2008 SEC Predictions
by Robert Ferringo - 08/21/2008
If there's one thing I've learned about these hillbillies living in the Deep South it's this: they love Jesus and college football.
No, I mean, they REALLY love Jesus and college football. And it may not even be in that order.
As a result, the Southeastern Conference is the epicenter of the college football world. They have the best team, the best coaches, and the most passionate fans. This league has taken on all comers over the last several years and, as we stand right now, has the odds-on favorite to claim the conference's third consecutive national championship. But perhaps what is most emblematic of the overwhelming dominance of the conference is that there is a strong chance that the SEC can not only win three straight national titles, but have all three come from DIFFERENT schools!
I have even had to change up my preview format for this league. In most conferences I could only find one Dark Horse or one X-Factor. But in the SEC there are several teams that are going to play a prominent role in determining the league champion, and the overall number of quality teams in this league is almost intimidating.
But success breeds poachers. And of the 24 combined offensive and defensive coordinators that were patrolling SEC sidelines last year, only 13 of them return. That type of turnover at the highest level of the coaching pyramid is bound to have some kind of effect on the league. Just not this year. There will likely be at least two representatives from the SEC in the BCS bowls played after Jan. 1, including a representative in the championship game, and there will likely be no less than eight teams playing in bowl games this winter when all is said and done.
In a word: dominant.
Here's my 2008 SEC predictions:
The Favorite: Florida
Yes, I'm well aware that Georgia is the No. 1 team in the country. But living in the heart of SEC Nation I can assure you that everyone is looking at Florida as the team to beat in the conference. Well, that is everyone but the 250,000 Dawg fans that haven't hyperventilated yet at UGA being the top-ranked club in the country. Florida has the advantage of a much, much more manageable schedule than the Bulldogs, and that will make all the difference. They avoid Auburn and they get both South Carolina and LSU in The Swamp. Also, they have dominated their series with UGA and will be amped up for the revenge game. Having the Heisman Trophy winner back doesn't hurt, nor does the eight defensive starters. The thing to watch with UF is their secondary, as a lot of folks don't feel they are up to snuff in that key area.
The Challenger: Georgia
How about them Dawgs? UGA is definitely ready for its close-up. And I would say that if they had Florida's schedule this season you could reserve their spot in the BCS National Championship Game. But this is simply too much for the Dawgs to overcome. In four straight weeks beginning in late October they play at LSU, at Jacksonville against Florida, at Kentucky in an obvious Look Ahead/Let Down situation, and then at Auburn. Brutal. Matt Stafford and Knowshown Moreno are both blue chippers, and Mark Richt is one of the best in the business. But I think too much is being made of how they closed 2007. But the bottom line is that while Georgia is a very good team, they are not a dominant one and there is no way they can avoid two or three losses this season.
The Dark Horses: Auburn
Auburn seems to be the sheik pick out of the SEC West this year, with the thinking being that UF and UGA are beatable in a one-game scenario in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn brings back 16 starters from last year, including seven starters from a tough-as-nails defense and all five offensive linemen. The Tigers get Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee at home and they have bye weeks prior to games at West Virginia and at Alabama. The primary issue is at quarterback, where they will likely platoon Chris Todd and Kodi Burns. Also, the Tigers are completely revamping their offense and, with a new QB, that's going to take some time. Finally, they lost DC Will Muschamp to Texas, and that's not someone you can simply replace and move on.
Tennessee - All the love is being showered on Florida and Georgia at the moment, but Tennessee may be just as viable an option to win the SEC East as either of those clubs. Yes, they have to replace all-SEC quarterback Erik Ainge. But Jon Crompton has seen action in 14 games the last two seasons and he'll benefit from three returning starters at wideout and stud back Arian Foster in the backfield. Also, the Vols have dominated Georgia over the last two years, beating them by a combined score of 86-47, and have won three of four from them. The secondary, an admitted weakness last season, is now a strength. And if they get any solid linebacker play the defense can be pretty strong.
The X-Factors: South Carolina
In the absolutely loaded SEC East I believe the Gamecocks are going to have the biggest say in who wins the SEC Championship and, by extension, who goes to the BCS title game. They welcome back 10 starters on defense and, when healthy, that unit is one of the best two or three in the league. This also may be Steve Spurrier's most talented and most experienced offense. That is, as long as quarterback Tommy Beecher can avoid costly mistakes. They have the easiest road schedule in the East, get Georgia at home, and could be in a position where they are playing Florida in November for the SEC East crown.
Alabama - Now that Major Applewhite, the worst offensive coordinator in the country, has moved on, the Tide have a shot at really making a leap in Year 2 of the Saban Regime. All six of their losses were by one score or less last year and they actually sported the No. 31 defense in the nation. Six starters are back from that unit and 13 starters overall. The road schedule is rough, and that will keep them in the second-tier. But they should dominate at home and could be a fly in the ointment this fall.
The Surprise Team: Mississippi
Houston Nutt looks like he may find high ground in his first year since being jettisoned from Arkansas. They welcome back four starting offensive linemen, a bevy of experienced wideouts, and eight starters from a defense that showed promise. The loss of all-world defensive end Greg Hardy (out eight weeks) definitely hurts the cause. But quarterback Jevan Snead has been sharp in camp this fall. Their schedule is tough. But whose isn't in the SEC? I think they will be good for an upset or two this year and will be a decent wager this season for bettors with some sand.
The Disappointment: LSU
There's only one place you can go if you are the defending National Champions - down. Most of the top-flight SEC programs enter the year a bit better off than they were last year, except for the Tigers. They are sans quarterback and the losses on their defense, particularly their dominating secondary, are astounding. They still could win the West, especially with four of their last five games at home. But I don't think that they will, and that is why they are on my list of disappointments.
Kentucky - The dream season is over for the Wildcats and now it's back to reality. And the reality is that they can't compete, year-in-and-year-out, with the top programs in the conference. They suffered heavy losses on offense, which was the strength of last year's club, and their eight starters back on defense would help if the D wasn't rated No. 67 in the country last year.
Mississippi State - Like Kentucky, I expect a bit of a hangover from the Bulldogs. Mississippi State benefited from four wins by a touchdown or less last year and lost valued DC Ellis Johnson. Their 12 senior starters and solid special teams will keep them from falling off the map, but with a shaky o-line and weak quarterback this club won't factor into the race.
Arkansas - Not only does bad karma abound in this program - courtesy of Bobby "Scumbag" Petrino - but these cupboards are pretty bare. The Razor's unreal backfield covered up a lot of holes last season. But now that Casey Dick and a group of second-rate skill players are left to fend for themselves, learning a new system from new coaches, I don't see good things for Arkansas. In fact, the nine senior returning starters actually may hurt this team because they may be less willing to tolerate a new regime. I think five wins is about right for this club.
Vanderbilt - If Vandy wanted to make its first bowl game since 1982, last year might have been their last best chance. They needed to win just one of their final four games to secure a postseason berth but couldn't seal the deal. I expect that negativity to carry over into this season, and only nine returning starters and the loss of their leading rusher, receiver, and tackler means that they should be the conference whipping boy yet again.