BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
We’ve now hit Day 2 of our preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC, which will end Saturday as the two teams at the top of the league entering the fall are unveiled. Until then, we’ll count down the teams, two at a time, from worst to first. The format will involve a “best-case/worst-case” scenario for each team, taking our cues from former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter’s piece from three years ago.
Where will two-time defending national champion Alabama rank? How about Auburn? Texas A&M? Georgia? South Carolina?
Let’s continue answering those questions now. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …
Well, how about Bret Bielema’s performance at SEC Media Days? We know from his time at the podium last week that he’s not a comedian, an actor or a scientist, which is good, since none of those occupations will help him win football games in the SEC. We also know he’s not a fan of up-tempo offenses, joining the camp of those who think it poses a safety risk to defensive players. Thirdly, he thinks highly of his own coaching style, saying his teams play “normal American football.” Got all that?
How well can the Razorbacks pull off good ol’ “American football” in 2013? It will start with finding a quarterback to replace the departed Tyler Wilson, he of the numerous school records. Arkansas will also be without the services of its all-everything wideout from last year, Cobi Hamilton, who caught 90 passes for 1,335 yards and five touchdowns. Good thing they have one of the top centers in the country in Travis Swanson, who will have to lead a line with youth in some key spots. Arkansas also returns eight starters defensively, though the unit had a lackluster showing last season, ranking 12th in the SEC in both total defense (409.92 yards per game) and scoring defense (30.42 points per game).
- Best-case scenario: Though Arkansas has to sweat it out until midway through the fourth quarter, the Razorbacks finally put pesky Louisiana-Lafayette away to win the opening game of Bielema’s tenure. The Razorbacks follow it up with three more victories (beating Samford, Southern Mississippi and Rutgers) to finish the non-conference portion of their schedule unblemished. The zero in the loss column is erased in its SEC opener against Texas A&M, but not before Arkansas pushes the Aggies for the better part of three quarters. The Razorbacks then capture their first conference road victory, and it’s a big one, knocking off an undefeated Florida Gators squad in “The Swamp.” The momentum dips a bit after consecutive losses to South Carolina and Alabama, but the Razorbacks get their sweetest win of the season when Auburn comes to town Nov. 2. Matching wits against his philosophical adversary in Gus Malzahn, “normal American football” reigns supreme, as the Razorbacks frustrate the Tigers in a low-scoring 17-7 affair. Arkansas ends the regular season with wins over Ole Miss and Mississippi State before falling in the finale to LSU. An 8-4 record snags the Razorbacks a Music City Bowl bid, where they face off against the North Carolina Tar Heels. Arkansas smashes its way to victory behind four rushing touchdowns, winning 34-17. After a nine-win season, Bielema starts to think getting to the top of the SEC mountaintop won’t be as difficult as many predicted. But Bielema receives even more vindication from an unlikely place, as noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson releases a study which concludes that “hurry-up, no-huddle” offenses do in fact lead to more injuries for defensive players. “The increased number of plays and collisions brought about by up-tempo offenses isn’t quite unlike the phenomenon that created our galaxy, ” Tyson said. “Think of those collisions on the football field like those that occurred during the Big Bang. Our studies show that these up-tempo offenses in collegiate football have led to injuries for defensive players in greater numbers than ever before. We’ve been able to trace this to the atomic level of players’ cells.” Bielema begins his 2014 address at SEC Media Days by stating, “I’m not an astrophysicist.” The phrase catches on like wildfire, and a successful T-shirt marketing campaign with the slogan emblazoned across it becomes a hit with Arkansas fans near and far.
- Worst-case scenario: The Ragin’ Cajuns, the clear favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference, put a damper on Bielema’s debut, toppling the Razorbacks 31-27 in the season opener. Arkansas lays it on Samford one week later, but then the wheels come off. Southern Mississippi, reinvigorated with the hire of Todd Monken, hands Arkansas a loss to drop to 1-2 on the season — and it hasn’t even started SEC play yet. After a week of hand-wringing in “The Natural State,” Arkansas answers its critics by winning its first road game, a hard-fought 24-20 victory over Rutgers. But the SEC slate hits Arkansas like a ton of bricks. The Razorbacks start out 0-4 after losing to Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama before Bielema faces his arch-nemesis, Malzahn. The Tigers run the Razorbacks out of their own stadium, as Malzahn doesn’t let his team stop passing until the beginning of the fourth quarter of a 42-14 Auburn victory. Arkansas manages to beat similarly-struggling SEC West mate Mississippi State to avoid going winless in league play, but that does little to brighten the Razorbacks’ spirits after a 3-9 season. Bielema sees how much tougher the SEC is compared to the Big 10, realizing moving up the ladder in the nation’s toughest division will take more work than he ever imagined. Bielema is subjected to further shame when Tyson never gives the issue of “up-tempo offenses as a health hazard to defensive players” a second thought, as the noted astrophysicist is too preoccupied with more important scientific research.
Missouri found it tough sledding in its initial go-round in the SEC, posting a 5-7 record overall and going 2-6 in conference play. It marked the first losing season for the Tigers since 2004, and snapped a school-record for conseutive bowl appearances, which had been at seven in a row and counting. Injuries took their toll last season, especially offensively, as quarterback James Franklin was only able to make eight starts. On the line, just one player, then-freshman Evan Boehm, started all 12 games. Given the hype he arrived with, receiver Dorial Green-Beckham had a disappointing freshman campaign, catching only 28 passes for 395 yards. (Though he did tie for the team-high in touchdown receptions with five.) Defensively, Missouri brings back six upperclassmen starters, with half of those along the line. But that won’t mean much if the Tigers don’t play better than last season, when they allowed nearly 400 yards and 29 points per contest.
- Best-case scenario: Missouri jumps out to a 4-0 start after beating Murray State, Toledo, Indiana and Arkansas State before its SEC opener against Vanderbilt. The Tigers, not surprisingly, level off against the stiffer competition, dropping to .500 after four straight losses (Vandy, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina). Missouri stops the bleeding with wins over Tennessee and Kentucky in back-to-back weeks to attain bowl eligibility. The Tigers pick up their biggest road victory of the year in their next-to-last game, going into Oxford, Miss., and upsetting the Ole Miss Rebels. Yes, Texas A&M crushes Mizzou in the regular season finale, but that’s of little concern to the Tigers, who are goin’ bowlin’. In the Liberty Bowl, they face off against Conference USA champion Tulsa. It’s tight early on, but the Tigers flex their muscle in the second half, cruising to a 45-20 victory over the Golden Hurricane. Green-Beckham rebounds to have a great sophomore season, finishing as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award. And with an 8-5 showing in his second season in the SEC and a solid recruiting class coming down the pike, no one questions whether Pinkel is still the right man for the job.
- Worst-case scenario: The Tigers do what they need to do in the season opener, rolling over Murray State. Things don’t go according to script in Game 2, as the Toledo Rockets come into Columbia, Mo., and leave with a 28-17 victory, making the Tigers’ open date the following week seem even longer. Worse, the loss to the Rockets is an ominous sign of things to come. Missouri fights back and beats Indiana to improve to 2-1, but that’s the last win the Tigers see for almost two months. The Tigers lose to Arkansas State (the Sun Belt Conference program that keeps on chugging despite having a new head coach for the third straight season), followed by an 0-5 start in conference play after defeats to Vandy, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and a resurgent Tennessee program. Missouri rises for one last one salvo in 2013 when it beats Kentucky, but then gets routed in its final two games of the season, by SEC West foes Ole Miss and Texas A&M, respectively, to finish 3-9 overall. With a second straight losing season in hand and no signs of improvement on the immediate horizon, Pinkel is relieved of his head coaching duties after 13 years at the helm of the Tigers. Missouri finds its replacement on the coaching staff of “another Tigers” squad, hiring Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. The offensive whiz helped quarterback Tajh Boyd pilot a Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2013, and more importantly, brought Clemson its first national title since 1981.