Y'all Play Nice: SEC East Deep Dive
Missed all or part of 10 games in 2 years
Every week, CFN's Brian Harbach and Russ Mitchell break down the SEC games you need to watch, the SEC questions you want answered, and of course, the SEC Power Rankings. All things SEC from two different SEC writers, with two different SEC points of view. One of 'em always right. Now y'all play nice.
Russ Mitchell is the lead SEC columnist for CFN. Follow him @russmitchellcfb
Brian Harbach covers the SEC for CFN. Follow him @harbachcfn
Y'all Play Nice: SEC West Deep Dive
3 SEC EAST QUESTIONS THAT NAG MORE THAN YOUR EX
(i) Who is the most overrated/underrated team in the SEC East?
Can this be a tie? Georgia hasn't had a signature SEC win since Bush Jr. was President; 2007 to be exact. That includes losing all four games against the better teams they played in 2011, and yet they still somehow backed into Atlanta and sported a 10 win season. But as many questions as there are swirling around the Dawgs, there are even more over the 2012 Gamecocks of South Carolina. We wrote about it earlier this month, but outside of defensive line, every unit has serious question marks to it - none bigger than with this Gamecock secondary, for which there might be no answer. To make matters worse, starting cornerback Akeem Auguste went down "indefinitely" with a leg injury this week. Remember, SC has a five game stretch where they play UGA (a passing offense), at LSU (a battle royale), at Florida (more pounding, with 10 returning starters on defense), Tennessee (a passing offense – even without Da'Rick Rogers) and Arkansas, who certainly know how to both throw the ball and beat Carolina. There's likely three loses in that stretch alone – four if Marcus Lattimore isn't 100 percent. We also note that Lattimore has now missed all or parts of ten games in two seasons (Kentucky, Vandy, Arkansas and Florida State in 2010).
Given Florida has gone 13-11 in their past two regular seasons, some people seem ready to discount the Gators out of hand. Muschamp's team must balance a new offensive coordinator for the second year in a row, and he must select from one of his two young, largely inexperienced quarterbacks (likely Jacoby Brissett, whose touch on short to intermediate range passes is better than Jeff Driskel's at this point in their careers). But this is a team that returns 17 starters (not including either quarterback) - ten alone on defense. It's had a year to adjust to Muschamp's coaching style, and the word out of fall camp has been largely positive. Perhaps most importantly, this year the offensive line returns four starters and a bruising tailback in Mike Gillislee (more on that below). The Gators might have a far tougher schedule than Georgia, but Florida representing the East isn't as far-fetched as you might think.
College Football is cyclical. No one will argue that the SEC East needs to start picking up the pace or it risks challenging the validity of that statement. All three teams that would be considered contenders for the SEC East title are overrated. Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, all ranked in the top 25, are completely overrated based on their respective rankings.
The Gators have talent, but at this point they have an unproven coach, skill players with very limited success and inconsistent quarterback play. It is very hard to see why the Gators are ranked in the preseason on anything but name and name alone. South Carolina has lots of questions with little bits of potential sprinkled in. The Gamecocks have a great RB returning from a nasty knee injury, big question marks at receiver and a quarterback who is at best a game-manager. The biggest loss is actually on the sideline, as defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has moved on. It's often a coin-flip when coaches promote from within, as Steve Spurrier did for his new DC.
Georgia, meanwhile, is the East favorite mostly because of a materially weak schedule for the second year in a row. The Bulldogs avoid playing Alabama, Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M. The UGA record might look good in December, but it looked good last year and that had little to do with the play on the field. The East needs to take some big steps forward against elite teams this season or it will continue to be a punching bag of the West...and the media.
Lately, it seems every year that Tennessee pops up in the underrated section of this column, only to fall short soon thereafter. Here we are once again looking at the Volunteer roster and trying to convince ourselves that Derek Dooley will finally put it all together. The offense has too many good skill players not to put points on the board – even without wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers. An injury to receiver Justin Hunter a year ago derailed what should have been a successful offensive season. Teams with very little depth cannot afford to lose their best player and when Tyler Bray got hurt things went from bad to worse. With 19 returning starters, the most of any SEC team, UT should do better than last season. Otherwise…
(ii) Who emerges from the SEC East shadows for a breakout season?
With a nod to Thomas Goldcamp (@Goldcamp247) of GatorBait.net: outside of quarterback, only three players on this Florida 2012 roster have had ten or more carries in a single game - Burton, Gillislee and Brown. And they've only done it once each. With that as your backdrop, expect to see the Gators Mike Gillislee have a breakout year. The senior tailback was named this week as Muschamp's featured runner, after winning the competition against sophomore Mack Brown and freshman Matt Jones. At 5-11, 205 pounds, Gillislee has a powerful frame built to grind it. Unlike last year, when Florida had just one returning starter on its offensive line, this year there's four, all five are upperclassmen, and as a unit it sports 79 career starts. Even the lone "rookie" among them, senior left guard Jim Wilson, has four career starts to his resume. This experienced first string averages a hefty 6-5, 311 pounds, and it's bound to open a lot of holes for the power running Gillislee. (Runners up: Vandy senior QB Jordan Rodgers, Tennessee JUCO transfer junior WR Cordarrelle Patterson, and South Carolina true freshman WR Shaq Roland.)
Not to diminish the talents of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, but Ken Malcome needs to be the man this year for the Georgia running game. Malcome has been an interesting soap opera since arriving in Athens as a four star recruit…injuries, attitude problems and an attempt to quit the team at one point has hardened this young man into an SEC player that can be successful. Malcome should and will be the starter this year; it is very likely he will hold off the advances of the talented freshmen to keep that job all year. It is always good to have a starter need something to prove and there might not be a player in the SEC with more to prove than Malcome. He is a physical back at 6-0, 220 pounds and should be able to take the week in and week out pounding of SEC defenses. The Dawgs have depth with the young guys for a change of pace, but this will be Malcome's job to lose. Richt will not just hand over the job to another freshmen like he did a year ago when he had few other options. Malcome was in a dark tunnel in 2011, but he should see the light in September.
(iii) What every SEC East fan should be talking about this preseason, but isn't?
Well, it's certainly not the suspension/likely dismissal of star Vols receiver Da'Rick Rogers. Champion-like work there, Da'Rick; sell one of your first names and get a grip. Nor is it the hype around this engaging Vanderbilt program under the charismatic eye of head coach James Franklin. Instead, what every SEC East fan should be talking about, but isn't, is that the East is finally catching back up to the West. We're not there yet…LSU, Bama and Arkansas are likely to go at least 5-1 against their Eastern cousins, which alone makes it difficult for the East to win the head-to-head contest.
However, as we've been saying on radio from Florida to Hawaii this August, expect to see the East take a major step up in competition. With slightly better than average quarterback play, Florida is a better team front to back than both of the more highly regarded Eastern division teams: Georgia and South Carolina. Plus the Gators get SC in the Swamp and of course the Dawgs on a neutral field. Even without Rogers, Tennessee should take a step forward - there's simply too many starters coming back (19).
Both on and off the field, Vandy has taken a step forward with its program...perhaps more so than at any point in the past three decades. Missouri also adds more depth to the East.
The East won't be able to match the West in wins/losses, but overall the level of play in the East should take a collective step up in 2012.
One common theme this off-season on many social media outlets is how good of a player James Franklin is for the Missouri Tigers. While I think Mr. Franklin is a fine quarterback, no one seems to remember that he played in the Big XII last year.
The Big XII doesn't play defense, at least not the way our father's remember the league playing hard nosed football. The Big XII is a glorified arena football league. How many yards a quarterback throws or how many total yards he amasses is meaningless because of what happens when that "elite" player steps up against an SEC opponent. Sam Bradford against the Florida Gators…256 yards passing, 2 TD and 2 INT. That was 100 yards less than he averaged in passing yards that year and 25% of his INT's for the 2008 season in one game. How long did Colt McCoy last against Alabama in the Rose Bowl? Heisman winner Jason White vs. LSU in 2004's line was 13 of 37 for 102 yards and 2 interceptions. Hello?
Unfair to pull these games out? But this is what happens to elite Big XII quarterbacks when they go up against good SEC defenses. The leagues are completely different, which is fine - except for the fact that Mizzou now plays in the SEC. This is not assuming that the Big XII cannot stand with the SEC, merely that to think James Franklin is going to come in this year and Cam-Newton up the league is completely unfounded. Both expansion teams will go through growing pains in their first year of the SEC and the quarterbacks will experience the most change.
IN FOCUS: Which SEC East Coach/Player is in the Spotlight this season?
Gator head coach Will Muschamp has had a full season to get his troops marching in one line…his. Unlike last year, he returns ten starters on defense and seven on offense – including the aforementioned offensive lineman. The spotlight will be bright indeed on the Saban protégée in year two, but not as bright as the klieg lights beating down on Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley. After being forced to replace nearly his entire staff in the offseason, the clock is definitely running out for Dooley himself. This is Tennessee – one of the premium teams not just in the SEC, but college football period. I do four radio shows in the state of Tennessee each week, and find it positively shocking how that proud fan base has allowed itself to lower its expectations. It has happened gradually, but .500 in conference should never be even moderately tolerable for the Volunteers, let alone after three years of stewardship – which will be the case come December. Someone please find coach Dooley a pair of sunglasses. (Runners up: SC junior QB Connor Shaw, Kentucky sophomore QB Maxwell Smith and Missouri junior QB James Franklin.)
There are few things more insulting to a quarterback than being simply called a "Game-Manager." It isn't a term of endearment…it is a direct shot at the players abilities to make plays and impact the outcome of a game. Connor Shaw is a game-manager, but for South Carolina to make it back to Atlanta in 2012 he'll need to become a playmaker. Shaw is a smart player but he has had problems with accuracy and arm strength. Spurrier can teach the right reads and teach a quarterback where to go with the ball, but the physical tools are not fixed in the film room. Carolina will rely on Marcus Lattimore once again, but to become an elite team, an SEC Title Contender (not participant), Connor Shaw cannot continue to be a game-manager.
SEC EAST POWER RANKINGS
1 Georgia – Only 2 teams on this sched finished the 2011 reg season with 8 or more wins
2 Florida – If Jacoby Brissett adapts to Brent Pease's Boise St offense, watch out!
3 South Carolina – Too many uncertainties to be ranked in the top 10 nationally
4 Missouri – 3 OL have gone down already, & Mizzou hasn't even started SEC play yet
5 Tennessee – One of the least talented D's in the conf, adjusting to a new coordinator
6 Vanderbilt – Lost 4 SEC games in 2011 but in 'em all; can they find on-field confidence?
7 Kentucky – No one bleeds Wildcat blue more than Joker…it won't matter come Dec
1 Georgia – Schedule, Schedule Schedule…Birmingham loves Mark Richt
2 South Carolina – Don't ignore the impact ex-DC E. Johnson had when Lattimore was out
3 Florida – You remember when there were buckets of skill players in Gainesville?
4 Tennessee – Offensive firepower, but will they stop anyone?
5 Missouri – Will the Tigers version of the spread work in the SEC?
6 Vanderbilt – Thurs night CFB/SEC opener at home? Is Vandy ready for primetime?
7 Kentucky – Joker deserves a pass this year; 2013 is his year to prove himself
THREE GAMES TO DVR
1) Georgia at South Carolina, October 6th. Last year the Gamecocks won a high flying affair between the hedges. This season, it's back up to Columbia where RB Marcus Lattimore had his breakthrough game in 2010…his first SEC contest as a true freshman. Lattimore stat line in two games vs. UGA: 64 carries for 363 yards (5.7 ypc), with three TDs. 37 of those carries came as a true freshman…most of them through the A gap, if you recall. Marcus loves him some T.J. Johnson. This starts a brutal five game stretch for the Gamecocks…lose it, and the wheels could easily fall off this season.
2) South Carolina at Florida, October 20th. This one is a casualty of expansion. It is blasphemy not playing this game in November, and late November at that. (Next, Florida and Tennessee will be closing out the season.) Spurrier going back to Gainesville is always entertaining and both teams will be in the middle of a brutal October stretch. Recall Florida is 1-7 in its last two Octobers, with two different coaches.
3a) Georgia vs. Florida, October 27th. A total of seven points and one OT have separated these teams the past two years. More than likely it'll be the same scenario this year. This will likely be a defensive affair, and right now it's neck and neck. However, the Gators' October is particularly more daunting than Georgia's, with LSU, at Vandy, SC and UGA vs. the Dawgs at SC, bye, at Kentucky before the WLOCP.
3b) Tennessee at South Carolina, October 27th. South Carolina returns home after a brutal stretch that includes Georgia, at LSU and at Florida. With the loss of starting cornerback Akeem Auguste, this already suspect Secondary is likely even weaker. Yes, Tennessee is without Da'Rick Rogers for the season, but it'll still be a passing offense when the Vols travel to Columbia. SC will run on this Tenn defense, but the Vols will likely put up points in bunches...and quickly at that. Unless the Gamecocks front four can put pressure on Tyler Bray, and in so doing bail out the Gamecock secondary.
1) Georgia vs. Florida, October 6th. If South Carolina falters, as both Russ and I believe they will, then this game is for all the marbles.
2) Georgia at South Carolina, October 6th. Typically you would say that the winner of this game has the inside track for the SEC East, but with the game pushed back a month and the fact that Georgia lost this game and still won the East only last year takes a bit of the impact off the rematch. The East will be decided by who their Western division opponents are, more than who they play in their own division.
3) Georgia at Missouri, September 8th. The first SEC game for the Missouri Tigers likely won't have much to say about the division race, but this game is a huge deal for the Tigers and the SEC. Georgia's last trip to a Big XII field did not end well; will they play better this time around?
Russ Mitchell is the lead SEC columnist for CFN. Follow him @russmitchellcfb
Brian Harbach covers the SEC for CFN. Follow him @harbachcfn