John Mitchell: As you have probably heard by now, Informative Sports has combined with Sports Nickel. We are continuing the Tailgater here at the new website. The URL may have changed, but the faces have not. Joining me as always are Zach Bigalke and Matt Strobl.
We are beginning our conference previews starting with the SEC. Yesterday we started with the SEC West, so let’s shift gears to the Eastern division. What do you think of this division as a whole?
Bigalke: The best team in the division wasn’t sure their coach would be back this year; they definitely don’t have their star QB and must retool their nucleus this season. The perennial darkhorse to the north has an even greener signal caller. The division’s traditional third powerhouse is in shambles. Two of the other schools are either more dedicated to the hardwood or hardbacks; the last amongst the half-dozen has a legendary coach and a history of unfulfilled dreams. So all things told this division looks like the West’s weaker cousin this season.
2010 Tailgater Previews
Strobl: I consider this a down year in the East, to the extent that that’s even possible. Florida won’t be the all-consuming powerhouse it has been in recent years, the Tennessee program is a mess at the moment, and Georgia has been oddly nondescript of late. Still, one or two teams will emerge from this division as BCS contenders.
Mitchell: It’s definitely a down year in the East this year and that has to be frustrating for those chasing Florida’s coattails. Florida is down from where they have been the past two years, but so is the rest of the SEC East. So, even when Florida isn’t quite as good as they have been the past two seasons, they are still the favorite in the East and it appears to be their division to lose.
With Tebow now gone, Florida remains the favorite in the SEC East. Can they once again win the East division even with someone else under center?
Strobl: Florida doesn’t rebuild, even after a loss like Tebow. It simply reloads. By all accounts, Brantley is a talented athlete who shouldn’t have a problem guiding the Gators’ offense. If anything, he might improve the passing attack—that’s a scary thought. It might be a down year for Florida, but that just means two losses instead of one. This program is simply too strong to have a poor campaign. The offensive line should be solid, and that will allow Urban Meyer to run a balanced offense that uses both Brantley and the stable of good running backs. Defensively the Gators return enough players to have sufficient experience, although they might not be as strong as they’ve been in recent seasons. Overall, the East is still Florida’s division.
Bigalke: That’s the thing. The division is down, Florida is weaker than they’ve been at any time in the past five years… and there is still no way the other five schools come near the Gators in terms of overall talent, either on the field or coaching on the sidelines. Brantley should be a decent-enough quarterback in Urban Meyer’s system; he isn’t going to give the Gators a running-back-in-a-linebacker’s-body mentality that Tebow brought to the table, but we saw what Meyer’s pass-based spread was able to do in Utah. The defense is the weaker link for this team, though they’ve still got enough names returning to remain formidable against their divisional rivals. Florida can certainly reclaim a spot in the SEC Championship this season with their current roster, warts and all.
Mitchell: I most certainly think Florida can and still will win the SEC East even with Tim Tebow now in the NFL and John Brantley taking his place. Make no mistake, Florida isn’t running out a scrub QB. Brantley was thought of as the 3rd best QB in the SEC last season behind Tebow and Jevan Snead. While that may have been far fetched, it’s a testament to how much potential he has. This is still a very good team that returns 15 starters. They won’t be as good as the last two Florida teams, but they are still strong enough to win the SEC East and compete for a National Championship as Florida fans have grown accustomed to under Urban Meyer.
Mark Richt was scrutinized a lot last season after a rough year in Athens. Can Georgia overcome starting a freshman QB to wrestle the SEC East away from Florida?
Bigalke: I can’t see how losing Cox really hurts this offense much — just look at his statline from 2009, when he stepped into the vacancy left by Matthew Stafford’s departure for the NFL Siberia that is Detroit: 185-of-331 (55.9%), 2584 yards, 24 TD/15 INT, 11 sacks. I know that this team has a lot of talent to break in, but it is really no different than the growing pains they felt last year post-Stafford and post-Knowshon Moreno. Georgia’s roster last season was skewed two-to-one in favor of underclassmen. That will benefit them this year, though Florida will likely prove their stumbling block once again.
Strobl: Well, Florida has its own new face at the quarterback position, but I don’t think UGA will come out on top this year. The departure of Joe Cox hurts the offense, and the defensive line needs re-tooling. Will the Bulldogs be a good team? Absolutely. Getting to double-digit wins is a possibility. But a couple of tricky games could result in upsets. Additionally, Georgia is bound to have some growing pains as it breaks in some new talent. Mark Richt will be on the hot seat, and will therefore have some added motivation to win. But I don’t think he has the weapons to overcome the Gators.
Mitchell: I would like Georgia a lot more if they weren’t starting a freshman QB. Regardless of how good Aaron Murray may be, we have learned in the past, especially in the SEC that starting a freshman QB is not a recipe to win the conference. Georgia has a lot of talent around Murray with nine starters returning on the offensive side of the ball. A lot of pressure will be off Murray as he has the luxury of throwing the ball to the best receiver in college football, AJ Green. I am a bit worried about the Bulldogs defensive line that has new starters across the board. I believe the future is bright in Athens, but I don’t think they can overtake Florida in 2010.
Almost every year we question whether this is the year South Carolina breaks out under Steve Spurrier. I’ll ask it again, will the Gamecocks break out in 2010?
Strobl: No team in football has been more disappointing over the years than the Gamecocks, though Clemson comes close. Every year is “the year” in Columbia, yet “the year’ always seems to end with a 7-5 or 6-6 record. Will 2010 be any different? Possibly, because some of the other teams in the East are not as stacked as they usually are. The other USC is still not going to break through and capture the division, but Carolina could finish with a respectable record and get to a decent bowl game. Both units return more or less intact from last year, and the non-conference schedule should yield four wins. And the Gamecocks get Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia at home, so don’t be surprised to see them pull an upset. This should be an 8-win team, and if things break the right way, a 9-win season is within reach.
Bigalke: Honestly, I love this team’s chances. Why? I honestly don’t know… I said last year would be the demise of Steve Spurrier, and I guess I was wrong, so consider this my jump to the opposite extreme. Stephen Garcia is back yet again for another year of seasoning in Columbia, and the maturation he showed as the season went on was positive. He’ll want to rebound from last year’s bowl game, where he was stymied by the Huskies of UConn. They return ten of their eleven offensive starters, eight on defense, and both their punter and kicker. If any year is going to be the year for the stars to align for Spurrier to capture the SEC East from his former school, this would be the year. Watch out, Georgia — that clash between the two schools in Columbia on September 11 is going to be pivotal.
Mitchell: I said last season was the year that South Carolina would bust out and put together an eight win season or so. I was wrong as they stayed along the 6-7 win plateau with a 7-6 season. Call me crazy, but I think once again that 2010 will be the year that the Gamecocks breakout. I don’t know what it is, but I like this team. Stephen Garcia is back at QB and gives South Carolina something that Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee don’t have, and that is a returning starter at the QB position. Add that to some strong skill position players and the new hope they have in the running game with Marcus Lattimore coming to Columbia and South Carolina has a team that I think could surprise in the SEC East. But, I’m most likely wrong on them again.
It’s been a wacky offseason for Tennessee with Lane Kiffin leaving for USC, Derek Dooley coming in as head coach, and a bevy of off the field issues. Will Tennessee be able to overcome these distractions and put together a solid season?
Bigalke: Look, I love Derek Dooley as the new choice to take over as Volunteers head coach. I really do… the former Louisiana Tech man is going to be a long-term boost to the school’s stature both in terms of the image it projects and the results it gets on the field. But the roster he’s inherited is not nearly as deep as his predecessors have enjoyed, the cupboards left barren on the departures of Fulmer and Kiffin over the past two seasons. Dooley has too many holes to address; the off-field issues springing up are only exacerbating an already tough situation for the new head coach. I can’t see Tennessee staying in the top half of the divisional standings, much less contending for a conference crown. Vols fans need to start looking forward to 2011, 2012 and beyond — if the NCAA doesn’t find them guilty of something damning before then.
Strobl: These are more than “off the field issues”. A bar brawl could result in a good chunk of the team being charged with felony offenses. At this point, it’s very difficult to predict what might happen, who might be suspended, and who might be expelled from the team. And even putting all of that aside, Dooley stepped into a trying situation. UT lost safety Eric Berry to the NFL—there went the best defensive back in the nation. The Vols also lost Jonathan Crompton, who was beginning to prove his mettle at the quarterback position. And they lost Montario Hardesty who was a competent tailback. Beyond those losses, the team has major holes on both lines. In short, Tennessee is in trouble.
Mitchell: Even before some Tennessee players had some run-ins with the law this offseason, it was expected that year one under Derek Dooley would be a rebuilding year. Tennessee is lacking the talent to compete with the big boys in the SEC. They are throwing out a new QB, Matt Simms (Phil’s son), and he will be thrown directly into the lion’s den behind an offensive line that doesn’t return a single starter. Tennessee’s offense took a step forward last season, but I expect them to fall hard next season. 2010 will be a minor roadblock in what should be a bright future for the Vols with Dooley at the helm.
For the first time in seven years, Rich Brooks will not be on the Kentucky sideline when the season starts. Joker Phillips has taken over as the new head coach. Can Joker Phillips lead the Wildcats to a 5th straight bowl game?
Strobl: I think he can, but to do so he needs some new defensive starters to step up. Kentucky lost a lot of talent from last year’s D, and that unit will be under a lot of pressure to perform coming into 2010. On the other hand, the offense gets a boost in that quarterback Mike Hartline should be fully recovered from a knee injury that put him out of commission last year. The non-conference schedule is cake, and UK should beat Ole Miss, MSU, and Vandy. There are seven wins right there. Winning the 50/50 games and pulling even one upset will put the Wildcats in a good position this year.
Bigalke: I definitely think this Wildcats squad has the potential; but I don’t envision quite the high ceiling that Matt predicts. They can definitely reach a bowl game — six wins with the schedule they’re sporting is the barest of minimums they should be able to reach. But I have a feeling they lose one of those two games to the Mississippi schools (probably Ole Miss). I think that defense, great against the pass and abysmal against the run last year, is going to take a step back from what was already merely mediocre. Kentucky will go bowling, but it isn’t going to be a pretty season in Lexington as a coaching legend is replaced.
Mitchell: Absolutely. Don’t be surprised if Kentucky jumps ahead of Tennessee into fourth place in the SEC East this season. The Wildcats return pretty much all of their skill-position players from last season including all-everything Randall Cobb and QB Mike Hartline. If Kentucky misses out on a bowl game for the first time in five years, then the blame will likely fall on an undersized defense. Their front seven has a lot of holes and it will likely be exposed during the season. Good news for Kentucky is that their schedule sets up nicely for them to pick up the six wins they need to make a bowl game, but I don’t know if I would expect much more out of them in 2010.
Bobby Johnson shockingly retired from his head coaching position at Vanderbilt this summer and Robbie Caldwell has taken over as interim coach. What’s the outlook for Vanderbilt with Bobby Johnson no longer patrolling the sidelines?
Bigalke: Look, I loved Bobby Johnson. The work he did with Vanderbilt two years ago was legendary. For a while a school more renowned for churning out the stars of sports writing than of the sports themselves, Johnson had them relevant for a fleeting moment. Then last year came around, and Johnson saw that there was no need to continue banging his head against the low ceiling which occupies coaching in Nashville. Now Caldwell steps into that not-so-hot seat. He’s got a decent group of returnees — from last year’s 2-10 squad. The Commodores are still going to be looking at a bunch of brickhouse defenses in their conference; there is simply nothing positive in this situation to indicate that this offense is going to be anything but one of the dozen worst in the nation again this year. The defense will remain mired in mediocrity. The cellar awaits Vanderbilt’s near-annual arrival yet again.
Strobl: What was the outlook with Johnson? Under the best conditions, this is a last place team. The 2008 season was nice, but it’s now ancient history, and last year’s 2-10 mark was more of what we’ve come to expect out of the Commodores. Losing Bobby Johnson makes this team even less likely to surprise. Caldwell may prove to be a talented coach, but there is a natural period of adjustment after any transition. Vanderbilt has a slew of returning starters, but experience won’t make the difference.
Mitchell: Things in Nashville were bleak at best even with Bobby Johnson expected to stand on the sidelines. With him now gone and Robbie Caldwell taking the job as the interim head coach, I don’t think things look any worse, but they definitely didn’t get any better. Caldwell has said all the right things and received major praise at SEC Media Days, but I don’t expect anything more than two wins from this team in 2010 and even that may be pushing it.
SEC EAST PREDICTIONS
|1. Florida||1. Florida||1. Florida|
|2. Georgia||2. S. Carolina||2. S. Carolina|
|3. S. Carolina||3. Georgia||3. Georgia|
|4. Kentucky||4. Kentucky||4. Kentucky|
|5. Tennessee||5. Tennessee||5. Tennessee|
|6. Vanderbilt||6. Vanderbilt||6. Vanderbilt|
Let’s move on to some other questions around the SEC East and the conference in general. For starters, what do you make of the Maurkice Pouncey situation?
Bigalke: Well, Pouncey isn’t there on campus anymore. So unlike the Dareus situation we discussed yesterday, the ramifications are going to be completely different for the Gators than what might happen to Alabama. At this point, though, nothing is really going to surprise me regarding all the information that keeps coming out regarding agent contact with college athletes. Unlike Saban and Meyer, though, I don’t think it is wise to lay all the blame squarely at the feet of the “pimps” and “predators” on the agent side. These are grown men, who know well the ramifications their actions could have on the team. It is unfortunate, but until agents start being truly penalized for their actions AND players start seeing their eligibility dry up in college and at the professional level these matters aren’t disappearing.
Strobl: It’s becoming an unfortunately common occurrence that athletes are falling victim to agent interference. If speculation about Pouncey proves to be true, it will be a black eye for the program, but not a particularly damaging one. Nothing at the USC level anyway. The Gators might have to vacate the Sugar Bowl win over Cincinnati and could receive some other slap-on-the-wrist sanctions. It’s a shame that players can’t follow the rules, but we’re talking about an awful lot of money. Given the situations many of these students are in, it’s not surprising that they’d be tempted to cross the line. The NCAA needs to address the imbalances that cause this type of behavior if it truly wants to eradicate the problem. How it might do so is a difficult question to answer.
Mitchell: You can read more of my thoughts on the Pouncey situation here. Pouncey has vehemently denied that he took $100K from an agent prior to the Sugar Bowl and in these situations you never know what to believe until the truth finally comes out. If Pouncey is found guilty of doing that, I don’t see the University getting in any more trouble than just having to forfeit the Sugar Bowl win over Florida.
It’s been a wacky offseason in Knoxville. What is your take on all the offseason incidents that have happened there?
Bigalke: What a waste of scholarships. That’s about all I can say about this — what a waste of scholarships. The kinds of players which have been brought in over the past few years to the program in Knoxville, talented though they may be, are doing more harm than good for the Volunteers. Their reputation as a program, once among the most golden in college football, is now in tatters. Between the bar brawls, the secondary violations and the turnstile on the coach’s office door the UT program has a lot of rebuilding to do. If Dooley is wise, he’ll start tossing players from this roster left and right. As much as it would hurt the already-slim prospects for the Vols this season, the long-term implication that a new sheriff is in town and demanding accountability would set a long-needed change in tone for a too-complicit program.
Strobl: I think that for too long, folks have looked the other way when bad things happened. I think there are some serious character issues with the players on this team, and I think that new coach Derek Dooley needs to clean house with swift action and an iron hand. Any player who actively participated in the recent bar brawl should be removed from the team. Any player who stood by and watched it all happen should be suspended. If that means the Vols play a second or third-string unit and finish last, so be it—at least they will have some integrity. Certain antics are part of growing up. Young people make mistakes. But beating people into unconsciousness and beyond is not acceptable under any circumstances. If Dooley wants to put his stamp on the program, he should start by cleaning house.
Mitchell: I pretty much agree with Matt. Anybody that was even in attendance when the bar brawl took place and did nothing to break it up should be kicked off the team just like those that were actively involved. It might cripple the team for the upcoming season, but Dooley would be sending a message to future recruits and current players that he will not be putting up with that crap as long as he’s the coach at Tennessee. I think Dooley is a really good, classy coach, and I expect great things out of him, but he has to start by gaining control of what is going on.
Who do you think is the biggest sleeper team in the SEC this year?
Strobl: Probably Auburn. Arkansas and Georgia are too talented to be considered sleepers, and Carolina never lives up to expectations. But the Tigers could find themselves near the top of the West for much of the season. It all depends on newcomers stepping up and producing.
Bigalke: I really like South Carolina’s chances this year. The SEC East is down, the Gamecocks return a bunch of talent on both sides, and they’ve proven capable of getting a surprise result here and there during the season. I disagree with Matt that South Carolina is going to bomb again this year; if anything, it looks like we project the Bizarro version of each other’s predictions. Seriously, though, it will all come down to whether they can avenge last year’s four-point loss to the Bulldogs.
Mitchell: It’s South Carolina! I know they seem to be a sleeper team every year and often disappoint, but I believe 2010 is the year they jump up with an eight or nine win season and seriously challenge Florida for the SEC East crown. With the addition of Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina finally has a legit running game to go along with an ample passing attack. I’ve believed it to be the year they would break out for the last two seasons as well. Hopefully this time I will finally be proven right.
Who do you think is the best pro prospect in the SEC right now?
Bigalke: Ryan Mallett (QB/Arkansas) — Sure, Ingram won the Heisman… but honestly I think Richardson will have the longer NFL career out of that Alabama backfield. For pure, over-the-top NFL readiness, I’m going with Ryan Mallett. The Texarkana boy, who went to Michigan one of the most hyped recruits in the country and returned homeward to play for his state school after Rich Rodriguez arrived in Ann Arbor and changed the offense on him, benefits from a second year in the Petrino system. Say what you will about the coach, but he knows how to prepare quarterbacks to excel. And with the tools Mallett possesses — 6’7”, 238 pounds, a strong arm, smart instincts and an education in two different pro-style systems (with Carr at Michigan and now under Petrino) — he could be a valuable starter for years to come in the NFL.
Strobl: Mark Ingram (RB/Alabama) – I’d have to say Ryan Mallett and Mark Ingram top most watchlists, but I’ll go with Ingram. Primarily because he is recognizable after winning the Heisman Trophy and a National Championship, but also because of his talent. He has great balance as a back—enough power to be powerful, enough speed to elude tackles, and enough vision to open holes. Elite tailbacks are always in high demand, and I think that Mallett still has some weaknesses to address.
Mitchell: Mark Ingram (RB/Alabama) – I’m going to agree with Matt and say Mark Ingram. Watch film of both Mark Ingram and Emmitt Smith during his college days at Florida and tell me they don’t resemble each other all the way down to the jersey number. Ingram has the great mixture of speed and power and can cut back into the hole at a blink of the eye. He’s already got a Heisman trophy and National Championship to his resume and I do expect this will be Ingram’s final year in Tuscaloosa and he should be the top RB prospect in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Taking a look at the schedule, what is the most intriguing matchup in the conference this year?
Strobl: Florida-Georgia holds the most weight. That game could determine who represents the East in the SEC Title Game, and by extension, who might have the best shot at the BCS. Both teams have some untested talent, so the game could go either way. I’m leaning Florida, but it won’t be a runaway in either direction.
Bigalke: I really think the South Carolina-Georgia contest in Columbia on September 11 is going to define which direction the SEC East goes. If Spurrier’s squad can get the win at home, the power balance as it currently stands could swing toward the Gamecocks this season as the closest challenger to the Gators. I keep hyping up this game; last year we saw a 41-37 thriller in Georgia where the Gamecocks came back from a fifteen-point deficit with four improbable scoring plays (FG, safety, FG and INT return) that would’ve tied the game if not for a blocked PAT attempt. The fireworks will be out again this night as South Carolina hopes to repay the favor as hosts this time around.
Mitchell: The most intriguing matchup doesn’t always mean the game with the most on the line. I think without a doubt the most intriguing matchup will be when on October 2nd when Florida comes into Bryant-Denny Stadium to face Alabama. These two teams have faced each other in the last two SEC Championship games and have ruled the SEC of late. All signs point to a third consecutive meeting in the SEC Championship game, so this would be a preview of things to come if the two meet again later on in the Georgia Dome.
One final question: We’ve made our predictions for each division, now, who do you think will win the SEC?
Bigalke: We’re likely going to see another rematch between the Gators and the Crimson Tide for the conference championship. With the disparity in talent widening between these two schools, Alabama will probably walk away with the title again this year.
Strobl: Alabama has too much talent right now. I think the Tide repeat.
Mitchell: I like Alabama to win their second consecutive SEC Championship over Florida.
Thanks for joining us on the second of many editions of the Tailgater previews to come before and during the college football season. We will be turning our attention to the Big XII when we return the next time, so make sure you join us again soon!