I am a casual Georgia fan. I rooted for Auburn when I was growing up because I liked the color blue and did not want to cheer for the same team as everyone else. OK, and I'll also admit that moving to the state in 1984 when the Tigers were the defending SEC champions and were going into the next season as preseason #1 had something to do with my decision. I am not free from bandwagon tendencies. The Auburn love affair ended with "just keep it down home, keep it down home, cuz." I cheer for Georgia now because: (1) one of my brothers and a number of close friends went there; (2) I developed more pride in being from the state when I spent seven years away in college and law school; and (3) the school continues to improve the balance between academics and athletics, moving away from the football uber alles institution that I perceived it to be during the Jan Kemp days. It's no accident that Florida and Georgia, two of the better academic schools in the conference, were out front in the effort to rein in oversigning, as those two schools are less likely to view players as commodities. I am quite happy to be rooting for a team on the right side of the issue.
With that explanation out of the way, I will not be overly disappointed if the Dawgs lose in Columbia on Saturday night. This has nothing to do with Mark Richt, Mike Bobo, Aaron Murray, or the promotion of Russ to Uga IX. There is nothing to dislike about the 2012 Dawgs, unless you are the sort of person who gets indignant about a team getting a favorable scheduling draw. No, this is more about Missouri, Texas A&M, and the direction of the SEC. In short, the conference needs the Aggies and the Other Other Tigers to do well so the eleven pre-existing programs in the league not named Alabama will stop imitating Nick Saban.
Don't get me wrong, I have great respect for what Saban has built at Alabama. I'd be a fool to deny that he has returned the Tide to the level they last saw in the 1970s when some former receiver from Arkansas who liked Chesterfields and houndstooth hats was prowling the sidelines. I'm a Michigan grad and I could not make myself feel angry at the beating that the Tide administered to Michigan on Saturday night. If your team is going to lose, then it might as well lose to the best and this Bama team is the best.
However, what works for Saban does not work for everyone. Most coaches cannot recruit and develop players at Saban's level, a level at which Bama features a literal NFL-caliber offensive line that blocks for a starting tailback who averaged 7.1 yards per carry last year and a freshman backup tailback who is better than the starter. Most coaches cannot scheme on defense at such a high level that their team allows 188 yards per game over a 13-game season in the toughest conference in the country. If you don't have the pipes, then don't try to sing like Frank Sinatra. If you can't skate, then don't imitate Brian Boitano. If you can't recruit, develop players, and coach defense like Saban, then don't imitate his offensive approach.
When I watch games, I find myself channeling Mugatu more than I care to admit. Georgia's offense is such that making fun of Mike Bobo is an oath of loyalty among Georgia fans. Steve Spurrier has been reduced to running an offense minus a passing game. Auburn overcame Ted Roof and won the national title because of the run-based spread offense; the Tigers liked the experience so much that they hired a pro-style offensive coordinator. Florida, a program whose only league titles have come from cutting edge offenses (the Spurrier Fun 'n' Gun and then the Meyer spread), appears to be trying to murder one of its more prominent fans by Manballing its way through offensive possessions. Tennessee has gone all-in on its Saban proteges, so the only thing that makes Vols games exciting is watching Tyler Bray's Don Majkowski impression. (Seriously, if there is going to be an SEC program that drives a prominent fan to an asylum, shouldn't it be Tennessee?)
Into this field of offensive regression step Texas A&M and Missouri. A&M is running a version of the Air Raid, an offense we last saw taking Kentucky to the Outback Bowl. Missouri is running a version of the spread that straddles the line between run-based spread and passing spread, depending on the skill-set of the quarterback. (My rule for Missouri: if they have a quarterback with an actual first name, like Brad or James, then they will edge towards the run-based spread. If they have a quarterback with a last name masquerading as a first name, like Chase or Blaine, then they will edge towards throwing.) If any programs are going to break the complacency that has set into many of the programs in the conference with respect to their offensive approaches, then these are the two.
There are a pair of good reasons why successful seasons from the Aggies and Tigers will benefit the SEC. First, if you want to tell a story as to how the league would lose its perch as the best conference bar none, it would go something like this: Alabama dominates the SEC. The league is filled with teams trying to imitate the Tide and falling short. Bama wins every other national title, which hides regression in the rest of the conference. All of a sudden, Nick Saban accepts the richest contract in football history from Jerry Jones to coach the Cowboys. The SEC is left with a bunch of teams that squander their talent with second-rate imitations of what NFL offenses used to be before Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers started setting passing records. The teams remain stout on defense, but lack the punch to win big games consistently. In the end, the SEC looks like it did in the 1980s: a bunch of very good, but not elite teams that watched as Miami and Florida State passed them because those programs were better as using their athletes on offense.
Second, did you happen to glance around at SEC stadia over the weekend? Florida's imitation of their 1989 offense was watched by whole sections of empty bleachers at the Swamp. The crowd for Tennessee and NC State was about 20,000 below capacity at the Georgia Dome. As Pat Forde notes, there was only one capacity crowd among the eight SEC home openers. I am not pretending that the state of SEC offenses is the only reason for this result. Among the factors causing the empty seats are higher ticket prices (along with required donations for season tickets), a soft economy, bad non-conference opponents, the ability to buy tickets for big games online, and the improved experience of watching at home on a flat-screen TV. Forde points out that attendance was down in other conferences, so offensive regression cannot be the sole factor. However, one of the SEC's selling points is the passion of its fans. It ought to be doing better than other leagues in attendance. The march towards a more defensive conference has to be included in the list of explanations for empty seats.
The NFL figured out that it is bad for business when 13-10 games are the norm. It implemented rule changes to favor offenses, passing and scoring numbers have reached unprecedented levels, and the NFL is doing so well as a TV property that Roger Goodell is talking about a long-term goal of $25 billion in revenue. The SEC doesn't need rule changes; it just needs a slight attitude adjustment. It needs a reminder that teams can recruit well and win games running the Air Raid or the spread. Missouri and Texas A&M can provide that reminder. I'd prefer if the object lesson does not come at Georgia's expense, but if it does, then the Dawgs' loss would be the SEC's gain.