Conference Breakdown: Ranking the SEC

RunTellMattContributor IJuly 23, 2009

GAINESVILLE, FL - APRIL 18: A fan of the University of Florida Gators watches play during the spring football Orange and Blue game April 18, 2009 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

by RunTellMatt

Every summer I make do with the monotony and the boring, college football-less Saturdays by doing my best to scout all 120 FBS teams. Plus, as a gambling man and a rabid college football fan, I like to know what I’m talking about. In this 12-part feature, I’ll break down each conference, including the independents, ranking the teams in order of how good I perceive them to be heading into the season complete with last year's W-L record and my predictions for each team's 2009 W-L record. Feel free to comment on what a splendid job you think I’ve done and how my analysis and forecast is dead-on. Or you can disagree, whatever.

Up next is Part 3 of this 12-part series: SEC, SEC, SEC.

12. Mississippi State Bulldogs Last Year: 4-8 My 2009 Prediction: 2-10

The Bulldogs followed up a decent 8-5 season in 2007 with a 4-8 season in 2008, which ultimately cost Head Coach Sylvester Croom his job. Now, new Head Coach Dan Mullen must come in rebuild with the 10 total starters returning on both OFF and DEF. There is, however, some talent to work with, such as SR RB Anthony Dixon, who scored 7 times in 2008 netting 869 yards (4.4 ypc). Although, it remains to be seen what type of disciplinary action he will face after a DUI arrest in July. Most likely he’ll miss at least the first 3 games, so Mississippi ST will have to work extra hard just to get the season going in the right direction. The DEF looks to be the strength of the team with a deep, solid secondary and a pair of good LB’s in Jamar Chaney and KJ Wright to lead. HC Mullen has also brought in new OFF and DEF coordinators (which often means new schemes) and the Bulldogs will look to be more of a pass first team by implementing the spread OFF. If SR QB Tyson Lee doesn’t get the job done, MSU may fully commit to the rebuilding year by giving FR QB Tyler Russell the reigns to gain experience for next season. The schedule doesn’t bode well either with non-conference games against Georgia Tech, Middle TN ST and Houston, who are amongst the best teams in their respective conferences. Unfortunately, the winnable games against KY and Vandy are on the road where MSU has gone 3-17 the last 5 years against the SEC. The Bulldogs may be able to pull off an upset this year along with 1 or 2 other wins, but for the most part new HC Dan Mullen will use this year to build for next season.

11. Kentucky Wildcats Last Year: 7-6 My 2009 Prediction: 3-9

Kentucky QB Mike Hartline, brother of former Ohio State WR Brian Hartline, has to do a better job of, well, doing his job. It’s not like the O-line didn’t do their job as they only allowed 13 sacks in 13 games last year, best in the SEC and 4th in the nation. Hartline, if he can hold on to his starting spot, will have a fantastic playmaker to get the ball to in WR Randall Cobb, who was also the Wildcat’s 2nd leading rusher as well as Hartline’s backup at QB last year. A second playmaker will need to step up at WR or Cobb will be looking at double coverage all season long. There’s no real #1 threat at RB, but there are a couple of speedsters in Alphonso Smith and Derrick Locke to share the load. There’s a couple areas of major concern on the DEF, particularly at the DE and LB positions. The two starting DE’s need to be replaced as well as DE Jeremy Jarmon, who originally planned to return for his senior season, but is now with the WAS Redskins. Also, two starting LB’s this year combined for 1 start and 40 tackles last year. Of the top 6 tacklers from last year, only Micah Johnson returns, their 2nd leading tackler a year ago with 98. The good news is that UK has a fairly easy schedule to beef up the W-L with games against my #13 team in the MAC, Miami (OH), E. KY, an FCS team, ULM, a middle of the pack Sun Belt team, and the bottom of the SEC as well with games against MS ST, Auburn and Vandy. It’s not unthinkable for the Wildcats to go 5-7, but anything less than 6-6 and a bowl game or better, and it won’t be considered a successful season for the Wildcats, not to mention the seat on which HC Rich Brooks sits might get awfully warm.

10. Auburn Tigers Last Year: 5-7 My 2009 Prediction: 5-7

Remember last year, during the 2008 season when at times Auburn seemed to have no idea how to score points? Well, if you don’t remember, you may just be reminded in 2009 as Auburn clearly has several question marks on the OFF. While there are 15 returning starters, there’s a new HC, Gene Chizik from Iowa ST, a new DC, Ted Roof from Minnesota, and a new OC, Guz Malzahn from Tulsa, who will attempt to implement a hurry up OFF like he had so much success with at his former school. But, they’ll have to decide on a QB to run the new scheme. Will it be Kodi Burns or Chris Todd, who combined for 7 TD’s and 13 INT’s last year, or will it be Neil Caudle or Frosh Barrett Trotter? The DEF shouldn’t be too much of a concern considering they return 8 starters and it was Chizik who served as DC for Auburn from the 2002-2004 squads that had such outstanding DEF. The schedule has several very winnable games, which could make getting to .500 and a bowl game very plausible. There’s games against KY and MS ST, which should sort out the real bottom of the SEC. There’s also games against LA Tech to start the season, who is 0-10-1 vs. Auburn, a rebuilding Ball ST team and Furman from the FCS. If Auburn can win those 5 games, which they should, they’d only need one more W (Arkansas?) to get to 6-6. Anything less should be considered below expectations.

9. Vanderbilt Commodores Last Year: 7-6 My 2009 Prediction: 5-7

There’s a lot to be optimistic about this year for Vandy considering they return 18 starters from a team that won their bowl game and had their first winning season in more than 25 years last year. In order for Vandy to continue to make improvements this year, they’ll have to get some consistency on OFF to win games without having to rely on their DEF to create opportunities for them. The O-line is now a more experienced group to give whomever is chosen at QB much more time to operate. Whether it’s Mackenzie Adams again, Larry Smith or Jared Funk, they’ll have several options at WR with the additions of transfers Terence Jeffers, who led UConn in receiving in ‘07, and Tray Herndon from Minnesota. Senior WR Justin Wheeler could miss time to start the season having torn his ACL this Spring. The DEF returns its entire front seven and should have good talent in place to get to the passer, but will need to find some answers in the secondary including replacing 1st Team All SEC CB DJ Moore. The schedule has some vary winnable games as well including W Carolina, MS ST, Rice, Army, KY and possibly even South Carolina. Winning those six games could get them to their 2nd consecutive bowl game. However, winning one more and matching last year’s record will be the minimum expectations set by Vandy. If a team wants to compete in any conference, they have to do more than just take care of the lesser teams. Vandy will need to prove they can run a consistent OFF while being just as opportunistic on DEF in order to hang with the better teams on their schedule.

8. Arkansas Razorbacks Last Year: 5-7 My 2009 Prediction: 5-7

Before last season, I said Arkansas was going to be in for a huge rebuilding year. The question this year is, is it going to be year two of rebuilding mode or will this be the season they’ve been building to? The answer remains to be seen. However, with 8 starters on OFF and 10 starters on DEF returning, as well as Michigan transfer QB Ryan Mallett, they’ll certainly have the talent and experience in place to make for a much improved season. The entire receiving corps returns including the fantastic TE DJ Williams, who led the team last year with 61 receptions. There’s now more depth at RB so Michael Smith won’t be relied on as much, which will keep him from wearing down like last year. The O-line can only get better after allowing 46 sacks last year, 2nd in the nation. Former Louisville and Michigan State head coach John L. Smith has been brought in to coach special teams, so improvement is to be expected. The O-line is big and may be good for opening run lanes, but they will need to provide the pass protection the immobile Mallett needs considering he is your prototypical NFL drop back passer. The DEF looks to be loaded with talent and experience with all the top tacklers from last year returning. Although young and inexperienced, the secondary brings in three highly recruited DB’s. Despite the expected growth of this Razorbacks team, the 2009 schedule may make it difficult to improve on last year’s mark with games against Georgia, AL, FL, Ole Miss and LSU. I think this team is still a year away with QB Mallett who will make his mistakes, but overall, the Razorbacks will make significant improvements this year with the potential of surprising a few teams.

7. South Carolina Gamecocks Last Year: 7-6 My 2009 Prediction: 5-7

This has to be a do-or-die season in Steve Spurrier’s fifth season as HC for the Gamecocks. Expectations are high (maybe unrealistically high) these days in college football, especially for teams in the bigger conferences. But, Spurrier has gone just 28-21 in the past four seasons with his best record being 8-5 with a bowl win over Houston in 2006. It’s not all his fault, though. The players still have to execute and take care of the ball-something they did not do last year having thrown 27 INT’s with 38 TO’s in all, both good for worst in the nation. The O-line was horrible last year giving up 39 sacks and making way for a mere 94 rush yards per game. This year the O-line returns and can’t be any worse. There’s still no proven answer at RB, but rather a rotation of 3. QB Garcia played 3 games last year and threw 8 int’s, so he’ll have to get much better and make smarter decisions, although he’s still going to make the mistakes in his first year as the starter. The secondary loses 3 superb starters from the nation’s 2nd best pass defense last year. The strength of the team should once again be the DEF centered around one of the nation’s best LB in Eric Norwood, who had 75 tackles and 9 sacks last season. Overall, expectations cannot be too high considering the questions yet to be answered. The DEF could be on the field a lot if the OFF doesn’t come up with a way to score. With the season opener at NC State considered to be a must win game (Thursday night, home underdog? Remember last year? Watch out SC.) and the Georgia game a week later almost a certain L, a good indication of where this team is will be in the third game of the season at home against FAU,a team possessing a potent OFF. It will be interesting to see the FAU OFF vs. the SC DEF. If the SC DEF can contain FAU as well as put points on the board themselves, the Gamecocks will be headed in the right direction with at best a 2-1 record to start the season.

6. LSU Tigers Last Year: 8-5 My 2009 Prediction: 8-4

Last year I predicted LSU would be, at best, 8-4 in the regular season despite, a year prior, winning a NC game, which I feel they had no right to be in with 2 losses and having to jump both VT and GA to get there. Nonetheless, LSU will be much improved from last year, however, they still lack a solid and proven passer, so it remains to be seen how effective the OFF will be. WR Demetrius Byrd is gone, but back is a great playmaker at WR in Brandon Lafell, their leading receiver from last year. There seems to be a lack of depth at LB considering they’ve moved a 3 yr starter from S to the position, which could create a hole in the secondary. RB Charels Scott led the SEC with 18 rush TD’s last year and will be the centerpiece of the OFF again. He will run behind an O-line that replaces the C and one G. The D-line replaces 3 starters, but back are SR DT Charles Alexander and a great pass rusher, SR DE Rahim Alem, who in limited action last year tallied 8 sacks. The Tigers have assembled the schedule well to allow for another 4-0 start with games against Wash, Vandy, LA-Lafayette and MS ST. While LSU certainly has good young talent, QB Jefferson will experience his growing pains and the Tigers will most likely be much better next year.

5. Tennessee Volunteers Last Year: 5-7 My 2009 Prediction: 8-4

The Vols definitely have several key players in place to come up with a very strong season. Anchoring the secondary is SS Eric Berry, who might be the best in the nation, along with 4 of the top 6 from last year. The secondary will be relied on heavily as the LB unit loses two starters from last year accounting for 142 tackles and 5 sacks. Gone are 2 DT’s along with DE Robert Ayers from a stout D-line that allowed 103 yards per game last year, so they’ll be less experienced this year. The O-line loses some experience, but will be replaced with some very highly recruited talent to go along with 3 other starters. The O-line will be expected to help establish a power run game behind good depth at RB including top recruit Bryce Brown and SR Montario Hardesty. The biggest question mark for the Vols, which could determine how successful the season will be, is who will be under center when they start the season at home against W. KY. Will it be Jonathon Crompton, who stunk it up last year, or unproven and inexperienced Nick Stephens or B.J. Coleman? The QB situation will certainly be a work in progress, but the DEF should hold up long enough to give the QB time to develop. The TN OFF may struggle against teams that simultaneously put pressure on the QB while containing the run. But, the Vols really set up their schedule for a strong finish with 4 of the last 5 coming against South Carolina, Memphis, Vandy and KY, all games they should win. So, even if they just beat who their expected to beat and lose to whom their expected to lose, the Vols should at least get to 8-4 and another bowl.

4. Alabama Crimson Tide Last Year: 12-2 My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Gone are RB Glen Coffee and QB John Parker Wilson from the team that last year started the season 12-0 before losing to FL in the SEC title game. Alabama also boasted the 2nd best run DEF in the country and returns 8 of the top 10 tacklers, which certainly looks to be the strength of the team this year. Two 3-yr starters need replaced at the O-line, including C and team leader Antoine Caldwell, who will be replaced by 6’ tall William Vlachos. The OFF runs more of a traditional pro-style OFF and will try to control the clock with a steady dose of the run behind RB Mark Ingram, who ran for 728 yards and 12 scores last year. Alabama won’t stray from last year’s formula of utilizing their smothering DEF combined with long, methodically drawn out drives on OFF to slow the game and control the ball, which might also be somewhat out of necessity concerning none of the current options at QB have any meaningful experience. There are playmakers at WR including Julio Jones, but the QB is going to need time to get the ball down field, which may be hindered by the fact the starting C is only 6’. While Alabama won’t repeat last years performance, they have a way-too-easy schedule to not end up with a good-looking W-L record at the end of the season.

3. Mississippi Rebels Last Year: 9-4 My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

Not only did Mississippi have their first winning season since 2003, it was the first since then, when Eli Manning was at the helm, that they won more than 4 games in a season. So, the Rebels go 9-4 one season and all of a sudden they’re a top 10 team? If that isn’t a serious SEC bias I don’t know what is. In fact, if you look at their nine wins, 5 came against sub-.500 teams and one more was against Samford from the FCS. QB Jevan Snead may have played well at times last year, but his numbers are nothing to get exited about having ranked no higher than 20th in any one statistical category for QB’s. Is Snead a very capable QB and do the Rebels have a lot to be excited about moving forward? Absolutely, I’m just saying back the hype down and take them out of the top 10 because the level of expectation has become unrealistic simply because they’re in the SEC. Now, what the Rebels do have is 8 starters returning on both sides including 3 on both the D-line and O-line. Although the D-line should again be very good, the O-line loses 1st round draft choice, Michael Oher, as well as their LG and RG, so they may not have as much success as the 4.7 YPC they paved the way for last year. There’s a depth of good RB’s and a pair of WR’s returning that each had 44 receptions last year, although they lose their leading WR and KR Mike Wallace. The schedule certainly bodes well for a nice looking record come season’s end with 4 lay-up non-conference games against 2 FCS teams, SE Louisiana and Northern AZ, as well as Memphis and UAB. The other games include this year’s SEC bottom against S CAR, ARK, AUB, Vandy & MS ST. That is almost a guaranteed 9 wins. The remaining more closely-matched games are all at home against AL, TN and LSU. Best case scenario, Ole’ Miss goes 10-2, meets FL in an overly-hyped conference championship game only to get smashed and watch FL go on to another NC game, because as tough as the SEC is, the winner of the SEC championship now has an automatic placement in the NC game.

2. Georgia Bulldogs Last Year: 10-3 My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Last year, Georgia started the season ranked #1 with an all-star cast including #1 overall draft pick QB Matthew Stafford, back-to-back 1000-yard rusher Knowshon Moreno, 2nd round draft choice WR Mohamed Massaquoi and 3rd round draft choice CB Asher Allen, all of which are now obviously gone to the NFL. It seems as though Georgia had a real shot at a national championship last year and missed a huge opportunity. Georgia, however, didn’t lose everybody. Back are 7 starters on OFF, including WR AJ Green, their leading WR, as well as 8 on DEF, including Butkus finalist LB Rennie Curran. No, they may not get the media attention as their predecessors, but this Georgia team will once again be very good and could challenge FL for the SEC East. After all, they have had a top five recruiting class the past two years according to Under center is fifth-year senior QB Joe Cox, who is very capable and will be lined up behind an O-line that returns all five starters, as well as LT Trinton Sturdivant back from a knee injury suffered last August. The biggest area of concern for Georgia this year is the schedule, having to face what might be one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country with games against OK ST to start the season, AZ ST and GA Tech, not to mention a game in Jacksonville against the #1 ranked FL Gators. Whatever the W-L record may read at the end of the year, the Bulldogs are without a doubt better than every other team in the SEC, possibly even FL, and deserve a higher ranking than the over-hyped Mississippi.

1. Florida Gators Last Year: 13-1 My 2009 Prediction: 12-0

The #1 ranked and returning national champion FL Gators return nearly their entire team (7 on OFF, 11 on DEF), which justifies the ranking. The biggest loss on OFF is at the WR position where they lose their top 2 guys, Louis Murphy and their everything-man Percy Harvin, who was also their leading rusher behind QB Tim Tebow. However, the replacements at WR shouldn’t miss a beat, nor should the OFF with former Heisman winner Tim Tebow back at QB, who had 42 total TD’s last year, 30 of which passing. The DEF returns entirely in tact and was amongst the best in the country last year led by 1st Team All-American SR LB Brandon Spikes, who did it all compiling 97 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 tackles for a loss and 4 INT’s. Spikes passed up a certain payday in the NFL to return for his senior season. So, what’s going to keep FL from returning to another NC game and their 3rd appearance in 4 years? Probably nothing. Especially, considering the schedule is a joke. The Gators have certainly set themselves up to make sure every one is talking about them come season's end (despite any short comings earlier in the season, if any) with a way-too-easy final four with games against Vandy, S CAR, FIU and FL ST (I know, THIS is the year FSU finally makes it back to relevancy). Their SEC schedule includes the bottom on up, minus Auburn. They do also catch LSU and TN, but neither is as good as they once were. The only team on the schedule that appears to have a good chance of knocking them off is Georgia. If FL doesn’t go 12-0, there should be no way they make it to the NC game, SEC champions or not. As a Buckeye fan, I’m hoping they do-and I hope it’s a rematch with the Buckeyes!