2011 SEC Preview: Arkansas and Florida Lead the Dark Horse Candidates

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2011 SEC Preview: Arkansas and Florida Lead the Dark Horse Candidates
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With Alabama and LSU being the heavily favored front runners to win the SEC in 2011, let's take a look at the best candidates to upset them and steal the right to hoist the SEC trophy this coming season.

In consideration from the East are UGA, USC and UF, while Arkansas and MSU stand out in the West as this year’s best candidates to overthrow the pre-season favorites. 

The progress made during the spring and fall camps as well as the final tally of offseason transgressions (TBD) by all teams involved could very well affect these predictions.

As of today, Florida and Arkansas stand-out above the rest.

Here is why…

Florida and the East

While the Gamecocks have the potential for a breakout year offensively, it has been their tough-nosed defensive front seven that served as the core of their defense and truly helped carry the team over the last couple of years.  With almost wholesale change up front on defense and tough road games at UGA, at MSU, at Tennessee, at Arkansas (plus a home game against a talented Gators team), I simply see them losing just enough to slip out of the hunt for the East, and thus eliminating them from a chance to pull off the upset this year in Atlanta to take the SEC crown.    

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In spite of the loss of A.J. Green, UGA has a strong argument to make for the potential dark horse candidate from the East.  They have a ton of talent coming back on defense, a promising quarterback in Aaron Murray, lots of excitement with their incoming freshman class and about as favorable a schedule as you can ask for in the SEC after week two.  However, lots of questions still exist on how they will adapt their offense successfully in life after A.J.  Plus, off-field issues have continued to bite the Dawgs to the extent that their starting running back may not have arrived on campus yet. 

UGA definitely seems like they could be right there in contention for the East title if they catch some breaks, but I expect them to fall just short as UF beats them again this year to earn a seat in the SEC championship game.

Why UF?

A lot is being made of the transition from a Coach Meyer-led spread team to a Charlie Weis pro-style attack.  Most think UF will be dead in the water for their transition year. But, I tend to disagree, along with some early Vegas odds makers who give UF better odds of winning the BCS title than LSU. 

So, maybe they aren’t really the best dark horse example, but I’ll continue.

The case for Florida boils down to the coaching (great defensive and offensive minded coaches on the same team), talent (stockpiled over some great recruiting classes) and culture of the team.

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Unlike most teams in transition, they are not losers that need to be taught how to win. They have two national titles and were a game away from a third over the last five years. 

These characteristics makes this a non-standard coaching change which helps the argument that their “transition” will see much less drop off in competitiveness than some expect.

Their issues last year revolved mostly around leadership both from a peer-to-peer perspective and a coaching standpoint.

They lost one of college football’s all-time inspirational team leaders in Tim Tebow amongst some other great talents.  Plus, their head coach was mentally checked-out to a degree for most of the critical offseason preperations which cast a shadow of uncertainty over the program as a whole.  

It created a situation where their great incoming class of super talented freshmen had few leaders or coaches to check them up on or off the field, which almost turned into a “Lord of the Flies” type of situation just as the season was kicking off, according to some reports out of Gainesville.

That will not be the case this year. 

If Coach Will Muschamp learned anything from Coach Nick Saban and his other past mentors, it will be how to get those attitudes under control and focus them on the team’s goals above their individual wants and desires.  The experience he gained in managing the egos of the top rated talent, which annually fills the Texas recruiting classes, will no doubt aid his ability to manage the roster with the Gators to the best possible end.  

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In addition, given the reputations of Muschamp and Weis, I don't think there will be an issue with the coaches "checking out" at critical points of the season and/or during the off-season preparations. 

Florida took some lumps last year, but they played a ton of young talent who all gained valuable experience to carry them into 2011.  Not to forget, they’ll return with an experienced upperclassman at QB, who probably should have been a pro-style QB from the beginning.

Additionally, the value of Coach Weis’ hire should not be understated.  He was an excellent hire by the Gators. He'll serve as a great advisor for Muschamp (as he has plenty of lessons learned from his own head coaching stint plus a wealth of knowledge about football in general).  He’ll no doubt serve as a strong voice of experience for all team matters, while excelling in his duties as the offensive coordinator.

Coach Weis may not have handled the aspects of managing the organization of a high profile program very well as a head coach, but there are few better offensive minds in football period. 

He will have Brantley and the UF O ready to go this fall.

Weis has readily displayed his ability to make an instant impact on an offense, especially if that is his sole focus. His prior work indicates that he has had his best production early which further deludes the “UF is destined for a down year due to transition” theory. 

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Weis had his best two years at Notre Dame, so the idea that it will take them time to adjust to Weis isn't necessarily true, as UF no doubt has much better talent on hand than he had at Notre Dame.

Last year in Kansas City, he more than exceeded expectations.  Matt Cassel was playing decent because Weis put him in positions to limit mistakes. Jamaal Charles was neck and neck with Arian Foster for the rushing title, and the KC offensive line finally looked to be getting things heading in the right direction.  If it had not been for some reported ego clashing between Coach Haley and himself, he may very well have stayed in the NFL.  

Part of Coach Weis’ early successes may stem from creating solid packages that are easy to adjust to, while opposing defenses have little film to analyze.  However, the fact is: Weis has been productive time and time again from an offensive standpoint and will use the available talent to its fullest potential..

Transition years offer all teams the advantage of going into the season as an unknown quantity that opposing coaching staffs cannot break down and analyze until the season gets under way. 

That alone offers a huge advantage for those teams. 

But, when the team in question has the level of talent that UF has on its roster and with its coaching staff, it could prove to be the difference in wins and losses against even the best opposing teamsproviding a critical element of surprise in those key match-ups.

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Will the Gators and Coach Muschamp make a “Larry Coker-esque” year one run for the BCS crown?  It is possible, but doubtful in my opinion. 

It is far more likely that they scrape their way to an SEC East title with key wins over Georgia and South Carolina  to earn a trip to Atlanta, where they could very well knock off the pre-season favored SEC West champ to take the SEC title back to Gainesville once again 

Arkansas

Arkansas is perhaps a better candidate for a true dark horse that resides in the SEC Wes. Arkansas could emerge from the shadows of LSU and Alabama to win the SEC West and go on to Atlanta for the SEC crown.

Placing the early favorites of Bama and LSU aside, Arkansas is easily the strongest candidate to win the West as MSU’s uncertainties on defense (having lost their entire corps of starting linebackers as well as their standout co-defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz) coupled with their continued lack of offensive production against SEC competition (MSU finished 2011 as 11th in the SEC in total offense against SEC competition) make the Bulldog’s a big “?” for the 2011 season.

Meanwhile, there is no reason that Arkansas should not continue to build on the successes from 2010. 

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They have a great shot at competing for the West alongside Bama and LSU.  Furthermore, no one should be surprised to see a more efficient offense than even Mallett could produce and manage.

They return seven on defense and six on offense that started last year. Their biggest losses on offense were at quarterback, tight end, and their three starters from the offensive line.  However, they'll bring back one of the best WR corps in the country as the team enters year four in Petrino's offense.

Coach Bobby Petrino seems set on merging his dangerous passing game with the power running style that the pistol formation offers to create what could be an excellent combination of speed and power for the Hog offense.  

Arkansas was much more effective in 2010 when they committed to the pistol with Knile Davis later on in the year. The inevitable offseason tweaks will no doubt create a challenge for many teams this year in what could very well become the next big thing in college football offenses.  

The key to the Hog’s success, like most every team, will start with their offensive line. 

As I said, they have to replace three starters and the importance of that must not be downplayed, but Petrino grabbed his former assistant coach, Chris Klenakis, from Nevada for a reason. There is no better coach suited to take the Arky O-line where Coach Petrino wants it to go.

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Klenakis has the entire offseason and three warm-up games against less than average teams to prepare that O-line for their trip to Tuscaloosa.  If he can get them to execute as planned and play as a single unit by then, Bama will have a game in store for them to say the least.

At quarterback, I think the loss of Mallet is being over-emphasized.  For all of Mallett's "measurables," talent and hype, he was not clutch in pressure situations.  Mallett had all the talent in the world, but he showed on many occasions that he had a lot of difficulty recognizing coverages and making decisionswhich affected his play against better coached and more complicated defenses.

Petrino's offenses have made lots of QBs look really good on paper. I think Mallett was the beneficiary of having great natural ability and being placed in a college world of defense with a Petrino mind crafting the game plan.

Mallett’s physical tools may be missed, but this year will prove that this is Petrino's offense.  He is capable of putting up great offensive numbers with any legit SEC quality quarterback.

Tyler Wilson, who performed very well against Auburn when Mallett went down last year, is that quarterback. I think he'll step in for Mallett and do very well in the established system.   

In fact, the Hogs could be better off this year as Wilson has the potential to be a much better game manager at than Mallett ever was.  He knows how to run the offense and may prove less likely to make the game changing mistakes that Mallett made at times. 

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In any case, Petrino will account for his inexperience early on and will make the best use out of those early “fluff” games to develop his confidence, before putting him in the fire against a hungry Bama defense in Tuscaloosa.

The rest of their schedule sets up rather favorably, as well for a good year.

Outside of the trip to Bama, Arkansas’ other road games are Ole Miss, Vandy, and LSUwho the Petrino coached Hogs are now 2-1 against with only a single overtime loss in their last trip to Red Stick to tarnish their record.

The Hogs have enough talent on hand to make another run at the SEC this year if they get the OL on board early and catch a break or two along the way. 

LSU and Bama are clearly the favorites for the SEC West title, but Arkansas could prove a must win for both teams, as any of the three could find themselves with only one loss by season’s end. 

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