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Football Predictions: A Second Slice
Tier 1: Georgia; Florida; LSU; Auburn
The worst thing about being a national contender in the SEC is the punishing schedule. The best thing about it is the same thing. It's nigh–impossible to go unbeaten in SEC play, but everything body knows that, which why Georgia starts out ranked no.1 even though nobody expects them to run the table. While USC and Ohio State don't play conference title games, they don't have the opportunity for final–week redemption the way the winner of the SEC does. So the question may not be 'are the Bulldogs unbeatable', but 'are the Bulldogs hold our attention when the first loss comes?'. It starts with Knowshon Moreno, a sophomore runner who burst onto the scene with 1,334 yards and 14 scores last season. He will be the focal point of the offense, and if things start to roll, a Heisman campaign that will keep Georgia in the spotlight even when somebody trips them up for a moment. QB Matthew Stafford won't get the same headlines, but he's a leader of an offense that will utilize of lot of sophomore talent that saw action as freshmen. The defense is also talent–laden, especially the back seven, which will hold off teams looking to fight back against a high–scoring offense that score 35+ points eight times in 2007. Georgia should get to 7–0, with troublesome Tennessee and Alabama both visiting, before it gets really tough: away to LSU, Florida in Jacksonville, and away to Auburn. If the Bulldogs are going to win the national championship, they're going to have to do it the hardest way possible ...just like Florida and LSU did.
Georgia don't even get out of their own division without a major challenger. Florida have a flashy receiver Percy Harvin, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow (responsible for 55 combined TDs last season), and will probably plug in Emmanuel Moody as their main runner. The line will have four experienced members. Defensively, the Gators are hoping for some potential starts to break through such as soph DE Carlos Dunlap, JuCo DT Troy Epps, freshman DT Omar Hunter. If they all break through together, LB Brandon Spikes will be the centerpiece of an erupting volcano of pass pressure. The non–conference schedule isn't as bad as it could have been: Hawaii, Miami and Florida State won't be setting high water marks for their programs in 2008.
Matt Flynn has graduated. Ryan Perrilloux was dismissed from the team. Potential starter Jarrett Lee was limping a couple of weeks ago. If LSU Coach Les Miles hasn't made any long–term commitment at starting QB, maybe he's trying not to jinx anything. LSU lost RB Jacob Hester, WR Early Doucet, DT Glenn Dorsey, and CB Chevis Jackson amongst others, returning only 9 starters on both sides of the ball. And yet, the Tigers are favored to repeat as West Division champions because four of those returnees are on the offensive line, and the defensive line will reform almost as dominant without Dorsey. LSU will simply beat up opponents in the trenches. LSU may not be the best in the SEC this year, but they can still sneak the West. Key game: at Auburn, September 20.
Auburn will give LSU a serious rival in the West. Like LSU, the have a returning line (in this case all of it), like LSU they have a sophomore RB in Mario Fannin, and like LSU they have been slow in picking their starting QB. So slow, in fact that it will be a game time decision whether to go with Chris Todd or Kodi Burns. Also like LSU, their defense will soak up opponents, but the edge goes to LSU because while Auburn must replace Quentin Groves, Josh Thompson and Pat Sims on the defensive line. The talent is there to do so, but they need to have everybody in sync when LSU comes knocking September 20. However, everybody should be wary of Auburn: they are perfectly placed, if not to go after the National Championship themselves, to trip up LSU, Georgia or both. And in Wes Byrum they have the kicker to win the close ones.
West, Tier 2: Alabama; Mississippi State
Alabama will have a great offensive line again, meaning RB Terry Grant's near–900 yards and * TDs from a year ago will increase. The Crimson Tide also want to see how much more they can get out of senior passer John Parker Wilson, who had a TD–Ints ratio of 18:12 last season. However, Wilson may find himself breaking some rookies at receiver, albeit fine ones. The defense will ball–hawk as much as defend, in part because that's what they're good at and in part because some leading tacklers graduated from the front seven. The season will be upon them quicker than they would like, with Clemson to open the non–conference, and road trips to Arkansas and Georgia to open SEC play. They also visit Tennessee and LSU, so a winning record might be hard to come by.
What a job Sylvester Croom did with Mississippi State last year. For three years the record didn't reflect the work that had been going on, as the SEC's favorite doormat team continued to win 3 games each season. But everybody felt change was coming. Last year the Bulldogs won 8 games, including a bowl victory over Central Florida. Now comes a certain amount of retooling is needed after most of the offense graduated, and this could underline just how much Croom has changed things at MSU: this will be more a case of reloading than rebuilding. The backup linemen have experience, so there will be little drop–off there. Seniors will step in for departed receivers, and freshman RB Robert Elliott will start to work in with Anthony Dixon for the future. The defense is more of less intact, however, with an intact secondary featuring explosive DB/returner Derek Pegues. The Bulldogs may slip a little in 2008, but it's credible that they could go bowling for a second year.
Tier 3: Arkansas; Ole Miss
Arkansas went 8–5 last season without Bobby Petrino offense. He should improve their passing game dramatically, but the record will suffer initially because the Razorbacks lose two first round runningbacks in Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, who worth 27 touchdowns and almost 3000 yards on the ground alone. Petrino will put the ball in QB Casey Dick's hands, rely on some good linemen, and get through as best he can. But if it comes to a shoot–out, it's doubtful Arkansas will be on the winning side in 2008.
Ole Miss won no games in the SEC last season, and Houston Nutt arrives to try and turn things around. While the defense may take a while, but the first signs will be seen on the line, where DT Ted Laurent could break out if July knee surgery doesn't hamper him. But if you're Rebels fan reading this review, all you really want to hear about is Jevan Snead. The ex–Texas QB will be thrown straight in, and will be helped by receivers Mike Wallace and Shay Hodge, as well as tackle Michael Oher. Freshman runner Enrique Davis was Mississippi's top recruit and should also flash some of his speed. This year's schedule suggests next year may be the year when it all comes together.
East, Tier 2: Tennessee
The Tennessee statistic to hang onto is that they allowed four sacks all season. With QB Erik Ainge gone, that line (well, four parts of it, right guard being the only change) will allow Jonathan Crompton to take over a role he has been backing up for two seasons. Running back Arian Foster's return also aids the transition. Foster had over 1500 combined yards last season and 14 scores. The Vols go into this year with an excellent and experienced secondary which will encourage some coverage sacks for a line that might not be exemplary. Tennessee won't be in the divisional hunt this year, but they've beaten Georgia the past two years, so the contenders better treat them with respect.
Tier 3: South Carolina
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier gets excited about quarterbacks, and with the season approaching, he's been starting to smile about Tommy Beecher, whose Gamecock career to date has been 25 passes. Beecher isn't as athletically talented as freshman Stephen Garcia, but he starting to 'get it', to understand the offense. If Beecher can make his reads and find the likes of WR Kenny McKinley (970 yards, 9 TDs year) and TE Jared Cook (420 yards, 3 TDs), without turnovers, that'll put the game in the hands of a defense that destroys opposing pass attacks. If they can get better against the run — and they will — South Carolina's bowl–missing 6–6 record from last year will move up a notch.
Tier 4: Kentucky; Vanderbilt
Kentucky's offense is under reconstruction. The leading receivers left, as did QB Andre Woodson, who lobbed 40 scores last year. Curtis Pulley was projected to succeed him, but he was dismissed from the team leaving Matt Hartline as the man despite just 6 passes last season. Leading rusher Rafael Little also graduated, but the next three leading rushers are back and had almost 1100 yards and 11 TDs between them when Little wasn't on the field. If the defense can play well enough that running game could project to 2000 yards and Kentucky will stay close in games. Close, but not close enough.
Vanderbilt has defense. Cornerbacks Myron Lewis and DJ Moore, and safeties Reshard Langford and Ryan Hamilton make for an impressive secondary. But when it comes to throwing the ball themselves, Vanderbilt switched between Chris Nickson and Mackenzi Adams, and the depth chart still wasn't clear with days to go before kickoff. They combined for 15 TD and 11 picks a year ago. The running game barely managed a 500–yard rusher last season, and top receiver Earl Bennett departed.