Expect the unexpected? When it comes to picking the NCAA Tournament (as longtime JCCW/WBE readers know), if you’re going after a perfect bracket, you have to pick a certain number of upsets and surprises. You give the unexpected enough chances, it’s going to pull it off, no matter how unlikely it seems at a glance.
I’ve been thinking about that phenomenon when it comes to this year’s SEC. For two years, Florida and Alabama have run absolutely roughshod over the rest of the league–all four division titles by an average of nearly three games in the standings, a 31-1 SEC record, two crystal footballs. If any one of the current Little 10 of the SEC had come close to the Gators or Tide in that stretch, you might find plenty of takers for a change at the top of the SEC hierarchy; not even Tide and Gator fans (the semi-rational ones, anyway) are expecting another unblemished regular season, particularly with the Big 2 being forced to play each other this season and a guaranteed loss on one ledger or the other. But even if ‘Bama and Florida take a step back, it would appear that we’d be asking the rest of the league to take too many steps forward to expect them to actually win one division or the other, right?
I’m not sure. A mid-rung MAC team like Ohio had no business beating Georgetown in the first round of this past spring’s NCAAs, but it had been years since a 14-seed had beaten a 3; we were overdue for the 14 to play the game of their lives and the 3 to play like diseased shrews. I mention that because do you know how many times since the SEC’s divisional split in 1992 that the same two teams have won their divisions three seasons in a row, in any league?
Zero. None. (Yes, Florida and Alabama met in the first three SEC Championship games. But surely you’ll recall that Auburn topped the SEC West in 1993.) It’s never happened, not in the SEC, the MAC, the Big 12, the ACC, or C-USA. Expecting the Gators and Tide to meet in Atlanta again is to expect something for which we have no precedent.
We all know some other team will catch up to them eventually; doesn’t the above suggest it ought to happen this year rather than later? There’s several reasons besides the “it’s time” approach, anyway:
They might not be that good any more. In Tuscaloosa, we all know that the defense has been gutted to some (highly debatable) degree, but don’t forget about what the Tide lost on special teams; Javy Arenas and Leigh Tiffin each played major, MVP-type roles in a number of ‘Bama’s victories the past two seasons (remember Tiffin scoring all 12 of the Tide’s points against Tennessee last year, 6 of them coming from 49 and 50 yards?). No one could expect to replace Arenas, only one of the greatest punt returners ever to play college football, but right now the Tide’s planned situational placekicking platoon doesn’t sound like too sure of a replacement for Tiffin, either. Also, there’s a new punter. The offense is perfectly capable of doing some heavy lifting, but they’re going to have to when both the defense and special teams have this many kinks to work out.
Florida returns a little more experienced talent, despite the departure of the Tebow Child, but of course the loss of Charlie Strong–just as the front seven needs a bit of a makeover–arguably accounts for even more of a blow than the Tide’s nine lost starters. That goes double when you realize that Meyer’s first attempt at replacing a staff mainstay resulted in the promotion of Steve “Dive” Addazio, who recreated nearly all of Dan Mullen’s statistical dominance but with none of the spark, flair, or creativity–and paid a heavy price when the Gators finally faced an actual balanced team in Alabama. What happens if new DC Teryl Austin (co-DCs with promoted safeties coach Chuck Heater, a scheme that always works out) follows down the same path?
The rest of the league is better overall. Tennessee and Ole Miss have regressed, LSU should be about the same (though their final record is due for a downward readjustment), and what Kentucky and Vanderbilt do is of no consequence where the two front-runners are concerned. But the other five SEC teams should all be much improved on last season. Georgia should be more than capable of staying with the Gators if Aaron Murray stays healthy and Todd Grantham can undo even a little bit of the damage wrought by Willie Martinez’s reign of error. Even the most committed skeptics of their defenses would have to admit that both Auburn and Arkansas will have the kind of offenses that could explode against (and defeat) any team at any time; with the Tigers’ cushy home-road split, they could easily turn the Iron Bowl into a one-game playoff for the division. South Carolina hasn’t done much in the way of competing for East titles under Spurrier, but they have given a lot of favorites fits and will probably continue to as long as Ellis Johnson is around. Even Miss. St. was decidedly better than their 5-7 record a year ago and could cause anyone problems with Mullen’s spread-option game; if only they didn’t have to travel to both Gainesville and Tuscaloosa.
In short: waltzes to Atlanta like Florida’s last year aren’t happening.
Luuuuuck. Not so much on Florida’s part; the Gators have, somewhat amazingly, played just two one-possession games in two years, splitting them 1-1. The Tide, though, have played four, and won them all. Once you hit five or six, you get very, very due for a loss.
Put all that together, and don’t you think it could happen? Particularly when you think about Auburn’s schedule and newfound depth, or Georgia’s turnover turnaround or overall talent hoard? Can we really expect any two teams to win two mostly-rugged divisions three years running, especially when they have to play each other, a disadvantage their closest pursuers may not have? (Auburn and Arkansas both miss Florida, Georgia the Tide.)
I’ve gone back and forth on that question all offseason. And finally, I’m convinced myself that the SEC is too deep to be dominated like this; I’m predicting that either Georgia or Auburn will make it to Atlanta at one of the Big Two’s expense. I’m just not sure which. Georgia’s probably a little more likely, since they get to play the division favorite at a neutral site rather than at the favorite’s home, and since the Tide have to be the preliminary favorite over the Gators with that game in Tuscaloosa. But in one division or the other, it says here it’s going to happen.
With those thoughts in mind, I’d put together a preseason SEC Power Poll ballot something like so:
1a./1b. Alabama/Florida. Speaking of going back and forth all offseason, ask me tomorrow which of the two is the better team and you’ll get a different answer than I’ll give you today. I like Brantley, but still don’t see a between-the-tackles running game or reliable deep threat. I like Alabama’s offensive line and running game–to state the patently obvious–but still have some questions about McElroy’s ability to, say, throw 35 times in a game where the Tide fall behind. Yin, and yang. Part of the reason I can’t decide which team is more likely to be a surprise division winner is because I can’t decide which of these two is more vulnerable. Again, I think that the Gators have to make the trip to T-town is the (narrow) tiebreaker.
3a. Georgia/3c. Auburn. As long as Murray stays upright, who cares how young he is when you’ve got A.J. Green, the nation’s most experienced line, Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, and a proven coordinator in Mike Bobo all surrounding him? (Bobo’s had a few head-scratchers, sure, but remember that the Dawgs led the league in scoring in SEC games last year.) As for Auburn, well, I’m taking my time explaining that one.
5a. Arkansas/5b. South Carolina. One dark horse for each division, both lacking just a little bit too much on one side of the ball–the ‘Cocks the offense, the ‘Hogs the defense–to finally do more than play spoiler, I’m guessing. But I’m not particularly looking forward to Auburn playing either one of them.
HUGE YAWNING GAP
7. LSU. I guess.
8. Mississippi St. Worst possible schedule for the Bulldogs, drawing Florida and Georgia as their rotating opponents and getting their easiest West opponents–LSU and Ole Miss–on the road. Still say they make a bowl game.
9. Ole Miss. The front seven should keep them in games, but I don’t know how many the offense will be able to close out. Would predict them for the West cellar if not for the schedule letting them avoid the entire upper half of the East.
10. Kentucky. Pretty much impossible for a school like Kentucky to replace talents like Trevard Lindley and Corey Peters, but as long as they’ve got Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb, there’s only so far they can slip. I so wish they got to host …
11. Tennessee this year, because I think they might have finally broken the losing streak. A new, unheralded QB behind an entirely new OL with last year’s offensive MVP–the sorely underrated Montario Hardesty–also departed? Yikes. Double yikes. There’s talent on defense, but there’s also a new coordinator, no Eric Berry, and injury havoc on the line. If Dooley can get this bunch to 3-5 in the SEC and .500 overall, he’ll be doing a remarkable job.
12. Vanderbilt. On pace for a bowl drought to match that recent 26-year one exactly.