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SEC Week: Life on the Margins

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There’s more parity in the SEC than meets the eye: take Ole Miss, for example, an ostensibly terrible team which played Georgia within five points last year, Georgia within six and took Alabama and LSU to overtime. Or Vanderbilt, which finished 1-7 in-conference (the one win over Georgia) despite to-the-wire rows with Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and the aforementioned Rebels.

That just goes with the territory in this league, though, because its style of play – broadly, a tendency towards low-scoring, defensive battles and conservative, mistake-averse offenses – lends itself to many more closer margins than most other conferences. But "close" in this case isn’t always misleading: Vandy may have played Alabama within a field goal, but it was soundly outgained and only managed about half the Tide’s total first downs in the end, just as ‘Bama itself lagged much further behind at Tennessee (where it was outgained by almost 150 yards) than the 16-13 final would suggest; ditto South Carolina in its late surge to make a lopsided loss at Arkansas look respectable. And Ole Miss, for all its gumption against the upper crust, was ultimately outgained by more than 100 yards per conference game, worst in the league by far, and got the right bounces in outright sketchy wins over Memphis, Vandy and Mississippi State. So, in a way, almost every team in the SEC is on the margins on a near-weekly basis.

I say that by way of recognizing that there are a few teams – South Carolina and Vandy, most notably – who were very close to qualifying for this feature. But the decks were more consistently, and therefore tellingly, stacked elsewhere:

An aside for newcomers: "swing" points describe any scores by virtue of defense or special teams or a short field (25 yards or less), and occasionally other anomalies like blocked field goals/PATs and two-point conversions, at my discretion. Read here for a better explanation.
Florida in 'Swing' Games
Result Yards 1st Dwns. TO Margin "Swing" Pts.
at Tennessee W, 21-20 + 100 + 9 + 1 -
Alabama W, 28-13 + 7 – 3 + 1 Push
LSU W, 23-10 – 30 – 8 + 3 + 16
at Auburn L, 17-27 – 36 – 1 – 2 – 16
at Vanderbilt W, 25-19 – 61 – 1 – 2 + 8
South Carolina W, 17-16 – 9 + 5 – 1 + 4

Florida’s good fortune was well-chronicled, because the team was so high profile, but it’s really the Vanderbilt and South Carolina games that raise the biggest questions about the champs’ ability to sustain top tier success. Any one-point game must fall under the umbrella of "close," but the Gators clearly moved the ball more effectively than Tennessee, who scored one of its touchdowns on a trick play, but the wider margins against Alabama and LSU mask pretty even performances that turned on turnovers. The LSU game in particular stands out because of two fairly random earthquake plays: the first a touchdown run on the Tigers’ first drive that was called back on an iffy holding call and immediately followed by a turnover, and the second Early Doucet’s third quarter muff that led to a safety and great field position for a very special Tebow Moment, his touchdown pass to Louis Murphy.

The Gators are already likely underdogs when they visit Baton Rouge, though, so that just tells us what we already know (those are two evely-matched teams). The Vandy and Carolina games, on the other hand, are the ones that really undermine the perception of UF as an immutable overlord, because few immutable overlords are so reliant on blocked kicks: it was an early blocked punt by Reggie Nelson, a later missed field goal by the Commodores and a couple failed two-point conversions that provided the margin in Nashville, and Jarvis Moss’ infamous leeennngth that won the USC game at home. South Carolina also had an extra point blocked and an earlier go-ahead field goal taken off the board on the quickest, closest delay of game call I’ve ever seen.

It speaks well to Florida that its lone defeat was a borderline affair it could have/should have won, which is more than we can say for their conquistadors:

Auburn in 'Swing' Games
Result Yards 1st Dwns. TO Margin "Swing" Pts.
LSU W, 7-3 – 129 – 3 – 1 -
at South Carolina W, 24-17 – 42 – 8 + 1 -
Florida W, 27-17 + 36 + 1 + 2 + 16
at Alabama W, 22-15 – 103 – 4 + 3 + 10
vs. Nebraska W, 17-14 – 52 – 5 0 + 14

Unfortunately for John Parker Wilson, there’s nothing marginal about Quentin Groves’ pass rush.
- - -
Sounding the alarm at least as loud as anything in that chart is this: Auburn was 6-2 in the SEC, yet was outgained by about 33 yards per conference game (Vanderbilt, 1-7, was outgained by 24.7 ypg). Not only were the Tigers incredibly opportunistic – the great turnover margin, the pass interference no-call against LSU, a defensive and a special teams touchdown against Florida, the onside kick at South Carolina, short field scores in rock-bottom offensive efforts against ‘Bama and Nebraska – but they were the only team in the conference that couldn’t also argue about the one that got away, because their two losses were unambiguous blowouts at the hands of Arkansas and Georgia, both starting true freshman quarterbacks on the road. Rare is the team that can win two different games in which it’s outgained by more than 100 yards in the same year, and even rarer, I’m guessing, is the team that can repeat it with so many problems moving the ball. Auburn can always play defense, so it may not have to overcome that kind of gap, but the offense had an abominable finish and won’t survive another year held together by duct tape.

One bad sign for the Tigers: Alabama’s new staff has apparently benched Chris Capps, the tackle largely responsible for the Honk If You Sacked Brodie/Black Rhino debacle of 2005 and entirely responsible for allowing Quintin Groves to cause back-to-back fumbles preceding two of Auburn’s three touchdowns last year. It just seemed to go that way for Mike Shula:

Alabama in 'Swing' Games
Result Yards 1st Dwns. TO Margin "Swing" Pts.
at Arkansas L, 23-24 (2OT) + 92 + 5 + 2 – 7
at Florida L, 13-28 – 7 + 3 – 1 Push
Ole Miss W, 26-23 (OT) + 147 + 4 0 -
Miss. State L, 16-24 + 14 + 4 0 Push
Auburn L, 15-22 + 103 + 4 – 3 – 10

That doesn’t include the Independence Bowl loss, despite the last-second finish, because the numbers say Oklahoma State decidedly controlled that game and was only sweating it because of Javier Arenas’ late punt return for touchdown, one of those lightning strike plays that obscures a lopsided performance down-to-down (OSU outgained ‘Bama by 143 on fewer snaps). But it does say something for the Tide that in that game, and in its other statistically lopsided loss, at Tennessee, it was very much in the game in the fourth quarter. If one part of Alabama’s problem under Shula was finishing – drives, games, seasons – one of its virtues is that it was always in it, against everybody: for a program that averaged six losses a year, it’s something that only one of those losses (to evential mythical champ LSU in 2003, Shula’s first and worst season) was by 20 points. Not to fuel the Saban frenzy, but last year’s team almost aggressively pursued the losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State, and if Saban’s contribution is merely to prevent those kinds of readymade opportunities from going wrong again – as they invariably did for Shula, in close loss after close loss to Tennessee, LSU and Auburn, on top of games like the aforementioned choke jobs last year – and hold court elsewhere, ‘Bama can compete for the division at nine wins.