Being a defensive coordinator in this era of college football was already somewhat of a thankless (albeit well-paid) job, but playing in the middle of a pandemic season has made it particularly stressful.
The lack of a real offseason conditioning program, the inability to spend as much time on fundamentals and the lack of practice tackling (in some cases due to social distancing guidelines) has undoubtedly left defenses even further behind offenses early in the season.
Those factors will make it difficult to judge which defensive coordinators are doing a bad job this season and which have been dealt an impossible hand. But that’s not going to stop criticism from being levied against several high-profile defensive coordinators whose teams have really struggled so far this year.
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At LSU, it’s already fair to ask if hiring Bo Pelini to replace Dave Aranda was a mistake. At Florida, Dan Mullen seems to have an offense that can score on anybody but a defense that simply isn’t up to par for a team that wants to contend for the College Football Playoff. And at Alabama, 36-year-old coordinator Pete Golding has not impressed this season despite a lot of returning talent.
We’ll examine all of those situations in our 10 takeaways from Week 6:
Alabama wins, but defense shows cracks
With a mask covering his face, it was hard to tell the level of seething rage inside Nick Saban on Saturday as his defense got torched time and time again by Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss offense. While Alabama got out of Oxford with its championship hopes still in tact thanks to a 63-48 win, what it required from the Crimson Tide — namely, scoring touchdowns on eight straight possessions to close the game — is not the brand of football on which Saban built his program.
And he can’t be happy about that.
Look, what Kiffin has done early this season is exciting and fun. The playcalling from Ole Miss was tremendous, keeping Alabama off balance and on its heels. But if you’re Alabama and you’ve got this much talent and depth, your defense can’t get bullied to the tune of 647 yards. You can’t miss a bunch of tackles, create no turnovers and allow 4-of-4 conversions on fourth down.
The Crimson Tide’s defense has been shaky since Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt got head coaching jobs, but this seems like a new low. And Golding, a 36-year-old who was hired a few years ago from Texas-San Antonio because of his youth and vigor on the recruiting trail, does not seem like the next great defensive coordinator to work under Saban.
Alabama has a major challenge next week against Georgia, and for the first time it feels like the Crimson Tide may be an underdog.
HIGHS AND LOWS: LSU, Texas A&M headline Week 6 winners and losers
SEC RANKINGS: After Week 6 of the season, Georgia and Alabama still on top
STARS SHINE: The top 10 performances from college football in Week 6
LSU defense is in even worse shape
Pelini was a great defensive coordinator at one point in his career, but he hasn’t done that job for more than a dozen years. In LSU’s shocking 45-41 loss to Missouri, it was fairly common to see receivers running free down the field with nobody near them. For LSU fans and former players, who were all over Twitter bemoaning the Tigers’ defensive effort against Missouri, this was all too familiar.
In the season opener, Mississippi State torched LSU for 623 passing yards, which many attributed to the genius of Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. But after Missouri put up 586 total yards, including 406 through the air, now we know that LSU just isn’t good at all on that side of the ball.
You can certainly attribute much of that to the talent and coaching turnover LSU experienced after last season’s historic national title run. But Pelini, who was given a three-year contract worth $2.3 million per year, has not exactly impressed with scheme early on this season. Even LSU head coach Ed Orgeron acknowledged after Saturday’s game that some changes are needed.
“I love Bo. I think Bo’s going to be a great defensive coordinator,” Orgeron said. “He’s done it before. But we have to get better. There are some things we need to look at schematically to get better.”
CHANGE COMING: Orgeron says LSU needs to ‘do some soul searching’ after loss
Florida also struggling to stop people
The phrase “Third-and-Grantham” recalls a certain style of defense coached by coordinator Todd Grantham, whose affinity for high-risk, high-reward blitzing on third downs is well known to fans of Georgia, Louisville and Mississippi State. Now, Grantham is in charge of Florida’s defense, and it appears that the blame is going to fall on his shoulders if the Gators underachieve this season.
In a 41-38 loss to Texas A&M, Florida gave up 543 total yards and allowed the Aggies to convert a remarkable 12-of-15 on third down. The Gators had chances to win the game and could have escaped with a 3-0 record had their offense simply done what it had done all day and not fumbled near midfield with 3:40 remaining with the score tied at 38.
At the same time, the Gators had five touchdowns and a field goal on eight possessions. That should be good enough to win a football game. But Texas A&M quarter Kellen Mond was comfortable and in control the entire time, completing 25 of 35 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns and wasn’t sacked even once.
Mullen pleas for full crowd at the Swamp
Meanwhile, after the game Florida coach Dan Mullen lobbied for his university to open up Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to full capacity for next week’s game against LSU rather than the 17,000-person limit that Florida has been operating under due to COVID-19.
“I know our governor passed that rule, so certainly, hopefully the university administration decides to let us pack the Swamp,” Mullen said. “I certainly hope our university administration follows the governor. The governor has passed a rule that we’re allowed to pack the Swamp and have 90,000 in the Swamp to give us the home-field advantage Texas A&M had today.”
Sorry, Dan, but just because you’re allowed to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, the state of Florida is still registering roughly 3,000 cases and between 100-200 deaths a day and the Gators’ home-field advantage shouldn’t be the top priority.
Plus, Florida didn’t even sell out all its tickets for last week’s game against South Carolina, reporting attendance of 15,120. Even if you could have a packed house, you wouldn’t this season.
First big step for Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
We’ve handed out plenty of criticism for Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher not yet delivering much value on that 10-year, $75 million contract he signed a few years ago. But beating Florida was undeniably his first signature win with the Aggies, and in the immediate aftermath of the game he showed a lot of emotion as he celebrated with his players.
While it’s hard to say that one win changes the Aggies’ entire outlook — remember, they were handled easily by Alabama just a week ago — it was an important achievement to beat a team ranked in the top five just to keep some belief that they’re making the kind of progress Fisher was brought in to make.
“It shows you what you’re capable of,” he said. “Now what you follow up with tells you what you’re capable of and I’ve always said that we have potential.”
Oklahoma overcomes Lincoln Riley coaching decisions
Lincoln Riley did not coach one of his better games in a wild, 53-45 victory over Texas that should have been wrapped up comfortably in regulation but instead took four overtimes. Though it’s always important for an Oklahoma coach to win the Red River Rivalry, and gives the Sooners a certain level of consolation after dropping their first two Big 12 games of the year, nobody associated with that program should feel too good about where their team is at right now.
The Sooners played relatively well to build a 31-17 lead late in the third quarter, but just like in their losses to Iowa State and Kansas State, their offense went off the rails in the fourth quarter and couldn’t make the plays necessary to put the game away. Then, as things got tight, Riley made some questionable decisions and the Oklahoma defense couldn’t tackle at all — a problem coordinator Alex Grinch inherited and still hasn’t solved in a year and a half — and all the sudden the door was open for Texas to send the game to overtime.
Had Oklahoma gotten beat, Riley’s third-down calls for a reverse and a pass on its last two possessions of regulation would have been a major point of contention in the postgame analysis. It smacked of Riley getting too cute, and the latter play saved Texas 40 seconds on the clock, which it used to march 84 yards down the field in eight plays to send the game to overtime.
If Oklahoma is going to salvage anything from this season, it has to figure out the fourth quarter, where it’s been outscored 45-10 this season in Big 12 play.
Georgia looking dominant on defense
The one notable exception to defenses struggling across college football is Georgia. The Bulldogs might have the best unit in the country right now, and they proved that there’s still a pretty significant gap between themselves and an aspiring contender like Tennessee. In fact, Georgia’s 44-21 win could’ve been even more lopsided as the Vols got a gift-wrapped defensive touchdown on the game’s second play after a snap sailed over Georgia quarter Stetson Bennett’s head. The Bulldogs got zero points out of a drive right before halftime that ended on the Vols’ 1-yard line.
There will be questions for Georgia to answer down the road, but smothering Tennessee — the Vols had just 214 yards and netted minus-1 on 27 rushing attempts — stamps them as the significant favorite in the SEC East.
Auburn loss tough for Arkansas to swallow
Arkansas fans have to be ecstatic with the beginning of the Sam Pittman era, but the controversial end to a 30-28 loss at Auburn will generate some justified outrage. Trailing 28-27 and trying to set up a game-winning field goal, Auburn quarterback Bo Nix was trying to spike the football with 19 seconds left to bring the field goal unit in for a 36-yarder. But Nix actually muffed the snap, recovered it, then spiked the ball backwards in his haste.
Arkansas correctly argued that it should have been a fumble which could have ended the game. But the officials ruled that it was an intentional grounding penalty on Auburn, which only cost them three yards. Anders Carlson then came in and nailed a 39-yarder for the win.
Later, the SEC released a statement saying that because “recovery of the football was not clearly made in the immediate continuing football action, the ruling on the field was determined to stand” on replay.
Whether you agree or not with that decision, you had to sympathize with Arkansas, especially given how hard the Razorbacks played coming off their 21-14 win at Mississippi State last week. That game broke a 20-game SEC losing streak, but given the way Arkansas has looked thus far under Pittman, they won’t have to worry about that kind of a streak again anytime soon.
Miami still overmatched against Clemson
Miami being ranked No. 7 in the Amway Coaches Poll felt a little bit phony from the beginning, and Clemson exposed it as a product of the Hurricanes’ soft early schedule. The big offensive numbers Miami had racked up against Alabama-Birmingham, Louisville (which has turned out to be a huge disappointment) and Florida State did not translate at all against Clemson, which had the speed to mostly contain the Hurricanes’ running game and force D’Eriq King to throw, which did not go particularly well. And Clemson didn’t even really play its A-game in a commanding 42-17 win.
Bottom line, the talent gap between Clemson and the rest of the league is still pretty huge, and the only reason it felt like Miami had a chance was Dabo Swinney’s bone-headed decision to kick a 61-yard field goal at the end of the first half.
After Miami blocked it and returned it for a touchdown to close the gap to 21-10 at halftime, Swinney called it one of the worst coaching decisions of his career. But it didn’t matter at all, as Clemson’s defense snuffed out any hope of Miami being competitive.
Liberty keeps showing improvement under Freeze
Liberty improved to 4-0 with an easy 40-7 win over Louisiana-Monroe, which begs the question whether Hugh Freeze might have some appeal on the coaching market should any higher-profile jobs come open after this season. Because of COVID-19 and budgets being slashed across college sports, people who are knowledgeable about the industry do not expect very many schools to be in position to pay buyouts.
There’s already been some chatter linking Freeze to Southern Mississippi, his alma mater, which has an interim coach right now after Jay Hopson stepped down. It’s unclear whether that’s actually a better job. Still, Freeze is an interesting name to keep an eye on. Despite personal scandal and NCAA penalties that resulted from his time at Ole Miss, he is 12-5 at Liberty and has proven once again that he can improve a program. He’s also among a very select group of coaches who have beaten Alabama twice and won a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Liberty and Freeze have a big opportunity next week at Syracuse to make a national impression.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: SEC defensive meltdowns headline 10 takeaways from Week 6 in college football