SEC Football: Don't Go Blaming Arkansas

It's understandable that a big topic of discussion in the Southeastern United States will always be the supremacy of SEC football. In the 1990s, the debate usually seemed to revolve around the Big Ten as the conference that could challenge the SEC. Then, around the turn of the decade/century/millennium, the Big XII packed a wallop and challenged the SEC's quality depth. Now, it appears that the Pac-10 is the conference that gets SEC fans on edge more than any other competing conference.

The Big XII is noticeably weak (heck, it's only a one-division league now), the Big Ten's big three all went down in flames on Sept. 10, and the ACC's upper-tier teams are beating each other up. Those three realities alone would be conducive to increased Pac-10 scrutiny relative to the SEC. But there's a bigger reason why the West Coast is a particular focal point of attention in the "bottom right" corner of America: Southern California has topped the polls at the end of each of the past two seasons. The desire to see USC lose is so great that, with each passing win for the Trojans (and with Matt Leinart in the lineup, each win truly is a passing win), the frustration and anxiety levels in SEC country spike exponentially.

Very early on Sunday, the sentiment was raised in some quarters that "Arkansas is an embarrassment to the SEC" for losing 70-17 to the Trojans the previous night in LA. The 53-point shellacking was viewed by some as an outrageous, unacceptable lack of fight that crippled the SEC's reputation relative to the Pac-10. There are a number of people who are worried that the Hogs' inability to compete for even a full quarter with USC will damage the SEC's profile on a national level, perhaps irretrievably. People who hold this viewpoint framed the Arkansas-USC battle as a clash between the SEC and Pac-10, nothing more.

They need to look at the big picture.

USC is not a Pac-10 team. USC is the '27 Yankees, '72 Lakers, '84 49ers, '96 Bulls, or any other overwhelming force of sporting nature you can think of in the long history of sports. In college football terms, this Trojan team --- fueled by its offense --- is already showing signs of approaching 1995 Nebraska territory in terms of dominance. Yes, there are injuries and youth on defense, but the depth possessed by the Trojans --- and the reps being gained by second- and third-stringers on both sides of the ball, due to the sickening quickness with which Pete Carroll's boys have finished off games --- will minimize frontline losses or weaknesses.

Two games into their 2005 season, the Trojans have made college football look like PlayStation. It's not as though they've shown occasional flashes of brilliance: they've been brilliant on offense as a matter of course. Matt Leinart and Co. didn't even take the field until one minute remained in the first quarter against Hawaii. With 2:30 left in the third quarter that same offense had rolled up 42 points. If Leinart had played the entirety of each of USC's first two games and had played full throttle all the way until the final gun with his first-string teammates, USC would have easily hit 70 points against Hawaii and 91 (on 13 touchdowns and PATs) against Arkansas. This team is doing Barry Bonds-style feats without steroids, moving the football with the ease (and evident boredom) displayed by masters of their sport, much like Roger Federer is toying with the tennis world right now.

Remember how Florida got shafted at Neyland Stadium last year when the game clock wasn't restarted after a penalty in the final minute? This brings up a loophole in college football's rules that should be exploited against USC: if you win the coin toss, get a 7-0 lead, and then recover an onside kick on the ensuing possession (onsides kicks, fake punts, and repeated fourth-down gambles must be cornerstones of a winning performance against USC), you should try to take an occasional false start penalty with one second left on the play clock. That way, you can get a built-in advantage of being able to drain --- what? --- 55 to 60 seconds between plays, instead of the usual 25-30 (25 for the play clock, plus the 5 seconds between the end of the play and the actual starting of the play clock). Commit enough false-start penalties with one second left on the play clock, and have a passing game that can overcome those flags with clutch third-down passing, and you could craft ball-control drives of 15 minutes or more (you have to keep your passes just long enough to move the chains... nothing vertical).

It might seem like a lot of overkill, especially when USC hasn't even started its Pac-10 schedule... and also since many folks in the Eastern time zone might not have wanted... or cared... to watch Hogs-Trojans at 10:15, especially when Vols-Gators was careening toward its climax. But during timeouts in the action from the Swamp, I saw on my TV how invisible Arkansas' defense was against USC's onslaught. You need to realize that Matt Leinart really is a player-coach on the field. It's not hyperbole, it's not overstatement.

Consider how rare it is for a No. 1 NFL draft pick to stay in college for another year, when 98 percent of people in the same position would follow the money. Then you might be able to appreciate why gushing, gooey, ga-ga praise of this USC offense might not be so much hot air after all. College football has rarely seen a player-coach on the field the way Leinart is. The enormity of having a quarterback with that much command, leadership and skill cannot be understated.

The point should be clear by now: USC is in its own video game, and we're all just living in it. USC is not a Pac-10 team, but a singular force of nature. Arkansas is little different from most other middle-tier teams in power conferences across America: they wouldn't do thing one against this offense. The SEC's rep didn't take a hit when the Hogs went down hard in LA; USC's star just got magnified.

There is a certain risk in praising a team this much this early; with the Trojans, I think I'll risk the humiliation, because it's not likely to come anytime soon. Don't blame Arkansas; the Hogs chose the wrong year to play USC.

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