This story was originally published in CFN, Y'all Play Nice. SEC East Deep Dive, August 16, 2010. Grades are marked below in-line in green/red. Read the YPN SEC West Midterm Grades.
Last year’s picks in brown
3 SEC EAST QUESTIONS THAT NAG MORE THAN YOUR EX
(i) Who is the most overrated/underrated team in the SEC East?
Overrated 2009: Georgia
Take Three: Georgia. Couldn’t agree more with Brian here, and I’ve been all over radio in the south trying to clean up the mess our colleague Pete Fiutak is making. Pete? This will be three years running, brother. Sure, the East is weak (relatively), but all UGA has to do is play with an overrated and disjointed rushing “attack” that last year barely cracked the top 50 in the nation, and was so Sybil it had about seven different backs lead the team on different Saturdays. Oh, and it was ranked ~70th in the nation at the end of conference play. That's behind an oft injured offensive line that has been grossly overrated for three years now. And a freshman QB who’s, well, a freshman. Plus one great WR. With little real depth/experience outside of RB – which is mostly due to incompetence and injury. And that's the GOOD news!
On defense, the Dawgs are replacing loads of starters and breaking in a new DC; and he’s bringing with him an entirely new scheme for everyone to learn. Plus a LBing corps that’s so razor thin they might have to open tryouts to the student body. Seriously. Or move over even more of their unproductive RBs than they already have. Tell me when to stop. Have you forgotten their secondary last year? It was bombed more than Tora Bora and proved just as effective. Not to mention a head coach who’s feeling more pressure than usual. Yup, pressure makes everything easier. Ask your ex.
That some experts have this as-of-lately-underperforming squad anywhere near the preseason Top Ten is an embarrassment. The Top 20 is even a reach – particularly given Georgia opens virtually at South Carolina, Arkansas, at Miss State, fly about as far as they ever have to Colorado, then back home without a break for Tennessee, are outside the hedges for Auburn and Florida (obviously), and don’t have a bye week until the last game of the season. Tea, anyone?
Yes, talking people off a ledge is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, UGA fans please set your expectations accordingly. We recommend that you lean on your neighbors to the north and stock up. Of course, we note one should only buy whiskey if one is over the age of 21.
Until then, steal it.
There were a few of us who felt Georgia was overrated heading into this season, but none more so than Russ. At the moment, all of our inboxes are far lighter on hate mail coming out of Athens. Russ’ preseason analysis could not have been more accurate. The facts around the running game, the weakness of the Oline, the schedule, losses on defense and the new coordinator were ignored by many supposed “experts”, but were highlighted in detail by Mr. Mitchell. Sometimes the truth hurts, and Russ was passing out the truth like it was government cheese... And taking a ton of grief for it too, we might add. Nicely done.
Underrated 2009: Vandy
We really want to pick South Carolina with this, but we can’t bring ourselves to do it. They fold down the stretch every year under Spurrier. We can’t bring ourselves to believe in that O-line. Just gotta step off the ledge: South Carolina. Somebody stop me. Our loyal readers know that for three years running we’ve predicted the ultimate end-of-season collapse that is Gamecock football under the OLD ball coach, but everything lines up for SC this season. And the World’s Inn Keeper is doing his best to keep everyone comfy. This year, Garcia is another year older, hopefully wiser, and has more weapons than ever at his disposal. Starting with three talented WRs all north of 6’4” (Alshon Jeffery, Tori Gurley & D.L. Moore), plus a speedy freshman in the form of Ace Sanders. Add home grown superprep RB Marcus Lattimore to a backfield with Miles, Maddox & Giles, and all SC has to do is worry about an O-line that’s so porous it’s even jealous of the UGA unit. The defense is one of the best in the country, so it falls on the O. With everyone focused on UGA and Florida, could this finally be Spurrier’s year in black?
The timing of this midterm report couldn’t have come at a better time for Russ, for with South Carolina upsetting Alabama, and with Florida dropping two straight, the Gamecocks look like the Eastern division favorites. Even though this is obviously South Carolina’s best team under Spurrier, as you can see from Russ’ anguish above, this was by far an easy preseason pick for anyone. And it looked like it could be dead wrong after the Auburn loss. But South Carolina fought back, got Stephen Garcia’s head straight, and are now in prime position for a shot at Atlanta. 2-2 Sir.
Overrated 2009: Georgia
After CFN came out with Georgia as the number three team in the country, it's safe to say the Bulldogs are a wee bit overrated. Actually, listing them third in the country is crazy-overrated considering they may end up third in their own division. A red-shirt freshmen starting at QB is enough to question whether they are top 25 material, and after a rough 2009, plus a new defensive coordinator/defensive system, UGA could be in for another rebuilding season. The good news is that as usual the Bulldogs are not lacking talent. However, they are not a top 25 team at this time. Regardless, with a very tough September, this question will be get answered quickly.
For all the reasons highlighted above.
Underrated 2009: Tennessee
Even with the head coaching change, Kentucky is still a pretty intriguing team in 2010, particularly given the East is so top, top heavy. The Wildcats return decent experience at quarterback, have a good running back in Derrick Locke, and Randall Cobb is an elite SEC skill player. If Joker Phillips can get some production out of his line, the Kentucky offense could be pretty good. Add the fact that Tennessee is down, South Carolina is not as good as they (or Russ - are you mad?) think they are, Georgia is new all over the place… Kentucky could end up in a good bowl game with a few good bounces.
SWWWING! And a miss. Strike one. Yes, @ the Swamp and Auburn are two tough games, and given this is a down year for the East, maybe there's a chance this paragraph is in green font come December. And we do love Cobb/Locke. But given their past two conference records (3-5 and 2-6), we doubt it.
(ii) Who emerges from the SEC East shadows for a breakout season?
2009: Andre Debose, Florida
We may have to go to the book for a ruling on this one, but since he never played a down, we’re back to the future: Andre Debose. Here’s a refresher in case y’all have forgotten (and that's Florida 6A High School competition he's making look silly). Next to Percy, Randall Cobb (UK) and Russell Shepard (LSU), he’s the most dynamic skill player this conference has seen in a decade. As long as he’s able to lace them up, that is; have to stay healthy. Also, Harvin, Cobb and Shepard all struggled in their first campaigns… Will this count as Debose’s first or second? We could take a big reach and go with the true freshman RB Lattimore at South Carolina. He’s that good. Or Florida sophomore OT Xavier Nixon. But we'll stay with Debose.
Going back to the well here wasn’t a bad idea, and given the desperation in Florida right now for offense (Rainey? Really coach?), we just might see more Andre. He is AVERAGING 10 yards per touch on offense – remind you of anyone, reader? But so far Dubose has barely gotten off the bus. He flashed some of his magic with that KOR TD on Saturday night, and again, 10 yards per. But on productivity Dubose has been a disappointment – along with the rest of the Florida offense this year. Maybe in two months this pick will look a little stronger, but for now it’s a failing grade.
2009: Caleb King, UGA
For all of those people who feel we don’t do our homework at CFN, this under the radar player will be a household name by the end of the season: South Carolina defensive end Devin Taylor. Taylor is primed for a breakout year. During his redshirt freshmen season in 2009, he was wildly inconsistent; at times he played brilliantly, though he looked lost just as often. Now firmly entrenched in the starting lineup and around a defense that brings back a lot of starters, Taylor will become an important piece of the Gamecock defense. Last year he had 28 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and a blocked kick. At 6'7" 250 pounds, he has the size to dominate SEC offensive lineman. But it's his speed on the edge that's exciting. Opponents will likely focus on SC's returning starters on the defensive line - like Ladi Ajiboye, Cliff Matthews and Travian Robertson - which should free up Taylor, who could very well overshadow all of them. Particularly if he can be the consistent player Ellis Johnson expects.
Mr. Taylor is tied for the team lead in sacks, is second in tackles for loss, and leads all linemen in tackles with 19 (11 solo). And he’s saved some of his best work for the three conference games, with 13 tackles, 5 TFL / 4 sacks. Headlined by the UGA game, where he had five tackles, and 3 TFL / 2 sacks – all of them solo. Nicely plucked, Mr. Harbach.
(iii) What every SEC East fan should be talking about this preseason, but isn’t?
Well, that leaves out anything to do with Urban Meyer's health, just how hot Richt’s pants are, and turkey insemination: (i) Speaking of the Gobbler, and to consistency, about three quarters of the Vandy coaching staff have been in Nashville since coming over with Bobby Johnson in 2002, (ii) Does Caldwell go with “Robbie” instead of Bobby because of Johnson, or the the sweet vocal lyrics of the one and only? (iii) This is not me, (iv) So glad I'm usually too asleep to watch morning TV (Note to our young readers: "sleep" is what you call a hangover once you become a parent). Come on, CBS - what a shameless plug for Amazing Race. What’s next? Verne Lundquist on Big Brother? (v) Is Florida playing TE with four freshman, one of whom is a QB (Jordan Reed)? That’s got sunshine written all over it, (vi)
Not the first to mention it, but the state of Kentucky opens the 2010 gridiron season with African American HCs at both of its flagship universities, (vii) That's a long road from Nat Northington, (viii) This year’s Florida secondary will more closely resemble the sputtering 2007 unit than 2008-9, and (ix) Am I the only one that’s going to miss Lane? A sportswriter’s dream.
As he does every week with this question, Russ gives us tons of quality, which makes this difficult. But there is one thing that grabbed my attention… Lane Kiffin. Russ is right that we miss him. Tennessee fans don’t miss him, and neither does Commissioner Slive. But those of us that cover the SEC miss his stupidity, his irreverence and his random attempts to call timeouts when not allowed. Hm… We hear Mike Leach is available.
We have it on good authority that Mark Richt is on the hot seat this year, and in other related new, UGA fans have some pretty high expectations. If this is news to you, please head over to the four letter network so they can bring you up to speed on how awesome Boise State is going to be this year. The SEC East is in one of the biggest transition years we can remember… Three new head coaches, maybe five new starting quarterbacks, no Tim Tebow, UGA moving to a 3-4 defense, and the list goes on. What SEC fans should be talking about right now is the Florida Gators.
The entire SEC East hinges on how Florida responds without Tim Tebow. South Carolina and Georgia feel like they have an outside shot at winning the East, but the Gators are the most talented and best coached team in the East. If John Brantley can run the offense with just some of the same poise that Tebow did, it's highly unlikely any team other than Florida will be playing for the SECCG in Atlanta. Still, many divisional rivals believe this is their chance to seek revenge on the Gators... The month of September is going to be very interesting for the SEC East.
Hard to grade this, but since the limp Florida offense is perhaps the most talked about subject out of the East right now, even more so than the Gamecock’s success, we’ll give you the pass. Brantley looks like a duck out of water in this offense. Just like Masoli.
IN FOCUS: Which SEC East Coach / Player is in the Spotlight this season?
2009: Steve Spurrier, USC
Since Brian took my first pick, we'll call a do-over: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina. We thought last year would hold another end-of-the-season collapse for the OBC, and with it the last of the Gamecock Faithfull’s patience. Half right. Don’t look now, but the offense finally has talent at the skill positions to rival its vaunted defense, and there’s even a little depth. Given Spurrier’s age (65), the talent, the (relatively) favorable schedule, and the rumblings out of Columbia, if we witness yet another finish to rival Napoleon’s march on Russia, we could see the end of a true CFB revolutionary. But only because he wants to golf more – we’ve given up hope that the USC brass will ever really care, having instead fully embraced mediocrity.
What a difference a win over Alabama can do for a coach. After the ego-driven, cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face benching of Stephen Garcia following two fumbles against Auburn, Spurrier rebounds to “genius” status by beating #1 Bama. This season was all about Spurrier for the Gamecocks; his stubbornness cost them the Auburn game, but the pep talk with Garcia before the Tide probably saved their season. Russ is correct that if the Gamecocks crumble down the stretch it will be mayhem in Columbia, but mediocrity just might be a thing of the past for SC. Or at least for this season.
2009: Mark Richt, UGA
Stephen Garcia, South Carolina. This might be the most obvious answer in this entire article. Garcia comes into this season with tons of experience, excellent receivers and (supposedly) has given up beer and dedicated himself this off-season. While we don't advocate anyone giving up beer, hopefully that's enough to overcome the terrible offensive line that still resides in Columbia. If it isn’t, there's a very good chance the QB carousel will be spinning for the Gamecocks. While not all of us are buying Carolina as an SEC contender this year, there are no excuses, and the media in Columbia have hyped up this team to no end. A status quo season for Spurrier could mean bad news for everyone - even the program. Garcia has the talent, he has the ability, but are the Gamecocks and Garcia ready for the national spotlight?
17/20, 201 yards, 3 TDs to 1 INT, for a 209 Passer Efficiency Rating, in the biggest win in school history. On the season he leads the conference in Passing Completion % (we’re not including Jarrett Lee), with nearly 1,000 yards and an 8/3 TD/INT ratio. Next.
SEC EAST POWER RANKINGS
2009: Florida, UGA, UT, USC, Vandy & Kentucky
1 Florida – Sigh. The East is beginning to resemble USC’s PAC 10 run for UF: easy
2 South Carolina – Sigh. Brian’s going to be able to feast on this all year
3 Georgia – Murray will get it together – just in time for a TWLOCP whippin'
4 Kentucky – Could pass UGA. More talent here than many realize; plus a nice big chip
5 Tennessee – Moving parts personified
6 Vanderbilt – Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice…
This looks like a B to me right now, so a pass. Definitely not perfect, but the bottom three look accurate and the top two could very well still happen, if Florida can beat South Carolina in Gainesville. Even a 2-4 Georgia looks like it can finish third this year in a terrible SEC East, so this list looks pretty accurate. Well predicted, Russ.
2009: Florida, UGA, USC, UT, Vandy & Kentucky
1 Florida – Even with the major losses, Gators still have fewer questions
2 Georgia – Nasty O-line will be Aaron Murray’s safety blanket in his first season
3 South Carolina – Most talent Spurrier has had at SC, but will O-line will hold them back?
4 Kentucky – A number of surprisingly good skill players will give SEC teams fits this fall
5 Tennessee – Dooley will take his lumps; hopefully fans will be patient
6 Vanderbilt – First interview we want to hear on the SEC coaches conference calls
If I have a B, you have a C. But that’s still a pass. Barely.
THREE GAMES TO DVR
1) South Carolina vs. Florida, November 13th. This will be for the chance to lose to the winner of the Western division. Were the game in Columbia, and perhaps a bit earlier in the season, we’d pick the Gamecocks. Wow. Given how SC has played under Spurrier, this goes against every survival instinct we have. But if Brantley has any trouble settling in, which is unlikely, or if the Gators have injuries to the O-line, this game gets even more interesting. Remember, Garcia & Co. are built for inexperienced DBs, and the Gators are breaking in some talented, but young, players. The Gators only have one starter north of 6’0” (S Will Hill, 6’1”), while SC has three talented WRs above 6’4”, plus 6’6” TE Weslye Saunders (as long as he’s cleared out his room at the posh Whitney Hotel by kickoff).
2) Georgia vs. South Carolina, September 11th. As in most years, this game will likely predict the fortunes of both squads. Georgia enters with a 19 year old QB starting in his first road game. Not SEC road game - road game, period. Against arguably one of the nation’s best defenses for the past three years. Yeah, this is going to work out fine.
3) South Carolina vs. Kentucky, October 16. The bubble team this year is SC. Coming a week after the Alabama home game, this could be a Gamecocks team that’s either sky high or beaten down. Regardless, IF it is a potential champion, this is a game SC simply must win.
Russ went with three games involving South Carolina, and the most surprising one now has as much intrigue as the higher profile games: South Carolina at Kentucky. Very nicely selected, Mr. Mitchell - I'll bet you were the only one in America outside of Columbia to do so. It’s become must see TV exactly for the reason Russ predicted. Historically the Gamecocks have fallen apart after success... Has the Carolina program turned a corner with its huge win over Bama? Every SEC fan should be paying attention to this game; it looked like a crazy pick back in August, but it means a lot now.
1) Georgia vs. South Carolina, September 11th. LUCY! The loser of this game will have a lot of 'splaining to do, and could end up finishing the month of September with two or even three losses. South Carolina has the advantage being at home, but the kickoff is scheduled for noon - a huge advantage for Georgia. This game is always competitive and usually ends up being a defensive struggle (outside of the 2009 game); don't be surprised if Vegas is a pickem for this one (RM Note: I got that! Usual wager, Mr. Harbach.).
2) Florida vs. Georgia, October 30th. Who doesn’t love the Cocktail Party? Well maybe UGA fans lately, but they have to be thrilled to no longer have Tim Tebow staring at them from across the field in Jacksonville. This game has one of the best atmospheres in the SEC, with half the stadium Red and Black with the other Orange and Blue, divided right down the middle of the end zones. Since the OBC landed in Gainesville, it seems the pressure has been on UGA to win, and Urban Meyer still hasn’t forgotten the stomping incident: in the two games since, UGA has been outscored 90-27.
3) South Carolina vs. Florida, November 13th. This very well could end up being the game of the year in the SEC East if South Carolina can do what it never does: live up to preseason expectations. Florida will be at home and Spurrier has yet to beat his former team in the Swamp. The Gamecocks have the defense to keep this game close. But will they have the offensive firepower to win it?
These are hard to evaluate, though Brian was certainly off picking UGA/Florida – other than tradition, it’s unlikely to mean much this year for anyone other than its participants. We’d have preferred you swamped 3 and 1. Actually, upon further review, we’re failing you here; mostly for being a sheep and taking the Cocktail Party.
Don't forget to read CFN's Barrett Sallee Three & Out: SEC Thoughts, News & Notes every Wednesday.
Russ Mitchell covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @russmitchellsec
Brian Harbach covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He may be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter @harbabd
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