Typically speaking, when an historic and renowned college football conference is able to recruit the most talented high school players at young ages, it tends to get better and better on the gridiron.
There’s such a thing as overdoing it, though.
The SEC’s fall from Mount Olympus over the last decade can be traced directly to over-zealous recruiting methods at the most-important position. When the SEC won 7 straight national titles from 2006-2012, competition to sign prep-level passers became so intense that coaches began contacting teenage QBs in their junior years. And sophomore years. And frosh years. And 8th grade years. Soon, kids who still thought going on a “date” meant heading to the Go-Kart track with 6 boys and 6 girls were asked to make a commitment – or at least trade flirtatious Valentines with an NCAA football program.
But it’s hard to tell if a 12-year-old QB is going to turn into the next Tim Tebow. The level of quarterback play in the Southeastern Conference began to trend downward, to the point where even Alabama’s superior OL and DL play could not overcome the handicap.
Times have changed, and coaches are watching local stars on the Varsity level before offering a scholarship and starting role. The new/old approach to recruiting is paying off. Tua Tagovailoa is one of the most dynamic QBs in the USA on any level, and Jake Fromm has become an institution in Athens. Recent Mississippi State graduate Nick Fitzgerald has kept Tebow’s run-first tradition going, while Drew Lock starred at a Missouri program that hasn’t lined up with less than 4-5 WRs since 1995.
‘Bama and UGA are world-class programs and annual College Football Playoff contenders. LSU, Texas A&M and a few others aren’t far behind. Yet as much as Alabama’s lack of elite WR and CB play can be blamed for January’s 4-touchdown loss to Clemson, it’s perhaps a lack of depth in the SEC that hurts the Crimson Tide and other aristocrats of the league.
When Tagovailoa’s offense made mince-meat out of the Old Miss Rebels to the tune of 62-7 last September, fans in Tuscaloosa celebrated. Maybe they should have been wishing for better competition. Tua seemed like a perfect player who couldn’t make a mistake, but the postseason would prove otherwise once he had to step out of familiar SEC territory and play against a faster and more-sophisticated defensive backfield.
That’s why Southeastern Conference fans should be excited, not concerned, that there are potentially so many good teams in development for 2019-20.
Rising tides – excuse the pun – lift all boats.
Sure, if Texas A&M and Mississippi State and LSU and Florida all look lousy in 2018, it would be easier for Alabama and Georgia to win their respective divisions and advance to the SEC Championship Game once again. But if winning the College Football Playoff is the new holy grail of the FBS, coaches and fans would also like if their teams are more battle-tested before courting the history books.
Alabama’s win over LSU last season was no kind of preparation for facing Clemson or Oklahoma, schools at which QBs are expected to release the ball instead of standing in the pocket and holding it until a sack occurs, a “tactic” Joe Burrow tried about 40 or 50 times against ‘Bama in 2018.
Burrow may still freeze under pressure in 2019. Plenty of other SEC offenses could give the Tide trouble, though…and Nick Saban’s team will be the better for it if they are able to survive the gauntlet.
Is 2019-20 when the SEC will become known as a “deep” conference once again?
Here are 3 underdogs who could threaten to win their division…or the whole damn thing.
Gator Nation is ginned-up going into Dan Mullen’s 2nd year in command after a 10-3 finish and 41-15 stomping of Michigan.
What sparked the turn-around? Most of all, the mind-blowing improvement of redshirt junior QB Feleipe Franks. Franks electrified The Swamp with 24 touchdown passes. But the key number is “6,” as in the number of picks that the typically mistake-prone passer threw in his final underclassman campaign.
Remember, though, that a quality HC doing his job usually results in lots of news stories about players supposedly having “stepped up.” QB coaching in the SEC is not the prestigious job that it once was. Mullen may be bringing his passers along in the classroom at a faster rate than his rivals.
5’11” senior RB Lamical Perine and all-purpose skill player Kadarius Toney are capable of putting Franks and the Gator offense in 2nd down and short often.
A fierce defense will fight in all dozen games. C.J. Henderson and Brad Stewart Jr. may sound like a pair of NASCAR racers, but they’re actually ball-hawking DBs for the Florida Gators. Jabari Zuniga is one of the SEC’s fiercest run-stuffing and pocket-collapsing D-linemen.
Still, the fundamentals of football call for “blocking and tackling,” not just tackling. Florida must open with Miami, close with Florida State, and play Auburn, Georgia, LSU and South Carolina in a 4-game mid-season Murderer’s Row in 2019.
A lack of proven talent and depth on the OL is the only thing keeping Florida out of speculators’ 2019-20 College Football Playoff conversations at this point. That could change if the team is able to block Kentucky and other stout division foes at the LOS.
Gus Malzahn got away from his bread and butter in 2018, lured by the prospect of a wide-open, shotgun-spread passing attack.
Gee…nobody’s ever tried that.
A change at QB may not be a bad thing. The 7th-year Auburn skipper will now turn to redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood or 5-star true freshman Bo Nix to man the team under center. The eventual starting QB will get a boost from 6’0” sophomore running back JaTarvious Whitlow, who ran for 787 yards as a freshman.
Don’t sleep on the Auburn defense just because the squad’s offense has looked warmed-over and confused for the last 13 games. War Eagle is loaded with premier defensive linemen like 6’5” senior Derrick Brown and equally-rangy junior Nick Coe. The duo combined for 24 tackles-for-loss for a defense that held opponents to an average of 19.2 points in ’18.
Malzahn’s crucial preseason decision is whether to go back to a brilliant multiple Wing-T system and ground-and-pound his opponents…or allow Auburn to become just another generic program with a 3-wide offense.
Texas A&M Aggies
2 big factors are influencing Texas A&M’s healthy Vegas win-total line of (8.5) – their names are Jimbo Fisher and Kellen Mond.
The veteran coach and the young QB combined to lead the Aggies to a 9-4 finish last season. Mond threw a few too many picks, but nearly helped knock-off Clemson early in the year. Fisher must find a replacement for stellar running back Trayveon Williams, but the receiving corps returns a plethora of talent fronted by 6’2” junior Quartney Davis.
Junior defensive lineman Justin Madubuike has flustered offenses and leads a group of physical, speedy cogs in the front-7 who must remain healthy for the November stretch…which will include South Carolina, Georgia, and LSU in a 3-week span.
If Texas A&M can produce the same caliber of run defense as occurred in Fisher’s debut campaign, that storm may not prove impossible to weather, considering that the Aggie offense is likely to be better and more-consistent than it was in Year 1 of a new era.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.