Say what you want about the quality of America's college football conferences. Just acknowledge that the Southeastern Conference, in good years and bad, is the nation's most cutthroat conference. No corner of the country plays scholastic football with the fury or passion, the pressure or scrutiny, the hatred or heat that envelops the Southern United States on Autumnal Saturdays. A year of SEC football is tougher than a year spent in any other conference.
But while SEC football is to be admired for its competitiveness, year-in and year-out, and while the SEC pigskin experience takes a backseat to no one, there is this distressing trend we're seeing on the playing fields: a horrible, gruesome disease called NFL-ization is spreading, and it needs to be stopped.
Top-shelf football needs to blend the kind of offense you see in Cal-UCLA with the kind of defense you see in Georgia-Tennessee. In a sport where planning, counter-planning and adjustments are central to success and survival, games should display chess matches and blended talent worthy of the time, money and emotions invested by SEC fans in the sport they love. On the defensive side of the ball, we're seeing the kind of quality Southern football fans have a right to expect.
On the offensive side, it's another story.
Georgia played a crisp, efficient, steady offensive game in Knoxville last weekend... and scored but 13 points when the outcome was in doubt. LSU is coughing up more pills than the pharmaceutical industry makes in a month. Tennessee is drowning in a Rocky Slop of mistakes. Florida's offense? The Gator Nation natives know the story there. South Carolina has been a disaster for Steve Spurrier in Year One down in Columbia. Vanderbilt started strong, but has become achingly ineffective in a return to older Commodore days. And as for Ole Miss, M'sipi State, Arkansas, and Kentucky? Just pure ineptitude.
Only Alabama has maxed out in a big game this season, playing with beautiful precision and cohesiveness (unfortunately for Florida fans, that masterpiece came against the Gators). Auburn has rung up big numbers against lightweights, but without a stiff test on their SEC slate, the Tigers are still very much an unknown, and will remain that way until they enter Baton Rouge on Oct. 22.
We have an SEC, then, in which the midpoint of the season finds that 10 of the league's 12 offenses just don't cut it, with Georgia being a possible exception. (Credit D.J. Shockley for poised game management in a big-time win for the UGA senior. Nevertheless, the point totals need to rise in Athens for the collective offense to be viewed as something special.)
In this weekend's Florida-LSU game and any other big SEC tilt that has come down the pike this season, the biggest question in each game is inevitably the same: who will make fewer mistakes? It's not oversimplified analysis to say that the ball security of most of the league's quarterbacks is almost invariably the biggest key to any appreciably even matchup in this conference.
And when the object of the game becomes making fewer mistakes instead of making more big plays, you know that a conference has contracted that malady, whose scientific name is streptobacillus professionalus footballus-the disease of professional football.
You remember a decade ago, right? Cowboys, 49ers and Packers. Epic playoff duels. Great quarterbacking under pressure. Playmakers all around. Prime-time performers in abundance. Aggressiveness in play-calling. Ruthlessly proactive, go-for-the-jugular coaching. It wasn't sissy football, but it wasn't lacking in creativity or precision, either.
Today, the NFL has become a league where you avoid and minimize mistakes and hope you get to kick the last field goal in a 16-13 game decided by pipsqueak soccer players. Florida's signature win of 2005 was a game in which Chris Hetland was the hero. Tennessee's win over LSU was made possible by Tiger mistakes, specifically a JaMarcus Russell pick. Georgia's win over Tennessee turned largely on the strength of huge and timely turnovers. South Carolina's season has gone nowhere because the Gamecocks can't protect the ball. The bottom-feeders in the SEC can't do anything with the ball.
Make no mistake --- the defenses in this conference are awesome. The speed, physicality and sound schooling that characterize the defenses of the SEC's six big-name programs are unmistakable. It shouldn't be easy to score in this league, and Dixie's defenses are holding up their end of the bargain.
But what in the name of Woody Hayes has gotten into this league's offenses? Either the player development side is lacking --- particularly at the quarterback position --- or the gameday coaching just isn't up to snuff. Or, perhaps, this is just a down cycle for offense in the SEC. However, the poor quality of offense in the conference is real, and a telltale sign of this dynamic is that head coaches are going into shells.
Football coaches are, by nature, a fraternity dominated by groupthink and conservatism. They take comfort in old truisms, and sleep better when they know they can win with minimal risk. Unless they have gifted offensive units that can be depended on to score while not turning over the rock, they're more likely to emphasize defense as the means by which they can succeed. A point of clarification is necessary here: this doesn't mean coaches are stupid to rely on their defenses --- that is a display of sound football intelligence in today's SEC. What it does mean is that coaches plainly lack confidence in their quarterbacks and offenses to produce at a prodigious level. Liberating their offenses and being creative are luxuries SEC head coaches can't afford these days; the overwhelming majority of their focus and mental energy has to be devoted to the minimalist side of football: merely minimizing mistakes and weeding out or masking team deficiencies.
This is what the NFL has been like since its great quarterbacks (Elway, Marino, Young, Aikman) left, and this is what the SEC is in 2005. It's not Rex Grossman, Casey Clausen, Eli Manning, Rohan Davey, a young Matt Jones, Andrew Zow, Romaro Miller, and David Greene. It's not Danny Wuerffel, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin, Quincy Carter, Dameyune Craig, and Tim Couch.
Yes, let's give props to the defensive coordinators of the SEC --- the Willie Martinezes, John Chavises and Joe Kines of the world. But let's also note the uninspired performances of the Jimbo Fishers, Randy Sanders, Houston Nutts and Rich Brookses. It's very much a both-and situation at a time when the SEC is far removed from the Florida-Bama title tilts of the 90s (which had that blend of good offense and physical defense) and some great Tennessee-LSU games right around the turn of the century/millennium.
Phil Fulmer might be smart to rely on his defense to win games, but when he's punting the ball down 20-7 with only six and a half minutes left against Georgia, you know that General Neyland/Bear Bryant football has recaptured too much of a foothold in the SEC. Making more plays, not fewer mistakes, should be the ultimate name of the game.
Let's get this nagging NFL bacteria out of the SEC's system. Maybe not now, but by the end of this season or the start of the next one.