The omniscient ESPN talking heads promised all spring and summer that Jacob Coker, Alabama’s transfer senior quarterback from Florida State, was at least the third-best quarterback in the SEC—without ever taking a snap in the nation’s toughest conference. The logic behind this assessment was that National Championship Coach Jimbo Fisher said Coker was an NFL lock—and also, that the SEC is now a league of green signal callers. Further, predictably Alabama was again the prime network’s preseason pick to win the SEC, despite dropping its last two games a year ago, Nick Saban’s defense getting badly exposed and the unlikely hiring of also-ran Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator. In light of these truths, will you rely on ESPN to remind you none of the other 13 teams have a chance at winning the nation’s toughest conference? Two Tiger teams and the mighty Gamecocks beg to differ.
In this exclusive, weekly column on all things SEC Football we’ll attempt to put things into proper perspective for the ESPN-overlooked and downtrodden fan bases of the “other 13” teams in the nation’s most powerful league. We will touch on three of the better match-ups during this exciting first week of the college football season: LSU vs. Wisconsin, Ole Miss vs. Boise State, and Texas A&M vs. South Carolina. And of course, as usual, we will take our regular armchair quarterback tour across the paragon of the college football experience: The storied, and tradition-rich Southeastern Conference.
The Possible Return of Lesticles and the Advent of the Buga Nation
Nick Saban used a fake punt in last season’s LSU-Bama match-up to irreparably alter the game complexion and spur his team to victory. Oddly, it was a page out of Miles’ former playbook. Avid fans recall that The Hat was much more of a gambling man during his early tenure. Now, in his tenth season, the seasoned, experienced Miles, who has won more games than any of his SEC counterparts over the last decade, seems more like the patient mentor than he does the quick understudy willing to roll the dice. However, with two young quarterbacks and a host of freshman likely to be inserted into playing roles, Miles may choose to return to his poker-playing ways.
Then again, Miles has the luxury of the ultimate trump card, metaphorically speaking. Leonard Fournette is the best recruit LSU has had in decades. In time, he may prove to be even better than the hype surrounding his unveiling. We find out Saturday. My guess is he’s going to shock the world.
LSU vs. Wisconsin in Houston
The Badgers were 9 4 last season. Head coach Gary Andersen, in his second year, replaced Brett Bielema, who won three Big Ten titles. The program has appeared in 12 consecutive bowl games. They are established, and respectable. Tanner McEvoy, who was a receiver, then a safety, and a former quarterback, is now their starting signal caller. They have a great runner in Melvin Gordon, an all-Big Ten performer, but only return nine starters: six on offense and three on defense. LSU is a five point favorite. Pick: Don’t be SUSPECT! Take the Tigers. Empty the jar.
Ole Miss vs. Boise State in Atlanta
Hugh Freeze, a disciple of the Hurry up No Huddle offense proffered by Gus Malzahn, has the SEC’s most accomplished quarterback. However, he also has a team lacking SEC quality depth on both sides of the football, and an established running game. Nevertheless, this should be his best team. Boise State has a new head coach, Bryan Harsin, the former offensive coordinator of four years ago. Harsin is trying to return the Broncos to their former glory that saw them as one of college football’s most popular upstarts. However, beating Ole Miss—one of the SEC’s more promising world-beaters, is a difficult test, especially in a first game. Intriguing are the line match-ups in this one. Pick: Ole Miss.
Texas A&M vs. South Carolina in Columbia
Steve Spurrier, who has never beaten Les Miles, has won eleven games three years running. Spurrier is still the guy who terrorized the SEC during the 1990’s with the Fun N’ Gun. Further, he is still one of the best gameday coaches…he will adjust as you do, to beat you. He has a play for every situation…and now…a real team loaded with talent, like Mike Davis at running back. Kevin Sumlin was great when he had the human stat and dollar-rolling machine of Johnny Manziel…but that was tempered down the stretch last season, after he lost to the West’s Big Three. Sumlin’s defense was garbage a year ago. Without Manziel and a defense, there is no reason to believe these Aggies will be any better than the rest of the West, except maybe for Arkansas, which is a five-alarm dumpster fire. Pick: Carolina.
Around the SEC: In Alphabetical Order
Alabama – Even friends of Harvey Updyke are upset with the Lane Kiffin hire and the prospect of a starting quarterback not named Jacob Coker. The decline, although forever denied, appears real.
Arkansas – Brett Bielema has the arduous task of extinguishing the conflagration started by the exhaust of Bobby Petrino’s wrecked motorbike. Going ofer in the SEC again this season will end all attempts.
Auburn – Gus Malzahn has reversed Auburn’s losing ways—and their mentality. Bobby Knight said that “Mental is to physical as three is to one.” The same could possibly later be said for him to Nick Saban.
LSU – Les Miles, the Wolverine, the menacing “skunk bear” or “glutton,” will lead his Bengal Tigers against an upstart, hopeful group of badgers this Saturday in H-Town. Bettors ride the SEC big cats.
Mississippi State – The bulldogs host Southern Miss this weekend in Stark Vegas. Optimism hasn’t been this high since NASA relocated its space program there in the 1990’s, citing no perceivable atmosphere.
Ole Miss – The Rebels, after losing the Egg Bowl to their cross-state nemesis, apparently got awful serious about winning football. Wallace cut his mullet and bow ties are now banned in the Grove.
Texas A&M – The Aggies will have a difficult year in Manziel’s huge wake. Kevin Sumlin will earn every penny of his exorbitant salary and will be scrutinized by every high dollar booster the program boasts.
Florida – Will Muschamp is no longer a wunderkind. Losing to a division II team that failed to complete a pass was the low point for the 2013 Gators. A new OC and a fresh mindset are Champ’s only hopes.
Georgia – Mark Richt proponents swear his seat is not even lukewarm. However, Richt cannot afford another season like last. Starting the season at home against Clemson with a win will work wonders.
Kentucky – Trivia Question: Who is Kentucky’s new football coach? Bob’s brother is a hint. Trivia Question II: Who was Kentucky’s last football coach? No hint. Answers: Mark Stoops, Joker Phillips.
Mizzou – Gary Pinkel proved his worth a year ago when he shocked the SEC and made it to the Championship game. Despite the perceived miracle, no one is giving his team credit for a repeat.
South Carolina – Spurrier has his swagger back and the rest of the SEC better take notice. Kevin Sumlin is highly regarded in most media circles as a damn good coach. We find out in Columbia on Saturday.
Tennessee – Speaking swagger, Butch Jones is a fireball of mud, blood and sweat looking to resurrect a once-proud Tennessee tradition. They have a couple patsies before playing Oklahoma in Norman.
Vanderbilt – Derek Mason has replaced the departed Kevin Franklin, who chose to try and extinguish the dumpster fire started by the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Franklin, like Mason, obviously loves challenges.
Bias Against the Other Thirteen and for the Tide
The head of SEC officials (referees) is a graduate of the University of Alabama. He and Mike Slive hire and commission all referees. Alabama was the least penalized team in the Southeastern Conference a year ago, and the least penalized during five of the last six seasons. The SEC offices are in Birmingham, Alabama. Alabama’s schedule is the easiest of the teams favored to win the Western Division, and the 12th toughest overall of 14 league teams. Is this a coincidence, or is something more sinister, at play?
If strength of schedule (like in hoops) is a critical factor to be considered by the inaugural playoff committee stacked with SEC-friendly representatives at year’s end, is it possible that the venerable Crimson Tide will be denied a coveted playoff slot if it fails to win the Western Division or the SEC Championship? These are important questions as the league embraces the long-awaited playoff era of American collegiate football and tries to improve its ability to place two teams in the championship bracket at year’s end.
Another important consideration is the playoff committee’s role in selecting four teams. If the SEC does somehow work its political magic and land two teams in the four-team playoff, how will the other two “super conferences” that are left out, react? Choosing number one will be easy…two, three and four—not so much. Nobody wants to be three, as you will play one. You thought the BCS was a mess. Rest assured this will only be a temporary fiasco. In three or four years you can expect an eight-team playoff—and that will certainly be good for the true democratization of college football…which is still only at best a country boy’s dream.
Until next week…
*A double graduate of LSU in Baton Rouge, Chris Warner is the author of over twenty titles, including “A Tailgater’s Guide to SEC Football Volume IV,” “SEC Sports Quotes Compendium,” “Bushwhacked at the Flora-Bama,” and a brand new novel, “Saved at the Alabama-Florida Line,” inspired by the life and times of Joe Gilchrist, among others. He lives in L.A. (Lower Alabama) on the Redneck Riviera. Find his books on Amazon or in the Kindle Store.