3 SEC QUESTIONS THAT NAG MORE THAN YOUR EX
(i) Who has the best SEC performance this weekend (Team or Player)?
Alabama will simply dismantle Va. Tech. Good thing we don’t work for ESPN, because all the hype aside, this game was virtually over the day Tech's star RB Darren Evans blew out his knee and exited the season stage right. VT was going to have a hard time moving against this stout Alabama defense to begin with – but now there’s only one RB on this Hokie team with even a handful of game carries, and he's a backup (Josh Oglesby). RsFr Ryan Williams is getting the start. Are you kidding us? This is going to be Clemson, The Sequel, as long as rookie QB Greg McElroy doesn’t choke – and that's unlikely to happen with any rookie QB on a Nick Saban coached team (think Run Student Body left, Run Student Body right, Run… You get the picture). Alabama wins by 10+ and doesn't break a sweat – perhaps even a blowout, if VT QB Tyrod Taylor can’t get the passing game going. (Did we mention this is Taylor's first year as a starter?) And just like last year, a win over an average ACC team, overrated by the media, will catapult the Tide forward. As such, it will be perceived as the week's best SEC performance (a dominant win by UGA in Stillwater would be more impressive, but is unlikely).
Don’t say we didn’t warn you: both SEC night games should be blowouts, even with the LSU Tigers likely slowed by the rain forecast for Seattle (we’ll be out west covering that one, SEC slickers in tow. Y'all think they have any decent BBQ in Seattle?)
First off I want to say how great it is to be back writing about SEC football week in/week out, and it is great to be doing this column again with Russ. Not much is going to change with the format: it will be honest, sometimes harsh, and Russ will usually be wrong.
The bigger games seem to dominate the media attention for the opening weekend, and there are two huge ones that stand out with Alabama vs. Virginia Tech and Georgia at Oklahoma State. There is one player from each one of these games you should keep an eye on: Alabama’a Rolando McClain and Georgia’s A.J. Green. Last season the best receiver Oklahoma State faced was Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree, who burned the Cowboys for 90 yards and three touchdowns. At this point in his development, Green may not be as great a player as Crabtree, but he’s close, and he’s an All American who is likely to torch the Cowboy defense.
As for 'bama, the offensive fireworks they displayed at the Georgia Dome last season are unlikely to be replicated this year. The game with Virginia Tech is going to be smash mouth football, and the offenses are going to look bad. The best defensive player on the field in downtown Atlanta will be Rolando McClain; this game was created for a linebacker like him. Tech is a running team that (recently) has had difficulty airing it out, so Terrence Cody will eat up blocks and McClain will eat up running backs. He should finish with a ton of tackles and a couple sacks on his way to a SEC Defensive Player of the Week award. It’s a toss-up: Green and McClain will have the best SEC performances this week.
(ii) Which team is under the most pressure to win opening weekend?
After the way it ended the season, this could be ‘Bama. Or given the changes made on defense during the offseason, it could be LSU. But the greatest pressure is on South Carolina and the OBC. Spurrier is hovering near .500, which may be ok for the fans in black, but it’s not enough for SOS. Or shouldn’t be enough. Tom O'Brien had his team playing very well by the end of the season, and after a decent recruiting class, and the embarrassing 34-0 loss in Columbia to start last season, this Wolfpack team is jacked up to host the Gamecocks. NCSU’s electric QB Russell Wilson now has a year under his belt, and has become a great leader – something USC lacks on offense. This is the biggest game in Carter-Finley Stadium in years – it’s the season kickoff for all of CFB, showcased on national television. And the fans/team will be sky high.
Enter South Carolina, struggling for identity. Struggling for a leader on offense. Struggling for consensus on play calling. Struggling. USC’s QBs threw plenty of INTs in the game last year, and its defense still pitched a shutout. Given that defense will likely be at the same caliber, USC should win this again this year, but it’s going to be a whole lot closer. This is a better Wolfpack team, at home, well led by a great coach, galvanized by some late season success and a true leader at QB. This is a HUNGRY Wolfpack team, folks. USC should win again this year, but it won’t be because of their offense, and it will be in spite of their coach.
Even on opening weekend there is pressure for teams to start season off on a winning note, but the team under the most pressure in week one is South Carolina. The first SEC game of the year will be played by South Carolina in Raleigh against an overmatched NC State program that is a trendy sleeper pick in the ACC. There is no excuse for South Carolina losing this game. It doesn’t matter that it is at night, it doesn’t matter than it is on the road, it doesn’t matter that Russell Wilson was knocked out of the game last year during a 34-0 South Carolina thumping of the Wolfpack. The pressure is on because next week the Gamecocks travel to Athens for a game that could very well be between two 0-1 teams and it is hard to like their chances against a desperate Georgia team.
Spurrier looked exhausted during the SEC meetings, and he more than anyone in Columbia needs this season to start off strong to keep the questions about his future out of the media’s mouth. Any South Carolina fan that expects to lose this game is crazy. Obviously this is not going to be a cakewalk, but a middle of the pack SEC team should beat a middle of the pack ACC team anytime, anywhere, any year. There is not one position on the field where NC State has an advantage, not on the sidelines, not on the field and not in the stands. The bottom line is the Gamecocks don’t want to see what happens if they don’t win this game.
(iii) What every SEC fan should be talking about, but isn’t?
Not enough attention is being placed on the SEC’s new broadcasting contract with ESPN. We’ve been writing about this since August 2008, but this weekend will be the first chance to see it play out. Pay special attention to how often the Gameday crew mentions the Georgia and Alabama games. Not that we condone irresponsible drinking, but you might try getting some buddies together and toasting each time an SEC team is mentioned, in a new SEC love-fest drinking game. We guarantee you won’t be driving afterward.
It remains to be seen what all this attention eventually does to the SEC. In the short-run, it’ll mean more attention for all 12 teams, and with it, more money, recruits, and better teams. But we’re in uncharted territory here. With such a big entertainment company having such a big influence, we hope it doesn’t lead to the Disneyification of the sport and conference we hold so dear.
Two things I want to hit on today, the first one is not the only time I have complained about this subject, but this seems as good enough a time as any to bring it up again. The SEC needs to force a bye week in the middle of the season to stop teams from playing 10, 11 or 12 straight games. It drives me crazy to see teams from other conferences get two and sometimes even three bye weeks in a season, while the leagues with Championship games are forced to play with fewer bye weeks. Bye weeks are an advantage anyway you slice it, and this year five SEC teams play games for 11 or 12 straight weeks. Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and South Carolina all play 11 games in a row and Vanderbilt doesn’t even have a bye week this year. Commissioner Slive needs to step up and force teams to schedule bye weeks in the middle of the season so we don’t have teams exhausted at the end of an 11 week stretch.
The second topic is related to two players who might miss the opening game this weekend and how little play it seems to be getting. Of course this is just a rumor right now, but where there is smoke, there is often fire. It looks like both Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Mark Ingram are being investigated for some stupid fishing trip they took this summer with a non-booster. From the details that have been released so far this looks like a non-issue; regardless, it a few days before kickoff, and it is still being discussed. Without those two players, the game dramatically changes for Alabama. Not necessarily in favor of Virginia Tech, but you bet losing your All American wide receiver is a big deal. Alabama still has more talent than Va Tech and should win the game, but it is pretty disappointing that we are talking about this stuff instead of the game Thursday before kickoff.
IN FOCUS: Which SEC Coach / Player is in the Spotlight this week?
If this question was for the season instead of the week, we could choose LSU’s Jordan Jefferson or Alabama’s McElroy. Both teams have great depth/talent, and could be championship-level if their rookie QBs emerge and play, well, better than rookie QBs typically do. However, is there really any doubt? Joe Cox, Georgia (QB) is the player in the spotlight this week. OSU has been in a bit of a tailspin this week, with one starter after another falling by the wayside. However, that kind of turmoil can just as easily galvanize a team, especially at home. Cox is good, but was average in Spring ball and, UGA coaches notwithstanding, our sources say he was average this Fall. He threw only 15 attempts backing up Matt Stafford last season, and has two young, inexperienced RBs to support the passing game. You just know OSU is bringing the heat, early and often. Reports also indicate HC Mike “I’M A MAN!” Gundy is likely to sacrifice an extra player to take Georgia’s only proven offensive threat (Green) out of the game. Can Cox lead his team in a hostile environment? A win could launch the Dawgs into the Top Ten, but a loss in no way dooms the Georgia season, as Cox and his RBs will get better as the season progresses. Hopefully this fact alone will reduce some stress for the ‘rookie’ senior QB.
Joe Cox, Georgia (QB) It is always nice when a fifth year senior gets the opportunity to lead their team after four years of back up duty. But don’t be fooled into thinking Cox won this job because of seniority or pity - he is a good quarterback and will do a good job for UGA this season. Cox was tested by Logan Gray and two talented freshmen (Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger), but still won the job in the Spring, and has not looked back. Georgia has the toughest opening game of the weekend in Stillwater, and for UGA to win, Cox has to limit mistakes and get the ball to his playmakers. Oklahoma State will score points and protect their QB, and Georgia will have to match them and hope for a stop at the end of the game. If Cox turns the ball over one time or fewer, UGA wins - if he turns it over more than once, Georgia will lose.
SEC POWER RANKINGS
This could really be called the Florida Power Rankings, so great is the drop-off after the Gators. But we digress.
1 Florida – Book your hotel room in LA now, Gator fan
2 Alabama – 11 pass attempts in 2008
3 Ole Miss – Pressure? What pressure?
4 LSU – Young? Until last week, Jefferson was only 18
5 Georgia – Just how good is this O-line?
6 Arkansas – Peek-a-boo
7 Auburn – How long a leash does Chris Todd have?
8 Tennessee – Hey Dad, what do I do now?
9 South Carolina – Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Steve…
10 Vanderbilt – Far from a one season wonder
11 Kentucky – Weak D-line; 2 SEC wins again this year
12 MSU – Hard to run the spread offense without WRs
1 Florida – I believe the technical term is “Duh”
2 LSU – I am in the minority on this one right now
3 Alabama –Excited to see how McElroy plays in his first start
4 Ole Miss – The jury’s out until Ole Miss plays a real opponent; OOC is weak
5 Georgia– I like the Dawgs this weekend; see below to find out how much
6 Arkansas – Welcome back to CFB Ryan Mallett, and welcome to the SEC
7 South Carolina – No team in the SEC will rely more on the success of their QB
8 Auburn – Chris Todd’s Auburn redemption or Chris Todd Auburn also-ran
9 Tennessee – The offense has to build confidence before Gainesville
10 Vanderbilt – 2 straight Vandy bowl games; bandwagon starts here
11 Kentucky – If Randall Cobb doesn’t get 15+ touches, Brooks hates me on Monday
12 MSU – Play the freshmen. Play the freshmen. Play the freshmen
THREE GAMES TO DVR
1) Georgia at Oklahoma State, September 5th Georgia’s talent divide over OSU is not as great as you might think, and is likely balanced by UGA's inexperience at key positions and the Cowboys’ home field. Yes, there’s been turmoil in Stillwater. And were this any other game than the season opener, we’d take the Dawgs. But first game, on the road, against a team with a pulse, for a rookie QB with no experienced run support? Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
OSU 28, Georgia 24
2) Alabama vs. Virginia Tech, September 5th It doesn’t matter if Julio plays. It doesn’t matter if Ingram plays. None of it matters if Virginia Tech can’t advance the ball, and they won’t. Half of Tech’s points will come from the defense/special teams, and that won’t be enough.
Alabama 24, Virginia Tech 14
3) South Carolina at NC State, September 3rd (Thursday Game) We nearly went with LSU v. UW, just to see if the Tiger’s young QB is “Ga. Tech” or “Arkansas”. But if Spurrier loses this game, he could lose his team, his season and his job. If not his legacy. Yes, we wrote it.
South Carolina 20, NC State 17
1) Georgia at Oklahoma State, September 5th In case you had not heard the newly furnished Boone Pickens Stadium is the coziest 60,000 person stadium in the country. Did you hear that Bulldog fans? Bring your pillows and coco, because y'all are in for a relaxing and restful afternoon. Actually the Bulldogs will leave the stadium relaxed while the Okie State Cowboys have some explaining to do. Good thing their coach is a man and over forty. Count out Mark Richt on the road in a non-conference game? Not gonna happen, Russ.
Georgia 31, Okie State 27
2) Alabama vs. Virginia Tech, September 5th I don’t care if Alabama is down two of its best players, defenses are always ahead of offenses in September, and Alabama has one heck of a defense. Give Nick Saban nine months to prepare for a game that means something, and I take him everyday of the week, and twice on Sunday. This game is going to be a close one filled with turnovers and tons of penalties. Tech makes more mistakes than Bama, and it costs them the game.
Alabama 17, Virginia Tech 16
3) South Carolina at NC State, September 3rd (Thursday Game) Did we mention this is a must win for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks? Well he is going to get the win and get a couple extra days to work out the kinks on USC's way down to Athens. This game will be close for three quarters, and Carolina will separate itself in the fourth.
South Carolina 24, NC State 14
Yell at Brian: Brian Harbach
Yell at Russ: Russ Mitchell