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LSU – Alabama: The View From Alabama

Brett Beaird

If many SEC fans had their wish, LSU vs. Alabama would play January 9, 2012 in New Orleans, La in the BCS National Championship game instead of November 5 in Tuscaloosa, Al. Many college football experts currently rank LSU 1 and Alabama 1A. The two teams are very similar in philosophy, talent and performance. Let’s examine each team’s schedule, coaching philosophy and intangibles to see if we can predict a winner.

LSU schedule: One advantage that LSU has is they have the confidence to win on the road. The Tiger defense also has been successful shutting down three of the top offenses in the nation in then No. 3 Oregon (40-27), then No. 24 Mississippi State (19-6) and then No. 16 West Virginia (47-21). 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.

Alabama schedule: The three teams that highlight Alabama’s top wins this season are Penn State (27-11), Arkansas (38-14) and believe it or not Vanderbilt (34-0). Many experts believe Arkansas was the Tide’s toughest game. The Tide secondary shut down Arkansas’s prolific offensive attack by hammering the Razorbacks talented wide receivers and providing key run-support. Penn State currently ranked No. 16 in the BCS has one of the worst offenses in the nation. However, the Nittany Lions finally settled on quarterback Matt McGloin who drove PSU 80-yards to beat Illinois 10-7 in the final one minute to get Joe Paterno’s 409th career win. No matter how much the Razorbacks struggled to beat Ole Miss 29-14 and to hang on and beat the Commodores 31-28, Arkansas is ranked No. 7 in the this weeks BSC standings. Commodore coach James Franklin has sent out a strong message to the league this year, our team will fight and scratch for 60 minutes now because we can compete at the line-of-scrimmage. Vanderbilt lost to Georgia (33-28) and Arkansas, but outplayed both teams.

Miles does not allow distractions to effect LSU: There is not a better coach in the nation in handling off-the-field distractions than Les Miles. Earlier this year, Miles’ sister, Ann Hope Browne was killed in a car accident.  But players and assistant coaches did not sense any self-pity from their coach. Miles has a unique ability to separate a major tragedy to minor distractions, and focus on the task-at-hand. This game will provide another test of his ability to deflect the massive media hype buildup. Besides the personal loss of his sister, when offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, LSU seamlessly promoted offensive line coach Greg Studrawa to play calling. When a significant number of players were involved in a bar fight, including starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson, Miles termed the incident a “team violation,” and LSU opened the season by whipping Oregon 40-27. Most recently, LSU suspended three top players, including leading rusher Spencer Ware and defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon. LSU did not miss a beat by hammering the Tigers Auburn 45-10, the worst defeat a defending national champion suffered since 1983.

Miles may not be an eloquent speaker, throws caution to the wind occasionally with strange game-day strategy and sometimes his erratic behavior attracts a lot of media attention. While some of his antics may be a ploy, Miles is quietly shielding the team from outside distractions.

Nick Saban’s process: The 2011 version of the Crimson Tide has been molded to perfectly match Nick Saban’s personality. This team is a combination of five years of top-five recruiting, mental edge conditioning by Dr. Kevin Elko and the Pacific Institute and five years of being indoctrinated into “the process”. Strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran has helped morph this team into one of the biggest, fastest most agile teams in SEC history. Saban is a firm believer in controlling the line of scrimmage. In today’s high octane offensive era, he prefers to run the pro-set formation with a dominating run game lead by Heisman Trophy candidate Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. First-year starting 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 linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont ‘a Hightower who come off the edge with unrelenting ferocity.

LSU and Alabama do not beat themselves and force turnovers:. The Crimson Tide ranks second nationally in fewest penalties, being flagged an average of just 3.38 times per game. The Tide also ranks third in fewest penalty yards in the country, averaging 29.50 per contest. Alabama leads the SEC in fewest penalties per game and ranks second behind Kentucky in penalty yards per game (27.86).

LSU ranks second in the nation in turnover margin (plus-1.88). The Tigers have intercepted 11 passes and recovered seven fumbles. Mathieu has two interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

Both Alabama and LSU are very balanced on offense. The Tigers average 189 rushing yards and 183 yards passing. The Crimson Tide offense comes in averaging an amazing 229 yards rushing and 228 yards passing per game.

Who wins: 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. Ten years have passed since Saban lost in consecutive years to the same coach in college. Ever since Steve Spurrier pounded Saban’s LSU teams 41-9 in 2000 and 44-15 in 2001, Saban has won 12 straight rematch games.

The difference in the outcome of the Alabama/LSU game will be two or three plays made by the more disciplined team. Alabama will make one or two more plays at key times in the game and win 24-16.

Brett Beaird and Harold Bugg are co-hosts of 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 contributing writer for Tiderinsider.com and the Huntsville Times.

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Is Missouri A Good Fit For The SEC?

Brett Beaird

Numerous media reports indicate it is a just a matter of time before Missouri becomes the 14th member of the SEC. Missouri is not the first choice of many SEC supporters. Virginia Tech, Florida State, West Virginia and other schools have more of an “it” factor when being examined for possible membership. Curators of the University of Missouri recently granted Chancellor Brady Deaton permission to begin “divorce proceedings” with the Big 12. Now that Texas A&M is the official 13th member of the conference and Missouri and SEC officials are on course to finalize the Tigers entry into the SEC, SEC fans are asking is Missouri a good fit for the SEC?

As with any school Missouri has it pros and cons for membership.

On paper Missouri seems to be a good fit in comparison with other SEC schools. Many people have long surmised the reason that SEC officials are interested in Missouri is the expansion of the SEC footprint into two huge TV markets of St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.. The St. Louis market is ranked #21 nationally with 1,258,580 and Kansas City is ranked #31 with 974,820 households.

The University of Missouri is a flagship state university similar to the universities of Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, LSU.  State flagship universities have on the whole larger fan bases, political strength (in their legislature and board of trustees) and brand value. In other words, these universities are the power brokers in higher education with more resources at their disposal.

The University of Missouri’s undergraduate enrollment numbers (20,802 fall of 2011) are similar to other SEC members. The city of Columbia, Mo. has a population base (101,838) similar to Gainesville, Columbia, Knoxville, Lexington and Baton Rouge. Missouri is a good fit because of its academics and the University has an enormous endowment. Missouri has a $143 million dollar endowment rated #9 in the “10 Best University Endowments” in the nation.

Where does Missouri fit in the east or west division- Missouri borders three SEC states: Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas which is key for many SEC schools fan bases that travel well. Gabe DeArmond, publisher of PowerMizzou the Missouri Rivals.com site, believes Missouri fans do not have a preference for which division the Tigers are placed. Texas A&M appears to be destined for the SEC West and it would be an easier fit to move Missouri to the SEC East rather than displace a school such as Auburn and move them to the East. The majority of the SEC schools are in favor of the addition of the Tigers to the SEC if it does not jeopardize decades old rivalries. Alabama athletic officials are fierce loyalists in wishing to keep the Alabama/Tennessee rivalry going. DeArmond believes traveling another 50 or 100 miles to play schools in the Eastern division would not be a big deterrent for travel.

Which teams would be a natural rival for the Tigers – Historically, Ole Miss is the SEC team that Missouri has played the most having played six times. Logically, Arkansas would be a big rival for Missouri. The two states share a large border and share a passion for basketball. Arkansas’ new coach Mike Anderson ironically coached at Missouri before coming to Arkansas. Recruiting also plays a role in this. The nation’s top prospect wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham lives in Springfield, Mo and is being courted heavily by Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas and a host of other schools. Other rivalries for Missouri will materialize through competition. South Carolina didn’t have a true SEC Rival when it entered the league in 1992. The Gamecocks quickly developed a fierce rivalry with Georgia. Certainly other schools in the SEC will develop a rival relationship with the Tigers.

Missouri must buy in to what the SEC is selling - One of the reasons Alabama is now ranked #2 in the nation is Alabama head coach Nick Saban, asks each player to buy into his program. The playbook is one of the many items Saban gives the players. Saban does one of the best jobs in the nation in building a program from the inside out. Saban brings in noted motivational speaker Dr. Kevin Elko annually to check the “mental pulse” of the team. Elko helps each player build people and life skills. How do they manage their time, relationships, money, family and romantic relationships. Saban gives them a blue print to be a successful person on-and-off the field.

Missouri must understand the SEC is all-for-one and one-for-all. Members of the SEC remind people of the iconic TV drama Dallas featuring the oil-rich Ewing Family. The Ewings would cheat on their spouse, enter into shady business deals and fight like cats and dogs every day, but when “Miss Ellie” rang the dinner bell, everyone came running and put on their “Sunday best” clothes and attitude for dinner. Missouri officials must buy into the SEC’s way of doing business. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive lives by the Teddy Roosevelt principal, “walk soft and carry a big stick”. Slive allows SEC members to bicker and argue, but he makes the ultimate decision for the direction of the conference. Missouri athletic officials flirted with the Big 10 for several years because of their concern for the long-term future of the Big 12 and the close proximity of many Big 10 schools. Once a member of the SEC, Missouri must honor their wedding vows.

Professional sports rule the state - One of the biggest arguments against Missouri coming into the SEC according to Matt Barber of Dixiefriedsports.com is many SEC fans believe the sports population in the state caters to professional sports and has casual interest in college sports. Missouri has five major professional sports teams (Rams, Cardinals, Blues, Chiefs, Royals) located in two major metropolitan areas (St. Louis and Kansas City). These teams have been long entrenched with two of them, the Chiefs and Cardinals, possessing fan bases as passionate as any in pro sports. The Kansas City Chiefs have been inconsistent winners in the NFL the past 20 years but are still one of the founding members of the AFL and the NFL. The Cardinals are in a league of their own playing in this years World Series with some of the most knowledgeable sports fans in the nation. Missouri is and always will be a a pro sports state first with college sports a distant second.

Will the Tigers be able to compete in SEC football - Missouri’s 2007 team was the best team in recent memory going 12-2, winning the Big 12 North and the Cotton Bowl over Arkansas. The Tigers ended the regular season as the No. 1 team in the BCS standings. The Tigers have a 40-14 record in the last four years and have won 3 Big XII North Titles. Since 2005 the Tigers have two bowl wins an all time record of 19-8-1 against SEC schools. However, amazingly the Missouri football program never won more than nine games in a season from 1961 until 2007 under coaches such as Dan Devine, Al Onofrio, Warren Powers, Woody Widenhofer, and Larry Smith. It appears based on past records, Missouri would be a middle-of-the-pack team in the SEC. The Tigers seem to be on solid footing now with Gary Pinkel at the helm. The Tigers are no where near the caliber of the elite teams in the SEC Alabama and LSU, but very few teams in the nation are either.

Even though the Cardinals are the favorite sports team in the state, Missouri football does have a power base. Missouri averaged over 64,000 fans at each home game a year ago. In comparison, that number is higher than the average attendance at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and close to Kentucky football. Wouldn’t Missouri and Big 12 fans be more interested in traveling to Baton Rouge, Knoxville, Gainesville, Tuscaloosa and Auburn than traveling to see Iowa State, Kansas State and Colorado (now in the Pac 12) play the Tigers. SEC fans sometimes forget that the majority of the SEC schools have added seating capacity of their stadiums in the past 15 years.

In conclusion, adding Missouri to the best conference in college football is not sexy. Many SEC pundits still believe Commissioner Slive should expand east to either West Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina or Florida State. Missouri does not move the “fan meter” very much. The biggest concern from SEC fans is will the Tigers become as passionate about the SEC as they are. Only time will tell.

Brett Beaird and Harold Bugg are co-hosts of 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 contributing writer for Tiderinsider.com and the Huntsville Times.

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SEC Calls “Timeout” On Conference Expansion

Brett Beaird

SEC presidents and chancellors met Monday for their fall meeting (this meeting was actually planned in advance) and pro-expansion advocates were disappointed. No expansion action was taken at the meeting which will leave fans of the 14th team waiting until the rumor mill begins again from the result of a domino effect from the addition of a team to another conference.

The SEC office released a statement indicating “the presidents and chancellors of the Southeastern Conference met on Monday for its regularly-scheduled fall meeting and discussed a wide range of issues dealing with the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics. SEC and conference officials decided to take no action with regards to expansion.” Now what does this mean.

No one has done a better job of explaining a very complicated, confusing and at times exhilarating subject than John Pennington of MrSEC.com. His number one goal from day one was to take out the emotion and lay out a logical, common sense business model for expansion. He has used many variables to examine potential candidates to join the SEC and not just what best fits the TV expansion footprint.

The action by the SEC and conference officials comes after even more speculation surrounding Missouri’s flirtation with the SEC. After Missouri curators gave chancellor Brady Deaton the authority to explore a move to another conference rather than immediately commit to the Big 12, expansion advocates were delighted to see a possible 14th team joining the league to begin the 2012 season. However, many expansion followers realize that Missouri was interested in the SEC only after Big Ten officials did not express an interest in returning Missouri’s phone call.

Big 10 officials have been for the most part quiet about expansion rumors. Sooner or later, Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany will be up-to-his-neck in conference expansion rumors especially if he gets any interest from Notre Dame if Irish administrators feel the Big East conference will remain on shaky ground.

Last week Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News reported that a majority of SEC presidents and chancellors would support Missouri’s addition to the SEC. However, several SEC presidents and chancellors expressed a concern that Missouri did not have the “it” factor.

Missouri has an outstanding academic institution, but the Tigers basketball program probably has experienced more success than the football program in recent years. In other words, there are other “sexier” candidates than Missouri to be courted behind the scenes. Also, others feel if the SEC has already expanded West to accept Texas A&M, would it be logical to then look East to bring in the 14th team and simply place the 14th team in the SEC Eastern division. According to sources, Alabama wants to look East and not risk losing its annual game against Tennessee, while Auburn favors adding Missouri and moving to the Eastern Division.

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive is a smart man. He is an attorney with a sharp business mind. He realizes before a team comes into the SEC, patient and prudent thought is needed. Conference affiliation is not about short-term results, it is a 10-100 year process. Many SEC fans still wonder if Florida State would have joined the SEC in the mid-80′s how the Seminoles would have changed the SEC landscape. Slive and SEC officials will continue to look at other candidates such as Missouri, Florida State, Virginia Tech and others. One of the primary reasons for adding a 14th team is simply balancing the two conferences with seven teams each which makes scheduling much easier.

Fans, who seem to have been left out of the expansion equation, has expressed their concerns about the loss of conference rivalries. It would be a tremendous shame to see Alabama/Tennessee, Auburn/Georgia and other tremendous rivalries that are the sheer fabric of SEC football go by the wayside. Commissioner Slive is smart enough to realize that. It is also unlikely the SEC will raid other conferences such as the ACC or Big East. Slive does not want to be perceived as a “predator”. Besides TV contracts prohibit many conferences from extending invitations because of complex legal issues.

Conference expansion talk will not go away. Larry Scott, commissioner of the Pac-12, is a very smart, ambitious, marketing businessman who will continue to position the Pac-12 as on of the most pro-active conferences in college sports. His actions in the next six months will merit a reaction from other conferences, because he will not stand pat with 12 members. The Big 12 members have kissed-and-made-up for the time being, but there are too many ego’s involved in the Big 12 and Texas is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room that is not going away. Many expansion pundits still believe at some point, Scott will wrestle Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State away from the Big 12.

Missouri will continue to remain a viable candidate for the SEC because of the St. Louis and Kansas City TV markets. Again, if the SEC wants to expand East, Florida State is “the brand name” in college football and Virginia Tech and North Carolina will continue to be courted behind the scenes to seek their interest level.

Conference expansion will settle down for the remainder of the 2011 football season, but expansion enthusiasts will be excited in 2012 when the next round of rumors and reports begin anew.

Brett Beaird and Harold Bugg are co-hosts of 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 contributing writer for the Huntsville Times.

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Does Defense Still Win Championships In College Football?

 Brett Beaird

Two weeks do not a season make, but the picture becomes a little clearer in obtaining the true identity of a team. Normally they have either played the first conference game of the season or traveled for the first time to see how teams handle a hostile environment. It is clear after two weeks in the SEC that top two teams are Alabama and LSU. Why, because they play defense. Only time will tell if either team represents the SEC in the BCS National Championship game in New Orleans, but if defense still wins championships then Alabama and LSU have a leg up on their competition.

LSU’s defense played remarkable well in slowing down the vaunted Oregon running game. The Ducks finished the game with just 95 net rushing yards. All-America back LaMichael James was held to 54 yards on 18 attempts. The Tigers won the game 40-27 and the score was not indicative of how well the LSU defense played. LSU defenders were perhaps even more impressive on Thursday night, holding Mississippi State, which had been averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground, to just 52 yards on 34 carries.

Alabama is now 2-0 after their defense suffocated Penn State 27-11. While Penn State’s offense will never be mistaken for Oregon or Oklahoma State, the Nittany Lions struggled mightily even burning three time outs in their first offensive series.  Alabama leads the SEC and is ranked fifth nationally in total defense. The Crimson Tide is allowing just 170.5 yards per game. Tide opponents are averaging just 2.45 yards per play, which ranks second nationally.

Ironically, the SEC defense with the best statistics  through two games is Florida. This will probably change Saturday since the Gators will host the SEC’s best passing attack Tennessee in its first true test of the season. The Gators are as talented as any team in the league in their front seven and should get even better this week with sophomore defensive end Sharrif Floyd returning from his two-game suspension. Florida has yet to give up a touchdown through two games and leads the country in third-down defense. The Gators have allowed just three third-down conversions in 23 attempts and are allowing only 174.5 yards per game.

College football has changed dramatically in the past decade on-and-off-the-field. However, what doesn’t change is the importance of playing good defense if you’re going to have a chance to win a championship in any conference, especially the SEC. In fact, the only SEC national champion in the BCS era that hasn’t finished in the top 10 nationally in either total defense or scoring defense was Auburn last season. The Tigers were the exception to the norm last season. They weren’t a dominant defense, but when it came to “crunch-time” they were lights-out in the second half and had the most dominant interior defensive lineman in college football last season in Nick Fairley.

Through two games this season, the Tigers have won both games 38-34 over Utah State and  41-34 over Mississippi State . Barrett Trotter has been impressive engineering Gus Malzahn’s offense in the two Tigers win. However, their defense has been abysmal. The Tigers gave up 531 yards, 31 first downs on an astounding 97 plays to Mississippi State. Utah State ran 84 players the previous week.

There are many theories as to why offense has taken a major leap in the past decade.

The advent of the spread formations – The spread formation was invented to allow teams to compensate for less talent. The spread allows an offense to create one-on-one match ups with speedy receivers. It limits defensive formations and reduces blitzing. The spread formation also reduces the number of blocks offensive lineman need to made.

Coaches are placing their best athletes on offense now instead of defense. Former University of Alabama coach Gene Stallings always placed his best players on defense. You only have to ask former Miami quarterback Gino Torretta how did that work out. Former Alabama defensive coordinator Bill “Brother” Oliver hatched a tremendous game plan against Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl as the Tide won in a route 34-13 and claimed the 1992 National Championship. The “book ends” John Copeland and Eric Curry disrupted the Miami offense and allowed Alabama to win the game the “”old fashioned” way, stop the run, run the ball and be sound in the kicking game. Torretta had to call a time-out once because he wasn’t prepared to face an eleven man front.

Seven-on-seven camps – Some coaches despise seven-on-seven camps because it is not real football. A center snaps the ball without any guards or tackles positioned at his side.  While the national summer seven-on-seven camps have led to problems associated with sponsors and street agents who sponsor some of the camps, coaches do not dispute that these camps have improved timing between quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs.

Year round conditioning programs - Coaches on any level of football agree the biggest change in high school and college sports in the past 20 years is the year-round conditioning programs. These programs normally under the supervision of an accredited athletic training staff helps develop muscle mass, flexibility and athleticism in today’s athlete.

Even though many coaches are placing their more talented players on offense, one position where the SEC is a level above any conference in the nation is defensive line play. The SEC clones defensive tackles and ends to combat spread formation offenses run by talented quarterback and skill players from other conferences. The past five MVP’s of the BCS Championship games have been defensive lineman, Florida’s Derrick Harvey, LSU’s Ricky Jean-Francois, Florida’s Carlos Dunlap, Alabama’s Marcell Dareus and Auburn’s Nick Fairley.

What data will back up the theory defense still wins championships? Based on findings by Bleacher Report, the BCS and NCAA regarding the past seven BCS Champions:

1. Only once in seven years has the national champion ranked out of the top 10 in either defensive category, points allowed per game and yardage gained per game (2007 LSU defense ranked No. 16 in points allowed).

2. Six of the last seven national champions have ranked out of the top 10 in at least one of the offensive categories (points scored per game and yardage gained per game) . Additionally, four of these BCS title holders have ranked out of the top 10 in BOTH offensive categories.

3. The average ranking across all four categories for all seven BCS champions in 10.46.

4. The most “balanced” championship team in terms of rankings over the past seven years is the 2005 Texas squad, which ranked an average of 3.5 over the four categories.

5. The least “balanced” championship team in terms of rankings over the past seven years is the 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide team, which ranked No. 1 and No. 2 defensively and No. 24 and No. 33 offensively.

In conclusion, based on findings by the BCS and the NCAA , several distinctions can be made:

1. Teams that rank first in one of the offensive or defensive categories have a better opportunity to win a conference championship than teams who do not.

2. Teams that are defensively dominant rather than offensively dominant are ultimately more successful.

3. Teams that are stronger defensively are more likely to obtain a BCS bowl bid and then are more likely to win the BCS bowl game.

4. Defensive teams are more likely to reach the BCS Championship and then are more likely to win the title.

5. Teams are more likely to win the BCS Championship if they are ranked in the top five defensively and in the top 15 offensively (combined).

In conclusion, defense still wins championships.

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.

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