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Big 12 College Football Preview

Few conferences in the NCAA have as many various and interesting storylines as the Big Twelve conference. Only three years removed as the most dominant conference in football, Oklahoma stepped aside for Texas, and then the league became surprisingly mortal with long time powerhouses in the North falling to the basement.

Can Hawkins resurrect an atrocious Colorado team? Will Texas claim the South? Can Gene Chizik, one of the hottest assistant coaches in football, and a signing coup for Iowa State, do the impossible and make the Cyclones consistently relevant? Can anyone here claim a national title? These are just a few of many story lines that the Big Twelve offers this year.

The North Division:

Nebraska: Finished 1st North, projected 1st in the North

This isn’t the Nebraska teams of old, not even close, but the transfer of QB Sam Keller from Arizona State has to seem like a godsend to coach Bill Callahan. This Nebraska team returns six starters on offense and five on defense, losing a lot of NFL caliber talent. The good news is that they are in the North, and though the Big 12 North will eventually become strong and relevant again—it’s not going to happen this year. With a solid offensive line and more recruits coming in designed for the West Coast offense, this is a team that is growing into itself and will do good enough to get to the Big 12 title game, where whoever wins the south will destroy them.

Missouri: Finished T-2nd North, projected 2nd in the North

Missouri has one of the two best quarterbacks in the Big 12 with Chase Daniel. Even better, seven other starters return to a solid offense that should be able to make the step to dominant this season. There are only five returning starters from a defensive unit that was this team’s strength last year, and some new players will have to step it up if Missouri is going to have a chance at the North. With an experienced offense and deep pool of talent, Missouri has the ability to beat Nebraska out for the Big 12 North, and they don’t have to play Texas. The biggest issue will be playing focused and not losing games they should have won easily (hello Texas A&M and Iowa State).

Kansas: Finished 4th North, projected 3rd in the North

Kansas now finds itself where ISU was a few years ago: after many close losses can they learn to close the deal, or will they fall apart and have to start from scratch? Despite going 7-5, Kansas did not receive a bowl bid because of its 3-5 division record. Returning seven offensive starters will help to keep chemistry, and few teams consistently stop the run better than Kansas. They were two overtime losses away from being 9-3, and two other losses were by a combined four points. They have talent, but this is the best opportunity they have to make the leap.

Kansas State: Finished T-2nd North, projected 4th in the North

They were killed by a much better Rutgers team in a bowl, but no one can deny that last season was far beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When everyone expects a losing record and you go 7-5 with a freshman quarterback and a huge upset win over Texas, that’s a great first season by anybody’s expectations. With a plethora of returning starters on both sides of the ball, Kansas State appears more talented, but with non conference games against Auburn and Fresno State, they will need quarterback Josh Freeman to continue to improve and carry the team in order to get back into a bowl. The key game may be against a resurgent Iowa State team: if they’re fighting for a bowl that game may decide who sneaks into a bowl and who goes home.

Iowa State: Finished 6th North, projected 5th in the North

Gene Chizik was defensive coordinator at Texas during their national title run, and was defensive coordinator at an undefeated Auburn team before that. No one gave the Cyclones a chance to land one of the hottest assistants in the country, but they managed it and opened up the checkbook for Chizik to hand pick the coaches he wanted. Despite a late start on recruiting, they landed a JUCO heavy class. Everyone expected this offense to put up points, but it didn’t, and a usually strong defense was one of the worst in school history. But there is talent here with QB Brett Meyer and plenty of talent at wide receiver. With a new spread offense, and Chizik’s defensive mind, can ISU go from four wins to six and get a critical bowl bid? With a weak non-conference schedule (they should go 3-1 if they lose to Iowa, 4-0 with the upset), a coach who knows how to put together a defense, and some truly great wide receivers, six wins does not seem far away if this team can learn the new systems quickly and play to full potential. The early game against Iowa will be the measuring stick for this team, who will be very close to six wins, and sharply improved either way.

Colorado: Finished 5th North, projected 6th in the North

When Dan Hawkins arrived from Boise State, everyone expected Colorado to immediately become a contender and an offensive juggernaut. Didn’t quite work out that way, though there are signs of hope. The defense was surprisingly good, and they did manage four wins, including an upset of Texas Tech. Despite good recruiting classes, there’s no reason to believe the offense will be much better this year, and Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State have all shown reason to believe they will improve by large strides, Colorado hasn’t.

In the South:

Texas: Finished 2nd South, projected 1st South

Quarterback Colt McCoy is the best QB in the Big 12, and it won’t be much longer before you see him in the NFL. For now, if he can stay healthy, he’ll continue to improve and will help a strong Texas squad reclaim the Big 12 South from a strong Oklahoma team still smarting from the Boise State loss. The loss of Gene Chizik to ISU hurts, but Mac Brown has a great recruiting class and few teams in the nation have more depth than Texas. Expect them to win the South and take a good shot at the national title if they can run the table.

Oklahoma: Finished 1st South, projected 2nd South

Oklahoma suffered through some growing pains, but by the end of the season they were clicking and played well enough to unseat Texas and take back their Big 12 South title. With eight returning starters on offense, a strong stable of running backs, and a monster offensive line, this team will score regardless of who is starting at quarterback. Defense maybe more of a concern as only four starters return, three of whom are in the secondary. Replacing six of a front seven is never easy, but Oklahoma has had the recruiting classes, so the talent is there, but will they gel? Miami is an intriguing early season game, but the Sooners should be more than enough to handle them and only Texas and Texas Tech can mount serious in conference threats to the Sooners, so look for another great season from Stoops and Company.

Texas Tech: Finished 4th South, projected 3rd South

Is any team consistently scarier than Texas Tech? Mike Leach has done wonders with this school, putting together a system that makes a team far less talented than the Texas and Oklahoma giants fully capable of upsetting either one. The biggest problem this season is that with only our starters returning on offense and six on defense, a defense that was becoming solid now has plenty of holes, and in a complex offense a returning quarterback has new players in three of the four starting WR positions, not to mention only one returning offensive lineman. They won’t be able to take down the big boys this year, but they will be good enough for third and a solid bowl.

Oklahoma State: Finished T-5th South, projected 4th South

Eight returning starters on offense will provide the Cowboys the boost they need to compete in the always competitive Big 12 South. Having one of the best kickers in the country doesn’t hurt, either. This team has holes to fill on defense, but a great coaching staff will help both sides of the ball to remain competitive. State barely lost to Texas Tech and A&M last year, and this year should be able to beat A&M and make a serious run at Tech. Expect a solid season with a respectable bowl, and if the defense can come together early, they may have an upset or two to pull.

Texas A&M: Finished 3rd South, projected 5th South

At first glance the nine win season seems reason for optimism, but a 45-10 drubbing by Cal in the Holiday Bowl proved a point I harped on last season: that A&M was one of the two most overrated NCAA teams last year (Notre Dame was the other). Almost every game they won was within a field goal, and to beat Army by one point just isn’t impressive. Never did A&M seem dominating, but they always seemed to barely slip by and were always surprised to slip away with a win. With a harder non-conference schedule that includes Miami and Fresno State, and the ever strong South, don’t expect A&M to repeat the same miracles. In fact, I’m picking them to miss out on a bowl completely.

Baylor: Finished T-5th South, projected 6th South

Despite having three weak non-conference games, a Baylor team that could only manage four wins last season lost seven starters on offense, including nearly all the skills positions. Long the basement of the South, unfortunately there just isn’t any way this team is pulling together enough talent to challenge anyone. Another season in the basement watching everyone else head to a bowl.

The Big 12 is full of storylines this season. If Gene Chizik can pull off a bowl his first year, it means the world since there is talent at ISU: but much of it is graduating after this season, and the young players need that extra practice, not to mention to get recruiting into a school that usually has a hard time of it, Chizik needs all the help he can get. Turning around a program like Iowa State would be nothing short of miraculous. Can Texas A&M prove they’re for real—or is this the year the coach gets canned? How good will Keller be in Nebraska? It seems almost every team has a story, and this may be the most intriguing conference of all to follow.

Big 10 College Football Preview

It has to be hard being third. Imagine consistently having one of the best teams in the country, only you’re never seriously in the title talk because two traditional powerhouses are often top five teams. Well Badgers fans, get ready for the spotlight, because this is your year to seize the Big Ten title.

Wisconsin: Finished T-2nd Big Ten, projected 1st 2007

It’s all about the Michigan game.  Whoever wins that game will go undefeated in the Big Ten and possibly play for the national title.  While Michigan can boast a tri-fecta of explosive offensive stars, Wisconsin has tons of experience returning on what was already one of the most dominant teams in Badgers history.  Here’s the math: seven returning starters on one of the best defenses in the country, and nine starters, including all but one offensive lineman, on a team that likes to pound their opponents to submission.  A season after the most wins in season history, and also besting the best kicking duo in the Big Ten, guess what else?  Michigan comes to Wisconsin to play this year, and experience is going to prove the key.  Everyone will know what Wisconsin will want to do—but no one will be able to stop them.  This team has a legitimate chance at the national title if their first year starting QB can protect the ball and provide any spark at all.

Michigan: Finished T-2nd Big Ten, projected 2nd 2007

Michigan has a potent offensive tri-fecta in QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, and WR Mario Manningham, all of whom will be drafted into the NFL.  Problem is, other than them only three starters return on offense, and a mere four starters return on defense.  While there is little doubt this team will score, can they be dominant, and can they slow down good teams enough for it to matter?  Can they beat Wisconsin.  The answer is no: but they may finally get revenge over an Ohio State team that has dominated them in recent years, but has lost most of their offensive fire power.  Still, Michigan should do enough to only lose one game and make a BCS at large bid.

Ohio State: Finished 1st Big Ten, projected 3rd 2007

Ohio State will be the third best team in the Big Ten, though that doesn’t mean they will finish third.  This team made it to the national title game before being annihilated by a surprisingly strong Florida squad.  They return only five starters on offense, and lose two receivers, a great running back, and one of their best quarterbacks in school history.  The defense was good, but not Ohio State good, as was shown when they actually played strong offensive teams.  The defense returns only five starters, and are solid, but without the dominant quality of past defenses.  Make no mistake, this is a deep team, but I just can’t see them beating Wisconsin, and this year Michigan gets them.  They will probably finish about 9-3 and get into a very good bowl.

Iowa: Finished T-8th Big Ten, projected 4th 2007

Is Iowa the fourth best team in the Big Ten?  Not even close—and they are definitely on a down turn, becoming very mortal the last two years and finishing 6-7 last year, struggling against some really mediocre opponents like Iowa State and Syracuse.  So why pick them this high?  No Michigan, no Ohio State.  In addition, they return eight starters on defense and have a cup cake non conference schedule.  The potential downside?  Their D-line is great rushing the passer, but they can’t stop even a moderate running team if their life depended on it, and they lost most their secondary.  In addition, no one on offense other than Albert Young looks like anything special, and Syracuse and Iowa State should have beat them last year.  This team just isn’t very good, but after the top, neither is the Big Ten.  They have one more year before it all catches up to them—and had better hope Gene Chizik at Iowa State doesn’t pull an in state miracle his first year, but most likely, fans should praise the football gods for the schedule—because this is one of the worst Iowa teams in years.

Penn State: T-4th Big Ten, projected 5th 2007

This is a more talented team than Iowa, but they play Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan, not to mention a dangerous potential upset game at Illinois and an early home game against Notre Dame.  Most of a good offense returns, and it looks like QB Anthony Morelli might be ready to break out.  The defense has only five starters, but is extremely well coached and his emphasis on speed has made Penn State tough to beat—especially when the offense clicks and makes their opponents play their game.  This is a team with holes, but they are solid, talented, and good enough to beat the rest of the pack in the Big Ten.  They lose to Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, but beat everyone else in several close games.

Minnesota: T-6th Big Ten, projected 6th in 2007

The hiring of Tim Brewster as head coach was a gamble that his flair for collegiate recruiting and firm belief in discipline will pay dividends for a program that has treaded water for a long time.  This will eventually pay off—just not this year.  This team is trying to go to a spread offense with balance as key, but players recruited for the old system were to pound the ball, and this offense will find itself relying heavily on the running game once again.  With nine various starters returning on defense they will be better.  The offense, especially on the passing side has a long way to go, but with a solid base, and an unusual number of Big Ten teams completely unable to defend the run (hello Northwestern, Indiana, and Iowa), Minnesota will win 7-8 wins and hit a middle of the road bowl.

Purdue: T-4th Big Ten, projected 7th in 2007

If QB Curtis Painter has a breakthrough season, this will be one of the most fun offenses in the entire country to watch.  Nine starters return on offense, including the best wide receivers in the Big Ten.  Eight starters on defense also gives Purdue a strong base, but they must be tougher on offense running the ball and they must cut down on the turnovers to have any major say in the Big Ten race.  This team, more than any other in the league, has the potential to be something really special.

Illinois: T-10th Big Ten, projected 8th in 2007

This should be the year the recruiting finally pays off.  Don’t start booking tickets to a BCS bowl, but Illinois should make a bowl this year.  We’ll know by the end of September whether this is true.  Eight returning starters on offense, nine on defense, as well as returning special teams and another great recruiting class should be enough.  Missouri will be a tough opening game, but a great chance to pull and upset, and with Western Illinois, Syracuse, and Ball State as the other non-conference games, and very winnable games against Northwestern, Indiana, and Iowa, this team should be able to scrap together six wins and a bowl.  This team because of pure talent and a weaker mid pack of teams has a chance to pull some upsets.

Michigan State: T-10th Big Ten, projected 9th in 2007

Six starters on offense and six starters on defense doesn’t mean as much on a 4-8 team that still lost its best players.  Michigan State has to play the big four of the Big Ten, as well as Notre Dame.  This isn’t an overly tough non conference schedule—but it isn’t cup cake and there just isn’t enough here to scrap six wins.  QB Brian Hoyer would have to play absolutely lights out to even sniff six wins.

Northwestern: T-8th Big Ten, projected 10th in 2007

Last season was hell.  During what was already a transition year, a very beloved head coach died, and though they fought, this time was simply overmatched too often, and the there were times where the grief came through.  This was an exhausted team, but they return seven starters including a very talented RB in Tyrell Sutton, eight defensive starters on a unit that will improve.  The school kept Fitzgerald as coach, which will help smooth the transition, and a weak non conference schedule will help them rebuild.  This team still needs some upsets to jump to six wins, but if they play hard they may leapfrog Michigan State and Illinois to do it.

Indiana: T-6th Big Ten, projected 11th (Last) in 2007

After the tragic news of head coach Terry Hoeppner’s death, I’d like to say this will be a Cinderella story, but Northwestern couldn’t do it last year, and with this terrible news preseason, with Illinois’s and Northwestern’s improvement, it’s just too hard to see.  Indiana was heading the right direction, but the distractions will be too much and there’s not enough talent to help QB Kellen Lewis lift them out.

The Big Ten has a lot of middle teams with holes that could rise or fall dramatically, and teams like Iowa, Illinois, Purdue, and Northwestern are going to make this a great season in the Big Ten.

ACC College Football Preview

When the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) raided the Big East for Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College, everyone expected the ACC to rise as the best overall college football conference in the NCAA.  They were wrong

Not taking away from Wake Forest’s great season or Georgia Tech’s run at the ACC title—but these are the best teams in the conference?  Really?  The ACC will be better this year than last, but it’s a long way from being a powerhouse conference, with only one team having a remote shot at the national title.

In the Atlantic:

Boston College: finished T-2nd, projected 1st for 2007

Ironically considered just a “throw in” with Miami and Virginia Tech, it may be Boston College who gets the last laugh.  With returning QB Matt Ryan, who is posed to be an absolute star, 9 returning starters on defense, and no major power in the way, the Atlantic division of the ACC is theirs for the taking.  While first year coach Jeff Jagodzinski is a wild card, he will run the same relative offense, and after a 10-3 year which included a win over Virginia Tech, they should be the favorites to take it.

Wake Forest: finished 1st, projected 2nd for 2007

Wake Forest, despite last year’s success, is a hard team to peg.  I could see them finishing second, and I could see them not making a bowl—it’s so hard to measure with only one year of success, and especially after losing 7 starters from a heavily defensive team.  But there are reasons for Demon Deacon fans to be optimistic.  For one thing, no one else in the division other than Boston College shows signs of breaking out.  For another, they get star RB Micah Andrews from injury, which should make their running game better, and most of the offense, including a great offensive line, return.  They won’t sneak up on anyone now, but they can grind enough out for second place and a mid level bowl game.

Clemson: finished T-2nd, projected 3rd for 2007

Was it any worse for college sports fans than Clemson last year?  The football team starts 7-1 then collapses, their basketball team looks like one of the best, then collapses so badly as to miss the tournament.  The good news is the tigers have a great quarterback prospect in QB Willy Korn, and a cup cake non-conference schedule that all but guarantees a bowl game.  The bad news is, they will not have any major impact on the ACC, not after losing QB Charlie Whitehurst, 4 starters on the offensive line, and DE Gaines Adams.  Expect 7-5 and a low level bowl.

Florida State: finished T-5th, projected 4th in 2007

It’s hard to say which fall from grace was more amazing over the past five years: Nebraska, Florida State, or Miami.  Florida State has too much talent in too many positions not to go to a bowl game, and they really came together to beat UCLA in the Emerald Bowl last year.  Then again they lost half their starters on an offense and defense that weren’t that good to begin with, and they have two quarterbacks who both just seem terrible.  Even in a weak ACC, they don’t have the ability to go after the division crown, but they will make a small bowl very happy.

Maryland: finished T-2nd, projected 5th in 2007

At the end of next season, remember that you heard it here first: I’m not buying that Maryland is a competitor.  Yes, Maryland won 9 wins last year, but they were 5-6 two straight years before that, and six of those victories were by six points or less.  Maryland tends to turn the football over and has some challenges on the non-conference schedule that includes Rutgers and West Virginia.  New quarterback, new special teams, no thank you.  I don’t expect a losing season, but 6-6 might be a possibility if things don’t go just right.

North Carolina State: finished 6th, projected 6th in 2007

It doesn’t seem that long ago that QB Phillip Rivers carried this team on his shoulders, followed by solid recruiting classes with one of the best running backs in the country—so what happened?  Well Chuck Amato is out and Tim O’Brien from Boston College is in.  His discipline and coaching should be an upgrade, but O’Brien will have a hard time finding a starting QB from this group.  Despite returning most of the offense, they lost most of their defensive starters, and no coaching transition is ever easy, but getting Dana Bible to run the offense and Mike Archer on the defense gives the wolfpack a strong coaching staff that will eventually pay dividends . . . just not this year.

Coastal Division:

Virginia Tech: finished 2nd, projected 1st in 2007

Calvin Johnson was enough for Georgia Tech to take their division last year, but he’s terrifying the NFL now, and Virginia Tech is the best overall team.  They return eight starters to one of the best defenses in the country, and return seven starters on a young offense.  The offense after being patchwork last year looks ready to be as good as it’s been since the Michael Vick era, and in a weak ACC that means that an out of conference game against LSU is the biggest hurdle to an undefeated season and shot at a national title.

Virginia: finished 3rd, projected 2nd in 2007

The Coastal division is basically Virginia Tech, then a log jam between Virginia, Miami, and Georgia Tech vying for spots 2-4.  Between three very evenly matched team, I’ll take Virginia to edge the other two.  Al Groh can recruit, but he has yet to have that huge breakthrough season—well now’s his chance.  His team was incredibly young last year, and he has a whopping 19 returning starters on this year’s team.  Their defense is one of the best in the country, and with the entire offensive line returning, Groh finally has the team to pound his opponents into submission.  They may make a good run at the division, and with a weak non conference, write them into a winning season and bowl game.

Miami: finished 4th, projected 3rd in 2007

The defense returns seven starters and will be very strong, as always.  Like too many Miami teams of recent, the offense looks to be fairly toothless, despite returning any starters, and needs someone to come out of nowhere and make a statement if Miami has any chance of being competitive.  Miami’s defense is likely enough to win six or seven games, but don’t expect much more, because the talent is only there on the defense, not the offense.  Whether new coach Randy Shannon can change things, only time will tell, but it won’t be by next season.

Georgia Tech: finished 1st, projected 4th in 2007

It has to be about the running game.  With four year starter Reggie Ball gone at quarterback and WR Calvin Johnson drafted in the NFL, Georgia Tech will once again have to rely on its defense, and hope that senior RB Tashard Choice and four returning starters on the offensive line will be enough with the defense in order to try to repeat as coastal division champs, but they simply won’t have enough—and Tech’s offense usually wasn’t a lot to begin with, so it’s hard to believe they’ll be better without the losses.

North Carolina: finished 5th, projected 5th in 2007

The hiring of Butch Davis was excellent, and Davis wasted no time—signing an extremely impressive recruiting class.  This bodes well for the future, but there are only four returners to an offense that was pretty mediocre, and only four returners to a defense just as bad.  The defensive line should be strong, and North Carolina should win a few games, and even make a run at a team or two they shouldn’t, but they are a long way from being competitive and 6-6 is too much to ask for.

Duke: finished 6th, projected 6th in 2007

It’s sad when you return literally every single starter on offense, and still say it will be hard for this team to average more than 17 points a game.  Duke is most likely the worst team in the entire BCS, and despite having three full years, his third year coaching Duke was the worst, so it’s hard to believe that Ted Roof has any answers.  Duke is the doormat again, and I can’t see them winning a single game this season.  Their best shot is against North Carolina at the end of the year.

Overview:

The ACC sent eight teams to bowls last year, and that sounds about right this year, with a possible ninth sneaking in.  Virginia Tech is the only team with a legitimate shot at being a national powerhouse, and a lot of middle of the road teams will vie for remaining bowls.  New coaching hires give the ACC a bright future, but they are far from the juggernaut that everyone expected.

SEC College Football Preview

SEC College Football Preview

The SEC East is loaded, with four of five teams making bowls, and many believing Vanderbilt could have been a bowl team in any other conference. Headed by national champion Florida, they are followed by Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. The SEC West is no push over, with Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Alabama, Ole Miss, and perennial door mat Mississippi State. An amazing 9 or 12 teams made bowls, going 6-3 and dominating other conferences, as shown by Georgia, the 6th or 7th best SEC team, beating Virginia Tech, one of the best ACC teams, or by Arkansas almost knocking off Big Ten power Wisconsin. They will be just as competitive this year.

Florida: Last year finished 1st SEC East, projected 1st SEC East

Urban Meyer seems to work magic wherever he goes in that second year. Florida won the national championship, absolutely destroying heavy favorite Ohio State after surviving a brutal regular season schedule. Florida finished the year 13-1 with their win in the national championship, behind an absolutely suffocating defense, and despite being criticized on offense, they scored more points than anyone in the SEC other than LSU.

The good news is Florida will have a strong season and compete for the SEC title. The bad news is there’s no way they’re repeating as national champs. Not only do they need to replace nine starters on defense, but they have to replace five starters on offense, as well as a new punter and kicker, and in the loaded SEC it will be just a little too much. QB Tim Tebow can run like a beserking fullback and is tough as nails, but needs to prove he can run the passing side of a spread attack, and he’ll struggle against LSU and Auburn in that regard.

Last season Florida won five games by a touchdown or less, and the defense will be good, but not dominant like last year’s. Still, they have a great chance to win the east, and will be looking at a quality bowl. With a very young defense and QB, the future is bright.

Georgia: Last year T-3rd SEC East, projected 2nd SEC East

In my view, Georgia has the best shot of beating Florida this year and claiming the East title. Matthew Stafford may be the best QB left in the SEC and has a year under his belt now. With two returning starters at WR and the entire backfield coming back, the offense should be much better this year. There are some concerns about replacing the entire linebacking core, but with two returning tackles, the best cover corner in the SEC (Paul Oliver) and the best kicker in the SEC in Brandon Coutu, Georgia will still have the pieces to make a run. After finishing the year on a strong note, with wins over Auburn, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech, the Dawgs are going to be tough again and have the best chance of toppling Florida.

South Carolina: Last Season 5th SEC East, projected 3rd SEC East.

The key for Spurrier’s team is consistency. With seven returning starters on offense and defense, as well as returning starters for the punter and kicker positions, everyone should know the systems and be able to take advantage of teams who have a larger turnover. The offense should be great, and South Carolina was very close to beating Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida last year. With all the ridiculous drama at Arkansas this off season, Tennessee’s overturn of offensive starters, and Florida’s massive loss of starters, this is the right time for the Gamecocks to make a move. They’ll be dangerous—but it won’t be enough to beat Georgia’s charge for Florida. They should beat Kentucky and Tennessee this year.

Tennessee: Last Season 2nd SEC East, projected 4th SEC East.

This pick makes me nervous. With QB Erik Ainge finally paying dividends, the entire right side of the offensive line coming back, and a solid defense, I don’t want to knock them down too far, but unless Ainge goes from good to NFL first round caliber, I just don’t see them overcoming enough to compete for the SEC East title.

Tennessee loses all three starting receivers, and early reports don’t have anyone stepping up. In addition, their pass rush last year was terrible. Their best chance is with a fast start, but with Georgia, Florida, and Cal all early, and Alabama and South Carolina at mid season, this won’t allow all the new starters the time they’ll need to gel. Tennessee will have a winning season and reach a bowl, but asking any more of them is just unrealistic.

Kentucky: Last Season T-3rd SEC East, projected 5th SEC East.

Kentucky had a great season last year, coming out of nowhere to snag eight wins and earn an impressive bowl victory over Clemson. Most is the offense is back, though there are holes in the offensive line, and while most of the defense comes back, they weren’t that great and could be the team’s undoing this season. Eight wins is too much to ask for a repeat. There is offensive talent, but they won’t upset Georgia again, and Tennessee has a good chance of holding them off. I expect them to find a way to go 6-6 and sneak into a bowl.

Vanderbilt: Last Season 6th SEC East, projected 6th SEC East.

Vandy has had good defenses for years. They have had pretty good quarterbacks, too, but never anything else, never enough to bust from five wins to six. A couple years ago Wake Forest might have been that six win—sorry guys. With a returning starting QB and 7 other returning offensive starters and most of the defense back, if there was a year to make the jump, this was it, but I just can’t see more than 4-5 wins, tops. It has been 1982 since they even went .500, but next year won’t be it.

LSU: Last Season T-2nd SEC West, projected 1st SEC West—playing for national title

A strong team loaded with QB prospects, four starters returning on the offensive line, and eight starters returning on the best defense in country, not to mention the “easiest” of a series of brutal SEC schedules. Avoid the let down, and there’s a good chance these guys will be playing not only for the SEC title, but for the national title, as well. Bo Pelini is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country, and with Coach Les Miles, this is one of the best coaching staffs in the country. I would actually be more surprised if LSU lost a game than if they went undefeated. These guys are a great bet to be one of the best teams in the country, and should win the west this year.

Auburn: Last Season T-2nd SEC West, projected 2nd SEC West

The biggest reason Auburn won’t be able to overtake LSU this season is because of graduation. With only four starters returning on offense and six on defense, not to mention a new kicker and punter, there is too much inexperience to hit the top. QB Brandon Cox is a player, and Auburn’s defense will always be tough. This will be a strong, tough tea that is as well coached as anyone, but LSU has too much talent and experience for Auburn to catch them. Auburn is still good enough to compete for 9-10 wins and a respectable bowl, but they won’t win the west.

Alabama: Last Season T-4th SEC West, projected 3rd SEC West

Now this is not because of Nick Saban, though like Charlie Weiss he walks into the right place at the right time to take advantage of the previous coach’s work and will receive far too much credit for it. Former head coach Mike Shula got the raw end of the deal, and his recruits will break out in force next season. With ten young starters returning on offense, Alabama will be able to score, and they have enough talented defenders to fight with any SEC team, but they’re a year away from being able to be dominate. Expect about eight wins and a respectable bowl.

Arkansas: Last Season 1st SEC West, projected 4th SEC West

The off season was probably the most ridiculous drama ever. Coach Nutt wins double digit games and the SEC West only to lose some “favorite” recruits who haven’t even proved themselves, and now everyone wants his job. Distractions can never help, but Nutt is a good coach, and may use these distractions to light a fire under his players. HB Darren McFadden is one of the best in college football and comes back to lead a rushing attack that will once again be one of the best in the country. Unfortunately, without a great QB and with only 6 returning starters on offense and 4 returning starters on defense, they will not have nearly enough to compete with the big boys of the SEC, but a cupcake non conference schedule guarantees a bowl appearance.

Ole Miss: Last Season T-4th SEC West, projected 5th SEC West

They went 4-8 last season, and though they might add one win to that, I don’t see them going bowling. Coach Ed Orgeron has done a great job restocking depth and building talent, and there is some talent on this team, but not enough to compete. Seven starters return on offense, though that includes a demoted QB, and six starters return on defense, which also has former starters as backups. With Patrick Willis gone to the NFL, it’s hard to see a defense that wasn’t dominant to begin with getting any better. They’re still a year or two away.

Mississippi State: Last Season 6th SEC West, projected 6th SEC West

Sylvester Croom inherited a team in complete shambles under withering sanctions from the NCAA. After three straight three win seasons, they need to get moving. The good news is that State was competitive last season, losing four games by a field goal. The bad news is that the suffocating defense that kept them in games loses six starters, including three of four defensive linemen. Last year was their best chance, and they may be “competitive” again, but even with everything falling into place perfectly it’s hard to get them to five wins.

Overall, expect the SEC to send eight teams to bowls, with an outside chance of matching nine again, and LSU will have a shot to bring another national title back to college football’s strongest conference.

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