offense's play is still the most impressive thing I've seen from an SEC team this season: Without the benefit of garbage time, Georgia topped 530 yards and 7.0 yards per play against both Clemson and South Carolina, both teams that still looked good on defense in the losses. I think Georgia has the best QB-RB combo in the league in Aaron Murray and Todd Gurley, even if I really loathe Murray, because Gurley's That Good, and losing Malcolm Mitchell almost seems like an afterthought, thanks to Justin Scott-Wesley.
The problem, then, is Georgia's defense: It did very little against Clemson, and only slightly more against South Carolina. Clemson's offense is fantastic, and South Carolina's very good, but I think an excellent offense paired with a middling defense gets a team beat more often than a middling offense paired with an excellent defense, especially in the 2013 SEC, which appears to have a surfeit of excellent offenses and a shortage of excellent defenses.
I considered ranking Florida No. 5 and No. 6 and writing my blurb from the "If I had my druthers, Florida would be higher" standpoint, but I swear I'm not being a homer when I say this: I think Florida's defense is really, really good, and only likely to get better, considering it's still quite green and had a couple of important players making their season debuts against Miami in Antonio Morrison and Loucheiz Purifoy. An average defense might have given up 35 points to Miami on that day; Florida's gave up 21, keeping the Gators in the game despite an offense staring down a shotgun barrel at its feet, and Will Muschamp wasn't totally happy with that.
Florida's offense has also been good when not firing at the ground, and its greatest flaw in two games has been carelessness, something a bye week can fix more efficiently than a leaky defense. Matt Jones getting healthy and freshmen getting integrated would help the Gators substantially, but I really and sincerely think Florida beats every team I have ranked lower than it more often than not in its current state. We shall see if my faith is misplaced, but likely not until Florida travels to LSU.
My primary issue with South Carolina: Its offense is very, very good, but not quite as good as the three great ones (Georgia, Texas A&M;, Alabama), and its defense is good, but not nearly as good as LSU's or Florida's. Vanderbilt is game and a win by double digits over Vanderbilt is a good one (I still can't believe I can type this with a straight face), but Carolina was outscored 25-7 over the last 40 minutes of play on Saturday.
We'll learn more about South Carolina next week, when the Gamecocks take a suddenly terrifying road trip to see the UCF team that handled Penn State this weekend, but I have a hard time slotting this team anywhere but the back of the SEC's top six when it lacks a great unit like the other five teams in that sextet have.
I touched on A&M; above, but, with apologies to Good Bull Hunting, I don't know how much having possibly the best offense in college football means when your defense can't stop anyone. And that defense has gotten worse, giving up 5.78 yards per play to Rice, 6.72 YPP to FCS Sam Houston State, and 8.61 YPP to Alabama. Yes, A&M;'s offense gave 'Bama more yards than any team in the history of college ever has, and put up more yards on a Nick Saban defense than anyone else has or likely ever will, but it had to do that: The A&M; defense was busy yielding more ground per play to Alabama than the Tide managed against any team in 2012 except for FCS Western Carolina.
This A&M; outfit may be the best Big 12 team ever, and the 2013 SEC seems more like the Big 12 than it has in years. Just don't ask me to trust that a celestial offense will always be able to cover for a crappy defense in this conference.
Texas is a dumpster fire. The best thing I can say about Vanderbilt is that it's game. No one cares about beating Southeast Missouri State. But the best SEC team not in the two triumvirates of East and West teams that will produce the SEC champion is still Ole Miss, a team with an offense ahead of its defense and enough firepower to scare a titan along the way.
The Rebels only get shots at three of those titans, but all three are good: At 'Bama after a bye, and at home against LSU and Texas A&M.;
I guess? Auburn has won a couple of close games, and the Tigers' win over Mississippi State last night feels like the sort of win a rebuilding team needs to believe it can get more, but I think there's still a pretty good chance that Auburn finishes with six losses (it has to play the West's big bads and Georgia, and would need to win two of three against Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Tennessee to avoid six Ls iif it loses all of those games against the heavies), and I don't know if I think either the Tigers' offense or defense is actually good.
Alex Collins has been the truth (418 rushing yards, at least 113 in each game) so far. The Arkansas passing game that looked good against Louisiana was a lie: Brandon Allen has since looked bad and gotten hurt, and A.J. Derby is not going to set the world on fire. Arkansas might yet beat Rutgers next week, but that 4-0 start is going to turn into a 4-4 start once the Razorbacks deal with their murderous October — A&M;, at Florida, South Carolina, and at Alabama, all in 21 days — because there's not enough defense to slow the three very good offenses of those heavies, and not enough offensive balance to really trouble Florida's defense.
Oh, and Arky has to play Ole Miss and LSU, too. Fun first year for Bret Bielema!
Florida and Missouri both hosted Toledo. Tennessee and Vanderbilt both hosted the significantly inferior Austin Peay. And though Tennessee shut out the Governors, and scored more on them, Vanderbilt's defense did a better job against Peay, and Vanderbilt has also looked semi-decent against real teams.
The Vols took it on the chin against Oregon. They will probably take another loss this week against a mad and motivated Florida team. They don't have the talent to be assured of a bowl berth, and their game at Missouri feels like a toss-up that decides which of those two teams makes one. But I like Butch Jones, who looks like a badger on steroids, and Tennesse only gave Oregon one net giveaway in a 59-14 loss, which is more than a lot of teams that take 59-14 Duck stomps can say. And I also have no clue how to order teams No. 9 through 12, so.
Missouri could be an eight-win team, if how its offense looked against Toledo (three 70-yard drives) wasn't just a reflection of how bad Toledo's defense is. (For the record: Florida gained more yardage against Toledo than Missouri did ... on two fewer plays, without its best running back, and with a gameplan designed to take the air out of the ball more than move it.) But Missouri's defense didn't exactly slow down Toledo (Terrance Owens threw three picks, one pick-sixed), and that game was 24-23 in the third quarter before Missouri pulled away.
About that eight-win team bit: None of those wins are coming against heavies, and Mizzou plays four of them ... and Ole Miss ... and plays at Vandy. So it could really be a six-win team, too.
At least the two bad losses the Bulldogs took came against a good team (Oklahoma State) and on the road (Auburn). Fun fact: Mississippi State is No. 109 nationally in third-down conversion rate ... but leads the nation in fourth-down conversions, with seven. Use all four downs, Dan Mullen!
Louisville had a really off day, thanks in some part to Kentucky's defensive line, and yet it felt like the Cardinals were never really threatened by the Wildcats, despite playing on the road. Failing to convert even one of 13 third downs will help with that. Maybe the bye before a three-week stretch that features Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama will ... nah.