SEC Previews

August 31, 2011

South Carolina Gamecocks preview

Filed under: 2011,South Carolina — Mac Thomason @ 5:24 pm

The 2010 season saw a breakthrough as the Gamecocks won 9 games on their way to their first SEC East Championship. The season was highlighted by wins over the division’s Big 3 (Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida), an upset over then #1 Alabama, and the 2nd year in a row of beating archrival Clemson. However, the season ended on a sour note as the team collapsed in the postseason, being routed in Atlanta by Auburn and losing again in the Peach Bowl to FSU. Most of last season’s players return as the team is favored to repeat as the division champions and is a legitimate contender to win the conference. In fact, USC is the only team in SEC history to return a 3,000 yard passer, a 1,000 yard rusher, and a 1,000 yard receiver. Steve Spurrier returns for his 7th season as the “Head Ball Coach.”
Offense

QB Stephen Garcia returns for his senior season as the 3rd year starter. After some offseason problems nearly got him kicked off the team, he managed to fulfill a set of requirements allowing him to return. Garcia has a chance to break some of the USC career passing records; a 20 TD season would break the career TD record of 62 held by Steve Taneyhill, and a big season would give him a chance to take the career passing record of Todd Ellis. He is the SEC active leader in virtually all of the major career passing categories, and spent much of last season among the nation’s leaders in passing efficiency before a late season slump. Nobody questions Garcia’s talent, but his decision making leaves something to be desired at times. A bit of a gunslinger, Garcia threw 14 INTs last season, and a disasterous 3 INT first half in the bowl game against FSU pretty much single-handedly lost the game. It is essential that Garcia reduces the turnover number and for him be a leader on and off the field, otherwise, there will be no championship season. Connor Shaw is the backup and doesn’t have much experience, playing mostly in a mop-up role last year.

RB Marcus Lattimore had one of the best freshman seasons in SEC history last year, rushing for over 1,100 yards on nearly 5 yards a carry, and winning the National Freshman of the Year award. He was money in the red zone as he broke the school’s single season record of 19 rushing touchdowns. Lattimore is on the short list for the Heisman Trophy, and if he remains healthy, will likely get 250 carries this season. He was a remarkable workhorse last year: He rushed 37 times for 182 yards against Georgia, 29 for 184 against Tennessee, and an astounding 40 times for 212 yards against Florida. Needless to say, he was the horse in the big games. Kenny Miles is the primary backup and is a capable runner in his own right. Speedster true freshman Shon Carson will also get a look.

WR Alshon Jeffery shattered the single season records last year, gaining over 1,500 yards on 88 receptions. He may not post numbers as high this season simply because the offense may rely more on Lattimore and also try to spread the ball around more. The other 2 starters are Ace Sanders, a diminutive player with a quick burst, and DL Moore, a solid possession receiver.

The offensive line showed improvement last year allowing the chance for some big offensive numbers, but there is still room for improvement. Beyond the starting 5, the depth chart is made of mostly untested freshmen and sophomores, so it is also thin.

Defense

The defensive line should be one of the top groups in the country this year. All-American Devin Taylor returns on one side, while Melvin Ingram also was among the conference’s sack leaders on the other side. As if that weren’t enough, the #1 recruit in the country Jadeveon Clowney is apparently not human, completely dominating fall practice, and the offense is having trouble getting plays off mostly because of him. Travian Robertson is a veteran tackle who is a 4th year starter on the inside and closes up everything there.

The linebackers look pretty solid, also. Shaq Wilson returns from a hamstring injury to anchor the corps. Devonte Holloman has moved from the starting position at safety to his more natural position at spur linebacker. Antonio Allen is the returning starter at that spur linebacker position and has played well, doing nothing to lose his job. Demario Jeffery is another solid linebacker who provides depth, as well as 6th year senior Rodney Paulk.

CB Stephon Gilmore, the 4th All-American on the team, anchors the secondary. Across the field from him is 3rd year starter Akeem Auguste who returns to his more natural CB position after spending a year at safety. DJ Swearinger returns to start at free safety. Perhaps the only question mark on the team is at strong safety, where converted CB Jimmy Legree is pencilled in as the starter.

Special Teams
USC loses kicker Spencer Lanning, who was a fine kicker for them for the past 3 years. Jae Wooten has reportedly kicked well in practice and looks to inherit the placekicker role as well as kickoffs. Joey Scribner-Howard and Patrick Fish are competing for the punting job.
The return game has been an emphasis in practice, as this has been a weakness throughout Spurrier’s tenure. Swearinger and Sanders have been returning kickoffs. Gilmore and Sanders have been returning punts. Freshmen Damiere Byrd and Bruce Ellington (a starter and leading scorer on the basketball team) may also get looks.

Schedule/Outlook
As usual, the SEC East schedule is among the toughest in the country. USC has to travel to UGA this season and has a road trip of death with road games at Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Arkansas in the middle of the season. They do get to host Florida and Clemson this year. If they win the division again they certainly will have earned it.

Anything less than 10 wins this season will be a disappointment with the buildup after last season. Essentially, with the personnel this team has, there is no reason to do less. This team should repeat as the division winners, is a legitimate contender for a conference title, and is a national championship darkhorse.

by braves14

August 24, 2011

Ole Miss Rebels preview

Filed under: 2011,Ole Miss — Mac Thomason @ 10:17 am

So last year I started of describing the returning starters on defense and how the defense would probably have to carry the offense because the offense lost its starting running back, the only 1000 receiver in Ole Miss history and starting quarterback. I don’t know how it would be possible to be more wrong. All it took was the first game to show I had no idea what I was talking about as the Rebels lost embarrassingly to Jacksonville State thanks to a defense that gave up 49 points. The same defense also gave up fifty points twice. And thirty points in two of its wins. All in all it was the most points surrendered by an Ole Miss team in a single season in team history.

OFFENSE

So lets move on and talk about the offense. Once again its two weeks from gameday and its still a three quarterback race. At least publicly three are in the race. Most seem to think its really a two quarterback race between Randall Mackey and Barry Brunetti. The presumable third QB is Zach Stoudt who started his career in Louisville, transferred to an Iowa junior college, and signed with Ole Miss in December in time to go through spring practice. He’s the pro style QB of the group and has a strong arm. Mackey and Brunetti are both read option QB’s and have outperformed Stoudt to this point. Mackey signed with the Rebels out of highschool but had to start in Junior College. He had an amazing career there leading to being named the 2009 National Junior College Association first team All American. Cam Newton was second. No one argues who is better though as Cam has a Heisman and Mackey redshirted. He has a smaller frame and is reportedly the better passer of the two. Brunetti signed with West Virginia out of high school but transferred in January to be closer to home and the NCAA granted him a waiver to play immediately because of a medical condition of his mother. Brunetti is the smartest of the three, runs the best, makes the best decisions and reads the defenses the best but throws the least impressive deep ball. All three went through spring practice making the lack of a names starter even more ominous of poor quarterback play for 2011. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Mackey was recently arrested, and Brunetti will be the starter.]

Depth returns as huge issue at receiver. Luckily there are bodies this year but they are all young bodies. The Rebels could easily end up starting two true freshman receivers for the majority of the year because they are faster and more athletic than the upper classmen. Three freshman will a battle between Tobias Singleton, Donte Moncrief, and Nick Brassell to become the go to guy. Of the returners Ja-Mes Logan is the most consistent, best route runner, and most likely to catch the ball of all the receivers. He’s not overly fast or athletic though. The most athletic receiver on the team from a year ago also redshirted in 2010. That is Vincent Sanders, who is struggling a bit to catch the ball. There is only one junior or senior receiver and that is senior slot receiver Derrick Herman who will help on special teams. Outside them you have one undersized receiver with great speed in Korvic Neat, and one with great height in Melvin Harris, who both are inconsistent in catching the ball.

Which could explain why the Rebels should lean on the running game early in 2011. First pre season third team All SEC running back Brandon Bolden returns. Bolden was 24 yards short of 1000 last year but still had an impressive 6.0 yards per carry average. Had the Rebels not spent the majority of the season playing catch up because of the defense he easily would have broken a thousand. Bolden is the all around back that excels in blocking, running through the tackles, around the tackles, and catching the ball. He was also the Rebels leading receiver last year with more catches than any of the wide receivers catching 32 passes for 344 yards. A good season and he breaks Deuce McAllister’s career rushing and touchdown marks. Behind him is scat back Jeff Scott, who should see a lot of carries and is a true home run threat. Enrique Davis is the back up running back and will get a lot of carries on goal line for a reason I’m not sure of. Devin Thomas and Nick Parker could see situational carries as well. HR Greer and EJ Epperson make up the fullbacks and both are solid blockers and catch the ball well.

The offensive line somehow returns nine starters. This is mostly because of injuries as multiple players rotated in and out over the season. The consistent starters were Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell at right and left tackle respectively. Both are multi year starters and are receiving some Pre Season All SEC accolades. Inside is where the Rebels rotated repeatedly in 2010 with Josh Tatum, Michael Brown, Patrick Junen, Alex Washington, Jared Duke all getting at least one start at guard and returning and both AJ Hawkins and Evan Swindall getting starts at center. By the end of the season Hawkins settled in at center and is slated to start again. The guard spots never fully settled last season with there actually being one other player getting a start who did not return. Matt Hall transferred from Arkansas, is a reported 6’9″ 340, and is in line to start at right guard. Left guard appears to be Patrick Junen but the race is not over there. All in all it’s a veteran line with plenty of experience that should help Bolden create some offense and a quarterback develop. Also better run blockers than pass blockers at this stage.

At tight end Ferbia Allen returns as the starter but is not exactly a major offensive weapon. Juco transfer Jamal Mosley brings a lot more athleticism and pass catching ability and should be a bigger factor in the offense. How much the Rebels will feature the tight end in 2011 remains to be seen and I imagine which QB ends up starting will dictate that.

Bottom line. The passing game is still a work in progress. Expect the Rebels to try and grind it out, run the ball, and control the clock at least in the early part. Nutt generally finds a way to put some sort of offense on the field despite having little to work with, including last year. He’ll presumably find something by the end of the year and it could look completely different by then depending on which quarterback falls out.

DEFENSE

I guess we have to talk about the defense now.

Last year it was expected that the defensive line would be the strength of the team. That proved to be horribly incorrect. While a number of veterans returned they never played to expectations. One of which was Kentrell Lockett because he torn his ACL after previous nagging injuries and he has successfully appealed to the NCAA for a sixth year. He will start again at defensive end and is hoped he will be the leader that he was in 2009. On the other side Wayne Dorsey has made leaps and bounds over the off season and looks to finally capitalize on the talent he brought out of the junior college ranks last year after struggling in major college football in 2010. Jason Jones is his main competition and he is solid against the run. Carlos Thompson and Gerald Rivers should also see some action on passing downs. Four defensive tackles graduated last year and only one player returns with experience, Justin Smith. Smith should play some but the expected starters at this point are redshirt freshman Carlton Martin and Juco transfer Uriah Grant. Neither are huge Terrance Cody style run stuffers but more athletic quick disruptive tackle types. The Rebels do have one large run stuffer in Juco transfer Gilbert Pena who should get a lot of snaps on short yardage and goal line situations. In obvious passing downs another redshirt freshman Byron Bennett has shown some ability to get after the passer from the tackle position. Talent is there on the line but it is very inexperienced outside Lockett so its hard to know what to expect.

The linebacker corps has even less experience and less depth. Mainly because the expected leader of the defense, DT Shackelford tore his ACL in spring practice and another expected starter was removed from the team for disciplinary reasons. There is potential DT could return late in the season but it is highly unlikely. Mike Marry provided depth last year and is probably the leader of the linebacking core this year. He could start at weak or in the middle depending on who else steps up. Redshirt freshman Ralph Williams is behind him the middle but would presumably start if Marry starts at weak side. Joel Kight is a returning starter from last season and will play on the strong side. He has plenty of speed for a linebacker but needs to find a little more consistency with his play. After those three the Rebels will either play true freshman or safeties in a hybrid look. One true freshman who does look to play a lot and could even start on the weakside in a relatively short period of time is Keith Lewis. The lack of experience and depth would be a greater concern if the Rebels played well at linebacker last year because the general consensus is they can not play worse than they did in 2012.

The secondary returns some players that look to have greatly improved from last season. Which is hopeful considering the Rebels were 11th in the conference in passing defense giving up 246 yards per game. (Granted they were also 11th in total defense, 12th in scoring defense, 12th in defensive pass efficiency, and 9th in rushing defense). So even a good deal of improvement may not be enough to be considered “average” or “mediocre.” Marcus Temple returns from last year after recovering from a sports hernia he played the season with. He’s in a dog fight with juco transfer Wesley Pendleton for one spot. The other spot is expected to be manned by Charles Sawyer who has reportedly had a great fall camp and really improved on his redshirt freshman season. Redshirt freshman Cliff Coleman and true freshman Senquez Golson will be the primary backups with Golson having a chance to take a starting spot if anyone falters. It would also not surprise anyone that the Rebels made a change at secondary coach and Keith Burns whose style appears to fit the personnel better. At safety Brishen Mathews and Damien Jackson look to be the starters with Frank Crawford, Ivan Nicholas, Cody Prewitt and Aaron Garbutt all seeing playing time in different packages. Again the Rebel fans are optimistic that the improved play they’ve heard about in the fall camp is present come gameday.

Bottom line. I made one of the worst predictions in modern day history stating, “The defense should be one of the better units in the SEC.” Instead the Rebels had the worst defense they have ever fielded in not only its modern history but its over a hundred year history. The optimistic feeling is they can not be that bad again. We hope. No one is expecting much.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Rebels return punter Tyler Campbell who had a solid sophomore season of driving the ball. He has all the leg strength in the world and can absolutely kill the ball. But he has to work on his hang time and directional punting to be more effective to avoid the net 20 yard punts when punting through the endzone. Kickoff specialist Andrew Ritter also returns. Again: great leg, when he keeps it in bounds. Which is not as often as one would expect from a kickoff specialist. Bryson Rose exceeded expectations and was a solid kicker for the Rebels. Not a huge leg but very consistent and should be a major asset again.

Bottom line. Everybody returns, Rose is solid, Campbell and Ritter have strong legs but don’t regularly make the most of them.

SCHEDULE

The Rebels got lucky with the schedule last year and completely bombed. This years schedule isn’t brutal but is definitely harder. They start with BYU at home who have a returning quarterback and good passing game. Conventional wisdom places the Rebels as under dogs as does Vegas. The other non conference games are Southern Illinois, Fresno State, and La Tech with Fresno on the road. As the Rebels proved by losing to Jacksonville State last year anything is possible. In the east they have Georgia at home, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt on the road. The high light of last season was either beating Fresno or Kentucky so maybe they can win one or both on the road this year. I fully expect the trend to continue with Vanderbilt where the Rebels are the only team to struggle against them in SEC play. They play LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas at home. I do not expect home field advantage to help. Auburn and Mississippi State conclude the road trips.

Looks like five games the Rebels have a chance in. That’s Vandy, Kentucky, Fresno, La Tech and Southern Illinois. By chance meaning possible and no in no way expected to win. In fact expect the Rebels to lose to one or two of those in the most horribly embarrassing way possible. Ole Miss can not beat Alabama when Alabama is bad (and they are good) so don’t expect much there. Same applies for Auburn. I expect Arkansas, Georgia and LSU to have too much talent to compete with though they give LSU a close loss. (Its what the Rebels do). BYU and MSU have offensive schemes that will make a victory doubtful but an upset could occur with the right extrinsic factors. Like a 99 degree day with 104 heat index.

Bottom line. Most of the tougher games are at home with most of the winnable games on the road. If we were a good team that would be great. As a team dreaming of winning six games that makes it that much tougher and harder to see them getting there.

So final prognostications.
I hate making predictions and feel like all it will do is doom the Rebels. I think a losing season is more than likely in order with 5-7 with one horrible loss in there that keeps the Rebels out of the Birmingham Bowl and dashing my dreams of vacationing in Alabama a plausible scenario.

– George

August 22, 2011

Georgia Bulldogs preview

Filed under: 2011,Georgia — Mac Thomason @ 6:28 pm

Georgia Bulldogs Season Preview

As Mark Richt enters his 10th season as Georgia head coach, the dean of SEC head coaches enters into a major crossroads, as the Dawgs are coming off two hugely disappointing seasons, finishing at 8-5 in 2009 and then below .500 at 6-7, in 2010. Even the 2008 season, in which Georgia finished at 10-3, was a disappointment coming off an ‘07 season that saw Georgia win it’s last 8 games in a row and finishing #2 overall. The Dawgs entered 2008 pre-season #1…and ended the year in the Capital One Bowl playing an average Michigan State team.

Unfortunately, Richt is firmly on the hot seat and if Georgia doesn’t show significant improvement this year, there’s a very good chance the guy running Alabama’s defense will be Georgia’s next head coach.

Keep in mind that Richt has two SEC championships and a 96-34 overall record as head coach, so the guy has earned a lot of good will. But he also has the dubious distinction of being the last guy to win an SEC Championship (2005) that didn’t also win the BCS National Cgampionship.

Offense

At Quarterback, the #1 reason for optimism this year is that Georgia comes to the table with arguably the best Quarterback in the SEC in Aaron Murray. Despite the 6-7 finish, Murray was the top rated Freshman passer in the country, and with the exception of a bad bowl performance, Murray had a completion % of 62%, threw 24 touchdowns to only 8 INTs, and 2,851 passing yards. He also rushed for 4 TDs. Murray was 2nd in SEC history for a Freshman with 3,216 total yards of offense.Overall, he was ranked 14th in the country in passer rating efficiency and finished with a Quarterback rating of 162.72.

When the best player on your team, potentially, is your Quarterback, then good things are bound to happen. Behind Murray, the Dawgs have a solid #2 QB in Hutson Mason and recruited one of the most highly touted Freshman in the country, Christian Lemay, who’s good enough to play now.

At receiver, Murray loses A.J. Green to the NFL. A.J. was the best receiver in the SEC and if you factor in the 4 games he was forced to miss based on a bad ruling by the NCAA for a jersey selling incident, Green was easily the best receiver in the country. It wasn’t an accident that he was the first receiver off the board in the NFL Draft in April (4th overall to Cinncinati) – that’s quite a horse to replace.

But Murray has weapons. Not only will Murray be better and no A.J. will give him the opportunity to spread the ball around, but Georgia also has back Murray’s Tampa high school teammate and one of the best tight ends in the country, Orson Charles. Charles figures to become a top target for Murray, especially in the red zone. In addition, Murray should also have another key weapon outside with Junior Tavarres King, who should be a dangerous deep threat. No, he’s not AJ Green but few receivers ever are AJ Green. The Dawgs will be looking at a number of receivers to step up and fill the void behind King and Charles, including Junior Marlon Brown, a lanky 6-5 receiver who was a 5-star recruit but hasn’t yet lived up to the billing, as well as redshirt sophomore Rontavious Wooten. The Dawgs are deep at tight end. After Charles, Georgia has Junior Arthur Lynch (who could start on most teams) and the most highly touted freshmen tight end in the nation, Jay Rome. But the guy that’s been getting the most audible gasps in practice is freshman Malcolm Mitchell, who’s such an unbelievable athlete, he might be on the field in the opener.

At running back, Georgia’s in “high risk, high reward” territory. The Dawgs top 2 rushers from a year ago, Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, are both gone from the program. They were two of the biggest headaches for Richt and two guys who didn’t want to get into the Dawgs new culture and attitude around Butts Mehre these days. But that’s a lot of production to replace. Stepping in to fill the void is the #1 running back recruit in the country, freshman Isaiah Crowell, who famously pulled out a white, English Bulldog puppy on signing day, to announce his intention to sign with Georgia. With all the attrition, Richt will need Crowell to step up, along with senior Richard Samuel, who was forced back to RB with the personnel changes (he had switched to linebacker).

If the offensive line stays healthy, it has the chance to be very, very good under new OL coach Will Friend. Led by Center Ben Jones and left tackle Cordy Glenn. Both have all America potential. The bad news is Georgia lost 4 guys along the offensive line. They graduated Josh Davis, Chris Davis and Clint Boling (who like AJ Green, was drafted by the Bengals), and the most tragic loss was Trinton Sturdivant, at one time was potentially the best left tackle in the nation, and was now lost for a 3rd straight season to reconstructive knee surgery.

The OL starting 5 will be very stout and effective, led by Jones and Glenn. The issue for Georgia is if any of the line starters goes down for significant time as their isn’t much depth behind them. The line took a major hit last month when former 5-star recruit Brent Benedict transferred to Virginia Tech because he couldn’t handle Georgia’s harsh new S&C program. (ahem, pu**y).

Defense

The biggest reason Georgia fans have so much optimism in 2011 is actually because of the revamped defense.

2010 was a rough year all the way around, as Georgia was breaking in a new Defensive Coordinator, Todd Grantham, who switched the Dawgs from thr 4-3 they had under Willie Martinez, to the 3-4. However, for the 3-4 to actually work, you have to have the horses. A perfect example was the 2009-2010 Alabama defense that had a massive nose tackle in Terrence Cody, that could eat up a ton of space (and block the sun).

Because there wasn’t a Cody lying around the locker room for Grantham, he was forced to play end Deangelo Tyson out of position at tackle, and Tyson couldn’t give the Dawgs what they needed. Enter JUCO transfer John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers.

As Georgia fans got to witness in our G-Day spring game, the new beasts up front are stirring memories of the days when Georgia had Marcus Stroud and Richard Seymour upfront. Jenkins, in particular, is mammoth and coming in as a JUCO transfer, many feel he can do for the Dawgs up front what Cody did for Bama in 2009, and Nick Fairley did (albeit a lot dirtier) for Auburn in 2010.

With Jenkins and Geathers eating space, Tyson moves to his natural position at end, where he’s back to excelling. The other starter at the end position is Abry Jones, who had 34 tackles last year. There’s strong depth as the talented duo of Derrick Lott and former 5-star recruit Garrison Smith are backing up the positions.

At Linebacker, this is another position that Georgia’s about to have massive improvement from last year to this year. Enter USC transfer Jarvis Jones. Jones started as a freshman for the Trojans before injuring his neck in a game with Oregon two seasons ago. Jones is an absolute terror and has been terrorizing people in practice. Jones starts at inside linebacker with Cornelius Washington, who started 8 games and had 24 tackles last year.

At inside linebacker, the Dawgs have two potential All Americans with defensive captain Christian Robinson and the guy who may be one of the best defensive players in the country this year (call it a breakout party for him), Alec Ogletree. Ogletree has been destroying people in practice and athletically, one of the most gifted players on the team. So while national publications don’t seem to know a lot about our defense, Georgia has 3 potential All Americans starting at linebacker.

Georgia did take a hit losing ILB Akeem Dent and star Justin Houston. Houston was an absolute terror for Georgia in 2010, one of the few defensive bright spots last year. But this overall unit stands to be a lot stronger.

The secondary is led by one of the fastest players in the SEC, Senior Brandon Boykin, at cornerback. despite being just 5-10, Boykin is a ballhawk and a speed demon and one of the defensive players who is getting attention from the national services. Starting at the other corner spot is Junior Sanders Commings, a solid veteran player who’s been consistent during his time with the Dawgs.

Junior Shawn Williams has opened a ton of eyes this summer and will be a starter at one of the safety spots. Williams was expected to battle 2010 JUCO transfer Jakar Hamilton, but Williams had already beaten Hamilton out when Jakar went down with a season ending injury last week. The other starting safety is Baccari Rambo, who’s been inconsistent, but when he’s on, he makes big plays. He’s expected to really put it all together now in his Junior season.

One guy to keep a close eye on is return specialist and former 5-star recruit Branden Smith. Smith is (besides Boykin) arguably the fastest guy on the team and Smith could become a starter, early on. Grantham will work him in for sure.

Special Teams

Georgia returns the top kicking duo in the nation, with placekicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler. They are both seniors, experienced and the best at their positions, not just in the SEC, but nationally. Butler will have a chance to pin opponents back everytime he punts, while Walsh can chip from 60+, everytime out. Quite an advantage for the Dawgs.

The top return man is Brandon Boykin, who will return kickoffs. Last year, Boykin had a 100 yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Kentucky. Branden Smith will likely be the lead force to return on punts and he’s a threat to score, anytime the ball is in his hands.

Schedule

Georgia has an interesting schedule. The first two weeks are brutal. We open the season in the Chick Fil-A Kickoff classic agaisnt top 5 ranked Boise State, and host the favorites in the east in week 2, South Carolina. After that, the schedule gets more manageable & the Dawgs are lucky enough to avoid the 3 best teams in the west this year, Bama, LSU and Arkansas.

Even the tougher opponents (like Carolina) and teams like Miss State and Auburn, all come to Athens. The Florida game this year finally has a BYE week. Not only will Florida be down with a new coaching staff and a new system (plus an average Quarterback) but the last time we had a BYE before Florida, 2007, we won the game going away and sacked Tebow 6 times. The biggest road games are against Ole Miss and Tennessee, neither of which is expected to be legit contenders.

Outlook

The word out of Athens is that the intensity, the training level, the attitude, everything has changed for the better in 2011. A lot of it stems from the man on top, Coach Richt, who knows this is a make or break year for him and he’s coach kids love and want to win for.

While it seems crazy to predict a an SEC East Championship coming off a 6-7 season, I have no qualms about doing so and with 100% confidence, I am predicting the Dawgs win the SEC East and return to the Georgia Dome in December (against Alabama). Since I am not going crazy and saying 12-0 regular season, this is a confident, talented, and reborn football team and after Georgia wins their bowl game, that will be their 11th win of the season.

– Alex R.

August 15, 2011

Alabama Crimson Tide Preview

Filed under: 2011,Alabama — Mac Thomason @ 8:00 am

The progress that the Alabama program has made in what really is a short period of time under Nick Saban can best be demonstrated by a 10-3 season being a major disappointment. After starting the year ranked #1, the season went off the rails in Columbia with a dispirited loss to South Carolina, followed by come-from-ahead losses to LSU and most painfully Auburn. But expectations are high again; this year, the Tide starts ranked #2.

Offense

Alabama loses five starters on offense; three of them were first-round draft picks, and a fourth was a two-year starting quarterback with a national championship on his resume. The passing game will have to be basically rebuilt with the loss of a record-breaking receiver who had more than twice as many catches as anyone else on the team, and while the offensive line returns four starters, the one graduate played the most important position on the line and there’s no experienced backup. It turns out that the one guy that the Tide can most easily replace is the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner.

At quarterback, there is no clear frontrunner to replace Greg McElroy between 2010 backup AJ McCarron, a sophomore, and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. McCarron has more “experience”, in the form of 48 passes last year in mostly mopup duty, plus one desperation drive against Auburn when McElroy was hurt. Sims was the top quarterback recruit in the country two years ago (though it was considered a down year for quarterbacks) and is probably the more physically talented player. Nick Saban is perfectly capable of pretending to have a job battle going on while knowing all along who the starter is, but from all appearances this is still an open race. I expect that it won’t be until at least the second week of the season, at Penn State, that someone is formally the primary quarterback. The third-stringer, for now, is Blake Sims (no relation) who was recruited as an “athlete” and expected at the time to move to the defensive backfield, but who has been impressive in practice.

At running back, Mark Ingram’s departure makes Trent Richardson the main man; considering the situation in the passing game, the offense will primarily ride Richardson, at least early in the year. It is a measure of Richardson’s ability, and his performances as a backup, that a player with two career starts is on the Heisman Trophy short list to start the season. Despite missing two games, Richardson rushed for 719 yards last season. He’s a rare blend of speed and power, and has thrived in the passing game as a receiver and blocker; he doesn’t have quite Ingram’s instincts but he’s got more than enough. The top backup would appear to be Eddie Lacy, a redshirt sophomore who also has loads of talent but maybe not the moves of a top-flight running back. Depth is a moderate concern after some transfers and an injury to true freshman Dee Hart, who had moved up the depth chart and was perhaps even challenging Lacy. The third-string right now is Jalston Fowler, a pure power back who got limited carries in 2010, followed by Brent Calloway, a true freshman who could move up quickly. Blake Sims could also move here if there is a rash of injuries. Alabama rarely utilizes a fullback except in sporadic goalline situations; last year, Fowler filled that role.

At wide receiver, Julio Jones’ departure for the NFL doesn’t necessarily mean all the Tide passing game is gone with him, but it takes a big chunk. Jones dominated the receiving charts last year, catching 78 passes for 1133 yards; the new top receiver, senior Marquis Maze, was second on the team with 38 and 557. Maze is better suited for a secondary role, as he lacks the desired size for a #1 receiver, at least in Alabama’s pro-style offense, but he’s a three-year starter with a history of making some tough catches, and has had a few games where he stepped up when Jones was shut down. The #2 receiver would be senior Darius Hanks, a co-starter with Maze the last couple of years, coming off of a 32 catch season of his own. Hanks will miss the first two games due to some NCAA regulatory sillyness. This only opens the door wider for DeAndrew White, a redshirt freshman who has been the talk of fall camp; not a day goes by where he isn’t getting praised by Saban and/or his teammates. White appears to be the starter to begin the season, and if he performs as expected Hanks may not get the job back. It was hoped that JUCO transfer Duron Carter, son of Cris, could move right into the rotation, but he has been having problems with admission and it’s not clear yet when and if he will be cleared. Senior Brandon Gibson has been tantalizing in practice but doing very little in games for a couple of years now; he had only four receptions last year. There are also some underclassmen, Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell, with a little game experience but not much production.

Alabama’s base package alternates between three receivers and two tight ends. One tight end spot is fixed, as junior Michael Williams returns as the starter. Williams is primarily a blocker, though he did have eight catches last year; he has good hands but isn’t really fast enough to get downfield. At the H-back slot, the Tide must replace Preston Dial, who was fourth on the team in catches last season and served as McElroy’s security blanket. The best passcatcher among returnees is Brad Smelley, who was in the rotation last year in some passing situations, but he so far hasn’t been enough of a blocker to stay in the lineup. Chris Underwood played in every game last year, mostly in short-yardage situations, and if he can show pass-catching skills in practice could win the job. Or redshirt freshman Brian Vogler, a top recruit last season, could move in.

On the offensive line, the main task this offseason was replacing two-year starter and first-round NFL pick James Carpenter at left tackle. In the past, the coaching staff has tended to move linemen around to get the best five on the field, and in this case the decision was made to put the best lineman at the most important position, shifting Barrett Jones from right guard to left tackle. Anthony Steen, who started two games in Jones’ place during an injury last year, seems settled in at the right guard spot. The other three positions will, barring injury or other issues, be stable. Junior Chance Warmack will return at left guard, where he was okay in his first year as a starter in 2010. Senior William Vlachos returns for his third year as a starter at center; he wasn’t quite as good in 2010 as in 2009, but he’s one of the rocks of the offense. And sophomore DJ Fluker moved in immediately at right tackle last year and was outstanding, particularly in the running game. There’s a fair amount of depth now. True freshman Cyrus Kouandjio should be the backup at left tackle, and if impressive enough could free up Jones to move back inside. His brother Arie, a redshirt freshman, looks like the top backup at the other tackle. Senior Alfred McCullough has backed up all over the line and started a little, but is a natural guard and will probably play there. Only at center is there no clear backup, though there’s some talent there; Jones has actually worked as the backup during fall practice.

Defense

Ten starters return from the SEC’s top defense, and expectations are high that this one could be something special. There are some doubts along the offensive line, but most of a strong linebacking corps, and all of a surprisingly good young defensive backfield, return. The defense even showed, late in the year, an ability to get to the quarterback, which has been a problem in the Saban era. If a good line rotation can be found, the defense could carry this team a long way.

There’s probably no part of the team where there’s as big of a gap between how highly touted the recruits were and how much they’ve actually produced as on the defensive line. The most accomplished member of the line is probably fifth-year senior nose tackle Josh Chapman, but he’s a support player, not a playmaker, and last year the dropoff from Terrance Cody to Chapman was noticeable, especially against the run. Behind Chapman, there Nick Gentry, a rush specialist too light to be an every-down player and a couple of raw recruits, redshirt freshman Brandon Ivory and massive JUCO transfer Jesse Williams, and it would help immensely if one of the latter two could step up. At end, one starter will definitely be junior Damian Square, who played regularly but not spectacularly last year coming back from a knee injury. If Square’s explosiveness returns in his second year after surgery, it would go a long way to replacing Marcel Dareus. There’s no telling who will wind up starting at the other end position, perhaps converted linebacker Ed Stinson, or JUCO transfer Quentin Dial. The most impressive player among the linemen, at least physically, might be true freshman LaMichael Fanning, but he is considered a character risk. Quite likely, in passing situations the only two true linemen on the field will be Square and Gentry, as last year it was Dareus and Gentry.

A big reason for the latter is the talent returning at linebacker, led by seniors Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, who would be the ends in pass-rush situations. Inside linebacker Hightower returned from a major knee injury last year looking overweight and sluggish, but as the season went on his mobility and playmaking improved. Outside backer Upshaw was slowed by ankle problems early on but by the end of the season was the team’s top playmaker, and led the way with seven sacks. At the inside position opposite Hightower, the Tide utilized a platoon of run-stopper Nico Johnson and coverage specialist CJ Mosley much of last season. Mosley has bulked up a little to help against the run and may be the team’s next big defensive star, while Johnson is not that bad of a pass defender really. Jerell Harris seems to be the frontrunner at the one open position, the outside linebacker spot opposite Upshaw, but the senior Harris has never really lived up to his considerable talents. Someone else, perhaps Alex Watkins, could take the job, or they could choose to shuffle Mosley, or inside backup Chris Jordan, outside to get the four best LBs on the field at the same time.

Last year, the defensive backfield looked like a woefully inexperienced possible weakness. As it turned out it played as well as could possibly be expected, and throwing the younger players into the fire led to a now very experienced and deep crew. Some remarkably early projections have junior Dre Kirkpatrick as the top cornerback in this year’s draft, which is interesting because Saban considers senior De’Quan Menzie the team’s top corner. Menzie came back amazingly quickly from an achilles tendon injury to play in all but one game last year. He was limited to nickel duty, but this year will move into the starting lineup. Kirkpatrick has the ideal size and speed looked for in a modern corner, and was the team’s top cover man last year with Menzie limited, and together they give the Tide a strong starting pair. Backing them up and supplementing them in nickel packages (which will probably be half the time or more) will be DeMarcus Milliner. Thrown to the wolves as a true freshman last year, he was pretty good if occasionally victimized as freshman corners will be. Behind them, senior Phelon Jones and sophomore John Fulton will battle it out for dimeback duty, though both will play.

A year ago, the idea that safety might be the strongest position on the 2011 team would have seemed very unlikely. But then Mark Barron wound up returning for his senior year, and Robert Lester suddenly materialized as a force at the other position. Barron probably would have gone pro after a stellar season in which he led the team in tackles, but tore a pectoral muscle against Auburn and was going to be unable to participate fully in pre-draft workouts. An All-America candidate, he’s one of the leaders of the team. Lester, originally thought of as just positional depth and a buddy for high school teammate Julio Jones, won the other safety position basically by default, then went on to lead the conference with eight interceptions. He’s still a work in progress in some parts of the game, but his ballhawking skills and athleticism definitely come in handy. Behind them last year was former walkon Will Lowery, but he might be supplanted by top recruit Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix.

Special Teams

Even more than the secondary, special teams had to be replaced top to bottom in 2010. The results were okay, nothing special. The Tide employed a kicking platoon of Jeremy Shelley on short field goals and extra points and Cade Foster on long kicks and kickoffs. It worked pretty well. Shelley was 10 of 14 on field goals and missed only one PAT, and Foster hit 7 of 9 field goals, including 5 of 6 from 40 to 49 yards, and had ten touchbacks. Cody Mandell handled the punting, and showed occasional signs of having a big leg that could be a weapon, but was inconsistent and didn’t improve as the season went on. McCarron was the holder on kicks last season; if he is the starting quarterback, he potentially could be replaced.

The primary kickoff return man last season was Richardson, and the primary punt return man was Maze. Whether the team would use their top back and top receiver in those roles is unknown, though Richardson is probably more likely to be replaced. There are a number of fast players who could take over the role if needed.

Schedule

The usual SEC gauntlet supplemented by a usual Saban nonconference schedule of one high-profile opponent (Penn State) and three fresh cupcakes (Kent State, North Texas, and Georgia Southern), with the only variant from the usual that the Penn State game is on the road instead of neutral or in Tuscaloosa. In the SEC, Vandy replaces South Carolina in the cycle, which is obviously a much easier matchup on paper. The Commodores will visit Tuscaloosa, along with Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU; the Tide goes on the road to Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and most critically Auburn.

Outlook

It seems impossible that anyone could navigate an SEC schedule well enough to qualify for the BCS championship game, but it keeps happening, and most observers seem to think that if it happens this year Alabama or LSU will be the team… And Alabama gets LSU at home this year. The schedule is easier than last year’s, because of the replacement of USC with Vandy and because fewer teams will have a bye week before playing the Tide this time. It’s still a bear, if you forgive the expression, and a lot of the “easiness” is mitigated by the Penn State and Florida games now being on the road. The Tide can get back to the championship, but will need some luck, particularly avoiding major injuries to playmakers on offense (especially Trent Richardson), and will need the passing game to gel. They’re as good of a pick as anyone in the SEC West or nationally.

August 12, 2011

Tennessee Volunteers Preview

Filed under: 2011,Tennessee — Mac Thomason @ 3:39 pm

The Volunteers look to rebound from a 6-7 season that saw some crazy officiating probably cost them games against LSU and the Music City
Bowl against UNC (Ultimately, the UNC game will probably become a win for the Vols.)

The 2010 Vols were a young team with very little depth. They hung tough with Oregon, Florida and Alabama for a little over a half before the lack of depth eventually was too much to overcome. That’s what happens when you are on your third coach in three years.

Offense

This unit is full of young talent that really started to show promise by the end of the season.

Sophomore Tyler Bray is going to start at quarterback. There is no doubt that Bray has a big time arm and a lot of upside. He has great accuracy and can throw the deep ball as well as anyone in the conference. However, Bray also is known for trying to throw the ball through defenders, Brett Favre style, and can turn the ball over a little more than you would like to see. Plus, he really needs to gain some weight.

Senior Tauren Poole played well early on last season, but really fell off by the end of the year. The Vols really need him to step up. Rajon Neal and Marlin Lane will see lots of action. Lane is a freshman and has been one of the stars early in preseason camp.

Tennessee has two big threats at wide receiver in sophomores Justin Hunter and DaRick Rogers. Hunter and Rogers might be the best receiving tandem in the conference. Zach Rogers will get a shot to win a job in the slot with freshman DeAnthony Arnett pushing him for playing time. Mychal Rivera is going to start at tight end, his sister is on ‘Glee,’ if anyone cares.

The most solid unit on the team is the offensive line, lead by junior Dallas Thomas at left tackle. The rest of the line is sophomores who played a lot of big minutes last season.

Defense

This unit is still of the ball is still a work in progress. The DBs should be good, but the inside game still needs a lot of work.

I would imagine the front four will be Jacques Smith, Maurice Couch, Malik Jackson and Willie Bohannon. All are very talented, but there are some injury concerns and some depth issues.

The linebacker unit seems to be the weakest on the team. Herman Lathers is the LB Tennessee has and he is out until at least the Buffalo game. Austin Johnson, Greg King and Daryl Vereen will really have to step it up. Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson are two freshman that could see a lot of time early.

Tennessee is very deep in the secondary. Brent Brewer and Janzen Jackson will start at safety, they might be the hardest hitting safeties Tennessee has had in a decade. Anthony Anderson, Prentiss Waggner and Justin Coleman will all get lots of time on the field.

Special Teams

This is another unit of concern for Tennessee. Michael Palardy will be the place kicker and maybe the punter if Matt Darr doesn’t play well.

Schedule

Tennessee opens with Montana and then hosts Cincinnati and probably will be undefeated going to Gainesville. October starts off with Buffalo then gets difficult with UGA, LSU, at Bama and South Carolina. Tennessee closes with MTSU, at Arkansas, Vandy and at Kentucky.

I think the likely wins are Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, MTSU, Vandy and Kentucky.

I think the Vols sneak up on two of Florida, UGA, LSU, Carolina or Arkansas. I’ll say Florida and LSU.

I don’t see the Vols beating Bama in Tuscaloosa. 8-4 would probably sent them to the Cotton Bowl or the Outback Bowl. A nine win season isn’t improbable and would net a lot of big praise on Dooley. This team could easily go anywhere from 6-7 to 10-3 and win the SEC East (which is wide open). In reality, Tennessee is probably still a year away from being a legitimate contender in the East.

– Smitty

September 3, 2010

2010 Ole Miss Rebels

Filed under: 2010,Ole Miss — Mac Thomason @ 2:19 pm

Its a weird year in Oxford. A lot of good players return from what was a very solid defense last year. They were 4th in total and scoring defense in the SEC. But on the flip side they lost a lot of the offense including the first 1,000 yard receiver in school history, Shay Hodge, the first 1,000 rusher and 500 yard receiver in SEC history, Dexter McCluster, all three interior lineman, and a guy who had 20 touchdown passes, Jevan Snead (and also had 20 interceptions). The fanbase is cautiously optimistic we won’t be terrible, but cautious is the key word as we’ve sold about 5,000 fewer season tickets this year.

OFFENSE

At quarterback its one of three options and I somewhat expect all three to play in varied amounts. The man that everybody’s watching to see if he’ll start (I’ll do the joke for you “or steal something”) and if he’ll be effective in the SEC is Oregon transfer Jeremiah Masoli. He’s touted as a former Heisman candidate but I don’t think he was a serious candidate. The SEC’s also a much stronger league with much tougher defenses than the PAC 10. Masoli’s even acknowledged the big upgrade on the defensive side in interviews. Still he’s getting good reviews from everyone that’s seen practice for his poise in the face of a blitz, ball security, and ability to make something happen when the play breaks down. He’s a very effective runner and the early word is he’s be running a similar offense to the one Houston Nutt used for Matt Jones while at Arkansas. Still he has his limitations so there will be at least a two quarterback system with sophomore Nathan Stanley quarterbacking the pro-style offense. And that’s if the NCAA approves Masoli’s waiver. [Added: they didn't, then they did. -- MT] Stanley’s strength is throwing deep ball and he’s got good touch on the ball. Will hold on to the ball too long and take a sack at times. Oddly he’s the youngest and least experienced of the quarterbacks but the only one to go through spring training or take a snap for the Rebels last year. Nutt has said that if opening day was today Stanley would be the starter. Finally there is Juco All American Randall Mackey who another great runner. He’s an accurate passer if he throws on the run but does not run the offense well if he stays in the pocket. His lack of height is very detrimental here as is the lack of experience taking snaps directly from center. He’s third on the depth chart and one day it sounds like he will see snaps in the Wildcat formations and other packages. The next it sounds like he could redshirt all together. And then it sounds like he’ll have to play if Masoli’s transfer waiver is not approved. Honestly with Masoli arriving as late as he did the whole offense, but especially the passing game, is still a work in progress.

Depth is a huge issue at receiver. Its hard to say who’s really going to get the ball much since only two guys return that have played meaningful snaps. I fully expect us to rely on the running game primarily this year. The main returning wide receiver is senior Markeith Summers who’s been a solid player for the last three years mainly serving as the deep threat but never been a standout. He’s got the tools to be a solid receiver and the coaches are asking a lot from him this year to step up an be the leader of the group. The other receiver who returns with experience is Lionel Brauex. Not much is expected from him other than to be the usual fourth or fifth receiver as he has been his whole career. The breakout guy in fall camp has been redshirt sophomore Melvin Harris. Harris is very tall and was signed years ago as a red zone threat. His first two years he really struggled with his hands. This fall something clicked and now he’s catching the ball and making great plays with it. During the scrimmages he’s completely outperformed expectations by being more than a possession receiver and breaking long plays and making plays after the catch. However its yet to be seen if he’ll be able to do it in live games. True sophomore Jesse Grandy will start at the slot position and is the most explosive receiver. After these three its really a grab bag of converted tailback Korvic Neat, converted defensive back Derrick Herman, and true freshman Vincent Sanders.

At running back we lose Dexter so there is going to be a significant drop off. Doubtful there is another running back with his explosiveness. If there is one its true freshman Jeff Scott who has really impressed the coaches during fall camp. He will not start but its sound more and more like he’s going to get a lot of carries and be the primary change of pace back. The starter will be Brandon Bolden who has started off and own the last two years. He’s a solid back who does everything well but nothing at an elite level. Behind him is former blue chip recruit and fellow junior Enrique Davis. Davis has not lived up to the billing the first two years and barely played as a sophomore. The coaches are saying that he’s finally improved his flexibility and he’s prepared to finally break out. Devin Thomas looks to also get carries in special formations, which I would assume is the option sets with Masoli.

The offensive line returns two and a half starters. I say two and a half because junior right guard Rishaw Johnson started about half the games last year before being suspended for the remainder of the year for team rules violations. However, he’s the best run blocker on the team. Right tackle Bobby Massie returns and is expected to be a solid player. Bradley Sowell also returns at left tackle. He struggled initially last year in his first attempt as a starting left tackle in the SEC. However he greatly improved as the season went on and this fall he’s become the most consistent offensive lineman and the leader of the group. Center is still not settled with Evan Swindall and AJ Hawkins battling back and forth to become the starter. One reportedly has trouble snapping but is the better blocker. Nutt has said its his biggest concern right now. Left guard for now appears to be Alex Washington. There is some depth here but its all very young and inexperienced. Ferbia Allen will start at tightend. Last year he was essentially an extra lineman. This year the coaches have indicated they will throw to him more but that remains to be seen. There is virtually no depth at tightend in part because Orgeron never signed an eligible one in in three seasons.

Bottom line. The offense is a work in progress that does not return many play makers. Hopefully some will emerge as the season progresses but I’m not expecting a lot of points.

DEFENSE

The defensive line is the absolute strongest part of the team. Of course this is the only position that Orgeron could recruit at all so it makes sense that this is where all of the veteran leadership and experience resides. Senior folk hero defensive tackle Jerrell Powe returns and is getting some publicity as a potential first round draft pick next April. Behind him at nose guard is senior Ted Laurent who would start for most of the teams in the SEC and is also getting praise as a potential NFL guy. Defensive tackle also has two seniors in Lawon Scott and LaMark Armour. Scott has started the last couple of years and is very solid in stopping the running game. At end the player that is possibly the leader of the defense is Kentrell Lockett. He’s started for a couple of years as well and is very disruptive. The other end spot is maned by JUCO transfer Wayne Dorsey who has gotten a lot of praise from the coaches that he belongs with the rest of the starters. The depth is not as experienced at end as it is at tackle with the next two being a redshirt sophomore and a greyshirt freshman. The coaches like the potential of both they just don’t have the experience. All in all though this is a group that could compete with anyone in the conference outside Alabama and Florida. The rest of the team couldn’t. But the defensive line could.

The linebacker corps also returns a lot of experience and should be one of the team assets. This group is not loaded with future high draft picks like the line is but it does have solid SEC players who have started for three years in middle linebacker Jonathan Cornell and strong side linebacker Allen Walker. The other starter is true sophomore Joel Kight who got a lot of playing time in reserve last year. The most talented of all is sophomore DT Shackelford who is considered a starter by the coaches and plays all three positions. Outside DT the backups are true freshmen that the coaches like the potential from but we hope they don’t have to be counted on to start.

The weak spot on the defense, at least initially, will be in the secondary where the Rebels have to replace three starters including both cornerbacks. They have two veterans in Marcus Temple and Jeremy MacGee slated to start at this point. However redshirt freshman Charles Sawyer has the most talent at the position just lacks the experience. Its expected that he will be a starter by the time SEC play opens. Behind him the coaches are still searching for a fourth corner between a converted safety, Frank Crawford, who has a lot of promise but is very raw and a true freshman, Tony Grimes, who’s got a lot of ability but was cleared late. Johnny Brown returns at strong safety and he’s a solid player with plenty of experience but is not an elite All SEC type. Free safety was won by default when Fon Ingram hurt his knee causing him to miss the first three games. Instead it will be Juco transfer Damien Jackson who has looked very good in spring and fall camps. He’s probably got the most ability of all three but doesn’t have the experience of trying to cover SEC receivers and is still a work in progress. The fourth safety is a name to remember. Not necessarily because of his talent, although it looks like he’ll be a pretty good player. No because true freshman Brishen Mathews looks like either Jesus or Bo Bice. Take your pick. But there will be many a message board joke about Mathews before the season is over so this is your chance to jump on that early.

Bottom line. The defense should be one of the better units in the SEC especially if the offense does not leave it on the field all day. I fully expect the team to lean on the defense all season and try to win a lot of low scoring games with field position and avoiding turnovers.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Rebels return punter Tyler Campbell who had a pretty good freshman season. Averaged over 40 yards per punt. Has worked on directional punting and increasing his hang time during the off season. Kickoff specialist Andrew Ritter also returns. If a kickoff specialist can be solid I guess he was last year and is expected to be again. The Rebels lost to graduation a four year starter at kicker, and he is replaced by redshirt sophomore Bryson Rose. Rose has looked good in practice in mid-range and in kicks in practice. Nobody expects many long kicks out of him. Remains to be seen if he can perform under the pressure of thousands of fans and big time SEC opponents.

Bottom line. Campbell better be ready this year because they are counting on him to flip field position and help the defense. Same with Ritter. With the expectations on offense Rose will have to hit the manageable field goals to win the close games that we hope the defense keeps us in. If he falters it could be a rough season.

SCHEDULE

The Rebels got a bit lucky in the scheduling department this year. Of the non-conference opponents they face Jacksonville State, Tulane, La-Lafayette, and Fresno State. All but Tulane at home. Fresno is easily considered the toughest of them and the Rebels get in the Mississippi heat during the fourth game of the season. The Rebels should win the other three. Ole Miss also draws about as favorable Eastern Division slate as can be asked of with Vandy, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Vandy and Kentucky are also at home. Granted each have beaten Ole Miss in recent years and could very well do it again. But on paper it is more favorable than playing South Carolina, Georgia or Florida. This makes the first five games of Jacksonville State, at Tulane, Vandy, Fresno and Kentucky very manageable with four at home. It should also help with a young team as the schedule gets progressively harder in those first five to prepare for the Western division games. Where the schedule does not help the Rebels is against its traditional Western opponents as Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU are all on the road this year. Auburn and Mississippi State travel to Oxford.

Ole Miss has not gone undefeated in September in my lifetime. So I fully expect to lose to one of Vandy, Kentucky, or Fresno if not two of them. Ole Miss has won in Tuscaloosa once in my life time. Even against non bowl contenting Bama teams. I see no way whatsoever the Rebels win that game. Auburn also has Ole Miss’s number for the most part as the defense struggles against spread option teams more than any other offense. So I do not feel positive about that game at all. We always play LSU tough, except Orgeron’s first season, and always in Baton Rouge. Granted that does not mean a win. Tennessee will likely depend on if the team is still playing hard for Dooley or not. If they surprise prognosticators and are playing well and look to be in bowl contention in November that is going to be a hard game. Arkansas is improved and will play up for Nutt returning to Fayetteville. With Mallett at the helm hard to predict a win there. MSU is very improved and will play for a bowl this year. But the Rebels will be a bit revenge minded after last years humiliating loss. Home team has won this game for the last decade outside Eli’s senior year.

Bottom line. Ole Miss got a bit lucky, by SEC standards, with the schedule this year. They could make a bowl just because of a lucky schedule even after getting swept against SEC west opponents.

So final prognostications I see 7-5 with three wins over the non Fresno non conference games, two wins out of Vandy, Kentucky, and Fresno, an upset win over either LSU or Tennessee, and another one somewhere sending the Rebels to lovely Orange Mound to play the CUSA champs in the Liberty Bowl. Hopefully. Bama is a sure loss, and Auburn and Arkansas look pretty close at this point. If the offense steps up 8-4 is possible. If it does not, 5-7 is also very possible.

– Jorgbacca

September 1, 2010

2010 Georgia Bulldogs

Filed under: 2010,Georgia — Mac Thomason @ 9:11 am

The 8-5 season the Dawgs had in 2009 will easily be viewed as the worst of the Mark Richt era. Even in his first season in 2001, he finished a game better. There were several games you can look back at that would have drastically changed the view. The first game at Oklahoma State, Quarterback Joe Cox played with the flu, combined with the fact that Oklahoma State’s best player played illegally in that game, since (now) Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant would be found ineligible a few weeks later after contact with an agent.

The game that most sticks in the craw for Georgia fans last year (well, besides losing at home to Kentucky) has to be the home game with LSU, when officials made one of the worst calls of the entire college football season, calling an “excessive celebration” penalty against wide receiver AJ Green, who did absolutely nothing. It gave LSU incredible field position and they were able to win the game because of that call.

The question many are asking inside and outside of the program is whether Mark Richt, now the dean of SEC coaches, is on the hot seat. It’s hard to say. The magical number for Richt to stay safe would seem to be at least getting the team back to double digit, 10 wins. Very very possible with this roster and this schedule. Because of an embarrassing offseason incident involving now former athletics director, Damon Evans, Georgia hired Florida Associate Athletic Director Greg McGarity, who spent the last 18 years working with Jeremy Foley in Gainesville and is going to be even less tolerable for anything other than top notch performance. My guess is Georgia needs to have a vastly improved season for Richt to hold off Will Muschamp or Kirby Smart to be the head coach next year.

Offense

Quarterback

The scariest and most unknown part of this offense is redshirt freshman Aaron Murray. Murray was a top 3 Quarterback recruit out of Plant High School in Tampa 2 years ago, and was heavily recruited by Urban Meyer. The kid has immense talent (far more than last year’s starter, Joe Cox, thankfully now graduated) and Murray is legend in Florida for winning the state high school championship game, playing on a broken leg. If ever a new starter was in place to succeed, with a good head on his shoulders and incredible talent around him, it’s Murray.

Offensive Line

Murray will be buoyed, first and foremost, by arguably the best and most experienced Offensive line in the country. (only Ohio State gets as high a mark from analysts). The line is loaded with veteran talent, many of whom will play on Sundays, led by All America candidates junior Ben Jones at center & senior offensive tackle Clint Boling. LT Trinton Sturdivant was supposed to be one of the best in the nation, but has lost 2 straight seasons due to injury. If he stays on the field, this will be the #1 offensive line in America, bar none. Junior Cordy Glenn & senior Josh Davis both have all SEC potential. It’s a fantastic unit – deep and very experienced. Murray will have lots of time to make plays.

Wide Receiver

The #1 target for Murray will be junior wide receiver, and the best wide receiver in the country, AJ Green. This is likely Green’s last year in Athens (since he’s a projected top 3 pick in the NFL Draft by Mel Kiper) and when Murray does go deep, he’ll be looking for #8. The receiving corps behind Green has huge potential, led by senior Kris Durham and sophomore Tavarres King. The other guys to watch for at receiver include Marlon Brown, who didn’t impress in his first year, but was a big time recruit and could break out in 2010. Rontavious Wooten showed flashes of brilliance in 2009 and is also expected to be a player. There’s a sleeper potential as super cornerback Branden Smith (another 5 star Richt recruit) could possibly play 2-way and be a big contributor. There is another sleeper in this unit: former backup quarterback Logan Gray, though injured at the moment, has apparently been very impressive since his offseason move to wide receiver. Gray is a tall, smooth, fast, player who simply wasn’t cutting it at quarterback but could break out at WR.

Tight End

The group of tight ends that Murray gets to throw to are, by far, the deepest pool of tight ends in the nation. Georgia essentially has 4 guys all of whom would be #1 TE’s on most teams. The leader of the pack is Murray’s Plant High School teammate, Orson Charles, who’s akin to a Jermichael Finley or Antonio Gates in the NFL, in that he’s such a smooth and good athlete, he’s more like a bigger, stronger, WR1. Junior Aron White last year was arguably the most consistent red zone threat for Joe Cox. White isn’t quite the athlete Charles is (very few are), but he’s also fast, big and strong and has Velcro for hands. Behind these two are junior Bruce Figgins and sophomore Arthur Lynch - again, 2 guys who would start on a lot of other teams.

Running Back

At running back, Georgia probably brings the 2nd best tandem in the SEC behind Alabama’s of Heisman winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Washaun Ealy and Caleb King broke out together for a huge 2009 season, and were especially big when it became apparent that the starter heading into the 09 season, Richard Samuel, was simply not the answer. (Samuel has since moved to linebacker). Now, as of today, Ealy was arrested for a rather stupid off field driving incident last week, but he’s only going to be suspended for the first game and will be in there sharing carries by the 2nd game at South Carolina. Behind King and Ealy is super speedy scatback, Carlton Thomas, the perfect compliment as a 3rd down alternative and change of pace option. At fullback, the Dawgs return beast Fred Munzenmaier, who’s impossible to bring down & has a knack for the end zone.

Between having the best group of tight ends, the best offensive line, the best wide receiver, and one of the best RB duos in the country, Aaron Murray has a cadre of weapons that will make his transition to first time starter a lot easier. The biggest question is in fact behind Murray. The #2 Quarterback should Murray get hurt is true freshman, Hutson Mason. Mason has impressed the Georgia staff with amazing poise, but the Dawgs have to have Murray stay on the field for a legit chance to make it to Atlanta.

Defense

The big news this offseason was the firing of defensive coordinator, and longtime Richt pal, Willie Martinez. Most Georgia fans (including myself) felt that Richt waited 1 year too long to fire Willie and his “bend but not break” 4-3 scheme. With the hiring of Dallas Cowboys defensive line coach Todd Grantham as the new DC, Georgia can get back to the attacking style of defense that can remind fans of the “Junkyard Dawgs” days of legendary coach Erk Russell, or more recently, the attacking style of the early Richt years under (now) Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder. 2 other defensive coaches were replaced as Georgia hired one of the best secondary coaches in the nation, Scott Lakatos from UConn, and Vandy’s Warren Belin as linebacker coach. Belin regularly took 2-star level linebackers at Vandy and got them to play way above their head. He’ll now have 4-star talent to work with in Athens.

Linebackers

The leader of the 2010 Defense is expected to be Junior outside linebacker Justin Houston. Houston is a big time talent and should thrive in his new role in the new defensive scheme. Also expected to step up big time in the new defensive scheme at linebacker are sophomore Cornelius Washington and senior Akeem Dent. Sophomore Christian Robinson isn’t big, but he’s incredibly fast and is also expected to breakout. Though not currently listed as a starter, Junior Darryl Gamble is a stud who will probably end up playing a ton, as he’s prone to make big plays. Belin gets to have a deep unit of guys to choose from. Junior Marcus Dowtin and Sophomore Mike Gilliam, especially, have star potential and will be weapons. Georgia’s loaded in this unit.

A sleeper in this unit to keep an eye on is former starting running back Richard Samuel. Samuel has impressed the staff with his work, since switching from offense, and his skill set is better suited here than it was at tailback.

Defensive Line

This unit will likely be led by senior Demarcus Dobbs. A consistent force on the Georgia defense, Dobbs is enjoying the new scheme and playing as well as ever this offseason. He’s expected to be a veteran leader for this unit, alongside Justin Houston.

The big news this offseason was one time offensive lineman Justin Anderson making the move to this unit. The offensive line was so deep, that Anderson filled a bigger need by returning to an area he had thrived when he was recruited by Georgia. (Anderson was a star on both the DL and the OL in high school).

The player who came out of nowhere in 2009 is now sophomore Abry Jones, who compiled some impressive numbers and should also thrive in the new scheme. A lot more is expected from once big time recruit Deangelo Tyson, though there is a question if he has enough size to be a big time nose tackle or not.

But the breakout star in 2010 is expected to be redshirt freshman Kwame Geathers. Geathers is a 6-6 monster and is expected to go out there and crush opponents in his wake. He has big time star potential. Unlike Martinez, Coach Grantham isn’t bound to playing seniors – Grantham will play the best players, so Geathers should be out there for immediate impact. His older brother Robert was a star at Georgia as well.

Though the Dawgs did lose two anchors to the NFL with the graduation of Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens, this unit has plenty of talent and the right coaching now to thrived and succeed.

Secondary

Nowhere was former Coordinator Willie Martinez’s fingerprints more apparent than the secondary. Martinez’s insistence on playing Senior Bryan Evans over more talented, younger players, was at the top of the list for why he’s no longer in Athens. Evans regularly got beat and is the last guy you want trying to deliver on a bend but not break style of defense.

The secondary lost 3 of 4 starters, but again, at least one of them shouldn’t have even been on the field. The player who is returning as a starter, junior Brandon Boykin, is an absolute stud and ball hawk and has big time all-SEC potential in 2010. Boykin is such a superior athlete, he also will continue his role as one of the best kick returners in college football. Boykin had a few highlight reel 100 yard returns for touchdowns last year. Boykin is a Dawg fans dream.

Sophomore Baccari Rambo is taking over for Bryan Evans at free safety, and what Rambo showed Dawg fans is that he probably should have started from day one last year. Rambo’s a beast and arguably the toughest guy on the team. He was stretchered off the field last year and returned some weeks later, playing again at a high level.

Georgia received a huge boost this offseason with junior college transfer Jakar “Hitman” Hamilton. Hamilton is going to start immediately and also has All-SEC potential, along with Boykin and Rambo.

The other starter in this unit is senior Vance Cuff. Cuff is a solid player who hasn’t started before, & could thrive with new coach Lakatos, but Cuff is also the most susceptible to being challenged by sophomore Sanders Commings, a big time talent in his own right.

The X-Factor is sophomore Branden Smith. Smith was a 5-star recruit who will be a jack of all trades for Georgia – punt returns (where he excelled), the secondary and may possibly start, and wide receiver where has the potential to be the 2nd best player there behind AJ Green. When Richt & offensive coordinator Mike Bobo occasionally tried the now popular “wildcat” formation last year, it was usually involving Branden Smith or Logan Gray.

Special Teams

No team in America has a better kicking combination than Georgia, with punter Drew Butler (son of legendary Georgia kicker Kevin Butler), the winner of the Ray Guy award in 2009, and junior Blair Walsh, had an incredible 2009 season, kicking 20 of 22 field goals and was a finalist for the Lou Groza award.

The Walsh-Butler combination is easily the best combo in the country, and arguably the best combination of kickers in Georgia Bulldogs history. The only school that has close to this type of combo is UCLA.

As for the return game, Branden Smith and possibly Logan Gray will share kick return duties (both did very well in 2009) and Brandon Boykin will once again electrify stadiums across the south with his work as the punt returner.

Schedule

Georgia’s schedule is considerably easier this season, with Miss. State replacing LSU from the SEC West, and Colorado replacing Oklahoma State as one of the two big out of conference games. Furthermore, one of the dangerous opponents is Arkansas and they come to Athens a week before they head to Tuscaloosa, so there’s a good chance the Hogs will be “looking ahead”.

Of the 12 Game schedule, I am predicting 10-2 this year for several reasons. I am also going out on a huge limb and calling for a Georgia win in Jacksonville this year. The pre-season #23 ranking is silly. All it shows is the analysts have forgotten about us because of a down year. Please re-read my analysis. Georgia is loaded with veterans and stars on both sides of the ball and with the upgrade in defensive coaching, we won’t see the mental breakdowns this year.

Florida has a ton of new talent coming in, but the Gators lost a ton of starters on defense, arguably their 3 best players on offense (including Tebow) and as good as John Brantley might be, the #4 pre-season ranking is based solely on what the Gators have done the last 3 seasons. They’ve earned this overhype, but Georgia is a much more experienced team coming back and with the Dawgs offensive line, Florida will have a hard time getting to Murray.

My gut instinct for the 2 losses will be as follows: First, the home game to Arkansas in week 3. I still think we can win it, because it’s at home and Arkansas is questionable on Defense. However, Ryan Mallet is probably the best Quarterback in the country this year and it will only be our 2nd game under the new staff. There will be growing pains. One result could be a Game 3 loss to the Hogs.

The other loss I am predicting is the Auburn game. While I think Auburn, like Arky, is overhyped and has Quarterback question, based on the history of this series, it’s shocking that we’ve won 4 straight and neither school stays winning every year for too long. Plus, Gene Chizik has infused a ton of new talent in Auburn and will now be in his 2nd year. The Auburn game is the other loss.

But I am predicting a perfect 5-0 in the East which puts Georgia in Atlanta for the first time since 2005. We could end up with 8 wins again and people laughing at the notion, but you simply can’t ignore what Georgia brings to the table this year. Phil Steele thinks so, too. I think the Dawgs run the table in a weak East, win the 2 cupcake games of course, win at Colorado (which I will be attending in person October 2nd) win the annual game with the way, way overhyped bugs (Georgia Tech and Paul “Manboobs” Johnson…we own your fat ass) win what will be a tough game with Miss State – and take a 10-2 team to Atlanta as underdogs against Alabama in the Dome.

What this also means (if I am correct) is that Mark Richt will be removing himself from the hot seat. Even if we lose in the Dome, my prediction is Georgia is either 12-2 or 11-3 after all is sad and done (including the Bowl game) and I feel tremendous confidence in this prediction. 11 or 12 wins by the end easily puts 2009 behind us and re-affirms Georgia as one of the top 4-5 conference powers this year.

–Alex R.

August 26, 2010

2010 South Carolina Gamecocks

Filed under: 2010,South Carolina — Mac Thomason @ 9:16 am

Steve Spurrier enters his 6th season at South Carolina and continues aiming for more than 7 win seasons. Last year’s team went 7-6 ending with a disppointing and dismal showing in the Papa John’s Bowl. Ellis Johnson’s defense again appears to be very solid and returns 8 starters. The offense and special team return teams need major improvement for SC to move to the next level.

Offense

Quarterback

Stephen Garcia returns as the starting QB. In 2009, his first full season starting as a sophomore, he threw for 2,852 yards and had a respectable 17/10 touchdown to interception ratio. He needs to improve upon his completion percentage, which was only a mediocre 55.3. A Spurrier quarterback should have a 65% completion rate or higher. Also, another complaint is that Garcia took nearly 40 sacks last year. A porous offensive line was a major contribution to this, however there were many cases where Garcia could have safely thrown the ball away, but instead tried to scramble behind the line of scrimmage and lost yardage. Garcia does have running ability and gained 186 yards; that was mostly gained on zone-read options and QB draws. Spurrier has been talking up true freshman Connor Shaw and says he will play this year. Shaw is more of a running QB than Garcia and it would be a good idea to use him as a change of pace on maybe one series a game. However, if Spurrier starts platooning quarterbacks again than this is very bad news, especially in his South Carolina tenure, as the offense has played even worse when switching QBs in and out. The third string QB is Andrew Clifford, and it would be surprising if he played this year in any more than a mop-up role (and even then).

Runningback

The running game has suffered during Spurrier’s tenure for two primary reasons: 1) Frequent quarterback sacks put the offense in long yardage situations, hurting rushing averages and forcing the offense to throw to make up the lost yardage; and 2) Spurrier has a tendency to abandon the running game, even in close games. A prime example is the Arkansas game last year, when a 10-10 halftime tie became an easy win for the Razorbacks after SC suddenly went into throw-throw-throw mode with predictable results.

The coaches are trying to put in more zone-read option plays out of the spread to help the running game. They have said this in the past, also, but mostly went back to the old throwing too often crap. It remains to be seen if they actually stick to running the ball as much as throwing.

Kenny Miles opens the season as the starting tailback. He was the team’s leading rusher last year, with 626 yards in 117 attempts. Ideally, he should be the main option in between the 20s. Brian Maddox, a senior, is a short yardage back as he ran for 6 touchdowns last year but only had a 3.0 YPC average. The coaches like Maddox because of his ability to block and catch out of the backfield. Highly-touted recruit Marcus Lattimore figures to get carries as well and could push Miles and Maddox if he lives up to the hype. Jarvis Giles is a scatback type who played a lot early last year but Miles passed him on the depth chart in the 3rd game. Coaches want him to put on more muscle and work on his receiving abilities out of the backfield.

Offensive Line

This group has been weak for years. All too often, there have been false starts, holding penalties, and missed assignments leading to sacks. There is a new offensive line coach this year as Sean Elliott was brought in from Appalachian State. This year’s starting offensive line does include 4 seniors so maybe experience will help improve. However, the depth chart is thin and several of the backups are true freshmen, so SC cannot afford any more injuries to this group after several players already got hurt in fall practice.

Wide Receiver

Unlike the offensive line, Spurrier has never had any trouble with wide receivers at SC. Freshman sensation Alshon Jeffery really only played the 2nd half of last year and still caught a team-leading 46 passes for 763 yards. Jeffery, like most of the SC receivers, is a tall target who can go up and get a jump ball. Others who fit this profile are Tori Gurley (a 6’5 tall target, 31 receptions for 440 yards) and Jason Barnes (a 6’4 tall receiver who caught 26 balls for 280 yards). If Weslye Saunders is eligible for his senior season, he adds another big target as the tight end. Two true freshmen, Ace Sanders and Nick Jones, were brought in to try adding a speed element.

Defense

Defensive Line

Defensive end Cliff Matthews returns as the anchor to the South Carolina defense. He was picked for several preseason honors, and tied with the now-departed Eric Norwood for the team lead in sacks last year with 7. The other starting defensive end is Devin Taylor and the backup is Chaz Sutton, and these players will be asked to make up for much of the production lost from Norwood’s graduation. The starting defensive tackles are Ladi Ajiboye and Travian Robertson, two experienced and dependable starters. The primary backup tackle is Melvin Ingram, who was solid last year as a role player.

Linebacker

Shaq Wilson, the team leader in tackles in 2009, returns to lead the Gamecocks as an outside linebacker. Returning from an ACL surgery is Rodney Paulk at middle linebacker, a solid run-stopper when healthy. Paulk was given an extra year of eligibility in addition to 2010 by the NCAA due to missing most of the last two years with injuries. The spur linebacker, who is responsible for both pass coverages and run stopping depending on the offensive alignment, is Antonio Allen. Each of the starters are experienced and proven. The backups are seniors Josh Dickerson and Tony Straughter.

Cornerback

Stephon Gilmore was a freshman phenom last year and earned many accolades, and returns in 2010. Moving from safety to corner to help reduce shoulder injury problems is Chris Culliver, who led the team last year in passes broken up and deflected. The nickelback is C.C. Whitlock who played very well last year in limited action. The Gamecocks have perhaps one of the best CB units in the nation.

Safety

The player who Culliver switched positions with was Akeem Auguste, who was good at CB, but the coaches think that his physicality would be more suitable as a safety. Devonte Holloman will be a first year starter as the other corner, but played very well as a backup during his true freshman campaign including a big interception against Clemson. The primary backup is D.J. Swearinger.

Special Teams

Returning as both the punter and placekicker is senior Spencer Lanning. Lanning was a very accurate 17 for 20 on field goals last year and also had a good net punting average. Walk-on Joey Scribner-Howard will take over kickoffs, which were a sore spot for SC last year in both coverage and kicking distance (probably costing the team a win at Georgia).

Former track member Bryce Sherman is the primary kickoff return man. Sherman was pedestrian last year averaging about 23 yards a return. Culliver, who is the school’s all-time leading in career return yardage, could also return kicks but the coaches are wary of his shoulder problems. Culliver’s return average was similar to Sherman’s.

Gilmore is the punt returner, and averaged about 10 yards a return after taking over midseason — a very solid PR average.

Schedule

As usual, South Carolina has one of the toughest schedules in the country. SEC opponents Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas rotate to being home games this year. The other 4 are road games. The rivalry game is at Clemson.

Home:

Southern Miss, Georgia, Furman, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Troy

Road:

Auburn, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, Clemson

Most forecasters have moved the Gamecocks up to 3rd ahead of Tennessee in the preseason predictions instead of the usual 4th. The probable range of wins for SC this year could be anywhere from 6-10, with 6 being a huge disappointment and 10 being a pleasant surprise.

-braves14

August 25, 2010

2010 Tennessee Volunteers

Filed under: 2010,Tennessee — Mac Thomason @ 10:39 am

by Smitty

As many of you have heard, it was a bumpy road on Rocky Top this winter. Lane Kiffin was coming off a 7-6 season where he came with in a field goal kicker of knocking off eventual National Champion, Alabama. Then, his mentor Pete Carroll, decided he wanted to coach a football team that will be allowed to play on television next year. So Lane called up his kin folk and they said, “move away from there, California is the place you want to be.” So he loaded up the truck and moved to USC. South Cal that is. Swimming pools. Movie stars.

The decision to leave didn’t bother most Vols fans. It was the timing and the way he left.

The timing of the matter made it very difficult to find a coach and there was this great recruiting class about to fall apart.

Enter Derrick Dooley. Dooley, much like Kiffin, is an unknown with a losing record and a famous dad. His hiring was probably a better choice that the leaked front runner, David Cuttcliffe. I never felt Cut was a realistic candidate. That hire would have sent the “we shouldn’t have fired Fulmer” message. Dooley came in and did an outstanding job of holding the recruiting class together and hiring a staff. However, he is now having to clean up a huge mess that Kiffin left in his wake and it will be a few years before the Vols are back as one of the upper echelon teams in the SEC.

Offense

The Good: Tennessee is has a ton of play makers in skill positions. Gerald Jones leads a group of very talented receivers. Tauren Pool is going to start at running back and will probably be the one of the surprise players of the year in conference. TE Luke Stocker will be the go to guy, if he can stay healthy.

The Bad: There isn’t an experienced quarterback on the roster. Junior Matt Simms (Phil’s boy) is going to get the start with freshman phenom Tyler Bray pushing him for playing time. Early reports say these two both look great and will benefit from the outstanding play makers around them.

The Ugly: The offensive line has very little experience, but a lot of talent. The starting unit should be solid, but as the theme of the
season for this team, there is very little depth.

Defense

The Good: Janzen Jackson returns at safety and if he can avoid holding people up at Pilot stations with a BB gun he could be an all-conference player. The linebackers should be solid with Nick Reveiz retuning from a knee injury.

The Bad: With an all conference player at one safety, there is a whole where folk hero Eric Berry was. The hope is sophomore Prentiss Wagner can fill the role.

The Ugly: While the Vols are stocked at DE, there is very little, if any, depth at DT. Teams are going to pound the ball up the middle and it will be a struggle to get any surge into the back field. The linebackers are going to have to cheat in and that might leave the
DB’s exposed. I can easily see Tennessee giving up a bunch of rushing yards and loose a few games because they can’t stop anyone.

Schedule

UT-Martin, UAB and Memphis are the only three games I am confident the Vols will win.

Vandy, Georgia and Kentucky are toss ups.

I think the Vols might be able to perform some magic against Ole Miss, Carolina, Oregon or LSU.

Alabama and Florida are going to romp.

Seven wins would make Dooley coach of the year, in my opinion. Six and six is my prediction, but I could see this team only winning between 3-5 games. It could be a long year in Big Orange Country, or the low low low expectations could lead to excitement.

August 13, 2010

2010 Alabama Crimson Tide

Filed under: 2010,Alabama,Defending National Champions — Mac Thomason @ 1:00 pm

Nearly everything went right for Alabama in a 14-0 season capped by a national championship game victory over Texas. The team suffered only one major injury (the destruction of star linebacker Dont’a Hightower‘s knee against Arkansas) and avoided any off-field distractions. Avoiding injuries and maintaining focus are still the keys as the Tide attempts to become the first team to repeat as BCS champs.

Offense

Nearly all the major contributors from the 2009 offense return, with the exception of two starters on the offensive line and the starting tight end. In particular, the Tide boasts probably the two best running backs in the conference, and a starting quarterback who hasn’t lost a game since middle school. With the defense suffering major losses, it may be up to the offense, sporadically effective in 2010, to carry the load until the defensive talent is totally up to speed.

Greg McElroy, the starting quarterback, didn’t get a whole lot of respect last year and still doesn’t, but it’s hard to argue with the results — again, 14-0. McElroy is a game manager-type, who lacks the mobility or top arm strength to make plays on his own. Still, he is intelligent (a Rhodes Scholar) and makes very few mistakes (only four interceptions last year) and if he gets good pass protection can be very effective. When Alabama needed him, most particularly in the comeback win against Auburn, he always delivered. Redshirt freshman A.J. McCarron wound up the backup last season after starting fourth on the depth chart — at least, if something had happened to McElroy and the game was in doubt, McCarron would have come in, though the now-departed Star Jackson was the actual relief quarterback. (Anyway, McElroy wouldn’t leave the game for just anything; it turned out that he played the entire national championship game with broken ribs.) McCarron has the physical abilities that McElroy lacks, leading to the predictable fan chatter about the 14-0 quarterback getting replaced. Behind those two are only Phillip Sims, the nation’s top quarterback recruit, and legacy walkon Morgan Ogilvie. Presumably the same rules as last year will be in place, with Sims being redshirted unless both McElroy and McCarron go down, with Ogilvie serving as a mopup man if needed. Another true freshman named Sims, Blake Sims, played quarterback in high school and has worked some at the position, but is expected to wind up at defensive back.

Like McElroy, there are some people who think that junior Mark Ingram should be replaced by his backup, and all Ingram did last season was set the school record for rushing yards while winning the Heisman Trophy and BCS Championship Game Offensive Player of the Game honors. Ingram lacks pure straight-ahead speed, though he broke plenty of long runs anyway. What he brings to the table mostly are power, shiftiness, effort, and most vitally, extraordinary field vision. He simply finds holes where none seem to be, and combined with his motor and second effort, this leads to a lot of extra yards, two to four yards at a time. Many of his most impressive carries were four or five yard runs that at first looked to be stops. Ingram also very rarely fumbles, only once in each of his two seasons. Finally, he was the tailback in the wildcat formation that Alabama employed at various times in 2009, most particularly against South Carolina, where he clinched the game by running for all the yards on a touchdown drive, most of them on direct snaps. Backup Trent Richardson was impressive as a true freshman, and possesses more pure speed than Ingram and at least as much power. He doesn’t have Ingram’s moves or vision, but that should come in time. He also showed good hands as a receiver in spring practice, and may join Ingram as a key target in the passing game. He’s the second-best back on the team, conference… country? Third-stringer/utility back Roy Upchurch made several big plays last season as his injury-plagued career came to a close, and no one player will fill his variety of roles. While Ingram and Richardson will apparently assume his third-down duties, his role as third-team back will go to redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy, a big-time recruit in 2009 who actually was, briefly, ahead of Richardson in fall practice last year before redshirting. He’s another power back in the mold of the two top names. Demetrius Goode is good enough to play most places, but will apparently spend a second year as the fourth-stringer, getting mopup carries and maybe some more special teams duties. Redshirt freshman Mike Marrow worked at tight end/H-back in spring but has been used as a back this fall. It’s possible he’ll play some fullback in goalline situations, a role Upchurch filled the last couple of years.

At receiver, Julio Jones had several injuries that weren’t enough to get him out of the lineup but were enough to curtail his production. He was still by far the team’s leading receiver, and late in the season began to come on, breaking a screen pass for the go-ahead score against LSU, and catching most of the balls on the go-ahead drive against Auburn. He is also a premium blocker on running downs (even playing a pseudo-tight end wingback role in some short-yardage formations) and was the usual motion back when Alabama ran the wildcat, though they didn’t take much advantage of that. The second receiver is Marquis Maze, a speed guy who caught some deep balls and almost caught a lot more. Alabama plays three receivers about half the time, and usually Darius Hanks fills that role. Hanks is a natural slot receiver who hasn’t quite broken through. All three listed starters are juniors. Brandon Gibson, a longtime workout warrior who hasn’t been able to show much outside of practice, seems to have locked up the fourth receiver spot with a strong spring camp and was the leading receiver in the spring game, but it remains to be seen what he can do against players wearing other uniforms, and he has also worked some at safety. Senior Earl Alexander has lost most of his career to injuries and to making the adjustment from quarterback in high school, but has contributed sporadically and should be in the rotation, together with sophomore Michael Bowman, who caught one pass last year, redshirt freshmen Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell, and three incoming freshmen.

Alabama doesn’t use a fullback as such, but plays two tight ends with an H-Back quite a bit, both with the quarterback under center and in the shotgun. The one skill position starter to depart was TE Colin Peek, who battled through foot and ankle injuries to be a major contributor as a blocker and a threat in the passing game. His spot will likely be filled by sophomore Michael Williams, a converted defensive end who started a couple of games in Peek’s place and showed surprising quickness and hands, though he didn’t play very well in spring. At the H-Back spot, senior Preston Dial returns, and could play a larger role in the passing game with the departure of Peek. Dial took over the second TE role from now-junior Brad Smelley, who was unsuited for the task; a converted quarterback, he was too light to take on the blocking duties. Smelley is likely to play a good bit on passing downs, though, after a lost season that saw him drop several passes and commit several blocking penalties on special teams. Marrow, if he winds up back at tight end, would seem to be a short-yardage option.

The one unit on offense that was really hit by graduation was the offensive line, which lost all-conference LG Mike Johnson and two-year starting RT Drew Davis. Both will be missed, Johnson as the line’s best and most experienced player, Davis as the man who stabilized a position that had long been a trouble spot. But three starters remain, all of them potentially postseason award candidates. The rock of the line is senior center William Vlachos, who with his stumpy legs and powerful upper body was born for the position. Fellow senior James Carpenter stepped right in as a junior college transfer and ably replaced the Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith at left tackle; not as massive as Smith, he’s big enough and has better technique, particularly in pass protection. Junior Barrett Jones returns at right guard, where he may be the best of the three; he’s good enough that you almost never heard his name called last year, which is about the highest praise you can give an interior lineman.

At right tackle, the battle is between redshirt freshman D. J. Fluker and junior Alfred McCoullough, with Fluker, a top recruit who had trouble getting up to speed last year (having played only one year on offense in high school) getting the first-team nod on A-Day. Redshirt freshman Chance Warmack seems to have the lead over sophomore John Michael Boswell at left guard, even though Boswell played a good bit as a reserve last year. In addition to the runners-up at those two positions, Alabama has the best offensive line depth it has had in years with center/guard David Ross, who is likely to play a lot, and tackle Tyler Love.

Defense

Only one player who started all season returns on defense, together with four other players who started at least one game for a dominant unit. However, there’s actually a lot of experience in the front seven, as Nick Saban’s habit of using a lot of different players paid off in getting game action for youngsters. The talent, after three consecutive top-five recruiting classes, is unquestioned; it’s getting that talent to click that will be the problem.

Though all three of last year’s starters graduated, the defensive line may actually be the most experienced unit on the defense, as Alabama constantly rotated players and all three expected starters received major playing time. The unquestioned star up front is junior end Marcel Dareus, the defensive player of the game against Texas and the team leader in sacks and tackles for loss. Dareus is facing an NCAA investigation over the recent agent flap, and it is possible that he will miss some early games, though unlikely that he would be declared ineligible. Dareus is simply a physical freak, a player with tackle size (6-4, 306) and linebacker quickness, who looked if anything even more devastating in spring practice. At the other end senior Luther Davis returns after playing every game last season; he is more of a run-stopper and gap-plugger in Alabama’s scheme, almost a tackle. At the nose, Josh Chapman faces the forbidding prospect of replacing Terrance Cody, but should be up to most of the challenge, having started a couple of games in 2008 and played much of the time, particularly on passing downs, the last two years. Key reserves include sophomore Damion Square, a rush end who went down in the second game last year with a knee injury just as he seemed to be becoming a force, Darrington Sentimore, a redshirt freshman who opened eyes working at both end and tackle in fall practice last year, and sophomore Kerry Murphy, the principle backup tackle who gives more bulk than Chapman but isn’t as strong.

Losing Butkus Award winner, leading tackler, and defensive quarterback Rolando McClain, who left early for the NFL, is a blow, no question. Fortunately, Alabama has an able replacement in Hightower, who is apparently fully healed from his knee injury (in fact, he says he could have played in the Texas game if needed) and will slide into McClain’s vacated “Mike” position and as the main signal-caller on defense. Hightower may also slide outside as a pass-rusher on certain downs, depending upon how other linebackers work there. At the other inside position (“Will”) sophomore Nico Johnson started after Hightower went down, but fell out of the starting job this spring due to injuries and the strong play of Chris Jordan, a converted runningback who started the spring game. Those two and redshirt freshman Tana Patrick, technically Hightower’s backup, are still fighting for the job and playing time.

Outside, the spots appear set, with the “Sam” position held by junior Jerell Harris. Harris was the top linebacker reserve entering play last year, but was suspended for rules violations the first half of the season, and saw work mostly on special teams when he returned. With no problems yet this year, it’s his turn to shine. Junior Courtney Upshaw actually started one game last year at the “Jack” (rush linebacker) position, right after Hightower’s injury, before returning to a reserve role, and did play every game. He had a bit of an odd year in that he was in the middle of a lot of action (returning a fumble for a touchdown against Kentucky, recovering the key late fumble that put Texas away) but despite playing a lot in pass-rush situations didn’t register a sack and had only one tackle for loss. He needs to be more effective as a pass-rusher. Redshirt freshman Ed Stinson is the primary backup outside, but Alabama will juggle its linebackers to get the best four on the field.

The defensive backfield was devastated by graduatation, then lost two other key personnel when starting corner Kareem Jackson surprisingly turned pro (wisely, as he was drafted in the first round) and safety Robby Green was ruled ineligible for the season for undisclosed rules violations. Together with the recent transfer of safety Rod Woodson, only three defensive backs return who played at all in 2009. Luckily, one of them is All-American junior safety Mark Barron, who after a patchy 2008 beat out Green for a starting role last season and was outstanding, leading the conference in interceptions with seven, returning one for a touchdown. He is also the team’s leading returning tackler, and may take on some playcalling duties as well. The other safety spot is manned, almost by default, by sophomore Robert Lester, who played sparingly last season but beat out Woodson in practice before the latter left the team. Backing this group up are three true freshmen, Blake Sims, Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry, and converted wide receiver Kendall Kelly. Safety, despite Barron, is the obvious trouble spot on defense.

At corner, there is less game experience but more practice experience and the talent is exceptional. The starters look to be sophomores Dre Kirkpatrick (the only returning corner with game experience) and B. J. Scott (a converted wideout who sat out last season after changing positions), with true freshman DeMarcus Milliner at the “Star” nickelback position (that is essentially a starter) but JUCO transfer Dequan Menzies muddied the waters with a miraculous early return from a torn achilles tendon and has also been working with the first team at times. Sophomore Phelon Jones, a transfer from LSU, and true freshman John Fulton, provide depth. With the troubles at safety and the multiple-DB packages Saban likes to run, all should see extensive playing time; Milliner, who played safety in high school, may wind up as the top backup there as well.

Special Teams

There is almost nothing returning from special teams, where the placekicker, punter, snapper, holder, and principal return man all are gone, together with several key coverage players. This collection of three- and four-year starters includes record holders at kicker (Leigh Tiffin) and punt returner (Javier Arenas) and was intact so long that Saban hadn’t had to even tinker with it since inheriting it from Mike Shula. Tiffin’s replacement appears to be scholarship true freshman Cade Foster, who did most of the kicking in spring, though it may be that Foster winds up working on kickoffs and longer field goals with someone else, perhaps sophomore Jeremy Shelley, taking short kicks. Punter was such a disaster in spring that the leader was converted offensive lineman Taylor Pharr, only to then see Pharr have to quit football and take a medical scholarship. Scholarship freshman Jay Williams and walkon Cody Mandell will fight for the job this fall; Williams enrolled early but was unimpressive.

Returns are completely up in the air, but there’s plenty of talent there. Though he seems tall for the role, Julio Jones has returned some punts at times and may wind up with the role, but there are all sorts of other candidates. Best guess is that he takes that job, with Trent Richardson and one of the wide receivers, perhaps Marquis Maze, taking kickoffs, but that is really a guess and we probably won’t know for sure until games start. Corey Grant, a jitterbug-type true freshman running back, may also be in the mix. Coverage may be a problem initially; it was for much of last year, and that was before many of the team’s top special teams tacklers graduated. But with the talent available it shouldn’t stay that way.

Schedule

Rather than play a neutral-site game with an ACC opponent, as in the first three seasons of the Saban era, Alabama will play the home end of a home-and-home series with Penn State in 2010, the second game of the season. There is a peculiar trip to Duke following that, a game Alabama tried to get shifted to Charlotte but the Blue Devils refused. There are also the usual sacrificial lambs, San Jose State for the season opener and Georgia State, in its first season of football and coached by former Alabama head man Bill Curry, coming to Tuscaloosa in November for a game where Alabama could easily — but won’t — score 100.

In conference, Kentucky is replaced in the rotation by Florida, an obvious step up in class, coming to Tuscaloosa in October for a game that will probably get some national attention. The Tide travels to South Carolina for the other rotation game. Of the annual opponents, Alabama travels to Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU and hosts Auburn and the Mississippi schools. I used to call this a “bad schedule” year, but it’s no longer clear that Tennessee is more to be feared than Ole Miss.

Outlook

Alabama hasn’t lost a regular season game in two years. Surely that can’t continue. There’s no game on the schedule that Alabama shouldn’t be favored in, but there are lots that they could lose, and it seems like sooner or later they’ll catch a bad break. That being said, they’re still the favorites in the conference and nationally, and one loss isn’t the death knell, thanks in part to the conference championship game. Beating Florida twice (everyone assumes that the two teams will win their divisions again, as Florida does almost every year) is a tall task to be sure. A repeat championship is still doable, if they maintain focus.

UPDATE
Sept. 1: Mark Ingram will miss the opener against San Jose State after minor knee surgery (perhaps a simple arthroscopic cleaning). He may be back for the second game against Penn State, and Alabama could beat SJSU with anybody playing running back.

The offensive depth chart was pretty much as predicted, no surprise considering the number of returning starters. The biggest surprise on the defensive side came at linebacker, where Jerrell Harris was moved inside to start next to Donta Hightower (and will probably be the playcalling LB in passing situations with Hightower moving to rush end) and Chavis Williams, a senior I didn’t mention in the original post, taking over at the Sam position. Meanwhile, DeQuan Menzie beat out BJ Scott as the second cornerback, but both will play a lot, with Menzie moving to nickelback (“Star” in Alabama’s terminology) in extra-DB situations, which is probably more than half the time. At both specialist spots, Alabama has co-starters. Cade Foster will do long kicks and kickoffs, with Jeremy Shelley taking short kicks, and Jay Williams and Cody Mandell both listed at punter.

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