The Pi-Rate Ratings

September 2, 2009

2009 Southeastern Conference Preview

2009 Southeastern Conference Preview

A PiRate Look

Welcome to the conference where football is not just a sport; it’s a way of life for millions.  SEC fans at 11 schools act like their teams are football factories and not institutions of higher learning.  The average capacity of the perennial six powers (Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee in the East and Alabama, Auburn, and LSU in the West) exceeds 92,500, and on home game Saturdays, there are more people in the stands of half these teams than there are in the cities in which they are located.

This year, the SEC begins the season as the top-ranked league.  Throw in the fact that the member teams, for the most part, are playing non-conference schedules as weak as the teams in the Sunbelt Conference, and there’s a good chance that nine bowl eligible teams could emerge (which by the way equals the number of bowl tie-ins).

Here are the preseason PiRate ratings for the league.  The ratings have been rounded to the nearest whole number even though we calculate them to two decimal places.  Thus, when you see multiple teams with the same rating, they are not actually exactly even.  To understand what the rating means, it is set so that 100 is average.  Thus, a rating of 90 means the team is 10 points weaker than the average team in the FBS.  The average of all 120 FBS teams should round to 100 if the math has been successfully calculated.

For those who have not followed the PiRate Ratings before and wonder about the home field advantage, we do not assign set in stone advantages.  These are assigned on a game-by-game basis.  For instance, if Vanderbilt hosts Tennessee at the end of the year, when the Commodores are 4-7 and the Vols are 9-1, then the game could actually be a “home game on the road” for the Vols.  Tennessee might actually receive a couple of points if it appears 75% of the fans at the stadium will be wearing orange.  If that same Vanderbilt team begins the season 2-0 and hosts New Mexico State, then the Commodores would receive about four to six points.  The PiRates think it’s ridiculous to issue a blank home field advantage for all teams or even assign a range of set home field advantages.

 

Southeastern Conference Preseason PiRate Ratings

 
   

 

Prediction *

 
  Team

PiRate

SEC

Overall

 
  East

 

 

 

 
  Florida

142

8-0

13-0

#
  Georgia

114

5-3

8-4

 
  Tennessee

106

3-5

7-5

 
  Vanderbilt

104

2-6

5-7

 
  South Carolina

103

4-4

6-6

 
  Kentucky

100

1-7

5-7

 
   

 

 

 

 
  West

 

 

 

 
  Ole Miss

120

6-2

10-2

 
  Alabama

120

7-1

11-2

#
  L S U

114

6-2

10-2

 
  Arkansas

108

4-4

8-4

 
  Auburn

105

2-6

5-7

 
  Mississippi St.

91

0-8

1-11

 

 

 

*  Predictions not based on PiRate Rating but

 
 

on expected changes to rating during the year

 
 

# Florida picked to beat Alabama

 
 

in SEC Championship Game

 

 

SEC East

Florida: What is there to say that hasn’t already been said?  It will be a disappointing year if the Gators go 13-0 in the regular season but don’t win every game by more than three touchdowns.  Their 142 preseason PiRate Rating places them in some heavy company.  The only other preseason 140 or higher-rated teams were Nebraska in 1995, Miami of Florida in 2001, and Ohio State in 1975.

Tim Tebow is being called the greatest collegiate player ever.  We don’t know about that, but he is the best college quarterback in the nation in 2009.  He led the Gators in rushing with 673 yards and 12 touchdowns, but Coach Urban Meyer would probably like to cut his carries some to protect him and to showcase his passing arm to the NFL.  We expect Tebow will pass the ball more than the 21 times a game he passed last year.  Look for his attempts to rise to about 28, unless he is out of too many games after Florida has a five touchdown lead at the half, and his passing yardage to top 3,500.

The Gators rushed for 231 yards per game last year, and none of the backs/slot receivers topped 675 yards.  The depth is so great here that five players could top 500 yards.  Jeffrey Demps, Chris Rainey, and Emmanuel Moody will run 1-2-3 at the running back position.

The receiving unit will definitely miss all-everything Percy Harvin, who might make life easier for Brett Favre this year.  Louis Murphy is also gone, so this area is the only area of concern.  Riley Cooper, David Nelson, Deonte Thompson, and tight end Aaron Hernandez still make up one of the three best receiving units in the conference.

When you have the best offensive line in the league and second best to Southern Cal’s nationally, the superior skill players become even more dangerous.  The Pouncey brothers, center Maurkice and guard Mike, may both be ready to place their names in the NFL draft next spring.

There’s no catchy way to describe the Gator defense.  It just doesn’t seem like it could be real.  All 11 starters from last year’s top-flight defense plus 10 of the second 11 return!  That’s 21 of the top 22 players from a defense that gave up just 12.9 points and 285 yards per game.  In this day and age, shutouts don’t occur all that often like they did in past decades, but the Gators could post more than one this season. 21 players recorded double digit tackles, and of course, they are all back. 

In the defensive line, Carlos Dunlap had 9 ½ sacks from his end position.  Jermaine Cunningham had six sacks and four other tackles for loss.  Sophomore Jaye Howard isn’t one of the 21 returning key contributors, but he will be a big one this year from his tackle spot.

The head of the second line of defense is middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who led UF with 93 tackles.  Ryan Stamper, A. J. Jones, Dustin Doe, Brandon Hicks, and Lorenzo Edwards all have the potential to make an All-SEC team.

In the secondary, safety Ahmad Black intercepted seven passes last year.  Cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Joe Haden had six interceptions, and they batted away 25 balls.  The Gators allowed just 53.1% completions, and they actually could bring that number under 50% this year.

The only possible games where the Gators could face a little trouble are the October 10 game at LSU, and the Cocktail Party against Georgia in Jacksonville on October 31.  No matter which team wins the other division, we see Florida winning the SEC Championship Game by three touchdowns.  Who will the Gators play for all the marbles?  It would be interesting to see them square off in Pasadena against Southern Cal, but the Trojans would need help.  A 12-0 USC team will not make it if Oklahoma or Texas goes undefeated.  We think one will, and that team will face the Gators.

Georgia: The Bulldogs are a clear second place pick here, but they begin the season a full four touchdowns behind Florida.  Coach Mark Richt faces a minor rebuilding project on the offensive side, but the defense should be a little stronger this year—maybe as good as the defenses of 2002-2006, when UGA gave up an aggregate of 16 points per game.

The defense will rely on a strong trio of linebackers to stop opponents this year.  Rennie Curran is likely to leave for the pros after this year if he simply repeats last year’s production of 115 tackles, three sacks, and 10 total tackles for loss. 

The front four needs to get a better pass rush, or the secondary will not be able to top last year’s numbers.  The secondary gave up 190 yards per game and 55.7% completions, and strong safety Reshad Jones was the big star last year with five interceptions to go with 76 tackles.  If the pass rush doesn’t improve, those numbers will get a little ugly; in addition to facing Tebow and the other SEC passers, this defense will have to face Zac Robinson on his home turf.

Joe Cox will not approach Matthew Stafford’s passing numbers from 2008, but he won’t be a total bust either.  Cox has an accurate arm, but he doesn’t have the velocity of Stafford.

Replacing running back Knowshon Moreno may be a tougher assignment.  Richard Samuel, Carlton Thomas, and Caleb King will split the carries, but the three of them combined may not gain the 1,400 yards Moreno gained nor score 16 touchdowns.

Even with the departure of Mohamed Massaquoi, the receiving unit will be the strength of the offense.  A. J. Green is one of the top three receivers in the league.  He led the Bulldogs with 56 receptions and 963 yards in 2008.  Michael Moore should see his totals jump, maybe double, this year after grabbing 29 passes for 451 yards last year.

The offensive line should be better this year than last.  Tackle Clint Boling is a returning 1st Team All-SEC player.  Look for the ‘Dogs to match last year’s low number of 17 sacks.

Richt wasn’t scared to schedule a road game against Oklahoma State to begin the season.  This game will be close to a tossup, and the Bulldogs will have a chance at the upset.  Outside of the Florida game, the rest of the schedule is manageable.  The key to returning to a New Year’s Day bowl is the LSU game.  The winner will still be in contention for an at-large BCS Bowl bid.

Tennessee: Welcome to the Orange Soap Opera!  Did Lane Kiffin come away with permanent damage after working for Al Davis?  And Tom Cable didn’t even punch him in the head.  Actually, Kiffin is being crazy like a fox.  Now if he can coach as good as he can market himself, the Volunteers are going to become a top-flight program once again.

Tennessee had one half of a great team last year.  Their defense gave up 16.8 points and only 264 total yards per game.  Adding defensive guru and Lane’s dad Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator and Ed Orgeron as defensive line coach can only make a good situation better.

Coach Kiffin promised his recruits that they would be given a real chance to play as true freshmen, and he has kept his word.  Freshmen dot the two-deep on both sides of the ball.  The top recruit is running back Bryce Brown, who some say was the overall top high school recruit last year.  He will contribute immediately and maybe start ahead of Montario Hardesty.  UT rushed for just 123 yards and 3.6 yards per carry last year, and Brown gives this unit an immediate boost.  If he stays healthy, and if the offensive line can develop its run blocking skills, Brown could rush for 1,000 yards in year one.

The passing game was nothing to shout about last year, as Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens combined for just 146 yards per game and completed less than half of their passes with a TD/INT ratio of 8/8.  Sports pundits said it was the overly difficult offense designed by former offensive coordinator Dave Clawson that accounted for the lack of success. 

The offensive line just wasn’t up to standards last year, and this will be the problem once again.  None of the heralded freshmen are Offensive linemen, and if the returning players don’t improve a good deal, the offense will still struggle against good teams.

The Vols’ best player and maybe the best defensive player in all of college football is strong safety Eric Berry.  Berry intercepted seven passes and knocked down six in 2008.  He recorded 72 tackles, had three QB sacks, and registered 5 ½ other tackles behind the line of scrimmage.  If he played for Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, or Southern Cal, he might be one of the five finalists invited to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York on December 12.

The other two units on the stop side may be a little weaker this year than last, even with the elder Kiffin directing it.  No middle linebacker has come to the forefront, and in Kiffin’s defense, a multi-talented MLB is required.  Rico McCoy is an exceptional outside linebacker.  In the trenches, nose tackle Dan Williams returns after making 8 ½ stops behind the line.  The Vols yielded just 2.8 yards per rush in ’08 and got to enemy quarterbacks 25 times.  They will probably get more sacks this year, but the yards allowed per rush will be higher.

 The schedule gives the Vols a decent shot at getting back to a bowl.  The four out-of-conference games are Western Kentucky, UCLA, Ohio, and Memphis, which will all be played at Neyland Stadium.  The Vols also draw a rebuilding Auburn team at home and finish with Vanderbilt and Kentucky, two teams they have dominated for decades.

Vanderbilt: There’s a television program called “Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed,” where a masked magician shows the viewing audience how all the big magic tricks are done.  Recently, enquiring minds just had to know who was behind the mask.  They hired someone to get onto that show as an assistant and pull the mask off and find out just who the guy was.  Guess what, it was Commodore head coach Bobby Johnson!  No, not really, but it might as well had been after the way Johnson produced Vanderbilt’s first winning season since 1982 and first bowl win since January 1, 1956!

Looking at the statistics, Vanderbilt was outgained by 64 yards per game, 76 in conference play.  They scored their fewest amount of points since Johnson’s first year.  They completed less than half of their passes and averaged just 3.7 yards per rush.  How did they win?  They came up with timely plays on defense and special teams, and they were +9 in turnover margin.

The offense should show signs of improvement this year.  Larry Smith, who made his first start in the bowl game, looks to have the tools necessary to play in the SEC.  He’s got a quick release, accurate arm, and decent zip on the ball.

Just who will be on the other end of those passes is the problem.  Vanderbilt lost top receiver Sean Walker to graduation, and it wasn’t like the Commodores were loaded at this position last year.  Former star defensive back D. J. Moore played both ways toward the end of the year, and it was his big plays against Kentucky that gave VU that important sixth win.  Vandy may use two tight ends more often this year to take advantage of good depth there.  Look for Brandon Barden, Austin Monahan, and Justin Green to combine for 50 or more receptions. 

Vanderbilt had a hard time running the ball past the line of scrimmage last year, and they have improved this position with the addition of some talented freshmen.  Jared Hawkins led the team with 593 rushing yards, but he may see fewer chances this year with Warren Norman and Zac Stacy getting significant playing time.

The offensive line returns intact with a lot of depth, and there could be some shuffling in the depth chart.  One player who won’t be shuffled is tackle Thomas Welch, the next Vandy OL who will play in the NFL.

The defense will be just as tough as last year, but only if the two new secondary starters can prove they are SEC caliber defenders.  Replacing Moore and safety Reshard Langford won’t be easy.  Look for better play in the front seven to give the secondary a fair chance at covering receivers.

Vanderbilt’s schedule is the reason they may not repeat last year’s feats.  The Commodores play two bowl teams in their four non-conference games.  They must visit Rice, which won’t be an easy win, and they host Georgia Tech at the end of October.  An even bigger concern is the fact that they have no off weeks.  Injuries will pile up, and the depth isn’t strong enough to withstand more than a couple of lost starts.  Vanderbilt won five games in 2007 and 2005; they may make it a pattern and win five in 2009, unless they can pull off a big upset.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier has not turned this program around like everybody theorized would happen when he took the job in 2005.  The Gamecocks have won seven, eight, six, and seven games in his first four seasons, only marginally better than before he arrived.  Add to the disappointment the fact that USC has some rebuilding to do on both sides of the ball, and Spurrier will have to perform wonders to get this team to eight wins.

Last year, the offensive line wrecked the offense.  They played like a quintet of matadors.  The Gamecocks rushed for just 94 yards per game, and the quarterbacks went down 39 times and threw 27 interceptions.  Unless new coaching can make them better, there isn’t much chance that there will be much improvement here.

Quarterback Stephen Garcia has the tools needed to be a good SEC passer, but Tim Tebow would have a hard time succeeding if he was rushed as much as Garcia was last year.  Garcia alternated with departed QB Chris Smelley and proved to be more of a dual threat out of the spread offense.

USC lost their top two receivers in Kenny McKinley and Jared Cook, who combined for 91 receptions and 1,225 yards.  True freshman Alshon Jeffrey could eventually be as talented as McKinley, but it won’t happen this year.  Another true freshman, DeMario Bennett should see playing time as well.  The ‘Cocks will have to rely on a receiver by committee approach.

The running game will be handed over to freshman Jarvis Giles, who at least has the moves to avoid a big loss when the defense is already in the backfield at the time of the handoff.  Freshman Kenny Miles may see some snaps as well.

On the defensive side, things are not as sad and gloomy.  New coordinator Ellis Johnson inherits some rather talented troops, and South Carolina could even better last year’s stats (21.1 points and 292 yards allowed per game).  The front seven is considerably stronger than the secondary, so expect to see the focus of attention on getting a great pass rush. 

Linebacker Eric Norwood finished second in the league with nine sacks, but he’s the only returning starter to the unit.  Defensive end Cliff Matthews heads the front line, but there will be some shuffling following the suspension of opposite terminal Clifton Geathers.

There is experienced talent at safety, but cornerback is a different matter.  True freshman Stephon Gilmore and sophomore Akeem Auguste are the new starters.

South Carolina plays too tough ACC opponents (at North Carolina State, Clemson) as well as both Alabama and Ole Miss from the West Division.  The Gamecocks will have to win one or two road games from among Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas in order to gain bowl eligibility.

Kentucky: In Lexington, it’s the football and baseball programs that are getting it done these days.  Do they play any other sports there?  It’s hard to believe it, but UK has won three consecutive bowl games.  If Coach Rich Brooks can guide his team to another bowl game this year, he should be nominated for national coach of the year. 

The Wildcats relied more on defense to win games last year, and the stop troops gave up just 21.5 points and 332 yards per game.  Seven starters from that side are now gone, including four of the top five tacklers plus 2nd Team All-SEC end Jeremy Jarmon.

UK still has two potential 1st Team All-Americans on the defensive side.  Trevard Lindley is the best cornerback and second best defensive player in the SEC.  He comes off a season in which he intercepted four passes and knocked away 11 others.

Linebacker Micah Johnson was a 1st Team All-SEC choice last year after making 93 tackles with 13 for lost yardage.  He wasn’t even 100% most of the year, so he should have an even better production in ’09.

Up front, the late loss of Jarmon is going to take its toll.  Corey Peters is the only holdover up front.

There was a major reclamation in the 2008 offense, and it’s still a work in progress.  Quarterback Mike Hartline returns for his second season as the starter.  He completed 55.3% of his passes for 1,666 yards last year.  Former QB Randall Cobb is now strictly a receiver, but he will get snaps in the wildcat formation.

Cobb will team with Chris Matthews and Kyrus Lanxter to form a formidable trio at wide out.  Mathews, a junior college transfer, is big, quick, and agile.  Look for him to make a big contribution this year.

The running attack was not as potent last year following the 2007 graduation of Rafael Little.  Leading rusher Tony Dixon has moved on, but his contribution was minimal at 3.3 yards per carry.  Alfonso Smith, Derrick Locke, and Moncell Allen will share the load this season.

Up front, the offensive line returns three starters from a unit that allowed a league low 13 sacks.  Tackle Zipp Duncan is the leader of this unit.

An easy non-conference schedule (Miami-OH, Louisville, Louisiana-Monroe, and Eastern Kentucky) will give the ‘Cats four wins.  A home game with Mississippi State should be win number five.  Their best chance for a sixth win will come from Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee.

SEC West

Ole Miss: Houston Nutt couldn’t have picked a better time to inherit a job.  Former coach Ed Orgeron left him with a full cupboard.  In year two at the Nutthouse, Ole Miss is the sexy pick for SEC West Division champion.  The PiRate Ratings formula gives them the edge over Alabama by .09 points to start the season.  All five of us agree that the Rebels will be plenty good, just not the division winner.

The offense was strong all season, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be just as strong or stronger.  Eight starters return to an attack that averaged 32.1 points and 408 yards per game.

Quarterback Jevan Snead has had to take a backseat to two great quarterbacks.  He left Texas after Colt McCoy got the job.  Now, he plays Sham to Tim Tebow’s Secretariat.  Snead passed for 2,762 yards and 26 touchdowns last year.

The running game is stocked with talent, and it’s not just running backs that carry the ball.  Wide out Dexter McCluster led the Rebels with 655 yards rushing (6.0 avg).  He ran the ball out of the wildcat formation.  He tried to pass the ball five times, and he threw two interceptions without a completion.  Cordera Eason,  Brandon Bolden, and Enrique Davis will split time at running back.

McCluster will team with Shay Hodge and top recruit Pat Patterson to form a trio of wide outs.  Tight end Gerald Harris is used more as a blocker.

Speaking of blockers, the Rebels have a big, but slightly inexperienced offensive line.  Tackle John Jerry is a monster at 6’5 and 350 pounds.

Ole Miss improved defensively as the season progressed.  The Rebels gave up 25 points per game in the first half of the year and 11 points per game in the second half.  It all begins up front, where the four starters (Kentrell Lockett and Marcus Tillman at DE and Lawon Scott or Justin Smith and Ted Laurent at DT) form the best front four in the league.  They will send a lot of backs to the ground before they get back to the line of scrimmage.  If Greg Hardy ever returns to 100% health, then this unit will be dominating.  In limited action last year, he made 8 ½ QB sacks.

The back seven are not as talented as the front four, but they are above average compared to the league as a whole.  Linebackers Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker return after teaming for 86 tackles. 

The secondary is the weakest unit on the stop side.  Three starters return there, with free safety Kendrick Lewis being the closest thing to a star player.  He led the Rebels with 85 tackles, four interceptions, and six passes batted away.

Ole Miss should easily win their four non-league games (Memphis, Southeast Louisiana, UAB, and Northern Arizona).  They avoid both Florida and Georgia from the East.  It will all come down to how they perform in a trio of games to determine whether they can get to Atlanta for a great rematch with Florida.  They host Alabama on October 10, host Arkansas on October 24, and host LSU on November 21.  Even though they get all three of these games at home, we think they will slip up in one of these.  Our founder believes the Thursday night, September 24 game at South Carolina could actually be the hardest game they have on their schedule.

Alabama: It was almost a great story in Tideland in 2008.  Alabama won all 12 of their regular season games and entered the SEC Championship game ranked number one in the nation.  They were a 10-point underdog as the top-ranked team, something that has never happened before in modern times.  They failed to cover and lost by 11 to Florida.  Then, in the Sugar Bowl, they were embarrassed by Utah.

Some teams would fall apart when their prior season ended that way.  We believe the Crimson Tide will be just as hard to beat this year, even with major losses on the attack side.

The offense returns just four starters from last year.  Among the missing are quarterback John Parker Wilson and running back Glen Coffee.  The new quarterback is Greg McElroy, who saw limited action as a freshman last year.  He should be able to approach Wilson’s numbers if he stays healthy, but if he gets injured, ‘Bama is in trouble and will have to go with untested freshmen.

The running game will be okay if Mark Ingram stays eligible to play, and the NCAA investigators don’t go on a fishing expedition trying to declare him ineligible.  Number two back Terry Grant will be used more on passing downs, as he has good hands and great speed to turn a short pass into a long gain.

Julio Jones is in the same boat as Ingram, but if the star wide out loses some games due to the famous fishing trip, the Tide will suffer much more than they would at running back.  Jones led Alabama with 58 receptions and 924 yards.  The next leading returnee, Mike McCoy, had just 16 catches.

Three new starters dot the offensive line.  Guard Mike Johnson is the best of the blockers. 

The Tide defense was stingy last year until the last two games.  In the 12-0 start, they gave up 11.5 points and 249 yards per game.  Most of the key contributors are back for more this year, and the Tide could challenge Florida for top defense in the league.

Middle linebacker Rolando McClain led the defense with 95 tackles and 12 total tackles for loss.  He batted away eight passes as well.  He’ll be joined by three more than capable mates, Don’t’A Hightower, Eryk Anders, and Cory Reamer.

The three-man front is anchored by nose guard Terrence Cody, who at 365 pounds, plugs two gaps by himself.  End Brandon Deaderick is an excellent pass rusher.

The secondary features three returning starters and a top reserve from a year ago.  Cornerbacks  Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson combined for 17 deflected passes in ’08.  Safety Justin Woodall picked off four passed and knocked away eight others.

The kicking game is first-rate with Leigh Tiffin having the best leg in the conference.

The Tide get a big test to start the season, taking on Virginia Tech in Atlanta.  We believe Coach Nick Saban’s club will win that game in a grind-it-out style.  If so, they should be 5-0 when they travel to Oxford to take on Ole Miss on October 10.  The LSU game in Tuscaloosa on November 7 is the only other game where they won’t be favored by a touchdown or more.  Alabama could go 12-0 in the regular season and lose to Florida in the SEC Championship for the second year in a row. 

Note: Brandon Deaderick was shot in the forearm Monday August 31, and his status for the Virginia Tech game is still undecided.

L S U: 8-5 is not an acceptable record at LSU these days.  It’s been rumored that back-to-back 8-5 records could even get a coach in trouble, even though he won a national championship two years ago.  Warning to Bayou Bengal Fans:  11-2 could get a coach a job at Michigan.

The Tigers return seven starters to both the offense and the defense.  Some exceptional talent returns, but there are a couple of holes in the lineup as well.

Quarterback Jordan Jefferson emerged as a potential star during the big comeback against Troy and later proved himself the position during last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl.  He has good legs and can run the spread offense better than backup Jarrett Lee.

Jefferson is not the star of this backfield though.  Charles Scott is the top running back in the SEC.  He picked up 1,174 yards and 18 touchdowns last year.  Keiland Williams is an able backup who can make his own hole if one isn’t there.

Brandon LaFell may be the best receiver in the league.  He led LSU with 63 receptions for 929 yards and eight touchdowns.

The offensive line returns three starters, and it is strongest at tackle with Ciron Black and Joseph Barksdale.

The Tigers averaged 30.9 points and 368 yards per game in 2008, and we see those numbers improving to 32 points and 400-425 yards per game.  Defensively, LSU gave up too many points and yards last year (24.2 and 326).  Coach Les Myles brought in former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis to fix the problem.

There won’t be a need for much tinkering in the secondary with three quality starters returning.  Cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Chris Hawkins and safety Chad Jones combined for 141 tackles, five interceptions, and 18 deflected passes.

All three starting linebackers from last year return, plus team leading tackler Harry Coleman moves up from safety, giving this unit even more athleticism.

The problem area is the defensive line.  Three starters finished their college careers, including the great Tyson Jackson.  End Rahim Alem led the team with eight sacks, and he will lead the rebuilt trenchmen.

The Tigers have one of the best punt and kick returners in the nation in lightning quick Trindon Holliday.  He’s a threat to take any punt back for a score.

LSU is just as talented as Alabama and Ole Miss.  They just get penalized this year for having to play both Florida and Georgia out of the East Division and Alabama and Ole Miss on the road.  They could easily lose all four of these games, and if they do, the natives will be getting restless in Baton Rouge.

Arkansas: Year one wasn’t a pleasant one in Fayetteville for Coach Bobby Petrino.  His Razorbacks were drilled by Alabama, Texas, and Florida in successive games by a combined score of 139-31, and the team never really recovered.  After falling to South Carolina and Mississippi State to drop out of bowl contention, they ended the season on a high note with an upset of LSU.  This year promises to be different.  Arkansas will be bowl eligible once again with an exciting team.

Let’s start the excitement reporting on the attack side.  New quarterback Ryan Mallett left Michigan when Rich Rodriguez came in as coach.  He’s matured physically and mentally in that time, and he could be the best QB in the league after Tebow and Snead.  Mallett has three experienced starters and several able reserves to catch his passes.  We expect the Arkansas passing game to produce 275-300 yards per game this season, but only if the protection improves.  Arkansas QBs were dumped 46 times last year.

Michael Smith returns at running back after topping 1,000 yards last year.  True freshman Ronnie Wingo could see action immediately.

The offensive line needs some repairs after three starters graduated.  One of the returning starters, center Wade Grayson, has been bumped to second string by Seth Oxner, so there should be some improvement there.  Mitch Petrus has a chance to become a 1st Team All-SEC guard after making the 2nd team last year. 

How much the defense improves will determine how many games over .500 this team finishes in 2009.  The top 10 tacklers are back, but the Razorbacks gave up a very generous 31.2 points and 375 yards per game in ’08.  There will be some, but not much improvement this year, as there are liabilities in all three units.

The star of the stop side is tackle Malcolm Sheppard.  He finished second on the team with 68 tackles, and he led with 6 ½ sacks and eight other tackles for loss.

The secondary was burned too many times last year, and it will continue to happen somewhat this season.  There’s been some shuffling in the depth chart, but it appears that the answer has yet to be found.  The loss of Isaac Madison is big.

The linebackers are in better shape than the secondary, but this trio isn’t going to be compared to Alabama or Ole Miss’s trio. 

The Hogs should win all four non-conference games against Missouri State, Texas A&M, Eastern Michigan, and Troy, but the latter three could pull off an upset if Arkansas isn’t ready to play.  The Razorbacks get Auburn, South Carolina, and Mississippi State at home.  They have seven winnable games and, we think they could pull off an upset along the way.  Arkansas could even sneak into the New Year’s Day Bowl picture.

Auburn: The Tigers suffered through a rare losing season, and Coach Tommy Tuberville decided to call it quits at the end.  Like Tennessee, the defense was good enough to win big, but the offense couldn’t adjust to a new philosophy.

Enter Gene Chizik.  An offensive guru, he isn’t.  He’s the architect of defenses that produced undefeated seasons in 2004 at Auburn and 2005 at Texas.  In three years at Iowa State, his teams compiled a 5-19 record. 

Chizik made a great hire at offensive coordinator, taking Gus Malzahn away from Tulsa.  His Tulsa offense scored 47.2 points per game and gained 570 yards per game last year.  Auburn averaged 17.3 points and 302 yards per game.  Look for immediate improvement, but don’t even think about this team averaging 30 points and 400 yards this year.

There has been a change at quarterback, where Chris Todd supplants last year’s starter Kodi Burns.  Burns is a much better runner, while Todd is a much better passer.  Todd didn’t handle former offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s spread offense.

Todd doesn’t have any stars running routes to catch his passes.  Leading returning receiver Montez Billings will miss at least four games to start the season, and it will take him a week or two to shake the cobwebs off.  Tight end Tommy Trott has the potential to be a difference maker.

Ben Tate has the potential to be a 1,000 yard rusher for the Tigers.  He gained 664 yards last year after gaining over 900 as a sophomore in 2007.  Mario Fannin is excellent compliment to Tate, and Auburn should increase their rushing numbers from 137 to 150 or more yards per game.

The offensive line has beefed up and should do a better job with four guys back who saw extensive action. 

On the defensive side, the back seven should be tough, but the front four will be short on depth.  In the secondary, cornerback Walter McFadden batted away eight passes, and free safety Zac Etheridge led the Tigers with 75 tackles.

Linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens anchor the second tier of the defense after teaming for 107 tackles in 2008. 

The defensive line will miss tackle Sen’Derrick Marks and his 10 total tackles for loss.  Ends Michael Goggans and Antonio Coleman are tough to run on, and Mike Blanc holds his position as good as any tackle.

Auburn can win six or seven games and return to a minor bowl this year, but it won’t be easy.  The opening game against Louisiana Tech could be a tough one if the Tigers come out tight on offense.  A week two game with Mississippi State could be interesting, after they won 3-2 last year.  The third game, against West Virginia, is the game that will show how well the War Eagles have improved.  Auburn needs to be at least 2-1 after that game in order to make a run to a bowl.  They need to be at least 6-4 after the Furman game, or it won’t happen.

Mississippi State:  Former Florida quarterback coach Dan Mullen takes over as coach in Starkville this year, but he couldn’t bring his QB with him.  That means, it is going to be a long year in Bulldog country. 

Tyson Lee isn’t terrible, especially if his knee is 100% healthy, but he’s a bit on the small side at 5’11.  True freshman Tyler Russell may take over before the year is out.  He’s got one really good receiver to locate in Brandon McRae, who caught 51 passes last year.  Mullen recruited eight receivers, and two or three will see significant action this year.

At running back, Anthony Dixon is capable of rushing for 1,000 yards again after doing so two years ago.  He runs downhill when he gets the ball, and rarely can one man bring him down.

 The offensive line is a problem both in talent and depth.  Two starters return, and inexperienced underclassmen will see a lot of playing time.  A lack of consistent blocking will keep Mullen’s offense from taking off in year one.

The defense is another story.  The Bulldogs gave up just 328 total yards per game last year, and were one of the best against the pass.  It should continue to impress, as Mullen hired Carl Torbush as coordinator.  Expect maybe a minor increase in yards and points given up because the new offense will add total plays to the games.

The front four welcomes three new starters, and they should give up about 150-160 rushing yards again.  The Bulldogs only recorded 19 sacks, so those numbers won’t go down much if at all.

Only one starting linebacker returns from last year, but the star from 2007, Jamar Chaney, returns after missing all of last year.  Chaney should be the leading tackler if he stays healthy.

The secondary has just one returning starter.  Marcus Washington is a decent cornerback, but this unit will be torched by a few teams.

Mullen will open his career 1-0, because the Bulldogs play Jackson State.  After that, things will head south.  Games at Auburn and Vanderbilt, followed by three consecutive home games against LSU, Georgia Tech, and Houston should leave MSU 1-5 heading to Murfreesboro, TN to face Middle Tennessee.  That game could be an embarrassing loss.  If they lose it, we think they will fold up like a tent and drop the final five games by about 150 points.  A 1-11 season would be a weak start, but give Mullen time.  He just might turn things around in Starkville.

Next up: We save our own neighborhood conference for last.  The Big Ten may not be as strong as the Big 12 and SEC this year, but we believe the competition will be much more exciting with upwards of five teams capable of winning the conference championship.

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