Our first SEC Blogger Roundtable got some great discussion going in our inboxes and on the Scout.com message boards so the guys are back for round two. Three of the Collegefootballnews.com SEC Bloggers (Billy Gomila, Brian Harbach and Barrett Sallee) are back to get you through the next couple months until the season starts. 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’s Pete Fiutak 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…
Will Ole Miss’ season live up to the preseason hype?
I start my answer to this by remarking that in general, I think people judge and label coaches too quickly, and those coaches often get mischaracterized by such lazy analysis. History is the proper judge of such things. I say this so that the esteemed readers of this roundtable will realize that I do not give the following opinion lightly: the 2009 Ole Miss Rebels will probably fall short of fan expectations just as most Houston Nutt teams have done. In 10 years at Arkansas, Houston Nutt proved himself to be a dangerous game-day coach, perfect for pulling upsets with emotional fervor and unconventional play-calling. He also proved himself incapable of leading his teams on the even keel from week to week that is necessary to maintain a top-10 type of season. Of his 10 Arkansas teams, two began the season ranked in the pre-season top 25, and both finished that season at a lower ranking while spending multiple weeks out of said rankings. Of the unranked teams that managed to climb into the top 25, only two managed to spend more than five consecutive weeks there, and all saw their ranking eventually decline.
That being said, there are things to like about the ’09 Rebels, particularly quarterback Jevan Snead. He’s the clear cut second-best passer in the conference (which is no small compliment when you consider who the best is) and he has some speedy receivers in Dexter McCluster and Shay Hodge. But there are still question marks on the Rebs’ offensive line (which Nutt noted several times during spring practice was a spot he wanted to see improvement at) and particularly on defense – where Ole Miss must replace four of its top five tacklers from 2008, including the two best linebackers, Ashlee Palmer and Tony Fein. An incredibly inviting schedule will give the team a good shot at winning the western division, but Ole Miss and Houston Nutt will have to prove they can play the role of hunted as well as they play the role of hunter. It’s one thing for a team to play with a chip on their shoulder because the world told them they couldn’t win. But it’s entirely different when everybody expects you to win.
Since we are a month away from the preseason magazines and three months away from preseason polls we aren’t 100 percent certain of what Ole Miss’ expectations are for 2009. One thing that is certain is the excitement coming from the fans and their expectations are very high. In order to explain if they will or won’t meet their goals for this season it seems reasonable to define what that success would be. Last year Ole Miss played in a New Year’s Day bowl and won 9 games so it makes sense that the Rebels equaling that feat would mean they did not exceed expectations for 2009. Meeting expectations for this year means winning the SEC West, there is no dancing around this, there is no marginalizing what they should do, Ole Miss has to win the West this year.
They have a coach in their second year at the school with his second SEC program, they have the second best QB in the SEC and maybe the country and the defense is extremely experienced. Houston Nutt has won two Western Titles in his career and this season is pivotal for him. Les Miles, Nick Saban and Tommy Tuberville all have one thing in common and that is they won the SEC West within their first two seasons at their most recent SEC West schools. Nick Saban did it twice in his second season at Alabama and LSU while Les Miles did it in his first season at LSU. The expectation for Houston Nutt this season should be a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game, but Ole Miss will not get there this year. Even with all of the talent the Rebels will bring right now LSU and Alabama would be ahead of them and Ole Miss will not get to Atlanta this season.
I think that they do meet the hype and win the SEC West. Ole Miss is the only team never to win the SEC West (no, Rebel fans, 2003 doesn't count), and they are long overdue. This is their year. It's their year partly because of how they finished last season and who they've got coming back, but mostly because of the question marks on the other teams. Defending division champion Alabama didn't lose all that many players, but lost them at key positions like QB (John Parker Wilson), LT (Andre Smith) and S (Rashad Johnson). Whether they've been recruiting great or not, it's a lot to ask of a team to repeat after filling holes in those particular positions. LSU is talented, but unproven. They have a question mark at QB with Jordan Jefferson, Jarrett Lee and perhaps Russell Shepard. Plus, John Chavis or not, their defense was atrocious last season, finishing 8th in the conference giving up 326 yards per game. Honestly, Ole Miss might actually be the safest pick to win the West this season. So, I'm gonna take that route. I just don't see anyone that can compete with them on a week-in, week-out basis. They will drop a game or two, maybe inexplicably, but still make it to the Georgia Dome for the first time ever.
No, because the hype is
already reaching unattainable proportions. I can't tell
you how many jacked up Rebel fans have asked me if an
unbeaten season is possible, partly because of the
returning talent and partly because of the schedule.
Call it a sense, call it being a "hater," but I'm
worried that the Rebels will panic, because of the high
expectations, once there's the slightest bit of
adversity. I'm more worried that LSU will be better this
year, Auburn will be better this year, Arkansas will be
a lot better, and Tennessee should be stronger. Throw in
Alabama into the mix and it's asking a lot of anyone,
including a tremendously talented Ole Miss team, to get
out of those five games with fewer than two losses.
That's not even including the two road games at South
Carolina and Vanderbilt to open up the SEC season. I
wouldn't be shocked if the Rebels lost both of those.
Vanderbilt still has talent, while South Carolina will
be looking to make a statement on national TV. It's
still May so I'm sure I'll change this around in some
way before the season, but my best guess is that Ole
Miss will be 8-4 with a split of the South Carolina and
Vanderbilt games, a loss to Alabama, a loss to Arkansas,
Auburn or Tennessee, and a loss to LSU. I'm an LSU
believer; last year was an aberration.
Billy: The best thing Ole Miss has going for it this season is schedule – both LSU and Bama come to Oxford and the Rebels avoid either of the top two eastern
division teams. So if there has ever been a prime opportunity for this team to finally end the 0-for-Atlanta slump, it’s this year. They’ll likely have some margin for error, but they’ll also have a bull’s-eye firmly lodged on their backside.
Which early enrollee will have the greatest impact on their team in 2009?
Brian: South Carolina true freshman defensive back Stephon Gilmore. Carolina could not be more fortunate to have a young player like Gilmore step up in the spring and fill a hole in a much needed position. After losing long time starters, Captain Munnerlyn, Carlos Thomas and Emanuel Cook in the secondary the Gamecocks needed starters and then depth needed to be worked out. It looks like the starting four in the defensive backfield has been filled and Gilmore adds the size and speed that South Carolina has not had in a cornerback since Dunta Robinson. Steve Spurrier has had glowing praise of Gilmore who may get a shot or two on the offensive side of the ball this summer, but his impact will be seen at cornerback.
Barrett: I'm going to have to go with Auburn RB Onterrio McCalebb. New offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has moved Mario Fannin to a hybrid WR/RB role, so Ben Tate will be the key RB on the Plains in 2009. The changeup will be the prep school speedster McCalebb, who broke off an impressive 70-yard touchdown run in Auburn's A-Day game. The 6'0”, 175 lb native of Fort Meade, Fla., clocked a 4.3 40-yard dash as a senior at Ft. Meade High School, before heading to Hargrave Military Academy last season. Malzahn knows where and how to use his weapons, and McCalebb will be a big one for the Tigers in 2009. He may not have the size that most SEC RB's have, but he will be the big play threat out of the Tigers backfield.
Billy: If you live in Baton Rouge you’re pretty much legally required to answer Russell Shepard to this question. Tiger fans are quietly optimistic about Jordan Jefferson, but all eyes were on Shepard this spring as he joined the Tigers for practice. By the time August gets here, he’ll have had two years of fan hype (and one year of those fans watching Jarrett Lee throw seven pick-sixes) leading up to his debut. LSU coaches started Shepard for the purple team in the spring game sans the no-tackling green jersey other QB’s wore, allowing fans to catch a glimpse of his remarkable athleticism. Look for him to fill a similar role to Tim Tebow on the 2006 Florida squad – as a sparkplug and change of pace. Only whereas Tebow did it with his power and toughness, Shepard will use speed and quickness.
Fiu: Shepard. LSU is a team that needs a spark after last year's bizarre
season. While Shepard won't be the starting quarterback,
he'll be used in a variety of ways as the playmaker
who'll keep defensive coordinators up at night. Now, if
he's the starting quarterback for a long stretch of
time, there will be problems. But if he's a nice piece
of the puzzle, he could be the catalyst for a huge
Which unknown players do you expect to explode based on a great spring practice?
Billy: He’s created more of a stir in the last two weeks with some surprise bullpen work for the Tiger baseball team, but one player who generated a lot of chatter out of spring practice for LSU was safety Chad Jones. It feels odd to say, but Jones has sort of been a victim of his own abilities through his first two years at LSU. He’s 6-2 and about 220 pounds, and looks the part of both safety and linebacker while having the speed and athleticism of a cornerback. As such, he’s played a number of different roles, both in coverage and as a blitzer as a freshman and sophomore, which resulted in a classic jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none situation. But John Chavis and new secondary coach Ron Cooper have simplified things for Jones, putting him at his natural position – free safety. With excellent ball skills and the size to still pack a wallop (he had two tackles behind the line of scrimmage in the LSU spring game) Jones may contend for the conference lead in interceptions in 2009.
Brian: I have to admit that I am pretty excited about Chad Jones this season, Billy is dead on that he has a chance to be special under Chavis, but for my player I want to move to the offensive side of the ball. Smaller running backs are making an impact in the SEC more each season and after the huge success of Florida’s Jeffrey Demps and Chris Rainey last year, Georgia’s Carlton Thomas is going to have a big impact this year. Thomas is five foot seven inches and 165 pounds soaking wet, but he is going to benefit from a great spring and a Bulldog depth chart that is shrinking. Richard Samuel was hurt and did not practice this spring, starter Caleb King just doesn’t seem like the player he was expected to be when he signed with Georgia and none of the young running backs from this year’s class are on campus yet. Injuries are always a worry with a smaller back taking SEC hits every week, but if healthy Thomas will be huge for UGA this season.
Barrett: Well, Brian actually stole my guy, because I wanted to go with Thomas. But, my backup will be
Branden Bolden, running back from Ole Miss. The sophomore emerged from spring practice as the likely #1 running back, beating out other big names Cordera Eason and Enrique Davis in the Rebels' backfield. While Jevan Snead was garnering most of the attention last season for the Rebs, Bolden quietly racked up 542 yards on 98 carries, good for third on the team behind Eason and WR/RB Dexter McCluster. He steadily improved as the year went on, topping the 100-yard mark for the first time in his career in the Rebels' Cotton Bowl victory over the Texas Tech Red Raiders. After gaining 50 yards on only four carries in the Ole Miss spring game, Bolden will be a key piece in the Ole Miss offense this season. And, we all know what Houston Nutt is capable of when he has talent at the RB position.
Billy: Looking around the conference, here are a few other players who could make a name for themselves in 2009:
Tight end/receiver Brandon Warren, Tennessee – Lane Kiffin has traditionally run tight-end friendly offenses, and the limitations of Vol quarterbacks could funnel a lot of catches Warren’s way.
Wide receiver Terrance Toliver, LSU – This former top-ranked recruit cemented himself as the clear No. 2 option in Baton Rouge after sitting behind upper classmen his first two years. Toliver could be a big-time deep threat in the Tiger offense.
Running back De’Anthony Curtis, Arkansas – Could provide some thunder to Michael Smith’s lightening. Bobby Petrino’s best Louisville offenses always used multiple running backs.
Defensive end Rahim Alem, LSU – Was first-team all-conference last season in spot duty. With a new defense that turns defensive ends loose, Alem could be in for a double-digit-sack season.
Fiu: Arkansas RB De'Anthony Curtis won't lead the team
in rushing, but he'll play a key role in the Hog attack.
He showed enough to be trusted more as a big back behind
the diminutive Michael Smith. At Tennessee, I don't know
if QB Jonathan Crompton will even get
the starting job, with Nick Stephens fitting the offense
better, but he sure looked the part throughout spring
ball hitting everyone in the numbers. He won't run, but
he can throw well enough to do more under the new
coaching staff. The guy to watch out for going into the
year will be Vanderbilt CB Myron Lewis,
a superstar-in-waiting now that he's the No. 1 coverman
with D.J. Moore gone.
At 6-3 and 205 pounds he has tremendous size, excellent
athleticism, and three years of experience. Pen him in
for first-team All-SEC honors.
Will Urban Meyer’s attempt to make Tim Tebow more appealing to NFL scouts
hurt the Gators this year?
Barrett: It could. The Gators are the odds-on favorites to win the National Championship; and as long as Tebow's in there, that doesn't change. However, if they drop a game and get into a position where style points matter, it may. Tebow and head coach Urban Meyer are attempting to do something that, by their own admission, is an experiment. If Tebow sticks with that plan, Florida probably won't look as dominant as they have during the previous three seasons. Tebow will be a successful, Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback in the NFL, but he has to learn aspects of the position that he's never had to learn before. It will be interesting to watch how Meyer handles this as the season progresses. My guess is that he will run the same offense that he's always run early in games, but mix in an NFL play and/or series here and there, once the Gators get out to a little lead. This will give Tebow a chance to impress scouts while games still matter, but when the pressure isn't too intense. If Florida falls behind in the second half of a game this season, the NFL stuff will probably go on the shelf for the remainder of the day. The Tebow experiment will likely turn blowout wins into just “solid” wins on paper.
Billy: I don’t know that Urban Meyer’s hiring of Scott Loeffler to teach pro-style quarterbacking is necessarily to help Tim Tebow as far as next April is concerned. It’s not like there’s really anything “broken” to “fix” from the Gators’ perspective (and as Meyer has said, if you’re going to be critical of his football team or his coaches, you’re not a true Gator). My guess is that his motivation resolves around one of two issues. Either the fact that Tebow is about to graduate as one of the best quarterbacks in college football history, yet NFL teams seem more willing to let a former Duke basketball point guard play quarterback than him, is being used against Meyer in recruiting, specifically of quarterbacks. Or, that an attack that mixes more pro-style plays in with the spread will fit heir apparent quarterback John Brantley a little better. Given that Meyer may never have another quarterback that can absorb the 500 or 600-plus career carries that Tebow will likely have by the end of this season, the second theory seems more plausible. That’s not to say that Brantley (or other future Gator QB’s) won’t be an effective runner, it’s just that part of what has made Tebow so unique has been his power and toughness. There are a lot of dual-threat quarterbacks out there, but not many that can take the punishment Tebow has through his career. As far as 2009 goes, the Gators will continue to do the things that have won them two out of the last three national championships. In my opinion, any changes to the offense will be done with an eye on the future.
Brian: This may sound a little crazy, but having Tebow under center for any significant amount of time could hurt the Gators this season and it could hurt them next season as well. If Urban Meyer is going to give Tebow a chance to play under center to showcase his NFL skills it is likely going to happen when the game is well in hand. Meyer isn’t going to change his offense and he isn’t going to do this when Florida is in any danger of losing a game. That means when Tebow gets his shot running an NFL Pro-Style offense the game will be well in hand and nothing will be on the line. There are two reasons why this is a bad idea, the first one is because it takes away important snaps from his understudy, John Brantley, who will need that valuable experience to prepare for 2010. Second, Tebow could get hurt. Even though the plays he would be running are not going to be his typical Tebow Left, Tebow Right, Tebow Middle, there is a chance he could take a hard sack and get hurt. Meyer can mix a play or two in during the game to get Tebow some experience in a NFL scheme, but it isn’t the best interests of the team to do it very often.
Barrett: It's certainly an interesting predicament for Urban Meyer to be in. Job one for him is to, of course, win football games. But, with the dedication and prestige that Tim Tebow has brought to the Gator program, he also owes Tebow a debt of gratitude. I don't think that there will be much of a drop-off between the standard spread and the modified Tebow NFL offense. After all, spread offense or not, finishing the season fourth in the nation in passing efficiency with a 172.37 rating is impressive. Is it solid proof that he will be a successful NFL quarterback? Probably not. But, it at least puts a doubt in his critics heads. It's safe to say that he won't be able to make the throws that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning make, but he likely won't have to. Just as it was with Michael Vick, an NFL offense will be tailored to Tebow's particular skill set. He's not going to be asked to throw for 4,000 yards on Sunday's, so a high passer rating speaks volumes towards his future success in the NFL.
Fiu: Meyer (pushed by Tebow's family)
tried to make Tebow more of an NFL passer last year. How
did that go? Put it this way; that little speech after
the Ole Miss loss, the one that's now on a plaque on
Florida Field, can be summed up like this: "Enough of
this crap. I'm going back to being Tim Tebow." Don't
read too much into the offseason talk of Tebow trying to
become Peyton Manning. With the team's one question mark
at receiver, Tebow will start out trying to wing it
around, but when push comes to shove, he'll be running
15 times in the fourth.