SEC East Preview
SEC EAST PREVIEW: GEORGIA, SOUTH CAROLINA HOPE TO GRAB SUPREMACY BACK FROM THE WEST
One thing seems fairly certain heading into the 2012 college football season. Most of America is sick and tired of SEC being the dominant conference in the sport! They're tired of the best from the SEC winning the BCS title game every year (often in dominating fashion). They're tired of watching other SEC teams impress in bowl games on New Year's Day and in the build-up to the best bowls.
In Big 10 country, they've lost all credibility about the greatness of their game. The SEC took that away by squashing Ohio State two years in a row back when Ohio State was supposed to be untouchable (at least in the first meeting with Florida). Things are so bad now in the Midwest that nobody even bothers to pitch a Big 10 champ as a national superpower. And, if there's a resurgence at Ohio State...well, that's just because they hired Urban Meyer!
In the Big 12, the automatic assumptions that either Oklahoma or Texas would give the SEC a game are no longer on the table. Both had their chances and lost. Both stumbled around so much in other big games that their seen as a notch or two below the SEC. Yes, Oklahoma has the talent to compete. They don't have the focus to run the table.
In the Pac 12, USC has been latched on to as the "Great White Hope" for all of college football. If SOMEBODY is going to take down the SEC...it's going to be Southern Cal this year. The pieces are in place. They're not on probation (yet). They have an NFL bound quarterback. You get the sense that fans from outside of the SEC all over the national map are:
A: Rooting for their favorite teams to do well
B: Hoping, if their favorite teams can't make a run, that USC will at least shut up those loudmouths from the SEC!
We begin our coverage of the SEC today with the East division...which has been the lesser of the two SEC groups in recent years with the demise of Florida. We'll study the West with Alabama and LSU tomorrow. Then, we'll soon finish off our summer series of previews with the Big 10...who we saved for last because Michigan State and Michigan would be playing in huge opening week TV games (vs. Boise State and Alabama respectively).
Georgia would like to think they could break through this year and steal the SEC crown from the Western powers. Let's see if that's in the cards...and what else might be on tap for the Eastern half of the SEC ledger. Note that MISSOURI has joined the SEC this season, and has been slotted in this Eastern Division. This is now a seven-team division...part of a 14-team league that now also includes Texas A&M.
Athlon Ranking: 8th
2011 Total Offense: 39th
2011 Total Defense: 5th
Strength: Pass Defense (10th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (49th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 10 on defense
Head Coach: Mark Richt
Notebook: Georgia has been a very frustrating team for fans in recent years because they've mostly been too good to fire the head coach, but not good enough to gain serious national respect. Richt was very much on the hot seat last year after losing the first two games of the season to Boise State and South Carolina. The Bulldogs did win their next 10 games and the SEC East. But, vs. LSU in the conference title tilt, they were badly outclassed 42-10. They followed that up with an overtime bowl loss to Michigan State. Same story. You can't fire the coach after he wins the division title. You can't be considered as a serious national championship threat if you lost to LSU 42-10. There is a lot to like about this team in 2012. Aaron Murray is back at quarterback, and the defense returns 10 starters. If they can survive their road opener at motivated Missouri, they could definitely make a run at an undefeated regular season because they skip both LSU and Alabama from the West this year. We'll pick our spots with the Bulldogs this year, looking for ways to exploit that highly regarded defense vs. outmatched foes.
Athlon Ranking: 10th
2011 Total Offense: 74th
2011 Total Defense: 3rd
Strength: Pass Defense (2nd)
Weakness: Pass Offense (95th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Steve Spurrier
Notebook: This is a very interesting team in 2012. We typically think Steve Spurrier is overrated by the media and the markets. And, we're fully aware that it's hard to jump from an average of 38th in the stat rankings all the way up to being a top 10 team. That being said...this group closed the season very well last year, stomping all over Clemson in their rivalry game and Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. They wouldn't have been 11-2 if they hadn't skipped LSU and Alabama in the schedule rotation. But, they were a class team that has a real chance to at least maintain their form with Connor Wood at quarterback. As long as they don't stub their toe at Vandy in the season opener, they should be undefeated when they run into a Georgia/LSU/Florida gauntlet in early October.
Athlon Ranking: 26th
2011 Total Offense: 105th
2011 Total Defense: 8th
Strength: Pass Defense (7th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (89th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 10 on defense
Head Coach: Will Muschamp
Notebook: The Gators limped to a 7-6 record in another disappointing season last year. But, some of the wins were over the likes of Furman, Florida Atlantic, UAB, and, of course, Kentucky. Then they caught a huge break by drawing a very watered down Ohio State team in the Gator Bowl. The average stat rank for Florida was in the low 50's last year...and that's about how they played. They looked clearly worse than anybody above that that they ran into. This year's team has to figure out who's going to play quarterback, how they're going to install elements of Boise State's offense after a staff change, and how they're going to hold their own against quality. An early test awaits September 8th at Texas A&M. We like the experience here. And, we may look for spots to play Unders with all the good SEC defenses we're running into. We're not under any delusions about the Gators making a serious run yet.
Athlon Ranking: 31st
2011 Total Offense: 12th
2011 Total Defense: 61st
Strength: Rush Offense (9th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (94th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Gary Pinkel
Notebook: This should be fascinating. Missouri brings a gimmicky offense and a finesse approach into a conference of bruisers. They do return quarterback James Franklin, but lose more than half of their starters on both sides of the ball. Is this going to be a rude awakening, where Missouri (and Texas A&M) get exposed as pretenders from a weaker conference? Or, will the rank and file be exposed as teams who were riding on the coattails of whoever got hot in any given year. Yes, the best team in the SEC was clearly the best in the nation the past several years. That doesn't mean Tennessee or Mississippi State should be taking bows! We'll be watching Missouri very closely this year on the assumption that early results will foreshadow the season as a whole. Missouri gets both Georgia and South Carolina in September, which will tell us a lot of what we need to know.
Athlon Ranking: 37th
2011 Total Offense: 104th
2011 Total Defense: 28th
Strength: Pass Defense (12th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (116th)
Returning Starters: 9 on offense, 9 on defense
Head Coach: Derek Dooley
Notebook: This is the most experienced team in the SEC this year. But, are they really top 40 caliber? It's easy to forget that the Volunteers were 1-7 in SEC action last year, with the only win coming in overtime against Vanderbilt. They should improve...but the starting point is lower than many realize. The season opener on August 31st against NC State will feature a pair of teams hoping to move up in 2012. The Vols get Florida two weeks later on September 15th in a game could prove important in terms of determining who ends up being bowl eligible at the end of the year. We'll see. The Vols may be enjoying a halo effect from Athlon that's lifting too many SEC teams up higher than they should really be. Derek Dooley has yet to establish he can be a winner in this tough environment beyond paycheck games against the likes of Montana, Buffalo, and Middle Tennessee.
Athlon Ranking: 41st
2011 Total Offense: 98th
2011 Total Defense: 18th
Strength: Pass Defense (18th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (97th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: James Franklin
Notebook: It was good to see a young hustling program like Vandy make it to a bowl last year. But they lost to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl, which was bad because it happened in their home state. Did you notice? When Vandy plays Missouri, the Vandy coach and the Missouri quarterback will have the same name! The defense is likely to be decent again, giving us some "defensive dog" spots to look at. Vandy joins Tennessee on the halo list. Both teams are probably more like 50-55-ish rather than 37-41-ish in true rankings. Pick your spots, but don't trust them to do too much or they'll break your heart. Expect a raucous crowd for the nationally televised home opener against South Carolina this coming Thursday Night.
Athlon Ranking: 75th
2011 Total Offense: 118th
2011 Total Defense: 58th
Strength: Pass Defense (21st)
Weakness: Pass Offense (114th)
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Joker Phillips
Notebook: Kentucky, by far, returns the least amount of experience and talent from last season in the whole SEC. That puts them way behind the eight-ball even before you study how badly last year went. They went 2-6 in league play, and one of the wins was a 10-7 squeaker against Tennessee. Non-conference wins against Western Kentucky, Central Michigan, and Jacksonville State helped them pad their record. For onw, you have to assume the worst until you see that the new starters can hold their own. Typically, your best bet with a team like this is when getting big points from an opponent that's either in a lookahead or letdown spot. There will be a few chances for that as the campaign plays itself out.
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Back with you tomorrow to preview Alabama, LSU, and...yes...Texas A&M in the SEC West. It's clear why the rest of America is shaking in its boots. The best conference in America just added two good teams! Will the next national champion come from the West as well? More on that tomorrow!
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