SEC Picks for Week Two

Auburn @ Miss St. - When I looked at this game, I had to admit that I don’t see these two teams as very different in make up or talent.  That left me banking on the fans and their cowbells to throw off the Tigers. Miss St. 21-17

ECU @ South Carolina - I’m not sold on this group of Gamecocks.  Even before the injury, the passing attack for South Carolina was looking pretty blah against the Commodores.  Now that Connor Shaw is battling a deep tissue bruise in his shoulder (while still being expected to run regularly), I’m questioning the ability of this team to win from behind.  I shouldn’t be picking this one, but I’m going with an upset here.  ECU 14-13

Florida @ Texas A&M - Florida looked…bad.  Just really mediocre.  Texas A&M on the other hand hasn’t played.  This leaves me with a game that I’m picking based on my perception of the Aggies and what I saw from Florida against Bowling Green.  Florida can’t win in the SEC playing like they did last week.  Texas A&M 34-21

WKU @ Alabama - No comment needed.  Bama 49-7

Georgia St. @ Tennessee - http://youtu.be/LGEnE18DE1M Tenn 52-0

UTEP @ Ole Miss - There are a lot of games requiring no comments.  UTEP 21-20

Washington @ LSU - Washington is much better than the score might indicate from last week.  They certainly didn’t unleash the full offensive and defensive potential.  Neither did LSU.  This game will surprise some people, but at the end of the day, the SEC is still king.  LSU 28-24

Arkansas @ UL-Monroe - Arkansas’s defense doesn’t look good, but it’s good enough for this.  Arky 45-28

Kent St. @ Kentucky - Look, and opponent Kentucky can actually beat! UK 24-14

Georgia @ Missouri - Take this for what it is, but I’m not convinced that Georgia won’t come out flat against the Tigers.  The secondary isn’t 100% due to suspensions, and this is an offense that can take advantage of a weak secondary.  If Georgia falls behind, I doubt they can come back.  Mizzou 35-32

Vanderbilt @ Northwestern - This game might be a lot of fun…for a little while.  Vanderbilt isn’t a bad team, and I will pick them to beat any non-conference foe on their schedule, including this one.  Vandy 28-17

Week 1 in the SEC

The beginning of the season is less than two weeks away, and so it’s time for us to consider who will win in the first week’s slate of games. Will the SEC have a slip up against the numerous conference foes that they will face? Will the first conference matchup lead to some high intensity, high drama football? Will any new weaknesses present themselves. This is my prediction for each of the games on the SEC slate for Week 1.

South Carolina at Vanderbilt - South Carolina has risen to the top of the SEC ranks in recent seasons, but they find themselves faced with replacing some very important contributors in 2012. They will run the ball as well as anyone in the country if they have found adequate replacements on the line. They should have a great pass rush if the defensive tackles collapse the pocket. They should be great at stopping the run if the linebackers are allowed to roam freely. For every perceived strength of the Gamecocks, there is an “if” or “but”. Vanderbilt is the most overhyped program in the country right now, with their brash, young head man James Franklin building excitement and improving their recruiting in spite of the 6-7 record in 2011. Has Vanderbilt been able to improve the talent level sufficiently to be able to compete with one of the East’s best teams? Not in a single recruiting cycle they haven’t. This game should be good for a half, but the Gamecocks’ superior talent will take over after half time. Gamecocks 31-14

Texas A&M at Louisiana Tech - Somebody forgot to tell the Aggies that SEC teams don’t go on the road to play a team like Louisiana Tech. Then again, somebody forgot to tell Tech that they weren’t very good last year. The Bulldogs surprisingly went 8-5 last year, vastly outperforming the majority of expectations. La Tech did lose a lot to attrition, and they will need to plug the holes quickly. Still, the Bulldogs are in a much more stable place than the Aggies, who have a new conference, coaching staff, quarterback, defensive scheme, etc. The Aggies will need to adapt to the changes quickly. Tech refused to lie down for Mississippi State last year, falling in overtime. In fact, of the five losses suffered by the Bulldogs, only one came by double digits. This game could be very tight for at least three quarters, but by the fourth quarter, the Aggies superior depth of talent will allow them to pull away. 34-24 Aggies

Tennessee vs. North Carolina State - The first game in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff puts the Volunteers up against the Wolfpack. The Vols started off looking very strong, putting up big numbers on offense, avoiding blowouts, and playing like a team that belongs in the SEC. Then Tyler Bray broke his thumb, and the Vols season derailed, ending in a 10-7 loss to Kentucky that revealed divisions within the locker room. That led to massive staff turnover and a major shift in defensive philosophy. NC State had a very different season, closing it out much stronger than it began. The Wolfpack were sitting at 5-5 with a 2-4 record in the ACC heading into what looked like a surefire loss, but turned into the biggest victory of the season. They wrapped things up against Maryland and Louisville, closing out with an 8-5 record. They’ll look to build on that in 2012, but can they start that road against the Vols? Probably not. NC State doesn’t look nearly as strong in the trenches on defense, and the linebackers are vulnerable. With Tennessee having placed an emphasis on improving the run game this year, they should test the Pack early and often, eventually pulling away with a few well place deep passes. 41-24 Tennessee

Buffalo at Georgia - Buffalo doesn’t really belong on the field with the Bulldogs. It is reasonable to expect the Bulls to be better in 2012, but Georgia is coming off of winning the East last year. Georgia needs a test to figure out whether or not the running game and offensive line are SEC ready, but they won’t get that test from Buffalo. This one is no contest. 50-10 Dawgs

Bowling Green at Florida - Bowling Green might be very good on offense in the upcoming season, boasting one of the most underrated passers in college football, but they don’t belong on the field with this Gator defense. The Gators have stars at every level of the defense, and even though the stats for the secondary were underwhelming at best last year, much of that had to do with an inept offense. Of course, the offense might not be much better this year, but the Falcons aren’t a defense capable of provide a sufficient challenge. Florida 38-13

Clemson vs. Auburn - Game Two of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff matches up two familiar foes, with the overall record in the semi-rivalry standing at 34-12-2 in favor of Auburn. Clemson picked up their first win over the Tigers from Alabama since 1951 last season, and they hope to build upon that victory. Clemson looks plenty capable of doing just that when you look at the skill players, but there is an extreme weakness in the trenches for the South Carolinians. Auburn has very few proven playmakers, but they may be able to pound the rock with their superior size and experience in the trenches. Still, big plays lead to big wins, so I’m going to call for the first non-conference loss for the SEC of 2012. Clemson 34-24

Jacksonville St. vs. Arkansas - Few teams faced the kind of turmoil the Razorbacks did in this last offseason. The Razorbacks were a consensus top ten team until then head coach Bobby Petrino decided to try and create his on version ofA Series of Unfortunate Events. With his dismissal, a series of arrests followed, and now the roster is five people lighter. Those five dismissed include arguably the most explosive playmaker they had in Marquel Wade. Finding playmakers will be a challenge, and there are clear issues in the trenches as a pair of walk-ons are part of the starting offensive line. Of course, that won’t matter against this group of Gamecocks, as Jacksonville St. doesn’t really match up favorably anywhere. 56-7 Razorbacks

North Texas at Louisiana State - North Texas isn’t very likely to provide much of a challenge to the Bayou Bengals, but there is reason to pay attention to this game. LSU was banking on Tyrann Mathieu being able to take out half the field, redirecting traffic toward Tharold Simon, a 6’3” ball-hawk. Now, teams will redirect their attention to the Honey Badger’s replacement. Although there really isn’t any risk of the Tigers losing, the Mean Green will be a chance to see how the secondary works together. Also look and see what the Tiger receivers do in this game, as any struggles could signal another difficult year through the air. Tigers 48-7

Southeastern Louisiana at Missouri - Welcome to the most lopside game of the opening weekend in the SEC. This game is only worth watching because of the debut of Dorial Green-Beckham, a future star in the conference. 49-0 Mizzou

Central Arkansas at Ole Miss - This is an interesting game. The Bears of Central Arkansas were an FCS playoff team last year, providing challenges to Arkansas State and Louisiana Tech and beating now FBS member Texas State. Ole Miss was content to simply beat themselves in 2011, going 2-10 with a 27-7 loss to Louisiana Tech, a team Central Arkansas took to overtime before falling 42-48. There is a little hope in Oxford as native son Hugh Freeze takes over the program. He had great success at Arkansas State and defeated Central Arkansas 53-24 with the Red Wolves last year. What does all this mean? It might mean an interesting matchup with the potential to end similarly to Ole Miss’s 2010 opener against Jacksonville St., a 49-48 overtime loss that set the tone for the season. Rebel Black Bears 32-27

Jackson St. at Mississippi St - This falls into the skip it catagory. Jackson St. is out-classed. Bulldogs 31-9

Michigan vs. Alabama - This is the marquee game of Week 1, matching a BCS bowl team from the Big Ten with the defending national champions. Alabama was ravaged by attrition, but Nick Saban is seldom forced to rebuild. The Tide are likely to be amongst the nation’s best. Michigan was a surprise team last season after they had been a relative non-factor under Rich Rodriguez. Now, the Wolverines look like a possible national championship contender. This is a game in which Michigan has everything to gain and nothing to lose. If they fall to Alabama, it’s okay because they were expected to. If they win, they shock the college football world and shoot up in the rankings. For Alabama, no good can come of this game. If they win, they’ve simply met expectation. In fact, if they don’t dominate, it could be perceived as a bad sign and hurt their ranking. Lose and the Tide will be forced to spend a month addressing questions about their own talent and the conference’s standing in the college football world. Michigan is likely to come out fired up while Alabama will approach the game as business as usual. This should lead to a hard fought, fun game that ultimately ends in an SEC victory. Alabama 31-24

Kentucky at Louisville - The final SEC game of the weekend is Kentucky’s desparate attempt to right a ship that was rapidly sinking until they started to bail out against the Vols in the final game of the season. Kentucky is lacking talent, depth, and coaching. Louisville has all three. In fact, the Cardinals look much more like an SEC team than Kentucky does. That is a credit to the job that Charlie Strong has done with this team. Strong has brough in talent from around the country, and now the Cardinals look ready to dominate the Big East. Look for Teddy Bridgewater to emerge this season in much the same way that Robert Griffin III did last season. Looking at Louisville’s schedule, it’s hard to find more than one potential loss, and trust me when I say that the danger isn’t coming from the Wildcats. Louisville 41-14

Tennessee’s Most Underrated

Mychal Rivera is my unsung hero on the offensive side of the ball. Rivera has gotten lost in the shuffle as fans clamor over the trio of Justin Hunter, Da’Rick Rogers, and Cordarrelle Patterson. What seems to be forgotten is the fact that Rivera was the second leading receiver last year with 29 receptions and 344 yards. Those numbers should have been even higher. Rivera admits to getting frustrated last year as he was underutilized in the short to intermediate passing game. One of the points of emphasis in the spring was ensuring that the tigt ends and backs no longer get overlooked as receiving threats. That should lead to bigger numbers for a tight end who has reshaped his body this offseason, currently resembling a big wideout more than the gifted all-around tigt end that he is. I’m going to predict 40-45 receptions for 500-600 yards and 4-6 touchdowns from the gifted Californian.

Prentiss Waggner might not seem like an overlooked talent, but he has gotten as much flak and disrespect as any Vol since Jon Crompton, which is mind-boggling. Mention Waggner and you hear terms like “slow”, “journeyman”, and “boarderline”. Strange considering he made All-American lists just two years ago. Of course, the group who did perhaps the greatest disservice to Prentiss was the last group of defensive coaches, who continually bounced him between safety and corner. Waggner is a natural corner and a proven playmaker, and could overshadow a less natural corner like Tyrann Mathieu, who plays like an out-of-position free safety. Johnthan Banks and Dee Millner may be the only two SEC corners who have better cover skills. I expect Waggner to account for 40-45 tackles, 2-4 tackles for loss, 4-6 interceptions, and 10-12 passes defended on his way to all-conference honors.

It’s hard to believe how little faith people have in Devrin Young after he performed exceptionally last season. He should be co-returner on kickoffs with Cordarrelle Patterson and he is the most likely option to handle punt returns this year. Add on his expanded role in the offense and this is a player who could excell this season. He had one of the best years returning kicks in Tennessee history, and that came in spite of missing the first few games. Many fans are enamored with the numbers Patterson put up returning kickoffs, but given his probable role as the number three receiver, he may not see the majority of kickoffs in order to keep him fresh.

Big Orange’s The Wall or The Great Vol of Appalachia?

Big Orange’s The Wall or The Great Vol of Appalachia?

SEC offenses, meet Daniel McCullers.  He’s looking forward to meeting you!  All 6’6” and 377 pounds of him!

SEC offenses, meet Daniel McCullers. He’s looking forward to meeting you! All 6’6” and 377 pounds of him!

What happens when a 6’6”, 332 pound left tackle meets Jadeveon Clowney?  I can’t wait to find out!

What happens when a 6’6”, 332 pound left tackle meets Jadeveon Clowney? I can’t wait to find out!

I think they are saying, “come at me, brah!”

I think they are saying, “come at me, brah!”

Hey, SEC!  I think this group is sending you a message!  Be afraid!  Be very, very afraid!

Hey, SEC! I think this group is sending you a message! Be afraid! Be very, very afraid!

Hidden/Ignored Shortcomings in the SEC

Each team has major issues that either get glossed over or forgotten. I want to bring these weaknesses out into the open. Let’s take a look at this starting with the Crimson Tide.

Alabama: Can you name any Tide receivers? Anyone? Exactly. Kenny Bell is the top returning receiver with his whole 255 yards. It may be true that Bama is going to pass the ball more, but who will make the catch is a HUGE unknown. Duron Carter, the son of NFL great Cris Carter, is set to go to his third college after failing to make things work with the Tide. He was the big hope for a playmaking superstar. In fact, there is such a lack of playmakers that true freshmen Amari Cooper, Chris Black, and Eddie Williams are all anticipated to make immediate impacts. Don’t be shocked if running back T.J. Yeldon sees regular snaps at receiver. Tight end Michael Williams is the only player guaranteed to hold onto his job, but he is a more impressive blocker than receiver.

Arkansas: How do you know something is wrong with your secondary? Razorback fans can’t even name anyone from the unit! The top cover man from the group is an unknown strong safety who put up decent numbers…kind of. Ultimately, if this wasn’t the top passing offense in the conference, the numbers wouldn’t have been there. None of the members of the secondary have put up significant statistics, and now that the pass rushing is likely to suffer due to attrition, this unit will be tested and likely found to be lacking.

Auburn: This unit returns three starters, but last year’s group allowed 32 sacks. Yes, there was some uncertainty at quarterback, so teams sent the house to grab the QB. Of course, there still isn’t a clear cut starter at quarterback, so there’s no reason to believe the results will be any better this year. The left side of the line is being rebuilt, and with only right-handed quarterbacks, they may find themselves blindsided all year. In fact, Auburn may even turn to some true freshmen to provide key depth. Avery Young could even emerge as a starter at some point.

Florida: Of all the places where Florida could struggle, the defense has never been mentioned. That is an oversight because the Gator secondary struggled in 2011, and the unit returns intact with few significant additions. Only one of the Gator’s top four safeties stands taller than 5’10”, and the top cover corner defended five passes without an interception. In fact, the Florida defense finished dead last in interceptions last year with only eight while yeilding 15 touchdowns. With Jaye Howard in the NFL and Ronald Powell out indefinitely following an ACL tear in the spring, it’s hard to expect help from the pass rush. Somebody must prove that they have the ability to shut down a receiver or teams like Georgia and Tennessee will have a field day.

Georgia: The special teams of Georgia have been gutted by attrition. Gone are highly productive kickers Blair Walsh and Drew Butler and top return man Brandon Boykin. That wouldn’t be such a huge deal if not for the fact that a pair of true freshmen are being looked to at placekicker and punter. Even the job as the top returner could end up going to a true freshman. Marshall Morgan left high school with a share of the record for longest field goal, and Collin Barber was All-State in high school as a punter. Don’t be surprised if Keith Marshall takes over the return duties with his combination of size and speed. This is a unit with entirely too many questions to be regarded as anything more than a weakness.

Kentucky: While finding a strength would be much more impressive, that isn’t the focus of this piece. However, I will disect the closest thing to a strength the Wildcats have. The running backs were almost effective last year, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good unit. In fact, they only ran for 1400 yards because they absolutely couldn’t throw the ball. Oh, and 570 yards came against Central Michigan (#93 rush defense) and FCS member Jacksonville State. Most of their other strong performances came against teams ranked in the bottom half of the country. Additionally, no back has established himself as the top rusher, so consistency has proven elusive.

Louisiana State: Can you name an LSU reciver not named Odell Beckham, Jr.? I’m willing to bet you can’t, even if you’re an LSU fan. After Beckham, Jr., no reciver broke 200 yards reciving in 2011. That is an unnerving statistic for a team desperate for improved productivity in the passing game. Jarvis Landry needs to be the player advertised when he came out of high school after getting a slow start last year. True freshman Avery Johnson will also be asked to contribute early. Mettenberger is regarded as a better passer than either of the quarterbacks who started last year, so the production should improve if the receivers can develop some consistency.

Mississippi: The Rebels are very much like Kentucky in that almost everything is a weakness. The linebackers are the closest thing to a strength that the Rebels have on defense, but they really haven’t been settled in that unit. Mike Marry, Ralph Wlliams, Serderius Bryant, Joel Kight, and Aaron Garbutt all saw three or more starts last season, preventing the players from developing chemistry. The group also struggled to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, only accumulating 14.5 tackles for loss as a group. They were also non-factors in pass defense, only breaking up three total passes. This group will have to find established starters and increased productivity.

Mississippi State: The defensive line has the potential to be either the strongest unit on defense for the Bulldogs, or they could cause this team to fail to meet expectations for a second year in a row. It’s crazy to think about, but this team may have lost a first round draft pick from the line and still be better in the pass rush. The unit loses two starters from last year’s team, and returning starting defensive end Kaleb Eulls was unspectacular, but returning tackle Josh Boyd has all-conference potential. It’s the newcomers that have great potential but numerous questions. Denico Autry has perfect size to play end in the SEC, and after going through the spring with the team he earned the starting job. True freshman Quay Evans was exceptional in the spring game, accumulating six tackles and three sacks and earning himself the starting job. The question with this group is the ability to perform facing SEC offensive line.

Missouri: The Tigers’ offense should be explosive, but they have one enormous question: the offensive line. Even if they returned everyone there would still be concerns based on the defensive nature of their new conference, but only two returning linemen started last year. Mitch Morse takes over at center and Jack Meiners is the new right guard. Elvis Fisher was a starter, but now he is trying to return from a season ending injury. This line is a little undersized by SEC standards and could be the unit that prevents this team from being a bowl team.

South Carolina: The defense is expected to be the strength of the Gamecocks’ team, but I believe there is a glaring weakness within the defense: the secondary. They lose both Stephon Gilmore and CC Whitlock at corner and DeVonte Holloman moves from safety to linebacker. That leaves them returning only one full-time starter from a year ago, the safety DJ Swearinger. Swearinger is a true talent at safety, but the man lining up next to him is sophomore Brison Williams. Williams played in eight games last year, collecting eleven tackles. Williams is a little lacking in size and needs to develop further to become a legitimate SEC safety. At corner, Akeem Auguste returns after spending last year recovering from a broken foot. He is emensely talented but unfortunately undersized. Auguste has played both corner and safety, but he is locked in at corner now, leaving him on an island with receivers who stand at least six feet tall compared to his 5’9” frame. Victor Hampton is an agressive corner who will either make the big play or give one up.

Tennessee: The Volunteer secondary is experienced, but that experience hasn’t come with a high level of productivity. This group allowed opponents to complete 58% of their passes while only forcing opponents into throwing nine interceptions. Don’t forget the 14 touchdowns this unit yeilded. The group has good size and looks like they should be capable of defending most groups of receivers, but that hasn’t consistently translated into strong play. The team has moved to a 3-4 defensive front in the hopes that the pass rush will be improved; if so, this group could get the job done. Otherwise, competent quarterbacks will decimate the Vols’ defense.

Texas A&M: There is a very overlooked defensive move taking place in the SEC. Texas A&M has decided to abandon the 3-4 they’ve run the last few seasons. New head coach Kevin Sumlin hired former Ohio State and South Florida defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who brings his 4-3 defensive system to the Aggies. That means that there are some major questions along the front four. While things are settled at linebacker, Damontre Moore must adjust to playing with his hand on the ground as a traditional defensive end. He was exceptionally productive last year, collecting 72 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks. He will need to come close to matching the tackles for loss and sacks this year. Spencer Nealy is transitioning from 3-4 end to a pass rushing 4-3 end. He didn’t rack up massive numbers last year, but that’s not surprising given his duties in the old system. Neither tackle has done anything of significance at this point despite both being upperclassmen. This group must perform at a high level now that they are faced with big, strong SEC offensive lines.

Vanderbilt: The offensive line allowed 94 tackles for loss, 28 of which were sacks, last season. While some of that could be blamed on the quarterbacks, most of the blame falls at the feet of the linemen. That leaves major questions regarding the line’s ability to hold up on the line of scrimmage, and with three of the same guys back, it is hard to see very much improvement. Wesley Johnson at left tackle is the only member of the Vandy line who is fully secure in his job. The guards are both converted defensive linemen who are still working on settling into their roles as blockers in spite of the fact that they played in those roles last year. The newcomers at right tackle and center are undersized sophomores. There are no clear indications of improvement, but the skill players may be talented enough to perform in spite of them.

Clemson?

I know, this isn’t an SEC school, but don’t you think they should be? either way, this is for my family, even though I love the Tigers too. I’m going to break down Clemson by the units, assigning each a letter grade and explaining the reasoning. Here goes:

Quarterbacks—B+: Boyd has shown a great arm, fullback size, a willingness to run, and a terrifying mental fragility. It’s that psychological fraility that really hurts the grade. Boyd started the season with a roar, but he ended it with a whimper. If the real Tajh Boyd is the one from the first eight games, more records will be shattered; if he’s really the headcase from the last six, he will lead the conference in interceptions and sacks. Sadly, the next best quarterback on the roster is likely the true freshman, Chad Kelly, after an underwheming performance from Cole Stoudt last year.

Running Backs—B+: Andre Ellington has star potential, and he teased Clemson fans with just how effective he could be. He lacks the durability to handle a high number of carries, and his injury history is…unnerving. It’s all the more worrisome when you consider the lack of depth at the position. DJ Howard and Roderick McDowell are the only experienced options available following the dismissal of Mike Bellamy due to his academic failings. This may force true freshman Zac Brooks to take on the responsibilities of the primary backup; thankfully, he went through spring football with the team. Clemson may be forced to use screens and trickery to take pressure off the backs.

Receivers—A: Clemson appears to be in possession of one of the top two or three groups of receivers in the country. Only USC and West Virginia have more productive geoups, but Clemson now seems poised to have their own 1,000+ duo. Sammy Watkins was named a first team All-American as a true freshman for his all-purpose yardage. DeAndre “Nuke” Hopkins displayed great productivity last season, but in the spring he looked even better. Jaron Brown rounded out the group last year, but he can’t rest on his laurels with highly talentedand explosive backups Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant gunning for his job. The probably tight end is converted wideout Brandon Ford (6’4”, 235), who showed flashes last season playing behind Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen, but Ford is a much better receiver than blocker, so the larger Eric MacLain (6’4”, 265) will likely see the field quite a bit.

Offensive Line—C-: Clemson saw the line gutted by graduation after last season, making a mediocre line worse. The entire line will be built around athletic center Dalton Freeman, an All-ACC first team selection last year. Brandon Thomas returns but moves to left tackle afte spending last season at left guard. Thomas is a natural guard, but he appears to be athletic enough to manage at tackle. Tyler Shatley (converted defensive tackle) and Kalon Davis take over at the guard spots, and Gifford Timmothy is the new right tackle. A sever lack of depth prompted the coaches to convert several defensive linemen while recruiting heavily on the line.

Defensive Line—C: This unit is…enigmatic. If you were to tell me this group will struggle to produce twenty sacks, I’d be on board; if you said they’d produce thirty or more, I couldn’t argue. Malliciah Goodman is the only returning starter. He only produced two sacks last year, but his fourteen quarterback hurries help Andre Branch to pick up 10.5 sacks. In fact, Goodman was the set-up man last year while the other three put up their bigger numbers. Now Goodman has to make the plays himself. He appears to have a decent set-up man this year in Corey Crawford. The duo both have defensive tackle size, each of them weighing in at 280. That makes the lack of size on the interior all the more glaring. Grady Jarrett (6’0”, 295) is entrenched at nose guard after exiting the spring as the most improved member of the defensive line. DeShawn Williams (6’1”, 290) looks to have a fight on his hands if he wants to win the tackle job. Newcomers like Carlos Watkins, Josh Brown, and Kevin Dodd look like they could provide a challenge. Jerome Maybank could be one to keep an eye on at both guard and tackle if he can rein in his weight. Injuries may force freshmen into action as Martin Aiken and Shaq Lawson already appear to be top options at end.

Linebackers—B: This will be a vastly improved group this year. In fact, if they stay healthy, this might be the ACC’s best group of ‘backers. This is a young and talented group with good size. Tony Steward (6’1”, 245) should be the man at the strongside spot, Stephone Anthony (6’3”, 235) should be back in the middle, and Corico Hawkins (5’11”, 230) is locked in on the weakside. Almost everyone returns this year, but they can only really go two deep due to a lack of depth, hurting this units grade.

Defensive Backs—C+: I’m not sure what to expect from this group, especially following the departure of their best cover corner (Coty Sensabaugh). Rashard Hall is an in-the-box safety who is a big hitter; unfortunately, he isn’t much of a big play guy, which causes him to disappear at times. Jonathan Meeks is usually brought in to provide better coverage ability. Xavier Brewer has cornerback skills at the free safety position. He can hit, but he doesn’t put fear into opposing receivers. At corner, Bashaud Breeland has experience and a strong skill set, bringing both great speed and great hands to the table. Breeland is also a very willing tackler. The other corner is likely to be Darius Robinson, although Martin Jenkins could challenge for the job. True freshman Travis Blanks exited the spring as the starting nickel and could play any position in the defensive backfield.

Special Teams—A: Chandler Catanzaro is the best placekicker in the conference, and is one of the nation’s best. Bradley Pinion is a true freshman who hasn’t played a down yet, but he is already the punter. Oh, and Pinion was a USA Today high school All-American. Pinion may take over kickoffs as well, but that isn’t necessary with the very capable Spencer Benton returning. Sammy Watkins is likely the best kick returner in the conference, and Nuke should be the punt returner (hopefully with better results than last year).

Final Verdict: This is a team capable of ten wins again, but the must be better than expected in the trenches. If not, three or four regular season losses isn’t out of the question. If they exceed expectation, only Florida State will be as good as this team in the conference. The schedule is manageable, but Clemson won’t sneak up on opponents like they did last year, meaning outscoring teams while playing just enough defense to win won’t cut it anymore. This team must show up every week, or last season will look like an aberration.

My Early Bowl Projections

Here are my early bowl projections:

New Mexico Bowl-Fresno St. vs. California
Idaho Potato Bowl-Miami (OH) vs. Louisiana Tech
Poinsettia Bowl-Nevada vs. BYU
Beef O’Brady Bowl-Southern Miss vs. Pittsburgh
New Orleans Bowl-Tulsa vs. Troy
Las Vegas Bowl-Boise St. vs. Utah
Little Caesars Bowl-Western Michigan vs. Purdue
Military Bowl-Army vs. Boston College
Belk Bowl-Wake Forest vs. Connecticut
Holiday Bowl-Oregon St. vs. Oklahoma St.
Independence Bowl-Mississippi State vs. Miami (FL)
Russell Athletic Bowl-Virginia vs. South Florida
Meineke Car Care-Baylor vs. Northwestern
Armed Forces Bowl-Houston vs. Air Force
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl-Navy vs. UCLA
Pinstripe Bowl-Rutgers vs. Kansas St.
Alamo Bowl-Stanford vs. Texas Tech
Valley of the Sun Bowl-Iowa vs. TCU
Music City Bowl-Georgia Tech vs. Florida
Sun Bowl-Washington vs. NC State
Liberty Bowl-Vanderbilt vs. Central Florida
Chick-fil-A Bowl-Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech
TicketCity Bowl-Northern Illinois vs. Notre Dame
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl-Illinois vs. Texas A&M
Capital One Bowl-Michigan State vs. South Carolina
Outback Bowl-Georgia vs. Wisconsin
Cotton Bowl-Arkansas vs. Texas
BBVA Compass Bowl-Cincinnati vs. Missouri
GoDaddy.com Bowl-Ohio vs. Arkansas St.
Rose Bowl-Oregon vs. Michigan
Orange Bowl-Louisville vs. Clemson
Sugar Bowl-West Virginia vs. Alabama
Fiesta Bowl-Oklahoma vs. Florida St.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP-LSU VS. USC

Ideally, I have this thing right. I tried to be really careful to honor bowl tie-ins and make sure I didn’t repeat any teams. Enjoy!

MY PRESEASON ALL-AMERICA LIST

1st Team Offense

-Quarterback: Matt Barkley, USC, 6’2”, 230
-Running Back: Montee Ball, Wisconsin, 5’11”, 212
-Running Back: Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina, 6’0”, 218
-Wide Receiver: Robert Woods, USC, 6’1”, 190
-Wide Receiver: Tavon Austin, WVU, 5’9”, 174
-Wide Receiver: Keenan Allen, Cal, 6’3”, 206
-Tight End: Chris Gragg, Arkansas, 6’3”, 236
-Center: Barrett Jones, Alabama, 6’5”, 302
-Offensive Line: Chance Warmack, Alabama, 6’3”, 320
-Offensive Line: Larry Warford, Kentucky, 6’3”, 333
-Offensive Line: D.J. Fluker, Alabama, 6’6”, 335
-Offensive Line: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin, 6’6”, 322
-Kicker: Caleb sturgis, Florida, 5’11”, 187
-All-Purpose: Sammy Watkins, Clemson, 6’1”, 200

2nd Team Offense

-Quarterback: Geno Smith, WVU, 6’3”, 214
-Running Back: Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State, 6’2”, 238
-Running Back: Stephan Taylor, Stanford, 5’11”, 211
-Wide Receiver: Stedman Bailey, WVU, 5’10”, 193
-Wide Receiver: Kenny Stills, Oklahoma, 6’1”, 189
-Wide Receiver: Marqise Lee, USC, 6’0”, 190
-Tight End: Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame, 6’6”, 251
-Center: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin, 6’4”, 328
-Offensive Line: Jonathan Cooper, UNC, 6’3”, 305
-Offensive Line: Braden Hansen, BYU, 6’3”, 320
-Offensive Line: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M, 6’6”, 310
-Offensive Line: Taylor Lewan, Michigan, 6’8”, 302
-Kicker: Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State, 6’1”, 205
-All-Purpose: De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon, 5’9”, 173

1st Team Defense

-Defensive End: Sam Montgomery, LSU, 6’4”, 245
-Defensive End: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina, 6’6”, 256
-Defensive Tackle: Star Lotulelei, Utah, 6’4”, 325
-Defensive Tackle: John Jenkins, Georgia, 6’3”, 351
-Linebacker: Jarvis Jones, Georgia, 6’3”, 241
-Linebacker: Manti Te’o, Notre Dame, 6’2”, 255
-Linebacker: Arthur Brown, Kansas State, 6’1”, 223
-Linebacker: Chase Thomas, Stanford, 6’4”, 245
-Cornerback: David Amerson, NC State, 6’3”, 194
-Cornerback: Tyrann Mathieu, LSU, 5’9”, 175
-Safety: T.J. McDonald, USC, 6’3”, 205
-Safety: Eric Reid, LSU, 6’2”, 208
-Punter: Brad Wing, LSU, 6’3”, 184

2nd Team Defense

-Defensive End: Alex Okafor, Texas, 6’5”, 260
-Defensive End: Barkevious Mingo, LSU, 6’5”, 240
-Defensive Tackle: Johnathan Hankins, OSU, 6’3”, 317
-Defensive Tackle: Sharrif Floyd, Florida, 6’3”, 305
-Linebacker: Sean Porter, Texas A&M, 6’2”, 230
-Linebacker: Kevin Reddick, UNC, 6’3”, 240
-Linebacker: Nico Johnson, Alabama, 6’3”, 245
-Linebacker: Jonathan Bostic, Florida, 6’1”, 243
-Cornerback: Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State, 6’2”, 185
-Cornerback: Dee Millner, Alabama, 6’1”, 196
-Safety: Robert Lester, Alabama, 6’2”, 210
-Safety: Matt Elam, Florida, 5’10”, 210
-Kicker: Ryan Allen, Louisiana Tech, 6’2”, 215

The SECs Top Ten Heisman Hopefuls

These are the top guys in the conference, and each one of them could find themselves getting enough press to wind up in New York in January.  This is my list, although most of these guys are on somebody’s watch list.  Here’s my list:

  1. Tyler Wilson, Arkansas-It’s hard to bet against quarterbacks in the Heisman race when you consider that only one winner since 2000 has played any other position.  (I know that Reggie Bush technically won the award in 2005, but he doesn’t have it now, does he?)  Wilson has a strong receiving corps and an offensive system that lends itself to big numbers.  The return of Knile Davis should help keep defenses honest.
  2. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina-In his two seasons as a Gamecock, Lattimore has accounted for 2,609 total yards, 2,015 of which came on the ground.  He has done all that in only 20 games due to an ACL injury ending his year early in 2011, but his average of 130.45 total yards per game tells the story on this big back.  Running backs are usually the second most likely to win a Heisman, and Lattimore is arguably the nation’s best.
  3. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU-The “Honey Badger” finished fifth in the Heisman voting last year.  Mathieu is an elite punt returner and does a little bit of everything on defense.  He plays corner, but he plays it like an in-the-box safety.  At 5’9” and 175 pounds, he is probably the pound-for-pound hardest hitter in the conference.  This season, he may get a chance to increase his special teams numbers as a replacement for Morris Claiborne is needed on kick returns.
  4. Tyler Bray, Tennessee-Bray had the second best offense per game average in 2011, but it should have been even better than the 273.3 yards per game he wound up with.  Through the first five games, Bray averaged 303.8 yards per game.  Bray has the talent and the receivers to put up huge numbers, but the team needs to win to give him a real chance.
  5. Eddie Lacy, Alabama-Could this be the next great Alabama back?  Maybe.  Lacy has accumulated 151 carries, 1080 yards, and 13 touchdowns over the last two years.  That’s a 7.15 yard per carry average!  Nick Saban typically likes leaning on a single back to carry the majority of the load, and Lacy may be that guy for 2012.
  6. Cobi Hamilton, Arkansas-Hamilton has put up big numbers in his limited opportunities over the last three seasons.  He has accumulated 85 receptions, 1,519 yards, 13 touchdowns, and a 17.9 yard per reception average.  Hamilton could meet those numbers in this season alone!  He should be option number one for Wilson, and number two might not even be close given Marquel Wade’s uncertain status with the team.
  7. Justin Hunter, Tennessee-Hunter might be the SECs most explosive receiving threat…maybe.  The sample size is still a little too small to say this definitively, but his 33 receptions, 729 yards, 9 touchdowns and 22.1 career yard per reception average tease at the kind of impact he could have over a full season.  The problem is Da’Rick Rogers, Cordarrelle Patterson, Mychal Rivera, decent receivers out of the backfield, and a gifted group of freshmen receivers who could steal receptions away from him.
  8. James Franklin, Missouri-Were he on an established SEC team, Franklin would likely be in the top 3.  Missouri can’t win enough games to propel him to that level in 2012.  Franklin will likely finish with between 3,500-4,000 yards of total offense and 35-40 total touchdowns, but six or seven wins isn’t enough to launch a legitimate Heisman campaign.  He could have a real shot in 2013 if he returns for his senior year.
  9. Knile Davis, Arkansas-Davis has three major roadblocks to his Heisman campaign: Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton, and an offensive line that will struggle to get enough push against the best defenses in the SEC.  He will still break 1,000 yards, and he could even match his numbers from 2010, but it still won’t be enough to steal the votes he needs from his teammates.
  10. Aaron Murray, Georgia-Murray keeps having challenges thrown his way.  This year, he loses 1,495 yards and 14 touchdowns of receiving production.  Most of those players are no longer with the team, either due to graduation or dismissal, but a big chunk of productivity could be reintroduced if Malcolm Mitchell is moved back to receiver from defensive back.  Another potential drain on his numbers is the rushing attack.  This isn’t a better unit without Isaiah Crowell, but they might be healthier mentally.  Newcomers Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley are gifted rushers, and there is still plenty of returning talent in the backfield.  The offensive line has also lost three starters and looks considerably weaker than a year ago.  These elements could combine to kill his Heisman campaign before it begins.

There are other players who could launch a campaign, and this list certainly isn’t the final word on the Heisman race within the SEC.  These are, however, the top names in the race from my perspective.

The Best of the West and the Beasts of the East

Every year in the SEC, there are a few offenses and defenses that separate themselves from the rest.  Last year, it was Arkansas’s offense and Alabama’s defense in the West and Georgia’s offense and South Carolina’s defense in the East.  This has led me to give my best estimate of who will dominate the divisions in 2012.  In doing so, I have given a projection on the potential of the units, breaking down statistical ranges that various units and individuals could fill.  Because of the nature of such projections, I have projections where, if each player fulfills their potential, they will exceed the projections of other players.  I don’t assume everyone will hit the high end of my projections, but they could.  I could be wrong about the quarterbacks, they could both have all-time great seasons this year.  I already have them coming close to doing just that, so don’t take the numbers as my version of navigation for what each player should do.  It’s more like an old faded road map; it should get you in the general vicinity of your destination.

The best offense in the West should continue to belong to the Razorbacks of the University of Arkansas.  The Hogs have arguably the best quarterback in the SEC in Tyler Wilson and return Knile Davis, who has as much talent as any running back in the conference.  The return of Davis should take some pressure off of Wilson, and he could throw for fewer yards as a result.  He should throw for more touchdowns with a taller group of receivers for this season.  Marquel Wade possesses Joe Adams size and ability, but his status with the team is in question following his felony arrest for burglary.  Wade has been charged with one count while his teammates, wide receiver Maudrecus Humphries and tight end Andrew Peterson, were each charged with nine counts.  If Wade is eligible, he should lead the team in total yardage.  Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton (6’3”, 208) and tight end Chris Gragg (6’3”, 236) should be the best at their positions in the West.  Quinta Funderburk (6’4”, 200) should handle the duties as the third wide receiver.  Davis is option #1 at running back, but seniors Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo are strong backups who handled the duties last season in Davis’s absence.  So, here are my best guesses at the numbers.

  • Tyler Wilson: 60-65% completion rating, 3300-3500 yards, 33-35 touchdowns, 6-8 interceptions
  • Knile Davis: 1200-1400 yards, 5.5-6.0 yards per carry, 12-14 touchdowns, 15-20 receptions, 100-200 yards, 1-3 touchdowns
  • Dennis Johnson: 200-400 yards, 5.0-5.5 yards per carry, 2-4 touchdowns, 8-12 receptions, 80-120 yards, 1-3 touchdowns
  • Ronnie Wingo: 150-300 yards, 4.0-4.5 yards per carry, 1-3 touchdowns, 5-10 receptions, 50-100 yards, 0-2 touchdowns
  • Cobi Hamilton: 60-65 receptions, 100-1200 yards, 12-14 touchdowns
  • Marquel Wade: 45-50 receptions, 500-700 yards, 5-7 touchdowns
  • Quinta Funderburk: 35-40 receptions, 300-500 yards, 3-5 touchdowns
  • Chris Gragg: 40-50 receptions, 450-650 yards, 5-7 touchdowns

LSU should have the best defense in the West.  They have a pair of top-tier defensive ends, a pair of stars in the secondary, and a defensive coordinator in John Chavis who is entering his 18th season as a coordinator in the SEC.  LSU could have the best defensive line in the SEC, with the projected starters having combined for 38 tackles for loss, including 21 sacks.  The linebackers are serviceable, but they aren’t spectacular.  However, the coaches recruited the position well last year, and those newcomers could make an impact immediately.  The secondary has the potential to be the nation’s best.  As a group, they accounted for 29 passes defended and 6 interceptions, and that’s after losing two starters and two key reserves who combined for another 29 passes defended and 10 interceptions.  The losses obviously hurt, but the top of the depth chart in the secondary all have All-SEC potential, and Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu and Eric Reid could be All-Americans.  There is depth in the secondary, and there should be little drop off in productivity.  Alabama might hold down this spot in any other year, but the losses from last year (6 starters) are just too heavy for a repeat as the top defense in the conference.

  • Pass Defense: 45-50% opponent completion rating, 1800-2000 yards allowed, 8-12 touchdowns allowed, 36-40 sacks, 16-20 interceptions, 90-100% efficiency rating
  • Rush Defense: 1000-1200 yards allowed, 3.0-3.2 yards per carry, 6-10 touchdowns allowed, 10-12 fumble recoveries

I’m probably one of the few people who analyzes football that will put this opinion out there and legitimately mean it; Tennessee will have the East’s best offense.  Many other prognosticators will say Georgia.  Some will argue for South Carolina, and a few will make the case for Missouri.  The rest say Tennessee, but…  I don’t have any “but” coming after my prediction.  Tyler Bray will prove himself to be the best quarterback in the East.  I know, I know…what about Aaron Murray?  He’s a very good quarterback, but he throws too many interceptions and too low of a completion percentage, and if Tyler Bray’s numbers through the first five games of 2011 are any indicator (1579 yards, 14 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 65.9% completion rating), Bray will light up scoreboards in 2012.  He has great size (6’6”, 213) and elite arm strength.  All indications are that Bray is more mature and as shown the work ethic to become the leader this team needs.  Tennessee has the conferences best group of receivers.  Justin Hunter only played two games and a play, but over that time, he had already accumulated enough yardage to be the 29th best receiver in the SEC for 2011.  A full season should lead to huge numbers for Hunter.  Da’Rick Rogers was a man last season, showing the size, strength, and speed to dominate SEC defensive backs.  He accounted for 1040 yards and 9 touchdowns without a reliable target on the other side of the field after Week 2.  Newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson was widely regarded as the top junior college player in the 2012 recruiting cycle.  During his time at Hutchinson Community College, Patterson accumulated 113 receptions, 1832 receiving yards, 24 receiving touchdowns, 3379 total yards, and 36 total touchdowns.  Mychal Rivera might be the best tight end nobody has heard of.  He has the size to hold up as a blocker and was productive as the only other effective receiving option for the Vols for most of the season.  This exceptional passing attack will allow the Vols to spread out defenses and run the ball well enough to keep opponents honest.  The Vols will mainly use the trio of Marlin Lane, Rajion Neal, and Devrin Young to run the ball.

  • Tyler Bray: 60-65% completion rating, 3400-3600 yards, 35-37 touchdowns, 5-7 interceptions
  • Marlin Lane: 500-700 yards, 6-8 touchdowns, 4.0-4.5 yards per carry, 15-20 receptions, 150-200 yards, 1-3 touchdowns
  • Rajion Neal: 300-500 yards, 3-5 touchdowns, 5.0-5.5 yards per carry, 10-15 receptions, 150-200 yards, 1-3 touchdowns
  • Devrin Young: 250-450 yards, 2-4 touchdowns, 5.0-5.5 yards per carry, 10-15 receptions, 100-200 yards, 0-2 touchdowns
  • Justin Hunter: 55-60 receptions, 800-1000 yards, 8-10 touchdowns
  • Da’Rick Rogers: 65-70 receptions, 650-850 yards, 7-9 touchdowns
  • Cordarrelle Patterson: 45-50 receptions, 450-650 yards, 6-8 touchdowns
  • Mychal Rivera: 35-40 receptions, 300-500 yards, 4-6 touchdowns

Florida has the East’s best defense; heck, they probably have college football’s best defense.  The Gators return ten starters from last year’s team.  However, Ronald Powell is out for the foreseeable future following a torn ACL, but the anticipation is that he will return late in the season.  The injury has prompted Lerentee McCray to move to buck from sam linebacker.  The defensive line should be great in spite of the injury.  Omar Hunter, Sharrif Floyd, and Dominique Easley average out at 6’2” and 301 pounds and will make up the rest of the line.  Jonathan Bostic and Jelani Jenkins are amongst the best linebackers in the conference, and highly rated freshman Antonio Morrison is expected to take over at sam for McCray.  The secondary was underwhelming last year, but everyone returns from that team.  Brian Poole and Marcus May are highly regarded freshmen who join this unit.  This secondary should be among the most improved in the country.

  • Pass Defense: 40-45% completion rating, 1600-1800 yards, 8-10 touchdowns, 32 sacks, 12-14 interceptions, 110-120 efficiency rating
  • Rush Defense: 800-1000 yards, 2.5-2.8 yards per carry, 6-8 touchdowns, 8-10 fumble recoveries

Obviously all of this is speculation and it is all subject to change based on injuries and coaching issues, but based on the numbers, this is what I think will happen in 2012.

A Rude Welcome?

Missouri and Texas A&M find themselves facing a challenge: adjusting to the Southeastern Conference after spending the last 16 years in the Big 12.  Given this challenge, will these newcomers find themselves crushed in their first year of SEC football or will they make a splash in their first season?

Let’s take a look at the Aggies first.  Most analysts seem to agree that the SEC West is the tougher of the two divisions.  That should mean that A&M will struggle, right?  Probably not.  The Aggies entered the conference looking SEC ready, and with new head coach Kevin Sumlin bringing his explosive offensive system and new defensive coordinator bring both head coaching and coordinating experience, the team looks solid.  I think that 8-4 is well within reach for the Aggies this season, but I would call Mississippi State and Missouri toss-up games.  The bottom line for A&M is this: anything less than bowl eligibility has to be considered a failure.

Missouri has the easier division to play in, but they also bring in a less conference ready team.  The offense should be great, but the defense isn’t capable of holding up week in and week out against the bruising offenses of the SEC.  They should be able to outscore every non-conference opponent on their schedule, but within the conference they are probably on par with Vanderbilt.  Their game against Vandy should be a coin-toss, and their best chances for pulling a much needed upset are Tennessee and Texas A&M.  Mizzou could end up earning bowl eligibility, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them fall short.

So where does that leave the newcomers?  Well, they should rapidly assume a role as middle-of-the-pack SEC teams, which isn’t the worst place to find yourself.  I don’t expect them to get any extra effort from any of the SEC veterans, but they certainly won’t get any slack either.