On the day of the BCS National Championship Game for the 2008 season, a television network lined up Atlanta-based sportswriter Tony Barnhart and me for a take-sides discussion of the meeting between Florida and Oklahoma.
Tony made Florida’s case: Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, SEC defense. I made Oklahoma’s: Sam Bradford, Gerald McCoy, offensive line. I gave Oklahoma a slight edge. Tony was more confident in picking the Gators, and he was right as Florida won 24-14.
I’ve often thought about that event as a defining moment of conference philosophies and have used it to guide my thinking about Missouri’s future in the Southeastern Conference.
The Tigers could very likely be forced to change their stripes if they are to succeed at a top-level SEC program.
More size up front, more of a ball-control offensive philosophy with power and not scat-type running backs, more emphasis on stopping opponents than outscoring them. The SEC has won six straight national championships largely following the script.
The team Georgia brings to Memorial Stadium on Saturday has many of those elements plus an all-conference caliber quarterback in Aaron Murray. The Bulldogs largely disappointed in their opener, a 45-23 victory over lowly Buffalo.
But with several players suspended that could be reinstated for this game, the caliber of opponent and the importance of this game well known to the Bulldogs, I suspect coach Mark Richt spent more of the preseason working on Missouri more than others. Expect a sharper Georgia team on Saturday.
Missouri is the bigger unknown. For nearly a year, fans have wondered how a program that spreads the field — even down to offensive line splits — as effectively as any in college football over the past few years will match up against the SEC’s defensive strength.
The Tigers have won their last four against SEC teams since 2006, including two bowl games, and that’s encouraging for the program. Others in the Big 12 didn’t fare as well. Mizzou’s win over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl is the only one for the Big 12 over the SEC in that game in the last nine years, a time period that saw the conference transition from running to passing.
That flying football era in the Big 12 peaked in 2008. The conference accounted for three of the nation’s top four and five of the top eight passing offenses, including No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 Mizzou. The Sooners averaged 9.46 yards per passing attempt and threw for 51 touchdowns in 14 games, stunning numbers in Bradford’s Heisman-winning season.
Over the final four games of the regular season, Oklahoma went for 62, 66, 65 and 61 points. The Sooners then won the Big 12 championship game over Missouri at Arrowhead 62-21.
For the season, Oklahoma scored a NCAA-record 716 points.
As the BCS title game approached, Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes scoffed at the numbers. He rolled his eyes at the basketball-like scores of Oklahoma and other Big 12 games and called league defenses “a joke.”
Meanwhile, the Gators had held five of their final seven opponents that season without an offensive touchdown.
That night at Dolphins Stadium, Bradford threw a couple of touchdown passes and Tebow rushed for more than 100 yards. But the biggest moments of the game were delivered by Florida’s defense. The Gators stuffed two Oklahoma stretch plays, completing a goal-line stand. Bradford threw an interception in the fourth quarter, killing a rally, and the Sooners picked up one first down over the game’s final 12 minutes with the outcome was still in doubt.
And it continues to do so in the SEC.
Missouri, it should be noted, hasn’t exactly forgotten about that side of the ball through its spread years. Tigers defenders went in the first round of the NFL Draft for three straight years starting in 2009, and in 2010 Missouri pitched shutouts in two league games. Last season, Mizzou ranked in the top half of all major defensive categories.
But SEC defense, especially as it’s played at or near the top of the division standings, is something altogether different. It’s what Missouri needs to become a league power.