|Tyrann Mathieu and LSU will be looking to claim another SEC championship. (US Presswire)|
This SEC thing is getting ridiculous. Wonderful ... or boring. Frustrating and fantastic. All at once.
It kind of depends on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you pay taxes. You might have noticed lately that outside of the Southeast, the rest of the country's cut has been zero. No matter what you think of the conference's record six consecutive national championships, the achievement has become historic, if not monopolistic. And it doesn't look like the run is going to end anytime soon.
Parity is dead. Long live Mike Slive.
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The same LSU that was No. 1 for 11 weeks and won its first 13 games in 2011, will start No. 1 in CBSSports.com preseason poll. The shouldn't overshadow the fact that Alabama is completely capable of defending its national championship. Or that Arkansas arguably has its best team in 35 years. Or that East Division favorite Georgia held LSU without a first down in the first half of last year's SEC title game. Or that South Carolina is coming off a school-record 11 wins.
The league's monopoly has reached historic proportions. Among major pro sports, Boston Celtics have won more consecutive titles. But those were teams. Among the traditional revenue-producing college sports, only the Pac-8 in basketball (UCLA, seven in a row) has produced more consecutive championships. The second-longest run by an FBS (Division I-A) conference in the 76-year old wire-service era was also by the SEC. It won three in a row from 1978-80 (Alabama and Georgia).
Texas was the last school outside the SEC to win a national title. That was 2005. You have to go back to 2008 to find the last winner from outside the state of Alabama. That was Florida. Does that even count since the state touches Alabama?
How did we get here? Glad you asked ...
The BCS: The promise of an annual No. 1 vs. No. 2 game showcased the league's excellence. Prior to the BCS, the SEC champion would have been matched against a worthy opponent in the Sugar Bowl. But that worthy opponent wasn't necessarily the best opponent.
In the old system (pre-1998), bowls were pose downs for the voters in the AP and coaches' polls. As much as you might have hated it, the BCS was a huge boost for the SEC. It meant that league's best teams only had to finish in the top two to play for the national championship. Last season the SEC was the top two.
The monopoly was so entrenched that Alabama-LSU six months ago guaranteed the league both its eighth BCS title and first BCS title game loss.
No upsets: In this era of divisional play, the favorite in the SEC championship game has won most of the time. The last true upset in the game was 2001. No. 21 LSU beat No. 2 Tennessee. No upsets equals added momentum in the BCS polls and computers.
Home cookin’: There’s a reason Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany suggested during the playoff discussion that semifinals be played at campus sites. SEC teams not only play most of their non-conference games at home in the South where the climate and fans are friendly, that's where most of their bowls are located.
|Jadeveon Clowney returns as one of the best defensive linemen in the conference. (US Presswire)|
The voters and computers bought in: SEC programs are really good. We know that. But they get the benefit of the doubt from the two ranking metrics. You can understand the humans getting caught up in the hype. But computers?
LSU won the 2007 title despite losing twice, including giving up 50 in an overtime loss to Arkansas. A string of upsets played out allowing the Tigers to be one of the last two standing at the end. It remains the only team with two losses in the BCS era to win a championship.
The best defensive linemen stay home: If defense wins championships then the SEC wins because it keeps its best at home.
In 2011, SEC programs got three of the nation's top four defensive linemen, including two top 10 overall -- South Carolina'’s Jadeveon Clowney and Georgia's Ray Drew. Both are natives of the states whose schools they attend. After LSU, the Gamecocks and Bulldogs might have the best defenses this season in the SEC.
While the rest of the country messes with spread options and zone reads, the formula hasn't changed down South. The team that runs the ball and stops the run the best usually wins it.
That's a trend, not an anomaly. That's the SEC as it steamrolls over college football.
Jerry Hinnen's predicted order of finish:
1. Georgia: Why the ‘Dawgs at the top of the East for a second straight year, even after the dismissal of Isaiah Crowell and the early-season suspensions of three-quarters of the starting secondary? Let us count the ways: 1. A defense that finished fifth in the nation in yards allowed and returns nine starters including Jarvis Jones, a worthy challenger to LSU and Alabama as the SEC's best. 2. Aaron Murray, almost without question the best quarterback in the division. 3. A schedule without Alabama, Arkansas, or LSU for the second straight year. 4. More coaching stability than anywhere else in the league ... should we go on? Suffice it to say that if a green offensive line can hold its own, Georgia will be the team to beat.
2. South Carolina: If star wattage automatically equaled wins, the Gamecocks would have the East sewn up. Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney are the best set of defensive ends in the league, if not the country; Connor Shaw quietly became a legitimate dual-threat weapon at quarterback by the end of last season; linebacker Shaq Wilson and safety D.J. Swearinger are All-SEC candidates in the back seven; and Marcus Lattimore, of course, is a Heisman candidate if he's fully healthy. The problem -- aside from a schedule that sends them to Baton Rouge and Gainesville and still includes Arkansas -- is that aside from those stars, there's little to crow about at wideout, offensive line, and especially the defensive backfield, where the loss of Stephen Gilmore looms large. There's no question the Gamecocks are a threat, but can Lattimore, Clowney and Co. carry them all the way to Atlanta?
3. Florida: If you're the Devil and you've got a quarterback handy, now might be a good time to see how attached Will Muschamp really is to his soul. Because everything else should be in place for a huge Year 2 for the livewire head coach: an offensive line with four returning starters, including star tackle Xavier Nixon; in Jonathan Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, maybe the best linebacking tandem in the SEC; a defensive line chockful of blue-chips (Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley, Omar Hunter, and even Ronald Powell) that should be finally ready to make good on its ridiculous potential; and an offensive coordinator in Brent Pease that by all accounts knows Mike Gillislee exists. But for all of that, the Gators still won't figure in the East race without sizable step forward from which of Jeff Driskel or Jacoby Brissett wins the quarterbacking job.
4. Tennessee: If there's one other team in the division that might keep that top three awake at night, it's the Vols. In a league where points come at such a premium, keeping up with a revitalized, healthy trio of Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers, and Justin Hunter won't be easy--especially now that an offensive line that took more than its fair share of lumps as freshmen and sophomores is now almost entirely upperclassmen. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri won't lack for experience, either, with eight starters and injured inspirational linebacker Herman Lathers returning. But this is Derek Dooley's snakebitten tenure we're talking about, so all those positives could still amount to next-to-nothing, especially if the atrocious running game stays atrocious. We wouldn't want to face the Vols as an SEC favorite ... but we're not sure we'd want to be the Vols quite yet, either.
5. Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt? Yes, Vanderbilt, who could have won as many as eight or nine games a year ago and should be even better in 2012. The 'Dores averaged a full 32 points in the seven games after Jordan Rodgers was named the starter last year, and Rodgers still has the benefit of a seasoned line in front of him, 1,000-yard rusher Zac Stacy to hand off to, and both Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd to throw to. The defense is more of a question mark after losing several top players (corner Casey Hayward and linebacker Robert Marve most notably), but there's enough experience -- seven starters return -- that improvement is possible there, too. The bottom line is that James Franklin was able to take a 2-win team and turn them into a 6-win team in one year; with a second one under his belt, going from 6 wins to 7 or 8 should be entirely possible.
6. Missouri: As with Texas A&M, placing a team with an offense this well-coached and this potentially explosive this low risks making us look very, very foolish. And unlike the Aggies, the Tigers have the horses in corners E.J. Gaines and Kip Edwards to force some serious disruption of an opponent's passing game. Meanwhile, James Franklin and wideouts T.J. Moe and Dorial Green-Beckham promise to make their passing game one to be feared. But things don't look nearly as friendly on the ground, on either side of the ball; the loss of three multi-year starters on the line and the questionable status of tailback Henry Josey could cripple the running game, while a paper-thin defensive front could have major trouble with the East's largely-veteran offensive lines. Add in a cruel welcome-to-the-party league schedule in which the Tigers could be favored just twice, and their SEC introduction could be rough.
7. Kentucky: Positives? Well, Maxwell Smith should be much-improved as a sophomore quarterback, and at the very least can't give the Wildcats any less than what they got from the position in 2011. In tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph and end Collins Ukwu, the 'Cats have three defensive lineman that would start for most SEC teams. And hey, home games against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State give them two fighting chances to avoid a winless SEC season. But on paper, the negatives are overwhelming: this was a borderline pathetic offensive team a year ago -- vs. SEC teams other than Ole Miss, the 'Cats averaged 7.7 points per game -- that returns less experience in their defensive back seven than any other team in the league. The countdown to basketball season might as well have already begun.
1. LSU: For the Tigers, it really all comes down to one question: have they moved on? Because if January's searing 21-0 embarrassment in the BCS title game is truly in LSU's rearview mirror, there's no reason this team can't finish the job this year. With Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery, and Co., they have the nation's most disruptive defensive line; with Eric Reid, Tyrann Mathieu, and friends, they have the nation's best secondary of ballhawks; in Kenny Hillard, Spencer Ware, and more, they have the nation's deepest stable of bruising tailbacks. A veteran offensive line, surehanded receiving corps, and -- finally -- a quarterback in Zach Mettenberger who Steve Kragthorpe can gameplan for rather than around is all just the icing on what ought to be a championship cake. But the BCS championship-defeat hangover has claimed plenty of fine teams over the years; if Les Miles can maneuver his team out of that headache, there won't be anything else to stop them.
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2. Alabama: It's easy to look at the players the Tide lost after 2011 -- Richardson, Hightower, Upshaw, Barron, Kirkpatrick, Chapman, etc. -- and how many games they lost after their last crystal football in 2009, and assume another two- or even three-loss season is on its way. But that ignores that what the Tide haven't lost this go-round far outweighs what was left in 2010. Start on the offensive line, where (left to right) Cyrus Kouandjio, Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones, Anthony Steen, and D.J. Fluker have the potential to go down as one the SEC's all-time dominant units. No, there doesn't appear to be a gamebreaking wide receiver and the starting tailback won't go to the Heisman ceremony again, but when you have a line like that one and the ever-steady AJ McCarron under center, does it make any difference? And the defense is, as always, bursting with potential breakout stars--nose tackle Jesse Williams, pass-rusher Adrian Hubbard, linebacker C.J. Mosley, corner Dee Milliner, etc. A victory in Baton Rouge would bring a third BCS title in four years directly within reach.
3. Arkansas: The offseason in Fayetteville has been just a bit tumultuous, but don't expect that to affect the Razorback offense: with Tyler Wilson taking snaps, a rejuvenated Knile Davis taking handoffs, Cobi Hamilton going deep, Alvin Bailey and Jason Peacock still plowing defenders on the line, and a Petrino still calling plays -- that would be Bobby's brother Paul -- this should still be the SEC's most dangerous offense, hands-down. Which means the Hogs' SEC chances will rest in the hands of new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, who takes over an underachieving unit that loses arguably its four best players. Even an average SEC defense would be enough to put the Hogs in the title race, but we'll believe that -- or a division title -- when we see it.
4. Auburn: Gene Chizik launched a total overhaul of the Tigers' traditional defense-first philosophy when he hired Gus Malzahn in 2009, but with Malzahn and his go-for-broke schemes off to the Sun Belt, Chizik has now launched a total overhaul back in the opposite direction. With the offense promising to be a run-heavy, buttoned-down affair designed to protect sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frazier -- similar to the attack new coordinator Scot Loeffler oversaw at Temple -- it's the defense that will now have to do the heavy lifting for the Tigers. And before you laugh, consider that it should be one of the FBS's most improved: new coordinator Brian Van Gorder has an impeccable track record at the college level, All-SEC end Corey Lemonier is one of several talented building blocks, and experience won't be an issue with 19 of 22 players on the 2011 two-deep returning. If Loeffler can coax any consistency from the offense, the Tigers will be dangerous.
5. Mississippi State: Is this the year Dan Mullen finally beats an SEC West team not named "Ole Miss"? With home dates vs. Auburn, Texas A&M, and Arkansas, you'd think so, but it's going to take a bounce-back year for an offense that surprisingly fell more than 40 spots in the FBS total yardage rankings in 2011. Having Tyler Russell firmly established as the quarterback and fielding a veteran receiving corps will help; losing three of the offensive line's best four players and leading rusher Vick Ballard won't. But even if the offense treads water, the record should improve thanks to Mullen's stoutest defense yet, one with All-SEC candidates -- tackle Josh Boyd, linebacker Cameron Lawrence, and corner Johnthan Banks -- at every level. If the Bulldogs take advantage of their make-or-break home slate, their highest division finish since the days of Jackie Sherrill could be in play.
6. Texas A&M: We can hear the gripes from here, Aggie fans, but we won't really be much surprised if A&M finishes two or even three spots higher than this. If likely new quarterback Jameill Showers can seize command of the offense -- and when has a Kevin Sumlin quarterback struggled? -- the Aggies have both the skill weapons (receiver Ryan Swope, tailback Christine Michael) and the beef up front (tackles Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel) to challenge Arkansas as the league's most explosive offense. But oy, that defense: 35.1 points per-game allowed to non-Kansas BCS foes in 2011, five key starters and coordinator Tim DeRuyter now gone, a scheme change to the 4-3 to undergo, and a new up-tempo offense that won't do its D any favors. On paper, it shapes up as the sixth-best defense in the West ... and that's why we've got them at No. 6.
7. Ole Miss: The brutal, hideous fact for the Rebels is that they went 5-3 and 4-4 in the SEC 2008 and 2009 ... and in the other six seasons since their 10-win 2003 campaign, their league record is a combined 7-31. It's hard to see things improving much this season, either, with Hugh Freeze revamping a team with few stars on either side of the ball, off-field academic and leadership issues, and an average 174 yard-per-SEC-game deficit last season. But we're not expecting Ole Miss to go winless in the league again, either--there's home games vs. Vandy, Mississippi St., Auburn and A&M to raise hopes, and the combination of Freeze's aerial X's and O's with a solid set of receivers (including super sophomore Donte Moncrief) should yield enough points to win one of those at least. But past that? We can't make any promises.