Friday, August 21

Alabama Crimson Tide '09: Eerily similar to an article I would've posted last year had I written it

The 2008 Season in a Box
Ever get something from Brooks Brothers? I haven’t, but I imagine it comes in a pretty staid and standard box, and whatever you get in it is going to not only look solid at worst, it also cost the person who bought it a damn arm and a leg, because that place isn’t cheap. Still, given the option between Brooks Brothers and …well, nearly anywhere else, you’d probably choose Brooks Brothers if you cared about anything related to appearance at work. And we know that matters.

Of course, nobody told you that the stuff in there was off-brand and the shirts will rip after you wear them 10 times, but that happens sometimes. I mean, it’s not cheap.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Really, there isn’t much reason why this season’s going to be that different. Even with the departure of the beautifully coiffed John Parker Wilson and workhorse RB Glen Coffee, Alabama’s in good shape to keep it going. JPW was a senior caretaker QB and not a world-beater, so the bar of competency is set pretty low for the guy who’ll be under center (likely Greg McElroy). Similarly, Coffee was good but the Tide RB stable is deep enough that they should be able to overcome his loss. Really, most of the other departures fall into that same category. Even the schedule is similar. If ‘Bama finished 5-7 this would be cause for concern, but that wasn’t the case.

On Offense
Saban hasn’t run a particularly showy offense since he got to Alabama; with the departure of John Parker Wilson to …well, the NFL might be a bit generous, but he’s gone at least. Since Greg McElroy looks like a poor man’s JPW at this point (his haircut isn’t nearly as nice), it’d make sense to expect the same kind of thing. Star Jackson slots in as the backup QB; he was a 2008 recruit but redshirted last season. He’s a dual-threat type QB (meaning at this stage of development, he can run and pass at about a 53% clip), so while he’ll be a useful player – and likely a standout player – a year or two down the road, at this point he’s pretty much strictly a change-of-pace player. McElroy, on the other hand, is strictly a game manager. He’ll be relied on to keep defenses honest and not just throw jump balls to Julio Jones.

Speaking of Jones, he absolutely qualifies as one of the few transcendent talents in the SEC, and he’s absolutely the only one who qualifies on this offense. As a true freshman, he was 2nd team in the SEC, which is a rare enough feat in most cases, but Jones was also the only passing threat on the team. 2nd WR Mike McCoy didn’t even get to 200 yards on the season, which is an impressive enough feat in its own right. Other than Jones, TE Nick Walker was the only guy who topped 200 yards on the season, and he graduated; TE duties will fall to Colin Peek. While there’s talent of the non-Julio Jones variety at WR, Jones is the only true passing threat on this team and that’ll likely continue this season. With true freshmen Kendall Kelly, Michael Bowman, and Kenny Bell arriving on campus this season, the future is in pretty decent shape, but the present is solely jump-ball territory.

Now, because the Tide are going to have to score at some point this season, that means it’ll fall to the running game. Even though Coffee has departed, Mark Ingram had a fantastic season as a redshirt freshman last year, running for 725 yards at a 5.1 ypc clip. He’ll likely slot in as the primary RB. Of the other returning rushers, Roy Upchurch and Terry Grant are the guys everyone’s heard of; Grant is the faster of the two backs, but he struggled with the system last season to the tune of only 2.5 ypc. Still, all three are legitimate backs and they’ll add true freshman Trent Richardson to the rotation. Richardson was one of the top backs of this year’s recruiting class, so he should step in nicely.

Alabama’s offensive schemes and attack methods for this season will look a lot like last year; meaning get ready for a lot of power running. I see Alabama’s offensive endgame as similar to LSU’s from a few years back; the RB stable is certainly there, but they’re still lacking the requisite passing game to really set everything in motion. Star Jackson may be the guy who gets them over that hump, but he’s still likely a year off from contributing in an every-down role.

On Defense and Special Teams
It’s more of the same on D; it’ll hurt that Rashad Johnson departs – not only because he was a 2nd-team All-American last year, but he was also the 2nd leading tackler on the team. Unlike most teams, this isn’t a bad sign with Saban’s defense; the FS is used as a rover, which means he’ll get more freedom to attack where he sees fit. Typically the FS serves as a “robber” over the middle (Saban prefers a Cover 1 scheme over Cover 2), meaning he also has the freedom to jump routes. Mark Barron will slot in as the new starter.

However, aside from Johnson’s departure the defense returns nearly intact. Even departed DE Bobby Greenwood will get replaced by Lorenzo Washington, who got displaced by Terrence Cody at NT – possibly literally. (Yes, there’s your requisite fat joke.) With Cody on the line, it’ll be an above-average line at worst; in all likelihood, they’ll be one of the better lines in the SEC.

Saban’s LB corps is one of the deepest and best in the SEC, if not the country. Rolando McClain returns at MLB after a campaign where he finished as a 3rd-team All-American; this year only Brandon Spikes has a mildly clear edge over McClain for the title of “Best LB in the SEC”. Aside from McClain, there’s still tons of talent; Brandon Fanney and Dont’A Hightower are the 3rd and 4th leading tacklers from last season, respectively and even Cory Reamer filled in decently after Jimmy Johns got busted for selling half the nose candy of Colombia. These guys probably won’t get a lot of PT this year, but don’t be surprised if Nico Johnson and Tana Patrick start making contributions sooner rather than later.

As far as secondaries go, this hasn’t been the best unit Saban’s fielded. As mentioned before, Barron steps into the FS / robber position outlined above, but everyone else returns. Javier Arenas is unquestionably the best CB of the bunch, and SS Justin Woodall was 2nd on the team in interceptions. Woodall may not have quite as much freedom to roam the field compared to last year, but he should be able to produce similar numbers.

Both K Leigh Tiffin and P PJ Fitzgerald return for their senior seasons; Tiffin in particular has excelled, especially at kicks under 40 yards. Fitzgerald isn’t anything special, though. Javier Arenas doubles as the return specialist for both kickoffs and punts; last year alone he returned 3 punts for TDs. Saying he’ll be dangerous would be a mild understatement.

So What’s Their Bowl Game
It’s always nice when you can list “National Championship Game” as a realistic hope, isn’t it? The schedule is navigable as these things go; picking up two road games at Kentucky and MSU are just about as easy as they come. However, the other two are doozies: Auburn’s at Auburn this year, and a road game at Ole Miss pretty early in the season as these things go (October 10th). That Ole Miss game will serve as the barometer for the season; win that game and they’re in the national title hunt up until – and perhaps after – the SEC Championship Game. Lose that, and they’ll absolutely need to run the table. Virginia Tech and LSU should be tough, but both are winnable. At 11-1 in the regular season, they’ll need to beat Florida to have a shot for the BCS Championship Game, but a BCS bowl as bid #2 isn’t unrealistic; if they don’t snag that, it’ll likely be the Capital One Bowl.

Arkansas Razorbacks '09: When everyone says you're underrated, you're no longer underrated

The 2008 Season in a Box
At times, Arkansas probably felt like they were the last decent gift in a White Elephant gift exchange. First, they run Houston Nutt out of town (I still don’t like that, by the way), then they somehow luck into Atlanta castoff Bobby Petrino. Now, Petrino also inspires his own set of White Elephant jokes since he’s apparently contractually bound to not serve out his contracts, but that’s neither here nor there – the important thing is that he’s still at Arkansas. Once the season began, they were a bit out of place running Petrino’s system with the Dick brothers, but somehow things worked out as well as they could and the Hogs ended up at 5-7. It wasn’t some kind of hot mess, but it wasn’t something to be particularly proud of.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
It’ll only help when the coaching staff hasn’t been run out of town thanks to overzealous high school football fans. Arkansas’s offseason wasn’t one of excitement this year, and that can only be a good thing. On the non-intangibles side of the ball, this will be the second year of Petrino’s system for most of the crew. Even with QBs who could be generously described as “decent”, last year’s passing attack wasn’t half bad; when you remove some Dick and add Mallett, apparently this turns out to be a positive addition. As such, it can only be a step up to have a talented QB (who has had a year to learn Petrino’s offense, let’s not forget – that transfer was two seasons ago) and a mostly returning offense and defense. Arkansas was more consistent than they appeared to be (they mostly fell off the radar after losing to Alabama, Texas, and Florida in succession by a combined 139-31), so they’re in great shape to move up in the world.

On Offense
Put it this way: last season, Arkansas attempted a pass on about 54% of their plays from scrimmage. All but 22 of those passes were thrown by either Casey Dick or Nathan Dick, who are probably most well-known as “the guys who got to hand off to Darren McFadden and Felix Jones”. Casey is somehow Arkansas’s third leading passer in history (this seems to be a confirmation that Arkansas hasn’t had much in the way of passers more than a confirmation that Casey was any good), but he’s graduated and Nathan transferred. That in turn leaves the offense in the possibly-capable hands of Ryan Mallett. Mallett had a previous life at Michigan, but transferred after Lloyd Carr retired; back in ’07, he was pretty ineffective as a true freshman. It’s probably a decent chance that Mallett’s figured a few things out and grown up a bit since transferring; in addition, Petrino’s always done a good job of developing QBs, so Mallett should be in good shape all around.

It should only help Mallett’s development that nearly everyone who caught a pass returns this season. TE DJ Williams is one of the best pass-catching TE in the country; there aren’t many TEs out there who can make a claim to over 500 yards receiving in a season, but Williams is one of them with room to spare (700+ yards and 3 TDs last year). At this point though, Williams is the only consistent receiving option; Lucas Miller. Jarius Wright, and Greg Childs are the only receivers with more than 12.5 ypr last year. That’s a sign that the defenses weren’t getting stretched enough unless the Razorbacks were rolling out packages with two of those three guys. Mallett should help add a legitimate downfield threat to the Hog offense, which – from a passing standpoint, at least – they haven’t seen in at least a few seasons. If Joe Adams or London Crawford can emerge as a consistent possession threat as well, Arkansas’s passing game should be set.

Arkansas’ rushing attack was pretty much a one-man show last year with RB Michael Smith racking up nearly 1,100 yards in only 10 games played. The problem therein is in that Arkansas played 12 games last year, and the two games that he missed – Western Illinois and LSU – Arkansas only averaged 3.7 yards a carry. Still, those 10 games are even a bit of a misnomer; he only saw limited action against South Carolina (7 carries, 25 yards) and – to an extent – Texas (13/42) and Mississippi State (14/60). Frankly, if Smith didn’t get on track Arkansas’s running game was toast last year; the aforementioned MSU game was the only time Smith got bottled up and Arkansas topped 100 yards rushing. Some of the non-Smith numbers last year were staggering: Alabama (12 carries, 1 yard), Texas (13/-31), Tulsa (8/-17), and South Carolina (24/29) were all examples in ineptitude.

If Smith can’t come through, then the rushing game’s success will be contingent on one of Broderick Green, De’Anthony Curtis, or Ronnie Wingo stepping up to fill the gap. None of these guys are particularly known; of the three, only Curtis has seen PT with the Razorbacks, and he was limited in action last year thanks to a knee injury. Wingo is a true freshman who will hopefully end up as a redshirt (I’m always partial to giving true freshman a year to adjust to the college game, but Arkansas may not have that luxury). Green is the most intriguing of the three options; he’s a transfer from USC who was recently cleared to play. He’s more of a true power back than Curtis, Wingo, or Smith at 6’1”, 248. He’ll have a definite role within Petrino’s system, even if it’s strictly the Jovorski Lane Honorary Goal Line Truck. One additional RB we haven’t mentioned yet is Dennis Johnson, who also doubles as a KR specialist and may be the fastest among the group at 4.3 speed; however, he’s of a similar size as Smith (both stand 5’7” and are in the 185-200 range), so he doesn’t really offer much that’s new and different.

As far as schemes, expect this year’s Arkansas team to look more like typical Petrino teams than last year’s team did. To this date, I’m still not sure how the brothers Dick ended up with more than a 57% completion percentage, but if they could do that under Petrino, then Mallett should be in great shape. The offense will tend slightly toward the pass, and if there’s a legitimate second option if (and possibly when) Smith goes down for the rushing attack then Arkansas’s offense should be in great shape. All the pieces are there at this point, and with a season to mature next season looks even better (provided Petrino is still there, of course).

On Defense and Special Teams
Personnel-wise, this defense will look a lot like last year’s; they return their top 10 tacklers, and among the starters, only SS Dallas Washington departs. That’s a blessing and a curse for a team who turned in one of their worst statistical performances of the 21st century; their 31.2 ppg allowed was the highest in six years, the 4.4 ypc allowed was the worst since the 6-6 campaign of 2004, and while the pass defense wasn’t quite as bad as the numbers made it out to be, it certainly wasn’t good.

Since most of the unit returns intact, they’ll continue with their 4-3 base scheme; DT Malcom Sheppard is the name to remember on the line (tied for 3rd in the SEC last year with 14.5 tackles for loss, 6th in the SEC last year in sacks with 6.5) and strongside LB Jerry Franklin is the best LB of the bunch. DE Adrian Davis is also a quality pass rusher, with 5 sacks on the season. The secondary, oddly enough, is more notable for being short than anything else; only FS Elton Ford even grazes 6’ among the starters, and it’s a bit of a trek down the depth chart before running into someone who’s above 6’ – for the curious, that’d be second-string FS Anthony Leon, who likely wouldn’t see a ton of playing time. While height may not matter in most cases, it does mean that the secondary will have their work cut out for them against deeper passing teams – and if the front seven can truly stop the run this year.

Special teams returns a pretty decent K in Alex Tejada, who somehow got the yips last year when passing 40 yards and got replaced for a period of time by the now-departed Shay Haddock. The punting game could be in a bit of trouble, as P Briton Forester was basically the last guy to be picked at kickball growing up – and the backup P is none other than Ryan Mallett. The return game should be solid, though; some of the RBs that don’t end up top 2 or top 3 in the depth chart will end up there. Last year Dennis Johnson returned kicks (good) and Michael Smith returned punts (bad). Johnson will likely return kicks again and depending on how roles shake out, may move to the punt return game too. Smith really wasn’t that exciting as a punt returner, and there’s better things to do with RB1 than put him in a position where he can just get unloaded on by gunners.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
On the basis of talent alone (coupled with the improvements that’ll come from Year 2 of Petrino’s schemes) Arkansas should make a bowl game. However, that’s not always how these things work. Drawing the top three SEC West teams on the road is asking for trouble; while they’d have a passable shot at pulling an upset if any of the games were in Fayetteville, they’ll have more than their work cut out for them on the road. If that wasn’t rough enough, there’s also a road trip to Florida on top of that. Now, the good news is that all the road and neutral site games are winnable – Georgia, South Carolina, and possibly Troy(!) are the toughest of the home games – but Arkansas isn’t a good enough team to win all those games. They have to go 6-2 (or better) against those teams to make a bowl, though (chalking up all their road games as losses); if they do that, they’ll end up at some Independence Bowl equivalent – technically that’s a step up from last season. While it’s not unlikely they’ll make a bowl, it will be difficult.

Big 12 Position Battles & Updates

College football's opening kickoff is only two weeks away! Between internet connection problems and personal travel, I've been absent from this blog for nearly a month - my apologies.

So, in at the last minute, here are some updates on how the summer is progressing in the Big 12. Again due to the aforementioned issues, this will largely focus on the "interesting" (read: likely bowl and particularly BCS) teams, although I've thrown A&M in for good measure. Let's get started with the most exciting team of all...


Robert Griffin III, sometimes known as "Cream," was quoted by Jason King as saying "We can go 12-0 and end up in the national championship, or we could win fewer games than that." I think this sums it all up for the 2009 Baylor Bears. In 2009 they will, at best, go unbeaten and win the BCS. I don't think the Super Bowl is realistic until Griffin's senior year, and even then he will need some help by the defense if they're going up against the Patriots.

On any given play there will be 10, possibly 11, guys on the field at a time who are not Robert Griffin. This is largely inconsequential.


While the QB and WR positions at Kansas are very strong, the OL is a spot of possible regression that could hold this offense back. Tanner Hawkinson will be the only freshman starter, but he is taking over the important LT position. This has the potential to be an issue against some of the better defensive fronts in the conference, especially as Kansas drew both Oklahoma and Texas from the South. A pair of juniors are expected to start as the new guards (RG Sal Capra, LG Carl Wilson) with Capra drawing some good reviews on Kansas blogs.

I remain skeptical that Kansas is the kind of program that can reload both guards and the LT in a single season.

For two seasons, Kansas' defense has been quite obviously led by their linebacking corps, which makes it a big deal when all three starters graduate. Justin Springer has locked up a starting spot but hasn't been playing full-time due to minor injury. Mangino is on video saying freshman Huldon Tharp will probably be a starter. The third starting spot is unclear. However, there will be a third starting spot -- that is, Mark Mangino has dispelled rumors that Kansas was switching their base defense to the nickel. The Jayhawks will continue to operate from the 4-3.


The word out of Norman is Broyles, Broyles, Broyles. He has made a case for the clear #1 WR target at Oklahoma, and in fact has wound up on the Biletnikoff Award watch list, of course this means Bradford's second option after super-TE Jermaine Gresham. Juco transfer Cameron Kenney has emerged to become the "third" receiving target, but his performance in practice has rumors going that he will in fact be the #2 WR.

Without nearly as much noise out of Adron Tennell, I continue to speculate that Oklahoma will shift their offensive philosophy to take greater advantage of their RB duo, Demarco Murray and Chris Brown.

With four starters to replace, this is the biggest question mark on the Oklahoma offense, coming off a record-setting 2008 season. Trent Williams was known to be the best player on the OL and takes over the all-important LT position. However, Stephen Good has been equally impressive and shows the ability to play any interior position. His slated role is RG, but Oklahoma could use him in some situations to overpower the left side, or he could be used as a center depending on Ben Habern's health situation.

Oklahoma is known to have a strong front four, perhaps the strongest in the Big 12. At the end positions this is a veritable embarrassment of riches. Auston English and Jeremy Beal are both returning starters who realistically have locked in their spots, but sophomore Frank Alexander and redshirted freshman R.J. Washington are expected to get heavy playing time. This ability to rotate in fresh legs with minimal loss in pass-rush productivity could set them apart in a pass-oriented conference.

Oklahoma State:


With Brandon Pettigrew leaving, Oklahoma State had no legitimate heir as second receiving threat going into 2009! Now it seems that Justin Blackmon has all but wrapped up the #2 WR spot - lacking Dez Bryant's size (weight) and speed, Blackmon is nonetheless a fast WR and should benefit from coverages being shifted toward the other side of the field.

TE remains a battle unlikely to have a clear winner by week 1, but Jamal Mosley was reported by Rivals to have had the best offseason catching the ball. Considering the lack of depth at WR, a TE with good hands may work himself into more and more playing time if that becomes an issue for the offense.


News update: In my conference TE preview earlier this summer, I pegged Blaine Irby as the #2 fantasy tight end in the conference. Since then, Texas has reported that the injury Irby sustained in the opening month of the 2008 season will keep him out of 2009 as well. It gets worse. Highly touted freshman D.J. Grant will require knee surgery, Josh Marshall has been forced out of football due to a lingering injury, and now Ian Harris is out for 2009 with a neck injury.

TE Greg Smith caught just two passes in 2008, and freshman Barrett Matthews may end up winning that spot. But what I think will end up happening is that Texas will use a lot of 4-5 WR sets and abandoning the TE as a receiving position, as they did in 2008. This is unfortunate as Irby had some high potential, but ultimately Texas is extremely deep at the WR position.

Moving on to that - reports seem to be leaning towards Malcolm Williams developing into the #2 WR for the Horns, with James Kirkendoll the #3 target. I'll admit I was hoping to hear more of John Chiles' name, but with the TE situation he may find some playing time regardless. Williams and Kirkendoll have proven themselves capable receivers and should step up to fill the void left by Quan Cosby.

David Snow was originally listed as a center but has worked out as a guard and the coaches have loved him. I don't know whether he will take Michael Huey's spot (leaning towards no) for the lone newcomer to the Texas starting line, or if he will simply be used in rotation, but either way it's more good news for the group projected to be best in the conference.

I have seen conflicting reports on whether Deon Beasley or Aaron Williams will be starting at corner along with Chykie Brown. I find Beasley more believable - but, the upside here is that Williams (at least at some point) was in contention. He's 6'1 and might be a better matchup against bigger WR's, and gives the Horns a strong nickel package that could be used against Texas Tech. Two seasons ago, the secondary was considered Texas' weak point. Nice that this unit has rebounded.

Texas A&M:

In a result that should surprise no one, Jerrod Johnson has retained the starting QB position.


Ryan Tannehill was my #11 receiver pick for the Big 12, on the condition that Johnson was likely to beat him out for the starting QB spot. However, Sherman has decided that the team's backup QB situation is too weak for Tannehill to go back to WR, where he got banged up a bit last season. Who does that leave to throw the ball to? Well, there's a solid TE in Jamie McCoy, and Jeff Fuller at the #1 WR spot.

Perhaps, though, A&M is going to avoid the unnecessary risk of turnover and just keep the ball on the ground punt on 1st down.

Texas Tech:


There's still no real consensus on this, which is about what I expected given the offense. Detron Lewis is getting the most attention by sources like Rivals, but Edward Britton came on strong in the second half of the season and might have a better build as a possession receiver.
Tramain Swindall has the second-most catches of any WR returning, and of course will have one of the four starting spots locked up. There's not a clear #4 at this point.

Thursday, August 20

Bryce Brown, Brian Butler, and NCAA Basketball

So Bryce Brown’s been suspended from Tennessee football for the foreseeable future. Why? Well, apparently he took part in some tours as a high school sophomore that may have been paid for, and in the land of NCAA this qualifies as an improper benefit. The silver lining for UT in this is that it isn’t their fault; this occurred well before they – or, I’d assume, anyone – recruited Brown. So who arranged the trip? Brian Butler.

Butler’s an interesting character. He runs an organization called Potential Players, which is designed …well, according to their mission statement designed to do pretty awesome stuff. In reality, it’s less life guidance and more recruiting advisement. Okay, so technically that’s Life (or L.I.F.E.) Training, who’s also run by Butler but operates as a for-profit. Potential Players focuses on the spiritual side while LT focuses on recruiting and training. And no, I can’t explain what info you’d get by signing up on Potential Players – if they’re two disparate companies, shouldn’t you just get their preferred prayer locations? I mean, I guess there would be a situation where I would need to know Bryce Brown prefers to pray while showering, but I can’t think of what that situation would be.

As far as these things go, it’s murky but not entirely strange. So let’s muddy the water a bit. Butler’s not exactly a clean soul, but …hey, what else would you expect? But this business model isn’t unique – it’s just relatively unique in college football.

College basketball, on the other hand, is rife with this kind of thing. While the third-party recruiting service is a relatively new thing in college football, it’s somewhere between mildly entrenched and a fact of life in the college basketball realm. Heck, at this point Worldwide Wes is damn near a household name, and there’s reason for that. But there’s more than just Wes, and it’s not getting any better. Quite frankly, although college football recruiting makes me feel a little dirty (really, I should be excited over what a 17-year-old male wants to do? I’m not so recently removed from that and I had no idea what I wanted at all), college basketball recruiting is often so dirty it’ll make you wish for the halcyon days of the 1994 baseball labor strike. The power brokers in b-ball are simply astounding; while they don’t control all the flow of information, they control a lot of it.

The power brokers don’t lack for much. What they don’t directly - or indirectly - control can be summed up by three other sources: AAU, “elite” camps, and high school coaches. AAU and the like are what amounts to summer leagues; the coaches often don’t have a direct affiliation with any specific high school, and often are affiliated with some corporate sponsor or two – Nike and adidas being the two that everyone’s heard of. “Elite” camps are a cute little way to skirt the rules regarding on-campus visits; we’re seeing a couple of these pop up in college football as well. High school coaches are the ones that everyone knows about, but shockingly they have comparatively little pull in the recruiting landscape, as the power brokers use AAU to get their pull in. (They don't control AAU teams, as far as I know - they merely use them as connections.) Even they’re smart enough to not come near the camps.

So thanks to the above, the college basketball world has turned into is a nasty little pool of people exploiting the under-18 crowd by as many ways as possible in as short a time as possible; the problem – from the NCAA’s perspective – is how the heck do you untangle it? The elite camps fall outside of the realm of regulations, and so does AAU. The brokers are smart enough to not be directly involved with any of the recruitment process directly; again, they position themselves as brokers, who provide access and information in exchange for fees without providing coercion. The NCAA can’t realistically go after sponsors and have any credibility, since the sponsors have a very obvious retaliatory reply – one the NCAA won’t go near. As a result, the NCAA is reduced to hoping and waiting for the brokers to screw up – show up at an elite camp and pass money to an assistant, tout their services as the only way to ensure Prospect X comes to your college (but only at a fee!) – and quite frankly, their role is lucrative enough they’ll never need to do that.

As a result, the NCAA is forced to operate mostly at the margins, striking where they have jurisdiction. Brian Butler walked straight into that with his “academic” trip, which has to be funded from somewhere, right? If the NCAA can show - and no, I don’t know how – that Butler paid for the trip via money from a booster or a school, that’s an improper benefit. I don’t know if they can track money going into his program and claim that money went toward the trip; I doubt they’ll be able to, since I have a sneaking suspicion Butler’s accounting methods are less than exacting.

What this will let the NCAA do is finally exert influence over one of these semi-legitimate brokers. Provided they can prove their case, they may have the ability to limit Butler’s actions by declaring what he did as not allowable under their rules and regulations. That’ll have to be how they operate. If they can do this, then they can then move on to trying to stop something else. For the NCAA, they likely feel this is the only way they’ll be able to stop college football from turning into college basketball.

I’m not sure if I totally agree with that idea, but if guys like Butler can be limited I’d consider that a good thing. Recruiting is often quasi-shady enough without third parties getting involved. Still, until this gets figured out Bryce Brown is caught in the crossfire of a battle he didn’t even know existed. It sucks, but this is the price of making a statement.

Auburn Tigers '09: Because it can't be any worse than last season and the offseason, right?

The 2008 Season in a Box
There’s something to be said for failing so spectacularly that one season not only blows up all of our preconceived notions about Auburn, but it also kills the coaching career of a head coach who had gone 75-27 this century prior to that season and had a 13-0 season on the books not even 5 years ago. Really, last year had it all – destroying a previous 6-year winning streak against Alabama, getting blown up by a lackluster West Virginia team on the road with a national audience, and – let’s not forget – the cavalcade of awesomeness that was the 3-2 win over Mississippi State.

Honestly, if this season was in a box that box has since blown up, because the only thing in Auburn’s box last year was an IED.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Well, everything off the field is different; embattled coach Tommy Tuberville stepped down, Tony Franklin’s offense (which probably wasn’t actually his offense, but at this point we’re fighting over scraps) left, and the boosters got their wish with Gene Chizik, who somehow parlayed a 5-19 record in Ames into a coaching gig at one of the better SEC schools this century. I’m not sure how he did that, but there are worse fates.

What interests me more than Chizik coming in to coach is Guz Malzahn resurfacing in the SEC. We’ll probably circle back around this later – Malzahn’s offense fascinates me – but unlike his previous stint at Arkansas, Malzahn should get full opportunity to run his full offense. What this means for Auburn is they’ll see a faster offense than they’ve seen in likely ever; that doesn’t mean it’ll be better. Not this season, at least – this will be Malzahn’s offense with Tuberville’s troops. Of course, the DC also changed hands – Ted Roof is in at DC. He’ll hope to be more competent than he was when he was head coach of Duke.

Of course, with all that change there really isn’t that much new on the field. Nearly everyone who contributed last year / was responsible for the hellish season is back. We’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader on how to interpret the previous sentence.

On Offense
Malzahn’s first task is going to be figuring out what the hell to do with this QB corps – I’m not going to say they’re bad, but Auburn fans were pining for the halcyon days of Brandon Cox about halfway through the season. On paper, it sounds like a great problem to have; Kodi Burns is a dual-threat QB and Chris Todd trained under Mike Leach, so he understands how to run multiple-WR offenses from shotgun. Of course, in translation Burns is a typical dual-threat QB (can’t pass to save his life) and there’s a reason Todd transferred from Texas Tech (he’s not any good) – and lest Tiger fans cling to the untested Neil Caudle, remember that he wasn’t good enough to displace either of these guys last season.

I figure Burns will get the first shot – when all things mean equal (even if they sum up to crap), there’s no sense to not take the guy who can run as well as pass, even if using pass will sometimes require quotation marks. Hopefully his running of the offense will consist mostly of looking for short passes and option-type plays; Malzahn isn’t beholden to either the run or the pass, and quite frankly there’s no reason not to run the ball at least 55% of the time with this offense. The likely difference this season is that 10% of those runs won’t be QB scrambles this time.

Of course, there’s still the question of who’s running the routes. Auburn hasn’t had a playmaker at WR since Courtney Taylor left town; there’s hope that Mario Fannin can finally step into the playmaker role, but the problem is that he’s a hybrid player. While he certainly has the capability of being a playmaker, there’s been no evidence to this point that he actually is one. Among the guys who actually line up at WR, Montez Billings and Tim Hawthorne are the guys to watch for. It’s tough to make any kind of projection on how they’ll play, though; not only are they on their 4th scheme since they stepped on-campus, but they don’t have a QB who can hit the broad side of a barn. Going by their previous ypr numbers, Billings looks wholly unimpressive while Hawthorne can at least function in the Denarius Moore “he’s our only deep threat and we try that once a game” role. I’d like to think one or both of them can top 500 yards, but that means that I’d also be projecting Burns to have around 1,800 yards passing (when you take everyone else he’d have to pass to into account) and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I’d expect Terrell Zachery to make a semi-decent contribution (or at least serve as a decoy), but the guy that intrigues me the most out of this crew is DeAngelo Benton, who’s now eligible after being recruited with the 2007(!) class. He won’t have much time to make an impact – while I don’t know why it took him this long to show up on campus, I suspect he sunk his pro career by not trying hard in the classroom – but he was a big deal back when he signed. It also helps that really nobody in particular has separated from the pack, so Benton (or, realistically, some other random guy along the lines of Emory Blake) has ample opportunity. At TE, Tommy Trott and Gabe McKenzie have both demonstrated competence in the passing game in previous seasons so they’re not bad options. However, neither is a quality talent in the passing game, meaning they’ll be mostly outlet options.

Not surprisingly, Auburn’s offensive success is going to be dictated by the running game – and they’re in pretty decent shape there. Ben Tate returns for his senior season; he’s near 2,000 yards for his career and while even I don’t think he has much of a shot at 3,000 yards total, he’s been better than most people realize. Granted, I still think part of his rushing success has been due to having absolutely no other options, but whatever works. Fannin will see some action here as well, but Malzahn doesn’t seem to prefer two-back sets, meaning Fannin will need some special action to really get his opportunity (or he’ll have to steal it if Tate gets injured). Burns will help keep defenses honest with his legs, but he won’t be any kind of true game-changing running option unless Malzahn goes option crazy.

I’m not totally sure what to expect of this version of Malzahn’s offense, but I expect it to be fast. Malzahn calls plays in a hurry, and while most teams are concerned about schemes and specific plays, Malzahn is at least as concerned about speed if not moreso. When the offense is rolling, it can absolutely wear out an opponent’s defense; of course, those that have been reading the previous paragraphs know just how big that “is rolling” caveat is with this team. I’m going to hope the Tiger faithful give it time – okay, my Tennessee homer wants them to panic in Week 2 – but if they let it bloom I think they’ll be happy with the results.

On Defense and Special Teams
Defense has long been Auburn’s calling card; my suspicion as to why we don’t think of Auburn as a dominant team is their defense has consistently been so far above good that we don’t even think about it anymore. It just happens. (The rest of the reason why we don’t think of Auburn as dominant is their offense has been at best average, save 2004 / 2005.)

The funny part about Auburn’s defense last year is they didn’t rack up the numbers that anyone cares about; their sack and pick totals were lackluster. Still, their overall yardage defense was just about average for the SEC, which qualifies as a step down for these guys – the 4.1 ypc allowed is the most they’ve allowed in the last five years. To some degree, it’s been smoke and mirrors; sure, Antonio Coleman is a beast at DE, but is there anyone else in the front seven that strikes fear in the heart of opposing runners? The LB corps should be fast laterally, but Chizik and/or Roof may want the group a bit bigger than Tuberville had them. The good news among the LB crew is that they only need to replace their weakside LB among last year’s crew, and since standout LB Trey Blackmon spent most of last year injured, they’re used to not having a dedicated playmaker.

Oddly, both Auburn’s leading tacklers from last year were their starting safeties. I’m not sure how I feel about that; on one hand, that may mean teams found a fair amount of passing room against their coverage schemes. On the other – and more likely – hand, that 4.1 ypc against means too many guys got to the second level. SS Mke McNeil and FS Zac Etheridge should be able to handle things again if they get completely out of control again; still, it’s not good if your safeties are doubling as your leading tacklers (seriously, even Eric Berry was only 3rd on the Vols), so for Auburn to return from the brink they need to not make as many tackles. The rest of the secondary should be fine; CBs Walter McFadden and Aairon Savage are both returning starters (Savage from 2006-2007) and Neiko Thorpe is a capable 3rd CB.

I don’t think that Chizik / Roof will have exotic gameplans for this defense; truth be told, I’m not sure how they’ll interact on defense, but I figure that if Auburn hired Chizik for anything, it’d be for his defensive mind. As such, it’d be a little crazy not to expect him to field a more than capable defense.

With all the turnover everywhere else, at least K Wes Bynum is back. Bynum, like everyone else last year, sucked pretty hard, but everyone’s heard of him for his gutshot kick to beat Florida on the road as a freshman, so it’s not like he doesn’t have the talent. From the make-your-own-joke department, Auburn actually has a couple of capable punters in Clinton Durst and Ryan Shoemaker; they’ll get plenty of opportunities, amirite? It’s not all peaches, though – they roll over most of their talent in the return game, meaning Fannin will have to step up here to make the unit worth something. Benton and Hawthorne may see some action here, too.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
While this is going to be one heck of a transition season for Auburn, at least they picked the right year to schedule Ball State. West Virginia is a likely loss since it’s so early in the season (although they have their own issues); if they win that, 2-6 in-conference will get them to a bowl game. If not, you can do the math. They draw Tennessee on the road and Kentucky at home this year from the East, which isn’t terrible as these things go. While I’m not sure I’d expect wins from both those games, 1-1 should be nearly guaranteed. Mississippi State is a home game, so that’s an easy win too. After that, things get dicey; road games at LSU and Georgia are anything but sure wins (especially the LSU game, which will probably kick off at 8) and they get Ole Miss and the Iron Bowl at home. With the Alabama game being what it is, I won’t say they’ll lose that game, but I will say that they’re underdogs in that matchup right now. Ole Miss should be a loss unless we’re all wrong about them.

With that being said, they’re somewhere on that 5-7 / 6-6 cusp; 7-5 is possible if a few things break right. That means they’re headed somewhere in December likely and it’s going to be some crap game nobody wants to go to – did someone say Shreveport?

Ole Miss '09: GIGGITY

The 2008 Season in a Box
Last year was just about the best possible scenario for Ole Miss, not only emerging from the desert of sub-.500 seasons but blowing the doors off of mediocrity to the tune of a 9-4 record. Since we’re already aboard the metaphor train at this point, Ole Miss just got a surprise gift from one of their friends they haven’t seen since high school. Considering how badly they spurned David Cutcliffe at the end of his era, they should be lucky that guy is even talking to them at this point. It was a joyous reunion and a step in a much-needed direction in Oxford if they wanted to have a chance of ditching the demons they awoke with the unceremonious dumping of Cutcliffe.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Well, this time they’re not sneaking up on anyone for starters. Expectations are about 12 steps past sky-high (this is the first time I can remember the Rebels opening the season in the top 5 in …pretty much ever), so there’s always the chance that the team wilts under the pressure. This is the second year of Nutt’s schemes with this team, too – there should be some improvement based on that alone. More than anything else, nearly all the key players from last year’s team return (including nearly all the skill players) – generally speaking when that happens, everyone thinks that all the guys will get better. All things considered, this team should be different and they should be better than they were last year. Whether that justifies the hype remains to be seen.

On Offense
So the funny thing is that while everyone and their brother knows about Jevan Snead, Ole Miss’ offense still ran the ball 60.6% of the time. Sure, some of those runs were probably QB scrambles, but that won’t get play distribution to anywhere near average. Houston Nutt’s teams typically thrive on the run play, and they’ll have more than one back when things are going well – we don’t already forget the halcyon days of McFadden/Jones, do we? However, it came with a bit of a curveball last year; WR Dexter McCluster actually led the team in yardage (and yards per carry) last season. I’m not totally sold that’ll last this season (in short, we should see another player emerge as a legitimate RB) – I didn’t see quite enough Rebel ball to get a feel for if McCluster runs were designed to operate the way they did, but he had more than a few games where he rushed for over 10 yards, which tells me it was at least kind of intentional.

Whether that continues this year depends on if Enrique Davis is ready to assume the mantle of RB of the future. Cordera Eason will likely still be RB1 (his 140 carries did lead the team) and that shouldn’t change, but Davis should be able to jump Brandon Bolden on the depth chart. They’re of similar size and build, but Davis was the much, much more talented and heralded recruit out of high school – the problem was that he never learned to pass block. If he can jump Bolden as emerge as a 1A to Eason’s 1, then McCluster may also see his carries go down a bit. If he just ends up as a 2, then McCluster will be fine. As it is, I can see McCluster still getting 8-9 touches a game (quite frankly, Nutt thinks he’s explosive enough to warrant that at least based on past performance), but if Eason and Davis get 20-25 between them, then Nutt – and the Rebels – will be happy campers. Of course, with all this being said somehow Bolden has emerged as the starter, which is proof that Nutt's batshit - or I am.

None of this discussion is meant to marginalize Snead’s role within the offense; Snead is the most talented QB Nutt’s had to work with since Matt Jones and may be the best pure passer he’s had (better than Clint Stoerner), which means the passing game is the most dynamic attack Nutt has had in …probably ever. Snead’s still a junior, so his numbers (56% completion percentage, about 2,750 yards, 26/13 TD/INT) should improve slightly, although the smart money is on the completion percentage going up and the interceptions going down. I’d be surprised if the yardage changed substantially, simply because 3,000 yards is going to be the natural peak for anyone running Nutt’s offense. There aren’t enough opportunities to suggest otherwise at this point.

The semi-ironic part of the Rebel passing offense is that the WRs have either talented or a solid track record. Not only did McCluster lead the team in rushing last year, but he also was third on the team in yards, too – Shay Hodge was also ahead of him, beating him in all three major categories (yards, yards per reception, TDs). The now-departed Mike Wallace trumped both of them, though. Fortunately, the Rebels have a new highly-regarded talent in incoming WR Pat Patterson and WR Markeith Summers is only a junior. I don’t think the talent is there to have a true 3-WR offense like the Rebels had most of last year – there’s one heck of a drop-off between McCluster’s 625 yards receiving and WR Lionel Breaux’s 178, which was 4th on the team – but Hodge and McCluster are the unquestioned 1-2 WR combo. If Patterson, Summers, and Breaux can get near 1,000 yards between them, then the passing game won’t have any regression at all.

At this point, we should know what offense Nutt’s going to run: run-heavy with a fair amount of 3-WR sets and some non-QB play receiving the ball (they’re calling it the Wild Rebel this time). McCluster should set up as the point man for the Wild Rebel again this season, and since Nutt’s general idea is the more players running the ball the merrier, get used to it. The offense should be better by all rights; Wallace is the only significant loss, and there are enough players available to make up the production gap. The biggest question mark is going to be on the line, since they lose star LT Michael Oher (coming soon to a theater near you- get up in arms over the movie somewhere else, since I’m not paying attention at this point) and may break in a true freshman at that position. Fortunately, practicing against Greg Hardy may get him to grow up a bit.

On Defense and Special Teams
Let’s start with the bad news first: the Rebels lost four of their top five tacklers from last season, including 1st-round draft pick Peria Jerry. However, most of the guys they lost didn’t have a huge impact aside from serving as tackling dummies (yes, Jamarca Sanford was a draft pick too, but still). Now, other than those guys the defense is back in force, and that includes noted sack artist Greg Hardy (who had 8.5 sacks in limited action after missing the first three games). The defensive line is the unquestioned beast of the defensive unit – Greg Hardy as a non-starter should be a clear tipoff.

The rest of the defense should be good, but not great; everyone’s only replacing one starter so that helps, but there aren’t any world-beaters among those returning. FS Kendrick Lewis is the closest guy to a star the Rebels have on the rest of the roster, and he’s not quite the guy to be tabbed as the second-best player on the defensive unit. Still, the secondary and LB corps put up decent numbers last year and should be expected to do something similar this season. They’ll look a bit better than they would on their own thanks to the defensive line. This may end up falling just short of what a typical championship-caliber defense should be; if they do pursue the path of a champion, not only does Lewis need to have his best season yet, but either CB Cassius Vaughn or CB Marshay Green needs to emerge as a shutdown corner and either LB Jonthan Cornell or LB Allen Walker needs to turn into a giant tackling dummy.

On the other hand, K Joshua Shene is one of the best in the SEC; he’s pretty much automatic at anything inside 40 yards, which should be the province of this offense most of the time. Justin Sparks moves from kickoff specialist to punter as well; while it’s technically new for him, he should do well enough. The return games will be interesting; Marshay Green will return as the punt returner but there’s a gap in kickoff returns; maybe Pat Patterson or Enrique Davis can step in.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
They’re national title contenders for a reason: they came on like wildfire at the end last year and pretty much dismantled Big 12 South winner Texas Tech (what, they tied Texas and Oklahoma too – you make your generalizations, I’ll make mine). With most of the troops back – and what isn’t back replaced – they’re in great shape. Of course, expectations are sky-high when your toughest road game is South Carolina. They get all the major SEC West contenders are home and don’t really play anyone of note from the East, unless you count a home game against Tennessee as “of note”, and expectations for those teams aren’t even on the same planet. While they may not quite be good enough to get through their entire schedule unscathed – I think they’re in for a nasty surprise against Alabama, who isn’t close to the talent level of anyone they play prior – at 11-1, they can still be in the running for the SEC Championship Game if things break right. They’ve got a decent shot at a BCS bowl either way, and if not a return trip to the Cotton Bowl (or the Capital One Bowl) will still be one of the better two-year runs in Rebel history.

Now, if they get past Alabama then the sky’s the limit – Sugar Bowl or BCS Championship Game ahoy. LSU is the second-toughest team on the normal schedule, and we’ll just assume they’d have to navigate Florida to make it all the way. That … that may be easier said than done.

Wednesday, August 19

Florida Gators '09: Yes, they're as good as everyone says

The 2008 Season in a Box
Last season had to have been one of those nice gifts that come in Tiffany boxes or something like that. You never actually get anything in those boxes, but that rich-as-shit couple down the street sure enjoys getting them, and that Land Rover that showed up mysteriously three months ago still grates on you. Of course, this grates on you because that family is just a little more upper-crust than you are, and lordy, does that grate when you have nothing better to do with your time than compare net worth. It’s like Desperate Housewives, or at least how I think it’d be since I’ve never seen that god-forsaken show. In reality I imagine it’s like most of the middle-upper-class suburbia, when people have nothing better to do but covet, complain about service, and be complete dicks to everyone around. POWER TO THE PROLETARIAT

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Sadly, there’s no reason at all to think it’ll be any different. Freaking everyone and their brother returns except for Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy – and I think they were the only people on the team to leave, period. The Gators return nearly everyone on their two-deep on defense, three of the five on the offensive line, and just because this team isn’t inappropriately talented enough, the second-team SEC punter. Not that they’ll need him. The biggest question mark is the departure of offensive coordinator Dan Mullen to Mississippi State, and even I don’t think that’ll turn out to be a big deal at all. Whether or not anyone else thinks that depends on how much of an impact Mullen’s departure will have on the Gator offense; this offense has always had Meyer’s stamp on it, and Mullen’s departure won’t change that.

On Offense
I’m so proud of myself that I went two whole paragraphs without mentioning Tim Tebow. Look, at this point there’s a whole damn blog devoted to him (which amazingly isn’t completely tongue-in-cheek) so it goes without saying he’s kind of a big deal. He makes this version of the Meyer offense go. I remember a few years back about how I was completely scared shitless about the Tebow era at Florida; I was right. Tebow’s blossomed into one of the best college football players of all time so far, and is hands-down one of the best players and leaders in the SEC. Expecting Tebow to be anything less than a contender for the Berry Award (formerly known as the little dude with a stiff arm trophy) is going to be a grievous mistake, and he’ll probably give some speech about it that ends up memorialized on 40 UF coeds’ backs before it’s all said and done.

The problem – if it actually exists – is that there’s kind of a lack of playmakers with the rest of the offense, at least on a relative scale. Percy Harvin is gone, and while there’s certainly no shortage of talent across the board, nobody on the team has shown to be the kind of legitimate gamebreaker like Harvin was. Jeffery Demps has come closest so far, but he has his work cut out for him to come anywhere near the 1,200 all-purpose yards and 17 TDs Harvin picked up last year.

Of course, it’s not really much of a slight against them if they don’t have a once-every-decade type player in Harvin, because they’re loaded aside from him. The running game will be one of those obscene multi-back approaches that drives opposing DCs nuts; while most people have heard of the quarkback combination that is the Demps/Rainey combo, Emmanuel Moody should be ready to assume more of the workload. Moody spent part of last season in Meyer’s doghouse, but came into his own in the second part of the year. With Moody getting regular PT, Florida has four legitimate rushing options counting Tebow in any given play; that’s a nightmare for opponents. If Moody ends up back in the doghouse, then the Tebow/Demps/Rainey combination is still dangerous, but they will be lacking a true next-level threat. I think either Demps or Rainey could do that, but they won’t be able to do that getting 15-20 carries a game apiece, simply because defenses will see them too much.

The receiving corps is in similar shape as the running backs. Last year TE Cornelius Ingram spent the entire year injured and Aaron Hernandez had to step in as the everyday TE; he did so admirably and will function in a similar role as he did last year. Of course, he’s about the only guy whose approach and numbers will stay nearly the same this season. Most of the other guys will be stepping into larger roles; of that crew, Deonte Thompson is the most obvious guy to step up to the next level. He averaged right around 15 ypr last year (technically it was less than David Nelson, who actually averaged an even 15.0 ypr), but that may go down a bit as his role increases. Either way, someone – likely one of those two – will need to step up. It hurts when Florida not only loses their two best receivers from a yardage and TD basis, but from a ypr basis, too. With that being said, they have three guys – Riley Cooper is the third – who averaged between 14 and 15 ypr last season, so at least one of them will probably move into the 16-17 range that’ll put them among the conference leaders.

Meyer’s offense is something I term pro-style spread: there are enough playmakers that a half-decent scheme will exploit what’s likely going to be at least one mismatch on any given play. Shockingly, the offense isn’t that complex as these offenses go, but what it loses in complexity it gets in balance. Expecting anything else would be a mistake.

On Defense and Special Teams
Really, the reason Florida scares the crap out of me this year more than last year is the entire defense is back. All the starters return, including 1st-team All-American LB Brandon Spikes and three guys (DE Carlos Dunlap, CB Joe Haden, SS Ahmad Black) from the 2nd-team SEC defense last year. Steele has a total of 7(!) starters on all four of his teams, so yes, they’re talented. Everyone who recorded at least 15 tackles returns.

On paper, there’s no reason that they shouldn’t be at least as dominant as they were last year. Fortunately, they have regression; I don’t think they’ll end up with 26 picks again this season, and their defensive yards-per-point was over 22 (by comparison, anything over 17.5 normally indicates some kind of record regression). Unfortunately, even if they increase their points allowed by 50% that’s still not even 20 points per game, and with the offense averaging over 40 points per game (again, that was also beneficial), it probably won’t matter.

Charlie Strong by all rights should be a head coach somewhere; he’s one of the best in the game at what he does. While other guys (hi, Orson!) will chalk that up to extracurricular ideas, I’ll be charitable and say apparently he hasn’t done enough to prove himself. Really, even I think that’s bullshit; Florida’s lucky enough to have two guys who could be head coaches somewhere. Good for them that they’re lucky enough to have that, and shame on everyone else for hiring retreads.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
Just in case it wasn’t unfair enough that Florida has this level of talent, they also have a pretty favorable schedule. Their only tough road game is at LSU (and if you’d like to bet on that being a night game, that’s already been pulled from the board, sorry) and their home games aren’t hiding anything. Really, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be double-digit favorites in every game save the LSU game and the SEC Championship Game, meaning we’re looking at a team who should be in the BCS Championship Game. Of course, now watch them lose to ….um, LSU. Even I’m not gutsy enough to say they’ll lose to Tennessee.

Georgia Bulldogs '09: ARP ARP ARP ARP ARP

The 2008 Season in a Box
Last year should’ve been played with “The Price Is Right” loser’s theme on an infinite loop in the background. Georgia bet aggressively after opening as the pre-season #1 and riding emotional momentum to what would hopefully be heights they hadn’t seen in a while. Unfortunately for them (fortunately for the rest of us), the Alabama blackout stomping pretty much killed any realistic shot they had at competing for a title – and what little bit of life they had after that got ground into paste by Urban Meyer. It wasn’t that last year’s team was bad, but when you make it to the showcase you don’t bid $1 on how much the grand prize costs. But thanks for playing, guys.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Other than losing your two first-round draft picks out of the backfield? That’s what we term a “minor adjustment”; sure, you can debate whether or not Stafford was worth the first overall pick (my take has always been he needs to have something resembling consistent accuracy to make him worth the top pick, and there’s a very good reason I was making jokes about his accuracy all season), but at the end of the day he’s gone and so is talented workhorse Knowshon Moreno. Georgia at this point is talented enough to overcome their losses to some degree, but there’s a fine line between overcome and excel. Of course, last year was a bit of a disappointment. Hopefully they’ll wear their black jerseys in all their games next year.

On Offense
With the departure of Matt Stafford to the Lions – I’m not sure if that’s a step up – Joe Cox will likely step in as the starting QB. We last saw Cox in 2006 as an occasional passer before Stafford stepped in as a true frosh. Cox isn’t exactly shabby, but he wasn’t blessed with the howitzer that Stafford owned; now that he’s a senior, he’ll be a capable but likely not outstanding guy under center. Logan Gray is your prototypical change-of-pace backup QB; we’ll call him dual-threat, but since he’s a sophomore, his accuracy is probably measured in miles, not in inches. The best-case scenario for Gray and Cox is that they’re used in a similar fashion as David Greene and DJ Shockley were back in 2004; of course, that year Shockley also failed to complete 50% of his passes, which probably proves my point.

The running game will likely remind people of some reason between 2004 and 2006; while there’s not a dominant, establish rusher in the batch, there are a couple of guys who are good enough to start. Caleb King had the starting RB spot in good hands up until he screwed up and lost it; now he’ll be in a battle with Richard Samuel for RB1. The main difference between 2004 and 2005/2006 is how effective the second back was; in 2004 both Thomas Brown and Danny Ware were quality, dangerous backs who had basically 700+ yards apiece. In 2005, Brown was the true star but there were two guys underneath him who had nearly an equal amount of yards, but 2006 was the relative dud of the lot. With the talent in the backfield, 2004 is a more likely outcome than 2006, and a situation like 2007 (when Moreno burst onto the scene) isn’t terribly likely unless true freshman Washaun Easley blows everyone away in the first few weeks of the season. It’s not a bad thing that Georgia will end up with a 2 RB system; truth be told I’m actually a fan of multi-back attacks, as it lets coaches sub in and out without sacrificing a rushing threat. (It’s the converse of the dual-threat QB who can’t pass; sure, he may put the ball in the air, but he probably won’t, and if he does it shouldn’t be hard to stop it from being completed.)

WR is a bit more settled than the backfield spots; sure, Football Jesus finally lived up to his billing as a senior, but AJ Green was the true star of the unit and he’s only a sophomore. At nearly 1,000 yards and 8 TDs last year – again, as a freshman – he has a pretty decent shot of getting above the elusive 1,000 yard / 10 TD watermarks that SEC receivers typically don’t get to; in the last 5 years, only 7 players have reached that mark – and of that crew, only Sydney Rice and Earl Bennett reached that mark as sophomores. Green’s emergence as that kind of threat will be dependent in part on whether Michael Moore, Tavarres King, or Marlon Brown can emerge as enough of a threat that defenses don’t just rotate coverage over to Green’s side and dare Cox to beat them to the other receivers. Of those guys, Brown is the most intriguing; he’s a Green clone by size and recruiting acumen, but he’s also a true freshman. There’s also a chance that TE Aron White or Orson Charles emerges as a receiving threat; since it’s a new QB that should help their production.

Richt and OC Mike Bobo have done a great job tailoring the offense to what’s there; ostensibly it’s a pro-style offense, but it’s the kind of pro-style offense I like – there’s a basic set of concepts, but the concepts and plays are tailored to suit the personnel. As a result, it ends up as dynamic without becoming predictable, and Georgia’s done a good job of fielding a respectable at worst offense. Even with the absence of their two biggest stars, this season should be similar.

On Defense and Special Teams
If Georgia had a shortcoming last year, it was the defense inexplicably crapping the bed against good teams. The aggregates weren’t bad (although their opposing 3.6 ypc was the highest since ’05), but in every loss they were pretty much steamrolled: Alabama had 45 carries (although the 2.9 ypc was good), Florida averaged nearly 5 yards a carry over their 38 runs, and Georgia Tech had a staggering 7.3(!) ypc on 56 carries. Hell, even Kentucky (4.0, 56), LSU (4.6, 41), and Georgia Southern (2.9, 35, but triple option 1-AA team) were way more successful than they should’ve been.

By that standard, it’s a good thing that 6 of the front 7 return; WLB Rennie Curran is the star of the bunch, but DT Geno Atkins is pretty damn good in his own right. The secondary isn’t quite as lucky, but SS Reshad Jones should keep that unit from collapsing under its own weight. Really, the secondary wasn’t the problem last year (unless failing to tackle at the second level counts as a problem, which it probably does), but since Georgia’s two new starters are a FS who didn’t see a lot of action last season and a true freshman, there will be some growing pains.

Blair Walsh returns as K; he was Georgia’s only K last year even as a freshman, so he’ll have one heck of a leash. As these things go, he’s pretty good. Drew Butler steps into the full-time punting role after doing most of his punting from opponent’s territory last year. As for the return games, they’re nothing to write home about and fall solidly into the “mildly, but not spectacularly dangerous” category like so many teams.

As much as I hate saying it, Willie Martinez needs to have the defense return to prior form this season; if that doesn’t happen, I can’t see him sticking around. Last year had typical Georgia defense in some games but they just plain didn’t show up in others; with the question marks the Bulldogs have on offense, a consistent defense will keep them from losing a game or two they probably shouldn’t. As a Tennessee fan, I can only hope it’s inconsistent but quality enough to keep Martinez around, as I have no doubts Georgia would only move up on the DC list if Martinez was to leave.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
This looks like a New Year’s Day bowl type of team; right now they look pretty inexperienced, but Arkansas / Auburn / LSU out of the West is pretty easy, relatively speaking. The only thing that would be better is if they swapped LSU for Mississippi State. There’s a tough road opener at Oklahoma State which should give everyone a clue as to how the defense will perform in elite games; we’ll have to wait for the aforementioned LSU game to see how the offense performs against elite defenses, though. As things stand, they’re clearly the 2nd-best team in the SEC East and should end up in the Outback Bowl if things go kind of according to plan; whether that’s 10-2 with losses to Florida and LSU or 8-4 with the aforementioned two losses coupled with losing to Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech it’s still 6-2 in-conference. The Capital One Bowl isn’t out of the question with a win against LSU, but this team’s success will be defined by how the defense matures after a rough 2008 – and if it returns to form, this team will be dangerous again in 2010.

Tuesday, August 18

LSU Tigers '09: Returning from relative disaster

The 2008 Season in a Box
2008 had to be a turducken – depending on when in the season we’re talking about, the emphasis may go in different places. I mean, it’s always nice to open a season 4-0 (even if we grossly misjudged the implications of that LSU-Auburn game, which was actually Auburn’s 2nd-highest output against a 1A team last year), but getting stomped at Florida is always a bit of a wakeup call. From there, it was a bit of a rough-and-tumble ride through the rest of the season, especially a disastrous 1-3 stretch to close the season. Of those losses, only the Arkansas one is really inexcusable, but don’t forget that win over Troy was only thanks to a pretty epic comeback. They made up for it by an utter curbstomping of Georgia Tech, but this was still a down year by the recent standards of LSU.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
No more Jarrett Lee for starters (aka Captain Pick-Six); he’ll be at best second on the depth chart and likely third. I could probably write a novel or two about how completely improbable is it to have seven(!) passes intercepted for TDs over the course of a season – and I doubt we’ll see anything like that for a generation or so – but there’s simply no way LSU will let Lee get too many snaps at QB this season. That alone should be enough to generate another win or so, maybe two. Since the losses on either side of the ball aren’t too severe, simple year-over-year improvement should point to a 10-win campaign at minimum, right?

On Offense
Well, Jarrett Lee’s gone – it was already said last paragraph but it bears repeating. That means Jordan Jefferson should get the majority of the snaps; Jefferson played sparingly most of the season before getting chucked into the fire against Ole Miss and Arkansas to close the season. After a couple of lackluster (but mostly interception-free; yes, the bar was set that low) performances, he also got the start in the Peach Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Georgia Tech, which mercifully went a bit better. Sure, a sub-50% completion percentage as a freshman isn’t something you want to hang your hat on, but given the alternative the Tigers will go with that. If Jefferson fails, elite true freshman Russell Shephard is waiting in the wings; Shephard and Jefferson have similar skill sets so LSU won’t really lose a lot other than experience by bringing Shephard in if needed. On the other hand, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to bring Shephard in as a change-of-pace either.

LSU’s running game has always been fascinating to me. Typically they seem to run 4 or 5 backs deep, yet they also tend to be a primary-back system under Les Miles. I suspect that I’m still conflating the Saban and Miles eras since there wasn’t much of a dropoff between the two (Saban in particular goes multi-back like it’s going out of style), but Charles Scott emerged from the fray last year as a legitimate power feature back, coming from relative obscurity to snag the #1 overall spot (and justifiably so, checking in at nearly 1,175 yards and 18 TDs). That relegated Keiland Williams to #2 overall RB again … for the third straight year. Even more impressively, he’s been between 400 and 500 yards every single year, too. Most of the other major rushers are of the bit player variety; Richard Murphy is the best known of the rest of the crop, but at this point we’re talking RB3 and beyond, so it’s not a big deal.

Although LSU’s passing game is largely going to be dictated by the success of whoever’s getting snaps at QB, they’re at least talented. Brandon LaFell is the unquestioned established star of the group – it always helps when you get to return a 1st-team SEC WR – but it’s the non-LaFell guys that are intriguing. (We know what we’re getting from LaFell.) TE Richard Dickson is one of the few TEs in the country who actually figure into the passing game; he’s no DJ Williams but he’s pretty good as these things go. With that being said, we know what we’ll get from him. What we don’t know yet is how Terrance Tolliver, Reuben Randle, or anyone else will factor into the passing game. Last year LSU had enough production for 2 WRs but that was it, and Demitrius Byrd’s 500 yards / 4 TDs paled next to LaFell’s 929 / 8. Tolliver – and to a possibly lesser extent, Randle – should be good enough to at least match Byrd’s output (and remember, with a better QB production should go up anyway).

This’ll be Gary Crowton’s third year serving as OC for the Tigers; as a result, there shouldn’t be too much to learn with respect to schemes. They’ll run some ace / shotgun variant most of the time, as Crowton really isn’t a big fan of a non-feature back set. The one wild card LSU has on offense is how they use Trindon Holliday. We seem to come back to this year after year, but Holliday is fast – one of the fastest players in football. However, even with that obvious speed advantage Holliday’s skills haven’t translated well to using him on offense. The downside with Holliday is that he pretty much has to have the ball when he’s on the field, as he’s going to be shorter and lighter than pretty much anyone he blocks saved undersized CBs. That in turn limits playcalls when Holliday’s in the game, which isn’t technically his fault but is his fault, if that makes sense. (It’s hard to run in stilts.)

On Defense and Special Teams
As LSU defenses go, last year’s outfit was pretty terrible. That may have been a function of having two DCs (when you have two, you have none?), but Les Miles canned both of them in the offseason and brought in ex-Tennessee DC John Chavis. Chavis was the best hire available from both a productivity and familiarity standpoint; not only was he responsible for fielding quality defenses – including last year’s Tennessee outfit that kept them in more games than the offense had any right to be – but he’s familiar with everyone’s schemes in the SEC. That in turn means he’ll be able to bring LSU’s defense up to speed a bit faster than another DC would, which means LSU’s already-talented defense should be in good shape going forward.

As LSU personnel goes, this is similar to most of their previous defenses in terms of talent. They’re replacing a lot of their defensive line, though; DE Rahim Alem is the only returning starter. Of course, Alem was also first-team SEC last year, so there are worse fates. Most of the LB and secondary returns intact, save the departures of Darryl Beckwith at MLB and Curtis Taylor at FS. However, they’re replacing both those guys with high-quality talent: Petty Riley moves into the starting MLB role and Chad Jones slides over to start at FS. On an unrelated note, he also doubles as a reliever for LSU’s baseball team and is so massively oversized compared to everyone else on the field that it looks like he’s throwing a pea. We’re also seeing the emergence of one heck of a secondary; CB Patrick Patterson started the last four games of last season as a true freshman, and the Tigers picked up the best CB recruit in the country in 6’2” Craig Loston – who made it in for the spring to boot. This won’t be the year that it all comes together, but this should scare any team looking to go pass-happy going forward.

The odd thing about this year’s defense is they’re not quite as heralded as typical LSU defenses; heck, they’re not even the best defense in their own division. (That distinction falls to Alabama.) For a team whose recent defenses have been known to strike fear in the hearts of opposing fans two weeks in advance, having a defense that gets to fight for the title of 2nd-best in the SEC West is one heck of a change. For now, I think they’re a slightly better defense than Ole Miss, although there are certainly arguments in either direction – the main thing that LSU has that Ole Miss doesn’t is upside in the secondary. That should offset Ole Miss’s decided advantage on the defensive line, but they will have some trouble stopping the run.

Since K Colt David departed after last season, kicking duties will fall to Josh Jasper. It’s a similar story with the punters; Brady Dalfrey is replaced by Derek Helton. Both guys were pretty talented, so their loss will sting a bit. The return games, on the other hand, are in pretty decent shape; Trindon Holliday slots in as the main punt and kick returner; Holliday in the kick return game in particular is dangerous and a half, and he pretty much can’t be caught in the open field if he gets behind defenses. Still, his numbers aren’t totally what you’d expect given his insane speed.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
LSU at this point is a darkhorse BCS contender. They’ve addressed their two main problems (QB play, iffy defensive play) as best as they can reasonably address them, and their talent level last year wasn’t 8-5 at all. Their biggest problem is the schedule; they draw Florida and Georgia out of the East and have to play both Ole Miss and Alabama on the road. If they navigate that stretch at 3-1, then they’re legitimate title contenders; however, 2-2 is more realistic and 1-3 may even be likely. Depending on how 2-2 breaks, they may be in decent shape to get to the SEC Championship with a little bit of help. At 2-2 without enough help or at 1-3, LSU’s probably looking at the Cotton Bowl provided they win the rest of their games, which aren’t too difficult with the possible exception of the season-ender at Arkansas.

South Carolina '09: In which the 'Cocks attempt to leave the shadow of everyone else in the divison

The 2008 Season in a Box
You know that box that your family’s used for Christmas gifts for the last 15 years? It’s kind of turned into a running joke, and whoever gets that box is kind of a minor celebrity for the rest of the day – or at least for the few hours before Grandpa gets into the ‘nog and starts rehashing WWII stories to the grandkids for the 400th time. It’s cool that he does that, but does he really need to tell the kids about picking up hookers outside of Paris again?

The funny thing is that there’s nothing special about this box; it just developed a mythos of its own after a few years. It’s pretty much average – it’s held up well over the years, but that’s about it. For South Carolina, that describes nearly every season of the last 7 years; sure, they’re 44-39 over those seasons, but their bowl games over those years read like the who’s who of who cares: Independence, Liberty, Outback. On the plus side, at least they’re still relevant.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Well, what’s gone isn’t too terribly important, but what’s replacing it isn’t much better in a lot of cases. Improvement will be measured in the form of any semblance of a running game and the defense not regressing a bit.

On Offense
South Carolina frankly has never had the personnel to run anything related to the Fun ‘n’ Gun of Spurrier’s Florida days, but he does have the most talented QB of his reign in Stephen Garcia, who gets the reins after last year’s starter Chris Smelley transferred to Alabama. Garcia was a big deal recruiting, as far as these things go; to me, he feels like he’s been around forever already, but he’s only a sophomore. Last year wasn’t great for him (53.3%, 832 yards, 6/8) but that shouldn’t happen again. I’d expect around 57-58% with maybe a 1.5/1 ratio, which are solid but not superstar numbers. This would put him somewhere around the fringes of starting in most deeper leagues and likely a bye-week option at best.

Of course, with any QB, their fantasy results are only as good as who they’re surrounded with. This year shapes up to be even more of a wasteland than prior years; only WR Moe Brown and TE Weslye Saunders even crack Steele’s fourth team, at which point even the Prognosticator throws up his hands and goes “I got nothing.” It’ll be up to Garcia to make these guys look palatable, and help isn’t entirely on the way. WR Dion LeCorn should be decent – he’s certainly talented enough to be good, even in this offense – but he’s spent most of the last couple of years underachieving. Sure, true freshman WR Alashon Jeffery may contribute this year, but with this offense looking completely inept I see no real reason not to redshirt him and try again next year. If he doesn’t contribute, Jason Barnes and Lamar Scruggs’ roles will increase.

Quite frankly, someone needs to step up and be a legitimate #2 receiver. Hell, I’d settle for a #2.5, but they need a #1 too, and that’s not a good spot to be in. None of these guys particularly excite me, so maybe we’ll see a 1.5 / 2 combo of Brown and someone else. There’s enough potential floating around here that I think they’ll be okay provided Garcia can 1) get on track and 2) stay on track. Until we see that happen though, steer clear of these guys.

On the other hand, the passing game looks solid compared to the rushing attack. Mike Davis is gone, but maybe that’s a good thing; his 573 yards rushing led the team, but 3.5 ypc out of a leading rusher is not something to maintain from year to year. Eric Baker and Brian Maddox are the leading returning RBs; they thankfully averaged 4.0 ypc and 3.8 ypc last year, which …well, while it’s technically a step up, it still sucks. Someone will need to get near 4.5 ypc for USC to even have a competent rushing attack (remember that sacks will knock their aggregate numbers back a bit); Baker seems the better option of the two to get that, but true frosh RB Jarvis Giles may sneak carrier. While I’m not a fan of Jeffery seeing a ton of action, Giles may be needed to contribute, as this pack is pretty weak.

On Defense and Special Teams
This season will answer the chicken-egg question: was South Carolina’s defensive prowess last year the product of Ellis Johnson’s system or 9 returning starters? Eric Norwood returns this season – calling him quality is an understatement – but other than him it’s all fresh faces and peach fuzz in the LB corps. Depth will be fueled in part by JUCOs, but there’s no other obvious impact player among the pack. The defensive line is in pretty good shape at least, relatively speaking. They have three starters back – Cliff Matthews may be the best among those guys – and while none of them are world-beaters, when most of the rest of the defense is rolling over these things are appreciated.

Ellis Johnson has always done a good job making a game ugly – it’s likely no coincidence that Mississippi State went downhill once he left – so this is the kind of defense that he’d probably love. Other than Norwood (and maybe Stewart), there aren’t any stars or guys to build around here, which means they’ll somehow have their best season yet and nobody will be able to figure out how. This defense reminds me – go figure – of the MSU defenses of a few years ago; other than Derek Pegues, did anyone know anybody on that team? Last year’s outfit wasn’t too bad until the last three games of the year (Florida completely woodshedded them); if USC can even end up around the aggregate numbers they posted last year they’ll be in good enough shape to contend. If they play like they did the first 10 games of the season, they’ll be dominant.

K Ryan Succop finally (finally!) graduated, Spencer Lanning will now pull double duty; Lanning’s a good punter but it’s anyone’s guess as to how that will translate to placekicking. Normally these transitions aren’t too bad, but Succop was a good kicker, so even if Lanning is average it’ll feel like a downgrade. The return game may end up doubling up, too; Chris Culliver will likely slot in as the punt returner to go with his KR duties. Culliver’s a bit above average, but I don’t expect him to be a gamebreaker-type returner. Giles and/or Jeffery may get some action here too if they don’t end up redshirting, but any KR duties will be in conjunction with their contribution in the offense, not their sole contribution. The D/ST combo should be halfway decent, but they’re probably subpar for the SEC, and as such shouldn’t be looked at in shallower leagues. Similarly, there’s nothing special about Lanning.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
The schedule does the Gamecocks no favors, as they draw Ole Miss and Alabama out of the West to go with “rival” Arkansas. Even the non-conference slate isn’t easy, especially if NC State is actually on the rise and not just talking about being better. There’s a not-insignificant chance that even though this team improves a bit that the record going into bowl season won’t be much different than it was in 2008; truth be told, 7-5 may even need to include an upset. Still, with the SEC bowl tie-ins even a New Year’s Day bowl is an outside shot, although I’d be surprised if they move much above Music City on the pecking order.

Monday, August 17

Vanderbilt Commodores '09: When the revolution continues

The 2008 Season in a Box
Last season was like getting a nice DVR from your grandmother. You know, the one that’s given you socks every year for the last eternity. Maybe she’s wised up and knows you don’t need 750 pairs of socks that have jack-eyed Santa, but let’s be honest here: she’s 93 and probably thinks you’re a walking chicken at this point. I wouldn’t expect a repeat, and grandma probably isn’t going to get better anytime soon, either.

On the other hand, grandma didn’t start rolling around in shit like Vanderbilt did during the second half of the season. Vandy spent most of the second half of the season taking it in the ass from karma after opening up 5-0, including two equally improbable wins over Ole Miss and South Carolina. (That Ole Miss win in particular was a brilliant “wtf?” moment come January.) Considering the ‘Dores lost nearly a yard per play on the offense-defense spectrum (4.2 offensive ypp compared to 4.9 ypp defensive), it should be pretty clear that Vanderbilt did this on a lot of luck and fortunately timed turnovers. Shockingly, their yards per point weren’t completely out of the realm of reasonability on either offense or defense. They also had one of the best field goal defenses in the country last year, which is a small enough sample size that I feel pretty good labeling as a non-repeatable skill.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Well, aside from the regression of luck? There’s not a huge change; incoming / likely QB Larry Smith is rumored to be halfway decent, but that’s no guarantee and backup QB Mackenzi Adams is still waiting in the wings for when things inevitably go to hell. Still, Vanderbilt really hasn’t lost anyone they’d care about going forward (Chris Nickson never really lived up to his promise) on offense. On defense, losing Reshard Langford and DJ Moore will hurt but everyone else returns.

Still, at the end it comes down to a regression of luck; they’re probably not going to win 6 games by less than a TD next year, and that’s not a problem unless you like the idea of winning games.

On Offense
Remember what I was saying about Larry Smith? If you don’t, get your memory checked; it’s not like I wrote that much about him, and it wasn’t that far ago. Smith was the first QB to really look capable under or behind center since – gasp! – Jay Cutler, and god only knows how far back you’d have to go to find someone else who actually looked good enough for you to consider taking back home to momma. Truth be told, I don’t know enough about Smith to say whether or not he’d be any good, but he’ll get handed the reins as a sophomore so he can’t be too bad, right? We’ll just peg him for “Crompton-plus” and figure out the details later; he feels like a caretaker-type QB who’s going to be asked to lead a mostly-inept offense. If he struggles, Mackenzi Adams will come under center yet again. He’s a prognosticator’s dream; he has a pretty well established tradition of sucking donkey balls, and is one of the only QBs I can remember with a sub-50% completion percentage who isn’t a “dual threat” (read: running QB who can’t throw for shit) – Adams isn’t a Weeblie either, but he’s certainly not someone who can beat you with his legs. Or his arm.

On the plus side, Smith really has nobody to throw it to. Okay, so maybe that’s not “plus”, but it isn’t surprising. Leading receiver Sean Walker is gone, leaving TE(!) Brandon Barden as the leader returning receiver; lest you get excited about that, he only had 209 yards on the season and may split catches with backup TE Austin Monahan. I mean, it’s creative certainly and it’s probably good from a schematic standpoint, but there’s more than a bit of cannibalizing something that isn’t even there to begin with. Shockingly, most of the returning & starting WRs are young; and returning starter Udon Umoh is not only a sophomore, but is awesome only because of his name. Other guys that’ll be pulling down catches include Terence Jeffers (junior), John Cole (freshman, redshirt), Tray Herndon (sophomore), and Akeen Dunham (freshman, redshirt). Justin Wheeler is recovering from a torn ACL in spring ball; based on that I’d be surprised if he’s useful this season. However, don’t expect that just because these guys are young they’re all talented; Cole may be the most talented of the lot, but these guys weren’t exactly burning up Rivals. It’s a fair bet to assume at least one of these guys will have a season approaching the 6th guy on Texas Tech’s reception total, but more than that is going to be an exercise in futility.

I was all set for a string of Cassen Jackson-Garrison jokes regarding Vandy’s RB situation, but ….well, he graduated two years ago, not even last year. So much for that idea. On the other hand, it does show how replaceable the RB position has been for Vanderbilt lately; not only do you probably not know Jared Hawkins led the team last year with nearly 600 yards, but you probably also didn’t know he got forced into the starting role after previous starting RB Jeff Jennings got injured. Hawkins isn’t bad, and Vanderbilt’s ypc numbers aren’t awful at 3.7 ypc, but they’re certainly not good, and Hawkins isn’t good enough to break the mold that’s been set for the last ten-plus years. Aside from him, the other RBs are strictly of the organizational depth variety; this will probably be the only non-Vanderbilt affiliated site you’ll read the names Kennard Reeves or Gaston Miller before next season, so treasure this moment. The rushing game should get a boost from an offensive line that returns all its starters – quite a jump from last year’s 3 returning starts. Of course, that doesn’t mean these guys are super-experienced, but any step is a step up from greenhorn.

I would love to speak more about what kind of schemes Bobby Johnson uses, but quite frankly I have no idea. Most of the writing about him is of the “he’s a good coach, underrated, in a tough conference” variety and not of the “this is what he runs” variety. This happens when you coach Vanderbilt and your offense hasn’t done anything in ages. Based on this, I assume that Vanderbilt runs some pro-type hybrid derivative; there’s no incentive for them to run any spread-type offense, both because that’s kind of hit its peak and Vanderbilt has no incentive to go playmaker vs. playmaker in the SEC. As such, they’ll generally keep it conservative and win where they can; it’s not pretty but you don’t win titles in Nashville by being pretty.

On Defense / Special Teams
Let’s start with the bad news: Vanderbilt loses two of their best players from the secondary in DJ Moore (4th-round pick by Chicago) and Reshard Johnson. On the plus side, these are the only guys Vanderbilt loses. The defense has a rough patch to hoe; the offense relies on these guys to help keep it close, but if they can’t keep the other team under or around 20 points this team is going to struggle. Fortunately, last year the defense said “fuck this” to the offense’s inability to score and chipped in a few pick-sixes and a fumble return to make the final margins not look god-awful. There’s no guarantee this will happen again – my gut feeling is these things regress pretty heavily from year to year (except at the margins, which is Eric Berry’s territory), so while the defense may turn in one, expecting two would be a bit much to ask. If that happens, smart money is on either FS Ryan Hamilton or CB Myron Lewis – who, not coincidentally, also have the only returning interceptions on the team.

Aside from the secondary – which should still be solid – you probably haven’t heard of anyone on the Vanderbilt defense. DE Steven Stone is the team’s leading sack artist, and with him and seven of his closest D-lineman friends returning to don the black and gold Vanderbilt will shockingly be competent in the trenches for the first time in a while. This is a bigger deal than it sounds; often mid-major teams have skill players on par with most major-conference teams, but it falls apart at the offensive and defensive lines. (Among other reasons, this made Utah’s win over Alabama especially remarkable – nobody expected Utah’s front seven to have their way with the vacated corpse of Andre Smith’s college career.) If Vanderbilt can hang with some of the middling teams in-conference, the lines will be the reason why. I don’t expect this line to do anything with the powerhouses in-conference – don’t expect miracles – but with improvement measured in baby steps, this is at least 4 or 5 baby steps.

Special teams should be solidly underwhelming. P Brett Upson is their best guy associated with this crew, and they’re breaking in a freshman at kicker in Ryan Fowler; of course, what that probably means is Upson gets to pull double duty after Fowler shanks a big kick. (Or at least as big as kicks get at Vanderbilt.) The return game will be a who-the-hell-knows affair, since nearly everyone who returned anything is gone save Jamie Graham. Still, since nobody really did anything of note last year it’ll probably be the same this time around.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
I’m going to play it conservative and go with non-existent. As awkwardly awesome as Vanderbilt’s first-half run was last year, they’re still 2-6 over their last 8, which is very much within Commodore history and tradition. I don’t think this is a 3-9 outfit; far from it, I think this team is similar to last year’s, maybe even slightly better. The problem is last year’s team should’ve gone 5-7; I can’t see this year’s version doing better than that.