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Archive for the ‘SEC Preview’ Category

2011 SEC Predictions

Posted by Brett Kincaid on September 2, 2011

It’s finally here.

College football kicked off last night, proving once again that God does love us and wants us to be happy.  Mississippi State and Wisconsin rolled, Kentucky survived, and Syracuse pulled off a dramatic comeback…that no one could watch on television.  It looks like the major sports broadcasting networks are already in midseason form.

The time has come for the brain trust at BlogHawgs.com to impart some knowledge to you the reader.  We have sifted through the reports, analyzed the data, and come to our predictions.  We have been reasonably successful with these in the past, and I’m pretty confident these predictions will stand the test of time.

EAST

  1. Georgia – Mark Richt will turn it around this year, and it could be a remarkable turnaround at that.  While I see a path to an unbeaten season, I’m not about to go down that road.  All the Bulldogs road games are ones they can win, but the lack of depth at RB and development of new receivers creates too much doubt for me to make the big, bold prediction.  They’ll probably end up dropping one of those roadies and stumble at home against Mississippi State.  Predicted Finish:  9-3, 6-2
  2. South Carolina – When it comes down to it, I just cannot trust this team enough to pick them to win the division.  On paper they have the most talent and experience, which typically makes a team an obvious choice.  But the defense is just young enough in the front seven and the schedule includes tons of tough road games, meaning a traditionally mentally weak team needs to overcome its inner demons if they want to win the division.  I just don’t see it with this group.  Predicted Finish:  9-3, 5-3
  3. Florida – The Gators look like this year’s wild card team in the East.  It’s very difficult to predict how they’ll respond to wholesale coaching changes after six seasons with Urban Meyer.  The offense will look quite different, while the defense replaces most of its starters.  The talent is there and the coaches are excellent.  Overall, the schedule presents a number of potholes that make me think this team in transition needs one year before they compete for the title.  Predicted Finish: 7-5, 4-4
  4. Tennessee – Derek Dooley pulled off a minor miracle getting UT to a bowl game last year.  It’ll take that same type of effort to do it again in 2011.  The Vols have three brutal conference road games and still has to host three Top 25 teams at home on top of that.  With a quarterback that has the keys to the offense for the first time and inexperienced playmakers on the edge, it’s a year too early to expect the Volunteers have a real shot to win the division.  Predicted Finish: 7-5, 3-5
  5. Vanderbilt – I’ve made my affection for James Franklin known.  I think he’ll make Vanderbilt a competitive football program by implementing a dynamic offense and recruiting harder than anyone else in the free world.  This team will show some spark – and win one game they shouldn’t – but ultimately the talent and lack of depth limit the Commodores.  Predicted Finish: 5-7, 2-6
  6. Kentucky – To be fair, I had Kentucky tied with Vanderbilt for the league bottom before they looked like the Magnolia Junior High JV squad last night.  The Wildcats lost their playmakers to the NFL and have to completely retool their offense.  The experienced offensive line will help those guys grow, but this looks like a team that will struggle.  The defense will do their best to keep them in games, but ultimately this is a rebuilding year for Kentucky.  Predicted Finish: 5-7, 1-7

WEST

  1. Alabama – This is a very tough pick, but the Crimson Tide defense is just that good.  The offense will produce enough and hit its rhythm in late October.  The schedule is a big problem, but the tough road games are against teams that have several questions themselves.  They’ll probably drop one of those – and that’s it.  The defense is that good.  Predicted Finish: 11-1, 7-1
  2. Arkansas – As much as we’d like to pick Arkansas to win the division, there are just enough questions about the offense and the schedule to keep us from doing that.  Tyler Wilson should be all-SEC caliber QB, and I expect Ronnie Wingo, Jr. to put up a 1,000 yard season.  Unfortunately for Arkansas, this team has to go to Tuscaloosa early in the season.  While they certainly could win that game, it’s not a game we’re willing to say they will win.  We are willing to say, however, that is the only game they’ll lose.  Predicted Finish:  11-1, 7-1
  3. Mississippi State – The Bulldogs are about to make The Leap.  I think MSU very well may challenge both Alabama and Arkansas for the SEC West title.  In fact, I tend to think they’ll actually beat Alabama in Starkville.  They have talent, experience, and a schedule designed for success not seen at Mississippi State since the last ‘90s.  They have two very difficult road games at Georgia and Arkansas, but everything else looks like a game where MSU will be favored or less than a TD underdog.  Mississippi State is for real.  Someone needs to hire Dan Mullen away from there before he builds a legit contender year in and year out.  Although, it may already be too late.  Predicted Finish:  10-2, 6-2
  4. LSU – No one questions the talent in Baton Rouge.  Everyone questions the coaching and leadership.  Off field distractions, multiple suspensions, and a difficult schedule make LSU the team most likely to be a bust in 2011.  From the outside looking in, it appears Les Miles has a team in chaos.  You simply cannot win a championship like that.  Predicted Finish:  7-5, 5-3
  5. Auburn – The War Eagle Tigers need to rebuild this year.  Both sides of the ball lack key personnel from last year’s BCS championship team.  Gus Malzhan’s offense will score points; they did that before Cam Newton ever saw the field.  Auburn will not be able to produce at the pace from 2010, though.  The schedule is brutal, and they also have to worry about the championship hangover effect.  I don’t see a very fun year on the Plains.  Predicted Finish: 5-7, 2-6
  6. Mississippi – The Rebels have a long, long way to go.  The talent level does not compare to their division rivals, and the coaching staff … well … Arkansas fans know all about the coaching staff.  The Mississippi defense will find it difficult to improve on their ghastly 2010 season, and the offense has only one true playmaker (Brandon Bolden) on which it can rely.  Add to it an SEC schedule filled with difficult road games, and it’s hard to find much reason for optimism in Oxford.  Predicted Finish:  2-10, 0-8

2011 SEC BOWL GAME PREDICTIONS

BCS National Championship Game – Alabama

It’s rare to pick a team to play for it all when that team has an inexperienced pair of QBs like Bama.  It’s an easier decision, though, when the defense is as good as Nick Saban’s group this year.

Sugar Bowl – Arkansas

The Hogs return to New Orleans, upset that they won’t be playing there a week later.  They’ll also be there to prove that they are good enough to be in that game the following week.

Capital One Bowl – Georgia

The Bulldogs may sneak into the BCS, but a loss in the SEC Championship Game will force them to the best of the second-tier games.  It will be a nice reward for Mark Richt and the athletics administration that stood by their man.

Cotton Bowl – Mississippi State

The streets of Dallas will be filled with overalls and cowbells in early January.  Mississippi State will have earned some national respect and a trip to one of the best non-BCS bowl games out there.

Chick-fil-A Bowl – LSU

If South Carolina hadn’t gone to this game last year, they’d probably get the nod.  But Atlanta will welcome a loyal fanbase that will buy lots and lots of tickets.

Outback Bowl – South Carolina

This will be a disappointing ending to a season that started with such high hopes.  Perhaps it will also mark the last game for Steve Spurrier at Carolina.

Gator Bowl – Florida

Seems appropriate, no?  The Gators should enjoy this trip, because it’s the last one they’ll make to the Gator Bowl for quite a while.  This is a team headed in the right direction.

Music City Bowl – Tennessee

Back-to-back trips to Nashville for Tennessee fans may not be a great reward, but simply playing in a bowl game is a huge accomplishment.  Dooley is laying the foundation for a program that will go bowling out of state next season.

Liberty Bowl & BBVA Compass Bowl – Not enough SEC teams will qualify for bowls this year.  Both Vanderbilt and Auburn could make it happen, but right now we just can’t endorse those picks.

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Proving Its Points–2011 Arkansas Razorbacks Offensive Preview

Posted by Adam Butler on September 1, 2011

Death. Taxes. A Potent Bobby Petrino Offense. Some things in life are inevitable.

Welcome to the 2011 football season. It’s going to be fun.

Yes, there are offensive question marks–specifically a rebuilt offensive line and running game that will have to be productive minus its fallen superstar, All-SEC running back Knile Davis, who broke his ankle early in Fall practice and is out for the season. But, when it comes to offense, when Petrino has his players, almost without fail he has the right answers.

In 13 years as a collegiate Offensive Coordinator or Head Coach, Petrino’s offenses have finished in the Top 10 nationally 7 times and in the Top 20 nationally 8 times. Of the remaining 5 years, 3 were spent setting school records at college football outpost Utah State and another featured quarterback Casey Dick and a cast of other characters that were better suited for ANY kind of offense other than Petrino’s.

At Arkansas, Petrino has averaged 21.9 (2008), 36.0 (2009) and 36.5 (2010) points per game. That sure seems like a trend. It is also bad news for opposing SEC fans considering Petrino has plenty of weapons at his disposal.

But, just as yesterday, rather than provide a position-by-position, 3-deep breakdown of the offense I have instead limited my analysis to a more reader-friendly format. You can thank me later.

Arkansas’ Offense Will be Dominant If…..

The offensive line is able to mesh quickly. Generally speaking, having to replace both offensive tackles (3-year starters DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez), 3 offensive lineman total (including  would-be senior Seth Oxner), and a Mackey Award winning tight end (DJ Williams) is a recipe for disaster.

Unlike the previous Arkansas regime, though, Petrino and company have made sure the cupboard isn’t bare.

Arkansas has a pair of Grants–Cook and Freeman at guard and tackle, respectively, who are going into their 5th year in the program and have shown they can compete in the SEC. They are the type of seasoned, steady players that have to step up (and usually do) when their time finally comes.

In the middle, center Travis Swanson and  guard Alvin Bailey shined last year as underclassmen and have the look of players that could be All-SEC caliber. Massive, but agile freshmen Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers could have signed anywhere in the country, and will play a big part in the O-line equation. JUCO transfer Jason Peacock will battle Smothers  for the weakside tackle spot while working to avoid the slow transition that sometimes hampers JUCO transfers. Fellow JUCO transfer Chris Stringer was once a likely redshirt candidiate, but may see action for depth purposes.

Junior Colton Miles-Nash has returned to tight end (from DE) after getting significant playing time on offense as a freshman. He is a physical presence that knows the tricks of the trade for both a TE and DE and will often be asked to seal the edge for Arkansas’ running backs. Junior Chris Gragg –a high school wide receiver–is a legitimate threat in the passing game.

The Arkansas staff has mixed and matched a lot in the preseason in order to examine combinations and prepare for the shuffling that is required every season due to injuries that come during the grind of an SEC season. Arkansas’ offense has the luxury of a 3-week, in-state dress rehearsal (Missouri State, New Mexico, Troy State) for the conference opener at Alabama on September 24th. If the offensive line can give hold its own there, the 2011 season could be a great one.

Arkansas’ Offense Will Be a Disappointment If…..

it fails to average 30 points a game. Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson proved last year by torching eventual national champion Auburn on the road that he is capable of big things. If Wilson remains healthy and isn’t an asset, after four spring camps with Petrino, he will be the first to so fail.

Wilson will have plenty of help. The quartet of Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton is the best group of wide receivers in the country. No one in the country has a 4th receiver that is a prime NFL prospect. And, others like Marquel Wade, who, due in large part to running back depth concerns may have wrestled the kickoff return duties away from Dennis Johnson, are ready if called upon. Look for Arkansas to use the non-conference slate to tinker with the running game while putting as little as possible on film for Alabama to study.

The One Offensive Player Arkansas Can Least Afford to Lose Is…..

Tyler Wilson.

After season-ending injuries to running backs Knile Davis and Broderick Green, another loss at running back would be a stomach punch. Although juniors Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo Jr. are a capable running back duo, they need to stay healthy. But, without a quarterback to get the offense out of bad plays and distribute the ball, Arkansas’ offensive strength–its playmakers–could be minimized and its potential weakness–offensive line inexperience–could be exposed.

Junior backup quarterback  Brandon Mitchell has the tools to play in the SEC and is likely to see action early even if Wilson remains healthy. But, he hasn’t taken live bullets and after having  a great spring camp he struggled with the presence of plenty of backsides on bleachers at the Arkansas Spring game, making one worry that he may not be quite ready for prime time.

The Player With the Most Potential For Arkansas Fans to Either Love or Hate Is…..

Ronnie Wingo Jr.

Wingo has all the talent in the world, and as we have discussed in this space, he has shown it at times. But, he has also been prone to dancing and softness. Reports out of Fall Camp, and Wingo’s performance during the spring game (62 yards and 1 touchdown on 11 carries) have given Hog fans high hopes. That will all change the first time Wingo tap dances into a hole at Tuscaloosa. There is perhaps no player on the team who needs to have a good start more than Wingo, Jr. If he reaches his potential–look out.

Arkansas’ Offfense Will Put The Razorbacks in Position to Win the SEC West If…..

The running game is solid and the receivers minimize drops and dumb mistakes in big games. Former UA QB Ryan Mallett took the blame for the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State, but that one–at least as it pertains to the offense–was on the Hogs’ wide receivers and overmatched offensive tackles.

Despite putting up good numbers on paper, Joe Adams had a night to forget in Nola. Even D.J. Williams’ trusty hands betrayed him with a drop late in the loss, costing him the school career receptions record and the team 4  potential game-winning shots at the end zone from the doorstep.

If Arkansas wants to get over the hump, its supremely talented receivers have to go to Bama, take on the top defense in the nation, and win their share of battles. If they do that, Arkansas could be Ringing the Bell and Calling the Hogs at The Capstone.

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Evaluating the SEC West

Posted by Brett Kincaid on August 31, 2011

This is the second of our three-part SEC preview.  Click here for yesterday’s look at the SEC East.  We will release our overall projections and predictions on Friday. 

The best football in all of the land is played in four states that occupy the SEC West.  Without question these teams possess the highest level of talent, best coaches, and most complete teams compared to all other teams in the country.  The past two national champs have come from the SEC West, and it’s very likely one of these teams will play for all the marbles again this year.

Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU draw all the headlines, but Mississippi State is lurking as a potential darkhorse team for 2011.  Auburn will not repeat as champions, but they will be able to score points again this year.  Mississippi is rebuilding, but they have an experienced offensive line and talented running backs that will keep them in ballgames this year.

But the focus should remain on those top three teams.  Alabama has a defense that may be better than the 2009 Tide.  Arkansas has its most complete team since the late 1980s.  LSU once again has loads of talent, but the off-the-field troubles in Baton Rouge may override the optimism pulsing throughout Louisiana.

Overall, it looks like the SEC West will consistently produce the best football week-in-and-week-out during the 2011 football season.

Alabama

In many ways it’s just another season in Alabama.  The Crimson Tide finds itself inside the top five of seemingly every preseason poll with many expecting another trip to the BCS title game.  Head coach Nick Saban has another NFL-caliber defense and a stud running back expected to approach 1,500 yards on the ground.

In other ways, though, this season is unique among any other season that starts with high expectations.  On April 27, 2011, the city of Tuscaloosa suffered a tragic loss of life that put an exclamation point at the end of a turbulent spring storm season that affected everyone including us in Arkansas.  In the hometown of Bama Nation, this year’s Alabama Crimson Tide football team carries the hopes of thousands if for no other reason than to provide a rallying point for a rebuilding community.

This version of the Crimson Tide should provide many more highs than lows for their loyal fan base.

Alabama returns 8 starters on defense, needing to find replacements for 2 defensive linemen and one linebacker.  That’s it.   Consider that Alabama has been able to rotate their line regularly, new starter Damian Square is expected to step in seemlessly.  Add in monster JUCO transfer Quinton Dial and sophomore Ed Stinson, and Bama shouldn’t find it too difficult to stop the run or get to the quarterback.  The stars of this defense reside in the secondary, though, with NFL-ready cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Millner returning for the 2011 campaign.  Safety Mark Barron may be the most talented player on the Crimson Tide roster.

Offense remains the big question for Saban.  Trent Richardson steps in as the new starter at running back with the departure of Mark Ingram.  Can he handle the load at a position without much depth?  Gone is Greg McElroy and his 70% completion rate, and in steps the duo of redshirt freshman Philip Sims (no relation to the NFL Hall of Famer) and sophomore A.J. McCarron.  Without Julio Jones at wide receiver, who will step up to cover their mistakes?  The offense at Alabama has far more questions than answers.  One thing is for certain, though: They all have talent.  Success for Bama is a matter of combining that talent with the mental toughness they’ll need to overcome mistakes early in the season.

While the Crimson Tide get Arkansas and LSU at home this year, the rest of their schedule is pretty difficult.  An early season road trip to Penn State will test the mental toughness I mentioned.  Other road tests include games at Florida, Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Auburn.  Like most every other SEC school, Alabama is all but guaranteed three non-conference wins with the trip to Happy Valley a tossup as of right now.  The Tide will lose at least one conference game, and two seems likely given the difficulty of their schedule.

If the defense is as good as advertised, though, Alabama may find themselves winning a lot of low-scoring games this season – maybe enough to get to New Orleans.

Arkansas

Check Adam’s in depth Arkansas preview.  Defense (Wednesday) and Offense (Thursday).

In short, this could be the best defense at Arkansas in decades.  The offense has to find 2 new tackles and hope Tyler Wilson can emerge into the star many believe he can be at quarterback.  With Knile Davis done for the year, Ronnie Wingo, Jr. can’t make any more excuses.  It’s his show, and he needs to own that position.  Dennis Johnson should be a nice compliment to Wingo.  The receiving corps is the best in the nation top-to-bottom, and the special teams are certainly the best they’ve been since I was in grade school.

Auburn

My, my how seasons change.  A year ago the War Eagle Tigers were crowing about Cam Newton and his ability to lead Gus Malzhan’s offense.  Gene Chizik said all the right things, talking about how the defense would take a big enough step in 2010 to allow the War Eagle Tigers to compete for an SEC West crown.  And none of us knew how important the figure $180,000 would become.

Five months later the War Eagle Tigers had a national title, even if the trophy is temporarily leased until it’s vacated in the next 18 months or so.  With only 8 total starters returning on both sides of the ball, those days of glory will seem but a distant memory this season.

This year the Auburn fans will need to play “Remember When?” several times throughout the fall.  A brutal schedule and a revamped offensive line coupled with an inexperienced quarterback have all the ingredients teams need to reach mediocrity.  While Michael Dyer is a stellar running back, he won’t have much help from tested players.  Rogers high school alum Lee Ziemba leaves a big (literally and figuratively) void at left tackle, something new starting quarterback Barrett Trotter would like to see resolved quickly.

As depleted as the offense appears the defense may be in worse shape.  With only one starter coming back on the defensive line, two linebackers and but one member of the secondary (a good one in Neiko Thorpe), Auburn will be learning on the job this year defensively.  Last year’s group was hardly a force to be reckoned with, but they obviously had enough juice to get the job done.  This year they’ll find it difficult to do the same thing.

The Auburn schedule provides little relief for a group of green players in the SEC.  Back-to-back road trips to South Carolina and Arkansas start October, only to be followed by a home game against Florida then yet another road game at LSU.  A home game against Mississippi State and road contest at Clemson are both tough wins to predict for a rebuilding team, especially with those games in September.

Malzahn proved his fast-paced offense could score in the SEC.  Even in the B.C. Era (Before Cam) the Tigers had an offense that could put points on the board.  With wholesale changes on offense this year, though, it’ll be hard to produce at the clip the past two Auburn teams produced.  I suspect the War Eagle Tigers will find a way to pull off a few surprises, but anything more than a lower-tier bowl game would be a reach this season.

LSU

La Chapeau has his hands full this season in Baton Rouge.  Les Miles has once again fielded a team with tons of talent and question marks at the quarterback position.  He’s Houston Nutt with talent.  That talent guarantees Miles a few more wins than it does the Mississippi coach, but his bewildering time management strategies leave most of us as confused as he looks.

The obvious story of the offseason in Tiger Country is the arrest and subsequent suspension of starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson.  Linebacker Joshua Johns also faces felony assault charges and will not see the field until further notice.  Underreported in the wake of the arrests is the suspension of hard-to-defend Russell Shepard who lines up at WR, RB, and occasionally QB in Wildcat formations.  He will miss this Saturday’s opener against Oregon and more games in September according to sources in Louisiana.

What does all this mean?  It means the Tigers have a lot to overcome if they expect to compete for conference and national titles.  The benching of Jefferson may be addition-by-subtraction, but new starter Jarret Lee has looked as lost as a blind man on a tilt-a-whirl during his SEC action.  JUCO transfer and former Georgia quarterback Zack Mettenberger has loads of talent but has also proven to be an off-the-field distraction and certainly isn’t ready to lead a team right now.

With all critical personnel returning to LSU this year, save All-American cornerback Patrick Peterson, the Tigers looked like a lock to contend.  Given all the distraction, personnel changes, and uncertainty with their coaching staff, one cannot help but wonder just how focused this team will be in September.  The Tigers start with a huge game against Oregon then get to recover against in-state foe Northwestern State (of the FCS).  LSU then goes back-to-back on the road against Mississippi State and West Virginia.  Surviving that stretch unbeaten seems like a tall task with a full complement of players, and it looks downright impossible given all the holes Miles must fill.

The Tigers will get on track at some point, though, and I expect them to finish strong.  Say what you want about The Hat, but he gets his team playing good football in November.  LSU only hits the road twice after Halloween, including a home contest against Arkansas on the day after Thanksgiving.

All the issues remind me of last year’s North Carolina team.  There’s no telling how long LSU will be without two playmakers on offense.  Stumbling out of the gates at a 2-2 or potentially 1-3 start could submarine the entire season.  Ultimately I expect LSU to salvage a solid campaign ending up nowhere worse that the Cotton Bowl come January.

Mississippi

Hotty Toddy

Only two things could have made Arkansas fans even happier last season: 1) Arkansas managing to win the 3 games they lost and 2) Mississippi managing to lose the five games they won.  Both teams did their best to do both of those things, but it was not to be.  This year’s Mississippi team looks a bit better than the 2010 version, although that’s a low bar to meet.  After a humiliating loss to Jacksonville State last year in Oxford, the sky is the limit for Hootie and the Black Bear Rebels.

One of the keys to an Ole Miss revival is the offensive line.  The Rebs look to have one of the best in the country, which is important given the immaturity they’ll feature at quarterback.  Nutt has shown that he can ruin the best of quarterbacks, so the signal caller takes a backseat in importance at Oxford.  Randall Mackey created an interesting paradox by delaying his destruction as a player after getting arrested.  That means Brandon Brunetti will get the start on Saturday against BYU.  As for the running back position, Brandon Bolden could start for anyone.  He’s back this year, and that will certainly give the offense some stability.  Enrique Davis has big play ability, and he’s back to give the Rebels a formidable one-two punch.  At receiver…well…does it matter?  It’s a Houston Nutt offense.  Rebel receivers are glorified blockers.

Defensively you just have to scratch your head.  The Rebels were supposed to have one of the premiere defensive lines in the league last year but they floundered.  The rest of the Black Bear Rebs followed their lead, creating a terrifying unit.  Tyrone Nix has some skills (as displayed at Southern Miss and again at Mississippi in 2009), but they better be on full display early.  Nutt has brought in Keith Burns to help add a spark, meaning Nix’s replacement is in the building if when Nutt decides to shift blame.  Perhaps this is the year Kentrell Lockett puts it all together.  He certainly looks the part of an SEC defensive end.

The schedule presents significant challenges for Ole Miss this season.  Saturday’s home opener against BYU is not a good place to start.  A road trip at Vanderbilt kicks off conference season, which has never been an easy one for Nutt.  Georgia at home will probably tell the tale this season, but I’m afraid the Black Bear Rebels like the song.  The Mississippi Coach always finds a way to beat at least one team he shouldn’t, so Alabama and Arkansas better be on their toes when they visit Oxford in October.  Getting back to a bowl game this year, though, will be a struggle for the Rebels.

Mississippi State

Two years ago I wrote about my affection for and belief in Dan Mullen.  I believed then that he would inject life into a moribund program and bring Mississippi State back to relevance in the SEC.  Since then the Bulldogs have challenged the big boys of the SEC, won two consecutive Egg Bowls, and blown out Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

The 2011 season brings an opportunity for Mississippi State to take a major step.  With LSU on the verge of meltdown, the Bulldogs have an eye on the inside track to the upper half of the SEC West and an outside shot at Atlanta.  They have winnable road games and both Alabama and LSU in Starkville.  The Bulldogs are not quite ready to be considered a serious threat, but I think anyone that takes MSU lightly will look up at the scoreboard wondering, “What happened?” late in the 4th Quarter.

Eight starters return on offense including quarterback Chris Relf.  So does playmaker Chad Bumphis at wide receiver, but the Bulldogs need to replace 2 starters on the offensive line.  All-SEC center Quentin Saulsberry returns to anchor that unit up front.

The defense returns seven starters, and Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd should anchor a stout front seven.  The Bulldogs ranked third in rush defense in the conference last year.  I’d expect they have a similar season this year, and the secondary hopes to steal some of the headlines.  While the Bulldogs were mere pups in the defensive backfield last season, all four starters return for 2011.  Corey Broomfield looks to be the leader of that crowd.

Mississippi State has the type of schedule a team needs to make a run from the back of the preseason pack.  They open with a road game at Memphis – which should have far more maroon than blue in the stadium – then a trip to Auburn, which is entirely winnable.  MSU catches LSU at home in the third game of the season, and given LSU’s troubles, teams that play the Tigers early have a real shot of coming up with a win.  Road games at Georgia and Arkansas look to be the most challenging, while home games against South Carolina and Alabama are hardly gimmes.

If the Bulldogs have taken a bigger step than I believe they have (entirely possible), I think Dan Mullen’s crew may be the darkhorse SEC contender of 2011.

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Evaluating the SEC East

Posted by Brett Kincaid on August 30, 2011

This is the first of our three-part SEC preview.  We’ll look at the SEC West tomorrow then release our overall projections and predictions on Friday. 

The SEC East has got to be wondering what happened.  For years the East dominated the league with Floirda, Georgia and Tennessee annually three of the four best teams in the SEC.  Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas would cycle in and out of elite status, but none of those teams even could hold a candle to the dominance of the SEC East.

The script has flipped, though, and the SEC West is now the premiere division in all of college football.  While I do believe 2010 was a bit of an aberration, the overall talent top to bottom in the East does not match that of the West.  South Carolina and Georgia both look like they are a step ahead of where they were last year, but neither is a lock to win 10 games this year.  Florida could break out because of its talent, but tons of questions remain with a new regime in Gainesville.  Tennessee has the pieces in place offensively but needs marked improvement on defense if they hope to compete for a division title.  Kentucky has settled in as a very steady 7-win team, but they don’t have the horses to compete this season.  Vanderbilt contiues its fight for relevance, and a .500 team this year seems like a longshot.

Overall, it’s easy to see the SEC West has the better talent as a whole.  The SEC East, though, is still the second-best division in college football.  Half of these teams would contend for conference titles in all the other BCS conferences, and the other half would be assured bowl seasons – even Vanderbilt.  Even in weak years, the SEC continues to produce a better quality of football than any other conference.  Whlie the SEC East may be down compared to their Western brethren, the East is loaded with talented players and coaches.

Florida

The Gators said goodbye to Urban Meyer last year while also saying goodbye to seven defensive starters.  In comes Will Muschamp, the former Texas Longhorns coach-in-waiting and SEC veteran, to revamp a Gators program that is just three seasons removed from a national championship.  Muschamp immediately recognized that time is of the essence in Gainesville.  He hired Charlie Weiss and Dan Quinn away from the NFL to coordinate the offense and defense, respectively.

On the field, John Brantley returns at quarterback after a dreadful 2010 as a starter.  Brantley was the number one high school quarterback when he signed with Florida, and I expect he’ll blossom under the tutelage of Weiss.  A solid running game will certainly take some pressure off Brantley, something that Urban Meyer never developed.

Jeff Demps returns for one more year, and he should get more snaps than ever as a traditional running back.  Senior Chris Rainey also returns, and he has blazing top end speed.  The combo of Demps and Rainey could provide the Gators with stability they haven’t seen in years.  The big concern offensively for Gator fans should be the offensive line.  Four starters must be replaced, and in the SEC that is a huge concern. 

Defensively the Gators must rebuild as only four starters return.  The 2010 Gators survived on a solid defense while their offense struggled, but they may not have that luxury this year.  Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic bring back the most experience at the linebacker positions.  The defensive line needs a complete overhaul, and the secondary will miss the experience and talent of Janoris Jenkins who was dismissed from the team. 

The schedule is typical Florida: never leaving the state for a non-conference game.  In the SEC, the Gators are fortunate to get both major rivals – Tennessee and Alabama – at home.  September sets up well for Florida with only one road game at Kentucky.  That is a winnable game for Florida, which would allow the Gators to compete for the SEC East title.  On the flip side, Florida has road games at LSU, Auburn, and South Carolina including back-to-back roadies before their Open week. 

Florida may not be much better in 2011 than 2010, but they have the building blocks in place to return to power.  Like most young teams, Florida needs a fast start in order to build some confidence.  You can never count Florida out because of its talent, but I expect they are a year away from competing for a division title.  The Gators close with four of five games in state, setting the stage for the Gators to surge into bowl season and heading back to the top in 2012.

 

Georgia

Familiarity breeds contempt.  That is the only explanation for the sudden and angry turn by many Georgia fans against Mark Richt.  After back-to-back subpar seasons, Richt is coaching for his job this year.  The defense will end up telling the tale of the Georgia Bulldogs this season as they begin Year Two of the transition to a 3-4 scheme.  Offensively Georgia has plenty of talent and an emerging start at quarterback.

Aaron Murray was a first team Freshman All-American last year.  He has enough mobility in the pocket to allow plays to develop, which will be even more important in 2011 with the absence of A.J. Green.  The Dawgs return three linemen with experience but have yet again lost Trinton Sturdivant to an ACL injury.  (Sturdivant has become a punch line, but it’s actually a sad story.  As a freshman Sturdivant looked like the second coming of Orlando Pace and Joe Thomas.)  The runningback position remains a concern for Georgia.  Washaun Ealy has left the program, and budding star Caleb King is lost for the year due to injury.  Finding an answer at RB will solve many of the offensive concerns.

Defensively the Bulldogs need to take a big step this year.  Only 3 linebackers have any significant experience and the line has turned over after a solid 2010 campaign.  Bacarri Rambo returns (Isn’t he 27 years-old?) and compares favorably to some of the great safeties in the SEC.  The rest of the secondary needs to raise its game to help shoulder the burden while younger, inexperienced players in the front seven adjust.

The Bulldogs schedule eases after a brutal opening combo of Boise St. and South Carolina.  Fortunately for the Dawgs both of those games are in Georgia.  Three consecutive games away from home – Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Florida (at Jacksonville) – all look like potential wins for Georgia, but one has to worry about the Bulldogs growing road weary in the back half of the season.

Mark Richt is still a very good coach, and Georgia still has a ton of talent on its roster.  Fourteen wins in 2 seasons won’t get it done, though, and Richt knows it.  I expect Georgia to compete for the SEC East title this year.  In fact, I’m tempted to pick the Dawgs to win both their September games against Top 15 teams.  The key to Georgia’s success will be whether or not the defense can make the leap with players that have been in the system but not logged much game time.  Georgia always has solid special teams units, and that should save them in at least one close game this year.

 

Kentucky

Most folks are surprised to learn that Kentucky has been to five consecutive bowl games.  That’s a testament to the steady program built by former coach Rich Brooks and his successor Joker Phillips.  It’s also a statement about the level of talent those two were able to recruit to the basketball-loving campus.  Unfortunately for Wildcat fans this year, a lot of that talent is in the NFL while Phillips and his coaching staff try to coach up a lot of inexperienced players.  New full-time starting quarterback Morgan Newton does not have the advantage of Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb to help bail him out of tough spots.  One positive for Newton is his excellent interception numbers, only throwing four passes to the wrong colored jersey in 119 attempts.  Newton and new starting RB Raymond Sanders have the advantage of playing behind four returning starters on the offensive line.

Defensively Kentucky has always held their own without ever emerging as a team that strikes fear in the hearts of their opponents.  No one is going to confuse the Wildcats with the Crimson Tide, but UK does return 10 starters on defense.  In the SEC it’s hard to overvalue the importance of experience.  It is very important that the defense keeps Kentucky in games while the offense finds its rhythm.

Kentucky should be 3-0 heading into its Lexington showdown with Florida.  That looks like the swing game for the Wildcats season.  Win that one, and it’s not heard to see 7 or 8 wins.  Lose it, and a sub-.500 record and sitting home during bowl season looks more likely.  Kentucky doesn’t leave the Bluegrass State until October, and the non-conference schedule provides 3 absolute wins and one likely win against a rebuilding Louisville.  Unfortunately for Kentucky they face SEC road games at South Carolina, LSU, Georgia, and an improving Vanderbilt team.  Winning just one of those games is no easy task.

I believe Joker Phillips will continue to build Kentucky into a team that competes for SEC East titles.  This year is not that year, though.  A winning record and a sixth consecutive bowl game appear to be solid, attainable goals for a team adjusting to new talent on the offense.  The Wildcat defense holds the keys to a bowl game or breaking their impressive streak.

 

South Carolina

Rarely has the national public expected as much from a South Carolina football team as they do right now.  Coming off their first ever SEC East division title, the Gamecocks look to improve upon their status as “sacrificial lamb” for the eventual SEC West champion.  This year South Carolina has a legitimate chance to run through their division and will contend for a BCS bowl game – perhaps even a national title.

Stephen Garcia is back (He MUST be a Ph. D by now) to lead Steve Spurrier’s offense.  Garcia probably qualifies as the most frustrating quarterback in recent memory.  He shows unbelievable poise and talent at times, and at others he looks like a freshman.  His off field problems are legendary, and it was not certain he would even return this year.  SHead Coach Steve Spurrier says the boy has pulled his life together and become a man.  If that is the case, the offense could be scary.

Marcus Lattimore burst onto the scene as a freshman with a dynamic season carrying the football.  Alshon Jeffery has emerged as one of the premiere receivers in the conference.  An experienced offensive line completes what appears to be the first Spurrier-esque offense since he arrived in Columbia.

If Carolina is going to return to Atlanta, they’ll need that offense to produce while the defense adjusts to a ton of new personnel.  Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is one of the best in the business, and he’ll need to prove it this by overhauling the front seven.  Six starters return, but the front line needs the most help.  Devin Taylor is a playmaker, and Travian Robertson has potential to be an all-league player.   Heralded freshman Jadevon Clowney (the nation’s #1 high school recruit last year) will be counted on to make an impact, as will linebacker Shaq Wilson who missed all of 2010 due to injury.  The secondary has loads of talent, led by Stephon Gilmore at cornerback.  This group needs to play brilliantly while the new starters up front get accustomed to SEC football.  No one questions the talent, especially on the defensive line.  The question is whether or not (or how quickly) they pick up Johnson’s schemes.

Carolina should get off to a fast start with five of their first six games at home – the lone roadie in that span is between the hedges at Georgia.  The Gamecocks loaded up on some cupcakes in the early non-conference slate with Clemson looming at the end of the year.  While they leave the state for the bulk of October, South Carolina closes with three straight games at home.

The drawback to this schedule is the difficulty level of their road conference games.  They travel to Athens, Starkville, Knoxville, and Fayetteville this season, and each of those teams has the ability to knock South Carolina off its quest for back-to-back division titles.  They play three of those games on the road, culminating with a trip to Reynolds Razorback Stadium in November.

On paper South Carolina looks like the best team in the SEC East.  They combine an overall friendly schedule with a ton of offensive firepower and a talented (but inexperienced) defense.  Assuming the questions are answered on defense, the overriding concern for me is mental toughness.  Carolina has not shown much of that historically.  Can they handle the expectations?  They never have in the past, so what makes us think they will now?

 

Tennessee

I have a lot of respect for Derek Dooley.  He inherited a program in chaos and turned 2010 into a bowl season that not many expected.  Now Dooley has to pay the piper.  Expectations have been raised, and that means anything less than a bowl game will be viewed as a disappointment.  While I expect the Vols to be a better football team, managing more than six or seven wins could be a challenge. 

Quarterback Tyler Bray has talent (and arrogance) befitting an SEC starter.  What he does not have is a group of receivers with any meaningful experience.  Tennessee’s top 3 receivers from 2010 are gone.  Tremendous talent is on campus, though, and that has fans excited on Rocky Top.  Justin Hunter reeled in seven touchdown passes as a freshman, and classmate Da’Rick Rogers looks the part of an all-SEC receiver. 

The passing game will need to rely on a running game as it gets adjusted, and that could prove to be a problem.  Tauren Poole returns after a 1,000-yard season but the offense as a whole was mediocre running the ball.  Improved line play and the emergence of another threat out of the backfield – perhaps freshman Marlin Lane – are critical to the development of the UT offense.  All starters return on the offensive line after 3 true freshmen saw extended playing time in 2010.  That continuity and experience alone mean Tennessee could improve its win total this year.

Unlike years past, though, the Tennessee defense needs a lot of improvement.  Only 5 starters return from a team that allowed an eye-popping 5.7 yards per play last year.  Four of the Vols returning starters come in the defensive backfield which will need to play air-tight coverage.  An entirely new linebacking corp and only one starter returning up front mean Volunteer fans should expect some growing pains early.

Tennessee has a manageable schedule if their goal is to make another bowl run.  It is not, however, conducive to a legit shot at the SEC East this year.  While Tennessee only has 2 road games before Halloween, those two are at Florida and at Alabama.  In addition to that the Volunteers play the SEC’s other top teams, hosting LSU and traveling to Arkansas.  The non-conference slate includes three rent-a-wins and one tricky game against Cincinnati.  The Bearcats travel to Knoxville, though, which should help Tennessee pick up the win.  Two of their final three games are on the road, which is not the way I’d prefer to end the season.

I definitely think we could all look up in October and say, “Tennessee is leading the SEC East?”.  I have no confidence we’ll do that in November.  The Vols needs to sweep their non-conference slate and defend their home field in conference games against Georgia, South Carolina, LSU, and Vanderbilt.  Splitting those games puts Tennessee on the road to another bowl game.  Sweeping those makes the Volunteers the story of the year in the SEC.

 

Vanderbilt

Listen to me, folks: There is something happening in Nashville.  New head coach James Franklin is a dynamo that will turn Vanderbilt into an annually competitive football team.  He is a recruiting powerhouse, and offensive guru, and an exceedingly likeable personality. 

Unfortunately for Vandy fans, that won’t happen in 2011.

While 19 starters return for the Commodores, it doesn’t help if the returners do not have much talent.  Vandy has been absolutely horrible offensively.  You’d think the forward pass was illegal in the city of Nashville.  Incumbent starting quarterback Larry Smith averaged only 3.9 yards per attempt.  Smith can run the football, but Franklin needs a passer to make his system work.  Jordan Rodgers will get some looks, but according to reports he has not impressed in camp.  With an experienced offensive line, I do expect growth from the QB position (whomever the starter may be) thanks in large part to capable running backs like Warren Norman and Zac Stacy.

Eight starters return on a defense that was simply worn down by the end of 2010.  Vandy has always had talent on that side of the ball, but even the best defenses in football run out of juice when they’re on the field for 2/3 of every game.  Linebacker Chris Marve could start for any team in the league.

Vanderbilt could shoot out to a 3-0 start, including a home upset of Mississippi.  Then reality sets in for Vandy.  They have road trips to South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and Wake Forest.  The Dores also get home games against Georgia, Arkansas, and Kentucky in addition to the early home contest against Mississippi.  Sweeping their non-conference games (not an easy task for Vandy this year) and sneaking out 2 more wins to get to .500 would be a good goal.  If they manage a 6-6 record this year, Vandy could very likely get back to a bowl game and set the foundation for a very bright future.


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2010 South Carolina Preview: Seven Isn’t Heaven

Posted by Adam Butler on September 2, 2010

(This is the 9 th  in a series in our annual SEC Preview)
 
Before the 2009 season, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier lamented that he has been a 6 or 7-win ball coach since taking the helm in Columbia. Then, his squad promptly went out and, much to his chagrin, won but 7 games–again.
 
A year later, Spurrier is still trying to get over the 7-win hump, but, with plenty of returning starters on both sides of the ball and some tailor-made opportunities for SEC East road wins, the ’Ole Ball Coach may have the pieces in place to move on up in the SEC East. 
 
The South Carolina Offense 
 
If the Gamecocks are going to have much to cluck about in 2010, they will need junior quarterback Stephen Garcia to be the Cock of the Walk.
Unfortunately, far too often in his career thus far, Garcia has toiled behind spotty offensive line and has instead been forced to run around SEC football fields like a chicken with his head cut off.Spurrier, per his usual, is anything but easy on his quarterback.
 
In fact, it seems at times that the South Carolina Head Coach would like to ring Garcia’s neck.I left him alone this summer. I left him alone this spring pretty much, let him go play,” Spurrier said at SEC Media Days. “We have a quarterback coach, G.A. Mangus, does a good job with all those guys. Sometimes our local media guys think I’m critical of him a lot. I’m just trying to tell — express what he needs to do to help our team certainly. That’s avoid the sacks and make better decisions.”Spurrier did not stop there, adding to the ringing endorsement of his signal-caller.
 

Garcia

“’I’m not critical of him,” Spurrier seemingly dead-panned. “He may be playing the best he can. I don’t know yet. You know, you coach and you coach and you coach and you coach. At some point, players don’t really make better decisions or play better, then that’s the best they can be. That’s all you can do. If you don’t have another player to put in there, then you live with it. That’s the way you go on. But we think we’ll have at least another quarterback ready to play this coming season in case Stephen struggles. Stephen will have the first opportunity to go the distance for us.”

If Garcia, doesn’t go the distance, his replacement stands to be true freshman Connor Shaw. Shaw had plenty of options in recruiting, and will likely see action in the ‘Cocks Wildcat action and could grow into a larger role if Garcia struggles early.Neither QB will thrive if South Carolina’s offense line is as porous as it has been the last three years–giving up a whopping 107 sacks in that span.

The good news is that four starters return on the USC-E offensive line. The bad news is that they have collectively managed to not be very good at pass blocking or run blocking–as the Gamecocks were also dead last in rushing a year ago.Spurrier said they have to improve in order for him to call better ball plays.

“If we’re going to have a good offense, we got to eliminate is our backward plays, sacks, bad snaps out of the shotgun,” Spurrier said. “We’ve been bottom of the league in sacks, which has made us bottom of the league in rush offense. We must eliminate the backward plays to give our offense a chance to be more successful.”

If the offensive line can open some holes, freshman phenom running back Marcus Lattimore will shine.Lattimore could have gone to any school in the country and may provide the home run threat in the running game that the Gamecocks have generally lacked in the Spurrier era. With any kind of passing attack keep opposing defenses from loading up to stop Lattimore, he will be the best freshman running back in the SEC this season.

Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery emerged as a star last season and was made most preseason All-SEC lists. There was also nothing feminine about Tori Gurley, 6-5, 230, who pulled in 31 catches and 440 yards as a freshman.Tight End Weslye Saunders is the pick of many to be an All-SEC tight end if he can emerge unscathed from South Beach Agent Gate 2010.

Saunders is suspended for tonight’s opener, and he may not be the only Gamecock on the bench because of potential eligibility issues.Several Gamecocks, including — cornerback C.C. Whitlock, offensive tackle Jarriel King, guard , safety Akeem Auguste and defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye — may miss tonight’s nationally televised matchup with Southern Miss, depending on the decisions that the NCAA hands down. Some of the players may also be required to miss future games.The Gamecocks who do take the field should have plenty of motivation after a few shots over the bow from the folks at Southern Miss. Spurrier says he hasn’t paid much attention to the chatter.

“They haven’t talked that much trash,” Spurrier said. “They’re trying to get excited about a national TV game, which we can understand. But certainly our players will know they’re coming in here to kick our tails on our home field. We got to be ready ’cause they’re a good team. We got to be ready to play. But we should be ready to play all of ’em anyway. I’ve never been a big believer in the talk bit helping anybody. But certainly if somebody says something that you think can put a little extra fire in your guys, you got to let them know about it.”
 
The South Carolina Defense & Special Teams
 
The South Carolina defense should be able to talk plenty again this year. That unit lost stalwarts LB Eric Norwood and CB Darian Stewart to the NFL, but retains potential All-SEC talents in defensive end Cliff Matthews, stocky linebacker Shaq Wilson (who should remind Hog fans of former Razorback Sam Olajabutu) DT Ojiboye, safety Auguste and cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Chris Culliver.
 
 

Gilmore

Gilmore and Culliver may be the best pair of cornerbacks in the SEC, and each contribute significantly on special teams returns.

“We think our defense is going to play as well, maybe get some more turnovers,” Spurrier said. “We didn’t get as many turnovers as we had hoped last year.”
 
Spencer Lanning was a walkon last year, and had a great season, picking up where departed (for the NFL) placekicker Ryan Succup left off.
 
The South Carolina Schedule
 
Hopeful South Carolina fans won’t want to reads this, but they are staring at….a 7-win schedule.USC-E should handle Southern Miss tonight to open the season. Then, they host UGA in a big swing game. From there, the Gamecocks travel to Auburn on September 25, have an open week before hosting Bama,  (like almost everyone else) head out on a winnable road trip to Kentucky and Vandy and then host Tennessee and Arkansas in a homestand that will likely go a long way in telling the tale of South Carolina.USC-E travels to the swamp to take on Florida on November 13th, and then closes the season by hosting a punchy Troy team before ending with their annual rivalry tilt versus Clemson.
 
(7-5, 4-4)
 
Sept. 2 Southern Miss W
Sept. 11 Georgia L
Sept. 18 Furman W
Sept. 25 at Auburn W
Oct. 2 OPEN DATE
Oct. 9 Alabama L
Oct. 16 at Kentucky W
Oct. 23 at Vanderbilt W
Oct. 30 Tennessee W
Nov. 6 Arkansas L
Nov. 13 at Florida L
Nov. 20 Troy W
Nov. 27 at Clemson L

 

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | Comments Off on 2010 South Carolina Preview: Seven Isn’t Heaven

Laugh Now, Cry Later?–2010 Vanderbilt Preview

Posted by Adam Butler on August 4, 2010

As one of most prestigious institutions of higher learning outside of the Ivy League, Vanderbilt University undoubtedly fosters a love of literature among its alumni.

But with all due respect to Steinbeck, Hemingway and Faulkner, being a Vanderbilt Commodore football fan must lend itself to a keen appreciation of the work of Langston Hughes as rooting on the Commodores in the rugged SEC is often a proposition that requires “Laughing to Keep From Crying”.

Luckily for Vandy fans, (no-longer interim) head coach Robbie Caldwell should have them in stitches in Nashville throughout the Fall.

Jeff's Snarky Comment From the Casual Fans' Peanut Gallery: What was so bad at an SEC school with zero football expectations that the head coach quits 5 weeks before camp?

With a career arc that resembles that of Oakland Raider head coach Tom Cable and a demeanor and delivery that reminds one of Larry The Cable Guy (except that Caldwell is actually very funny) Caldwell was a breath of fresh air last month at SEC Media Days.

But, now that he won over the media and the Vandy administration, Caldwell’ s task is to finish what his predecessor, the notably non-cursing Bobby Johnson started by breathing life into a program that is suffocated annually by the college football elite. That won’t be easy, because the ‘Dores and their fans know obscenity when they see it on the scoreboard. And, they have seen it  a lot.

But, if the oft-lopsided scoreboard is going tilt toward the Vanderbilt, it is one, four-letter, safe-for-the-office word that is going to make the difference: Work. In his own homespun way, Caldwell said he is no stranger to a hard day’s work.

“All I know how to do is work,” Caldwell said. “I’ve been a worker all my life. I grew up in it. My wife said, You can’t talk about anything but football.
I can. I can talk about pouring concrete, farming, being a pipefitter, all those things, working on a turkey farm. But nobody wants to hear that. Those are the things that I did prior to getting into football. That’s the God’s truth. So I’m extremely excited about what they’ve presented to me and the efforts they put behind me. I’m just in place and ready to go.”

Some might consider inheriting a 2-win team on short notice a nightmare. Caldwell is not one of those people.

“Here I am, I go from lining the field to I’m head coach in the SEC,” Caldwell said.  “I’m telling you, what a thrill. It’s a dream.  I can still walk in places and nobody knows me. Last night I was opening the door for people and they gave me a tip. I thought, hey, that’s great. How can you get it any better than that?”

The Vanderbilt Offense

The Vandy offense may employ a three-headed monster at quarterback this season after suffering through two abysmal passing seasons following the departure of Commodore record-setter and current NFL Quarterback Jay Cutler.

Larry Smith

The candidates–Larry Smith (6-2, 220) , JUCO transfer Jordan Rogers (6-2,213)  (brother of Green Bay Packer Aaron Rogers) and Jared Funk (6-2, 210) all bring something to the table, but one of them needs to step up and ring the bell consistently in the passing game to keep the chains moving.

Smith has shown glimpses of his potential before, but, after passing for less than 1,200 yards last season, will have to show improvement early, or will lose snaps to the other quarterbacks.

Warren Norman

If any of them give last year’s SEC freshman of the year–running back Warren Norman (5-10, 192) –some help, the Vanderbilt offense will be improved. All Norman did last year is surpass former Georgia standout and SEC great Herschel Walker’s record for most yards gained by a freshman with 1,941 yards (783 rushing, 109 receiving and a whopping 1,050 on kickoff returns).

While it may seem like Norman does it all, he is not big enough to carry the ball 25 times per game in the SEC. Fellow sophomore Zack Stacy (5-9, 205)  is more of a bruiser, and he capably picked up the slack last year, gaining 478 yard on the ground. Together, Norman and Stacy give the Commodores running back tandem that may be short on last names, but does not lack for talent and productivity.

When you struggle as mightily as Vandy did a year ago in the passing game, no wide receivers stand out, but if there was one that did for the ‘Dores, it was another sophomore–John Cole (5-11, 182).

The offensive line will have to replace four starters, and as we have noted in this space before, that is a recipe for disaster. The projected starters are Tackles Ryan Seymour (6-4, 305) and Caleb Welchans, (6-5, 300), junior guard Kyle Fischer, (6-6, 310) and two seniors, Guard Chris Aaron (6-3, 295) and Center Joey Bailey (6-4, 295).

The Vanderbilt Defense

A stellar unit that led Vandy to a bowl game in 2008, the Vandy defense took a major step backward in 2009. The same cannot be said for linebacker 2nd-team All SEC linebacker Chris Marve, who logged a whopping 121 tackles. Unfortunately, Marve made many of those tackles as opposing teams were running the ball down Vandy’s throat.

Vandy needs some quality depth to emerge on the defense line, and lighten the load on Marve in the middle. Defensive Tackle T.J. Greenstone (6-3 285) looks the part and was fairly productive a year ago as a backup with 38 stops. Tim Fugger (6-4, 255) and Terrial Brandon (6-4, 245) will man the ends and look to meet at the opposing quarterback.

Jamie Graham (6-0, 196) will take over for Myron Lewis, who was so stellar in the SEC that Tampa Bay made him its 3rd-round draft pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Junior Casey Hayward is a returning starter at the other cornerback position, and 6-2, 218 lb junior Sean Richardson returns at safety and looks to build on a solid 2008 campaign. As a group, the secondary looks to be one of the best units on the team.

Sean Richardson

But, if the defensive line does not produce some impact players, potential stars like Marve, Graham and Richardson will again be relegated to mop-up duty on the back end of gashing run play after gashing run play.

The Vanderbilt Special Teams

Norman popped three kickoff returns for touchdowns last year and is as good as anyone in the country in that role. Stacy is an asset as a punt returner. As most freshmen do, placekicker Ryan Fowler struggled early last year. But, he finished strong, making 12 of his last 13 field goal attempts, and should have a positive carryover. Richard Kent is slated to handle the punting, and should garner plenty of TV time unless Vandy’s offense can overcome its kryptonite–the forward pass.

The Vanderbilt Schedule

Thank God for Eastern Michigan. After earning just two wins last year, Vandy should be able to count on a win against EMU. The rest of the schedule is for the birds.

What Will Happen

Caldwell will energize Vandy, who will put up a fight, early, but fade after being outmanned on a weekly basis.

Vandy Offense

Returning Starters:  7

Key Players:  QB Larry Smith, RB Warren Norman, WR John Cole

Needs to Emerge:  QB Jordan Rogers

Vandy Defense

Returning Starters:  4

Key Players:  Chris Marve, Jamie Graham, T.J. Greenstone

Needs to Emerge:  Graham

Key Games:  Eastern Michigan, Tennessee, Wake Forest

Vandy Schedule (1-11)

Sept. 4 Northwestern                                L
Sept. 11 LSU                                                  L
Sept. 18 at Ole Miss                                    L
Sept. 25 OPEN DATE
Oct. 2 at Connecticut                                L
Oct. 9 Eastern Michigan                          W
Oct. 16 at Georgia                                      L
Oct. 23 South Carolina                            L
Oct. 30 at Arkansas                                  L
Nov. 6 Florida                                            L
Nov. 13 at Kentucky                                L
Nov. 20 Tennessee                                   L
Nov. 27 Wake Forest                               L

Posted in Commentary, SEC Preview, Sports | 1 Comment »

Dawggone Good

Posted by Brett Kincaid on August 3, 2010

With 10 returning starters on offense for Mark Richt, you would think the favorite to win the SEC East would be the Georgia Bulldogs.  I mean, ten of eleven means more than 90% of the offense has been through the SEC wars.  Most coaches would give up 10 years of their lives to have 10 players coming back on offense.

So why all the cautious optimism surrounding the team from Athens this year?  None of the 10 players is the quarterback.

Lucky number 11 for Georgia is redshirt freshman Aaron Murray.  And he only got the job because Richt had to dismiss Zach Mettenberger from the team for continued brushes with the law.

Defensively Georgia has made wholesale changes, moving to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.  They have five starters back from a team than only forced 12 turnovers last season but still managed to finish in the top 40 nationally in total defense.

The 2010 Georgia Bulldogs have dealt with plenty of off-the-field issues this summer, from arrests to rumors about their coach’s stability with the program to their athletic director’s dismissal for his arrest on DWI charges.  The truth of the matter is that Georgia may be lurking in the tall grass, waiting to pounce.  Murray has a lot to prove, but he was a high school All-American out of Tampa and has tons of weapons around him.  With a forgiving schedule, Georgia may be ready to have its bark and bite match this season.

The Offense

The focus throughout fall camp will center around Aaron Murray.  He is the de facto starter, but Murray has plenty of credentials to bolster his claim on the top spot.  The good thing for Murray is that he has 10 guys around him that will provide plenty of help and encouragement.  Washaun Ealy returns after a stellar 2009 where he rushed for 717 yards as a freshman.  While those are not eye-popping numbers, consider that Ealy did not start until the fifth game of the season.  The super talented but underwhelming Caleb King will start the season as the #2 back and will likely see plenty of carries this season.

If Ealy and King can tote the rock like last year, A.J. Green should free himself up to expose SEC secondaries at will.  Green is easily the best receiver in the conference and maybe the country.  At 6-4, 207 pounds Green has the size and skill that makes NFL scouts drool.  Despite being the number one target for Joe Cox last season, Green still reeled in 53 passes – six of which that went for touchdowns – and more than 800 yards.  Tavarres King and Israel Troupe both have the ability to breakout as top SEC targets, too, but all eyes will necessarily be on A.J. Green to start.

The best news for all these skill players is the fact that Georgia returns tons of experience up front.  Ben Jones anchors the unit up front at center, earning second team all-SEC honors last season.  Clint Boling has played up and down the line, finally settling at left tackle last year.  Josh Davis is slotted as the starting right tackle and hopes to play a full season after starting last year on the bench thanks to a shoulder injury.  The name most folks will recognize, though, is not even a starter.  Trinton Sturdivant projected to be the next great SEC offensive lineman after an amazing freshman season.  Two season-ending knee injuries later, and Sturdivant now must prove he can stay healthy.  If he is anything like the beast we saw in 2007, Georgia has the best depth in the conference.

The Defense

It’s a new day in Athens.  At least that is the hope of Dawg fans nationwide.  Out is Willie Martinez, and in comes Todd Grantham and his 3-4 attack.  Grantham comes to Georgia from the Dallas Cowboys where he served as the defensive line coach in 2009.  The Bulldogs were often criticized last season, but they ultimately put up serviceable numbers.  A recent report from ESPN.com SEC blogger Chris Low certainly points to a gaping hole in the old attack:  Turnovers.  In the past 3 years, the Bulldogs have averaged an SEC worst 18 forced turnovers per season.  Alabama leads the conference over that time with almost 27 forced turnovers per season – including 31 in last year’s title run.

In a 3-4 scheme the defensive line has one job:  plug the holes.  The big guys up front need to play big (see Mt. Cody at Bama) while still being able to pressure the quarterback.  De’Angelo Tyson hopes to make a name for himself as the anchor in the middle.  At 6-2 294, Tyson does not possess protypical nose tackle size and will need to learn quickly.  If Tyson steps up early, tackles Demarcus Dobbs and Abry Jones will be free to wreak havoc coming off the edges.  Both will be looking to take advantage of one-on-one blocking situations all season.

The true stars in a 3-4 scheme are the outside linebackers, and Georgia has a potential supernova in Justin Houston.  A former defensive end who now gets to play without a hand on the ground, Houston had 7.5 sacks last season.  Cornelius Washington will get the first shot at the other side after spending 2009 in a reserve role.  Akeem Dent hopes to avoid injury this year and play up to his billing on the inside.  Christian Robinson and Darryl Gamble will vie for the other starting spot on the inside.

The Bulldogs return only 1 starter in the secondary, but that could be a blessing for a unit that took several beatings last year.  Brandon Boykin, a junior, is the elder statesmen returning as a starter at cornerback.  Blazing speed and decent size give many people hopes for Boykin as a potential All-SEC selection.  Vance Cuff will get the first shot at the other corner.  Bacarri Rambo (all name team for sure) and Nick Williams are penciled in as starters at free and strong safety.  Williams is a former linebacker and will be pushed by Sanders Commings and others.

Special Teams

Georgia has the best special teams in the conference.  In fact, it would be hard to find a unit more complete than this one anywhere in the country.  Ray Guy Award winner Drew Butler, son of former Bulldogs and Bears kicker Kevin Butler, is back after averaging more than 48 yards per punt last season.  Lou Groza finalist Blair Walsh also returns as the team’s placekicker.  Walsh was good on 20 of 22 field goals last season and has a very powerful leg.  If that weren’t enough Boykin averaged more than 26 yards per kick return last season and will be the man again in 2010.

The only real question mark is the punt returner, and Georgia – as usual – has plenty of options.  Rambo will get plenty of looks, as will A.J. Green.

The Schedule

The Dawgs have a balanced schedule only two true back-to-back road games all season.  After a great test at home early against Louisiana-Monroe, Georgia travels to Columbia for its annual tussle with South Carolina.  Then comes another huge test at home against Arkansas.  From there Georgia hits the road to Starkville then steps out of conference to take on Colorado.  Tennessee heads to Athens for one of five big rivalry games on the Georgia schedule.

Vanderbilt makes the trip the following week before the Dawgs hit the road to Kentucky.  The showdown at Jacksonville against Florida comes next before they finally get a breather at home against FCS Idaho State.  Another big rivalry contest awaits on the road at Auburn before Georgia finally gets to its open date.  The big showdown against Georgia Tech ends the season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Georgia really has an opportunity to show the league just how powerful it can be.  Tons of talent returns and the schedule –while demanding – provides the Dawgs with a chance to compete for the SEC East crown.  If they have any designs on making the short trip to Atlanta on the first weekend in December, Georgia will again need to do one big thing – beat Florida.

What Will Happen

I look for Georgia to get off to a great start, potentially jumping to 6-0 depending on the Carolina-Arkansas double.  No matter what happens those 2 weekends, I see Georgia ripping off five consecutive wins before their showdown against Florida.  It’s hard to predict a win right now in that game, but things will deserve another look 9 weeks into the season.  The Auburn game is the key to the season, as it will determine whether Georgia plays on January 1st in Florida or New Year’s Eve in Atlanta at the Chickfila Bowl.

Key Games:  v. Arkansas, v. Florida, at Auburn

Georgia Schedule (9 -3, 5 -3)

Sept. 4 UL-Monroe – W
Sept. 11 at So Carolina – W
Sept. 18 Arkansas – L
Sept. 25 at Miss State – W
Oct. 2 at Colorado – W
Oct. 9 Tennessee – W
Oct. 16 Vanderbilt – W
Oct. 23 at Kentucky – W
Oct. 30 Florida (in Jax) – L
Nov. 6 Idaho State – W
Nov. 13 at Auburn – L
Nov. 20 OPEN DATE
Nov. 27 Georgia Tech – W

Words cannot describe….

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | Tagged: , , , | Comments Off on Dawggone Good

Bulldog Believer

Posted by Brett Kincaid on August 2, 2010

In this space last season I declared myself a Dan Mullen believer.  Twelve months later I continue to believe the former Florida offensive coordinator can breathe life into the long-moribund program at Mississippi State.  After a 5-7 season that was breathlessly close to 6-6 (LSU game), the Bulldogs look to build on their “bowl” win against Mississippi.  Their bell cow at running back has moved on to greener pastures, and the quarterback situation is far from settled – but don’t go to sleep on Moo U.  This is a team that could fight its way into a real bowl game this year.  Of course, Coach Mullenhasdifferent goals.  The second year coach told reporters at the SEC Media Days, “(The players are) not just going to play hard and battle teams for four quarters, they’re going to find a way to win games and get us to championship level this season.”  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, coach.

While the Bulldogs should be an improved team overall, in the SEC these gains are measured incrementally.  If Mississippi State makes it to Atlanta, I will walk there to cover it.  That’s right:  I will walk to the Georgia Dome from North Little Rock if the Mississippi State Bulldogs win the SEC West and play for the conference title.  How’s that for motivation, Coach?!

The truth of the matter is that Mississippi State will find it hard to get to a bowl game this season.  In addition to the always brutal SEC schedule, the Bulldogs have a tricky road trip to Houston the week before a visit to The Swamp.  In order to find its way to any bowl game this year, the Bulldogs will need at least one sizable upset in the SEC along with a road win against the Cougars.

The Offense

The statewide ban on the forward pass in The Magnolia State has been repealed (someone tell the Mississippi head coach), and the Bulldogs took full advantage last season.  After years of grinding away and struggling to find any offensive identity, Mississippi State made enormous gains as a unit last

Gone to the NFL

season.  The passing game – while still operating with training wheels – was helped largely by a strong running game.  Anthony Dixon has advanced to the NFL, but an experienced offensive line should provide some holes for those wanting to take his place.  Career backup Robert Elliot should get most of the carries this year, but it will certainly be a team effort.  Juco transfer Vick Ballard will have plenty of carries, as will redshirt freshman LaDarius Perkins.

Most eyes in Starkville, though, will be focused on the trigger man to Mullen’s spread offense.  Chris Reiff does not have the flash possessed by Tyler Russell, but he also limits his mistakes.  Expect to see a steady rotation of these two signal callers, especially early in the season.  MSU needs one of them to emerge, though, and my money is on Russell eventually becoming QB1.  He doesn’t have the elusiveness of Reiff, but Russell has the natural quarterback skills needed to play on Sundays.  With a little maturity and seasoning you can expect to see him every Saturday for now.

Whoever ends up as the primary quarterback, he’ll need quality receivers.  Unfortunately for the Bulldogs the depth has not yet developed at wide receiver.  Chad Bumphis has loads of talent, but he’ll meet a lot of double teams this season until another receiver emerges.  Coaches hope practice all-American Leon Berry can put it all together when the lights are on this season.

The strength of the offense this season is undoubtedly the big ugglies.  The Bulldogs return four starters up front with highly touted Tobias Smith coming back from injury as the lone non-returning starter.  J.C. Brignone is the senior leader at center.  And look for NFL scouts to follow Derek Sherrod at left tackle.

The Defense

A sophomore laden group of pups will be unleashed this season under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz.  In his time at Middle Tennessee State, the Blue Raiders finished in the top 3 in total defense in the Sun Belt Conference for Diaz.  Chris Wilson, who comes to Starkville from Norman (talk about bad luck – one hick town to another), will serve as the co-coordinator.

Pernell McPhee is a legit NFL-caliber talent on the defensive line.  At 6-4, 285 pounds McPhee has size and speed needed to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.  He racked up 5 sacks last season, his first in the SEC as a Juco transfer.  Fletcher Cox earned a starting job at tackle midway through his freshman season and is back again as a sophomore.

Another potential NFLer is linebacker K.J. Wright, who has moved to weakside linebacker.  At 6-4, 250 pounds, Wright matches speed with great size.  Scouts will love to watch what Wright can do this year.  Expect to see Wright to have chances to make big plays under Diaz’s attacking system.

Strong safety Charles Mitchell will lead the secondary this season after a stellar sophomore campaign.  Maurice Langston should emerge as the #1 cover guy at corner for Mississippi State.  Langston found himself in a bit of legal trouble last year, but he worked his way back on the field and ended up showing tremendous cover skills.

Special Teams

Sean Brauchle returns as the team’s placekicker this season.  The 2009 Juco transfer was solid if not spectacular last year.  Heath Hutchins is also back as the starting punter, although Bulldog fans may be hoping for good competition this fall.  Hutchins managed only a 39.7 yard average last fall.

In the return game, look for Leon Berry and Chad Bumphis to handle most of the chances.  Both have great speed and experience.

The Schedule

I expect MSU to shoot out of the gates thanks to 2 big home games.  Tiger High comes to town from Memphis on Labor Day Weekend before a nationally televised Thursday game against SEC West foe Auburn.  I like MSU to win both of those games, setting off a frenzy in Starkville.  The problem comes during a brutal stretch in the middle of the season.  A road trip to Baton Rouge comes in the third week before a home game against Georgia.  FCS Alcorn State comes to Starkville before back-to-back road games at Houston and Florida.  A non-conference game against UAB follows before Kentucky invades Starkville in advance of a much-needed OPEN week.  Two of the last three games in 2010 for MSU will be on the road, at Alabama and Mississippi with Arkansas sandwiched between those two.

What Will Happen

The Bulldogs will get off to a great start before stalling midseason.  The Georgia game is winnable at home, but those Bulldogs bring more talent and experience than the pups from Starkville.  The Houston game ends up being the swing game for Mississippi State.  Kentucky could also provide a big win at home, making a trip to the post-season a reasonable goal for Dan Mullen’s second season.  Another win over Mississippi in the Egg Bowl would create widespread pandemonium across central Mississippi.

Key Games:  Auburn, at Houston, Kentucky, Mississippi

MSU Schedule (7 -5, 3-5)

Sept. 4 Memphis – W
Sept. 9 Auburn – W
Sept. 18 at LSU – L
Sept. 25 Georgia – L
Oct. 2 Alcorn State – W
Oct. 9 at Houston – W
Oct. 16 at Florida – L
Oct. 23 UAB – W
Oct. 30 Kentucky – W
Nov. 6 OPEN DATE
Nov. 13 at Alabama – L
Nov. 20 Arkansas – L
Nov. 27 at Ole Miss – W

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

2010 Kentucky Preview: Worth the Wait?

Posted by Adam Butler on July 29, 2010

(This is the 5th  in a series in our annual SEC Preview leading up to the beginning of Fall Camp on August 5th.)

The good news for new Kentucky Head Coach Joker Phillips is that he is no longer the Wildcats’  coach “in waiting”. The bad news is that now that he is at the helm, all he has to do is replace 4 starters on the offensive line and two of the most decorated defenders in school history.

It may be a daunting task, but Joker Phillips is a UK alum who is serious about the program, and thinks he has the tools to eventually turn his alma mater into a force in the SEC East.

In the captain’s chair for just six months, Phillips has hit the ground running.

 “It’s definitely been a whirlwind,” Phillips told the gathering at SEC Media Days last week.  “But, I’m truly living the dream. Not only am I a letterman, alumnus, a Kentuckian, for me to be able to lead the program I truly love, I’m living the dream, and carrying it out. “

Phillips takes over for Rich Brooks, who, after a bumpy start, quietly led the UK program to one of the most prosperous eras in school history, guiding Kentucky to seven wins in each of the last four seasons.  Brooks just missed out on taking the ‘Cats to four straight bowl wins for the first time in school history when UK lost the Music City Bowl to Clemson 21-13 to end last season and send Brooks’ out on a sour note.

Phillips said he is equipped for the ups and downs of his new gig, thanks, in part to some pearls of wisdom from his predecessor.

“The best advice I got from Rich was, Don’t listen to the noise,” Phillips.  “‘The noise’ is you the media, some of the fans. Just continue to go about your business, make sure you got sound plan, stick to your plans…….When we first took over, there were a lot of young coaches, including myself, we wanted to veer off from the plan because we were struggling in year one and year two. Rich, the wise soul that he is, Hey, we gonna stick to this plan. That’s the other thing he taught me, Get you a sound plan, stick to it.

The Kentucky Offense

 Fans and media will focus on the Kentucky quarterback competition, but even former NCAA record-setter and Wildcat signal-caller Andre Woodson would struggle if he had eligibility remaining and had to run for his life behind a brand new offensive line. So, it’s incumbent on some new faces up front to grow up, fast. Guard Stuart Hines (6-4 293) is the only returning starter from last year’s solid UK offensive line. Chandler Burden (6-4 296) will be asked to replace All-SEC tackle Zipp Duncan, and will try to avoid being zapped by anxious opposing defensive coordinators who know full well that Hines is new to one of the toughest positions on the field, and is trying to complete a tough transition from the defensive line. 

Brad Durham (6-4 310) takes over the right tackle spot and has some much-needed starting experience.Center Matt Smith (6-4 289) who, like Burden, is a converted defensive lineman, has a bit of field experience, and will get the first crack at the starting job.

Senior QB Mike Hartline (6-6 206) has been serviceable (passing for over 1,600 yards in 2008) at times during his career. But, he will have to produce early in order to avoid losing the position to a couple of highly recruited underclassmen–Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski (6-4 221).

Newton wasn’t even supposed to play last season, but due to injuries. stepped into the starter’s role and now has road wins at Auburn and Georgia on his resume’.

Jeff's Snarky Comment From the Casual Fans' Peanut Gallery: I propose that Kentucky, Indiana, Duke, & North Carolina have a Basketball-School Football Bowl Series. Wouldn’t that save everyone a lot of time?

But, if there is one Wildcat that can take credit for those road wins and Kentucky’s recent success, it is All-SEC, All-Purpose performer Randall Cobb (5-11 190) who does everything for Kentucky but line the field.

One of the most dynamic players in the country,  most casual college football fans do not know about Cobb, but they should. As a (literal) Wildcat QB, he ran for 573 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago. As a wide receiver, Cobb caught four touchdown passes and grabbed 39 receptions for 447 yards in 2009. He also returned kickoffs and punts, averaging 26.5 and 12.8 per attempt, respectively. If that was not enough, Cobb has been(unsuccessfully, thus far) lobbying Phillips for some reps in the defensive backfield.

The other playmaker on offense for UK is running back and Razorback-killer  Derrick Locke (5-9 191). Locke, a former track star, returned from a knee injury in 2008 to rush for 907 yards and six touchdowns in 2009. He has the ability to go the distance from anywhere on the field.

The Kentucky Defense

Dequin Evans sacks Jonathan Crompton

The UK defense will have to replace 5 starters from last season, including All-SEC performers Micah Johnson LB, Trevard Lindley CB, and Corey Peters. Defensive end Dequin Evans (6-3 257) is a proven pass-rusher and linebacker Danny Trevanthan (6-1, 225) shined a year ago, alongside the marquee linebacker, Johnson. Former Razorback commit Winston Guy is back at free safety, and the UK staff hopes he can display some of the athleticism he flashed as a freshman kickoff returner.

The Kentucky Special Teams

Ryan Tydlacka will not be lacking for face time, as he will attempt to pull a rare double these days as both the placekicker and punter. Cobb and Locke are an exciting, dangerous duo on returns.

The Kentucky Schedule

Kentucky will open the season against in-state rival Louisville, and its first-year head Coach Charlie Strong in a showdown of guys who should have been head coaches much earlier than 2010.

The Wildcats should beat the Cardinals for the 4th consecutive season, and then have a pair of home layups versus Western Kentucky and Akron. A free shot in The Swamp precedes a winnable game in Oxford. Then, UK will come home for a key, 3-game homestand versus Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia. The ‘Cats come down the stretch with a trip to Starkville, home dates against Charleston Southern and Vandy, and a season-capper on Rocky Top.

What Will Happen

Kentucky should take advantage of a favorable early schedule, but struggle to move the ball against most SEC squads. Replacing four offensive lineman, and having multiple former defensive lineman lined up to do so, is a recipe for disaster–particularly with a stationary quarterback.

UK Offense

Returning Starters:  6

Key Players:  Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, Chandler Burden

Needs to Emerge:  Any of the QBs

UK Defense

Returning Starters:  6

Key Players:  Danny Trevanthan, Dequin Evans

Needs to EmergeMister Cobble…..just because of the name

Key Games:  @ Louisville, AU, S. Car., UGA

UK Schedule (5-6)

Sept. 4 at Louisville                            W
Sept. 11 WKU                                         W
Sept. 18 Akron                                      W
Sept. 25 at Florida                              L
Oct. 2 at Ole Miss                                 L
Oct. 9 Auburn                                       L
Oct. 16 South Carolina                      L
Oct. 23 Georgia                                    L
Oct. 30 at Miss State                          L
Nov. 6 Charl. Southern                    W
Nov. 13 Vanderbilt                            W
Nov. 20 OPEN DATE
Nov. 27 at Tennessee                       L

Posted in Commentary, SEC Preview, Sports | Comments Off on 2010 Kentucky Preview: Worth the Wait?

Miles of Improvement Needed

Posted by Brett Kincaid on July 29, 2010

The only job Les Miles may be less qualified to hold than his current position is that of timekeeper at any Olympic games.  That’s how bad of a head coach I believe he is.    Trigger locks were invented to keep people like Les from killing themselves.  Yet here he is, back for another run at disappointment for the fine folks in Baton Rouge.  LSU lost 3 of their last 5 games with their only wins coming over Louisiana Tech (24-16) and Arkansas (33 – 30) in Overtime.  The Tigers carried little momentum and even less optimism heading into the offseason.  The question now is this: Do you trust the head coach to pull the 2010 team together?

The fact of the matter is that the Tigers need to be ready to go right out of the gate.  North Carolina has one of the best defenses in the country this year, and LSU will be sunk immediately if they cannot figure out how to run the football this year.  Leading rusher Charles Scott only managed 542 yards last season, and he’s gone to the NFL.

The good news for LSU is that their coach is on it!  He knows his kids will be ready.  Don’t believe me?  Read this:  “When I allowed our administration to envision this game, the decision being made to take it, was only based on the fact that my team would accept the competition,” The Hat told members of the media last week.  George Bush can’t even understand this guy.

Miles has developed quarterbacks at a rate that would make the Mississippi coach blush.  Just two years ago Jarrett Lee turned heads by throwing 6 touchdown passes TO THE OTHER TEAM.  Jordan Jefferson emerged last year as a reasonably efficient signal caller, but the numbers were hardly overwhelming.

Ever since losing Jimbo Fisher the Tigers have been a team in search of an offensive identity.  This year LSU faces the daunting task of needing to vault not only Alabama but also Arkansas – and perhaps Auburn – if they have any designs of getting back to Atlanta without a travel agent.  Teams like this need good fortune, good special teams, and good coaching.  If I were an LSU fan, I’d grab some Abita and boiled crawfish, and settle down for a very disappointing season.

For the first time in recent memory, LSU has but 2 players (LB Kelvin Sheppard & CB Patrick Peterson) on the preseason All-SEC teams.  If the Bayou Bengals plan to make any noise at all this season, they will need Sheppard and Peterson to lead the charge.  Because on offense, it could get down right offensive.

The Offense

The Tigers return six starters on offense, but they lose their top options at running back or wide receiver.  Terrence Tolliver looks to be Jefferson’s primary target this year.   Many folks in Louisiana expect this to be the year Russell Shepard emerges as a big play threat.  Running back remains a spot where LSU will likely use a committee approach, much like last season.

As mentioned above, Jordan Jefferson appears to have emerged as the leader under center.  Jefferson produced solid numbers last year, especially in the second half of the season.  While most of us willremember the Meltdown at Mississippi, he still managed to throw for more than 2,000 yards and 17 TDs.  Miles believes Jefferson has a real chance to build on those numbers, largely because he has now been through the SEC wars.  “I think our quarterback position will play extremely well.  This will be the first time in two years we’ve had a quarterback start the season that has a complete season’s experience,” says the Mad Hatter.

A lot of that will be based on how the big uglies fare up front for the Tigers.  Line play has not been a serious concern in the Bayou State for some time now.  That all came to a stunning end last year, though, when the Tigers could not routinely open running lanes or protect their quarterback.  Ciron Black and Lyle Hitt are long gone, and T Bob Hebert is still recovering from off-season surgery.  He is also rehabilitating his image after a DWI arrest in May.  If his suspension is lifted, Hebert is expected to anchor the line as the team’s new starting center.  Will Blackwell is the unit’s lone senior – although based on last year new blood may not be such a bad thing.

The Defense

Statistically speaking, the LSU defense in 2009 was a shadow of its former self.  When you look at the stat that matters, though, the Tigers kept opposing offenses out of the endzone as well as anyone.  This bend-but-don’t-break mentality does not reflect the typical attitude in Baton Rouge or that of defensive coordinator John Chavis.  Chavis and the rest of the Tiger faithful need Drake Nevis to become the latest NFL prototype defensive tackle to come from LSU.  He was a force last year and will be relied upon to draw double-teams while the rest of the new faces get adjusted to life in the SEC regularly.

LSU also needs to fill holes at the linebacking corp.  Kelvin Sheppard returns, and he’s a great one to feature as the leader.  Stefoin Francois moves up from the safety spot to try and fill one of the starting roles.  Special team superstar Ryan Baker will get first crack at the other side in LSU’s 4-3 defense.

The secondary should be a strength, if only because Patrick Peterson will be lurking about.  If Morris Claiborne lives up to the hype, LSU could have the best tandem of cornerbacks in the country.  Jai Eugene will also return, but he’s moved to safety thanks to the emergence of Claiborne.

Special Teams

The kicking game will certainly be critical this year – as it is every year in the SEC with so many close games.  Josh Jasper was perfect on PATs last year and connected on 17 of 20 FG attempts, including the game winner against Arkansas.  Derek Helton is the returning punter and looks to improve on his 39.9 yard average from last year.  As usual LSU has a plethora of options in the return game.  The coaches want to put the ball in the hands of Russell Shepard as much as possible, so look for him to get a shot early in the spring at being the primary returner for both punts and kicks.

The Schedule

Jeff's Snarky Comment From the Casual Fans' Peanut Gallery: Les Miles looks like he’ll follow Spurrier as a one-hit wonder. The Yogi Berra of the SEC shoulda taken the Michigan job while he was hot.

If LSU was looking for a more difficult opponent to begin the season, it would be hard to do.  While North Carolina has to answer plenty of questions on offense, their defense is as good as anyone’s right now – including most of the NFC West.  LSU follows up the neutral site opener with a trip to Nashville before three straight home games.  Then comes the trip to Gainesville and trip to Auburn with McNeese St. thankfully sandwiched in between those two.  Alabama and Mississippi come to Red Stick this year before the Tigers meet Arkansas in their traditional Battle for the Golden Boot.

Aside from the start the schedule sets up nicely for LSU if – and that’s a big IF – the offensive and defensive lines can come together.  Oh yeah… and their coach somehow learns how to manage a game, too.

What Will Happen

LSU is going to lose the opener.  But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not the end of the world.  That comes later with losses on the road to Florida, Auburn and Arkansas.  Toss in a home loss to Alabama, and the Les Miles Era will be near its end right after the Tigers are selected for a non-January 1st bowl game.

LSU Offense

Returning Starters:  6

Key Players:  Jordan Jefferson, Terrence Tolliver

Needs to Emerge:  Russell Shepard

LSU Defense

Returning Starters:  4

Key Players:  Patrick Peterson, Kelvin Sheppard, Drake Nevis

Needs to Emerge:  Stefoin Francois

Key Games:  North Carolina, at Florida, at Auburn, Mississippi

Schedule/Predicted Finish: (7 – 5, 4 – 4)

Sept. 4 North Carolina * – L
Sept. 9 at Vanderbilt – W
Sept. 18 Mississippi State – W
Sept. 25 West Virginia – W
Oct. 2 Tennessee – W
Oct. 9 at Florida – L
Oct. 16 McNeese State – W
Oct. 23 at Auburn – L
Oct. 30 OPEN DATE
Nov. 6 Alabama – L
Nov. 13 ULM – W
Nov. 20 Mississippi – W
Nov. 26 at Arkansas – L

* Game played in Atlanta

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Arrested Development: 2010 Mississippi Rebels Preview

Posted by Adam Butler on July 28, 2010

(This is the third in a series in our annual SEC Preview leading up to the beginning of Fall Camp on August 5th.)

He has been called many things–a used car salesman, a master motivator, a Baptist preacher and a texting ace–to name a few–, but one thing Mississippi head coach Houston Nutt cannot be called is inconsistent.

A veritable elder statesman of SEC coaches as he enters his 13th consecutive season at the helm of an SEC West squad (Arkansas 1998-2007, Mississippi 2008-present) Nutt, more than most coaches in today’s “what have you done for me, NOW” society” has a track record–of survival.

He has shown that he is what he is–a skilled, yet flawed coach that can invigorate a moribund program and bring notable success–but one who cannot lead the pack and finish with a kick.

And, if the preceding paragraph looks familiar to avid readers of this space, it should.

Hotty Toddy

It’s a paragraph from our 2009 Mississippi Preview which, flying in the face of seemingly every national pundit who had Mississippi pegged as a program poised to make a leap in 2009, predicted the Rebels would bring their fans great highs and lows before finishing with 8 regular-season wins.

Ultimately they did just that–rising as high as the #5 ranked team in the national polls before finishing 8-4, losing the “Egg Bowl” to in-state rival Mississippi State by a score of 41-27, and for the second consecutive season reaching Nutt’s Cotton (Bowl) ceiling.

A year later, we at BlogHawgs might appear to be a bit too self-congratulatory. But in reality, we are merely decent Houston Nutt historians. We should be. We have lived it, one–head-scratching move after another.

Unfortunately, instead of being able to strut around with an undeserved sense of entitlement while calling ourselves “Doctor”, all we got out of our 10-year Houston Nutt Doctoral program was a repeatedly rejected dissertation (that he can take a program to the next level) and a  crummy pair of golden handcuffs.

But take heart, Mississippi fans. For every disappointing Houston Nutt-led season, eventually, somewhere, there is an unexpected (relative) rejuvenation. Thanks to an annual  rite of passage under Nutt–Mississippi’s soft early season schedule–and much lower expectations for this year’s Rebels’ squad, Nutt has everything in place to deliver a textbook 6-7 win Houston Nutt season.

In fact, he seems to welcome the “experts” having lower expectations for the Rebels than they did a year ago.

“Most of the time I’ve been picked towards the bottom,” Nutt told the assembled media at last week’s SEC Media Days in Birmingham.

“I don’t really worry about that. I never have. A lot of people say, You coach better when you’re not under such high expectations. I’ve always been under low expectations, so most of the time I don’t really worry about that. I tell our young men, Doesn’t matter. All the polls and Bowls, that’s decided on the field, so it doesn’t really matter. Doesn’t matter where you put us. I understand somebody told us y’all picked us last. Thank you. That’s all right. It’s good. It really doesn’t matter.”

The Mississippi Offense
The look and feel of Mississippi’s offense will largely be defined in the coming days, as the final (collegiate) chapters of The Book of Jeremiah (Masoli) are written.
After a checkered juvenile past, (robberies) Oregon took a chance on Masoli, and he rewarded the school by leading it to 10-3 records each of the past two seasons and its first Rose Bowl appearance in 15 years in 2009. He was second-team Pacific-10 Conference last season after completing 177 of 305 passes for 15 touchdowns and six interceptions, and running for 668 yards and 13 scores.

Masoli

Masoli, a unique, versatile talent, has been so good on the field that he has appeared on some Heisman lists during his career and has his name sprinkled throughout Oregon’s football records. Unfortunately, though, he has been amassing an extensive criminal record, as well.

He is currently looking for a new school after first being suspended from the Oregon football team for the entire 2010 season for violation of team rules (burglary of a fraternity house, theft of laptops) and then being dismissed after getting into more trouble with the law. (marijuana arrest)

If the courtship of Masoli to Mississippi comes to fruition it will do so because only a coach the likes of Houston Nutt can make it happen. But, although Nutt, at this hour, is apparently desperate and willing to get on one knee,  it wasn’t love at first sight. Instead, the entire Nutt/Masoli affair has had more of a creepy Russian Mail Order bride feel.

Consider the following timeline:

  • July 7, 2010–4-star Mississippi Wide Receiver Pat Patterson is dismissed from the team by Nutt for violation of team rules;
  • July 20, 2010–Just before SEC Media Days, Nutt and Mississippi say “No” to Masoli;
  • July 22, 2010–Rumors surface that highly-regarded, but dissatisfied 2nd-team quarterback Raymond Cotton, a redshirt freshman, may transfer;
  • July 24, 2010–Masoli to Mississippi is “in-play”;
  • July 25, 2010–Cotton transfers before ever playing a down for the Rebels; and
  • July 25, 2010–Masoli to Mississippi is more likely, but Nutt texts the reporter to tell him it’s not a done deal.

One can only wonder what Patterson, Cotton, and Mississippi 1st-team quarterback (for now) Nathan Stanley must be thinking. Stanley (11-23, 163 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT for his career) has waited patiently behind the latest quarterback to have his career killed by Nutt–Jevan Snead–and was poised to pull off his best Casey Dick impersonation. Instead, Stanley must be steaming as he waits to find out if he will be the Mississippi signal-caller, after all.

If Masoli is at the helm, look for the Mississippi offense to be dangerous. He is a perfect fit for the Wild Cat/Hog/Dolphin/Rebel/Land Shark/Bear (hereinafter Wild Land Shark) offense that Nutt’s brother, Danny, didn’t invent.

Unlike most Wild Land Shark QB’s, Masoli has the ability to run, or pass, effectively.

And,  he would have an offensive line with a couple of talented tackles in Bobby Massie (6-6, 317) and Bradley Sowell (6-7, 305) and one of Nutt’s prototypical deep, and talented, running back corps featuring Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220), Enrique Davis and Rodney Scott. Throw in a potential game-changer in Jesse Grandy (Pine Bluff Dollarway) and the Mississippi offense would strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses and computer lab proctors.

Brandon Bolden

If Mississippi says “No Mas” (pronounced “No Mass” in the 50th The Magnolia State) of the Nutt/Masoli dalliance, the job will remain with Stanley and he will be asked to do very little in terms of playmaking. His chief responsibility will be to display enough effectiveness that the Rebels do not have to rely on JUCO All-American transfer Randall Mackey (6-0, 190) who has talent, but has only been on campus for a short period of time and will have a steep learning curve. Without Masoli, Mississippi’s 3rd-string quarterback may have to come from the intramural fields, again.

To be effective, Stanley will have to  keep the offense out of bad plays and avoid turnovers–something with which Snead struggled mightily last year.  With Patterson out of the mix and Grandy anything but a conventional Wide Receiver at 5-10, 165,  the primary target for either Masoli or Stanley should be wide receiver Markieth Summers.

Look for Nutt to employ Grandy all over the field, including special teams and occasionally QB, as he did with Dexter McCluster, who almost single-handedly whippped Arkansas last season and was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.

The fact that Mississippi has a new (co)offensive coordinator, Dave Rader, should at least be mentioned, here. Nutt is–you guessed it–excited about the addition and said playcalling and game-planning will be a collaborative effort.

Houston Nutt and his next Offensive Coordinator

“Dave Rader, Mike Markuson, and myself, with the rest of the crew, we put together a game plan,” Nutt said.  “I’ve been calling plays for the last — since I got to Ole Miss. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s just me. We really do a thorough study……Really, anybody could call the game. To me, it’s fun being in there, being part of it, getting in there with those young men. To me, it’s the funnest time there is. SEC Saturday competing, there’s nothing like it.”

Nutt’s comments notwithstanding, to think there is much room for the fingerprints of anyone other than Nutt or longtime Offensive Line Coach and frequent (as he is now) “Co” Offensive Coordinator, Markuson, on the gameplan is at this point in Nutt’s career,to ignore reality–just ask  Kent Austin, David Lee and Gus Malzahn, who are former offensive coordinators under Nutt.

The Mississippi Defense

The Mississippi defense should be one of the better units in the league, particularly if the Mississippi offense can be consistent and avoid putting new Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix’ crew in bad situations via excessive turnovers.

Nix is a proven winner for whom Nutt has pined for a while. Now, he has Nix, and a defensive line that should be the strength of the team, even after losing some key players from last year’s squad. Kentrell Lockett (6-5, 254) and Jerrell Powe (6-2, 330) look like excellent SEC defensive lineman and they play that way, too.

If they can continue to be disruptive at the point of attack, Mississippi may be able to protect the presumptive starters at cornerback coming out of spring practice–Marcus Temple (5-10, 188) and Jeremy McGee (5-10, 180)–and limit the damage from the loss of defensive backfield stalwarts Marshay Green and Cassius Vaughn on the edges.

Johnny Brown (6-0, 212) is is a head-knocking safety that will help ease some of the pressure on the new corners. Junior college transfer Damien Jackson (6-2, 195)  also made a push during spring practice and appears to have nabbed the starting free safety position.

Jeff's Snarky Comment From the Casual Fans' Peanut Gallery: Years until Ole Miss tires of HDN mediocrity: 4. Years until the run up to dismissal: 6. Cotton Bowl appearances during that time: Three. Times HDN calls it a “special” opportunity: Three. Unexplainable text messages to female Oxford News Anchor during that time: 293,843.

The linebacker spots are manned capably by Joel Kight, Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker. Former Auburn Tiger transfer Patrick Trahan was one we told you to watch last season, and he did not disappoint. His production will need to be replaced.

Mississippi Special Teams

Placekicker Joshua Sheane, a 4-year starter is gone. Bryson Rose will be handed the thorny task of taking over for him. Sophomore Punter Tyler Campbell took over the job last season and was very good. Grandy, as previously mentioned,  has the potential to do big things in the kicking game.

The Mississippi  Schedule

The 1st-half of the Mississippi schedule is tailor-made for early success. The second half is tailor-made for early retirement. Nutt admitted early-season success at home is a key for his team.

(The) schedule is really in our favor early on,” Nutt said.  “We got to take advantage of it.

Then, Nutt disagreed with…… himself.

“Jacksonville State, though, you could say, Oh, Jacksonville State, but Jacksonville State had Florida State beat,” Nutt said. “They have real athletes. Jack Crowe does a tremendous job for them.  It’s not as easy as if — I want to make sure our players understand, Just don’t look at the schedule and look at it like maybe one of your relatives are looking at it, like, okay, one, two, three, four, five, six. You should win the first six. Hold on now. Let’s get these practices going, let’s get better, let’s get the snap from the center. We got a lot of work to do.”

Two Words: The Citadel

Mississippi will presumably have the Quarterback-Center exchange down before it opens with Jacksonville St. (which is, as Nutt mentioned, led by fellow former Arkansas Head Coach Jack Crowe of, “The Citadel” infamy) on September 4th, and follows with Tulane in New Orleans before hosting Vanderbilt.

And so, Mississippi should start 3-0 before hosting a Fresno St. team that, after taking on Pac-10 powers like Southern Cal in recent years, won’t be afraid of an SEC foe–particularly one that is expected to finish at the bottom of its division. Kentucky comes to Oxford on October 1. Then, Mississippi gets an off week to reflect on what should at least be a 4-1 record.

That is when the fun starts. Mississippi travels to face defending national champion Alabama on October 16th. Then, Nutt and the Rebels travel to Fayetteville on October 23rd for a tilt with a Bobby Petrino-led Razorback Nation that has been waiting to take its pound of flesh from Nutt for almost three years. Old Home month continues for Nutt when Gus Malzahn and Auburn come to Oxford on October 30th.

Finally, after what should be a glorified scrimmage with Louisiana-Lafayette on November 6th, the Rebels travel to Rocky Top on November 13th, march to Death Valley to take on LSU a week later and then wrap up the season by hosting Mississippi State for the “Egg Bowl”.

“What you really want to guard against is you want to embrace it, but at the same time, you got to be ready to help your team if the bubble pops, Nutt said. “The bubble bursted on us in South Carolina Thursday night. It was a very difficult schedule to go from Saturday to Thursday night, especially no matter where you play in the SEC, each stadium is the best in the country, the atmosphere. South Carolina is awesome on Thursday night.

“When that bubble popped, that’s where you better have some ‘Dr. Feel’ in ya. You better be ready to go, to help your team, because expectations are so high. Fans have this vision that you’re going straight to Atlanta. You got to be ready to adjust. We all want to go there.”

What Will Happen

With or without Masoli, Mississippi will start strong. A team of BlogHawgs All-Stars would fare well versus Mississippi’s early schedule. However, in the second half of the season, with or without Masoli, the Rebels will be beaten about the face and the head (figuratively, of course).

But, if Masoli is on board, and if he stays out of trouble (a big if), look for him to be worth one, and maybe two, unexpected wins.

Mississippi Offense

Returning Starters:  3

Key Players:  QB Nathan Stanley or QB Jeremiah Masoli, OL Bradley Sowell, OL Bobby Massie, ATH Jesse Grandy

Needs to Emerge: P.O. Masoli’s Probation Officer

Mississippi Defense

Returning Starters: 5

Key Players:  NG Jerrell Powe, DE Kentrell Lockett, CB Marcus Temple

Needs to Emerge: S Damien Jackson

Key Games:  at Arkansas, AU, at Tennessee

Schedule (7-5)

Sept. 4 Jacksonville St              W
Sept. 11 at Tulane                        W
Sept. 18 Vanderbilt                     W
Sept. 25 Fresno State                 W
Oct. 2 Kentucky                           W
Oct. 9 OPEN DATE
Oct. 16 at Alabama                     L
Oct. 23 at Arkansas                    L
Oct. 30 Auburn                           L
Nov. 6 La Lafayette                   W
Nov. 13 at Tennessee                L
Nov. 20 at LSU                            L
Nov. 27 Miss State                     W

Mississippi Offense

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »

The Other Team from Alabama–2010 Auburn Preview

Posted by Brett Kincaid on July 27, 2010

(This is the second in a series in our annual SEC Preview leading up to the beginning of Fall Camp on August 5th.)

Coaches often say that winning cures all problems.  While that is certainly true during the season, winning can create some problems, too.  Problems like unreasonable fan expectations, offseason media hype, and players who think they may be a little better than they truly are at this point in their careers.

Welcome to Gene Chizik’s world.

The second-year Auburn coach rose above his laughable record at Iowa State (mustering only 5 wins in two seasons for a team that went bowling the year after he left) to turn Auburn into a contender right away – at least early in the season.  He made great hires in Gus Malzahn and Ted Roof to run the offense and defense respectively.  And Auburn quickly emerged as a recruiting juggernaut after several down years under Tommy Tubberville.  Judging by his press conference at SEC Media Days, Coach Chizik may be preparing to set expectations to where they should be in 2010.  “This is a long-term plan.  This is a long-term vision,” said Chizik only seconds into his prepared remarks.

Now comes the hard part.  Last year most reasonable Auburn fans would have been happy to go bowling, even if it meant Shreveport.  Instead Auburn raced out of the gates to a stunning 5-0 start, leaving gaudy offensive numbers in their wake.  Then came a trip to Fayetteville where the Gus Bus got derailed with Auburn losing by 3 touchdowns.

Ultimately Auburn somehow made its way to Tampa for the Outback Bowl (despite having the same record as Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia – none of whom Auburn defeated except a narrow win over Tennessee (USC and Auburn did not play)), played recklessly in the second half, pulled out a miracle win in overtime, and signed a highly regarded recruiting class.

Jeff's Snarky Comment From the Casual Fans' Peanut Gallery: It's funny to me that Hog fans withhold hate for AU--probably so as to not burn a bridge with the second coming in coaches, Gus.

Okay, coach.  What have you done for me lately? “We feel extremely, extremely excited on the fact that we feel we have the football team based on last year going in the right direction.  That doesn’t mean we have arrived, and we know that,” said the head coach.

The 2010 edition of the Auburn Tigers/War Eagles/Plainsmen has potential.  The offense should be ready to click a little better this season after getting better acquainted with Gus Malzahn’s offense.  The laws of large numbers say that Auburn could not suffer as many injuries on the defense as they did last year, but they still need to retool their defensive line.  The schedule sets up nicely for Auburn with their toughest (on paper) games coming on The Plains other than the Iron Bowl.

So why am I not buying Auburn as a contender this year?  Let’s take a look.

Offense

The Tigers have a strong edge at the offensive line position.  Big Lee Ziemba (Rogers, AR) returns to anchor an experienced, athletic unit.  He is one of 7 offensive starters who come back this year, including do-it-all back Mario Fannin.  These two young men will certainly have a big impact on the Tigers’ season, but the most explosive player looks to be Darvin Adams.  The 6’ 3”, 192-pound junior dazzled last year, reeling in 60 grabs for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The big question entering camp is simple:  Who will throw it to him?

The smart money is on Cam Newton, the dismissed thief from Florida who transferred to Auburn for his second chance.  Most reports seem to indicate the young man has taken his fresh start seriously, and that should excite Auburn fans.  One has to wonder, though, how much of the complex Auburn offense has he mastered?  Folks from Arkansas know just how dangerous the Malzahn offense can be if he has an effective trigger man.  Newton has the tools and talent, but does he have the experience?  Unless you are surrounded by exceptional talent everywhere , any SEC fan knows that it is all but impossible to win big with a brand new quarterback.

And let’s be clear:  Auburn aint Alabama.

Defense

Where to begin?  The Tiger defense once struck fear in the hearts of SEC offensive coordinators.  Last year’s version fell victim to sadistic injury problems, leaving them as thin as Kate Moss at linebacker.  Coming into fall camp, questions now abound regarding the secondary.  All but one projected starter is dealing with some form of injury, so expect to see some new talent fighting for spots back there.  “(We’ve) got to continue to build the depth of our defense,” said Capt. Obvious Chizik at SEC Media Days.

Josh Byrnes comes back as the heart of the Auburn defense.  He broke the century mark in tackles, and

Eat something!

the senior returns now with his eyes set on leading the Tigers back to prominence.   Byrnes will need a lot of help, especially with the departed Antonio Coleman leaving a huge void up front.

Linebacker/defense end hybrid Michael Goggans will be expected to step up his game significantly after losing his starting job at linebacker last fall.  Coaches believe Goggans will provide them with the flexibility they need to cover some of the inexperience in the front seven.

The defensive backs desperately need the big guys up front to provide them some help as this M*A*S*H unit sorts itself out.  There is clearly talent, but it is raw and oft-injured.  Neiko Thorpe looks to be the most healthy option in addition to having several snaps under his belt.  Thorpe has the last name and the size to be one of the SEC’s top defenders.  The one player even the most hardened of Crimson Tide hearts can support is senior Aairon Savage.  He has battled serious injury after serious injury and hopes now to be the difference maker he promised to be during his freshman campaign.

Special Teams

Wes Bynum is about as consistent as you can find.  The preseason 2nd Team All-SEC selection could be a vital weapon for a team that expects to play a lot of close games.  Bynum missed just one kick all season in 2009.

The punter position appears to be open with senior Ryan Shoemaker the clubhouse leader.  In terms of returning kickoffs and punts, Auburn has several options including Fannin.  Demond Washington put up flashy numbers last year, and Onterrio McCalebb could contribute in addition to his running back duties.  All three of those guys will get a look at returning punts, as will Quindarius Carr.

The Schedule

Auburn has a chance to get off to another solid start in 2010.  The Tigers get a “rebuilding” Arkansas State team (Hey, Steve Roberts is a family friend.  I can’t help but be generous with the Indian Red Wolves) before an extremely dangerous trip to Starkville.  Three consecutive home games follow – including an interesting non-conference game with Clemson – before another dangerous roadie at Lexington.  Arkansas and LSU make trips to Auburn in back-to-back weeks after Kentucky. Auburn then hits the road again, this time to Mississippi.  They have a late-season layup against UT-Chattanooga before closing with their annual rivalry games against Georgia and at Alabama.

A cynic sees little reason to expect anything more than six wins here.  An optimist sees, realistically, eight wins and potentially nine.  So what will happen, you ask?

What Will Happen

Auburn will not start 5-0 like last season, but this team has the potential to grow.  The problem for Auburn, though, is that the second half of the schedule includes 5 bowl teams from last year including the national champs. I happen to think, though, that the team will come together enough to pull off some big wins in October and November.

Earlier this week I was convinced Auburn would struggle to win more than six games.  After a little more review and further examination of the folks they have returning, I think another 8-win season is possible.  But I do not believe it is likely.

Auburn Offense

Returning Starters:  7

Key Players:  Lee Ziemba, Darvin Adams, Mario Fannin

Needs to Emerge: Cam Newton

Auburn Defense

Returning Starters: 8

Key Players:  Josh Bynum,  Neiko Thorpe

Needs to Emerge: Michael Goggans

Key Games:  at Mississippi State, at Kentucky, v. Arkansas, v. LSU, at Mississippi

Schedule/Predicted Result:  (7-5, 3-5)

Sept. 4 Arkansas St – W
Sept. 9 at Miss State – L
Sept. 18 Clemson – W
Sept. 25 South Carolina – L
Oct. 2 ULM – W
Oct. 9 at Kentucky – L
Oct. 16 Arkansas – L
Oct. 23 LSU – W
Oct. 30 at Ole Miss – W
Nov. 6 Chattanooga – W
Nov. 13 Georgia – W
Nov. 20 OPEN DATE
Nov. 26 at Alabama – L

This video was so bad, I docked Auburn a predicted win this season.

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

Older and Wiser — 2009 Arkansas Defense Preview

Posted by Brett Kincaid on August 5, 2009

Arkansas RazorbacksWilly Robinson has seen it all.  With more than 30 years of coaching experience, the Arkansas Defensive Coordinator has been exposed to great defenses and, on the other end of the spectrum, defenses like the one he had at Arkansas last season.  Heading into 2009, the Hogs promise to be one of the most improved units in all of college football.  Of course, when compared to 2008 there really is only one direction this group can go. 

The starting front seven from 2008 returns along with a bumper crop of defensive back signees that plan to make an immediate impact on this team.  One year into the Robinson system, you hear words like “comfort” and “understanding” more and more.  The players feel like they are ready to play and react instead of think when the ball is snapped.  That is a far cry from last September.  Coach Petrino believes the second year will show growth.  “The second year, you see a lot of improvement because the players understand what you expect, they know what they need to do, and they’re comfortable with what you’re doing,” he said.

At one point last season, the Hogs started five sophomores and four freshmen defensively.  According to Head Coach Bobby Petrino, who reviewed the starting lineup the Friday night of game week, “I didn’t sleep very well that night.”  The youngsters grew from shoats to full-fledged Razorbacks over the course of the season, though, with the expected ups and downs along the way.  It is hard to tell much from the first two games against Western Illinois and UL-Monroe given that both were sloppily played.

The next game, though, against Alabama was shocking.  With the unexpected week off (thanks to Hurricane Ike that moved the Texas game back 2 weeks), many expected the Razorback defense to tighten the screws and be ready for the multiple offense at Alabama.  All hopes were dashed, though, early when Alabama went up 28-0 and never looked back.  The Tide did not need the passing game that day.  After almost 300 surrendered rushing yards later, the fact that these young Hogs would need to grow up in a hurry was obvious.

The next week at Austin was equally disheartening as Texas piled up 52 points and could have scored even more.  Coming off back-to-back games in which the team gave up a combined 101 points, there was little hope from the fans or those covering the team.  One can only wonder what those defensive team meetings must have been like.

Something happened the next week against Florida, though. The Hogs ended up losing 38-7 to the eventual national champs, but the defense played inspired football.  Jerry Franklin picked off Tebow to snap his consecutive pass streak without a pick (a UF record 203 attempts).  The Hogs held the Gators to 17 points after three quarters.  With a little help from the sputtering offense, who knows what may have happened?  Ultimately the Hogs were worn down by a superior team, giving up a few big plays in the final period.  But the worm had turned, or at least moved a bit.

The win at Auburn showed that the defense had tremendous heart.  The loss at Kentucky was gut-wrenching, and yet again the offense let the D down late by not being able to close the game.  Ole Miss escaped Fayetteville despite a gritty, inspired effort by the defense.  The key may have been Tulsa, where the Hogs shut down the high-flying Golden Hurricanes for most of the game, leading to a much-needed win.  The 89 points given up in those four games were still less than the two massacres against Bama and Texas, and more importanly showed steady improvement.

The trip to South Carolina was a huge disappointment, and the wear and tear of the season showed the final two games against Mississippi State and LSU, giving up 31 and 30 points to those two squads respectively.

Heading into 2009, the Hogs expect to be much different.  All the kids that played in 2008 are men now.  And to help things out, the coaching staff went out and recruited some genuine blue chip talent for the secondary.  Don’t expect a defense like 1961 (school record 177.4 yards allowed/game), but this group will definitely keep the Hogs in enough games to make some noise this year.  And by the end of the season, we may be looking at a group that shows just how formidable it can be when all pistons are firing at once.

Defensive Line

You can’t talk football without talking about the men up front.  Arkansas has a “man child” or two along the front, but the unquestioned leaders is senior Malcolm Sheppard.  Describing his own game, Sheppard says “I don’t think it’s necessarily so much one thing as much as a fearless aggression, doing whatever I have to in order to make a stop.”  At 6′ 2″ and 291 lbs, Sheppard appears ready to shed the label of being too small.  He will be expected to provide pressure up the middle and showed last year that he can do it by racking up 6.5 sacks.  Talking about his defensive leader, Coach Petrino said “Malcolm is a very good football player. He’s a guy that has tremendous quickness, has great anticipation as far as the snap count goes, and can really be disruptive to the offense with his penetration, his ability to rush the passer.” 

Zach Stadther, who saw plenty of action as a freshman, comes back and will line up over the ball at nose tackle.  Stadther (6′ 1″, 289 lbs) is very quick but has that low-center of gravity d-line coaches love.  He and Sheppard will provide a nice combo of quick linemen that can bunker down against the run, too. 

Senior Adrian Davis (6′ 4″, 252 lbs) hopes to be in the backfield a lot this season.  Coaches and fans alike keep waiting for that break-out year from Davis, who has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career.  Sophomore Jake Bequette (6′ 5″, 271 lbs) lines up on the other side of the line after a standout freshman campaign.  If players like Damario Ambrose and new signee Caleb Evans come along quickly, don’t be surprised to see Bequette get some snaps on the interior.  Like before, the Hogs will operate with a rotation up front in an attempt to keep everyone fresh and limit the opportunities for injury.  Patrick Jones enters fall camp as the backup behind Sheppard.  Big Alfred Davis (6′ 1″, 326 lbs) should also figure into the rotation up front as a redshirt freshman.  Jones certainly has the size (6′ 1″, 309 lbs) to be a true anchor in the middle.  Freshman DeQuinta “DeDe” Jones (6′ 5″, 307 lbs) should also see the field this fall, especially after spending the summer in Fayetteville working out and learning from his older teammates.

Linebackers

This group was the primary concern entering fall camp a year ago, but now this appears to be an area of strength.  With more experience coaches are high on the (linebacking) Hogs going into camp.  According to Coach Petrino, “All three linebackers, if we were to start today, the guys that we started, played a lot of football last year. I think Jerry Franklin played every play but six a year ago.”  Senior Wendel Davis looks like he may be ready to make “the leap” this season.  Davis is listed at 6′ 1″ and 230 pounds and hits like a truck.  He also has the speed to drop into coverage and really help the Hogs when they want to play zone.  Junior Freddy Burton returns, too, and looks like a football player.  The six-foot two-inch, 231 pounder from Morrilton is active and fast from the strong side.  Burton looks the part of a starting SEC linebacker, and now he gets his chance to prove it.  Sophomore Jerry Franklin of Marion, Arkansas, will start camp as the #1 guy on the weak side.  Franklin came to Arkansas as a safety but added weight to play up front last year.  Now at 6′ 4″ and 241 pounds, Franklin has the size to go along with his speed.  Hopefully some of the reserves can keep him from taking the pounding he did in 2008.

Khiry Battle is gone, but some would call that addition by subtraction given his off-the-field woes.  Jermaine Love (5′ 10″, 230 lbs) needs to step up and provide some depth behind Davis.  Bret Harris and Jelani Smith will also get looks at linebacker and special teams, along with signees like Austin Moss and Terrell Williams.  Redshirt freshman Tenarius Wright (6′ 1″, 238 lbs) could also factor into the mix at either linebacker (his natural position) or defensive end (where he logged time in practice last year and in the spring).

 Secondary

“A lot of times your secondary takes a lot of criticism when it’s not all their fault,” Petrino said to SEC media recently, “’cause if the quarterback doesn’t have pressure in his face, if you can’t play zone coverage at times behind a four man front, then it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the secondary.”  While that may be true, the secondary had plenty of lapses last year.  And that has led to open competition for spots this season.

You may as well take the post-spring depth chart and light it on fire.  The starters won’t be known until mid- to-late-August as coaches evaluate the new talent with the experience that returns.  Junior Isaac Madison appears to be the favorite at one of the corner positions, but he will be pushed.  Ramon Broadway has been through the wars, and Jerell Norton showed he has the talent to succeed back in 2007.  But with new additions in Rudell Crim, Darius Winston, and David Gordon, the competition will be fierce.  Winston was a high school All-American at Helena-West Helena (Ark) Central, and Gordon won the Oklahoma 100m & 200m championships while in high school.  Crim was regarded by many as the top defensive back prospect coming out of junior college.  Andru Stewart, who transferred from College of the Sequoias (CA) before the spring semester, will also press for playing time.

At safety, all the buzz will center around Anthony “Juice” Leon.  The junior transfer started his career at Florida State, then traveled to California for junior college before settling in Fayetteville.  Matt Harris will not give up his spot without a fight, though.  And Elton Ford has been cleared to participate in fall drills after a promising freshman season was cut short by a neck injury.  If healthy, Ford will definitely be a factor at the safety position.  Jerico Nelson saw the field a lot as a freshman and will compete for playing time as well.  Leon will get looks at both safety positions before coaches determine where exactly he fits in the system. The Hogs have very capable help at safety already, but the addition of Leon makes this unit much better.

 Special Teams

John L. Smith returns to the field as Arkansas’ special teams coach this season.  A coaching mentor to Head Coach Bobby Petrino, Smith has not roamed the sidelines since his days at Michigan State from 2003-2006 — where he was namesdBig 10 Coach of the Year in 2003.  The shoe was on the other foot for Coach Petrino for years, as he worked for Smith at stops at Idaho, Utah State and Louisville.  When given the chance, Petrino jumped at the opportunity to hire his old boss.  “He’s brought a lot of experience to our staff. His relationships that he’s already developed with our players and our coaching staff will help us be much better,” said the head coach.

The special teams last year were abysmal, and Coach Smith plans to change things up.  One change you will not see, at least right away, is a different place kicker.  Junior Alex Tejada is back to try and prove he was worth all the ink during his recruitment.  He had offers from LSU, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Nebraska but chose the Hogs early in the process.  After a strong debut, his sophomore campaign was shaky at best.  With a season-long kick of just 30 yards in 2008, Tejada needs to show off the booming, accurate leg that got him on the field as a freshman.

One of the first things Coach Smith wanted to do at Arkansas was bring in a new punter after the graduation of Jeremy Davis.  Former Hawai’i punter Briton Forester hopes he is the man Smith is looking for.  He lettered for the Warriors in 2006 and 2007 before transferring back to the mainland last year and attending Palomar College in California.  He comes to Arkansas as a junior with two years of eligibility remaining.  Ryan Mallet actually spent time at punter this spring, too.  He could fill that role if Forester is to falter.

No one stepped up to fill the role of punt returner last season, as the Razorbacks ended the year with a team average of 5.3 yards/return.  The punt return game will be something Coach Smith needs to address immediately.  With so many speed burners on the team, it seems highly unlikely this group will repeat the dreadful season of 2008.  Jarius Wright will get another look, as will players like Joe Adams, and David Gordon.  A healthy Jerell Norton must be thrown into that mix as well.

As poorly as Arkansas performed on punt returns, the kickoff return team was much different.  While no one will replace Felix Jones anytime soon, Dennis Johnson impressed as a freshman.  The Texarkana native cut loose for a 96-yard touchdown return against Tulsa last year which proved to be the difference in the game.  Elton Ford also showed flashes before injury ended the year for him.  With a 21.1 yard/return average, the special teams put the offense in good position more times than not.  Expect Johnson to once again get his hands on the ball often with a wide open competition for a second option deep.

OUTLOOK

There is no doubt this team will be better than the 2008 version.  Experienced players, increased talent, and a coaching staff that has grown closer together as a unit are the ingredients needed to make a jump.  The biggest problem facing the 2009 Razorbacks is a brutal schedule that includes road trips to Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, Oxford and Baton Rouge.  Winning one of those is not out of the question, but the Hogs will definitely need to have all the key pieces in place to knock off one of the conference heavyweights this year.

The home schedule is more forgiving, and a neutral site game in Dallas against Texas A&M might feel like a home game for the Hogs.  Dallas is the largest base of Arkansas alums outside of the state.  Most Razorback faithful count any game in Dallas (in any sport) an additional home game.

The season really stumbles out of the blocks this year.  Missouri State comes to Little Rock to kick off the 2009 campaign on Labor Day weekend.  The next week is Arkansas’ only open week before a brutal 11 week grind against some of the best competition the nation has to offer.  Georgia comes to Fayetteville the third week of September in what many see as a national coming out party for Ryan Mallett and the Arkansas offense.  That game will be on either ESPN or ESPN2 at 6:45 local time, and the crowd will most definitely be ready to open Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium for the year.  The month ends with a trip to Alabama and the mighty Crimson Tide.  Navigating the month with a winning record will be tough, but a win against Georgia could be considered a coin-flip at this point in the summer.

October starts with the trip to Jerry World in Dallas and the new Texas Stadium.  The Aggies are coming off a difficult season, and some wonder if they are a year away.  Regardless, the Hogs look to leave north Texas with a victory and a lot of exposure.  Coach Petrino is very excited about the new series saying, “It will be great for our recruiting. It already has helped our recruiting in the state of Texas. I think it will give us a lot of recognition throughout the country.”

Auburn heads to Fayetteville the following week with the trip to Gainesville looming on the horizon.  I don’t expect the Hogs to be looking past Auburn, though, as those two games look like a split.  The most anticipated trip of the year is to Oxford, and it comes after the Florida game.  Even battered and bruised, the Razorbacks will be pumped up to take on the Rebels and their head coach.  After two emotion-filled weeks and three bruising SEC games, Arkansas celebrates Halloween with Eastern Michigan.

November begins with a visit from South Carolina and another non-conference game against dangerous Troy.  Both of these are winnable games at home.  The Razorbacks hope to carry a minimum three-game winning streak into their contest with Mississippi State in Little Rock on the season’s penultimate weekend.  Finally the Hogs head south to Baton Rouge to end the year against LSU.  For the first time in more than a decade this game will be played on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and not that Friday.  LSU hopes this breaks the spell of 2 tough losses in the past 2 seasons.

Most likely:  It looks like an 8-4 season for Arkansas with 7-5 possible if the breaks go the wrong way.  Winning against either Georgia or Ole Miss should get Arkansas to 8 wins assuming they beat the following:  Missouri State, Texas A&M, Auburn, Eastern Michigan, South Carolina, Troy, and Mississippi State.

With a little luck:  Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks could really make a statement by winning both of those swing games and making a run at 9-3.  A Cotton Bowl berth would most likely await the Hogs with a season like that.

Best case scenario:  Stealing a win against the Big Three looks like a very tough get this year.  Many national pundits point to the October trip to Gainesville, but that seems very unlikely.  I actually like the Hogs to give LSU a run for their money in the Battle of the Boot to end the season.  The past 3 games have been great contests, and there is nothing to suggest this year will be any different.  A 10-2 season would launch Arkansas into the discussion for a trip to Orlando and the Capitol One Bowl.

Arkansas Offense:

Returning starters: 8

Key Players: Ryan Mallett, QB, Michael Smith, TB, D.J. Williams, TE,  Wade Grayson, C, DeMarcus Love, OT

One to Watch: Jarius Wright, WR

­Impact Newcomer: Broderick Green, TB

Arkansas Defense:

Returning Starters: 11

Key Players: Malcolm Sheppard, DT, Wendel Davis, LB, Jerry Franklin LB, Anthony “Juice” Leon, S, Adrian Davis, DE

One to Watch: Rudell Crim, CB

Impact Newcomer: Anthony “Juice” Leon, S

Key Game(s): Georgia, Sept 19, @ Ole Miss, Oct. 24, @ LSU Nov. 28

Schedule/Predicted Result: (8-4)

9/5     Missouri State (LR)              W
9/12   OPEN DATE                             —
9/19   Georgia                                    L
9/26   at Alabama                             L
10/3   Texas A&M (Dallas)             W
10/10  Auburn                                   W
10/17  at Florida                                L
10/24  at Ole Miss                            W
10/31  Eastern Michigan                W
11/7    South Carolina                      W
11/14  Troy                                       W
11/21  Mississippi State (LR)        W
11/28  at LSU                                        L

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | 5 Comments »

Razorbacks Ready for Showtime — 2009 Arkansas Offense Preview

Posted by Adam Butler on August 4, 2009

arkansas-razorbacks-logoWhat a difference a year, and a vowel make.

 When Bobby Petrino resigned from his position as Head Coach of the Atlanta Falcons prior to the completion of an ill-fated 2007 season to take over the helm of the Arkansas Razorbacks, he was vilified by countless members of the national media.

A sports media mob mentality regarding Petrino quickly, and collectively took affect as irate, attention-seeking opinionistas across the nation took a look at Petrino’s meandering coaching resume’ the regretable and admittedly less-than-ideal circumstances surrounding his departure from the Falcons and quickly labeled him a everything from a “coward” to a “wanderer”.

Now, with the first year of a complete program overhaul under his belt, the name-calling has seemingly subsided, and SEC defensive coordinators are the ones “wondering” whether they can slow down a system that even Petrino’s staunchest critics admit is one of the most dangerous in all of college football.

Georgia Head Coach Mark Richt, a widely respected offensive mastermind in his own right, was effusive in praising Petrino at SEC Media Days last week.

“(Petrino) knows what he’s doing,“ Richt said.  “He absolutely is a great quarterback developer, and he has a scheme that will allow that quarterback to have a chance to be great. He knows it takes defense and special teams to win also. I mean, he’s just an outstanding coach.”

Richt, the SEC Head Coach with the longest tenure at his current school, knows what it takes to build a program in in the rough and tumble conference, and thinks Petrino may be ready to make some noise after going 5-7 a year ago.

“If you look at the history, recent history anyway, of Southeastern Conference coaches, and coaches I think around the country, there’s been a lot of instances where their second season they kind of broke out,” Richt added.  “That’s where he’s at. So that makes me a little concerned, too, that he’s now had a whole year to go through all the debugging of things, and now everybody is on the same page and ready to roll.’

Petrino’s prowess as an offensive guru was built in large part on his tenure at Louisville.  In his four seasons as the Cardinals’ Head Coach (2003-2006) Petrino went 41-9 with two conference championships, two Top Ten finishes and a 24-13 BCS FedEx Orange Bowl win over Wake Forest in 2006.

His Louisville teams finished in the top 10 nationally in total offense in each of those four seasons, and were in the top 5 in three of them.

If Petrino is able to get Arkansas rolling to the top of the NCAA stat sheets in 2009, it will be due in no small part to his offensive philosophy, which he has dubbed “Feed the Studs”. 

Simple in theory, but sometimes more difficult to implement, the Petrino approach is to locate his best playmakers and methodically feed them the football in a position to make big plays.

QUARTERBACK

The system is only as effective as its quarterback, though, and luckily for Petrino and Razorback Nation that position will be in the hands of Ryan Mallett, a quarterback with a skill set that could ultimately translate into big things in Fayetteville.

Mallett (6-7 238), a high school All-American from Texarkana, originally signed with Michigan out of high school after passing for 8,331 yards and 76 touchdowns and being named the 2006 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Texas.  He was ranked as one of the top 5 high school players in the nation.

Mallett replaced the Wolverines starting QB Chad Henne after he was injured during the second game of the 2007 season (a home loss to Oregon on the heels of an embarrassing 34-32 defeat to Appalachian State a week earlier).

He then started games at Michigan’s “Big House” versus college football bluebloods Notre Dame and Penn State in the weeks that followed and though his stats were somewhat pedestrian (23-44 for 260 yards and 3 touchdowns in those two starts) Mallett showed that he is not fazed by the glare of college football’s spotlight. 

He finished his only season at Michigan with 892 yards passing and 7 touchdowns and transferred when Wolverines Head Coach Lloyd Carr was fired and replaced by Rich Rodriguez, who runs an offense that relies on an extremely mobile quarterback–something that Mallett is not.

With plenty of options after such a stellar high school career and college debut, Mallett chose to play for Petrino and the Razorbacks, the team he followed as a youngster.

“Ryan had always had a want and a love to go to the University of Arkansas,“ Petrino said. “He has a lot of relatives in the state. So, when he decided to transfer from Michigan, he says that the first phone call he made was to us. He came down, took a visit, got a good understanding of what we wanted to do offensively, kind of knew what we did at Louisville when he was being recruited before, and made the decision to come and attend the university, which we’re very, very happy about”.

After sitting out the 2008 per NCAA transfer rules and enduring a troubled offseason that included an injury and an arrest, Mallett is undoubtedly looking forward to getting back on the field and focusing on football.

He possesses one of the strongest arms in the nation, but it can be both a blessing and a curse.  Mallett has worked in the offseason on developing touch on his passes and only breaking out his fastball when needed.

Mallett has a fan in starting tight end D.J. Williams, who has learned how to take the heat from the QB’s high octane passes.

“He’s got one of the strongest arms I’ve every seen,” Williams said. “In practice, I’ve got to bring a couple of pairs of gloves because he tears the gripping off with his passes. I know he had some problems at one time, but he’s got great character. I’m glad he’s a Razorback, and he’ll be something to watch.”

Nipping at Mallett’s heels more than many expected, though, is redshirt freshman Tyler Wilson from Greenwood, Arkansas.  Wilson played in two games last season for the Razorbacks as a true freshman but received a medical hardship and retained the year of eligibility after missing the remainder of the season due to mononucleosis.

In his limited playing time, Wilson was 11-22 for 69 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.  He received a significant number of reps in spring practice and the Red-White Spring game and is more fleet of foot than Mallett.

Although he has not stated how he will divide the snaps at quarterback (Mallett should get the bulk of the snaps), Petrino is not averse to using multiple signal-callers in order to give already burdened defensive coordinators something else to have to consider.

In 2004 at Louisvillem Petrino used two quarterbacks–senior Stefan Lefors, and freshman Brian Brohm–with great success, as the Cardinals finished the season number one in the nation in total offense.

“That was hard to defend because Stefan was a move around, play action, naked, sprint out guy, and Brian Brohm was a drop back passer,” Petrino said. “I felt that was probably one of the toughest things to defend when you could do both of those things.”

Redshirt Freshman Jim Youngblood (6-2 225) is a stocky, but mobile signal-caller that is listed as the number three quarterback.

OFFENSIVE LINE

None of the Razorback Qbs will be particularly effective if the Arkansas offensive line fails to do a better job of pass protection in 2009.  In 2008 the Razorbacks allowed 46 sacks and were 118th in the nation in that category, finishing ahead of only Hawaii.

All-American and 2007 Rimington Award winner for best center in the nation Jonathan Luigs is no longer around to lead the offensive line after being taken in the 4th round of the NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Junior Wade Grayson (6-4 296), a Harrison, Arkansas native, takes over for Luigs at Center.  He is a versatile athlete that started all 12 games last season at weak guard, and has physically matured, gaining thirty pounds since signing with Arkansas in 2007.  Grayson hopes to develop into the kind of player that another former Goblin, All-American Brandon Burlsworth, was for the Razorbacks.

In addition to Grayson the two other returning starters on the Hogs’ offensive front are tackles Ray Dominguez (6-4 329) and DeMarcus Love (6-5 315).

Dominguez, a Bainbridge, GA, native, started 10 games last year at right tackle, and struggled at times in the transition from former Head Coach Houston Nutt’s run-oriented attack to Petrino’s more balanced scheme.  His experience of a year ago should make him a better player in 2009.  Dominguez will be backed up at right tackle by redshirt sophomore Grant Freeman (6-7 298) from Paris, AR.

Love (6-5 315) is a redshirt junior from Dallas who Petrino has lauded this offseason for his leadership and work ethic in the weight room. Mammoth Matt Hall (6-9 328) is listed as the second-string right tackle.

Although he is not technically a returning starter, 5th-year senior Mitch Petrus (6-4 315) rejoins the Arkansas offensive line to man one of the guard positions.  He began spring drills listed as the starter at left guard but will begin fall camp as the starting right guard.

Petrus was a second team All-SEC selection in 2007 who redshirted last season because of academic issues.  Despite the layoff, the league coaches thought enough of the former fullback to name him to the preseason All-SEC third team in 2009.

Petrus is a beast in the weight room that can bench over 500 pounds, but he has spent his time off trying to become more flexible so that he can add some punch to the Arkansas offensive line.  Fifth -year Senior Michael Aguirre (6-5 320) has two career starts and is listed as Petrus’ backup.

 Redshirt sophomore Grant Cook (6-4 322) from Jonesboro, AR  begins the season as the starter at left guard.  He has been a spot starter during his career, and will have to hold off Monticello, AR native Seth Oxner (6-4 315) for the starting left guard spot.

Oxner began spring practice in a battle with Cook and will enter the season vying for the center spot with Grayson.  Even if he does not supplant Cook or Grayson, Oxner figures to log his fair share of snaps in 2009 at both positions.

Junior College transfer Zhamal Thomas (6-5 343) originally signed with LSU out of high school and redshirted there in 2006.  Thomas’ athleticism has already caught Petrino’s eye, and he could factor heavily into the mix.

“I would anticipate (Thomas) to really get in there and make a run at it,” Petrino said.  “I didn’t see it, but I was told he actually did a back flip the other day out on the indoor field. I would like to see it. I’d like to see a 350 pound guy do that.”

If the offensive line can improve in pass protection and continue to open holes in the running game, it may be the Razorbacks’ “skill” position players who are doing flips by season’s end.

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Mallett’s primary target will likely be junior tight end D.J. Williams, who was recently named to the 2009 John Mackey Award Preseason Watch List after being a semifinalist for the award in 2008.  The Mackey Award is given annually to the nation’s best tight end.  One of 30 players on the list, Williams is only returning semifinalist from last season.

The 6-2, 215 pound junior from Little rock caught 61 passes for 723 yards and 3 touchdowns, and was named All-SEC first-team selection by the Associated Press in 2008.

Williams was also impressive off of the field, as he has been nominated for the 2009 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, which honors college football players who make outstanding contributions in areas of volunteerism and civic involvement.

Williams credits Petrino for helping him progress as a player.

“Sometimes, I’m in practice, and he’ll be getting on me, but when I look at the video, I see he was right,“ Williams said. “One thing he’s been telling me for a while is that I need to work on my blocking. Typically, when you tell a player anything’s wrong with their game, they’ll be offended, but when you adjust, you see he was right, and that’s why he’s just about as good as anyone in the country.”

Redshirt junior Ben Cleveland (6-4 256) is a very capable second tight end whose production has been slowed by injuries and the emergence of Williams as the primary receiver at the position.

Chris Gragg (6-3 230) moved to tight end from wide receiver in the spring.  His lone catch last year was a big one–a 25-yard reception versus Louisiana Monroe on 4th-and 1 that helped the Hogs salvage a 28-27 victory at War Memorial Stadium.  Gragg, barring injury, will not see much playing time in ‘09, but could develop into a big target in time.

Mallett should have plenty of other options at wide receiver, including sophomores Joe Adams (5-11 182), Jarius Wright (5-10 180) and Greg Childs (6-3 217) as well as seniors London Crawford (6-2 205) and Lucas Miller (6-3 205).

Adams caught 31 passes for 377 yards and a touchdown a year ago and is extremely elusive.  Wright is a big-play threat that was all the rage in the ‘08 preseason, but struggled out of the gate before having big games versus Tulsa (5 catches for 124 yards receiving), South Carolina (a 70-yard touchdown catch, the first of his career) and LSU (46-yard touchdown catch).

Childs and Crawford have the size of prototypical NFL receivers, and Miller, who is coming off of kneee surgery after tearing ligaments in ‘08, may have the best hands of the group, as he displayed in his record-threatening 10-catch, 201 receiving yard performance against Mississippi State in 2008 in a 31-28 Razorback loss.

True freshman Cobi Hamilton (6-3 209) is a lanky, lightning quick former teammate of Mallett’s at Texas High in Texarkana who chose the Razorbacks over the Longhorns and several others.  The Arkansas staff would like to redshirt him, but he could be called on if injuries occur or his freakish athleticism is too much to ignore.

RUNNING BACK

Arkansas was terribly thin at running back at times last season, and has rectified that situation by amassing an impressive stable of running backs.  After waiting his turn behind All-Americans Darren McFadden and Felix Jones during his first three season on The Hill, Michael Smith enjoyed a breakout season in ‘08 but broke down due to shoulder and hamstring injuries before its end.

Smith started 10 games in 2008 (he was suspended for the opener and missed the finale due to injury) and racked up 1,072 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.  In addition to being Arkansas’ leading rusher, Smith also caught 32 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns and was the Hogs’ second-leading receiver. 

Smith’s 1000-yard rushing season was only the 9th in school history and it earned him second-team All-SEC honors from the league coaches and Associated Press.  He had surgery in the offseason and is back to full speed.

Unlike last year, Smith should have plenty of help in a suddenly crowded backfield.  Sophomores Dennis Johnson (5-9, 205) and De’Anthony Curtis return to the fold and are searching for more carries.

Johnson showed that he has big-play potential in Arkansas’ season-ending 31-30 victory over LSU in 2008, in which he piled up  230 all-purpose yards including 18 carries for 127 yards.  Curtis was a highly touted freshman entering last season who failed to show much explosiveness in ‘08 and had a costly turnover late in Arkansas’ 21-20 loss to Kentucky after taking over for a dinged up Smith.  Curtis had a solid spring, though, and is listed as the number two tailback.

A pair of true freshmen, Ronnie Wingo, Jr. (6-3, 218) and Knile Davis (6-0, 213), possess the speed and athleticism to play right away in the SEC.  Wingo, an All-American from St. Louis, Mo., chose the Hogs over Missouri and was ranked the number two prospect in in the Show Me State. 

He earned that ranking by showing his opponents the back of his jersey for a whopping 48 touchdowns and 4,449 rushing yards during his career at Class 6A St. Louis University High School.

Davis was selected as the second-best running back in the state of Texas by the Dallas Morning News, despite being hampered by injuries throughout his high school career. He missed games as a junior because of a broken collarbone, and then broke his right ankle during the second game of his senior season ending his high school career.

 Davis graduated from Fort Bend Marshall High School early, and enrolled at Arkansas in the spring semester hoping to gain a leg up on his competition.  But he again broke his right ankle, this time during Arkansas’ fourth spring practice, and missed the remainder of the workouts.

This time around, Davis had the ankle repaired by world-renowned orthopedic surgeon to the sports stars, Dr. James Andrews, whose patients include athletic icons Michael Jordan, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith. 

Davis, who was born in 1991 and won’t turn eighteen until the Hogs’ fifth game of the season, has tremendous skill.  In light of his injury history, though, Davis will have to prove he can stay healthy before fans should get too excited about his immense talent.  Davis has been cleared to practice when fall camp opens.

While Wingo and Davis are big backs by just about any standard, the biggest thumper of all the Razorback tailbacks will be Broderick Green.  Green, a Parade High School All-American and Little Rock product, transferred to Arkansas in the spring after two seasons at Southern California.

At USC, Green played in six games in 2008 and carried the ball 32 times for 168 yards and three touchdowns.  He redshirted in 2007.

After being granted a waiver by the NCAA which allows him to be immediately eligible in 2009, Green (6-2 248) should help the Hogs out right away in 2009 in the short yardage/goalline situations that plagued them in 2008.

Senior tailback Brandon Barnett (5-8 211) missed time in the beginning of spring practice because of family reasons, and upon his return, suffered a broken leg.  Given the injury and the logjam at the position, Barnett may be the odd man out. Redshirt junior Van Stumon (6-1 266) and sophomore Mitchell Bailey (5-11 227) will split the fullback duties.

KICKER

Junior placekicker Alex Tejada struggled mightily last season, going 4-9 on field goal attempts after making 17-23 in 2006.  He will be given another shot to prove himself in ‘09 but is on shaky ground after missing some key kicks in ‘08.

OUTLOOK

Petrino thinks his squad will be better, but with a schedule that features road games at Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss and LSU, he,  just like the SEC defensive coordinators plotting to slow the Hogs down, is left to wonder just how much the improvement will be reflected in Arkansas’ won/loss record.

“We’ll play better football…” Petrino said.  “How many wins that comes out to is yet to be seen. What we need to understand is we got to get the game in the fourth quarter in a position to win, then, hopefully, our off season conditioning, our off season strength work, and our depth will allow us to win more games than we did a year ago.”

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | 6 Comments »

It’s Great to Be a Florida Gator — 2009 Florida Preview

Posted by Brett Kincaid on August 3, 2009

“Have a very good football team… I’ve never been more anxious to coach a football team.” Florida Gator Head Coach Urban Meyer (July 23, 2009)

Florida GatorsComing off two national championships in the past three years, the University of Florida has emerged as the best program in college football.  Head Coach Urban Meyer has the Gators at the top of the college football world, and this group may be even better than last year.  With a loaded defense coming back (everyone on the two-deep from 2008) and the best player in the game (Tim Tebow), the Gators are poised to head back to the SEC Championship Game and perhaps another BCS title.

A key element of any championship team is an experienced quarterback.  The Gators have the best team leader in football in Tim Tebow.  With 2 championships and a Heisman Trophy under his belt, there is little left for Tebow to prove.  A throwback in the sense that he actually seems to enjoy college, Tim Tebow eschewed the big money awaiting him in the NFL to try and win yet another championship in Gainesville.

You cannot talk about Tebow without addressing his strong convictions and the sometimes-nauseating media coverage.  To say he Tim Tebowhas seized his moment in the sun would be dramatically understating what he has done.  In response to a question at SEC Media Days about why he came back Tebow said, “You know…I think the important things that I looked at were number one, was the opportunity that I had to have an influence in the state of Florida and around the South, for the U.S. for that matter.”  Unlike Thom Brennaman, I do not believe my life would be altered forever if I spent just a few minutes around this kid.  But I do believe he has a confidence about him that helps him lead the Gators to great heights. There is little doubting that Tim Tebow is the best college football player in the country, and he has the tools around him that make him even better.

Emmanuel Moody is a game-changing back.  According to Meyer, “Emmanuel looks terrific.  He physically looks fabulous.”  Meyer has been in search of a big-time back that can lineup and wear down opponents, and this may finally be the year the Gators have that weapon.  Between Moody, Chris Rainey, and Jeff Demps, Florida appears to have a growing stable of top-quality backs that can take some of the pressure off Tebow in the running game.

While Percy Harvin has moved on to the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, there are plenty of talented athletes left in Gainesville that are eager to take his place.  The biggest question at the position right now is whether or not Riley Cooper returns.  The two-sport star was drafted by the Texas Rangers in June, and he still has not made a decision about whether or not to turn pro in baseball and forego his senior season.  Deonte Thompson projects as one of the leaders at the position with experience and speed to burn.  And David Nelson is coming off a strong finish to the 2009 season, hoping to make a big impact as the Gators defend their title.  Also, look for Demps to lineup as a slot receiver/running back hybrid, much like Harvin has done the past few seasons.  True freshman Andre Dubose will also get a shot at that role early.

The go-to receiver this season looks to be the tight end.  Aaron Hernandez is big and mobile.  Even more important, he appears to have developed a strong bond with Tebow.  With the quarterback’s trust firmly in place, Hernandez should expect to have a big senior year.

All-SEC twin brothers Mike (6′ 5″, 320 lbs) and Maurkice (6′ 5″, 318 lbs) Pouncey  are back to lead a very talented (and big) offensive line.  The right and left guards bookend Sam Robey, the new starting center at Florida.  Carl Johnson started 8 games last year at left tackle and returns.  Marcus Gilbert projects as the starting tackle on the right side.

The defense is what makes this group of Gators so menacing.  All eleven starters and their backups return from a championship defense in 2008.  Teams are going to struggle to score on Florida, which will give the offense time to break in its new receivers and offensive line unit.  Coach Meyer recently said, “We’re very confident, very comfortable with who we have in the middle of our defense right now.”  The center of the defensive line is Lawrence Marsh who can both stuff the run and get to the quarterback from the interior.  Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap return as premiere rush ends and expect to meet in the backfield regularly.  Unsung but productive tackle Terron Sanders rounds out a stout front wall.

Brandon SpikesWhat Tebow is to the offense, Brando Spikes is to the defense.  The two are quite different off the field, with Tebow embracing the media while Spikes avoids them.  On the field, though, Spikes runs the show defensively.  A.J. Jones is back to man the strong side linebacker spot, and Ryan Stamper returns on the weak side.  This is the type of linebacking crew that can make Coach Meyer boast about his confidence up the middle.

The secondary is loaded.  Joe Hadden is a can’t-miss future NFL cornerback.  Janoris Jenkins faces a potential suspension after his arrest this offseason, but he will certainly be a big factor on the field once Coach Meyer lets him play again.  Ahmad Black and Major Wright also return with great speed and coverage abilities.  Many believe sophomore Will Hill will get on the field sooner than later, potentially as a nickel back or in the rotation at safety.

 

OUTLOOK

The road to Atlanta runs through Gainesville.  The SEC Championship Game has become a de facto national semi-final, so winning there would launch Florida to Pasadena and a chance at back-to-back championships.  The schedule sets up well for a run at 12-0, and potentially a re-match with Alabama at the SEC Championship Game.

September opens with a glorified scrimmage against Charleston Southern before Troy invades The Swamp.  The Trojans will put up a bit more of a fight, getting Florida good and ready for Tennessee.  The Volunteers are at least a year away from competing at a championship level and should offer little resistance.  The month ends with a dangerous trip to Kentucky after the rivalry week.

Florida is unbeaten after their open week under Urban Meyer, and that is what they get before the most difficult road trip of the season at LSU.  The Tigers are not quite back to the level we saw in 2006 and 2007, so don’t be surprised if Florida comes away with a win.  The most dangerous home game on the schedule actually comes from Arkansas.  The Hogs head to Gainesville for Homecoming the week after LSU.  You’ll hear lots of comparisons to the Ole Miss game from last year, but the Gators will be ready this time.  The following week includes a trip to Starkville and Mississippi State before ending the month on Halloween against Georgia in Jacksonville.  That should be a party!  It should also be a tough, hard fought victory for Florida.

Vanderbilt starts the month of November at The Swamp in what should be a good “relaxer” for the Gators.  Florida heads up to see the Ol’ Ball Coach the second week of November before heading home to close the season against Florida International and Florida State.

The schedule is tough, but it is also manageable.  This is the schedule of a champion.  Expect Florida to at the very least claim another SEC East crown.

Most likely:  It’s very difficult to predict an unbeaten season.  There are enough “trap games” and difficult roadies to expect Florida to lose one.  The 2 most likely spots are at LSU or against Georgia in Jacksonville.

With a lucky break:  The Gators have a great chance to go unbeaten.  Taking care of business away from The Swamp means a very likely perfect regular season and SEC Championship.

Best case scenario:  Florida hoists the trophy in Pasadena as back-to-back National Champs, Tim Tebow wins his second Heisman Trophy, and Urban Meyer signs a 20-year extension.  (I was running out of ways to imagine things getting better.)

Bold Prediction:  Florida goes into Baton Rouge and wins by 2 touchdowns.

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | 6 Comments »

Mouth of the South — 2009 Tennesee Preview

Posted by Brett Kincaid on August 2, 2009

“The plan had to be we had to create national attention immediately…We had to put Tennessee in the national media.” University of Tennessee Head Coach Lane Kiffin (July 24, 2009)

Tennessee VolunteersI think Coach Kiffin can say with great confidence, Mission Accomplished.  If only they could get the USS Abraham Lincoln to float down the Tennessee River for him to make that proclamation.  Talk about creating a buzz!

From accusations of cheating, to disparaging a small Floida town, to violating NCAA rules, Lane Kiffin has certainly put Tennessee back on the national stage.  It was all part of his master plan; now we get to see if winning is part of that plan, too.  The Volunteers struggled through a 5-7 campaign in 2008 that exposed the deteriorating talent on Rocky Top, especially at the skill positions offensively.  That looks to be changing, as Kiffin and his staff pulled off some remarkable recruiting coups, led largely by the addition of #1 overall recruit (according to Rivals.com) Bryce Brown and flashy wide receiver Nu’keese Richardson.

Kiffin’s father, Monte, will head up the defense after leaving the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The elder Kiffin, at 69-years-old, inherits a unit that suffered through offensive ineptitude and bad luck in ’08 despite having one of the game’s best safeties in Eric Berry.  With a little more production offensively (115th out of 120 last season), both Kiffins hope to see a big turnaround from the steady decline of the past two years.

The main question entering fall camp in Knoxville centers around the quarterback position.  Senior Jonathan Crompton has got Jonathan Cromptonto be considered the favorite to keep the starting position, but Coach Kiffin has made it clear that the starting job — at almost every position — remains up for grabs.  “Eric Berry is a starter.  Outside of that, we Nick Stephenshave 21 jobs open.”  Hoping to steal that job is junior Nick Stephens, who started six games last year.  The plan is for the two to split snaps early in camp while the coaching staff makes its evaluations before naming a starter.  With JUCO transfer Nick Lamaison and former minor league baseball player Mike Rozier (walk-on), the depth is pretty thin going into camp.  Consider the fact both Crompton (ankle) and Stephens (wrist) have a history of injury problems, Volunteer fans should be a little concerned about depth behind center.

Senior Montario Hardesty returns to Knoxville as the starter at running back.  By reading the papers, though, one would hardly know it.  Freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku will be counted on to contribute early and often.  Both show all the signs of being top-flight SEC backs.  Sophomore Tauren Poole is also expected to contribute.

The receiving group at Tennessee has received plenty of attention this off season, and none of it positive.  Serious injuries have left the Volunteers looking for volunteers to step up immediately.  Senior Austin Rogers is out for the year with an ACL tear, junior Denarius Moore is recovering from recent foot surgery, and junior Gerald Jones suffered a rehab setback on his ailing wrist.  Moore and Jones could both return by early October, but that still leaves a huge void as camp starts.  Freshman phenom Nu’keese Nu'keese RichardsonRichardson will now be counted on to play immediately.  According to Kiffin, “Even if those guys were healthy, we were looking for that.  This is more of an opportunity for him stepping up.”  Fellow freshman Marsalis Teague should expect a great shot at early playing time, too.  Coaches will also turn to senior Quinton Hancock early this season.  Also, look for the tight ends to play a bigger role early.  Both Luke Stocker and Jeff Cottam could see plenty of balls thrown their way this year.

The offensive line should be a plus for the Vols this season.  It’s a more experienced group that has adopted a zone-blocking scheme, which takes out a lot of the thinking.  These guys will be able to line up, find their area, and put a helmet on someone.  Center Josh McNeil provides an experienced anchor up front.  Vladimir Richard is back at the starting left guard position with senior Chris Scott manning the tackle position on the left side.  The right side has a little more confusion with the starting spots, but it does look like Jacques McClendon will get the nod a guard.  A battle during camp is expected between Jarrod Shaw and redshirt freshman Aaron Douglass for the right tackle slot.

The old saying goes “Defense wins championships,” and no one is more aware of that than Monte Kiffin.  The head coach’s father won a Super Bowl championship as the defensive coordinator at Tampa Bay, and now hopes to add a national championship while at Knoxville.  He has the perfect centerpiece around which to build with All-American Eric Berry at safety.  Said Lane Kiffin, “To have Eric, a guy that could come down and play nickel as well as be a safety, I think NFL teams are going to fall in love with him.”  The question remains, though, Who else will be there to help?

Junior Chris Walker takes over for Robert Ayers at defensive end.  The former linebacker brings quickness to the position, a la Dwight Freeney.  Junior Ben Martin projects as the starter at left end with Wes Brown moving inside to the tackle spot.  Big Dan Williams (6′ 3″, 327 lbs) is the leader on the inside, though, likely to draw plenty of double-teams that could open things up for Brown.

The linebacking corps provides the most questions for a defensive unit that ranked third in the nation in total defense last year.  Rico McCoy is the only starter that returns with any experience.  The future NFLer need to provide leadership while the younger players develop.  Junior Nick Reveiz looks to be the future at MLB, but Herman Lathers may just run past him once camp opens.  LaMarcus Thompson should step up as the starting SLB this fall.   

Eric BerryAs good as Berry is, he cannot play all four secondary positions simultaneously…at least I do not think he can.  Good thing for Volunteer fans (and Berry) is that cornerback Dennis Rogan also returns to start this season.  True freshman Janzen Jackson, a former LSU commit that switched very late in the recruiting process, could step in and play immediately at the free safety position.  Sophomore Art Evans is the leading candidate to start at corner opposite Rogan.

Junior Chad Cunningham is back as the starting punter at Tennessee, and fellow junior Daniel Lincoln returns to handle the kicking duties.  A host of speed burners will get an opportunity to return kicks and punts this year, including Berry.  Don’t be surprised if Kiffin puts one of his head-turning freshmen back there just to get some athleticism on the field and save his every-down players.

 

OUTLOOK

One thing we can certainly say for Tennessee is that everyone will be watching.  That appears to be one major goal for Coach Kiffin, and now the product has to catch up to his mouth.  There is certainly enough talent on Rocky Top to expect a quick turnaround this season, but questions at QB and WR make us wonder if 2009 may be a little too early to project great things.  Add in a top-heavy SEC East and road games against at Alabama and Ole Miss, just getting back to a bowl game seems like a reasonable goal.

September opens with a nice warm-up against Western Kentucky before UCLA makes the long trip across country.  I expect UT to pull off wins in both games before heading down to the Swamp for their annual late-September war.  Tebow and the Gators will prove too much again this year, leaving the Vols at 3-1 after their win over Ohio the following week.

Auburn and Georgia visit Neyland to open October, and the Vols should win both — but the Georgia game could be trouble.  While no coach truly enjoys going to Tuscaloosa, the Vols do get that trip after their open week.  The extra prep time will not likely produce a win on the road, but the good news for Tennessee is the schedule after that game.  South Carolina visits on Halloween, and Memphis comes across the state to being November. 

A road date at Ole Miss looks difficult now, but things may change by then in Oxford.  Vanderbilt comes to a revenge-minded Neyland Stadium the following week before the Vols head up to Lexington to take on Kentucky in the battle for The Beer Barrel. 

Most Likely:  While it is tempting to say 8-4, it looks like 7-5 is the most likely.  There are just too many questions offensively before we can go and predict great things for this season.

With a lucky break:  With improved QB play and production from the WR spots, Tennessee could definitely make a jump to 9-3 with wins over Georgia and Ole Miss. 

Best case scenario:  This looks like a 10-2 team at best.  It’s hard to project a win over Florida or Alabama this season, and the Vols would need to beat one of them to get back to double-digit wins this year.

Bold prediction:  Bryce Brown rushes for 1,000 yards as a freshman.

Final thought: Kiffin has a plan.  That plan obviously centers around recruiting, bringing in the best talent available.  No doubt, it is easier to win if the talent is there.  What needs to be seen now, though, is can this still inexperienced coach get things done on Saturdays.  If he can, the Volunteers appear to be headed back to regular SEC Championship Game appearances.

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | 6 Comments »

Redemption in Red Stick — 2009 LSU Preview

Posted by Brett Kincaid on July 31, 2009

“I can tell you that coming off last year, eight victories and a bowl win was not enough.  Our football team’s a little more wanting, a little bit more ambitious.” LSU Head Football Coach Les Miles (July 24, 2009)

Geaux TigersThe 2008 LSU Tigers looked nothing like the previous season’s National Championship team, and Les Miles expects the 2009 version to look nothing like last year’s edition.  Turnover on the defense and less turnovers from the offense could lead LSU back to the top of the SEC West in 2009.  Former Tennessee Volunteer assistant John Chavis takes over the defense, promising to bring an aggressive style of play to Baton Rouge.  Offensively the Tigers have Jordan Jefferson and Jarret Lee both coming back with one year’s experience under the belts.  More than anything, though, the Tigers are hungry.  According to Miles, “You never expect to finish second, not at LSU.  I think our team has prepared in earnest.  I think it will be seen this fall.”  For many programs and fans, a bit of regression after winning a National Championship – while not ideal – can be tolerated.  At LSU some fans were openly calling for Miles’ head after an 8-5 campaign. 

Jordan Jefferson gets the nod going into camp as the starter at quarterback.  Jarret Lee will push for playing time, but the sophomore Jefferson seemed to have earned the team’s trust after a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Georgia Tech.  Coach Miles reports that Jefferson has had a “great summer” and will beCharles Scott much more confident going into his second year.

The big star on offense will be Charles Scott, the bruising running back that churned out 1,174 yards and an eye-popping 18 touchdowns last year.  At 5’ 11” and 233 lbs, Scott will leave linebackers battered and bruised each Saturday evening.  Senior Keiland Williams returns and will get first crack as Chuck the Truck’s primary backup.  Richard Murphy and Trindon Holliday can expect to see carries out of the backfield, too.

Brandon LaFellSenior Brandon LaFell returns to Baton Rouge after surprising most observers by turning down what many believed a spot in the NFL’s first or second rounds of the 2009 draft.  He reeled in almost 1,000 yards last season with 8 of his 63 catches going for touchdowns.  Chris Mitchell will try to balance the field, taking over for Demetrius Byrd.  And don’t be surprised to see freshman Russell Shephard, recruited as a quarterback, get time at wide receiver just to get him on the field.  Miles still believes “firmly that he can be a great quarterback,” but he is too athletic to leave on the sideline.  Senior tight end Richard Dickson returns as a solid if unspectacular workhorse. 

The offensive line at LSU, to no one’s surprise, should be great this season.  With tremendous depth and experience, Miles says this group should give LSU “a great chanced to be a dominant offensive line.”  Tackle Ciron Black is expected to impose his will on SEC defensive linemen this fall.  Black returned for his senior season to “go out a winner,” and his linemates can go a long way to making that dream a reality.  Josh Dworaczyk also projects to be a key factor in the offensive line’s success.

Jacob CutreraThe LSU defense is the area of the team that looks to make the most improvement this year.  John Chavis has a long history of success at Tennessee, and he has brought his fiery attitude to an area that is known for embracing its fiery personalities.  Chavis hopes to bring the swagger back to the Tiger defense.  According to linebacker Jacob Cutrera, “He’s a fired up guy every practice…He’s brought a lot of intensity and the way he does things has helped out.”  Cutrera and his fellow linebackers will need to play soundly in the middle while LSU breaks in a new front line.  Gone is Tyson Jackson, and Charles Alexander returns as the only starter up front.  Drake Nevis and Rahim Alem should keep the tradition alive, though, of stellar Tiger front lines.

Chick-fil-A Bowl defensive MVP Perry Riley returns with Cutrera behind the line.  Kelvin Sheppard projects as the other starter at linebacker, hoping to replace the aggressive play of Danny Beckworth, who starts his NFL career trying to make the team in San Diego.

The LSU secondary will be led by Chad Jones, who could be one of the SEC’s best by the time the season is done.  Jai Eugene is also expected to contribute heavily along with senior Chris HawkinsBrandon Taylor should push for serious playing time, also.

Colt David is (finally) gone as the LSU kicker.  Josh Jasper is likely to take his place, although he has a long way to go if Jasper wants to replace David.  Derek Helton projects as the replacement for Brady Dalfrey as LSU’s punter.  The electrifying Trindon Holliday will once again return kicks, giving LSU a home run threat every time the ball is kicked deep.

OUTLOOK

The LSU schedule sets up well for a run at the SEC Western Division title.  September starts with what I think is a very dangerous trip to Washington.  The Tigers should survive the trip to Seattle, but Tiger Nation may not have fingernails left by the end of the game.  LSU returns to the comfort of Death Valley for a back-to-back home games against Vanderbilt (upset alert) and UL-Lafayette.  The month ends in Starkville and likely a 4-0 start.

October opens with a bang, traveling to Georgia then hosting Florida.  Navigating both of those weeks unbeaten seems unlikely, but a loss to either will not eliminate the Tigers form a trip to Atlanta.  A much-needed open week falls between Florida and Auburn.  Tulane visits Baton Rouge for the I-10 Battle on Halloween. 

November 7th is circled on calendars across the Gulf Coast, as that is the weekend LSU travels to Alabama.  The winner of this game will have the inside track for the SEC West crown.  A late-season non-conference game against Louisiana Tech (upset alert #2) comes after Alabama and before a trip to Oxford and the annual game with Ole Miss.  The Tigers end the season at home with the “Battle for the Boot” against Arkansas. 

Most likely:  LSU is going to be very good this year.  Anything less than 10-2 should be considered a disappointment.  I expect LSU to drop one of the road games at Georgia, Ole Miss, or Alabama (most likely).  Beating Florida seems unlikely, but the home field advantage could push LSU over the top.

With a lucky break:  Eliminate one of the two losses from either Georgia, Florida, or Ole Miss, and LSU will be in the national title hunt.

Best Case Scenario:  It is unlikely, but LSU could run the table.  This may be a year too soon, but no one doubts the talent level at LSU.  If everyone lives up to expectations, there is not a game on the schedule LSU cannot win.

Bold Prediction:  LSU beats Ole Miss by 2 touchdowns

Final Thought:  LSU will almost certainly play in a BCS bowl or the Capitol One Bowl.  If things don’t come together this season, expect to make a national title run in 2010.

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | 4 Comments »

‘Cats Mean Serious Business–2009 Kentucky Preview

Posted by Adam Butler on July 30, 2009

uklogoThey have one of the most gregarious and likeable head coaches in the nation.  They get less respect from the media and their fan base (as compared to the hoops squad) than Rodney Dangerfield. And, they have a head-coach-in-waiting named Joker.

But, if they haven’t already learned their lesson, opponents of the 2009 University of Kentucky Wildcats will soon find out that taking them on is no laughing matter.

Seemingly entrenched on college football’s hot seat, all UK Head coach Rich Brooks has managed to do is lead UK to bowl wins in three consecutive seasons for the first time in school history while also winning at least 7 games for three consecutive seasons for the first time in almost 60 years.

Now, after navigating his team through a 7-6 campaign that was capped by a Liberty Bowl win over East Carolina, and included near-misses against SEC powerhouses Alabama and Georgia, Brooks believes it is time for his program to rise to the next level.

“Somebody had the intelligence and guts to weather the storm and allow this thing to move forward,” Brooks said of his rocky first three years at the UK helm.

“Now, you know, we need to climb the ladder. This is not good enough. Going to Bowl games and winning them isn’t good enough. We need to compete for the SEC championship.”

If Kentucky is going to move up the ranks in the brutal SEC East, it will have to find a way to establish an offensive identity after struggling mightily at times last year.  The Wilcats won’t lack for experience up front with four senior starters led by Zipp Duncan (6’5 285). 

Duncan, a Kentucky native, signed with UK in the hopes of helping turn the program around, and he has done just that.  As he has done throughout his career, Duncan will change positions in 2009, as he moving from the interior of the offensive line to the all-important left tackle spot. 

He will be joined on the line by projected senior starters Justin Jeffries (6-6 320), Jorge Gonzalez (6-3 300) and Christian Johnson (6-4 330).

A0WEJUVCAGNJPJ7CA2EP09HCAXT2S67CA2WIQLZCAB7Y8AWCATXABCHCAS3BA5LCA40LADMCAGKL81MCAI5ASD8CAXGDWZXCA9EO1UECAUL13KACATS1G7MCACZ1S66CAG23YRGCAXW5FI8CA4XIHJEThat group will be hard-pressed to equal its pass protection prowess from 2008, when the Wildcats gave up a mere 13 sacks.  However, if it can provide similar protection this season, junior quarterback Mike Hartline should emerge as more of a playmaker than the game manager he was a year ago.  If not, a vocal segment of the UK fan base may gets its wish–significant playing time for Hartline’s backup, junior Will Fidler.

Leading receiver Dicky Lyons, Jr. is gone, so Randall Cobb will be looked to, at least early, as the team’s primary playmaker. Cobb played quarterback and wide receiver last year as a true freshman, and was vital to UK’s success. 

He should spend most of his time at WR in 2009, though, and Brooks is expecting big things for Cobb following a season in which he threw for 542 yards and 2 touchdowns and ran for 316 yards and seven more scores.   Brooks also plans on using him as a QB in the “Wildcat” formation.

UK needs a second receiving target to emerge, and all signs point to it eventually being JUCO transfer Chris Matthews, who played Hardball at Los Angeles Harbor College in 2008 by making 86 receptions and posting numbers to match his freakish specs–6’6’ 210 4.4.

Gene McCaskill and Kyrus Lanxter also have big-play ability, but need to show it consistently on the field.  Tight end T.C. Drake had a dozen catches last year, and will look to be more of a threat in the passing game.

The running back corps is led by Alfonso Smith, who took a short pass and sprinted 71-yards down the sideline versus Arkansas for a game-changing touchdown in 2008.  Also in the mix will be junior Moncell Allen, and Derrick Locke.

Locke, a former track standout, looked to be a potential star after filling in because of injuries and gaining 521 rushing yards in 2007.  He suffered a career-threatening knee injury in 2008, though, and will be out to prove that he is still explosive.

On the defensive side of the ball, Kentucky lost a ton of talent (7 starters, including three defensive lineman) but return a pair of the best defenders in the SEC in cornerback Trevard Lindley (6-0 179) and Micah Johnson (6-2 256).

Lindley, a Georgia native, shocked many by passing up big NFL bucks to return for his senior season.  He is a lockdown cornerback with a nose for the ball.  Unlike most NFL-ready CBs, he is not a big talker– he lets his play on the field speak for itself

“Trevard Lindley, simply put, can line up against any receiver in the country one on one,” Brooks said. “And we would have a very optimistic feeling that he’s going to cover ’em pretty darn good the whole game, not allow a lot of big plays. He not only can cover, he can make plays.”

Arkansas fans would like to forget Lindley.  He returned a Michael Smith fumble 66-yards for a touchdown just before halftime in Kentucky’s 42-29 win in Fayetteville over the Darren Mcfadden/Felix Jones-led Hogs in 2007.  The other starting cornerback, Randall Burden figures to have his hands full, as teams will likely avoid Lindley’s side of the field.  If Burden struggles, Paul Warford will get a long look.

At safety, Winston Guy (6-1 208) has the look of a player that is poised for a breakout season.  Guy, a Lexington, KY native, verbally committed to play for Arkansas two years ago, but later decided to stay home and play for UK.

He started his career as a cornerback, but moved to safety (while also excelling on special teams) and has taken to the position.  Many observers (including his head coach) predict Guy will emerge as a star.  Ashton Cobb and Calvin Harrison will also be in the mix in the secondary.

The linebackers are led by Johnson, a Ft. Campbell, KY native, who was one of the most highly touted recruits in school history, and last year, he showed why–racking up 93 tackles and earning 1st Team All-SEC honors.  He, like Lindley, could have opted to leave school early and turn pro, but instead decided to return.kentucky_micah_johnson

Sophomore Danny Trevathan (6-1, 220) will be asked to replace the production of the departed Braxton Kelly (93 tackles in ‘08) and Brooks thinks he has the talent to do so.  Sam Maxwell (6-3 248) will man the strong side, and he looks the part of an SEC linebacker.

While the unexpected return of Lindley and Johnson was fortunate, UK missed out on a defensive star trifecta when potential All-American defensive end Jeremy Jarmon also eschewed the chance to take his wares to the NFL, only to later be suspended by the NCAA after testing positive for a banned suspended.  The Washington Redskins drafted Jarmon in the NFL supplemental draft, giving up a third-round pick in 2010 to do so.

With Jarmon out of the picture, Cory Peters (6-3 295) is the only returning starter on the defensive line–but he is a good one, with All-SEC caliber talent.  Ricky Lumpkin(6-4 294) should start at the other tackle and JUCO transfer Mark Crawford (6-1 297) will provide interior depth.  Neither will be the force that Myron Pryor was on the inside, but they should be solid.  If eligible, incoming freshman Donte Rumph (6-3 260) could vie for immediate playing time.

On the edge, the ‘Cats will look to replace Jarmon’s explosiveness with Chandler Burden and Collins Ukwe (6-5 251).  Both have talent, and should mature as players throughout the year.

The schedule could be very problematic for UK.  The Wildcats open with Miami University (OH) and then have an open date before a three-week homestand that might leave UK battered and bruised.  The stretch opens with a clash against Louisville (that UK should win) but it closes with Florida and Alabama coming to Lexington in consecutive weeks.  Then, UK hits the road to face South Carolina and Auburn.

That is a stretch that could make any coach, even the inimitable Brooks, a little worse for wear.  If Kentucky can avoid a disastrous start, the schedule eases on the backstretch, with a roadtrip to Georgia being the only time UK will likely be a big underdog.  Look for the Wildcats to do some serious damage along the way, and vie for a fourth-straight bowl win if they can survive the first half of the season.

Kentucky Offense:

Returning starters: 9

Key Players: QB Mike Hartline, OT Zipp Duncan, WR Randall Cobb

One to Watch: WR Chris Matthews

Kentucky Defense:

Returning Starters: 4

Key Players: Trevard Lindley, CB, LB Micah Johnson, LB, Cory Peters, DT

One to Watch: Winston Guy, S

Key Game(s): Louisville Sept. 19, Alabama October 3, @ South Carolina Oct. 10

Schedule/Predicted Result: (7-5)

9/5 Miami Univ. (OH)               W
9/12 OPEN DATE                              
9/19 Louisville                             W
9/26 Florida                                   L
10/3 Alabama                                L
10/10 at South Carolina            L
10/17 at Auburn                           L
10/24 UL Monroe                         W
10/31 Miss State                            W
11/7 Eastern Kentucky               W
11/14 at Vanderbilt                      W
11/21 at Georgia                             L
11/28 Tennessee                            W

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | 8 Comments »

A New Attitude — 2009 Mississippi State Preview

Posted by Brett Kincaid on July 29, 2009

“If you turn on a game film, watch a team, all 11 players on the field on any given snap, play with a relentless effort, play with a passion for the game of football for 60 minutes of that game, we’ll have a successful season.” – Mississippi State Head Football Coach Dan Mullen (July 22, 2009)

Bulldog Football!  Catch the excitement!

MSU Bulldogs

It looks to be a long year in Starkville as Dan Mullen takes the helm of a program that has sunk to the bottom of the SEC West over the past 10 years.  Ever since their surprise 1998 SEC Western Division crown, the Bulldogs have struggled to maintain any level of success.  In steps Dan Mullen, architect of the Florida Gator offense that won 2 national championships in 3 years, to replace the historic yet ultimately mediocre Sylvester Croom.  Coach Mullen has grand plans.  “There will be a lot of similarities between our programs and the programs that (Urban Meyer) has done at Bowling Green, Florida, and Utah.”  That may fire up the booster clubs across Mississippi, but the fact is the Bulldogs are a few years away from making a statement in the SEC.

What Mullen has going for him, though, is that success is not unprecedented at Mississippi State.  Working against him is the recent emergence of Ole Miss as a power in the West.  If he can find a way to horde some offensive talent with his player-friendly system, Carl Torbush – the newly hired defensive coordinator – can build on the tradition of solid defensive teams at State.

The immediate challenge for this crew is the offensive transformation.  A West Coast offense under Croom, the Bulldogs have begun the transition to the spread offense.  Unfortunately for Mullen, Tim Tebow stayed in Gainesville.  The future at quarterback is much heralded freshman Tyler Russell, but MSU will likely turn to Tyson Lee to start the season.  The senior ran the Bulldog offense last year and has spring practice under his belt.  Mullen expects “the competition at (quarterback) to be pretty stiff” when fall camp opens.  Don’t be surprised to see more than one quarterback get significant playing time.

Anthony Dixon Anthony Dixon will be the star of the show while the quarterback position sorts itself out.  Dixon enters his senior season just 609 yards short of being the team’s all-time rushing leader.  He will have to wait one game to get started on his chase, though, after being suspended for the opener following a DUI arrest in July.  Christian Ducre will again spend time backing up Dixon.  Expect to see Mullen get Ducre on the field as a pass-catcher, as the wide receiver group needs a lot of time to mature.

Kendrick Cook, a DJ Williams-type player, will lead the receivers this season.  At SEC Media Days Mullen said, “We’re going to use Kendrick in a lot of different ways, whether he’s attached, a motion fullback, or flexed out” wide.  Redshirt freshman O’Neal Wilder could see significant playing time, too.  True freshman Chad Bumphis has created a lot of hope for the future at wide out.

The mammoth Derek Sherrod (6’ 7”, 310 lbs) is back to anchor the offensive line.  With some experience under his (larg) belt, Sherrod hopes to lead this group as it makes the transition form West Coast to the spread.  Pass protection has been a point of emphasis since Mullen’s arrival, and Sherrod & Co. will have to get better.  (Sound familiar, Hog fans?) 

With only five returning starters, the Bulldogs need to retool their defense.  Coach Mullen realized that early and got one of the best K.J. Wrightdefensive minds in the business in Carl Torbush.  He and his coaching staff will look to linebacker K.J. Wright to lead this inexperienced but talented crew.  Senior Jamar Chaney joins Wright as a defensive leader.  If his ankle has healed completely, Chaney will help bolster the middle of the defense.  According to Torbush Chaney looks to be back to full strength.

Newcomer Pernell McPhee will anchor the Bulldog defensive front.  Sophmore Sean Ferguson is back to provide some stability to the front.  The defensive line will definitely need to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks while the secondary rebuilds this season.

To the delight of Hog fans, safety Derek Pegues is finally gone, as is Keith Fitzhugh.  Marcus Washington is the only returning starter.  Newcomers Jonathan Banks and Dennis Thames will be given a chance to earn playing time as true freshman – although Thames still faces a long road back after his arrest for public intoxication this summer.

Look for a new kicker and punter to lead the Bulldog special teams.  JUCO transfer Sean Brauchle is the projected starting placekicker, while Heath Hutchins should supplant Blake McAdams as the team’s punter.

OUTLOOK

There is no way to sugar-coat this:  Mississippi State is going to struggle.  That said, they should be much more fun to watch this year.  September starts with in-state SWAC program Jackson State coming to Starkville to begin the Mullen Era.  The Dogs head on the road the next two weeks, though, with trips to Auburn and Vanderbilt.  If MSU hopes to find its way to a bowl this season, getting off to a fast start is imperative.  If things come together in fall camp, those are both winnable games.  September ends with LSU invading Starkville.

The Bulldogs have an interesting matchup with Georgia Tech (who plays two other SEC teams – Vandy and Georgia – this season) to start October, followed by Homecoming against the Houston Cougars.  Mississippi State makes a rare trip to a Sun Belt Conference foe, traveling to Middle Tennessee State in the middle of the month before the “Teacher v. Student” game with Florida in Starkville.  Kentucky hosts MSU on Halloween in what will be a must-win game if the Dogs harbor hopes of the post-season.

The open weeks comes right before Alabama comes to Starkville, so if you’re looking for upset look here.  The Dogs travel to Little Rock to take on the Razorbacks on November 21 before heading back home for the Egg Bowl the following week.  Needless to say, this is a tough schedule for a team on the re-build.

Most likely:  4-8 with wins over Jackson State, Middle Tennessee State, and Houston.  Vanderbilt early and Kentucky on Halloween look like the most likely SEC wins, and it’s hard to imagine them winning both.  A late-season upset is not out of the question.  This is a tough schedule aside from JSU.  MTSU is expected to contend for the SBC title, and Houston can score points.

With a lucky break:  It all depends on how quickly the passing game comes together.  Thinking positively, 6-6 is within reach if MSU can knock off all their non-conference opponents, split with Vandy and Kentucky, and pick up one big upset.

Best Case Scenario:  I just don’t see any way for this team to win more than 8 games, and they should build a statue of Dan Mullen if it happens.  The trip to Starkville is dangerous for the Tide.  It’s hard to win in Little Rock, but the Dogs may catch Arkansas sleeping like the Hogs did LSU last year.  And you just never know what may happen in the Egg Bowl.  Winning two of those three – while almost incomprehensibly unlikely – would set the stage for a major upswing in Starkville.

Bold Prediction:  The Bulldogs knock off Florida, Alabama or Ole Miss this season.

Final Thought:  I’m a Dan Mullen believer.  This team is young and reminds me some of last season’s Arkansas team.  If MSU goes where I think they can get, the SEC West will be the best conference in the country on its own.

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | Comments Off on A New Attitude — 2009 Mississippi State Preview

Bulldogs Ready to Bite Back–2009 Georgia Previw

Posted by Adam Butler on July 28, 2009

 georgiaLOGO                       The University of Georgia spent the run-up to 2008 as the nationally presumed lead Dawgs in the hunt for the SEC Championship. Now, after a solid, but ultimately unfulfilling 10-3 campaign in 2008 in which its bark was a little worse than its bite, the Bulldogs are again sniffing for a trip to their backyard in Atlanta for the SEC championship game.
 
 But this time, after the early departures of number-one overall NFL draft pick Matthew Stafford and fellow-first-rounder, running back Knowshon Moreno, UGA will do so in an unfamiliar role–as underDawgs.

Senior quarterback Joe Cox (6’1 198) has patiently bided his time behind Stafford for most of the last three seasons, and his teammates and head coach, Mark Richt think he is up to the challenge.

Richt lauded Cox during SEC Media Days last week, noting that all but four of the 110 Bulldogs polled after spring practice tabbed Cox as the team’s leader.

“I think that was significant,“ Richt said. “He was the number one vote getter, if you want to call them votes…for a guy that hasn’t started but one game his entire career–that was about two or three years ago–I think that says a lot about what the guys think about Joe and what Joe has done in preparation for this moment.”

To be sure, Cox won’t be expected to replicate Stafford’s stats, which included a whopping 25 TDs and 3,459 passing yards in 2008. He will, however, be charged with spreading the ball around to the Bulldogs’ playmakers.

UGA’s biggest threat is 2008 1st Team AP All-SEC WR A.J. Green (6-4 207), who has the look of an eventual NFL star. As a freshman last year, he nabbed 56 catches for 963 yards and eight TDs.

Defenses will focus on Green, though, so Cox will need to be able to count on other targets like Senior Michael Moore (6-1 207) and redshirt freshman Tavarres King (6-1 178). Aron White (6-4 227) is tabbed as the starter at tight end. Two of his three career receptions have been TDs.

Richt expects a talented group of backs to hit the ground running and collectively replace Moreno, who piled up 2,736 career rushing yards and 30 TDs at Georgia.

The returning group of running backs includes sophomore Caleb King (5-11 210), Richard Samuel (6-2 216), Carlton Thomas (5-7 178) and Dontavious Jackson (5-10 200).

An All-American and number one player in the state of Georgia coming out of high school in Norcross in 2007, King has battled back from a leg injury (broken tibia) sustained during his senior year at Greater Atlanta Christian.

kingKing has paid his dues and should get the first shot to tote the note, but he will have to produce or lose carries to the other UGA running backs. In addition to the veterans, that group will also include much-heralded true freshman Washaun Ealey from Twin City, GA, who picked the home state Bulldogs early in the recruiting process  and will be looking to make an early impact.

Scholar athlete and fullback Shawn Chapas takes over for Brannen Southerland, who was one of the best in the country at the position a year ago. Chapas has greatly improved over his time at Georgia and has the skill set to lead the way for the game breakers and provide an outlet for Cox out of the backfield.

While outsiders see the loss of UGA’s go-to back, Moreno, as an issue, Richt thinks he has plenty of viable options in the backfield.

“I think I could probably blindly grab two or three of them, pick them up, and I would have confidence in whatever three I picked out, Richt said. “We will have success with them. Sometimes when you say no one has separated themselves from the pack, that’s bad if your pack isn’t very good. But if you have a pack of good ones, it’s hard to separate also because you have some pretty good guys around you…I think it’s more a situation of that than not having anybody outstanding. I think they’re all pretty outstanding.”mark-richt

Junior Clint Boling (6-5 297) has played up and down the line in his career, but he is slated to start the season as the left tackle. He is a steady, talented lineman that provides versatility and experience. Trinton Sturdivant started 13 games at left tackle in 2007, but missed all of 2008 and spring drills in 2009 after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his left knee.

Sturdivant is said to be ready for action in the fall, and if he is, Boling could slide over to right tackle, reopening the left tackle position for Sturdivant and giving the Bulldogs a formidable pair of bookends.

Massive Sophomore Cordy Glenn (6-5 330) was named Freshman All-SEC last year by the coaches, and he will vie for starting spot at right tackle, too, putting pressure on Sturdivant to quickly knock off any rust from his long layoff or risk losing snaps.

Sophomore Ben Jones (6-3 294) returns at center after making 10 starts earning Freshman All-SEC honors in 2008. Sophomore Tanner Strickland (6-5 328) and Junior Chris Davis (6-4 290) were set to battle for the left guard position, but Strickland sustained a shoulder injury during offseason workouts, and will miss the ’09 season. Sophomore Justin Anderson (6-5 328) is listed as the 1st-team right guard.

Vince Vance (6-8 325) is hoping that, as the only senior in the mix, his experience at a number of positions will allow him to earn snaps along a young, talented and crowded UGA offensive line. Junior Josh Davis (6-6 300) has battled injuries, but if he can stay healthy will add to the Bulldogs’ impressive offensive line depth.
 
Blair Walsh returns to handle the placekicking duties after converting on 15 of 23 field goal attempts and all 50 of his PATs. He nailed four field goals versus Tennessee a year ago on his way to earning Freshman All SEC honors from the league coaches. Drew Butler (6-2 202) will handle the punting duties.
 
Georgia gave up an uncharacteristically large number of points in its biggest games last year (41 vs. Bama, 38 vs. LSU, 49 vs. Fla. and 45 vs. Ga. Tech) , and will be looking to show the shaky defense was a hiccup, rather than a trend. Richt says his defense is ready to make amends, and should be strong up the middle–a practically mandatory trait of any true SEC contender.  “Overall, I like defensively the fact that we’re gonna be hungry, maybe hungrier than we’ve been in a long time,” Richt said. “I like the fact that we’re pretty stout up the gut.”

Senior defensive tackles Geno Atkins (6-1 290) and Jeff Owens (6-3 300) will start and rotate with Kade Weston (6-5 320) DeAngelo Tyson (6-2 294).

Junior Rennie Curran is not the prototypical linebacker, but his size, 5-11 222, belies his production (115 tackles in 2008 while earning 1st-Team All SEC Honors from the coaches). Akeem Dent (6-2 226) gets the nod at MLB and Darryl Gamble (6-2 250) brings some size to the strongside. Reshad Jones (6-2 214) is a beast at strong safety, and Richt trusts senior free safety Bryan Evans (5-11 190).

Junior strong safety Quintin Banks (6-2 213) is coming off of a knee injury and could provide depth, if healthy, while redshirt freshman Bacarri Rambo (6-0 208) looks like he will be a contributor even if he probably won’t have the opportunity to draw “First Blood’.

If the Bulldogs are susceptible to a repeat of last year‘s up-and-down performance, though, it is on the edges of both the line, and the secondary. Historically a glamour position on the UGA defense, defensive end is a spot at which the Bulldogs need a wrecker of havoc to emerge.

The potential candidates–Senior Roderick Battle (6-4 259), Junior Demarcus Dobbs (6-2 274), Sophomore Justin Houston (6-3 259) and Junior Junior Kiante Tripp (6-6 270) all have potential that has, as of yet, not been fully maximized.

Battle and Houston arguably have the most athleticism of the DEs, but both are anything but bankable producers because of nagging issues (Battle has frequently been injured and Houston is suspended for the first two games of the season).

If UGA can’t find any playmakers off the edge their smallish cornerbacks, Senior Prince Miller (5-8 198) and Sophomore Brandon Boykin (5-10 182) could pay the price. Sanders Commings (6-2 214) and Makiri Pugh (6-0 196) are bigger, but not necessarily better…yet.

The biggest concern of all, though, for the Bulldogs has to be their unforgiving schedule. They open the season on September 5th at Oklahoma State. The high-powered Cowboys will re-dedicate Boone-Pickens Stadium that night, and legions of orange-clad Okies will be lubed up and ready to make UGA’s opener a very difficult one.

Add out-of conference tilts with Arizona State (Sept. 26) and Georgia Tech (Nov. 28) to SEC clashes versus Florida (in Jacksonville), LSU (in Athens) and Tennessee (in Knoxville) and it’s easy to see why Richt thinks that, with their schedule and inexperience in the offensive backfield, the Bulldogs might have bitten off more than they can chew.

However, Cox and company welcome the challenge, and their newfound role as relative underDawgs. “I think (the offseason) really brought our team together,” Cox said. “With people telling you, ‘You won’t be as good’, you turn it around and use it on the field and in the lockerroom. When someone tells you that you can’t do something, it motivates you and you better yourself. We preached about that a lot this off season.”

Georgia Offense:

Returning starters: 7

Key Players: Joe Cox, QB, A.J. Green, WR, Caleb King, RB
 
 One to Watch: King

Georgia Defense:

Returning Starters: 7

Key Players: Rennie Curran, WLB, Geno Atkins, DT Brandon Boykin, CB
 
 One to Watch: Rodericke Battle, DE
   
Key Games: @ Okla St. Sept. 5, LSU Oct. 3, Fla (in Jacksonville) Oct. 31
 
   Schedule/Predicted Result

9/5 at Oklahoma St L
9/12 South Carolina W
9/19 at Arkansas W
9/26 Arizona State W
10/3 LSU L
10/10 at Tennessee W
10/17 at Vanderbilt W
10/24 OPEN DATE
10/31 Florida (Jack.) L
11/7 Tennessee Tech W
11/14 Auburn W
11/21 Kentucky W
11/28 at Georgia Tech W

  

Posted in SEC Preview, Sports | 2 Comments »

 
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