August 2, 2008
By Brian Edwards
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For loyal listeners of the Power Hours and readers of our Top 25 previews, some of my SEC predictions will be old news at this point. Nevertheless, I want to get it all down on the same page and touch on the squads that didn’t make VI’s pre-season Top 25.
I like the Gators to not only win the SEC, but I also say they will win their second national title in four seasons under Urban Meyer. I have UF beating a 10-2 Auburn team at the Georgia Dome in the SEC Championship Game.
Sportsbook.com has both Florida and Auburn listed with 5/2 odds to win the league, while Georgia is the 2/1 ‘chalk.’
Tommy Tuberville’s team will win the West, but its six-game winning streak in the Iron Bowl will end in 2008. Auburn’s other loss will come at West Virginia on a Thursday night (10/23).
Georgia will go 11-2 and win a BCS game, but its schedule is too tough for the Dawgs to win their first national title since 1980. Before UGA even gets to the meat of its schedule, it will have to play at South Carolina and at Arizona St., not to mention home games against Alabama and Tennessee.
Mark Richt’s team has to travel for four consecutive weeks beginning with a road game at LSU. Although I think UGA will win in Baton Rouge, the physical and emotional toll of that contest will linger into the next week’s game against Florida in Jacksonville.
The Gators, who are 2 ½-point favorites over UGA at most books that have posted an early number, will avenge last year’s 42-30 loss to the Dawgs. Georgia will bounce back at Kentucky, but it won’t have enough left in the tank to win at Auburn the following week.
What about South Carolina? The Gamecocks, who return 10 starters on defense and seven on offense, climbed to No. 6 in the polls after starting 6-1 last year. However, they lost five in a row down the stretch and missed out on a bowl game.
What went wrong? For starters, the run defense suffered immensely when All-American middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley tore his ACL in a 28-16 Week 4 loss at LSU. In addition, USC lost a pair of heartbreakers – 27-24 at Tennessee in overtime and 23-21 vs. Clemson – on last-second field goals.
Brinkley announced himself “100 percent healthy” at last week’s SEC Media Days in Birmingham. Also, DT Nathan Pepper returns to the mix after going down with a season-ending injury in Week 3.
On Tuesday, Scott Hood of GamecockCentral.com reported that redshirt freshman QB Stephen Garcia would most likely be reinstated to the team early. Garcia, who has had three minor brushes with the law since arriving in Columbia, missed spring practice and was suspended by the university until Aug. 15.
He spent the summer in Tampa living with his parents and has apparently done all the right things, including passing random tests for both alcohol and drugs. Garcia is considered South Carolina’s best talent at QB, but he hasn’t had the practice reps to be ready to play anytime soon. With that said, don’t be surprised if Garcia gets his chance by mid-season. Tommy Beecher is considered the starter going into the year, followed by Chris Smelley.
Since Georgia, LSU and Tennessee all come to Williams-Brice Stadium, each of SC’s first 10 games are winnable. That won’t happen, but there’s a decent chance the ‘Cocks will face LSU on Oct. 18 with a 6-1 record. I have Carolina finishing 8-4 in the regular season and then beating an ACC team (a Bowden-Spurrier matchup here would be nice, but I’m not sure the Seminoles can go 8-4) in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Staying in the East, let’s talk about Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Both schools lost a lot of talent and neither squad will be as formidable as it was last year.
This space was calling for Rich Brooks’ pink slip at this time two years ago, and we won’t hesitate a bit to point out the utter ineptitude of such a forecast. Brooks has done a sensational job the last two seasons, and we should (belatedly) point out the difficult situation he inherited with lingering NCAA sanctions from the Hal Mumme Era.
The Wildcats have won 16 games the last two years, including a thrilling 43-37 triple-overtime win over top-ranked LSU last season. They have also beaten Clemson and FSU in back-to-back trips to the Music City Bowl.
However, UK only has four starters back on offense in 2008. QB Andre Woodson, the school’s second all-time leading passer, is gone. WR Keenan Burton, UK’s second all-time leading receiver, is also gone, along with RB Rafael Little, the school’s third all-time leading rusher.
On the bright side, eight starters are back on defense. Junior CB Trevard Lindley is one of the SEC’s best playmakers, while junior DE Jeremy Jarmon is coming off a nine-sack season.
Even though Little is gone, there’s a trio of RBs – Derrick Locke, Tony Dixon and Alfonso Smith – who each averaged at least 5.5 yards per carry and combined to rush for 11 touchdowns in ’07.
As for the QB situation, things aren’t as clear. Mike Hartline, a third-year sophomore with six career pass attempts, appears to be in line to start following the off-season arrests of Curtis Pulley and Will Fidler. Pulley came out of spring practice as the No. 1 guy, but he has been arrested twice this summer. It is unclear whether or not Pulley will face an early-season suspension.
Bobby Johnson is going into his seventh year at Vandy. He has steadily improved the talent base and the Commodores have come close to getting to their first bowl game since 1982. In 2005, Vandy started 4-0, only to finish 5-6. The ‘Dores went 4-8 and 5-7 the last two years, respectively.
Although a bowl bid has been elusive, Vandy has the respect of the rest of the league these days. In ’05, the ‘Dores won at Wake Forest, at Arkansas, at Tennessee and took the Gators to double overtime at The Swamp. In ’06, Vandy won at Georgia and led Alabama nearly the entire game before dropping a 13-10 decision in Tuscaloosa. In ’07, the ‘Dores won at South Carolina and simply beat themselves in a 20-17 home loss to Georgia.
With that said, I think Vandy might eat a bagel in conference play this year. The most winnable league games are on the road – at Ole Miss, at Mississippi St. and at Kentucky.
The ‘Dores have just three starters returning on offense and six on defense. OT Chris Williams went to the Bears in the first round of the NFL Draft, while WR Earl Bennett and LB Jonathan Goff were also drafted. According to Phil Steele, Vandy has the least experienced offensive line in the nation with the returning players logging just three career starts.
The secondary is the team’s strength. Junior cornerback D.J. Moore garnered first-team All-SEC honors after breaking up 10 passes and picking off six last year. Steele ranks the secondary as the 25th best in the country.
Now let’s shift gears back to the SEC West. In our Top 25 countdown, I wrote previews for the top two teams, Auburn and LSU. I have Alabama as the third-best team in the division.
The Crimson Tide was on the cusp of taking command of the SEC West when it held a seven-point lead over LSU late in the fourth quarter last year. They even had the Tigers facing a fourth-and-long situation, but Matt Flynn hooked up with Early Doucet for the first down and a broken tackle resulted in a touchdown.
Moments later, John Parker Wilson fumbled and LSU scored the game-winning TD a few plays later. From there, ‘Bama’s season completely fell apart. Wilson threw an awful interception that turned into a pick-six right before halftime the next week in Starkville, where the Bulldogs captured a 17-12 victory.
Next, ULM – that’s right, Louisiana-Monroe – went into Bryant-Denny Stadium and shocked the Tide by a 21-14 count as a 24 ½-point underdog. They lost to Auburn (17-10) for the sixth straight time to conclude the regular season.
Nick Saban’s team has 13 starters (7 offense, 6 defense) coming back and his second recruiting class was ranked as the nation’s best by most publications. Most importantly, Saban landed a big-time playmaker in WR Julio Jones, who is expected to step into the starting lineup immediately.
As Wilson enters his senior campaign, he has 26 career starts under his belt. Despite a decent 37/22 career TD-INT ratio, he has come under intense scrutiny from the Alabama fan base. Nevertheless, it says here that Wilson will have an outstanding year assuming Jones is ‘as advertised’ and can be the deep threat needed to stretch opposing defenses.
In his fourth season at Mississippi St., Sylvester Croom guided the Bulldogs to their first bowl game since 2000 (when Wayne Madkin led MSU to a thrilling 43-41 overtime win over Texas A&M in the snow in Shrevport). They beat UCF 10-3 in the Liberty Bowl as three-point underdogs.
Mississippi St. should be even better in 2008. For the first time during Croom’s tenure, the QB situation appears settled. As a true freshman, Wesley Carroll stabilized the position in nine starts. Carroll wasn’t spectacular by any means (9/7 TD-INT ratio), but he managed games effectively and got the ball in the hands of the right people.
We’re mostly talking about junior RB Anthony Dixon, who scored 16 TDs (14 rushing, 2 receiving) and rushed for 1,066 yards. When the offense failed, Croom and Co. were lucky to have Derek Pegues, who had crucial interception returns for TDs in wins over Auburn and Alabama. In addition, Pegues had a game-changing punt return for a TD in a come-from-behind win over Ole Miss.
In short, Pegues was the difference between 8-5 and 4-8. I have Mississippi St. going 7-5 in the regular season again this year, but that could swing by a game or two if the offense can develop a steady aerial attack to prevent defenses from stacking the box to stop Dixon.
Ole Miss and Arkansas bring up the rear in the West, but I think the Rebels can be a sleeper team. I stated my case for Houston Nutt’s new squad in a blog a few days ago.
As for the Razorbacks, they lost a lot of talent. The school’s all-time leading rusher (Darren McFadden) is gone and so is Felix Jones. The RB tandem combined for 2,992 rushing yards and 27 TDs last season.
Defensively, the top six returning tacklers are gone, including LB Freddie Fairchild, who was recently dismissed from the program after being arrested on a domestic violence charge.
The biggest question in Fayetteville is how big of an impact Bobby Petrino will have on the program. At this time last year, the team and fan base were immersed in turmoil stemming from the entire Mitch Mustain-Gus Malzahn debacle that was well chronicled in this space (and won’t be revisted right now – except for the chuckle I’m getting out of Mustain’s back-up status at USC).
Nutt was the ultimate Razorback. He was born and raised in the state. In Petrino, you have the antithesis of Nutt. He was born and raised in Montana. Nutt spent 10 years at Arkansas, while Petrino has held six different jobs (and flirted with taking another half-dozen – at least!) during that span.
Loyal readers are well aware of my opinion of Petrino. He’s a shady character and forgive me for using the word ‘character’ in the same sentence with him. With that said, you can’t question his ability to coach, at least not at the collegiate level.
In four years at Louisville, Petrino had an eye-opening 41-9 record. When you think about how Arkansas was spurned by Tommy Bowden, Butch Davis and Tommy Tuberville and was then downright schooled by Jim Grobe (the Wake Forest head coach verbally agreed to take the job, but then dissed the Hogs the next morning when Wake agreed to up the pay of both Grobe and his assistants), Petrino was an excellent hire – warts and all.
Fortunately for the Hogs, Petrino’s image has taken such a hit that it’s doubtful many schools – and certainly no NFL teams – will court him anytime soon. Whether he likes it or not, Petrino is most likely in Fayetteville for at least 4-5 years.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
--Since 2004, Vandy owns a 13-4 spread record as a road underdog.
--Florida and Georgia have never made the Cocktail Party with both teams sporting unblemished records. Although the odds are against it, I say it happens this year.
--Pre-Season Power Rankings:
5-(tie) South Carolina
--SEC’s Best Players:
1-Tim Tebow (QB – Florida)
2-Knowshon Moreno (RB – Georgia)
3-Andre Smith (OT – Alabama)
4-Ricky Jean-Francois (DT – LSU)
5-Percy Harvin (WR/RB – Florida)
6-Jonathan Luigs (C – Arkansas)
7-Michael Oher (OT – Ole Miss)
8-Jasper Brinkley (LB – South Carolina)
9-Kenny McKinley (WR – South Carolina)
10-Brandon Spikes (LB – Florida)
11-Trevard Lindley (CB – Kentucky)
12-Derek Pegues (FS/PR – Mississippi St.)
13-Tyson Jackson (DE – LSU)
14-Eric Berry (SS – Tennessee)
15-Greg Hardy (DE – Ole Miss)
--It’s such a difficult task to rank the SEC coaches because there’s not a mediocre one in the bunch. And how are you formulating the rankings? In other words, if it’s based on career accomplishments, there’s no question that Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer are 1-2 (in that order). Do you take into account all the circumstances? For instance, Vandy has higher academic standards. Would Bobby Johnson be as successful as Mark Richt if the two traded jobs? When you consider the last two Vandy-UGA matchups (a 24-22 Vandy win in Athens and a 20-17 come-from-behind triumph for UGA in Music City), wouldn’t you have to say Johnson got the better of Richt from a coaching standpoint? In this year’s coaching rankings, I’m going to take into account a combination of things, including career accomplishments, head-to-head meetings and recruiting prowess. But most of all, it’s a list of who I would want coaching my team on a neutral field with all other things equal and a bunch of cash on the line. With that in mind, here it is:
1-Steve Spurrier (South Carolina)
2-Tommy Tuberville (Auburn)
3-Urban Meyer (Florida)
4-Mark Richt (Georgia)
5-Nick Saban (Alabama)
6-Phillip Fulmer (Tennessee)
7-Houston Nutt (Ole Miss)
8-Bobby Petrino (Arkansas)
9-Les Miles (LSU)
10-Sylvester Croom (Mississippi St.)
11-Rich Brooks (Kentucky)
12-Bobby Johnson (Vandy)
--Again, let me be clear that Johnson is a quality coach. In fact, he clearly outcoached Spurrier and Richt last year. His teams are 2-1 ATS during Meyer’s tenure at UF, and he’s won (outright) on the road against both Fulmer and Nutt.
--Click here for more Bonus Nuggets that are continued on my blog page. Brian Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.