By Marc Lawrence
“They ought to just rename the system, BC SEC.”
Those are the prophetic words from Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. After all, “the SEC is now 7-0 in BCS title games. The conference has won more than half of the 13 BCS championships games,” said Dodd.
We couldn’t agree more.
Winning five national titles in a row and six of the last eight, the SEC might have padded the numbers even more had Auburn caught a break in 2004.
There is so much gridiron talent in this league its no surprise that, since 2006, the SEC has more players on NFL rosters than any other. A total of 45 first-round selections (nine this year have landed in the NFL the last six years, including the No. 1 overall pick of the draft each of the last three, cements their case.
So while saddling up with an SEC team to make it the BCS title game would appear to be the high percentage play, the tougher this year is question is ‘who’.
Five different teams have captured the SEC championship game the last seven years, with only Florida winning twice. Last year’s national champ, Auburn, will suffer from a depleted roster and the onus of being targeted in every contest this season.
Alabama is perched to reclaim the title but will have to do so minus the services of Heisman Trophy running back (Mark Ingram) and its national champion quarterback (Greg McElroy).
And then there’s LSU. Deeply talented as always, hoping its freewheeling coach doesn’t short-circuit its chances.
This is the SEC’s world. We just live in it.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2011 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
East Division FLORIDA - *7 / 5
TEAM THEME: URBAN BAILOUT
The not-so-shocking news out of Gainesville was the early departure of HC Urban Meyer who resigned with a 65-15 record and two national titles. Enter Will Muschamp, the former Texas DC whose first task will be to shore up a defense that slipped 55 yards and nine points per game last season. Not to mention an offense that declined over 100 YPG in its first season sans his holiness, Tim Tebow. Muschamp brings along offensive guru Charlie Weis to work his magic but complicating matters was the dismissal of CB Janoris Jenkins, a sure-fire NFL shutdown corner, who was released from the team for repeated marijuana violations. Once again, probably no shock to Meyer. Stat You Will Like: The Gators played 31 freshmen last season, the most in the nation. PLAY ON: vs. Alabama (10/1) *KEY as dog
GEORGIA - *5 / 7
TEAM THEME: SLEEPING DAWGS
On the heels of its first losing season in 14 years, and first in the Mark Richt regime, the Bulldogs have their work cut out for them this year. Six players were lost to the NFL draft, including star WR A.J. Green. Also adding to the dilemma was the requested release of RB Washaun Ealey this spring. That puts the overland onus on Caleb King, who missed last year’s Liberty Bowl for academic reasons. The air attack is once again in the capable hands of QB Aaron Murray, who led all freshman passers in TD/INT ratio (24/8). With Richt on the hot seat for the first time in his career, look for a ‘MISSION YEAR’ effort from the Dawgs in 2011. Stat You Will Like: Georgia is 6-1 ATS with triple-revenge exact. PLAY ON: as dogs vs. Florida (10/29)
KENTUCKY – 6 / 9
TEAM THEME: DEEP SIX
If you’re into devil worship or like rolling boxcars on the dice table, then this is the team for you with Joker Phillips leading a squad that appears pitchfork deep in sixes. A quick scan of Kentucky’s 4-Year Statistical Review says it all – the Wildcats have gone 6-6 ATS each of the past four seasons, losing an average of six games on the SU scoreboard. And if that’s not enough, the ‘Cats will take on just six teams that ended 2010 with winning records as they shoot for a school-record sixth consecutive bowl appearance. Satanic curses aside, the fact of the matter is UK improved its offense 97 YPG in Phillips’ rookie season. With eight home games on the slate, the Devil may just have us rolling the dice with this bunch. Stat You Will Like: New starting QB Morgan Newton has started nine games for the Wildcats the last two seasons, including both the Music City and Papa Johns.com bowl games. PLAY ON: vs. Mississippi (11/5)
TEAM THEME: MORE LATTIMORE, LESS ATTITUDE.
Like last year, the Gamecocks will tackle 10 foes this campaign that were bowl teams last season, including nine in their first 10 games. And like 2010, HC Steve Spurrier has had his fill of troubled QB Stephen Garcia’s attitude and off-field antics. “We won’t throw a lot, anyway, as long as Marcus (Lattimore) is back there,” insisted Spurrier. Lattimore, the National Freshman of the Year (1,197 yards, 17 TD’s) bulked up in the off-season to 230 lbs. “I know what’s coming and I want to be durable,” said Lattimore. In addition, seven of the 10 players who started every game last season return to Columbia in 2011. Despite the rugged schedule, in the end, we’ll continue to ride these ‘Cocks. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Stat You Will Like: In an ‘Orange Crush’ last season, Carolina beat Clemson, Florida and Tennessee for the first time in the same season in school history. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Auburn (10/1)
TENNESSEE - *7 / 6
TEAM THEME: ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOME
The Vols salvaged Derek Dooley’s first year in Knoxville when they rallied to win their final four games of the regular season and garner a bid to the Music City Bowl. We won’t look back and discount the fact that the teams Tennessee beat in the process were a combined 13-27. Nor will we focus on the teams (a collective 50-23 at season’s end) that they lost to. Instead, we’ll look ahead. Make no mistake about it, Dooley knows the task at hand. “I grew up in this conference. I grew up in the SEC,” says Dooley. Key returnees include QB Tyler Brady, who started all four of the season-ending victories. Eight home games should find Dooley feeling right at home. Stat You Will Like: Dooley is 5-1-1 ATS as a conference home dog. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. South Carolina (10/29)
VANDERBILT - *11 / 8
Team Theme: FRANKLIN SPEAKING
Two coaches in two years with 2-10 SU records each found the Commodores abandoning temp services and hiring a full-time coach during the off-season. Enter James Franklin, most recently an OC at Maryland, who ranked near the top of every assistant-coach-for-hire wish list. He prepped Josh Freeman at Kansas State and will work with QB Larry Smith at Nashville (Smith played in 11 games last season). “We plan to become a team with a positive attitude and a team that competes in everything we do,” insists Franklin. With 19 returning starters – including the entire offensive line – back in 2011, those words may carry some serious weight this year. Stat You Will Like: Vandy is 11-77 SU vs. .666 or greater opponents during the regular season since 1992, including 0-10 the last 10. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Wake Forest (11/26)
ALABAMA – 7 / 9
TEAM THEME: A FIGHTING CHANCE
Unlike last season when the then defending champion Tide was forced to perform against seven foes that all enjoyed the benefit of an extra week of rest (4-3 SU, 2-4 ATS), the Crimson crew will face that scenario just three times in 2011. The trade-off, though, is they’ll be doing it without QB Greg McElroy and four players who were swooped up in the first round of the NFL draft. However, with Alabama owning the No. 1 ranked defense over the past seven years (276.9 DYPG), there’s no need to shed any Tuscaloosa tears. The ‘Nictators’ streak of never having suffered a losing season on the college gridiron appears safe for another year. Stat You Will Like: Head coach Nick Saban is 17-0 SU and 12-5 ATS vs. sub .500 SEC opponents. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Tennessee (10/22)
TEAM THEME: HOG TIED
A victory over Ohio State in last year’s Sugar Bowl would have matched the most wins in a season in Arkansas history. Despite the loss, there’s no reason to sling mud at that 10-win edition. Especially considering Petrino’s Porkers faced the second toughest schedule in the nation. It won’t get much easier this season as the Hogs will tackle eight bowlers – only this time sans Ryan Mallett. While new QB Tyler Wilson will have big shoes to fill, he will benefit by the return of the squad’s top four RB’s (3,450 yards, 37 TD’s) and top three WR’s (375 catches, 50 TD’s). The Razorbacks are also the only team in the SEC with no coaching changes. Stat You Will Like: Head coach Bobby Petrino is 36-6 SU and 28-10-1 ATS at home in his college career. PLAY ON: vs. Auburn (10/8) *KEY off BB losses
TEAM THEME: CAM SHAFT
With the departure of Heisman Trophy winner and top overall pick QB Cam Newton, along with fellow first-rounder DT Nick Fairley and four starting offensive linemen, it appears the Tigers have lost much of their roar. Add to that the bulls-eye that’s painted on their backs, as well as five tough roadies, and the student body may just be hanging around ‘Doomer’s Corner’ this fall. With only three starters returning on each side of the ball and eight bowl teams lining this season’s schedule, we’re certainly going to learn a little more about Gene Chizik’s coaching prowess. Like Cam, more times than not we may end up giving him the shaft. Stat You Will Like: HC Gene Chizik is 8-0 ATS versus a conference foe with revenge. PLAY AGAINST: at Clemson (9/17)
LSU - *8 / 7
TEAM THEME: ROLLING THE BONES
As one might expect, Les Miles was ever the riverboat gambler last season when his team led the nation in 4th-down percentage (11 of 12 for 92%). Not coincidentally, the Tigers were a confident 5-0 in games decided by six points or less. Miles will roll the dice this season with new OC Steve Kragthorpe, former Tulsa and beleaguered Louisville head coach, brought in to work with equally maligned QB Jordan Jefferson. A starter since his freshman season, Jefferson has struggled (No. 92 in pass efficiency) despite some improvement from the Tigers’ offense in 2010. The loss of star CB Patrick Peterson will likely have an impact early on. Stat You Will Like: LSU is 44-4 in night games and 18-13 in day games with Miles. PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Florida (10/8)
MISSISSIPPI – 9 / 5
TEAM THEME: INFUSION
Houston Nutt was not a happy camper last season. Not after watching a pair of nine-win seasons go down the drain with a four-win effort in 2010. As a result, he hit the highway hard and reeled in the best recruiting class in a long time at Ole Miss. “We got the best athletes in Mississippi. It was an excellent class,” beamed Nutt. Headed to Oxford this season will be 22 heralded freshmen plus six JUCO transfers. Also on board is new offensive coordinator David Lee, QB coach with the Miami Dolphins last season. More importantly, the entire offensive line returns in tact, paving the way for all-SEC RB Brandon Bolden (2,132 career rushing yards). Stat You Will Like: Nutt is 15-3 ATS as a dog of 11 or more points, including 7-0 ATS off a win. PLAY ON: at Vanderbilt (9/17)
MISSISSIPPI STATE - *8 / 7
TEAM THEME: JUST MULLEN AROUND
A 1-2 start to last season did not deter Dan Mullen from his mission, getting the Bulldogs back to a bowl game. A 7-2 finish accomplished the feat as MSU went on to whip Michigan, 52-14, in the Capital One Bowl in what proved to be the most lopsided bowl result for both teams in school history. Thus, it’s safe to say the Bulldogs have turned the corner in the Mullen era, thanks to an offense that continues to improve by leaps and bounds. Multi-dimensional QB Chris Relf (1,776 passing yards, 701 rushing yards) is back for his senior season as is top RB Vic Ballard and leading WR Chad Bumphis. Look for the Bulldogs to take an even bigger bite out of SEC foes (4-4 SU in 2010) this season. Stat You Will Like: Mullen is 13-1 SU and 10-2 ATS vs. sub .750 opponents. PLAY ON: at Arkansas (11/19)