Thursday, August 8, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The SEC

A Vanderbilt player is the pic on our SEC preview??? Believe the hype with Jordan Matthews.
By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

The SEC has long been one of college football's best conferences, but the BCS era will forever be remembered as the time it became THE dominant conference.

Behind a mini-Florida dynasty and a full-blown Alabama dynasty, the SEC has won the last seven BCS National Championships, and nine out of the 15 BCS titles all time (That doesn't even count how the 2005 Auburn Tigers went undefeated and weren't given a chance to play for a title).

With the end of the BCS upon us, there are plenty of SEC teams with a chance to bring the conference its 10th BCS crown. But, with Nick Saban returning a ton of talent at Alabama, we could see the first back-to-back-to-back national champions in the poll era.

History on the Line in Tuscaloosa

Alabama and coach Nick Saban have plenty of chances to make history in 2013. The Crimson Tide will look to become the first team to win three consecutive national titles since the oft-forgotten Minnesota dynasty of the 1930s, and Saban hopes to win his fifth title as a coach. A fifth championship would put Saban in rarified air, as only former Tide coach Bear Bryant has won more than four national championships (6) in the poll era. So, another title this year would place Saban all by himself at No. 2.

For a little perspective, a championship this year would give Saban as many national titles as Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Lou Holtz… COMBINED!

Saban will certainly have the talent to make that history, but it won't be the cake walk that some are expecting. Replacing three longtime starters on the offensive line will be a challenge, considering Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker helped form one of the best lines in college football history. But, there always seems to be another blue chipper ready to step up in Tuscaloosa, and left tackle Cyrus Kouandijo may be the best NFL prospect on the team.

At running back the Tide will miss Eddie Lacy, but T.J. Yeldon rushed for over 1,000 yards as a freshman, so the position seems to be in good hands. Senior A.J. McCarron has won national titles in his two previous years as a starter, and he would sure like to finish his career a perfect three for three. He was the nation's most efficient passer last season, and had an astonishing 30/3 TD to INT ratio.

Stud receiver Amari Cooper amassed 1,000 receiving yards as a freshman last year, and the Miami native is garnering All American hype heading into this season. Defensively, the Tide should once again be dominant. Linebacker C.J. Mosley is widely considered the nation's best, and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (God I love that name) will look to build off his five interception effort from a year ago.

Throw a Dart in the East

Bama looks to be a cut above everyone in the West, but the East is a jumbled mess at the top. Between reigning East champion Georgia, trendy pick South Carolina and Florida, your guess as to who will represent the division in the SEC championship game is as good as mine.

Georgia returns the most talented offense in the SEC, with quarterback Aaron Murray only 20 touchdowns from breaking Gator great Danny Wuerffel's conference touchdown pass record. Last season, the Bulldogs set school records for yardage and points scored, and return eight starters to what should be one of the nation's most explosive attacks in 2013.

While Murray loses his top receivers from 2012, he does return two NFL caliber running backs behind him. Sophomores Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combined to rush for over 2,100 yards and 26 touchdowns last year, and they will be leaned on perhaps more heavily this season.

The question for Georgia will be on defense, where the Dawgs return only three starers. Georgia already had one of the worst rush defenses in the conference, but now three starters are gone from the Bulldogs' talented secondary, diminishing a solid pass defense. At linebacker the void could be even larger, as two-time All American OLB Jarvis Jones and leading tackler Alec Ogletree must be replaced, but the coaching staff is high on sophomore Jordan Jenkins to fill in on the strong side.

The Gamecocks have a ton of questions on offense, and it starts at the quarterback position. Coach Steve Spurrier has said he will play both senior Connor Shaw and junior Dylan Thompson this year after both saw the field last season. Neither was particularly inspiring, but Shaw's ability to move the ball with his legs is a weapon, while Thompson's arm led SC to a late season win over Clemson and a victory in the Outback Bowl.

Defensively, the answer to pretty much every question will be: Clowney doh!

As in, SC has a problem, but they still have apex predator Jadeveon Clowney at defensive end.

The Cocks have to replace all three linebackers and the entire weak side of their defensive line… Clowney doh!

That's the attitude most experts are taking when picking SC to win the East, but I just don't know if Clowney can make up for the inconsistency on that offense.

The Gators surprised many last year, shooting out of the gates to 7-0 in coach Will Muschamp's second season. But a turnover fest in Jacksonville against rival Georgia knocked the Gators from the pantheon of unbeatens and surrendered the East to the Dawgs. A less than steller Sugar Bowl performance against upstart Louisville has some experts down on the Gators, who looked downright inept at times on offense and lose eight starters from the SEC's best defense not named Alabama.

It's time for quarterback Jeff Driskel to begin living up to the hype. He came to Gainesville as a five-star recruit drawing Tim Tebow comparisons, but thus far he's looked more like Tebow in the pros (Rely on good defense, make a couple plays with your legs, throw the ball up for grabs and pray for the best). Driskel is missing the early portions of camp after an appendectomy, but when he returns the pressure will be on to improve a Gator passing game that ranked dead last in the SEC a season ago.

Defensively, the Gators have a ton of talent and experience to replace. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam were both selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, and linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins will both be playing on Sundays this season as well. Look for the defensive line to rebuild around senior tackle Dominique Easley, while the linebacking corps will likely revolve around junior Ronald Powell playing the "Buck" position, a hybrid of an end and outside linebacker.

The Gators have to replace a pair of starters in the secondary, but junior corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Robinson should form one of the more talented duos in the country. Add in Blue Chip freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, and the Gator secondary could actually be improved in 2013, even without Elam.

All that said… I'm going with the Dawgs. They never have to play Florida in the Swamp (That rivalry game is always in Jacksonville), and this year they get South Carolina at home. Yeah, cop out, I know, but it's brutally tough to win on the road in the SEC, and Georgia can win the East without having to win a  true road game against South Carolina or Florida.

What Can We Expect from Johnny Football?

Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy last year, then proceeded to enjoy one of the most eventful off-seasons in college football history. Whether it was his family expressing concern over his drinking, him getting kicked out of a University of Texas frat party, him leaving the Manning Passing Camp due to "dehydration," an autograph for money scandal, or his inspiration of our Johnny Football Problems meme, the guy was just about everywhere.

So, do I have any confidence he's going to be as brilliant as he was last year? Well, yeah.

I think we've pretty much seen that he's a risk taker and somewhat unpredictable, and like he said himself, that's what makes him great on the field. I don't see that changing. What could change is the fact that SEC defenses now have a year of film on him, and you know Nick Saban has been developing a rage boner for Johnny Football all summer after what he did to the Tide in Tuscaloosa.

So, I wouldn't bet on him to win the Heisman again, or for A&M to be any better than last year. The Aggies do lose leading receiver Ryan Swope, and the defense was below average, even before losing standout Damontre Moore. Still, coach Kevin Sumlin has a potent attack installed, and everything will run through Manziel. So, like with Johnny Football himself, anything can happen.

Potential Sleeper: Vanderbilt

I was going to pick Ole Miss because I love Hugh Freeze and his Rebel Recuitin', but our insider covers them, so I didn't want to steal his thunder. Instead, I'll go with the smarty pantses of the SEC, the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Vandy has quietly put together one of the SEC's better defenses under now-third year coach James Franklin, and recruiting has picked up to levels previously never seen in Nashville. With a bevy of talent returning at defensive end, and seniors Chase Garnham and Karl Butler returning from an overachieving linebacker group, the Commodores again hope to rank in the top-5 in SEC total and scoring defense.

On offense, Vandy loses Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Aaron, and one of the most entertaining players in the country last year. In his place is Wyoming transfer, and 2009 Mountain West Freshman of the Year Austyn Carta-Samuels. The dual-threat transfer did get some playing time in relief or Rodgers last season, and coaches believe their bigger problem will be replacing running back Zac Stacey.

Still, with one of the SEC's best receiving corps returning intact, Vanderbilt should again be competent on offense, and, as exciting as Rodgers was, there should be a bit more consistency under center with Carta-Samuels.

Players to Watch

Jordan Matthews (Sr.), WR, Vanderbilt. Dominique Easley (Sr.), DL, Florida. Jordan Jenkins (So.), LB, Georgia.

I mentioned that great Vanderbilt receiving corps, and Matthews is the biggest part of it. Matthews earned first team All-SEC honors last year after hauling in 94 catches for an astonishing 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns. His presence on the outside should open things up for everyone else on the Vandy offense, and make life in the SEC easier for new starting QB Carta-Samuels.

The success of the rebuilt Gator defense will hinge largely on Easley, and his ability to draw, and fight through, double teams at the point of attack. At just over 280 lbs. with good speed and strength, Easley will play all over the defensive line for the Gators, lining up as a tackle when they go 4-3, and an end when they go 3-4. Heck, he may even line up over the center at times. But, if he isn't winning up front, it's going to be hard on the largely rebuilt linebacking corps behind him.

Like Easley, a lot will be on Jenkins' plate this season. Georgia is rebuilding nearly its entire defense, and Jenkins has the biggest shoes to fill, stepping in for two-time All American Jarvis Jones. The coaching staff seems high on the 260 lb. sophomore, who finished last season as a starter on the strong side. But, will he be able to replace all the production the Dawgs lose at OLB? That remains to be seen.

Projections for 2013

Here is how I see the SEC shaking out in 2013.

Insider Opinion: Robby Donoho  @RobbyDonoho

Robby covers the SEC for WCBI in Columbus, Mississippi, where I'm sure they call him a Yankee all the time. Actually, he's a native midwesterner, but we won't hold that against the folks down south. At WCBI, Robby focuses on the two Mississippi schools, along with national power Alabama during football season, and I did have to change my sleeper pick above since we originally had the same one -JP


The Bulldogs had some big time momentum 7 weeks into the 2012 season, then came the Alabama game where MSU was humbled at the hands of the eventual National Champions. After starting 2012 7-0, State dropped 5 of their last 6 including a loss to in-state rival Ole Miss and their Gator Bowl defeat at the hands of Northwestern. That bowl win by the Wildcats was their first in school history.

The way last year ended has many around Starkville wavering on what to expect for 2013. Dan Mullen spoke at SEC Media Days saying 8-wins was expected year in and year out from his Bulldogs. Some fans would more than likely be happy with 6-wins and a bowl game.
But Mullen also speaks on a weekly basis how Mississippi State continues to climb the mountain to competing for a National Championship. Unfortunately,
they’re still at the base of the mount.

For the Bulldogs to begin their journey up, this season could very well be the critical point of Dan Mullen’s tenure.
The expectations were there the past two seasons and for the most part, Mississippi State didn’t completely live up to those high aspirations. It’s good news for Coach Mullen that this year MSU won’t have to deal with those national media members picking them to make a run in the SEC. That COULD prove to be a big advantage.
For a more thorough breakdown, here’s a look at 2 strengths and weaknesses for the 2013 Bulldogs.


We begin on offense and a crucial part to every team’s success on the scoreboard…the big uglies. The Bulldogs return 4 of 5 on the O-Line including Outland Trophy candidate Gabe Jackson. Jackson will anchor the line while Rimington Trophy candidate Dillon Day hangs his hat in the heart of the line. There were times last season where the line appeared to be overwhelmed by their opponent’s pass rush. That won’t be the case this year, and their run blocking should be better as well.


It could be the biggest question mark going into the 2013 season for MSU: who will fill the holes left behind by Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks and 2nd round pick Darius Slay? We anticipate seeing Jamerson Love take over at one corner spot. Love returns the most experience as a junior. JUCO signee Justin Cox should be the second corner but he’ll have to fight it out with up and coming sophomores Cedric Jiles and Taveze Calhoun. One bright spot will be Nagurski Trophy candidate Nickoe Whitley at safety. Whitley will be the leader of the back 4 and will have the pressure put squarely on him.


It doesn’t get much better than having two seniors in your backfield at QB and RB respectively. Tyler Russell’s time to shine has come and as Tyler goes, so go the Bulldogs in 2013. He’ll have help with 1,000 yard rusher LaDarius Perkins back. But all the attention will fall squarely on Russell, who most Bulldog fans have been waiting on to breakout and take control of the team. The 7-0 start last season gave the then junior quarterback confidence, but after the loss to Alabama the Bulldogs were sunk. Winning the mental game is the big battle facing Russell this season. If he can get past that (which he most certainly can), then MSU will have a serious chance of contending in the SEC West. But that is a BIG IF. 


Outside of Perkins and Josh Robinson returning at running back, the receiving core loses all four starters from last year’s squad. Gone are Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith, Arceto Clark, and tight end Marcus Green. Enter Jameon Lewis, Joe Marrow, and Malcolm Johnson. All three have playing experience but have to take their game to another level to be successful this season. One freshman to keep an eye on is Tyler, Texas receiver Fred Ross who could break into the depth chart with his talent and speed coming out of high school. It would be a welcome addition for Russell who is still looking for a go-to target like he had with Bumphis. 

MY PICK: (5-7)

Mississippi State does have a talented team returning and does have the luxury of having LSU, Alabama, and Ole Miss at home this year. But can that un-proven talent return victories and keep the Bulldogs bowling for 2013? That and many more questions are still up in the air for Mullen and the Dawgs.


All the talk around Ole Miss right now is their recruiting coup landing 5-star guys Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, and Laremy Tunsil. One problem: everyone forgot what the Rebels have RETURNING. Forget the fact that the Rebels are bringing in a top 5 recruiting class and focus on this: 19 starters are back for Hugh Freeze. Yes, you read that correctly: NINETEEN. With all of the talent Coach Freeze has at his disposal for this season, the high expectations have returned in Oxford.

The first year of the Freeze tenure began with muted expectations. Most Rebel fans would have been happy with 4-5 wins and a possible Egg Bowl victory. There weren’t too many who anticipated the Rebels being a serious opponent and that proved costly for their opponents. Seven wins including the first Egg Bowl win in four years plus an impressive victory in the BBVA Compass Bowl has the Rebels on some serious momentum going into 2013.
What’s even crazier to think about is Ole Miss was less than three minutes away from defeating Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and LSU. Add to the fact that the Rebels had first half leads in their losses at Alabama and Georgia and a 7-6 record doesn’t tell the full story.

Ole Miss has a dangerous team this upcoming season and it will all hinge on the start they have on the Thursday night stage at Vanderbilt. The Commodores return a formidable team once again this season and if the Rebels can begin with a win in Nashville that may set the stage for a special season.

Breakdown time, here’s 2 strengths and weaknesses of the Rebels


As mentioned earlier, there are 19 starters back for the Rebels. Yet even with the loss of those three starters, the three replacing players played significant time in 2012. There’s not one hole you can point out in terms of playing time being a problem dating back to last season. That’s a big benefit not just to any team, but a team that had the late-season success like the Rebels had in 2012.


It’s hard to pick out a weakness of this Ole Miss squad but if there’s one problem that lies ahead of the Rebels it’s their first five games. At Vanderbilt, at Texas, at Alabama and at Auburn are four of the first five for Hugh Freeze. After that, it’s six straight home games before the Egg Bowl. Starting the season with four of your first five on the road is difficult for any team, but for a young team like Ole Miss it will be a baptism by fire after last year the Rebels started out with their first three at home.


The confidence at Ole Miss couldn’t be higher right now. After demolishing Mississippi State and Pitt and their final two games, the Rebels are in full belief they can beat anyone on their schedule. That’s what could be scary for the rest of the SEC, but what’s even worse is the truth that Ole Miss CAN. The talent and experience returning has a special ‘swagger’ in Oxford. From the ‘Landsharks’ on defense to the ‘Feed Moncrief’ song that blew up on campus, confidence is through the roof with the Rebels and their fans. That belief can take them places.


With that swagger though comes a youth around a team that COULD crumble quickly. As with most teams in the SEC, the Rebels rely heavily on momentum. When that momentum is gone, the Rebels are beatable like any team in college football. There were times last year where the swagger was high and times where you could see the youth catch up with Ole Miss. This team returning still doesn’t know completely what it’s like to play for a high-profile championship. Will that come back to hurt the Rebels? Only time will tell.

MY PICK: (9-3)

I see the Rebels winning 3 of their first 5 in that treacherous run then only losing once after that to either LSU or Mississippi State. Ole Miss can most certainly be a contender in the SEC West and if Alabama takes them lightly in week 4 in Tuscaloosa, Hotty Toddy could be the second coming of Texas A&M to Bryant Denny Stadium.

ALABAMA: Chasing History
Three of the last four seasons, the National Champion came from Tuscaloosa. The last four seasons, the National Champion came from the state of Alabama. The last seven seasons, the National Champion came from the Southeastern Conference. The dominance from the SEC has been nothing short of brilliant, but the fact that Alabama has three of those championships and they came in the last four years is nothing short of remarkable.

No team in college football has had this run of success since the 1930’s when Minnesota won three straight National Titles. Only problem was Minnesota never competed in a bowl game during those years and in 1935 they shared with SMU. Alabama has won them outright. The expectations for this season are higher than ever at Alabama and the target has never been bigger on their back.

If you try and find a weakness on Alabama, Nick Saban has an incredible ability to turn that into a strength. We all thought after losing the talent they had on the 2011 defense, the 2012 D would get blown to shreds. Yeah…about that. Here’s where Alabama ranked in national categories last season on defense.

Total Defense: 1st
Rush Defense: 1st
Pass Defense: 7th
Scoring Defense: 1st

Doesn’t sound as if the Crimson Tide struggled losing names like Barron, Kirkpatrick, Hightower, and Upshaw. Names like Milliner, Mosley, Sunseri, and Clinton-Dix just filled the gap. Oh, three of those names return for 2013. Scared yet?

The rest of the nation may be, but the SEC has seen how to beat Alabama. That’s to beat them at their own game: perfection.
Nick Saban is a nit-picking coach that demands perfection in EVERY play. The few times where Alabama HASN’T been perfect in a game, they were vulnerable. The only way to defeat Alabama is to catch them on an off day and hope you are perfect.

The signature game on the schedule every year for the Tide is LSU, but this season it’s the rematch with Johnny Manziel and the Aggies. What’s scary about that? Nick Saban has two weeks to prepare for Texas A&M. After the Tide face Virginia Tech to kickoff the season, Bama visits College Station. After that, the Crimson Tide don’t have a major road game until November 16th at Mississippi State.
The slate sets up perfectly for Alabama. No Florida, Georgia, and no South Carolina from the SEC East. If there was ever a season to win that elusive third straight National Title and four of the last five, this would be the season to do it. 


The trendy pick is South Carolina but I feel the Bulldogs have some unfinished business after losing to Alabama at the Georgia Dome last season. Senior quarterback Aaron Murray is still one of the most underrated signal callers in the nation and sophomore Todd Gurley at tailback provides power and speed. The offensive line has slowly built to this point a fortress and this is the year to show it off. The defense will be the one question needing answered after losing Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree. But if I know Mark Richt, I’d say he has two guys ready to go at those spots right now.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why should I go against the two-time defending National Champions when they return a boat-load of talent all across the board? The schedule lines up perfectly, the defense returns a bevy of beef, and the offense has McCarron, Yeldon, Cooper, and Bell all returning. I like my chances going with Nick Saban once again.

The Rebels have sleeper written all over them and it’s not because of their signature recruiting class, it’s because of the talent they have returning. Wallace at QB, Scott at RB, Moncrief at WR, Johnson at DE, Nkemdiche at LB, and Sawyer at DB: there isn’t a major weakness on this entire roster. The question will be whether the Rebels can handle the exposure of having the target on their back because once they play their first three, they visit Alabama. The Tide know how close Ole Miss was to them in Tuscaloosa last year.

Now disappointment is a stretch for LSU, but losing four games in a season is exactly that for a team that has enjoyed success unlike any other team the past decade. The schedule is treacherous, the experience isn’t all there, and the defense has some major question marks. Sure, Zach Mettenberger is back and so is Odell Beckham. But that offensive line is littered with underclassmen and if you go through their defense, you won’t find a name that jumps off the page outside of Craig Loston. If there was ever a ‘rebuilding’ season at LSU, this would be it. Next season’s Tigers will be dangerous, but this year’s felines have a way to go before becoming Tigers.

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