Welcome to the SEC, where football is either being played, spoken of, argued about or debated 365 days a year. Thanks for coming, and feel free to hand your coat to the receptionist at the door. She’ll also provide a lovely parting gift- likely a BCS National Championship trophy- upon your departure.
Ok, so yes, that was a bit of a grandiose entrance, but then again, this is a bit of a grandiose league. It’s a place where the stadiums are bigger, the facilities are shinier, the coaches are brasher, the message board threads are angrier and the fans are louder than anywhere else in college football. And oh, by the way, it’s also where the football is better too. In case you haven’t heard, it’s been a grand total of 1,688 days since anyone other than an SEC team could call themselves college football’s champions. For those of you scoring at home, that’s five straight titles and counting.
And above all, that’s this conference’s biggest storyline entering 2011: Can they get to No. 6? And if so, who will be?
So go ahead and forget all the other ancillary stuff. Forget LSU’s bar fight; Alabama’s suit controversy; Texas A&M trying to crash the party; Georgia’s running back concerns; Florida’s new coaching staff; Vanderbilt’s recent recruiting prowess; Derek Dooley’s hair; Stephen Garcia’s blood-alcohol level; Danny Sheridan’s never-ending pursuit of Cam Newton; or Knile Davis’ knee injury. Those are all just subplots in the three-ring circus that is daily life in the SEC.
Six, the number six, is all that matters here.
Best Quarterback: John Brantley… kidding. I’ll go ahead and say Georgia’s Aaron Murray. Those 3,049 yards and 14 touchdowns that he threw for as a redshirt freshman don’t lie. Neither do the 273 yards and three scores he put up against Auburn, in a closer-than-you-remember loss on the Plains. Simply put, there wasn’t a single guy in college football last year, regardless of position, that got better from September 1 to December 1 than Murray did.
Murray will be improved this year, there’s little doubt about that. But now, here comes the bigger question: Without A.J. Green, is there enough skill-position talent (not to mention solid line play in front of him), for Murray’s talent to translate into wins?
Best Running Back: Alabama’s Trent Richardson might be the better pure football player, but the most important running back in this league is no doubt South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore. As we saw last year, when Lattimore was healthy and running at full strength, the Gamecocks could literally beat anyone. He carried them on his back in an early win over Georgia (182 yards), and was one of the keys against Alabama, when he rushed for 93 yards and two touchdowns in an upset of the No. 1 team in the country at the time.
Of course just as easily as the Gamecocks could beat anyone with a healthy Lattimore, they could lose to anyone if he was slowed by injuries. The Kentucky game stands out in specific. In it, the Gamecocks had jumped out to a 28-10 lead early in the third quarter, before Lattimore went down with an ankle injury. From there, South Carolina was outscored 21-0, in a shocking 31-28 final that almost cost them the East title.
If Lattimore can stay healthy this season, there isn’t a game that South Carolina can’t win. But staying healthy is a big “if.”
Best Wide Receiver: The best wide receiver again resides at South Carolina, and is Alshon Jeffery. For my money, he’s probably the best wide receiver in the country.
But instead of celebrating just one guy, why don’t we celebrate the entire Arkansas receiving unit? With Joe Adams and Jarius Wright (79 combined catches last season) alone, the Hogs already might have the most explosive duo in the entire league. And that doesn’t even factor in Greg Childs (Please!), who was leading Arkansas with 46 catches last year, before a knee injury ended his season the first week of November. Cobi Hamilton (32 catches in 2010) very well could be the best No. 4 option any quarterback has in the country.
Best Offensive Lineman: You’d think that after losing two first round picks at left tackle in the last three years (Andre Smith and James Carpenter), there’d be a drop-off at the position, right? Maybe at some places. Just not Alabama.
Instead, big Barrett Jones moves over from guard to left tackle to take over for the departed Carpenter. The 6’5 junior is everything you could ever want from the position: Big, physical, strong and athletic, at a svelte 311 lbs.
And he’s the next great Alabama tackle.
On The Spot: Staying in Tuscaloosa, the reason I’m not as high on the Tide as everyone else is because of the quarterback position. Nick Saban left spring ball without a definitive starter between A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims, and now, just two weeks before the Tide’s opening game, he still isn’t sure who’ll be under center for the first snap of the season. And understand the continued uncertainty isn’t because both have been so lights out; it’s the fact is neither as separated themself from the other.
Many people believe Alabama to be the National Championship favorite. Until there’s some clarity at quarterback, I’m not buying it.
Busting Out: It’s got to be LSU running back Spencer Ware, right?
After LSU played musical chairs at running back two years ago, Stevan Ridley emerged as a rock for the Bayou Bengals last year. He carried the ball 249 times, a staggering stat which ranked him 19th in the country. It also left next to no carries for anyone else.
Well with that said, welcome to 2011 and welcome to the Spencer Ware show. The sophomore from Ohio carried the ball just 24 times in 2010, but blew up in LSU’s spring game, finishing the afternoon with 94 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.
Few teams like to run the ball more than LSU, a proposition only heightened because of the potential suspension of quarterback Jordan Jefferson in Week 1. We could be in for a big dose of Spencer Ware this fall.
Wildcard: My hunch here was to take Brantley, since his picture is next to the word “Wildcard,” when you look it up in the Dictionary. Ultimately though, I decided to shy away. At the end of the day, I expect Brantley to be fundamentally more sound, if only because Charlie Weis is about a 40,000 percent improvement over Steve Addazio at offensive coordinator. The problem is, I’m just not sure it’ll result in stats, since the skill position talent surrounding Brantley just isn’t up to snuff. At least by SEC standards.
So with that said, how about Wilson at Arkansas? I mean, it’s not like in his limited time, Wilson didn’t show an ability to play in this league. When Ryan Mallett went down with an injury at Auburn last year, it was Wilson who stepped up, tossing for 332 yards and four touchdowns, in what amounted to less than three quarters of full play. By comparisons sake, Brantley threw for nine touchdowns in all of 2010, Jordan Jefferson…seven. Wow!
With Davis out for the season with an injury, the once soaring expectations of the Hogs have been somewhat tempered. Can a big season from Wilson change that?
Best Defensive Lineman: For a conference known to pump out defensive linemen the way that the Playboy mansion pumps out bleached blondes, interestingly, there isn’t one guy who jumps off the page in 2011. Oh, there are plenty of good prospects: South Carolina’s Devin Taylor; Alabama’s Josh Chapman; three superstar sophomores at Florida and Malik Jackson at Tennessee. But there isn’t one can’t miss, surefire, count-on-him-for-10-sacks-this-year guy like there may have been in season’s past.
So with that, let’s go with a guy you probably haven’t heard of, and need to get to know in a hurry: Arkansas’ Jake Bequette. Razorbacks football is literally in Bequette’s blood (he’s a third generation Hog), and he showed just how disruptive he can be last year, finishing with seven sacks, and seven tackles for loss. In the process, he earned All-SEC Second Team honors.
If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason to think that his second team honor last year won’t be a first team award in 2011. That should certainly make dad and grandpa proud.
Best Linebacker: I’m going to sell out like I did with the Arkansas wide receivers, and take all of Alabama’s linebackers. Look at that group...Just look at it! There are no less than five guys who could play for any team in the country: Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley, Jerrell Harris, Nico Johnson, Courtney Upshaw. Like Lays potato chips, they’re too good to pick just one.
By the way, does anyone else find it ironic that these linebackers will be going up against “Linebacker U,” (Penn State) in Week 2?
What’s that? It’s just me?
Ok, let’s move on then.
Best Defensive Back: Again, picking one guy in this group is like going to a Victoria’s Secret fashion show and having to choose one model. In essence, why would you make me do it? Looking across the board, you could go in a million different directions. There is Dre’ Kirkpatrick, Robert Lester or Mark Barron all of Alabama. Or maybe Tremain Thomas at Arkansas, Stephon Gilmore at South Carolina or Georgia’a Brandon Boykin. Hell, how about Morris Claibourn at LSU, who had the benefit of playing across from Patrick Peterson last season, and ultimately got five interceptions because of it.
But with all that said, I’m going to stay at LSU, and go a bit off the radar. Give me Tyrann Matheiu.
If you don’t Matheiu’s name, its ok, you’re going to get to know it real quick. The 5’9 sophomore didn’t start in 2010, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Peterson, and to a smaller degree Claiborne. However, as someone who watched as much LSU football as I could last year, trust me when I say that it was impossible not to notice Matheiu. The guy must’ve had at least 50 plays where I jumped off my couch, screamed at no one in particular, then composed myself before saying “Who the hell is that guy?” and furiously Googling his name. Matheiu finished his freshman campaign with 4.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and two interceptions, as well leading the country in “Guy whose name was Googled the most by confused, intrigued college football fans.”
Matheiu may not have the size or overall speed that Peterson did, I get it. But pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch, he is every bit the football player.
You will notice him this year. I can promise you that.
On the Spot: Of every team in the SEC last year, there wasn’t a more fun and surprising story than the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Dan Mullen’s motley crew went 9-4, stunned Florida and Georgia in the regular season, and opened 2011 with a 739-10 beat down of Michigan in the Gator Bowl (all scores approximate). But given what they lost on defense, can they have any type of similar success?
It won’t be easy, but if they do, it’ll have to start with defensive tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox. Simply put, you can’t win in the SEC without stopping the run, and it’s going to be hard for State to stop the run without these two playing even bigger roles than they did a year ago. Especially with all three new starting linebackers, and former whiz-kid coordinator Manny Diaz now calling the shots at Texas.
Busting Out: Understand this: Florida’s Ronald Powell was Jadaveon Clowney before Jadaveon Clowney. He entered Gainesville last year as the No. 1 recruit in the country, and was expected to terrorize opposing offensive lines with his speed, athleticism and strength off the edge.
Unfortunately, it never happened. Hampered by unfair expectations and an inability to get along with the old coaching staff, Powell was non-descript in year one as a Gator. He finished the season with just two tackles for loss and one sack, well below the expectations of many Florida faithful.
Well, with Will Muschamp now calling the shots, expect big things from Powell.
Under any coaching staff Powell has the ability to be an All-SEC type player. He’s that good. But under a defensive genius like Muschamp? He might be the best defensive player in the SEC…this year.
Wildcard: Clowney. If he’s half as good as good as advertised, Clowney (along with Devin Taylor) will give South Carolina the most potent edge-rushing pair in this conference. And if you can get to the quarterback in this league, you can beat anyone (If you don’t believe me, go ahead and find the tape of the Alabama-South Carolina game last year. Ellis Johnson’s defense was in Greg McElroy’s head from the first snap of the game that afternoon).
Like everything else in college football, only time will tell with Clowney.
Hottest Seat: The answer is so clearly Mark Richt that it’s probably not even worth discussing. With the schedule the Dawgs have (more on that coming), anything less than eight wins should be considered a disappointment. And if Georgia goes 6-6 again this regular season, poor Richt won’t be around to coach a potential bowl game.
So with that said, let’s go to Ole Miss, where Houston Nutt is square on the hot seat as well, despite winning nine games in two of his three years at the school. The problem of course, is that even with nine wins, 2009 was seen as a disappointment, and a 4-8 record was nothing short of a disaster in 2010. Beyond that, here’s the dirty truth: As lousy as he was as a head coach, Ed Orgeron left Nutt plenty of talent in the cupboard when he was fired in early 2008. And while that talent led to plenty of wins on the front end, it is now mostly graduated, and has yet to be replaced on the back end. In a conference where you win with depth, Ole Miss has as little as anyone not named Vanderbilt.
Anything less than 6-6 and a bowl game will likely mean the unemployment line for Nutt this winter.
Up and Coming: Given some time, I firmly believe that Derek Dooley will have the Tennessee Volunteers in the hunt for the SEC East title annually.
Granted, the guy only went 6-7 his first year. I get that. But given the grease fire he walked into, given the attrition he experienced two spring’s ago, and given that Tennessee could’ve (and should’ve) had two more wins last year, that number is deceptively good. Especially since there was clear improvement from the first half to the second half of Dooley’s first year in Tennessee. The Vols had to win four straight regular season games to close out 2010 just to get bowl eligible.
Then there’s the talent that Dooley and his staff have been able to amass since getting to Rocky Top.
Sure Tyler Bray was a commitment from the previous regime, but Dooley also stole two top-flight receivers from other schools (Justin Hunter from LSU and Da’Rick Rogers from Georgia) and closed on two elite offensive linemen for the future, Ja’Juan James and James Stone all in the 2010 class alone. Those five are all sophomores now, and all should be the cornerstone of this program going forward, along with another monster haul Dooley brought in this February.
Tennessee could very well enter 2012 as the favorites in the SEC East. That is, if they don’t jump up and surprise some people in 2011 first.
Top Technician: Two words: Gus Malzahn
Nothing more needs to be said.
Cupcake City: The answer here is unequivocally Georgia.
Of the Bulldogs six legitimately tough games, three are at home (South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn), two are on neutral fields (Boise and Florida) with just one, Tennessee, on the road. Georgia’s other two conference road games are at Vanderbilt and at Ole Miss, easily the two worst teams in this conference.
By the way, did you happen to catch the teams that were conspicuously absent from that schedule? How about Alabama, LSU and Arkansas, the three favorites in the SEC West, and three teams ranked in almost everyone’s Top 15.
With a schedule like that, there’s no reason to believe Georgia can’t- or shouldn’t- make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
And if they don’t, it might be time for Richt to update his resume.
Death March: South Carolina doesn’t have the toughest overall schedule in the SEC, not by a longshot.
But look closely, and you’ll see the quirkiest of all scheduling quirks for the Gamecocks. From October 9 until November 12, South Carolina won’t play a single game at Billy Brice Stadium. They will however play three straight killer road games, at Mississippi State, at Tennessee and at Arkansas, with a bye week mixed in.
Understand that there are tougher overall stretches than the one South Carolina faces. But to the best of my knowledge, none of them include three straight road games, a quirk that seems especially unfair in the brutal SEC.
Game of the Year: Saturday, November 5, 2011. Tuscaloosa, AL. LSU-Alabama. Saban Bowl V.
As Terrell Owens once said, “Getcha Popcorn Ready.”
Not only do I not think the SEC will get their sixth straight National Championship, I believe that for the first time since USC and Texas battled for the Crystal Ball in 2006, there won’t be even be an SEC team in the title game. How do you like that for a bold prediction?
As for the conference as a whole, up until about 24 hours ago, I had LSU winning the SEC. I like their talent on defense almost as much as Alabama’s, and liked that they had stability at quarterback. Jordan Jefferson will never be John Elway, (or hell John Beck for that matter), but at least LSU did actually know who their starting quarterback was. That is more than Alabama could say heading into the season
But with all the controversy and uncertainty surrounding Jefferson, pending a potential arrest this week, I’ll switch gears and roll with the Tide. Simply put, Alabama has no less than 7-8 defensive players that could end up on an All-American team, and quite possibly the most talented running back in college football. They also get their two toughest opponents (Arkansas and LSU at home) and avoid East South Carolina in the East, a team which has given them problems (even in wins) in recent years.
I’m not sold on the Tide as a National Championship contender, not yet anyway.
But to win the SEC?
Roll Damn Tide.
Here’s what the rest of the Crystal Ball Run staff has to say:
Michael Felder: Given my love for Nick Saban, my unabashed relishing in Bobby Petrino's sets and my pure joy in Les Miles I'm a bit torn. I'm going to violate a cardinal rule of football; discounting a team. That team? Whoever comes out of the East be it Sakerlina, Georgia or Florida.
I'll take Arkansas away on the strength of the Knile Davis injury. Pre-injury the Hogs were a team I really liked to steal the west from the other five but as it stands now this, for the marathon that the SEC schedule is known as, is a two horse race. The Bayou Bengals and the Tide. I'm going to Roll Tide this year. Saban's guys took a year off of trips to Atlanta and should be back at it again.
Not because they're that much better than LSU but because they get Les Miles' boys in T-Town and LSU will have played Oregon, WVU and the bulk of their SEC schedule at this point. Bodies will be weary and while the talent level is not that different I do believe Saban's boys will be better suited down the stretch to finish the drill.
Allen Kenney: In the East, I suspect South Carolina is the best team overall. Florida probably has the most talent top to bottom. Tennessee could surprise some people. I'm going to take Georgia, though. Going into this season, I think Aaron Murray is as good a quarterback as there is in the league. Plus, the defense should take a step up in Todd Grantham's second year as coordinator running the 3-4. On top of all that, the schedule just sets up so well for UGa.
Out in the West, I voted Alabama my preseason No. 1, so I'll roll with the Tide. 'Bama has the best D not only in the conference, but in the country. The offensive line is strong, too, which should make things a little easier on the new quarterback. Road trips to Florida and Mississippi State aren't nice, but catching Arkansas and LSU in Tuscaloosa is.
And I'm going to take Alabama over Georgia on Dec. 3 in Atlanta for a simple reason: Nick Saban > Mark Richt.
Kevin McGuire: The SEC may be the best conference in college football, but I'll take the SEC West and pit them against any conference and like my odds any day of the week. The cream of the crop is clearly in the SEC West this season with LSU, Alabama and Arkansas in addition to Mississippi State and Ole Miss capable of winning any game on their schedule. Oh, and Auburn may take a step or three back this season but I'm not ready to call them a cellar-dweller just yet. I think the division, and the conference, will come down to the winner of the Alabama-LSU game this season. Both teams have what it takes to represent the SEC in the BCS title game in my opinion, and despite needing to sort out the quarterback situation, I like the Crimson Tide when all is said and done. Nick Saban loses some key players of course, but this team is still loaded with potential.
In the SEC East, I am on record of saying South Carolina is the team to beat, but I admit I'm not 100% sure of it. I'm not sure the Gamecocks are the kind of program that can be trusted as a favorite, and we'll find out in week two (vs. Georgia) if they really are the team to beat. I think Florida is a wild card in the East, but I love the running game with Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina. In the East, I'd say Lattimore leads the way to Atlanta. And probably back to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Again.
Tom Perry: When you talk about the SEC these days it's all about the West. When it comes to talent, Alabama and LSU are far and ahead better than everyone else. That showdown in Tuscaloosa has the potential to be an instant classic. My only concern is LSU's schedule to that point will have been much tougher, and it remains to see how that will take a toll on the Tigers. However, Les Miles' group does get the week off prior to the game, so there is time to do some healing.
On the East side, I have liked Georgia all offseason, but as we get closer to the first kick off of the year I have flipped back to South Carolina. I like what I've heard from Steve Spurrier, and I think the Gamecocks may actually walk away with the East. The big question is can South Carolina win the SEC? Probably not, but if any Carolina team is going to do it, this is the one.
For updates on breaking news, as well insight and opinion on all things college football, be sure to follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter @CrystalBallRun