SCOTT: Strange days in the SEC

What in the name of Pat Dye and Vince Dooley is going on around here? What in the Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson has the SEC become?

What's this world coming to when LSU and Tennessee, two SEC powers coached by former offensive line coaches, can't run the ball consistently?


These are strange days indeed for the SEC, a conference traditionally known for its hard-nosed play and its rugged dedication to being able to run the ball effectively, particularly in short-yardage or late-game situations.


Certainly the game has changed over the past two decades with the move toward multiple receivers, shotgun formations and spread offenses, but it's just odd when you look at last week's NCAA Division I-A stats and see only one SEC team listed among the nation's top 30 rushing offenses.


That one team? Arkansas, entered this past weekend ranked fifth with 238 rushing yards per game. Is there any coincidence that the Razorbacks are the only SEC team without a conference loss this season? Think about it.


Then again, the second-best SEC rushing team was Auburn, ranked 33rd nationally last week with 161.3 yards per game. The Tigers, most would agree, haven't exactly been dominating opponents the past few weeks.


LSU may have been third in the SEC with 158.1 yards per game, but that was only good for 36th nationally. A Tennessee program that used to rank annually among the SEC's best running teams entered the weekend ranked a surprising 10th in the SEC and 86th nationally with 113.50 rushing yards per game.


Even Florida, with its wide array of quarterbacks, tailbacks and receivers running the ball, was fifth in the SEC and 39th nationally with 157.5 rushing yards per game.


The reasons for the SEC's lack of running dominance, according to SEC coaches, are multiple. The prime reason is the quality of the defenses SEC offenses face week in, week out.


"Just looking at the defenses, I think they are better this year than they've been," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "They've had the opportunity to play against a more inexperienced group of quarterbacks this year. We've got a lot more freshmen and young guys who haven't played. The rushing yardage, I know ours is down because we've tried to rush the ball but we've held our running backs, some of our starters, out because of injury.


"The one consistent team the last couple years has been Arkansas. That's their forte. That's what they do. But there are a lot of teams in the league who don't want to run the football. They want to throw. That's what they do and that's their philosophy."


Defensive philosophies also have something to do with the SEC's limited running success.


"I think defenses in general have taken a much more aggressive approach to playing defense, with all the pressure packages, linebacker blitzes and zone blitzes and fire zones and all the things that are out there," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "There's more occasion to have a linebacker that's popping free, or a back-side end that's popping free, and therefore without more blockers on them, there are more big hits than there used to be.


"Rushing yards are much harder to get in this day and age because more defenses are willing to play man-to-man and pressure offenses with their schemes. I think it's much more difficult now, and there are a lot more free guys coming at you."


The combination of those two factors makes it awfully tough for an offense to line up and block all eight or nine players in the box.


"I think defenses have caught up with offense's desire to run the football," LSU coach Les Miles said. "By scheme, I think defenses take the run away a little more regularly by outnumbering the offense. I think we have some great defenses in this league. Week after week you line up against some very good defenses in this league and that has a lot to do with it."


Then again, some of the problem can be explained as a cyclical phenomenon. Look around the league and count the number of truly special tailbacks. Arkansas has two of them in sophomores Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Auburn has Kenny Irons. Alabama's Ken Darby, Ole Miss' BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Vanderbilt's Cassen Garrison-Jackson are pluggers, but not studs. Kentucky's Rafael Little is more of an all-purpose back, and he's hurt right now. The best of Georgia's three backs, Thomas Brown, is out for the rest of the season.


"I look around our conference and I don't think we have the runners," Misissippi State coach Sylvester Croom said. "Irons - the kid at Auburn - is a top back, but you look just a few years ago and they had Cadillac (Carnell Williams) and Ronnie Brown - two great backs. It's a cycle. The league is throwing the ball more this year, but there'll be balance (in the future)."


In the meantime, you know things are just plain weird when Alabama, a team as committed to the run as any in the SEC, can't get the ball in the end zone on two consecutive tries from the 1-yard line against Florida International.


Alabama not scoring from the 1-yard on two tries against Florida International? Bear Bryant must be rolling over in his grave.




Speaking of Alabama, the Crimson Tide could be well on its way to a 6-6 regular-season finish after losing 24-16 to Mississippi State on Saturday.


Of all the teams to lose to at this point, Mississippi State had to be the worst possible choice. First of all, Alabama chose Mike Shula over Sylvester Croom as its coach in May, 2003, and Mississippi State then hired Croom following the 2003 season. Then, to make matter worse, Alabama lost at home to a team with a 23-game SEC road losing streak.


"This win is the best we've had since we've been here, without question," Croom said. "It's a road win against a team that embodies everything I believe about the game. It doesn't get any better than this at this moment."


And, as Alabama players indicated, it doesn't get any more embarrassing than this.


"That's embarrassing, man," Alabama tailback Ken Darby said. "We're all feeling bad. We all feel like we should have won that game. We know we should have won that game."


Instead, the Crimson Tide fell behind 24-10 in the first half and a moribund offense once again failed to make the most of its red zone opportunities, with no touchdowns on four trips inside the Mississippi State 20-yard line.


"This was just a really tough day," Shula said. "I know we're a better football team than what we saw out there today. We thought we'd be further along by now. It's my job to get this team where they need to be."


That statement begs two questions. Why isn't the Tide further along by now? And, will Shula get the chance to take this team where it needs to be?


First, the program is still paying for a prolonged NCAA investigation, the subsequent probation and penalties and going through four head coaches in four years. Because of it, the current senior class isn't exactly loaded with studs.


The problem is, Shula apologists have relied on those reasons for so long that critics are tired of the talk and want some action. They're tired of conservative play calling, the lack of results in the red zone and, of course, the losing.


Second, there's little doubt Shula will be the Alabama coach next season, barring some odd or unforeseen circumstances. The university president, Dr. Robert Whitt, wants Shula to be the head coach and Whitt ignored the board of trustees when they urged him to keep Mike Price three years ago.


What could change, though, is the way Shula runs his offense. He currently determines the game plan and calls the plays, in conjunction with offensive coordinator Dave Rader. Shula mad be forced to hire a true offensive coordinator to run the offense and call the plays.


In the meantime, the Tide closes out the regular season with LSU and Auburn, two games that look difficult to win for a team that can't seem to put the ball in the end zone when it really needs to.




At 8-1, 5-0 in the SEC, the last thing Arkansas needs right now is a quarterback controversy, but it might get one anyway. Then again, the one thing the Razorbacks seemed to need on Saturday at South Carolina, at least in the opinion of coach Houston Nutt, was a quarterback change.


True freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain is 8-0 as Arkansas' starting quarterback but he struggled early at South Carolina and gave way to sophomore Casey Dick, who most likely would have been the starter anyway this season if he had not struggled through the spring, summer and preseason with a back injury.


After Mustain threw an interception on the first series, Dick took over and completed 11 of 19 passes for 228 yards and a touchdown. Most important, the Razorbacks beat the Gamecocks 26-20.


"This is a very critical time in November and we needed just a little bit more experience," Nutt said. "I had to go with Casey and he did a good job.


It's only a quarterback controversy if Nutt allows it to and only time will tell if that happens. A lot will be determined by how the quarterbacks play on Saturday against Tennessee.


For now, though, the offense will continue to be built around McFadden and Jones and the quarterback, whether it's Mustain or Dick, won't have to take on the load many SEC quarterbacks are expected to carry each week.


"Mitch has been winning as a starter and it's hard to pull that," Nutt said. "But when things go south that early on a very simple play, I felt in my gut I needed to make a move. Mitch is an excellent quarterback and he's going to be a great one. But all we're trying to do is win right now."




Richard Scott is a Birmingham based journalist author and a columnist for Tiger Rag magazine. Reach him at

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