My Final Preseason Top 25
Here’s my final preseason top 25:
1) Southern California
2) Louisiana State
5) Florida State
10) West Virginia
14) Virginia Tech
15) South Carolina
17) Oklahoma State
18) South Florida
19) Michigan State
21) Texas A&M
22) Notre Dame
Ohio State and North Carolina were ineligible for my top 25 because of their current bowl ban due to NCAA violations. In the cases of very close conference teams like Alabama-LSU and Tennessee-Florida, I have them as close as they are because the outcome of their meetings this season should determine their final ranking. In other words, Alabama could end up at three, four, five, or six if they lose to the Tigers. If Tennessee falls to the Gators, they probably don’t make the top 25.
These are the five teams that are sitting just on the outside of my top 25:
27) Mississippi State
28) Kansas State
29) Central Florida
The Best SEC Games of 2012
For each week, I will name two games involving at least one SEC team that will be the most competitive or interesting for one reason or another.
- Alabama-Michigan: If you want a marquee match-up on the first week, it can hardly get any better than this. Both teams may enter the season in the top 10, and there’s a good chance that they could both exit the regular season in the same spot. This could be a great one.
- Tennessee-NC State: Although this game has been relegated to the U, there is still a very good chance for a very good game. Given the other candidates were a likely blowout of Auburn by Clemson and a probable dismantling of Vanderbilt by the Gamecocks, this one gets the nod by default.
- Florida-Texas A&M: It’s rare that a Gator schedule includes a potential battle prior to the meeting with Tennessee, but for once, the Gators go on the road to test their mettle against one of the newest members of the SEC. The other battle for the Gators will be the travel, which is one of the longest regular season trips for the Gators in a while.
- Washington-Louisiana State: On paper, this game doesn’t look that competitive, but Washington has explosive potential on offense. The Huskies believe they’ve improved on defense, and Mettenberger will still be untested, so the interest lies in finding out if the Tigers are who we all think they are.
- Alabama-Arkansas: This is another one that doesn’t scream elite, but this will be a good test for the Razorbacks. Arkansas believes that they’ve reloaded on offense and improved on defense. Alabama lost several pieces from arguably the best defense in college football history along with their top offensive weapon, so there are questions begging to be answered.
- Florida-Tennessee: The Gators have owned the series since the conclusion of the Ron Zook era, and that has left Tennessee fans doubtful about the teams prospects against the Gators. Most people agree that this might be the best Vols team since 2007, and this could easily be the best chance for a Volunteer victory since 2006.
- Rutgers-Arkansas: This is game that should really tell us about the Razorbacks. Whether they win or lose against Alabama, they will have to regain their focus quickly in order to take on the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers should be looking for some recognition that they didn’t lose their winning ways when Greg Schiano left for Tampa Bay.
- Missouri-South Carolina: This is another game that doesn’t look like there are big story lines or notable match-ups, but this is probably the toughest test the Gamecocks face before a brutal stretch in October. Missouri’s offense certainly has the potential to be dangerous, and South Carolina may be distracted by the rough road ahead.
- Tennessee-Georgia: Tennessee is looking to return to notoriety within the SEC, and Georgia is fighting to remain the top dog in the East. Both teams battled in a (reasonably) close game last season, and now the Vols want to get back to beating the East’s best teams. Both teams have the potential to score big, so this could be one of those games with a basketball score.
- Arkansas-Texas A&M: This is an old school rivalry, stemming back to Arkansas’s Southwest Conference days. The rivalry was reborn in 2009, with the Razorbacks taking over and dominating the last three years. Last season’s game was only decided by four points, however, and with this meeting taking place in College Station, this one could be special.
- Louisiana State-Florida: Florida finally gets to take on a difficult opponent at home, but it’s one of the toughest games they’ll face all year. LSU should be clicking on all cylinders by this point, and the Gators should be as well, making this a match-up between teams that should be at full strength. This could be a tough, defensive game, so the team that controls the ball best should win.
- Georgia-South Carolina: This could very well be the game that decides the East. South Carolina will attack on the ground and test the 3-4s ability to stop the run while Georgia will launch a balanced attack. It will all come down to which defense makes the most plays in what should be a tough, hard-fought game.
- South Carolina-Louisiana State: South Carolina continues to battle through their brutal October stretch with a trip to Baton Rouge. This is likely to be an interesting game that will be decided in the trenches. Both teams pride themselves on controlling the line of scrimmage and power running, which could mean a low-scoring, high-intensity battle.
- Tennessee-Mississippi State: This is the most winnable of Tennessee’s October contests. Mississippi State needs to win following a disappointing 2011 campaign in order to prove that they truly belong in the SEC West discussion. Both teams should enter motivated, with Tennessee coming off of a bye week following their war with Georgia.
- South Carolina-Florida: This could easily be Florida’s opportunity to make a statement against a potential top 10 opponent in October. South Carolina continues their second difficult road trip in a row. LSU may have tenderized the Gamecocks; it’ll be up to Florida to finish roasting them.
- The Third Saturday in October: Finally the Third Saturday in October will actually take place on the correct date for the first time since 2007. 2007 was also the last time Tennessee won more than seven games in a season. Tennessee is hoping that this coincidence will also coincide with a resurgence on the field. Alabama will look to maintain their winning ways, both against the Vols and on the national stage.
- The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party: I don’t care what anyone says; this is The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. This is always a game filled with emotion, and depending on how the season progresses, this could be a game in which there is a lot on the line, including conference positioning. Expect a violent and entertaining game.
- Tennessee-South Carolina: These two teams will have been to hell and back in the month of October, but it will finally be nearing the end. Both teams could be exhausted, but these two always seem to find the energy to play an entertaining and close game, and this year should be no exception.
- Alabama-Louisiana State: This is about as dramatic as it gets. These two teams are always nationally relevant and there is a chance that both could enter this game unbeaten. Who will win the West? Which of these two will keep their national championship hopes alive? This game could easily have huge implications, such as “who will win the West?” and “which of these two will keep their national championship hopes alive?”
- Texas A&M-Mississippi State: This game should have big implications for these two teams as they jockey for position in the West. A win for A&M could announce them as a legitimate SEC West threat. A win for Mississippi State will solidify them as one of the best coached teams in the West. These two teams need to make some noise after disappointing last year, and this could be the game that allows one of them to do just that.
- Georgia-Auburn: The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry won’t have quite the same luster this year. However, Georgia may not pay too much attention to Auburn, who will likely struggle some this season. That doesn’t mean that Auburn isn’t dangerous, and they will place enormous significance on this game. For them, it’s the chance to derail a rival’s season while making some noise and invigorating the fanbase.
- Arkansas-South Carolina: This game has much bigger implications than the other notable game. South Carolina should be near the top of the East rankings and will need to keep winning. For Arkansas, they’ll be looking to pick up momentum for their season-ending battle with LSU. Both teams should be energized for this one, so be ready for some fun.
- Arkansas-Mississippi State: This game has both teams putting plenty on the line, but the teams have very different matters at stake. For Mississippi State, an upset of Arkansas could easily announce them as a team moving toward the standard set by LSU and Alabama. For Arkansas, a win here could see them at 10-1 entering the LSU game, with a shot at another BCS bowl.
- Tennessee-Vanderbilt: This game’s stakes are much more regional than national, but with a slow SEC weekend, this game could be treated as a much more significant match-up than it might otherwise. Tennessee is seeking to reestablish their ownership of the state of Tennessee after Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin has taken the college football world by storm. Franklin’s Commodores are hoping to pick up a significant win to back up the brash talk.
- The Iron Bowl: This game makes its way on the list because of tradition more than anything else. This game brings together two volatile fanbases who are determined to see the “enemy” destroyed. The emotions always run high, but Alabama should have this game well in hand.
- The Battle for the Golden Boot: This could be the biggest finale of the SEC season. If Arkansas and LSU both meet their full potential, this could be a meeting with BCS and maybe even National Championship implications. Arkansas has a lot to overcome with the coaching change that has occurred, and neither team has an easy schedule, but this rivalry has enough heat to be meaningful without major stakes.
As always, I want to remind people that this is just my opinion. If there are games you are more interested in, that’s understandable. There may even be more exciting match-ups. I chose these games based on storylines and competitive excitement. Enjoy the upcoming season and be sure to check out as many of these games as you can!
Tennessee vs. South Carolina
Tennessee wraps up a difficult four game stretch with a road trip to Columbia. The Gamecocks won the SEC East for the first time in 2010, and last season’s team won eleven games for the first time in school history. The team will look to take the next step and make the first BCS bowl in school history. Georgia and the rest of the SEC East will look to make sure that doesn’t happen. Tennessee had a decided advantage that has evaporated over the last four years, with South Carolina winning three of the last four meetings. Tennessee will look to both play spoiler and turn around their fortunes against the Gamecocks.
South Carolina finally seems to have settled on a quarterback after years of Stephen Garcia regularly worked his way in and out of Steve Spurrier’s doghouse. Now it’s Connor Shaw’s team, and he seems ready to do something Garcia never could: become a leader. Shaw doesn’t have the best arm in the conference, but he might have some of the best mobility. Shaw needs polishing as a passer, but given Spurrier’s history with quarterbacks, you would have to assume he will get him playing well. In fact, if the spring game was any indicator, Shaw could become highly efficient as a passer, as he completed 6 of 7 passes for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns. Shaw didn’t run much in the spring game, but that isn’t that unusual. Tyler Bray is a gifted quarterback who has some questions to answer after failing to lead his team to any significant victories over top conference opponents. Bray can throw for huge numbers, but he still needs to pick up some meaningful wins. Bray gets the edge based on his past performances, but there is still the question of whether or not he can win a big game.
The running back comparison isn’t so much a comparison as it is a Gamecock bragging session. Marcus Lattimore is widely regarded as the top running back in the conference, but there are questions to be answered as Lattimore returns from a torn ACL. However, his injury last season did give the Gamecocks an opportunity to build depth behind Lattimore, as Kenny Miles and Brandon Wilds both performed well after the injury. Now South Carolina has an even more threatening rushing attack as Lattimore, Shaw, Miles, and Wilds can all hurt an opponent with their legs. For Tennessee, there definitely isn’t a running quarterback to help out, but there is a stable of backs that are looking to emerge. Marlin Lane, Rajion Neal, Devrin Young, and Tom Smith all had strong springs. Newcomers Davante Bourque, Quenshaun Watson, and Alden Hill are all looking to get involved in the run game as well. Each of the backs bring something a little different to the job, but unless Bourque is able to bring something special to the table, I’m not sure the freshmen will see very many carries. Tennessee should be better in the running game, but I will personally be shocked if South Carolina doesn’t lead the conference in rushing.
The receiver comparison is similar to the running back comparison, except in this case it favors the Volunteers. Alshon Jeffery was the receiving corps for the Gamecocks last season, but now he’s enjoying a large NFL contract, so it’s rebuilding time for the South Carolina. D.L. Moore is the player that the Gamecocks are hoping can become the big receiving threat this season, although he wasn’t overly productive last year. DeAngelo Smith also exited the spring with one of the jobs, and yet again he was less than productive last year. Ace Sanders is the leading returning receiver, but he is ill-suited to play any position other than the slot, but with help, he can be very productive in that role. The tight ends are Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson, who have both shown the ability to be productive, though Anderson is like another receiver at 6’5” and 218 pounds. He averaged 23.5 yards per reception last season. For Tennessee, everyone knows about the play of Da’Rick Rogers last season, but Justin Hunter was on pace to have a better season prior to his ACL injury. In his time with Tennessee, Hunter has average 22.1 yards per catch and nine touchdowns in his 33 receptions. Cordarrelle Patterson was the top junior college wide receiver last year. In his two years in the JUCO ranks, he accumulated 24 touchdowns and averaged 16.2 yards per catch. He brings another explosive participant to Knoxville, if he can qualify. Tennessee will get the edge here as they return more production and potential.
A.J. Cann and T.J. Johnson are the most experienced members of the offensive line. Mike Matulis has also started five games for the Gamecocks. Ronald Patrick has shown promise as a backup. Only redshirt freshman Brandon Shell is an unknown, and he is the largest member of the anticipated starters. For Tennessee, there aren’t many questions beyond a battle between James Stone and Zach Fulton at right guard, but with a battle between two veterans, either way the Vols will win. Tennessee has the edge in experience, even though there are issues. The Vols get the edge.
On the defensive line, South Carolina might have the best pair of defensive ends in the conference, surprising given they just witnessed the loss of a top defensive end. Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor combined for 20.5 tackles for loss with 14 sacks, impressive when you consider Clowney didn’t even start last year due to Melvin Ingram’s 15 tackles for loss with 10 sacks. Both Clowney and Taylor bring size and speed to the defensive end position. Kelcy Quarles was a solid addition at defensive tackle, though he too had his thunder stolen by the massive talent of Ingram. Travian Robertson also played most of the downs at tackle, which took Quarles off the field as Ingram moved to tackle in order to get Clowney on the field. Byron Jerideau will attempt to fill in the hole left by Robertson’s departure. Tennessee simply doesn’t have the kind of athletes or experience that South Carolina has right now, so the Gamecocks get the edge.
The South Carolina linebackers are big and talented, but there is a little uncertainty due to Shaq Wilson not knowing yet where he is going to fit in. He seems to be fighting for a job at Mike linebacker. He is looking to beat out Reginald Bowens, a 6’3”, 254 pound monster who has performed well in the past. Damario Jeffery is a big linebacker who is presently set to start at Will. DeVonte Holloman has been a massive player at safety in the past, but now he will play at Spur (we think). He was supposed to play Spur last year, so it could be subject to change. He stands 6’2” and 241 pounds, so if he does move back to safety, he is the last guy any wideout wants to see coming for him. For Tennessee, the linebackers aren’t as experienced, but the all have at least one season of starting experience. They have proven to be productive, maybe even more productive than the South Carolina backers. In fact, even though one of the projected starting linebackers for the Vols was out last season, the four possible starters for South Carolina were still less productive. This is surprising given most of the defensive stopping power seemed to come from the defensive backs. I’m going to give the nod to the Vols on this one, though it’s close.
South Carolina lost a lot of production from last year’s secondary. In fact, they lost 160 tackles and 10 interceptions of defensive productivity. This means that Akeem Auguste and D.J. Swearinger are the most experienced members of the secondary. Both are highly productive, but they may need to be even more productive with new starters like Victor Hampton and Brison Williams. Hampton is a physical corner who is comfortable playing press coverage. Williams is one of the most improved safeties coming out of the spring, and he will be holding down the job at strong safety. Tennessee didn’t lose much productivity from last year’s team, as the only significant loss was Art Evans, a backup who provided 10 tackles and an interception in limited work, which included one start. Beyond that, all the productivity returns for the Vols, and there are plenty of bodies, including some highly touted freshmen. Tennessee is going to get the edge, but there is definitely talent amongst the Gamecocks.
The Gamecocks need a new kicker, punter, and kick returner. Tennessee is (reasonably) set at all these positions. Tennessee is hoping for stronger performances from Palardy and Darr, and they may look to true freshman George Bullock in the competition for kickoff and placekicking duties. As for the returns, Devrin Young returns after leading the team in kick and punt returns last season, and there is even more speed on the team thanks to new additions from the last recruiting class. Tennessee gets the edge.
Tennessee wasn’t good at running the ball. In fact, they would have been dead last in rushing in almost every conference. The good news is that they have to be better. The bad news is that nobody has really emerged from the backfield. That means this will probably be a case of running back by committee. The line looks better suited for run blocking than they did a year ago, and with different coaches for the backs and line, things look much more promising than a year ago. The South Carolina run defense looks a little less intimidating than a year ago, the linebackers are solid, but neither Taylor nor Clowney are known as run stoppers. Add to that the changes at defensive tackle, and there are questions. However, the questions for the Gamecocks aren’t nearly as pressing as the questions for the Vols. Advantage: South Carolina.
The Gamecocks were still a good running team even after the loss of Lattimore. The combination of new running back depth that was discovered last year along with the running ability of Connor Shaw, this will be a very difficult rushing attack to defend. The Vols are looking at a new defensive system. One of the potential drawbacks of this new system is the possibility of being caught without ideal personnel on the field to stop the run. On a positive note, you might be willing to give up the pass to stop the run of the Gamecocks. This would simplify matters significantly. South Carolina only produced 181.5 yards per game through the air, so stopping the run is seemingly the more critical aspect for a defense. The Gamecocks have the edge based on their productivity.
The passing attack of the Vols was explosive last year, and that was without Bray for five games. The Vols passing offense accounted for 242.6 yards per game total last year, with Bray accounting for 283.3 yards per game when he played. Bray, when he was completely healthy in the first five games, accounted for 315.8 yards per game. This will be difficult for any defense to slow down, and given the secondary of South Carolina doesn’t have any members who measure in above 6’0”, there will be a challenge against the large wide receivers of Tennessee. Add to that the fact that the one chance Tyler Bray got at South Carolina, he passed for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns in a half of play…as a freshman…and you can see how the passing attack of Tennessee could be tough to stop. South Carolina will have a challenge in getting pressure on Bray even though they have elite pass rushers, as Tennessee only allowed 18 sacks last season, ten of which happened in the games in which Bray was out or hurt. This means that the Vols will do a solid job of protecting the quarterback, especially with all of those blockers back this year. I’m going to give the clear edge to the Vols.
South Carolina didn’t pass much last season, and until Shaw took over, they weren’t throwing many touchdowns. Even when Shaw did take over, he only threw for 144 yards per game. Tennessee could have a bunch of nobodies in the secondary and it wouldn’t matter if the team doesn’t throw. Tennessee won’t be very effective in the pass rush because of Shaw’s mobility, but the secondary could have a solid day given the inexperience of the receivers. I’m giving the Vols the edge because of South Carolina’s passing allergy.
So I went into this comparison with a clear winner picked, but as I compared the teams, everything became considerably murkier. I’m going to call this game in favor of the Volunteers 35-27. There simply isn’t a way to run your way back into a game once you get behind, and that will crush the Gamecocks.
Alabama vs. Tennessee
Up next is the defending national champion Alabama. To say that Alabama is honoring the traditional football model is an understatement. The Crimson Tide has been winning using a stifling defense, power running, and an efficient passing attack. The Tide take advantage of every mistake an opponent makes. Tennessee has been a yearly victim of the Nick Saban coached Alabama teams, with the last Tennessee victory coming in the last year of the Shula era. Will this be the year that the Vols top the Tide?
A.J. McCarron has been efficient as the leader of the Tide. He threw for 2400 yards and 16 touchdowns while completing 66.7% of his passes. When they exited the spring, McCarron said that the plan was to open up the passing game more to give McCarron more opportunities to throw, but in the spring game he threw three picks, so one has to wonder if his interception numbers will go up now that teams will be expecting him to pass more. Tyler Bray’s opponents know he is going to throw, and they still can’t stop him. Bray played only seven games last season and still threw for more touchdowns than McCarron. Bray’s completion percentage is lower than McCarron’s, but once you consider the lack of a running game, that becomes understandable. Bray threw for only 417 fewer yards than McCarron too. At the end of the day, Bray is the better passer, so the advantage goes to the Vols.
This is one of those categories where there is no comparison. Alabama has consistently found great production from the running backs. Jalston Fowler, Eddie Lacy, Dee Hart, and T.J. Yeldon will all get carries this season, and each of them brings something a little bit different to the table. Hart is a burner, Lacy is balanced, Fowler is a bruiser, and Yeldon is a multipurpose back. With weapons like that, Alabama certainly won’t struggle to run the ball. For Tennessee, they too have a mix of runners, but they haven’t seen anything to lead the Vols to believe that they will produce at the level that Alabama’s backs will. Tennessee will be looking at all of their backs and will try to find a mix that will give them the opportunity to put out a group of runners that can hold their own. That said, Tennessee hasn’t finished the season ranked above ninth in the conference in rushing at any point over the last five years, whereas Alabama hasn’t finished worse than fifth in the last four, so the advantage goes to the Tide.
The Tide receivers are a bit of a mess. The top four receivers from a year ago have moved on, so there is a lot to be decided. The top returning receiver is Kenny Bell, who has solid size and athleticism, but has never shown an ability to take over the game. DeAndrew White and Kevin Norwood are going to try to also step up at receiver as well, but a trio of freshmen may be the best hope for the Tide. Chris Black, Amari Cooper, and Eddie Williams have the talent to help this season. Cooper and Black were both ranked amongst the top ten wide receivers in the country and Williams was regarded by some as the top athlete in the country. If this trio can provide a boost to the Tide’s receiving corps, they could be dangerous. Michael Williams should be the man at tight end, and at 6’6” and 269 pounds, he is a challenge to handle as both a blocker and receiver. For Tennessee, plenty has been said about Patterson, Rogers, and Hunter, but people have overlooked the other probable contributors in the receiving corps. Vincent Dallas is trying to develop as a route runner in order to better utilize his athleticism. Zach Rogers has displayed issues with his hands at times, but when he makes the catch, he usually turns it into decent yardage, averaging 13.4 yards per reception for his career. Naz Oliver joined the Vols as a defensive back, but was moved to wideout due to concerns over depth in the 2011 spring camp. Injuries have prevented him from making an impact during his time in Knoxville. Cody Blanc joined the team in spring camp after graduating early from high school. Although he isn’t a true wide receiver, he may be utilized at receiver amongst other positions. Alton “Pig” Howard is small but explosive. He stands only 5’9”, but with his speed, he can make big plays happen any time he touches the ball. Jason Croom is the ideal big receiver. He is 6’5” and 220 pounds, and although he doesn’t have blazing speed or insane leaping ability, he is a challenge no matter what he’s asked to do. Drae Bowles is one of the most polished receivers the Vols have signed since Robert Meachem. In fact, this group of receivers might be the best since the 2003 class that included Meachem, Jayson Swain, and Bret Smith. Between the talent within their class plus the proven production that the Vols have back, Tennessee gets the edge.
Alabama may have one of the most talented offensive lines in the country. Even though they have holes to fill, the talent that they return all has All-American potential. Barrett Jones moves to center, which should move big man Cyrus Kouandjio up to left tackle. Big man D.J. Fluker is back at right tackle, and at left guard is All-SEC performer Chance Warmack. At right guard, Anthony Steen is back after starting nine games in that role last year. Although Tennessee’s group has more experience, there certainly isn’t more talent, and the talent that is there isn’t All-American caliber. The advantage belongs to the Tide.
The defensive line of Alabama is big and athletic. Jesse Williams is making the move from defensive end to nose tackle, and at 6’4” and 320 pounds, he appears to be capable of filling the role. At the defensive end positions, Quinton Dial and Damion Square exited the spring as the probable defensive ends. Dial is a massive end at 6’6” and 304 pounds. For Tennessee, there was going to be some uncertainty until the newcomers joined the team, but now that they are on campus, it’s time to start molding them to fill certain roles. If Daniel McCullers and Danny O’Brien are quickly able to adjust to life in the SEC, there is a chance that a player like Maurice Couch could get a look at end. O’Brien might be a candidate at end as well. The coaches are already looking at Trent Taylor as a possible nose tackle, so don’t be surprised if there is a lot of movement on the Vols defensive line. Alabama gets the edge because they know who will fill what role.
Alabama has one of the largest groups of linebackers in the country. The lightest of their linebackers weighs in at 245. In fact, the Jack, Adrian Hubbard, is 6’6” and 248 pounds. In the spring game, he accounted for 7 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. The Mike and Sam are manned by Trey DePriest and Xzavier Dickson respectively. Nico Johnson is holding down the Will job. For Tennessee, they too are reasonably decent from a size standpoint, but there is a lot of work to be done in the strength and conditioning program to mold the players to fit their new roles in what is a similar defensive system. Alabama has been recruiting for this system for five years, so they get the edge.
Dee Milliner is going to be one of the most important members of the Tide secondary. He has the size to play safety, but the skills of a corner. He defended 12 passes last season with 3 interceptions, tied for the most passes defended on the team. Deion Belue is currently penciled in at the other corner job following a spectacular performance in the spring. He just joined the team in January, so his quick transition has been remarkable. Vinnie Sunseri (son of the Vols defensive coordinator) is going to be manning one of the safety jobs with Robert Lester coming back at the other spot. They may be the best pair of safeties in the conference in 2012. For the Vols, some combination of Prentiss Waggner, Izauea Lanier, and Justin Coleman should man the corner positions, though it’s possible that Deion Bonner could factor in here before the season ends. At safety, there will also be a competition between Brent Brewer and Byron Moore. Brian Randolph is penciled in at free safety. Newcomer LaDarrell McNeil, one of the top safeties coming out of high school, will likely earn playing time quickly. Alabama is more settled in the secondary and their starters are more talented in general, so the Tide edge out the Vols again.
On special teams, Alabama returns their top kickers and punter from a year ago. Although they need to find new returners, there certainly seem to be bodies that can fill in those roles. For Tennessee, they return all the top performers at all the special teams positions from a year ago, but they weren’t always so special last year. Alabama gets the edge.
Tennessee has a passing attack that looks dangerous, no matter whom they play. That said, they won’t face a more talented secondary in 2012. Not even the Florida secondary is Bama good. Alabama has a potential All-American at corner and two at safety. Tennessee’s receivers may have that level of potential, but much of that potential hasn’t been realized yet. This may be the season that the Vols emerge as one of the top pass blocking units in the country, but Alabama will likely have one of the top pass rushing units too. I’m going to call this one even.
Alabama didn’t pass heavily last season, but they are looking to pick up the passing in 2012. However, there is a question as to whether or not McCarron can handle the job when opponents are expecting him to throw. Can McCarron adjust to hidden coverages and look off defenders? I’m not sold that he can based on the three interceptions he threw in the spring. On a positive note, McCarron will have plenty of time with a talented and experience line blocking for him. Tennessee wasn’t good at getting pressure on the quarterback last year, and that corresponded to fewer interceptions, as displayed by the fact that in 2010 the Vols had their highest sack total and their highest interception total of the last five years. They need to get back to harassing the quarterback and forcing turnovers. Until they do, I’m giving the edge to the Tide.
Tennessee couldn’t run the ball at all last year. They will improve this season (because frankly they couldn’t get worse), but how much they improve has yet to be seen. The line was horrendous at making holes for the backs, but with another year and a little more shuffling on the line, they appear ready to perform better. Alabama’s defensive line looks solid and should be able to hold up well at the line of scrimmage. It’s the linebackers that I actually have questions about. It will be difficult for Alabama to match the production and experience that Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw brought to the table. Their exit to the NFL left Alabama trying to figure out how to replace 29 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. They also combined for 137 tackles last year. There is no clear way for Alabama to replace that production. Alabama gets the edge, but only because Tennessee was so bad a year ago.
Alabama is one of the best running teams in the country. That’s really all that needs to be said. A middle of the pack rush defense like the Vols fielded last year simply won’t have any effect on a superior rushing unit like that of Alabama. Even if Tennessee is better in 2012, it may not matter. Just ask LSU. Alabama does need to figure out who will carry the rock, but once they do, the offensive line will see it as business as usual. Alabama owns this comparison.
Although my pick for this game won’t come as a surprise to anyone, the final score might. I’m picking Alabama in a 38-31 shootout. Although Alabama is known for their defensive ability, Tennessee’s passing offense can easily put points on the board. If Tyler Bray shows the level of progress most expect from him, he should be able to minimize mistakes and allow the running game to be opened up by the pass. Alabama will win, but this may be one of the tougher games that the Tide play in the upcoming season.
Tennessee vs. Mississippi State
Here’s the next part of my series on the upcoming season for the Vols.
Saying that Mississippi State underperformed last season is an understatement. The Bulldogs entered the season with high expectations, but they failed to near the nine win predictions that were flying around. This season, Mississippi State will look to make up for last season’s shortcomings. Tennessee is looking to turn around the team’s fortunes after three years of mediocrity. With both teams trying to improve their image nationally, two motivated teams should be meeting for a knock-out, drag-out fight.
For Mississippi State, Tyler Russell is the projected starter. Russell has the talent to play quarterback in the SEC, but he hasn’t been able to match his physical tools and his play. Russell only completed just over 50% last season and had a 2-1 touchdown to interception ratio last season. Russell has enough mobility to escape pressure, but he doesn’t throw well on the run. On the other hand, Tyler Bray has shown the ability to be a top-tier quarterback. Although Bray isn’t fast when running, he throws well from outside the pocket. The advantage is clear for Tennessee.
At running back, both teams are looking for production. LaDarius Perkins has shown flashes for the Bulldogs, but he needs to show some consistency to match. Nick Griffin is more of a power back, but he has yet to produce consistently. Tennessee is also looking for performers, with both Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane flashing their immense potential at times. Both have been inconsistent, frustrating Tennessee fans. This is a wash.
There is talent within the receiving corps, but they haven’t been able to put up the kind of big numbers that they should because of inconsistency at quarterback. The receivers have has issues at times with making the catch, but with the tight end and two of the three receivers all averaging 13 or more yards per catch, the potential is evident. Tennessee is in a similar boat, where talented receivers have been hurt by poor quarterback play when Bray has been out of the game. The Volunteer receivers are big and skilled, and with Bray healthy, they will perform brilliantly. The advantage goes to Tennessee.
On the offensive line, Mississippi State has great size with three members of the line standing 6’7”. The line has some experience, but not nearly the level of experience that the Vols have. The Vols also have great size. I’m going to call this one even as both units have plenty to prove.
Kaleb Eulls and Shane McCardell are among the top candidates at defensive end. That said, neither of them has shown much explosion at a pass rusher, so junior college transfer Denico Autry should be a huge factor. At defensive tackle, they will miss Fletcher Cox, but Josh Boyd showed similar explosiveness last season. True freshman Quay Evans could be a factor at the other position as the job is still available. For Tennessee, they have a lot of bodies, but there is a strong possibility that junior college transfers could win starting jobs. In fact, at nose tackle, if JUCO Daniel McCullers doesn’t win the job, it could be heavily damaging to the defense. Maurice Couch is lacking in the ideal size for the job, and although Danny O’Brien appears to be built for the job, it might be too much for the true freshman to handle. Jacques Smith and Maurice Couch combined for 13.5 tackles for loss last year, so there is potential to be solid. Neither group has big time playmakers that have truly established themselves yet, so this is a wash.
Cameron Lawrence has All-SEC talent and NFL size at outside linebacker. However, that’s where the proven performers end at linebacker for the Bulldogs. This could leave the door open for a talented freshman like Richie Brown to win a starting job. Chris Hughes and Ferlando Bohanna exited the spring holding the jobs at middle and the other outside linebacker position. For Tennessee, there aren’t really any questions about who will hold down the starting positions at linebacker. There is plenty of experience and All-SEC talent amongst the group. Advantage: Tennessee.
At defensive back, Johnthan Banks is one of the most talented corners in the conference. He possesses great size and ball skills, pulling in five interceptions last year. Corey Broomfield mans the other side of the field, but the safeties will be brand new, with Jay Hughes and Louis Watson exiting the spring with the jobs. Both are somewhat undersized, so there is an opportunity for newcomers to make an impact here as well. For Tennessee, although they may ask a couple freshmen to help, they aren’t needed as there is depth and talent in the secondary. Again, the Vols get the edge.
Brian Egan will be taking over at placekicker for the Bulldogs after showing great skill on kickoffs a year ago. Baker Swedenberg is back to handle the punting duties. The kick and punt returners are back for Mississippi State as well. Tennessee returns their placekicker and punter, but both have been underwhelming. There is a lot of potential in the return game for the Vols. I’m going to call this one even.
Tennessee’s passing attack should be able to pick apart one side of the field. Broomfield was only able to defend five passes last year. With the safeties likely to be undersized, the large receivers for the Vols should be able to take advantage of their greater size. Mississippi State is also looking for playmakers on the defensive line, so pressure could be non-existent unless Autry comes along quickly. Advantage: Tennessee.
The Mississippi State receivers have talent, but they need Tyler Russell to be consistent. The offensive line looks capable of providing time to Russell, so the excuses for his inefficiency are gone. If Russell does progress, Tennessee may struggle to match the speed of the Bulldog wideouts, but on the whole, I still like Tennessee’s odds of providing pressure and forcing turnovers based on Russell’s past, so I’m giving the Vols the edge.
Tennessee hasn’t found the guy or guys at running back, and last year the line was unable to get a push in the running game. With Sam Pittman and Jay Graham bringing a new attitude to the running game, progress should be made. The defense for the Bulldogs must replace its most disruptive defensive lineman, but they have some interesting prospects at tackle with Quay Evans and Josh Boyd, who look like athletic, disruptive players. However, there is a lack of experience and production at defensive end and linebacker. Cameron Lawrence is a proven commodity at linebacker, but neither of the others have significant experience. Although the Vols have issues, they have the better talent and potential. The Vols get the edge.
Mississippi State has a pair of running backs they believe can carry the load, but there is still a lot to prove. LaDarius Perkins has shown explosiveness at times, but he hasn’t been able to display consistency. Nick Griffin hasn’t had a lot of opportunities. The line looks capable of holding their own, and with Tennessee’s unknowns on the defensive line, there appears to be an advantage. However, Tennessee has linebackers that seem capable of getting the job done. I’m again going to say the two units are even.
I’m expecting to get a little criticism for this one, but I think the Vols finally pick up a road win that isn’t over Vanderbilt or Memphis. I’m calling this one for the Vols 35-24, with the Vols really making the running game look good against an SEC opponent. This should convince the naysayers that Tennessee is ready to be one of the teams in the top half of the conference, something that has been debatable the last three years.
Tennessee vs. Georgia
Let me start by saying that I fully intended to vlog about these matchups, but time simply wasn’t on my side. Rather than see a horrendous drop in production quality, I’ve decided to put my analyses up on the blog for people to read. I know it’s probably not as fun, but I had to focus on school. I hope you still enjoy.
Tennessee and Georgia have a habit of trading punches with one another, but Tennessee has been receiving most of the blows the last two seasons. It was the Georgia game that many Vol fans have pointed to as the point at which the season was derailed, due to Tyler Bray suffering his broken thumb. This year, the Georgia game is serving as the first road test for Tennessee, who is looking to fight back to the top of the SEC East. Georgia is one of the roadblocks to returning to greatness. So will the Vols overcome the Dawgs?
There has been a lot of debate about who is the top quarterback in the SEC. Is it Tyler Wilson? Aaron Murray? Tyler Bray? Personally, I think it’s Wilson, but today I’m comparing Bray and Murray. Last season, Bray accounted for the highest yards per game total in the SEC at 283.3 yards per game. Murray accounted for 224.9 yards per game. Both completed 59% of their passes last season. Bray lost out on participating in five games a year ago, so other statistics are a little difficult to compare, but if I’m speculating, Bray was on pace last year to throw for fewer interceptions than Murray, who tends to take a lot of risks. Both quarterbacks will account for a lot of yardage and touchdowns, so I’m going to call this one even.
Georgia wasn’t a bad rushing team a year ago, but they weren’t special. Tennessee was bad. For Tennessee, the only way to go is up. For Georgia, they need to find their identity at running back. Georgia doesn’t seem clear on who is the go-to guy. Isaiah Crowell, Ken Malcome, Richard Samuel IV, and Keith Marshall are all going to see carries this season, and that gives Georgia plenty of options, but they can’t seem to settle on a top guy yet. For Tennessee, nobody has laid claim to the top spot. Although I do believe there could be some chaos within the Georgia backfield, the talent level and productivity is superior for the Bulldogs.
If there is an SEC receiving corps that has the size to match Tennessee’s receivers, it’s Georgia. The shortest projected impact receiver is Tavarres King who is 6’1”. The other receivers are 6’3”, 6’3”, and 6’5”. It’s possible that Malcolm Mitchell could also help at receiver after moving to corner. The new tight end should be Jay Rome, a 6’6”, 254 pound talent who should be explosive in the passing game. He will likely share time with Arthur Lynch, who is a strong blocker. For Tennessee, the wide receivers depth is…murky once you get past the starters. There are a lot of freshmen who will need to help provide depth this season. The talent is there, but not the experience. At tight end, the Vols are less deep now than they were last week. Cameron Clear was arrested for theft and subsequently removed from the team. That will mean that Mychal Rivera and Brendan Downs will carry most of the load, with H-back Ben Bartholomew and true freshman Justin Meredith providing support. Although I would love to say that Tennessee has the advantage, the two receiving corps are equal based on what they’ve done in the past.
Georgia needs to find replacements at both tackle positions and center. Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee should be entrenched at the guard positions. I expect Austin Long to win one of the tackle positions, and I believe true freshman John Theus will win the other job. At center, Caleb Drake may be the top candidate, though Ben Reynolds will do his best to win the job. Tennessee knows who will play where. There is talent and size on the Vols offensive line, but they need to improve as a group of run blockers. I’m going to give Tennessee the advantage based on the fact that they know who’s playing on their line.
John Jenkins is massive. He stands 6’3” and weighs 351 pounds, but he doesn’t just plug up the middle; he is also athletic and makes plays in the backfield, accounting for 6 tackles for loss with 3 sacks. He also accounted for 10 quarterback pressures and an interception. Abry Jones is entrenched at one of the defensive end spots with Garrison Smith the top candidate on the other side. The two combined for 10 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. Tennessee is likely to find themselves looking to newcomers for help on their defensive line. The ends are likely to be Marlon Walls and Darrington Sentimore, with Sentimore joining the team from the junior college ranks. Another junior college addition, Daniel McCullers, is going to be asked to step in at nose tackle. At 6’6” and 380 pounds, he definitely has the size for the position, but there are questions about conditioning. If these newcomers are able to step in and perform at a high level, Tennessee could be special on the defensive line; however, those are big unknowns, so Georgia gets the nod.
A discussion of the Bulldog linebackers has to begin with Jarvis Jones. Jones was an All-American last season, racking up 19.5 tackles for loss with 13.5 sacks. On the other side of the field, either Cornelius Washington or Ray Drew will bring pressure. Alec Ogletree and Michael Gilliard complete the linebacking corps. Ogletree will be serving a four game suspension, but he will be back in time for the Tennessee game. For Tennessee, there is a lot of talent, but also a lot of uncertainty. Jacques Smith will be playing without his hand on the ground for the first time at UT, and Curt Maggitt’s duties are going to involve more pass rushing than a year ago. Herman Lathers and A.J. Johnson are locked in at the inside linebacker positions. When the Vols move back to the 4-3, Smith will get his hand down in the dirt again, with Johnson and Maggitt handling the outside duties. Tennessee has plenty of potential, but Jarvis Jones is a proven commodity. Advantage: Georgia.
Both teams have talented secondaries. Georgia will start next season shorthanded as Bacarri Rambo serves a four game suspension, but like Ogletree, he will be back in time for the meeting with the Vols. Rambo was an All-American last season after defending 16 passes, including 8 interceptions. Shawn Williams is back at strong safety, where he led the team in tackles and recorded four interceptions. Sanders Comming and Branden Smith should earn the nod at corner. There’s a good chance that Malcolm Mitchell could play the nickel position. For Tennessee, there are plenty of bodies and more than enough talent to play in the SEC, but again, there isn’t an All-American in the group. Georgia gets the edge again.
Georgia needs a new punter, kicker, and returner. Tennessee knows who will kick, punt, and return. Although there are definitely concerns with the Volunteer specialists, at least they know who will be manning the jobs. Tennessee has the advantage.
Tennessee has shown explosive potential in the passing game. A year ago, the Vols were looking like they had the potential to break multiple records, not just at Tennessee, but maybe conference and national records as well. Injuries derailed that dream, but the Vols are back with new bodies and a reinvigorated offense. The Georgia secondary is extremely gifted, and they may have the top pass rusher in the country. This means Tennessee will have a challenge, but if any team is up to the task, it should be the Vols. I’m going to call this one even.
The Georgia passing attack was solid last year, but with Malcolm Mitchell moving to defense and Orson Charles moving to the NFL, some of the other receivers will need to step up. Tavarres King is a proven commodity at receiver. Marlon Brown, Michael Bennett, and Chris Conley will need to step up at receiver, and Jay Rome will need to live up to his immense potential at tight end. All of this seems possible with an NFL talent at quarterback, and Aaron Murray certainly looks the part of an NFL passer. Murray can be careless with the football due to his faith in his arm, but he tends to make good passes more often than he makes mistakes. The Tennessee secondary has plenty of size and talent, but without pass rushing improvement, the Vols will be vulnerable to the passing attack of the Bulldogs. I’m giving the Dawgs the nod.
The Tennessee rushers are inexperienced and haven’t produced much, but there is talent and depth within the backfield. The Vols runners could have been more productive last year, but they simply didn’t have the blocking they needed to produce. Georgia’s defense allowed amongst the fewest yards in the SEC, but they did give up 16 rushing touchdowns. Georgia’s run defense will be solid again this season, but if Tennessee can improve running the ball and make their way to the endzone, they might be able to put points on the board. Still, I’m going to have to give the edge to Georgia.
Although Georgia wasn’t overly productive in the run game, they were productive enough to keep teams honest. Georgia has added even more bodies to the mix, and they will be looking for someone to emerge as the top rusher out of the group. Although I’m not sold that they’ve found the guy yet, I’m sure that the group of backs will be able to produce this season. Tennessee had one of the worst run defenses last year, but the new defense modeled off of the Alabama defensive system could lead to improved stopping ability. I’m giving the edge to Georgia, who was able to produce last year, even if they weren’t special.
So, I’m sure this won’t come as any surprise, but I’m predicting a 31-21 Georgia win. Tennessee should be solid this season, but Georgia has some special performers on defense that should be able to disrupt the passing attack of Tennessee enough to give Georgia the edge.
A Few Thoughts on Fulmer
"No head coach can be better than his staff. Show me a winning team, and I’ll show you a group of assistant coaches."-General Robert Neyland
I want to congratulate the newest members of the College Football Hall of Fame, especially former Volunteer head coach Phillip Fulmer. Say what you will about Phil, but the man was (save two seasons) a winner. He had an overall winning percentage of 74.5% and a conference winning percentage of 74.2%. He won the first ever BCS National Championship a year after losing his all-everything quarterback. He won two SEC Championships and participated in three others. He is the second winningest coach in UT history, only behind the great Robert Neyland. He served alongside great assistant coaches like David Cutcliffe and John Chavis, who continue to excel in the coaching ranks. He sent numerous players into the NFL, with many of them selected in the first round. In other words, his resume speaks for itself.
"To defeat a weak opponent is not the problem: The problem is to win when he is as good or better than you"-Robert Neyland
Those who discount Phil tend to do so based on his final few seasons at Tennessee. Most people give Fulmer a pass for his disappointing 2005 performance due to the injuries that spread throughout the team like a plague. Add to that inconsistant performances at quarterback, and it was a recipe for disaster. The next two years were more along the lines of what Tennessee fans expected, as David Cutcliffe rejoined the staff and rejuvenated the offense. 2008 is the colossal black mark on Fulmer’s coaching resume. At no point did the Vols look like the teams of old. Fans began to cry foul, citing reduced results in recruiting and lack of discipline off the field. One season was all it took to reverse the fanbase’s opinion of the second winningest head coach in their school’s history.
"I’m proud that the accomplishments over the last 17 years have been part of such high expectations."-Phillip Fulmer
I’m not going to debate the validity of the athletic administration’s decision to move forward without Phil. That’s been debated to death. I’m simply congratulating him on a deserved honor. I’m glad he gets to join the ranks of Hall of Fame Volunteer coaches like Bowden Wyatt, Doug Dickey, Johnny Majors, and Robert Neyland. He’s earned his place.
"I love this university and hope everyone knows that beyond a shadow of a doubt."-Phillip Fulmer
Why Tennessee Will Have New Faces Help, And Why That Isn’t Cause For Concern
Tennessee has been forced to rely on newcomers the last two season, and that has had some pretty disasterous results. The incoming players generally weren’t SEC ready, and a lot of the young guys were either in the trenches or playing key positions that generally require some experience and knowledge. Instead, Tennessee was forced by a depleted depth chart to throw players to the SEC sharks. Now, Tennessee has a solid depth chart, but I believe they will look to some young players to provide significant contributions in 2012. Does that mean they will struggle again? I don’t think so.
Tennessee has put in a new defensive scheme, and the demands on the players have shifted accordingly. That means that everything is reasonably new for everyone. Because of that, I expect several young players to make an impact for the Vols this season. I think everyone would agree that Darrington Sentimore and Daniel McCullers, both JUCOs, will be asked to take on major parts for the Vols this season. Both fit ideally into the new defensive line scheme, with McCullers looking ready to take on the role of a nose tackle and Sentimore possessing the size and skill set to play defensive end or tackle, depending on the front. It’s the other four guys I think the Vols will look to that may be getting overlooked. Danny O’Brien (not the Wisconsin quarterback) should be able to help at tackle or defensive end depending on the front. He might play some nose tackle, but I think he fits in better at end in the 3-4 and tackle in the 4-3. Trent Taylor is an interesting case. He was in camp for the spring and saw time at both end and nose tackle. He could fit into the defense in a number of ways, and I don’t think the coaches are done experimenting with him yet. LaDarrell McNeil is coming in with some of the biggest expectations. Most Vol fans and (maybe) even the coaches are looking to him to be able to help in the secondary, if not start. He has great size and a perfect skill set to be able to help immediately. The final defensive helper is Deion Bonner, a kid that had the potential to be a five star cornerback, but made some eggregious mistakes in his junior year of high school that led to his stock dropping. Schools that were contacting him before lost his number and he was forced to redevelop relationships with coaches. Tennessee has likely lucked out on Bonner. If his past is truly behind him, he has as much talent as any corner in the 2012 class. He can help immediately.
Offensively, most of the talk has centered around Cordarrelle Patterson, who should immediately help Tennessee’s receiving corps. The freshman are being ignored, which is folly. Jason Croom is 6’5”, 220 pounds, and looks a Justin Hunter-type impact player. He doesn’t necessarily have Hunter’s speed, but if the ball is in the air, Croom will win the battle. He won’t start, but a lack of quality depth in the receiving corps will necessitate immediate help from the recruiting class. Alton “Pig” Howard is lightning quick and has experience doing…everything. He spent time playing defensive back, running back, quarterback, and wide receiver while he was in high school. The Vols are looking to him for help at the wide receiver position, and he has the speed to help immediately. Drae Bowles is a reasonably tall, reasonably fast receiver. He’s good but not great in both of those catagories. Where he excels is route running. He is a polished route runner who isn’t afraid to go over the middle. If you run solid routes, you don’t have to have blazing speed. Two other names that should be paid attention to are Davante Bourque and Alden Hill. Hill got lost in the shuffle at running back in the spring, but he has great size (6’1”, 220) and could easily become a short-yardage specialist for the Vols. Bourque is a do-everything running back. He is good enough as a receiver that many schools thought that was where he would play. He is a gifted runner that many see filling out to 220 pounds, where his great vision and speed could be extra weapons in his loaded arsenal. Other schools saw him as a defensive back, where his size and speed could make him a unique talent. Others thought he might fill out and play linebacker. The Vols will make him an offensive weapon this season. He will probably get carries out of the backfield and line up at receiver to catch passes. No matter where he lines up, Bourque is a playmaker.
The other man who will be needed this season is George Bullock. The Volunteer’s kicking game has been…underwhelming. Kickoffs have been falling short of the endzone too often, not enough field goals have been hit, and punts simply aren’t long enough. Something has to change, and George Bullock might be the man to start that process. Although Bullock isn’t much of a punter, he has a huge leg. He can and does kick the ball out of the back of the endzone. He probably isn’t the answer on field goals either, but if Palardy can live up to his billing on field goals, Bullock locks down the kickoffs, and either Darr or Palardy can start punting well, the Vols can scratch another concern off the list.
I did list quite a few freshman who I think will be able to help this season, so why isn’t that a concern? Mainly because there are finally guys in front of them. Few of the players I listed are likely to start; they are only expected to contribute. They are either improving depth, filling into positions that didn’t really exist before, or adding elements that didn’t exist before. In other words, they’re just like any other school’s recruiting class. That alone should be a relief for Vol fans.