SCOTT: Lessons learned on Saturday

The SEC has taken its share of criticism in recent years over its willingness to play relatively weak nonconference schedules.

In many cases, that evaluation is justified.

 

And then there are times when it's tough to blame SEC teams for scheduling a few lightweights among a long line of conference heavyweights.

 

The first Saturday of the season offered some valuable lessons in the benefits of opening with lesser opponents. Alabama, Kentucky and Vanderbilt whipped up on Division I-AA teams, and Florida beat up on a first-year Division I-A team. Fortunately for those teams, they weren't playing Appalachian State.

 

Both Arkansas and South Carolina left a lot to be desired in victories over Sun Belt teams, and Ole Miss barely survived a two-point win over a Conference USA team coming off a 2-10 season. What would have happened if they had played someone more substantial?

 

Auburn had to scratch and claw for a 23-13 home victory over Kansas State, a game that just as easily could have gone the other way if not for some of K-State's late mistakes.

Georgia was the only SEC team to earn a decisive win over a worthwhile opponent with a 35-14 victory over Oklahoma State.

 

And then there's Tennessee. One year after opening the season with a 35-18 home win over Cal, the Vols traveled to Berkeley, Cal., home of tree huggers, vegans and other alleged bleeding-heart softies, and got physically whipped in a 45-31 loss.

 

Somewhere Saturday night, LSU coach Les Miles was probably wishing he could take back all that tough talk about the Pac-10 not measuring up to the SEC.

 

"You can debate that every year," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "The SEC's a good conference. The Pac-10's a good conference. The Big Ten's a good conference. The Big XII is a good conference. It just depends on the year.

 

"From top to bottom, our league is pretty darn tough. But the top two or three teams in any of the leagues that play for the national championship year in and year out (are good). Cal is a very fine football team."

 

Makes you wonder what Fulmer would do if he could do it over again. Tennessee has been brave enough to face more than its share of tough nonconference opponents over the past two decades, with games against Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame, Southern Cal, UCLA and Syracuse (back when Syracuse stood for something).

 

The Vols have won some and lost some along the way, but Fulmer believes it's a risk worth taking.

 

"Those games pay great dividends because of the national exposure for recruiting," Fulmer said. "And when you open with one, your team knows in the summer that it better be ready from the get-go."

 

And then there's the other side of the debate. The one that says SEC teams already beat up on each other, so why should they go outside the conference and add even more challenging games to an already rugged schedule?

 

"I don't think SEC schools need to load their schedules with nationally ranked opponents to improve strength of schedule," Miles said.

 

SEC athletic directors would also be quick to point out the need for paying the bills. It takes money, and lots of it, to pay for all those football salaries, let alone maintenance on huge stadiums, new construction, more volleyballs and new softball bats.

 

Somewhere in the middle there's an attempt to establish some sort of balance. You can't play I-AA teams every week (and if you're Michigan you should never schedule one again) and you can't play USC every week, either.

 

"I don't think you need to sign up four premier programs," Florida coach Urban Meyer said, "but I also think it's wrong to line up and play four 1-AAs."

 

It would seem that the best balance would come in playing mid-level Division I-A teams, such as the better Conference USA, Mountain West, WAC and MAC teams. There's a big problem with that, however. Coaches understand just how dangerous it is to play teams such as Southern Miss., Boise State, and Fresno State, but fans and the national media ( ... ESPN ....) often don't. The fans and the media expect a blowout win and when they don't get it, the criticism starts flying.

 

It's a tenuous balance at best; one that SEC teams work constantly to traverse. Auburn provides a good example. When the Tigers went 13-0 and didn't get a shot at the national championship in 2004, they caught a lot of flack for playing The Citadel, a lower-level Division I-AA team. What the national media seemed to miss time and time again was the fact that Auburn had already scheduled Bowling Green, a quality MAC team, only to have Bowling Green use the escape clause in its contract and leave Auburn scrambling for a game.

 

This week, the AU Tigers will play South Florida. Like Kansas State, South Florida is capable of coming into Jordan-Hare Stadium and winning. On Sept. 22 the Tigers will play New Mexico State, a game that could be a lot more interesting than it appears to be on paper because of Auburn's defensive injuries and NMSU's passing attack under former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme.

With all that on their plate, it's easy to forgive the Tigers for playing Tennessee Tech on Nov. 3.

 

"People talk about how SEC teams won't play anybody, but we've tried to get teams to play us," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "We put feelers out all over the country the last four years. We're fortunate we've got Kansas State and South Florida this year and West Virginia and Clemson in the future."

 

 

Last year Tennessee looked awfully impressive in its season-opening win over Cal, but the Vols never looked that good again on their way to a 9-4 finish. That's why it's wise not to draw too many conclusions from the way the Vols played at Cal last week, but it's hard to ignore the way the Bears hurt the Vols in so many ways.

 

"I'd heard a lot of comments that the SEC is a more physical conference," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford. "I hope that (game) answered some of those questions."

 

Very few Vols were willing to man-up and admit they simply got whipped at times.

 

"They weren't all that physical up front, but they had a lot of plays that helped them out," Tennessee linebacker Ryan Karl said. "They had a lot of screens and stuff to get people out of position. They were good, but they're not going to be the best that we face this year."

 

If that's the case, how bad can things get for the Vols this season? At least Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis was willing to stand up and be blunt in his assessment of both Cal and his own team.

 

"That's not typical of Tennessee football," Chavis said, "particularly Tennessee defense. ... "You've got to give Cal a little credit. We played a good football team. We played a team that was in the top 10 in every (offensive) category last year."

 

As for his own defense, Chavis said, "We didn't play the way we were capable of playing. The tackling was not acceptable. We're going to get that squared away. We'll look at personnel; we'll look at the whole deal. Whatever we need to do to get better, that's what we're going to do.

 

"Right now our focus is going back to Knoxville, getting this game behind us, correcting the mistakes, and getting back on the field. And I can't wait to get back on the field to work. Because we've got a lot of work to do. ...

 

"We didn't play Tennessee defense tonight. We're going to go back and work on those things, and we'll be better next ballgame. I guarantee you that."

 

 

 

Auburn survived a physical challenge from a hungry K-State team, but the Tigers paid a price for their victory. Now it remains to be seen if that price will be too heavy to pay this week against a talented and underrated South Florida team.

 

Middle linebacker Tray Blackmon missed most of the second half after injuring his ankle on an interception return in the final play of the first half. Safety Aairon Savage, who makes the secondary calls, spent most of the second half in a walking boot to protect an ankle injury. Cornerback Jonathan Wilhite has a hamstring injury.

 

"It looked like a M*A*S*H unit at halftime with the defense," said Tuberville.

 

And then there's senior quarterback Brandon Cox, whose knees and ankles were never the same after taking a beating in the third game against LSU last season. This time, Cox took several violent shots to the upper body and left with a cut on his right thumb, a bruised right shoulder, and who knows what else.

 

Cox still managed to rally Auburn for one last drive and the game-winning touchdown pass with 2:10 remaining.  But with an uncertain line that struggled in pass protection against Kansas State, Cox could be in big trouble this week against USF.

 

"He's a tough young man," Tuberville said. "He took a beating."

 

 

 

Could Georgia be better than expected? Granted, Oklahoma State is no better than the fourth-best team in the Big XII South behind Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M. But the Cowboys are supposed to be one of the nation's most explosive offenses and the Bulldogs held them to 21 points and 145 yards below their 2006 averages.

 

"We knew they were a great football team, and we had to stop the run early and take all their momentum," defensive tackle Jeff Owens said. "And that's what we did."

 

Meanwhile, sophomore quarterback Matthew Stafford looked confident and efficient, running back Thomas Brown looked healthy after last year's season-ending knee injury, and the Bulldogs appeared to once again have some capable playmakers at receiver.

"I thought it was an extremely solid performance all the way around," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "For the most part, for an opening game, that was pretty darn solid."

 

We'll know a lot more about the Bulldogs on Saturday when they play South Carolina. Georgia beat the Gamecocks 18-0 last year, and you know that's been eating at South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier for an entire year. His defense is better, and suspended quarterback Blake Mitchell will be back.

 

Then again, who knows how good the Gamecocks are after they struggled to beat Louisiana-Lafayette 28-14?

 

"In a way this is real good for our team. Now we know we're just a bunch of average stiffs," Spurrier said. "And we're going to have a very average year if we don't play a lot better. So we don't need to think we're any good."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at rscottsec@yahoo.com.


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