With SEC Spring Practices over, three of our Collegefootballnews.com SEC Bloggers (Billy Gomila, Brian Harbach and Barrett Sallee) have found a way to get you through the next couple months until the season starts. A monthly SEC Blogger Roundtable Discussion should fire up our loyal CFN readers and give you something to talk about during the College Football's dead period. Each month the guys will dive into a handful of juicy topics to give your off-season water cooler discussions some life. This month CFN Writer Matt Zemek adds his opinion to further the discussion along. Feel free to email the guys to let them know what you think of their opinions and what questions you want the answers to in future columns; let's get the discussion going…
Which Coaching hire do you think will make the biggest impact in the SEC in 2009?
Billy: Gus Malzahn, offensive coordinator at Auburn. You say the words "wide-open offense" in Auburn, Alabama and a lot of fans follow that with the words "Tony Franklin" and a string of other words that we can't repeat on this website. But fear not plainsfans, Malzahn's style is more about variety and speed. His 2008 Tulsa squad passed for over 4,000 yards, but added more than 3,700 on the ground. In 2007, fullback Charles Clay had 1,024 yards receiving in addition to his 304 yards rushing. So, while Malzahn's not afraid to spread the field, it doesn't come at the expense of the running game. The key is the tempo. Malzahn built his reputation on a pioneering no-huddle style that both confused defenses and wore them out. Granted, Auburn's passing game personnel leave a lot to be desired, but there are still some talented backs and linemen, and the pace Malzahn will look to set alone could be enough to make the (other) Tiger offense a unit that gives defenses trouble in 2009.
Brian: Since Billy went with an offensive coordinator that should improve a struggling offense; it makes sense to mention a defensive coordinator that should improve a defense that underachieved in 2008. John Chavis is going to be a difference maker for LSU this season and this hire by Les Miles will get the Bengal Tigers back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Chavis has a great track record of turning elite high school prospects into elite college players. If you look at the players in the NFL that have played for Chavis it is extremely impressive and he knows how to use defensive talent correctly. LSU is probably the second most talented team in the SEC behind Florida and it will be fun to watch guys like Chad Jones, Patrick Peterson, Jai Eugene, Rahim Alem and Drake Nevis improve this season under Chavis' direction. This hiring is going to have an immediate impact for LSU.
Barrett: Those are both very good choices, and I agree that both of them will make a big difference for their respective units. As much press as he's gotten in the off-season, mostly due to self-inflicted criticism, I am going to say Lane Kiffin is going to make a bit impact…one way or another. He's got Vol fans excited in Knoxville. One problem though – he's got 11 other teams in the conference chomping at the bit to take him down a peg. It's either going to be a home run hire, or an abject disaster, and it's not going to be anywhere in between. He doesn't have the talent he had at USC, but Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens both looked good in their spring game. If he can find a guy under center that can take care of the ball, he might just be a success after all. Because, despite all their problems last season – and there were lots, Tennessee still finished the season tied for the third best defense in the country, giving up only 263.5 yards per game.
CFN Writer Matthew Zemek: Chavis is certainly the kind of coordinator who could make the difference between a decent season and a superb season for the Bayou Bengals. However, in the spirit of offering a different perspective, consider the presence of a Kiffin in Knoxville... and not the young head coach, either. If the Tennessee gamble pays off in the form of a solid 2009, the main reason will be Monte Kiffin's expertise as a defensive coach... a coach every bit as good as Mr. Chavis. With Papa Monte's wisdom safeguarding the defensive side of the ball, Lane the Son can devote more attention to the UT offense and a quarterback situation that sunk the Volunteer Navy last season. Lane Kiffin is the man under the gun in Tennessee, but it's his father who will give the Vols a chance to take a great leap forward (just not against Florida).
Billy: Here's a final thought on the matter, and a different perspective on Lane Kiffin. It's easy to point and laugh at "Hello!" Kiffin's comments regarding Urban Meyer and Florida, and just assume that its going to result in a 50-point beatdown this September. It's even easier to say that Kiffin's mouth is putting even more pressure on his players this season. But with the Gators returning fire – both by players comments and slapping Kiffin's pictures and comments all over the locker room – they have, in a way, taken some of that pressure off the Vols. Now the whole world expects to see the wrath of Urban and Tebow unleashed, which doesn't mean a 2-3 touchdown victory. Even a repeat of last season's 30-6 final result wouldn't seem quite worthy. If Tennessee can make a game of it, that gives them a building block for the future. Was this Kiffin's plan the whole time? Probably not. But he's managed to give himself house money to play with when it comes to Florida.
Who will be a sleeper contender for the SEC Offensive Player of the Year?
Barrett Sallee: It's going to be very difficult for anyone to top Tim Tebow. But, sticking with the quarterback theme, I think that Ryan Mallett may jump up and surprise people in 2009. What Bobby Petrino lacks in the commitment department, he makes up for with his ability to design an offense; and he will design one that will allow Mallett to flourish in Fayetteville. Petrino has groomed successful quarterbacks like Brian Brohm and Mark Brunell in the past. There's no reason to believe that Mallett, who is full of natural ability, won't succeed under his tutelage. The Razorback offense showed signs of life on occasion last season, and established a running game under rising-senior tailback Michael Smith. A quarterback's best friend is a good running game. With offenses keying on Smith, Mallett is primed to put up big numbers for the Hogs in '09.
Billy Gomila: > The only way Tebow's not winning this is with a significant injury, and Jevan Snead has cemented himself as a clear no. 2 choice. Therefore, no matter how homerriffic it may seem, I'm going to go with Jordan Jefferson of LSU as my sleeper choice. Nobody questions the talent around him, and with some quality prep time Jefferson shredded Georgia Tech in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. He's also hit the ground running this offseason. While the defense has dominated headlines, another undercurrent to LSU's spring practice was the way Jefferson cemented himself as the starting quarterback. He carries himself with a confidence about that rubs off on teammates, and shows great touch as a passer, especially on deep and intermediate throws. Couple those skills with a creative offensive coordinator, all-conference receiver Brandon Lafell and a bevy of other weapons, and Jefferson could be in for a big season.
Brian Harbach: Moving over to the SEC East for a Sleeper pick we have to discuss Stephen Garcia. Steve Spurrier attempted to stunt Garcia's growth a number of times last season by playing musical quarterbacks late in the year, but Garcia had a number of amazing moments in between the disastrous ones. Spurrier really has no other option than Garcia this year and that is good for South Carolina and good for Garcia. Not looking over his shoulder and being the man from day one this year should help the sophomore signal caller gain some confidence and let him focus on making plays. Last year we saw his ability to make plays with his arm and his legs, but he was just too inexperienced to play consistently. South Carolina has an opportunity this season with the SEC East going through some serious coaching and talent turnover outside of Gainesville. If the Gamecocks do make any sort of challenge for the SEC East it will be because of Stephen Garcia.
Barrett Sallee: All very good picks. I agree that, if given stability, Garcia has a good chance to flourish. It's a miracle that some of the Florida quarterbacks from the mid-90's were able to be so successful as they were given Spurrier's love for rotating signal callers. I will also throw Julio Jones' name in there. He proved early in his career that he is capable of being a playmaker. He will have to suffer through some growing pains from his quarterback and his offensive line, but if he finds a comfort level early, he could lead the Crimson Tide to a second-consecutive SEC West title.
If the SEC is considered by everyone right now to be the best College Football Conference is the country, who is the second best?
Brian: It will be amazing if Non-SEC fans read more than two sentences of our answers before firing off an email about how incorrect we are for assuming the SEC is the best conference in the country. But for this discussion we will act like all other rational college football fans and just admit that the SEC is the best right now and coming in second would be the Pac 10. The Pac 10 turned a corner this bowl season going undefeated in their games (5-0) and while I believe it is still USC's league to dominate year in and year out, the other teams actually stepped us this post season and won some good bowl games. Oregon's dismantling of a good Oklahoma State team, an Arizona win over a BYU team some thought would be BCS bound and USC once again embarrassed the "best" the Big 10 had to offer are all good signs of depth in the conference. There is a lot of returning talent throughout the league and after a successful bowl season, the Pac 10 is going to step up and show the country why they are number two.
Barrett: I'm going to go with the Pac-10 as well, but only due to lack of options to choose from. The Pac-10 is essentially the Pac One, with nine other average teams fighting it out for the second spot. Brian mentioned the 5-0 bowl season that the Pac 10 posted last year, but I disagree that the conference turned a corner as a result of that record. None of those bowl wins, in my opinion, were overly impressive. Most of those wins were against inferior competition in games that Pac-10 teams should win. Maybe they should change their bowl tie-ins and play real teams? Rose Bowl…I'm looking in your direction. If anyone in the Big XII would play defense, then the league could compete with the SEC on a year-in and year-out basis, but that hasn't happened. So, as it is, I am going to go with the Pac-10 as the second best conference simply because USC is good. That still doesn't excuse their annual unexplained loss to a lesser opponent though.
Billy A strong bowl season can't completely erase a bad regular season. The Pac 10 was 0-for-the-Moutain West last season, and if we're going to talk about conferences that don't play defense, you can't leave them out. Nevermind that eight of 11 first-team all-conference defenders won't be back. It has to be the Big XII . Texas and Oklahoma are sure-fire top-five teams, and Oklahoma State, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas Tech could all spend time in the top 25. No conference can top the QB lineup of Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, Zac Robinson and Todd Reesing – plus Baylor's Robert Griffith, who would start for at least 10 teams in the SEC. Nevermind the plug-and-play offense of Texas Tech, which will turn out yet another productive passer. There's only one other conference that can provide that kind of depth of competition, and we all know which one that is.
Brian: It is hard to change the perception of a league in just one great bowl season, but this season is going to be a big step forward nationally for the Pac 10. The Pac 10 has some good games out of conference and the schedule is not overly daunting this fall. There are a number of high profile games the league should win. Games like Arizona traveling to Iowa, Oregon at Boise State but also playing Utah and Purdue at home, USC travels to Ohio State and Stanford takes on the Demon Deacons at Wake Forest. These are just a few of the high profile games the Pac 10 can win and improve the leagues image. The Big 12 is an interesting option, but it is hard to take the league seriously when only one team wins big games. The last 5 years it has been Texas and then everyone else. Oklahoma chokes every time the cameras are on outside of a conference match up, Kansas won a BCS game against another terrible ACC team and all the other teams just float around. The new additions on the sideline and continued experience in Pac 10 coaching will help the league leap over all the other conferences, but the SEC will still be the biggest dog in the yard.
Will any teams in the SEC East be able to challenge Florida for the Eastern Division Title?
Billy: In a word: no. In two words: absolutely not. In three: ain't gonna happen. Unless defensive coordinators start packing Kryptonite bullets (well…this is the SEC we're talkin' about), there's just no team in the East will be taking down Superman and company this year. That's not just a commentary on how loaded the Gators are, but also on the fact that every other team in the division is either rebuilding or seriously lagging behind in the talent department. Georgia will be a top-25 team, but when you lose to Florida 49-10 in 2008, and have to replace about 5,000 yards of offensive production, it's hard to be optimistic you'll compete with a defending champ who returns 19 starters. Tennessee has an even higher mountain to climb, and South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt are just on a different tier. As it is, anything less than a conference title and BCS Championship appearance for the Gators will be a major disappointment. Losing the division would be a choke job on an all-time level.
Brian: I guess it is down to Barrett to shock the world and go against the popular opinion on this one because there is no way any other team in the East is going to compete with the Gators this season. The young defense from 2008 is now more experienced, they have two amazing senior leaders on both sides of the ball in Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes and their SEC schedule is easier this season. The Gators play their division which is going through some turnover and they get LSU, Arkansas and MSU from the west. Avoiding both Alabama and Ole Miss this season is a huge plus for the Gators and their road schedule isn't brutal either with LSU, South Carolina, MSU and Kentucky all being away from the Swamp. If pressed to pick the most likely team to compete with the Gators it would have to be Georgia, but they will likely end up a distant second in the East and will likely be blown out in the Cocktail Party this November.
Barrett: Well, I wish I could, with a straight face, tell you that there's some semblance of competition in the East for the Gators, but it would just be a lie. As Brian said, the only other team that possibly could compete with the Gators is Georgia, but in order for them to do so, they would probably have to either run the table or finish with one conference loss AND beat Florida. That's not going to happen. Basically, any team would conceivably compete with the Gators would have to be serious National Title contenders. Georgia, with an entirely new and unproven backfield, simply won't be there. Neither will any other team in the East. South Carolina's defense, as always, will keep them in games, but not enough to make them division title contenders. It's all Florida. Etch it in stone. Even if Tebow gets hurt.
We hope you enjoyed our first SEC Blogger Roundtable Discussion, please email any of us or all of us with your comments. Also, if there are any questions you want us to answer go ahead and send them our way.
Email Billy Gomila
Email Brian Harbach
Email Barrett Sallee