In SEC, blowouts raise questions about competitive balance
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — 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.”