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?
Then again, the second-best SEC
rushing team was
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.
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,"
"The one consistent team the last
couple years has been
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.
"I look around our conference and I
don't think we have the runners,"
In the meantime, you know things
are just plain weird when
Of all the teams to lose to at this
"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."
"That's embarrassing, man,"
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
"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
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
At 8-1, 5-0 in the SEC, the last
True freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain is 8-0 as
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
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