It’s July and nothing is set in stone yet. The coaches haven’t worked out all the kids from the incoming recruiting class, or, in some cases, finalized who’s even in the incoming recruiting class. But there’s something about football blogging that makes you want to categorize and analyze, no matter how incomplete the data.
So I’ll take a first stab at lining things up in the SEC. I’m not going to go overboard, though – no 2008 records or order of finish at this point in time. Instead, I’m settling for doing some projecting, based on some general principles and prejudices, as to whether a school is likely to be better or worse than it showed in 2007.
Some general rules of thumb:
- More experienced personnel is better than less experienced. Kids mature physically and mentally and are more familiar with their roles, with what it takes to play at the college level and what the offensive and defensive schemes require. That, of course, is within the context of a particular school. We’ll all still pick an inexperienced Florida squad to beat an experienced Vandy team.
- That goes double for the starting quarterback.
- Coaching continuity is generally a good thing. New coaches mean new ways of doing things – sometimes fairly dramatic ways of doing things, which means there’s usually a transition period of getting the right personnel for the new system or systems.
- Fortune, good or bad, generally isn’t permanent. Unless you’re Southern Cal under Pete Carroll, you don’t run positive double digit turnover margins year after year (and that’s even dried up there of late). A program may have a year where its wins and losses grossly outperform or underperform its scoring and yardage numbers, but things tend to swing back to the norm over time. Similarly, Steele will tell you that a team that pulls off a bunch of close wins in a season probably won’t repeat that run the next year.
Since I’m using last season as a base from which to evaluate, I’ll list the schools in the order of their finish in the conference in 2007, with their overall and conference records. You get the West today; I’ll throw out the East projections tomorrow.
- LSU (12-2, 6-2). I’ve got a simple question: does losing Ryan Perrilloux make that much of a difference to this team? Because otherwise, I’m having a hard time justifying the fairly common opinion that the Tigers won’t repeat as West champs in ’08. This was clearly the SEC’s best team last season. Twelve offensive and defensive starters from that team return; LSU is the fifth most experienced squad in the conference. Four of the five top rushers and all but one of the team’s receivers are back. The schedule, even with Georgia replacing Kentucky from the East, is significantly easier than last year’s. The negatives? New quarterback, new co-defensive coordinators (although promoted internally) and a likely slide from an incredible +20 in turnover margin. Prognosis: slight drop… maybe.
- Auburn (9-4, 5-3). The good: sixteen starters back on offense and defense and the Tigers swap Vanderbilt for Florida. They’ve also got their top four rushers returning and most of their top tacklers. But there’s a lot of shaky stuff to account for, too. A road trip to West Virginia comes in the middle of the schedule and I don’t recall Auburn of late being a program that does particularly well with marquee OOC games. A new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback don’t bode well for a smooth transition, and there’s a new coordinator on the other side of the ball as well. Auburn is too talented on defense to drop much, but I’m not sure why we should expect much improvement, either. Prognosis: unchanged.
- Arkansas (8-5, 4-4). New coaching staff and a radical change in offensive philosophy. One of the best backfields in the history of the conference – gone. Casey Dick as the linchpin of the offense. Tennessee drops off the schedule and is replaced by Florida. Oh yeah, there’s a road trip to Austin, Texas in there somewhere. On the plus side, there should be a lot less litigation to deal with this season. Prognosis: going down.
- Mississippi State (8-5, 4-4). You know what? This really wasn’t a very good team last year. It was dead last in the SEC in 2007 in net yardage per conference game, at -73.4. That ought to give you an idea of how competent a head coach Croom is. The Bulldogs were a terrible offensive team and a middle of the pack defensive squad, so it’s probably not a bad thing that six starters on offense and eight on defense come back. The top two rushers and eight of the top ten tacklers are back. They did lose their defensive coordinator, though. Turnovers were the story for this team last year. When MSU got the breaks, Croom did an excellent job of managing the game and stealing a few wins against better squads (Auburn, Kentucky, Alabama). It’s probably not reasonable to expect a repeat of that in ’08, but it’s not like the man will suddenly forget how to coach. Prognosis: slight drop.
- Alabama (7-6, 4-4). The schedule is tougher. There’s a new offensive coordinator. Plenty of offseason turbulence and teh greatest class of recruits in SEC history are good indicators that the talent level isn’t quite where Saban wants it to be. On the plus side, the entire backfield returns and John Parker Wilson, in addition to having the most irritating name in the conference, is the most experienced returning quarterback in the West. You’d like to think that Saban’s ego will demand a serious improvement, but his track record suggests that his programs typically don’t take a big step up become consistently elite in his second year at the helm. Prognosis: unchanged.
- Mississippi (3-9, 0-8). Seriously, since the end of the 2007 regular season, has there been a luckier SOB in the conference than Houston Nutt? He goes out with a big win, gets a sweet severance check from Arkansas, then signs a contract for more money… at the only school that was coached by a worse in-game manager than he was. On top of that, Orgeron left him a decent amount of talent (sixteen starters on offense and defense are back and Mississippi is the most experienced team in the SEC), he’s got an exciting talent at quarterback in Jevon Snead and a feature running back coming in with Enrique Davis. Georgia drops off the schedule and South Carolina comes on, as a home game. The most challenging OOC game is at Wake Forest; the rest is more than manageable. And the Rebs were -10 in turnover margin; Steele says that teams with negative double digit TO margins have a strong likelihood of improvement in the next season. Don’t get me wrong. This team won’t break even in the conference. But it’s got nowhere to go but up in 2008. Prognosis: improvement.