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Mitchell: SEC East Midsummer Night's Notes
Tennessee QB Tyler Bray
Tennessee QB Tyler Bray
Posted Jul 12, 2012

Random SEC East notes heading into the SEC Media Days next week

By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb

Florida: The Good – The improvement across the defense has been much documented, evidenced by the fact that this unit has the least amount of departed letterman (ten) of any defense in the SEC; so we’ll focus on something equally as significant. Last year’s offensive line only had one returning starter – and it showed. On top of that, the unit struggled adapting to a new offensive scheme and limped through a season plagued by injuries. It’s not surprising then that the Gators had trouble opening holes for running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, as well as protecting its inexperienced quarterbacks once John Brantley went down.

In 2012, Florida returns four starters on the line, with the “new guy” 6-4, 325 pound James Wilson, a senior LG with four career starts to his credit. Moreover, as a result of last year’s injuries there’s experience throughout the Gators’ two deep. In fact, there’s material improvement across not only the offensive but defensive line as well. Florida should be much improved in the trenches, but particularly with the offensive line.

The Bad – For Florida and its fans, October 2011 was horrific by any standard. The Gators went winless, losing four straight conference games for the first time since 1979. I successfully predicted that, and while thankfully for Florida fans it won’t happen again this year, it’s not like October 2012 is much easier.

Three of the schedule’s four toughest games are nestled here in the month of Halloween. Florida gets the bye week before hosting LSU in the Swamp, then travels to Nashville to play its only artificial turf game of the season against Vandy. The Dores often plays the Gators tougher than most non-SEC observers expect; how banged up Muschamp’s troops are after playing the Bayou Bengals could go a long way towards defining this season. After that there’s little rest, as the Gators host school legend Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks, before traveling to the border for Georgia and the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Trick or Treat???

Georgia: The Good – It’s impossible to write about the 2012 Bulldogs without pointing to their schedule first and foremost, which dwarfs all things Georgia when it comes to weighting preseason expectations. Once again it skips the West’s three powerhouses: Bama, LSU and Arkansas. But it’s even easier than that. In 2012, UGA plays only two teams that finished the 2011 regular season with a modest eight or more wins: South Carolina (11) and Georgia Tech (8). You can take it a step further… The cumulative win/loss percentage of Georgia’s 2012 slate in 2011 was 64-74, and a material number of those 64 wins came against non-conference or FCS opponents. The last time we saw a regular season schedule this generous it was Alabama 2009.

No matter how much turnover and turmoil Mark Richt’s program has had over the past five years, with top ten recruiting classes almost a given, there’s far too much talent in Athens not to run a slate like this. 52 letterman return for the 2012 season, along with 15 starters – nine of them from the defense (all of whom could play in the NFL). Anything short of a repeat trip to Atlanta in December will be a disappointment.

The Bad – It’s true Georgia has a road to the SEC Championship game paved in gold, but that lofty expectation brings with it an additional level of stress, and this program has recently displayed a shocking lack of poise on a number of levels. In 2011, Georgia played four football teams with a pulse, and broke down in the second half of all four.

If the Bulldogs are going to have a successful season in 2012, which should mean beating what few top teams they will face, Georgia must get better play out of the offensive line. During the past four seasons, no unit in the SEC failed to meet expectations more consistently than UGA’s underperforming offensive line. We’re not just suggesting against other offensive lines – any team, any position.

Unfortunately, don’t expect to see material improvement here in 2012. Georgia returns only two starters from a squad whose yards per carry actually dropped 2011 vs. 2010, that even with an improvement at running back and a bevy of talented/experienced starters. It also allowed more sacks per game in 2011 (2.4; 85th in the nation) vs. 2010 (1.9 per game; 62nd in the nation). This, remember, against what was also universally considered a light schedule by SEC standards. In 2012, Georgia’s offensive line will likely have just 31 career starts for its first unit; compare that to LSU’s first unit (which UGA will likely face again in Atlanta) which has 104. Alabama’s has 95. For a good comparison, take Arkansas’ 2011 offensive line, the first unit of which kicked off the season with just 35 career starts. It regularly struggled to protect its quarterback, saw YPC drop year-over-year, and most critically, looked virtually helpless against the elite defenses it faced.

Tennessee: The Good – You could argue junior Tyler Bray is the best quarterback in the SEC, and the educated conference fan would be hard pressed to disagree. It’s true Bray has yet to stay healthy enough to play a full slate of the SEC’s toughest defenses, but no conference quarterback does more with less.

(i) Tennessee’s running game has been virtually non-existent for the past two seasons (dead last in conference, and 116/105 nationally in 2011/2010). (ii) His receiver talent has been injured or thin, (iii) his defense hasn’t exactly helped him out with takeaways, and (iv) his offensive line has been inexperienced and, perhaps not surprisingly, bad. (v) It’s also not like he gets the best coaching in the conference; Derek Dooley is a fine man from a great coaching bloodline, but he only has two wins in his head coaching career against FBS teams with a winning record: 2008 Fresno State (7-6) and 2011 Cincinnati (10-3). And (vi) opposing defensive coordinators know the Vols are clearly one dimensional, and thus key on Bray like Jessica Simpson on a Shoney’s buffet. What? And STILL the skinniest quarterback in the SEC has put up some jaw dropping numbers/performances.

Don’t look now, but in 2012 Bray might get one of the best receiver corps in the SEC, if not the nation, along with an offensive line that returns nearly everyone and now has more than 100 career starts under its collective belt. To that add an SEC East with some questionable secondaries and an improved Vol defense that should take some pressure off Bray and company. Don’t be surprised to see Tyler Bray rewrite some records this season – IF, and it’s a reasonable if, he can stay healthy. (We hear the 6-6 upperclassman is near 225 pounds; that’s a good start.)

The Bad – It’s not the defense; this year’s squad will be an improvement over 2011. The 3-4 scheme suites the talent better and there’s significantly more experience nearly everywhere you look. Moreover, with the offense likely playing better than at any point during the past two seasons, there should be less pressure/wear-and-tear on the Vol defense in 2012.

The material question marks this season are again coaching and the running game. Are there any coaches left besides Dooley who can give a freshman directions on campus? The turnover this season in Knoxville is sharp, to say the least. Internal distraction is rarely a component of success, and nearly every unit will be experiencing some level of new staff-related distraction in 2012.

As for Dooley’s ability to identify and/or maximize talent, the NFL is currently littered with former Vol running backs who faded into the scenery at Neyland Stadium, yet are now making a name for themselves on Sundays. The offensive line and the backs themselves need to take some of the responsibility, however, the buck stops with Dooley…his inability to develop even a JV rushing attack has crippled this program of late. You simply will not win in today’s SEC with less than a 100 rushing yards per game.

If Dooley can’t get it done, Booby – sorry, Bobby Petrino is waiting in the wings. Stop. It’s not church. With Petrino, Tennessee is a national title contender in four seasons. It’s not like he was hurting children or enabling a Miami U environment in Fayetteville. So he messed up – no coach in the game today does more with less. With little in-state high school talent to choose from, Petrino’s average recruiting class rank at Arkansas was ~27. No recent coach has had the success Petrino and Arkansas had without a top 15 average ranking for recruiting classes. No coach regularly does more with less, and it’s not like Tennessee is a hot bed of high school football talent. He’s a proven commodity in a turbulent, uncertain (coaching) world. Yes, he’s also a proven jerk. But what do you want, Tennessee fan?

Follow Russ on Twitter @russmitchellcfb

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