Random thoughts and observations as Alabama enters SEC Championship Game week.
In 2013, Nick Saban will face new coaches at UT, Auburn, Arkansas and Kentucky.
As of Sunday night, the SEC was home to football coaching openings at Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee, with Missouri reportedly on deck. While some of those situations are better than others, none of them will be an easy fix. With that in mind, here's how I see the current openings around the league.
Best job: The recruiting base isn’t the best, but Tennessee isn’t so far removed from competing for championships that a dynamic recruiting staff couldn’t get the Vols back in the mix for Eastern Division titles in a relatively short period of time.
It also helps that athletics director Dave Hart has been around championship programs at Florida State and Alabama. He knows what is required to win at the highest level.
As former coach Derek Dooley would attest, quarterback Tyler Bray hanging around for another season could be a good thing or a wasted season in the rebuilding process. First up on the priority list, though, is reconstructing a defense that ranked 109th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Hardest place to win that has championship expectations: Pending Auburn’s dealings with the NCAA, I’ll go with Arkansas here. Don’t get me wrong, the Hogs have the resources needed to compete (a new $35 million “football operations center” is going up). But like Tennessee, they’re not going to get to Atlanta with homegrown talent alone. There’s also the big splash Texas A&M made in year one in the league, something that won’t make recruiting Texas any easier for the new staff.
Best roster to inherit: The recruiting rankings from the past three years would point to Auburn, although a 0-8 record in SEC play would seem to fly in the face of that argument. That said, it’s pretty obvious that the area where Gene Chizik and his staff failed was in the player development department.
Personnel-wise, the Tigers aren’t as good as some predicted in the preseason but they’re also not as bad as they looked in Tuscaloosa. Changing the toxic culture that ultimately led to Chizik’s dismissal might require a season or two.
Easiest expectations to meet: That would be Kentucky. Win six or seven games a year; go bowling in Nashville or Birmingham on a regular basis and you can stay in Lexington for as long as you’d like. Going 4-20 in SEC play over three seasons – as Joker Phillips did -- will likely get you fired, even if one of those four wins is over rival Tennessee.
*Like LSU, Georgia will utilize a tight end and two backs this week, which means the snap count for UA linebacker CJ Mosley will be something to keep an eye on Saturday. Understanding that every move Nick Saban makes involves a great deal of foresight, here’s hoping Mosley doesn't come off the field against the Bulldogs – even if the UGA offense goes with three tight ends from start to finish.
*Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray has thrown 13 touchdown passes in his last four games. While impressive, it's worth noting that those scores came against units that rank No. 81 (Ole Miss), No. 101 (Auburn), No. 63 (FCS Georgia Southern) and No. 82 (Georgia Tech) in pass efficiency defense. Murray threw three picks against the nation's top-ranked pass efficiency defense (Florida) before going on his current tear. Alabama checks in at No. 5 nationally in the category.
*If CBS Sports' SEC Express version of Alabama-Auburn this week lasts two minutes it will be at least 58 minutes too long.
*Contrary to what we’re being told, SEC Championship Game ticket prices aren’t exactly soaring. A pair of mezzanine level (200 sections) tickets for the game sold for $650 on eBay back on Nov. 15; before Alabama and Georgia were set to play in what will equate to a national semifinal. Even with the game taking on greater importance since, a pair of mezzanine tickets sold for $678 last night. Not cheap by any means, but a fraction of what early prices for the BCS Championship Game are running. Perhaps fans of Alabama and Georgia are saving up for $1,600 ticket prices for the title game.
*The last time Alabama went on a five-year run (1971-1975) like the one it's currently on, Auburn replaced a retiring Ralph "Shug" Jordan with Doug Barfield. Barfield proceeded to drop five straight to the Crimson Tide and was fired. Chizik's successor won't get that long to make things right.
*There will be a lot of talk this week about the similarities schematically and otherwise between Alabama and Georgia, but the one noticeable difference will have to do with talk coming from each team's press conferences.
When you hear or read comments from AJ McCarron and Nico Johnson this week, you'll pretty much be hearing or reading comments from their head coach. As for Georgia, nothing that comes out of the interview room in Athens will surprise me.
*Interesting comments from Saban on Sunday night in regards to the possibility of taking the redshirt off freshman receiver Chris Black, who missed the season’s first 12 games with a shoulder injury. With the wide receiver positions dealing with season-ending injuries to DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell, depth has become a serious issue and Black was on track to land a spot in the rotation before getting injured. Should Black play, he’d likely work almost exclusively from the slot.
*During a half-hour span on The NFL Network’s Red Zone coverage Sunday afternoon I felt as if I was watching an Alabama football infomercial. There was an 82-yard touchdown reception by Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones, followed by a 15-yard touchdown run by Cleveland running back Trent Richardson, which was followed by a sack by Buffalo defensive tackle Marcell Dareus of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck.
Five years ago, I could have gone five hours without seeing a former UA player highlighted on the best sports program to hit the airwaves since the White Shadow.
*No intel on the subject, but hard to imagine that upper level student section at Bryant-Denny Stadium continuing to be half empty in future years. Dear History major, Don't cry about limited access to tickets when you don't show up for Auburn.
*It's official: Dabo Swinney is Steve Spurrier's new Ray Goff.
*As an unabashed Paul Johnson fan even I have to admit that from a personnel standpoint Georgia Tech looks a lot like Navy these days.
*Watching Florida State get beat up by Florida in the second half of the Gators’ 37-26 win in Tallahassee Saturday night, one had to wonder how much joining the ACC has dummied down the FSU football program. The once intimidating Seminoles seemed genuinely surprised by the Gators' physical style of play.
*I still say the ACC should play its championship game at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium the Friday night before the SEC Championship Game. With a capacity of 55,000 the venue would create a much better atmosphere than an NFL stadium that is one-third full.
*Something to keep in mind while pondering the financial burden that comes with purchasing BCS Championship Game tickets: you can get by with just one kidney.