Midseason: SEC Elephant in the Room, But Not Big Al

Lyn Scarbrough

October 15, 2019 at 8:45 am.

At the season’s midpoint, LSU is the best team in the country … more about that many paragraphs down.

With a lot of football yet to be played, there’s still much uncertainty about which teams will make the College Football Playoff final four.

In the Big Ten, nobody can stop the Ohio State offense, while against the Wisconsin defense, nobody can even get yards, much less points. Four of the Badgers six opponents have been shut out. They lead the nation in total defense giving up just 173.7 yards per game … a whopping 61.7 fewer yards than the No. 2 team – the Buckeyes. Wisconsin plays at Ohio State on October 26.

Don’t forget about Penn State, even though most everybody else has. The undefeated No. 7 Nittany Lions play Ohio State in Columbus on Nov. 23 and don’t play Wisconsin.

And, does anybody outside Minneapolis realize that Minnesota is 6-0 and their next two games are against Rutgers and Maryland? They don’t play Ohio State and face Penn State and Wisconsin at home in November.

One of those Big Ten teams will be in the final quartet.

In the Big 12, unless there is an unforeseeable upset, Oklahoma will play in the CFP final four again. The Sooners defeated Texas on Saturday and could be (should be) double-digit favorites in every remaining game, all against conference teams. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is understandably a favorite to become Oklahoma’s third consecutive Heisman Trophy winner.

Like Minnesota, few people realize that Baylor is undefeated, but so is Boise State, SMU and Appalachian State. Realistically, all of those have the same chance to make the CFP Playoff. The Bears do host the Sooners and Longhorns on back-to-back November Saturdays, but name your score. Oklahoma and Texas can.

In the Atlantic Coast Conference, it’s Clemson and … nobody. It’s hard to say that about a team that only beat North Carolina by one point because ‘Heels head coach Mack Brown questionably decided to go for a two-point conversion and failed. But, no other ACC team is even in this week’s Top 25 and the Tigers only have conference teams left on the schedule … except for the season-ender at South Carolina, which just beat Georgia in Athens. Stranger things have happened, but Clemson probably gets to defend its national title.

In the Pac-12, Oregon remains the best team in that part of the country. Since its opening loss to Auburn, the Ducks have only given up a total of 25 points in five games, have only surrendered one more touchdown and are winning by an average of 59-5. But, it’s not likely that a one-loss Pac-12 team makes the CFP finals, even if Oregon wins the rest including at No. 25 Washington, at Southern Cal and at No. 17 Arizona State, plus the conference title game, probably against No. 13 Utah.

In addition to Boise State, there are other good teams from Group of 5 leagues.

The American Athletic Conference has at least four. SMU (6-0) is having its best season in over 30 years. Cincinnati (5-1) has only a loss at Ohio State and could win the rest. Tulane (5-1) has only a loss at Auburn. Since scoring just two field goals at Jordan-Hare, the Green Wave has averaged 47 points per game, all victories. Memphis is (5-1) after losing to Temple on Saturday with Tulane coming to Memphis this weekend.

But, forget all of those. With so many Power 5 teams still in the running, nobody outside that group will be considered at the end.

That’s three of the four CFP slots pretty much decided, leaving only one place available and only one conference not discussed … the SEC.

This week’s poll has five SEC teams among the Top 11 … Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Auburn. Only the Bulldogs have lost a game that was not against one of the others … Auburn losing in Gainesville, Florida losing in Baton Rouge.

Consider those five teams …

Auburn posted the only loss on Oregon’s and Tulane’s schedules, lost at Florida and may have the nation’s best defensive line. The Tigers still have to play at LSU and host Georgia and Alabama.

Florida, posted the only loss on Auburn’s schedule, lost at LSU and still has to play away from home against Georgia and Missouri (more about them later).

Georgia ‘s loss was ugly, at home against three-loss South Carolina which was playing with its third team quarterback after Ryan Hilinski was injured. The Gamecocks had already lost by 20 to Missouri and 24 to Alabama. The Bulldogs still have to play away from home against Florida and Auburn, and host Missouri and Texas A&M.

So, what about Alabama and LSU? Not predicting how their Nov. 9 game in Tuscaloosa will end up, here’s an objective statistical look at the two teams … as of right now.

Neither has lost a game.

Alabama has defeated teams with a combined 17-21 record, while LSU’s opponents have a combined 16-20 mark. So, the Crimson Tide’s much-maligned schedule has produced about the same opposing record as LSU’s, but not all comparable records are the same. LSU has defeated Texas in Austin, as well as undefeated Florida. Nothing on Alabama’s schedule – or anybody else’s for that matter – matches that.

Offensively, both teams are explosive, full of talent at the skill positions, especially at quarterback. Each has a signal-caller among the best in the country.

In the preseason, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa was named on most All-American teams, among leading Heisman Trophy contenders. His numbers so far justify that ranking.

LSU’s Joe Burrow, wasn’t named on any All-American teams, or any All-SEC teams, nor on any list of Heisman hopefuls. His numbers so far do not justify being ignored.

Here’s the comparison nationally:

** Total Offense – Tagovailoa ranks fifth (341.0 ypg.); Burrow ranks third (377.0 ypg.)

** Passing Yards per Game – Tagovailoa ranks third (335.2 ypg.); Burrow ranks second (359.5 ypg.)

** Pass Completion Percentage – Tagovailoa ranks fifth (73.6 percent); Burrow ranks first (79.6 percent)

** Passing Efficiency – Tagovailoa ranks third (214.3); Burrow ranks first (218.1)

** Touchdown Passes – Tagovailoa ranks first (27); Burrow ranks second (25)

As a team, Alabama ranks sixth in total offense (536.8 ypg.); LSU ranks second (561.0 ypg.)

Both teams and individuals are among the very best. But, the edge goes to LSU and Burrow, against more difficult competition.

How about the defense?

Again, both teams are above average nationally, but neither has met the usual standards of  their championship contending teams.

In total defense, LSU ranks 35th nationally, giving up 316.0 yards per game. Alabama ranks

36th, allowing 336.0 yards each time. In third down conversion percentage, Bama ranks 35th, giving up the yardage on 34.1 percent of attempts. The Tigers rank 38th at 34.4 percent. And, in the important Red Zone defense category, LSU ranks ninth allowing a score 66.8 percent of the time, while Alabama is 44th, giving up points on 80.0 percent of the opportunities.

Defensive injuries have plagued the Crimson Tide, which has been a factor. But, in three SEC games (South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M), opponents have scored a combined 82 points and gained 1,299 yards total offense. Not very Bama-like and those weren’t against the title contending teams.

These comparisons are only between top SEC teams. But, making comparisons with the other highest ranked teams – Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson, Wisconsin, Penn State – comes out much the same. Teams have specific strengths, such as the Wisconsin defense, but no team surpasses LSU overall.

That doesn’t mean that the Tigers will be the national champions. With their game against Alabama played in Tuscaloosa, I would take the Crimson Tide now due to the home-field advantage. They could also lose to a good Auburn team or to Texas A&M in the regular season finale.

They could lose in the SEC Championship Game to Georgia or in a rematch with Florida or against Missouri. The Tigers from Columbia are a quiet 5-1, ranked No. 15, don’t play any of the top three Western Division teams in the regular season, and are led by dual-threat Clemson transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant. Mizzou is a legit darkhorse.

With a lot of football yet to be played, most anything could still happen.

But, at the season’s midpoint, LSU is not only the best team in the SEC, they’ve shown themselves to be the best team in the country.