Georgia - Tennessee
Let's go back to high school and do the SAT all over again: Norm Chow is to Southern Cal as Brian Van Gorder is to Georgia. Chow and Van Gorder were both necessary for their programs because they were experts in the head coach's weaker field. Pete Carroll, a defensive guy, needs a great offensive coach, and Mark Richt, an offensive guy, needs a great defensive coach. Richt and Carroll both achieved great success, in part because of their good work in their specialties and in part because they made great decisions in hiring Chow and Van Gorder, not to mention the fact that they recruited a ton of talent for Norm and Brian to play with. Last year, USC was able to minimize Chow's departure because they had a sick amount of talent on the offensive side of the ball. Georgia was able to minimize Van Gorder's departure because they could still run his schemes, especially early in the year. However, as last year progressed, Georgia started to show chinks in the defensive armor, most notably against Auburn and then in the disastrous performance against West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl.
Now, there are major questions about Willie Martinez as a defensive coordinator, or at least there ought to be major questions after Georgia surrendered 51 points to Tennessee. The 51 points are a tad misleading, since the Vols scored once on a blocked punt and then had a short field on several occasions. 397 yards on 5.4 yards per play is not a good defensive performance, but it isn't an epic failure. The most significant concerns for Georgia are the following:
1. The defensive line ought to be the strength of the team, especially against the pass because UGA has such a capable pair of defensive ends. However, Georgia was completely unable to get a pass rush last night with the front four and when they blitzed, Erik Ainge had a field day. This doesn't seem like Martinez's fault and I can't imagine that Rodney Garner has forgotten how to coach, so I'm at a loss to explain the defensive line.
2. Georgia never adjusted to Tennessee going to Bret Smith in the slot over and over again. This was classic Tennessee football, as they have been lining up in three-wide formations and relying on the fact that they have three guys who are faster than your three fastest defensive backs since the 1980s, but Georgia never adjusted to it. I put this on Martinez, although by responding, he simply would have been opening up another hole in the dyke. Incidentally, Todd Blackledge was all over this, as well as the inability to get pressure with four. This was one week after he immediately noticed Michigan's tight end paving the way for UM's first two runs around left end. Blackledge is becoming my favorite color guy. My dream booth would be him and Ron Franklin, but knowing those geniuses in Bristol, we'll probably get Patrick and Maguire as the #1 team in the future.
3. Georgia's defensive backs aren't nearly as active in zone coverage as they were under Van Gorder. It was always a pleasure to watch a Van Gorder defense because when Georgia dropped seven into coverage, you could be very confident that the opponent was going to have to make a great play to throw a pass into a tight window in order to gain yardage. Last night, Tennessee repeatedly found open receivers despite the fact that Georgia was dropping a number of players into coverage. Georgia's linebackers and defensive backs just didn't seem very active in their zones and they weren't making good decisions. Inexperience? Poor instruction? Bad scheme? A combo thereof?
As for the offense, last night was encouraging in the sense that Mark Richt figured out what the identity of the offense should be: I-formation running with conventional run-blocking and then play-action passes once the run is established. Georgia ran the ball very well last night, which was new for the Dawgs, but was not a shock against Tennessee, since the Vols have been run on by every decent opponent they've played...except Cal. (There I go bringing that game up again.) Joe Tereshinski played reasonably well, but I submit that Matt Stafford would have done very well against Ole Miss and Colorado if his receivers would have been making plays and the running game would have been as good as they were last night. It's fairly apparent that this is not an SEC Championship team, so the sensible choice is to go with Stafford from here on out so he gets some experience for next year. The one caveat is that Georgia needs to make sure that Stafford doesn't get abused and loses his confidence, a strong possibility against Florida because the Gators have such a good defense and put so much pressure on opposing quarterbacks. So maybe Tereshinski should be the first one out of the Higgins boat in Jacksonville, thus allowing Stafford to be the one to storm the beach. (Can you tell that I watched Saving Private Ryan last night?)
LSU - Florida
Let's be clear about my praise for Florida. I'm clearly high on the Gators, since I have them at #2 by virtue of their performance against quality opponents. I'm also high on the Florida defense, which doesn't have a discernible weakness. That said, Florida is a little overvalued this week. Despite the score against LSU, Florida did not dominate the game. They didn't force LSU to fumble a snap on the one-yard line, or muff a punt, or decide to bobble a kickoff (although UF does deserve some credit in the latter instance because of a great kickoff and coverage). My prevailing sense from Saturday's game is that LSU is not a well-coached team. They have plenty of talent and their schemes aren't bad, but they do a million and one things to shoot themselves in the foot. They managed to lose to Auburn and Florida despite out-gaining both opponents. They just don't seem to be all there mentally.
As for Florida, they are doing a beautiful job of using two quarterbacks and they're completely laying waste to the idiotic conventional wisdom that football players are emotionally fragile teenage girls who lose the will to live if their team plays two quarterbacks. Florida looks like a more dangerous team with Tim Tebow in the game, although it'll be interesting to see how they perform now that Tebow has thrown the ball deep and teams are going to have to respect that aspect of his game. It'll also be interesting to see how he takes the punishment once he's the full-time starter. My friend Ben, the inveterate optimist who would also proclaim that Georgia was going to beat Tennessee easily, opined yesterday that Urban's offense won't work in the SEC because it exposes the quarterback to too many shots and Tebow will not be able to stay out of the trainer's room. There is some merit to that line of thinking, but the spread option is so widely and successfully used these days that I just don't see that concern being valid. Vince Young took a ton of shots and never got hurt. He's a little bigger than Tebow, but not that much. Michael Robinson stayed healthy for a whole year at Penn State running a less sophisticated version of this offense. To me, the question of whether Tebow will survive as the full-time starter depends more on his physical make-up than the Gator offense.
Arkansas - Auburn
This game was one of those classic, Woody versus Bo type games (or Vince versus Pat, given that we're in the South) that was decided by the two lines. Arkansas' defensive line dominated Auburn up front, repeatedly getting in Brandon Cox's face and preventing him from stepping into any of his throws. (The fact that his receivers seemed to catch the same bug that tormented Georgia's wideouts for the first month of the season didn't help.) Arkansas' offensive line dominated Auburn up front, such that the Hogs were able to run the ball even when Auburn knew it was coming. Arkansas' drive for the field goal to go up 27-10 was an absolute thing of beauty, a triumph of the will (apologies to Leni Riefenstahl) embodied by 11 runs for 51 yards taking off 6:32 of the fourth quarter and ending with Arkansas taking a three-score lead. It reminded me of a Michigan drive for a field goal in the fourth quarter of the 1996 upset of unbeaten Ohio State, when Michigan ran the same counter play over and over again and the Bucks could not stop it. (Ah, the good old days, when Michigan played well against Ohio State.)
Incidentally, my inherent defensiveness about the SEC was triggered by this gem from Stewart Mandel:
What this does prove, however, is something I've felt for a long time, which is that the SEC is so conservative offensively that anyone who can bring a new approach and a little creativity has the ability to take the conference by storm. Steve Spurrier did it. Urban Meyer is doing it. So, too, is Malzahn.
Spurrier did take the league by storm...in 1990 when the conference was indeed dominated by out-dated offensive approaches. His second coming has not exactly resulted in banner offensive production for South Carolina. Urban Meyer's offense was, to put it bluntly, a disaster last year in Florida's games against quality SEC opponents, so it can hardly be said that he took the league by storm. The Gators are doing better this year, but shouldn't they be expected to do well since they have more talent than just about anyone in the league? And as for Malzahn, he has done a good job with Arkansas, but what exactly was so innovative about running the ball down Auburn's throat? The hidden ball play was a nice trick, but what was so fancy beyond that? A jump ball to Marcus Monk for the first touchdown? Arkansas won the game because they have a lot of returning talent and Nutt and Malzahn have gotten the team to play well, but let's also keep in mind that this team was also a missed field goal from losing to Vandy and several missed kicks from losing to Alabama at home.
Assorted Random Thoughts
1. Want further evidence of the flaws in the human polls? Washington dropped from 28 points to nine and from 27th to 31st after losing...by six points at #2 USC. The Huskies' performance should have bolstered their ranking, rather than knocking it down, because they showed that they could compete on the road with one of the best teams in the country. The only other possibility is that the voters thought that the game exposed USC as being pedestrian, but the rankings did not reflect this because the Trojans stayed at #3. The coaches inexplicably have West Virginia ahead of Michigan, as if there is any comparison between the two teams' resumes. Both the coaches and the media have the Mountaineers ahead of Louisville, and I'd love to hear an explanation for that other than simple inertia. The coaches have USC ahead of Florida, as if the Trojans have looked like anything resembling the Gators in recent weeks. The coaches have Notre Dame ahead of Tennessee, as if the Irish have anything on their resume like a 17-point win over Cal or an 18-point road win over Georgia. Notre Dame jumped almost as much in the rankings for a win over inept Stanford as Tennessee did for dominating Georgia Between the Hedges. This isn't an attack on Notre Dame; it's an attack on the fact that the rankings function as a conveyor belt and the voters don't think to themselves on a weekly basis about how good these teams have shown themselves to be.
2. You have to feel for Vandy. In their SEC games so far, they lost a three-pointer in Tuscaloosa, they barely missed a field goal that would have beaten Arkansas, and then yesterday, they outgained Ole Miss by a whopping 453-196, but lost 17-10 because they lost four fumbles. Incidentally, the Brent Schaeffer era continues to roll right along in Oxford, as Brent was 3/8 for 31 yards and two picks yesterday. You think that Chuck Amato is happy that he didn't "win" the race for Schaeffer's signature and is instead playing Daniel Evans under center now?
3. If you ever want an "Essence of Michigan State" video, yesterday's performance against Michigan would be a solid candidate. For instance, the Spartans had bad field position on their first three drives for the following reasons:
The MSU returner elected to bring the opening kickoff out of the end zone, despite the fact that he was headed backwards and towards the sideline when he caught it. Shockingly, State started its first drive from the nine.
On the kickoff after Michigan's first touchdown, MSU's returners were spared further blushes because Michigan kicked the ball out of the end zone. How did Michigan achieve this feat? Oh, just your average 15-yard penalty for roughing the kicker on an extra point.
After the Spartans stopped Michigan on its second drive, the Spartan returner made the sagacious decision to fair catch a punt on his own four-yard line.
Then, we can add in another personal foul that extended a Michigan drive, a running into the kicker foul that extended a second Michigan drive, a number of offsides penalties because Spartan defenders cannot be bothered to, you know, look at the ball before attacking the backfield, and a dropped touchdown pass. Adding to my previous complaint that beating Michigan State is often worthless because they will proceed to tank their games against inferior opponents and thus devalue the accomplishment of beating a typically talented team, beating Michigan State often leads to a somewhat empty feeling because there's a gnawing "they did this to themselves; we didn't do it to them" feeling that pervades afterwards. It's like winning a motion because you're opponent forgot to file a response.
Incidentally, for all the harping that Sean McDonough did about Michigan's first touchdown being out of bounds, you'd think he might have addressed the question of whether Adrian Arrington got a hand down before landing out of bounds. As the Magic Eight-Ball says, signs point to yes:
4. Who knew that the only thing holding Missouri back...was Brad Smith?
5. Candidates for the crown of "major conference team that will have a good record at the end of the year after playing a terrible schedule, but no one will notice because they play in a good conference and are assumed to have played a tough road" (OK, we'll have to use four-point font to get all of that into a tiara):
Georgia - very favorable SEC schedule rotation, plus Colorado didn't turn out to be a challenging foe.
Alabama - no fewer than seven free wins on the schedule.
Wisconsin - a truly appalling out-of-conference schedule, plus they miss Ohio State and Michigan State in the Big Ten. They'll win nine games without beating a single top-flight team.
Virginia Tech - they're 4-1 with three more freebies on the schedule. If they win two of three against BC, Miami, and Wake, they'll be the worst 10-2 team in recent memory...or at least since the '04 Wisconsin team.
Nebraska - if they can avoid an upset, they play two good teams the rest of the way, both in Lincoln. If they upset Missouri or Texas at home, then they could give the Hokies a run for "worst 10-2 team in the country."