SEC FOOTBALL: A Few Cracks In The Surface

It's not the verdict one wants to hear at this point in the season, and --- thankfully --- it is hardly a final verdict, but after watching last night's Tennessee-LSU game, the read on the overall SEC landscape is not pretty. It pains a fan of SEC football to say this, but the league's 2005 edition might not be able to hold up against the best teams in other conferences.

It is and has been said that you have to love someone enough to call them out when they're not cutting it, and so it is with SEC football this year. It has to be loved enough to voice concerns about its health.

LSU --- evidently talented and awesomely fast --- is the SEC team with the best collection of skilled players. However, this abundance of ability was cancelled out by a propensity for huge breakdowns and blunders. From a handful of busted coverages (that Tennessee amazingly couldn't take advantage of... more on that later) to JaMarcus Russell's penchant for the huge, game-changing mistake, LSU shot itself in the foot a lot against the Vols, much like the Arizona State game. Without cleaner football, LSU will make way too many mistakes to win the league, and with respect to the SEC's stature --- beat a team like, oh, Ohio State or Virginia Tech, in a major bowl game.

Florida has a good news-bad news situation, relative to LSU. Along with the Tigers, the Gators seem to be the other truly ultra-talented SEC squad. With Florida, though, the problem isn't making mistakes so much as it is finding a way for this offense to gel and come together in a big game against a big-name opponent. With an impressive performance in Tuscaloosa this Saturday, Florida could stamp itself as the undisputed power of the conference and a national heavyweight who could go toe to toe with a team such as Texas. But until that big-time offensive spectacular occurs in a spotlight game, one has to reserve total and unconditional praise for Urban Meyer's team.

After LSU and Florida, though, this league looks especially shaky. Tennessee was a horribly-coached team on Monday, showing no signs in the first 35 minutes of play that it learned a single thing from the Florida game.

Erik Ainge had to be extraordinarily bad --- and a bit dinged up on --- for Phil Fulmer to reluctantly insert Rick Clausen into the game. And even though Casey's brother led a bold Volunteer comeback, let's be honest: JaMarcus Russell's pick was the defining play of the game, given that Clausen couldn't throw downfield routes with much consistency. And when he did hit his man, a Tennessee receiver dropped the ball. It's hard to remember a worse performance by a receiving corps than the one delivered by the Vols' pass catchers on Monday. No way Tennessee wins a big intersectional game against a similarly-talented non-conference opponent with that kind of performance.

Georgia is looking a lot like Tennessee: very sloppy and minimalist on offense with quarterback issues and a lack of vertical, quick-strike capability. Whereas it's understandable that Tennessee's offense will be scaled down with Rick Clausen under center for the rest of the season, it's not a good sign in Athens that D.J. Shockley is failing to light a fire under UGA's offense. The sluggishness of Georgia is great news for Florida fans to be sure, but in the larger picture, it doesn't speak well for the SEC. Mark Richt's team, if put against a Michigan State or Miami, would have a hard time winning --- against the Spartans because Drew Stanton would score more, against the Canes because Randy Shannon's defense would eat Shockley up.

Alabama is a team that could lend quality depth to the SEC, but Saturday's Florida game --- much more than the blowout of South Carolina a few weeks ago --- will truly tell the tale about Mike Shula's club.

Face it: you have very few teams playing to their capability right now in the SEC. Florida shows the only indications of a club that could eventually reach a level of peak performance, as the elements of Urban Meyer's system gradually come into focus and are absorbed by eager-to-learn players. Throughout the rest of the league, teams seem to be a mess or, if successful, have won against less than overwhelming opposition (as in the cases of Bama and also Vandy). Meanwhile, you have teams in the Pac-10 (Arizona State, UCLA and Cal) and Big Ten (Michigan State) who have made major early statements with impressive performances. The season is just one-third over, but at this milepost, the SEC is a bit behind the curve. There's a lot of time left for things to change, and one certainly hopes that change is on the horizon.

But as any good coach will tell you, there's a lot of work left to do... for the SEC and especially its struggling offenses. Florida and LSU have juggernaut potential, but must still prove themselves. Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama need to elevate their games. And the rest of a scuffling league (minus overachieving Vandy) just needs to fight like hell.

It's true enough that the Big XII is lousy, the ACC not so impressive at the very top (when you get beyond Virginia Tech; FSU and Miami have many of the same issues Georgia and Tennessee have), and the Big Least is, well, the Big Least. But the SEC is not dominating the rest of the nation's leagues, and USC would come into any SEC stadium right now and kick butt (something that could not have been said last season). This conference, as good as it is and as awesome as its fans are (and as intimidating as its home venues can be), needs to re-earn its credibility all over again, which is what the SEC (like any other league) has to do each Autumn.

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