Last year, the most common theme you could find among preseason publications was the question whether anyone could end the SEC's streak of national titles. This year, the focus seems to have narrowed quite a bit: can anyone knock off Alabama?
The answer is an easy "yes". Someone certainly can knock off Alabama; the last time no one did was 2009. The team needed significant luck to make the national title game in 2011, and that might have been the best team of Nick Saban's tenure so far. Plus, the Crimson Tide was a mere +3 in point differential against the three ranked SEC teams it played last year.
But enough stalling with semantics: will someone end Alabama's national title streak? I say yes to that too, but it's not going to be who you probably think it is. As for the league as a whole, it's going to be one of the best years for offense in a while, probably the best since 2007. More teams have reliable quarterbacks than not, and you're hard pressed to find defenses that didn't lose significant personnel.
Last year I said I had a high deal of uncertainty about my picks, and sure enough, they were easily the worst I've ever done. I hope this year's are less of a waste of your time. Note: these are made with the assumption that Johnny Manziel won't miss any time except maybe against the cupcakes in Weeks 1 and 2. If he's out for NCAA reasons, then the warranty expires right then and there.
This year is the calm before the storm for the SEC West. I say that because I don't think I've ever seen a division this stacked with good coaches.
Nick Saban and Les Miles are two of the best in the game. Neither is going anywhere for a while, particularly the younger Miles. It's early yet on Kevin Sumlin and especially Hugh Freeze, but the early returns look good. Among the newcomers Bret Bielema has three Rose Bowls to his name, and Gus Malzahn is a trend setting offensive innovator. Dan Mullen isn't bad himself, with two national titles as a coordinator and some of MSU's best football in over a decade under his belt.
There isn't a single guy who, when hired, I thought, "This won't end well." That was my thought on Gene Chizik at Auburn and Houston Nutt at Ole Miss. It was apparently fairly quickly that Croom, Shula, and Orgeron weren't long term solutions either. But with these guys? There isn't a lemon among them unless Bielema somehow suffers the same kind of shock that RichRod did at Michigan. We might be looking at Mullen getting fired in three years simply because the rest of the division is so absurd.
The future is notoriously hard to predict, of course. The band could get broken up by something like the NFL plucking Sumlin away or Miles undergoing a Tuberville-like decay and decline. For now, though, the West looks like it's going to get incredibly tough in the 2014-16 range at least. We're not quite there yet in 2013, but it's coming.
That's not to say that the division isn't very tough this year. The schedule plays a bigger part than ever, though. I think that LSU might end up a better team overall than A&M will be, but vastly different East draws mean that the Aggies will edge the Tigers down to third.
Is Alabama a better team than Texas A&M is? You bet! Will that keep the Tide from losing to the Ags again? I don't think so. Bama will demolish VT in the first game and then hear for two weeks about how they're going to beat A&M while the guys in College Station get a couple of tune-up games. But the bye week! It doesn't necessarily mean anything, as the Tide has lost two of its last three coming off of in-season byes.
I am fairly confident about the team's ability to win any game this year. It's the year of offense, but those who can still play defense (and Alabama will surely be able to do that) have the biggest advantages. In the second game, though, after losing the defense's core, I don't know if it'll be quite ready to handle Manziel's flying circus yet. I lean against Bama in that game, but it's not an overwhelming feeling.
|7-Sep||vs.||Sam Houston St.||W|
I can't say I'm convinced that this is a true 10-2 team, but against this schedule, it sure as heck can be. Somewhere they're going to trip up where they shouldn't, and I've got it in a road game at Ole Miss. It could just as easily come somewhere else, like the following week against Auburn. For the purposes of picking the final record, it really doesn't matter.
The first time through making these picks, I had this team going 11-1 and making a trip to Atlanta. If Manziel plays the season, it could happen. I don't think it will, though. They're just not quite ready for that yet, I don't think. Maybe this off season the team found a way to correct the inconsistency of last year, but with the important losses on defense, it'll probably be another year yet before they find it.
If Manziel does get suspended for his autographing ways, the Alabama game immediately becomes a loss. At least one more loss will also be coming from the group of Auburn, Vandy, Mississippi State, and Missouri.
LSU, you will not hear me complain about hearing you complain about the schedule. After two years of grousing on the East side about Georgia's conference slate being too weak, the league office (which hand-crafted the '12 and '13 schedules and will do so again in '14) "fixed" the problem by giving UGA to the Tigers. When that happens while Bama gets Kentucky and A&M gets Vandy, it's just a bad deal all around.
I expect this team to be a bit better on offense and not quite as good on defense. It's a wash from last year, basically. I see this as a top-15, but not so much a top-10, team in terms of quality (and ignoring the schedule). It won't get a goose egg in its four really tough games, but I don't think they're winning more than one of them. We'll see.
Just like with A&M, I don't think this team is quite ready for consistency either. Mainly, it's because it's going to be relying on true freshmen to boost it up from last year. The Rebels will be good enough to knock off a team they shouldn't, such as A&M, but they'll lose some of the tossups like with Auburn and Mizzou. This is a team on the rise, but it's still rising. It's not there yet.
You could do a lot worse than Gus Malzahn and Ellis Johnson being in charge of your offense and defense, respectively. The talent is there, but the coaching just wasn't last year. The staff is an upgrade, and the players should have bought in to some degree this year. Now, I don't expect the team's quality to quite match up with the recruiting rankings, but this team will not be the disaster it was last year. It will give a lot of stronger teams problems. The Iron Bowl especially will be a hoot.
This is what I was talking about earlier with the West. This shouldn't be a bad team. It'll be better than a lot of bowl teams around the country. However, the West is heading back to where it was in 2010, but this time, MSU is not going to be in the top five of the division. This could be a bowl team if not for the opener, but the Bulldogs will be punished for playing a marquee non-conference opponent. Being adventurous outside the league can pay off big time if you're jockeying for national positioning, but it's not so advantageous for the teams in the middle like this one.
I don't think Arkansas is going to go winless in the SEC this year. However if you ask me which game they're going to win, I can't really pick one. This team got a horrible East draw like LSU did, but it's not nearly equipped enough to deal with it. This team should be better than a typical 4-8 team, and I even have it going on the road and beating a likely bowl team in Rutgers. The issue is that the team is just not that stacked of talent, and it's going to take some time to fix the defense. Bielema is a good coach, but I don't expect wonders right off the bat.
The story of this division for as long as it has been a division usually has gone that there are three good teams at the top with a gap between them and the rest. It used to be Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee as those top three, but South Carolina has risen up as the Vols fell off. It has never really approximated what the West sometimes does where it's more of a smooth continuum from top to bottom.
That trend might change this year. There is a top three as always, this time with the Bulldogs, Gamecocks, and Gators. However, the gap between them and the rest won't be so big. Tennessee finally has a good coach (probably), and Missouri doesn't appear to be beset by misfortune as it was last year. I would be more surprised if neither of those two picked off someone from the top three than if they get someone.
The East will still be stratified, but it won't be quite as bad as it was last year.
Remember a couple years ago when South Carolina beat Georgia in a shootout? And Georgia got all of its points the regular way but South Carolina had three non-offensive scores? I sure do.
I expect something similar in the second week of the season. Neither team's revamped defense will be really set to stop the other team's offense consistently, but the South Carolina D has some individual playmakers who will be the difference. With Florida and Clemson coming to Columbia, the season will largely be smooth sailing after taking a hold of the East early. Except, of course, the let down game. Two years ago it was a loss to a thoroughly mediocre Auburn team; last year it was the Murphy's Law game against the Gators. Something will go wrong, and I'll take a guess that it'll happen at Tennessee. In any event, Steve Spurrier will get his second chance at finally winning that conference title.
I've seen some chatter around about whether 2013 is another 2008 for UGA. Results-wise, it'll be another 2011. After back-to-back losses against a tough non-conference foe and South Carolina, the team will rip off ten wins in a row to close the season. The way I see it, though, it won't result in another loss in Atlanta. There's only so many times the team can drop one to the Gamecocks and still get away with it; that business ends this year. It's all about timing too, really. If the teams were playing in October or November, I might pick Georgia to win it. That early? I can't do it. And with it being a very good team that loses only two games and misses out on Atlanta, there will be a bit of 2007 mixed in as well.
I keep going back and forth with this team. The offensive line will be improved and will be stocked with a bunch of nasty mashers. The defensive line has some real playmakers. The secondary is full of talented, if not the most experienced, players. Receiver is still incredibly thin and bereft of proven playmakers, and there is still nothing behind Jeff Driskel. With good injury luck, there isn't a team it isn't capable of beating. With bad injury luck, there's scarcely a team on the schedule it couldn't lose to.
I think I'm picking Florida near its ceiling here. If they don't get there, prepare to hear some grumbling about Will Muschamp from Gator fans (especially if he loses his third straight to Georgia). The offense will not be anything special for the fifth straight year, and there's only so many years in a row they will put up with that without some hardware of some sort.
A lot of folks looked at last year and decided that Mizzou can't expect to compete in the SEC without major changes. That's possible. I think it was a team with a lot of bad luck that went through the normal transitional issues that teams switching conferences do. A&M was a major exception in that department. That's not to say that I think Gary Pinkel will begin winning SEC titles soon, but being in the league's middle class is certainly doable for the program. It wasn't bad in the Big 12, and it won't be bad here either. MU's peaks won't be as high and its valleys will be a little lower, but 7-5 or 8-4 seasons are well within the Tigers' grasps.
I see Tennessee and Missouri as roughly interchangeable this year. They're bounce back programs that will be competitive but ultimately not win too many more games than they lose. I'm very interested to see how Butch Jones does in his first gig outside of Brian Kelly's path in a while. The cupboard is not bare in Knoxville, but this program has taken a metaphorical beating by circumstances within and without. It's also going to take an awful beating on the field in Week 3. It's going to take some relentless positivity from Jones and his staff to keep things together. If they can keep it together, there will be a payoff next year.
Vandy had a second year pop under James Franklin. As is fitting given the handle I use, I've studied the second year effect quite a bit. In most cases where there is a big jump in a coach's sequel campaign, there is a noticeable drop in the third or fourth. The second year is when teams reap the benefits of the new, good coaching, and the drop off is the reality setting in that it takes more than two years for a coach to recreate a team in its own image.
Vandy, being Vandy, is not well-equipped to deal with this almost inevitable third year slide. The turmoil the program is going through doesn't help either. Maybe they will win a second SEC game and go to another bowl. Good on them if they do. I am skeptical.
The way I see it, Mark Stoops has two tasks for this fall. One is to figure out how many ways he can spin poor play into an opportunity for recruits to play right away and keep his commits from thinking that things are hopeless. The other is to be just competitive enough and show enough flashes to keep the fans engaged and hopeful for the future. There will be some nasty losses. There need to be some close ones too.
SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Mighty Alabama rolls into Atlanta. The Head Ball Coach rolls out with his seventh SEC championship.
SHOTS IN THE DARK
ACC: Clemson over Miami (FL)
Big 12: Oklahoma State
Big Ten: Ohio State over Nebraska
Pac-12: Oregon over UCLA
National Championship: Oregon over Ohio State
The SEC streak ends when the league fails to produce an undefeated team while two other major leagues do. Everyone lobbies for the playoff to start a year early with undefeated Oregon, OSU, and Louisville along with the one-loss SEC champ, especially given the Gamecocks' far superior resumé in comparison to the Buckeyes' slate. Alas, the BCS gives us one last middle finger before bowing out forever.