Commentary: After Week 3, football landscape becomes a little clearer
By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 20, 2009
A good starting point if you want to properly evaluate the college football landscape is to wait until after the third week. Observations gleaned prior to this benchmark – essentially the first quarter of the season – typically aren’t legitimate due to the lack of a sample size.
Now that we’ve hit that benchmark (most teams, anyway – some, like Ole Miss, took a week off in between and have only played two overmatched opponents), here’s a quick take on the college football landscape in general.
· Since Alabama was an early kick, it afforded me the opportunity to catch most of the Tennessee-Florida game in the afternoon. Although new Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin may be Mr. Personality in the media, he’s a Mike Shula redux with a clipboard in his hands. It’s clear Kiffin’s primary objective against Florida was to minimize the damage – a 40-point loss would have absolutely undressed Kiffin in front of recruits and the national media – so consider this a moral victory of sorts. But Kiffin’s playcalling was just bad at times. He doesn’t appear to have a feel for it. And as Alabama can tell you from the Shula experience, it’s hard to fix this problem when the head coach is a part of the problem himself.
· Having said that, Florida’s offense looks a lot more average than it has in the past. Perhaps it’s the loss of Dan Mullen to Mississippi State; Mullen was as much a part of Florida’s offensive identity as is Urban Meyer. But I saw three things I specifically didn’t like: One, Florida lacks a big back that can be trusted other than Tebow. There’s a lot of speed in the Gator backfield but Tebow is the only power Florida has. Two, Florida’s receivers were rumored to be struggling in fall camp and that was backed up by their performance Saturday. Three, the attempt to make Tebow more of a conventional quarterback may be a mistake. He’s at home in spread formations and that’s where Florida needs to keep him. Despite being a veteran group, the Florida offense looked … very average.
· I had Georgia-Arkansas and Auburn-West Virginia on two different feeds simultaneously and the differences between the two were astounding. To address the Georgia-Arkansas game first: There are three, maybe four defensive backs on these two teams combined that could play for Alabama, Florida or LSU. Both sets play with bad technique but Arkansas’ guys have the added burden of possessing only average talent. However, both teams were receiving good coaching elsewhere and it may be a bit early in the process to talk about Mark Richt heading for an employment reckoning. Willie Martinez, his defensive coordinator, is another story altogether. As for Arkansas, Ryan Mallett is the real thing, and the coaches have done what they can to assemble good pieces around him offensively, but no one is scared of the Arkansas defense and only moderately respects its best unit, the defensive line. Still, Arkansas may very well be the conference’s most dangerous second-line team over the course of one individual game to another (that’s a way of saying Arkansas, given the right circumstances, is capable of beating Alabama Saturday, albeit unlikely).
· As for Auburn-West Virginia, that’s a different kettle of fish altogether. Auburn is an average team and its win over West Virginia was specifically attributable to two things, poor coaching on the part of the West Virginia staff and a gaggle of turnovers that came at opportune times. Auburn’s impressive offensive production of the first two games was curtailed a good deal (the initial box score showed the Tigers held to fewer than 100 yards rushing by a defense that isn’t exactly the Steel Curtain) and weak-armed Auburn quarterback Chris Todd won’t be able to get away with some of his throws once the SEC schedule gets wound up. Auburn will kill Ball State this week and Furman later in the season, but a bowl is not yet assured and will come down to how well Auburn handles Tennessee and Kentucky at the midpoint of the season. Tennessee’s defense is very good, and while Kentucky has less talent than West Virginia, the Wildcats have a far superior coaching staff. It also remains to be seen what the SEC’s better defenses do against an offensive scheme that doesn’t just utilize trickery, but actually bases off it.
· The Tennessee-Florida game and the Southern Cal-Washington game illustrate something important about teams that are committed to the pro-set from the I-formation: You better have the talent to run it and a quarterback that can get the job done. The pro set is an execution offense, and one of the reasons many college teams have gone to the spread and its variants is because it’s easier to learn in the practice time allotted by the NCAA. Note that Alabama no longer uses it, nor do any of the other teams in the top 10 of either poll coming into Saturday. Most college teams that do like the pro set (Penn State, California, Alabama) have mixed it with spread principles, the Pistol formation, the Wildcat, etc. Southern Cal’s offense looked just plain bad. Tennessee’s offense looked neutered. Is the game, from an offensive standpoint, passing Pete Carroll and his devotees by?
· The team ranked in the top 10 that has looked most impressive so far? Alabama. Only special teams gaffes kept Virginia Tech in the ballgame with the Crimson Tide. Florida has potential issues on offense. Texas isn’t as sharp as last year. Southern Cal is out of the discussion for now. Penn State, California and, quite honestly, Boise State are the only other teams that have yet to really have a breakdown or hiccup, but Penn State’s rushing offense needs work and Boise State won’t get a lot of traction in the polls due to not being a BCS team. That leaves the Tide and California, and the Golden Bears always seem to lay an egg somewhere in the middle of their schedule. It actually doesn’t matter in the long run; if nothing changes, Alabama and Florida would hold their own eliminator in Atlanta at season’s end, the winner would face Texas in the BCS Championship Game while the rest would be on the outside looking in. But it does say something that Alabama is now consistently, legitimately in the discussion when the topic turns to the most impressive of the top teams in the country.
· As for Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, same as it ever was. Vanderbilt’s solid coaching and discipline will probably allow the Commodores to pull off a miracle upset somewhere this year, but it’s doubtful the Commodores will return to the postseason. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen gets credit for getting his team to bounce back from an embarrassing loss to Auburn with a solid win over Vandy, but most of State’s success was due to the fact that Vanderbilt’s offense is just a half step above a very good high school’s offense. Simple math tells you that the SEC doesn’t have enough room for 12 good teams, so the question is, who ends up on the bottom? Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are the easy nominees for the two rear positions, and barring a good season here or there, this is likely to be the case at any given decade in the future.