Some musings after what was an eventful rivalry weekend in the SEC — and by eventful, I mean the kind of things that still have me shaking my head in disbelief:
•The Egg Bowl — By this point, I’m sure you’ve read and heard every pun imaginable, so I won’t be repeating any of those, especially since the vast majority contain a word neither me nor my bosses are likely comfortable having appear in print.
I will admit to having laughed for three straight minutes following the series of events that led to Mississippi State edging out Ole Miss 21-20 on Thanksgiving night, not because I had a rooting interest in the game, but because of the absurdity of it all. When things had finally begun to sink in, I decided to check various social media to look at the responses to Elijah Moore’s post-touchdown celebration that wrecked the Rebels’ chance at a tie and overtime.
The puns were spectacular, of course, but there were also the people using it as an example of why it’s important to keep your composure. A fair point. Then there were calls by a few vocal Ole Miss fans to have Moore immediately kicked off the team, a response that hopefully had more to do with the heat of the moment than anything. Moore was competing in a game with plenty of bad blood, a game where everyone was jawing at one another when they were running into each other at high speeds. Emotions got the best of him, and it put his team in a bad situation that helped lead to a one-point loss. Moore deserves criticism, not condemnation.
If I had post-game access to Moore Thursday night, I would have asked him two questions: did he assume he would get a penalty for doing the urinating dog pose, and if so, did he know Mississippi State could choose to have the penalty enforced on the PAT rather than the ensuing kickoff? Emotions are part of football, but situational awareness and discipline can either win you or lose you football games (more on that when I discuss the Iron Bowl). It’s a learning opportunity, both for Moore and for anyone playing football. It doesn’t need to be anything more.
The post-Egg Bowl fallout also had to do with the coaches at both programs. I honestly wonder if the loser of Thursday’s game was destined to fire its coach no matter what. As it stands, Moorhead will be returning next year as the Bulldogs’ coach, while it was announced Sunday that Rebels coach Matt Luke was fired.
I would describe Bulldog fans’ feelings toward Moorhead as lukewarm at best, and if improvement doesn’t happen next year, his seat is going to get much warmer. Luke, meanwhile, seems like a good man who helped navigate Ole Miss through NCAA sanctions, but a 15-21 overall record and a 6-18 record in conference play didn’t inspire enough confidence in Rebels fans to keep Luke around. I long felt Luke was merely a placeholder until the sanctions were done and if he turned into another Dabo Swinney, great. If not, move on. That’s the business.
•The Iron Bowl — Alabama fans will both point to their team’s defensive shortcomings and to the general lack of discipline shown by the Tide as what doomed Alabama versus Auburn on Saturday. Thirteen penalties for minus 96 yards, including a crucial offside penalty with approximately a minute left to go when the Tide was set to receive a punt and try for a game-winning drive, were killer. So was the fact that the defense was unable to get a crucial stop in the second half.
Sure, Auburn was aided by two pick-6s, but is anyone really going to blame Mac Jones for the loss? He never appeared rattled and put up 335 yards and four touchdowns. Offense wasn’t the problem for Alabama, and frankly, Tide fans have to feel good about Jones’ future. No, he isn’t Tua Tagovailoa, but few are. The concern has to do with a defense that was perhaps Saban’s worst since 2007, his first season at Alabama, and the overall lack of discipline on display. Yes, the defense was decimated by injuries and the NFL draft, but if there are no improvements on that side of the ball next year, then there isn’t going to be Tua and an elite group of receivers to keep bailing them out, even if Jones proves he can play quarterback in the SEC over a full season.
As for Auburn, Bo Nix was 15 of 30 for 173 yards and a touchdown — and zero interceptions — against the Tide, and he also ran six times for 44 yards and a score, good for 7.3 yards per average. If he can improve as a passer, then I think Gus Malzahn should also utilize his legs more. His offenses work best when they had guys like Cam Newton and Nick Marshall who were a running threat. Frankly, they’re going to have to score more points next season than they averaged this fall, because the defense is naturally going to take a step back after it loses several key pieces to the draft.
Speaking of Malzahn, here’s a guy who is getting paid like an elite coach, and if you put a gun to any random Auburn fan’s head and asked for their honest opinion of him, I imagine the best response you would get is ,“Eh.” Sure, winning the Iron Bowl buys a lot of leeway, but you just wasted a championship-caliber defense because you couldn’t score points against LSU, Georgia and Florida. Now Auburn fans get another offseason to say they like Malzahn publicly, but if the offense doesn’t improve and the defense takes the expected step back in 2020, how much longer will the Auburn faithful want him to stick around just because he beats Saban more than the average coach does?
Drew Kerekes is the sports editor at The Meridian Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.