I've got LSU as the SEC's first repeat champion in a while.
See here for a discussion of previous years' picks.
Almost every preseason preview of the SEC leads with the reminder that the conference's streak of national championships must come to an end eventually. Some even put an allusion to that fact on their magazine cover.
I suspect that 2012 won't be the death of that streak. However, It also wouldn't surprise me at all if this was the year that the title run came to a close after all. It's not so much that I think someone out there will finally beat an SEC team in the national championship game, but rather that this might finally be the first year since 2005 that conference teams beat up on each other enough to prevent anyone from getting that far. Several teams in the league have specialties that could allow them to upset the favorites, but they're also not broad enough of strengths to makes those teams themselves the favorites.
I have a larger sense of uncertainty about this season than most because I can see a lot of outcomes going both ways. I'll get into that as I go over the individual teams below. The addition of two new teams that no one around these parts is all that familiar with adds another level of uncertainty. This season will probably be among the most unpredictable in recent memory.
This side of the conference is still the tougher side, but I don't think the gap is as wide as it has been recently. The other half is catching up, though the elite powers in Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa keep this one on top for at least a little while longer.
What this division came down to is that I think LSU has a better shot of being as good or better than last year than Alabama does. I don't completely trust LSU's offensive staff, but at least it has continuity. I really think Bama will miss Jim McElwain more than most people right now are assuming, and that goes for their overall personnel losses as well. I don't think Arkansas will collapse, but it's not going to be in the same league as the top two. There's a bit of a muddle among the next three teams before Ole Miss definitively brings up the rear.
|10/20||@ Texas A&M||W|
I'm not sure how I feel about having LSU going 12-0 in consecutive seasons; it's an incredibly difficult thing to do. With that said, I'm not sure where losses are going to come from. Sure, the Bama game is an obvious candidate, and it could go either way. I just think that between LSU having a bye week ahead of time and the game being in Tiger Stadium, the edge goes to the Bayou Bengals. Beyond that, Florida's probably not ready yet to knock off this good a team, South Carolina won't beat them in their own house, and Arkansas doesn't have the defense to pull off a win.
I don't foresee the defense falling off too much, although it will miss Tyrann Mathieu's ability to make big plays. The running game should be as punishingly good as ever, and I do think Zach Mettenberger is an improvement over Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. I'm still not sure that the Greg Studrawa-Steve Kragthorpe combo on offense is all that great, but Les Miles and John Chavis are as good as they come. All told, this team shouldn't decline much if at all from a year ago when it was one of the country's best teams.
|9/1||Michigan (Arlington, TX)||W|
I think this year will parallel 2010 pretty well as far as team quality goes. Alabama will not be the team it was last year absent McElwain and all the guys who went off to the NFL. Eddie Lacy is not Trent Richardson, and he's been fighting injuries almost without a break since last year's Arkansas game. Everyone who caught at least 20 passes is gone. More than half of last year's starting defense got drafted, and three went in the first round with another in the early second. Those are big, big losses. All of the new guys are certainly talented, but it takes a lot of time playing together to be as good as the 2011 defense was. Oh, and unless something has changed that I don't know about, they still don't have a guy who can be trusted to make field goals of over 40 yards consistently. Laugh at that objection all you want, but kicking cost the team its only loss a year ago.
What will likely keep this team from a 9-3 record like the 2010 team had is that the schedule doesn't have as many pitfalls. There isn't an obvious trap game like the '10 South Carolina matchup. LSU is still LSU, but there's no potential Cam Newton lurking out there. With that said, I thought long and hard about calling for upset losses to both Michigan and Tennessee. If this does end up a 9-3 campaign, that pair will deliver the other two defeats.
|9/29||@ Texas A&M||W|
|11/10||@ South Carolina||W|
|11/17||@ Mississippi State||W|
Despite all of the drama on the coaching staff, I'm still fairly bullish on this team for this year. Enough time has passed that it's not going to be a distraction, and the entire staff minus one is the same as it was before the motorcycle accident. A core of Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis, and Cobi Hamilton is good enough to keep things going well on offense. I am concerned about the defense, as it lost its best lineman and linebacker without comparable replacements, but I think that offense will cover up for it in most games.
John L. Smith is still John L. Smith, though, and there's a reason why he was only a special teams coach in the years prior to him taking the Weber State job. He will cost this team a game it should win somewhere along the line, so my guess is that it's the one against Auburn. If Smith ends up bungling games more than I think he will, then losses to Texas A&M and South Carolina are suddenly on the table. I'm projecting Arkansas at the high end of its range. Nearly all of the potential is downside from here.
|9/8||@ Mississippi State||W|
|10/13||@ Ole Miss||W|
|11/3||New Mexico State||W|
I'm not ready to pick a big season for Auburn yet just because they're undergoing big changes on both sides of the ball. I see this outfit as a bargain bin LSU. Brian VanGorder is a big upgrade over Ted Roof, so the defense should be pretty good. On offense, they have quality several deep at running back just like the other West division Tigers, so this team will almost certainly lean on the defense and running game. That there still is uncertainty at quarterback this late in the summer is a bad sign, as in theory based on his recruiting ranking, Kiehl Frazier should have passed up Clint Moseley by now. I don't see much from the passing game this year.
Auburn will be a solid, but not great, team this season. It should beat anyone it has more raw talent than, which is reflected in the picks above. I also think it will be the kind of team that can patiently do its thing while a better team blows the game, hence the upset pick over Arkansas. If I picked the Hogs at the high end of their range, then I picked these Tigers at their low end. They might be good enough to knock off both a Sammy Watkins-less Clemson and certainly could beat A&M, so there is upside potential here.
|11/24||@ Ole Miss||W|
The good news is that I think Dan Mullen will finally beat an SEC West team other than Ole Miss. The bad news is that I don't think it'll be one that was in the SEC West last year. I am skeptical that Mullen is the right guy to forge an offense well suited to Tyler Russell's talents, and it's really hard for me to say that this team is necessarily more stocked than previous Bulldog teams that didn't really break through.
I don't think this team will be an easy out most weeks, but I'm not convinced it'll impress anyone with its list of wins at the end of the year. I could see it picking off Auburn and, given it's good secondary, Tennessee, but it's not going to be able to outscore Arkansas and it certainly won't bring down LSU or Alabama on the road. This team has six pretty sure wins and three pretty sure losses, leaving only three games' worth of tossups on the year. I have MSU going 1-2 in those close ones, but you might disagree.
|9/22||South Carolina State||W|
|10/6||@ Ole Miss||W|
|11/3||@ Mississippi State||L|
|11/17||Sam Houston State||W|
Texas A&M's record was far worse last year than it should have been thanks to the team's inability to hold leads. This team isn't in the LSU or Alabama range, but it does have a sizable number of good players. The problem with expecting big things this year is that it is installing very different schemes on both sides of the ball and will start a freshman quarterback. That's not a recipe for big wins in your first year in the SEC West.
I feel like I do need to take a moment to explain why I have Florida winning in College Station in the second week, given that the prevailing assumption seems to be that the unique environment will make it nearly impossible for the visitors to win. For one thing, everyone but the true freshmen on Florida have been Baton Rouge, and anyone that's been around a couple years has been to Tuscaloosa, Knoxville, and Tallahassee too. Besides, its as likely as the other way around that the crazy environment will make the home team play tight. Also, Will Muschamp knows a bit about the Air Raid from trying to defend against it in his days at Texas. Florida's defense will do just fine against a true freshman QB in a new system for everyone else. If this game was being played in the second half of the year, I might pick the Aggies to win. Not in Week 2.
This prediction is a bit misleading, because I think the team will get better over the course of the season. I think Hugh Freeze was a good hire and will get the program turned around. I also am hesitant to even run with this 3-9 slate because it could be a situation like with Vanderbilt over 2010-11. The Commodores didn't do a whole lot in the one year under Robbie Caldwell, probably as much as anything because he was a lame duck, and they lost a lot of games. The same could apply to Ole Miss last year after the team quit on Houston Nutt. The Commodores were better than they looked, and all it took was James Franklin to energize them to get them to play much better. The same effect could happen here under Freeze.
The problem is that the schedule doesn't allow for such niceties as the Rebels are in the West. Drawing East favorite Georgia and playing Texas out of conference does't help things either. I could see them knock off Vandy and maybe even sneak an Egg Bowl win late in the season, but I don't believe a bowl trip is in the cards this year.
I can't find it now, but I wrote a tweet in passing during the summer of 2011 along the lines of, "SEC Football 2012: The East Strikes Back". I didn't mean that it would achieve parity with the West, or even that a team from it would win the conference title. Instead, I meant that this should be the year that the division closes the gap quite a bit. I still think it will be that kind of year, and in fact, I have the West only going a modest 8-6 against the East this fall. That's nothing like the dominance it has exerted in the past couple of seasons.
I had no idea then that Texas A&M and Missouri would be a part of the picture, but my powers only extend so far.
Despite the well-chronicled differences between their SEC schedules, I don't think Georgia has an enormous advantage over South Carolina in the East race. I've got the ticket to Atlanta coming down to their game against each other, which clearly I have the Gamecocks winning. Below those two, there is a jumble of teams that could go in all kinds of ways with UK in the cellar. This was a really tough division to pick because just about anyone is capable of beating anyone else if the conditions are right. The East is better, but the primary consequence of that fact is that it is harder to predict.
South Carolina wouldn't surprise me if it went to Baton Rouge and knocked off the Tigers, but also wouldn't surprise me if it lost to Tennessee either. The defense won't fall off much because Lorenzo Ward knows the system well and there are plenty of good players to replace the departed. Jadeveon Clowney in particular should be terrifying. Having a full off season as The Man should also do wonders for Connor Shaw, as he didn't have to split time like last year. If Marcus Lattimore stays healthy, it should be a good year on offense. No one on the roster can replace Alshon Jeffery, but there are some younger guys ready to step up.
I'm basically thinking that this team will more or less take what it learned from last year and turn out another year much like it. I don't think it will win more games, but it shouldn't have to cut things so close to hit the same win plateau. It might even finally knock off a good Arkansas team for once, but the Razorbacks have Carolina's number until further notice.
|10/6||@ South Carolina||L|
|10/27||vs. Florida (Jacksonville)||W|
Georgia will be roughly as good as advertised. I have two big concerns though. The first is how the team plans to have a running game with Isaiah Crowell gone. Aaron Murray can move around, but having quarterback draws be a staple of the run game isn't really Mark Richt's or Mike Bobo's style. None of the guys left are as talented as Crowell, senior Carlton Thomas transferred out months ago, and three-fifths of the starting offensive line turned over. Murray's arm is going to have to carry this offense.
The other concern is the very dangerous game against Missouri in Week 2. Todd Grantham has had issues at times with mobile quarterbacks, and James Franklin is a very good mobile quarterback. The secondary will also be out two starters in safety Bacarri Rambo and cornerback Sanders Commings suspended. The latter might be the bigger problem, because it means a very inexperienced player will be opposite either senior T.J. Moe or the nation's top recruit Dorial Green-Beckham. Sophomore Malcolm Mitchell, a high school corner who excelled at receiver last year, will probably be the guy based on practice reports, but that's going to hurt an offense that, absent a good run game, could really use him. Put this game the next week, and I've got Georgia winning it. Instead, it'll cost the team the division with a loss to the Gamecocks.
|9/8||@ Texas A&M||W|
|10/27||vs. Georgia (Jacksonville)||L|
|11/24||@ Florida State||L|
Florida had an outstanding defense last year, and in the second year in the system with nearly everyone back, it should be even better. That sentence is the basic sales pitch for this football team. The offense is on its third coordinator in three seasons, an official starter has yet to be named among a pair of quarterbacks that didn't look too good last year as true freshmen, and, unless someone got a lot better over the off season, there isn't an obvious, consistent, go-to receiver on the roster. The best hope is for either Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel to blossom as a sophomore and for Brent Pease, having been a career college guy, to do a far better job of installing and running an offense than Charlie Weis did.
The defense is what I think will carry the team to victory over Texas A&M, Tennessee and Missouri, but there's no guarantee that all three of those games will be wins. The more pressing concern for Will Muschamp is the probable losses to Georgia and Florida State. Urban Meyer (with an assist from Willie Martinez, Old Bobby Bowden, Old Phil Fulmer, and Lane Kiffin) spoiled Gator fans by going 16-2 against the school's three big rivals. If I'm right here, Muschamp will begin 2-4 against them. While I think most Florida fans understand the huge hole that Meyer left the program in, they aren't well known for their patience.
|8/31||NC State (Atlanta)||W|
|10/13||@ Mississippi State||W|
|10/27||@ South Carolina||L|
Here's what I do know about Tennessee: it has a future NFL quarterback in Tyler Bray and a pair of future NFL receivers in Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. Tight end Mychal Rivera is also quite good. What I don't know is just about anything else. Tennessee turned over seven of its 10 coaches this off season, which means there's not a ton in the way of continuity in most places. Keeping OC Jim Chaney was big though, which is why I expect a big season from the offense. The defense is switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, which guarantees that there will be times where guys look lost. How often and when will be big for this team. The main reason why I have this team losing to Florida and Georgia is that they'll still be learning on the job in the early season.
If a pair of JUCO transfers -- WR Cordarrelle Patterson and true giant DT Daniel McCullers -- pan out, this team could win several more games than I'm projecting here. A third dangerous receiver will make the passing game simply unfair for defenses, and McCullers would be the kind of middle-plugging mammoth that the 3-4 really needs to be effective. This team also has some risk for losing more games, particularly if Bray and Hunter miss time again. This team could be really good or just mediocre again. There's no way to know which way it will break right now.
|9/22||@ South Carolina||L|
|11/24||@ Texas A&M||W|
I've got Missouri here fifth in the division, but it's not because I think the Tigers aren't cut out for the SEC or some such nonsense. I don't think Mizzou will struggle the way that Texas A&M will in its first season in the SEC. The coaching staff didn't turn over, for one, and James Franklin is one of the league's better quarterbacks. It also has a great pair of receivers in Moe and Green-Beckham as I mentioned above. The Tigers have been consistently pretty good in the last half decade of the Big 12, which has been the nation's second-best league over the same span. And while learning everyone in the new league is a tough task, it's an advantage to MU that it does something on offense that SEC teams don't see too often.
Even so, I suspect that Missouri will struggle some given that it's just that hard to learn this many new teams in one year. Every team that has switched leagues so far has run into some trouble in that first year, and it's understandable as to why. This is a real solid team, and it will give some of these teams I've picked to beat them real trouble. I just don't think they'll do big things right away.
|11/10||@ Ole Miss||W|
|11/24||@ Wake Forest||W|
I thought Vanderbilt had turned a corner in 2008. The only explanations I have as to why the program fell off so much over 2009-10 is that perhaps Bobby Johnson retired a year too late and no one played that hard for Caldwell when it was clear he wasn't the long term guy. Vandy bounced back last year to where it should have been given a progression of improvements, and it wasn't too far off from hitting a few more big upsets. VU certainly took me by surprise, and I think it took most everyone else by surprise too.
No one will be taking Vandy for granted this year, which is why I don't expect to see a significant improvement in record. Vandy has some good players for Vandy like Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy, but for all the good recruiting that Johnson and Franklin have done of late, this is not a top tier SEC roster. With a year to study what Franklin installed and the knowledge that you can't overlook this team, the better opponents should do fine against this the Commodores. I still have them going to back-to-back bowls for the first time ever, so it will be a momentous season, but they're not going to finish in the top half of the division.
Kentucky won't be as awful as you generally think of 3-9 teams being, but it's not going to be a good team. And, as you know, the SEC is a bad conference to be a bad team in. I just don't see a whole lot of reasons for optimism. The offense doesn't have any game changing playmakers, and it took far too long for Maxwell Smith to solidify himself over Morgan Newton as the starting quarterback. The defense also lost its best players in Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy, and there aren't players of that caliber to take over for them.
I don't think UK necessarily is solid as an 0-8 team in conference, but I just don't know where to give the team a win. Its only wins last year were over a cratering Ole Miss team and over a Tennessee squad more than ready to be done with the season. Ole Miss is off the rotation, and Tennessee will be much better. Thanks to history Vanderbilt springs to mind as a potential win, but UK lost last year's game by 30. This is going to be a rough season for Wildcat football, but hey, it'll be November before you know it.
SEC Championship Game
This will be a bit like 2010, only LSU will be the Tiger team to secure a rematch win over South Carolina in Atlanta. I don't anticipate a full-on Gamecock flop in the Georgia Dome, as many players on the squad were there the last time and won't let it happen again. With that said, LSU is a better and more complete team, and that should help them win out in the end. LSU will be the first repeat SEC champ since Tennessee in 1997-98.
Virginia Tech over FSU
Michigan over Wisconsin
Oregon over USC
LSU over Oregon
Note: I'm awful at Heisman picks. Very, very awful.