With the 2009 recruiting season now mercifully over (although 2010 has apparently already started) I think it's fair to take a look at what the SEC should look like this fall. I say should because last year we all (me included) desperately overrated Georgia, a high-power team of great athletes that wound up flopping in the regular season because of a relative softness against teams that smacked them in the mouth (not to mention a defense that was never better than "OK" all season). Factoring in a) what we learned from Signing Day (obviously this is assuming these signees largely pan out, as they usually do) and b) each team's schedule this fall, here's one man's opinion of this fall in SEC football.
6. Vanderbilt: If we learned nothing else from Mississippi State in 2008, we learned that you can only get by on smoke & mirrors for so long. Vanderbilt was outscored and outgained badly for the season, and yet somehow got a break or two -- Ole Miss fumbling on the goal line, Auburn falling apart for no discernible reason -- and sneaked into a bowl game (which they somehow won in a moment of perfect synergy). How long can you get by like that? I say, not more than a season.
5. Tennessee: Is it possible Lane Kiffin is the Manchurian candidate? Forget about his diarrhea of the mouth, or his insanely hot wife: what evidence do we have that he's actually any good as a coach? Here's his career track record: one season as offensive coordinator at USC, and two lousy seasons as head oach of the Oakland Raiders. Even Barack Obama thinks the kid could use a few hours of work before being thrown into the SEC.
Sooo ... really the only thing we know about him is that the completely insane and senile Al Davis was crazy enough to give him a head coaching job he hadn't earned, then realized he'd made a mistake sometime early in his second season. Throw in the fact that Tennessee is -- as we've seen -- a team of complete quitters and they're absolutely getting pummeled in Week 3 at Florida -- which could derail the entire season -- and I'm not holding out much hope for this fall in Knoxville.
4. Kentucky: Florida, 'Bama, at South Carolina, at Auburn. That's UK's opening SEC quartet. Thank you and please drive through.
3. Georgia: Nothing went right for the 'Dogs this offseason: their two best offensive players went to the pros and Willie Martinez is still somehow employed in Athens. Why is this terrible news for Georgia fans? Well, that opening-week trip to Stillwater to play Oklahoma St. -- only one of the best offensive teams in the country in '08 -- isn't encouraging. And the next week you're at home against South Carolina. Just saying.
2. South Carolina: I know, I know -- we keep rooting for something to happen with Spurrier at Carolina, and there's no evidence whatsoever it will happen. Just hear me out: we know Georgia will be finding its way early in the season, and the Gamecocks get them in Week 2 in Athens (where they won two years ago and have an impressive track record). So ... what happens if they win that one? Their next four weeks are Fla. Atlantic, Ole Miss, Citadel, Kentucky, all at home, before they travel to Alabama. Couldn't South Carolina conceivably be undefeated coming to Tuscaloosa? And even if they lose there, their next three are Vandy, Tennessee, Arkansas, before HOSTING Florida. Why couldn't that Florida game wind up the division championship? Tell me why this can't happen.
1. Florida: Put it this way: the day Stafford and Moreno officially declared for the NFL draft, Florida should've put SEC Championship Game tickets on sale for 2009.
6. Arkansas: Very quietly, Bobby Petrino did very well in recruiting this season. His team performed well enough in '08 -- despite being totally unequipped to run the system he wanted -- that you could see them making a run in 2009. And if they didn't have to go TO 'Bama, TO Florida, TO Ole Miss, I'd like their chances better.
5. Mississippi St.: Dan Mullen is a fantastic coach, and the thought of him helming a State team that wasn't all that bad in '08 -- statistically, really no worse than the '07 team that won the Liberty Bowl was -- is terrifying. Terrifying.
4. Auburn: This Auburn team wasn't as bad as you probably think they were, either -- they were about a dozen plays away from beating LSU, beating Vandy, beating Arkansas and beating West Virginia. So just assume they're just as good on defense, and everybody moves on the same page offensively. That's a pretty scary team, no?
They're going to have to prove themselves quickly, however: their first four are La. Tech (bowl bid last year); the aforementioned Miss. St.; West Virginia (no Pat White, but still); and Ball St. (yikes). So we'll know something soon.
(By the way, can you tell I've found reasons to like everybody in the West so far?)
3. LSU: Two things, in my mind, contributed to LSU's downfall last season: 1. a defense that wasn't nearly as tough as it should've been; 2. an offense that got way too cute in too many big spots, instead of just pounding its running game straight ahead and taking the pressure off its QBs (which ultimately killed them). #2 appeared to have been solved in the Peac ... er, Chik-Fil-A Bowl: LSU destroyed a decent Ga. Tech team with its oversized OL and won 41-3. As for #1 ... well, the new recruits should help. But I can't help but wonder if maybe Les Miles just isn't in the same class as some other coaches when it comes to managing a game. Maybe it's just me.
2. Ole Miss: Almost nothing that happened with the Rebs in the first season of Houston Nutt's tenure surprised me: not the wins at Florida or LSU, or the ghastly losses at home to Vanderbilt and South Carolina. That's the Nutt way of doing things: weird stuff happens when he's around. If proper form holds -- and it probably won't, but bear with me -- they should be undefeated going into October. And that's when it gets fun.
1. Alabama: Believe me, I take no pleasure in this. There are, to be fair, a number of questions to answer: how to replace the loss of some very valuable departures, particuarly at quarterback and left tackle; how the team will react when they're the targets and not the hunters; how we'll make it through the summer without another Tron incident.
I see this team being upset in Week 1 in Atlanta against Va. Tech. I see them mucking through the next two weeks against lesser opponents. I see them surviving at home against Arkansas, then slowly coming together at Kentucky. As the season progresses and the coaching takes hold, I see them starting to quietly put together another run.
By season's end, I see them back in Atlanta.
That's just the way I see it.