The long-held stereotype suggests that SEC football teams are faster and more athletic, which is why they often dominate Big Ten teams, who tend to be bigger and slower.
As Tennessee prepares for its Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes InsideTennessee asked three Vol aides with coaching experience in the Big Ten their thoughts on the stereotype. The responses proved quite interesting.
Vol receivers coach Zach Azzanni, who served in the same capacity at Wisconsin in 2012, says the idea that the SEC is a speed league and the Big Ten a power league is an oversimplification.
“I think they’re both power leagues,” he told InsideTennessee. “There might be more speed in the SEC overall but there’s speed in all of the big five conferences. Certainly, there’s some different speed in The South but nothing where you can point it out for sure – maybe some returners and things like that once in a while.”
Iowa fits the Big Ten stereotype in terms of being a downhill running team that features massive bodies across the offensive and defensive lines. Still, the Hawkeyes have SEC-type speed at some of the so-called “skill” positions.
“Iowa’s a big, physical team but they can run on the back end (secondary),” Azzanni said. “I’m going to tell you: Their corners will run as well as anybody we’re going to see in the SEC (even though) they’re big and physical. Their two safeties tackle as well as anybody we face, so I don’t know if that (slow-footed) stigma holds true for Iowa.”
Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen previously served two years as an assistant at Illinois, working with cornerbacks in 2003 and with linebackers in 2004. He readily admits that the Big Ten is a power league.
“That’s what it is,” he said, “but the Hawkeyes have a combination of power and speed. They have a running back (Mark Weisman) that’s as downhill as they come but they have another guy, number 5 (Damon Bullock), they bring in to give you the perimeter game.”
Although a ground-hugging team by nature, the Hawkeyes won’t hesitate to make an opponent pay who sells out to stop the running game.
“They throw the ball deep,” Thigpen said, “try to throw it over your head.”
Ultimately, though, Iowa’s offense fits the Big Ten model of building its offensive game plan around tailback left, tailback right, tailback up the middle.
“It’s totally different than what we’ve been seeing,” Thigpen said. “So many teams, like Ole Miss and Kentucky, spread you out and try to make you play in space. In this game it’s about run fits and each guy doing his job.”
No one on Tennessee’s staff knows the Big Ten like defensive line coach Steve Stripling. He assisted at Indiana from 1974-96, at Minnesota from 1997-2000, at Michigan State in 2003-04 and at Michigan from 2005-07. Having faced Iowa roughly two dozen times, he says this is a typical Hawkeye team.
“I’ve played those Iowa guys a bunch, and they’re definitely a physical, run-oriented team that’s very comfortable getting four yards,” Stripling said. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable getting four yards but Iowa’s comfortable getting four, four, four. That’s their mentality, and it has been over the years.”
Whereas Tennessee has been known as Wide Receiver U due to its knack for producing flashy wideouts, Iowa is known for cranking out one great blocker after another. This year it’s tackle Brandon Scherff, a consensus All-American who recently won the Outland Trophy as the NCAA’s premier lineman on either side of the football.
“Their pride has always been their offensive line,” Stripling said. “Their head coach (Kirk Ferentz) has always been an offensive line coach, and his son is the O-line coach now. So who’s the flagship on their team? Their offensive line. And now they’ve got an Outland winner (Scherff) on it.”
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones never played or coached in the Big Ten but he grew up in Big Ten territory (Saugatuck, Mich.), then coached in two Big Ten states – Michigan (Central Michigan University) and Ohio (University of Cincinnati). He believes there are some power teams in the SEC and there are some speed teams in the Big Ten.
“A lot of it is just perception,” he told InsideTennessee. “Every team has a style of play. We always talk about at Tennessee we want to play to a style of play that's only common and unique to Tennessee.”
As for the idea that most SEC teams are built around speed and most Big Ten teams are built around power, Jones simply isn’t buying it.
“I don't believe in that,” he said. “The Big Ten has great football. They have very, very good speed. They're physical. It's a very, very good football conference, so I really don't get into that. All I do is I look at the opponent that we're playing and dissect them.
“In the little bit I've been able to watch of Iowa, we're going to have to play our best football.”
Butch Jones speaks Sunday at Neyland
Click the InsideTennessee logo below to be taken to Sunday's practice notes in premium message board VolChat:
Butch Jones with reporters Thursday