The State of the SEC
The SEC meetings are right around the corner so this is the perfect time to start breaking down the nation's top conference in my yearly SEC preview. The SEC continues to dominate the college football landscape on the field, in recruiting and in media attention. After Alabama won last year's BCS Championship game, the leagues fourth straight, we will likely start the 2010 season with the Crimson Tide on top of every poll as the favorite to win it all again.
There are three new coaches in the SEC; two of the jobs were filled from within taking over from coaches retiring while the third takes over for a coach that moved west. Robbie Caldwell takes over for the very recently retired Bobby Johnson at Vanderbilt and Joker Phillips moves up from his Head-Coach-In-Waiting position to replace the now retired Rich Brooks. Derek Dooley rounds out the new crew of SEC Coaches taking over for Lane Kiffin who went out west for a money grab. Rest easy Tennessee fans, karma will be biting Kiffin in the butt when his current AD is replaced and the men of troy start to lose their national luster. The rest of the crew, well you know them by now. The more interesting developments seem to be both Les Miles and Mark Richt being on the proverbial hot seat this season.
Not to get too far off subject here, but this bothers me a lot. Can anyone tell me which SEC coach is not on the hot seat? A hot seat would imply that the coach is under pressure to win and win now…which SEC coach does not need to win this season and risk the anger of their fan base? Maybe Steve Spurrier because there doesn't seem to be much of anything he can do wrong in the eyes of South Carolina fans, but even Nick Saban is subject to some public scrutiny with a 7-5 season and a loss to a key rival. Yes, the hot seat stuff makes for interesting columns and angry phone calls on radio shows, but if a coach doesn't feel the pressure to win and the fans don't expect him to do so…maybe he shouldn't be there and the fans should start watching soccer where ties are acceptable.
Either way it was a pretty ho-hum offseason in the coaching world, no crazy comments, no Athletic director votes of confidence and no weird stepping down, leave of absence, retiring and now I'm back stuff since at least January. The SEC coaches are as deep and talented as ever and with the success of the league, that won't change any time soon.
Returning SEC stars
If there ever was a time that it would be ok for the SEC to lose an all time great player, Tim Tebow, it would have to be this season because the biggest returning star happens to be the second sophomore ever to win a Heisman trophy. Mark Ingram highlights a very big group of skill players that seem to overshadow most quarterbacks in the league or at least eleven of them. It could be argued that the top three players in the conference are all offense players and none of them are a quarterback. Ingram obviously starts the list but then guys like Georgia WR A.J. Green and Alabama's WR Julio Jones could very well be thought just in front of the leagues best QB, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett.
This could be the year that the offenses overshadow the always feared SEC defenses; the skill position players are stacked at wide receiver, even though the running back position is a little underdeveloped outside of Ingram. A few SEC defensive players that should make their names even more known mostly reside on the Crimson Tide sidelines. DE Marcel Dareus, safety Mark Barron and returning from injury Dont'a Hightower will make pre and post season All-SEC lists. LSU DB Patrick Peterson may be the best defensive player in the country and almost a default Thorpe award finalist and the Florida secondary will once again be very deep the Janoris Jenkins and Ahmad Black. One more under the radar name that should benefit largely with a new system is Georgia's Justin Houston. More on him below, but the 3-4 should help showcase his skills quite a bit.
Power Shift in the Divisions
As the SEC East goes through a pretty big turnover, three new coaches at Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, a new defensive scheme at Georgia, no Tim Tebow in Gainesville and South Carolina seems to have QB issues or at least that is what Steve Spurrier thinks. The stability and strongest teams seem to be in the West. Alabama is the league favorite, LSU and Arkansas seem to be the next best threats to the Tide's third straight division title and Auburn might be interesting if they find some defense. Even the two Mississippi schools will likely round out the division but both of them seem to building very consistent programs under their current coaches. Houston Nutt is brining in great talent to Oxford and Dan Mullen seems to be earning high marks from many around the league with a solid first year in Starkville.
By no means does this mean that the SEC East should just fold up the tents once they make it to the Championship game in Atlanta but the years of the Easter division champ garnering all the attention and preseason rankings are gone. College football is cyclical so things will swing back towards the East at some point, but right now the West deserves the respect as the side to watch.
Just like previous years, the SEC teams will be broken into three separate groups…the Contenders, the Pretenders and the Pushovers. Each group is listed in alphabetical order only; it is not listed by any ranking within each group. Keep that in mind when you get ready to fire off those emails about why your team is behind some one you think is worse. There is going to be plenty of reason for angry emails, but they should be based on the content, not the order. Also, please don't be hurt if your team is in the Pushover section…of course no SEC team is a "pushover," just go with it for now.
What to Like : The offense is going to be amazing, the skill position players are phenomenal, the quarterback has yet to lose a game as the starter and they are going to score, score and score some more. You know the heavy hitters…Ingram, Jones, McElroy, and Richardson but in year two after they all have spent another offseason working together you can expect fireworks early and often. This offense is going to fun to watch and difficult to defend.
What to Dislike: There is not a lot to dislike, maybe special teams losing a senior kicker, maybe some of the guys leaving early to play in the NFL will be tough to replace but with a team as deep as the Crimson Tide has it is really just being picky. They are the favorites in nearly every SEC and National Poll for a very good reason.
What to Like: The first place to start is the passing game, Ryan Mallett has the biggest arm in the country and his receivers are talented and multi-faceted. You have the possession guy in Greg Childs, the speedster in Jarius Wright and the experienced Joe Adams. Even with all the drops last season the Razorback passing game was deadly and this year it should be even more improved.
What to Dislike: The defense is still a question mark and will be one up until the end of the September. Two years ago they were a terrible unit, last year it was a little better but still struggling at times, this year they have the experience but will it show on the field. There is no reason to think they won't make improvements from a year ago, but again we have to see it on the field first.
What to Like: With the Gators it is hard not to like the experience they bring back in key leadership positions. They have a great leader on the offensive line in Mike Pouncey, they have good leadership on defense with guys like A. J. Jones, Brandon Hicks and Ahmad Black. The offensive line should be dominant and that will only help uber-talented and first year starting QB John Brantley. The offense should still be very dangerous and as usual…really fast.
What to Dislike: The inexperience on the defensive line should worry Gator fans because they might get roughed up by better offensive lines in the SEC. The ends aren't as big or as fast as they have been in past seasons, the tackles are good but not dominant…depth is coming at the tackle position with a number of true freshmen. Talent is never Florida's problem, experience and depth are question marks on the line but the back seven should be able to bring up the line while they work out the kinks.
What to Like: The receivers are going to be very tough to defend and having Russell Shepard find a home at receiver will cause defenses headaches the same way Percy Harvin did for Florida. Rueben Randle and Terrance Tolliver are typical LSU receivers…big, fast and talented. If Jordan Jefferson can improve his consistency things could open up for the running game.
What to Dislike: The offensive backfield is layered with questions…is Jordan Jefferson ready to take the next step, are the running backs SEC caliber and can the backs stay healthy for a change? Jefferson did not answer his critics in the spring, he actually only added more of them and LSU needs him to be the leader a player who has started nearly 15 games should be by now.
Most likely to move down a group: LSU Until we see some serious improvement at the quarterback position from LSU they are a risk to drop from their normal high expectations. Jordan Jefferson has all the physical tools, but he needs to take a serious step forward in the mental part of his game this season. He has been too inconsistent for LSU to be a threat each week, he has games where he looks ready to take a step forward and then takes two back the next week. A good season from Jefferson means LSU will be fighting for a spot in the SEC Championship, a season like a year ago will shrink expectations for his senior year.
What to Like: Gus Malzahn is what to like about this team, he is the best offensive coordinator in the SEC right now and with the pieces in place to run his offense at the speed he wants to there is no reason the Tigers can't lead the league in scoring and yards. Cameron Newton won't have to win games on his own with receivers like Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachary, running backs Mario Fannin and Onterio McCalebb and an offensive line bring back four senior starters.
What to Dislike: Even with seven starters returning to the defense and experienced guys coming back from injury, the defense is a question mark. It is not a question of whether Gene Chizik and Ted Roof can coach fundamentals and schemes, it is a numbers game. One or two injuries mean true freshmen are relied upon in key spots, which is better than last year when walk-ons were the backups but experience is lacking. Injuries to players like LB Josh Bynes, DB Neiko Thorpe or DE Antoine Carter might be ok late in the season, but they will be devastating in September.
What to Like: Justin Houston was fun to watch as a rush end last year, but putting him as a blitzing linebacker has to make Mark Richt smile thinking about it. Houston is one of the SEC's most underrated players and moving him to an aggressive position in the middle of the UGA defense is going to make coaches much more aware of him. Of course A.J. Green should never be an afterthought when talking about Georgia, he will quickly become Aaron Murray's favorite target while young stud Orson Charles becomes a deadly security blanket for the UGA passing game.
What to Dislike: You can expect more turnovers from the Georgia defense this year, but anything else your guess is probably as good as mine. Do they have the players to fit a 3-4 scheme, is there a nose tackle on the roster right now that can disrupt the middle and take up two blockers? The scheme will be good, but can the players adapt quick enough with a very challenging September for the Bulldogs?
What to Like: I took some heat earlier this year for calling Tyrone Nix the best DC in league but I stand by that statement. And the Rebels are going to need every bit of his abilities this year because if the defense fails this team is in trouble, a typical Nix defense will be needed with so much change with the offense. DT Jerrell Powe is ready to lead a very talented group of defenders and Kentrell Lockett should dominate a lot of very good SEC offensive tackles this fall.
What to Dislike: There isn't much to like on the offensive side of the ball, a new quarterback starting, the most dynamic player in the SEC in the NFL now and some big losses along the offensive line make the Rebel offense a scary thought. Nathan Stanley looked decent in the brief time he played in the Cotton Bowl but will he be ready for SEC defenses each week. Brandon Bolder was slimmed down a bit in the offseason but is he ready to be an every down back, this offense lost a lot of players and gained a lot of questions.
What to Like: The number of returning starters is staggering and part of the reason that expectations are so high in Columbia this year. The defense should be strong even though it is very young. DE Devin Taylor is ready to break out in a huge way this season and you can expect better seasons from DB Stephon Gilmore and Spur DeVonte Holloman as sophomores. The receivers are all carbon copies with good hands to go along with their six foot four inch frames. Alshon Jeffrey exploded as a freshmen but Tori Gurley should become more of a threat as Jeffrey demands safety help.
What to Dislike: The success of this team will depend mostly on the offensive line. A new line coach will try to improve on what was a step in the right direction from a year ago, but play calling will show you how confident this team has in their line. When Carolina plays well they commit to the run, they struggle when they have to throw the ball 35 times a game and they do that because the line is not getting the job done.
Most likely to move up a group: Auburn Georgia was the team that made the most sense for this spot, but the complete change in defensive philosophy made me think twice and we have to see how that 3-4 under Todd Grantham turns out before they are ready to be contenders. Auburn had the second best offense in the league last year and with a more dynamic playmaker at QB it could be the leagues best. A middle of the pack defense might be enough to get them over the top into the elite of the SEC this year, but do they have the players to get there?
Most likely to move down a group: Ole Miss The offense is going to leave the Rebel defense no room for error this year and this is looking more and more like a transition season for Houston Nutt in year three. They are a bowl team, no question about that…the schedule almost assures them of a postseason berth. This might be a good building year for the future with young receivers, running backs and of course Quarterback getting some SEC experience to come back in 2011 ready to go.
What to Like: The first thing when thinking about positives and Kentucky is Randall Cobb, the kid is a playmaker and fun to watch every time he touches the ball. What will surprise people is how much experience the Kentucky defense has coming back this season. Even with big losses like Trevard Lindley and Corey Peters, they bring back ten starters who are juniors or seniors. The defense is going to be much better than anyone will expect and even though you may not know the names DeQuin Evans, Shane McCord and Winston Guy…they can ball.
What to Dislike: The quarterback situation still worries me even though Mike Hartline is a senior and the young guys still have not taken the job from him. The offensive line had some serious turnover from a pretty good group a year ago and they will need to step up big for guys like Cobb and Derrick Locke to be able to make plays.
What to Like: Even after losing one of the deepest running back groups in the league there is still a ton to like about the Bulldog running game. The offensive line should be good led by senior Derek Sherrod and the young backs are talented. Robert Elliot will be the preseason starter but he will get some competition from youngster LaDarius Perkins and some players enrolling this summer. Will the running game be as good as year ago when Anthony Dixon was steamrolling the SEC, probably not but it will be good.
What to Dislike: There are two really big questions with the Bulldogs this year, the defense and the quarterback position. Most people tend to focus on the QB competition between Chris Relf and Tyler Russell but the defense is where MSU really needs to fill some big holes. McPhee benefited a lot last year from two senior defensive tackles that have graduated and will he be able to be as effective with two new starters in place? Depth is a big issue for the Bulldog defense; the starting 11 should be ok but on long drives they could get warn down with unsure backups on deck.
What to Like: Derek Dooley was the right hire for Tennessee now and Tennessee's future, this is not going to be a pretty season and fans need to focus on the small successes and minor victories. The running backs look like they will be the strength and there are two good options at quarterback with Tyler Bray and Matt Simms. This will be a solid building year for Dooley as he brings in his type of players, gets away from the Kiffin issues and molds the team in his image.
What to Dislike: This program is in absolute disarray right now and Derek Dooley is doing all he can to get to September so we can start talking about football. The quarterbacks are talented but very inexperienced; the defense lost some great players to the NFL and even more recent ones to suspensions/dismissals. There was a lot of frustration shown in public last year from the players after losses and losing a lot of games could bring that back out to the open. The schedule is nasty and this could be a very long year for the Volunteers.
What to Like: The brightest spot from a year ago was true freshmen Warren Norman and that is the same case going into this season. Norman is the biggest threat Vanderbilt has on offense and they will need him to show up just as big on special teams to keep Vandy close in some games this season. As usual they will be serviceable but with such a big change happening so close to the start of the season it will be interesting to see how the team handles a new Head Coach, albeit an interim one. But any coach needs a team leader and Coach Caldwell can rely on LB Chris Marve to be his coach on the field all year.
What to Dislike: Vandy fans have to be disappointed with the lack of progress from quarterback Larry Smith. Even more they should be disappointed with his lack of accuracy in the passing game. They need more plays from that position and if Smith is not up to the job early, don't think he will not be pulled in favor of junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers. Coach Caldwell will not rotate QB's the way Vanderbilt has done so since Jay Cutler left, there will be one QB to lead this team.
Most likely to move up a group: Mississippi State: Dan Mullen has become a young star in the SEC after a pretty good first season in Starkville. He is an excellent motivator, a smart offensive mind and his competitive nature fits in well for a school that always seems under the radar. If the defense can fix some problems and fill some holes the offense might improve enough to get them into a bowl game this year. One quarterback has to step up, MSU has for too long rotated or benched guys for performing poorly. They need one leader from day one; a QB carousel will throw off any success that Mullen wants this year. Even if they are building for 2011, Mullen has to go with one guy unless injuries force it in a different direction.
What was wrong? What was right? Let me know what you expect from the SEC this season. E-mail me Brian Harbach