When you put your opinions and predictions about SEC football into a weekly column, you have all sorts of folks gleefully waiting for you to have a really bad weekend. And did I ever have a bad one last week!
I made three confident predictions that blew up like a trick cigar. It was a trifecta of miscalculation; sort of like UT field goal attempts, except I gave up three blocks in a single weekend whereas the Vols spread it out over two.
It sure is a good thing that I stashed away several pounds of crow earlier this football season, because I had to prepare three large dishes with humble-bird as the main ingredient.
Rocky-Top Crow Fritatas, with a side of turnovers in an orange reduction
In my first column, I predicted that Tennessee would win a game that it wasn’t supposed to on the strength of its defense. That defense has played tough in every game, and the struggles on offense did not give rise to divisions in the locker room. Against South Carolina last weekend, the Tennessee defense forced four turnovers; each one on the Gamecock side of the 50, and each resulted in points.
Apart from the South Carolina turnovers it’s hard to find any meaningful statistical distinction between the two teams. The Roosters had a slight edge in total offense [365 yards to 341] and first downs [19 for USC, 15 for UT], but both teams were 50 percent in pass completions, and were nearly identical in average yards per pass attempt.
The difference in the game was the Tennessee defense. Because of the turnovers, Jonathan Crompton only had to take his team an average of 33 yards for each of Tennessee’s first three touchdowns.
By beating South Carolina, UT has reversed its fortunes in the SEC East. It is now the Vols who are most likely to finish second in the Eastern Division. A season record of 7-5 is not only possible for Tennessee, at this point, given how badly Ole Miss played against Auburn, anything less than 8-4 will have to be a disappointment.
Lee County Crow Kabobs
The month of October witnessed Auburn go into a four-week-long offensive slump with the Spread Eagle generating fewer points each consecutive Saturday. This, in turn, produced a three-game losing streak against SEC opponents. Ole Miss, on the other hand, with a quality win over Arkansas, seemed to have found its much-anticipated offensive punch.
Sports writers and commentators across the state of Alabama started bailing on the Tigers, and the Auburn bandwagon was nothing but an empty flatbed by the time the Rebs arrived in The Village last Saturday.
What a difference a win can make. On the Sunday after Auburn beat Ole Miss 33-20, the beat writers were crowing “These aren’t last year’s Tigers,” and one columnist devoted his commentary to an assessment of Auburn’s bowl chances.
Auburn scored 21 points in less than 4:30 of game time in the third quarter, including an interception returned for a touchdown. The Tigers added two more third-quarter points when they blocked an Ole Miss PAT attempt and returned the ball for a score. These 23 points in one quarter were more than Auburn had scored in any of the games they played since beating Tennessee on the first weekend in October.
Ole Miss began the game with a perfect, 10-play, 94-yard touchdown drive that consumed 4:29. The Rebs did not score again until midway through the third quarter; and this was on a kick return, not a drive by the offense. Meanwhile, the Ole Miss defense, which played well enough in the first half to keep the score 10-7 at intermission, surrendered two touchdowns on back-to-back drives. On each drive, Auburn only needed 3 plays to gain over 60 yards.
Auburn, which plays Furman this weekend, has a season record of not worse than 7-5 in the bank. Ole Miss has the chance this weekend against Northern Arizona to fix what’s broken, but then it closes with UT, LSU and Mississippi State. At the start of November, a 6-6 season for the once 4th ranked team in the country is a very real possibility.
Deep-fried Starkville Crow, with hush (yo’ mouth) puppies
At 4-5, Mississippi State has proven to be one of this season’s most fascinating teams. State could have-probably should have-beaten LSU, gave Florida fits, and, last Saturday, beat Kentucky by winning the second half.
The Bulldogs, who are averaging 385 yards of offense per game, gained nearly 500 yards against Kentucky, with 352 of those yards coming on the ground with running back Anthony Dixon leading the way with 252. With an open date this weekend, MSU concludes its season against Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Can the Bulldogs win two of those final three games and finish the season bowl eligible? In August, nobody gave them a chance, but a lot has happened over the last nine games. Who would have thought that three quarters into the season, MSU, Arkansas and Ole Miss would all face the realistic possibility of a 6-6 record? Such a result for the Hogs and Rebs would be an underperformance of epic proportions. On the other hand, if State can get to 6-6, then Dan Mullen deserves serious consideration for Coach of the Year.
Now that I’ve savored three generous portions of crow for having erred so badly last weekend, it’s time to dive back into the prediction business and make my picks for the games to be played this Saturday.
Alabama vs. LSU
This is the game for the SEC West. An Alabama win clinches the Western Division championship for the Pachyderms. A Tiger win gives LSU the tiebreaker advantage over Alabama and sets up a remarkable come-back story in the SEC Championship Game.
If Alabama loses, then for the second year in a row its quest for a national title will lie in ruins. This late into the season, there is no realistic way that a one-loss Alabama can get into the league championship game. LSU would have to lose either to Ole Miss or Arkansas in order for Alabama to back into a championship match-up with Florida.
LSU on the other hand, has the clearest path to the BCS Championship game of any one-loss team in the country. So how do these two championship contenders stack up?
LSU’s quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, has completed 64 percent of his passes for 1421 yards, 11 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Greg McElroy, Alabama’s redshirt junior signal caller, has completed 60 percent of his passes for 1445 yards, and thrown for 9 TDs against only 3 interceptions. While the Tigers and Tide favorably compare in the passing game, Alabama has a decided edge in rushing.
Bama’s Mark Ingram leads the SEC with 1004 yards and an average of 6.6 yards per carry, and he is not alone in the Alabama backfield. The Tide’s committee of running backs, that includes Trent Richardson, Terry Grant and Roy Upchurch, has averaged 218 yards per game while the Tide defense has allowed opponents, including five in the SEC, to gain less than 65 yards per game on the ground. LSU’s ground attack relies primarily on Charles Scott, who has gained only 459 yards total and averaged just 57 yards per game. The Tiger defense has shown vulnerability to the run, allowing opponents to gain a per-game average of 114 yards on the ground.
The LSU defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks 11 times, while the Tiger offensive line has allowed 23. The Bama sack-stat is a virtual mirror image of LSU; the Tide defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks 23 times and the O-Line has allowed only 8. When the silent yards of returns are taken into account, Alabama averages 552 all-purpose yards per game, while LSU averages 430.
LSU has a very realistic chance to win this game. Alabama’s offense has slumped in the last few games, and only the most heroic effort by the defense salvaged Bama’s undefeated season two weeks ago.
Big games are usually decided in the trenches, and this is a very big game. By that measure, Alabama has the edge. The pick: Alabama
Florida vs. Vanderbilt:
How much analysis is necessary to make this pick? Let’s see: Florida is playing Vanderbilt. OK. That’s enough. The pick: Florida
South Carolina vs. Arkansas
This match-up of two under achievers could prove to be a highly entertaining game-if you don’t care who wins. If you do care, this game will be an emotional roller coaster irrespective of which team you are pulling for.
Both teams have demonstrated the ability to play hard and win. And both have shown the ability to cough up a hairball. To say “the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win” is about as meaningful as saying “both halves will begin with a kick,” but being fundamentally true is what turns a phrase into a cliché. This well-worn chestnut about mistakes has never been truer than it is this weekend with these two teams.
Poor ball security is a hallmark of poor coaching. Can you recall a Steve Spurrier-coached team taking such negligent care of the football as the Chickens did last week against Tennessee? Earlier in his career — when he was breathing life into the moribund Florida football program — the Ole Ball Coach would have tolerated four turnovers in a game about as much as the Taliban tolerates dirty dancing.
Has Spurrier lost his edge? Do the competitive juices that fueled his rise to dominance over his peers in the SEC during the decade of the 90’s no longer flow in his spleen? The short answer is: No. The long answer is: @#%& No.
Take a look at some of his comments to reporters last Monday and judge for yourself:
Q: Can you beat Arkansas? A: We bested them last year. Where were you?
Q: What do you have to do to win? A: Play better and get more points.
Q: Is tailback Eric Barker going to have a chance to start? A: He didn’t get pushed back in the quarterback’s face like three or four other guys did, so I think he’s got a chance to start.
Spurrier hates to lose. He especially hates to lose to Tennessee, and he most assuredly hates to lose two-weeks in a row. Arkansas is playing at home, but I think the difference in this game will be the guy on the South Carolina sidelines. The pick: South Carolina