Okay, time to admit it. This was the worst year for the Southeastern Conference since 2005. All the evidence you need is Ohio State’s dismantling of #1 ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Last year, the SEC’s string of seven straight national championships came to an end. At least last year, Auburn was within 13 seconds of winning the national championship. This year, the SEC won’t even have a team in the national championship game.
Alabama’s 42-35 loss to the Buckeyes in the second semifinal game of the day was just the latest embarrassment for the conference in the bowl season. Mississippi State, which spent five weeks ranked #1, and Ole Miss, which beat Alabama and flirted with the #1 ranking, both were on the wrong end of embarrassing beatdowns on New Year’s Eve. Early Thursday afternoon, Auburn gave up 400 rushing yards to Wisconsin and lost, 34-31, in overtime. Tuesday, LSU’s vaunted defense couldn’t get stops and the Tigers lost to what can only be described as a mediocre Notre Dame team.
The common denominator of the seven straight national championships was terrific defense, but there hasn’t been a great defensive team in the league in the last two years. Because Alabama was so good against the run, everybody thought the Crimson Tide had the defense that would make the difference in the playoffs, but Ohio State gashed Alabama from the opening drive and ran for 281 yards with Ezekiel Elliott going for 230 including that 85-yard game clincher late in the fourth quarter. All told, Ohio State gained 537 yards and scored five offensive touchdowns. Also, the Buckeyes converted 10 of their 18 third down opportunities. That’s not the way to win ball games.
And to think this might have been the best defense in the SEC.
Spread offenses and rules changes have made it tougher to play defense in the secondary, but that’s not an excuse for SEC teams getting manhandled in the running game nor is it an excuse for their inability to get to the quarterback. This is the second straight year that Alabama has been done in by a lack of a pass rush. The Bama secondary wasn’t as stout as in years past, but that D-line didn’t exactly give a lot of help, now did it?
Meanwhile, Urban Meyer has Ohio State in the national championship game on January 12 where the Buckeyes will face Oregon. By beating Alabama, Meyer pretty much dispels that notion that he was run out of the SEC by Nick Saban. Saban is a great coach who has earned his perch at the top of the who’s who in college coaching. Urban Meyer deserves to be right up there with him.
At some point you had to figure that Florida State’s year of living dangerously would come back to bite the Seminoles in a big way. How many times, after all, can you make mistake after mistake only to have the other team cave in the fourth quarter? The difference in what happened in any one of seven games that the Seminoles could have lost this season and what happened at the Rose Bowl Thursday was Oregon played with a go for the jugular mentality. Unlike Clemson, North Carolina State or some of those other teams who failed when they went to a play not to lose mode in the second half, there was no play it safe in the Ducks. They were in an attack mode the entire game and whenever FSU made a mistake, they were determined to dial up the tempo, which kept the Seminoles gasping for air.
That Oregon won wasn’t a surprise. The Ducks were 9-point favorites heading into the game, but did any of you think they could blow out FSU by a 39-point margin. You could have made a lot of money in Las Vegas if you had put $100 on Oregon winning, 59-20.
Credit underpaid Mark Helfrich – his current salary is only $400,000 more than Will Muschamp will make next season as Auburn’s defensive coordinator – with a superior game plan and Oregon’s strength and conditioning coordinator Jim Radcliffe for getting the Ducks in shape to go at sprinter’s speed the whole game while the Noles were gagging. In terms of pure speed – the kind where you line people up and let them race from point A to point B – Florida State probably has every bit as much speed as Oregon, but what the Seminoles and every team that plays Oregon have difficulty with is simulating the speed in which the Ducks are able to run their plays in an efficient manner. Oregon runs a play, sprints up to the line of scrimmage and within 10-12 seconds snaps off yet another play. It’s rare when they have a movement penalty or when their players are confused by the play call. This is a very disciplined team that is finely conditioned. There never was a moment in the game when the Ducks looked like they were tired. FSU, on the other hand, seemed gassed every time the Ducks ran a sequence of four or five plays. It was really bad in the second quarter and only got worse in the second half.
What makes the Oregon offense so special is Heisman Trophy quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has to be one of the most efficient quarterbacks to play the game in years. Not only is Mariota a deserving Heisman Trophy winner but he is head and shoulders a better quarterback than Jameis Winston, who won the big trophy last year. While Mariota never once lost his composure and rarely made a bad decision, Winston came unglued. His reputation for being able to shut off the noise and dialing in the focus took a serious hit in the second half. Did you happen to see that exchange he had with Jimbo Fisher on the sideline?
Oregon’s numbers were impressive: 639 yards of total offense, 338 passing and 301 rushing. The Ducks averaged an exceptional 7.9 yards per play. Mariota threw for all 338 yards on 26-36 passing (9.4 yards per attempt) with two touchdowns and just his third interception of the season. He also ran for 62 yards (7.8 per carry).
Defensively, Oregon gave up 348 yards passing to Winston, but did a good job of taking away Winston’s two favorite weapons – Rashad Greene (6-59 receiving) and Nick O’Leary (1-4) – and attacking the football. FSU lost four fumbles and Winston also threw an interception.
No one would call Oregon’s defense a great unit, but the Ducks get just enough stops to be dangerous. Any time an opponent comes away from an offensive series without at least three points, it’s tantamount to a seven point swing because the Ducks seem to have the ability to score any time they touch the ball.
Due to the way they blew out the Seminoles in such convincing fashion, Oregon will almost surely open up at least a 7-10 point favorite to win the national championship.
Jameis Winston showed a total lack of class in the loss to Oregon although he did take the time to shake hands with Marcus Mariota and some of the other Oregon players. The majority of FSU players and coaches left the field without a show of sportsmanship by shaking hands with the Ducks, another classless act. But FSU wasn’t the only one lacking. There are reports that Oregon players were chanting “No means no,” a clear shot at Winston. This is the pot calling the kettle black. This is the same University of Oregon whose basketball team allowed three starters to play in the NCAA Tournament last March even though they had been accused of sexually assaulting an intoxicated female student. The school knew about the assault and didn’t disclose anything to the media until May, a full two months later.
It would be absolutely shocking if Winston elects to come back for his junior year at FSU. Sure, he talks about how much he loves FSU, loves playing baseball and how much he wants to get his college diploma, but it’s time for him to take his low class act somewhere else. If he’s smart, he’ll leave school and let Roger Goodell and NFL Security deal with his penchant for finding trouble. Even with all his character issues, Winston will be someone’s top five draft pick.
Another reason he might go is a scan of FSU’s offensive depth chart where they lose top targets Greene and O’Leary and four offensive linemen. If Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman and Reggie Northrup leave early for the NFL, as expected, the defense will be re-tooling in a big way, too.
FSU will still be good enough to win its division in the ACC, but it’s highly doubtful the Seminoles will contend for a national championship next year.
This is not taking anything away from Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, who is a marvelous running back, but there is no way he would have run for 251 yards and three touchdowns on a Will Muschamp-coached defense. Wisconsin ran for 400 yards on the Tigers, clearly demonstrating why Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is willing to pay Muschamp $1.6 million next year to revamp the defense.
Auburn isn’t the only SEC team that needs to do some serious thinking about defense. Ole Miss and Mississippi State were atrocious in their New Year’s Eve bowl games and neither Texas A&M nor South Carolina set the world on fire. Auburn’s hire of Muschamp is just the first of several dominoes that will fall in the next two weeks. Texas A&M hired John Chavis away from LSU. South Carolina is likely to bring back Ellis Johnson to replace Lorenzo Ward. Johnson was a bust at Auburn, but when he was coaching defense for Spurrier the Gamecocks were lights out on defense.
And, speaking of defense, we don’t seem to be hearing too many folks anointing Kirby Smart as the next boy genius, do we?
Which was the bigger shock for you: Oregon blowing out Florida State or Ohio State knocking off Alabama?
Because the 29-game winning streak has ended in Tallahassee, it seems the most appropriate song for today is Peggy Lee’s version of the Julie Styne classic, “The Party’s Over.”