In SEC, blowouts raise questions about competitive balance

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Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's team has scored 100 points combined in its first two SEC games for the first time in school history. (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)
BATON ROUGE, La. — If the first five weeks of the season are any indication, there are going to be a lot of lopsided games in the Southeastern Conference.

Six teams — LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt — already have lost a conference contest by 30 or more points.

So that has raised questions on whether this reality matches long-held perceptions about competitive balance in the mighty SEC.

Based purely on final scores, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, “it would not appear to be as competitive as in years past or not as much parity as years past, but I would also argue that the year’s not over yet and a lot can happen.”

Yet, what has happened has created the impression of a considerable gap in performance.

“You got teams playing at a high level, and you have teams that are showing up and it’s a rough day at the office,” said Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, who coaches one of two SEC teams which have lost to Alabama by 59 or more. “The good teams are playing extremely well. Those other teams, Vanderbilt included, are finding their way.

“The upper crust are the upper crust,” Mason continued. “We know who those teams are.”

He was referring to Alabama, Georgia and Auburn, which have been responsible for the bulk of the beat downs in SEC play so far.

The Crimson Tide beat Vanderbilt by 59 and Ole Miss by 63 . Auburn trounced Missouri by 37 and Mississippi State by 39 . Last weekend, Georgia ran Tennessee off of its own field, 41-0, just a week after beating Mississippi State by four touchdowns.

“After the first three or four teams, there’s a pretty big drop-off,” said Houston Nutt, who was a head coach in the SEC with Arkansas and Ole Miss between 1998 and 2011.

This season marks the first time Alabama has scored 50-plus in each of its first two SEC games since 1945. Combined, Alabama outscored opponents in those two games 125-3 and outgained opponents 1,290 yards to 331 — numbers that Alabama linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton called “crazy.”

“But, I mean, when everybody comes out and executes and younger guys get in there and are playing to the standard, it’s possible,” Hamilton added.

Particularly, perhaps, against Ole Miss, which has been dogged by distractions including coach Hugh Freeze’s resignation this year and a lingering NCAA probe into alleged recruiting violations.

Auburn has not yet played Ole Miss, but has scored 100 points combined in its first two SEC games for the first time in school history.

“In our league, each week is unique to itself,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I don’t care who you’re playing. I think anybody is capable of beating anybody. Some weeks you see the lopsided scores and all that. I don’t think it’s lack of parity.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban offered similar thoughts, stressing his philosophy that success is not “a continuum,” but rather momentary.

For years, SEC coaches and players have touted their league as the best in college football from top to bottom. During many recent seasons, that argument was not difficult to make. Not only has an SEC team won eight of the past 11 national titles, and had a team play in 10 of the past 11 national championship games, but the league has had anywhere from five to seven teams in the final Top 25 polls in each of the previous five seasons.

“Even though I think it’s the best league in college football, it’s unpredictable,” said Auburn tailback Kerryon Johnson, who’s run for eight TDs in Auburn’s two SEC games.

Indeed, Mississippi State’s blowout loses came after the Bulldogs beat LSU 37-7 — the Bulldogs’ largest margin of victory in a series that dates more than a century. LSU was ranked 12th going into that game and has since fallen out of the poll.

“It’s one of those years,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said, noting that teams winning big seem to be benefiting from experience at quarterback and all-around depth.

“You see the guys that are winning — they’ve done a tremendous job of recruiting for four or five, six, seven years in a row,” Orgeron said. “It looks like their rosters are intact and they’re doing a good job of coaching.”

This week, only four SEC teams are ranked in the Top 25, with Alabama No. 1, Georgia No. 5, Auburn 12th and Florida 21st.

Smart said the lopsided scores “certainly could” influence how the College Football Playoff committee or even bowl committees view the strength of the conference at the end of the season. Yet, he cautioned, “there’s a lot of season left. We’re not quite half way. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”

12 COMMENTS

  1. I do not belive Saban. He knows what is going on. The competitive balance in the SEC, and in college football, was thrown way out of balance by certain schools like Alabama and Clemson being backed by mega millions of booster dollars that other programs could not and can not match. Just look at the budgets Alabama and Clemson have for recruiting alone. Both have “factory” staffs for recruiting and player development. But the NCAA is never going to challenge what is going on. They should, because college football should not be “free enterprise.” It should be fair and balanced for the health of the game. But it looks like the final four will always have Clemson and Alabama in it from now on and the hunt for the national title will become uninteresting for most current fans of college football as a result. The race for the SEC title has already become that. Bama, Bama, Bama, Bama, Bama, Bama……………..

    • I don’t know anything about how much money Clemson is spending but it’s not like they have had Alabama, FSU, or OSU like recruiting classes. I went from 2012 – 2017 on 247Sports and Clemson’s average class rank has been 14.5. Even their 2016 & 2017 classes were ranked 11 and 16 after their NC appearances. In contrast, Gators recruiting avg since 2012 is 9.8. And the recruit quality isn’t exactly linear. There is a massive difference in quality between the #1 and #5 ranked classes and the quality continues to decline exponentially. The difference between UF’s 9.8 and Clemson’s 14.5 is massive.

      Clemson has gotten where they are through some damn good coaching but I don’t think they have established themselves as a dominating force like Alabama. They can go down just as quickly like the Gators and FSU did over the last decade.

      • Good point on Clemson’s recruiting classes. I found an article on NCAA football budgets. Clemson is #24. Alabama is #3. Gators are #4. FSU is #22. The top 2 are Auburn then Ohio State.

        http://www.businessinsider.com/schools-spend-most-money-football-team-2012-1

        So I don’t believe the Gators being outspent is the problem. Bama has gotten themselves in the recruiting/winning/NFL draft virtuous circle. By recruiting well, they’ve played in a lot of championships and are #1 over the last 5 years getting their guys drafted. By winning and getting their guys drafted, the recruits continue to be highly interested in going to Bama. Which leads to more winning and more guys drafted. And on and on. Florida was in this cycle under Spurrier, and also under Meyer. Each time the cycle broke when our head coach left, and we stupidly (both times) hired unproven assistant coaches, neither of which had been a head coach at any level of football.

        http://coachingsearch.com/article?a=Chart-Schools-with-the-most-NFL-Draft-picks-over-the-last-5-years-2017

        McElwain inherited a problem, and the problem was the Gators were not perceived as a place to possibly win a championship. They were also perceived as not having a dynamic office that can feature skill players. I think the jury is still out on McElwain, but if we’re to be honest, and as much as it pains me to say it, McElwain inherited a much harder product to sell than Saban currently has, especially to offensive skill players.

        McElwain has to continue to work on improving the on field product, which should allow for better recruiting, and thus even better on field product. Anyone that thought McElwain (or any coach) was going to in here and have us perform like Bama or OSU, given the perception of our product, in a couple years was delusional.

    • I totally agree with you and the NCAA must start investigating those programs as they get mostly five and four star commits every year triple what the norm is.
      Every body it seems knows what is really happening in college football and the NCAA doe nothing about it.
      Just hands penalties to smaller schools.

  2. we’ve seen plenty and expect to see more of this. diluting the conference by having Missouri, south Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas A & M really wasn’t the best idea to begin with (even Mississippi state and Vanderbilt aren’t headed to the top of anything. if we had to add anyone it should have been returning Georgia tech and Tulane back, but bear Bryant ran off Georgia tech and tulane to help Alabama and the rest of the conference just let him do it without a whimper). mega structures tend to suck resources out of those at the bottom – its a pattern in nature. gradually these top heavy systems will collapse imo.

  3. If Urban Meyer did not become “unhealthy” and stayed with UF all the way til now, Uf would be in the talk along with Bama and Clemson, etc. You don’t have to get a top 5 recruiting class to be ultra successful, it of course help, but you must have player development along with your class…..and that spells coaching.

    • Urban’s last 5 classes (2006-2010) were ranked by Rivals as #2, #1, #3, #11, and #2 recruiting classes. All had at least 4 five star players except 2009, where he had 3. McElwain has gotten a total of 3 five star in three years and averaged ranked 14th. Averaging 4 five stars a year vs 1 a year is a huge difference. Averaging a top 5 recruiting class vs 14th (McElwain) is a humongous difference. Don’t kid yourself, you do need a top 5 recruiting class to stay consistently near the top. You could make a decent argument the difference between McElwain and Meyer can be entirely explained by recruiting. McElwain averages a middling top 25 class and is usually ranked in the middle of the top 25. Meyer averaged a top 5 class and was usually ranked in the top 5. It’s the Jimmy’s and Joe’s, not the X’s and O’s.

  4. We were heading toward competitiveness, but lack of discipline- on and off the field-has held us back. We have made strides with the current guys, but depth isn’t what Alabama has yet. We have made strides at QB, despite injuries. That’s about the only thing separating us from LSU right now. They have had similar struggles with discipline and depth. Not sure how Georgia has held it together. If past experience means anything, they’ll screw it up before it’s over. Auburn has a good offense, but I’m still not sold on their depth and longevity either. Running it over overmatched teams means nothing in CFB.

  5. Reading all these posts, I begin to picture a multi-storied office building staffed with at least a hundred secretaries devoted to assisting in discovering and tracking the very best athletes from Pop Warner through high school so coaches can target and recruit them as early as possible. Got to get those 5 Stars at all cost. Big $. Kind of takes the fun out of sport when it becomes all science and capital gains. One reason I love college athletics is because it’s not sopposed to be like pro sports.

  6. I really believe Alabama being so dominant has, and will continue to be, bad for the college game. What’s the use of playing at all when Alabama is just about guaranteed to win it year in and year out. Other teams are so far behind I don’t see anyone catching them any time soon unless some rules on the number of staff a school can have.

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