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SEC Recap: Week Thirteen

We finish off the regular season with confidence in Tuscaloosa, downright anger in College Station, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ here at home, and broken records in Baton Rouge

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama at Florida
Winners of seven SEC titles in 12 seasons, Alabama will enter the College Football Playoff as heavy favorites against fourth-seeded Notre Dame in the national semi-final.
Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama 52 vs. Florida 46

At times Saturday evening, I flashed back to seven years ago.

That December evening in 2013, I may or may not have wept on several occasions, episodes of joy interrupted only by moments of sheer rage (see: Henry Josey pushed into cart).

At least for three-plus quarters, the ebbs and flows of that Missouri/Auburn game will never be topped, but this one was probably the better overall game from kickoff to final whistle.

Not to belabor the musings of Gary Danielson, but I thought this one was toast when Dan Mullen’s refusal to drain the clock at the end of the half allowed Alabama to race down the field and completely regain the momentum with a 35-17 lead.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama at Florida
Alabama needed every bit of running back Najee Harris’ record-breaking performance against Florida in the SEC Championship.

As poor as that clock management was, give Mullen and the Gators credit for going blow-for-blow with the Tide and doing it with absolutely no thought of ever running the ball. Kyle Trask, Kadarius Toney, and Kyle Pitts did what they have done all season.

Florida held the ‘Bama offense scoreless in the third — something that hasn’t happened in 17 quarters — and came within a scoring drive of overcoming a performance from Najee Harris that entered him into the conversation of the best running backs in Alabama history.

Harris, whose fives scores are an SEC title game record, now stands alone atop the Tide record books for touchdowns (54), rushing touchdowns (44), and rushing yards (3,639) in a career.

Florida’s flaws finally came to a head against unranked LSU last week, but the Gators showed that their offense can play with anyone, and for their efforts, they now get Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl — albeit without Pitts, who announced on Twitter Sunday that he’ll forgo the game — and his senior season — to prepare for the NFL.

Meanwhile, a year after missing the Playoff for the first time, the top-seeded Tide opens up as an early 17.5-point favorite in the semi-final over Notre Dame.

Mississippi State 51 vs. Missouri 34

If the loss to Georgia was expected, Saturday was disappointing.

Mississippi State has recruiting more effectively than Missouri over the past five years — the Bulldogs have outranked the Tigers in the Rivals team rankings every year since 2014 — but I think you could still make a case that, to a man, neither team really tips the scale in its favor in terms of overall talent.

No, what made the loss at Starkville disappointing was that, at least for a night, some of the mistakes that personified the losses that ultimately defined Barry Odom’s failures as head coach made an appearance.

And, incidentally, each a facet of the game that Missouri was so good at least mitigating during its run of winning five of six.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Mississippi State
The season did not end the way Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz and his team had hoped, but they’ll a chance to make amends in a bowl game — a feat no one could have seen coming a few months ago.

Too many penalties (8/89 yards). Inefficiency on offense (3-12 on third down). Questionable in-game decisions (Tyler Badie had four touches). Failure to protect the ball (four turnovers). A non-existent pass rush and holes at various levels of the defense. And a costly special teams error.

I think Mississippi State is probably a better team than its record would have you believe, and we saw how much more efficient Leach’s offense can be when he decides to call running plays; the Bulldogs ran for 151 yards on 28 attempts, both season highs.

That being said, it’s not 19 points better, not even when facing a Missouri defense that featured three freshmen and a backup quarterback on the backend.

Missouri was severely undermanned, and it played a team whose scheme was perfectly tailored to exploit the lack of resources, but I digress.

Yes, we all agree on how infinitely better a record of 6-4 looks and sounds than 5-5, but alas, none of us could have seen a break-even effort coming in Eli Drinkwitz’s first season.

And now, to conclude a season that we weren’t sure would even happen, we get postseason football for the first time since 2018, a scenario we all would have gladly accepted at the expense of a loss like this.

Texas A&M 34 vs. Tennessee 13

Think there might be a few bushels-full of sour grapes in College Station right now?

I’ll stop short of saying the Aggies were robbed of the fourth and final College Football Playoff spot Sunday afternoon. For all intents and purposes, the top four seeds have been pretty much ironclad for weeks now, and nothing short of utter chaos on Championship Saturday was going to open the door for A&M.

After his team took care of its business in Knoxville Saturday, Jimbo Fisher made a passionate plea to the Playoff committee, which earlier in the week said there had been “some discussion” about swapping the Aggies and Ohio State in the No. 4 and 5 spots entering the final weekend of the regular season.

Once the field had been announced, the committee’s chairman, Gary Barta, explained why those discussions never really picked up much steam — and presumably stopped altogether once Ohio State beat Northwestern — and then made it clear why the committee selected Notre Dame over the Aggies as the nation’s second-best one-loss team.

To the committee, the race for the final spot was a resumé game.

Despite playing five fewer games than any other Playoff team, Ohio State’s body of work was sufficient, as was that of Notre Dame, whose blowout loss to Clemson was not ugly enough to weaken its resume to the point at which the committee felt A&M had done enough.

LSU 53 vs. Ole Miss 48

Fair or unfair to say, the LSU offense this season was a shell of its former self.

But that shell is still pretty damn good.

Tasked with following up the exploits of Heisman winner Joe Burrow and last season’s national title-winning offense, this year’s unit finished the season — having played five fewer games than last year’s team; LSU decided to opt out of its bowl appearance — ranked 15th (312) and 39th (32) nationally in passing offense and scoring offense, respectively.

A production drop-off in 2020 was inevitable for the offense and whomever was entrusted to replace Burrow, an unenviable position that was bestowed to three players during the course of the season.

The good news for LSU fans is, they should be excited for the future of this offense, in particular at quarterback, where Max Johnson — a Burrow clone in terms of measurables — may have separated himself from junior Myles Brennan and fellow true freshman TJ Finley going into 2021, who combined to start each of the Tigers’ first eight games.

A week after making his first career start in a win at Florida, Johnson threw for 435 yards and three scores against Ole Miss, including the game-winner with under two minutes to Kayshon Boutte, who could ultimately soften the blow of the departure of Ja’Marr Chase, the junior who opted out prior to the season to concentrate on his NFL prospects.

The freshman Boutte caught 14 balls for a school- and SEC-record 308 yards, breaking the previous mark set by Josh Reed in 2001, and together with Johnson helped the Tigers avoid their first losing season since 1999.