August 29, 2009
Wrapping up the Doc's SEC Week.
Florida will be awesome. Deal.
Alabama will be ... nearly as awesome? The West is one of those divisions -- like the ACC in general and Big 12 North -- that looks like a genuine logjam left to sort itself out at the top, and as a very late convert to the Ole Miss bandwagon, it looks that way to me now more than it did at the beginning of the week. Alabama is still the slight but clear favorite despite the questions at quarterback and offensive line, based mainly on three distinct advantages:
• The defense rocks. Ole Miss and LSU should have top 15/20 defenses, but Alabama, returning nine starters from a group that finished second in the nation against the run, third in yards allowed and seventh in scoring, coached by the veteran who consistently put up similar numbers in his hey day at LSU, should be easily one of the best in the country again, if not one of the best of the past couple decades. Again, there should be no running against Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain in the middle.
• The talent level is up. It's hard to say the Tide is more talented than LSU, but it is more experienced talent than in the Tigers' lineup, which will have a lot more new faces, and Nick Saban hasn't been subtle about setting some dead wood (especially from the Shula era) adrift to make room for the litany of new blue-chippers over the last two years.
• The best offensive player not named 'Tebow.' If healthy and eligible (both of which are likely), Julio Jones should finish his second year as the biggest non-Tebow star in the league, if he's not starting it there. There have been plenty of great receivers lately in the SEC, but I don't recall any of them that seemed as remotely un-coverable as Julio. His presence alone, with a couple solid (and potentially very good, depending on the impact of freshman Trent Richardson) options in the backfield, mitigates a lot of the concern about a new quarterback.
Not to mention the fact that the Tide was, you know, 12-0 last year before the postseason; Saban's killer instinct seems to have filtered down pretty quickly and completely through the program. Compared with LSU's relative inexperience and some lingering doubt about Ole Miss' staying power/overall talent level among elite competition, 'Bama just has a little more going for it. Only a little more, though.
The Richt Equilibrium. One of the ideas I had written down but was unable to get to this week was the observation that "Georgia is Georgia" -- since Mark Richt's first SEC championship in 2002, there's been very little fluctuation from year to year. I wrote that down before checking the record, actually, but it generally holds up: UGA's win totals over the last six seasons are 11, 10, 10, 9, 11 and 10, and its final AP poll standing reads 7, 7, 10, 23, 2 and 13. Even the outliers in that sequence, the 2006 team that nearly imploded in October and had to rally to finish in the polls at all and the '07 team that ripped through the second half of the schedule to finish No. 2 a year later, were only two games apart on paper (9-4 vs. 11-2) and essentially balance the whole back toward the average: roughly, 10-3 and somewhere between 7 and 13 in the final polls.
Last year, the preseason hype left over from the late surge in 2007 guaranteed that finish would be a disappointment, but UGA is pegged in exactly the same place to start this season, anyway. Not a bad compliment to a team that's supposedly "rebuilding" and plays probably the most ambitious schedule in the country -- the only team from a non-BCS conference is Tennessee Tech -- but we pretty much know what we're getting here.
Auburn: The low-octane Plain. I'd be genuinely optimistic about Arkansas if not for the strength at the top of the West and the inter-division draw against Florida and Georgia (not to mention South Carolina and then Texas A&M outside of the conference). But my Razorback love comes at the expense of Auburn, the one team among last year's three colossal flops (along with LSU and Tennessee) I don't see bouncing back to something resembling their old form based on their overall talent levels alone. Not that Auburn doesn't have athletes, especially on defense, but compared to the rest of the division, who are the playmakers on this team? Offensively, there's not even a convincing candidate outside of true freshmen who, as of right now, aren't even expected to play much. It's impossible not to respect what new offensive whiz Gus Malzahn has accomplished with limited talent at his previous stops, but there's only so much you can do on the blackboard when Chris Todd is the trigger man on the field. The bowl projection here is a very tentative one, presuming the Tigers can make it to 6-6.
Return of the Mildcats. I don't like the cut of Vanderbilt's jib as a repeat bowl team, but the fact that Kentucky was in a bowl game at all last year almost makes me angry. The Wildcats' resume in the regular season included wins over Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee State (which UK tackled on the one-yard line on the last play to preserve the win), Western Kentucky and all of two victories in SEC play, one-point triumphs over Arkansas and Mississippi State. Mike Hartline, who the coaches somehow deemed the third-best quarterback in the conference, was possibly the worst passer in the league against SEC defenses. The Wildcats were arguably the worst team in the league altogether outside of Starkville, and with Hartline and zero notable players around him on offense, there's very little here to like.