The opening of the college football season is still six weeks away. But with SEC media days later this week in Hoover, Ala., I figured it wasn’t too early for an appetizer.
I realize this isn’t going out on a limb but my sources tell me there’s a pretty good chance Alabama is going to win the SEC West. So the point of this exercise is to determine which team will play the defending national champions in the conference championship game Dec. 4 in the Georgia Dome.
Yeah, yeah, Florida is the overwhelming favorite in the East. (Alabama and Florida have met in the last two SEC title games). But I really believe this will be a two-team race and the Bulldogs have a legitimate chance to make an upset run. Here’s some quick analysis, with the SEC East teams ranked by perceived strength.
It seemed pointless to put up a poll with the question, “Which school will win the division?” because it’s not like anybody is going to pick Vanderbilt, Kentucky or Tennessee. So the poll merely asks the predicted finish for Georgia. But if you really want to pick Vanderbilt, Kentucky or Tennessee, we’re saving a spot in the comments section for you. Just be prepared to be mocked.
(East teams with last year’s SEC record in parenthesis.)
1. Florida (8-0): The Gators should win their first four games (Miami, South Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky) but then play at Alabama and home against LSU in consecutive weeks. They’re enormously talented again (including tailback Jeff Demps), but the two biggest questions focus on the quarterback (you might’ve heard Tim Tebow is gone) and the coach (Urban Meyer returns after the shortest retirement in history. Meyer now says his health problems stemmed primarily from “esophageal spasms.” That’s a long way from a heart condition. Suspicious? A little. Regardless, we’ll see how he handles the stress. John Brantley, the new QB, has a gun for an arm but little experience. The Gators also lost defensive coordinator Charlie Strong (now the head coach at Louisville).
2. Georgia (4-4): Mark Richt, feeling some heat for the first time in his tenure, dumped three assistant coaches, including Willie Martinez, whose defense allowed an SEC high 25 touchdown passes last season. The Dogs will switch to a 3-4 under new coordinator Todd Grantham. He’s also expected to bring more fire, which is needed throughout the team. For all the concern about quarterback Aaron Murray being a freshman, it’s not like there’s a real danger of dropping off from a year ago. Add this: 1) The offensive line should be one of the best in the conference; 2) A.J. Green might be the best receiver in the country; 3) the running game, led by Washaun Ealey, should be strong; 4) the schedule is one of the team’s easiest in years. Key are early tests against South Carolina and Arkansas (games two and three).
3. South Carolina (3-5): The Gamecocks started last season 5-1 and then lost five of their last seven. They ranked 87th in the nation in passing efficiency and had the conference’s second-worst offensive scoring average (20.6), trailing only Vanderbilt. This explains why Steve Spurrier is 65 going on 80. It also explains why he has verbally pounded quarterback Stephen Garcia, who was sacked 37 times last season and had 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. South Carolina is a popular upset pick by some in the East but I can’t figure out why. The defense should be solid again but there’s no reason to believe the offense will be better, and the schedule includes games against Alabama and Arkansas.
4. Tennessee (4-4): No coach is getting more sympathy than Derek Dooley. He inherited a program in disarray after Lane Kiffin bolted for USC. The recent arrest of several players stemming from underage drinking and a bar fight made matters even worse. Three players already have been either suspended or kicked off the team. The Volunteers’ projected starting quarterback, Matt Simms, has a famous father (Phil) and brother (Chris) but he doesn’t come with great credentials himself. He played junior college football and then went to Louisville, where he was 4-for-10 for 39 yards with an interception before transferring. If Tennessee ever was going to get this bad, you just hoped it would be under Kiffin, not Vince Dooley’s son.
5. Kentucky (3-5): Joker Phillips takes over as coach for the retired Rich Brooks, who finished with four straight winning seasons (7-6 last year). But it’s not a good sign when the new coach comes out of spring football and has no idea which of three quarterbacks will start.
6. Vanderbilt (0-8): I’m not saying Bobby Johnson wasn’t a fine football coach and Vandy isn’t a difficult job. But when a school is coming off a 2-10 season and was winless in conference, a coach’s sudden retirement shouldn’t cause everybody to fall to pieces. The Commodores weren’t going to be very good anyway. New coach Robbie Caldwell inherits a team that ranked 110th nationally in scoring and totaled six offensive touchdowns in eight SEC games.
Coming later today: Can Georgia Tech win the ACC Coastal?