Jim Sez SEC Preview

SEC PREVIEW

"REPORTEDLY" IMPROVING SEC EAST MUST FIGURE OUT HOW TO DETHRONE TWO-TIME CHAMP MISSOURI!

When the Missouri Tigers joined the SEC East a couple of years ago, it was assumed that they'd quickly learn a hard lesson about how great SEC football was. No way a Big 12 "finesse" team was going to come in and compete physically with the brutes of the SEC!

Well...Missouri shocked the world by winning the East in their inaugural season...then shocked everyone again by repeating! What happened Georgia? Where did you go Florida? Hey, why isn't the old ball coach at South Carolina doing something about this?!

Those three teams plus Tennessee are all looking to make headlines this year after winning their bowl games and talking about upgrades in the offseason. It's still not as strong as the West division (which we'll discuss on these pages tomorrow). But there's a lot to like about the SEC East in 2015...at least if offseason media hype is to believed. Let's run the numbers to see if that hype is justified. All information comes from the respected Athlon newsstand publication.

Georgia
2014 Record: 10-3
2014 Rankings: 28 on offense, 17 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Mark Richt
Notebook: The Bulldogs were Preseason #8 last year...yet couldn't maintain consistency during a three-loss campaign. At their best, they could seemingly play with anybody. They've brought in Brian Schottenheimer from the NFL to upgrade the offensive attack. That could just lead to more turnovers! Particularly with a lack of experience at quarterback. The running game looks like it will be stellar, so back the Bulldogs against opponents who are soft vs. the run. We've learned to be skeptical of this program. We'll stay open-minded. South Carolina is the only tough game of September. October is brutal with Alabama, at Tennessee, Missouri, and the cocktail party with Florida providing quite a gauntlet. Can Richt find consistency?

Tennessee
2014 Record: 7-6
2014 Rankings: 90 on offense, 36 on defense
Returning Starters: 9 on offense, 8 on defense
Head Coach: Butch Jones
Notebook: Whoa...Tennessee jumped all the way up to #2 in the division? This is one of the most intriguing programs in college football this season. They certainly closed 2014 well, but beating Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Iowa doesn't mean you've arrived. You can see that a lot of experience returns. And the offense did get things going once Josh Dobbs took over at quarterback. For now, we're going to assume the mainstream media is overly gung ho about the Vols. Being better doesn't mean you're "great." Let's see what happens September 12 vs. Oklahoma, and then the final Saturday of the month at Florida.

Florida
2014 Record: 7-5
2014 Rankings: 93 on offense, 15 on defense
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Jim McElwain (from Colorado State)
Notebook: The embarrassing Will Muschamp era has come to an end. Remember when he was going to be the next super-coach? The media seems to be penciling in a resurgence just because Muschamp left! Sorry...but it's hard to go from helpless to strong on offense in a finger snap, particularly with so few returning starters. McElwain did well in the Mountain West. Is he ready to lead an SEC program after being a coordinator in this conference? There are reasons to expect a step forward...but not necessarily a return to the Top 25. A home game vs. East Carolina will prove a nice September test before the Tennessee game. It gets much tougher after that. It may take awhile for recruiting to recover from the Muschamp mess.

Missouri
2014 Record: 11-3
2014 Rankings: 95 on offense, 23 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Gary Pinkel
Notebook: Well...here's Missouri. Once again they're seen as a middle-of-the-pack team that's going to be outclassed. Yet, they still have decent talent amidst a group of SEC East question marks. Important to note that quarterback Maty Mauk has been NOWHERE near as good as his hype (see that #95 team offensive ranking). Will be tough to know what to expect until October brings South Carolina, Florida, and at Georgia in successive weeks. Who knows, may be a three-peat is possible.

South Carolina
2014 Record: 7-6
2014 Rankings: 33 on offense, 92 on defense
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Steve Spurrier
Notebook: The Gamecocks were preseason #9 in Athlon last year before kicking the ball around toward a 7-6 finish. That season opening 52-28 loss to Texas A&M was a real shocker...and then the Aggies turned out not to be very good anyway! Quarterback is likely to be a huge problem for an inexperienced offense under a grouchy head coach. We could be seeing Spurrier's career wind down as he loses touch with the game. Defense will be a big concern...and the offense may not be able to make up for what's being allowed. Tough to bounce back from a relative collapse with such an inexperienced offense.

Kentucky
2014 Record: 5-7
2014 Rankings: 79 on offense, 75 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Mark Stoops
Notebook: The Wildcats started the season 5-1, with the only loss coming in overtime vs. Florida. Remember how excited the SEC media (and ESPN) got when that was happening! The Wildcats lost every time out after that and didn't qualify for a bowl. The program is moving in the right direction though under Stoops. They're no longer a doormat. Patrick Towles at quarterback will give them a chance to compete in a tough September that includes South Carolina, Florida, and Missouri. Talk about getting thrown right into the fire! Probably best for undersized programs to have big conference games that early. Wildcats might provide early season value again.

Vanderbilt
2014 Record: 3-9
2014 Rankings: 122 on offense, 68 on defense
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 9 on defense
Head Coach: Derek Mason
Notebook: The three victories were over UMASS, Charleston Southern, and Old Dominion. So....they were more like a 1-11 team in terms of major conference standards. They did have some competitive losses though...and they do return a lot of starters. The season opener vs. Western Kentucky will tell us a lot about the overall outlook. September SEC matches against Georgia and Ole Miss will be very difficult. At first glance, hard to see how this team climbs out of the cellar unless there's a surprising collapse above. Maybe they'll be 3-5 points better in Power Ratings while staying in last place.

On the whole...we have to respect the respectable bowl results from this group (wins and covers for Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, Florida, and South Carolina vs. Louisville, Iowa, Minnesota, East Carolina, and Miami respectively). Yet...if you stuck those victims in the SEC, they wouldn't look very good! We'll stick with our assessment that the media is over-hyping this division until we see evidence showing otherwise. Luckily, challenging September schedules will give us some good reads.

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CAN ALL SEVEN SEC WEST TEAMS REALLY BE IN THE TOP 21 NATIONALLY??!!

If you're purchased the annual Athlon college football publication from your local newsstand, you've probably noticed that all seven teams in the SEC West are considered to be Top 25 caliber teams.

ATHLON'S EARLY RANKINGS
Alabama #2
Auburn #4
Ole Miss #11
LSU #15
Arkansas #16
Texas A&M #20
Mississippi State #21

That's amazing...the WORST team is supposed to be #21! Now we all know that these teams play a round robin against each other...so it's impossible for all seven to stay that high in media rankings through the full season. Somebody's going to be losing games. Any team that takes a step backward or suffers serious injuries may lose a lot of games.

Let's run through our key indicator numbers with an eye on whether or not those rankings are really justified. As high as we are on the talent levels in the SEC...and as supportive of these teams as we've been in past seasons with our selections...we have to admit that the group largely underachieved in the bowls last year. Not everyone (particularly Arkansas and Texas A&M vs. Texas and West Virginia). But...enough to make you curb your enthusiasm.

Alabama
2014 Record: 12-2
2014 Rankings: 17 on offense, 12 on defense
Returning Starters: 2 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Notebook: Alabama was supposed to be a juggernaut, yet was bullied by Ohio State in the second half of their National Semi-Final. And, now they only return TWO starters on offense! Sorry...but you're going to be #2 in the country when you have to rebuild that much offense? In a brutal division! Let's assume that the defense will still be terrific. That's Saban's specialty. The offense will need to impress us vs. Wisconsin and Ole Miss within the first three weeks before we're ready to pencil in a return trip to the Final Four. There's no worse division for an inexperienced team to be in nationally than the SEC West.

Auburn
2014 Record: 8-5
2014 Rankings: 16 on offense, 64 on defense
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Gus Malzahn
Notebook: The media seems to be falling in love with spread offense teams that really blow and go when things are clicking. Yes, Auburn at its "best" can play with anybody. But, they went 8-5 last year! They were blown out by Georgia, lost at home to struggling A&M, and then lost their bowl game to a Wisconsin team that struggled when stepping up in class within the Big 10. Throw in the fact that only half the returning starters are back...and it's difficult to really buy this as a top five team out of the gate in 2015. A tough September starts with Louisville in Atlanta, before ending at LSU and vs. Mississippi State.

Mississippi
2014 Record: 9-4
2014 Rankings: 51 on offense, 13 on defense
Returning Starters: 9 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Hugh Freeze
Notebook: The Rebels were a huge disappointment on offense in their big games. And, now they have to adjust to a new quarterback. Very good team? Obviously. Top 10 contender? Hold your horses. We can't forget that the Rebels lost their bowl game to TCU 42-3 in a blatant no-show against a national power. Plus they lost at Arkansas 30-0 late in the season. A September game vs. Alabama will tell us a lot about both of those teams. We like seeing all that experience...but new starting quarterbacks are never a shoe-in to produce from the get-go.

LSU
2014 Record: 8-5
2014 Rankings: 77 on offense, 9 on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Les Miles
Notebook: Another SEC team with a great defense but disappointing offense. The Tigers lost their bowl to Notre Dame after failing to match up consistently with the big boys. It's true that they were robbed of the Alabama game. Not so much in a 41-7 loss to Auburn. Games Two and Three this year are at Mississippi State and vs. Auburn. Man...the SEC is really going to OWN the September TV airwaves! LSU needs to find an offense fast.

Arkansas
2014 Record: 7-6
2014 Rankings: 60 on offense, 10 on defense
Returning Starters: 9 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Bret Bielema
Notebook: Very interesting situation. The Hogs took a huge leap forward from expectations last season, and showed that "Wisconsin-style" football can compete in the SEC. The problem is, you have to pass sometime! One dimensional teams can't just grind all year and hope to win every coin flip ending. We have great respect for the leap Arkansas made. We're not ready to assume a second leap forward now that everyone knows what the Hogs are capable of. The defense may take a step backward too. A friendly early schedule should help build confidence. It's going to be brutal after that.

Texas A&M
2014 Record: 8-5
2014 Rankings: 30 on offense, 102 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Kevin Sumlin
Notebook: A misleadingly hot start in 2014 led to a shocking collapse once the best in the SEC started bullying the Aggies pathetic defense. To help fix that, A&M stole LSU's defensive coordinator. That sets up the legitimate possibility of a return to excellence. Defense is the easiest "quick" fix in this sport because schematics and effort mean so much. We'll be watching the September 5 opener vs. Arizona State in Houston very closely. If the defense shines there...maybe we have a Cinderella story brewing. Otherwise, this is just another SEC team getting too much media hype.

Mississippi State
2014 Record: 10-3
2014 Rankings: 8 on offense, 84 on defense
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 3 on defense
Head Coach: Dan Mullen
Notebook: The Bulldogs made a run at #1 before November losses at Alabama and Ole Miss popped their balloon. Then Georgia Tech stomped all over that popped balloon in the Orange Bowl. Now only 7 returning starters are back in a division with little margin for error. Dak Prescott returns at quarterback, and is getting some Heisman hype because it's assumed he'll have to post huge numbers to carry the team. To us, the big factor is that combination of only 3 starters returning to a poor defense. This team could look this year like A&M did last year in terms of defensive helplessness. Should they be considered Top 25 in 2015 before they even beat anybody? LSU and Auburn are on the September schedule.

We admit that our SEC coverage has been pretty skeptical this season. It's hard to properly characterize a league that is both "very good" and "probably overrated" at the same time. It's possible to be only a B-plus when the media is screaming A-plus...particularly when so many in the media have a vested interested in people thinking you're an A-plus! We are going to see a lot of great football in the SEC this season. We're all looking forward to that. Just keep things in perspective as you compile your Power Ratings and compare them to Vegas lines.

That wraps up the SEC. With JIM HURLEY, those letter have always stood for SCORE EASY CASH! You should be doing that all summer in baseball as you build your football bankrolls. Purchase BEST BETS right here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

A few days of baseball now...until we run a string of college football conference previews as July turns into August. Got to get them all posted before the NFL Preseason starts!

Monday: MLB Series Preview...Detroit at Tampa Bay
Tuesday: MLB Series Preview...LA Angels at Houston
Wednesday: MLB Big Game Preview...NY Yankees at Texas
Thursday: College Football Preview...American Athletic Conference
Friday: College Football Preview...the Independents
Saturday: College Football Preview...ACC Atlantic
Sunday: College Football Preview...ACC Coastal

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Sep

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