Conference Preview: The SEC  

Posted by Walter

And then there was one.....Despite my best efforts to argue contrarily this offseason, frankly there is no doubt that the SEC is the best conference in the land. It was in 2006 and despite the NFL talent drain that has become a yearly tradition for SECers, the conference should be even better in 2007. Seriously, what is there to dislike? Does the SEC have top coaching? Well its got Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer, Tommy Tubberville (when he's not whining about a playoff system), Mark Richt, and newly annointed Tuscaloosa savior Nick Saban, so yeah I think the SEC has a couple of guys who can coach. How about electric players? Darren McFadden do it for you? No, how about Andre Woodson? Early Doucet? Earl Bennett? Percy Harvin? And don't even get me started on SEC defenses. Bottom line, the SEC has the best offensive talent in the land, the best defensive talent in the land, and the most talented coaches to put it all together.

Before we get to the preview, the323 has to recognize the big man for his moving endeavors recently. He's been hauling couches, bookshelves and other crap for Frazier and a slew of other friends all week, not once complaining, and only accepting cold beers as payment. Thanks bro.

Best Team

Walter: LSU

The SEC is much better than the PAC-10, but you could make the same argument that we should be picking the 2nd best team in the SEC this year because LSU is so stacked....on both sides of the ball. Losing Jamarcus Russell and the howitzer that was his right arm will hurt, but every team should be so lucky to have someone like Matt Flynn ready to step in. You may not remember Flynn, but I bet The U does. Yeah, that was Flynn taking over for an injured Jamarcus Russell in the 2005 Peach Bowl and grabbing MVP honors while leading the Tigers to a route of Miami and their vaunted defense. In fact, given Flynn's even handed demeanor, and winning experience, losing Russell might not even be the most glaring omission from last year's offense. Lest we forget that perennially underrated offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher jumped ship for Florida State this offseason. How the Tigers deal with his loss will be just as important as dealing with the loss of Russell and wideouts Craig Davis and Dwayne Bowe. However, just like with Flynn, LSU isn't about to rebuild the coaching staff when they can simply reload. Fisher is out but former Oregon and BYU coach Gary Crowton is in. Crowton brings a spread offense that should better take advantage of Flynn's intelligence and the big play capabilities from guys like Keiland Williams and Early Doucet. In a word the offense will be fine. As for the defense, they should be great. The LSU starting 11 might be the best in the country outside of USC and the front 7 might be the best period. Led by Glen Dorsey on the inside, Tyson Jackson on the outside, and human missile Ali Highsmith cleaning everything else up, the Tiger front 7 is downright scary and should make life miserable for the rest of the SEC. There is definitely some concern in the secondary as the Tigers break in two new starters, but Senior corners John Zenon and Chevis Jackson are solid and should make the transition easier. Simply put, LSU is loaded and if ever there was a team that could go undefeated throughout the SEC it's the 2007 Tigers.

Frazier: LSU

This is another one that is simply too easy. LSU is the best team in a very good conference. Don't get me wrong, losing Russell, Bowe and Craig Davis is a blow. But Early Doucet has the talent to step in and finally have the season we've all been expecting. Matt Flynn is not exactly chopped liver, and few people remember that there was a legitimate quarterback controversy for awhile before Russell stepped up and became the first player picked in the NFL draft. Flynn is a steady veteran hand, and they should be fine on that side of the ball. Especially with Jacob Hester and Keiland Williams running behind a big, imposing offensive line led by the monstrous Ciron Black. And yet it's the defense that will shine this season. They might have lost Laron Landry, but they do return eight players from the country's third ranked defense last year. It all starts up front with all-everything tackle Glenn Dorsey. Tyler Jackson at DE would be one of the most talked about lineman in the nation if he didn't line up in Dorsey's shadow. With Ali Highsmith anchoring the linebacking corps and Chevis Jackson causing SEC quarterbacks to break into a cold sweat from the defensive backfield, this group is LOADED. Bo Pelini is an outstanding coordinator, but it shouldn't be too difficult with this collection of NFL starters.

Worst Team

Walter: Mississippi State

Some things never change. The SEC is still strong and Mississippi State is still weak. Sylvester Croom might be a nice guy and a solid coach, but he just hasn't been able to get this program pointed in the right direction. Coming off of a 3-9 2006 season, Mississippi State faces a more difficult schedule this year and will need wins at Tulane and over UAB to match last season's 3 wins. To be fair, Mississippi State has made huge improvements on the defensive side of the ball. Derek Pegues is a keeper, and the entire unit really plays with a lot of heart. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs that can only take you so far. As well as the defense will play at times, the offense is so pathetic that the defense will be on the field way too often. I expect Mississippi State to keep a lot of games close early on but to fade down the stretch. Another 3 win season seems all but locked up.

Frazier: Mississippi St.

This pick was a no-brainer BEFORE Henig tossed SIX passes to the wrong team on opening night. I could say a lot more about him, but it's not really fair to pile on. Needless to say, Henig is the kind of player who is capable of having days like that one. The Miss. St. defense has always been a solid group, and Croom has gotten them to play hard under tough circumstances. It's a unit with as much pride as any in the SEC. Unfortunately, they are generally out-classed, and their offense continually puts them in impossible situations. Croom's goal this year has to be to show enough progress to justify keeping his job. It'd be a shame to fire the first black SEC coach, but at the end of the day football is about wins and losses. Croom is a gentleman, and a good coach, but he desperately needs results. He'll also need lots of luck.

Offensive Player of the Year

Walter: Andre Woodson, QB Kentucky

It's tough to go against Darren McFadden but I am going with Andre Woodson for two reasons. First, McFadden's numbers will suffer due to the presence of Felix Jones who is a capable 1000 rusher in his own right. Second, Andre Woodson is really really good. Loyal 323 readers will recall that I was one of the first people touting Andre Woodson as a potential top 10 NFL pick. The guy has great size (6'5'' and 230 lbs.), an absolute rocket for an arm, perfect mechanics, and almost never makes a mistake. Woodson will benefit from having a slew of skill position players returning to his Kentucky offense. RB Rafael Little is a threat, and wideout Keenan Burton is a great deep threat. In fact, Woodson returns all 4 of his primary skill players (Little, Burton, WR Dick Lyons, and underrated TE Jacob Tamme) and both lineman that protect his blind side. Add in the fact that the Kentucky defense won't be able to stop anyone this year, and you've got the makings of a shootout every week for the Wildcats. If Woodson can build on last year's success, 4000 yards and 40 touchdowns is not out of the question since he'll be chucking the ball around 30-40 times each game.

Frazier: Darren McFadden

The big man is just trying to be difficult. He doesn't really mean it, and all 323 nation understands that. Darren McFadden is not only the best offensive player in the conference, he's the best offensive player in the country. He doesn't have to worry about splitting carries with Felix Jones, because Casey Dick has to be worried about splitting snaps with McFadden. Darren will be lining up much more frequently behind center in the Wildhog offense (nee' Wildcat) and wreaking havoc using his unique combination of talents. He can run, catch, throw and return kicks. He is an incredible athlete, strong, agile, and fast as hell. I'm 100% positive he could play both ways. He'd be the most lethal safety in the nation if he wanted to be. (Seriously, imagine him coming out of nowhere to decapitate some poor slot receiver, it would be gruesome). I'm not sure if there is anything on the football field that McFadden can't do. Houston Nutt understands that after a tumultuous offseason his job dangles by a thread. That thread is Darren McFadden. So don't worry, McFadden will have the ball in his hands plenty, and when he does, he's a threat to score at any moment.

Darren McFadden in his OTHER uniform.

PS: Not to get all PC-preachy here, but I really struggled with this image for McFadden. I thought it was a little weird having him as a white guy, so I tried to hunt down a black superhero. It was nearly impossible. The only one even close was "Steel" who was immortalized by Shaq in the movie of the same name. Of course most pictures of "Steel" show him in a costume that makes it impossible to see his race, and sometimes he appears to be a white guy. Anyways, it was kind of bullshit.

Defensive Player of the Year

Walter: Ali Highsmith, LB LSU

While everyone else is touting Glenn Dorsey as the best defensive player in the conference, it's the diminutive Highsmith who is actually the Tigers' best defender. At only 6'1'' and about 220 lbs. Highsmith isn't a traditional LSU linebacker in the mold of Bradie James or Eric Alexander, but he does play like them. An intense competitor and team leader, Highsmith is a human missile on the field. His 4.5 speed allows him to make plays sideline to sideline (something Dorsey cannot do), and you simply cannot watch an LSU game without noticing Highsmith. A three year starter, Highsmith is also one of the smartest and most versatile players in the nation, able to start and succeed at all three linebacker spots. LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini would rather keep him on the weak side, however, where Highsmith is free to run and make plays. Highsmith actually reminds me a lot of Derrick Brooks with the way he runs, but he is actually a more vicious tackler, although not as sure wrapping up as Brooks (who is?). One of the most underrated aspects of Highsmith's game is that he is one of the best linebackers in pass coverage, a skill that is necessary in the SEC this season. Highsmith is the rare 3 down linebacker who can cover the opposing team's running backs, but is also adept at rushing the passer from the edge. Highsmith is nothing short of a complete linebacker, and is the rare player who can do absolutely anything the coaches ask of him.

Frazier: Glenn Dorsey, DT LSU

The big man is too clever by half. We all like Highsmith. We all like linebackers. But not everyone can be a linebacker. Sometimes the best defensive player around is a safety, or a defensive end. In this case, it's a defensive tackle. Maybe if you were starting a team, you'd value a linebacker more (but probably not). Dorsey is another kind of player. He had 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks from him tackle position last year along with 64 stops. He has the motor to get in the backfield and destroy a quarterback, and the size to eat up a pair of blockers so Highsmith can make his plays. Dorsey is incredibly motivated. This is a kid who passed up being a top 15 pick because a shin injury was hampering his draft workouts on the artificial surface. Being good is not enough, Dorsey needs to be the best. Good thing for him, he already is.

Sleeper Team

Walter: Alabama

This was a tough call since there are about 3 SEC teams that I think could fall into this category. First we have South Carolina. Given the amount I've talked them up in recent months I'll spare you my thoughts in the space, needless to say, however, I still believe the Gamecocks are in for big things this year. Next we have Georgia. I absolutely love the personnel on this team and while they are good enough to make some noise in 2007, the Dawgs are probably another year away from national prominence. I will say this, though, Matt Stafford is for real and is the type of passer who was genetically engineered to play in the NFL. If he matures this year, Georgia will win a LOT of games. Which brings us to Alabama. My beloved Crimson Tide usher in the Nick Saban era with Mike Shula's players. And that is not a bad thing. Saban inherits a team with a ton of talent, way more than Shula was ever given credit for. Nine starters return on offense including the key components from the most underrated passing attack in the conference. QB John Parker Wilson was pretty good in 2006 and should be even better in 2007 with a year of experience under his belt and both wideouts, Keith Brown and DJ Hall, returning. Moreover, super Sophomore Andre Smith anchors one of the best offensive lines in the conference that returns all five starters from last season. Finally, we simply cannot forget the most inspiring move of the offseason by Saban and Co. Of course I talking about the hiring of Major Applewhite as offensive coordinator. With all this talent returning to be coached by a creative and innovative coaching mind like Applewhite's, Alabama may have on the best offenses in the entire nation. The outlook on the other side of the football is not as rosy, but hey, when was the last time you worried about a Nick Saban coached team on defense. Only five starters return on defense, but two of them are all america caliber players right now. DB Simeon Castille is one of the best shutdown corners around, and Sophomore linebacker Prince Hall is a star in the making. If Saban can cobble together some gameplans to hide their other deficiencies, this unit should be a strength by the middle of the season. So the talent is all in the place for the Tide, but what about the schedule? Well it's the SEC so you know it's going to be tough, but to be honest it could be a lot worse. Alabama gets Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and LSU all at home, and they miss Florida. In fact the only real tough road games are at Vanderbilt in week 2 (a trap game when the defense might not be up to speed yet) and the season finale at Auburn. A neutral site non conference game against Florida State could be tough, but it's hard not to like the way the schedule shakes out. Alabama gets Arkansas, Georgia and Florida State all in the first half of the season when the Crimson Tide's veteran offense should be clicking. If they can get through that stretch in decent shape, the late season LSU game could be one of the biggest of the year. Tuscaloosa is never an easy place to play, especially when the Crimson Tide faithful can smell an upset. The schedule is too much for Alabama to go undefeated, but I expect Bama to pull a few upsets along the way and finish something like 10-2.

Frazier: Tennessee

The big man hates this pick. He is absolutely seething. You might say I made it simply to piss him off. And maybe I did, I'm certainly not above that sort of thing. But really I did it because I took a peak at how Tennessee performed last year. They lost to LSU and Florida by a COMBINED five points last year. They beat everybody's baby Kentucky late in the year. They destroyed Cal to start off the season. Also, they took down another sleeper hopeful, South Carolina, on the road last year. Really, the only major disappointment would be the beating at Arkansas. Still, Tennessee returns the corps of a pretty solid team. I'm no Ainge apologist, but David Cutcliffe has an outstanding track record, and I expect him to continue to turn around Ainge's career. As tough as their schedule is (it IS the SEC after all) they avoid LSU and Auburn, which is definitely a bonus. It's rare that a returning 9-win team gets zero pub, but I guess that's what happens when everyone else is trying to make a big splash (Alabama), stealing headlines (Arkansas dysfunction) or running their yaps (Les Miles, Tommy Tubberville). The Vols may be a little overlooked heading into the season, and they'll have some battles at Cal and Florida, but this team has the talent, and experience, to really make some noise.

Disappointing Team

Walter: Auburn

Ugh how silly you are Mr. Tubberville. You had your shot last year and you had to blow it by whining about the lack of a playoff system. This year, it just ain't gonna happen. Despite losing key parts all over the offense (RB Kenny Irons, WR Courtney Taylor) many pundits believe this Auburn team will bounce back in 2007. I just don't see it. Specifically on offense. The defense should be great, no doubt about that. Quentin Groves and Tray Blackmon are bona fide stars, and with 5 other starters returning this should be a very stingy unit. That said, the offense is filled with holes and the schedule is nothing short of murderous. I defended QB Brandon Cox last year when I said he was a solid player who was very capable managing the offense. That assessment is still true today. However, with the departure of Irons and Taylor, Auburn is going to ask Cox to go from game manager to playmaker, a transition I just don't think Cox has the skill to make. Hurting him even more is the fact that Auburn will be replacing 4 starters on the offensive line. Thankfully for them star left tackle King Dunlap is back, but the rest of the line is going to struggle in both pass protection and in run blocking. The SEC has way too many dominant defensive lines for this offense to consistently put numbers on the board. And let's not forget about the schedule. Auburn has the toughest conference schedule I've seen yet. Road games at Florida, and then Arkansas and LSU in consecutive weeks is just way too much for any team to withstand. They do themselves no favors with the non conference schedule either. Auburn opens with a tough Kansas State team in week one (a team that really gets after the QB and could exploit the weak offensive line) and welcomes another tough challenge in a very solid South Florida team the following week. After a week off to play Mississippi State, the Tigers will face a New Mexico State team that loves to bomb away, especially against a team that lost its best cover corner to the NFL as Auburn did. We will learn a lot about Auburn in the first four weeks. I am willing to bet they lose at least one of those non conference games, and enter the first part of their conference schedule on a down note. The middle stretch of four games (@ Florida, Vanderbilt, @ Arkansas, and @ LSU) will seal their fate.

Frazier: South Carolina

I know how much the big man loves the Gamecocks, but I just have a bad feeling about this. I'm not saying that they'll have a terrible year, I just see it difficult for them to really break through. Their road games are at Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas. That's a brutal schedule. They even go to North Carolina, which doesn't sound like much until you remember that Butch Davis will have his team in some ballgames they have no right being in. They also have games against Clemson and Florida to look forward to. If they somehow manage to split that brutal schedule, it's a nice 9-3 season, but I just don't know if that will happen. I could easily see them getting tripped up by a Vanderbilt or Kentucky as well. Add to that the issues that Blake Mitchell has had in his decision making, and I'm just a little bit worried about things. I guess it's how you define "disappoint" here. I think that Spurrier and company would be disappointed in an 8-4 regular season, and I think that's reasonable. This is a program trying to turn the corner. At the same time, I'm probably a fool for going against the old ball coach.


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