Can you smell that? No? Open the windows or walk outside for a minute. Sure, it’s blazing hot and humid as anything, but there’s something else—the hint, nay, the promise of big things in the air. There, in the distance, a faint whiff of tailgating on the breeze: barbecue smoke, freshly mown grass and corndogs.
Football is coming, people. Much more importantly, SEC football is coming. And of course, as always, the Wishbone is here with some opinions, facts, entertaining analogies and predictions.
In a way, we wanted the off-season to last forever, so that we could continue to savor the Season of Our Dreams (hey, why does that phrase sound familiar?) for as long as possible—for an eternity, really. As Van has put it succinctly and repeatedly on Twitter: “BCS365!”
But in another way, going months and months without football, especially right after we finally, finally won the danged thing, was absolute torture. We need more football! So let’s get it on. What should we expect from the SEC East and West in 2011?
This installment, we start with the SEC Least, err, East.
The East once dominated the conference, with Florida and Tennessee dueling early each season for a leg up on a trip to Atlanta (and likely a championship). A bit later, Georgia began to force its way into the equation. Last year, at long last, South Carolina made it to the Dome.
But the rise to eminence of the Eastern Poultry likely only signifies the decline of the rest of that side of the conference. Because—let’s be clear about this—the balance of power has shifted 100 percent to the West and it is not going back anytime soon. Florida enjoyed a nice run from 2006-2009 but now even they have faded.
Nonetheless, somebody out of the East has to get to Atlanta to play the winner—nay, the survivor—of the West.
For each team we will provide some basic information, thoughts on the schedule, a key player or two, and then in traditional Wishbone fashion we will draw comparisons between said team and a) a superhero and b) a country and/or a national soccer team.
It’s what we do.
So, without further ado, here’s how we see it.
1. South Carolina Gamecocks
Coach: Visor-Boy; Coach Superior; the Old Ball Coach
Mascot makes us think of: Eating a delicious Chick-Fil-A sandwich
Returning starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense. (This number includes Stephen Garcia, but of course that is always a day to day proposition.)
Offense loses: Passing Yards: 0%; Rushing Yards: 18%; Receptions: 27%
Strength of schedule: 52nd toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. Road games are at Georgia, at Miss State, at Tennessee, and at Arkansas. They avoid playing Alabama and LSU. They also take on East Carolina, the Citadel, and Clemson out of conference.
Questions: Can Garcia avoid making the Big Mistake, both on and off the field? He had 20 touchdowns in 2010 but led the SEC with 14 interceptions. If he can keep on track, this team is good enough to win the East. Just how much pressure can No. 1 recruit Jadeveon Clowney create on the opposing quarterback?
Superhero analogy: Namor the Sub-Mariner. Likes to act important but doesn’t have a great track record to back that up. Pulled Steve “Rogers” Spurrier out of the “Newfoundland ice” of the Redskins stadium to resurrect his career and their prospects.
Country/Soccer team analogy: Mexico. Lots of fans who dress up and paint themselves up and yell and scream…and just honestly not a whole lot of hardware to show for it, after all these years.
Best case scenario: Carolina wins the East only to get pasted again in the title game—possibly topping (bottoming?) their own “getting crushed mercilessly” record from last year.
Worst case scenario: Garcia goes AWOL, Spurrier starts yo-yoing quarterbacks, Lattimore wears down or gets injured, and they collapse down the stretch to possibly even miss going bowling.
Van and John think: They’re the best team in the East. Aaaannnd that’s like being the tallest munchkin. They should win the division but there are three historically powerful programs just a hair below them that are waiting for them to make one little mistake.
2. Georgia Bulldogs
Coach: Saint Mark; The Hot Seated One
Mascot makes us think of: Ticks and fleas; things that are overrated; things a golden eagle can carry aloft in its claws; bad movies about Savannah.
Returning starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
Offense lost: Passing Yards: 0%; Rushing Yards: 69%; Receptions: 53%
(UGA is counting heavily on true freshman Isaiah Crowell to carry the ball… and to watch Aaron Murray’s back when all the non-AJ Green receivers are covered and there is nowhere to throw the ball.)
Schedule: 53rd toughest in the nation, according to Phil Steele. Road games are at Ole Miss, at Vandy, at Tennessee and Florida (in Jacksonville). No Alabama, no Arkansas, no LSU. You gotta be kidding me. Open up with Boise State in the Dome, and also face New Mexico State, Coastal Carolina, and Georgia Tech out of conference. So the conference schedule is pretty sweet, but the out-of-conference slate is more of a mixed bag.
Mark Richt has said two interesting and somewhat shocking things about the Boise State game. One is that he agreed to play them this year because he thought their star quarterback—whassisname, Ian McKellen? No, no, that’s Gandalf… oh yeah, Kellen Moore—had graduated. Wow. And an even bigger wow when he said words to the effect of that Georgia needed the prestige of playing a team like Boise State. C’mon, Georgia. I mean, sure—you haven’t really sniffed a national title in something like three decades, but still…!
Questions: Can UGA run the ball when it has to and the other team expects it, given that they essentially have only one back (a true freshman)? Can receivers get open and make plays without AJ Green around to attract triple coverage?
Superhero analogy: The Legion of Super-Heroes. A powerful team; been around forever; should be very successful; yet keep getting cancelled and rebooted under different leadership. Maybe UGA will win it all in the 31st Century.
Country/Soccer team analogy: Portugal. Generations of great players, colorful and fun to watch, but they never seem to win the big one. The upset of Portugal by the USA in World Cup 2002 was a lot like the Dawgs stumbling over South Carolina at the start of several seasons.
Best case scenario: A short trip down the Atlanta Highway (316) to Atlanta in December for a perfunctory butt-whoopin’ by the West winner. Best to just pull that big-as-a-whale Chrysler over at the Love Shack and stay there.
Worst case scenario: The running game doesn’t click; defenses tee off on Murray every snap. Losses accumulate—even with this schedule—and the seat under Richt’s britches grows hotter.
Van and John think: A solid team with a good defense and a good young QB. Assuming the running game is at all decent, they get 8-9 wins.
3. Florida Gators
Mascot makes us think of: Evolution seems to move slower with some species than others.
Returning starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense
Offense loses: Passing Yards: 0%; Rushing Yards: 12%; Receptions: 13% (but some losses along the offensive line)
Strength of schedule: 23rd toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. Road games are at Kentucky, at LSU, at Auburn and at South Carolina. Alabama comes to Gainesville. The Gators play Florida Atlantic, Furman, UAB and FSU out of conference.
Questions: Florida had the worst-coordinated offense in football last year. And that includes pickup games among drunken strangers in bar parking lots. Great offensive coordinators have a plan and develop the offense along the way; that approach left town with Dan Mullen when he took his act to Starkville. Can Charlie Weiss take players used to Urban Meyer’s Utah offense and convert them to the virtues of the Notre Dame passing offense? This group was tenth in total offense in the conference last year—how much better can it get?
Superhero analogy: Drunk Tony Stark. All the money, all the whiz-bang, high-tech glitz and glamour you could ever want, and yet somehow Albert Gator sneaks away from his SHIELD handlers and hits the Purple Porpoise hard, and it all goes for naught. Yes, there’s Albert sitting inside a huge donut on the roof of a restaurant. (Time to bring in War BOOM Machine…!)
Country/Soccer team analogy: The Netherlands. Not a lot of great history or tradition until a few years back, when a coach with a flashy system came along and took them to the Promised Land (briefly). “Total Football” indeed, eh, Ol’ Ball Coach? And they love their orange.
Best case scenario: They give the Chikinz and the Dawgs a run in the division and end up in a New Year’s Day bowl game somewhere.
Worst case scenario: The offense can’t handle the changes in philosophy and approach; Brantley turns out not to be the reincarnation of Danny Wuerffel after all; the Gators finish at about .500. (Such a thing is very possible).
Van and John think: Better coaching this year but a similar result in terms of W/L record—if they’re lucky.
Coach: Li’l Dooley; Deer in th’ Headlights
Mascot makes us think of: The Wild Frontier; Blastin’ some vittles down in th’ Holler
Returning starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense
Offense loses: Passing Yards: 0%; Rushing Yards: 18%; Receptions: 59%
Strength of schedule: 34th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. Road games are at Kentucky, at Alabama, at Florida and at Arkansas. They do not play LSU or Auburn. They face Montana, Cincinnati, MTSU, and Buffalo out of conference. Now that’s how you get four easy out-of-conference wins, ladies and gentlemen. Usually the Vols have what seems like the most front-loaded schedule in the country, but this year they actually might lose a game in November: their game with Arkansas is on the 12th.
Questions: UT improved last year but suffered a couple of absolutely gut-wrenching, last-second losses. The bizarre ending of the LSU game will resound throughout the ages. The ending of their bowl game with North Carolina, as well, was absolutely devastating; they had the Tarheels beaten (right down to the referee announcing, over the loudspeakers, “The game is over,” with the Vols ahead), only to have the two teams brought back onto the field so that Carolina could kick a tying field goal and then win in overtime.
Tyler Bray is not a bad quarterback; he threw for nearly 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns as a freshman last year. Derek Dooley is not a bad coach. While they’re not exactly Tom Brady and Bill Belichick—not yet, anyway—they’re at least due for some good luck. Maybe the ball actually bounces Tennessee’s way this year? Or are they still paying back karma at an astonishing rate?
Superhero analogy: Last season, Dooley was Peter Parker. Given the great power and great responsibility of commanding the Vols Nation, he suffered the equivalent of having Mary Jane break up with him and Gwen Stacy getting done in by the Green Goblin. The finish of the bowl game was like Aunt May going into cardiac arrest.
Country/Soccer team analogy: Spain. More fans than anybody, tons of money, great facilities, and one title to show for it in the modern era.
Best case scenario: They play hard, play scrappy, and make it to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Worst case scenario: Their defense can’t stop the better teams on their schedule and Bray gets knocked out.
Van and John think: They went 6-7 and didn’t beat anyone of consequence last season, but they could just as easily have finished 8-5. Dooley is slowly building them back to being a competitive program. But it looks like about a 937-step process, and they’re currently on step four.
Coach: The villain from “The Dark Knight;” Jack Barry giving away the answer.
Mascot makes us think of: Not all non-domesticated felines are dangerous.
Returning starters: 6 on offense, 10 on defense
Offense loses: Passing Yards: 95%; Rushing Yards: 78%; Receptions: 65%
The Wildcats do return six players on offense, but none of them are Randall Cobb—who practically carried this team last year—or Derrick Locke or Mike Hartline. In losing those three players, UK lost the heart of its offense.
Strength of schedule: 57th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. Road games are at LSU, at South Carolina, at Vandy and at UGA. They do not play Alabama. Out of conference they face Louisville and a horde of directional schools, including mighty Jacksonville State.
Questions: How do you replace those three guys on offense? Who will step in to make plays against SEC defenses? Can Joker Joker Joker satisfy the Wildcat fans, or will his seat already be turning warm?
Superhero analogy: Nighthawk (Kyle Richmond). In one realm of life, they’re utterly successful (high finance/basketball). In another, they generally take their lumps (superheroing/football).
Country/Soccer team analogy: Colombia. They try very hard and every once in a while they pop up on the footballing radar, but generally they’re much better known for Something Else.
Best case scenario: Something along the lines of the Independence Bowl.
Worst case scenario: The rebuilt offense can’t ever get clicking and they end up dueling with Vanderbilt for the SEC East cellar.
Van and John think: The Cats have at least six winnable games on their schedule, but LSU replaces Auburn so things don’t get much easier there. Without Cobb and company, the row to hoe just gets tougher. We’ll be generous and say they win the winnable ones, even with so many new faces at the skill positions. It’s 6-7 again.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores
Coach: We’re losing track. It’s the guy who was OC at Maryland, right?
Mascot makes us think of: The Golden Age of Commerce; A “Voyage to the Bottom of the SEC;” Lionel Ritchie (wait—wrong Commodore)
Returning starters: 11 on offense, 8 on defense. (They have the most returning starters in the conference! Look out, everybody!)
Offense loses: Passing Yards: 34% (what, did the backup throw the ball that often for them last year?); Rushing Yards: 22%; Receptions: 13%
Strength of schedule: 11th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. Road games are at South Carolina, at Alabama, at Florida and at Tennessee. They avoid LSU in the West. They face Elon (Elon?!), UConn, Army and Wake Forest out of conference. Clearly, they think it’s still basketball season.
Questions: New coach James Franklin has built a little excitement here, but good teams annihilated Vandy last year and they didn’t win a game after October 9. Recruiting sounds remarkably promising, but there may be a long way to go.
Superhero analogy: The Wrecking Crew. The go-to guys when your own team of heroes needs to absolutely beat the living stew out of someone.
Country/Soccer team analogy: Venezuela. Surrounded by a conference/continent of powerhouses, they just want to survive and focus on academics/socialism.
Best case scenario: The opportunity to face a big-time program that happens to be in a death-spiral (see 2008 Auburn-Vandy) doesn’t happen every day. In the meantime, they just need to play well and lose with dignity. And BEAT ELON!!
Worst case scenario: What, seriously? This is Vandy. Do the math.
Van and John think: They won two games last year and will win more this year. Just not a lot more.
SEC EAST OVERALL FORECAST
South Carolina 9-3, 6-2
Georgia 8-4, 5-3
Florida 7-5, 4-4
Tennessee 6-6, 3-5
Kentucky 6-6, 2-6
Vanderbilt 3-9, 1-7
Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.
John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.
Previous Wishbone columns can be found here.
Order Season of Our Dreams — every “Wishbone” column from the 2010 preseason through the fabled Date in the Desert, plus a stadium full of extras.
* Erin Andrews’ Auburn boyfriend
* Erotic Auburn Beer Stein
* Pat Dye buying sunglasses
* Muhammad Al on the Haley Center concourse
* Playboy in Auburn, 1989
* Coeds. Watermelons. 1973.
* How Bama remembers “Punt, Bama, Punt”