An early primer on the SEC Championship Game

Enough about Auburn, the goal coming into this season was to get back to Atlanta for a rematch with the Gators and we have done just that. Obviously there are a lot of issues to address this week, so I want to go ahead and write a rough primer addressing many of them. Let's get started:

Pythagorean Wins

Many of you are aware of my research into the application of the concept of Pythagorean Wins into SEC football, and with the 2009 SEC regular season officially coming to an end this past weekend, we can now get an early estimate on Pythagorean Wins. I won't get into the nitty gritty just yet -- I'll save the 2009 Pythagorean Wins post for a later day -- but the highlights of this year's analysis is that Alabama and Florida are still a head above the rest of the SEC, Florida stills lead the SEC very narrowly over 'Bama, but the gap between the Tide and the Gators is much smaller than last year, and both 'Bama and Florida are pretty big overachievers relative to their Pythagorean projection.

Last year Florida outscored conference opponents by a total of 259 points, and the Tide did so by a highly impressive 140, but things are a lot closer this year. The Gators "only" outscored conference opponents by 125 points this year, and the Tide outscored their opponents by 123 points. That's a long way down for the Gators from last year, and now the margin of razor thin in terms of the two teams Pythagorean projections. The gap between the two teams last year in conference point differential was 119 points, and this year the gap is down to a mere two points. Had Leigh Tiffin converted on his partially blocked field goal attempt in the Iron Bowl, the Tide would lead in this category.

It turns out the Gators are indeed human, but...

The good news for those of us praying not to see a repeat of last year's outcome in Atlanta is that Florida is not necessarily invincible this year. Last year the Gators average margin of victory in conference play was roughly 38 points, and in terms of sheer domination, that was probably the most dominant team we have ever seen in the history of SEC football, and perhaps the most dominant we will ever see, well, ever. Those guys went through the SEC last year like Lawrence Taylor in Tecmo Bowl, but fortunately they have came back to Earth a bit this year.

On the other hand, don't read too much into that. Florida has not been completely invincible this year, but they did go undefeated and for the most part they weren't seriously challenged. Only Arkansas gave them a true scare, and they won every other conference game by 10 points or more. The fact that Florida hasn't annihilated teams at the same clip as they did last year says more to the reality that last year was a once-in-a-lifetime type season more than it does about any inherent weakness in this year's Gators.

A Vertical Element in the Passing Game

Some teams throw the football down the field. We don't. And some teams throw the football to their wide receivers. But we don't do that either. Or, more precisely put, we apparently cannot do that. Oh I'm sure we would love to, but, um, you know...

In any event, it just doesn't happen. We just do not throw the football down the field, period. Again Mississippi State we threw literally two passes all day further than fifteen yards beyond the line of scrimmage, both of which came on busted coverages. Against Auburn, once again we threw literally two passes all day further than fifteen yards beyond the line of scrimmage. And we cannot get the football consistently to wide receivers not named Julio Jones, either. Against Auburn not a single wide receiver outside of Jones caught a pass, and on the year our second leading receiver in terms of receptions (Marquis Maze) is barely averaging two catches per game.

Why is that the case? I really don't know because we don't have sufficient information. It's either a function of a quarterback entirely too quick to check down, wide receivers unable to consistently get separation, or some combination of the two. My gut instinct is that it is mostly on McElroy's shoulders because he does check down very quickly, but again that's all speculation, and unless you have the coach's film to get the birds eye view of the entire play developing, you really don't have enough information to adequately assign blame.

Either way, regardless of whatever the cause of this problem happens to be, it is something we have to get fixed by the opening kick-off in Atlanta.

Brandon Spikes... the game of his life on the horizon?

Speaking of the lack of a vertical threat in the passing game, Ted Roof and the rest of the Auburn defensive coaching staff altered their defensive gameplan accordingly to that and it paid big dividends. They stuffed the box and consistently committed a lot of personnel to stopping the run. They were putting a hat on a hat for every blocker we had, and still had enough to let middle linebacker Josh Bynes roam free. Not surprisingly, Bynes had arguably his finest day at the collegiate level, racking up 10 tackles plus a tackle for a loss. He roamed free on the interior running plays and Jonathon Evans -- starting his first game -- largely did the same thing to runs on the outside, and racked up 8 tackles in his own right.

Rest assured Florida will do the same thing. They have a much better defensive line and they will commit the resources that Auburn did. That will allow Brandon Spikes to largely roam free, and if that happens he will literally end up with a tackle on basically every single interior running play. And, as an added boost to the Gators, it will make the loss of A.J. Jones a moot point.

Again, we have to find a way to throw the football vertically against these guys. If not, Spikes will have a career day and our offense will be ineffective.

The 'Bama offensive line in pass protection... a weak link?

I know what you are thinking, our offensive line a weak link in pass protection? But, they've done a great job this year on that front, right? Well, in raw terms yes they have. We have only given up 14 sacks in 316 passing attempts, and that gives us an Adjusted Sack Rate of only 4.4%. That will surely be one of, if not, the best rates in the SEC. 

But that is not necessarily to say that they might not be a weak link. Yes they have protected the quarterback very well so far this year, but on the other hand they have had an easy job too. We don't throw the football down the field, we check down a lot, and the ball comes out very quickly. All in all it makes life very easy for them in pass protection. But against Florida, that will likely be a very different story. We'll have to take some shots vertically, and the Gators have a great pass rush in the front four.We'll find out a lot about just how good these guys are this weekend.

Slow starts

No putting a pretty face on this one, slow starts have plagued us all season long and that is one of the major reasons we have been forced to rally from behind in the fourth quarter three times to remain undefeated.

Florida International led us in the second quarter. LSU jumped out to an early 7-0 lead against us. The Arkansas game was scoreless going into the second quarter. The Ole Miss game was 3-0 late in the second quarter. We led Kentucky only 7-6 with 45 seconds remaining in the first half. The Tennessee game was a 3-3 game midway through the second quarter. Mississippi State had two good drives to start the game, mixed with a three and out by our offense. Auburn jumped out to a 14-0 lead before our offense even managed a first down. Hell, we even went three and out against lowly Tennessee-Chattanooga.

The only time our offense has scored a touchdown on their opening possession against a BCS conference opponent was Kentucky. The end result of our opening offensive possession the previous seven games have been as follows: punt, interception, three and out, punt, three and out, three and out, three and out. Am I the only one who wants to drop an F-bomb when reading that?

In any event, starting fast isn't everything, of course, but slow starts can sure as hell get you beat. We've been playing with fire on this front all year long, and it may very well get us burnt in Atlanta. If we come out of the gate against the Gators like we have much of the year, we may very well find ourselves down 14-0 again before the game really even gets started. And to paraphrase Verne Lundquist from a few years back, there are few certainties in an uncertain worlds, but one of them is this: Florida ain't Auburn. And we had better not start as such come Saturday.

Arenas probably won't be a factor as a returner...

Javier Arenas has been an impact player for us in the return game ever since he first stepped foot on campus in 2006, and he even had a couple of big returns for us in the Iron Bowl this past Saturday to boot. However, we probably shouldn't expect him to have any major impact in the return game come Saturday. Florida has been nothing short of perfect in kick and punt coverage this year, and return yards have been almost non-existent against them.

On the year, they've allowed only four punt returns this year for a grand total of 13 yards. They are netting almost 43 yards per punt, and basically they boom it deep and high, and usually the kick either sails out of bounds or the returner is forced to call a fair catch. Likewise, things have been very good on kick returns as well. They only have nine touchbacks on 73 kickoffs, so Arenas and company will get chances there, but the Gators are averaging only 20 yards per kick return, one of the best in the country.

So, unfortunately, you probably shouldn't expect Javier Arenas to play a big role in the return game here, and it certainly doesn't seem like our offense will get any great help from this area. On the other hand, though, if our kick coverage issues continue, rest assured Brandon James will make us pay.

All of this Ingram v. Tebow hype, don't buy it...

I notice that many of the national talking heads are already billing this one as an Ingram v. Tebow battle, but don't buy into that talk. Tebow may be that near that important just because of the position he plays, but even so this game will be decided by the group effort of 80+ players, and to be so myopic that you look at only two players is simply overestimating the value of one individual in the ultimate team sport.

Certainly our chances of winning are better if Ingram can get healthy and play at a high level, but it's far from a death knell for us if he is a relative non-factor like he was against Auburn. Both Trent Richardson and Roy Upchurch are fine players in their own right, and the drop-off from Ingram to them isn't very much. There are more important issues out there that will likely decide this game other than the Ingram situation.

Uncharted Waters

All in all, you have to keep in mind that this is a very hard game to project because this game is uncharted waters for both teams. Simply put, Alabama hasn't played a team yet that is anywhere near as good as Florida. Florida hasn't played a team that is anywhere near as good as Alabama.

The best team 'Bama has faced all season is probably either LSU or Ole Miss. Florida, on the other hand, probably faced their toughest opponent against LSU, and after that their toughest opponent may very well have been 7-5 Arkansas in Gainesville. So, again, this is uncharted territory for both squads, and this makes this game very difficult to project. There is probably a lot more inherent unpredictability in a game like this than there are in most others.

Want Meyer to go to Notre Dame?

Okay, so you want Urban Meyer to go to Notre Dame, right? Well, if you want that to be the case, you had better find a way to beat Florida on Saturday. Think about it this way... Notre Dame is probably going to fire Charlie Weis any day now, and we might even get official word today. But if Florida wins this Saturday, Meyer will be in the BCS Championship Game yet again, and Notre Dame won't even get a legitimate chance to talk to him until January 9th. In real terms, that means the Irish will probably just move on in the next couple of weeks and hire someone like Brian Kelly.

Now, admittedly, I really don't think there is much of any real chance of Meyer going to South Bend anyway. Oh I'm sure the powers that be at Notre Dame will kick the tires on him a bit -- they will definitely do that, and it would be idiotic if they didn't -- but I'd still be really surprised to see him leave Gainesville. Nevertheless, though, if you want that to even remain a viable option, you've got to find a way to knock off Florida on Saturday. Notre Dame is probably the only job that Meyer would leave Florida for, and If the Gators win in Atlanta for the second year in a row, you can guarantee that Meyer will be in Gainesville another four or five years at a minimum.

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