Ending the SEC's win streak (cont.)
In lamenting the voters' decision last December to give Alabama a second shot at LSU at the expense of his high-scoring 11-1 team, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told Dan Patrick: "My honest opinion is, the best way to beat a team of the caliber of LSU ... you need to have a big-time quarterback to beat a team like that. And we're fortunate we have a guy on our team [Brandon Weeden] ... that most people would consider a big-time quarterback."
Based on our Part I comparison between the SEC's six consecutive BCS champions and the five non-SEC foes they vanquished, it's clear a big-time quarterback is actually fairly low on the list of priorities. Just ask Troy Smith or Sam Bradford. The non-SEC team that came closest to actually winning -- 2010 Oregon, which lost 22-19 to Auburn on a last-second field goal -- was the one that most closely resembled the SEC squads. The Ducks were by far the strongest rushing team of the group; they did not depend on a Heisman-caliber quarterback; they were decent against the run (3.51 yards per attempt); and they generated significant pass pressure (ranking No. 7 in pass efficiency defense).
It stands to reason, then, that the team that finally ends the SEC's streak will be the team that most closely replicates the SEC's formula.
The following is not a prediction of which teams have the best chance to reach the national championship game. Some may not be cut out to win their own conference. Rather, it's an attempt to identify which teams, based on their returning personnel, anticipated areas of strength and coaching philosophies, are best suited to face the prototypical SEC representative in a one-game BCS championship matchup.
The five most promising candidates:
Texas (No. 15 in Coaches' Poll): In the three years since losing Colt McCoy in the first quarter of the title game and falling 37-21 to Alabama, Mack Brown has reinvented the Longhorns into a virtual SEC clone. They run the ball (202.6 yards per game last year) and stop the run (No. 6 nationally). They boast a pair of potential first-round defensive ends in Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor and a trio of young tailbacks (Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and freshman Johnathan Gray) any team would covet. Texas needs either David Ash or Case McCoy to emerge as a dependable quarterback, which is an admittedly huge question mark for the team, but it doesn't necessarily need either to become a star. The Longhorns -- 4-5 in the Big 12 last season -- may still be a year away from returning to elite status, but they match the blueprint.
Oregon (No. 5): Yes, the Ducks are 1-2 versus the SEC under Chip Kelly, including a 40-27 rout by LSU in the 2011 opener. That's a bit deceiving, though. Two fumbles by then-rookie De'Anthony Thomas helped blow open a game in which Oregon outgained the Tigers 335-273. This year Kelly may have his scariest running game yet with veteran tailback Kenjon Barner, the supremely explosive Thomas and a pair of quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett, who are both more dangerous runners than Darron Thomas. The defense, led by defensive end Dion Jordan, linebacker Michael Clay and safety John Boyett, will be Oregon's most athletic in recent memory. As always, the concern with Oregon is that its smallish offensive line could be overpowered by an elite foe.
USC (No. 3): The Trojans are loaded on offense, with quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee arguably the best in the country at their positions. And the addition of 1,241-yard Penn State rusher Silas Redd to go with Curtis McNeal means Lane Kiffin's team should be more balanced. The running game could be the key to avoiding a fate like Sam Bradford-led Oklahoma's 14-point showing against Florida in 2008. There's plenty of talent on defense (safety T.J. McDonald, corner Nickell Robey), too. The concern, however, is the defensive line, where USC must replace three starters and may be without injured defensive end Devon Kennard. That's arguably the most important position when facing a powerful SEC rushing attack, and the reason Oregon may pose a slightly better matchup.
Michigan State (No. 13): Two years ago, a 9-3 SEC team (Alabama) thoroughly outclassed Mark Dantonio's team in a bowl game, 49-7. One New Year's Day later, Michigan State -- 22-5 the past two years -- topped a 10-3 SEC team (Georgia) in double overtime. What changed? An influx of athletic defenders (ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, cornerback Johnny Adams) has helped Dantonio produce a swarming unit. The 2011 Spartans held foes to 2.8 yards per carry, seventh-best nationally, and return eight starters. Meanwhile, power back Le'Veon Bell leads a physical rushing attack. On the downside, Michigan State must break in new quarterback Andrew Maxwell and inexperienced receivers, but this team will win with defense first.
Florida State (No. 7): Judging by recruiting ratings, Jimbo Fisher -- who previously worked under both Nick Saban and Les Miles -- has assembled more talent than any non-SEC program other than USC. That's particularly true on defense, where defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Brandon Jenkins, defensive tackle Everett Dawkins and cornerback Xavier Rhodes helped hold foes to fewer yards per rushing attempt (2.35) last year than even Alabama's historic unit. This year's defense is more experienced. Oft-criticized quarterback EJ Manuel actually averaged an acceptable 8.57 yards per attempt. But the 'Noles, who suffered mass injuries on the offensive line last year, still need to drastically improve on their 104th-ranked rushing offense.
Several highly ranked teams failed to make the list. They may very well be capable of reaching the big game, but their blueprint suggests they'd suffer the same fate as those before them. Here's why:
No. 4 Oklahoma: The Sooners are too dependent on the passing game and have not yet demonstrated the capacity for an elite rushing defense.
No. 8 Michigan: Brady Hoke likely needs another year's recruiting haul before the Wolverines can field an upper-echelon defensive front.
No. 11 West Virginia: Like Oklahoma, the Mountaineers' pass-heavy offense leaves them too one-dimensional if facing an elite SEC defense.
No. 12 Wisconsin: The Badgers have the rushing offense, but it's hard to put faith in a defense that gave up 621 yards to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
No. 14 Clemson: The Tigers ranked 83rd nationally against the run last season.
So, in conclusion, if you're one of the many outside of Dixie clamoring to see some team knock the mighty SEC off its perch, you might want to practice your Hook 'em Horns sign.
Coincidentally, the last team outside of the SEC to win a national championship was ... Texas. It's as we've said for seven years: College football really is cyclical.