2011 FINAL SEC STANDINGS
Georgia 10-4 (7-1)
South Carolina 11-2 (6-2)
Florida 7-6 (3-5)
Vanderbilt 6-7 (2-6)
Kentucky 5-7 (2-6)
Tennessee 5-7 (1-7)
LSU 13-1 (8-0)
Alabama 12-1 (7-1)
Arkansas 11-1 (6-2)
Auburn 8-5 (4-4)
Mississippi State 7-6 (2-6)
Ole Miss 2-10 (0-8)
2011 Championship Game: LSU 42 Georgia 10
RETURNING STATISTICAL LEADERS
Returning Leaders: Passing
Tyler Wilson, Arkansas, Sr (277 of 438 for 3638 yds, 24 TD, 6 INT)
Connor Shaw, South Carolina, Jr (123 of 188 for 1448 yds, 14 TD, 6 INT)
AJ McCarron, Alabama, Jr (219 of 328 for 2634 yds, 16 TD, 5 INT)
Aaron Murray, Georgia, Jr (238 of 403 for 3149 yds, 35 TD, 14 INT)
Returning Leaders: Rushing
Zac Stacy, Vandy, Sr (201 carries for 1193, 5.94 ypc, 14 TD)
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina, Jr (163 carries for 818 yds, 5.02 ypc, 10 TD)
Michael Ford, LSU, Jr (127 carries for 756 yds, 5.95 ypc, 7 TD)
Spencer Ware, LSU, JR (177 carries for 707 yds, 3.99 ypc, 8 TD)
Returning Leaders: Receiving
Tavarres King, Georgia, Sr (46 rec, 677 yds, 8 TD)
Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia, Soph (45 rec, 665 yds, 4 TD)
Jordan Matthews, Vandy, Jr (41 rec, 778 yds, 5 TD)
Chris Gragg, Arkansas, Sr (41 rec, 518 yds, 2 TD)
Odell Beckham, LSU (41 rec, 475 yds, 2 TD)
Returning Leaders: Tackles
Cameron Lawrence, Miss St, Sr (123 tackles, 9.46 tackles/game)
Daren Bates, Auburn, Sr (104 tackles, 8.00 tackles/game)
Jonathan Bostic, Florida, Sr (94 tackles, 7.23 tackles/game)
Martavius Neloms, Kentucky, Sr (71 tackles, 7.10 tackles/game)
Returning Leaders: Sacks
Jarvis Jones, Georgia, Jr (13.5 sacks)
Corey Lemonier, Auburn, Jr (9.5)
Sam Montgomery, LSU, Jr (9.0)
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina, Soph (8.0)
Barkevious Mingo, LSU, Jr (7.0)
Returning Leaders: Interceptions
Bacarri Rambo, Georgia, Sr (8 interceptions)
Johnthan Banks, Miss St, Sr (5)
Nickoe Whitley, Miss St, (5)
Charles Sawyer, Ole Miss (4)
Shawn Williams, Georgia (4)
BREAKING DOWN THE SEC WITH THE ZEALOTS AND THE SATURDAY EDGE:
Jay (Prediction: #2, West): I guess nobody wants to hear more Bama propaganda from me. For the time being, I'll just say that this year's Tide has the makings of another elite team, but the schedule gives me pause. It's not just the road trips to Arkansas and LSU either. There's also the matter of back-to-back away games at Missouri and Tennessee in October. It's going to be extremely hard for this team not to trip over one of those earlier games, and, of course, it'll be tough to walk out of Baton Rouge with the W.
Ross (Prediction: #1, West, Conference Champion): Bama's two biggest holes appear to be running back, wide receiver, and defense. Is anyone worried about Bama's ability to reload on defense? They won't be as good as they were in 2011, when they were a brick wall, but they aren't going to be bad. They probably won't even be mediocre. Running back and wide receiver will be a little more difficult to replace, but with an experienced, talented offensive line and an experienced quarterback, they should produce solid results.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #1, West): Defending national champions. Best coach in the land. Returning QB. Unreal recruiting class year after year. Sounds good enough right? It should be. Tide fans have reason to be excited for this season. McCarron is a year older. The question mark is how well does the defense reload? If they can’t be last years defense, can they score enough on offense to carry their hopes and dreams? I see there being 2 “decider” games for the Tide, and Michigan will not be one of them. I think they put the Big 10 in their place. Their 2 big games are at Arkansas and at LSU. Arkansas is tougher than most people realize. LSU is LSU and could go either way. At the end of the day, they will be standing atop the SEC West, but will they be alone?
Kevin (Prediction: #1, West, Conference Champion): Expect Alabama or LSU to be headed to Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship Game. Just like every year, the question is if they can make it through the brutal SEC West unscathed and challenge for the National Title. For that to happen somebody is going to have to rise to another level on offense. It may be McCarron, Lacy or Yeldon but somebody needs to be the key cog. That and how quickly the defense comes together and fills the roles of the departed NFL players will be the difference between playing in a really good bowl and a BCS National Championship Game.
Jay (Prediction: #3, West): This team has been a little overhyped. Tyler Wilson is a legitimately great QB, and Chris Gragg presents a big problem for anybody at tight end, but beyond that, I think hyperbole takes over. I mean, Cobi Hamilton has been a nice complementary receiver to Jarius Wright, Joe Adams, and healthy Greg Childs, but he's yet to convince me that he's on that level in his own right. And he's the most proven commodity the Razorbacks have at receiver. As for Knile Davis, look, he was extremely productive in 2010, and probably will be again this season, but go back and do the math on how many of his yards came on draw plays or other finesse runs. He's not in the category with Lattimore or Richardson. On defense, with the losses of Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin, and Tramain Thomas, I think they take a step backwards this season (and they weren't that far forward to begin with). Petrino did not recruit at the Bama/LSU level where Arkansas can lose difference makers of that caliber and just plug-and-play the next guy off the bench. They will be sorely missed. The situation at linebacker is so dire, the Razorbacks have had to move Tank Wright from the DL to their Mike spot. Oh, and I haven't even gotten to the part where their head coach and offensive mastermind was fired in disgrace. But that did happen. This will still be a good team, and they have a great schedule, but this is not going to be their year to take the next leap.
Ross (Prediction: #3, West): With Bobby Petrino at the helm, this was a fun dark horse pick to win the SEC West. With John L. Smith at the helm, it's a question of whether nor not they squander their talent and finish lower than third in the division. If he gets out of the way and lets Tyler Wilson do his thing, the Hogs should be OK. But it's hard to see Smith leading Arkansas to wins over Alabama and LSU and road dates at Texas A&M and Auburn smell ripe for an upset.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #3, West): It’s tough to be Arkansas this year. Not getting much love when you have teams such as Bama, LSU, Georgia, SC, Florida, etc. in your conference. Your coach is buzzin' around with mistresses on a motorcycle in the off-season, and a new coach is in now place. Tyler Wilson will be good, but I don’t think he is the best QB in the conference. If Arkansas can muster up a defense, they may have a respectable season. It’s a shame that Arky has to play Bama, Auburn, SC, and LSU in one season. They have a solid team this year, probably one of the top 5 teams in the nation, talent and experience wise. Three games will be decisive: Bama, SC, LSU. I think best case they win 2 out of 3. Arkansas is fortunate enough to play Alabama and LSU at home. If they can stay healthy, I think that they can steal one of these games. I just don’t think that a team can take all three of those games, especially with playing other SEC teams.
Kevin (Prediction: #3, West): Arkansas is very capable of winning the conference but they have yet to prove they can jump that hurdle. Offensively, this might be the best group of talent the Razorbacks have had in quite some time. Can Arkansas catch a re-loading Bama defense before they have a chance to settle into their roles? Arkansas might have caught a break with the early scheduling of that game this season. That said, I still see this team as the third best squad in the West. In any other conference it's possible they could be the best or second best team but in this division of seven teams I have them third until they prove they can beat the champs.
Jay (Prediction: #5, West): Aside from that season-opening meeting with Clemson, Auburn has about the easiest schedule possible, with only 4 true road games (two of which are against Vanderbilt and pitiful Ole Miss). If the Tigers don't win at least 7 games, Gene Chizik should probably be fired. How far they're able to surpass that 7 win barrier will likely depend on how the offensive talent on hand adapts to new OC Scott Loeffler's pro-style scheme (which from what little I've seen, resembles what Florida tried to run in it's ill-fated 2010 experiment while Loeffler was there). Said talent on hand is not ideal. With the departure of Michael Dyer and the recent ineligibility of Jovon Robinson, the Tigers lack a true between-the-tackles runner. And one doesn't have to look further than the aforementioned Gators and Texas for recent examples of how difficult it is to transition from the spread to a pro scheme without a power back. And, if I was an Auburn fan, I'd be extremely concerned about the QB situation. Kiehl Frazier may one day develop into something special, but he ain't that now. Even Gus Malzahn, whose offense Frazier was allegedly a specialist in having played in it throughout high school, didn't trust the kid enough to let him throw the ball. It took him most of this offseason to separate himself from terrible, gimpy-armed Clint Moseley. On the plus side, I expect a bit of a bounce back for the Auburn defense. They've stockpiled a lot of talent on the defensive line of late, and I think new DC Brian VanGorder's scheme will turn them loose to make more plays this year. That will help keep the scores from being quite as embarrassing as they got against the best teams in the conference in 2011. But the back 7 is still a mess. They're still extremely undersized and not ideally athletic at linebacker. The secondary is loaded with experience, but I don't know if the returning players have ever played a good game against quality competition, ever. All in all, I see the Tigers clocking in at Chizik's non-Cam standard of 8 wins, none of them against anyone of consequence.
Ross (Prediction: #5, West): Auburn lost the coinflip. They return several starters on defense, but have to retool on offense and break in several new coaches. Their cross-division games (at Vandy, Georgia) also look trickier than Mississippi State's cross-division games. They could also very easily start the season 1-4 with losses to Clemson, Mississippi State, LSU, and Arkansas (and a win over ULM).
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #4, West): Do you see Cam Newton coming back to Auburn? No. Auburn will be good, but I think they are still a season or two away from their next National Championship run. QB Kiehl Frazier won the starting job this past week, but he only has 12 pass attempts last season. Auburn has 2 new coordinators in place trying to set their precedence and a star RB that has flaked out. They will have an up and down season. Best case, I think Auburn has a 9-3 season. They can’t get past LSU, Bama, nor Georgia in my opinion. They won’t be powerful enough. Clemson will set the pace on the season and Arky will be a decisive game on how the rest of their record and season will end up.
Kevin (Prediction: #5, West): Auburn has a tough schedule this year. They have to navigate the SEC West gauntlet (LSU, Bama, Arkansas), they get the favorite in the SEC East (Georgia) who has beat Auburn in five of their last six games and they also play a very tough Clemson team in the first game of the season. Auburn is going to have to grow up fast this year. If they can somehow get past Clemson in game one it would be a gigantic boost to this young teams confidence and could turn their season. If they don't then it's going to be an uphill battle because in game four and five they host LSU and Arkansas. Last year Auburn struggled to an 8-5 record. Can they take the next step this year or will it be another learning year as Auburn installs new coordinators on both sides of the football?
Jay (Prediction: #2, East): The Gators actually had a solid defense last year, it just wasn't so good as to compensate for their offensive shortcomings. But with 10 starters back on defense (and 16 of their top 20 tacklers), I'm expecting their defense to take a massive leap forward into the elite category in year 2 under Will Muschamp. They just might be good enough to win a few more games in spite of the offense this season. And, you know, I don't make any promises about the offense being better, but it almost has to be, doesn't it? They only scored 6 points on Auburn, man. Auburn. In fact, they scored fewer than 14 points in 5 games. It should be impossible for a Florida offense to be that bad two years in a row. Granted, from a personnel perspective, there isn't enough new blood on that side of the ball to make a convincing argument that they're going to be massively improved, but I do like the move to Brent Pease as offensive coordinator. Coming out of the Boise system, I expect him to have more creative ideas on how to manufacture points than Charlie Weis seemed to (I think the number was "2"). So between the offense getting a little better, the defense getting a lot better, and a favorable conference slate, I think you've got the makings of a contender. I came very close to pulling the trigger on Florida as my #1 in the East.
Ross (Prediction: #3, East): The Gators' defense should be really good this year: they return ten starters and if there's one thing that Will Muschamp knows a thing or three about it, it's quality defenses. That defense should make them competitive in pretty much every game on their schedule. But can the offense score enough to turn those games into Ws? Hard to say -- they have returning starters at wide receive who have failed to impress, plus an all-new backfield. Things could turn out fine, but it seems wiser to be cautious until proven otherwise.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #2, East): This team is my biggest sleeper in not only the SEC East, but also the nation. They return 10 of 11 defenders from a defense that was already one of the best in the nation. This team is really, really deep. They have their RB returning, as well as their star return man Debose and kicker. Their question mark becomes the QB position, where two sophomores have been battling it out. Both were heavily touted coming out of high school and both should be much improved. This team definitely does not have an easy path. The way I see it, they go into their game against FSU with one loss. I think they will stun LSU in the swamp, and have a shot to knock off Georgia in a neutral site game. If they can pull off 2 of the 3 decider games and stave off the rest of their schedule, you will see them playing in the SEC title game for a ticket to the big stage.
Kevin (Prediction: #3, East): Florida has a favorable schedule this year but that doesn't mean it's easy. In fact far from it but their toughest conference road game is a toss up between Texas A&M and Tennessee and that's not bad. Florida gets their toughest conference games at home (or in their home state) in Georgia, LSU and South Carolina and they also get Missouri at home. If Florida can get through the Tennessee/Texas A&M games and go 4-0 heading into LSU they could be in for a big season. That would give this team a ton of confidence to build on and even an expected loss to LSU would still have them in a very favorable position. Now if Will Muschamp could just decide on a QB.
Jay (Prediction: #1, East): Georgia's defense should be able to carry the team through the majority of the season. With 9 starters back, as well as 17 of their top 20 tacklers from 2011, this will be one of the best defenses in the country and likely post numbers similar to 2005, the last time the Bulldogs won the SEC championship. As long as things don't completely fall apart on that suspension-ravaged road trip to Missouri, it could be possible for UGA to roll along without the offense having to do much heavy lifting. But, inevitably, there's going to be at least one game where the offense has to make some big plays to win, and I'll be interested to see how that plays out. Aaron Murray has all the gaudy stats, but he has yet to lead the Bulldogs to a big win against a great opponent. He has no "signature victory," you might say. In fact, there are many more instances you can point to where he has shrunk in the face of The Moment. If he can't break through that barrier, well, UGA will likely still go to the SEC title game (the defense is too good, the schedule too favorable), but the Bulldogs will come up short a big game, yet again.
Ross (Prediction: #2, East): Two questions for the Bulldogs: just how far can Aaron Murray carry the offense and can the defense weather the early-season suspensions? The latter shouldn't be too hard; other than an away date with Missouri (where the natives will no doubt be fired up for their first-ever SEC home game), Georgia's other early-season opponents look pretty soft. As for the former... definitely maybe? He might be the best QB in the SEC... and he might need to be just that for Georgia to have a shot to win the East.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #1, East): This is Georgia’s year. The schedule aligns, the defense is stout, and they have a veteran QB leading the way. If they can get through the games when they have some players suspended, it shouldn't be a bad ride for the Bulldogs. I think it comes down to two tough games for the Bulldogs: the Gamecocks and against the Gators. Winning both of these gives them a bid to the SEC Title game and most likely the opportunity to play for the BCS title. Everything is in place, can Georgia finally take advantage or will they flop like usual?
Kevin (Prediction: #1, East): Despite talk of Georgia's "easy" schedule, they still play an SEC schedule and they have five games against teams that are considered rivals. They do have a huge benefit of not playing Alabama and LSU from the SEC West, but they still have to approach every game in front of them as all of their conference games, starting with Missouri, will be big. The areas to watch for Georgia will be special teams, the offensive line and weathering the early season suspensions. Could this be a special season for Georgia or will it end in heart-break?
Jay (Prediction: #7, East): In the plus column for this year's Kentucky team, it's almost inconceivable that the offense won't be better than it was last year, when it only managed 15 points per game. Sohpomore QB Maxwell Smith looks the part under center (6'4", 230), and big-bodied La'Rod King (6'4", 210) could emerge as a dangerous weapon with some decent quarterback play. But with three new starters on the offensive line and no workhorse in the backfield, it's difficult to imagine them improving enough to offset their losses on defense. The linebacking corps in particular is a major concern, where they're losing two NFL draft picks and replacing them with unproven youngsters. Even if the Wildcats were to take a major leap to 25 ppg, I think the defense is in danger of giving up close to 30. It's clear whatever mojo Rich Brooks had working here left with him, and Joker Phillips was not the guy to keep it going. I expect Kentucky to spend bowl season searching for a new coach.
Ross (Prediction: #7, East): Hey, that basketball title sure was great, wasn't it, Kentucky fans? Yep.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #7, East): If there is one team other than Ole Miss that I feel terrible for, it's Kentucky. Man do they have it rough. Not only are they not a good team in the SEC, they aren't even the best team in their state (and there are not many teams in Kentucky). They seem to have some answers under center in Max Smith, but it doesn't help when most of your O line is gone. Defense has a ton up in the air as well. Even though there are a few SEC games I believe the Cats can put up a fight in, I don't see them making a bowl. They play a pretty brutal schedule, and it's never good when some of the out of conference games could be toss-ups. Who fears the brow now?
Kevin (Prediction: #7, East): With Joker Phillips getting promoted internally, my expectation was for him to be able to pick up running with this team. That has simply not happened as he's followed up four straight winning seasons from Rich Brooks with two losing seasons. This team is going to beat Kent State, WKU and Samford but realistically those could be the only games they win this season.
Jay (Prediction: #1, West): Here's what's important: LSU returns over 100 starts worth of experience on the offensive line, jumbo FB JC Copeland, and their entire stable of running backs. That group rushed for over 200 ypg in 2011. Who is going to stop them from doing the same in 2012? And keep in mind, they did that with every team they played knowing that they didn't have a QB who could throw. If Zach Mettenberger is even a quarter of the player LSU fans are building him up to be, the Bayou Bengals are going to be tough to get off the field. They'll probably average close to 40 ppg. And at that point, whatever slight drop-off they may suffer on defense won't even matter. Keep in mind, LSU has only given up more than 20 ppg once during Les Miles' tenure. Even with their extensive losses in the back end of the D, the front looks as fast and ferocious as ever. They actually have a very tough conference schedule, including a road trip to Florida followed by a home date with South Carolina in October, so it wouldn't surprise me if they tripped over somebody they shouldn't, but I do, unfortunately, give them the edge over Bama in Baton Rouge on November 3rd.
Ross (Prediction: #2, West): Is Zach Mettenberger good? Can LSU rebuild their secondary without Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu? If the answer to those questions is "yes," LSU could find themselves atop the SEC West again. If the answer to either is "no," things figure to be a little rockier than they were last year. But they return a lot of talent on both lines as well as a deep group of running backs. This will still be a very good team.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #2. West): How scary is it that the Tigers have the potential to be better than they were last year? They have a QB that can actually throw the ball. They have a 3-tier RB duo that can give them whatever type of run game they need. They have Les Miles. They got it all. The question mark is the defense. It will be strong no doubt, but can they replace some of their secondary issues? We'll see. No doubt about it, LSU will be dangerous this year. I would not be shocked to see Florida or SC give them a loss this year. Florida, at the Swamp, with an extremely talented defense is my guess on where it comes from. They should finish the year with 1 loss, possibly 2, making the SEC championship contender from the west coming down to the winner of their showdown against Bama, as usual.
Kevin (Prediction: #2, West): LSU will once again challenge for the SEC and National Championships. How Mettenberger is utilized will be very interesting and will add an extra dimension to LSU's offense if they choose to utilize it. The defense will once again be very good but the loss of two elite play-makers in the secondary will come into play at some point in the season. Will LSU be able to get past that point when it happens?
Jay (Prediction: #4, East): I think it's going to be fascinating watching Missouri's offense in the SEC. Sure, we've seen spread offenses in the SEC (Florida, Auburn, Mississippi State), but they've typically been more run-oriented, power spreads with multiple backs in the backfield, tight ends on the line of scrimmage, etc. Missouri is the exact opposite of that. They play with four guys split wide the majority of the time, and often with five. Their OL plays with the widest splits in college football. Their QB will even take the shotgun snap from 7 yards deep instead of 5. It's either going to be a horrible failure or a spectacular success. And this isn't Texas A&M, a team that's just now transitioning to a wild spread offense. Mizzou has been at this for a long time. I don't envy Georgia having to be the first conference guinea pig. All that said, they draw a really difficult schedule, having to go on the road to face the other three East contenders and Alabama paying a not-so-friendly visit to Columbia. I do think the Tigers will upset one of the Big 4 teams in the East, but ultimately, the rigors of the SEC schedule will be too much for them. Their defense is going to get mashed by the more physical SEC offenses, and their OL hasn't faced a cavalcade of killer DL's like this, ever. It'll be...an adjustment.
Ross (Prediction: #5, East): To be fair, Missouri is east... of the Rockie Mountains. Anyway, geographic strangeness aside, it will be fascinating to see how they match up with their new SEC peers this year. They'll get an early test when they play Georgia in week two and drawing Alabama from the SEC West is unfortunate. But this seems like a team that should be competitive in the East.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #5 (tie), East): New to the SEC this year, they are coming off a solid season and look to make waves in the big show. QB Franklin came across an injury in spring practice, leaving their offense up in the air. They only have one WR with significant experience, T.J. Moe. The defense is a little bit more solidified but I believe it is going to be a rude awakening to the SEC. Not only do they have depth issues, but they play a tough schedule (I know I’ve said this a million times, but it’s the SEC). I think they have a shot to make a bowl game, but that will require a win or two over their SEC foes. A lot of their season is riding on the shoulder of QB Franklin, literally.
Kevin (Prediction: #4, East): There is no doubt that Missouri is a good team that can step up and be a great team on any given weekend. I question whether they can do it on a week to week basis. Missouri won double-digit games in three out of four seasons from 2007 to 2010 but they haven't been consistent double-digit game winners. Can they build off of an 8-5 season last year? It's difficult to think they can come into the SEC and be much better than that. Three of their first four SEC games are against Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Welcome to the conference.
Jay (Prediction: #4, West): I'm a bit hesitant to place the Bulldogs this high, but I think they catch Auburn at home at just the right time (week 2, following their game with Clemson) to steal a rare win against the Tigers. From there, they should chalk up wins against Kentucky and the West cellar dwellers for a solid, .500 conference record. Throw in a weak non-conference schedule with what should be 4 gimme wins, and a return to the glory days of 2010 looks to be in the cards. I think the departure of Chris Relf will be a blessing for the Bulldogs, even if Tyler Russell has never really impressed me.
Ross (Prediction: #4, West): Miss. State won the coinflip with Auburn, frankly. Like Auburn, they look like a better team on defense than offense. They play Auburn at home, though, and have a reasonably favorable schedule: they could home serve at home in the SEC (Tennessee, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Auburn) and even steal a few conference road games (at Kentucky, at Ole Miss). They do play Alabama and LSU on the road, but they weren't winning those games anyway.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #6, West): Somewhat of a breakout season last year, Mississippi State looks to improve upon how things ended up last year. A heavily recruited and touted QB out of God’s Country, with nearly every receiver returning, the offense should be able to move the ball, and frankly, that is their only hope. They could have a good year, if they can stop teams from passing all over them. There is just so much up in the air with this team. I almost feel bad they have to play the SEC West schedule. If it weren’t for Ole Miss, State would not have a win against an SEC West opponent. Auburn at home could be a close one. Auburn is more talented but State is gritty as hell. Tennessee will be good this year, and will give them a run for their money. A&M could be burnt out by this point after playing Florida, Arky, LSU and Auburn.
Kevin (Prediction: #4, West): The schedule sets up very nicely for Mississippi State. Worst case scenario should see them at 5-2 in their first seven games. Dan Mullen lost a little bit of his "mystique" last year with a couple of questionable calls and without any signature wins but I think he gets the team back on track this year and will push to be at the top of that second tier of teams in the SEC West.
Jay (Prediction: #7, West): New coach Hugh Freeze (HEY DID YOU KNOW HE WAS THE COACH FROM THE BLIND SIDE???) was able to engineer a quick turnaround in his lone season at Arkansas State, taking the Red Wolves from back-to-back 4-8 seasons to 10 wins and a Sun Belt conference championship. But to paraphrase an old line from Vern Lundquist, there are few truths in our uncertain world, but here's one of them: This ain't the Sun Belt. I think Freeze's up-tempo spread offense will increase productivity right off the bat, which should help the scoreboard look a little more respectable once the final whistle blows, but he's got a steep hole to dig out of on defense. With the exception of a home date with Texas, the Rebs will have an easier out of conference schedule, so they're almost guaranteed to top last year's 2 wins. But they won't threaten bowl eligibility.
Ross (Prediction: #7, West): On the bright side, Ole Miss has multiple starters back on offense and defense. On the less-bright side, they're still in the SEC West. Gonna be another rough year in the Grove.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #7, West): Unproven QB, Unproven WR, Unproven defense. RB Jeff Scott is about all they got right now. New coach Hugh Freeze has the respect of the players, and they are going to run a fast, no huddle offense. In the SEC, you have to have an edge, and they will try to become the Oregon or Oklahoma State of the SEC. Good luck. I think Hugh Freeze will be good for the Rebels. It will take a few years, but he should turn them around and at least make them competitive. I think Ole Miss has high hopes should be making it to a bowl game this year, and that means beating some of their SEC Divisional foes. I can see it happening once, maybe twice, but not 3 times.
Kevin (Prediction: #7, West): Right out of the gate there are three games on this schedule that Ole Miss should be embarrassed if they lose. After the first four games Ole Miss should be 3-1 and that will give this team some confidence as well as some time to get the offense down with real game experience. One thing I like about this schedule is that all of the "tough" games are on the road (Bama, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU). Let's be honest, Ole Miss wasn't going to win those games anyway. What that does is it leaves some winnable games at home. Ole Miss will welcome Texas A&M, Auburn, Vandy and Mississippi State to Oxford this year. It's not implausible that they could steal a win or two against that group.
Jay (Prediction: #5, East): Yeah, I'm a little down on South Carolina. I'm just having a hard time believing that Marcus Lattimore is going to be his old self again so soon after tearing his ACL mid-way through last season. You can come back from that injury this fast, but it's exceedingly difficult to be BACK from that injury this fast. I guess I'm just not going to believe it until I see it. And if Lattimore isn't his pre-injury self, I don't see the Gamecocks as a very potent offense. I'm really not impressed with Connor Shaw's throwing ability. Yes, he won some games without Lattimore last year, but it's worth noting that in all 5 of the games he won following that injury, none of the opponents scored more than 13 points. His ability to throw this team to victory against an offense that's actually scoring points also falls into the "believe it when I see it" category. Of course, I'm not impressed with his receiving corps either. Combine these offensive issues with a hellacious schedule that includes a gauntlet of Georgia, @LSU, @Florida, and Tennessee before the Gamecocks even get a bye week, and, well, I think they're in danger of dropping back in a more competitive SEC East. Unless the defense matches last year's sub-20ppg, sub-300ypg pace, which I don't think they will after losing 4 NFL draft picks.
Ross (Prediction: #1, East): South Carolina doesn't bring back the most returning starters, but they do bring back arguably the best offensive player (Marcus Lattimore) and best defensive player (Jadevon Clowney). That's pretty enticing. An end-of-October two-fer might make or break their season: back-to-back road dates with LSU and Florida. If they can sweep those games, they'll be in excellent shape to take the East.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #3, East): South Carolina is coming off a great 11 win season, and returning the QB that turned things around for them. As much as I liked watching drunk Stephen Garcia pull some Big Ben-esque moves, Connor Shaw is going to be a good playmaker for the Cocks this season, and more importantly, a good leader. With stud RB Marcus Lattimore returning from ACL surgery, things could be good in Columbia. South Carolina has a tough schedule this year. They have potentially the best RB in the land but lost star WR Alshon Jeffrey, as well as 5 great defenders. They have 3 games that I think will decide how they do this year, LSU, Georgia and Florida. If they can knock off Georgia and Florida, they should have a trip to the SEC Championship game, for a potential rematch against the Tigers.
Kevin (Prediction: #2, East): This off-season, Steve Spurrier has often seemed like he's more worried about Georgia's schedule than his own. It's been four years since Spurrier has beaten their cross-division "rival" Arkansas, so he might want to spend more time worrying about them. This season will come down to the Arkansas and Georgia games. Last year they lost to a mediocre Auburn team and that cost them. They can't afford a slip up this season.
Jay (Prediction: #3, East): I know a lot of people think Derek Dooley has lost this team, or that he's just not a competent coach, period. But you have to keep in mind that he inherited a dumpster fire at Tennessee in the wake of all that Fulmer/Kiffin business. It takes time to fix messes like that. And while I completely agree that Dooley should be fired if he can't show some significant progress to that end in his 3rd season in Knoxville, I think anybody expecting, or perhaps hoping, for that outcome are going to be disappointed. Because this has the makings of a very good team. Maybe not quite as good with the recent suspension of Da'Rick Rodgers, but still very good (especially if Cordarrelle Patterson is everything he's hyped to be). They're experience is off the charts, with 9 starters back on both sides of the ball, over 100 starts worth of experience on the offensive line, and 15 of last season's top 20 tacklers returning. At full strength, their offensive capabilities are well documented, though I do still question if Tyler Bray has mentally matured enough to handle playing in big games. As for concerns regarding the Vols' transition to a 3-4 defense, I think it's going to be a little smoother than most anticipate. It's true that fellow recent 3-4 converts Alabama and Georgia went through some severe growing pains in their first seasons as they struggled to get the right personnel on the field, particularly on the defensive line, where it took them a while to find their Terrence Cody's and Jon Jenkins's. Tennessee seems to be ahead of the curve on that front, as they added JUCO giant Daniel McCullers for the nose tackle spot and brought in former Bama defensive end Darrington Sentimore to anchor another spot on the line. I also think it will help that new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri has years of practical experience applying the 3-4 to a collegiate setting at Alabama, as opposed to UGA's Todd Grantham who came from the NFL and clearly had some issues adjusting to the idiosyncrasies of the college game. So, yeah, I like Tennessee to bounce back, and possibly even push for 10 wins if they catch some breaks.
Ross (Prediction: #4, East): There's a roughly six week stretch in September and October that will define this season for the Vols, and likely define whether or not Derek Dooley has a job next year: over that span they play Florida (home), Akron (home), Georgia (away), Mississippi State (away), Alabama (home), and South Carolina (away). They return several starters (although they just lost one of those expected returnees, Da'Rick Rogers), so there's reason to be a little optimistic, but Derek Dooley hasn't done much to inspire confidence in his two years at Tennessee. So split the difference and put them in the middle of the East.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #4, East): Everyone is calling this team the sleeper. Dooley has finally had the opportunity to settle himself and this is a year that they can turn it around. It doesn’t help they play some tough teams from the West. They have a stellar O-line, and a Tyler Bray returns at QB. It certainly doesn’t help that Da’Rick is gone indefinitely, but I am a firm believer that no coach boots a kid for a season if he doesn’t have a back up plan. The defense is deep and the season for the Vols is somewhat limitless. There is a lot of potential here. The NC State game will set the pace for the season, as NC State is a solid team that could give them issues. I definitely see them making a bowl this year, but to take the step to the next level in the SEC, they will have to establish their run and have a fearful defense. Maybe next year.
Kevin (Prediction: #5, East): Tennessee's schedule is not a killer but they do have a very important opener against a tough NC State team. The critical stretch of the season will be from the Florida game on Sept 15th to the South Carolina game on Oct 27th. That spans six games with five really tough ones (vs Florida, at Georgia, at Miss St, vs Bama, at South Carolina). Worst case scenario has the Vols coming out of that stretch at 2-6. The good news for the Vols is that the stretch run is one of the easier ones in the SEC as they play Troy, Missouri and Kentucky at home and Vandy on the road. I think this is going to be a much improved Tennessee team based on what they will bring on the field but I'm not sure how much will show up in their win-loss record. I think the Vols will beat somebody they aren't supposed to this year but I also think they will drop one they should win.
Jay (Prediction: #6, West): This is the epitome of a transition year. The Aggies are changing conferences, coaches, quarterbacks, offenses, defenses, you name it. It's not going to be pretty, especially on offense. A&M actually has some good talent at the skill positions, but Kevin Sumlin's variation on the Air Raid offense is very QB-centric, and I have a hard time believing Johnny Manziel is going to be up to the challenge in year 1 of all this upheaval.
Ross (Prediction: #6, West): Welcome to the SEC, Aggies -- hope you survive the experience. They wanted to escape Texas' shadow, but now they're going to have to butt heads with Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and Arkansas every year. Good luck with that. Their true initiation comes in a four-week stretch across October and November, when they play LSU (home), Auburn (away), Mississippi State (away), and Alabama (away). Brutal. Not a great time to be breaking in new starters at several key positions.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #5, West): Welcome to the SEC. Why on earth would you want to play against this conference? I don’t know. A&M returns a bunch of key components from last year’s successful run, which should give them hope stepping into the fire. Their offense will not be their question mark. Good line, good skill players, they should be able to average around 24ish in the SEC a game. Can the defense hold? In the end, there are just a few too many depth question marks for A&M to make a statement. On paper they should look decent, but I think there are some very obvious losses and possibly some upsets on this schedule. Week to week, they should contend and make things interesting.
Kevin (Prediction: #6, West): Changing both offensive and defensive coordinators in one year is not generally a sign for immediate success. Couple that with moving conferences and there are a lot of question marks for the Aggies. The good news for the Aggies is that they have scheduled down out of conference and they should coast to four wins in the non-conference slate. The question after that is how they transition to the SEC with their new coaches, new systems and new QB. Last year, expectations were sky high for A&M and the results fell well below the expecations. This year expectations are more tempered and I see A&M going to a lower-tier SEC bowl in year one of the Sumlin era.
Jay (Prediction: #6, East): James Franklin has made me a believer in what he's got cooking at Vandy. He deserves a lot of credit for getting the Commodore offense over 25ppg for the first time since the days of Jay Cutler. He conjured a lot of points out of some very unspectacular materials in 2011. But you also have to acknowledge that he walked into a really good situation, with 5 returning starters on the offensive line and a veteran defense led by Chris Marve and Casey Hayward. This season, the Vandy defense loses over half of it's sack productivity and half it's interceptions (7 from Hayward alone) from 2011. They'll also be starting two new faces on the offensive line, including one at center). In 2011, the Commodores lost 5 games by 7 points or less. They were "close" to pulling off some real breakthrough victories. But, to me, it looks like the gap between winning those game and losing them is only getting wider, not narrower, in 2012. I think Vandy takes a few steps back this year. If Jordan Rodgers' name was Jordan Roberts, no one would waste a second thinking about him.
Ross (Prediction: #6, East): I like Vandy and I think James Franklin is doing a tremendous job, but... I can't see them finishing ahead of the teams listed above. I just don't think the talent level is there yet. Maybe in a year or so.
The Saturday Edge: (Prediction: #5 (tie), East): Vandy came off a surprising season last year, and looks to build upon that. Once QB Jordan Rodgers started slinging the rock for the Commodores, Vandy looked dangerous. The offense will be dangerous yet again, but the biggest question mark for Vandy is, can they replace some key losses on the defense? Vandy not only has a tough out of conference schedule, where I could see them having 2 close games, but also will struggle to win more than 2 games in the SEC. I think a bowl game is in sight for Vandy this year, but probably not too much more.
Kevin (Prediction: #6, East): Vanderbilt will give teams some trouble this year. They play a gritty and gutty style and aren't afraid to chop block you when you aren't looking. A big negative for Vandy this year is how their schedule sets up. They will most likely be underdogs in at least five of their first seven games and probably in six of their first seven. Vandy's schedule is front-loaded and if they want to go to a bowl they are going to have to do something this year that they couldn't last year. Upset somebody. Vandy will be a tough to beat this year but I'm not sure it shows up in their record.
CFBZ PREDICTED 2012 SEC FINISH
3. South Carolina
4. Mississippi State
6. Texas A&M
7. Ole Miss
Conference Championship Game: Alabama over Georgia