College Football Preview: the South Eastern Conference

The South Eastern Conference has been, without debate, the big brother to call other collegiate football conferences for the better part of the last decade — a Goliath with no David anywhere to be seen. While everyone outside the Southeastern region will root for that to change in the coming season, it is unlikely to. Six of the top 13 preseason ranked teams hail from the SEC with Alabama holding down their familiar spot at number one. Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Florida and LSU are the other five. With talent bursting at the seams of at least half the teams in the conference, it’s not hard to imagine that one of these teams – or even two — may end up in Pasadena for the BCS Championship Game. Here’s a primer for what everyone should expect from the SEC in this coming season.

Conference Champion:

This may sound familiar to anyone who has a pulse and has ever seen a football: Alabama is the odds-on favorite to take home the SEC crown yet again. This very well could be the best team Alabama has had since the arrival of Nick Saban, which should be a scary thought to any college football fan. They return eight starters off the nation’s top ranked defense from a year ago as well as an All-American caliber quarterback in A.J McCaron, a stable of impressive receivers and yet another incredible rushing specimen, T.J Yeldon, to run the ball behind Alabama’s mountainous offensive line.

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McCarron has all the right surrounding pieces for a repeat run in 2013.

Alabama, while great, is not without their faults. They do have two possible chinks in their armor. The offensive line cannot be as good as it was a year ago as they lost three players to the NFL draft, two in the top 11 picks. The other possible deficiency is in the secondary. It is a fairly green unit who lost the best cornerback in nation to the NFL draft a year early. Though new, there is no reason to not expect the young players at these positions to play much like the ones they are replacing. After all, they were recruited to Alabama for a reason.

Offensive Players to Watch

  1. Johnny Manziel QB (Texas A&M): As of this writing he is still eligible so until he is declared otherwise he must be considered the top offensive player to watch, not only in the SEC but in the nation. Johnny Football broke every meaningful offensive record in SEC history as a redshirt freshman, knocked off number one Alabama and won the Heisman. What more needs to be said? Watch this young man play football. Like him or hate him for his off the field antics, there’s no one else quite like him.
  2. Todd Gurley/Keith Marshall RBs (Georgia): These two running backs burst on to the scene as true freshmen last season to combine for 2144 yards and 25 touchdowns. Gurley ended up with more yards (1385) than did Marshall (759). Marshall’s average was slightly better (6.5 to 6.2 yards per carry) but the two consider themselves co-starters and credit each other with their success. Either could start for almost any school in the country but happen to play on the same team, making it best tandem in the nation. Think Darren McFadden and Felix Jones for Arkansas in 2007, who both went on to be first round picks in the NFL draft. These two can be that good.
  3. Aaron Murray QB (Georgia): Expect some scoring from Georgia this season. It remains to be seen if they’ll actually stop someone with all their defensive losses, but they will have one of the best offenses around. Murray is a four year starter at quarterback and has passed for over 10,000 career yards. Behind Murray, Georgia was five yards away from beating Alabama and getting into the BCS National Championship game last season and that is what drove Murray to return for his senior season and push off the NFL draft for another year. Well, that and the chance to own every last SEC record a quarterback can claim.

Defensive Players to Watch

  1. Jadeveon Clowney DE (South Carolina): In case anyone has forgotten the play that made Clowney a household name (THE HIT). While he certainly gained national notoriety for that play, he is far more than a one hit wonder. Clowney had 13 sacks last year while being double teamed more often than not. He is the slam-dunk guaranteed number one overall pick in next spring’s NFL draft. He is the single most dominant defensive force in college football and is being viewed as a once in a decade type of a player
  2. CJ Mosley LB (Alabama): Mosley an all SEC player a year ago likely would have been another high round draft pick to come from Nick Saban’s and Kirby Smart’s defense. He elected to return for his senior season and attempt to win an unprecedented third national championship in a row. He is a likely All-American candidate and has been named to the preseason Butkus and Bendnarik Award watch lists.
  3. Dominique Easly DT (Florida): Easly is one of those guys who is as interesting to watch on the field as he is off the field. The senior has played all over the line at Florida but will finish his career at defensive tackle and has been tabbed as a pre-season all SEC pick by several groups, mostly for his disruptive pass rushing ability from the inside. Off the field, he is known to watch cartoons rather than normal TV shows, doesn’t know who Bear Bryant is, and wants to pet the LSU Tiger. Easly is a great player with a lot of personality on and off the field.

Surprise Team:

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Vandy may be considered another program stuck in the old-school tradition, but they’re winning more than you think.

In the flurry of headlines written about the extreme talent in the SEC, a school like Vanderbilt with little football tradition is easily lost in the shuffle. Many will be surprised to find out that ole Vandy won nine games last season and have one of the most popular coaches in college football and who will likely be offered a bigger job in the very near future. James Franklin took Vanderbilt to a bowl game in his first two seasons (records of 6-7 and 9-4), something the school had never done before. While it could be said that they benefitted from an easy schedule compared to most SEC teams, all a team can do is play whoever is on their schedule. Looking ahead to Vanderbilt’s 2013 schedule, it is certainly more difficult, but they should expect another eight or nine win season and a trip to another bowl game. More importantly for Vanderbilt football, they should be competitive against just about every team they play.

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Johnny Manziel versus the NCAA’s poor defense

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Johnny Manziel has come a long way from being a middle-of-the-pack recruit getting his first start in major college football. In the past 11 months, Manziel has lived like a rock star: developing into the most electrifying player in the game, becoming the youngest Heisman winner ever and having a list of offseason activities that read like they belong in The Hangover 4. All the way, he has lived, played and talked with an attitude that screams, “I couldn’t care less what you think.” Some love him; others despise him. As abrasive as he was, Johnny Football always played by the rules. Now it seems as though he’s finally skipped across that line and is directly in the sights of the NCAA.

Reports have surfaced in recent days that Manziel autographed disputable amounts of memorabilia, numbering from a couple hundred to several thousand in return for a handsome sum of money. Reports have that sum as at least five figures long, though no one has testified as to exactly how much money may have changed hands. If even one dollar was given to Manziel in exchange for any autographed memorabilia, he will be in direct conflict with the NCAA rule that in so many words states that an amateur athlete cannot financially benefit from his or her own name and if they do so, he or her are effectively stripped of their amateur status and college eligibility. There are many arguments to rules like these the NCAA has in place and it may be time for an updating of the rules, but as it stands right now, those are the rules.

If this is not resolved by August 31st when Texas A&M kicks off the season against Rice, head coach Kevin Sumlin is going to have a big decision to make. One option is to play Manziel and risk the whole team’s eligibility for wins, post season play – all while opening the door for other possible punishments. Anyone who has followed the actions of the NCAA in past knows that precedence means nothing and if Texas A&M is found guilty of playing the potentially ineligible Manziel, punishments could range from the metaphorical extremes of a slap on the wrist to a push off a cliff. Sumlin’s other option is to voluntarily sit the Heisman Trophy winner until a verdict is reached by the NCAA. An eerily similar situation happened to Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers in 2010. They chose to roll the dice and play Newton, believing the NCAA wouldn’t turn up any evidence. They finished the season with an undefeated record, a BCS National Championship and a bonus victory of making the NCAA look the fool. Officials at Texas A&M are praying for a similar outcome.

As much of an indictment as this is on Johnny Manziel’s judgment — because of the peril he put his team in — it is an equal indictment on the NCAA. These autographs were allegedly signed and monetarily exchanged before the BCS National Championship game last season. That was January. Where has the NCAA been on this in the last seven months? If the governing body of college athletics can’t monitor the biggest star they have ever had, who lives his life on social networks, who isn’t shy about having a good time and spending money and who makes national headlines on a weekly basis, who can they monitor?

Add this to list of botched cases by the NCAA in recent years. A short trip down memory lane reveals that no one should be surprised that even if Johnny Manziel is guilty of these actions he might get away with it. Terrelle Pryor received improper benefits for three years before anyone was the wiser. North Carolina had players across several sports registered in fake classes; no penalty. The NCAA is now getting close to year three of an investigation into Miami for improper benefits with no end or penalty in sight. Cam Newton was allegedly offered over $100,000 to attend Mississippi State but supposedly attended Auburn for just a scholarship, which seems perfectly logical.

Everyone is well within their rights to cry out about these athletes and how they are supposedly being greedy and selfish. But before one does so, they should put themselves in the athletes’ shoes for a moment. It is hard to turn down a car or thousands of dollars; it’s even harder for a teenager to do so. It becomes that much more difficult when one realizes that the NCAA has a long history of letting events like these slip by unnoticed and even when found guilty of infractions the penalty isn’t even criminal in nature. The truth is when the NCAA punishes a student athlete, it is because they’ve taken a grasp at straws and finally came up with one while the rest float away. Improper benefits are given to players at virtually every school but only a few get caught. If players like Johnny Manziel are to be held accountable to the NCAA rules, the governing body needs to be held accountable as well.