After back to back national championship wins over Ohio St, the SEC is sitting and staring down at the rest of the college football world. The best coaches, players, and fans of college football all reside in the SEC, and continue to leave their mark year after year in all phases of the game.
The line-up of coaches is remarkable in the SEC. Five coaches have won a national championship: Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier, Phil Fulmer, Les Miles, and Nick Saban, that's half of the eastern division that has won a title. For good measure, throw Tommy Tuberville's 2004 undefeated Auburn team in the discussion as well and, no doubt Mark Richt has, and has had Georgia in the hunt. It's amazing that these coaches don't kill the other team's chances at playing for the title.
Reason number one why the SEC is holding back to back trophies are the players on the field. Speed and toughness are key components on the field and the SEC has bunches of both. While both Florida and LSU are arguably the fastest teams in the country, they wouldn't be anywhere without the speed and toughness of their defenses.
So with all of these great things going on in SEC country, how could it possibly be that this could be a down year for the SEC? Look past Florida and Georgia and there are some glaring weaknesses. Not enough to take the SEC off the perch, but at least enough to bring it down closer to the crowd.
The defending national champs problems are well documented with the dismissal of quarterback Ryan Perrilloux . This puts LSU in a hole as they also have to replace 13 starters from the 12-2 national champs. That means on defense the Tigers have to replace Glenn Dorsey, two linebackers, and both cornerbacks, just ask Florida how tough it is to replace a dominating defense. This will be a down year for LSU. If the offense stays just as good as it was, the defense will not be better than last year's and all those tough games are on the road this year, especially Auburn and Florida.
The other Tigers in the West from Auburn will have to deal with some growing pains. New offensive coordinator Tony Franklin comes in from Troy and will install a spread attack on the Plains. How long will this transition take? It took Florida a good three seasons to get the type of spread they wanted. It all depends on who Auburn decides at quarterback, Kodi Burns or Chris Todd. Burns gave added hope to the spread in the bowl win over Clemson. Auburn always seems to have a great defense, and that will be tested as they have a young defensive line and secondary, a deadly combination in the SEC.
Sorry Bama fans, but the Tide have a lot to prove before they can be considered on the rise, besides having a great recruiting class. A 7-6 record last year, including an embarrassing loss to Louisiana-Monroe, shows that the Crimson Tide have a long way to go. It could be another long year while the experienced offense may have to outscore opponents. The SEC's toughest road schedule will also play a part in a tough season for the Crimson Tide.
As good as a story as Mississippi St. was last year, the team is nowhere close to being nationally noteworthy. The Bulldogs got crushed against superior opponents in LSU and West Virginia, and still were only .500 in the SEC. The problem for this year's team is the departure of defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to South Carolina. Defense was the catalyst for last year's success and the coordinator change could hurt in Starkville.
Both Arkansas and Ole Miss are in the same boat with new coaches, Bobby Petrino at Arkansas and Houston Nutt at Ole Miss. These moves will be better for both programs in the long run, this year will be difficult. As with most new coaching changes, both teams will probably win games they shouldn't and lose games they shouldn't.
For Arkansas, the team is just going to have to learn how to play a different style of football. New coaches, with the addition of losing Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, mean that more of a passing attack will be the future of Razorback football, which will take time to implement. The entire secondary will be new faces, so the defensive front seven will have to get pressure on the opposing quarterback. With Texas on the schedule, along with the usual slate of SEC games, success is not going to come easy in Petrino's first year.
The new-look Rebels from Ole Miss have replenished optimism with the arrival of Houston Nutt and quarterback Jevan Snead. Nutt would have an easy time with this offense if not for the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. There is no clear cut successor to the two-time 1,000 rusher. Defense was very disappointing a season ago, giving up 28 points per game. Besides a great defensive line, questions remain about the corps of linebackers and defensive backs. Overall talent was supposed to be a plus under Ed Orgeron, but it never showed up. Nutt always did more with less at Arkansas, how long will it take him to do the same in Oxford?
Starting at the bottom of the East division takes us to Vanderbilt, who just can't seem to take that next step in getting to a bowl game. The Commodores let a great opportunity slip by last year, with a great defense and an under-achieving offense. Remember this team had Georgia beat, till a late fumble cost a second straight win over the Dawgs. Now a sub-par offense loses Earl Bennett, and must hope that quarterback Chris Nickson can return to his 2006 numbers. If he doesn't Mackenzi Adams may take the reign at quarterback, but won't give them much more than a bad Nickson. The defense was the saving grace most of last season, but as great as it was it still couldn't save the woeful offense, and it'll be the same result this season.
This is where we see the old Kentucky. Not the Wildcat team that upsets the eventual National Champion, ranks in the top 10 nationally, and has another 8-5 campaign. While the team did beat LSU, they still struggled getting passed against other superior teams. Kentucky returns only five starters on offense and that doesn't include a starting quarterback and running back, or primary receiver. Wide receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. and a horde of running backs return to an otherwise weak offense, which like Vandy, must rely on the defense to keep the team in games.
It started well for Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks last year after starting 6-1 and ranking as high as sixth in the BCS. Then injuries piled up and the Gamecocks faltered to the finish line losing five straight games to end the season and missing a bowl game. The offense sputtered once again under Spurrier and doesn't look to get any better any time soon. To help fix that, Spurrier handed the controls over to Spurrier Jr. The offensive line has been inconsistent since Spurrier arrived, and that doesn't bode well for a new quarterback. Stephen Garcia should be the starter, but is suspended until August. That likely leaves Chris Smelly to start the fall as the starter, but Spurrier won't think twice to yank him at the first sign of faltering. The defense will be better, since it will be healthier, especially with the return of linebacker Jasper Brinkley. The defense won't be enough to help an offense that is still about a year away from taking off.
Now the Tennessee Volunteers are a hard team to figure out. In all honesty, the team was lucky to be playing for the SEC title last year. The race in the East is between UT, UF, and UGA every year, and that triad of teams beat each other. Florida blasted Tennessee, which in turn the Volunteers did the same to Georgia, and then Georgia beats Florida to keep Tennessee right in the race. Along with the beat down from Florida, there were also blowout losses against Cal and Alabama, and a slew of close games, that only a senior quarterback can get a team through. Fast forward to this season and say goodbye Eric Ainge and hello to Jonathan Crompton and new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson. Last year's squad was out gained by an average of 32.7 yards per game, and a new quarterback and coordinator are supposed to fix that? Crompton and Clawson also do not have the luxury of settling in to their respective roles because of the early season schedule which include UCLA, Florida, and Auburn. This team can't get off to the same 2-2 start as last year. The defense should be good after ending the season in great fashion, but do lose last year's best player Jerod Mayo and talented safety Jonathan Hefney.
The Georgia Bulldogs were staring right at a second straight loss to Vanderbilt until a late fumble recovery and game winning field goal turned the Bulldogs season completely around. The week before the Vandy game Georgia had just got embarrassed by Tennessee, and Mark Richt vowed that would never happen again. So after the squeaker against Vanderbilt the Bulldogs went on a tear and won their final six games, scoring nearly 38 points a game, and finishing number two in the BCS. With that great finish to last season, it only raises great expectations in Athens, and that may turn out to be the problem. Every time the Dawgs are supposed to do great things, they falter (i.e. 2004) and there are reasons they could again this year, starting with playing inspired. As stated before, Georgia looked lethargic in games against South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt. Yeah, Richt's boys played good when the black jerseys came out and the classless celebration against Florida, but how long can that last? If Matt Stafford is supposed to be a national championship type quarterback he needs to bring the passing stats up from last season, with only 194 yards per game, ranking 83rd in the NCAA. There will not be a national championship in Athens if that does not improve. Don't count the loss of Brandon Coutu out of the equation either, look back to 2006 when he missed some time and Georgia lost to Vandy and Kentucky. Oh yeah, the nation's toughest schedule won't help the Dawgs either, with trips to South Carolina then Arizona St., LSU, Jacksonville against Florida, and Auburn.
With the reigning Heisman Trophy winner coming back as junior, things should be good in Gainesville, Florida. Problem is if Tim Tebow has those same numbers Florida won't be playing for a second national title in three years. Those numbers would indicate that Florida has still not found a stable running back, and more than likely and injured Tebow somewhere along the way. If both of those happen the team can expect similar results as last year. Looking at that scenario, a case could be made that all Florida needed was the ability to stop someone on defense. The young defensive Gators found out they have to get to get pressure on the quarterback or games like Georgia and Michigan, are out of reach even with one of the nation's best offenses. Is a year of experience really going to make the unit play better? They still have to find some help at defensive tackle and the secondary, though the defense can rely on defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, linebacker Brandon Spikes, and cornerback Joe Haden. Along with these players, new coaches in Dan McCarney (defensive line) and Vance Bedford (cornerbacks) have a lot of work to do to get Florida back to a title contending defense.
The SEC proves year after year that they are the best conference, either by the quality of teams on the field, or the quality of the game itself. The coaches and the players are unmatched from top to bottom. But with coaching changes, and inexperience in key areas a lot of SEC teams could be looking at tough seasons. Some teams will for sure beat up on each other, that is the SEC, but the top teams have to not let that happen and survive the gauntlet of the conference. Only one team will be able to do that. So is that considered a down year?
A Down Year for the SEC?, 7/01/08