It seems like only yesterday that teams were opening fall camp and "Manziel watch" was the top sports story around the country. Here we are, as the calendars turn to November, with the SEC and national title pictures coming into focus.
As part of a promotion with the Allstate American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team, which recognizes the extra efforts made by college football players and student support staff off the field, ESPNU college football analyst Matt Stinchcomb sat down to discuss the SEC landscape this season, parity, future stars and Alabama's path to the national title.
For more information on the Allstate AFCA Good Works team, click here.
B/R: It seems like the national opinion of the SEC this year is that it's a "down year." Do you feel that it's a down year?
Matt Stinchcomb: It's hard to say it's a down year in a conference where it's still represented by the team at the No. 1 spot in the BCS standings. But, you can say that it isn't as deep as it was a year ago when you've got a Florida team that wins 11 games in the regular season, a Georgia team that ends up winning its division, a South Carolina team that beat that Georgia team. In terms of more elite teams, it was a little more crowded at the top of the BCS, but a lot of the detractors of the conference point out that it's top-heavy—that it's only a couple of teams that are able to dominate in each respective division.
I don't know if you can have it both ways and make the same argument. The rest of the conference is not very good and then there's three or four really good teams, which, incidentally, few conferences can say that. I think this year those top teams just aren't as good as they were a season ago, and that middle portion of the SEC that detractors say isn't very good, might be better.
Either way, I think the SEC is down, but it's only down relative to itself, not necessarily relative to the rest of the conferences in the country—and that's not to take anything away from the Pac-12, and what it has been able to build around Oregon and Stanford.
B/R: Do you feel that part of the reason that perception exists is because Auburn and Missouri have emerged as the two primary contenders in the SEC, and they came out of nowhere this season?
MS: The perception was that it's the same teams. It's Alabama, it's LSU and every once in a while it's Auburn (in the West). And in the East, for a long time it was Tennessee and Florida, but here lately it's been Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. Where are the rest of these teams? To me, that was the knock that I heard most often. It's the same teams over and over again and everybody else are just a bunch of fish. If that's the way folks were seeing the conference, then this year they should be saying 'wow, the SEC is even better. Look, there are teams that weren't very good that are contending.'
But the truth is you can't look at any season in a vacuum. This game is not played on paper. Because of that, you look at a Florida team that is, in no way, the team it would have fielded absent debilitating injuries. The same can be said for the University of Georgia. And incidentally, Missouri itself has taken a big hit and is without its starting quarterback. You can't have any larger loss at any one position than at the quarterback spot—the one that can impact the team the most. Georgia isn't the team that it would have been, nor is Florida. So that has allowed the opportunity for some of these teams.
Nobody saw Missouri coming. I certainly didn't, and I saw it first hand last year. The Tigers were not the team they could have been a year ago due to injuries, so I don't know if we should be as surprised as many of us are including me that Missouri has enjoyed some success.
B/R: Assuming that Alabama gets to the BCS National Championship Game against either Oregon or Florida State, which opponent should Alabama want to face?
MS: You look at Florida State, and they have such familiarity. Jeremy Pruitt was an apprentice under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart before he took over the defensive coordinator job at Florida State. Obviously, Jameis Winston is a game-changing type of quarterback.
With that said, we've seen one team give Alabama difficulty, and that's Texas A&M. You can throw a lot of that to the multifaceted play of Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel, and that you essentially can't game-plan for him. I don't think he even knows what he's going to do, and I can't imagine a defensive coordinator could profess to know what he's going to do.
I think Oregon is the one that would give Alabama the more difficulty, so I think Alabama would rather play Florida State than they would an Oregon team with Marcus Mariota at the quarterback position. Only because, as mobile as Jameis Winston is, he is not implemented nearly as deeply as Mariota is in that running game. With that run element, that's just an added difficulty for any defense. From a familiarity and style standpoint, though, FSU would have a distinct advantage given Jimbo Fisher and Jeremy Pruitt's history having coached on and with Nick Saban's staffs.
B/R: Do you see another star in the SEC that's on your radar, whether it be someone completely unknown or just isn't getting talked about enough?
MS: You can look at [wide receiver] Sammie Coates at Auburn. He's a guy who's getting more attention, and I think will continue to emerge. Montravius Adams is another one who's stood out, just because we've seen them a couple of times. Travin Dural, wide receiver at LSU, I think he's "next" in that offense considering the change in that passing offense.
It's hard to stay under the radar in the SEC, but those are the types of guys this year who I see. There's certainly talent that's untapped on some of these rosters.
B/R: You're out to promote the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. Tell us what that is and what the goals are for this program.
MS: A lot of folks will pay attention to the All-American Team, but we want to promote the Good Works Team that's been around for about 22 years. They've assembled this team that basically personifies all the things that players are doing great off of the football field.
A guy like Stephen Morris, who's the quarterback for an undefeated Miami team. His team finally got its NCAA fate handed down to it, but in the face of all that, not only has his team performed admirably, but they've been led by a quarterback who's been selfless off the field and given back to his community. He's a leader to his teammates not only in the huddle calling college football plays, but also off the field.
The whole purpose of the Good Works Team is basically, the "all-character team." This is not the best performers on the football field, these are the people who can represent this sport in the most positive way. With all of the negative attention that this game garners, amongst it are some pretty bright shining lights.
Click here for more information on the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.