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On Changes in SEC Competition February 8, 2019

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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They say that a college football team’s potential for high rankings and even playoff contention is predicated on the ranking of its recruiting classes.  Alabama’s persistently top-ranked recruiting classes seem to demonstrate this.  Yet while some things remain the same, others seem to be changing.

For several years, the SEC appeared to consist of Alabama and everybody else.  The Crimson Tide had Nick Saban, who has proven to be the best college head coach in the business, while almost all other programs in the conference – with some exceptions – having been led by glorified gym teachers.

That now seems to be changing.  Kirby Smart at Georgia, for example, has proven to be a most capable Saban protégé.  He learned Saban’s modus operandi while defensive coordinator at Alabama, and the Bulldogs’ performance for the past two seasons shows that he has successfully transplanted a critical percentage of this erstwhile master’s methodologies into Athens.  Indeed, the 2017-2018 season culminated with Georgia playing Alabama for the national title.  At the send of the 2018 season, the Bulldogs once again played the Tide down to the wire during the SEC championship game.

While Georgia has emerged as Alabama’s toughest competition for conference supremacy, other intra-conference competition now gradually emerges, too.  Take Florida, for example.  Dan Mullen is such a skillful coach that his previous program, Mississippi State, was briefly the number one team in the country back in 2014 (Dak Prescott sure helped with that, to be sure).  Now, with far more resources at his disposal, he has brought the Gators back to strength.  Their 41-15 trouncing of a solid, Jim Harbaugh-led Michigan team in the Peach Bowl has demonstrated this.  Both Georgia and Alabama ought to be on notice that there is a new up-and-comer on the block.

As things currently stand, Alabama has the top-ranked freshman recruiting class for 2019, and Georgia is right behind them at No. 2.  But Florida is now at No. 9 (up from No. 17 the previous year), and their on-the-field improvement was clearly noticeable in the aforementioned Peach Bowl.  With such a bump in the recruiting rankings, one can only imagine how highly their team rankings could improve come the Fall.

While Georgia needs to start looking over its shoulder at SEC East and border rival Florida, in the west, the competitive pressure is intensifies for Saban and Bama.  Texas A&M caught lightning in a bottle with Johnny Manziel under the leadership of Kevin Sumlin (who went 51-26, not bad for an overall average program).  While it remains my contention that Aggie Nation was a collective fool in jettisoning Coach Sumlin just a few years post-Manziel, they nevertheless seem to have upgraded with Jimbo Fisher, who previously had revived Florida State.  Fisher did not disappoint in his first year (2018), going 9-4, winning the Gator Bowl (52-13 over NC State…ouch!), and finishing the year at No. 16.

Further improvement for the Aggies seems imminent.  Last year, they finished at No. 16 in the recruiting rankings, but this year have risen to No. 4.  Nick Saban’s dominance of the SEC West is about to become considerably more difficult.

It gets no easier from there.  Just behind A&M (who, again, is No. 4) in the recruiting rankings at No. 5 is SEC West rival LSU.  All head coach Ed Orgeron needs is a more creative offense, and they could very well contend with the Tide for divisional supremacy.  Until he does, Orgeron might still merit the “gym teacher” category placement.

One other proven coach of note is Mark Stoops at Kentucky.  A program at considerable disadvantages compared to other SEC programs not named Missouri, Stoops has built the Wildcats up to their strongest level since the Fran Curci era.  Barring some major scandal, he shall have done so through considerably more ethical means at that!  His 2018 recruiting class was only at No. 30, and this year at No. 34.  Yet the Wildcats finished the 2018 season at 10-3, including a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl, and with a ranking at No. 11.  Mark Stoops thus deserves a serious award for the SEC coach to have done the most with the least.

Yes, the SEC still has its fair share of “gym teachers”, but there are others who are clearly talented and have what it takes to seriously threaten Saban’s legendary dynasty.

Look out for Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, and possibly LSU as they look to start campaigns that should make for a very interesting 2019 season in SEC football.

 

 

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The Peril of Bye-Weeks in College Football October 15, 2016

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Beware of bye-weeks. They can do weird things to college teams. Speaking from experience, during my junior season at Purdue – the 2000 season where we went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 34 years – we had a bye-week coming off an emotional win over a favored Ohio State team. That win allowed for us to “control our own destiny”. After that game, we had a bye-week.  After that bye-week, we went on the road to play Michigan State, who was having a down year after their strong run and Citrus Bowl win (over a favored Florida squad, no less) the prior season.

We were favored in that game, and it would have been an easier win than those over Michigan, the Buckeyes, or even Wisconsin. Only problem was, we failed to bring our “A-game”, and it showed. We embarrassed ourselves, losing 30-10. It left us all scratching our heads. Worse yet, it put our Big Ten championship in peril. Only a loss by Northwestern to Iowa that same day kept us in the money. We closed the deal next week with a blowout win at home over Indiana, but the fact remained that a once-in-a-generation chance to punch our ticket to Pasadena almost evaporated on a cold, gray November afternoon in East Lansing.

I blame the bye-week. As college kids, a bye-week throws you off your rhythm that you set during the playing season. Without the normal routine of a game each week, your preparation routine is thrown off, and it’s easy to get lackadaisical, forgetting how to methodically build up the intensity to the point where you peak on game day. That effect was on display again this Friday night.

Yes, Louisville came off an emotional loss in a high-stakes game in a very hostile environment two weeks ago. The casual observer might think that the bye week would be a good opportunity to recharge the batteries. Think again. Being out of rhythm on account of the open weekend last week, the Cardinals came out less than focused and energized, while at the same time they faced a disciplined, well-coached Duke team. They escaped – barely – with a win, at home.

Speaking of Duke, by season’s end, this victory should nevertheless be a quality win for the Cards by season’s end.  Ironically, it is Duke that now faces a bye-week, and will play a down Georgia Tech squad to close out the month of October.  If they do NOT come out flat against the Yellow Jackets, I would frankly be surprised.

That aside, seeing the way the Blue Devils played in this game, even though they are now 3-4, I have no doubt that they shall give the rest of their opponents all they want. November with be rather brutal for David Cutcliffe’s team, for they play (in order) Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Miami, one after another. Don’t be surprised if they upset one or two of those teams. What have they going for them in this tough stretch? No byes.

 

Steve Sarkisian to USC December 3, 2013

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Steve SarkisianThe latest news has it that Steve Sarkisian has been named the next head coach at the University of Southern California.  When one considers that the available pool of good coaches is very limited right now (what with relatively few firings and hirings at this time) and most of the best coaches are already ensconced in good programs (Saban at Alabama, Meyer at Ohio State, etc.), this was an excellent hire.

Granted, many were advocating for the permanent hire of Ed Orgeron.  But as well as he has done in the moment, one must ask, could he sustain the positive trend long-term?  His track record might not suggest that.  Plus, we have seen the temp-to-permanent hire scenario before in major college football, and it usually does not turn out that well.  Remember Bobby Williams at Michigan State?  After Nick Saban left for the LSU job, Williams led the Spartans to victory over a formidable Florida Gators squad in the 1999-2000 Citrus Bowl.  Everybody immediately allowed for themselves to be prisoners of the moment and made Williams the permanent head coach at MSU after that.  Part of the rationale was how much the players loved the guy.  Bad idea.  Coaches like Bobby Petrino and Nick Saban are not loved by their players, but those coaches get results from the team.  Meanwhile, the program at MSU eroded after three full seasons under Williams’ leadership.  Orgeron currently enjoys similar popularity with the players at USC.  While this produces short-term gains, it will take somebody who is a bit more of a taskmaster to make sure that these positive trends can be sustained.

But what about Kevin Sumlin as a possibility?  Yes, Coach Sumlin has become a rather hot commodity over the past year or two, but his one weakness is that, while his offenses have considerable fire power, his defenses, well, not so much, and USC prides itself on not only being “Tailback U,” but also having tough “D”’s that shut down the pass-happy intra-conference opposition.  Could Coach Sumlin sustain that reputation, given his track record with weaker defenses in the recent pass?  At this point, it does not appear as though he couch.

What about other candidates, say, James Franklin, whose name was bandied about as a possibility?  A fine choice, especially given what he has accomplished at Vanderbilt under very restrictive circumstances with which the rest of the teams in the SEC do not have to contend.  Still, he has one glaring weakness:  he has no west coast ties.  In the world of college football recruiting, this is vital.  A great deal of recruiting has to do with knowing the high school coaches in the key recruiting areas.   Franklin knows none.

But “Sark” knows plenty.  He knew them as a high-ranking assistant at USC under Pete Carroll, and he still knows them while trying to recruit the players for Washington.  In that important respect, this shall be a seamless transition for him.  Instead of recruiting key players in the talent hotbed that is California, he shall do so wearing  Cardinal-and-Gold polo shirt as opposed to a Purple-and-Gold one.  Moreover, his experience with the program gives him intimate knowledge of organizational culture, making him a good company fit.  This is thus a good hire for the Trojans in any important respect.

To be sure, the gain for USC is a major loss for Washington, where Sarkisian had a good thing going.  But as great as things were with the Huskies, the USC job is rated by coaches and others “in the know” as one of the three absolute best coaching jobs in all of college football, along with Texas and Georgia (yes, Georgia).  In other words, if the Trojans come calling, unless you are coaching at one of those two schools, you are a fool to pass up this golden opportunity.  Sorry about the setback for UW, but good for Sark, and good for USC.