Week Eight: Musings about Auburn, SEC and College Football

Courtesy of the Ledger-Enquirer

Before the season, the SEC was expecting the league’s current “Big Six” of Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Florida and LSU to duke it out for the SEC crown and, ultimately, the final BCS title.

So, just as everyone expected, Auburn and Missouri have joined Alabama at the midway point of the season as the only SEC teams left in contention for the BCS National Championship.

Of course.

With Auburn hosting a feisty but out-manned Florida Atlantic University Owls team this week, I will give my midseason thoughts on the Auburn Tigers, SEC and BCS Championship race, as well as several other topics of discussion in America’s greatest sport.  You can check out the rest of the Auburn football schedule from TicketCity here.

Courtesy of the Ledger-Enquirer

First off, let’s just take our hat (or vizor) off the Gus Malzahn for the job he has done in his first year on the Plains.

The Tigers have dramatically improved in every single area of the game. Last season, the Tigers put up no fight against the Texas A&M Aggies at home in Jordan-Hare, falling 63-21. Now, that game is no longer in any Auburn fan’s memory, as the now 11th-ranked Tigers are fresh off a thrilling win over previously 7th-ranked Texas A&M on their own field.

Auburn’s offense couldn’t be stopped. The Tigers munched up 615 yards of offense. Tre Mason ran for 108 yards in the FOURTH QUARTER ALONE. He ended the day with a whopping 178 yards and the least-exciting game-winning touchdown ever. Nick Marshall, the “other quarterback” in the showdown against Johnny Football, looked like Manziel at times, amassing 336 yards of offense and 4 TDs. He was only 11-23 passing, but didn’t throw an interception, threw 2 TDs and averaged 21.45 yards per completion. Add in 100 rushing yards and 2 more TDs and you have an SEC Offensive Player of the Week.

The most-telling stat is Auburn’s scores against SEC West foes that blew them out just a year ago. Last season, against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, LSU and Texas A&M, Auburn was out-scored 144-61. This year, against the same opponents, the score is Auburn 120, Opponents 118 (including a 14-point loss at LSU).

This isn’t the first time the value of Gus Malzahn has become obvious. While many like to say that this team is worlds better than the 2012 team (which it is, obviously), nobody seems to mention that it’s also worlds better than the 2011 team, in which Gene Chizik undermined Gus Malzahn and limited his offense, ultimately playing a role in Gus leaving for Arkansas State. The 2011 team was basically the same as the 2012 team. It got blown out by superior teams and struggled often on offense and defense. Yet, the 2011 team, even though Gus’s offense wasn’t run the way he wanted it to be, still won 5 more games than the Gus-less 2012 team.

Basically, I’m trying to say that Gus Malzahn is a wizard. A sweater-wearing magician. There’s plenty of football to be played, so let’s not put the cart before the horse and assume AU will continue to roll. However, there’s a good chance Auburn will enter the Iron Bowl 10-1 with a chance to upset the Tide and win the SEC West and make a BCS Bowl or even… who knows… the BCS National Championship?

The fact that it’s almost November and all these things are still on the table for Auburn is a testament to Gus Malzahn’s ability. This program is only going to get better. More true talent will come in offensively. The secondary and linebackers will gain more talent and depth over time.

If this is what Auburn looks like right now, in Gus’s first year, the SEC should consider themselves warned: the Auburn Tigers are back.

Courtesy of AL.com

Don’t make any assumptions about the remainder of Auburn’s season. 

On paper, the Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia games will all be winnable games that the Tigers will be favored in. I do believe Auburn has a very, very, very good chance to enter the Iron Bowl 10-1.

However, every time I hear an analyst or fan say that Auburn “SHOULD” be 10-1 heading into the Alabama game, I cringe a little bit.

Did this past weekend not show everyone that anything goes in the SEC?

Arkansas might be the worst team in the SEC at this point. Might be even worse than Kentucky. The Razorbacks, since jumping out to a 24-7 third quarter lead at Rutgers, have been out-scored 200-50. They’re on a 5-game losing streak and the losses have gotten uglier with each passing week. Two weeks ago, the Hogs jumped out 7-0 on South Carolina. Since then, they’ve allowed 104 unanswered points to the Gamecocks and Crimson Tide of Alabama.

So, why should Auburn fans be worried about Arkansas? Because, quite frankly, they’re Arkansas. They’ve always been a thorn in Auburn’s side. The game is in Fayetteville and the team is off this week, giving them two weeks to prepare for the Tigers. In Auburn’s last two trips to Fayetteville, Auburn has lost by a combined 45 points. Arkansas has always managed to find a way to ruin Auburn’s season. Think of 2006. Auburn was #2 in the BCS and hosting an unranked, Houston Nutt Arkansas team… and lost, 27-10. In 2009, Auburn was unbeaten and ranked #17 in October heading into Fayetteville… where they fell behind 34-3 and lost by 3 touchdowns. In 2012, Auburn was 1-3 but seemed to have a glimmer of hope after almost beating LSU, and hosting a horrible Arkansas team, the Tigers were poised to get the season back on track… but instead, Auburn didn’t score until the end of the 3rd quarter and lost 24-7, thus causing Chizik’s wheels to fall off.

Arkansas will only beat Auburn (or even stay in the game with Auburn) if Auburn beats themselves. But, like they say, Auburn’s greatest enemy historically is themselves.

After that, the Tigers will head to Knoxville, TN to take on the surprising Volunteers. It’s easy to see why this game will be a challenge. Butch Jones has done an absolutely remarkable job so far. This might be one of Tennessee’s least-talented teams in modern history, yet they’re 4-3 with a win over South Carolina and a near-upset of then #7-ranked Georgia on their belt. Though Auburn has won 5 in a row over Tennessee (two of them in Knoxville), this Vols squad is dangerous. Though they’re not very talented at most positions, they’re likely the most mentally-tough team left on Auburn’s pre-Iron Bowl slate.

And, of course, Georgia is Georgia. They have lost to Missouri and Vanderbilt, true, but they have dealt with a lot of injuries. The Bulldogs may have some key pieces on offense back by the time of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. If the Dawgs get players such as Todd Gurley back by then, Auburn’s defense will be tested and the Tigers could possibly be in for another shootout. Even with injuries and a porous defense, Georgia still has the talent to compete.

Do I think Auburn will be 10-1 going into the Iron Bowl? Honestly, yes. But I don’t think it will be nearly as easy as some people are making it out to be. Tennessee and Georgia will both be tough games, and as bad as Arkansas is, past history still says to watch out for them.

So, what do we make of the SEC?

In 2008 and 2009, the SEC Championship Game was a de-facto BCS Title Game. In 2008, the #2 Florida Gators beat #1 Alabama in a 31-20 thriller. The next year, #2 Alabama stomped #1 Florida, 32-13.

In 2010, the SEC West’s top 5 teams (BCS Champion Auburn, Sugar Bowl participant Arkansas, LSU, Alabama and Mississippi State) combined for a record of 54-11.

In 2011, three SEC West teams (#1 LSU, #2 Alabama and #3 Arkansas) entered the final weekend of the regular season with a very realistic shot at the BCS Championship. Ultimately, Alabama beat LSU for the crystal ball in an all-SEC BCS title game.

In 2012, the SEC was so strong that, even though Alabama was the king of the game once again, Georgia was five yards away from beating the Tide in the SEC Championship Game. If Georgia scores, it’s generally assumed by everyone that they would have been the BCS Champions over Notre Dame. Because they lost to Bama, however, they didn’t even make a BCS bowl thanks to #3, 11-1 Florida. 11-2 Georgia had to go to the Capital One Bowl. 10-2 South Carolina went to the Outback Bowl. 10-2 LSU went to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies went to the Cotton Bowl, where they destroyed Oklahoma.

Seven straight national championships. Most NFL Draft picks. Best recruiting year-in and year-out.

And yet, something seems off about the SEC this year.

Alabama has remained Alabama, but aside from fast risers #5 Missouri and #11 Auburn, the rest of the conference is hard to make out. LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina have already fallen short of high expectations, as they already have 2 losses. Florida’s offense has become a dumpster fire and the Gators have lost thrice. A healthy Georgia showed it has an elite offense in wins over Carolina and LSU, but without some key players on offense, the defense has been fully exposed and the Bulldogs have also lost thrice.

So, here’s the question: is the SEC no longer the best conference in the country, or is there so much parity in the league that it might be just as good as ever?

Well, there may not be a true answer to the question. SEC defenses have been in decline this year, mainly due to a rash of lost starters combined with a quarterback lineup that might be the best in a single season in SEC history. A.J. McCarron, Johnny Manziel, Nick Marshall, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray, James Franklin/Maty Mauk, speedy Dak Prescott, the duo of Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson… Yeah, this conference has some quarterbacks.

Next year, most of those guys will be gone, while more defensive starters will return across the league. Expect fewer shoot-outs a year from now.

However, regarding this year, I think the SEC is the conference with the most talent at the moment, which has contributed to all the parity. The recruiting is still insane. Right now, the ESPN 2014 Recruiting Rankings show that 11 SEC teams have top 25 classes.

That’s going to cause some parity, obviously. Winning breeds winning.

This year, while I think the SEC has the highest number of quality teams, the Pac-12 and ACC have both made huge strides and basically eliminated the SEC’s gap. I firmly believe that Oregon or Florida State could take on and possibly beat any SEC team this year.

Photo courtesy of SBNation.com

Can we please slow our roll regarding how many teams will be unbeaten at the end of the season? 

Immediately following the release of the initial BCS standings, ESPN and every other sports media outlet in the known universe began debating about what the pecking order of the unbeatens is.

Alabama’s a clear #1, but who will come out on top between an unbeaten Florida State and unbeaten Oregon? Which of those two will get the BCS nod for the #2 spot? Would a 12-0 record and win over Alabama put Missouri in the BCS Championship? Who would Ohio State have to fend off from other conferences? How will an unbeaten Baylor move up the polls? Will Fresno State or Northern Illinois make a BCS bowl?

SLOW. DOWN. PEOPLE.

This is college football. While the possibility certainly exists that more than three conferences will produce unbeaten teams, causing a sea of chaos in the BCS’s final season, remember that college football is very upset-prone.

Alabama still has to face LSU, Auburn and potentially Missouri or South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game. Florida State has to play NC State, Miami and Florida in the Swamp, along with an ACC title game against Virginia Tech or, once again, Miami. Oregon must go through UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State. Baylor and Texas Tech are about to dive into the meat of their Big 12 schedule. Ohio State seems like a sure thing, but they still face Penn State, Indiana, Michigan and an opponent in the Big Ten Championship Game.

While many are preparing for a tangled mess atop the polls at the end of the season, it’s still best to wait for things to unfold.

This reminds me a lot of 2011. When the initial BCS standings were released, many thought that the Alabama/LSU winner, Wisconsin, Stanford, Clemson, Oklahoma State and Boise State would all be undefeated, thus causing panic from college football fans that a BCS apocalypse was coming. One did come, but not the one people expected.

Wisconsin would go on to lose two road games, both on long touchdown passes with no time left. Oklahoma State seemed poised for a trip to New Orleans for the BCS title game, but they slipped up on the road at Iowa State, falling 37-31 to the Cyclones. Stanford was the favorite at home against Oregon, but the Ducks jumped out to a 22-9 lead and crushed the Cardinal, 53-30. Boise State was upset at home by TCU. Clemson was, well, Clemson. The Tigers lost 3 of their final 4 regular season games and settled for a 37-point loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

So, in a season where many were expecting a plethora of unbeaten teams at season’s end, the end result was… a rematch between Alabama and LSU for the BCS title.

This is college football. Alabama, Oregon and FSU may not lose, but then again, they just might.

Chaos is coming.

Courtesy of AL.com

Prediction for #11 Auburn vs. Florida Atlantic

This is a tune-up game for Auburn. FAU is better than their 2-5 record, as they have the 31st-ranked defense in the FBS. Auburn says they’re focused on this game, but the reality is that the upcoming slate of SEC games for the Tigers will probably be in their minds in this game. FAU isn’t Western Carolina. Auburn’s offense still has success, but this blowout won’t have a freakishly lopsided score. #11 Auburn 45, Florida Atlantic 6

SEC Predictions:

#1 Alabama 38, Tennessee 7 (Tennessee’s a tough team, but they don’t have the talent to move on, or stop, Alabama.)

#5 Missouri 31, #21 South Carolina 20 (The Tigers continue their march to an unbeaten regular season.)

#16 Texas A&M 42, Vanderbilt 21 (A&M’s defense is putrid. Johnny Manziel, on the other hand, is not.)

#13 LSU 56, Furman 0 (If Death Valley was empty against Auburn and Florida, I wonder what it will look like here.)

Mississippi State 34, Kentucky 14 (Thursday Night CLANGA!)

Ole Miss 59, Idaho 14 (Ole Miss is riding high after upsetting the LSU Tigers.)

Other Notable Games:

#2 Florida State 52, NC State 0 (Ranked FSU teams have lost 4 straight to unranked NCSU teams. That’ll go down in flames.)

#3 Oregon 42, #12 UCLA 24 (With this home win, the Ducks will fly into the #2 spot in the BCS standings.)

#6 Stanford 38, #25 Oregon State 24 (Beavers would be highly-ranked if not for week one. However, I like the Cardinal big.)

#7 Miami 38, Wake Forest 35 (The ‘Canes make a last-second field goal to escape the upset-minded Demon Deacons.)

#15 Oklahoma 37, #10 Texas Tech 21 (3 of the last 5 TTU-OU games have spoiled an unbeaten season. Make that 4 of 6.)

#14 Virginia Tech 20, Duke 17 (Regarding Scot Loeffler: has an OC ever been let go after a 10-win season? Seriously.)

Notre Dame 31, Air Force 14 (Notre Dame will win thanks to their freakishly photogenic running back.)

UPSET ALERT! Penn State 41, #4 Ohio State 38 (Yes, I realize I picked Iowa to upset Ohio State last week and the Hawkeyes did lead at halftime before losing by 10. However, Ohio State’s secondary is very vulnerable. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg throws for nearly 300 yards a game. That’s not a good match-up for the Buckeye defense. This is the first dominoe to fall in BCS chaos.)

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