Saturdays in Athens

George Somerville.

Saturday 19th december 2020

Welcome to our weekly round up of life in the Southeastern Conference.

Well, we have made it to the last regular week of the season. Well kind of. It’s SEC Championship week but also the final week of the regular season as teams play catchup to fulfil the ten game schedule. Well, almost all teams.

This is a week that we didn’t think was possible back in September. Back then the likelihood of one week, let alone ten weeks of football seemed far fetched. But a full Covid-19 season we got. There were some bumps along the way and the last week didn’t disappoint. This week we had flying cleats, more changes at Head Coach, Sarah Fuller is still kicking like a girl, we look forward to the SEC Championship clash – and there is a new Saturday In Athens, SEC Player of the Week.

It was also national signing day this week but I will cover that more next week (in case you thought I had forgotten!)……

So, here are this weeks headlines:

Let’s get started y’all!

Who Threaux The Shoe

SEC Championship Game
Photo Credit: Gator Nation/ David Bowie

The Swamp, FL.

In the prior week Alabama rolled over the Bayou Bengals, giving the general assumption that the Gators offensive machine led by Heisman hopeful Kyle Trask would chomp their way through a woefully underperforming Tigers team. A team that has put up the worst defense of a National Championship in decades. In particular, a defense which the Gators would tear to pieces.

Going into this game Head Coach Ed Orgeron and Defensive Coordinator Bo Pelini were men under extreme pressure. 

Surely, the Kyle and Kyle show would destroy the Tigers.

Except.  The Tigers didn’t follow that script. 

The first warning sign for Gators fans should have been the sight of Kyle Pitts dressed and warmed up but not starting for the Gators. Was he injured? No, apparently not. Was he being rested? Well, Pitts didn’t think so. This was an alarming sign for the Swamp people. But surely the Gators had enough in reserve to take out his weak Tigers team.

As it turns out, no, they didn’t.

The Tigers defense stepped up against a Gators offense which seemed oddly off the boil.

But incredibly this game will be remembered for the Fog, the Shoe & the Kick. If ever a game symbolised 2020, this one did.

The Fog. The game started clear but a fog started to descend on the Swamp. Should the Gators fans take this as a sign? By the fourth quarter the fog had got so bad that the field was not visible from the press box.

The Shoe. LSU had kept the scoreline tight all the way into the 4th quarter. So this was an all round great performance from the Tigers rather than this one incident. But LSU needed a break and they got it. With the scores tied at 34-34 LSU were making advances towards Gator territory. At third and long the Tigers were unable to convert resulting in a punt back to the Gators.

Except. Flags appeared on the field.

And the then the now infamous words appeared from ESPN’s sideline analyst, Todd McShay,

“I saw a cleat going through the fog”.

For reasons only known to Florida redshirt junior defensive back Marco Wilson, the LSU drive was extended due to an unsportsmanlike conduct foul called against Wilson after throwing the shoe of LSU tight end Kole Taylor after a third-and-10 play came up 6 yards short at the LSU 29 with less than three minutes left.

The Kick. With 0:27 left of the 4th quarter on the clock, LSU kicker Cade York sent a 57 yard field goal through the uprights to give LSU a 37-34 lead.

While the Gators offense had the ability to drive the length of the field, their field goal attempt was unsuccessful sparking incredible scenes amongst the limited travelling Tigers support. The defeat all but ended the Gators National Championship ambitions. \

And probably saved Ed Orgeron’s job. Whether Bo Pelini returns for next season remains to be seen.

#GeauxTigers

Gus Is Gone

SEC Chmpionship Game
Photo Credit: SI.com

Auburn, AL.

Even before the Auburn Tigers victory over Mississippi State (10-24), rumours were circling of Malzahn’s time running out at Auburn.

This was not the first time that Malzahn’s job had been put into question. In fact almost since Malzahn penned the extension to his contract back in 2017, there seemed to be doubt over how long Gus would remain in situ. Such is the fickle life of a Head Coach in the Deep South.

And of course we need to bring the Boosters into this story. At this time of year the Pantomime villains. The “Oh no you’re not” brigade. And at Auburn, in the shadow of Tuscaloosa, the Boosters are a spicy bunch.

So, somewhat inevitably Gus was gone come Saturday evening.

It would be easy to feel sorry for Malzahn. A much maligned, but quietly effective coach for the Tigers, Malzahn walks away with a $21.45m payout. $10m payable now. Not. Too. Shabby.

But let’s remember Malzahn for what he is. The coach who introduced the hurry up, no huddle offense to the SEC – a coach, one of the few, who gave Nick Saban sleepless nights. 

But after early success came the offensive woes which would dog his remaining years in the job, highlighted by the inability to fill Cam Newton’s shoes at Quarterback. QB after QB came and went with Bo Nix the latest to be labelled the next superstar. Except the word on the street was that Malzahn didn’t rate Nix at QB, instead preferring Joey Gatewood. The Boosters, yes the Boo-sters, saw Nix as the future and hung Malzahn’s job over his head. Nix started and Gatewood transferred. The writing was on the wall.

Malzahn’s record at Auburn was 0.619 overall and 0.591 in conference. Let that sink in for a second. A winning record in the SEC over eight seasons……in fact in his eight seasons at Auburn, Malzahn has never had a losing season. This year in a conference only year, Auburn went 6-4. But that’s not enough in the state of Alabama. A winning record and defeats of Nick Saban on more than one occasion fell short of success.

So who replaces Malzahn? As I write the usual suspects are being lined up – Hugh Freeze, Billy Napier, Steve Sarkisian (never in a million years) and now Oregon’s Mario Cristibal have joined the Vegas oddsmakers’ likely candidate list.

But Kevin Steele, the incumbent defensive coordinator at Auburn has made himself admired within the Auburn Athletics Department and of course, those Boo-sters (oh no they haven’t….). While Steele’s stock is rising its a curious move for a team which is desperately seeking offensive imagination. 

Let’s see how this pays out. Oops, Freudian slip. Plays out….

#WarDamnEagle

Vandy Gets Their Guy!

Image Credit: Notre Dame Athletics

Nashville, TN.

Vanderbilt Athletic Director, Candice Storey Lee did not hang about in finding Derek Mason’s replacement as football Head Coach.

You wouldn’t want an empty Head Coach seat getting cold, but there was no danger of that at Vandy with the news that Notre Dame’s defensive co-ordinator, Clark Lea had been appointed Head Coach this week.

Lea has a long association with Nashville and Vanderbilt having been born in the city and attended the school where he was a walk on from 2002-2004,  playing in the fullback position.

Clark Lea is a name that has been associated with just about any recent head coaching vacancies. Which is unsurprising given the impressive work that he has done with the Notre Dame defense this season. The Irish rise to success has relied heavily on a mean defense which contributed greatly to the defeat of Clemson. This season (per Sports Illustrated), Notre Dame’s defense ranks 12th nationally in points allowed per game (17.1) and 14th nationally in total defense (314.5 yards per game).

While not yet officially unveiled to the Vandy football community, Clark Lea had this via a press release issued via the University,

“I’m excited to come back to Vanderbilt to lead a program, at an institution and in a city, that gave me so much and shaped who I am today,

Vanderbilt is a special place with a competitive drive that I believe can translate into winning. My excitement for the role grew as I spent time with Candice Lee and Chancellor Diermeier – it’s very clear they are united around a common vision for the future of the Vanderbilt athletics program and football”.

Prior to taking the role at Notre Dame, Lea was linebacker’s coach at Wake Forest, Syracuse, Bowling Green and UCLA before being recruited by Brian Kelly. Clark Lea will become the Commodore’s 29th Head Coach of football 

#AnchorsDown

SEC Championship Preview

SEC Championship Game
Image Credit: John David Mercer, USA Today Sports

Atlanta, GA.

Saturday sees the finale of the SEC season at the Mercedes Benz stadium in Atlanta, GA when the Alabama Crimson Tide will take on the Florida Gators.

Before the now infamous “shoe throwing” incident, this was an eagerly anticipated pairing between two offense.

But let’s get one thing clear. This is still the SEC Championship game and while it might be the next stop on the Bama National Championship steamroller, the Gators will do everything in their powers to become SEC Champions. Because if you had told Dan Mullen back in September that he would have a shot at the SEC Championship, he – like any Gator – would have bitten your hand off…..chomp!

I think it’s disingenuous to say that this game is a straight Heisman shoot out between Mac Jones and Kyle Trask. But for those outside of the South Eastern Conference, it kinda is. But for the rest of us, it’s the season finale.

This year, the shoot out is between two teams who have offensively set the game on fire.

Jones, Smith & Harris. And remember that Alabama don’t have Waddle.

versus

Trask, Pitts, Toney & Grimes.

Bama are 17 point favourites over the Gators going into this game which seems attractive given that the Gators were a team firing on all cylinders until last weekend.

Are the Gators going to shows up angry and frustrated following their defeat to LSU? Well, that’s a real possibility. Head Coach Dan Mullen certainly thinks that his team is up for the challenge. Speaking to the media in his midweek press conference, Mullen said this about the readiness of his team,

“Well, I think guys come to Florida, our guys think they’re pretty good players, too. I think they’re going to be excited for this opportunity to go compete. Our guys are competitors. They love playing the big games. I think they’re going to be excited for this opportunity.”

“They’re looking at a team, knowing we have to play an excellent football team in Alabama, knowing they’re going to have to come out, and play a great game.  This time of year is when you want to play your absolute best football. I know they’re going to be excited to do that”

Meanwhile Alabama Head Coach, Nick Saban was waxing lyrical about the Florida offense. Saban had this to say about Gators QB, Kyle Trask,

“I think he does a really good job of getting the ball in the right place relative to reading the defense and knowing the offense like he does. He’s very accurate with the ball. I think those two things are probably the most important things. Makes a lot of good decisions that gets the ball in the hands of the play-makers. They certainly made their share of explosive plays this year, that’s for sure.”

Of Trask’s path to QB1, Saban said,

“I know he’s had a tough road coming up, just like kind of Mac has. But I have a lot of respect for guys that stick with it, persevere, come through a lot of adversity, go through growing pains.When they get an opportunity, they take advantage of it, do it extremely well.

Kyle certainly has done that. Has had as fine a season as any quarterback in the country. I can’t say enough positive things about him. But I do have a lot of respect for guys that come up the hard way that way. It’s good to see that there are guys that play the game that still do that. It’s good to see them have success after they go through those ups and downs and adversities.”

Bama Florida games in the past, especially those in SEC Championship games fail to disappoint. And with the offensive talent on show its unlikely that this will be a dour affair. I for one can’t wait.

RollTide #GoGators

SIA; SEC Player Of The Week

SEC Championship Game
Image Credit: Livingston Parish News

 

Baton Rouge, LA.

This week there were more fantastic performances across the SEC, none more so than in the chase for the Heisman where Messrs Jones and Trask continue to slog it out in a touchdown fest.

But the less glamorous side of the game, special teams shone brightly this weekend. First Sarah Fuller, made her second (and what appears to be her last) appearance for Vandy, kicking two field goals and making yet more history.

And in Gainesville, the oldest player in college football held his nerve to kick a 57 yard field goal through the fog, under immense pressure to give the Bayou Bengals what would end up being their winning score.

The Tigers season was done but it might not be hyperbole to say this result saves Orgeron’s skin. If not Orgeron then certainly defensive co-ordinator, Bo Pelini’s job.

So a lot came from a single kick, but in doing so I think Cade York deserves to be the SIA SEC Player of the Week. I’m sure Ed Orgeron thinks so.

#ItJustMeansMore #GeauxTigers

GEORGE SOMERVILLE

COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER

A GLASWEGIAN LIVING IN LONDON, GEORGE IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL FAN WHO FOLLOWS THE ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE. HE PROVIDES CFB CONTENT FOR THE TOUCHDOWN AND IS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.

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