While Alabama dominates again, rest of the SEC left licking its wounds
For 22 minutes, Alabama appeared vulnerable, as if there may be a chance that the defending national champions would have to grind out success rather than simply dominating opponents.
And then true freshman Jalen Hurts, who lost a fumble on his first play, settled in and uncorked a 39-yard touchdown pass to ArDarius Stewart over the top of the Trojans defense. From there, the Tide went on a 52-3 run, making the No. 20 ranked team in the nation look like a peewee team.
The offense ran around, over and through the Trojans — sprinkling successful pass plays just for fun — while the defense swarmed to the ball, creating seemingly effortless pressure while rushing only four and stuffing every endeavor USC made to run the ball.
For the No. 1 team in the SEC and the nation, it was business as usual on Saturday. Another game. Another dominant performance. Another win. Another week atop the rankings.
The SEC often likes to tout its strength as a conference by pointing to it’s national championships — count the ringzzz — but since 2009, four of the conference’s five titles belong to the Tide. In 2016, it’s time to be honest about what the SEC is as a conference — pretty average. It has a few pretty good teams, mediocre teams and bad teams — with one exceptional team.
If there was still any mystique around of the conference, Week 1 of the 2016 season did everything it could to strip that away. Let’s start with the SEC East, where expectations are much more tempered considering the division hasn’t produced a conference champion since Florida in 2008.
Georgia looked the best against a solid North Carolina team and has the best player in the division in Nick Chubb — who reminded everyone how good he is with 222 rushing yards in his return from the knee injury that ended his 2015 campaign. However, the Dawgs weren’t good on the edges defensively against the Tar Heels and the quarterback situation is far from settled.
Tennessee, the prohibitive favorite, needed overtime at home to get rid of Appalachian State — a good Sun Belt team, but not a team that’s a contender on a national level. It was, at best, an inauspicious start for a team that’s struggled with living up to expectations under Butch Jones.
The defending division champion Florida struggled to get rid of a UMass team considered to be one of the nation’s worst — but at least they have a good kicker now!
South Carolina and Vanderbilt set college football back 40 years with their offensive performances in the opener on Thursday. Kentucky blew a 35-10 lead to Southern Miss at home, losing by nine after getting blanked in the second half. Missouri still has a miserable offense — Missouri, Vanderbilt and South Carolina might not combine for 100 points in their 6 games against each other.
Then there’s the SEC West, long hailed as the nation’s toughest division, and the place Alabama has lorded over for the better part of seven years, with the occasional uprising by in-state rival Auburn.
No. 5 LSU was supposed to be the best competition the Tide have seen in some time. The Tigers could only muster up 14 points in a loss in Green Bay to an unranked Wisconsin team projected to be a mid-tier Big Ten squad.
Arkansas narrowly escaped a home loss to Louisiana Tech with a 21-20 comeback victory, which was a better fate than befell Mississippi State, losing at home to a South Alabama team that had never beaten a Power Five opponent.
Texas A&M has Alabama-level talent at certain positions and was able to grind out an overtime win over No. 16 UCLA at home, showing flashes of fantastic play that makes you think maybe the Aggies could live up to their potential and compete. They also allowed 15 points in less than two minutes late in the fourth quarter to allow the game to go to overtime as the offense stalled out, so it wasn’t exactly the most inspiring performance.
Auburn’s defense appears to be the real deal. The Tigers have a ton of talent on that side of the ball, frustrating Deshaun Watson and Clemson for four quarters, but in a strange twist of fate, it’s the offense on a Gus Malzahn team that appears to be the Achilles’ heel. Malzahn used all three quarterbacks on the roster, with each struggling to make a consistent, positive impact. The Tigers have the look of a team that can frustrate good opponents, but lack the offensive firepower to handle the Tide.
Ole Miss can salvage things for the West and make a statement that Alabama won’t just be able to roll through the division with a win against Florida State, but we won’t know about that until Monday night.
For now, what we know — as much as we can know anything after one game — is that there are at least 11 teams in the SEC with a significant amount of work to do to live up to the expectations the conference puts on itself. Alabama seems primed to make another national title run in 2016, but, despite “S-E-C” chants, let’s make sure we don’t just conflate the Tide’s successes this season with that of conference’s success.