The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 28, 2012

2012 Southeastern Conference Preview

What else can this conference do to top what it has done in the last six years?  It wasn’t enough that the SEC won the 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 national championships.  They had to find a way to do one better, so they decided to send a second team to the title game.  When Alabama and LSU met, it really should have been the second time that this big game had been played between conference rivals that had played a tight game in the regular season.  In 2006, we felt that Michigan and Ohio State should have played for the national championship, because Ohio State’s home field advantage was 5.5 points, and the Buckeyes won by three in the regular season.  Of course, Florida showed Ohio State that the SEC was too powerful.

 

The last time the SEC did not win the title, Vince Young quarterbacked Texas to a last minute win over Southern California, with Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and LenDale White. 

 

With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M, the SEC needed another bowl contract, so now this league has ten bowl tie-ins.

 

Texas A&M has three other major tie-ins with the SEC.  Three famous SEC coaches had Aggie ties.  General Robert Neyland played football for a season at A&M, before he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy.  Bear Bryant was the A&M coach prior to taking over at his alma mater.  Gene Stallings played for Bryant at A&M and later became the head coach there.  Stallings became the coach at Alabama and won a national championship there.

 

Missouri has one gigantic contribution to not just the SEC but to all college football.  The Tigers were the team that first introduced the option play to football.  Coach Don Faurot, the father of the Split-T offense, first began to use the regular (double option) at Missouri.  The split-t was the forerunner of the veer and wishbone offenses and even today’s zone read option from the spread formation.

 

The SEC media poll featured 222 voters.  Here is how the voting went.

 

 

SEC East

Votes

 

 

Rank

Team

1st Place

Total

 

1

Georgia

132

1434

(14)

2

South Carolina

72

1358

(6)

3

Florida

12

1045

(1)

4

Missouri

2

797

 

5

Tennessee

4

718

 

6

Vanderbilt

0

598

 

7

Kentucky

0

266

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SEC West

Votes

 

 

Rank

Team

1st Place

Total

 

1

L S U

139

1449

(129)

2

Alabama

72

1379

(65)

3

Arkansas

6

1093

(14)

4

Auburn

4

827

(2)

5

Texas A&M

0

653

 

6

Mississippi State

0

554

 

7

Ole Miss

1

261

(1)

 

 

 

 

 

Number in ( ) represents votes to win SEC Championship Game

 

The PiRate Ratings and PiRate Vintage Ratings have minor differences, but are not that much different from the media poll votes.

 

PiRate Ratings

Rank

SEC East

PiRate

1

Georgia

118.6

2

South Carolina

117.3

3

Florida

116.1

4

Tennessee

115.5

5

Missouri

114.3

6

Vanderbilt

110.6

7

Kentucky

95.2

 

   

Rank

SEC West

PiRate

1

L S U

131.4

2

Alabama

126.5

3

Arkansas

119.5

4

Texas A&M

113.2

5

Auburn

111.5

6

Mississippi State

108.6

7

Ole Miss

100.8

 

   

 

   

 

Vintage Ratings

 

Rank

SEC East

Vintage

1

Georgia

116

2

South Carolina

114

3

Florida

111

4

Tennessee

109

5

Missouri

108

6

Vanderbilt

103

7

Kentucky

100

 

 

 

Rank

SEC West

Vintage

1

L S U

120

2

Alabama

119

3

Arkansas

112

4

Mississippi State

106

5

Texas A&M

105

6

Arkansas

105

7

Ole Miss

99

 

 

Team

Florida Gators

               
Head Coach

Will Muschamp

               
Colors

Blue and Orange

               
City

Gainesville, FL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

3-5

Overall

7-6

               
PiRate Rating

116.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

18

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

111

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

17

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

5-3

Overall

8-4

 

Can year two of the Coach Will Muschamp era in Gainesville replicate the feats of the two previous coaching geniuses at the Swamp?  In Steve Spurrier’s second year, the Gators went 7-0 in the SEC.  In Urban Meyer’s second year, Florida won a national championship.

 

Muschamp returns 10 defensive starters, although one of those (end Ronald Powell) is injured and will not be available until October.  The Gators were stingy last year, giving up 20 points and 300 yards per game, and this group could chop those numbers down to 17 points and 275 yards per game this year. 

 

Up front, Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter form an excellent tandem at tackle.  Floyd does more than protect his linebackers; he gets into the offensive backfield and disrupts running plays.  Ends Lerentee McCray and Dominique Easley both registered 7 ½ tackles for loss last year.  McCray actually played linebacker last year and switches to the “buck” end (part end/part linebacker).

 

Speaking of linebacker, the Gators’ top defensive player returns to the Mike position.  Jonathan Bostic led the Gators with 94 tackles.  He recorded three sacks and 10 total tackles for loss.  Jelani Jenkins can do it all; he can blitz and dump a passer; he can stop a runner for little or no gain; and he can cover a receiver in the underneath zones like a cornerback.

 

The Gators have an excellent group of defensive backs.  All four starters from last year are back, as well as the nickel and the top reserve.  Safety Matt Elam is a smaller version of Jenkins; he can fill up a stat sheet with sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions and passes defended.

 

The offense lacked the oomph that past Gator teams had.  The scoring average dropped to its lowest number since 1992.  In SEC, the Gators failed to average 300 yards per game.  Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis took the Kansas job, and former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease takes over.

 

Pease does not have a Kellen Moore passing to Titus Young and Austin Pettis.  In fact, the Gators don’t even have a solid number one quarterback.  Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett are liable to continue competing for the starting job well into the season.  Driskel will start against Bowling Green on Saturday, but he has not secured the spot.  In limited action for both last year, they teamed for 354 yards and two touchdowns against six interceptions.  Neither completed 50% of his passes.

 

With the losses of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, last year’s number three back takes over as starter.  Mike Gillislee actually had the highest rushing average of the trio, as he rushed for 5.9 yards per try.

 

Muschamp doesn’t have a big star among his wideouts, but Andre Dubose made the most of his 16 catches last year.  He averaged 27 yards per reception and scored four touchdowns.  Frankie Hammond, Quinton Dunbar, tight end Jordan Reed and fullback Trey Burton give the QBs multiple above-average receivers, but none of these guys will become all-Americans.

 

The offensive line must deal with an injury to tackle Matt Patchan, but there is enough depth in the trenches to keep the offense moving.  Guards Jon Halapio and James Wilson join center Jonotthan Harrison in the middle.

 

Caleb Sturgis is the top kicker in the league.  He was 100% accurate on PATs, and he connected on 22 of 26 field goal attempts.  Two of those four misses were from 50 or more yards.  He made three from 50 or more, including a 55-yarder.

 

The Gators have a weird schedule this year, because they were saddled with putting both Texas A&M and Missouri on their slate.  UF closes their conference schedule on November 3, and then they play three non-conference games to end the season.  In past years, they always took advantage of playing two patsies prior to the Tennessee game.  Now, they have a trip to Texas A&M the week before heading to Knoxville.  We like this team’s talent and think they could compete for the East Division crown, but the Gators will have a hard time splitting their first four league games.

 

 

 

Team

Georgia Bulldogs

               
Head Coach

Mark Richt

               
Colors

Red and Black

               
City

Athens, GA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

7-1

Overall

10-4

               
PiRate Rating

118.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

116

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

6

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

6-2

Overall

10-3

 

The Bulldogs lost their first two games and their last two games, but won the 10 games in between last year.  Those four losses came to teams that went a combined 47-6.

 

Coach Mark Richt welcomes back his starting quarterback and five of his top six receivers.  Aaron Murray is one of three potential All-American quarterbacks in the SEC.  He tossed 35 touchdown passes, while completing 59% of his passes for 3,149 yards.

 

Murray has three receivers returning that caught 30 or more passes.  Tavarres King had 47; Malcolm Mitchell had 45; and Michael Bennett had 32.  King and Mitchell can burn a secondary with a quick six.

 

The loss of Isaiah Crowell may end up being addition by subtraction.  Ken Malcome will try to hold off a couple of true freshmen.  Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley were both highly-rated running backs.

 

The one area of concern on this side of the ball is in the trenches.  There are no big stars here, and one of the expected starters (Kolton Houston) cannot gain eligibility because he continues to test positive for a banned steroid used on an injury two years ago during a shoulder surgery.  Two line starters are back.

 

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham did a great job with the defense last year, as UGA gave up just 277 yards per game.  With 12 of the top 13 tacklers returning, the Junkyard  Dogs will continue to bark.

 

Let’s start at linebacker, where the ‘Dogs are loaded at this spot, possibly the tops in the land.  Jarvis Jones frequently made it to the drop back point before the quarterback!  He led the SEC with 13 ½ sacks, and he added six more tackles for loss.  Unbelievably, he was credited with 49 QB hurries.  Michael Gilliard finished third on the team with 65 tackles, and he was a jack of all trades with a pair of sacks, seven TFL, and four passes defended.  A couple of linebackers, Chase Vasser and Alec Ogletree face one game suspensions, but the Bulldogs can beat Buffalo without them.

 

The three-man defensive line returns intact this year.  Nose tackle John Jenkins tips the scale at more than 350 pounds.  He can sit and take up two gaps.  Ends Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington teamed up for nine sacks and 49 QB hurries.

 

The secondary benefitted from an excellent pass rush, and they responded by allowing less than 51%  completions and 176 passing yards per game.  Safety Shawn Williams led the Bulldogs with 72 tackles and four interceptions.  His counterpart at the other safety position is Bacarri Rambo, a first team All-American, is one of a handful of players facing a suspension at the beginning of the year.

 

The Bulldogs are Missouri’s first ever conference game, and they will play at Faurot Field in week two.  It is the only one of the opening five that the Bulldogs could lose.  Game six takes UGA to South Carolina, where the ‘Dogs have a score to settle with the Gamecocks.  This has the look of another double-digit win season between the hedges, and it isn’t impossible for them to settle a score with LSU in the Conference Championship Game.

 

 

Team

Kentucky Wildcats

               
Head Coach

Joker Phillips

               
Colors

Royal Blue and White

               
City

Lexington, KY

               
2011 Record              
Conference

2-6

Overall

5-7

               
PiRate Rating

95.2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

75

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

67

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

0-8

Overall

3-9

 

The bowl streak ended last year for Coach Joker Phillips’ Wildcats last year.  Kentucky had been bowl eligible for five consecutive years.  The last time UK had a five-year run with a better showing was 1952 to 1956.

 

The trend has been headed the wrong way though, as Kentucky’s records since 2006 have been 8-5, 8-5, 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, and 5-7.  Unfortunately for Phillips and his Cats, it looks like the trend will continue in 2012.

 

Kentucky had quarterback issues last year.  Morgan Newton began the season as the starter, and he looked like an SEC quarterback throwing to Division III receivers.  Poor pass protection eventually sent him to the sidelines for the season with multiple injuries.  Maxwell Smith took over, and UK had the same results; the receivers had difficulty getting open, and Smith ate turf too many times.  Eventually, he was forced to the sideline with injuries.  In the finale against Tennessee, Kentucky basically used a single wing offense and ran the ball over 90% of the game.  It shortened the game by about 10 plays, and the Wildcats upset the Vols for the first time since 1984.

 

Newton and Smith both return this year, and they clearly are the weakest quarterback tandem in the league.  The two combined for just 1,612 passing yards and completed just 51% of their passes.  The average yards gained per pass attempt was just 4.9. Smith will get the initial start against Louisville this Sunday.

 

Kentucky’s receivers dropped several passes in almost every game.  As weak as the quarterback talent is when comparing it to the rest of the league, this unit is less talented than many MAC teams.  La’Rod King is the one and only receiver that looked like he belonged on the field last year.  He caught 40 passes for 598 yards and seven touchdowns last year.  The rest of the roster averaged a miserable 7.9 yards per reception.  There isn’t much help coming from any newcomers this year.

 

The running game was not the answer either last year, as the Cats gained just 124.2 yards per game (117 prior to switching to the single wing for the Tennessee game).  The one offensive bright spot on the team, Josh Clemons, was expected to become the next Rafael Little, but he didn’t quite live up to those standards.  He ran all over Central Michigan but he couldn’t get it done against LSU, Florida, and South Carolina.  He suffered a knee injury and needed surgery.  He may not be available for the first couple of games.  CoShik Williams led UK last year with 486 yards rushing, but most of that came against Jacksonville State and Ole Miss.  This is by far the weakest unit in the SEC.

 

The offensive line would be considered the strong point of this offense, but that is like saying that the 1962 New York Mets’ had some good hitters.  Guard Larry Warford is the best player on the team and only one that could end up earning 1st Team All-SEC honors.  Phillips cannot run 40 plays over his blocking hole, and Warford cannot block four pass rushers at the same time.  Look for the Wildcats to continue to struggle on offense this year.

 

The defense was not all that bad last year.  UK surrendered less than 25 points per game, which was an improvement by more than three points from the year before.  Former Cincinnati coach Rick Minter serves as the defensive coordinator.  He probably will see his troops surrender more yardage and points this year, because the offense will not be able to sustain many drives.  Kentucky had to defend 69 plays per game last year, and they could be forced to defend more than 70 this year. 

 

The defensive line returns three starters.  End Collins Ukwu is the top returning man in the trenches.  He finished with 6 ½ tackles for loss and picked up four QB hurries.  Tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph bring the beef up front, as they weigh 328 and 301 pounds respectively.

 

It is an entirely different story at linebacker, where all the key contributors from last year are gone.  Avery Williamson, Miles Sampson, and Tyler Brause will not adequately replace a trio of linebackers that produced a pair of NFL Draft choices.  Kentucky will be much more generous against the run this year.

 

The secondary might be decent if there was any type of pass rush, but we don’t see the Cats putting much fear in the minds of enemy passers.  Safety Martavius Neloms is the leading returning tackler with 71.  Mikie Benton forms a better than average safety tandem with Neloms, but the Cats are really weak on the corners.

 

Everything is relative when you compare teams against each other.  Kentucky’s talent is by far the weakest in the league, but in the SEC, the weakest talent might be able to compete for the Conference USA Championship.  Kentucky will win three games outside of the league, but that is all we can predict them winning.  However, by the time they face Georgia on homecoming on October 20, they will have filled the gym to watch the defending national champions take the floor, and all will be good once again in Lexington, where basketball, bourbon, and babes are the big draws once the horse tracks are closed for the year.

 

 

 

 

Team

Missouri Tigers

               
Head Coach

Gary Pinkel

               
Colors

Black and Gold

               
City

Columbia, MO

               
2011 Record              
Conference

5-4

Overall

8-5

               
PiRate Rating

114.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

21

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

108

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

31

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

3-5

Overall

7-5

 

The Tigers may be really glad that the Big Ten did not ask them to join with Nebraska.  The SEC will give their program a much bigger payday by the time the league’s profit-sharing check arrives next year.

 

Missouri will bring excellent programs to the SEC and give the league three terrific TV markets.  Besides the obvious, Kansas City and St. Louis, they get a lot of coverage in Chicago with a lot of Missouri alums living downstate.  Maybe best of all, Tiger fans will bring their great barbecue tailgating to the South and make the SEC the top culinary conference as well.  Note: We are available to test any KCBBS champion tailgater’s food and give it a blue ribbon.

 

Missouri becomes the second team in the league to wear black and gold and treat a man named James Franklin as their savior.  This Franklin is a quarterback, perhaps the best one in the league (don’t yell Arkansas fans).  Last year Franklin threw for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns, while completing better than 63% of his passes.  Factoring out QB sacks (the way the NCAA should figure rushing), Franklin topped 1,000 yards rushing and scored 15 touchdowns.  Redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser is built just like Franklin and will become a good QB in his own right in the future, but if Franklin goes down, Mizzou will be miserable.

 

Franklin has a quality receiving corps to play toss with.  T. J. Moe caught 54 passes and gained 649 yards in the Big 12 last year.  Marcus Lucas gives Franklin a big and fast target, and Lucas should double his production this year (23-414 5 TD in 2011).

 

Other than Franklin, the running game is a liability and may be the reason MU has troubles in SEC games.  With star back Henry Josey expected to miss the season due to a second knee operation, the Tigers lose someone that rushed for 1,168 yards and nine scores, while averaging 8.1 yards per try with several big plays.  Kendial Lawrence is a capable back able to rush for 100 yards a game against a team like Kentucky, but he will not beat Alabama or Florida with his running ability.

 

There is a considerable amount of rebuilding to do in the front line, as four starters must be replaced.  The spread offense that Pinkel uses gives his new starters an advantage, because Franklin’s ability to read defenses on the run will overcome some of the line’s liabilities.  Tackles Justin Britt and Elvis Fisher are SEC-caliber blockers.

 

The Missouri defense was good enough to hold Texas to a field goal last year, but it surrendered 45 points to Oklahoma State, 42 to Baylor, and 38 to Oklahoma.  Factor out the big three, and MU gave up a very respectable 18 points and 313 yards per game.  The Tigers will give up more than that in the SEC, but they won’t see Brandon Weeden, Landry Jones, and RG3. 

 

If the Tigers can generate a decent pass rush, the secondary will be really good.  E. J. Gaines is a possible all-league cornerback.  Last year, he led the Tigers and finished third in the Big 12 with 18 passes defended.  Fellow cornerback Kip Edwards may miss the start of the season due to a knee injury, and if he is not ready by week two when Aaron Murray comes to Memorial Stadium, Mizzou is going to have some trouble.

 

Andrew Wilson and Zavier Gooden return to the second line of defense.  Wilson led the Tigers with 98 tackles (9 ½ TFL), while Gooden finished third with 80.  Gooden is tough in pass coverage, while Wilson is the better run-stopper.  Middle linebacker Will Ebner is coming back from an injury year, and if he is healthy, he could lead the team in tackles.

 

End Brad Madison needs to step up and enjoy a big senior year.  He led MU with 4 ½ sacks last year, but he needs to double that amount for the Tigers to even think about competing for the SEC East title.  He’s the only returning starter to the D-line, and this could prevent MU from finishing in the upper half of the division standings.

 

The SEC did the new teams a big favor for their first season.  Both new teams get to host one of the national championship participants.  Alabama comes to Columbia on October 13.  The Tigers should be 5-1 or 4-2 heading into that game.  Make no mistake about it’ Missouri will enjoy another winning season and play in a bowl, but moving to the SEC is like being called up to the Major Leagues from AAA.  Expect the Tigers to lose the most games they have lost since 2006.

 

 

Team

South Carolina Gamecocks

               
Head Coach

Steve Spurrier

               
Colors

Garnet and Black

               
City

Columbia, SC

               
2011 Record              
Conference

6-2

Overall

11-2

               
PiRate Rating

117.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

17

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

114

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

9

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

5-3

Overall

8-4

 

The “Old Ball Coach” guided USC to its best record since 1982.  The Gamecocks won 11 games and finished in the Top 10.  They begin the season ranked #6 in the polls, and they are considered a strong contender in the SEC East, where they won the division two years ago.

 

The man that makes the offense go is junior Marcus Lattimore.  His two years in Columbia coincided with Spurrier’s Fun and Gun offense taking off and resembling his offenses at Florida.  Lattimore missed four games last year after he suffered a season-ending injury against Mississippi State.  In the six games that he played prior to injury, USC averaged 35.5 points and 416.5 yards per game.  In the seven games that he did not play in (or finish in the case of Miss. St.), the Gamecocks averaged 10 less points per game and 80 fewer yards per game.  Lattimore was on pace to run for about 1,700-1,750 yards and score 20 or more touchdowns.  He must remain healthy, especially early in the season, because his key backups are all banged up. 

 

Connor Shaw took over for good once Spurrier had enough of Stephen Garcia’s off-the-field problems.  Shaw completed 65.4% of his passes with a TD/Int ratio of 14/6.  His yards per attempt fell just short of greatness at 7.7 (anything over 8.0 is considered A1).

 

The Gamecocks have produced a star wide receiver with regularity since Spurrier arrived in Carolina.  They lost a big one in Alshon Jeffrey, but they return some quality talent with the potential to make this the best USC passing game since Steve Tannehill was there in the mid-90’s.  Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington, and D. L. Moore will give Garcia a lot of open looks this year.  Tight end Justice Cunningham will be adequate as a receiver, but he is there to open the off-tackle hole for Lattimore.

 

The only reason why we don’t see the Gamecocks taking the East flag and finishing in the top five in the nation is a weaker offensive line.  Three starters depart, including a first team all-league performer (and NFL Draft pick).  Center T. J. Johnson will open some holes in the middle for Lattimore, but expect USC to give up more QB sacks this year, and if Shaw goes down with an injury, Dylon Thompson will not be able to keep the offense rolling.

 

The Gamecocks won several games with a stifling defense the last couple of years.  They lose their biggest piece of this puzzle—coordinator Ellis Johnson has left to take over at Southern Miss.  Additionally, USC must replace six starters including NFL Draft choices in the line, at linebacker, and in the secondary.  Do not expect USC to repeat their exceptional numbers of last year (18.4 points and 268 yards allowed per game).

 

The front seven will still be formidable but not as strong as last year.  Ends Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney are top notch.  They teamed up for 14 sacks and 20 ½ TFL, even though Clowney played in reserve for former All-American Melvin Ingram.

 

The Gamecocks do not have a star replacement for leading tackler Antonio Allen.  Damario Jeffrey may be able to come close to making the 88 tackles Allen made, but they will be about a yard further down the field.  Shaq Wilson and Devonte Holloman return to the linebacking unit after combining for 103 tackles.

 

Stephen Gilmore may be the hardest star to replace.  Gilmore led SC with four interceptions, but teams often threw away from where he covered.  D. J. Swearinger is the lone holdover in the defensive backfield, and he should contend for all-conference honors this year.

 

The Gamecocks will be tested right off the bat, as they open the season on national television against Vanderbilt in Nashville.  The Commodores will be at full strength and fired up to show last year was not a fluke, so this game will be extremely important for both teams.  A week two game with East Carolina could be a trap game, but we believe USC will start 3-0 after they face UAB.  The week four game against Missouri will determine if Spurrier can keep this team in contention for the SEC East flag.  We believe Carolina will just miss winning the East, but if Lattimore stays healthy and rushes the ball more than 300 times, it is possible that Carolina could make it back to the SEC Championship Game.

 

 

Team

Tennessee Volunteers

               
Head Coach

Derek Dooley

               
Colors

Orange and White

               
City

Knoxville, TN

               
2011 Record              
Conference

1-7

Overall

5-7

               
PiRate Rating

115.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

19

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

109

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

28

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

4-4

Overall

7-5

 

Third year coach Derek Dooley was sitting on a good hand.  He had three-of-a-kind with a king high on offense, and he knew that most of the defenses his Volunteer team was playing against had a pair or worse.  Only one or two defenses had a full house.

 

Then, on the eve of the season, his three-of-a-kind turned into a pair.  Sadly for fans on Rocky Top, what looked like a possible dark horse contender for the SEC East Crown turned into another year of mediocrity.

 

Da’Rick Rogers led the Vols with 1,040 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last year, but he also led the team in suspensions, the most recent leading to his dismissal.  Combined with Justin Hunter, Zach Rogers, and tight end Mychal Rivera, this would have been the top receiving corps in the SEC and one of the top five in the nation.  When Hunter and D. Rogers were both healthy last year (Hunter went down for the count against Cincinnati in game two), the Vols’ offense was nearly unstoppable, and UT would have averaged 35-40 points per game this year.  Without Rogers, expect the Vols to average 25-28 points per game, and that will cost them two or three wins.

 

Tyler Bray had a few disciplinary bumps in the road this summer, but he will not lose any playing time (although pro scouts will take note of his maturity issues).  Bray is one of five fantastic passers in the SEC that should all play in the NFL one day.  He completed just under 60% of his passes last year for 1,983 yards and 17 touchdowns against just six picks.  His yards per attempt came in just at the spectacular level (8.0), but it was almost 11 when both Hunter and Rogers were playing together.  Bray missed five games last year.  He should top 3,500 yards through the air if he stays healthy this year.

 

Tennessee has not had the pleasure of having a workhorse back the last three years, and this position is still a liability.  Rajion Neal has some potential to take heat off the passing game, but he will remind nobody of Arian Foster.

 

The offensive line is better suited to block for the pass than the run, and that is one reason why the Vols rushed for just 90 yards per game last year.  Six linemen saw considerable starting action, and all six return, so Bray should be able to eat a sandwich and still have time to throw this year.  Tackle Ja’Wuan James begins his third season as a regular and has all-conference ability.  Guard Dallas Thomas will earn an all-conference mention this year.

 

Even in the most recent run of malaise on the hill, the Tennessee defense has performed admirably, giving up just over 21 points per game in the most recent four seasons (23-27 W-L record).  The Vols have produced rather talented defensive backfields, and this year will be more of the same, as five key players return.  Cornerbacks Justin Coleman, Marsalis Teague, and Prentiss Waggner combined to make 85 tackles in 2011.  Waggner led the trio with nine passed defended, two of which were interceptions.  Safeties Brian Randolph and Brent Brewer both return, but junior college transfer Byron Moore will see a lot of time at strong safety as well.  Expect Tennessee to shut down the opposing quarterbacks not named Murray, McCarron, or Franklin, and they will not face one named Wilson.

 

The Volunteers used to be famous for producing All-American linebackers (almost as much as Penn State), but it has been some time since they had a gem.  A. J. Johnson may be the next ruby.  He finished second on the team with 80 tackles as a freshman.  Herman Lathers missed 2011, but if he returns to 2010 form, the Vols will be much tougher to run on than they were last year.

 

The defensive line is not as talented as the secondary or linebackers, and this will be their big problem against the power teams on their schedule.  Dooley is hoping that human eclipse, junior college transfer Daniel McCullers at 6-6 and 377, can be a brick wall in the A-gaps.  Maurice Couch now moves from nose tackle to end, where Dooley can take advantage of his quickness.  The Vols did were not pass rushing monsters last year, finishing with 16 (11th in the league).

 

Dooley will come under fire if Tennessee does not begin to show marked improvement.  We believe he is a capable game manager and mentor, and he inherited a mess in Knoxville when he became the third coach in three years.  Volunteer fans run the risk of becoming another New Mexico or Minnesota if they think they can hire a new coach and return to the way things were in the 1990’s. 

 

As for 2012, the opening game against North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome just became a tossup.  Games against Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and South Carolina will determine if Tennessee flounders around .500 again or wins eight regular season games and returns to a better bowl (Outback or Gator).  We believe 7-5 should warrant Dooley a little insurance.

 

 

Team

Vanderbilt Commodores

               
Head Coach

James Franklin

               
Colors

Black and Gold

               
City

Nashville, TN

               
2011 Record              
Conference

2-6

Overall

6-7

               
PiRate Rating

110.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

32

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

103

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

54

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

2-6

Overall

5-7

 

What Tommy Lasorda did for the Los Angeles Dodgers, James Franklin did for Vanderbilt.  Lasorda took over for Mr. Excitement, Walter Alston, in LA, and the Dodgers responded to his motivational methods.  Franklin came in after Bobby Johnson and his assistant Robbie Caldwell were not the life of the party.  Franklin’s motivational methods were just short of Anthony Robbins.  He also brought in a group of excellent teachers, and Vanderbilt responded immediately.  The Commodores found offense they didn’t have the year before, when Franklin installed the West Coast Offense to replace the spread from the previous three years.

 

It is nice that the Commodores have royal quarterback bloodlines.  Jordan Rodgers can turn to the best quarterback in the world for advice (his brother Aaron), and working with him some in the off-season can only be a big plus.  Rodgers took over as the starter midway through the season, and the Commodores began to move the ball like Jay Cutler was back on campus.  While Rodgers’ numbers were not the best (50% completions and 9/10 TD/int ratio), he proved to be a big scrambler and forced defenses to assign a spy on him rather than drop back into the coverage.  Expect Rodgers to take a giant step forward this year and top 2,500 yards through the air.

 

The Commodores are still behind most of the league at receiver.  Jordan Matthews cannot catch 100 passes, so VU needs to come up with two other quality options.  Matthews led Vandy with 41 catches, and he averaged 19 yards per catch.  Look for his catches to go up and maybe approach 70, but his average will drop.  Chris Boyd and Jonathan Krause teamed for 54 receptions and 644 yards.  Boyd has the ability to emerge as a co-leader with Matthews, while Krause is more of a possession receiver.  The return of John Cole could be a factor if Cole can return to his 2010 form.  The West Coast Offense works a lot better when it has a reliable tight end that can split the seams in Cover 3 and flood a Cover 2 zone.  Austin Monahan needs to play a full season without injury if the Commodores are to return to a bowl this year. 

 

Vanderbilt has one of the better running games in the league.  Zac Stacy emerged as a star last year, rushing for 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns, while averaging close to six yards a try.  Former starter Warren Norman tries to come back after missing all of last year and part of 2010.  He was the Freshman Player of the Year back in 2009, but he has been passed in the depth chart by last year’s freshman contributor Jerron Seymour.  True freshman Brian Kimbrow is the Commodores most coveted recruit in over a decade.  He may be as fast as the star back on the other side of the Cumberland River, the Tennessee Titans’ Chris Johnson.

 

The offensive concern this year is in the offensive line, where Vandy’s projected starters are the smallest in the league.  There are no All-SEC blockers in this group.  The left side, consisting of guard Ryan Seymour and tackle Wesley Johnson should do a good job protecting Rodgers’ blind side.

 

The defense improved just as much as the offense last year, giving up 10 fewer points per game and close to 100 less yards per game and finishing in the middle of the pack in the SEC.  Things will not be as golden this year for the black and gold; the top three tacklers have left the building, including a high draft pick.

 

Gone from the secondary is Casey Hayward, who led the SEC in passes defended with 17, including seven interceptions.  Trey Wilson now becomes the main man in the secondary, after the cornerback intercepted three passes and broke up eight other last year.

 

The defensive line loses its top man in Tim Fugger, who led the team with eight sacks and 13 ½ TFL.  Tackles Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter will have to share some playing time with Vince Taylor, while ends Walker May and Johnell Thomas will rotate with a couple of freshman standouts, Caleb Azubike and Darien Bryant.

 

The middle unit is the big concern.  Leading tackler Chris Marve was the glue that held the improved defense together.  He prevented some breakaway runs last year and will not be adequately replaced.  Archibald Barnes and Chase Garnham are serviceable linebackers but not stars.  Karl Butler would be a nice reserve on most SEC teams.  Expect opponents to find the going much easier this year when they try to run the ball on the Commodores.

 

The schedule features two non-conference games against BCS conference opponents (the only team in the SEC to do so).  The Commodores are also the only team to play six true road games (Texas A&M plays five plus a neutral site game).  They absolutely must go 4-0 outside the league to have a real shot at bowl eligibility, and the early road game at Northwestern will be extremely tough to win following the emotional season opener Thursday night against South Carolina.  Vandy rode a 3-0 start to a 6-6 regular season record last year, and we believe they could start 0-2 this season, which will put them in a hole the rest of the year, one they cannot dig out of.  Call it a five win season.  

 

 

Team

Alabama Crimson Tide

               
Head Coach

Nick Saban

               
Colors

Crimson and White

               
City

Tuscaloosa, AL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

7-1

Overall

12-1

               
PiRate Rating

126.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

119

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

2

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

7-1

Overall

11-1

 

Alabama fans may be willing to change their coach’s name to “Bear Saban.”  If he can win another national championship with this team, he will deserve to place the hounds’ tooth hat on his head.  Alabama lost enough talent from their 2011 National Championship team to produce a bowl eligible team by itself.  However, Alabama’s second team could have won the ACC Championship last year.

 

One first-teamer returning is quarterback A. J. McCarron.  While he is not Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, or Scott Hunter, McCarron is an excellent manager of the offense, and he has enough talent.  He’s more like a Bart Starr; he’ll do just enough to beat you.  Last year, he completed better than 2/3 of his passes, throwing for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns against just five interceptions.  He gained eight yards per attempt, which places him in the spectacular category.

 

The Tide will miss having one of the most talented receivers in the country, but Duron Carter never played a down for the Tide, so they will get by just fine without him.  Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, Amari Cooper, and Christion Jones are not household names, but by December, a lot of defenses will remember this group.  Add tight end Michael Williams and Jalston Fowler, who might line up as a fullback, h-back, tight end, or even in the slot, and the Tide have a very credible group of receivers.

 

Alabama routinely sends running backs into the NFL, and the latest might be the best yet.  Trent Richardson is going to be sorely missed, but don’t cry for the Tide.  Eddie Lacy will top 1,000 yards this year, but only if he can keep true freshman Eddie Yeldon on the bench.  Yeldon should see the field quite a bit this season.

 

How good is the Alabama offensive line?  Oh, we estimate it is about the 27th best in the country; of course the 26 ahead of them are NFL lines.  This line will open holes that an average high school back could average four yards per attempt.  Barrett Jones returns at center, where he won the Outland Trophy last year and is the leading contender to win it again this year, joining all-time greatest college center Dave Rimington as the only back-to-back winner.  Tackle D. J. Fluker could actually be the first player picked in the 2013 NFL Draft, if the team in question does not need Matt Barkley.

 

Alabama’s defense cannot match what it did last year.  The Tide’s stop troops looked more like Coach Bryant’s teams of the early 1960’s, when offenses had not yet evolved.  Alabama held opponents to 8.2 points and 183.6 yards per game!  That sounds like the days when offenses ran the ball 80% of the time and tried to win 13-7.  Nobody will forget what they did to LSU in the title game, holding the Tigers to 92 total yards with no chance to ever score.  In two games against LSU, they kept the Bayou Bengals out of the end zone and held them to 144 passing yards in more than eight quarters.

 

There is way too much all-star talent to replace on this side of the ball, so expect the Tide to give up a lot more points and yards this year.  They could even be generous and allow opponents to score 14 points per game.

 

The secondary returns just one starter, but the three new regulars already make this the top secondary in the league (thanks to one big loss at LSU).  Safety Robert Lester will become a millionaire next year after his name is announced by Roger Goodell at the NFL Draft.  He will team with Vinnie Sunseri to give ‘Bama the best safety tandem in college football.

 

Alabama lost too much at linebacker to repeat the production.  Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw were the two best outside linebackers in the nation.  Opponents had little chance of turning the corner when they ran wide.  Quarterbacks never knew which one was rushing and which was dropping back in pass coverage.  Nico Johnson and C. J. Mosley give the Tide the best inside tandem in the league.

 

Up front, Saban used a lot of defensive linemen last year, so Josh Chapman will be easily replaced.  Look for end Damion Square to become the next big star in the trenches.

 

Usually when a team loses 11 starters off its first team, they will not be as good as the year before.  Alabama is different.  What we see in the SEC is something like a repeat of last year.  We believe the Tide can win 11 regular season games and avoid having to play in the SEC Championship.  Then, if the voters and computers show them to be number two in the BCS, we could have a rematch for the National Championship.  The SEC can do no better than this until the playoffs begin in 2014-15.  Then, they might put three teams in the kitty.  

 

 

Team

Arkansas Razorbacks

               
Head Coach

John L. Smith

               
Colors

Cardinal and White

               
City

Fayetteville, AR

               
2011 Record              
Conference

6-2

Overall

11-2

               
PiRate Rating

119.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

112

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

15

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

5-3

Overall

9-3

 

Poor Razorback fans:  just when it looked like your Hogs had the necessary pieces in place to make a national title run, your coach had to do something really stupid and prove that the male gender sometimes thinks with the wrong part of their body.  Unfortunately, your emergency replacement coach was accused of not being able to think at his prior head coaching stop.

 

When last a head coach in Division 1, John L. Smith was accused of bungling several decisions at Michigan State.  Ask Spartan fans to talk to you about the 2006 game against Ohio State, but be prepared to duck first.

 

Smith finds himself in an impossible position, and he will be blamed when the Razorbacks don’t run the table.  They have possibly the best quarterback in the nation not playing in the Pac-12.  Tyler Wilson thrived last year in Bobby Petrino’s offense.  He picked up where Ryan Mallett left off and passed for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns versus just six interceptions.

 

Wilson lost three outstanding receivers that all heard their names called in the 4th round of the NFL Draft.  Additionally, three other wide receivers expected to either start or see action in reserve left Fayetteville.  That forced Smith to make a big change.  Backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell rarely saw the field thanks to Wilson’s performance.  He was too talented with a lot of athleticism to let ride the bench, so with the endorsement of the entire offensive staff, Mitchell switched to receiver.  He instantly becomes a major asset here, as he will provide Wilson a big target with a lot of speed, and he will be a weapon blocking downfield.  He will team with Cobi Hamilton and true freshman Mekale McKay to give UA the right combination to continue to average over 300 passing yards per game.

 

Can Knile Davis return to his 2010 form after missing all of 2011 with a broken ankle?  That is the big question in Fayetteville this year.  Davis rushed for more than 1,300 yards two years ago.  The Razorbacks have good depth with Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo returning after splitting carries in replace of Davis.  Both could line up in a slot and become receiving weapons.

 

Three starters return to the offensive line, and there is room for some improvement here.  Travis Swanson gets overlooked due to Jones at Alabama, but he is one of the nation’s top centers.  Guard Alvin Bailey rates near the top in the league at his position.

 

Arkansas averaged 37 points and 440 yards per game last year, and those numbers can be duplicated this season.  Now, it will be up to the defense to rise to the occasion and more closely resemble the defenses at the two teams ahead of them in the standings.

 

This defense will not hold opponents under 300 yards and 14 points per game like both Alabama and LSU, but Arkansas could surprise everyone and still sneak in as SEC West champs if the defense could hold the opposition to 20 points and 350 yards per game.

 

Linebacker Alonzo Highsmith looks the part of an all-conference defender.  He paced the Hogs with 12 ½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2011.  Jarrett Lake and Tenarius Wright are not as talented, so Highsmith will need to make 100+ tackles this year.

 

The defensive line is not up to the standards of an LSU or Alabama, or even a Georgia, Florida, or South Carolina.  UA will be breaking in a new pair of ends, neither of whom can compare to Jake Bequette.

 

The secondary will be vulnerable more this season, as there will not be the same pass rush as last year.  Safety Eric Bennett finished with three interceptions and three more passes broken up last year, but he will not be able to take up the slack by the departure of Tramain Thomas.

 

Last year, Arkansas had to play Alabama and LSU on the road, and this year both teams come to Fayetteville.  Road games at Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina, and Mississippi State will all be tough.  Any of those six teams can beat Arkansas, so we cannot pick the Razorbacks to challenge in the West this year.  We figure Arkansas will split those six tough games.  At 9-3, Smith may not be welcomed back for a second season.  He did not even get one full year when he signed here.

 

 

Team

Auburn Tigers

               
Head Coach

Gene Chizik

               
Colors

Navy and Burnt Orange

               
City

Auburn, AL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

4-4

Overall

8-5

               
PiRate Rating

111.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

30

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

105

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

45

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

3-5

Overall

6-6

 

2010 seems like ages ago.  Auburn did not fare so well without Cam Newton.  Now, the Tigers have to go on without offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, the mastermind of the spread offense that led the Tigers to the national championship in 2010.

 

Can Auburn win in the toughest division in college football with a sophomore quarterback that would be more suited to playing tailback in an I-formation?  Kiehl Frazier was a five-star recruit when he arrived at Auburn last year, but he was picked to run the Malzahn spread.  Auburn is switching to a pro offense with new coordinator Scott Loeffler.  Frazier is an excellent runner, but just a so-so passer.  It will be interesting to see how he performs under center.  Backup Clint Moseley seems to be the better fit for this offense, but the coaches obviously believe Frazier can make the transition.

 

Frazier will benefit from the return of the top four receivers on this team.  Tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen is expected to see a lot more passes thrown his way this year after catching 24 and scoring seven times last year.  Emory Blake will be counted on once again to make big gains out of short passes.  Blake led the Tigers with 36 receptions and 613 yards. 

 

In the backfield, Onterio McCalebb should capitalize on the switch to the new offense.  He rushed for 641 yards and five scores, and he finished second on the team with 32 receptions and 344 yards.  Tre Mason will see significant time in reserve.

 

The offensive line took an unexpected blow just on the eve of the big opening game in Atlanta against Clemson.  Center Reese Dismukes was suspended following his arrest for public intoxication.  That leaves guards John Sullen and Chad Slade as the only two holdovers from last year.  True freshman Avery Young now moves into the starting lineup.

 

The War Eagle defense will be better this season after giving up 29 points and more than 400 yards per game last year.  While nine starters return from 2011, two thirds of them have lost their spots on the first team to other players.

 

One starter that will keep his job is end Corey Lemonier, who finished among the SEC leaders with 9 ½ sacks and 13 ½ TFL.  He was close on several other attempts to sack QBs, and he finished with 15 hurries.  Fellow end Nosa Eguae lost his spot to Dee Ford.

 

Daren Bates led the Tigers with 104 tackles, and he will keep his spot at the Sam linebacker.  Jake Holland and Justin Garrett are the two new starters, while Jonathan Evans goes to the bench.

 

Chris Davis is the only defensive back to keep his starting job.  The corner finished fourth with 60 tackles, but he did not intercept a pass last year.

 

Auburn faces a tough season-opener against Clemson in Atlanta, and we are concerned with Frazier’s inexperience in this game.  Clemson will be out to prove that they can hold an opposing bowl team under 70 points, and they could smother the Plainsmen.  Games against Mississippi State, LSU, Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama look very difficult indeed, and we think Auburn will struggle to make it through the season without losing five and maybe six times.

 

 

 

 

Team

Louisiana State Tigers

               
Head Coach

Les Miles

               
Colors

Royal Purple and Gold

               
City

Baton Rouge, LA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

8-0

Overall

13-1

               
PiRate Rating

131.4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

120

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

1

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

8-0

Overall

13-0

 

Through the 2011 regular season, LSU looked like one of the top college teams of all time.  The Tigers faced a difficult schedule and came through unscathed, defeating Oregon, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia, all of whom were ranked when they played them.  Then, with multiple weeks to prepare for the game, Nick Saban figured out how to stop LSU cold, and the Tigers had to settle for the consolation prize.

 

No competitor wants to go home with a year supply of Rice-a-Roni, and LSU returns this year with a chip on its collective shoulder and a mean streak ready to prove to the public that they are not satisfied with being number two.

 

Quarterback Zach Mettenberger assumes controls of the attack unit.  He saw limited action as the number three man behind Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson.  Stephen Rivers, younger brother of Phillip, will be ready to go if Mettenberger fails to live up to his hype.  We are not totally sold on this unit, but whoever ends up playing the most under center, his principal assignment will be to hand the ball off and fake the handoff and throw off play-action. 

 

The Tigers have enough quality running backs to switch to the old full-house T-formation and ram the ball through the defense like Ohio State did in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard, Michael Ford,  and Spencer Ware will all see time in the backfield.  This quartet rushed for 2,338 yards and 30 touchdowns last year (5.3 avg per rush).  Now, add a new wrinkle to this mix.  Coach Les Miles moved big defensive tackle J. C. Copeland, at 280 pounds, into fullback, and he will personally escort the running backs through holes with much less interference.  Miles even plans to give Copeland a rushing attempt every now and again.  LSU could rush for 225-250 yards per game this year.  Woody Hayes would be smiling.

 

Receivers Odell Beckham, Russell Shepard, James Wright, Jarvis Landry, and tight end Chase Clement make up a decent group of pass catchers.  They may not catch as many passes as the receivers at Arkansas, but their yards per catch could be better.  Defenses will have to go to great lengths to stop the running game, so the receivers should exploit the fact that there will be more open space when they run their routes. 

 

LSU’s offensive line is almost as good as Alabama’s.  Four starters return, led by tackles Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst, who could both vie for 1st Team All-SEC accolades.  This unit paved the way for the runners to perform like they did, and they weren’t too shabby as pass blockers, except against Alabama.

 

The Tiger defense was one of the best in the nation last year, but only second best in this division.  LSU gave up just 11 points and 260 yards per game.  The Tigers may be vulnerable at times this year due to the loss of six starters from this side of the ball, including the “Honey Badger,” Tyrann Mathieu.  Mathieu tied for the team lead with 76 tackles.  He made 7 ½ tackles for loss, and he had 11 passes defended.  He also scored two touchdowns on punt returns.  However, he decided that synthetic marijuana was more important, and it cost him.  He is now in rehab with the hopes of coming back in 2013.  We wish him luck.

 

The defensive line is where LSU will dominate in 2012.  Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo teamed up for 17 sacks, 28 ½ tackles for loss, and 12 QB hurries.  They are both juniors, but they could be 1st round picks in the 2013 NFL Draft.  Bennie Logan is a pro prospect at tackle.

 

Kevin Minter is the stud of the second line of defense.  The middle linebacker made 61 tackles.  Tahj Jones and Lamin Barrow round out this unit, but this trio is not as talented as the line.  Expect true freshman Deion Jones to eventually take over as a starter.

 

Replacing Mathieu will be difficult, but LSU has other talented players on the back line.  Eric Reid tied with Mathieu in tackles with 76, and he picked off two passes.  However, Miles is replacing the Honey Badger with a true freshman, Jalen Mills, and there will be a drop-off in talent here.  Note: while defensive backs finished one-two in tackles, this was not a sign of a weak defense.  LSU rotated defenders up front, so the number of tackles was more spread out.  Also, opposing teams had to try to pass the ball, so there were fewer opportunities for the line and linebackers to make a lot of tackles.

 

LSU’s non-conference schedule will allow the new players to gel and be ready for SEC play.  Easy wins over North Texas, Washington, and Idaho will allow the Tigers to invade Auburn and come away with a win.  A breeze game against Towson State will allow them to prepare for Florida at The Swamp.  If they beat the Gators, they would have two more tough games before “The Game.”  South Carolina at home and Texas A&M on the road will be tough games, but we believe LSU will wear both down.  At 8-0, they would then get a week off to prepare for the big one, while Alabama is forced to play Mississippi State.  We believe LSU can win that one and then knock off the two Mississippi teams and Arkansas to run the table in the regular season once again.  Could we see another LSU-Alabama national title match?  It isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

 

 

Team

Ole Miss Rebels

               
Head Coach

Hugh Freeze

               
Colors

Cardinal and Navy

               
City

Oxford, MS

               
2011 Record              
Conference

0-8

Overall

2-10

               
PiRate Rating

100.8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

58

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

99

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

70

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

0-8

Overall

3-9

 

Last year, Hugh Freeze produced a conference champion in his first year as a FBS head coach.  Of course, that happened at Arkansas State.  He takes over an Ole Miss program that has never been able to duplicate what Johnny Vaught did for a quarter century.  Houston Nutt guided the Rebels to back-to-back Cotton Bowl wins in his first two seasons, but the best he could do in conference play was 5-3.  His last two years saw Ole Miss fall into last place with 1-7 and 0-8 league marks.  Freeze takes over a program that will require a large remodel.  He wants to implement the same no-huddle hurry-up offense with a 50-50 run/pass mix, but his roster was recruited to run the spread running game.

 

Nutt used three quarterbacks last year, and two return this season.  However, one of the two is now a running back.  Big-time junior college recruit Bo Wallace was supposed to come in and take over command in the pocket, but last year’s number three man Barry Brunetti earned the starting spot.  Brunetti completed 19 of 35 passes for 144 yards last year.  He is a decent runner, and that may help keep him from being clobbered too many times trying to set up with a weak blocking wall.

 

Ole Miss was not much of a passing team last year, completing just 13 passes per game, so there were not a lot of receptions to be had.  The receiving contingent welcomes back five of the seven players that caught 10 or more passes last year.  Donte Moncrief led the Rebels with 31 receptions and 454 yards.  Ja-Mes Logan added 20 receptions and 274 yards.  Tight end Jamal Mosley caught a dozen passes for 166 yards.  Expect this trio to more than double the 63 combined passes caught this season. 

 

Freeze will use a platoon at running back with Jeff Scott and former quarterback Randall Mackey seeing an equal amount of reps.  Both are speedy backs without much power.

 

The offensive line is weaker than the line at Kentucky, so that tells you why Ole Miss will struggle to move the ball and score in the SEC.  Two starters are left from last season, and neither will earn all-league recognition.  These linemen were brought in to block for the spread and are not the best pass blockers, so expect a rough transition this year.

 

The Rebels will improve on defense first, but the statistics may not show the improvement, because Ole Miss will be forced to defend for five to 10 more plays per game this year.

 

Middle linebacker Mike Marry is the best player on this side of the ball.  Marry led Ole Miss with 81 tackles last year.  Of course, a good many of those tackles came after opponents gained four or five yards.  Aaron Garbutt and converted defensive back Dehendret Collins join Marry at linebacker.  At 200 and 175 pounds, they are well undersized to stop the run, but quick enough to defend the short zones.

 

Freeze moved a former fullback and tight end over to the defensive side, and E.J. Epperson was impressive enough to become one of the starting defensive ends.  C. J. Johnson and Epperson will give Ole Miss some athleticism on the outside.  True freshman Isaac Gross will start immediately at tackle.  This group will have its moments, but they are going to be generous against the good teams.

 

The Ole Miss secondary gave up just 194 passing yards per game last year, but the weak run defense was mostly responsible for the low amount.  Unfortunately, the one star on the back line will not play until October at the earliest.  Safety Charles Sawyer is out with a torn quadriceps muscle. 

 

It is going to be a long year in Oxford, but Rebel fans will be entertained with a more wide open offense.  Texas A&M comes on to the schedule, while Kentucky goes off.  Out of the league, games with UTEP and Texas will be tough.  We’ll give them the game against the Miners plus wins over Central Arkansas and Tulane.  3-9 will be a minor improvement over 2-10.

 

 

Team

Mississippi State Bulldogs

               
Head Coach

Dan Mullen

               
Colors

Maroon and White

               
City

Starkville, MS

               
2011 Record              
Conference

2-6

Overall

7-6

               
PiRate Rating

108.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

36

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

106

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

42

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

5-3

Overall

9-3

 

What was the difference between Dan Mullen’s great 2010 season and so-so 2011 season?  Their opponents were improved last year.  In 2010, Mississippi State beat Georgia and Arkansas; last year they lost those two games, because Georgia was much better than the year before and Arkansas was much tougher at home than in Starkville.

 

The schedule becomes easier again this year, as the Bulldogs do not have to play Georgia and South Carolina from the East (and avoid Florida).  They keep Kentucky and get Auburn, Texas A&M, and Arkansas at home.

 

Mullen welcomes back a seasoned veteran at quarterback this year.  Tyler Russell split time at QB with Chris Relf, and he now gets full control.  Russell took over at halftime of last year’s UAB game, when the Blazers went to the locker up 3-0 at the half.  Russell led the Bulldogs on three touchdown drives in the second half and became the starter for most of the remainder of the season. If for some reason Russell does not move forward this year, Dak Prescott will take over.  There isn’t that much separating the two.

 

The Bulldogs have a decent group of receivers this year, as the top three guys return.  Arceto Clark, Chad Bumphis, and Chris Smith teamed for 90 receptions and 1,111 yards last year.  Marcus Green and Brandon Hill will try to replace Malcolm Johnson, who suffered an injury earlier this summer.

 

State loses 1,000-yard rusher Vic Ballard, but they return two quality backs that could combine for more yards than Ballard.  LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin averaged better than five yards per attempt.

 

The offensive line needs some rebuilding, but there is adequate talent here.  Guard Gabe Jackson made the all-SEC second team last year.

 

MSU has three rather talented units on the defensive side of the ball; of course, rather talented is not great in a division that has dominating defenses.  Linebacker is the top unit; top tackler Cameron Lawrence (123 stops).  Lawrence recorded six tackles for loss and defended seven passes.  Deontae Skinner made 69 tackles with nine going for negative yards.

 

In the trenches, tackle Josh Boyd had 4 ½ sacks last year and finished with 51 tackles.  Ends Kaleb Eulls and Denico Autry need to step up quickly to replace the production lost by Fletcher Cox’s graduation.

 

The Maroons have a pair of quality cornerbacks in Johnathan Banks and Corey Broomfield.  The duo teamed up for 130 tackles.  Banks picked off five passes and batted away nine others.  Broomfield may actually split time with Darius Slay.

 

As we discussed before, we believe Mullen will guide this team to a better record than last year, if only because the schedule is much more favorable.  This is a team that could sneak into the Cotton Bowl.

 

 

Team

Texas A&M Aggies

               
Head Coach

Kevin Sumlin

               
Colors

Maroon and White

               
City

Nashville, TN

               
2011 Record              
Conference

4-5

Overall

7-6

               
PiRate Rating

113.2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

24

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

105

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rating

46

               
2012 Prediction              
Conference

3-5

Overall

7-5

 

The Aggies gave up a lot when they lost their rivalry with Texas.  However, annual games against LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas will more than make up for that loss.  The gigantic check the school receives will place this move over the top in the positive column.

 

Kevin Sumlin takes over at head coach after leading Houston to a spectacular season last year.  On the plus side, SEC fans will love watching his teams play their wide open style of football.  On the minus side, Case Keenum does not get to come too.

 

Sumlin is going with a freshman as his new quarterback.  Johnny Manziel redshirted last year, while Ryan Tannehill threw for almost 300 yards per game.  Behind Manziel on the depth chart are two untested sophomores.

 

SEC fans will quickly get to know Ryan Swope.  The senior wide receiver led the Aggies with 89 receptions, 1,207 yards, and 11 touchdowns.  Uzoma Nwachukwu added 50 catches. 

 

A&M loses their 1,000-yard rusher, Cyrus Gray, but the Aggies return backup Christine Michael, who rushed for 899 yards with a higher average per carry than Gray.  Michael should top 1,000 this year.

 

Four starters return to a blocking wall that opened holes for the offense to run for more than five yards per carry and gave up just nine sacks all year.  The Aggies are exceptionally strong at tackle with Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel returning.

 

Texas A&M might have been the Big 12 Champions last year if their defense had been better on just one or two plays in their six losses.  They blew big leads to Oklahoma State (20-3), Arkansas (35-17), Missouri (28-17), and Texas (13-0), and they lost all five games!  They could have been 8-1/11-1 and won the league.

 

The Aggie defense gave up 28 points and almost 380 yards per game, and these five blown leads cost Mike Sherman his job.  This year, the Aggies will be no better defensively, but their numbers might improve in a more conservative league.  Instead of blowing leads and losing 42-38 to quality teams, they will lose 27-23.

 

The Aggies are strongest at linebacker, where all three 2011 starters return.  Jonathan Stewart led A&M with 98 tackles.  Steven Jenkins contributed 61 stops, and Sean Porter finished with 79.  Porter was the big star, leading the Big 12 with 9 ½ sacks and adding another 7 ½ stops for loss.

 

End Damontre Moore finished just behind Porter with 8 ½ sacks, and he added nine more stops for loss.  Spencer Nealy proved to be a big play defender with eight TFL.  Gavin Stansbury and Kirby Ennis become the two new starters in the line.

 

This will be a double transition season for the Aggies—a new coach and a new league.  While there will be growing pains, we feel like there is enough talent on board to sneak through with a winning record and bowl bid. 

 

Unfortunately for the Aggies, Hurricane Isaac has forced the postponement of their opening game.  They will now play Louisiana Tech on October 13, meaning their home opener with Florida will be their first game, but Florida’s second.  This puts them at a huge disadvantage, because college football teams improve the most between their first and second game.

 

Coming Wednesday, August 29: We reveal the PiRate Ratings for all 124 FBS teams and the lines for week one.  Then, on Thursday, we will take our “just for fun” look at beating the spread.

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

August 21, 2010

2010 Southeastern Conference Football Preview

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Go to www.piratings.webs.com where we beat the spread 60.4% in 2009!

 

2010 Southeastern Conference Preview

We close out the conference previews with a look at the biggie.  The SEC has produced the last four national champions and five in the past decade, compared to two from the Big 12, one from the Big Ten, one from the Pac-10, and one from the Big East.  Not since Georgia in 2005 has the SEC Champion not played in the BCS National Championship Game.

We are going to predict this trend ends this season, but not without a lot of controversy.  We believe the SEC Champion, like all the other five BCS Conference champions will lose at least one game.  As we have stated in earlier previews, we believe both Boise State and TCU will win all their games and meet in Glendale for the rubber match bowl game.

One coach finds himself on a hot seat that he may not be able to cool down.  One coach is on a mildly warm seat due to fans that have ridiculously high and impossible standards.  One coach may want to hang it up at the end of this year after many years in the business.  One coach already decided to get out, leaving just before August practices began.  It is possible that four jobs in the elite conference will be available after the season. 

Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.

Predictions

Pos East SEC W-L
1 Florida 7-1 11-2
2 South Carolina 5-3 8-4
3 Georgia 5-3 9-3
4 Kentucky 2-6 6-6
5 Tennessee 1-7 4-8
6 Vanderbilt 0-8 1-11
       
Pos West SEC W-L
1 Alabama 7-1 12-1
2 Auburn 5-3 9-3
3 Arkansas 5-3 9-3
4 L S U 4-4 7-5
5 Ole Miss 4-4 8-4
6 Mississippi State 3-5 6-6

 

SEC Championship Game: Alabama over Florida

 

BCS Bowl (Sugar): Alabama

BCS Bowl: Florida

Capital One Bowl: Auburn

Outback Bowl: Georgia

Cotton Bowl: Arkansas

Chick-fil-A Bowl: South Carolina

Gator Bowl: L S U

Music City Bowl: Mississippi State

Liberty Bowl: Ole Miss

PapaJohns.com Bowl: Kentucky

 

 

Team By Team Breakdown

S E C  East

 

Team

Florida Gators
               
Head Coach Urban Meyer
               
Colors Blue and Orange
               
City Gainesville, FL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 13-1
               
PiRate Rating 121.4
               
National Rating 10
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 11-2
               
Strengths: QB, RB, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, LB, DB, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Receiver (small weakness)
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Miami (O), South Florida, Appalachian State, @ Florida State
   
Key Games: @ Alabama, LSU, Georgia (n), South Carolina
   
Offense Pred. 28-32 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 15-19 points & 275-300 yards
               
Outlook

The Gators went 13-1 last year, and it was considered a major disappointment.  The team that returned almost every starter from a national championship was expected to go 14-0 and become the next 2001 Miami, 1995 Nebraska, 1971 Nebraska, and 1945 Army in college football.

 

Head Coach Urban Meyer briefly stepped down only to come back a few days later.  Unfortunately, Tim Tebow, Riley Cooper, Aaron Hernandez, Ryan Stamper, Joe Haden, Brandon Spikes, Dustin Doe, and Carlos Dunlap don’t have the option of coming back.  The Gators lost nine players to the NFL.  How can they possibly still be considered the top contender in the SEC East?  Simple: they still have the best overall talent in the division.

 

Quarterback John Brantley completed 36 of 48 passes for 410 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions in mop-up situations last year.  Not a real dual-threat runner like Tebow, he will set up in the pocket and throw downfield.  Remember, Meyer won a national title here with Chris Leak doing the same thing.

 

Brantley has fewer weapons at his disposal than Tebow had.  The loss of Cooper and Hernandez (119-1,811/14) leaves Deonte Thompson as the leading holdover.  Thompson will get help from the speedy Andre DeBose and the big-bodied Carl Moore.  Slotback Chris Rainey caught only 10 passes last year, and he will have to quadruple that mark this year for the Gators to be successful.

 

The running game will need more production from real backs, because Brantley will run much less than Tebow.   Rainey will team with Chris Demps and Emmanuel Moody to carry the load.  Expect the trio to top 1,800 rushing yards this year.

 

The offensive line returns four talented blockers, including all-American center Mike Pouncey and 6-5, 360-pound guard Carl Johnson.

 

Losing three defensive players who were drafted in the 1st two rounds of the NFL Draft and two other players in later rounds, UF will be a little weaker on this side of the ball, but not too much weaker to miss out on a return trip to a BCS Bowl.

 

The Gators have strength at defensive tackle thanks to the return of Omar Hunter and Jaye Howard.  Very few teams will run the ball up the middle against them.  Meyer recruited a lot of grade A d-line talent, and three could see immediate action as true freshmen.  Keep an eye on Ronald Powell and Sharrif Floyd.

 

A.J. Jones is the lone starter returning at linebacker.  Jones plays the run and the pass well, but UF will be weaker in the second line of defense.

 

The secondary will be strong once again with the return of two starters and several talented letterwinners.  Enemy quarterbacks will throw away from cornerback Janoris Jenkins.

 

Florida must play Alabama in the regular season at Tuscaloosa on October 2.  They will probably face the Tide in Atlanta two months later in a rematch game.

Team Georgia Bulldogs
               
Head Coach Mark Richt
               
Colors Red and Black
               
City Athens, GA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 115.5
               
National Rating 23
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: RB, Receiver, Offensive Line ***, Linebacker, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Defensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: UL-Lafayette, @ Colorado, Idaho State, Georgia Tech
   
Key Games: @ South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida (n), @ Auburn
   
Offense Pred. 27-31 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

It is ridiculous that many Georgia fans want to get rid of Coach Mark Richt, when he just guided the Bulldogs to the most successful decade in their history.  Vince Dooley did not post 10-consecutive seasons as victorious as the decade Richt produced in Athens.  Pay close attention to what happened in Minnesota when Glen Mason was fired.

 

Editorial aside, Georgia has another fine team this season.  10 starters return on the offensive side; the one position that needs to be filled just happens to be at quarterback.  Richt has basically one option here.  Redshirt freshman Aaron Murray has the job from day one, because true freshman Hutson Mason is the only real backup.

 

If Murray is worth his salt as a passer, he will have a lot of weapons at his disposal.  A.J. Green has all-American potential after grabbing 53 passes for 808 yards in an injury-plagued season.  Tavarres King and Orson Charles should both top 40 receptions.  Former quarterback Logan Gray moves to receiver, where he should contribute this year.

 

At running back, Washaun Ealey played in the final nine games and rushed for 717 yards.  Caleb King added 594 yards.  Both have a combination of power and speed and can hit anywhere on the line of scrimmage.

 

The offensive line returns all five starters from last season, and this quintet ranks second nationally to Wisconsin’s line.  Guards Chris Davis and Cordy Glenn make a terrific tandem, and when you throw in center Ben Jones, the Bulldogs will be able to run the ball inside with authority and keep defensive pass rushers from coming up the middle.

 

In the last five seasons, Georgia gave up 16.4, 17.6, 20.2, 24.5, and 25.9 points per game.  This annual deterioration has led to a change at defensive coordinator.  Enter NFL veteran Todd Grantham, and enter the 3-4 defense.

 

We are a bit concerned about the new front three, as nose guard DeAngelo Tyson is not the answer there for a 3-4 front.  Former offensive lineman Justin Anderson may eventually take over in the interior.  At 330 pounds, he is better suited to growing roots over center.

 

If the new defensive line can keep blockers away from the UGa linebackers, the defense will have a chance to improve for the first time in five years.  Watch for Justin Houston to become a fixture in opponents’ backfields.  He could register double figure sacks and 20+ tackles for loss.

 

Brandon Boykin is the only returning starter in the secondary, and there isn’t much experience taking the place of the three departed starters.  Look for the ‘Dogs to give up more passing yards this year.

 

Georgia faced a key game in week two, when they visit South Carolina.  The winner will get a chance to play for the division title later in the season against Florida, while the loser will be out of the race.

Team Kentucky Wildcats
               
Head Coach Joker Phillips
               
Colors Royal Blue and White
               
City Lexington, KY
               
2009 Record              
Conference 2-6
Overall 7-6
               
PiRate Rating 101.9
               
National Rating 55
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 2-6
Overall 6-6
               
Strengths: Receiver, Special Teams, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Louisville, Western Kentucky, Akron, Chas. Southern
   
Key Games: @ Ole Miss, Auburn, South Carolina, @ Miss. St., Vandy, @ Tenn.
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 300-325 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

Joker Phillips takes over as head coach in Lexington after directing the Wildcats’ offense.  Kentucky has used intelligent non-conference scheduling to gain bowl eligibility four years in a row.  The trend should continue in Phillips’ first season.

 

This will be a weaker Kentucky team, but the Wildcats will benefit from having the easiest schedule in the league.  They should sweep their four non-SEC foes for the fourth year in a row and win two conference games to make it back to a bowl for the fifth straight year.

 

Phillips has to make a decision at quarterback.  He has senior Mike Hartline and sophomore Morgan Newton as his two main options.  Hartline is a more conservative passer who seldom takes chances.  He’s got a more accurate arm, but he doesn’t have much zip on the ball.  Newton can hum the ball deep and has a quick release, but he doesn’t always put the ball where he aims.  Expect both to play, and redshirt freshman Ryan Mosakowski could see some game time as well.

 

There is another option at quarterback.  Randall Cobb is the Wildcat Offense quarterback, but he is a starting wideout.  Cobb led UK with 39 receptions and 447 yards last year.  He finished second in rushing with 573 yards, and he passed for 89 more.  If the single wing were still in vogue, he would be an all-star tailback.

 

Speaking of tailbacks, Derrick Locke returns after rushing for 907 yards.  Expect Locke to run the ball 200-225 times for more than 1,000 yards this season.

 

Besides the previously mentioned Cobb, Kentucky returns four other receivers that saw considerable action, so whoever ends up in the pocket should have some good targets running routes.

 

The offensive line could be a liability this year, as just one starter returns.  Guard Stuart Hines has all-conference potential, but three of the new starters have seen a lot of action in SEC games.  Don’t expect too many more sacks allowed by this unit.

 

The 2009 UK defense turned out to be outstanding.  Ask Tim Tebow about the pass rush.  This year, the defensive line could even be a bit better.  Ends DeQuin Evans and Taylor Wyndham (the concussion-delivering blow to Tebow) will give the ‘Cats a good pass rush from the outside.  The tackles are not as talented as the ends, and opponents will run the ball up the middle against them.

 

Only one starter returns at linebacker.  Danny Trevathan finished second in tackles last year with 82, and he had five tackles for loss.  Phillips may have some depth issues here, because several expected backups have left.

 

Half of last year’s great secondary returns.  Cornerback Randall Burden intercepted two passes and knocked down eight others.  Safety Winston Guy was an excellent run stuffer, and he broke up five passes.  The pass defense won’t come close to matching last year’s exceptional output (just 48.5% completions allowed), but it will still be quite good.

 

Kentucky has not defeated rival Tennessee since 1984, but we believe this is the season that streak ends.

Team South Carolina Gamecocks
               
Head Coach Steve Spurrier
               
Colors Garnet and Black
               
City Columbia, SC
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 7-6
               
PiRate Rating 121.6
               
National Rating 9
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Running Back, Receiver, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Southern Miss, Furman, Troy, @ Clemson
   
Key Games: Georgia, @ Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, @ Florida
   
Offense Pred. 26-30 points & 360-380 yards
               
Defense Pred. 18-22 points & 300-325 yards
               
Outlook

It could be now or never for Coach Steve Spurrier in Columbia.  He has enough talent to break through into the top two in the division, if he can get halfway decent production from his quarterbacks.

 

Spurrier tends to eat at his quarterbacks when they don’t play every down like they have the name “Wuerffel” on the back of their jerseys.  He has bad-mouthed two-year starter Stephen Garcia since the end of last season, and it appears he will carry the insults to the opening game.  Garcia passed for 2,862 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, and he scrambled at times when the pocket broke down.  Still, Spurrier is threatening to start true freshman Connor Shaw in the first game.

 

Another true freshman might start from day one and become the best running back the Gamecock’s have had since George Rogers.  Marcus Lattimore is the real deal.  He was the top running back recruit in the nation last year.  Returning starter Kenny Miles and backups Brian Maddox and Jarvis Giles return, so the USC running game may produce the most yards here since Lou Holtz was coaching.

 

The receiving corps welcomes back leading pass catcher Alshon Jeffery, who finished 2009 with 46 receptions for 763 yards and six touchdowns.  He will team with Tori Gurley to form a formidable pair of wideouts.  If tight end Weslye Saunders can improve on his 32 receptions, the Gamecocks are going to be potent on the attack.  Saunders was one of the college stars present at that South Beach agent party, so he could miss some or even all of 2009.

 

The offensive line has played inconsistently the last couple of years, but it should be a team strength this season with four returning starters. 

 

The USC defense gave up just 20 points and 300 yards per game last year, and seven starters return to keep it strong in 2010.  Two starters return to the front four, including all-conference end Cliff Matthews.  Matthews made 47 tackles with seven sacks and three other tackles for loss, and he proved valuable against the pass with three knocked down passes.

 

At linebacker, leading tackler Shaq Wilson returns after making 85 stops last year.  Rodney Paulk returns to the middle linebacker spot after missing two seasons due to injury.  If he is close to 100% after suffering an ACL injury, the Gamecocks will be strong here.

 

The secondary is the strength of the defense.  USC has a top notch pair of cornerbacks in Stephon Gilmore and Chris Culliver.  They broke up 17 passes last year, and they should pick up a couple more interceptions this season.

 

Everything is in place for Spurrier to take USC to the next level.  They have a chance in all eight conference games, as they get to host Alabama and Georgia, and they play Florida in Gainesville in a year where the Gators will have a minor rebuilding season.  If the Gamecocks repeat with a 7-6 season, Spurrier may hang it up.

Team Tennessee Volunteers
               
Head Coach Derek Dooley
               
Colors Orange and White
               
City Knoxville, TN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 7-6
               
PiRate Rating 101.9
               
National Rating 54
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 4-8
               
Strengths: Receiver
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Linebacker, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: UT-Martin, Oregon, UAB, @ Memphis
   
Key Games: @LSU, @ Georgia, @ S. Carolina, Ole Miss, @ Vandy, Kentucky
   
Offense Pred. 16-20 points & 275-300 yards
               
Defense Pred. 20-24 points & 300-325 yards
               
Outlook

Welcome to the annual soap opera known as “All My Coaches.”  The Volunteers have their third coach in three seasons and fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons.  Add to this that several players have left and more have suffered injuries, and this is going to be the weakest team on the hill in Knoxville in more than 30 years.

 

The offense starts with a new quarterback that threw for 39 yards in very limited action at Louisville two years ago.  Matt Simms is the son of Phil Simms.  The junior transfer will compete with true freshman Tyler Bray, but whoever winds up as the starter will not come close to matching the stats compiled by departed starter Jonathan Crompton.

 

Three talented receivers will give the new QB a decent chance at having some success against weaker pass defenses.  Wideouts Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore and tight end Luke Stocker teamed up for 115 receptions, 1,609 yards, and 16 touchdowns.  True freshman Justin Hunter could see extensive action.

 

The running game has to start from scratch with the loss of the top two rushers.  Tauren Poole and David Oku are serviceable backs, but neither will threaten to run for 1,000 yards.

 

The weakest unit on the team is the offensive line.  All five starters are gone.  Guard Jarrod Shaw started three games last season, and the rest of this unit has no career starts.

 

This will be the weakest offense at UT since before Doug Dickey’s time as coach in the mid-1960’s.

 

The defense should be better off than the offense, but there are no Reggie White’s or John Henderson’s on this team.  There are also no Eric Berry’s.  Berry finished his career with seven tackles for loss and nine passes defended last season.  The all-American strong safety was the fifth overall pick in the draft.

 

Darren Myles was going to be the new stud of the secondary, but he was dismissed from the team this spring.  Expect opponents to shred this secondary for 200+ passing yards this season.

 

The defensive line took a major hit with injuries, and there will be a problem stopping the run and rushing the passer.  Southern Cal transfer Malik Jackson could see immediate playing time.  Chris Walker will be the lone serious QB sack threat.

 

Tennessee has a similar history to Penn State when it comes to producing linebackers.  They have two fine ones this year who should combine for 100-120 tackles.  LaMarcus Thompson and Nick Reveiz won’t make all-conference teams, but they won’t be liabilities either.

 

Tennessee should win three of their four non-conference games this year, but once conference play begins, the Vols may have to wait to November to get a league win.  Coach Derek Dooley’s first season in Knoxville could produce a 4-8 record.  Since the Vols started playing football in 1902, they have never lost eight games in a season.

Team Vanderbilt Commodores
               
Head Coach Robbie Caldwell
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City Nashville, TN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 0-8
Overall 2-10
               
PiRate Rating 96.1
               
National Rating 68
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 0-8
Overall 1-11
               
Strengths: Running Back
               
Weaknesses: QB, Receiver, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, LB, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Northwestern, @ Connecticut, Eastern Mich., Wake Forest
   
Key Games: @ Ole Miss, @ Kentucky, Tennessee
   
Offense Pred. 13-16 points & 275-300 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-26 points & 375-400 yards
               
Outlook

Vanderbilt was supposed to contend for another bowl game last year and maybe win as many as eight games with a veteran squad returning from a seven-win season that included a bowl victory.  Instead, the Commodores suffered through numerous injuries and crashed to a 2-10 season.  The offense could not move the ball on Army much less a conference foe.  Vanderbilt averaged just 8.9 points and 234 yards of offense in conference play, numbers not seen in the SEC since the mid-1960’s.

 

To add insult to injury, Bobby Johnson decided in July that he could take no more of this.  He retired, leaving the job to Robbie Caldwell.  Vanderbilt is a team that must stay healthy to have a chance in the SEC, and immediately after practice began, serious injuries put a major crimp in the offense.  It is going to be a long season in Nashville, and the Commodores are going to be underdogs in all but one game.

 

Larry Smith returns at quarterback after suffering through a sophomore slump season that ended in the first quarter of the ninth game.  He will compete with holdovers Jared Funk and Charlie Goro and junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Aaron Rodgers.  We expect Smith to start the opener with Northwestern, but we wouldn’t be surprised if more than one quarterback played in that game.

 

The running back situation appeared to be a team strength until practice began.  Sophomore Warren Norman rushed for 783 yards as a freshman, while fellow freshman Zac Stacy added 478.  Stacy sprained his MCL in practice and is out for the first couple of games.  Backup backs Kennard Reeves and Wesley Tate (younger brother of Golden Tate) are nursing injuries as well, so depth will be an issue here.

 

The Commodores are rather weak at receiver.  There is not a deep ball threat on the roster, and there is only one consistent possession man.  John Cole led the team with just 36 receptions and 382 yards.  Tight end Brandon Barden finished second with 29 catches for 357 yards.  No receiver had more than one touchdown reception.  Expect another year of struggles through the air.

 

The offensive line lost its one all-conference caliber blocker when tackle James Williams was lost to academic difficulties.  One starter returns to the blocking corps–guard Kyle Fischer.

 

This looks like an offense that will possibly score fewer than 10 points per game in conference play for a second consecutive season.

 

The Vanderbilt defense was decent last year, but the offense forced it to defend too many plays, more than 70 to be exact.  Injuries and graduation will make this side of the ball weaker than last year.  Tackle Adam Smotherman tore his ACL in Spring drills, and he will not be 100% at all this season.  He will probably miss some games as well.  End Theron Kadri will become the sack specialist on this team, but we don’t expect Vanderbilt to top 20 sacks with this defense.

 

Chris Marve is an all-conference talent at middle linebacker after leading the Commodores with 121 tackles last year.  He will have two new partners starting with him in the second line of defense.

 

The back line of defense loses its leading pass defender, but cornerback Casey Hayward returns after intercepting two passes and batting away seven others.

 

We cannot see the Commodores breaking through with a conference victory this season.  Vanderbilt’s non-conference schedule is the toughest of any SEC team.  They face Northwestern, Connecticut, and Wake Forest, and we see these opponents defeating the Commodores in close games.  That leaves an October 9 home game with Eastern Michigan as possibly the only chance to pick up a victory.

S E C  WEST

Team Alabama Crimson Tide
               
Head Coach Nick Saban
               
Colors Crimson and White
               
City Tuscaloosa, AL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 14-0
               
PiRate Rating 126.1
               
National Rating 2
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 12-1
               
Strengths: Quarterback **, Running Back ***, Defensive Line, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: San Jose State, Penn State @ Duke, Georgia State
   
Key Games: @ Arkansas, Florida, @ S. Carolina, Auburn
   
Offense Pred. 34-38 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 15-19 points & 275-300 yards
               
Outlook

What can the Tide do for an encore?  They had maybe two tough games in their march to a 14-0 record and national championship.  The had the Heisman Trophy winner as well.  How can a team lose nine starters on their defensive side and still be a legitimate contender for another national championship?

 

That’s simple.  When you have a top five recruiting class three years in a row, you have exceptional talent past your two-deep.  There are players on this team that may see no more than a few snaps of game action per year that could be starting for other bowl teams.

 

Let’s start on offense, where the Tide will be tough to slow down.  The second best running attack in college football starts with the best individual back.  Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is back after rushing for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns.  He added 32 receptions for 334 yards and three more scores.  Backup Trent Richardson rushed for 751 yards and eight scores, earning 1st Team Freshman All-American honors! 

 

Handing the ball off to this dynamic duo is a quarterback that has never lost a game at the college or high school level.  Greg McElroy didn’t get much publicity with Ingram running roughshod over opponents, but he completed better than 60% of his passes for 2,508 yards and 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions.  He could top 3,000 yards this year.

 

McElroy’s receivers are not as talented as the running backs, but they are still quite talented in their own right.  Julio Jones led the Tide with 43 catches, even though he missed the better part of seven games.  Marquis Maze is a deep threat in his own right, and he will see mostly single coverage.

 

The offensive line returns three starters but has several talented newcomers, including redshirt freshman tackle D.J. Fluker, who has all-conference written all over his chest.

 

The defense has some major reloading to do.  13 of the top 16 tacklers are gone, and that number could become 14 of 16. Middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower and strong safety Mark Baron are the only two returning starters, and Hightower only started four times before going down for the season with an ACL injury. 

 

Baron could be a 1st Team all-American this year.  He led the SEC with 18 passes defended (7 Int./11 PBU).  There is very little experience joining him in the secondary, but there is a lot of raw talent waiting for Coach Nick Saban to mold into the next tough pass defense.

 

Sophomore Nico Johnson made the SEC All-Freshman team last year in limited action, and he will team with Hightower to form a splendid pair at linebacker.

 

The front line could have another major blow.  End Marcell Dareus, a sack machine, may be declared ineligible for part or all of the season for his attendance at the South Beach agent party.

 

Alabama will give up more points and yards this year, but they will still finish in the top 20 in the nation in total defense.

 

The schedule is really tough for all SEC West teams this year, as every team could easily be bowl eligible.  Throw in a game with Florida, and it doesn’t look possible for a third consecutive undefeated regular season.  Call it a one-loss year and trip to the Sugar Bowl.

Team Arkansas Razorbacks
               
Head Coach Bobby Petrino
               
Colors Cardinal and White
               
City Fayetteville, AR
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 124.9
               
National Rating 4
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Quarterback ***, Receiver
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Tenn. Tech, UL-Monroe, Texas A&M (n), UTEP
   
Key Games: @ Georgia, Alabama, @ Auburn, Ole Miss, @ S.Car, LSU
   
Offense Pred. 40-44 points and 450-475 yards
               
Defense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Outlook

Arkansas has half of the best team in the nation.  Their offense is unrivaled by any team.  They may not finish atop the total offense and scoring offense statistics, but the teams that beat them out won’t play SEC defenses.  If the Razorbacks played a CUSA schedule, they might average close to 55 points per game this year.

 

Ryan Mallett is the best quarterback in the SEC and one of the five best in the nation.  Last year, he passed for 3,624 yards and 30 touchdowns versus just seven interceptions.  His 55.8% completion rate was lower than others, because Mallett tends to throw deeper passes.  He averaged nine yards per attempt and more than 16 yards per completion.

 

The vertical passing game works so well, because Arkansas has the best group of receivers in the SEC.  Three Hog pass catchers can burn a secondary for a quick six on a go route.  Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, and Joe Adams teamed up for 118 receptions, 2,143 yards (18.2 avg), and 19 touchdowns.  Tight end D.J. Williams added 32 receptions, and he can take a pass over the middle and go the distance.

 

Pass defenders will have to cede territory in their alignments, and that will make the running game have more room to run when backs break free from the line.  Arkansas doesn’t run the ball much, and they have little need to do so, but when they do, expect the backs to improve on last season’s average per attempt.  Ronnie Wingo and Broderick Green should average a combined five yards per rush this year.

 

The offensive line returns four starters from last year, and this group will give Mallett ample time to locate his deadly receivers.

 

The defense is a different kettle of fish.  Arkansas gave up 25 points and 400 yards per game last year, giving up 52 points to Georgia. 

 

Two starters return to the defensive line, but neither was a star.  The two new starters saw extensive time last year, so this unit will be about as mediocre as it was last year.  Look for true freshman Bryan Jones to see immediate action in the trenches.

 

The Hogs will be improved at linebacker.  Two starters, the numbers one and three tacklers, return.  Jerry Franklin collected 94 tackles and played admirably against both the run and pass.  Jerico Nelson was a better run-stopper than pass defender.  New starter Freddy Burton started seven games last year, so he can be considered a half-starter.

 

The defensive backfield is the weak spot of the defense.  The Razorbacks gave up far too many big plays last year.  Arkansas gave up 248 passing yards per game last year.  With three starters returning, there should be some improvement.  However, none of them intercepted a pass.

 

Expect another entertaining season out of Coach Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks.  We believe they will average more than 40 points per game.  We also think they may be the team that upsets Alabama.  However, they have too many holes on defense to run the table.  Call it a second or third place finish in the tough West.  Jerry Jones would love for his alma mater to play in his stadium at bowl season.

Team Auburn Tigers
               
Head Coach Gene Chizik
               
Colors Navy and Burnt Orange
               
City Auburn, AL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 117.8
               
National Rating 19
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Receiver, Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Arkansas State, Clemson, La.-Monroe, Chattanooga
   
Key Games: S. Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, @ Ole Miss, Georgia, @ Alabama
   
Offense Pred. 28-32 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

What a difference a year made!  In their last season with Tommy Tuberville in charge of this program, Auburn averaged 17 points and 300 yards per game in offense and gave up 18 points and 320 yards.  In their first season under Gene Chizik, and with offensive guru Gus Malzahn’s offense being implemented, Auburn’s offense improved to 33 points and 430 yards per game.  Unfortunately, their defense weakened to 28 points and 375 yards allowed.

 

The end result was an 8-5 record that included a bowl win over Northwestern.  In year number two, Chizik has the pieces in place to win more games and even possibly challenge for the SEC West division title.

 

Former Florida signee Cam Newton takes over at quarterback this year.  He is a dual-threat that could add to the running game, but he won’t pass for as many yards as this team had in 2009.

 

Newton’s excellent running ability will help take some heat off the backs.  Mario Fannin and Onterio McCalebb combined for just 850 subbing for departed star Ben Tate, and we believe they will team for 1,600 or more yards.  True freshman Michael Dyer is a tank with quickness, and he could take away some of the snaps from the other two.

 

Newton has an outstanding receiver to aim for in Darvin Adams, who caught 60 passes for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Terrell Zachery added 26 receptions for 477 yards and five scores.  Fannin also proved to be a valuable weapon out of the backfield, taking 42 passes.  Look out for true freshman Trovon Reed, who could actually supplant one of the starters.

 

Four starting offensive linemen return to provide excellent pass protection and to open holes for the running backs.  Center Ryan Pugh and tackle Lee Ziemba are both stars.

 

Look for Auburn to rush for 225-250 yards and pass for 150-175 yards.  It looks like another big year from the offense.

 

Auburn returns half of their starting defensive line, but the loss of Antonio Coleman makes this unit considerable weaker.

 

Linebacker is a major asset with the return of all three starters.  Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens, and Daren Bates finished one-two-and four in tackles last year.  Expect Jonathan Evans to see considerable time here as well and possibly crack the starting lineup.

 

Neiko Thorpe has all-conference potential at cornerback.  He intercepted two passes and broke up nine others last year.  He joins two safeties with past starting experience, so the pass defense should be a little tighter this season.

 

Auburn hosts both LSU and Arkansas, the two teams they will compete with for second place in the SEC West.  We give them the edge over the other two.

 

Team Louisiana State Tigers
               
Head Coach Les Miles
               
Colors Royal Purple and Gold
               
City Baton Rouge, LA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-4
               
PiRate Rating 113.0
               
National Rating 28
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 7-5
               
Strengths: Receiver, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: North Carolina (n), West Virginia, McNeese St., UL-Monroe
   
Key Games: @ Florida, @ Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, @ Arkansas
   
Offense Pred. 20-24 points & 300-325 yards
               
Defense Pred. 18-22 points & 290-310 yards
               
Outlook

The Tigers were a major disappointment last year, finishing 9-4 and fielding very little offense.  Coach Les Miles is on a very hot seat, and we believe this will be his last season in Baton Rouge, because the Tigers lost too much talent to improve on last year’s record.

 

Six starters return on offense, but those starters did not shine.  Quarterback Jordan Jefferson completed 61.5% of his passes for 2,166 yards with a TD/Int. ratio of 17/7.  However, Jefferson (and backup QB Jarrett Lee) took 37 sacks because of difficulty reading defensive coverage.  We don’t see the quarterbacking position being all that much improved this season.

 

Two receivers caught almost 56% of all completed passes last year, and one is no longer here.  Terrence Toliver caught 53 passes for 735 yards.  Former quarterback Russell Shepard has moved to receiver full-time and will start immediately.

 

The running game averaged 123 yards per game (skewed by all the sacks).  Take away the four non-conference breathers, and the Tigers averaged just 97 rushing yards per game.  The top two runners are gone, leaving a major hole at this position. 

 

The offensive line lost its top two blockers, so even with three starters returning, we expect little or no improvement here.

 

Opposing defenses will beg LSU to run the ball and take away the passing lanes.  Jefferson will have a hard time of it this season, and we expect the offense to boggle down yet again.

 

It was defense that won most of LSU’s games last year.  Only four starters return to this side of the ball.  Four of the top five tacklers must be replaced.

 

Only one starter returns to the defensive line.  Tackle Lazarius Levingston made eight tackles for loss and batted away four passes.  Drake Nevis will team with Levingston to make a great tandem at tackle and prevent many gains up the middle.  The news isn’t so rosy at end, where there isn’t a real proven pass rusher present.

 

Mike linebacker Kelvin Sheppard led the Tigers with 110 tackles, including 8 ½ for loss.  Expected starter Ryan Baker will be out until October, so the Tigers will have some concerns in their first four games.

 

The secondary is the strongest unit on the entire team, and it returns just two starters.  Cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the league’s top three players at his position.  He picked off two passes but batted away 13 others.

 

LSU’s defense will still be powerful, but we doubt they will hold opponents to 16 points per game like last year.  The Tigers will struggle to score enough points week after week, but they will still win more than they lose.  But, it won’t be enough to save Miles’ job.  Three years ago, after supposedly being in line to take over the Michigan job, he chose to stay at LSU.  In a strange twist of fate, if Rich Rodriguez were to have a big year at Michigan and this job came open, he might be a candidate here.

Team Ole Miss Rebels
               
Head Coach Houston Nutt
               
Colors Cardinal and Navy
               
City Oxford, MS
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 9-4
               
PiRate Rating 108.3
               
National Rating 41
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Running Back, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Jacksonville St., @ Tulane, Fresno State, UL-Lafayette
   
Key Games: Kentucky, @ Arkansas, Auburn, @ Tennessee, @ LSU, Miss. St.
   
Offense Pred. 31-34 points & 410-430 yards
               
Defense Pred. 18-22 points & 325-350 yards
               
Outlook

Brett Favre left Mississippi to return to the Minnesota Vikings.  Ole Miss has their own version of Favre, so to speak.  They will rent a quarterback for the season with hopes of winning a conference championship.  Enter Jeremiah Masoli, who was booted off the Oregon Ducks’ team for two infractions.  Masoli would have been a Heisman Trophy candidate at OU.  He led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl last season after running for 668 yards and 13 touchdowns and passing for 2,147 yards and 15 touchdowns.

 

The Rebels lost a great all-purpose back in Dexter McCluster.  He topped 1,100 yards last year.  Brandon Bolden returns after running for 614 yards.  Keep an eye of Enrique Davis.  The former highly sought after back has floundered so far, but the junior could be getting ready to come into his own.

 

The Rebels lost their top two receivers from last year, and that may keep Masoli from putting up passing stats like he did at Oregon.  Markeith Summers is the leading returnee with 394 yards on 17 receptions.

 

The offensive line lost three multi-year starters, but both tackles return.  Expect a small step backward in pass protection, but Masoli is much more mobile than last year’s quarterback, Jevan Snead.

 

The defense is in a little better shape with the return of six starters.  Three starters return up front, and the Rebels should be strong against the run and also have another good pass rush.  Jerrelle Powe could make the 1st Team All-SEC list after coming up with 12 tackles for losses last year.

 

Linebackers Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker return to form a good mix in the second line of defense.  Cornell is a better run-stopper and Walker is a better pass defender.

 

The secondary will take a step back with just one starter returning.  Safety Johnny Brown finished second with 81 tackles last year.

 

Coach Houston Nutt’s Rebels benefit from a great schedule.  Ole Miss could easily open 5-0 and should be no worse than 4-1.  The Rebels then get an off week to prepare for their October 16 game at Alabama.  We believe Ole Miss will win eight regular season games for the third consecutive year.

Team Mississippi State Bulldogs
               
Head Coach Dan Mullen
               
Colors Maroon and White
               
City Starkville, MS
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 110.8
               
National Rating 36
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-6
               
Strengths: Defensive Line
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Receiver
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Memphis, Alcorn State, @ Houston, U A B
   
Key Games: Kentucky, Arkansas, @ Ole Miss
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 360-380 yards
               
Outlook

Coach Dan Mullen’s first year in Starkville almost produced bowl eligibility when the Bulldogs had been picked to possibly lose 10 games.  If not for a mix-up at the line of scrimmage at the end of the LSU game, Miss. State would have gone 6-6 instead of 5-7.

 

We think the Bulldogs will get that extra win this year and earn a trip back to a bowl for the first time in three years.  Seven starters return on both sides of the ball.

 

One position that must be replaced is at quarterback.  Chris Relf has a rifle arm, and he is mobile.  He should add another dimension to the Bulldog offense.  He also should cut down on the number of interceptions State quarterbacks threw last season (17).  Tyler Russell, a redshirt freshman, should also see some playing time this year.

 

There isn’t a lot of talent at wide receiver, but the top two pass catchers do return.  Wideout Chad Bumphis and Tight end Marcus Green have some breakaway potential, but they won’t remind anybody of Mardye McDole.

 

Replacing Anthony Dixon at running back is not possible with the running backs on the roster; Vick Ballard is expected to get the lion’s share of the load, but the roster is really thin behind him.

 

The offensive line returns four experienced starters, and they should give Relf room to run and time to pass.  We would not be surprised if Relf led the Maroons in rushing yards while passing for close to 2,000 yards.

 

The biggest loss on defense may have been defensive coordinator Carl Torbush.  Now, the Bulldogs will have their third DC in three years.  Chris Wilson from Oklahoma and Manny Diaz from Middle Tennessee will share the responsibility.

 

Mississippi State’s defense will rely on a talented defensive line to set the tone.  End Pernell McPhee is one of the best in the league.  He comes off a year in which he had five sacks, 12 total tackles for loss, and four knocked down passes.  New starter Sean Ferguson will give State a strong end tandem.

 

The top two returning tacklers return to the second line of defense.  Linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright combined for 157 stops a year ago.

 

The Bulldogs have a terrific trio of starting defensive backs returning this year.  Safeties Charles Mitchell and Johnathan Banks both intercepted four passes last year; cornerback Corey Broomfield had six!

 

Look for State to improve on this side of the ball and allow fewer points this year.  We believe it will bring them one more win and bowl eligibility.

Coming Next Week: The initial PiRate, Mean, and Biased Ratings for the NFL, and the entire first week of the college football season 

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