By Shane from Centerpoint
Itâ€™s Sunday, May 24th 2009, somewhere around 100 days prior to the actual beginning of the college football season. This is the time of the year when I would normally be waxing poetic in the middle of some story about my summer vacation down on the Emerald Coast. However, a far greater mission has been set before me. In order to keep pace with the stateâ€™s largest newspaper, The Birmingham News, Iâ€™ll have to forget writing about the surf, sand and sea-related stuff. According to The News itâ€™s time to make my annual end of spring preseason prognostications.
Iâ€™ll do this by ranking the SEC teams in their respective divisions from top to bottom (by order of finish). I also understand that the News will present their rankings based on voting by each schoolâ€™s sports information director. I hate to play the devilâ€™s advocate here but, letâ€™s be honest, allowing an S.I.D. to determine whoâ€™s ranked where is no different than letting your five year-old sit down and randomly fill in the blanks.
Anyway, Iâ€™ll start the ball rolling and throw my two-cents worth out on the table. Hereâ€™s the way I see it right now:
SEC Western Division
#1 Alabama Crimson Tide
I know it has become a clichÃ© to talk about Nick Sabanâ€™s â€œprocessâ€, but the Crimson Tide is stacked (with three greats classes of superior athletes) on the side of the ball that Saban uses as his main weapon â€“ the defense. This yearâ€™s stop-unit will be armed to the teeth and will likely cause most of the offenses theyâ€™ll face to come to a grinding halt. Look for Greg McElroy to grab the offense by the horns and show a significant improvement over last yearâ€™s starting quarterback. The talent on both sides of the ball will be better than last yearâ€™s squad. Alabama should return to Atlanta to play in the SEC championship game.
#2 Ole Miss
The secret to success in the SEC is usually found when a team has a seasoned, quality quarterback. Other than Floridaâ€™s (all world) Tim Tebow, Mississippiâ€™s Jevon Snead is the cream of the crop. He has an NFL-caliber arm, quick release, athleticism, and all the intangibles that make a great â€œfield generalâ€. The Rebels are also loaded at other key positions as well â€“ their group of defensive (down) linemen is as good as any teamâ€™s in the country, and they also have a deep, talented core of running backs. It goes without saying that Houston Nutt is a very good game-day coach. Ole Miss may be a diamond in the rough.
All things being equal, the influx of talent that Nick Saban originally brought to LSU â€“ reinforced with a superb job of perpetuating that inflow by Les Miles â€“ keeps the Tigers in a continuous reload mode. LSU will compete for the division title every year. Coach Miles is clearly a great recruiter. However, the Tigers are rebuilding depth along both lines of scrimmage and may suffer some growing pains in this area early in the season. Regardless, I believe the race for the SEC west crown is between these first three teams only.
Bob Petrino is going to eventually produce a winner in Razorback country, but not this year. I do think weâ€™ll see signs and flashes of what the future of Arkansas football will look like under Petrino. He simply has to have time to get his type of athletes stockpiled, and two years arenâ€™t nearly enough. Ryan Mallet will help to improve the Razorback offense and the Hogs are deep and talented enough to be a challenge for every opponent.
Gene Chizik is between a rock and a hard place â€“ coming in with a bad win/loss record to a team that was a loser last season. For whatever reason, Tommy Tuberville didnâ€™t restock the cupboard. The evidence is stark and sobering â€“ Auburn is a team devoid of SEC-caliber talent. Truthfully, it looks like a 3-4 year project is needed to reconstruct this unit into a team that competes in the upper echelon.
#6 Mississippi State
Poor Dan Mullen. Heâ€™s committed to try to resurrect a school that is known as the place where a good coach will probably come to a bad end. I doubt Mullen will make it 3 years. Jackie Sherrill and Sylvester Croom are good football coaches â€“ Mississippi State is just a lousy school. By volunteering to be the next victim, Dan Mullen just jumped in between the devil and the deep blue sea.
SEC Eastern Division
Two words â€” TIM TEBOW! Not only does Coach Meyer load the coffers with outstanding talent but he also has perhaps the best college quarterback to ever play the game running the show for him. Couple that awesome offensive firepower with one of the best defenses in the land, and itâ€™s very possible that the Gators could repeat as national champions. An appearance in the SEC championship game is almost a foregone conclusion.
#2 South Carolina
Something tells me the ole ball coach is desperate to win â€œbigâ€ at South Carolina. I sense that Steve Spurrier feels the urgency. I donâ€™t think people should underestimate his ability because he is such a competitor. The eastern division will be down a little this year. Maybe Spurrier can seize the opportunity and field a greatly improved team this time around. Time is growing short for Darth Visor.
I know the Bulldogs lost both a great quarterback and one of the best running backs in the nation to the NFL draft, but Mark Richt continues to sign top-level players. Georgia has been good since Richt arrived on campus. Nevertheless, there has to be some drop-off when the team makes a transition (adjustment) to playing without a super star like Matthew Stafford. As a result, the Bulldogs may struggle early in the season.
Rich Brooks is a solid football coach and has been good for Wildcat football. His teams play a tough, hard-nosed brand of football. Under his command Kentucky is competitive, and that is about as much as the fans should expect from Brooks. After all, Kentucky is a basketball school.
Who knows? Did Phil Fulmer bring any talent in during the last three years he coached the team? You couldnâ€™t prove it by the product he put on the field last season. Can â€œgoofyâ€ Lane Kiffin do anything to change the situation? That is yet to be seen, but I do know that heâ€™s made a couple of the best SEC coaches want to â€œpoundâ€ his team when they face him for the first time. Should SEC fans take this guy as a serious threat? I donâ€™t think so. Kiffin is definitely a long shot to make the cut.
I believe Vandyâ€™s Bobby Johnson is a top-notch coach. Does that allow him the luxury to produce winning football teams on a consistent basis? Absolutely not! He coaches football at an SEC school that doesnâ€™t have a â€œrealâ€ athletic department. Honestly, why is Vandy even allowed to claim membership in the league? I guess the money is worth their teamâ€™s being pounded into submission week after week.
So, there you have it. My picks on May 24th 2009 are in the bank. I guess the wire services will be snatching this up to distribute to the masses any time now. Iâ€™m also sure that youâ€™ll find it hard to argue with my choices. I guarantee you one thing â€“ theyâ€™re from a source more informed than the clueless sports information directors who turned in their ballots.
â€”Shane writes a weekly column for the Call News and the Capstone Report.