As The SEC Turns

Rick Sarro Thursday, February 1, 2018 Comments Off on As The SEC Turns
As The SEC Turns

There’s a scene in the movie Kong Skull Island in which King Kong marked the top of a mountain with his humongous blood-soaked hand print, showing any and all invaders that this was his home and he was willing and able to protect it.

Tua Tagovailoa

Alabama did the same thing a few weeks ago in their thrilling overtime victory over Georgia for the Tide’s fifth national championship since 2009.

Bama’s unmistakable imprint atop the SEC may not have been in blood, but the Crimson red was just as effective in sending the message that they were still the King Kong of what’s still the best football conference in the country.

There’s no truth to the belief that Alabama coach Nick Saban provided the roars, growls, scowls and other special effects for King Kong in the recent hit movie. But he could have, and in so doing, maybe have added another line item to his growing resume, which now includes six national championships — tying him with college football legend Bear Bryant.

Trailing 13-0 at the half with an offense showing no spark or life, King Saban didn’t hesitate to bench his quarterback Jalen Hurts, a 25-2 starter up to that point in his career, in favor of untested and little-played true freshman Tua Tagovailoa.

Nick Saban

It was all or nothing for Alabama at that point. The Tide was scoreless against Saban disciple and Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart, who was playing his own hot shot freshman quarterback in Jake Fromm.

Tagovailoa, a five-star prep recruit from the same Hawaii high school that produced Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, supplied Saban with the spark Bama needed, and it quickly engulfed Georgia in a roaring flame.

The baby-faced rookie quarterback, who had never started a college game, but reportedly was getting more snaps in practice as the season wore on, threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns in the second half and overtime period. His third was a perfect 41-yard strike for the game clincher in OT in the Tide’s improbable 26-23 victory.

With that one overtime touchdown pass by Tagovailoa, the SEC’s power rating swung back to Tuscaloosa, and sent the message to any and all up-and-comers in the league that Alabama was still perched atop the conference, looking down on everyone else.

As expected, Alabama will lose another contingent of star undergraduates to the NFL draft this spring. At this point, it looks as if five will be lost; they will include the nation’s best defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive back Ronnie Harrison, another of Bama’s long list of big running backs in Bo Scarbrough and star receiver Calvin Ridley. Defensive tackle DaRon Payne is expected to leave school early as well.

Gus Malzahn

This is nothing new for Nick Saban, or for three to four other SEC teams, including LSU and Georgia. Talented young players leave programs early every year for the NFL. But the clear difference is that Alabama can absorb these undergraduate defections better than any other school because of its stockpile of four- and five-star players who are just waiting for their chance to perform.

The Crimson Tide played a posse of redshirt or true freshmen during the regular season, through the playoffs and into the national title game. Tagovailoa got all the headlines, and rightfully so. But the young receiver who raced open and caught the game winner was also a true freshman.

DeVonta Smith is just one of many players Bama has ready to unleash next season. Note to LSU fans: Smith is from Amite, La. He’s another born and bred Louisiana native Saban lured to Title Town.

There was a glimmer of hope among the SEC underlings that once Bama lost to Auburn this year and failed to advance to the SEC championship game that the Tide’s stronghold on the conference had loosened; that there was a crack in the door and a kink in Alabama’s armor; that Saban’s heralded “Process” was no longer supernatural.

But still the committee awarded Bama a spot in the four-team playoff. (For the record, I would have done the same thing.) And once among the chosen four, Saban proved again that you cannot underestimate him or his Process.

LSU may have taken a step back this season in its quest to truly rival and catch Alabama at the top of the SEC West.

Kirby Smart

The embarrassing losses to Troy and Mississippi State derailed any hopes of league contention. The Tigers got some Mojo back in that 24-10 defeat at Alabama in what was as physical a game as could have been played. LSU was in this game until late, which is all they could have hoped for.

The Citrus Bowl loss to Notre Dame on that freak catch and run didn’t help LSU’s attempt to rise above the Power 5 fray during the bowl season, though.

While in Orlando, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron spent more time beating back media questions about his riff with Matt Canada and the future employment of said offensive coordinator, as well as questions about how his Tigers would match up against the higher-ranked Fighting Irish.

The stability of the Tigers’ coaching staff would soon take center stage, and Orgeron’s short- and long-term success as head coach hung in the balance.

Soon after the bowl loss, Orgeron got his wish and fired Canada after one season. That was easy. The hard job was retaining defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, as Texas A&M made a hard and lucrative pitch to lure Aranda away from Baton Rouge after only two seasons.

LSU had to keep Aranda.

Athletic director Joe Alleva and Orgeron knew all too well the program’s stature would take a hit if it had to replace not one but two of its top coordinators.

Aranda stayed after LSU reportedly matched the Aggies’ offer of $2.5 million over 10 years. Yes, that means Aranda is still the highest paid assistant coach in college football. But the Tigers could not afford to penny pinch.

Jimbo Fisher

Over the past three years, the circus and drama involving LSU, Alleva, Les Miles, Orgeron, Tom Herman, the head coach search, the inexplicable loss to Troy and the ongoing search for a top-caliber starting quarterback has been troubling and exhausting for this football program.

While all that was going on, Kirby Smart took two years to lead Georgia to an SEC championship and a berth in the national championship game.

The Bulldogs found themselves with two nationally recognized, star-laden starting quarterbacks in Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm; two NFL-bound running backs; the top linebacker in the country; and most recently, the top-rated recruiting class in the SEC, and maybe in the country.

Smart may have been the sixth former Saban assistant to lose to the old man — Saban is now 12-0 against his former coaching pupils — but he is poised and ready to challenge Alabama at every turn.

Gus Malzahn upset Bama in the Iron Bowl, thus winning the SEC West. The beleaguered Auburn head coach earned a rich, long-term contract that he deserved. His Tigers will enter 2018 as the second-best team in the West division.

Texas A&M must have more money than Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Warren Buffett because they aren’t afraid to commit to cold, hard cash in chasing down the coaches they want. New head man Jimbo Fisher, with his freshly minted 10-year, $100-million contract, will surely be on a two-year plan to turn the Aggies around as quickly as he can.

Fisher is another Saban protégé from his offensive coordinator days at LSU. He is now highly motivated and well compensated to challenge both Alabama and Auburn atop the West.

Dave Aranda

All but forgotten Florida, once the standard bearer in the SEC under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, might finally have the right head coach in Dan Mullen, who resurrected Mississippi State only to return to Gainesville.

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp handed the Big 10 Conference its only bowl loss this year in beating Jim Harbaugh and Michigan 26-19 in the Outback Bowl. Could this put the Gamecocks a bit closer to Georgia in the SEC East?

It’s a tale of two endings with the SEC this season.

No doubt the conference was down with the pitiful seasons turned in by Tennessee (4-8) and all the Vols’ mishaps and PR blunders in their head coach search and hire. The soap opera in Knoxville with now-fired athletic director John Currie, his ill-fated job offer to Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, and the coup d’etat executed by new AD Phillip Fulmer, made LSU’s bumbling of the Les Miles affair look like a small typo on a press release.

The SEC’s middle and bottom tier were a drag on the conference all year. But that can be said for a number of conferences in the country. Admittedly, the SEC’S lousy teams looked unexpectedly weak and incompetent.

Ole Miss didn’t even wait for the season to start to fire coach Hugh Freeze over his escort services scandal. The Rebels, with an interim coach, finished 6-6. The Aggies labored to a 7-6 record and dropped head coach Kevin Sumlin. Arkansas stumbled to a 4-8 record and fired its head hog Bret Bielema. Florida and Vandy had losing records, while Kentucky and Missouri were once again mediocre at 7-6.

In all, six SEC head coaches were canned.

Amongst all that turmoil, turnover and losses, the SEC still put Alabama and Georgia in the national championship game in Atlanta.

Out of the rubble and ashes that was the SEC in 2017 rose the two best teams in the country, which proved once again that the rest of the Power 5 leagues are still chasing and looking up to the conference by which all others are measured.

Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on Suddenlink channel 4.

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