August 5, 2012
By Marc Lawrence
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When projecting a national champion this year, keep this sobering thought in mind: Eight of the last ten BCS champions have owned a Top 10 ranked defense.
After winning six national titles in a row and seven of the last nine, the SEC is now 8-0 in BCS title games. The conference has now won more than half of the 14 BCS championships games.
Its why, as Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com says, "They ought to just rename the system, BCSEC."
Who's to argue?
The SEC builds elite defenses with waves of athletic defensive linemen. There is so much gridiron talent in this league its no surprise that, every year since 2006, the SEC has had more players selected in the draft than any conference. A total of 54 first-round selections (nine this year) have landed in the NFL in that span, cementing their case as the most fertile football breeding ground in the land.
It's also no coincidence the SEC produced 14 of the nation's 23 highest-paid assistant coaches last season, including seven of the top eight.
So while saddling up with an SEC team to make it the BCS title game would appear to be the high percentage play, the tougher this year is question is 'who'.
Five different teams have captured the SEC championship game the last eight years, with only Alabama and Florida winning twice. The Crimson Tide, last year's national champ, loses half of their returning starters and will be highly targeted in 2012. Bama coach Nick Saban is fully aware of what lies ahead. "That target is always on our back," Saban said. "Our players know that. If they don't, we're going to remind them every day... We need to look forward and not look in the rear-view mirror at what we did."
And then there's always LSU, this year's preseason No. 1 team. Deeply talented as always and defensively ferocious, the Tigers relish being left out of the spotlight and figure to have plenty to prove after finishing with a better record than Alabama last season.
As we like to say, "This is the SEC's world. We just live in it."
Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated 'Play On' and 'Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
Team Theme: WILL & GRACE
An 0-for October for the first time since 1971, an NFL draft that included no Gators in the first three rounds for the first time since 1993 and, most importantly, the most losses in a season (6) since 1987. It's no wonder that Will Muschamp has fallen out of grace with the Gator nation after only one year on the job. A lot of Florida's undoing can be attributed to the fact that they've played 66 freshmen over the past two seasons - the most in the nation. And while their string of 21 consecutive bowl appearances doesn't appear in jeopardy with 17 starters back on campus, spring practice has yet to clear up a very fuzzy QB picture. No pain, no 'Gaines.'
Stat You Will Like: The Gators are 0-7 SU and ATS as dogs the last two seasons.
PLAY ON: at Florida State (11/24)
Team Theme: RICHTER SCALE
You can put to rest the Mark Richt 'hot seat' talk. Richt, who owns the third best win percentage among active Division 1-A coaches at .736 (106-38), inked a contract extension through 2016. Also returning to Athens is QB Andy Murray, who tossed a school-record 35 TD's in 2011. In addition, Murray's top five targets and 12 of the top 14 tacklers from the nation's 5th-ranked stop-unit, including a pair of All-Americans, are aboard this season. Unfortunately, SEC Freshmen of the Year RB Isiah Crowell was dismissed from the team this spring, leaving a gaping hole in the backfield. Nonetheless, with only four true road games, and without Alabama or LSU dotting this year's regular-season docket, don't be surprised if Richt and the Dawgs scale new heights in 2012.
Stat You Will Like: Mark Richt is 44-8 SU versus non-conference opposition, including 30-1 'Between the Hedges.'
PLAY ON: as a dog at South Carolina (10/6)
Team Theme: HOW CAN YOU MEND A BROKEN OFFENSE?
Wasn't it the Bee Gees who started a joke, which started the whole world crying? Well, Joker Phillips' second year on the Kentucky sidelines certainly didn't bring many smiles. Thanks to massive graduation losses, the offense shrunk a whopping 15 points and 168 yards per game, finishing No. 118 in the nation - behind the likes of Akron, Memphis and New Mexico. Better days are ahead with QB Morgan Newton back after successful off-season shoulder surgery and prize recruit Kentucky high school 5A Player of the Year QB Jacob Russell coming to Lexington. On the flip side, though, new DC Rick Minter inherits a stop-unit that lost five of its top seven tacklers.
Stat You Will Like: Over the last five years, the Wildcats have gone 5-6, 6-6, 6-6, 6-6 and 6-6 ATS.
Team Theme: TRANSITIONING
As if they need it, the SEC gets another 'Tiger.' However, HC Gary Pinkel insists changes are needed if the Columbia Cats are to compete. "We have to make facility improvements. Salaries have got to get comparable to what we're going up against in the SEC," says Pinkel. "Anytime you go into something new you have to prove yourself… that's our approach and that's what we're going to do." Despite a rash of injuries, Missouri finished last season with four straight wins for the first time since 1965. QB James Franklin is back to lead the charge but we have a feeling that a school-record seven straight bowl appearances is suddenly on the line with Mizzou moving into a new neighborhood.
Stat You Will Like: Since 1981, the Tigers are 6-1 SU and ATS versus the SEC, including 4-0 SU and ATS during the regular season.
SOUTH CAROLINA (*7/6)
Team Theme: GETTING COCKY
It was a shame to see Marcus Lattimore, arguably the best back in college football, go down with a knee injury in mid-October last season. The team had just inserted Connor Shaw as its quarterback the prior week when the tandem combined to lead a 639-yard assault on Kentucky. Shaw ended up 8-1 in his starts while leading the 'Cocks to six SEC wins for the first time in school history. When the final dust had settled, SC finished No. 9 in the AP Poll - the first time they ever scored a Top 10 finish. With seven players back that started all 13 games in 2011, along with Lattimore and Shaw, Spurrier believes this to be his best team ever in Columbia. We agree.
Stat You Will Like: The last four 'Mr. Football' winners in the state of South Carolina are on the Gamecocks' roster.
PLAY ON: vs. Tennessee (10/27)
Team Theme: DOOLEY DOCTRINE
Tradition goes a long way in the SEC, especially in Knoxville. However, we have a feeling that UT'S new $50 million, four-story, 145,000 square-foot training complex being built will sit just fine with the Vol faithful. Getting back to tradition, having at least one SEC all-first team selection in 37 of the past 38 seasons is one of UT's oldest accomplishments - while the fact that Florida head coaches are just 4-7 all-time in their first visit to Neyland Stadium is one of its finest. And with 18 starters back, led by QB Tyler Bray, an entire offensive line and four who garnered all-SEC freshman honors, the OLD-timers should be 'Dooling', err, drooling in 2012.
Stat You Will Like: The Vols are 11-3 SU when playing a new member of the SEC.
PLAY ON: vs. Kentucky (11/24)
Team Theme: FRANKLIN & BASH
Offensive coordinator at Maryland from 2008-2010, James Franklin was one of the most sought after assistants in the league. Now we know why. His Commodores scored more points than any Vanderbilt team since 1915 and the Terps' attack fell off by 9 PPG. More importantly, the 'father of electric offenses' steered the Commies from a two-win season to a bowl game in his first year in Nashville. And they did it the old-fashioned way - they earned it - as the offense was up 10 points and 42 yards per game while the defense improved 9 points and 96 yards per contest. And with QB Jordan Rodgers, five targets and RB Zac Stacy back in the mix, the lights stay on in Vandy.
Stat You Will Like: The Commodores are 6-1 ATS versus .667 or less opponents under Franklin.
Team Theme: ROCK OF AGES
It was simply the most dominating defensive performance witnessed in college football since 1986 when Alabama last year - like Oklahoma 25 years ago - led the nation in fewest points allowed, rushing defense, passing defense and total defense in the same season. The icing on the cake was a 21-0 whitewash-win over LSU in the BCS Championship game, college football's version of a Yankees-Red Sox World Series. It was the first shutout in a title game since 1992 when Miami blanked Nebraska, 22-0, in the Orange Bowl. Unfortunately, it makes the bulls-eye on Bama's back larger than ever. Hence, it's no surprise to learn that the last team to allow less than 10 PPG and 250 YPG in the same season (2008 USC) was 9-4 SU and 4-9 ATS the following year. Uh oh. You get our drift.
Stat You Will Like: Defending national champions are 0-5 SU and ATS in bowl games the next season when playing off a DD ATS win.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite at LSU (11/3)
Team Theme: BAD KARMA
Little did he realize, when Bobby Petrino quit on his team with three games remaining in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons to take the job at Arkansas, his karmic destiny was etched in stone. And so it was this spring when was he dismissed from Arkansas for not disclosing 'an inappropriate relationship' with a female employee. It fit to a tee the words written by the legendary John Lennon who said, "Instant karma's gonna get you, gonna knock you off your feet." Enter retread John L. Smith, who like Petrino, is a former head coach at Louisville. Let's hope that in itself is not a dose of bad karma! The Hogs can't afford to be taken on another bad ride.
Stat You Will Like: Both of the Razorbacks' losses were against the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams last season.
PLAY AGAINST: at Texas A&M (9/29)
Team Theme: IT CHIZ WHAT IT CHIZ
In what might have been the greatest coaching effort of all last season, Gene Chizik somehow guided his Tigers to an 8-win campaign despite losing 15 starters from his 2010 national championship team - including Heisman winner and NFL Rookie of the Year QB Cam Newton. Best of all, Chiz did it despite a combined 200-yard decline on both sides of the ball, all while dressing up as underdogs in no less than eight contests. To that we say job well done! The big test comes this season when four of Auburn's five games away from home will be against bowl teams from last year. It's our best guess they will likely end up paying a price for 2011's successes.
Stat You Will Like: Chizik is 10-1 ATS at home with revenge versus an opponent off a win.
PLAY AGAINST: at Mississippi State (9/8) - *KEY if favored
Team Theme: LES IS MORE
The Tigers found out how difficult it is to defeat a quality foe two times in the same season when they faced Bama's impregnable wall in the BCS title game last year. They must regroup this year with a cast of new characters as no less than five Bengals were selected in this year's NFL draft. The new gunslinger in town is 6'5" QB Zach Mettenberger, a Georgia transfer who appears to be the perfect compliment to Miles' riverboat gambler mentality. Eight home games should add to LSU's 97-win total over the past 10 years - third most in the land behind Boise State and USC - but they may have to run through a wall on November 3rd to get back to the title game.
Stat You Will Like: Miles is 51-6 SU in night games and 24-13 SU in day games with LSU.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Mississippi State (11/10)
Team Theme: FAST & FURIOUS
When both a team's offense and defense have been in serious decline each of the past three seasons, you can expect changes aplenty. So it is, with the arrival of Hugh Freeze, who sparked a dramatic turnaround in his two seasons at Arkansas State - one as the head coach, the other as the offensive coordinator. The Mississippi native and former Rebels assistant has been a winner at every level he's coached. His teams have all featured furious, high-profiled offenses. There's plenty of room for improvement for a team that has tallied six wins in two seasons but Freeze will need to especially pick up the pace against an SEC slate that comes with all eight bowlers.
Stat You Will Like: Over the last two seasons, the Rebels are 0-8 SU and ATS versus sub .750 SEC opposition.
PLAY AGAINST: at Tulane (9/22)
MISSISSIPPI STATE (*8/7)
Team Theme: MULLEN IT UP AND DOWN
On the heels of a nine-win effort in 2010, the Bulldogs began the 2011 campaign as a team ranked in the preseason Top 20. An auspicious debut at Memphis where MSU gained a school-record 645 yards in a 45-point romp seemed to signal they were on their way. Dan Mullen's crew then played .500-ball thereafter, losing all five games against teams that brought a winning record to the field. In order to better balance the books, Mullen will need QB Tyler Russell to step up his game to the level expected when he was a 5* recruit. He'll also need to fill the big hole left by star DL Fletcher Cox, who took his talents to Philadelphia as a first-round selection.
Stat You Will Like: Mullen is 20-2 SU and 13-6 ATS versus sub .750 foes, and 1-15 SU and 5-11 ATS versus .750 or greater opposition.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Texas A&M (11/3)
TEXAS A&M (8/6)
Team Theme: GIG 'EM, AGGIES
Unbeknownst to loyal Aggie fans, when A&M said yes to the lure of the SEC, it agreed to sever many long-standing traditions. One such tradition being the Aggie War Hymn, which recites "Goodbye to Texas University" twice in the opening verse. Little did they realize it would be so factual. Yes, it's sad to see their Thanksgiving rivalry with Texas fall prey to the crazy world of conference expansion, but new HC Kevin Sumlin was never a part of it anyway. Sumlin and his high-powered attack should benefit a team that lost five games by a TD or less in 2011. Here's a new tradition that we'd pay to see: Aggies and 'Horns in the inaugural SEC/Big 12 bowl clash!
Stat You Will Like: The Aggies will face 11 teams in 2012 that owned a winning record last season.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Florida (9/8)