The playoff and bowl schedules have been set. Chris Lee looks at the SEC’s outlook there, plus, offers some early power rankings for hoops.
THIS WEEK’S STORYLINES
SEC East gets a makeover
With two of the SEC’s longest-tenured coaches out the door in Georgia’s Mark Richt and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier (the latter, of course, happening in October), change was coming and those respective programs named coaches over the weekend.
Georgia made the hire of long-time Alabama assistant Kirby Smart official on Sunday. The 39-year-old Smart, of course, has been Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator since 2008, and has never been a head coach. Smart will remain Alabama’s defensive coordinator through ‘Bama’s run in the College Football Playoff, which could go through January 11.
Getting rid of a coach who went 145-51 only to replace him with a 39-year-old first-timer battling a huge conflict of interest during his first month on the job seems like too big a risk. Yes, Smart’s a good recruiter, but it’s not like that was an issue for Richt. That said, Smart’s a Georgia alum, which can’t hurt.
But hey, at least Georgia fans feel good by comparison to South Carolina’s fan base after the Gamecocks hired Will Muschamp, the same man Florida fired this time last year. In his four years in Gainesville, Muschamp was 28-21 and 17-15 in the SEC; remember, the Gators were 43-13 and 24-8 in the league, with a national title thrown in, the four years prior to his arrival.
Don’t get me wrong, Carolina’s a solid job. But if Muschamp can’t win in Gainesville, I’m not sure how it happens in Columbia, especially when Carolina’s in a down cycle when it comes to the current talent on its roster.
Missouri’s hire of its defensive coordinator Barry Odom didn’t create much of a splash. Like Smart, Odom is 39 , has never been a head coach and his now back at his alma mater. Odom had tremendous success. If nothing else, Odom’s hire provided us with one of the coolest moments of the college football season as Missouri’s players learned of his hire.
One final thought here: if you want to know just how much a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately the coaching business is, consider that Tennessee’s Butch Jones and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, who’ve completed all of three years at their respective schools, are now the longest-tenured coaches in the East.
Going bowling, and beyond
The College Football Playoff field, as well as bowl pairings, were unveiled on Sunday. I’ll preview games in greater detail closer to their times, but here’s a brief look at what happened within the SEC.
To nobody’s surprise, Alabama beat Florida, won the SEC title, and is now the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff, matched with Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. The Crimson Tide are a 10-point favorite over Michigan State, which has a recipe for success as far as it goes with its defense (12.5 points allowed on average over its last four games), its quarterback (I like Connor Cook’s chances as a pro more than just about any college QB I’ve seen in recent years) and its coach (I don’t know where I’d rank Mark Dantonio among his peers, but it’s definitely in the top 10, and probably in the top five). Alabama may have more talent, but the Spartans are no pushover.
LSU (plus-6.5) didn’t exactly have its preseason aspirations set around playing Texas Tech in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl, but that’s where the Tigers landed. It’s safe to say there could be some offense in this game, as the Red Raiders gain 595 yards per game, and give up 540. Remember, Tech upset Arkansas earlier this year.
Nor will Auburn fans, who’d thought their team would be in the running for a playoff bid before the season started, be excited about facing Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. Behind quarterback Paxton Lynch, who’s potentially a high NFL first-round pick this spring, the Tigers (plus-2.5) already upset one SEC team (Ole Miss) earlier this season.
The Belk Bowl is worth watching if for no other reason than it’s our last look at Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, one of the best in SEC history. North Carolina State (plus-7) seems to be slowly improving under third-year coach Dave Doeren, but the Wolfpack defense sprung a few leaks in second-half-of-the-season games against Clemson (56 points), Florida State (34), Syracuse (29) and North Carolina (45).
It seems like Texas A&M (minus-3) just left town with a 25-0 win over Vanderbilt; now, the Aggies are back to face Bobby Petrino’s Louisville squad in the Music City Bowl. After a tough early-season schedule, the Cardinals rallied to win six of their last seven. That said, the Cards’ only win over a bowl team wasn’t in that streak, and came against N.C. State.
Tennessee (minus-9) is outwardly thrilled to head to the Outback Bowl. It’s probably inwardly thrilled to be playing Northwestern, which went 10-2 but also narrowly won its last five games after respective 38-0 and 40-10 beat-downs by Michigan and Iowa, respectively, at mid-season.
If you like defense, tune in to the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, matching Florida (plus-4) against Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan squad. These teams combined for 19 wins, something few expected before the season began.
Interim coach Bryan McClendon will guide Georgia (minus-7) against Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl. James Franklin’s team went an unremarkable 7-5, which hasn’t been been lost on Nittany Lion fans.
If you’re looking for a team in the SEC which was better than its record, the first nod goes to 7-5 Arkansas (minus-12), which finds itself facing Kansas State after the Wildcats won their last three games to get to .500. Fun fact: 76-year-old KSU coach Bill Snyder had already coached three full seasons in Manhattan by the time Arkansas senior quarterback Brandon Allen was born.
SEC BASKETBALL POWER RANKINGS
SEC fans southeast of Nashville may, or may not, be aware that basketball season is nearly a month underway. Here are my early power rankings of the 14 teams, with record in parenthesis.
- Kentucky (7-1): Are the real Wildcats the team that lost by 10 at UCLA, or the one that beat Duke by 11?
- Vanderbilt (6-2): Commodores have looked good, but may be without Luke Kornet and Camron Justice for a while.
- TAMU (7-2): No SEC team has a better pair of wins than A&M’s neutral-court victories over Gonzaga and Texas.
- Florida (6-2): It’s early, but Gators’ 11 RPI has coach Mike White’s club in a good spot.
- South Carolina (8-0): Gamecocks are the SEC’s lone unbeaten team.
- Georgia (4-3): Those three losses are by a combined 11 points.
- Alabama (5-2): Crimson Tide have two nice wins over Notre Dame and a depleted Wichita State squad.
- LSU (4-3): Tigers are undoubtedly the league’s most disappointing team.
- Ole Miss (6-2): Rebels are uncharacteristically struggling to hit their 3s.
- Tennessee (4-3): Kevin Punter’s emerging as one of the league’s best scorers.
- Mississippi St. (4-3): Bulldogs’ RPI hole (202 as of Wednesday morning, according to ESPN) may be too much to dig out of in terms of an NCAA bid.
- Auburn (4-1): Coach Bruce Pearl is stockpiling talent, but Tigers seem to be a year away.
- Arkansas (4-4): Razorbacks could easily climb a few spots as a tough early-season schedule has resulted in several close losses.
- Missouri (4-3): Tigers just may not have the talent to climb out of the basement.