BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s Day 5 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.
With eight teams down, there are six to go. How will the rankings shake out from here?
Let’s continue answering that question now. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …
Is Will Muschamp done talking yet? He is? OK. We’re good then. All jokes aside, Muschamp delivered arguably the longest opening statement from a coach in SEC Media Days history, clocking in at just over 2,400 words. In it, he went over every change to his coaching staff and every single position on the Gators’ depth chart both offensively and defensively. I’m not making this up.
To save a lot of time, know this: Florida has to replace four defensive playmakers (safety Matt Elam, defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd and linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins) and find someone to match the production of departed running back Mike Gillislee, who ran for nearly half (1,152) of the Gators’ yards on the ground last season (2,445). Oh, and Florida has to discover some semblance of a passing game, after it ranked 114th in the country (and last in the SEC) in 2012 with a miniscule average of 146.31 yards per contest.
- Best-case scenario: The Gators find a way to win in spite of their pop-gun offense for the second consecutive season. Florida opens the season with four straight victories, beating rivals Miami and Tennessee along the way. LSU hands Florida its first loss of the year in Tiger Stadium in Week 5, but the Gators brush it off to beat Missouri on the road the following week. For the third frustrating year in a row, though, Georgia knocks off Florida in Jacksonville, Fla. Motivated not to lose another game for the rest of the year, the Gators go out and do just that, beating Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia Southern and Florida State to close out the regular season. In a three-way tiebreaker with the Bulldogs and Gamecocks for the SEC East title, it’s the Gators who head to Atlanta to square off against Texas A&M. Just like last season, Florida has an answer for Johnny Manziel, as the Gators drop the undefeated Aggies 27-14 en route to their first SEC title since 2008. In the Sugar Bowl, Florida redeems itself for a pitiful showing against Louisville a year ago. In New Orleans, the Gators gum up the Clemson Tigers’ potent offense, slowing down quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins in a 20-14 victory. Riding high, the Gators sign a top-five recruiting class for 2014, arming themselves for their first national title run under Muschamp the following fall. Gators’ faithful enjoy watching former coach Urban Meyer, now at Ohio State, get torched by Stanford in the Rose Bowl 48-20. Florida fans get further enjoyment from laughing at their two arch-rivals, as Georgia is waxed in the Outback Bowl (losing to Wisconsin) and Florida State falls on its face in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (losing to Ole Miss).
- Worst-case scenario: Florida’s lack of offensive punch finally catches up to it this fall. The Gators escape in the opener against the Toledo Rockets, a tougher-than-their-name-suggests foe from the MAC. Things don’t work out nearly as well in ensuing weeks, as Florida falls to in-state rival Miami and serve as the first signature win of Butch Jones’ tenure at Tennessee in Game 3. The Gators get their record back over .500 (3-2) following victories over Kentucky and Arkansas, but spend the last seven games of the regular season alternating losses (LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State) and wins (Missouri, Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern). A 6-6 record earns a bowl berth, but the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., is far from Florida’s idea of a “dream destination” for the postseason. And the Gators’ play bears that out, as they lose to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and their triple-option offense 41-10. People start to question whether Muschamp’s physical, grinding style is fit for a Florida program that was built on the foundation of high-flying offensive attacks. It doesn’t help matters that Meyer makes it to the national title game in his second season at Ohio State, either. The Gators’ sign an underwhelming recruiting class for 2014. And Florida fans have to live through an offseason of taunts from its two most hated rivals in Georgia (which won the national title for the first time since 1980) and Florida State (which won the Orange Bowl for the second straight year).
Les Miles was his typical self at SEC Media Days — funny, random, passionate and serious all rolled into one.
The LSU coach went on another spiel about the scheduling inequities that exist in the SEC, as this season will mark the seventh time since 2000 the Tigers play Georgia and Florida in the same season, two teams which combined to go 14-2 in conference play last season. (Miles, of course, could only shake his head when talk turned to Alabama, which gets to play Kentucky and Tennessee, the two teams that finished at the bottom of the SEC East last year after going a combined 1-15 in the SEC.)
Though the Tigers lose a boatload of talent to the NFL every year, the number of defections after last season was unusually high even for them. The defense had seven starters jump to the pros, as well as a few backups who were key contributors. LSU does bring back four starters in linebackers Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones and a pair of players in the secondary in cornerback Jalen Mills and Craig Loston. But the Tigers have to replace the entire front four, including the fantastic defensive end duo of Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery along with tackles Bennie Logan and Josh Downs.
If quarterback Zach Mettenberger and LSU’s stable of running backs don’t help prop up a young defense, 2013 could mark the first time in Miles’ nine seasons in Baton Rouge the “Bayou Bengals” don’t win at least eight games.
- Best-case scenario: LSU shows that once again, no amount of talent lost can slow its program down, as it tosses aside what was thought to be a game TCU squad in the season opener in Dallas, winning 38-17. The Tigers follow it up with three more easy victories, rolling over Alabama-Birmingham, Kent State and Auburn, all within the confines of Tiger Stadium. But LSU suffers its first — and what turns out to be, only — setback of 2013, falling to Georgia on the road in a classic affair. The lead changes hands six times, and on three occasions in the final period alone. But Todd Gurley, the Bulldogs sensational sophomore running back, comes up with the play of the game, breaking multiple tackles on his way to the end zone from 32 yards out with less than two minutes to go, helping Georgia hold on for a 34-28 victory. LSU, learning from the mistakes it made in that loss, goes undefeated for the rest of the season, beating Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M along the way. In the SEC Championship Game, LSU stymies South Carolina 30-14 to clinch a spot in the national title game. Ironically, the Tigers face off against the Ohio State Buckeyes, the same team they beat when they last won the national title in 2007. Though this Ohio State team is better than the 2007 edition, it means little, as the Tigers win 28-17, picking up their fourth national title — their second under Miles — and extending the SEC’s stranglehold on the crystal football to eight years and counting. In a stroke of luck, LSU doesn’t lose a single underclassman who has the chance to go pro, as all elect to stay for the chance to win the first back-to-back national championships in school history. And of course, the momentum from the national title carries over into National Signing Day, as the Tigers sign the country’s top-rated class. Meanwhile, “Public Enemy No. 1″ in Louisiana, Alabama coach Nick Saban, is unable to get his team to play to the level of its predecessors. The Crimson Tide finish 9-4 after losing to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl.
- Worst-case scenario: The Tigers’ defense is ill-prepared for a tough opener, as they lose to the Horned Frogs in Cowboys Stadium 34-24. LSU pulls it back together for the next three games, though it has a hard time slipping past Auburn in its SEC opener in Week 4. The “other Tigers” push the Bayou Bengals until the fourth quarter, when Mettenberger hooks up with Odell Beckham on a 56-yard touchdown pass to seal the game and the 28-20 victory. The Tigers then fall to 1-1 in conference play as Georgia and Aaron Murray throw all over Sanford Stadium in a 42-17 thrashing. LSU gets back to its winning ways one week later as it beats Mississippi State on the road, but at 4-2, the Tigers reach the peak of their winning percentage for the season. They lose consecutive games to Florida and Ole Miss, then get back over .500 after sweeping away Furman. The Tigers lose two in a row once more as Alabama and Texas A&M beat them in back-to-back weeks. LSU recovers to capture “The Golden Boot” against Arkansas for the third straight time, but a 6-6 showing in the regular season is far from what the Tigers or their fans expect. LSU is going to the postseason, as it heads to the Advocare V100 Bowl, also known as the “Independence Bowl.” And, of course, it’s in Shreveport. A lethargic LSU goes through the motions and loses 24-10 to a Wake Forest squad just happy to be there. The offseason doesn’t treat the Tigers any better, as their top two receivers in Beckham and Jarvis Landry, as well as Outland Award finalist La’el Collins, leave early. LSU doesn’t sign its usual top-10 recruiting class, and arguably the top prospect in the country, New Orleans running back Leonard Fournette, pulls a stunner by deciding to go out of state after having the Tigers at the top of his list throughout his recruitment. And to top it off, the Tigers’ arch-nemesis and former coach, Saban, continues his dynastic run over the rest of college football, with Alabama winning its third straight national title.