The eyes of the college football world will be on Atlanta Saturday afternoon when the Alabama Crimson Tide take on the Missouri Tigers for the SEC title. As he did before last year's title game, SEC Network analyst and former Georgia Bulldog Matt Stinchcomb took a few minutes away from being a successful businessman, Circle of Honor member, and former NFL player to talk a little SEC football. As usual, Matt's answers are enlightening, and include words like "trajectory" and "indictment" and "circumstantial", because Matt Stinchcomb's GPA at the University of Georgia was probably higher than yours. But it's good that you're not bitter about that. Enjoy.
Matt: Hey MD, how are you doing this morning?
MD: I'd be a lot better if I were getting ready to watch the 'Dawgs in the Georgia Dome. But you know . . .
Matt: I tell you what, they had their chances. Blew it both times.
MD: Yeah, you can't complain when you have only yourself to blame.
Matt: That's right. Doesn't make it any easier to watch Missouri though.
MD: Nope. Not a bit. But that does bring up a good question. Realistically what kind of shot does Missouri have of taking down Alabama in this game?
Matt: When you look at Missouri, and this is probably more of an indictment of the entire East division, it really is hard to find any candidates out of the East who would have been favored over the candidates from the West. Now we did see both Missouri and Georgia sweep their West opponents, but keep in mind that UGA caught Arkansas before they got hot, and put a beating on them unlike most other teams were capable of doing. That's a very competitive Arkansas football team, a team that just had yet to win an SEC game under Bret Bielema. Then you've got a Missouri team that was seemingly catching A&M and Arkansas on the rise, but were actually facing them coming off wins that now look dubious at best. So I really still don't know how good that East division is.
That being said, there's still opportunity, and i think some of it is circumstantial.You look at what Alabama has had to go through in this past month, facing three top 25 times, an overtime win, several body blows, having to go toe-to-toe with Auburn for four quarters and 99 total points. They had to play 90 defensive snaps in that game, and that takes a toll on any football team. Missouri's had to win games to get into the Championship Game, and they've been able to do that. But they haven't had nearly as tough a road to do it as Alabama has, facing Auburn, Mississippi State, and LSU.
MD: Speaking of Alabama and that gauntlet they just ran, there were obviously some misgivings among Bama fans about Lane Kiffin's offense initially. But I think at this point you have to call the Kiffin experiment in Tuscaloosa a tentative success, right?
Matt: I know Amari Cooper and Blake Sims would certainly feel that way. You look at what he's done with the offensive construction just in general, and specifically with Blake Sims and what he's done with his play. I watch them a lot on the sideline, and some has been made of this, but they interface quite a lot and you can see Blake Sims consult the sideline quite a lot. And it's not always necessarily the same as we've seen other offenses looking for the play. You see how Sims has played at home and the distinction between his play at home and on the road, and a lot of that is a function of how he communicates with his offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin on the sideline.
Kiffin's not up in the box for a reason, and I don't think it's just so he can have a feel for the flow of the game. I think it's so he can communicate with his quarterback, and his quarterback does a great job of then implementing the strategies that Coach Kiffin has put in place. So I think he's managed the process exceptionally well. We've seen an offense that, when its defense was giving up yards in bunches and more points than any other game in Iron Bowl history, his offense was able to take up the slack and then some.
MD: Of course on the other sideline you've got Gary Pinkel, who obviously doesn't have the reputation of Nick Saban. Yet here he is in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game for the second year in a row. What is the secret to his success, I mean other than beating Florida badly enough to make them angry when they arrive in Jacksonville two weeks later?
Matt: It really is kind of hard to pin it on one thing, you know? He doesn't have a team that you can say year in and year out this is what makes them distinct. Other than fielding excellent pass rushers, and a really opportunistic defense, I think it's keeping his players' heads in the game and in the opportunities that are still before them. I mean you lose to Indiana at home, then you get dismantled by Georgia at home, and it would have been very easy for that season to unravel, especially with the way his offense was playing, and the way his quarterback was playing. And yet he stuck with Maty Mauk. Not only did he stick with him but found a way to engineer wins. They found ways in the second halves of games to squeak out wins. And that's the name of the game.
MD: Twelve of the fourteen teams in the SEC have moved on to wondering what bowl game they'll be in or getting ready for Signing Day and Spring Practice. Assuming that things stay generally as we know them now (for example, Bret Bielema stays at Arkansas), are there any teams you could see taking a big step forward in the SEC next season?
Matt: I look at a young Tennessee team that was narrowly defeated by Georgia in Athens, that should have won but ultimately didn't at home versus Florida. We've seen that Tennessee team make great strides. You could say the same about Kentucky, but we saw them fall apart down the stretch in the second half of the season. Disappointing would be putting it mildly when you lose six straight.
You mention Arkansas there, but I think they kind of telegraphed their punch, because they were so competitive in a lot of games. A&M was a game they should have won. Alabama. Mississippi State. There were several games that they let get away from them against top tier talent. Then they blanked LSU and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks. I just don't know that they're going to be sneaking up on anybody.
And of course everybody's going to be looking at who Texas A&M hires as their defensive coordinator, because it's obvious that Kevin Sumlin has realized that he can't continue on this trajectory of just trying to outscore people. I think that hire determines what the Aggies can do a year from now. But if there's one team that's clearly due to be on the upswing, I think it's clearly the Tennessee Volunteers. I just think they've got a bunch of young talent on both sides of the ball, and they could be not just a threat as they were this year, but a real contender in the SEC East before very long.
MD: Again looking to 2015, Mark Richt came out after last week's disappointing loss to Georgia Tech and reassured fans that his team is not that far from playing for championships. Really when you look on paper at what he has coming back next year, that's not an outrageous conclusion to reach. But if you're in Mark Richt's shoes, what do you need to do in 2015 to return to the SEC Championship Game and get into the second iteration of the college football playoff?
Matt:They've recruited well, so I don't think it's a dirty of talent. It appears that they've now got the right coordinators in place scheme-wise to compete at the highest levels. I think the issue is simply consistency, applying both those aspects of having the talent and the schemes on game day. I mean you lose to a South Carolina team and a Florida team that frankly from the body of work of all three of those squads they shouldn't have lost to. They lost to a good Georgia Tech team in a game that very much could have been in hand, and really was with less than 20 seconds left to play. There's an element there that has just been lacking this season.
And whether it's the mentality of the team heading into a matchup like the one with the Florida Gators or their ability to finish and get off the football field or their ability to score on the goal line against South Carolina, until those aspects are addressed they're going to have trouble. I mean they've shown an ability to handle adversity at times, they lose Todd Gurley and find a way to remain competitive. But I think it's perhaps the smaller issues, the details, that may be lacking, the execution. Those are the things that make the difference between a championship contending season and one that leaves you feeling a little empty.
MD: Turning from the football field, I know you're still working with the Allstate Good Works Team, which we discussed last year before the SEC title game. What's new with that program this year?
Matt: For one thing we've got four guys from the SEC who were named to the team this year (Editor's note: Including Damn Good Dawg Chris Conley. . .). That just kind of extends the lead that the league has in this prestigious recognition. Having this many high character guys who are also great football players, that are a "duel threat", that's a special thing. I think last year was one of the few in which there haven't been any SEC guys.
We'd like to thank Matt for once again joining us to talk a little SEC football. Here's hoping that this time next year I'm asking him about Georgia's chances of winning the SEC Championship and playing for it all. Until later . . .