Contenders to the SEC Throne: Why Each Team Has Too Many Questions in 2011

Okay, so that kicked up a little bit of dust, and most of the arguments against it were pretty fair. So instead of trying to respond to several comments in the comments thread, perhaps it's better for me to lay out my case for why each of the nine SEC teams with the best chance of winning the SEC Championship this year will not be going to the national championship game. (The exclusions are Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. I shouldn't have to explain why on that.)

One clarification: In my mind, "a ready contender for the national title" means that the team that would be on the field if the first game of the 2011 season were to be played right now would be one of the best two or three teams in the country. I have to have a very small set of questions about any team to say that, and I'm not sure I have few enough questions about the teams in the SEC to put them in that category. To answer the questions raised by that hypothesis, here's why.

ALABAMA | First of all, saying that a team is not "a ready contender for the national title" is not saying that a team will be bad, or even that it will be only good. Again, it is merely saying that I can see the team in its current form playing for a national title. And, with Alabama, I can't. Part of it is this: How does a team lose Greg McElroy, Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Marcell Dareus and a bit player or two and win two or three more games next year, not including a possible SEC Championship Game? In addition to that, you usually look for a team breaking in some new offensive players to struggle most in the first month of the season, when Alabama has a trip to Happy Valley and a game against Arkansas on the docket. The fifth week brings a trip to Gainesville before the schedule hits a lull. If Alabama gets through that, and everyone else is right that LSU will be a main contender, then the Tide almost certainly has to defeat the Tigers to get to Atlanta. That's a lot to ask of a team that just lost its best three players on offense.

ARKANSAS | Again, this is based less on the idea of "losing Ryan Mallett" then the notion of: "losing Ryan Mallett and winning one or two more games while not losing any of the four games you won by one score or less." I don't think Bobby Petrino can just plug in a new quarterback and expect the same success, if by "the same success" you mean a trip to a BCS bowl in 2011. Again, I think Arkansas is going to be a good or even very good team next season, but I don't think the Razorbacks are going to be elite. They have Texas A&M on the non-conference schedule and have to travel to Alabama and LSU. They also have back-to-back games against South Carolina and Tennessee. Arkansas might be better than either of those teams on their own, but if I'm right about the Volunteers, it's going to be hard to defeat both of them in consecutive games.

AUBURN | Put aside Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and Darvin Adams for a moment; the Tigers lose 22 seniors off this year's team, including Lee Ziemba, Antoine Carter, and a ton of other players who contributed at least something to the drive to a national title this year. I'm not ready to say that the Tigers won't have a winning record, or even that they won't go to a New Year's Day bowl, but it's hard to see them in any BCS game next year. If someone were to give me 10 wins as an over-under, and I were to decided that I wanted to take leave of my senses and gamble on sports, I would take the under. These Tigers are probably going to have to be content to play spoiler in 2011.

FLORIDA | Really? A team that went 7-5, is changing its head coach and both of its coordinators and going from a spread offense to a pro-style offense -- and they're going to go to a national championship game? I think Will Muschamp is about the best non-head coach any program could hire to take over its program, but Charlie Weis is going to need the same amount of transition time that Urban Meyer got to turn things around in Gainesville. I could see a two- or three-loss Florida winning the SEC East, just because the entire division is going to be a demolition derby next year, but I can't see the team going undefeated or having just one loss and getting in ahead of other one-loss teams. Oh, and the schedule includes trips to Auburn, LSU and South Carolina.

GEORGIA | If the city of Athens is not engulfed in flames by postgame rioting after a potential loss to Boise State in the season opener, there are still at least five losable games on the schedule, for a team that has underachieved each of the last three years. Georgia might have one of the easier schedules in the SEC East, but it still has to go to Jacksonville and Knoxville in two of the most important games of the year. The Dawgs do get South Carolina at home. Still, it's hard to see Georgia losing fewer than two games this year. I will say this much: If you were to combine the likelihood of an SEC East team going undefeated or having just one loss and having the schedule that would put it in the national championship game, I think Georgia is the best choice. I just have a difficult time seeing anyone in the east go undefeated or once-defeated this year.

LSU | The best chance for the SEC this year is LSU. But good night, look at their 2011 schedule. They go to Arlington to take on Oregon in the season opener, then travel to Starkville two weeks later and to West Virginia a week after that. The sequel to the insanity of the Tennessee game is set for Knoxville and they go to Tuscaloosa for the game against the Tide. I'm not saying it's impossible to get through all that and the SEC Championship Game unscathed, but it is going to be extraordinarily difficult. Once-defeated is still within reason for a settled team, but LSU is not a settled team. There's a quarterback controversy before spring practice even begins and the offensive coordinator is gone. (You can't do much worse than Gary Crowton did in recent years, but there's still going to be a period of adjustment there.) Again, those issues are most likely to show up during what will already be a difficult September. That's not accounting for the fact that there were three games the Bayou Bengals could have and, at least in one case, should have lost in 2011 that they won. And you have to recognize that Les Miles has never lost fewer than two games in Baton Rouge. The Texas A&M win was an impressive victory for LSU, but to use that as a springboard for calling the Tigers a front-runner for the national championship is a bridge too far.

MISSISSIPPI STATE | Most of the flack on this has actually come from people who want to know why I see Mississippi State as a potential SEC West champion -- fair question. First of all, the Bulldogs lost by a field goal to an Auburn team with Cam Newton and in overtime to an Arkansas team with Ryan Mallett; who wants to stake their football acumen right now on State losing those games in 2011? Swapping a road trip to Gainesville for a home game against South Carolina might actually be a wash when you take everything into consideration. The biggest blow someone made to the idea of State as a potential front-runner: "Chris Relf will still be Chris Relf." True enough. But that statement doesn't always mean as much as we think it means. One of the cases against South Carolina in the East this year -- a case that I kind of subscribed to -- is that Stephen Garcia was still Stephen Garcia. And that was completely true -- to an extent. The mistakes Garcia made were the same mistakes he's made for all three years, but he learned to make them fewer times, and Steve Spurrier learned to put him in the position to make those mistakes fewer times. (Despite the disappointing end of the season, Garcia's quarterback rating was 25 points higher than 2009 and he threw for more yards on fewer attempts.) My guess is that Dan Mullen will end up figuring out the same things for Chris Relf. Also, I don't worry as much about changes in defensive coordinators as I do about changes in offensive coordinators. Still, they ain't playing for the crystal football.

SOUTH CAROLINA | The schedule is a little bit more difficult this year in some respects. Southern Miss for East Carolina is probably a wash, but Navy and the ghosts of 1984 are probably an upgrade over Troy in the nonconference arena. (As always, any movement up the polls by the Gamecocks will be blunted when they fail to cover against The Citadel. And, yes, it is capitalized.) Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas are all road games. Alabama is replaced with Mississippi State, but South Carolina has to go to Starkville, and I just said that State might actually be a more difficult team to defeat this year than Alabama. The Gamecocks have to be at least one of the favorites to repeat in the SEC East, but they aren't going to go undefeated against that schedule if you include the SEC Championship Game. Once-defeated will be tough enough, and it's not clear that even a South Carolina that's seen as having improved under Spurrier would have enough cachet to get in as a one-loss SEC champion.

TENNESSEE | Why am I so high on the Volunteers in 2011, some people have asked, and it's not a completely unreasonable question. They have the same record as Georgia and little more to commend them than the Dawgs. (They have a promising young QB like Georgia, but a lot more annihilations on the scoreboard.) First of all, their September schedule is not nearly as tough as last year's; even this year's team probably could have gone 3-1 in a stretch that goes North Texas, Cincinnati, at Florida, Buffalo, bye. There are still a lot of land mines on the schedule, including trips to Tuscaloosa and whichever stadium Arkansas decides to use that week. But if the Vols can get some momentum going, they could do well enough in a scrambled East to win the ticket to Atlanta. In any case, for the purposes of this particular post, I don't see them going to the national championship game.

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