With it a mere nine days until the 2010 college football season officially begins with South Carolina going against Southern Miss, a few random thoughts from around the SEC West before toe meets leather:
Two years ago, while the Bayou Bengals were busy posing with crystal ball in hand, I consistently argued that LSU was a decidedly overrated team whose success was largely being driven by media hype and random luck. I argued that they actually declined from 2006 to 2007, that their success was unsustainable moving forward given their actual level of play, and that as a general note they were a program with more than their fair share of problems lurking underneath the surface. Two years later, at the risk of self-congratulation, I think as a general matter my arguments have largely been vindicated.
With all that established, I will go on the record and say that I now feel that the pendulum has swung back in the other direction and that now LSU is criminally underrated. Clearly there are issues to address and areas to improve, specifically regarding player development, scheme complexity, offensive line play, and clock management. Even so, while some recruits have not developed as many felt they would the past several years, this remains easily one of the most talented teams in the country, and if there is one thing you should never underestimate it is the potential ability of large amounts of raw talent. If Les Miles and company can just do a competent job of coaching the raw talent they have on hand, this is a team that will win a lot of games.
Besides, this was not a bad football team last year by any stretch of the imagination. They finished up 9-3, with two of those losses coming in relatively close games to clearly the two best teams in the country, and the Pythagorean analysis indicates that record was bona fide. And now, somehow, they are an afterthought with some having them as low as fourth in their own division? No way. This is still likely a better team than either Arkansas or Auburn, and still a team that will be in contention late in the season. They'll probably lose in Gainesville, but even so they'll likely be 7-1 coming off of an off week when Alabama comes to Baton Rouge in November, with a trip to Atlanta clearly on the line. If you're a speculator who likes to gamble, I say go borrow money from everyone you know and bet big on LSU. There is not another team in the country with this amount of potential this ridiculously underrated.
Can someone please explain the outcry over the Kirk Herbstreit prediction? For one, at absolute most it's just the opinion of one "expert" in a field where there is a strong incentive to make the occasional bold prediction, and at any rate all Herbstreit really said was that the SEC West was basically a four-way toss-up and that with that established he'd go with Auburn. That's not exactly much of a glowing endorsement, even if you really believe Herbstreit's half-hearted prognostications are the equivalent of the word of God.
That one prediction notwithstanding, from the 30,000 foot view, I really see very little different from this team than a year ago. The offense should be good and the schedule is relatively favorable -- read no Florida -- but the defense still looks to be bad and there is still no depth whatsoever. I see a team with no depth and a bad defense that will be taken as far as their offense and injury luck can take them. To me, that's the same basic formula that they had a year ago. That formula yielded an 8-5 record in 2009, and I imagine it will yield something similar in 2010. Unless this team can find a defense, that is probably their short-term ceiling, even with decent injury luck.
For Auburn to legitimately make it to Atlanta in the first week of December, they would probably need to get to either 6-2 or 7-1 in conference play, and have some tiebreakers on their resume to boot. Specifically, they would definitely need to split games against Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, and Georgia, a daunting task considering they were 0-4 against that slate last year, which included two lopsided blowouts. Furthermore, it would also require an undefeated stretch against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Kentucky, a doable scenario but nevertheless a relatively difficult one given their shortcomings. Looking at the raw schedule, it's certainly a possibility, but it would take a confluence of many, many serendipitous events for it happen, and is thus unlikely. Another 8-5 type season with a return trip to a mid-tier bowl game is clearly the more probable scenario.
Consider me somewhat of a skeptic on Ryan Mallett. Admittedly he has a howitzer for an arm and posted some very impressive numbers last year, but he's immobile as they come in the pocket, isn't terribly accurate, and plays in a quarterback friendly scheme. Furthermore, I think it's pretty clear at this point that his foot injury is much more of a serious injury than the Hogs originally let on, and moving into 2010 it is probably something that could easily be re-injured given the delicate structural nature of the human foot. That's a particularly pressing concern for a team that, despite returning four starters on the offensive line in 2010, has a line that has really struggled the past two years in pass protection.
The biggest problem with Arkansas, of course, is on defense. Bobby Petrino teams have always struggled defensively, and the Hogs showed little improvement on defense in 2009. They do return their fair share of players defensively, but it's still the same unit that finished dead last in the SEC in total defense the past two years, and until they can actually prove themselves as a formidable unit, it's hard to justify being overly bullish on the Hogs. At some point, regardless of how much of an offensive juggernaut they might be, eventually they're going to have to stop someone defensively to legitimately compete for championships.
When I look at Arkansas as a whole, I see a very, very dangerous team, and I think on any given day they could probably beat any team in the country. Even so, Mallett could easily prove fragile, and there are no guarantees on the defensive side of the ball, so the bottom could easily fall out on this team. While that probably won't happen, until Arkansas can show that it can field a legitimate SEC caliber defense and Mallett can show he is fully recovered from his foot injury, I think you have to rationally figure that the SEC West is still an Alabama v. LSU battle with a dangerous Arkansas team lurking in third.
The basic consensus that many have about Ole Miss this year goes something like this, "Houston Nutt traditionally struggles when his teams are hyped, but generally surprises when they are overlooked, so Ole Miss will surprise everyone in 2010." I generally find that to be a dumb thought, and one that largely ignores a fairly substantial amount of Nutt's career record. Believe it or not, Nutt has legitimately had some bad teams when they were expected to be bad (see 2004 and 2005) and some good teams when they were expected to be good (see 2002). Quite frankly, Nutt is not the enigma that many like to bill him as. With a couple of notable exceptions, his teams are generally bad when expected to be bad and generally good when they are expected to be good, just about like everyone else.
So you dismiss that as largely nonsense from the outset, and you look at Ole Miss as a team. This was a 9-4 team a year ago, and one that was saved from 8-5 only by Les Miles' incompetence in Oxford. And from that team, they've lost an absolute load of key contributors on both sides of the ball, and Ole Miss recruiting has not exactly been a juggernaut in recent years. In other words, all signs point towards a decline.
The addition of Jeremiah Masoli will help, but you have to temper expectations to a degree because he will be facing tougher competition, have less talent around him relative to the level of competition, will have little time to pick up the offensive scheme, and will be playing in a scheme nowhere near as quarterback friendly as Chip Kelly's spread. He'll do some good if he can stay out of jail all year -- no small assumption given his criminal background -- but it's hard to see him being able to carry Ole Miss past their other significant shortcomings.
The real saving grace for Ole Miss is the schedule, which is about as easy as you can get in the SEC. The non-conference schedule includes Jacksonville State, Tulane, Fresno State, and Louisiana-Lafayette, plus they draw Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Tennessee out of the SEC East. Combine all of that with their annual game with Mississippi State, and there is a lot of low-lying fruit to be found on this schedule. If this were merely a slightly above average team, they could get eight wins in their sleep. I doubt they're that good, but the easy schedule ought to keep them in 6-6 or 7-5 territory with a low-tier bowl berth once late December rolls around. Even so, it's hard to see this team legitimately competing with Alabama, LSU, or Arkansas.
I wrote at the end of last season that Dan Mullen had done one of the best coaching jobs in the SEC, guiding the Bulldogs to a 5-7 record despite playing the toughest schedule in the country. Given the complete lack of, well, everything he had at his disposal, that was an impressive accomplishment.
For 2010, though, things still look pretty tough. Mississippi State actually returns quite a few starters, but even so they have to be considered dead last in the SEC West in terms of both raw talent and quality depth. Furthermore, replacing Anthony Dixon will be particularly tough for a bottom-tier team, which generally have an unusually difficult time replacing star players. There are some potential pieces here if Mullen can work his magic again, like Chris Relf, but even so it still just seems like a bridge too far.
The problem for Mississippi State remains the ridiculously tough schedule, which returns for yet another year. They draw Alabama, LSU, and Florida all on the road, plus they get Georgia on the rotational schedule. Throw in games against Arkansas, Ole Miss, Auburn, Kentucky, and Houston, and it's once again a brutal slate. It would be daunting for any team, but for a program like Mississippi State it's going to be even tougher. If Mullen can pull off the same trick he did last year, the Bullies may slip into a low-tier bowl game, but admittedly with their schedule even that is going to quite difficult. The odds are that MSU is still in the cellar of the SEC West in four months.