Mitchell: The Good/Bad before SEC Media Days
South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore
South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore
Posted Jul 15, 2012

CFN's lead SEC Columnist Russ Mitchell with the third in a three part series, identifying his major good/bad point for each team heading into SEC Media Days, and the 2012 season. Wrapping up the SEC East.

SEC East, Part I
SEC West

By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb

Kentucky: The Good – In 2012, Kentucky is the hardest team to find many good things to discuss, so we'll focus on the most important - that the divide isn't as bad as you might think. Last year Kentucky had to replace a significant amount of talent across both offense and defense; skill position players the likes of which don't exactly litter the Wildcats' roster. It showed, as UK limped to a 5-7 record (2-6 in conference) relying on far too much youth. But look a little closer: despite material roster turnover the Wildcats were in most games, win or loss - with the exception of blowout defeats to a healthy Florida, LSU and SC in a three game nightmare stretch. Don't forget that in conference play Kentucky was also 2-6 in 2010, 3-5 in ‘09, 2-6 in '08, 3-5 in '07… You get the picture. It's not exactly like they've fallen off a cliff.

The Bad – The offensive line loses three starters and was average at best last year, the quarterback position is grossly unsettled, Kentucky must replace four linebackers, its receiver corps is pedestrian (only La'Rod King had more than 100 yards in 2011 (478)), and its defensive backfield is worse. There's simply too much inexperience everywhere but on the defensive line.

While I would like to see head coach Joker Phillips get one more season after 2012 regardless of the Wildcats' record, that's unlikely to happen. Apathy – or worse, outright mutiny – has been brewing since the end of the 2011 season. Success on the basketball hardwood appears to have only made Kentucky fans long for more autumn victories. Since spring practice concluded, my inbox has received regular correspondence from UK faithful bemoaning not just the state but the direction of their football program. Mail of both a volume and intensity that makes it clear: anything short of a .500 season will likely spell the end for Phillips.

This is Kentucky football, remember – traditionally after a Kentucky column I get more mail from Tuscaloosa then from Wildcat fans themselves. That's no longer the case.

Rich Brooks did a great job setting a new bar for UK football – not necessarily .500 in SEC play, but regular bowl appearances, the occasional upset, and most importantly a degree of respectability. That and of course beating Louisville. Phillips was supposed to be a de facto extension of that pattern, coming as he did directly from Brooks staff. As such, the prevailing feeling out on the bluegrass is that Phillips has not only failed to improve upon the platform he was given, but rather that the program has actually taken a step back under his stewardship. Particularly in recruiting – and that's after landing stud prep quarterback Patrick Towles in February. Yes, Brooks had losing seasons in his first three years, but he inherited a completely different situation than what he handed Phillips. In Lexington, patience is running out faster than a three year old.

Missouri: The Good – Missouri doesn't add a lot to the SEC in terms of originality: a second town named Columbia (South Carolina), a third Tiger mascot, and another man named James Franklin (Vanderbilt head coach). In the latter case, we understand from several Missouri sources that the quarterback's shoulder is healing nicely, and Franklin will be ready for the season opener September 1 vs. SE Louisiana.

However, the bright spot for Missouri is its linebacking corps, which returns virtually all three starters (MLB Will Ebner red shirted last season; the senior has 15 career starts). Upperclassmen Zaviar Gooden and Andrew Wilson, along with Ebner, will be counted on to back up a defensive line and secondary dealing with some turnover issues.

The Bad – Every conference in America plays good football, and each conference is built and managed uniquely. For years the Big 12 has been about explosive offenses, and as such the teams within it train and recruit to play that style of football. Welcome to the SEC, Mizzou! The Tigers have good talent and a very good head coach in Gary Pinkel. What they don't have is a team built to play in the SEC. By that I mean depth and size/speed for the trenches. Both are separate issues, and must be addressed as such.

First, size/speed. The average height/weight of the Tigers' likely first team offensive line is 6-5, 296 pounds. The other Tigers in Missouri's new family? LSU: 6-6, 320 pounds; Auburn: 6-4, 313. Bama's first line is 6-5, 317. Florida? 6-5, 311. On the defensive line it is even more obvious. According to their 2012 roster, Missouri does not have a single defensive lineman weighing 300 or more pounds. We hope defensive coordinator Dave Stekel's health care plan has full pharmaceutical coverage, because Ambien is not cheap.

As for speed, in the pregame heading into the LSU vs. Oregon game last year, I spent some time on the Duck's radio network. When asked to explain the speed stories of SEC defensive lineman, I said this, "Expect to see LSU defensive ends tackle the speedy (tailback) LaMichael James in the backfield…from behind." Which did in fact happen. Twice. As much of a defensive line U that LSU has become, this is far more the norm for SEC play, not the exception. It is what truly defines the conference. Missouri's offensive line, replacing 3 starters and with less than 70 career starts to its credit, is ill-experienced to deal with the change in the style of competition it will face.

As for depth, we don't believe Mizzou's backup offensive lineman have a single start between all of them. The fourth string RT Stephen Carberry is a walk-on; great for the determination of that young man, not that great as to depth vs. SEC defenses. Depth is even more important along the defensive line, as SEC offenses generally focus on a punishing running game. Without a single wide body north of 300 pounds, replacing three starters and dealing with the distraction that comes from "all things new", we have material concerns about Missouri's defensive line. Last year playing against the pass happy Big 12, Missouri still surrendered 127 rushing yards per game. In 2012, we expect the Tigers to finish in the bottom third of the conference in run defense, with a per game average far closer to 200. Say 189 rushing ypg, or roughly 50% more per game.

South Carolina: The Good – What a difference a season makes. Tell me for certain what's great about SC besides its defensive line? Marcus Lattimore? IF he's healthy. The jury's still out on Connor "Happy Feet" Shaw, but he'll have some solid defenses to prove his worth (Florida, LSU, Georgia, etc.). The offensive line has one senior and is replacing both tackles with children. Speaking of children, Steve Spurrier is likely to start the true freshman, 6-1, 170 pound Shaq Roland at receiver, perhaps the hardest position to adapt to in the jump from high school to college. After the prep star Roland there's a whole lot of average; this group (along with Shaw) will have to step up to the plate quickly, as opposing teams will likely stack the box to stop Lattimore. We talk more about the SC defensive back seven below, not to mention the loss of one of the nation's best defensive coordinators…but you should be getting a cold chill up your spine by now if you're a Gamecock fan. To have another season like 2011, an awful lot of pieces need to fall into place – some of them dropping from high resting places.

Still, there's no denying this defensive line is exceptional. Even with Melvin Ingram's first round selection by the San Diego Chargers AND the Atlanta Falcon's drafting Travian Robertson, the Gamecock defensive line might be a little better in 2012. And remember, the 2011 unit that was even better than it looked on paper, thanks to two throw away games against option teams. Defensive end Devin Taylor is ridiculously quick for a 6-8, 270 pound man. On the other end, Jadeveon Clowney matured throughout his true freshman campaign, especially with Taylor and Ingram drawing most of the attention. Clowney is 6-6, 260 pounds, possesses free safety speed, and a rare penchant for finding and removing the ball from its carrier. (Side note: Clowney getting the nod for first team Coaches preseason All-SEC was silly. Taylor battled double teams throughout 2011, which enabled Ingram and Clowney to have the freedom they did. Watch what happens when more teams key instead on Clowney this season.)

Senior Byron Jerideau played in all 13 games last year, and will drop his 318 pound frame smack dab in the middle of opposing lines. Meanwhile Kelcy Quarles returns at the other tackle spot after starting six games in 2011 as a true freshman, netting 28 tackles and earning third team Freshman All-America honors along the way. After these four there's more depth and talent waiting in the wings.

The Bad – I'm concerned about the lack of tackle experience on the offensive line (See: Arkansas 2011 for how well that works out), and the 2012 Gamecock schedule is the Bizarro Georgia schedule. But we'll pass on those concerns the same way opposing teams will pass on SC in 2012.

Carolina's linebackers will do well if they're simply as productive as last year's unit, while we're likely to see a material drop off in productivity out of the defensive backs. That's assuming the starters can even stay healthy; CB Akeem Auguste and SS Brison Williams are recovering from injuries. If that wasn't enough to give you pause, there's not a lot of depth here – particularly at cornerback. As we noted above, defensive ends Devin Taylor and Jadaveon Clowney are über talented, but will this line be good enough to compensate for a very suspect back seven?

In a word – no. Georgia and Arkansas will pass all over this secondary – likely Tennessee too. The Gamecocks will also be beaten up by the time they wander down south to the Swamp, after losing in Red Stick to LSU. Even with a 100% healthy Marcus Lattimore, unless he's also playing CB, Carolina loses three of these five. Even two losses could keep them out of Atlanta, considering UGA's schedule.

It's very possible SC finds itself 9-4 in December…or even 8-5.

Vanderbilt: The Good – Getting 15 starters back this season will go a long way towards helping Vanderbilt build on the accomplishments of 2011. But if there's a single unit on which Vandy's hopes for a successful 2012 reside, it's the offensive backfield, particularly the running backs. Zac Stacy returns for his senior year after breaking the Commodores single season rushing record with 1,193 yards. However, nearly half of that total came in games against Ole Miss, Army and Wake Forest, and against the four tougher SEC run defenses he faced (Bama, SC, UGA & Florida), Stacy averaged a pedestrian 10.3 carries for 42 yards. Moreover, to say Stacy has been injury prone for much of his career is to say Greece has a small money problem. Staying on the topic of "injury prone"…RsJr Warren Norman returns after sitting out all of 2011 recovering from knee surgery. The 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year, Norman hasn't played a down of competitive football since October 2010.

Both Stacy and Norman are exceptionally talented, but are they rugged enough to survive an entire SEC season? (Very) fortunately for head coach James Franklin and company, the Commodores have even more quality behind Stacy and Norman, in the bodies of junior Wesley Tate (Golden's brother) who returns to running back from receiver, the speedy sophomore Jerron Seymour, the solid RsFr Lafonte Thourogoud, and last but certainly not least, the true freshman super prep Brian Kimbrow, who will be very hard to keep off the field.

The Bad – Franklin did a solid job in his first season, leading the ‘Dores to a 6-6 record and another bowl game, and being extremely competitive in losses to Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. Now all eyes are focusing on the offensive line, which lost four starters from 2011. However, there's more experience here than first meets the eye (61 career starts); as such, heading into September the real concern is the defensive front seven. The starters have some experience, but size is the question mark on the line, while at linebacker the need is simply warm bodies.

Two safeties moved up to linebacker in the offseason, but that still wasn't enough. Franklin will likely be forced to rely on two true freshman backers from Georgia (Darreon Herring and Jacob Sealand) to fill out its depth at linebacker, a unit that must also do without its team leader, Chris Marve, lost to graduation/law school. As for the line…it averages 6-2, 270 pounds. Not a lot of beef, particularly when the average SEC offensive lineman is likely to weigh in at ~305 pounds…35 pounds heavier.

SEC East, Part I
SEC West

By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb

Related Stories
Preferred Walk-On QB Excited By Opportunity
 -by  Jul 15, 2012
2012 Pre-Season Position Preview: Quarterback
 -by  Jul 16, 2012
Vanderbilt unveils new Uniforms
 -by  Jul 12, 2012

Add Topics to My HotList
Get free email alerts with news about your favorite topics. Click link to add to My HotList.
Football > Kentucky
Football > Missouri
Football > South Carolina
Football > Vanderbilt
[View My HotList]