MrSEC.com asked several media members from across the SEC for their take on the following question: If you had to pick an SEC champion now, would you pick Alabama, LSU, or The Field?
As the college football season enters the month of October, most teams have already established an identity and realize where their strengths and weaknesses lie. It is obvious after four games that Alabama and LSU have separated themselves from the rest of the teams in the SEC. LSU’s impressive win over West Virginia in Morgantown, Va,. 47-21, propelled the Tigers to No. 1 in the AP poll. Alabama’s 38-14 rout of Arkansas keep the Tide at No. 3 in both the AP and the Coaches polls. Let’s examine who has the best chance to win the SEC, Alabama, LSU or the field.
LSU: One big advantage that LSU has over Alabama and anyone else in the SEC is they have the confidence to win on the road. Whatever magical formula Coach Les Miles uses must be secretly guarded inside his cap because it works on the road. The Tiger defense also has been successful shutting down three of the top offenses in the nation in Oregon, Mississippi State and West Virginia. Tiger cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu just simply know how to make plays at key times in the game. Claiborne also had the kickoff return for a touchdown that turned the game for LSU. Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith threw for a lot of yards (463), but his passes were primary short underneath coverage completions.
Tiger defensive coordinator John Chavis kept the vaunted West Virginia passing game in front of them without giving up explosive scoring plays. Mathieu is a special player who steps up in key situations. He is second on the team with six tackles (five solo) and a forced a fumble, a recovered fumble, an interception and a pass break up. He also returned three punts for 34 yards.
Alabama: Nick Saban is a firm believer in controlling the line of scrimmage. In today’s high octane offense era, he prefers to run the pro-set formation with a dominating run game lead by Heisman Trophy candidate Trent Richardson and Eddy Lacy. First-year quarterback AJ McCarron manages the game, uses play-action passing and has ball-security as one of his primary goals, Saban’s defense is led by two 265-pound jack linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont ‘a Hightower who come off the edge with unrelenting ferocity. The Tide secondary shut down Arkansas’s prolific offensive attack by hammering the Razorbacks talented wide receivers and providing key run-support.
Saban is predictable in his coaching style, but the Tide surprised the Razorbacks with some new wrinkles. Special teams have been a big positive for the Tide this season and a fake field goal for a touchdown on the game’s first series set the tone. Marquis Maze’s twisting, dancing 83-yard punt return electrified the crowd and stunned the Razorbacks. The offense used a no-huddle with a two-back shotgun T-formation set with Richardson and Lacy in the same backfield. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart confused Razorback quarterback Tyler Wilson with a montage of defensive alignments that kept the Razorbacks guessing what was coming next. The season will continue to be special if the Tide can dominant opponents with its power running game and McCarron can begin to stretch the field vertically with completions to Maze and Darius Hanks
The field: SEC East candidates
South Carolina: Gamecock Coach Steve Spurrier has one of the top reputations in the nation as an offensive guru. However, with quarterback Stephen Garcia struggling again throwing four interceptions against Vanderbilt last week, the South Carolina defense has quietly become a defensive force in the SEC. The Gamecock defense played exceptionally well against the Commodores. The Gamecocks forced three turnovers, scored a defensive touchdown, sacked Vandy quarterbacks six times, picked up 12 tackles for a loss and only allowed 77 total yards of offense including four net yards of rushing in a 21-3win.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s group was more aggressive and terrorized Vanderbilt’s backfield all night long. The putrid Auburn defense Saturday may be just what the doctor ordered to solve the majority of South Carolina’s offensive problems.
Florida: The Gators so far are the surprise of the SEC Eastern Division, if not the SEC. The Gators host the Crimson Tide at the Swamp on Saturday, and then play LSU at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., one week later October 8. First-year Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis promised when he arrived in Gainesville that he’d find multiple ways to get the football to Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Weis has been successful so far, as Rainey and Demps both rushed for more than 100 yards in the 48-10 thumping of Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday. The Gators rushed for 405 yards against the Wildcats.
Weis’s other priority this season was to rebuild Brantley’s confidence. Brantley seemed to be a “square peg in a round hole” in Urban Meyer’s spread attack, throwing more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine), and being sacked 22 times. In Weis’ pro-style offense, Brantley is a good fit, completing 64 percent of his passes for 752 yards, with four touchdowns and two interceptions this season. Weis has Brantley making shorter, safer throws and allowing Florida’s tailbacks make explosive plays. Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will try to contain Demps and Rainey and force Brantley to make plays throwing the ball.
SEC West candidates (besides LSU and Alabama)
Arkansas: At some point in October, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino must figure out some semblance of a running game (whether it is Dennis Johnson or Ronnie Wingo, Jr.). Arkansas will become more balanced offensively to increase their chances of making another BCS bowl game. The Razorbacks are still fully capable of winning 10-11 games and getting to another BCS Bowl game, but the Hogs must travel to Baton Rouge November 28 and the Hogs must be able to move the ball consistently to beat LSU.
Clash of the Titans - Alabama and LSU must take care of business on the field before the showdown November 5 in Tuscaloosa. But, if many SEC fans had their wish, this game would be played January 9, 2012 in New Orleans. La.
Many college football experts currently rank LSU 1 and Alabama 1A. The two teams are very similar in philosophy, talent and performance. However, the November 5 “clash of the titans” will be fueled by a raucous home crowd motivated by a team that supported many of their citizens in the darkest hours after the April 27 tornadoes. However, putting emotions aside, blocking and tackling still win football games. One of Saban’s foundations of “the process” is mental toughness and discipline. The difference in the outcome of the Alabama/LSU game will be two or three plays made by the more disciplined team.
Therefore, who will win the SEC this season, LSU, Alabama or the field? Alabama will make one or two more plays at key times in the game and end up representing the SEC West. The Tide will likely play South Carolina in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta.
Brett Beaird and Harold Bugg co-host the Boomo Bugg Show on WYTK 93.9 FM The Score weekdays from 12:00-2:00 pm and the Sportsbuzz on WZTV weekdays at 5:30 and 11:00 pm CT. Brett is also a free-lance writer for Tiderinsider.com.
***Facebook Poll Question: Who’s your pick to win the SEC? Vote here.***