Is the SEC not the biggest soap opera going? When it’s not winning its 5th straight BCS national title during the season, there is always a new rumor or story off-the-field – suspensions, rules violations, drunken fights, and the list goes on and on. There is no offseason for the SEC as far as making news headlines. To sum up the offseason within the SEC, here’s a quick rundown:
Alabama banned a booster who sure did like to dine with the players and allowed them to hang out in his suit store and sign lots and lots of autographs, which appear to have been subsequently sold in some cases. Auburn has been getting less respect than any defending champion than I can remember due to Cam Newton’s eligibility questions from last year. We keep hearing news is going to break about an Auburn/Newton pay-for-play scheme, but they have all been rumors thus far. Jordan Jefferson and some more LSU Tigers are facing felony assault charges as of Friday, which will likely cause them to miss some games and maybe even the season. Arkansas had their best player and Heisman candidate Knile Davis go down for the season in a preseason practice. Houston Nutt and Dan Mullen have been taking jabs at each other all offseason to determine who the biggest dork is in all of Mississippi.
Florida has a new head coach (Will Muschamp) who likes to refer to himself in 3rd person. He brought along Charlie “Ate the Chocolate Factory” Weis to call offensive plays. South Carolina players and coaches have lived it up since their first east title (and 5 total losses) from last year to make news this offseason – Stephen Garcia got his 5th suspension lifted, Alshon Jeffery didn’t miss a meal this offseason (google Alshon Jeffery fat), and Garcia’s QB coach G.A. Mangus likes to pee on sidewalks and get arrested. Caleb King, UGA’s returning starting RB, could not pass the difficult 6 hours required to stay eligible to play football this fall, and he is now in the NFL. Janzen Jackson, Tennessee’s best defender, couldn’t stay away from the weed and got kicked off the team this week. The Vols were not given any additional sanctions by the NCAA from the investigation relating to Lane Kiffin’s trainwreck tenure at UT. Kentucky and Vanderbilt both still have a football team as far as I know.
Now that you have been updated on the off-the-field issues, let’s look at what is gonna happen on the field this season. Joseph takes the west and Ernie takes the east for a very biased look at each division.
- Alabama (13-0 overall, 8-0 conference): That’s right, I'm picking them to win the National Championship again. To me, Trent Richardson on offense and that defense is just that good. AJ McCarron looks like the starting QB although the coaches say that Phillip Sims has more talent than any other QB that has been on campus in the Saban Era. That's not sayin a whole lot since that era includes Greg McElroy and John Parker Wilson. But I suspect they meant it as a compliment. Eddie Lacy provides Trent Richardson a more than credible backup. Everyone talks about their lack of a vertical threat in the passing game, but I feel like someone will emerge and not take Julio Jones place, it's just you've got to realize and understand that McCarron can throw the ball farther than McElroy and JPW combined. That's going to stretch the field in itself. As far as the defense goes, I am flabbergasted at the amount of talent they have - maybe the best linebacking corps in the country, top 3 secondary at worst, and as with any Nick Saban coached team, the front four is big, fast and scary which will naturally wreak havoc on many of the untested QB's in the SEC. If they can go up to Happy Valley and beat the ageless wonder Joe Pa on September 10th, I think they find a way to win them all and eventually win the SEC and National Championship.
- LSU (9-3, 6-2): I realize the loss of Jordan Jefferson shouldn't mean much, but when 3 of your first 4 games are against Oregon, @Mississippi St. and @West Virginia and your backup is the Human Interception Machine Jarrett Lee, I really believe they start out 2-2. From there it gets way better and they'll end up with a nice season. Their front four on D is inexperienced, but what they lack in experience, they more than make up for in a silly amount of talent. Their back 7 is nice and deep. I'd put Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu up at corner with anyone in the country as a duo. Offensively, it will be interesting to see what they can do, but the fact remains they return quite a bit of experience on the offensive line. Spencer Ware is a really good running back, and they have wide receivers on that campus that we've never even heard of because they can't make the team. What I'm trying to say is they are loaded at the skill positions except for the most important one, quarterback.
- Arkansas (9-3, 5-3): If you'd have asked me this a few weeks ago I may have picked the Razorbacks to win the west. But losing Knile Davis is going to hurt. I've read Wingo is finally trying to do away with the nickname "tippy toe Wingo," and I've seen what Dennis Johnson can do when he stays out of the doghouse. The wide receivers are sick. Pick one and I can tell you a thousand good things about them, and I'm a believer in Tyler Wilson. Hell, I even think our defense is going to be really good if Eric Bennett can adjust to Safety, Tevin Mitchel keeps Ike Madison off of the field, and Darius Winston lives up to the hype. It's all going to come down to offensive line play. We lost Ray "False Start" Dominguez, Wade "bring a big play back because of a hold" Grayson and Seth Oxner who was a really good backup at all the positions. You figure that into the only tackle we have with any experience is Grant Freeman and that's scary. But the cupboard isn't bare. Mitch Smothers has looked good at tackle this fall, Brey Cook has all the talent in the world, and Jason Peacock has two years of Juco experience. If those guys step up and give Wilson time, this could be a special year on Dickson, I mean in Fayetteville.
- Mississippi State (7-5, 3-5): Dan Mullen continues to build Starkville back up. Unfortunately, they need more cowbell! Their SEC schedule is brutal, and Chris Relf is still their quarterback. I love Dan Mullen and I love what he is doing, but there is no way I could pick them to do better than what I have predicted because of their schedule. They may be able to upset South Carolina at home because Stephen Garcia may be dating Lady GaGa, be in Rehab or both by then. However, if the Bulldogs do any better than 8-4, Dan Mullen deserves National Coach of the year honors. I would be remised if I didn't mention Vick Ballard - that guy is a horse - and Charles Mitchell at safety is a 1st round pick next year. Put that in your memory bank. May want to grab his rookie card 2012.
- Auburn (4-8, 1-7): Well, a year removed from a National Championship and buying, I mean signing a top 5 recruiting class, it looks like Auburn will come back to earth. This team has had more mischief than an old episode of Dennis the Menace, and it doesn't look to be any better for the season. Oh yeah, there was a quarterback battle this fall between Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier. I would guarantee you that I care more about what guests Ellen DeGeneres is having on her show this week than I do who wins that duel. But feel free to let me know who wins that sissy fight. Michael Dyer is good, Onterio McCalebb is good and they have some nice receivers, but Cam Newton and Nick Fairley made that team, and even the dumbest asses in the world know that. Time to come back to the real world Auburn fans, and just like the old MTV show, The Real World sucks.
- Mississippi (4-8, 1-7): For two and a half years, Ole Miss fans would walk up to me and say "thanks for the coach." I would just bite my tongue, tell them to go to the bar and put a Smirnoff Ice on my tab and enjoy the ride because it's going to be a short one. Now to all of you I'd like to say I told you so. Houston Nutt is terrible, has no class (look up what one of his assistants said after the Knile Davis injury if you can’t take my word). Look, I don't want to rip on Ole Miss because there just isn't any point, and they do have some classy fans. So Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty, I hope we cover the spread... against the Southern Illinois Salukis. Or maybe just play for the win, because a win is a win with Houston Nutt and we all remember the Jacksonville St. game last year don't we???
- South Carolina (10-3, 6-2): As I mentioned in the opening, South Carolina has seemed somewhat sloppy this offseason, and I am wondering if they are fat and happy since they won the division last year. Stephen Garcia is still in Columbia somehow. They have arguably the most talented WR/RB duo in the nation this year with Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. They also have a couple of other talented receivers in Moore and Sanders. Will Garcia finally show up every Saturday and play at his best? Garcia has let Spurrier down numerous times. The defense has about as much promise as the offense with 6-7 Devin Taylor and 6-6 #1 high school player in the nation Jadeveon Clowney at ends. The Gamecocks also have an experienced defensive backfield. The Gamecocks are the most talented team in the down SEC East without question. Can they stay consistent is the question. I think the division comes down to the second week when the Gamecocks go to Athens to take on Georgia. I have Carolina winning that game and the division, but they’ll likely trip up at some point during the season in a game they shouldn’t lose.
- Georgia (9-3, 6-2): Georgia is just 14-13 the last two seasons, and some fans are becoming impatient with coach Mark Richt. Well he has some help on his side this year with by far the easiest SEC schedule and one that rivals Auburn’s last year when they marched to the national title game. The Dawgs play the three worst teams in the west, have Florida in Jacksonville as usual, and South Carolina at home. The only potential true road game they could lose is at Tennessee. The Dawgs have lost Ealy and King as RBs this offseason. That leaves a true freshman (Isaiah Crowell) to carry the load at RB and the unrealistic expectations Dawg fans have for every freshman RB since Herschel Walker put on the silver britches. Aaron Murray is most experts’ preseason SEC pick. He had an up and down year last year but has a lot of potential. A major weapon for this offense is TE Orson Charles. He seems like a smaller, faster tight end than most start, but he creates match-up problems for sure. The receivers are highly rated but average at best so far. Only two offensive linemen return. The defense has had some troubles since changing to a 3-4 under third year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. The front seven only returns two starters, but the defensive backfield returns three starters and should be the strength of the defense. Once again the schedule will allow Georgia to have a better record than the talent would indicate. If the Dawgs could beat Boise State in the Georgia Dome this week, I could see them using that momentum to beat South Carolina the next week. If that happens, watch out because they could potentially make it to the SEC Championship Game undefeated and then all bets are off on an SEC West team as a shoe in to win the conference.
- Tennessee (8-4, 4-4): The Vols are still in rebuilding mode. The offense returns 7 starters technically but 10 of this year’s starters saw significant playing time last year. That includes shaky QB Tyler Bray. I do not have near as much confidence in him as some experts and Vol fans do. He seems immature and will likely be inconsistent this year until he decides to be more of a student of the game. They have two potential All-SEC receivers in Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. The underappreciated Tauren Poole returns for his senior season at RB. He was not given a chance to compete (and considered transferring) until last year. When given the chance last year, he ran for over 1,000 yards behind a bad run-blocking 3 freshmen linemen and a sophomore. I expect big things from him this year. The defense continues to have a few question marks. Dooley has been upbeat in the preseason about his defensive linemen, which is unusual for him. He has some talent there but just not depth. As the season creeps in to October-November, we will see if they remain healthy enough to compete. The linebackers have had two true freshmen step up and earn starting spots in the last three weeks, which is not a good sign although specifically Curt Maggitt (who the Vols stole from the Gators last minute last February during recruiting) has sounded like he is a star in waiting. The defensive backfield is the deepest unit for the Vols even with Janzen Jackson being kicked off the team. Brent Brewer is a player to watch back there. He is a former minor league baseball player turned walk-on last year (think former Vol Kelly Washington impact here). He can lay some receivers out from the safety position. The Vols schedule will be difficult to navigate this year for the still young team. Unfortunately for them, the three teams they draw from the west are Alabama, Arkansas and LSU. They also play at Florida but have Georgia and South Carolina at home, which I believe they are capable of beating both those teams at home this year. This season will set the stage for approximately 20 starters returning next year and a run at the SEC title in 2012.
- Florida (6-6, 3-5): The Odd Couple Will Muschamp and Charlie Weis are now in Gainesville after Urban Meyer noticed Tebow was not at Florida anymore, and he wanted to take his ball and go home. I am interested to see how the chemistry will be between first time head coach Muschamp and an I-know-everything guy like Weis. There were reports last year that Weis butted heads multiple times with first time Kansas City Chiefs HC Todd Haley when Weis was OC there. Regardless of that, Weis plans to turn the Florida offense into a pro style offense. The personnel he has now has been recruited to fit Urban’s spread offense. How well do 5-9, 174 Chris Rainey and 5-7, 185 Jeff Demps fit into a pro style run attack? Not very well. On the outside, the Gators have Deonte Thompson and Frankie Hammond at receiver; neither one of those players have lived up to the hype as of yet. Speaking of not living up to the hype, John Brantley didn’t exactly tear it up his first year under center passing for 2,000 yards, 9 TDs and 10 INTs. He has a lot of pressure on him this year. The defense is young but has a chance to be phenomenal, especially on the line led by sophomores Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd, and Dominique Easley. The linebackers have a star on their hands in sophomore Jelani Jenkins. Sophomore Matt Elam is a physical specimen at safety. It’s not a matter of if the defense will be dominant but when. If the defense can get going early this year, it can carry the team. But I expect the defense to not be fully there yet until next season. I think Florida is a better team than Tennessee, but Florida’s schedule will keep them from being ahead of them in the standings. The Gators’ October consist of Alabama at home, at LSU, at Auburn and versus Georgia in Jacksonville. Then November has them at South Carolina and Florida State at home. So that is how I get to their six losses. Gonna be a tough first year for another first year coach, but after the way they dominated during Meyer’s tenure, they were due to fall back to the pack a little.
- Kentucky (7-5, 3-5): Kentucky lost their starting QB, top two rushers, and top two receivers from last year. The good news for the offense is they return four offensive linemen. But will it matter? The defense returns the entire defensive backfield and All-SEC linebacker Danny Trevathan. The Wildcats probably have too much to overcome on the offensive side of the ball though. They’ve built something good with their scheduling though – go 4-0 by scheduling lower tier non-conference teams and win at least two in the SEC and go bowling. They’ll accomplish this again this year.
- Vanderbilt (3-9, 1-7): New head coach James Franklin has come in running his mouth saying he is going to make a difference at Vandy. We’ll see, but the only difference he may make this year is an increase from one SEC win last year to maybe two this year…or maybe not.
Regular weekly blog will be up before the Thursday games this week!