I know the college football season is still about three weeks away, but I can't stand it anymore. It's time to take the talk up a notch. Pre-season predictions are as inevitable as summer heat and ESPN's Skip Bayless getting on my nerves, but they are fun to make.
Today, the ball gets rolling with a look at the SEC Eastern Division. First, a bold claim: all six teams in the division will make it to a bowl game. Obviously, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are the jokers in the pack when it comes to this, but they both will get enough wins to qualify.
The other four teams (Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina) could all win the division. That's correct; under the right circumstances, I believe Carolina could win the division. There will be lot of parity, and I expect the divisional champion to have two conference losses.
So, let's look at how I believe things will shake out in this super-competitive division.
1. Florida Gators – It makes me choke to pick Florida, but I guess I am from the old school. I believe the champs are the champs until somebody beats them, and of course, the Gators won the conference and national titles last year. However, they face some big challenges. They only have two starters returning on defense. Plus, sophomore quarterback Tim Tebow now has the burden of being the full-time quarterback. On the bright side (for them), two of their three toughest conference games (vs. Tennessee and Auburn) are at home, but they have to play LSU on the road.
2. Tennessee Volunteers – If the Volunteers young wide receivers and defensive backs mature quickly, then they will be the biggest threat to Florida. If not, things will be more difficult. Tennessee's schedule is a little better this year after last year's brutal one. LSU drops off the schedule and is replaced by Mississippi State. Plus, they get Georgia, Arkansas, and South Carolina at home. The key to the season is quarterback Erik Ainge. Will he have another excellent season like he did last year? Or will the Ainge of 2005 show up in which he was inconsistent and rattled for most of the year?
3. South Carolina Gamecocks – Despite Coach Steve Spurrier's reputation as an offensive genius, it is the defense that gives the Gamecocks a shot at the title. Nine starters from last year's defense returns. The path of their season may well be defined on Sept. 8 when they visit Georgia (a game I believe they will win). In order for them to challenge for the title, they must find ways to steal a couple of wins on the road because that is where the toughest part of their schedule lies. In addition to Georgia, they play road games at LSU, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Ouch.
4. Georgia Bulldogs – The Bulldogs are inexperienced in the offensive line and the defensive front seven. Those are not good weaknesses to have in a conference as physical as the SEC. They finished strong last year, but also suffered losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Who are the real Georgia Bulldogs? We will find out quickly because in addition to their early game against South Carolina, they open the season hosting Oklahoma State in an intriguing non-conference game then visit Alabama on Sept. 22.
5. Vanderbilt Commodores – I have already discussed Vandy in a previous blog entry (see June 12 posting). As I said then, they will go to a bowl. However, their talent level is not to the point where they can finish better than fifth in this division.
6. Kentucky Wildcats – It says a lot about Kentucky's football tradition when they can go 8-5 and win the Music City Bowl like they did last year, and it is considered one of the best seasons in program history. They will finish last in this division, but their schedule is set up for them to win six or seven games overall. Quarterback Andre Woodson may be the best in the conference.
Coming soon: The SEC West will get the same treatment.