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A Song of Turf and Pigskin, Book One: A Game of SEC East Thrones

When last we left fair SECesteros, the armies of the Dark Lord Saban had overcome the faltering legions of the King of the Bayou to claim the Iron Throne–err, Crystal Football–once again.

But—as they say in the South—”Fall is Coming.”  And that means it’s nearly time again for the great battles to erupt, for the “armies” (and in one case, “navies”) and “nations” and “families” to march out to battle, for glory to be won and bitter rivals to be crushed.

In other words, it’s nearly time for the 2012 season.  And that means it’s time for another installment of the Wishbone’s increasingly-obscure-reference-filled preview of said season.  First up: The East!


South Carolina Gamecocks

Coach:  The Evil Genius turned SEC Elder Statesman

Mascot makes us think of:  Chicken fingers and Zax Sauce

Returning Starters:  6 on offense, 5 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 36%; Rushing Yards: 10%; Receptions: 28%  (Auburn fans certainly wish Alshon Jeffrey the best of luck in the NFL.  Adios, muchacho.)

Strength of schedule: 13th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  Road games are at Vandy, at Kentucky, at LSU, at Florida, and at Clemson.  (Has Carolina even played LSU before?  Well, obviously they have, but still—it’s a strange and seemingly rare matchup.)  They avoid playing Alabama.  They take on East Carolina, UAB, Clemson and the mighty Wofford Terriers out of conference. And while we’re talking about chicken fingers, this is a schedule with some white meat on it.  The Cocks will cancel the Terriers faster than the FX Network did.

Questions: Can USC deal with heightened expectations?  Can the rebuilt offensive line and secondary handle the tougher schedule this year?

Game of Thrones character:  Balon Greyjoy.  The patriarch of the coastal barbarians used to terrorize the neighbors, running up the score mightily on them.  He’s still dangerous, but he isn’t what he used to be, and he isn’t going all the way to the top anymore.  Sadly for GreySpurrier, paying the Iron Price won’t get you a Crystal Football.  Nor will throwing the Iron Visor.

Best case scenario:  Lattimore is fully healthy and Connor Shaw continues to develop.  The mostly new secondary comes together quickly.  USC wins the division in a tiebreaker over UGA and UF.

Worst case scenario:  Lattimore isn’t ever fully back. The schedule is too tough and Spurrier and company head to a mid to upper tier bowl in Florida again.

Van and John think:  They will be competitive with UGA and UF for the division but this year UGA has the easier schedule and, in the end, that is what matters.


Georgia Bulldogs

Coach:  The Man Who Has Lost Control.

Mascot makes us think of:  Power naps.

Returning starters:  6 on offense, 9 on defense.

Offense loses:  0% Passing Yards: 37%; Rushing Yards: 10%; Receptions: 23%  (Isaiah Crowell ?  He won’t be missed for a second.  Or at least until UGA can’t convert a 3rd and two.)

Strength of schedule:  72nd toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  (72!!! Teams playing a tougher schedule than Georgia include UTEP, Ball State, Idaho and Temple).   Road games are at Missouri, at South Carolina, at Kentucky and at Auburn.  They avoid playing Alabama, LSU and Arkansas.  Seriously—who do you have to bleep to get that deal?  They also take on Buffalo, Florida Atlantic, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech out of conference—a slate of games generally found on the cupcake aisle of your local bakery.

Questions: With multiple starters in the secondary suspended for the Missouri game, will UGA be able to win on the road in what will be a new road stadium for them?  What happens when the freshman running backs are in the game and they have to block a blitzer coming at Aaron Murray’s back?  And when UGA played really good teams in 2011 they couldn’t stay in the game; will that change this year?

Game of Thrones character:  Theon Greyjoy.  Generally the most delusional member of the family, but still dangerous in that “not really sure what irrational thing he might pull” kind of way.  Like a rabid dawg, they need to be put out of their misery.  Or smacked on the nose.  Sure, Richtjoy, you can bully the little kids left guarding WinterVandy and Kentuckyfell and the other Lands of the North.  But how do things go when you face a real opponent?  Yeah, not so well.  And your taste in clothes—by which we mean those goshawful Nike outfits from the Boise game last year—is pretty terrible.

Best case scenario:  UGA’s defense becomes the best in the SEC.  With a tough defense and a schedule that should have icing on top of it, UGA wins the East and then pulls a big upset in the SEC championship game.

Worst case scenario:  The suspensions to the secondary hurt immediately and UGA gets upset at Missouri.  A loss to Carolina again and, next thing you know, UGA is headed to the Outback bowl again.

Van and John think:  Van thinks UGA is a little over-rated heading into the season.  John thinks the defense is solid and the schedule is EASY.  Either way, it’ll be a tough battle between these two second-tier teams for the Aluminum Throne of the East.


Florida Gators

Coach:  White boards are the enemy.

Mascot makes us think of:  Boots.  (And we don’t mean Dora’s monkey.)

Returning starters:  7 on offense, 10 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 84%; Rushing Yards: 77%; Receptions: 37%  (Demps and Rainey were productive.)

Strength of schedule: 5th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  Road games are at Texas A&M, at Tennessee, at Vandy and at FSU.  They avoid playing Alabama and Arkansas.  They also take on Bowling Green, Louisiana (Monroe? Lafayette?) and Jacksonville State out of conference.  They would have hosted Auburn in the Swamp, following last year’s matchup at Jordan-Hare, but the entry of the two new teams into the conference messed that all up.  Instead, they get Missouri and we get A&M.

Questions: The best thing that happened to Florida in the last year was Charlie Weiss leaving and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease coming in.  Can Pease get enough production out of the new starting quarterbacks and running backs? Can Florida score 20-24 points against the quality teams it faces?  With this defense, that might be enough.

Game of Thrones character:  Jaime Lannister.  Used to be the TideSlayer and the most dangerous thing in the entire kingdom.  But Old King Urbanmayeryen got himself killed and now they’re just lucky to not get beaten up by their sisters.  Still have deep pockets, though, and debts to be paid.

Best case scenario:  Pease invigorates an offense that has sucked since TEBOW left.  UF escapes College Station with a close win, loses to LSU, but beats South Carolina—and then returns to dominating UGA and makes it to the SEC Championship Game.

Worst case scenario:  The Texas A&M fans and team are insanely fired up and beat Florida in the SEC opener.  The offense can’t get enough going against the tough defenses of LSU, Georgia, Carolina and FSU.  A possibility of 7-5—almost unthinkable in Gainesvillerly Rock until recently.

Van and John think:  They will be competitive with Georgia and Carolina for the East title but their harder schedule will deny them the trip to the Dome.


Tennessee Volunteers

Coach:  Mr. Orange Pants.  (And now Mr. Lost to Kentucky)

Mascot makes us think of:  The timeless elegance of “Dogs playing poker.”

Returning starters:  10 on offense, 9 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 11%; Rushing Yards: 64%; Receptions: 20%

Strength of schedule: 46th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  Road games are at Georgia, MSU, South Carolina and Vandy.  They avoid playing LSU and Arkansas.  They also take on NC State (in Atlanta), Georgia State, Akron and Troy out of conference.

Questions: UT has a lot of talent coming back—but that same talent went 5-7 last year. With Vandy rising and Missouri joining the conference, can the Vols push themselves back up to the top tier of Eastern powers… or will they continue to slide backward?  Can Bray and his talented receivers keep UT in games against the best defenses the SEC has to offer?  Can Tennessee run the ball with any success?

Game of Thrones character:  Jorah Mormont.  Once he was a big shot in SECesteros, but he made some bad decisions along the way. Now he’s trying to work his way back up, by attaching himself to a classic name in the Kingdom:  Derekrys Dooleygaryen.  So far, it’s not working out too well.

Best case scenario:  UT returns to competitiveness, but still goes 8-4.   Dooley saves his job with a solid season and scores a big upset along the way somewhere.

Worst case scenario:  Tennessee was last in the SEC in rushing in 2011 by a large margin and then lost Tauren Poole.  The lack of a ground game dooms them against the tougher teams on the schedule and by November Vols fans are telling anyone who will listen, “Gee—it’s not like Bobbby Petrino murdered somebody…!”

Van and John think:  UT will be dangerous with Bray and those receivers but the competition in the East (!!) is too tough for them to do better than 7-5.


Vanderbilt Commodores

Coach:  The former coach-in-waiting at Maryland (and doesn’t that look good on a resume now?)

Mascot makes us think of:  Going down with the ship; Press gangs

Returning starters:  8 on offense, 7 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 29%; Rushing Yards: 6%; Receptions: 9%

Strength of schedule: 47th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  Road games are at Northwestern, Georgia, Missouri, Kentucky, Wake Forest and Ole Miss.  They avoid playing Bama, LSU and Arkansas.  They also take on Northwestern, Presbyterian, U Mass, and Wake Forest.  (Who the heck made that schedule? Only Vandy would play two road non-conference games.)  (Van notes: My father and grandfather went to Presbyterian. My grandfather got a divinity degree there, while my dad transferred to Auburn, starting the whole “War Eagle” thing with my family.  And with all of that, I had no idea Presbyterian even fielded a football team.)  And they play the season-opening Thursday night game against South Carolina.

Questions: Under new coach James Franklin Vanderbilt emerged from being the conference doormat to being a genuinely dangerous team (losing to Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in close games).  With so many returning starters can Vandy capitalize on that positive momentum?  Can they get a win against a ranked team this season? (They were 0-5 last year).

Game of Thrones character: Samwell Tarly.  Scholarly and not that competitive, usually, but can occasionally surprise a bigger opponent.   If SECesteros were a Fortune 500 company, he’d be running it.  Alas, this is football, and he’s getting beaten down like a tackling dummy.

Best case scenario:  Franklin continues to build something solid and the ‘Dores make it to a bowl game again.  Barely.

Worst case scenario:  Vandy starts slow with losses in 3 of its first 4 games (Carolina at home, Northwestern on the road, then in the 4th game at Georgia), and the team never recovers.

Van and John think:  James Franklin and his staff are doing an excellent job building up Vandy.  The East won’t be as top heavy as the West anytime soon, but it is going to have a lot of parity. And Vandy has a brighter short term future than Tennessee.  (Who’d have thought we’d ever say that??)


Kentucky Wildcats

Coach:  The Man who Beat UT without a Quarterback.

Mascot makes us think of:  Ashley Judd

Returning starters:  6 on offense, 5 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 1%; Rushing Yards: 11%; Receptions: 32%

Strength of schedule: 10th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  Road games are at Louisville, Florida, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.  They avoid playing LSU and bama.  They also take on Lousville, Kent State, Western Kentucky, and Samford out of conference.

Questions: UK went 5-7 last year, pulling out a win over UT at the end of the season.   With a much tougher schedule, how can they get better?  Where are the Randall Cobb-type players who scare other teams?

Game of Thrones character:  Petyr Baelish—Littlefinger.  Like Kentucky football, his real strengths lie in other areas.  He’s often underestimated, it’s dangerous to let down your guard around him, and his time would probably be better spent at the whorehouse/basketball arena than the football stadium.

Best case scenario: Kentucky plays better than it should and makes a bowl game, perhaps even pulling off a big upset along the way.

Worst case scenario:  What are the worst case scenarios for UK football?  No new threats emerge on offense; they lose all the games they’re expected to lose and slip up in one or two more; Joker’s seat gets as hot as Dooley’s before the season is over, and he’s jettisoned at the end of the year.

Van and John think:  Kentucky will be scrappy and competitive with the mid- to lower level teams it faces but it gets blown up by the top tier teams.  5-7 looks about right.


Missouri Tigers

Coach:  Gary Pinkel (who now joins Mark Richt as the longest tenured coach in the conference!)

Mascot makes us think of:   Clemson’s tiger mascot after a stint of rehab.

Returning starters:  6 on offense, 6 on defense

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 2%; Rushing Yards: 45%; Receptions: 45%   (Losing excellent junior-to-be running back Henry Josey to injury really hurts.)

Strength of schedule: 19th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele.  Road games are at South Carolina, Central Florida, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.  Not a cakewalk but not the toughest slate by any means.  They avoid playing LSU and Arkansas.  They also take on SE Louisiana, Arizona State, Central Florida and Syracuse out of conference.   (Note to the Missouri AD: this kind of adventurous out of conference scheduling may have worked in the Big 12, but in the future we want to see some crappy I-AA teams on here, stat!)

Questions: Missouri’s offense was outstanding last year.  They gained twice as many yards as some SEC teams and were very balanced.  With Josey out for the season, can the running game be as strong again?  How will Missouri’s brand of the spread work against SEC defenses?  Does the Missouri defense have the strength between the tackles to slow down SEC running backs?

Game of Thrones character:   Mance Rayder, King Beyond the Wall.  Outsiders, not generally taken seriously as a contender to the throne, but bringing a more dangerous group to the battle than anyone expected.   And here we thought the Night’s Watch was supposed to keep riffraff like this out of our conference! And we hear they do weird and unspeakable things on the other side of the Wall—like run the spread option!!

Best case scenario:  James Franklin (the quarterback, not the coach of Vandy) looks like the 4th best returning quarterback in the SEC and may move up that list.  With Georgia suffering from suspensions in the secondary, Franklin leads an upset in the SEC opener that sets the tone for a strong season and contention for the Eastern division title (the Aluminum Throne).

Worst case scenario:  The offense misses Josey and doesn’t work as well against SEC defenses.  The defensive line gets worn down as the season goes along.  They limp to the finish line at 6-6 and the old-timers all crow, “We told ya so!”

Van and John think:  First, Missouri is a better football team than most SEC fans think. They finished 8-5 last year and 10-3 the year before that.  They have beaten the other new team, Texas A&M, the last two years.  The Missouri offense may be the best in the SEC this season.  If not, it will be in the top three.

That’s the East.  Next up:  A Song of Turf and Pigskin, Volume Two: A Clash of SEC West Kings!

Related: Twitter Trooper Taylor Spy: A (Very Short) Novel of Espionage and ‘Crootin.

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.

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