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July 26, 2010

Ranking the SEC: Preseason edition

The SEC Media Days are in our rearview. Thank goodness. While it’s fun to gather every one of the league’s coaches in one spot with considerable pomp and circumstance, the yield is … well, a whole lot of fluff.

What did we learn from this year’s version?

  1. Some NFL agents are pimps … except when they’re predators. We know this because everyone who stood in front of a microphone basically said as much.
  2. Interim Vandrebilt coach Robbie Caldwell can entertain a group of sportswriters with the best of them.
  3. Aairon Savage is a snazzy dresser.

But actual, football-related news was in short supply. It’s all coachspeak, and blindingly optimistic coachspeak at that. If you believed every word the coaches said at the podium, everybody in the league would win 10 games this year.

We know that won’t be the case. Despite the optimism bursting from media days, football has winners and losers. And what better way to start off the week than a preseason power rankings of the teams in the SEC.

(As a quick programming notes, I plan to start daily opponent previews to fill time in this last week before players report. If all goes to plan, Arkansas State will be up on Tuesday.)

Back to the power rankings. Let’s get to it. And yes, the worst-case scenarios are meant to be hyperbolic …

1. Alabama

The Crimson Tide may have to re-tool its entire defense, but Nick Saban has a wealth of talent to choose from thanks to a series of top-flight recruiting classes. Oh yeah, it also has a returning Heisman Trophy winner, an All-SEC receiver and a heady quarterback who’s perfect for Saban’s pro-style offense.

  • Best-case scenario: Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson are unstoppable behind a strong offensive line and new faces step up on defense, leading to another national title. Funds for a second Saban statue immediately go into the Alabama athletic budget.
  • Worst-case scenario: The Tide’s defense is slow to jell, leaving it vulnerable in early-season matchups to Penn State, Arkansas and Florida. It ends up losing more games this season than the previous two combined. The Apocalypse soon begins.

2. Florida

The post-Tim Tebow era gets underway, and while the Gators have to break in a new quarterback in John Brantley, they’re still talented up and down the roster. Don’t underestimate a defense that finished No. 4 nationally in total yardage last year.

  • Best-case scenario: Brantley gives Florida the “real” quarterback it needs to completely utilize its stable of offensive weapons and the defense holds strong even without Charlie Strong.
  • Worst-case scenario: They miss Tebow’s leadership more than they think and drift back to the pack, opening up a chance for another team to steal the Eastern Division crown. Bummed out, Urban Meyer calls it quits for real this time, leading to another Ron Zook-like situation in Gainesville with his replacement.

3. Auburn

No matter who I put third on this list, I didn’t feel completely comfortable. The Tigers won out because of their favorable schedule and potentially explosive offense, especially if Cam Newton is as good as advertised.

  • Best-case scenario: Newton is the real deal, the offense takes off and the defense does enough to keep opponents under 25 points a game. If all goes right, the Iron Bowl will be a winner-take-all showdown for the SEC West.
  • Worst-case scenario: Gene Chizik suffers a sophomore slump. Newton isn’t quite ready, the defense is still a sieve and, with the prospect of having to re-tool the offense in 2011, Gus Malzahn strikes while he can and takes a head coaching job.

4. Arkansas

The Razorbacks have one of the best offenses in the country with Ryan Mallett under center but they also have one of the worst defenses, one that gave up over 400 yards a game last year. Defense usually wins out in the SEC, but Mallett and Co. are really good.

  • Best-case scenario: The Hogs catch Alabama at the right time early in the season, using the win as a springboard to a surprise run to the SEC West title. Mallett’s 40 touchdown passes earn him the Heisman.
  • Worst-case scenario: Despite averaging 40 points a game, the defense allows 42 points a game, setting a new bar for the most entertaining yet frustrating team to be a fan of. Bobby Petrino stays true to form by leaving for another job after the season.

5. Georgia

The Bulldogs can be looked at two ways: they’re a team with a re-energized coach, a new defensive scheme and a fresh outlook. Or they’re one that’s been passed up by other league powers, with a fan base that has grown weary of coach Mark Richt after 10 years.

  • Best-case scenario: Todd Grantham‘s 3-4 scheme does wonders for the defense, allowing Richt to more easily break in redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray. The Dawgs knock off Florida and steal the East.
  • Worst-case scenario: The new defensive scheme merely rearranges the deck chairs of the Titanic and the Bulldogs plummet under .500. Richt gets got, following Phil Fulmer and Tommy Tuberville in the pantheon of precipitous falls from SEC grace.

6. LSU

Les Miles is at a crossroads in Baton Rouge. The shine from his 2007 national title has long rubbed off and his botched clock management at the end of games isn’t helping. LSU still has a load of talent. It’ll be interesting to see if the Tigers can put all the pieces together.

  • Best-case scenario: Jordan Jefferson realizes his potential at quarterback, leading an offensive revival. The defense returns to its dominant self. And every win the Tigers have is by a wide margin, making Miles’ handling of the end game less important.
  • Worst-case scenario: The offense can’t put it together, leaving the defense to get overwhelmed. Miles gets canned after taking a knee to run out the clock of a game that LSU was losing at the time.

7. South Carolina

Time is running out for Steve Spurrier to finally make the Gamecocks a winner. They haven’t been able to get over the seven- and eight-win hump under the ol’ ballcoach, but with Florida breaking in a new quarterback, now’s the time for South Carolina to make a move in the East.

  • Best-case scenario: Stephen Garcia finally gets on Spurrier’s good side after years of headaches. That’s enough for a dominant defense to take over, putting the Gamecocks in contention in a very even East.
  • Worst-case scenario: Disappointed by Garcia’s slow start, Spurrier benches him, pushing back the team’s competitive window another couple years. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Spurrier hangs up his whistle and pursues a leisure life of golf.

8. Kentucky

Meet the new boss, kind of the same as the old boss. Joker Phillips is younger and more energetic than Rich Brooks, but he was the man who has been in charge of the Wildcats’ offense for the last several years. This might be his first year in charge, but he’s already put his stamp on the program.

  • Best-case scenario: Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb are so good that it makes the quarterback situation moot. The Wildcats get up to nine wins and get past the Music City Bowl, happily accepting a Chick-fil-A Bowl bid.
  • Worst-case scenario: An inexperienced group struggles in John Calipari‘s second year. Oh … football? Joker’s not quite ready for primetime, the quarterback situation never gets resolved and the Wildcats slip up in a non-conference game, failing to get to the six wins required for bowl eligibility.

9. Ole Miss

Having missed out on a prime opportunity to compete for the SEC West last season, Houston Nutt‘s crew has to start over offensively, replacing all but one starter. The defense is still strong and Nutt usually performs well when expectations are low, but this might be too much to overcome.

  • Best-case scenario: Former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli finds a safe landing spot, makes an otherwise bad offense better than average and allows a strong defense to carry the day, right back to the Cotton Bowl for an attempted three-peat.
  • Worst-case scenario: The offense is terrible, leaving the defense overworked and ultimately ineffective. Things bottom out and Nutt, always on the lookout for a better deal, begins to have wandering eyes once again. Also, Hotty and Toddy win the mascot competition and two Muppets end up cheering on the team.

10. Tennessee

Vols fans love that Derek Dooley isn’t Lane Kiffin, but do they love that he’s only 17-20 as a head coach (hey, it’s better than 5-19). Tennessee will need some time for things to settle down after the damage Hurricane Kiffin caused in Knoxville. It might take some time to purge the bad element from the roster and move forward.

  • Best-case scenario: Things aren’t as bad as they first seem. Dooley gets rid of the troublemakers on the roster and still has enough talent to get the ball moving. The Vols maintain their 2009 record and make it back to a decent bowl.
  • Worst-case scenario: Tennessee players continue to run afoul of the law and Dooley has to clean house to save the program. The Vols bottom out and fail to make a bowl game, leading to the Vols’ full-fledged move to being a basketball-first school.

11. Mississippi State

The Bulldogs were a team on the rise at the end of Dan Mullen‘s first season, but the schedule does them no favors this year, with games a full complement of SEC West teams, Georgia and Florida and a non-conference game at Houston. Even if MSU improves, it might not do so in the standings.

  • Best-case scenario: Mullen’s offensive system takes root and the Bulldogs begin to look like Florida/Utah-lite. The defense comes together and MSU does enough to get into a bowl game.
  • Worst-case scenario: The quarterback shuffle continues and the defense can’t stop anyone through the air, keeping the Bulldogs out of the bowl derby. At the spring meetings, the SEC overturns its rule defending MSU’s cowbell tradition, leading to a riot in Starkville.

12. Vanderbilt

The most entertaining coach of media days has the least-talented team in the conference, unfortunately. The Commodores went 0-8 in the SEC last year and don’t look like they’ll do much better this go-around. On the bright side, they’ll probably run away with best team GPA, which should count for something.

  • Best-case scenario: Vandy steals an SEC game or two and can split its non-conference games, a good enough showing that the ‘Dores give Caldwell another year in charge and another shot to dazzle at next year’s media days.
  • Worst-case scenario: Oh-and-12. It’s possible. And while Caldwell is an entertaining guy, an oh-fer isn’t going to save his hide. On the bright side, he could make a fortune as a corporate speaker.

So what do you think? What order would you put the SEC teams in to start the season? Who’s too high/too low on my list? Post in the comments section below.

6 Comments

  1. I would slide Ole Nutt down to 11th. Other than that, I think it pretty fair.

    The 3-7 spots could be shuffled. We'll just have to see how things turn out.

    Comment by SteveFC — July 26, 2010 @ 8:00 am

  2. Andy, I think some of those best case scenarios are hyperbolic too; Mallet wins the Heisman, the Gamecocks in contention…

    Comment by Chris P — July 26, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

  3. I think Ole Miss might be better than people think. This team has won 18 games the last two years. Nutt knows how to coach. And the defense won't be too bad.

    I agree with the 3-7 spots. Very similar resumes there.

    And yes, the best-case scenarios are looking at the very best-case. But Mallett could legitimately win the Heisman if he puts up big numbers and the Razorbacks pull off some big wins. I'm not saying it's likely , but if the chips fall right, it could happen.

    Comment by Andy Bitter — July 26, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

  4. That's as good as any I've seen. Once they kick it off, we'll know something.

    I do think UT has enough talent on campus to compete with anybody, and the Georgia DullDawg fans are delusional about the difference Grantham's coaching is going to make.

    Auburn's defense will be better because there won't be nine contributors miss games or the entire season due to injury. If Newton is as advertised and Malzhan's offense can avoid the dead spells that haunted the team last year the Tigers could be a strong contender.

    Comment by MikeP — July 26, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

  5. I'd have ua-t at 12 and move everyone else up one spot.

    (hate trumps reason)

    Comment by Tar Heel Tiger — July 26, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

  6. Bwahahaha, THT, I love that comment.

    Comment by SteveFC — July 27, 2010 @ 2:58 am

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