With six weeks of the 2009 college football season now behind us, we can finally start to get a good idea on exactly what everyone is made of around the SEC. With that in mind, a few thoughts on some SEC teams:
I expected Alabama to be good this year, as did most others, but honestly I believe we've exceeded expectations in the first half, and we've done so in the face of some bad injury / suspension luck. Dont'a Hightower and Damien Square are gone for the year with knee injuries, and Jerrell Harris has yet to play thanks to an NCAA suspension. Moreover, we're a beat-up squad right now. Julio Jones isn't healthy, nor is Roy Upchurch, and Terrence Cody was limited to only about fifteen snaps against Ole Miss with some sort of leg muscle issue. Cory Reamer, in fact, left part of his ear in Oxford. And that's, of course, not to say anything of Brandon Deaderick, who was, you know, shot at point-blank range. Twice.
Despite all of this, 'Bama has played extremely well to date. The defense is every bit as good as expected -- perhaps even better -- and even with his miniature meltdown in Oxford, Greg McElroy has played the quarterback position better than anyone in Tuscaloosa in ages. The offensive line isn't the same in the running game, but it is perhaps a bit better in pass protection than it was a year ago, Colin Peek has more than filled Nick Walker's shoes, and the wide receiver corps has really taken things to the next level. Our win over Virginia Tech at a neutral site is probably the most impressive win of any team in the country, and a 22-3 thumping of Ole Miss in Oxford is still a quality victory even with the Rebels' disappointing season in mind. We haven't won by fewer than ten points all season, and really haven't been given a real scare since the early fourth quarter against Virginia Tech.
At this point, the sky is the limit for the Tide. We've established ourselves as the front runner in the SEC West, and we might even be able to lose a game at this point and still make it to Atlanta. A worst-case scenario right now seems to be a 11-1 or 10-2 season where we make it to the SEC Championship Game, but whether or not we can beat Florida is another matter. I think the Tide has clearly showed the muscle to do it, but we have yet to play a complete game to date, and that is exactly what it will take to get past the Gators. This team is a legitimate national championship contender, but we're going to have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot -- think pre-snap penalties, kick coverage breakdowns, questionable play-calling, dropped touchdown passes, red zone inefficiencies, etc. -- in order to win the ultimate prize. Until we show that we can do that, I'm afraid, this 'Bama team will probably "just" end up another team that wins a ton of games and likely gets a BCS bowl berth, but one that ultimately has no hardware to show for it at day's end.
Despite a disappointing early season loss to Georgia, this Arkansas team actually looks pretty decent. The offense is a very good unit -- Michael Smith is still the most underrated player in the conference -- and the defense looks to be improving slightly. I know neither Texas A&M or Auburn are special teams by any stretch, but to thump those two by a combined 49 points is pretty impressive regardless of how you look at it. With a 4-2 record right now, Arkansas will return to a bowl game this year, and Bobby Petrino is clearly doing good things in Fayetteville.
The real problem with Arkansas is an ungodly tough schedule. It's bad enough to have to play on the road at Alabama, plus South Carolina (the second best team in the East). But to have the terrible luck to draw Georgia and Florida on the rotational conference schedule, not to mention a neutral site non-conference game against Texas A&M, plus games against LSU, Auburn, and Ole Miss? Good grief... they are the anti-Auburn, the pure embodiment of scheduling hell. You could be a great team and only go 9-3 or 8-4 against this schedule, and the mere fact that Petrino and company are likely to get back to a bowl game, in and of itself, shows you the progress that is being made in Fayetteville.
And, really, keep your eye on this team moving down the stretch. They thumped both A&M and Auburn, and if their defense can prove to be even somewhat formidable, they will be extremely tough to beat. They beat LSU a year ago, and almost knocked off Ole Miss to boot. Expect them to claim at least one of those scalps again this year.
The Gene Chizik era has gone as well as could have been reasonably expected, thanks in equal part to both the production of the Auburn offense and the lackluster performances to date by those on the Auburn schedule. Gus Malzahn has produced an offense as prolific as any Auburn fan could have dreamed off, and opposing defenses have clearly struggled with assignment breakdowns. Likewise, the Football Gods have been more than kind with the schedule. Louisiana Tech turned out to be a bad team even by WAC standards, Ball State completely nosedived, Mississippi State is as bad as expected, West Virginia's fifteen minutes of fame are clearly up, and Tennessee looks little, if any, better than a year ago. The Auburn defense has been the worst since Terry Bowden roamed the Plains, but the high-power offense and the weak schedule have driven Auburn to a surprising 5-1 start.
Moving forward, I really do not think this team is a particularly good one. I think they are a solid, 6-6 caliber team, but again the Football Gods continue to bring gifts with the schedule. It's always good to draw Kentucky, at home, on the SEC rotational schedule, but Auburn gets an added gift this weekend with the 'Cats starting quarterback being injured and unavailable. Beyond that, Furman is a guaranteed win, LSU continues to disappoint, Georgia is looking at its worst year in a decade, and Ole Miss has failed to live up to preseason expectations.
Again, I don't think this is a particular good team, and I could still see them crashing and burning if injuries show just how little quality depth this team has throughout the ranks. Nevertheless, though, it's a fairly decent team that can take advantage of a weak schedule thanks to their high-power offense, and they look to be in position to do just that. This is a team that will at least get seven wins, and nine wouldn't be a total shock.
Get your popcorn ready, folks, this one is about to get highly entertaining. After getting blown out by Tennessee, Georgia sits at 3-3 on the season, and that is with games remaining against Florida, Auburn, Kentucky, and Georgia Tech. Even if these guys can avoid upsets against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, they are still probably going to struggle to get above 6-6. At these point, these guys are probably headed to the "new Shreveport," whatever that is, and that's if they don't get upset from here on out.
Either way, this is easily the worst team of the Richt era and it's likely to be the worst UGA team since Donnan took over in 1996. The defense is not very good, the running game is non-existent, Joe Cox is a glorified game manager, and they have no real threats at wide receiver sans A.J. Green. What else can you say? This is just not a good football team, period.
With all of that in mind, again, get your popcorn ready. This is Richt's ninth year in Athens, and he's entering uncharted territory. Few SEC coaches last this long, and the few that do are reeling and running out of steam at this point. Look at Fulmer at Tennessee, Tuberville at Auburn, and Nutt at Arkansas, just to name a few. And it certainly seems like Richt fits that mold as well. The fanbase is going nuts, they want lots of assistants fired, and many are openly questioning whether or not Richt can ever get the job done. This one will get interesting. That preseason #1 ranking feels like it was decades ago, doesn't it?
A 5-1 start and a top ten ranking to start the season, so things are all well in Baton Rouge, right? Not really. This team has zero quality wins to date, and frankly they are just fortunate to not be 3-3 with losses to Mississippi State and Georgia. This team will beat Tulane, and will probably beat Auburn, so they are likely to go into Tuscaloosa with a 7-1 record and a top ten ranking, but things just aren't right with this team, and I really don't know what's wrong.
LSU obviously has an ungodly amount of talent on hand, but it's not really working. Jordan Jefferson may not be Mr. Pick Six, but he cannot throw the football down the field, and the passing game is nothing special with him in. The offensive line is struggling up front, and without a line blowing defenses out of the water, suddenly guys like Charles Scott look pretty average. The defense looks pretty good, but who really knows about them? They have played only one good offense to date (Florida), and while only allowing 13 points looks nice on paper, realistically Tebow was not playing anywhere near his usual level, and the Florida offense was more conservative than Roy Moore.
Moreover, with all of the talk of the 2007 Florida game recently, it should be pointed out that this team really hasn't played well since Jacob Hester converted those umpteen fourth down opportunities. Since that victory, national championship and all, LSU is a combined 9-8 in SEC play, and the wins have generally came in close games against bad teams. The combined record of those opponents in the nine wins is a mere 40-50, and six of those nine victories came by a touchdown or less, which includes three come-from-behind wins in the final two minutes, plus a goal line stand in the waning seconds. The other three victories came by an average of 13.6 points, and the combined conference record of those three opponents is a laughably low 2-17. And that is from a team that led the SEC, by a wide margin, in both 2007 and 2008 in fumble luck. Again, I don't care that they won a national championship in 2007, these guys haven't played good football in two years now.
I really don't know what to make of this team. Again, like I said, they'll probably go into Tuscaloosa 7-1 and near a top five ranking, but I don't know that they are really any good. They've got the raw talent to go off and play extremely well, but that's not a given, so who knows? I do think they averted complete disaster by squeaking out games against MSU and Georgia, but for a team with so much talent and an unstoppable recruiting juggernaut, it certainly does feel that they are just barely hanging on with a cupcake OOC schedule and a couple of lucky breaks in close games against bad teams, doesn't it?
With three straight bowl victories in the bag, Rich Brooks looks like he could somehow take the 'Cats to the promised land a fourth time in 2009. To be sure, the 2-3 record to date is disappointing, but hardly shocking. With Alabama and Florida on the schedule early, at best they figured to be 3-2 at this point. They gave South Carolina a legitimate run for their money, and a win there would have almost guaranteed a return trip to the postseason, but alas it was not to be.
Nevertheless, Kentucky still has a solid, achievable route to a bowl game. Louisiana-Monroe and Eastern Kentucky should yield two easy wins, and then the 'Cats get the two worst teams in the SEC with Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Even if the 'Cats slip up somewhere along those lines, they still have a few chances at some upsets. They've played well to date, and will be favored in four of their remaining seven games, and while they will be underdogs in the other three -- at Auburn, at Georgia, and Tennessee -- Kentucky will have a legitimate chance of winning each time out. I think the smart money is still on UK ending up 7-5 or 6-6 and making it back to the postseason yet again.
Colonel Reb is pretty much as overrated as I expected them to be all along in terms of contending for the SEC West. The real question for this team, now, is where do they go from here? Given how they have played to date, this team could easily lose another three games unless they improve. On the other hand, they could rally like last year and still get a good bowl game. They cannot win the West for themselves, but they sure as hell can spoil any chance either LSU or Auburn has left. Truth be told, as of right now, 'Bama fans have few better friends than Ole Miss. If they can beat LSU in Oxford, that practically clinches 'Bama the SEC West regardless of what happens in the Alabama v. LSU game.
As a more general point, will Ole Miss ever win the SEC in our lifetime? Clearly this was their only shot for now... bringing in a solid, proven coach after a recruiting guru filled the roster with raw talent, but obviously it's not to be, and Nutt will never win it in Oxford. He couldn't do it in Fayetteville, and with the lack of recruiting success he is having at Ole Miss, his Rebels are moving in the wrong direction. It just isn't happening, folks.
The last time Ole Miss won the SEC was in 1963 -- 46 years ago -- days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. My father was seven at the time, and I am currently moving closer to 30 than I am 20, and Ole Miss has never even came close to winning it in my lifetime. So, again, I ask, will we ever see Ole Miss win the SEC in our lifetime, or is this going to be like waiting on the Cubs to win the World Series?
I've long gone on the record as being a fan of the Dan Mullen hire, and I think he has done pretty well in Starkville to date. The offense is coming along a lot quicker than I expected, and he almost pulled off a massive upset against LSU a couple of weeks back. True freshman Chad Bumphis has impressed at wide receiver, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Tyler Russell can do at quarterback in the future.
Of course, though, in the harsh light of reality, life is never easy for the lovable Bullies. With a loss to Houston, MSU is now probably looking at a 3-9 campaign, and that's if they can beat Middle Tennessee on the road in what many expect to be a pretty close game (Vegas has MSU as only a three point favorite). Mullen is effectively fighting the impossible fight in Starkville, and his efforts won't pay any short term dividends. I guess all you can say is that, at least, they beat Vandy and aren't the worst team in the conference, which is what most expected.
If I had to wager, I would say the Gamecocks are perhaps one of the toughest teams to judge right now. The opener against North Carolina State was ugly, and losing to Georgia at this point is likewise far from pretty. On the other hand, the win over Ole Miss was impressive -- and the game wasn't as close as the scoreboard indicated -- and the victory over a relatively decent Kentucky team was fairly impressive.
I actually think this has the pure potential to be the best team Spurrier has fielded in Columbia since his arrival, even though that may not be saying much. They do have a great defense, Garcia has clearly improved, and the offensive line looks to be the best it has been to date under the Ol' Ball Coach. I think that as of right now, there is very little doubt that these guys are probably the #2 team in the SEC East. On the other hand, though, Florida ought to thump these guys once again, and beating 'Bama would require a major upset. They are 5-1 at the moment, and will get to six wins against Vanderbilt, but with road games left against Arkansas and Tennessee, not to mention a date with Clemson, getting above eight wins still looks to be a difficult task.
I've never seen anything like Lane Kiffin, for better or for worse. The constant verbal jabs in the media. The changing of pullovers at halftime. The "play to lose with respect, not win" strategy. The trying to go for two with defeat certain and time expired just to reduce the margin of defeat and bump up their Pythagorean Wins. He's a unique one, no doubt there.
That said, I see little reason to believe the Vols are much better this year than they were a year ago, and in fact they look to be pretty much the same team to me. The blowout win over Georgia was nice, but truthfully it was probably more to do with UGA's implosion than the "turning the corner" that so many UT fans would like to make it out to be. Even with that, this team is basically in the exact same boat they were last year... a 6-6 team that will make some laughable bowl game so long as they don't get upset late by a really bad team. They ended up 5-7 last year when Wyoming pulled off the shocker, and that is exactly what they are looking to avoid now. Either way, it's hard to see this team being anything more than nominally improved over its immediate predecessor, and their final record will reflect that.
I enjoyed last year's showing by Vandy as much as anyone, and Bobby Johnson has done a marvelous job in Nashville. At the end of the day, though, it's still Vandy, and it's showing. Losing to Mississippi State, at home, effectively guaranteed that the 'Dores would be the worst team in the SEC in 2009, and after losing on the road against lowly Army, Vandy fans will probably have to wait until 2010 to get another win. With six games remaining against Georgia, South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee, it's hard to see the 'Dores getting another win. A 2-10 finish -- including an 0-8 conference record -- seems to be the likely result.
At least there will always be memories of the 2008 team, I suppose. No one ever said that life as a Vanderbilt football fan was easy.