Thrill of Victory

Final thoughts before the SEC season begins

When Vanderbilt and South Carolina kick off tomorrow night in Nashville, it’ll be the start of another great Southeastern Conference that promises to be interesting even into next calendar year, I’ve been following August practices at all 14 schools closely, and with that, here are my final thoughts before the season starts.

1. The SEC’s consecutive national title streak is in jeopardy.
It’s usually a fool’s errand to pick against the mighty SEC on the big stage, and this year the SEC has the No. 1 (LSU), 2 (Alabama), 6 (Georgia), 9 (South Carolina) and 10 (Arkansas) teams in the USA Today’s preseason Top 25. But I see some flaws.

Let’s start with LSU. I think its passing offense will be improved with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, but a tumultuous off-season could take its toll. In addition to Tyrann Mathieu’s dismissal, coach Les Miles revealed this week that he’s not sure if running back Michael Ford or linebacker Tahj Jones, a pair of starters, will be academically eligible.

Miles has a ton of talent and so that helps. While Ford was LSU’s leading rusher a year ago, he’s replaceable. But the Tigers are relatively inexperienced at linebacker and defensive back and are counting on a bunch of freshmen at those spots.

Could the Tigers still win the whole thing? Certainly, but the ground is shakier now than when the pollsters submitted those votes.

Alabama has issues, too. The Crimson Tide have had the best two recruiting classes in the country in three of the last four seasons, and was No. 5 in the other according to Rivals.com. But Alabama had five of the top 35 players taken in the 2012 draft, and three more guys taken later. I don’t care how much talent ‘Bama has coming back, that’ll likely leave a mark somewhere.

Here’s a quick history lesson: Alabama won the national title in 2009, and then had four of the first 57 guys picked in the following NFL Draft, plus three more later. But the pollsters voted the ‘Tide No. 1 anyway in light of ‘Bama having back-to-back No. 1 recruiting classes. Alabama instead finished 10-3. With a lot of new faces on defense and a schedule that includes Michigan, Arkansas and LSU all away from home, I wouldn’t be surprised to a repeat of that record.

As for the rest, Georgia starts the season with several suspensions on defense and coach Mark Richt has never been the strongest big-game coach around. South Carolina lacks the offensive firepower at receiver and has some questions in the secondary. Arkansas lost its offensive genius of a head coach and its defense looks too suspect to compete for a national title.

With five teams in the Top 10, there’s still a chance one could bust through this season the way Auburn did in 2010. But the streak is bound to end some time, and I think I’d put my money on the field vs. the SEC this season.

2. I see parity I haven’t seen in a while from teams one to 12.
Speaking of South Carolina, the Gamecocks come to town tomorrow favored by just seven against Vanderbilt. A lot of people peg the Commodores as the SEC’s 12th-best team. That alone says a lot about the competitive balance of the league this season.
There are 12 teams in the SEC (all except Kentucky and Ole Miss) that would be disappointed with anything short of a bowl this season. That’s not going to happen because there will be 56 losses to go around in SEC games, and the league obviously won’t run the table on out-of-conference games. I’m envisioning a whole bunch of 7-to-8 win teams in the conference this season.

Trying to sort out a predicted order of finish has been a real chore. I’m fairly confident that Kentucky and Ole Miss will finish last in the East and West, respectively. My best guess is that Georgia will win the East and LSU, the West, with Carolina and Alabama probably finishing No. 2 behind them. But from there, I might be just as accurate picking names out of a hat for the remaining order of finish as I would in guessing them.

3. Texas A&M really got hosed when its opener was rained out.
A&M’s season opener on Thursday vs. Louisiana Tech was re-scheduled for Oct. 13 because of Hurricane Isaac. So the fans will not only have to wait nine extra days for football, but there are two other complications also.
Just in case it’s not hard enough A&M fans to wait 11 months to join the league, and then an extra nine days for your season opener, their team won’t have an off-week all season and its freshman quarterback, Johnny Manziel, will cut his teeth against the Florida Gators.

Welcome to the SEC, Aggies!

4. Joker Phillips won’t survive at Kentucky.
Vanderbilt aside, it’s tough to keep your job in the SEC coming off back-to-back losing seasons as Joker Phillips has just done. A coach has a fighting chance if he can keep fans excited. But that’s where the problems start for Phillips, because season-ticket sales are down 21 percent as of a week ago, and 33 percent down from three years ago.
Phillips still could get back on the right track with a winning season. However, the Wildcats have only one player (guard Larry Warford) who resembles an All-SEC candidate, and the two-deep depth chart contains nine freshmen and 13 sophomores. In case you were wondering, the recruiting experts at Rivals.com didn’t particularly hold the players in those classes in high regard as recruits, and the 2013 class isn’t looking much better.

In other words, the Fat Lady ought to start warming up those vocal cords.

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