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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NFL Preseason Picks: St. Louis Rams

JIMMY’S PICKS

NFC EAST: New York Giants 10-6, Washington Redskins 9-7, Dallas Cowboys 8-8, Philadelphia Eagles 6-10

NFC SOUTH: Atlanta Falcons 13-3, New Orleans Saints 11-5, Carolina Panthers 7-9, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11

NFC WEST: Seattle Seahawks 12-4

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Today we gaze upon St. Louis, where the Rams are working out some long-standing kinks in the preseason to get ready for their 2013 campaign. Last year, St. Louis looked like they were still experiencing some growing pains as they finished off the season at a record of 7-8-1. With a pretty good-looking draft, and the upside of young quarterback Sam Bradford, the once-Greatest Show on Turf hopes to improve on its misfortunes from 2012.

The Rams made waves in the NFL when they drafted Tavon Austin out of West Virginia in April. Austin has incredible speed, quickness and a natural big-playmaking ability. He will be a valuable weapon for Bradford as he tries to make that leap into the upper echelons of NFL signal callers. However, it seems as though Bradford can never catch a break: injuries, coaching changes and lack of surrounding talent has kept him at bay. But now with the addition of Austin, he may finally have his go-to guy. The loss of Steven Jackson is tremendous for this team. With Jackson on the field, the steady running game set the foundation for a dynamic offense. Not taking anything away from new lead man Daryl Richardson, but not many players can fill the shoes of Steven Jackson. It will be interesting to see what Jeff Fisher has up his sleeve to ignite the rebuilt Rams offense.

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A weakened run game and depleted secondary puts more pressure on Laurinaitis and the front seven.

The Rams defense was exceptional in 2012, tied for first with sacks and a strong linebacking core and secondary to boot. Expect a bit of a fall off the throne in 2013, as the Rams lost both of their starting safeties. A solid defense is the perfect preset for a solid team, and the Rams are fortunate enough to have that. In an era where points are abundant, the teams that achieve greatness are the ones that are competent on defense.

Prediction:

I see the Rams staying mediocre in 2013 and posting a record of 7-9, not much of a deviation from 2012. The Rams are a team still in the rebuilding phase. Gone are the days of Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt. They must ditch that old persona and find a new identity. There is no shame in trying to leave one’s past behind, especially when you are trying to reach that steeple once again. Look for St. Louis to be a very good team in 2015. But this season, look for the Rams to be just another one in the herd.

NFL Preseason Picks: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

JIMMY’S PICKS

NFC EAST: Washington Redskins 9-7, Dallas Cowboys 8-8, Philadelphia Eagles 6-10, New York Giants 10-6

NFC SOUTH: New Orleans Saints 11-5, Atlanta Falcons 13-3, Carolina Panthers 7-9

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Excitement is swirling in Tampa Bay this August as they gear up for a season that has upside for a change. The Buccaneers finished last year at a very pedestrian 7-9. This is a team that, since winning the Super Bowl in 2002, has had very little success otherwise. Head Coach Greg Schiano is now entering his second year as head coach of the Bucs and is hoping to take his team to a new level. It seems that the talent is beginning to formulate in Tampa, however it may take some time for this talent to result in anything too positive.

Quarterback Josh Freeman had a very up-and-down year in 2012, showing glimpses of greatness — and glimpses of a frustrated shot caller trying to catch his breath. The Bucs are waiting for their first-round pick to show his worth in 2013, and are putting some pressure on him in the form of third-round pick Mike Glennon, who, barring a sub-par preseason showing, is giving Freeman a run for his money. Freeman should retain the starting role, but now has to remain in winning form if he is to keep his job in this contract year. One can’t forget the machine at running back, Doug Martin. When Martin is hot, which seems to be often, the Tampa Bay offense becomes a force. This takes pressure off of Freeman, and allows players like Vincent Jackson, Kevin Ogletree and Mike Williams to get downfield. But this offense relies on Freeman continuing his development into a sturdy starting-caliber quarterback. It may not be in the near future, but he is showing signs of being an adept threat at some point down the road.

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Sophomore Doug Martin is coming off a Pro Bowl-caliber debut. Can he combine with a revamped defense to get Tampa Bay out of the cellar?

The Buccaneers made some very good improvements on the defensive end of the ball. The name that is most notably seen on the depth chart is Darrelle Revis from the New York Jets. He suffered a torn ACL last season and is hoping to have a huge comeback year, proving that he isn’t a liability. They also drafted Johnathan Banks, the dominant corner from Mississippi State and recipient of the Jim Thorpe award. He is probably going to play a big role for Tampa Bay when they slide into nickle and dime packages. The Bucs’ rushing defense was amazing for them last year, only allowing two rushers to gain more than 100 yards in a game. If this holds true for 2013, with the addition of a renewed pass defense, the Buccaneers’ defense could again be dangerous.

Prediction:

The Buccaneers are a team with a great upside and potential, but I do not see that paying off in 2013 because their division is very strong at the moment. I see them finishing with a record of 5-11. This means that Freeman will probably be let go, as this is the last year in his contract. 2013 is not the year for the Bucs, as fans should be looking into 2014 for more success. This team has a very bright future, but either needs to make an astounding run in the south or wait for the Falcons, Saints, and Panthers to fall off, which is unlikely to happen soon. 

NFL Preseason Picks: Carolina Panthers

JIMMY’S PICKS

NFC EAST: Washington Redskins 9-7, Dallas Cowboys 8-8, Philadelphia Eagles 6-10, New York Giants 10-6

NFC SOUTH: New Orleans Saints 11-5, Atlanta Falcons 13-3 

CAROLINA PANTHERS

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Smith, 34, isn’t getting any younger. Can Newton and him continue to stay afloat in the NFC South?

Carolina had nothing less than a disappointing season in 2012. Former Rookie of the Year Cam Newton was coming off a red-hot debut, only to follow it up with some sophomore blues. It didn’’t help that the Panthers are in a tough division, but lesser teams have been in tough divisions before and have won. There is no room for excuse in professional sports; the struggle is necessary for victory.

Steve Smith continues to be the ageless wonder that never ceases to be a threat from anywhere on the field. He was heavily responsible for the Panthers Super Bowl run back in 2004 — back then he was paired with the tepid passer Jake Delhomme. For a third year he will be the main target of Newton — a younger, more athletic signal caller whose track record bursts with promise. However, inconsistency and claims of immaturity have plagued him. Newton still needs to establish reliability in the NFL or he may be riding the pine as a back-up on a more prominent squad someday. The Panthers have a new offensive coordinator in Mike Shula, who will simplify things while keeping the play call aggressive. No more of the gimmicky plays they attempted on teams; expect a balanced attack that allows the immense dynamism of a rushing attack from DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Newton is also surrounded by more talent as the Panthers have added proven secondary weapons Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn. This offense has a lot of potential, but results must change.

With the tackling-machine Luke Kuechly being the nucleus of the Panthers defense, expect a stronger leadership role from the sophomore linebacker in 2013. Carolina upgraded their defensive line to join the trend of focusing on the pass rush in 2013, as well as upgrading their secondary. They will not be a prominent run-stopping team in the next season, but they will be much more capable of defending the pass, which is something that they have had large amounts of trouble with as of late. The defense will not be the strong suite of this team but they should do enough to get by.

Prediction:

I believe that the Panthers will improve from last season and post a record of 7-9. This is surely not good enough to make the wild card — let alone challenge the division. The word “potential” is thrown around a lot in conversation about the Panthers. I think that they are a team that is indeed on the rise, but needs to take an even further step to be a playoff contender. That step begins with the maturation of Cam Newton, who needs to show that he can be a leader and have control over a playoff-caliber team. Things like this take time, and I don’t believe that Carolina has enough time in 2013.

NFL Preseason Picks: Philadelphia Eagles

JIMMY’S PICKS

Redskins 9-7

Dallas Cowboys 8-8

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Oh, the Philadelphia Eagles. What a long, strange offseason it has been. With the climatic firing of Andy Reid and the acquisition of Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, the Eagles seemingly made a step in the right direction going into the 2013 football season. With his read-option/ spread offense that is paced to run about 85 plays a game, Kelly could quite possibly revolutionize the way that professional football is played on the offensive side of the ball. However, a somewhat mediocre quarterback battle paired with mounting injuries has kept the birds flightless for the time being. And one can’t forget the enormous elephant named Riley Cooper that still dwells in the locker room in wake of the team’s latest distraction – as if it hasn’t been covered enough.

A faster offense means less rest for defenders. Trent Cole and Demeco Ryans need to step up this season.

A faster offense means less rest for defenders. Trent Cole and Demeco Ryans need to step up this season.

The Eagles offense is a mess, simply put. Many an Eagle fan will sing praise for what Chip Kelly is bringing to the league; the speed and hastiness of his offense, they believe, is going to dominate opponents. But, in order to have a dominant offense, one must first have a quarterback. It’s understood that other teams are also in quarterback disputes this offseason, but none of those teams had posted a record over .500 last season. With mounting injuries and an air of uncertainty about who goes where, it’s really difficult to see the Eagles making that step into a serious threat on the offensive side of the ball. Their receivers are dropping like flies and they have made little to no improvement on a complete dilapidation of an offensive line. Sure, when this offense gets going it will provide the promised flash and spectacle that the fans are wishing to see, but it should not be expected this season.

In 2010, the Eagles appeared to make all of the right choices on the defensive side of the ball. They retained Justin Babin, and formulated a secondary that seemed daunting to even the sharpest of quarterbacks. Going into 2013, defense seems like a sore subject for Philly, who needs to get a grip on its defense if it is ever going to keep up with its division rivals. Getting Patrick Chung will definitely help them in coverage, but he can only help so much. Linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Trent Cole absolutely have to step up and become a dominant duo in order for their defense to work this season.

Prediction:

It’s hard to see the Eagles having too much more success than they had last season. With controversy, distraction, and a new coaching staff, Philadelphia is going to have to overcome a lot of obstacles just in the preseason in order to have momentum going into September. My prediction for the Eagles is going to be, what I believe to be a very generous estimate, 6-10. The offense is brand new, meaning that there are going to be growing pains that last until the middle of the season at the earliest. Their defense is a giant question mark also, and was very hot-and-cold last year to say the least. Who knows: maybe Chip Kelly and the boys will completely shock the world and go on a trailblazing run. Oh wait, this isn’t college — this is the NFL. Things are much more predictable. And as far as rebuilding goes, this year does not bode well for the birds.