Finally, another season of SEC football is here and, with a couple of exceptions, most SEC teams are using the first game to tune up for the rest of the year.
Here's the schedule:
South Carolina vs. Southern Miss (Thursday)
Kentucky @ Louisville
Vanderbilt vs. Northwestern
Ole Miss vs. Jacksonville State
Alabama vs. San Jose State
Auburn vs. Arkansas State
Arkansas vs. Tennessee Tech
Florida vs. Miami (OH)
Tennessee vs. UT-Martin
Mississippi State vs. Memphis
Georgia vs. UL-Lafayette
LSU vs. North Carolina
Article first published as SEC Preview Week One: Tune Up for the Big Show on Blogcritics.
Larry Fedora, head coach of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, has guaranteed a victory over South Carolina in the Thursday night opener. As tempting a thought as that may be, I wouldn't dare pick against Steve Spurrier early in the season. Any chance of South Carolina looking past the Golden Eagles flew out the window with that statement. I expect the Gamecocks to play smart and win convincingly. What I'll be watching is how consistent the offense plays and if the Gamecocks' front line has improved enough to spark a running game and keep quarterback Stephen Garcia upright.
South Carolina 27, USM 10
I like the Charlie Strong hire at Louisville, and I think he's going to be good there. However, the cupboard is really bare there especially on defense. Kentucky is not exactly loaded but they do have some established playmakers on offense and even with a new coach (Joker Phillips) there's familiarity because he's been there with this team. There aren't a lot of expectations in Lexington, but four straight bowl bids shows this is no longer one of the doormat teams in the league. Kentucky's quarterback Mike Hartline, who beat out younger competition to win the starting job as a fifth year senior, will be counting on a new front line to give him time to make the Big Blue machine work. I expect it will.
Kentucky 28, Louisville, 17
Poor Vanderbilt. As if it's not hard enough to play in the SEC as it is, Bobby Johnson up and leaves right before fall practice and assistant coach Robbie Caldwell is elevated to the head position. Even with the familiarity of the staff, that had to let the wind out of the sails of Commodores. Northwestern is not a great team, but they are not a slouch either having come within a botched fake field goal of beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl at the end of last season. Vanderbilt has one really good player - LB Chris Marve - and after that is a lot of question marks - too many question marks for me to think Vanderbilt can win this (or really any other) game.
Northwestern 34, Vanderbilt 9
This game is very much like the NFL preseason game where teams try to set the roster. Houston Nutt at Ole Miss is trying to find a solid core on defense and playmakers on offense to replace the departed ones (including settling on a quarterback. Jax State isn't bad but they aren't very good either - not good enough to win this one unless all of the wheels totally come off for Houston Nutt. Masoli's role may not be clear now, but I venture Jax State's players don't have cars with moves like he's got.
Ole Miss 24, Jacksonville State 7
The Crimson Tide roll into 2010 unveiling a new addition to the stadium and with all the pageantry of a defending national championship team. San Jose State is going to travel a long way for a beating. I hope the payout is worth it and they use it to build the program out there. Unless you are a Tide fan, there's little reason to pay much attention to this. Young defense or not, Alabama will steamroll the Spartans in this one. Look for the Tide to keep things simple on both sides of the ball as they tune up for big game against Penn State next week.
Alabama 44, San Jose State 3
Excitement abounds around the 2010 Tigers who will debut new quarterback Cam Newton along with new found depth on the defensive side, which should help improve a paltry unit from last season. Arkansas State doesn't bring much to this one except being helpless victim in front of the home crowd at Jordan-Hare. I'll be interested to see if the defense is indeed improved at controlling the opposition, how the running game will look in life after Ben Tate, and if Cam Newton is indeed all he is cracked up to me.
Auburn 34, Arkansas State 13
Ryan Mallett and his cadre of talented WRs, TEs, and RBs get a tune up against an opponent that shouldn't provide much resistance. Here's the thing, Arkansas should blow this team away, but they should have done that a few times last year and didn't. I'll be interested to see if the problem of playing to level of competition is corrected and if the Hogs have learned anything about defense in the time since the bowl season ended. If the Hogs want to be considered as real contenders in 2010, they need to dispatch with the tune ups in convincing fashion.
Arkansas 45, Tennessee Tech 7
Florida begins life after Tim Tebow this weekend and Gators' fans will be excited to see much-herelded quarterback John Brantley take over the reigns of Urban Meyer's attack. Florida will also be looking for some playmakers to emerge from their corps of WRs and RBs to take some of the pressure off of Brantley. The Florida defense is retooling as well, and it will be interesting to see how new DC Teryl Austin (previously in the NFL) does taking over for long-time coordinator Charlie Strong (who went to be head coach in Louisville). Miami (OH) has scored three wins in the last two years and that's probably as many points as they can expect to get Saturday.
Florida 48, Miami (OH) 3
Tennessee is a mess in just about every way possible. The coaching changes, attrition of players, and changing of systems has taken its toll on the Volunteers and it'll be a big part of the story this season. It's good Tennessee is opening up against an opponent that even in down times can't hold a candle to them. UT Martin may get in a few shots, but in the end they won't be able to do enough to win this. For UT, this is about finding players like TE Luke Stocker to play important roles as the schedule ramps up by a 100 starting next week.
Tennessee 23, UT Martin 10
Memphis used to be pretty salty: the kind of team that could give a team like MSU a run for it. However, they aren't that team anymore. Mississippi State has been one of the worst teams record-wise the last 10 years in the SEC, but Dan Mullen showed signs of life in his first year, and he has people excited for football in Starkville. I'll be interested to see how the MSU two quarterback system looks and if there is indeed more familiarity with the system in year two. In the end, Mississippi State needs this to go smoothly as they get ready for Auburn on a short week.
Mississippi State 27, Memphis 14
Many think the Ragin' Cajuns could be a sleeper team in the Sun Belt. Too bad they have to start the season in Athens against a hungry, angry Bulldogs team that is on the verge or either tearing through the conference or tearing itself apart. New QB or not, UGA is team with playmakers on offense and with a new defensive philosophy in town, the 'Dawgs should be a solid team. I'll be looking to see how well the defense has adjusted to the 3-4 scheme and if the offense clicks with consistency as it'll have to in order to do anything special in 2010.
Georgia 38, UL-Lafayette 16
This opening game in the Georgia Dome was a lot more interesting before a chunk of the Tar Heels' team was demoted to scout team pending NCAA investigation. A lot of heat is on Les Miles's Tigers to prove they are as good as rated and not going to constantly underachieve on the field. This will be a stout first test because Butch Davis can still field and coach solid defensive teams. However, LSU has some really solid defenders of their own and it should be more than enough to limit North Carolina's scoring opportunity. I'll be looking to see if the defensive playmakers rise to the occasion and if LSU can re-establish the running game. LSU is in need of an identity on offense. This would be a good game to establish one.
LSU 24, North Carolina 14