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The 102nd Rose Bowl Game - Iowa v Stanford
David Shaw doesn’t get it either, but it happens
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

BEFORE YOU PANIC: maybe your team just played real bad. Not the grammatically correct “badly,” no, not this. We mean bad, as in “I messed up real bad,” as in the thing people do every day on both an individual and group level. As in the thing where you back your car into the mailbox for no reason on a Thursday morning, or just forgot to pay the water bill one month because...well, for no reason other than life is busy, and really, who’s making appointments to pay the water bill?

Maybe you made the mistake of scheduling App State for game one. Oh, the Michigan-tinged comedy of that in theory is bad enough, but in reality? You had to play a highly motivated and pretty talented run-first spread option team in game one. They have a quick, mean, and yes, undersized defense, but that can cause its own headaches, too, especially when you’re as huge as a starting lineman in the SEC. It’s like trying to catch three toddlers running through Legoland. You’ll win eventually, but you’ll be tired, and before it’s all over they’ll have knocked over at least one display.* Add to that Tennessee’s already proven ability to go to sleep offensively for long stretches of a game, and all that starts to make way, way more sense.

*Very sorry about the scale model Turner Field my son destroyed last week, Legoland, but he was just trying to help by making it look authentic ahead of time for you.

Or better still, look at Stanford in week one. More specifically, look at the scoreboard, and then look at the box score, and then sip a beverage thoughtfully and consider how the universe is unfair, and respects math except when it definitely doesn’t. Stanford gained a meager 272 yards, had only 13 first downs, and was outgained in almost every major offensive category by Kansas State. That is Kansas State, a team fond of starting JUCO tight ends at quarterback, because Bill Snyder is so thrifty he doesn’t even see the need to go out and grow an expensive, time-consuming QB. Just saw together a couple of other positions into one player, add a fresh coat of paint, and with a little hard work you’ll have a serviceable, second-team All Big 12 signal caller before you know it. <—-NOT A JOKE. NOT AT ALL.

Thanks to two turnovers, eight sacks, and Christian McCaffrey, Stanford still won despite frittering away a good bit of an early 17-0 lead. In fact, they pretty much out Kansas State’d Kansas State, since losing in every major category on the stat sheet and still winning by 26-13 is a pure Bill Snyder classic.

That’ll look bad if you want to be impressed, but two things make that unlikely to change. The first is that David Shaw doesn’t really care, and has a long, long string of often lackluster wins to prove it. Stanford will punt from the opponent’s 38 and blatantly whittle clock with leads far smaller than you might consider comfortable. For all the DISRUPT and quant-level stuff Stanford likes to brag about as a program, the same people who train their QBs with virtual reality headsets also ignore some of the most basic dictates of statistics-based risk management—i.e. that you should go for it on 4th down way more than most coaches do.* David Shaw by brand hasn’t and doesn’t and will not care about margin of victory.

*The economist behind that analysis, David Romer, is an economist at Berkeley. This may or may not have something to do with Stanford ignoring this.

The other reason is that sometimes—despite all the preparation and talent and motivation and pregame speeches and scouting—teams come out and mysteriously fall into a spell of mediocrity. It happens, yes, even to Alabama, who had at least two “hard-fought” games we could all call “hard-fought” only because they won one of them, and not because they turned two rank clankers as a group: the 19-14 game against Tennessee, and the 43-37 loss to Ole Miss.

That’s the national champion from last year, a team as well-funded, brilliantly coached, and talent-stacked as any in recent memory—and even they came out flat at least twice.

When that happens, you have to hope for superior talent to make a loss nearly impossible, and to have a quarterback who can make something, anything happen.

For instance: at the threshold of a loss to Ole Miss this last weekend, Florida State found that in a hurry in Deondre Francois. Tennessee relied on some late scrambling by Josh Dobbs, and also on a definitely totally intentional fumble into the endzone to beat Appalachian State. Clemson relied on Deshaun Watson’s ability to carve just enough of a margin out of the Auburn defense to pull out an ugly 19-13 win; Houston’s Greg Ward made up for some mediocre offense on first down and second down all by himself.

(Ward’s an outsized example of that difference. He went nine of eleven on third down for 147 yards, much of it done on the run, all of it keeping drives alive and allowing Houston to keep Oklahoma’s offense off the field. )

So if you want to point to a single factor in the SEC’s debacle of an opening weekend, it’s that: the inability of a lot of teams to produce at the position that can bail you out of game where you might not be capable of your best effort. Arkansas, replacing 3,000 yard passer and school record setter Brandon Allen, struggled to a one point win over Louisiana Tech. Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott may be the starter for the Cowboys this season, and without him his college team lost to South Alabama. (Not even main Alabama. A directional Alabama.)

Florida’s Luke del Rio was fine but unspectacular, and could do nothing to push away a UMass team that kept the game at 10-7 deep into the third quarter. Vanderbilt and South Carolina were studies in lackluster quarterbacking; Perry Orth stood out only for being competent, which in a 13-10 game passed for “excellent.” Auburn had three quarterbacks touch the ball. None of them generated a TD. Kentucky and Ole Miss’s quarterbacks each played spectacular first halves, and let’s just not talk about their second halves. Not at all.

The conference as a whole is quarterback-poor right now. That’s a miserable thing to be period, and especially if you’re in a conference as rich in malicious defensive linemen and linebackers as the SEC.

NCAA Football: Lambeau Field College Classic-Louisiana State vs Wisconsin
Brandon Harris, after throwing the game-ending INT against Wisconsin
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The poster child for this imbalance is LSU, a team whose inability to make a quarterback function isn’t just a matter of development, but of making sure they don’t get any worse over time while they’re at LSU. Les Miles said in quotes this week that LSU was in a single score game with a chance to kick to win, sure, but watch the end of the Wisconsin game and tell me the linemen don’t already know what’s going to happen before Brandon Harris wings the game-killing interception right into the hands of a Badger defender.

They knew because LSU has been turning lottery money into Coinstar product, offensively speaking, ever since the departure of Jimbo Fisher to FSU. That is bad, but the truly sick thing for LSU is how much that hasn’t even mattered. Harris was a four-star recruit offered by, among many other schools, Alabama, Ohio State, and Auburn. He did this in 2013, after watching four and five star recruits like Ryan Perrilloux, Jarrett Lee, Russell Shepard, Zach Lee, and Anthony Jennings all go into Baton Rouge as highly touted signings and leave without success. He signed anyway. LSU has a four-star prospect and a rising three-star for their 2017 class. None of this seems to matter despite LSU’s best quarterback post-Jimbo Fisher being a JUCO transfer, Zach Mettenberger. LSU won games anyway, even with an offense that—the Mettenberger years excepted*—underwhelmed.

*Even that offense might be misremembered. They were 35th overall, and still got outperformed by Ole Miss offensively. Dr. Bo will not be forgotten.

That could change if Les Miles actually starts losing—both on and off the field, since an attempted coup last year failed to dislodge Miles from his roost. Frankly, I don’t even know if that’s possible. Les might be the governor, or a least occupy some extralegal position of power I can’t properly put in the Louisiana state org chart. Give a number low enough for win total, though, and not even political muscle would be able to save him. LSU would gain a new coach; ESPN would gain the most surreal color commentator they’ve ever had.

That would happen mostly because he failed to find a quarterback, but he wouldn’t be alone. It happens everywhere. Gus Malzahn might lose his job this year thanks to dismal offense. Will Muschamp lost his job at Florida thanks to zero ability to scout offensive talent, and could easily do the same at South Carolina. In fact, while we’re at it, the entire SEC East is a nightmare of busted recruiting cycles and quarterback development gone awry. The best QB in the conference, Chad Kelly of Ole Miss, arrived in Oxford via transfer.

Only Alabama seems to have a full supply chain built up from recruiting to development— and even they’re trying to sort out a two-quarterback competition at the moment. It doesn’t have to stay this way, but for now it’s true: Right now, the SEC is the conference that skips arm day. And when you skip arm day you start dropping things, like five games against non-conference opponents on the opening weekend of the season.