2013-08-27

FBS - Preview - SEC

And now the last and, since almost a decade, the strongest conference.

Southeastern Conference
The SEC did win the BCS Championship game the last ... 7 seasons.
That game exists since ... 7 seasons. Before that the final was played in one of the BCS Bowls and it is just coincidence that right at the time this extra final game was created, the SEC began their reigning era of dominance.
(Before that the SEC had won the BCS championship 2 times in all those years back to 1998 when the BCS championship was created)
Reigning National Champ is Alabama, again.
The Crimson Tide did win the trophy 3 times in the last 4 seasons (2010, 2012 and 2013)
This season all eyes are again set on this strong Alabama team, which realistically has a chance of winning it a 3rd time in a row.

Of cause before that they have to play almost perfect in the SEC, better win the conference and hope for some struggles by Stanford, Ohio State and a few other big name teams.
Last season, if Kansas State and Oregon wouldn't have stumbled almost right before season end, the SEC wouldn't even be invited to the final.
Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame were perfect and Alabama was right behind them with 1 loss.
Once #1 and #2 did lose, those teams did drop in the rankings and Alabama did get the #2 spot and Notre Dame got the #1 spot.
They wouldn't have jumped to #2 by just winning; they needed those Wildcats and Ducks losses.

And beside the threats from outside the conference there are lots of threats from the inside.
LSU is not dead, Texas A&M still has its Heisman-QB which did deliver the only loss for Alabama last season, there is Georgia and Florida and there are several teams with new coaches from last season or this season, willing to deliver some upsets.

The SEC is far from being decided and it might happen that in the last season of the BCS Championship game (next season is playoff time) the series of SEC dominance might end.

Teams added 2013:
NONE

Teams lost 2013:
NONE

I'm not sure if the SEC will ever expend to a 16 team conference, so far there seems to be no indication.
And since they got Texas and Missouri as new TV markets with the last expansion, the next new teams would have to be chosen wisely.
I doubt a further expansion in the near future.

The 14 teams are:

Eastern Division:
University of Florida Gators
University of Georgia Bulldogs
University of Kentucky Wildcats
University of Missouri Tigers
University of South Carolina Gamecocks
University of Tennessee Volunteers
Vanderbilt University Commodores

Western Division:
University of Alabama Crimson Tide
University of Arkansas Razorbacks
Auburn University Tigers
Louisiana State University Fighting Tigers
University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) Rebels
Mississippi State University Bulldogs
Texas A&M University Aggies

Now let's get a bit into the details:
Eastern Division

Florida Gators
The Gators did stumble a bit (well they won 11 games, 8 games and 7 games), after Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow did win a few National Championships with them.
When Meyer went away after the 2010 season, Will Muschamp took over and won 7 games in his first season.
Last season he won 11 (and a tie on the division champ) and all signs are pointing for a repeating division championship.
But the fans do for sure want to see Florida in the Championship game and not Georgia like last season.
So they have to win against Georgia (and probably South Carolina) this season.
Not that this will come easy ....

Non-Conference games are against: Toledo, @Miami (FL), Georgia Southern (FCS) and Florida State
Toledo and the FCS games are just wins not happened yet.
But both other Florida schools are rivalries which might give them trouble.
Miami is not in a slump anymore and the Seminoles are weaker than last season, but never underestimate that game.
I expect the Gators to win both, but they might get close ones and an upset is possible.

Now let's have a look at the conference games.
First the western teams, since they are crucial for an easier or tougher schedule.
They got Arkansas at home and LSU on the road, which is a bit of bad luck.
You don't walk into that LSU stadium and win easy.
In fact not many teams win at LSU.
So this is already one bigger stone to stumble over.
The other away games are quite nice, except the South Carolina road trip.
Next bigger stone on the path to a division championship.
The Georgia game is as always on neutral site in Jacksonville, and it will probably decide the season for the Gators.

It doesn't look that good for a division championship or more.
They might get lucky and get LSU on a down year, they might get lucky and Georgia is not that strong.
Question marks on offense do also not help.

I don't see the Gators as the favourite for the division, but they do for sure contend.
They will battle it out with the Bulldogs and the Gamecocks and from 1st to 3rd everything is possible.

Georgia Bulldogs
I love UGA. And by that I mean that living mascot they have at Georgia. What a sweet little Bulldog it is.
He even bites from time to time the opponents’ mascots in the butt.
That's a message.
You don't come to Athens and win easily.
Mark Richt is in his 13th season and he did keep the program on a very high level.
Only problem with that is, he didn't win it all.
Since a few years they basically suck every time they have to deliver.
2011 and 2012 they were in the SEC Championship game and lost against LSU and Alabama.
If they wouldn't have lost against Alabama last season, they would have been in the BCS championship game.
Expectations are high in Athens and Richt should be able to deliver at least a season with many wins.

Non-Conference games are against: @Clemson, North Texas, Appalachian State (FCS) and @Georgia Tech
If you are aiming for a national title, this is a nice schedule, if all other teams do play up their expectations.
Clemson is supposed to be big this season, so this will be a killer game for the start.
Win it and you stay high in the rankings, lose it and you might drop a bit, but if other teams struggle, the quality of that opponent might give you enough credit to stay in the mix.
North Texas and the FCS game should be wins (if they struggle there, you can forget any dreams) and the Clean, old-fashioned hate rivalry against GT should be a bit interesting, but a win for the Bulldogs.
Georgia has won 4 in a row, which shows how the programs are on different levels.
GT is always good for an upset, but I doubt one this season.

So, let's see how the SEC championship road is paved...
Western teams are LSU at home and Auburn on the road. Not perfect, since LSU is always a threat, but if you want to WIN the SEC championship game, a home game against LSU has to be won, period.
Auburn should be winnable against a rebuilding team. But they might give more trouble than wanted.

Inside the Eastern Division they have South Carolina at home and Florida traditionally on neutral site.
Best conditions for a trip back to the championship game.

They will fight for the TOP, for sure.
It's a tough and much more open SEC than in recent years, so it might happen that they drop even 1 or 2 SEC games and are still in the mix for the championship game.
I see them as favourite for the division, but they might drop to 3rd.

Kentucky Wildcats
The Wildcats have a new headcoach with Mark Stoops.
He is the brother of Oklahomas HC Bob Stoops and until now he was a defense assistant or defensive coordinator.
Last job was DC at Florida State.
So we will probably see a Kentucky team with a much better defense.
But I doubt a big turnaround in one season.
Last year they dropped all conference games and finished with only 2 wins. So no wonder the coach was let go.
There is no easy way back to the mid field the Wildcats are familiar with (Kentucky is a basketball school and they were never well known for dominant football, once Bear Bryant did leave in the 50s).
They will battle it out with the lower 1 to 2 other teams in the Eastern Division which would be Mizzou and the Vols.

Non-Conference games are against: Western Kentucky, Miami (OH), Louisville and Alabama State (FCS).
The Governor's Cup against rival Louisville will be a loss, since the Cardinals are really good this season.
The rest should be wins, but they are not given easily. WKU is quite good for a SBC team and Miami (OH) should also not just roll over and give up.
Still, this might be a 3-1 campaign here, which would be great for Stoops.

Now the conference games: Bad news is, they play Alabama and Mississippi State from the West, which might be all losses. The Bulldogs might be in bad shape and the Wildcats might have a chance here.
But it's on the road.
If they aim for a few spots above the last place in the Eastern, they have to top Mizzou and Tennessee. Both are home games, so chances are high they get that done.
If those 2 teams did not advance further.

At the end I see them at 6th or 7th place, not higher.
It will take some time to get the Wildcats relevant again.

Missouri Tigers
Mizzou is a bit of a mystery for me. Many say the Tigers are a proud program, but I have not seen much of that.
Yes, they had some nice seasons under Gary Pinkel (now his 13th season) in the Big 12, but never more than a Division champ was achieved.
Now they are in the SEC since last season and they did win 5 games.
I don't expect them to get into a bowl game this season either.

Non-Conference games are against: Murray State (FCS), Toledo, @Indiana and Arkansas State
Fans will demand a 4-0 campaign here. But this might not happen. At least the Indiana game will be tougher than it would have been in the last few years.
I'm also expecting 4 wins, but at least one upset is possible.

Inside the conference they play a hell of a schedule, with Ole Miss and Texas A&M from the west and with only Tennessee as winnable game at home.
All other games are on the road or against well better teams, regardless the playing field.

They might surprise us all, but I expect them to drop almost all conference games.

South Carolina Gamecocks
Steve Spurrier is in his 9th season (feels like was hired a few season ago) and has the Gamecocks on the edge of becoming a national force.
This season it might happen that the gamecocks can not only win the division (which they did under Spurrier only once in 2010 and they lost against Auburn in the SEC championship game) they might be able to win the conference.
Biggest opponents are of cause in the division are Florida and Georgia.

Non-Conference games are against: North Carolina, @UCF, Coastal Carolina (FCS) and Clemson
That's also a nice championship schedule. North Carolina is no pushover anymore and is a small risk.
If they win, they will rise even further in the polls.
UCF and the FCS games are nice relaxing games and that Clemson game might even become a national championship participation game, if both teams do deliver what is expected.
I would give SC the nod against Clemson in that rivalry (Battle of the Palmetto State), since it's still Clemson, means normally they collapse somehow in the season and become inconsistent.
4-0 is possible here.

Now to Florida and Georgia. Georgia is the 2nd game of the season. It's on the road in UGA country.
Tough. I would give SC the edge in being better prepared, but a home game in Georgia is a very nice factor to eliminate such plus.
Open game.
The Florida game is at home and that might decide the division.
Lucky Spurrier got Arkansas and Mississippi State as Western opponent, which might be the easiest team combination for any Eastern team.
This could become a factor.
Still, it will probably come down to the direct compare to Florida or Georgia to pick the conference finalist.

Contending team for the division; might be the favourite.

Tennessee Volunteers
The Vols do have a new headcoach, again.
Just for the record, they had 2008 still Phillip Fulmer, serving in his 17th season (won a national championship for the Vols in 1998 and had an overall record of 152-52) and was let go after that year with a 5-7 record and a 10-4 record in 2007 ...)
The next new man was supposed to be the next big Vols coach. Lane Kiffin was chosen. He stayed one season, did basically insult every living being on the plant not wearing orange (team colour) and bolted for USC right after the 2009 season.
Then (2010) came Derek Dooley, former HC of Louisiana Tech, and he stayed 3 seasons until he was let go after a 15-21 record and getting every season 1 win LESS than the season before.
Now in 2013 Butch Jones did arrive and he was already a HC for 2 other teams.
He was one an Assistant to Brian Kelly (the Notre Dame HC) and after a short period at West Virginia was always in hand when Brian Kelly did the next step up in Headcoaching duties.
He took over Central Michigan when Kelly left (that was Jones first HC gig) and did take over Cincinnati when Kelly left them for Notre Dame.
Now, after leading the Bearcats for 3 seasons he became the Vols new hope.
So, 5 seasons, 4 coaches.
That won't help.
It will take a few seasons to get that out of the system and have a clear path in recruiting and playing style.
At least this season it will be more or less doing the best with the given players.

Non-Conference games are against: Austin Peay (FCS), Western Kentucky, @Oregon and South Alabama
Except Oregon none of those teams should be able to get a hold on a SEC team. But don’t underestimate WKU, they might be able to scare the Vols a bit.
Still I expect 3-1 wins here.

Inside the Conference I don't see much light. They will battle Mizzou and Kentucky for the bottom. Given the other programs state of rebuilding and adjusting mode, they might be able to get on top of them and finish 5th.
They play Alabama on the road but Auburn at home which might be a crucial game for an extra conference win.
If they want to stay ahead of Kentucky and Mizzou, they have to win both games on the road against them.
Not easy.

Still, I believe in 5th place, even a bowl is possible.

Vanderbilt Commodores
James Franklin is HC here for his 3rd season and he did well so far.
He lead the team from 6-7 to 9-4 including his first bowl win.
Now it will come down to the question, if the Commodores will go up or down.
Vandy was never the big football team, so it will take more to make them a real SEC power than 1 good season.
And Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are way better this season, and those other teams should be far from being able to win regularly against Vandy.
Which leads us to the mid field.

Non-Conference games are against: Austin Peay (FCS), @UMass, UAB and Wake Forest
They should win all of those.
Biggest threat will be Wake Forest, but I doubt a Demon Deacons win here.
4-0 is not bad.

Western teams are Ole Miss and @Texas A&M, which will be a downer. Ole Miss could be in annoying mode and might upset a few teams this season, Texas A&M is supposed to battle Alabama for SEC dominance.
Chalk in 2 losses.

Then comes the big question regarding the Eastern division.
I doubt wins against the 3 contending teams, 2 of them are on the road.
But that leaves Kentucky, Mizzou and Tennessee to cash in the wins and 2 of those are at home.

They might stumble against one of those but with the 4 wins out of the conference they get back to bowl.
No repeat on 9 wins this season.

Western Division

Alabama Crimson Tide
The reigning national champion is again the preseason #1 team.
It's no wonder, since Nick Saban did everything to have his Tide team reloaded with the best talent available.
Winning 3 titles in 4 years does help in recruiting.
I'm not sure if Saban will ever get be noted with Bear Bryant in one sentence as equal, they were different coaches in different times, but Saban is for sure having a historical era at Alabama and as coach in general.
The Bear is always named for being the best ever.
He won where ever he coached, and for the most part that was with Alabama, for almost 30 seasons.
Nick Saban will probably not crack that record, since he is already 61 and only in his 7th season.
But the Bear did win 6 national championships, and Saban has 4 (3 with 'bama and 1 with LSU) and has one of the best team in the country to get even more. And on top of that the BCS era does look quite harder than the 60s, 70s or 80s of Bryants time.
The nation is talking Three-peat in Alabama and they might get what they want.
But not so fast, it's not done yet and there is a whole season to play.

Non-Conference games are against: Virginia Tech, Colorado State, Georgia State, Chattanooga (FCS)
Unfortunately is Virginia Tech not close being in top shape.
This will probably be a very boring game, more or less like that Michigan game last season.
The rest are wins which are not cashed in yet.

Very nice is, they have to play Texas A&M on the second gameday on the road.
I don't want to dismiss any team, but this game might already decide the division.
Of cause the LSU game at home will be hot and they play Ole Miss also at home.

They play Tennessee and Kentucky out of the Eastern Division, so no real threats from that side of the SEC.

Interesting will also become the Iron Bowl against Auburn on the road at the end of the season.
It might happen that Auburn gets better over the season and we will see at least a nice game there.

Alabama is national title contender but it might happen that Texas A&M will steal the show.

Arkansas Razorbacks
The Razorbacks had some real scary seasons behind them. Not just 2 seasons ago they looked like a real contender for SEC glory under Bobby Petrino.
They were 11-2 and right behind Alabama and LSU. They did win their Bowl game.
Then Petrino did crash with his motorcycle (and his love affair behind him on the back seat) and suddenly it was like a soap opera.
Aiding your love affair by granting a job at Arkansas? Check.
Trying to hide everything under the rug? Check.

Lying to your AD? Check?
Petrino was let go and an interims coach was names, since the whole incident happened almost right before the season start.
John L. Smith took over on short notice and the Razorback team was a mess. 4-8 in record.
Now they hired Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin and I think they got what they wanted; a decent guy (7 seasons with Wisconsin), at least until the next pay raise is available somewhere else?
I don't know. Maybe he will stay a while or he will suck, since the SEC is not the Big 10.
At least the Razorbacks do have a new coach for a whole season and he will probably get the Hogs back on track, at least a bit.

Non-Conference games are against: Louisianaâ€"Lafayette, Samford (FCS), Southern Miss and @Rutgers
That's a quite easy schedule here. Rutgers will be a challenge and they might lose that one.
But the other games should be won. That would be almost the win total from last season.

They got South Carolina and Florida from the Eastern, so that's a big downer.
They have to aim for wins in the West against Auburn and Mississippi State (both at home) to get better.
I doubt wins against other teams, but the core of the players is still good, so even more is possible.

Mid-Field team which can go both ways.

Auburn Tigers
The Tigers won the national Championship under Cam Newton and Gene Chizik (who was hired away to Auburn from Iowa State with a losing record, looks like that had a reason).
Everyone was happy in Auburn nation but two seasons later and a 3-9 record with 0-8 in conference games Chizik was let go and Gus Malzahn was hired, the former Auburn OC and Arkansas State HC.
I think Auburn Nation is hoping for the walk over water by Malzahn, the return to glory and world peace.
Something like that ...
I'm sure Malzahn will get the team better, but don't underestimate Newtons skills in that one glory season in 2010.
And we all know that there won't be a Newton every season.
The Tigers will get a better offense, but those two seasons under Chizik won't be erased fast.

Non-Conference games are against: Washington State, Arkansas State, Western Carolina (FCS) and Florida Atlantic
The Tigers will have a hard time in their first game. The Cougars are in the second year of rebuilding, the Tigers in their first.
I'm expecting a loss here. The rest should then get better and I expect the team to win all of them.

Georgia out of the east will be too much, Tennessee could get close.

Inside the Conference on general I expect a growing team, which might even upset 1 or 2 teams at the end.
Arkansas is a good target for that (on the road) or that Tennessee game (also on the road).

I don't expect the Iron Bowl against Alabama to be game against equal teams, but since it is in Tigers territory, it might get closer than expected.

The Tigers will probably be the last team in the SEC West.
A full rebuild is needed and that takes time.

LSU Tigers
Les Miles is now in his 9th season and since Saban did return from the Dolphins he did not win much on the national stage.
Yes he won the national championship in Sabans first Alabama season, but that was the last season he had a real chance.
In 2011 he also had the chance (played Alabama in the BCS Championship game) but I was sure he would lose that one and he did. Give Saban enough time and he will beat you.
The Tigers are always big in talent and they are always competing, but it seems the Crimson Tide is always a step ahead.
And now there is Texas A&M, at least this season.

Non-Conference games are against: TCU, UAB, Kent State and Furman (FCS)
TCU on the first day is a risk and on neutral site in Texas.
I guess the Tigers will survive, but they might get a better defensive opponent than expected.
The rest are pushover games not worth the note.

Playing Georgia and Florida from the east is bad luck for LSU.
They will at least lose one of those.

Add the road trip against Alabama and the season looks grim for a division crown.
LSU will give most teams a fight for their money, but I don't think they will get better than last season with 10-3 (including a Bowl loss)

Upper Mid-Field team, probably 3rd.

Mississippi (Ole Miss) Rebels
The Rebels are on the rise.
Hugh Freeze is in his 2nd year and he adjusted from the SBC very well.
Recruiting seems to be excellent and he did win 7 games last season, including a Bowl.
Now they will get even better.
They will not be ready to challenge the big teams yet, but they do grow and will probably be big enough in 1 or 2 seasons.

Non-Conference games are against: SE Missouri State (FCS), @Texas, Idaho and Troy
Except the Texas game those games will be wins. Texas on the road will be tough.
They might lose that one, but everything is possible.

They got Vanderbilt and Mizzou from the Eastern, which couldn't be much better.
They probably will be able to cash in some wins here.

The crucial games for a better Mid-Field position will be Arkansas (home) and Mississippi State (away).
They should win against Auburn and they play LSU at home for a chance for an upset.

They might get even at 3rd place, but I doubt it.

Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen is in his 5th season and some do say this might be his last.
That's very hard on him, but he did not deliver the expected big gain yet.
The record did rise from 5-7 to 9-4, but the then expected challenge for the top did not happen.
They kept cruising in the mid field and they will do again this season, if they are lucky.
Some previews have them on 7th place.
I don't expect them to drop that deep with 2 rebuilding teams in the mix, but they have to fight hard to get into a good position.

Non-Conference games are against: Oklahoma State, Alcorn State (FCS), Troy and Bowling Green
Oklahoma State will probably play catch-up with them and they won't be able to do that.
The rest should be wins, even if Bowling Green might be a bigger challenge than wanted.

Kentucky from the east might be a nice win boost, but no guarantee, South Carolina will beat them.

In the west they will have to win against Auburn and Arkansas, both on the road.
That's the reason for some 7th place previews.
They play Ole Miss at home and I'm expecting them to fight them to the teeth.

It's hard to see them climb higher than 5th, more likely a 6th place is probable.

Texas A&M Aggies
Kevin Sumlin did win big in his first season with the Aggies and in the SEC.
They were close for winning the conference did even top Alabama for their only loss of the season, but at the end the Aggies stumbled over some other SEC teams (Florida and LSU).
This season, with Johnny Manziel (Heisman trophy winner of 2012) back at QB the Aggies are primed to challenge the big red elephant of Alabama for the division, the conference and even the national championship.
Not so fast, there is a season to play. And Manziel might not repeat his great performance of last season.

Non-Conference games are against: Rice, Sam Houston State (FCS), SMU and UTEP
That's a win booster schedule. A loss here would basically end all dreams for a national championship.
SMU might be the toughest team in that mix.

They play Alabama very early in the season, mid-September on their 3rd gameday.
It's at home, but 'bama has a bye week before that, which never a good thing with Saban.

There is not much challenge out of the east with Vanderbilt and Mizzou, but they have to play LSU on the road, which might become the one stumble too much to handle well.

At the end they will contend for the division and if they win that one, they will also compete for the conference.
I don't think the SEC will come down to that mid-September game and the rest is settled.
More likely the SEC West will be decided in December, as most of the time.

So my TIP is:

Eastern Division:
Georgia Bulldogs
South Carolina Gamecocks
Florida Gators
Vanderbilt Commodores
Tennessee Volunteers
Kentucky Wildcats
Missouri Tigers

Western Division:
Alabama Crimson Tide
Texas A&M Aggies
LSU Tigers
Mississippi (Ole Miss) Rebels
Arkansas Razorbacks
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Auburn Tigers

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