The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 29, 2011

2011 Southeastern Conference Preview

2011 Southeastern Conference Preview

 

This Southeastern Conference started the new age of expansion in 1991, when Arkansas and South Carolina were admitted.  The conference split into two divisions, and the first conference championship game was played in 1992 between Alabama and Florida.

 

Other conferences soon decided to follow suit.  The Western Athletic Conference actually expanded to 16 teams for a couple years.  The Southwest Conference and Big Eight Conference merged, kicking out SMU, Rice, Houston, and TCU to become the Big 12—had they gone to 16 teams, they might still be in good shape.

 

The Atlantic Coast Conference added three teams to get to 12, and the Mid-American Conference expanded to 12 and then 13.

 

Last year, the Pac-10 attempted to expand to 16, and settled on 12 for the time being, while the Big Ten added Nebraska to get to 12.

 

Now, it appears the SEC will take the initiative and become the first super league of 16.  The worst kept secret in football is the story of Texas A&M and their move to this conference, as early as next season.  The conference will not stand pat at 13 teams.  It works for the MAC in football, but Temple is not a MAC member in basketball.

 

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive has been quoted (several variations of his quote have been published) saying that he could expand to 16 teams in 15 minutes if he wanted.  We think he is on the verge of wanting.  With Texas A&M, we believe three more teams will be invited to join the league, if not for 2012, then for soon after.  Missouri and Virginia Tech are the names most often mentioned.  Those schools bring two new, heavily populated markets.

 

Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville have been mentioned, but they bring no new markets, and any expansion must generate new markets and new television revenue.

 

Who might team number 16 be?  What program could make this league be a true super league?  How about a team from Northern Indiana that is an independent?  Could Notre Dame be that 16th team—the one that bleeds ratings from the Midwest?  Or, what about Oklahoma?  Is there a way to pry the Sooners away from the Cowboys?  Oklahoma City and Tulsa are big markets.  It will be interesting.

 

2011 should be an interesting year in the nation’s toughest conference.  The SEC is shooting for six consecutive national titles, and at least two teams are capable of pulling off the feat. 

 

The West’s top four teams could all be stronger than any team in the East.  Two new coaches come to schools in the East Division.  Will Muschamp was the head coach-in-waiting at Texas, but he realized Mack Brown wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.  He became the surprise replacement at Florida.  At, Vanderbilt, for about 12 hours, it was thought that Gus Malzahn had left Auburn for the Commodores; he turned the job down when Auburn gave him a great deal.  James Franklin was hired to take over the moribund Commodore program.  He brings a Tommy Lasorda-like attitude to Nashville. 

 

EAST DIVISION

 

South Carolina

OFFENSE

Quarterback

With Steve Spurrier as your head coach, you never know for sure from one play to the next who your number one quarterback will be.  For a long time this summer, it appeared that Connor Shaw could be the opening game starter, as Stephen Garcia was under multiple suspensions. 

 

Miraculously (tongue firmly in cheek), Garcia’s suspensions were lifted just in time for him to take over as the starting quarterback in fall practice.  He comes off a season in which he led the Gamecocks to the East Division title.

 

Garcia passed for 3,059 yards and 20 touchdowns last year.  His 14 interceptions caused Spurrier to toss a few visors, and Shaw saw action in nine games when Spurrier had seen enough.  Shaw passed for 223 yards at a 70% clip, but his interception was over 6%.

 

Receivers

The best receiver in the conference and one of the top receivers in college football returns for his junior season.  Alshon Jeffrey led the league with 88 receptions and 1,517 yards, scoring nine times.  D. L. Moore did not see many balls thrown his way, and he caught just 17 passes for 164 yards.  Ace Sanders caught 25 passes for 316 yards, and we believe he will become more of a big play receiver this year.

 

Justice Cunningham is not going to remind anybody of Jared Cook, but the tight end will open holes for the other star of this team.

 

Keep an eye of D. D. Smith.  He caught just one pass as a freshman last year, but he has the potential to be a prime time player.

 

Running Backs

Carolina doesn’t just have the best receiver in the league; they have the best running back in the league as well.  Marcus Lattimore is half bruising power runner and half speedster.  As a true freshman, he rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns.  His 4.8 yard per carry average was a little lower than others, but unlike a lot of the other big yard backs, he served as the short yardage option and was called on several times to gain one or two yards at the goal line or to dive for a first down on 3rd and two.

 

Kenny Miles led the Gamecocks in rushing two years ago; he is best as an outside stretch runner.

 

Offensive Line

This unit has been the one glitch keeping the offense from performing like Spurrier’s Florida offenses.  In each of the last four seasons, the offensive lines have surrendered 30 or more sacks.

 

Center T. J. Johnson was a 2nd Team All-SEC selection last year.  None of the other four starters have all-conference potential.  Terrence Campbell and A. J. Cann will be the new starting guards, while returning starters Kyle Nunn and Rokevious Watkins are the tackles.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Defensive line coach Brad Lawing has a big problem this year, and the other 11 defensive line coaches in the league hate him for it.  His problem:  defenses cannot play 8 defensive linemen.  You see, he has one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the country if not the best.

 

Most teams are fortunate to go two-deep with little drop in talent; USC can go more than three-deep and still have a great unit on the field.  Lawler faces a difficult time trying to determine who will play and who will sit.

 

At tackle, Travian Robertson will start for sure.  He made 10 tackles for loss last year among his 42 tackles overall.  Aldrick Fordham could start beside Robertson.  Fordham is not as physically strong as other options, but he has incredible football sense, and he is quick off the ball, almost always making contact with the offensive linemen before they can carry out their assignment.  Byron Jerideau is 40 pounds bigger than Fordham, and he will be used in short yardage situations.  J. T. Surratt is sure to see action as well.

 

Now to defensive end.  The Gamecocks were already in great shape here with 1st Team All-SEC star Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram.  Taylor recorded 7 ½ sacks, 11 hurries, and 13 tackles for loss in 2010.  He also proved to be a great zone pass defender when Carolina zone blitzed, as he intercepted one pass and knocked away eight others.  Ingram led the team and finished third in the conference with nine sacks.

 

That wasn’t enough.  USC signed the top freshman defensive line recruit and another that was one of the top 20.  It will be tough to keep Jadeveon Clowney off the field.  He is the defensive equivalent of Lattimore last season.  Kelcy Quarles can play both tackle and end, and he should see a lot of time as well.  With this great plethora of talent, USC should equal or surpass last year’s 41 sack total and maybe hold teams under 100 yards rushing.

 

Linebackers

Who remembers any of the wide receivers that played for Arkansas when they had Darren McFadden, Julio Jones, and Peyton Hillis in the backfield?  One was a star in his own right (Marcus Monk).  Well, this starting trio knows the feeling.  They are not as talented as the unit in front of them, but they are really good in their own right.

 

Shaq Wilson returns to his middle linebacker spot after missing all of last year with an injury.  He was on the verge of becoming an all-conference player before missing 2010.  Rodney Paulk came back from almost two years off due to ACL injuries and had a decent year with 32 tackles and four for losses.  The sixth year senior figures to return to his 2007 level.  Antonio Allen and DeVonte Holloman will share the weak side (spur) spot.  Allen finished second on the team with 70 tackles, with 10 ½ going for losses.  Holloman started as safety last year and made 69 tackles. 

 

Secondary

This is the only suspect unit on defense.  All four starters return, but Holloman moved to linebacker.  Akeem Auguste has been sidelined with an injury to his left arch, and it is unsure when he will be able to return.

 

Stephon Gilmore returns at cornerback after leading the team with 79 tackles and three interceptions.  C. C. Whitlock will replace Auguste.  He recorded five passes defended last year.  D. J. Swearinger returns to the strong safety position after recording six passes defended, while Jimmy Legree will start at the vacant free safety spot.  As a whole, this group is somewhat below average for an SEC secondary, and the Gamecocks will give up close to 250 yards per game through the air.

 

OTHER

With the Gamecocks winning the Eastern Division title last year, it marked eight Eastern division titles for Spurrier. 

 

South Carolina has not had a losing season since 2003 and has been bowl eligible for seven consecutive seasons.  They did not go to a bowl in 2007 after the famous brawl with Clemson as season’s end.

 

SUMMARY

This team may be the fifth best team in the SEC, but we believe they are the best in the SEC East.  USC should go 4-0 out of the conference.  Their non-league opponents are East Carolina (played at Charlotte), Navy, The Citadel, and Clemson.  They get Auburn, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Florida at home and should win all four.  They face Tennessee on the road and should win that one.  We believe they must win one of the other three road games to win the East again (they won it at 5-3 last year).  They will have to beat Georgia, Mississippi State, or Arkansas, the latter two of which they will be underdogs.  It comes down to the Georgia game.  If USC wins in week two, then they should repeat as division champs.  If Georgia wins, then the Gamecocks could fall into a second place tie or even third place.

 

Florida

OFFENSE

Quarterback

John Brantley is nursing a sore back, but he should be okay to start the season.  Brantley was not well-equipped for the spread offense, and he struggled with it for most of the season last year.  Playing in a pro offense this year, he should easily top last year’s numbers of 2,061 passing yards and a TD/Int ratio of 9/10.  Coach Will Muschamp made a smart move by hiring Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator.  Brantley could pass for 3,000+ yards and challenge for the SEC East Lead.

 

Receivers

Florida saw its passing yardage drop by over 50 per game after Tim Tebow graduated.  Thus, the receivers took a hit in their totals.  Deonte Thompson returns after leading the Gators with just 38 receptions and 570 yards.  Frankie Hammond caught 22 passes for just 276 yards.  Thompson and Hammond combined for just three touchdown receptions.

 

Quinton Dunbar could be the missing link in the chain.  He has world-class sprinter’s speed, and he will put a strain on opposing defensive backs.

 

Tight end/H-back Jordan Reed was used more as a runner than as a receiver last year, but with Weis calling the plays, expect him to become more active as a passing target.

 

Running Backs

Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey are the speedsters, while Trey Burton is the power back.  All three will see a lot of time in the backfield.  Demps rushed for a team-leading 551 yards, averaging six yards per carry.  Rainey, a back/receiver slash-type player, rushed for 366 yards at more than seven per attempt and caught 25 passes.  Burton rushed for 349 yards and scored 11 touchdowns.  While not the best running attack in the league, the Gators will get the job done on the ground against most defenses.

 

Offensive Line

UF has a major rebuilding job here, and if the four new starters cannot deliver the goods, then Brantley and the backs will not be able to reach the lofty heights they are capable of reaching.

 

The lone returning starter is tackle Xavier Nixon, and he is not going to earn a 1st or 2nd Team All-SEC award.  Redshirt freshman Chaz Green starts at the opposite tackle spot.  Sophomores Ian Silberman and Jon Halapio will be the new full-time starting guards, although they combined for 11 starts last year. Sophomore Jonotthan Harrison will start at center.  He started the Outback Bowl game against Penn State.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Tackle Dominique Easley almost left Gainesville last year as a true freshman.  He made just four tackles.  He stayed, and he may be the best player on the line and the reason the Gators hold opponents under 120 rushing yards per game this year.

 

Sharif Floyd will man the nose tackle position.  He made 23 tackles, but eight of those were behind the line of scrimmage.

 

Ronald Powell and William Green will be the new starters at the end positions.  They are a little better against the run than the pass, but the Gators only sacked enemy QBs 21 times last year.  This group can surpass that amount, especially with more blitzing from the unit behind them.

 

Linebackers

This has the potential to be the best unit in the SEC East.  Jonathan Bostic returns to his middle linebacker spot after finishing with 57 tackles and six passes defended.  Jelani Jenkins has cornerback speed on a linebacker frame.  He made 76 tackles last year.  Gerald Christian was a tight end before being sent to this side of the ball.  He has exceptional lateral quickness and will be a plus on this side of the ball. 

 

Secondary

There are no outstanding defensive backfields in the SEC East, so when we call this an average secondary for this league, it means that the quartet at UF is on par with the other contenders in the division.

 

Only one full-time starter returns to this unit—cornerback Jeremy Brown.  He has been nursing a sore knee the last few days but he should be okay for the opening game.  Brown successfully defended eight passes with three interceptions.  Cody Riggs gets the nod at the other corner after making 18 tackles and starting three games last year.  The two safeties have limited experience.  Matt Elam and Josh Evans registered a combined 36 tackles but just one interception.  Tim Clark will be the nickel back; he saw action in two games last year.

 

OTHER

Muschamp has loads of SEC experience.  He was the defensive coordinator at Auburn for two years, and the Tigers were stingy both years, giving up less than 300 total yards per game.  He was the DC at LSU for three years, and those three teams gave up 18, 11, and 17 points per game (the 2003 team won the national title and held 12 of 14 teams to 14 points or less).

 

Weis’s Notre Dame teams averaged 28 points per game.  Florida’s offenses have topped that mark every year since 2002 and only once since 1992.

 

SUMMARY

We have a split of opinion here at PiRate central.  Some of us believe the Gators will surprise and take back the East Division crown they have won so many times, while some of us believe they will have a hard time matching last year’s 8-5 record.

 

The non-conference slate includes home games with Florida Atlantic, UAB, Furman, and Florida State.  The Gators are looking at 3-1 in these games. 

 

UF gets Tennessee, Alabama, and Vanderbilt at home, with Georgia as usual at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.  They should go 2-2 in these games, but they could go 3-1.

 

The Gators face Kentucky, LSU, Auburn, and South Carolina on the road, and they should win two of those games, but could win three.

 

If our math is correct, it adds up to 7-5 at the least and 9-3 at the best.  The 9-3 record would more than likely earn the Gators a share or an outright division title.

 

Georgia

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Aaron Murray has the potential to be a major star in another year or two.  Until then, Georgia fans will have to settle for an inconsistent star who looks like Tom Brady against New Mexico State, Coastal Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, but looks merely above-average against Boise State, South Carolina, and Mississippi State.

 

As a freshman, Murray passed for 3,049 yards and 24 touchdowns, completing 61% of his passes.  He averaged an eye-popping 8.9 yards per attempt, and he topped 10 yards per attempt in back-to-back games with Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

 

Receivers

The Bulldogs lost their top two receivers from last year.  A. J. Green was a 1st Round NFL Draft choice, while Kris Durham went three rounds later.  They have some exceptional talent returning, but there will be a drop in the talent level here.

 

This year’s prime target will be Tavarres King, who caught 27 passes last year.  He averaged almost 19 yards per catch, so he will require combo coverage.  Marlon Brown has emerged as a starter for this season.  He saw limited action last year and caught 11 passes.

 

Tight end Orson Charles could move onto the Mackey watch list this year.  He averaged more than 16 yards per reception with his 26 catches.

 

Running Backs

Georgia is thin here due to the loss of several players plus injuries to others.  This unit will reach deep down the depth chart to come up with a player for the opener against Boise State.

 

Washaun Ealey and Caleb King figured to be the two primary ball carriers this year, but Ealey left the team and King failed to stay academically eligible.  Carlton Thomas is suspended for the opener and maybe more than that.  Richard Samuel, a former linebacker, moved back to offense and was elevated to first team; he promptly suffered a thigh injury that places his status for the beginning of the season in jeopardy.  True freshman Isaiah Crowell appeared to be up to the challenge of starting, and then he suffered a groin injury and became a non-contact participant in practice.  That leaves redshirt freshman Ken Malcome as the starter of the week. 

 

Fullback Bruce Figgins was a tight end, and he has a good pair of hands to catch passes out of the backfield.    

 

Offensive Line

Only two starters return to this unit, and even though both were named to an all-conference team, this unit is only average.  Ben Jones starts at center after earning 2nd team all-conference honors.  Tackle Cordy Glenn made the 3rd team.  Former starter Justin Anderson will start at the opposite tackle after switching back and forth from the defense.  The new guards will be sophomores Chris Burnette and Kenarious Gates.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Georgia’s defense squashed the weaker teams on their schedule (Louisiana, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Idaho State, and Central Florida), giving up just 48.8 rushing yards per game in those contests, while the other eight opponents averaged 208.8 rushing yards per game.

 

The Bulldogs’ 3-4 defense return two starters on this side of the ball.  Ends Abry Jones and DeAngelo Tyson, last year’s nose tackle, combined for 70 tackles and 10 ½ tackles for loss.  Unfortunately, they only made 1 ½ sacks.  Nose tackle Kwame Geathers has the size (6-06/344) to plug the A-gaps on both sides of the ball.

 

Linebackers

The Bulldogs suffered heavy losses at this position.  Justin Houston made over 40% of the team’s sacks, finishing second in the league in tackles for loss.  Akeem Dent was the ‘Dogs leading tackler and number two in the league.

 

Christian Robinson made 46 tackles with six for loss.  He is the most experienced returnee.  Alex Ogletree will start opposite Robinson on the inside.  He made 34 tackles while playing as a backup safety last year.

 

Cornelius Washington and Jarvis Jones man the outside spots.  Washington was a former defensive lineman and will be an excellent run stopper.  Jones will be a better pass defender.

 

Secondary

Georgia has four experienced starters returning to this unit, and their secondary is the best in this division.  Cornerbacks Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith both had six passes defended.  Safety Sanders Commings intercepted three passes last year.  Bacarri Rambo finished second last year with 82 tackles and intercepted three passes, but his starting strong safety job is not secure.  Shawn Williams has been getting the first team reps in practice.

 

OTHER

Coach Mark Richt is the one SEC coach on a hot seat.  His career record is 96-34 or about 74% winning percentage.  Legendary coach Vince Dooley won 72% of his games as Georgia’s coach.  Legendary coach Wally Butts won 62% of his games at Georgia.

 

SUMMARY

The non-conference schedule features two pushovers, a preseason top five team, and the Bulldogs’ arch-rival.  Georgia’s opening game with Boise State in Atlanta will show the Bulldogs if they are going to return to glory, be a good but not great team, or remain an average to below average team.  Coastal Carolina and New Mexico State should be 40 to 50-point wins.  The season finale at Georgia Tech is always tough, but the red and black have dominated the series in recent years.

 

UGA hosts South Carolina on September 10, and the SEC East race could be decided that day.  If the Bulldogs lose and start 0-2, the fanatics will be calling for his head.

 

Georgia also hosts Mississippi State, Auburn, and Kentucky, while facing Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt on the road and Florida in Jacksonville.  It is a tough conference schedule that could find the Bulldogs finishing anywhere from 3-5 to 6-2.  We believe they will go 5-3 or maybe 4-4, and they will be bowl eligible again.  Whether or not that will save Richt’s job, we do not know.  However, we advise Georgia fans to look at New Mexico to see what can happen when you fire a coach with a good record.

 

Tennessee

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Tyler Bray started the final five games last year and passed for 1,849 yards with 18 touchdowns for the season.  He completed just under 56% of his passes, but he tended to throw deep a lot more than a normal quarterback.  He averaged 8.3 yards per attempt.  He could be called “the mad bomber,” as he may have the strongest arm in the league.

 

Matt Simms started the first eight games and completed 58% of his passes for 1,460 yards with a TD/Int ratio of 8/5. 

 

Receivers

Tennessee has a long history of excellent receivers with numerous Volunteers going on to play for pay (Carl Pickens, Peerless Price, Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, Dante Stallworth, and many others).  The next person in that line might be Justin Hunter.   Hunter caught only 16 passes last year; he scored touchdowns on seven of those 16 passes, averaging 26 yards per catch!

 

Da’Rick Rogers was a highly sought after high school recruit, and he will get a chance to showcase his skills this year after catching 11 passes.  He averaged more than 15 yards per reception.

 

Zach Rogers will be the third wide receiver once he heels from an arm injury.  Until then, freshmen DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas could see action early.  Mychal Rivera should surpass his totals of last year (11 receptions/112 yards). 

 

Look for the Volunteers to top 250 passing yards again this season.

 

Running Backs

Coach Derek Dooley welcomes the return of his top two backs from 2010, but backup Rajion Neal will miss the start of the season with a knee injury.  Tauren Poole rushed for 1,034 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging more than five yards per carry.  With the big play receivers stretching the field, Poole should find a lot of holes to run through this year.

 

Channing Fugate will see more action at fullback this year.  He could even see a few carries.  Freshman Marlin Lane will see some action behind Poole.

 

Offensive Line

The Vols have a decent but not great offensive line, led by center James Stone.  He was a Freshman All-American last year.  Guards Zach Fulton and Alex Bullard are big and mobile, but neither is a seasoned veteran.  Bullard played at Notre Dame as a freshman.  Dallas Thomas and Ja’Wuan James return at tackle.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

There is talent in this unit, but there is not enough depth for the SEC.  Daniel Hood and Malik Jackson are set at tackle.  Hood played on the other side of the ball last year.  Jackson, a former Southern Cal lineman, starred in his first year in the SEC, picking up 48 tackles with five sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and five passes defended.  He saw about one third of his time at end.

 

Ben Martin and Jacques Smith will be the new starting ends.  Martin missed all of last season with an Achilles injury, and if he can return to his 2009 form, he has a chance to make the all-conference team and become an NFL Draft choice.

 

Linebackers

A school that once produced as many great linebackers as Penn State finds this unit the biggest weakness on the team this year.  The only returning starter to this unit, Herman Lathers, fractured his ankle over the summer, and he will miss a good part of the season. 

 

The three new starters will be Austin Johnson in the middle and true freshmen Curt Maggitt and A. J. Johnson on the outside.  This is the weakest linebacker trio in the SEC East. 

 

Secondary

This secondary would have been the best in the division, but it just lost its best player.  Janzen Jackson was booted from the team with less than two weeks to go until the season opener.

 

Brent Brewer will replace Jackson at safety.  He saw considerable action in 2010 as a freshman reserve, making 30 tackles and knocking the ball loose from a receiver three times.  However, he is not Janzen Jackson.  Prentiss Waggner successfully defended nine passes and made 57 tackles.

 

Eric Gordon and Marsalis Teague are decent cornerbacks, but neither will make an all-conference team.  The duo teamed for 11 passes defended but only two interceptions.  True Freshman Justin Coleman is coming on strong in August practices, and there is a chance he could replace Gordon in the starting lineup.

 

OTHER

Tennessee has finished with losing records two of the last three seasons.  That had not happened since 1962 and 1964.  How long has it been since they endured three losing seasons in four years?  Try 1909-1910-1911.

 

This is a team dominated by freshmen and sophomores.  In another year or so, the Volunteers could be competing for a division championship.

 

SUMMARY

The Vols have a good chance of going 4-0 outside the conference.  Their four non-league games are against Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Middle Tennessee.    Since they have beaten Kentucky 30 straight times and Vanderbilt 41 times out of the last 45 (with one tie).  So, another bowl eligible season is virtually assured.  They host Georgia, LSU, and South Carolina, and it will be tough to win any of these games.  However, the Gamecocks never seem to play well at Neyland Stadium, so don’t rule out a possible upset here.  Florida, Alabama, and Arkansas are road contests, and we expect three losses here.

 

Kentucky

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Morgan Newton came to Lexington with a lot of hype, and the fans clamored for him to play more the last two seasons.  He could not beat out Mike Hartline last year, and he completed just 25 passes for 265 yards with no touchdowns; 21 of those completions came in a losing effort in the BVAA Compass Bowl against Pitt.  Now, the job is his.  Newton’s backup will be one of two true freshmen.  This unit is not up to the standards of an SEC bowl team—yet.

 

Receivers

Randall Cobb cannot be replaced.  The do-it-all star topped 1,000 yards receiving and caught 84 passes.  He averaged almost eight yards per carry running the ball and threw three touchdown passes in just 10 attempts.  Chris Matthews is gone as well, and he finished second on the squad with 61 receptions and 925 yards.

 

La’Rod King is the leading returnee after catching 36 passes with five touchdowns.  Matt Roark nabbed just a dozen balls for 170 yards.  Tight end Jordan Aumiller caught 18 passes. 

 

The Wildcats recruited exceptionally well at this position, but it will not bare fruit this season.  Daryl Collins was working his way into becoming a key contributor, but he dislocated a kneecap and is lost for the season. 

 

Aaron Boyd and E. J. Fields will have to step up for this unit to come close to matching last season’s efforts.  We believe UK will see a dramatic drop in pass yardage this year, maybe by more than 50 yards per game.

 

Running Backs

The Wildcats lose their top rusher as well.  Derrick Locke was not his usual self last year in an injury-filled season, but he rushed for 887 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Backup Donald Russell transferred.

 

Projected starter Raymond Sanders underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee and may not be 100% at the start of the season.  CoShik Williams is the only other back on the roster with playing experience.  Sophomore Jonathan George saw very limited action, while true freshman Josh Clemons will get some carries as well.  This unit will take a considerable drop back as well.

 

Offensive Line

This is the only unit with a lot of returning experience, and it may be a little less experienced at the start of the season.  Guard Stuart Hines, with two years’ starting experience, may miss the opening game or two due to a sprained knee.  Sophomore Kevin Mitchell played in nine games as a reserve last year and will replace Hines.  Larry Warford returns to the other side after earning a spot on the 2nd team all-conference squad.

 

Matt Smith has a year and a half of starting experience at center, while tackle Chandler Burden begins his second season as a starter on the offensive line after beginning his career on the other side of the ball.  Billy Joe Murphy will start at the other tackle spot.

 

This unit will give the newcomers at the skill positions a chance to develop and emerge as effective gainers.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Coach Joker Phillips is all smiles on this side of the line, as Kentucky will be much improved this season.  Every position has an experienced player with multiple starts in his past.

 

End Collins Ukwu doesn’t begin the season on anybody’s all-conference watch list, but the media may have to reevaluate their selections by November.  Ukwu teams with Taylor Wyndham, and we expect this duo to team for 10 sacks or more this year.  The ‘Cats got to enemy quarterbacks just 21 times last year, and co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter will send more rushers this year with an experienced secondary able to cover when the quick passes.

 

Donte Rumph and Luke McDermott will start at tackle after seeing part-time starting duties last year.  UK gave up 177 rushing yards per game last year, including more than 300 to Cam Newton and Auburn.  We expect that number to drop under 150 for two reasons:  first, the line is going to be better, and second Cam Newton and Auburn are no longer on the schedule.

 

Linebackers

This should be the best unit on the defense.  Former end Ridge Wilson has been moved here, and he will be able to better take advantage of his quickness.  Wilson made just 30 tackles at end, but he should top 75 at linebacker.  Danny Trevathan and Ronnie Sneed finished first and third in tackles with 144 and 61 respectively.  Trevathan was a member of the 1st Team All-SEC squad after he registered 16 tackles for losses.

 

Secondary

This unit returns four starters from last year, but one of them will be demoted to the 5th back.  The reason Mychal Bailey moves from safety to nickel is the moving of linebacker Winston Guy to the secondary.  He will delve out some punishment to any receivers coming into his zone.  Guy made 106 tackles last year with three interceptions and five passes defended.

 

Joining Guy in the secondary are cornerbacks Randall Burden and Anthony Mosely and safety Martavius Neloms.  Burden and Mosely teamed for 13 passed defended. 

 

This unit will be better, but how much better will determine how much Kentucky will move forward in total defense.

 

OTHER

Kentucky finished 6-6 in the regular season, but they could have been 10-2 if they had been able to do a lot of the little things that win games.  The Wildcats outgained Ole Miss by more than 100 yards, Georgia by more than 130 yards, and Mississippi State by 22 yards and lost all three games.  They had numerous opportunities to stop Auburn on a final touchdown drive, and each time the ball literally did not bounce their way.  A fumble that was headed to multiple Kentucky players took a weird roll and went out of bounds.  Kentucky lost by three.  Kentucky did upset division champ South Carolina.  If the ‘Cats had won the other four games, they would have been East Division champs.

 

SUMMARY

In the recent five year string of bowl games, Kentucky mostly relied on outscoring opponents to win six or seven regular season games.  This year, their defense will have to dominate six or seven opponents in order to make it six years in a row.

 

On the surface, it looks like UK can win at least three of their four out-of-conference games with a chance to go 4-0 for the fifth year in a row.  However, three of the four teams can be considered trap games.  The Wildcats open with in-state rival Western Kentucky in a game that will be played at LP Field in Nashville and count as a home game for WKU.  After facing Central Michigan at Commonwealth Stadium, the get a visit from rival Louisville.  Their homecoming game in October comes against Jacksonville State, the team that defeated Ole Miss last year.

 

In conference play, UK hosts Florida, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Tennessee.  They could win all four, and they could lose all four.  They go on the road to face LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Georgia.  Only the Vanderbilt game is winnable.  They must defeat at least two of their SEC opponents at Commonwealth Stadium to have any chance of earning a winning season.  If the offense bogs down and scores less than 24 points per game, then they could come up a game short of bowl eligibility.

 

Vanderbilt

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Since Jay Cutler left in 2005, the Commodores have been suffering at this position.  They are the only FBS team that has completed less than 50% of their passes for three consecutive years.  Larry Smith returns for his senior season, but he averaged barely more than five yards per pass attempt last year and threw just six touchdown passes.

 

Backing Smith up are two untested players.  Jordan Rodgers, brother of Packer great Aaron, has dealt with shoulder and back injuries and has not gotten into a groove.  True freshman Josh Grady may eventually inherit the job this season if Smith cannot get the offense going.  Of course, he has had to run for his life the last two years as a lack of quality receivers and poor pass protection has made his job impossible.  Vandy quarterbacks were dropped 36 times last year.

 

This is the weakest QB unit in the SEC.  After averaging just 159 yards through the air (less than 140 when sack yardage is figured), the passing game has nowhere to go but up, but don’t expect it to approach 200 yards per game.  Actually, the 159 passing yards represented a three-year high, and the trend is pointing upward—just not upward enough to make it an asset.

 

Receivers

It is hard to tell if this unit has underperformed with a lack of quality players or if poor quarterback play has kept the players from becoming stars.  It is a little bit of both.  The Commodores were the only SEC team without a 500-yard receiver.

 

Tight end Branden Barden led the team in receptions last year, many times catching passes as a safety valve.  He finished with 34 receptions for 425 yards.  Wideouts John Cole, Jonathan Krause, and Udom Umoh teamed for 61 receptions and 754 yards (only three touchdowns).  Sophomore Jordan Matthews will probably supplant one of those three, probably Umoh.  He cracked the starting lineup at the end of last season.  He caught 15 passes as a freshman last year, and at 6-03, he provides a big target.  Former back Wesley Tate moves to this unit this year.  His brother Golden was an All-American receiver at Notre Dame.  Redshirt freshman Chris Boyd will get playing time this year.

 

There is enough talent here to improve the yardage gained if the quarterbacks can get the ball to them.  New Coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan are West Coast Offense gurus, and we see the passing game picking up a little steam this year.  We look for an increase from 159 to more than 175 yards per game.

 

Running Backs

The Commodores have a lot of depth here, but they averaged just 139 rushing yards last year (but more than 150 with sacks factored out).  For a few days last year when the coaching search was ongoing, it was reported that either Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo or offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper was about to be hired and institute the triple option.  Vandy would have had enough backs to make this offense go.

 

Instead, they will have excellent depth and be able to rotate three good runners into the offense.  Warren Norman and Zac Stacy have shared starting duties for two seasons, and it looks like Stacy will begin the season as the starter.  The duo rushed for 790 yards and seven scores in 2010, while averaging 5.5 yards per attempt.  True freshman Jerron Seymour will get some playing time.  The diminutive back has the ability to make defenders miss, but he will need some daylight to get to the outside and break free.

 

Franklin brings the fullback position back to the offense, and Fritz Lassing will start here.  He should give Stacy, Norman, and Seymour a chance to be more consistent, and he will be a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield, as the new West Coast Offense will throw a lot of passes to the backs.

 

Offensive Line

Franklin has done some shuffling here.  All the main contributors return from last year, but not all will be in their 2010 locations.  The big change will come at center.  Former tackle Wesley Johnson has moved there due to an injury to former starting center Logan Stewart.  Johnson proved to be a better center and will move there permanently.  Former guard Kyle Fischer moves to replace Johnson at tackle.  Mylon Brown will move in to fill Fischer’s guars spot, joining Jabo Burrow there.  Ryan Seymour stayed put and did not play musical chairs.  He will start at tackle.  A pair of true freshmen, Jake Bernstein and Spencer Pulley could move onto the two-deep before the season ends.

 

The Commodore line surrendered a dozen more sacks last year than the year before.  The rushing average went down from 4.3 to 4.0.  Just improving back to 2009 numbers will give the offense a chance to top 21 points per game for the first time since 2007.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

When Vanderbilt made a surprise run to a bowl game in 2008 and the year before when they almost pulled off the trick, it was exceptional defenses that got the job done.  Those two teams held opponents to 128 and 145 yards rushing and registered 30 sacks both years.  Last year, the Commodores gave up close to 200 yards rushing and made just 20 sacks.

 

Two full-time starters and one part-time starter return to the trenches, but overall, this is a very weak front four for an SEC team.  Tackles Rob Lohr and T. J. Greenstone teamed for 63 tackles last year.  Lohr led the ‘Dores with four sacks and tied for the lead with eight tackles for loss.

 

Tim Fugger returns to one end spot, but he made just 22 tackles with three sacks and five tackles for loss.  Walker May takes over for the departed John Stokes at the other end.  As a key reserve last year, he picked up 29 tackles with 4 ½ for losses.  Redshirt freshman Kyle Woestmann should see significant action.

 

Linebackers

How is this for an anomaly?  Vanderbilt may have the best linebacker in the league, yet the worst linebacker unit in the league.  Can it be?  Well, maybe not exactly, but only because they may only have the third or fourth best linebacker in the league.

 

That linebacker is senior Chris Marve.  He earned 2nd Team All-SEC honors last year after making 80 tackles with eight going for losses.  Many times, he made tackles with more than one opponent attempting to block him out of the way.  Marve will have two new starters flanking him this season.  Archibald Barnes and Tristan Strong will platoon at one spot, while Chase Garnham starts at the other outside spot.  This unit will take its lumps this season, and it will give up some big plays.

 

Secondary

This is the best unit on the team, but it is still one of the weaker defensive backfields in the conference.  Senior Casey Hayward may be the best NFL prospect on the team.  The cornerback is a legitimate All-American candidate.  Last year, he led the SEC with 17 passes defended and finished second with six interceptions.  He did this even though opponents began treating him like NFL quarterbacks handled Nnamdi Asomugha—they threw to the other side.

 

Eddie Foster proved to be a better supporter against outside running plays than a pass defender.  He made 53 tackles with six going for losses, while intercepting just one pass and knocking away three others.

 

As we have stated in prior conference previews, it is a bad sign when your strong safety leads your team in tackles.  That is what happened with Vanderbilt last year, as Sean Richardson made 98 stops.  Seven of those went for losses, but a majority of the other 91 were tackles of last resort.  Too many of those stops preceded the referee signaling for a first down.  Joining Richardson at safety is Kenny Ladler, who made 57 tackles.  Eric Samuels returns as the nickel back.

 

OTHER

As we mentioned in the introduction above, Franklin is the football coaching equivalent of Tommy Lasorda.  He may create enough confidence in his players to win an extra game that a more subdued coach would not.

 

Lasorda won eight NL West Titles, for National League pennants, and two World Series titles.  However, he had some talent when he won those games (Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Ron Cey, Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith, and the perennial best pitching staff in the National League), and he inherited the job of the best franchise in the National League.  He also lost 99 games one year when he had to rely on an offense that hit under .250 with no power and with a defense that was average.

 

Franklin faces the same situation.  He cannot turn the league’s 12th best talent into a middle of the pack finish.  He is not inheriting Vanderbilt’s equivalent of Garvey, Lopes, Russell, Cey, Baker, and Smith.  He is inheriting a team with an offense that has averaged a meager 285 yards per game for three years. 

 

SUMMARY

The Commodores will have a chance to defeat any of their four non-conference opponents, but they could be underdogs in three of those games.  An opener against rebuilding FCS team Elon is the only sure win for the entire season.  Vanderbilt hosts a rebuilding Connecticut team in week two, and if Franklin is going to create a big stir, he will have to find a way to pull off the upset.  A home game with Army is not going to be an easy win, as Army may be the better team.  The Black Knights option offense is not easy to prepare for, and it comes sandwiched between Georgia and Arkansas.  The big factor though is the Army double-eagle flex defense, which Vanderbilt could not handle in 2009.  The season finale at Wake Forest could be a tossup game, but The Deacons have dominated this series since it became the final game of the season.

 

In conference play, Vandy hosts Ole Miss, Georgia, Arkansas, and Kentucky.  They will be underdogs in all four and will have a tough time winning any of these games.  Away from Nashville, the Commodores face South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee, and they will be lucky to lose by less than double digits in any of these games.

 

The best case scenario for this team is to eke out victories over UConn, Army, and Wake Forest, and to beat Elon by 30.  Then, they can hope for upsets over Ole Miss and Kentucky to get to 6-6.  However, it is more believable to see this team beat Elon by 10-17 points and then lose 11 in a row.  We’ll find a happy medium and pick them to win three or four games.   

 

WEST DIVISION

 

Alabama

OFFENSE

Quarterback

It isn’t often that a team can have one of the weakest quarterback contingents in their conference, yet be the prohibitive favorite to win that conference and maybe win the National Championship.  But, that is exactly what we have here with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.

 

Greg McElroy was supposedly just an adequate passer when he guided ‘Bama to the 2009 national title.  He proved to be adequate enough to become a 7th Round NFL Draft selection last year.

 

A. J. McCarron is now the “adequate” starting quarterback.  Backup Phillip Sims could be so adequate that he was merely the top high school passer two years ago.  These two guys are so adequate, they might combine to pass for 250 or more yards per game and lead the SEC in lowest interception percentage.

 

It was said that former Alabama quarterback Bart Starr was the least talented player on the Green Bay Packers’ starting offense.  He was only adequate enough to earn five championship rings in a period of seven seasons.

 

Receivers

The Tide loses one of 2010’s best receivers in the SEC, as Julio Jones is now Matt Ryan’s favorite new weapon in Atlanta.  Jones caught 78 passes and gained 1,133 yards.

 

There is a bit of a concern here, as three players expected to be key contributors this year may not get to play due to academic and eligibility issues.  Darius Hanks has the potential to be a big play receiver like Jones, but he will be ineligible for the first two games due to his playing one game during a redshirt season as a true freshman.

 

Duron Carter is a junior college transfer who originally began his college career at Ohio State.  There has been a snafu with his transcript, and he has yet to suit up in Tuscaloosa and may not play this year.

 

True freshman Danny Woodson has not been able to practice either, as there is a question with his transcript as well.

 

Alabama still has some talent here, but there is no room for injuries, as there is very little depth.  Marquis Maze finished second on the team with 38 catches, and he averaged 14.7 yards per reception.  Tight end Michael Williams will be called on to contribute more after finishing 2010 with just eight receptions and 100 yards.  At 6-06 and 269 pounds, he only needs to take two steps and turn around to become a viable target to catch a pass and gain a quick 10 yards.  H-Back Brad Smelley might catch more passes in his senior season than his first three years combined.

 

Running Backs

It isn’t often a team can lose a former Heisman Trophy winner and return a backup that could earn a Heisman Trophy himself.  It has happened before, and it could happen again.  With Mark Ingram now a New Orleans Saint, Trent Richardson becomes the main guy.  He rushed for 700 yards and six touchdowns last year, while averaging more than six yards per carry.  He may be an even better pass-catcher.  He caught 23 passes last year and scored four times.

 

Eddie Lacy had a problem with fumbles early last year and saw limited action, but he averaged more than seven yards per carry and proved to be a great breakaway threat.  He saved his best for last in the pasting of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl.  He has been nursing an arm injury, so Jalston Fowler has been getting a lot of reps as the backup.

 

As long as Richardson stays healthy, this unit will be as good as South Carolina’s.  Expect 200+ rushing yards per game this year.

 

Offensive Line

Alabama is a power because Saban knows where most games are won or lost—in the trenches.  Simply put, Alabama has no equal in the conference with this unit, and they are either the best in the nation or a close second to Oklahoma State.

 

It would come as no surprise if this unit produces two All-Americans this year.  Left tackle Barrett Jones was a 3rd Team All-American selection last year as a guard.  He could become the best offensive lineman in college football at his new position.  His counterpart on the right side, D. J. Fluker, should make one of the all-conference teams this year as a sophomore.  Center William Vlachos is an All-American Candidate, while guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen are merely very good.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The Tide loses a 3rd Team All-American and 1st Round Draft choice in Marcell Dareus, but they are still the best by far in the SEC West here and on equal footing with South Carolina for the overall best unit.

 

The three-man line is anchored by nose tackle Josh Chapman.  He made 31 tackles with 3 ½ going for losses, but more importantly he plugged the middle like the Hoover Dam.  End Damion Square was a part-time starter last year and made 27 tackles with three sacks and seven tackles for loss.  Juco transfer Quinton Dial inherits the vacant end position. ‘Bama is stocked with quality depth here and will use their second three quite a bit.  After giving up 110 rushing yards per game and sacking QBs 27 times, look for the Tide to improve to something close to their championship numbers of 2009—78 yards per game and 32 sacks.

 

Linebackers

Ditto what we said about the D-line.  This is the best quartet of linebackers in the league and in the nation.  Dont’a Hightower recorded 69 tackles with 3 ½ going for losses.  His numbers were hurt a bit by the fact that Saban uses his second team a lot to keep his starters strong and to produce depth.

 

Courtney Upshaw led the Tide with seven sacks and 14 ½ tackles for loss.  Nico Johnson made 33 tackles, while C. J. Mosley added 67.  Mosley was a terror covering the short flat and hook zones.  He finished 2010 with 12 passes defended.

 

Secondary

It is monotonous, but yes, Alabama has the best secondary in the league and just possibly the best in the nation too.

 

Once again, two players could make the All-American squad.  There is no mistake about the safeties; Mark Barron and Robert Lester may be the best college tandem in years.  Now, Barron did lead the team in tackles as a strong safety, which is normally bad.  However, he led because Alabama used a lot of linebackers.  Hightower would have had over 100 tackles had he played all the snaps.

 

Lester led the SEC with eight interceptions and finished tied for second (with Mosley) with 12 passes defended.

 

Cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Millner combined for 108 tackles with 18 passes defended.  Both also made four tackles for loss.

 

Alabama gave up 176 passing yards per game last year, and the secondary will be better this year.  However, they could give up more passing yardage for two reasons.  First, opponents will have a tough time moving the ball on the ground and will face several additional passing downs.  Secondly, Alabama will be so far ahead of opponents in many games, they will be forced to pass the ball a lot more.  Instead of defending 28 passes per game, they will have to defend 35. 

 

OTHER

Two years ago, Alabama won the national title with a team that outscored opponents 32-12.  Even though they lost three games and could have lost another, they outscored opponents by 22 points per game.  We expect the Tide to outscore opponents by even more this year.  This should be Saban’s best college team ever, better than his national championship squad two years ago and better than his national title team at LSU.  It would not surprise us if Alabama won 14 games by an average of more than 30 points per game this year.

 

SUMMARY

What is there to say about this squad that we have not already implied?  Alabama should consider anything short of a 14-0 season as a disappointment.  We have not seen this much talent on one team since Miami won the national title in 2001.

 

The Schedule has a couple bumps in the road, but we feel as if Alabama will smooth out all the bumps.  The non-conference slate includes a trip to Happy Valley to play Joe Pa’s Nittany Lions, as well as home slaughters over Kent State, North Texas, and Georgia Southern.  ‘Bama hosts Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and LSU.  Arkansas will be missing a key piece to their offense, while LSU could be missing more than one.  We expect four wins here.  On the road, Alabama faces Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Auburn.  Florida and Mississippi State could get up and make it a close game, but Alabama has too much talent on defense and just enough talent on offense to wear teams down. 

 

L S U

Note: The PiRate Rating for LSU was finalized prior to the bar brawl that brought about the arrest of quarterback Jordan Jefferson and the suspension of key receiver Russell Shepard for discussing an ongoing NCAA probe with a teammate—a violation of NCAA rules.

 

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Jordan Jefferson was primed to enjoy a great senior season and help LSU contend for high national honors.  Instead of using his arm to fire passes, he stupidly used his leg to kick a bar patron when the man was on the ground and defenseless.  He was arrested for second degree battery, and the charges could increase.  We do not see him playing football this year.

 

Jarrett Lee may have a more accurate arm, but he cannot move the team the way Jefferson could.  His arm strength is not there, and opponents know they can cheat up a little in their coverage.  When he started in 2009, he threw soft on several passes, and it cost him, as opponents returned seven interceptions for touchdowns.  It will cost LSU against better teams (like Oregon perhaps).

 

Lee completed almost 61% of his passes last year, but he averaged just 10.6 yards per completed pass, 1.4 yards less than Jefferson.

 

Receivers

With Shepard unavailable for at least the start of the season and without Jefferson at QB, the declawed Tigers will suffer greatly in the passing game.  Defenses will be able to concentrate on shutting down Rueben Randle, the one legitimate deep ball threat.  Randle averaged 16.5 yards on his 33 receptions last year.  True freshman Odell Beckham will replace Shepard.

 

Kadron Boone saw brief action as a freshman, but he looks to start at one of the wideout positions.  Jarvis Landry is coming off a fractured foot suffered this summer, but he may have to see extended action early in the season.  LSU will very thin at this position if Landry isn’t able to go full speed.

 

Deangelo Peterson will start at tight end.  He grabbed 16 passes a year ago and could become much more involved in the passing game this season.

 

LSU posted just nine touchdown passes, which was the lowest amount in the league.  It may be difficult to top that low number this year.

 

Running Backs

The Bayou Bengals lose their top rusher, and they will not have Shepard available to take handoffs and run to daylight for at least the first part of the season.  Jefferson was the second leading rusher, and Lee has no running ability, so LSU’s rushing game will suffer almost as much as the passing game.

 

Spencer Ware rushed for 175 yards as a freshman last year, and he will be called on to carry the ball as much as 20-25 times per game this year.  Michael Ford was the main backup last year, but he has fallen down the depth chart in favor of true freshman Terrance Magee and sophomores Alfred Blue and Jakhari Gore.

 

Offensive Line

This could be LSU’s saving grace.  The blocking corps is solid.  The strength of the unit is at guard where returning starter Josh Dworaczyk is beginning his third season as a regular and Will Blackwell is an experienced reserve with some starting experience.  Tackle Alex Hurst started 10 times last year, while Chris Faulk started twice at tackle and saw considerable action.  Center P. J. Lonergan returns after starting every game last year.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The Tigers have held opponents under 20 points per game for eight of the last nine years.  They have been among the nation’s leaders in total yards allowed for most of those years.  If they are to have any chance to compete for a BCS bowl game this year, the Tigers’ defense is going to have to hold opponents under 17 points and 300 total yards per game.

 

When the defense gave up 137 rushing yards per game and allowed 3.7 yards per rush, it marked the most given up in the Led Miles coaching era.  They must replace two NFL Draft selections this year, so it may be hard improving on those numbers, especially if the offense cannot maintain possession of the ball.

 

Ends Kendrick Adams and Sam Montgomery combined for 15 starts with 45 tackles last year.  One third of Montgomery’s stops went for lost yardage.  Tackles Michael Brockers and Anthony Johnson have potential, but they are inexperienced.

 

Linebackers

This unit loses its top player and the team’s leading tackler in Kelvin Sheppard, another NFL Draft choice.  Ryan Baker and Stefoin Francois return to their starting spots after combining for 124 tackles.  Karnell Hatcher finished third on the team with 64 tackles and moves here from the secondary.  The second team has some talent and will see a lot of action. 

 

Secondary

Four players with multiple starts return from last year, but Hatcher moved to linebacker.  Cornerback Morris Claiborne is an All-American candidate.  He intercepted five passes and finished with 11 passes defended.  Tyrann Mathieu was a Freshman All-American after finishing with 57 tackles and nine passes defended in relief.

 

Safeties Craig Loston and Brandon Taylor teamed for 66 tackles and eight passes defended.

 

OTHER

Miles’ LSU teams are 16-10 against ranked teams in the last five seasons.  LSU could play six ranked teams this year.

 

In four of the six years he’s coached in Baton Rouge, his team finished either 11-2 or 12-2.  His record at LSU is 62-17 (78.5%).  By comparison, Paul Dietzel won 65% of his games at LSU; Jolly Cholly (Charlie McClendon) won 70% of his games at LSU; and Nick Saban won 75% of his games at LSU.

 

SUMMARY

Without Jefferson and Shepard, it will tough to score enough points to beat the likes of Oregon, Alabama, or Arkansas.  Beating West Virginia in Morgantown will not be easy either.  If Miles can coax this team to a 10-win season without Jefferson and with Shepard missing multiple games, he should be given a raise.

 

Arkansas

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Ryan Mallett played only two years at Arkansas, yet he left for the NFL as the Razorbacks’ all-time leading passer.  He threw for 3,624 yards in 2009 and 3,869 yards last year.  He is now learning from Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

 

Tyler Wilson is not raw, but he has thrown for 287 and 453 yards in his two years in Fayetteville.  He should put up some gaudy numbers in his first year as the number one man.  However, he will not match Mallett’s numbers.

 

Receivers

Hands down, Arkansas has the best receiving unit in the conference and the best in the nation located outside the state of Oklahoma.

 

Greg Childs, Joe Adams, and Jarius Wright all have the potential to earn all-conference selections.  Childs caught 46 passes for 659 yards with six touchdowns last year, and he did that in seven games.  Adams caught 50 passes for 813 yards with six touchdowns, and he only started four games.  Wright actually played the entire season and caught 42 passes for 788 yards and five touchdowns.

 

Cobi Hamilton and Marquel Wade give Coach Bobby Petrino two more excellent options.  Hamilton caught 32 passes and averaged close to 20 yards per reception.

 

Colton Miles-Nash moved from defensive end to tight end, and he will be the new starter there.  At 6-06 and 261 pounds, he will be mostly a blocker, but he will be hard for a safety or even Sam linebacker to bring down on a pop pass.

 

Running Backs

After Cam Newton, the Razorbacks’ Knile Davis was the second leading rusher in the SEC last year with 1,322 yards at a 6.5 yards per carry average.  Just three weeks before the first game, Davis saw his season come to an end with a severe ankle injury.  If this injury happened to Marcus Lattimore or Chris Polk, it would destroy their teams.  However, Petrino’s offense can make a quick runner into a big gainer.  Defenses have to respect the downfield pass, and if they concentrate on stopping the running game, they might give up 80 rushing yards at the expense of giving up 400 passing yards.  Of course, when a team sat in a dime package for four quarters, Davis made them pay with a big day on the ground.

 

Arkansas will replace Davis with a three-man platoon.  Ronnie Wingo, Jr., Dennis Johnson, and DeAnthony Curtis will all carry some of the load.  Wingo, Jr. averaged over six yards per carry and caught 27 passes a year ago.  Johnson only ran the ball nine times but gained 83 yards on his limited touches.  Curtis moved to cornerback after beginning his career as a promising running back.  This year, he will be a two-way player, but a backup on both sides of the ball.  The Razorbacks may not run for 200 yards per game, but when the backs get the ball, they should average about 4.5 yards per carry.

 

Offensive Line

This is our offensive concern this year.  With a new quarterback and new running backs, will the below-average blocking corps be competent enough to compensate for the inexperience at the two skill positions?

 

Travis Swanson started all 13 games as a freshman last year.  He returns at center.  Alvin Bailey was another freshman, and he made the Freshman All-American team at guard.  Senior Grant Cook will start at the opposite guard position.  He has prior starting experience, but he did not start a game last year.  True freshman Mitch Smothers has won one of the starting tackle positions, while Grant Freeman will hold down the other.  Freeman played in almost every game last year as a backup.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The Razorbacks have improved defensively every year under Petrino, giving up 31, 25, and 23 points per game.  Arkansas was a little too generous against the run last year, giving up four yards per carry.  However, with sacks removed, the real rushing average given up was 4.8 per attempt.  It cost them in all three losses.  Alabama, Auburn, and Ohio State combined to run for more than 260 yards per game, while Mississippi State ran for 262 yards in UA’s overtime win.

 

The Razorbacks will use a modified 4-2-5 defense this year.  Up front, Bryan Jones will start as the nose tackle, and Robert Thomas will start as the outside tackle.  Jones made 23 tackles as a freshman last year, while Thomas is a Juco transfer.

 

Tenarius Wright recorded six sacks last year as a backup at end and should challenge for double digit sacks this year.  The star of the trenches is at the other end position.  Jake Bequette sacked QBs seven times last year and earned a spot on the 2nd Team All-SEC squad.

 

Linebackers

The Razorbacks return two starters here, but one of the two is moving to the secondary.  Jerry Franklin earned 2nd Team All-SEC honors following a season in which he led the Hogs with 100 tackles, 6 ½ sacks, and 13 tackles for loss.  Athletic Juco transfer Alonzo Highsmith will start at the other linebacker spot.

 

Secondary

Jerico Nelson has been moved from linebacker to defensive back.  He recorded 87 tackles at linebacker last year, making 11 for losses.  Darius Winston and Isaac Madison combined for 53 tackles at the cornerback spots.  Safety Tramain Thomas led the team with four interceptions and nine passes defended.  His new running mate in the last line of defense will be Eric Bennett, who made 15 tackles in relief last year.  This is an athletic quintet.  UA gave up 185 passing yards last year, and they should be just as good if not better this year.

 

OTHER

Arkansas has scored 40 or more points 12 times in the last two years.  Petrino’s last Louisville team topped 40 points six times.  His offenses are exciting to watch and rarely fail to score at least 20 points.

 

SUMMARY

Even without Davis, this team will move the ball and score more than 35 points per game.  The defense will be tougher this year as well.  The schedule presents just two tough games, and we cannot see any other team beating Arkansas.  Games at Alabama and at LSU are the only ones the Razorbacks have to play at their peak level to win.

 

If LSU continues to have trouble throughout the year and neither Shepard nor Jefferson can play, the Razorbacks will be an upset over Alabama away from making their own run to the National Championship Game.

 

A game with Texas A&M at Cowboys’ Stadium in Arlington will present some difficulty, but it should be an “extra” SEC win for Arkansas.

 

Mississippi State

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Chris Relf returns for one final season after leading the Bulldogs to nine-wins and a Gator Bowl blowout over Michigan.  His name does not come up when the “experts” discuss the top quarterbacks in the league, but he had a fine year in 2010.  He ran for more than 800 yards (sacks removed), and he passed for 1,789 yards and 13 touchdowns, topping eight yards per pass attempt.

 

Backup Tyler Russell returns as well.  Russell is more of a pure drop-back passer.  He passed for 635 yards and five touchdowns, but he tossed six interceptions in only 67 attempts (9% is too high for the 21st Century).

 

Receivers

All the key players that played here last year return in 2011.  Chad Bumphis is the top banana from among the receivers.  He led the Bulldogs with 44 receptions, 634 yards, and five touchdowns after leading the team in 2009 as well.  Bumphis is coming off two injuries; he suffered a broken collar bone at the end of last season, and he suffered an injured ankle in the spring.  He should be ready to go for opening day.

 

Arceto Clark, Chris Smith, and Brandon Heavens all started at some point last year.  The trio combined for 71 receptions and 942 yards.  With all this depth, State should top 200 yards through the air.

 

Running Backs

The Bulldogs rushed for 215 yards per game in Coach Dan Mullen’s version of the Urban Meyer Spread Offense.  Nearly every back that had a rushing attempt returns this year.  32 yards:  that’s how close Vick Ballard got to the 1,000 yard mark last year.  He scored 19 touchdowns, one shy of the mark set by Cam Newton.

 

Ballard did not top 1,000 yards because Mullen had so much depth behind him and was not shy to use it.  LaDarius Perkins is a speedster that forces defenses to make sure that someone stays far enough back to tackle him as a last resort.  Perkins rushed for 566 yards, while he scored three touchdowns on his nine pass receptions.  Robert Elliott added 221 rushing yards.  All three should see their share of carries in 2011.

 

Offensive Line

Three starters return to the blocking corps.  Center Quentin Saulsberry saw most of his 2010 action at guard.  Guard Gabe Jackson started 13 games as a freshman last year, while Addison Lawrence has started every game the last two seasons at tackle.  Tobias Smith appears to be healthy after suffering with shoulder and ankle injuries.  He will start at the vacant guard position.  James Carmon will start at the vacant tackle spot after starting three times at defensive tackle last year.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The Bulldogs return three starters to this unit, while the new starter saw significant action in relief.  Tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox teamed for 53 tackles and 14 stops for loss.  End Sean Ferguson started seven times and recorded 23 tackles with five going for losses.  Trevor Stigers starts at the other end position after picking up 19 tackles and 4 ½ tackles for loss as a key reserve.

 

Linebackers

This will be State’s biggest concern this season.  All three starters, including two NFL Draft choices, have departed.  Chris White and K. J. Wright were the team’s top two tacklers.

 

This year’s projected starting trio are Chris Hughes, Brandon Wilson, and Matthew Wells.  Hughes saw limited action and made 13 tackles, while Wilson made 17 in just a little more time.  Wells is a redshirt freshman.  Former Clemson linebacker Brandon Maye was once a star in the ACC, but he is likely to remain a backup in his one season in Starkville.

 

Secondary

All four starters from last year return.  Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield teamed for 106 tackles and 19 passes defended from their cornerback positions.  Charles Mitchell and Nickoe Whitley teamed for 145 tackles.  Wade Bonner figures to play significant minutes and may even start.  He made 39 tackles.

 

OTHER

Mullen narrowly missed a winning season in his first year in Starkville.  The Bulldogs had LSU beaten only to mess up at the goal line.  They came close against Houston.  Instead of 5-7, they could have been 7-5.

 

SUMMARY

Mississippi State might be the favorite to win the SEC East if they were in that division.  The Bulldogs are only the fourth choice in the West.

 

Outside of league play, the Bulldogs venture to Memphis and UAB, and they host Louisiana Tech and UT-Martin.  It is an easy schedule that should produce four wins.

 

MSU hosts LSU, South Carolina, Alabama, and Ole Miss, while going on the road against Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, and Arkansas.  We believe they will split these four games, finish 8-4, and return to a bowl for the second consecutive season.

 

Auburn

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Barrett Trotter will soon know how John Adams, George Selkirk, Brian Griese, and Brent Berry felt like.  Having to follow legends like George Washington, Babe Ruth, John Elway, and Michael Jordan, they never could live up to the fan’s expectations, even though they were competent professionals.

 

How do you begin to replace Cam Newton?  His stats looked like Ruth’s stats with the 1920 Yankees when he hit 54 home runs, and the St. Louis Browns as a team finished second in the league in team homers with 50.  The Heisman Trophy winner shattered the all-time SEC record for rushing by a quarterback by 400+ yards.  He rushed for 20 touchdowns and passed for 30.

 

Trotter will begin the season as the starter, but waiting in the wings are sophomore Clint Moseley and true freshman Kiehl Frazier.  Look for a significant drop in production.  Trotter is a decent quarterback, but he will look slow and tentative compared to Newton.   

 

Receivers

The Tigers also lose their top two receivers from last year.  Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery collectively grabbed 95 passes and gained 1,568 yards.

 

Last year’s top reserve Emory Blake is the leading returning receiver after grabbing 33 passes for 554 yards and eight touchdowns.  Tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen caught 15 passes and scored five touchdowns.  At 6-04 and 253 pounds, he makes a great target at the goal line.  Redshirt freshman Trovon Reed and lightly used senior Quinarius Carr figure to start at the other two wideout spots.  Carr was the MVP of the Spring Game.

 

Running Backs

Coach Gene Chizik actually welcomes back a 1,000-yard rusher.  Michael Dyer just missed the 1,100 yard mark and averaged six yards per carry (0.4 more than Newton).  Backup Onterio McCalebb rushed for 810 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 8.5 yards per rush.  This unit is in great shape, and it wouldn’t surprise us if both Dyer and McCalebb topped 1,000 yards this year.

 

Offensive Line

Only one full-time starter returns to the front line, and this blocking corps might be the weakest in the conference.  True freshman Reese Dismukes will start at center.  He proved to be an excellent student of the game at a high school that runs the same offense, and he should play like a junior.

 

Jared Cooper and John Sullen will start at the guard positions.  Sullen has one career start, while Cooper has none.  Brandon Mosley is the grizzled veteran of this unit.  The senior started 11 games last year.  His counterpart on the other side will be Chad Slade, a redshirt freshman.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Things are not much better on this side of the line.  Three starters are gone from the defensive line, including the Cam Newton of the defense.  Nick Fairley led the SEC in sacks with 11 ½ and tackles for loss with 24.  For every sack he made, he forced a QB to throw the ball early at least twice that many times.  The War Eagles also must do without their other starting tackle, Zach Clayton, who made eight stops behind the line, and end Antoine Carter, who made 11.

 

Nosa Eguae is the only returning starter.  The end made just 22 tackles with 7 ½ for losses.  Sophomore Corey Lemonier will start at the opposite end after making 17 tackles in reserve last year.

 

Sophomores Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter will start at the tackles spots after combining for just 13 tackles. 

 

Linebackers

This is the only unit on this side with more than one experienced player.  Daren Bates is more of a hybrid linebacker/safety, and he recorded 48 tackles in nine starts last year.  Jonathan Evans played significant minutes in reserve making 27 tackles.  Jake Holland saw less time, but he recorded 12 tackles.  This unit will be okay, but they will have to overcompensate for a weak front four and even weaker secondary.

 

Secondary

Only one starter returns here.  Safety Neiko Thorpe is the leading returning tackler with 64; he failed to intercept a pass, but he did knock away nine balls.  Demetruce McNeal will start at the other safety spot.  He made 24 tackles as a reserve.

 

The starting cornerbacks will be T’Sharvan Bell and Chris Davis.  Both saw action in relief last year, combining for 57 stops and eight passes defended.

 

This is a rather weak secondary, and teams will pass the ball for more than 250 yards per game this year.

 

OTHER

When was the last time a defending National Champion finished with a losing record the following year?  It was 1943, when Ohio State went 3-6-0 after winning the 1942 National Championship.  Can it happen again?  Yes, it can, and Auburn will have a tough time avoiding it this year.

 

SUMMARY

The non-conference schedule presents one problem and three easy victories.  The Tigers open with Utah State, and host Florida Atlantic and Samford.  They go on the road to Clemson.  Figure on a 3-1 record in these games.

 

In conference play, Auburn hosts Mississippi State, Florida, Ole Miss, and Alabama.  They could win two of these games, but they could also lose all four.  We’ll split the difference and call for one win.

 

The Tigers visit South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia, and they will be underdogs in all four games. 

 

We cannot see Auburn finishing with an overall winning record this year.  They lost too much talent, and the conference it too difficult.  Five wins looks like the ceiling.  However, of all the predictions we made this summer, this one is the most unsure.  It is hard to imagine a team going from 14-0 to 5-7 in one year.  When Ohio State suffered the decline, it was in the midst of World War II, and several players were off at war rather than playing football.  For the record, one of us here believes the Tigers will win seven or eight games.

 

Ole Miss

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Randall Mackey was set to start after enjoying a stellar Juco career.  However, he bought Jordan Jefferson’s “Bar Etiquette” DVD and tried the technique out himself.  His bar fight led to an arrest just like Jefferson.

 

Barry Brunetti backed up Geno Smith at West Virginia last year, and he was declared immediately eligible in Oxford for 2011.  He is now Coach Houston Nutt’s starting quarterback after throwing all of nine passes as a freshman.  He will run the option, but the Rebels would have been more potent with Mackey running the offense.

 

Receivers

Ole Miss relied on five receivers last year, and three return in 2011.  However, the top holdover, Melvin Harris, is nursing a chronic back problem and may not be available for the beginning of the season.  If he cannot go, true freshman Donte Moncrief will start in his place.

 

Sophomore Ja-Mes Logan made 29 receptions last year and averaged 13.6 yards per catch.  Korvic Neat will start in the slot after making nine receptions as a freshman last year.  Look for Neat to get some running plays and possibly run the Wildcat.

 

Jamal Mosley starts at tight end.  He began his career at Oklahoma State, transferred to a Juco, and then ended up here.

 

Running Backs

Ole Miss averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game last year, and all three principle backs return this year.  Brandon Bolden led the Rebels with 976 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.  He averaged six yards per carry.  Enrique Davis was supposed to be the big star when he came here three years ago, but he has never lived up to those expectations.  He rushed for 337 yards last year, but he may be a candidate for a breakout season.  Jeff Scott picked up 429 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry.

 

Offensive Line

This is the Rebels’ strong suit.  The five main starters from last year are back, but at least one has been passed over by a newcomer.  Not only are these blockers quick and strong, their average height is bigger than the starting five on the basketball team.  Center A. J. Hawkins is the runt of the line, as he is just 6-03 and 315 pounds.  Guard Alex Washington is 6-04 and 355 pounds, while guard Matt Hall is 6-09 and 340 pounds.  Hall began his career at Arkansas and transferred here.  He moved past Jared Duke, who is 6-07 and 350 pounds.

 

At tackles, Bobby Massie is 6-06 and 325 pounds and Bradley Sowell is 6-04 and 319.  Sowell made the All-SEC 2nd team last year.

 

This unit will open holes for the running game once again.  While the passing game may not gel early in the season, the running game could thrive once again and average more than 200 yards.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

Defense was the Rebels’ undoing last year.  They gave up 35 points per game and 400 yards per game compared to 18 points and 315 yards the year before.  This season’s defense does not look like a stellar one.  The line lost two starters, including Jerrell Powe, a 6th Round NFL Draft choice.

 

Ends Kentrell Lockett and Wayne Dorsey are both experienced veterans.  Lockett missed most of last year with an ACL injury.  Dorsey started four games last year and finished with 12 tackles with four going for losses.

 

Two redshirt freshmen will start on the inside.  Bryon Bennett and Carlton Martin are a tad undersized at their positions and need to bulk up.  The Johnnie Rebs gave up 150+ rushing yards per game last year, allowing more than 4.5 yards per rush (sacks factored out).  They will be hard-pressed to improve on that record this year.

 

Linebackers

Ole Miss will have three new starters here this year.  They will sorely miss leading tackler Jonathan Cornell and his 14 stops for loss.  True freshman C. J. Johnson could get the start at middle linebacker, while lightly used sophomore Mike Marry and junior Joel Kight will start on the outside.  This is the weakest linebacker unit in the division.

 

Secondary

Ole Miss had difficulties stopping enemy passing games.  The Rebels gave up almost 250 yards per game last year.  When you remove the stats from the two opponents on the schedule that could not pass the ball, the Rebels gave up almost 275 yards per game in the other 10 contests.

 

Marcus Temple returns at one corner slot after making 48 tackles with three passes defended.  Charles Sawyer will man the vacant corner slot.  He was the team’s nickel back last year and made 49 stops with four passes defended.

 

Damien Jackson started for 2/3 of the season, and he finished with 68 tackles with four passes defended.  Brishen Mathews will start at the opposite safety spot after making 15 tackles as a true freshman.  There isn’t a star among this group.

 

OTHER

Ole Miss has now endured five losing seasons in the last seven years.  Their 16-40 conference record in that time is worse than all but Vanderbilt.

 

The supposed knock against Nutt was that his teams could not pass the ball.  His three Ole Miss teams have averaged 211 passing yards per game.  It has been his teams’ inability to stop the pass that has kept Ole Miss from winning big.

 

SUMMARY

It is hard picking the Rebels to finish 6th in the SEC West this year, even though they have occupied this spot more than any other division rival since David Cutcliffe was let go.  The talent may not be there for an eight or nine-win season, but we have a sneaky suspicion about this group.  Nutt always seems to find a way to win when his teams are underdogs. 

 

The offensive line could be strong enough for the offense to sustain long, time-consuming drives and keep the suspect defense on the sidelines.  After all, the best defense is a strong offense. 

 

The opening game at home against BYU will be one of the most interesting games of the season.  The Cougars will not know what hit them when they hit the field, and the field temperature is about 125 with high humidity.  If you are old enough to remember, a much weaker Ole Miss team than this one hosted the eventual National Champion Notre Dame in September of 1977 (The Irish had Joe Montana at QB).  Notre Dame’s players couldn’t take the oppressive heat and humidity, and Ole Miss wore them down for the big upset.

 

If Ole Miss repeats the feat of 1977, then they have enough winnable games left on the schedule to get to six wins.  Their other three non-conference games are against Southern Illinois, Louisiana Tech, and Fresno State.  The Fresno game is on the road, and it could be the one that decides this team’s fate.

 

Inside the league, the Rebels host Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU.  They will be lucky to win one of these games.  They face Vanderbilt Auburn, Kentucky, and Mississippi State on the road and could win two or three of these games.

 

Overall, we are looking at a team that will win four to seven games overall, and we tend to believe the chance for seven wins is greater than the chance for four or five.

 

2011 Southeastern Conference Media Poll

Team

1st Place Votes

Points

East Division

 

 

South Carolina

114

931

Georgia

38

794

Florida

12

731

Tennessee

2

496

Kentucky

1

340

Vanderbilt

 

215

 

 

 

West Division

 

 

Alabama

111

925

L S U

30

790

Arkansas

23

717

Mississippi St.

1

455

Auburn

 

406

Ole Miss

2

214

 

 

 

Championship Game Winner

 

Alabama

 

98

L S U

 

29

Arkansas

 

18

South Carolina

 

14

Georgia

 

4

Florida

 

2

Ole Miss

 

2

 

 

2011 Big 12 Conference PiRate Ratings

Team

PiRate #

Prediction

East Division

 

 

South Carolina

121.6

5-3/9-4

Florida

116.8

4-4/7-5

Georgia

112.6

5-3/8-4

Tennessee

106.6

3-5/7-5

Kentucky

102.2

2-6/6-6

Vanderbilt

100.0

0-8/2-10

 

 

 

West Division

 

 

Alabama

132.4

8-0/13-0 *

L S U

124.6

5-3/8-4

Arkansas

122.7

7-1/11-1

Mississippi St.

117.0

4-4/8-4

Auburn

115.6

2-6/5-7

Ole Miss

99.6

3-5/6-6

   

 

* Alabama to beat South Carolina in
   SEC Championship Game

 

 

Coming Tuesday Afternoon: A look at The Big Ten Conference

Coming Wednesday: The PiRate Ratings for Week One

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