But your eyes have not deceived you: despite returning a ton of last year’s production, the SEC isn’t really any better than it was last year.
The other conference with a particularly high level of returning production, the Big 12, has improved as expected. The SEC has not.
There’s plenty of blame to go around.
The SEC West hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory. Alabama is Alabama, Auburn has shown some sustained flashes, and Mississippi State and Arkansas have played at basically the expected level (though MSU has done so in a hilariously volatile way). However, Texas A&M has underachieved a bit, LSU has obviously disappointed, and Ole Miss — the hardest team to project besides UAB — is on the verge of collapse.
Still, the primary blame here lies in the East. Again.
SEC teams’ current S&P+ rankings vs. 2017 projections
- Georgia: +11 (projected 21st, currently 10th)
- Mississippi State: +3 (projected 33rd, currently 30th)
- Alabama: 0 (projected first, currently first)
- Vanderbilt: -1 (projected 58th, currently 59th)
- Auburn: -4 (projected eighth, currently 12th)
- Arkansas: -4 (projected 29th, currently 33rd)
- Florida: -10 (projected 15th, currently 25th)
- Texas A&M: -13 (projected 22nd, currently 35th)
- Ole Miss: -13 (projected 23rd, currently 36th)
- LSU: -15 (projected fourth, currently 19th)
- Kentucky: -24 (projected 45th, currently 69th)
- South Carolina: -26 (projected 39th, currently 65th)
- Tennessee: -27 (projected 25th, currently 52nd)
- Missouri: -31 (projected 47th, currently 78th)
Georgia is doing great, and Vanderbilt has performed as expected (again, in rather volatile fashion). But Florida has underachieved by 10 spots, and the other four teams have all underachieved by at least 24. Guh.
I don’t think much of that comes as a surprise if you’ve watched any amount of conference football this season. The question is why the division (and the league, for that matter) is underperforming again. Bill thinks it’s more a case of the Xs and Os than… well, you know.
Kentucky and South Carolina both projected to improve primarily because of returning production, more than recruiting. They each ranked in the top 10 on that list. But while other teams atop the list — TCU, Oregon, Wake Forest — have taken steps forward as projected, the Wildcats and Gamecocks have not.
Injury has played a major role. UK lost No. 2 returning receiver Dorian Baker to a preseason ankle injury and starting left tackle Cole Mosier to an ACL injury, while South Carolina star Deebo Samuel was playing at an All-American level before suffering a Week 3 leg injury.
Consequently, both offenses have collapsed. South Carolina ranks 87th in offensive success rate, and Kentucky ranks 102nd. Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr., so incredible as a freshman in 2016, is averaging 3.8 yards per carry, while the Cocks’ Rico Dowdle is averaging 2.8. That’s putting a lot of pressure on QBs to play beyond their capabilities, each with a banged up receiving corps.
Missouri was in a similar preseason position. The Tigers ranked 31st in returning production, 10th on offense, and looked to keep advancing offensively and rebound from a 2016 defensive collapse. Instead, the offense has stagnated (the Tigers are 61st in success rate, powered by a great performance against Missouri State) and have somehow managed to get worse defensively. They are 118th in defensive success rate and 119th in explosiveness.
Head coach Barry Odom made a point of moving toward a base nickel defense. The nickel has been by far Missouri’s worst set. Whoops.
And then there’s Tennessee. The Vols have a pretty good pass defense, and running back John Kelly is one of the conference’s most fun players to watch. He is pulling off a poor-man’s-Saquon act, leading the team in both rushing and receiving. UT’s return game is strong, too.
I just listed all of Tennessee’s strengths. The run defense is miserable, place-kicking is unreliable, and after Quinten Dormady’s overwhelmed performance against Georgia, let’s just say the Vols aren’t any further along with their QB situation than when the season began.
Tennessee had to deal with more turnover than any East team not named Florida, and the Volunteers’ projections were propped up by recruiting rankings. LSU’s, too. But the league’s primary issue appears to be more on the developmental side. Key players at Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, LSU, Texas A&M, Florida, and Arkansas have either regressed or failed to improve. [Emphasis added.]
I’m beginning to think a comparison of the preseason and postseason All-SEC teams might be somewhat revealing in that regard. In any event, it’s hard to fault Bill’s conclusion — one that he’s hardly alone in having made — that the conference suffers from recent subpar head coaching hires. While some think that’s because ADs have been too focused on hiring great recruiters regardless of their other skills, I think he hits the nail on the head with this overall perspective:
The SEC has been Sabanized; Nick Saban’s almost unfathomable level of sustained success at Alabama has driven every other school crazy, and quite a few have attempted to find their own Sabans.
Typically that means either finding a former Saban assistant, finding an elite recruiter, or both. (It also often means finding a defense-first guy more than happy to play big, conservative, rocks-bashing-together football.) But Saban’s success has come not only because of elite recruiting but also because those elite recruits learn, develop, and grow throughout their three to five years in Tuscaloosa.
Either a lack of development, tactical miscues, or both have dragged down Saban imitators. (And in Florida’s case, an incredible run of non-success at quarterback has held the Gators back.) We’ll see if this ever changes.
Something will have to happen first for that. In the meantime, a rising Tide lifts all boats… er, programs.