It's no grand secret that Greg McElroy is a very smart guy, but even so he is fairly unique with the way that he addresses the media. He's bright enough to avoid making the dumb statements that will inevitably become bulletin board fodder for opposing teams, but at the same time he's generally also very candid and insightful. He's not the guy who is going to just blow off the media with cliches and overly generic statements that are completely devoid of any real thought or morning, but he's not the guy dumb enough to spew off something really stupid for the entire world to hear. In short, when he talks, you really should pay attention.
With that in mind, yesterday afternoon McElroy had a great quote regarding the SEC and the start of conference play with the upcoming game against Arkansas:
We've played great up to this point but we really haven't played anybody that really challenges what we do. Penn State is a great team. They're extremely well coached, but they're not built to face a team and have a lot of success against a team like us. They're built to expose the power running game and things like that, which they did. They shut it down on us and we didn't run the power real well or the inside zone real well. We beat them with speed around the edge, and we were able to break some tackles which led to some explosive plays.
"This team [Arkansas] is built to play teams like us.
Nail, meet head.
The early season non-conference schedule can certainly bring quality opponents who will challenge you in their own way. No one would dispute that, and that is not a criticism of teams non-conference teams. But, even so, the reality of it is that it's a whole different ballgame when you get to SEC play.
Across the board, aside from a couple of exceptions at the very bottom end of the conference, you're going to get a serious challenge from everyone you face. Every team you face is going to be big and physical. They are going to have speed at nearly every position. They are going to have a lot one or two legitimate playmakers at the offensive skill positions, and the better teams have several such players. Defensively, every team emphasizes stopping the run, just about every team has at least one high-end pass rusher, and there are loads of talent at the defensive skill positions to boot. As a general rule, no one will challenge you the way the teams that comprise the murderer's row of the SEC slate will.
Want an example? Remember back to LSU in 2007. They needed a touchdown in the final minute to beat Florida, a last-second Hail Mary heave to the end zone to beat Auburn, two touchdowns in the final three minutes to avoid defeat at the hands of Alabama, and an interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to beat Tennessee. And, of course, along the way they lost to both Kentucky and Arkansas. Yet they annihilated ACC champion Virginia Tech 48-7 in Baton Rouge, and soundly thumped Big Ten champion and #2 Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game. Again, it's a whole different ballgame in SEC play.
Now I know that by all accounts this looks to be a down year for the SEC, and, hell, the rest of the nation for that matter. Having said that, don't fool yourselves into developing a false sense of security. Even with a down year, it's not like the SEC has suddenly forgotten how to play football. There is still a slew of high-end coaches, great units, elite players, and tough road environments. Down year or not, it's still brutal.
Starting 3-0 is great. Not trailing for a single second in those three games, while never even being put in remote fear of actually losing is even better. And beating Penn State was a big win regardless. Nevertheless, it's a whole different game when you move into conference play. With the road trip to Fayetteville in four days time, the treacherous slate begins now.