SEC: Utah Utes

1. The last unbeaten team in the SEC East is Missouri, and who saw that coming? As much as I have made of head coach Gary Pinkel revamping his team’s practice and training methods, I missed another big reason for the Tigers’ success. In its 41-26 victory at No. 7 Georgia, Missouri started 11 seniors, eight of them fifth-years. That’s how Auburn won the BCS in 2010. It’s a simple plan for success. The hard part is signing the right guys, developing them, keeping them healthy and contributing, and not losing them to the NFL.

2. Think about the most recent round of realignment. In most cases, conferences took teams that, based on history, would struggle to compete against their new opponents. Utah and Colorado in the Pac-12? Missouri and Texas A&M in the SEC? But look at what has happened. Utah just beat No. 5 Stanford. Missouri and Texas A&M have played better in the SEC than they did in the Big 12. No, it’s not because the Big 12 is tougher. Those programs, infused with new income and a new incentive to compete, have stepped up their games. Sue me -- even Colorado is better.

3. We pointed out last week that as well as Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has played, he hasn’t played with a game on the line, because the No. 2 Ducks have been too dominant. Through five games, Mariota hadn’t even thrown a pass in the fourth quarter. At No. 16 Washington on Saturday, Oregon began the fourth quarter with a 31-24 lead. From that point on, Mariota went 5-for-6 for 75 yards and a touchdown, and rushed five times for 33 yards and a score. Oregon won, 45-24. He has been the best player in college football over the first half of the season.
The Pac-12 is the conference of quarterbacks. The SEC is all about defense.

Oh, and winning national championships.

But as good as the defenses are in the SEC, what role does poor-to-middling offense play in that perception? As in, what would happen if those defenses played against a series of future NFL quarterbacks, as Pac-12 (and Big 12) defenses do?

The question before us is this: How would USC quarterback Matt Barkley do against those rough-tough SEC defenses?

Ted Miller: It’s sort of a chicken and the egg question. Are SEC defenses so good because they rarely play against A-list quarterbacks? Or do Pac-12 quarterbacks pile up eye-popping numbers because they don’t play against SEC defenses?

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Harry How/Getty ImagesWould Matt Barkley be as successful if he played against SEC defenses all season?
Is it more notable that four of the top 11 quarterbacks in the nation in terms of passing efficiency in 2011 were from the Pac-12, compared to none in the top 20 from the SEC? Or is it more important that six SEC defenses ranked in the top 17 in pass efficiency defense compared to zero for the Pac-12?

It’s hard to say. It’s likely a person’s home -- Los Angeles or Baton Rouge -- has a large influence on his or her opinion.

Pac-12 fans would be prone to point out: In 2005, LSU ranked No. 3 in the nation in passing efficiency defense. But in the Tigers' trip to Tempe that season, Arizona State’s Sam Keller completed 35 of 56 passes for 461 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 35-31 defeat.

Or this: LSU’s defense did a nice job against Oregon’s offense in the 2011 season opener. Of course, the Ducks scored more points on LSU than ANY OF THE OTHER 13 TEAMS LSU PLAYED.

Apologies for the caps lock. Reckless typing.

While we can all acknowledge the SEC -- at least the elite teams -- play better defense than the rest of the nation, it is also worth noting that when future first-round NFL draft picks played quarterback in the SEC, they put up good numbers, whether we’re talking about the Manning brothers, Matt Stafford or Cam Newton. And I’m sure, one day in the future --perhaps this decade! -- we’ll be able to add a name to that list.

There are some nice quartebacks in the SEC: Tyler Wilson, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray. All three seem like they’d have a good chance of winning the backup job at USC. Maybe.

Chris Low: No way am I going to argue that Barkley wouldn't have success in the SEC.

He's a future pro and probably the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy in 2012.

The question is: How much success would he have, and would he hit the proverbial wall going against SEC defenses on a weekly basis?

My feeling is that all quarterbacks hit that wall. Any coach will tell you (ask your buddy Lane Kiffin) that what separates SEC defenses is the speed in the front seven, particularly in the defensive line. There are fast players all over the country in college football, but the SEC has cornered the market on fast, explosive defensive linemen and pass-rushers who also have the size and strength to overpower people.

That's the difference, and that's where Barkley would notice the greatest difference.

It wasn't a banner year for quarterbacks in the SEC last season. And, yes, I realize that's an understatement. But it was a banner year for premier defensive players. That's why the first round of the NFL draft next month is going to look like an SEC who's who. As many as 10 SEC defensive players could go in the first round.

Don't sleep on the SEC's quarterback class this coming season, either. Wilson may be a future first-rounder. Murray has thrown nearly 60 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, and we all saw what McCarron did in the BCS title game against an LSU defense that was outstanding.

Barkley's a big-time talent, no question. But it's a different game when you're trying to throw from your back.

And in this league, ALL QUARTERBACKS (sorry, my caps tend to lock up, too) encounter that problem.

Ted Miller: Truth is, Wilson, Murray and McCarron are good quarterbacks who look like guys with NFL futures. Loved how McCarron handled the pressure of the title game, and Murray has Pac-12-type talent.

[+] EnlargeCrimson Tide defense and Jordan Jefferson
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAlabama's defense smothered Jordan Jefferson and the LSU Tigers in the BCS championship game.
We're trash talking here, but if you can't acknowledge what is real, well, then it's just noise.

And the reality of this debate is this: Barkley would be more challenged on a weekly basis by SEC defenses than by Pac-12 defenses -- which I believe are underrated but still a step behind the SEC for the reasons the Inimitable Low mentioned above. If Barkley played at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State or Kentucky, he'd just be the best quarterback in the history of those programs while leading those teams to "historic" seasons. Like a third-place finish in their divisions.

Yet what makes Barkley, Barkley is not just Barkley. It's USC. It's his supporting cast. It's receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, who will both have NFL careers. And two tight ends who will also. And a good offensive line, and a 1,000-yard rusher who averaged 6.9 yards per carry in 2011 (Curtis McNeal).

By the way, if you wonder where USC's true potential Achilles heel is this year, it's the defensive line. The Trojans have three A-listers -- guys who would be touted in the SEC -- but are thin thereafter. That's a problem for a team that views itself as a national title contender.

That's ultimately the rub here, too. If all goes according to plan, Barkley and USC should be in position to play for the national title. It's hard to imagine that wouldn't be against another SEC team.

Now, Chris, wouldn't it be fun if it were USC and LSU? Recall that in 2003, LSU won 1/16 of the national title when no one in the entire world thought LSU was better than USC, other than computers obviously loaded with all sorts of viruses.

Or USC-Alabama? Great history, and Saban versus Barkley & Co. would certainly attract plenty of eyeballs.

Chris Low: One of the most compelling things that could happen to college football next season would be for USC and Barkley to take their shot at an SEC defense in the money game.

Then, we could quit debating and let it play out on the field. As much as I knew that Alabama and LSU were the two best teams in the country last season, there was a part of me that wanted to see Oklahoma State against either the Alabama or LSU defense in the BCS title game.

It's the matchup we all want to see: A high-powered offense versus a suffocating defense.

Maybe that's what we'll be treated to this fall.

Of course, I go back to the 2010 national title game, and Oregon had been short-circuiting scoreboards all season long. The Ducks go up against an Auburn defense that had been opportunistic, but wasn't one of the best in the SEC that season statistically. But in that game, Auburn put the clamps on Oregon and won 22-19.

The Tigers won because the Ducks couldn't block Nick Fairley.

And that's what the Trojans would run into if they find themselves up against an SEC team next January in Miami.

It won't come down to Barkley. Sure, he'll make a few plays. He's legit. But what it will come down to is the group of guys blocking for Barkley, and that's where it always gets ugly against SEC defenses.

In the meantime, just make sure the Trojans get there. They've been known to stumble along the way, and what we're left with is a bunch of hollow chatter about what they would have done (or could have done) had they made it to the party.

We'll check the guest list in December and chat again then.
Has something seemed odd to you about the BCS bowls this year? Does it seem like ... oh wait, West Virginia just scored again.

Does it seem like ... wait, there goes De'Anthony Thomas. Don't think he'll get caught from behind.

Does it seem like ... wait, would somebody please tackle Justin Blackmon?

Does it seem like there have been a lot of points this bowl season?

It's not just you. There have been a lot of points. More points than ever before. And by huge quantities.

So far, BCS bowl teams have averaged a total of 77 points in the Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls. That, folks, is nearly 26 points more than last year (51.6). And it's nearly 11 points better than the previous high of 66.3 from 2001-02.

Perhaps pairing two SEC teams in the title game has created a black hole sucking all defensive stinginess into the LSU-Alabama rematch, which you might recall went 9-6 with no touchdowns in their first meeting. West Virginia scored 10 touchdowns -- 10! -- against Clemson. Alabama gave up 12 TDs all season.

Speaking of Clemson: ACC. Well, well, well.

After the Tigers ingloriously fell 70-33 to the Mountaineers, we got our second story from the BCS bowl season: The ACC's insistence on throwing up on itself in BCS bowl games.

The conference that was once expected to challenge the SEC is now 2-13 in BCS bowl games. That's hard to do. You'd think in 15 BCS bowls the conference could get lucky at least five or six times. But no, it insists on making ACC blogger Heather Dinich, a genuinely nice person, into some sort of Grim Reaper every bowl season.

Heck, the Big East has won seven BCS bowls -- second fewest among AQ conferences -- but it's 7-7.

Of course, this all ties together, and we're here to bring out a bow, but first a warning: If you don't want to read about how good the SEC is for the 56,314th time this year, then stop reading. I'd recommend an episode of "South Park" or perhaps a John le Carré thriller as an alternative for passing the time.

We can all agree the SEC plays great defense right? Alabama and LSU will play for the title Monday with the nation's top-two defenses. Do you think perhaps that it's not a coincidence that the conference that is 16-7 in BCS bowl games plays great defense?

The only other AQ conference with a winning record in BCS bowl games is the Pac-12, which is 11-7. The Pac-12 isn't known for defense, either, but USC was when it won the conference's last national title in 2004.

The only team to win a BCS national title without an elite defense was Auburn in 2010, but the Tigers' defense seemed to find itself late in the season. Since 1999, eight national champions had a top-10 defense. Other than Auburn, the lowest-rated defense to win a BCS national title was Ohio State in 2002. It ranked 23rd in the nation in total defense.

Three of the four BCS bowl games have been thrillers. Two went to overtime. We've seen big plays all over the field in the passing game and running game. Yet, if things go according to script in the title game, we'll see none of that. We might not see more than a couple of plays that go for more than 20 yards. We might not see any.

Some might call that boring. It might seem that both offenses are so paranoid of making a mistake that they are stuck in mud, both in game plan and execution.

But, snoozefest or not, when the clock strikes zero a team from the SEC will hoist the crystal football for a sixth consecutive time.

That might say something about playing better defense.

Saban's message to his defense: Finish

August, 6, 2009
8/06/09
3:42
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Alabama finished last season tied for third nationally in total defense.

But it's the fact that the Crimson Tide didn't finish on defense that junior linebacker Rolando McClain can't get out of his mind.

"The thing I take away from last season is that we didn't finish," McClain said. "That's one of the things we stress in this program, and we didn't do it. So, we're not focusing on how good we can be, this team or this defense. We're focusing on finishing, and I mean finishing everything."

McClain's obviously spent a little time around Alabama coach Nick Saban, who talks about finishing the way your mother used to talk to you as a kid about looking both ways before crossing the street.

There's no question that this Alabama defense should be good, maybe one of the best in the country in 2009.

But Saban had a very pointed message for his defense Wednesday on the eve of the Crimson Tide's first preseason practice.

"Regardless of what we did last year, we gave up 31 points the last two games we played in, both games that we played in," said Saban, referring to the 31-17 loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl and 31-20 loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game. "Those guys have a lot to prove and a lot to re-establish in terms of who they are, what they want to do and how consistent they want to be."

For the record, in the five games prior to those final two, the Crimson Tide gave up 10 or more points only once. And in their first 12 games, they gave up more than 14 points only three times.

"All the things that we emphasized, in the last two games, we didn't do," Saban said. "We were a pretty good red area team, almost 60 percent no touchdowns in the red area, and those last two games they scored seven out of nine times they got in the red area, and that was the difference between playing in the national championship game and not playing in it.

"We were plus-13 in turnovers and were minus-4 in the last two games. So, we had issues. We gave up more big plays than we'd given up all year. We had issues, and we need to resolve those issues if we're going to become a better team."

Meyer not buying into the Utah/BCS argument

July, 16, 2009
7/16/09
3:49
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Michael Casagrande of The Decatur (Ala.) Dailey caught up with Florida's Urban Meyer on Thursday morning, and Meyer had some interesting things to say.

No, he didn't vow his future allegiance to Notre Dame.

But he did make it clear that the ongoing debate concerning Utah and the BCS wasn't really a debate at all in his mind. In short, the Utes aren't ready for the week-in, week-out grind in the SEC.

Now this is interesting on two fronts.

For one, Meyer coached at Utah before coming to Florida and still has close ties to several in that program, including Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

Secondly, for those SEC loyalists with short memories, Utah blasted Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl last season.

But here's what Meyer had to say to Casagrande and a small group of reporters while speaking at the All-Star Sports Week convention in Huntsville, Ala.:

"They're doing what they are supposed to do and fighting for the team in state and I can't argue with that," Meyer said. "That Utah team this year and the Utah team we had in '04 -- I don't think they can survive the grind of the SEC, but there are other conferences out there who can't survive the grind, either.

"I don't know if I'm supposed to say that or not, but I will certainly listen to (Hatch) because I know him and I know their coach Kyle Whittingham, to tell them he isn't a BCS coach and they aren't BCS players, it's not true."

You can't blame Meyer for staying quiet on this one.

Utah's rout of Alabama has Gators shaking their heads

January, 3, 2009
1/03/09
5:56
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Florida players couldn't believe Utah handled Alabama so easily in Friday's Allstate Sugar Bowl.

The Utes jumped out to a 21-0 lead and won 31-17. There was nothing flukey about it, either. Utah set the tone from the outset and beat up on the Tide physically.

"I was shocked at that game," Florida linebacker Ryan Stamper said. "Being in the SEC, you want the SEC teams to win. And if they don't win, you don't want them to lose in a big-time game like that. You'd think they would have been more ready to play."

Florida cornerback Joe Haden was like a lot of the Alabama players. He took the Utes for granted.

"I thought they were going to murder Utah," Haden said. "I hadn't watched Utah at all, and I knew Alabama was a really good team. I talked to coach (Urban Meyer) this morning, and he said, 'Did you see Utah?' I said, 'Yeah, I don't know how they did that.'

"They were just picking them apart, spreading them out and throwing the ball everywhere. Once they got up 21-0, I stopped watching the game."

Smith-less Tide tanks at the hands of the Utes

January, 3, 2009
1/03/09
1:27
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Nick Saban prides himself on building teams that are physical, resilient and disciplined.

They were all the ingredients that made this season so special for Alabama.

They were also the ingredients that were nowhere to be found Friday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, as Alabama uncharacteristically melted in a season-ending 31-17 loss to Utah that will resonate all offseason in Tide Land.

It was supposed to be a feel-good offeseason with all the Crimson Tide accomplished this year.

Not anymore.

The Tide (12-2) were outcoached and outplayed in their first venture onto the BCS stage in nine years. Saban admitted afterward that he didn't have his team ready to play.

And you can't help but wonder what Andre Smith is thinking right now.

His suspension because of improper dealings with an agent rocked this team in more ways than one, and it only got worse after Mike Johnson went out in the first half with an ankle injury. Johnson was the one who slid over to Smith's left tackle position after playing left guard all season.

Without Smith, Alabama's offense was anemic, and it's hard to call it a coincidence, either.

Smith, this season's Outland Trophy winner, didn't play in two games this season. The first one was against Tulane in the second week, and Alabama was held to 172 yards and one offensive touchdown in an ugly 20-6 win.

The second time was Friday night in the Superdome, and Alabama was held to 208 yards of total offense. The Utes feasted on the left side of the Crimson Tide offensive line and sacked John Parker Wilson eight times.

(Read full post)

Allstate Sugar Bowl preview

January, 2, 2009
1/02/09
7:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

A quick preview of Friday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl between Alabama (12-1) and Utah (12-0):

WHO TO WATCH: Freshman receiver Julio Jones has been the 'X' factor all season for the Alabama offense. When teams insisted on cramming the line of scrimmage with defenders to stop the Crimson Tide's running game, quarterback John Parker Wilson simply found Jones, who's next to impossible to cover one-on-one with his size, strength and speed. Jones may have to play an even bigger role now that the Alabama running game has taken a hit with the suspension of left tackle and Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith. Look for the Tide to go to Jones early to spread out that Utah defense.

WHAT TO WATCH: With Smith out of the lineup, the Crimson Tide will go with junior Mike Johnson at left tackle. Johnson is normally the left guard and a very good player. Obviously, though, he's not Andre Smith. The key spot is at left guard, where sophomore David Ross will move into the starting lineup. The last time Smith didn't play, the Crimson Tide finished with just 172 yards of total offense earlier this season against Tulane, their lowest output in eight years. Think the Utah defense will test out that revamped left side of the Alabama offensive line?

WHY TO WATCH: The Alabama seniors said it best leading up to this game. It's been a great season, but it all goes for naught if the Crimson Tide stumble now. Great teams find a way to fight back from disappointment, and they also find a way to overcome adversity. The loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game was a bitter one, and losing Smith to a suspension was a shock. But lasting impressions are what count in college football, and the last thing Alabama wants to do is cap this magical ride with back-to-back losses.

National stage suits Alabama just fine

December, 30, 2008
12/30/08
10:19
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

It's been nine years since Alabama last walked among college football's elite in the BCS bowl bonanza.

Chances are it won't be another nine years or even another three or four years. Chances are the Crimson Tide are here to stay.

"This is where Alabama football is supposed to be," Alabama senior center Antoine Caldwell said. "This is where everybody associated with the program made a commitment to get it to, and the foundation is in place to keep it here."

 
 Marvin Gentry/US Presswire
 John Parker Wilson hopes to finish his college career with a win in the Sugar Bowl.

Alabama, which spent the month of November as the country's No. 1-ranked team, will do its best Friday night against Utah in the Allstate Sugar Bowl to put a cap on what's been a memorable season.

The suspension of star left offensive tackle Andre Smith on Monday was a downer, and so was the bitter 31-20 loss to Florida in the SEC championship game.

Still, this is the kind of season you build on, the kind of season that proclaims to the rest of the college football world that you're indeed back.

But there is one caveat, according to the Alabama players.

Winning this game is a must if the Crimson Tide are going to make that proclamation stick.

"We've had a great season up to this point, something we'll all remember," Alabama senior quarterback John Parker Wilson said. "But I think if we don't go out and win this game, it's going to be all for nothing. We're looking at this as a one-game season, that we're going to go out and take care of business and kind of put a cap on our legacy as seniors.

"It's a huge game. We're playing in the Sugar Bowl. We're putting a lot on this game."

(Read full post)

Allstate Sugar Bowl: Alabama (12-1) vs. Utah (12-0)

December, 7, 2008
12/07/08
9:22
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

You don't spend more than 10 minutes around Nick Saban without hearing some reference to finishing -- finishing the drill, finishing the game, finishing what you started.

For this year's Alabama team, that would be finishing the season. Even with the Crimson Tide's bitter loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game, they could still make this a season to remember by taking care of unbeaten Utah in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.

A loss to the Utes would put a serious damper on the Tide's improbable climb to the top of the college football world. Come on, did anybody really expect Alabama to be in a BCS bowl this season?

Similar to Florida, Alabama faces a Utah club capable of scoring points in bunches. The Utes scored 30 or more points in nine of their 12 games. Something has to give, though, because the Tide have given up 30 or more points only twice all season and held opponents to 10 or fewer points seven times.

After losing to the Urban Meyer-coached Gators in the SEC Championship Game, Alabama now faces a Meyer disciple in Kyle Whittingham, who was promoted to head coach after Meyer left Utah for Florida following the 2004 season.

SPONSORED HEADLINES