A lot of that has to do with the fact that I think more than half of the SEC will be better. Alabama and Florida won't be, because there's not really much room for them to get better (to say nothing of personnel losses and coaching changes). Ole Miss is taking its scheduled transitional down year, and Tennessee is wracked by attrition and injuries.
Other than that, everyone's looking up. Arkansas's defense will improve some and the offense is as dangerous as ever. Auburn has a quarterback that actually fits the scheme now. Georgia has a competent defensive coordinator and a wealth of talent at the skill positions. Kentucky may or may not be better, but Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke when healthy can carry the team to wins. LSU's offense will be better thanks to a defined role for Russell Shepard, and the defense is a year wiser in John Chavis's scheme. Mississippi State has another year of experience in Dan Mullen's spread and another class of his superior (vis-a-vis Croom's classes anyway) recruiting. South Carolina is stacked if the offense doesn't melt down. Vanderbilt can't possible be any worse.
What I'm simply not sure about is to what degree all those teams will be improving and how much the other four will regress. Your guess is as good as mine.
I definitely see the SEC East being a bit more competitive than it was last year. Florida should still be the class of it, but I see strength at South Carolina that I haven't seen in a while. I also see some improvement for Georgia, which is probably a year away from being able to win the division outright.
Tennessee will struggle thanks to having a depleted roster and all the turnover on the coaching staff. Kentucky should squeeze into a bowl like normal, while Vanderbilt should get a nominal boost in record. I don't think the Commodores will be helpless like they were last year, but given how late he showed up, new offensive coordinator Herb Hand won't really begin to work his magic until 2011.
|27-Nov||@ Florida State||W|
This is mostly an optimistic projection for the Gators, but hey, optimism is what the off season is for. As I sit now looking at this schedule, it feels a lot like it did when I looked at the 2006 schedule that August. There's only one obvious loss scenario: the game at Alabama. It was the same thing then with the game at Auburn. I don't think this year's Florida team can repeat the 2006 magic, so I threw on the loss to LSU as a guess. Mark my words: this team should lose at least two games. I'm just not sure which ones beyond the one in Tuscaloosa.
|11-Sep||@ South Carolina||L|
|25-Sep||@ Mississippi State||W|
I think Georgia is in good shape to contend for the East title. I can't see how, with Mark Richt's track record with college quarterbacks, that Aaron Murray won't have at least a decent year. I just think the schedule conspires against them with two good offenses in the second and third games. I think the new defense will be shaky for the first half of the year before hitting its stride in late October. However you'll note that, if I'm right about everything else, UGA will win the division title with a win over Florida. I really think that'll be the case: the winner of the Cocktail Party will win the division.
Steve Spurrier finally has more than one good receiver, and Marcus Lattimore should give the run game a serious boost. I don't know that Stephen Garcia will be consistently good the whole year, or even if he'll play all year, but the quarterback spot should be good enough. I see the game against Alabama as a trap game for the Tide, coming on the road the week after I project a big win for the Tide over Florida. South Carolina will probably lose the one going into it looking ahead and the one after as a letdown, but I think the Gamecocks will end the Tide's regular season winning streak. This is a dangerous team, but I just don't think it'll be there in the end to win the conference title.
|2-Oct||@ Ole Miss||L|
|30-Oct||@ Mississippi State||W|
I give up. I've predicted Kentucky's bowl streak to end each of the last two years, and both times I've been proven wrong. I won't let that happen three years in a row. UK has some pieces to like on both sides of the ball, and the Wildcats are in a bit better shape this year than last. Plus, the turnover at the head coaching spot hasn't changed the scheduling philosophy. All it will take is two SEC wins to get UK to the post season, and I think they can get three. With the bye week before it, I was really tempted to pick the Wildcats to break their losing streak against Tennessee. It'll be a plucky team, but I don't think it's even up to where it was during Andre Woodson's years.
|30-Oct||@ South Carolina||L|
I don't know if you could write a worse script for a power team: a nasty bout of coaching turnover, transfers and expulsions, and a really tough schedule. You can even throw in the NCAA clearinghouse suddenly investigating a promising freshman in WR Justin Hunter a couple weeks before the season. I just can't see Tennessee losing to UT-Martin, UAB, or Memphis under any circumstances, and I also can't see the Vols winning fewer than two conference games. However, I don't think this is a bowl team. Either Kentucky or Vanderbilt is ending its losing streak to Tennessee this year. I took a guess as to who.
|18-Sep||@ Ole Miss||L|
I don't think Vanderbilt will be as hopeless as it was last season. The Commodores got hit hard by injuries in '09, and no team in the conference is less well equipped to deal with that situation. That said, I'm not sure the schedule allows for a much better record. Getting LSU and Arkansas from the West is one step short of a worst-case scenario, and Ole Miss will have a good D. After the disaster that was 2009, just catching back up to the field some will mean marked progress. I don't know what Robbie Caldwell has to do to keep the captain's chair, but he seems like a good guy. I'd like to keep him around the conference if possible.
I almost feel like I have to justify LSU's spot, so here goes. You know the saying, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"? Well, in a divisional race with a lot of suspect defenses, those with great defensive coordinators have a leg up. Arkansas, Auburn, and Mississippi State will all probably sport defenses in the bottom half of the league, while Alabama and LSU won't. Ole Miss won't either, but I have little clue about their offensive state.
I am taking the bait on Arkansas, while I'm not so enthusiastic about Auburn. Bobby Petrino is a big reason for that. The man has won a BCS bowl, and that counts for something even if it was at Louisville. The Big East was pretty tough that year. Besides, why is everyone now so much more comfortable with Gene Chizik's head coaching skills as they were last year? Because his team beat up bad defenses for a month? If I'm betting on one or the other to come through on preseason expectations, and you pretty much have to in this division, then I'm going with Petrino.
|4-Sep||San Jose State||W|
|9-Oct||@ South Carolina||L|
I have to say, I'm more queasy about this team's picks than any other's. Looking at Alabama, I think it has two regular season losses coming. Matt Hinton said it best when describing this team, so go read that if you haven't already. The Tide offense will be good, but I think it will disappear at times just like it did last season. This year's defense will be good, but it won't be as good as last year's was. Together, that should result in a couple of losses. Should being the key word. I'm just not sure where they'll come from, so here the Tide is with a projected 11-1 record. Let's just move on.
|4-Sep||vs. North Carolina||W|
I went over this a bit already, but I think LSU's defense led by John Chavis gives these Tigers a competitive advantage. Also, I tweeted this a while ago, but I'm trying out a new thesis regarding Les Miles this season: he's a rich man's Ron Zook. That means he'll win most of the big ones, but struggle against the Mississippi teams. Since State played LSU closer last year and I like Dan Mullen more than Houston Nutt, I chose the Bulldogs for the requisite loss. We'll see how this goes.
|2-Oct||vs. Texas A&M||W|
|6-Nov||@ South Carolina||W|
|20-Nov||@ Mississippi State||W|
Arkansas has been hamstrung the last two years with a lot of youth on defense, and that more than anything else is killer on a defense. I don't think the Razorbacks will suddenly turn into the 2000 Ravens or anything, but they should improve enough to allow for a couple of games worth of improvement thanks to the great offense. Arkansas' problems have largely come on the road under Petrino, but look at this schedule. There are only four true road games, and playing in Dallas was no issue last year. Auburn is the stiffest test. Georgia will still be sorting itself out. South Carolina has never beaten an above-.500 Arkansas team. MSU's defense had no answers in '09. This one thing is for sure: the season closer with LSU is absolute appointment television.
|9-Sep||@ Mississippi State||W|
|30-Oct||@ Ole Miss||W|
I have a feeling that Auburn's season is going to go fairly similarly to how it did last year: a fast start that peters out as the uptempo offense takes its toll on the team's conditioning. I re-watched a lot of SEC games over the past month, particularly Auburn's as I tried to get a handle on them. When the Auburn offense faltered, it was largely due to it not being as fast as it needs to be with an assist to Chris Todd's accuracy issues. It will inevitably slow down during the SEC grind, and when that happens, Gus Malzahn's trickiness suddenly just becomes really slow developing plays that get blown up regularly. The defense is probably a year away from being fully stocked too. Put those together, and I see Auburn being the one of the SEC's six preseason ranked teams to fall short of nine regular season wins.
|27-Nov||@ Ole Miss||W|
I like what Dan Mullen did with his team last year, and I think the team will be better this fall. Unfortunately, the schedule for this fall doesn't allow for a better record, I'm afraid. Losing Anthony Dixon is a big part of that; had he not run out of eligibility, it might be a different story. I'm not that concerned about the impending double quarterback rotation because Mullen navigated one just fine in 2006. I'm more concerned with the defense, which I'm not sure will be a whole lot better this year. Something about the double coordinators gives me the willies after seeing the mess LSU's double coordinators made in 2008. The reason why MSU is listed above Ole Miss, by the way, is because I have the Bulldogs owning the tie breaker in SEC play (which takes precedent over the overall record).
I'm not really sure what to make of Ole Miss. I'm reasonably convinced that the defense will be good enough to secure a bowl big. That's especially so given how relatively soft the schedule is with nobody tough out of conference and Vandy, Kentucky, and Tennessee from the East. That said, the offense is a complete black box to me. I don't know what Nathan Stanley will do, and just a reminder: Jeremiah Masoli hasn't been given a waiver to play this season yet. Offensive coherence has never been a hallmark of Nutt's teams, and I think that side of the ball will hold the team back compared to the past two years. That said, it's hard to argue with two straight Cotton Bowls. Nutt's doing just fine in Oxford. This is the normal, scheduled transitional down year.
SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Call me a homer if you wish, but I think Florida's going to win the rematch with Alabama. The teams are closely matched, but I think Florida's defense will end up a bit better. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama should come out on top. On a neutral field however, I like the Gators. They'll be the hungrier team after last year, and that can make all the difference.
Virginia Tech over Florida State
Oklahoma over Nebraska
NATIONAL TITLE GAME
Ohio State over TCU <-- A complete guess
Note: I am horrendous at Heisman picks. Absolutely terrible.