The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 21, 2010

2010 Southeastern Conference Football Preview

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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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September 2, 2009

2009 Southeastern Conference Preview

2009 Southeastern Conference Preview

A PiRate Look

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

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

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

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

 

Southeastern Conference Preseason PiRate Ratings

 
   

 

Prediction *

 
  Team

PiRate

SEC

Overall

 
  East

 

 

 

 
  Florida

142

8-0

13-0

#
  Georgia

114

5-3

8-4

 
  Tennessee

106

3-5

7-5

 
  Vanderbilt

104

2-6

5-7

 
  South Carolina

103

4-4

6-6

 
  Kentucky

100

1-7

5-7

 
   

 

 

 

 
  West

 

 

 

 
  Ole Miss

120

6-2

10-2

 
  Alabama

120

7-1

11-2

#
  L S U

114

6-2

10-2

 
  Arkansas

108

4-4

8-4

 
  Auburn

105

2-6

5-7

 
  Mississippi St.

91

0-8

1-11

 

 

 

*  Predictions not based on PiRate Rating but

 
 

on expected changes to rating during the year

 
 

# Florida picked to beat Alabama

 
 

in SEC Championship Game

 

 

SEC East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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