Timing is everything in college football. It's going to be a major theme of my picks this year, as there are some outcomes that I don't think make that much sense in any other light. Honestly, I don't really like this set of picks. I really don't. It's just what I'm thinking as of this moment, and with the season starting up next week, it's now or never on these predictions.
While I don't think that eight teams in the top 25 is quite accurate, I do think the SEC will be as strong as it has ever been. In large part, I think it's due to the coaching quality throughout the league. I don't feel like I need to vouch for Saban, Miles, or Petrino at this point. Gene Chizik and Gus Malzahn performed nothing short of magic last year. Steve Spurrier has changed with the times and is poised for big things at South Carolina. Dan Mullen is a bright up-and-comer. Will Muschamp on defense and Charlie Weis on offense is a potent combination if it reaches its potential at Florida. Georgia's problem during its decline has been defense, but that should be largely settled by this fall. Houston Nutt is a crafty veteran of this league. Derek Dooley, if nothing else, has a good pedigree as a Sabanite and a lot of good assistants.
As I'm sure you're aware though, the conference only names one champion per year and only one team can win each game. Someone is going to be disappointed by their 2011 season. In all likelihood, given the way expectations in this conference work, several someones will be disappointed by their 2011 season.
All I can say is remember that there are people now who will appreciate teams regardless of their won-loss record. I don't know who has to brace themselves for that kind of analysis, but go ahead and do it anyway. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
An ounce of prevent defense, incidentally, is usually worth a touchdown or two for the opponent.
I see this year's SEC West as being very similar to the 2008 Big 12 South: three titans at the top (Alabama, Arkansas, LSU) with a fourth team that's pretty good but can't keep up (Mississippi State). Here's the catch though: I think Alabama will need some time to grow into its titan-hood, something that plays into my "timing" theme for this season. I think Auburn will be a better team than its record will suggest, and the same probably goes for Ole Miss.
Here goes nothing with the standings. Remember what I just said about disappointment.
It's messed up that I have to project the BCS standings in order to determine my West winner, but that's how the tiebreaker works. I have Arkansas beating Alabama, Alabama beating LSU, and LSU beating Arkansas. That creates a three-way tie that falls down to the last step, which is the BCS standings.
I suspect that Alabama will be ahead of Arkansas, despite the head-to-head result, because it will own the better loss (to 11-1 Arkansas instead of 9-3 LSU). Plus, Bama's higher preseason ranking will (unfortunately) be a helper here too. Like I said, think 2008 Big 12 South. That's exactly how Oklahoma got to play for the national title instead of Texas, who had defeated the Sooners in the regular season.
|10-Sep||@ Penn State||W|
|15-Oct||@ Ole Miss||W|
|12-Nov||@ Mississippi State||W|
By the end of the year, I think Alabama will be the best team in the conference and perhaps the country. I'm not so sure that it will be in the first month of the season though. Penn State shouldn't be a problem because I don't think the Lions have much of a chance of scoring a touchdown. Arkansas, however, will be a bad matchup that early. I think the Razorbacks' defense will be just good enough against Bama's green, young quarterbacks for the Arkansas offense to grind out a win. This is the sort of thing I'm talking about in regards to timing. Put that game in November, and I would pick the Tide to win it.
The only other game, besides LSU, that jumps out to me as a possible pitfall is the game at Florida. It's a road game coming directly after a potentially huge win, and oh hey, where have I heard that before?
|1-Oct||vs. Texas A&M||W|
|22-Oct||@ Ole Miss||W|
Maybe it was his ill-fated stint in Atlanta or his rough couple of years to start his tenure at Arkansas, but not many people think of Bobby Petrino as one of the truly elite coaches in college football. I do. His defense this year will be good enough for his offense to win any game on the schedule. Losing Knile Davis does reduce the margin of error, but believe it or not, he had just six carries in the Razorbacks' near miss against Bama last year. Besides, I think Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo will be more than adequate for what Petrino needs from the running game.
I do have the Hogs losing to LSU because I think they're the best combination of good team/bad matchup on the schedule, and I think LSU will be at its best at the end of the year (timing again). If Arkansas slips up before then against anyone but Alabama, it will probably be a result of a lot of dropped passes by the Hogs' talented yet occasionally butterfingered receiving corps.
|3-Sep||vs. Oregon (Arlington, TX)||L|
|17-Sep||@ Mississippi State||W|
|24-Sep||@ West Virginia||L|
|19-Nov||@ Ole Miss||W|
I was higher on LSU last year than most people were, but this year the situation is reversed. I don't think the offense will be dramatically better, given the unfortunate turmoil on the offensive staff. Plus, I think Jordan Jefferson simply is what he is at this point: a talented but inconsistent player who will continue to be such this year. The defense lost its best player at each level, and while it will end up great, I don't think it will be out of the chute. I actually had LSU beating Oregon narrowly until the news of the bar brawl came out; the uncertainty has caused me to go the other way. I also think West Virginia is a bad matchup for LSU, presuming WVU doesn't implode due to coaching staff friction.
I've got LSU and Alabama being very similar, only with the Tide having a better defense. Hence, LSU loses that one. I think these Tigers could blow another game before then, such as the road game at Tennessee, but I'm not sure exactly where to pull the trigger on it.
Mississippi State has exceeded my expectations in both of Dan Mullen's seasons, so it certainly could do it again. For this fall, I think the team probably won't be too much worse than last year, but I'm skeptical of the offense and think the defense will take a step or two back without Manny Diaz. I've got the Bulldogs losing to the top three teams in the division; that should be self-explanatory. I also think they'll lose at Auburn to a WAC-style all-offense/no-defense kind of team. Mississippi State hammered a Michigan squad like that in last year's bowl, but that was with a dead coach walking. I don't see them keeping up with Malzahn's offense, though if it starts slowly like it did last year, MSU could easily take the game.
I do think State could win the East, and you'll notice I have them beating both East division favorites. I think they're a bad matchup for Georgia, and Steve Spurrier has never been sharp in Starkville. The Bulldogs just picked a bad year to be in the West.
|1-Oct||@ South Carolina||L|
I have underestimated Auburn in both of Chizik's two years as well, so the same disclaimer as with Mississippi State applies. I know Malzahn and Chizik took Tommy Tuberville's 5-7 disaster and won eight games with it in 2009. However, the perhaps unprecedented amount of turnover (six returning starters, more than 30 lettermen gone) almost certainly means this team won't be as good as that '09 squad that blossomed into the '10 champions. I do think it could beat Clemson if the South Carolina Tigers' offensive transplant doesn't take, and the home game against Florida is absolutely winnable too. Flip those results and AU gets to a respectable 7-5. I just think those teams' defenses will hold Auburn's offense down enough to pull out those games.
Like I said above, Auburn will be a better team than its record will indicate. The schedule makers hammered Auburn this year, with an absolutely brutal stretch from September 17-October 22 (FAU excluded). In a normal year, this team would probably win seven or eight games, but I don't see this as a normal year.
|1-Oct||@ Fresno State||W|
Ole Miss really should have been a 6-6 team last year. The season exploded in the hangar with the Jacksonville State loss, and there's no real reason why the team should have lost to Vanderbilt. I expect a lot of the same this year, though I don't think the defense will be a complete sieve like it was last year. The Rebels should be good enough to beat their pair of pretty good mid-major opponents, but they'll still have a hard time winning conference games. I think they'll beat the two worst teams of the East to get to bowl eligibility, though they'll end up behind bowl-less Auburn in the standings thanks to the tiebreaker.
If Barry Brunetti lives up to his recruiting ranking, much of this could go out the window. Even so, the stacked nature of the West means that upside surprise for this team is probably limited to a seven win season. Nutt goes through fairly obvious two-year up and down cycles, and this is his second down year before an up 2012.
Last year was the worst year ever for the SEC East. Tennessee was on its third head coach in three years. Georgia's luck (in Pythagorean wins terms) was -3.20, the worst of any team in Division I-A since 2000. Florida had a leadership vacuum at every level and a square peg in a round hole at quarterback. South Carolina was good, but it was a year away from being ready to be elite. Kentucky was still Kentucky, and Vandy was bad even by Vandy standards.
I think the East will bounce back merely because I don't think it can be much worse. Of course, instead of going 2-16 against the West as it did last year, I only have it going 4-14 against that division this season. I don't expect the East to really strike back against the West until 2012.
|3-Sep||vs. East Carolina (Charlotte)||W|
|15-Oct||@ Mississippi State||L|
South Carolina may not have been ready to be a top tier team last year, but I think it will be this year. Most people forget (or ignore, or don't know) the fact that the Gamecocks were in the first year of a pretty different offense last season. Spurrier imported Appalachian State's shotgun/zone read option-based offense by hiring Shawn Elliott as his new offensive line coach. He probably did that to secure the commitment of Marcus Lattimore, who played in a similar offense in high school and said he wanted to again in college. It worked out well enough last year, but it should be even better this year. Stephen Garcia could always have a meltdown and cost the team a game or two, but he's got a killer running attack to back him up and a great set of targets headlined by Alshon Jeffery.
Spurrier's kryptonite is mined in Starkville, and Arkansas is an exceptionally bad matchup. Other than those contests, I think Carolina will sweep through its schedule. I am concerned about those first two non-conference games; both feel like potential trap games given the importance of the Georgia game. It should be a good enough team not to gag on those, leading to a historically good season in Columbia.
|3-Sep||vs. Boise State (Atlanta)||W|
|24-Sep||@ Ole Miss||W|
|29-Oct||vs. Florida (Jacksonville)||W|
|5-Nov||New Mexico State||W|
|26-Nov||@ Georgia Tech||W|
Georgia's good timing is more on a seasonal level than a month-by-month basis like with many other teams. The Bulldogs will be better than they were last year, but I don't really see them as an elite team. They'll probably be one next year, but they're a year away this fall. So why do I have them winning 10 games before bowl season? The schedule is the most inviting any SEC team has this year. None of UGA's road opponents are likely to finish much better than 7-5, and the winnable Boise contest will feel like a home game in Atlanta. Georgia will be in the hunt for the East all season, and it should swap places next year with the Gamecocks as much of the core of South Carolina's team will graduate or go pro.
I've got a loss to South Carolina partially because I think the Gamecocks are the better team and partially due to some measure of letdown after a big Boise win. The team of course will be focused on South Carolina, a game that matters more to the season than the opener, but it's just human nature after a big release like a big win. Mississippi State is a bad matchup, but I do think UGA will beat Florida this year. Todd Grantham is much better suited to stopping pro-style offenses than Florida's option game from 2010, and Mike Bobo has shredded Will Muschamp defenses twice before.
|29-Oct||vs. Georgia (Jacksonville)||L|
|12-Nov||@ South Carolina||L|
I really don't know what to expect from Florida whatsoever, given the complete media blackout during spring and especially fall practice. The offense could be better thanks to a scheme that better fits the quarterback and actual, honest-to-God organization. It could be worse if John Brantley's psyche gets battered again and it's a rough transition from the spread option to pro-set. The defense could be better with a top flight mind like Muschamp and a real pass rush. It could be worse with transitional issues and few proven players in the secondary. The defense has a better shot of being elite than the offense does, so how much it's able to carry the team will determine the final record. I'm betting here that the offense will need a year of adjustment.
This is essentially a straight chalk ballot: every team that I think Florida is better than is a win, and vice versa. The Auburn and Tennessee games could go either way if UF is at the low end of its potential. The LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, and FSU games could go either way at the high end, plus there's trap game potential for Alabama against the Gators. By circumstance and design, this team has the most uncertainty of any in the conference.
Derek Dooley called last year his "Year Zero" because of the disarray the program was in when he arrived. I can't argue much with that sentiment. Here in the real Year 1, it's going to be a rough go of it. While seasonal timing completely goes Georgia's way, it completely goes against Tennessee. The Vols get LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas from the West, with the latter two on the road. Florida is a road game too on top of that. There aren't many options for making a schedule with eight home games harder than this one. This team could be better than it was last year, and in fact I think it will be. I still have them going the same 6-6 as in 2010 because of the brutal road they have to go down this year. It's just one more example of how the cards have been stacked against Dooley since he arrived.
As I said, I think they could take down LSU at home just like they nearly did last year. The Florida and Georgia games aren't lost causes either. Of course, I also could see them fall to Cincinnati what with Janzen Jackson gone and the big Florida game the next week. If they drop that one, they'll be sweating out bowl eligibility.
|8-Oct||@ South Carolina||L|
Two years ago I predicted the end of Kentucky's bowl streak. I was wrong. I swore off doing that last year. I was right. So why am I predicting the bowl streak's end again this year? Quite simply, the main guys who sustained that bowl streak over the past few seasons are gone. Kentucky is not a team that can reload, and except for the past few seasons (aided by the Kragthorpe era at Louisville), it's not a perennial bowl team. Take all that into account, and the 'Cats are going to fall short of the postseason at some point. This year will be that year, even with a second straight win over Charlie Strong's Cardinals.
The SEC is very top heavy this year, making the window for UK's necessary two conference wins a year only barely cracked open. If they want to make another bowl, they have to beat Ole Miss on November 5. Without a victory there, it's not happening this year.
|24-Sep||@ South Carolina||L|
|26-Nov||@ Wake Forest||W|
I like what James Franklin is doing in recruiting, but his awesome (by Vandy standards) class won't hit campus until next year. He came off as very impressive at SEC Media Days, but Vandy has been outright dreadful the past two seasons. The program fell off of a huge cliff after the miracle bowl run in 2008. Plus as the excellent Coaches By the Numbers has pointed out, Franklin's actual coaching record is a bit iffy. I think Vandy has the potential to be better than it was last year simply from the fact that the coaching situation is more stable, but we're not talking about bowl viability here.
Elon is the only sure win on the schedule. Army isn't awful anymore (and beat Vandy when it was still awful not too long ago), and Wake somehow hammered the Commodores despite both teams being similarly challenged. I'm giving the new guy the benefit of the doubt on those two, but a third consecutive 2-10 season is easily a possibility.
SEC Championship Game
I have the usual suspects here with South Carolina and Alabama. What makes this very interesting to me is that Bama is a far better matchup for the Gamecocks that Auburn was last year. Just look at how Spurrier's crew beat Alabama straight up in Columbia with no strange circumstances while it fell to AU twice. LSU would be the best case scenario among the three West favorites for South Carolina, but I actually do think Alabama is a better opponent for that team than Arkansas is.
Spurrier versus Saban is certainly a marquee coaching matchup, but as much as I want to see the Head Ball Coach win the SEC again, I'm taking the Tide. By this point, it should be rolling right along with the best of anyone in the country. It will be a good game, and a fairly close one too, but I can't pick against Bama here.
Virginia Tech over FSU
Wisconsin over Nebraska
Oregon over Utah
Alabama over Oklahoma
Note: I am horrendous at Heisman picks. Absolutely terrible.