With the SEC having generated the BCS titlist five years running, the moral of our story — if indeed morals apply in this cutthroat conference — is this: Win the league, win it all. But that mightn’t be the case come Jan. 9, 2102. (Though the championship game will be played in New Orleans, smack in the heart of SEC country.)
Oklahoma figures to start next season ranked No. 1, and that would be a departure. The past three preseason No. 1’s have hailed from guess where: Georgia in 2008, Florida in 2009, Alabama in 2010. (As we know, none finished No. 1.) Eyeballing it from this distance, the SEC would appear slightly lessened in 2011, but is the Tiffany League ever truly down?
Herewith we offer a look-ahead, the 12 programs ranked in ascending order:
12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores have a new coach. So they’ve got that going for them.
11. Kentucky: The Wildcats seemed onto something when they played Auburn close and beat South Carolina, but they lost four of their final six games. They’ll have a new quarterback in 2011, and Morgan Newton — who started the BBVA Compass Bowl because senior Mike Hartline was suspended — appears a cut below his predecessor.
10. Ole Miss: Wasn’t it only yesterday — actually, it was 2009 — that this team was hailed as a national contender? Nothing has gone right since. Gambling on quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the defrocked Oregon Duck, enabled the Rebels to win only one SEC game, that against Kentucky. Houston Nutt’s nutty program again appears the least of the SEC West.
9. Tennessee: The Vols have found a quarterback in Tyler Bray, and his emergence enabled them to become bowl-eligible. Now the bad news: Tennessee finished 6-7 and didn’t beat anyone of consequence. Heck, it lost big to …
8. Georgia: Going on returning talent, this ranking is too low. Going on the tenuous state of the program, this ranking might be too high. Some Bulldog fans see Isaiah Crowell, the recruit from Columbus who has yet to commit, as The Next Herschel Walker. I ask: Have we learned nothing in 30 years? There was but one Herschel Walker.
7. Florida: Will Muschamp, the new head coach, is also a rookie head coach. Hiring Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator will help, but Weis hasn’t seemed half as clever since being separated from Tom Brady. John Brantley, the quarterback of whom much was expected in 2010, is considering transferring — and even Gator backers don’t know if that would be good or bad.
6. Auburn: The national champs will surely lose quarterback Cam Newton and defensive destroyer Nick Fairley to the NFL, and they weren’t just the two best players on their team — they were the two best players in the country. And that’s how it works in the better half of this conference: You can go from No. 1 in the land to No. 5 in the SEC West in the wink of an eye.
5. Mississippi State: The temptation is to put the Bulldogs a notch higher, but two factors mitigate: State lost defensive Manny Diaz to Texas, and the sneak-up factor from 2010 will be gone. Still, if the Bulldogs can win at Auburn on Sept. 10, they’ll face LSU in Starkville on a Thursday night in a cowbell-clamorous game that could propel them into the Top 10.
4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will take a slight step backward — they reached the Sugar Bowl in Year 3 under Bobby Petrino — only because they’re losing quarterback Ryan Mallett to the NFL draft. But Tyler Wilson seems an able replacement, and Petrino can coach quarterbacks. The downside: Hogs must face Alabama and LSU on the road.
3. South Carolina: The Gamecocks achieved their forever-awaited breakthrough by winning the SEC East. They then lost twice in the Georgia Dome by an aggregate 48 points. The key offensive players return, and Carolina hopes Jadeveon Clowney, the in-state product considered the nation’s No. 1 recruit, will take his talents to Columbia and do for the defense as tailback Marcus Lattimore did for the offense.
2. Alabama: Talent-wise, this is the SEC’s deepest program. But losing three key offensive players — quarterback Greg McElroy, tailback Mark Ingram and wideout Julio Jones — has to have some effect. Doesn’t it?
1. LSU: The SEC West will hinge the Tigers’ Nov. 5 game against Alabama, which will be staged in Tuscaloosa. But LSU, which has struggled for three seasons to find a quarterback, might have two: Jordan Jefferson has begun to settle, and Zach Mettenberger, dismissed from Georgia’s program after his arrest, might wind up starting. And there’s precedent for an SEC champion being quarterbacked by a Georgia native who began at one league program but flourished at another: Cam Newton of Atlanta did it in 2010; might it Mettenberger of Watkinsville in 2011?
By Mark Bradley