Navel gazing, continued.
I am more unsettled about the SEC East than I can remember being in a long time. Part of it, as Sunday Morning Quarterback points out, is due to the fact that the lower rung teams have a good deal more experience on their side than do the division powers going into this season. Of course, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Talent and coaching go a long way towards trumping experience.
There’s no LSU-caliber team in the East this year, which is a good thing for Dawg fans. Of course, it’s a good thing for Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina fans, too. Two conference losses won’t keep a SEC East team out of Atlanta in 2007. Right now, I really have no clue which school will be there.
Florida. First off, Urban Meyer is an awfully good coach (like he needs my validation). The defending national champs were a measly fourth in the conference last year in net ypg, but showed up and won in Atlanta. Sure, they capitalized on some breaks, but as the cliché goes, that what good teams do. And, yes, they are loaded with talent. That being said, there are question marks. The talent is way green – Steele ranks the Gators 119th (yep, that’s dead last in D-1) in his experience ratings. Tebow is being asked to do a lot, given the fact that there really isn’t much of a running game (he’s the leading rusher returning this season). The receiving corps is deep and good, though, which will certainly help. The offensive line is the best in the East. However, replacing nine starters on defense is a daunting task, no matter how fantastic those recruiting classes have been. (By the way, who’s kicking for these guys?) The Gators look like a three loss team to me; the question is who beats ‘em. They can make it back to Atlanta if they beat the right teams.
Key game: Tennessee. The loser of this game hasn’t been in the SECCG since 1997.
Georgia. This is a team that looks to be pretty good by season’s end. It’s just that the path it takes to get there could get a little rocky. Improving turnover margin is a must. I go back and forth on what worries me more between the offensive line and the linebackers (right now, it’s the oline). Keeping Brandon Coutu healthy is another biggie. I expect losses to Florida and Auburn, based on recent trends, but if Georgia gets out of the gate winning the first two (both at home), ten wins is a fair possibility. And that should be good enough – barely – to get the Dawgs back to Atlanta. If they don’t go 2-0 to start, I’d say they’re looking at another four loss regular season.
Key game: Oklahoma State, right off the bat. (If the Dawgs win that game, South Carolina becomes just as key.)
Kentucky. I just don’t get the love here, I really don’t. This team was flat out awful defensively last year. The Wildcats were next to last in net ypg in the conference, at -71. What bailed them out was a sparkling +15 in turnover margin. Just to put that in perspective, UK was -35 in TO margin for the prior eight seasons. In other words, last year was a significant aberration for UK football, one you shouldn’t count on for this season. The ‘Cats do have 8 home games and 15 returning starters (good for the offense, not so good for the defense). When you add all that to a schedule containing five top 20 teams, you’ve got a formula for six, maybe seven wins at best. ESPN’s Bruce Feldman had a great line about Kentucky – it’s basically a less talented version of Oklahoma State.
South Carolina. I’m not sold on Blake Mitchell. Sidney Rice is gone (and – surprise! – they’re raving in Columbia about some converted DB who had a good scrimmage game). The interior offensive line is a mess. On the flip side, the kicker’s good, the defense returns a lot of starters and Spurrier’s the best coach in the conference. In the end, the road schedule does the Gamecocks in. I can see maybe nine wins if they beat Georgia, seven if they don’t.
Key game: at Georgia. Lose it, and they’ve got no shot at Atlanta.
Tennessee. Another SEC team that’s hard to get a handle on. Cutcliffe has been subtly remaking UT’s offense away from being oriented as a power running attack to something with more finesse. They didn’t run well last year, and I’m not sure why they expect to be better on the ground in ’07. Ainge has developed into a fine QB, but he’s lost his three top receivers from ’06 and he’ll miss them this year. (Generally, it’s not a good sign when you’re counting on a kid who’s been tossed out of FSU.) He’s also starting to run out of TEs. On defense, it’s a mixed bag on the d-line (good ends, meh on the tackles). The linebackers are great. The secondary has Hefney and… I’m not sure who else, as losing Morley and Johnson leaves them thin. (Tennessee’s defensive strengths and weaknesses look like the opposite of Georgia’s.) The conference schedule is favorable in that, unlike Florida and South Carolina, the Vols don’t play LSU. And Tennessee has this secret training weapon thing going on for them, too. I still think nine or ten wins seems likely. UT definitely has a good shot to play in Atlanta.
Key game: at Florida. See note under Florida, above.
Vanderbilt. Look at all the Commodores named to the first team SEC preseason offense and defense lists! More than Georgia! More than Alabama! If the SEC played six man flag football, I’d say Vandy might stand a helluva chance. Unfortunately, you need 22 starters to play, along with backups, and there just isn’t the quality depth here to keep up with the big boys. Yes, I know Vandy won in Athens last year. That’s the first time in school history it’s beaten a ranked opponent on the road. It won’t happen this year – and they really need to double that to have the kind of season they’re dreaming about. That being said, they’ve got a shot at bowl eligibility this year if a couple of things break right (steadier QB play and a semblance of a running game would help). It’s hard to believe, but these guys had a better net ypg figure last season than did Auburn. That they finished 1-7 in the conference is the sign of a team that hasn’t learned how to win yet. Perhaps they learn a little more this year.