SEC Post-Spring Bowl Projections
By Jeremy Hillman
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Jeremy Hillman takes an early bird look at the 2012 SEC football bowl season.
Now that spring practice is behind us and we roll into summer, we are less than 95 days until kick-off of the 2012 college football season, I have had a chance to closely review each Southeastern Conference team and where they stand after the spring sessions.
Looking at depth charts, injuries, schedules, strengths, weaknesses, coaches and distractions as summer workouts begin, here is how I see the bowl picture playing out for the 2012 SEC football season:
BCS National Championship
New Orleans, LA
LSU Tigers Vs Oklahoma Sooners
While the Tiger defense lost a lot of talent to the NFL this offseason, ultra-talented defenders like defensive linemen Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo and safety Tyron Mathieu should be able to help keep opposing offenses in check all season long. On offense, the Tiger running game should be solid with a slew of talented backs. The question will once again be the passing game. Can highly touted transfer quarterback Zach Mettenberger lead LSU to a national title? With a first year starting QB and a tough schedule, look for at least one loss for the Tigers in what could still be a SEC Championship run and a birth in the national title game.
New Orleans, LA
Georgia Bulldogs Vs West Virginia Mountaineers
The off-season news and buzz is all about the suspension of Georgia players for rules violations this off-season. It could make an early road game against tough and upset-minded Missouri very interesting. If the Bulldogs can get through that game, the schedule is very soft and sets up nicely for the Bulldogs to record as many as 11 regular season wins. Stand-out quarterback Aaron Murray is poised for a big season as he shares offensive production with stud running back Isaiah Crowell. On defense, after the suspensions are over, Georgia will have a dynamite defensive unit that can play with anyone in the conference. Players like safety Bacari Rambo and linebacker Jarvis Jones are some of the better defenders in the entire nation. Look for an SEC East title and a loss to LSU in Atlanta, again in 2012. An 11-2 record should place Georgia in the BCS, just barely ahead of 10-2 Alabama.
Capital One Bowl
Alabama Crimson Tide Vs Wisconsin Badgers
Alabama lost a ton of talent to graduation and the NFL this offseason. The defense, the strength of the title team last season, was hit particularly hard. However, the Crimson Tide has been recruiting better than anyoneand will very much be in the SEC title mix again this season. The keys will be the continued quality play of quarterback A.J. McCaron, finding a replacement for do-it-all running back Trent Richardson, and getting young talented defenders some needed snaps and experience. I look for Bama to potentially stumble among the early season challenges (including road test against Michigan and at Arkansas) and against LSU, but to rapidly improve as the season progresses and finish with at least 10 wins.
Auburn Tigers Vs TCU Horned Frogs
After a pedestrian 8 win season in 2011, just one year removed from a national title, the Tigers may be one of the more underrated teams in the conference for 2012. Auburn has made changes at both coordinator positions and had a solid spring practice implementing the new schemes. The very young Auburn defense struggled mightily last season and should be much improved with more experience back this year and with aggressive defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder bringing a more ball-attack defense to the Plains. Van Gorder put together some of the better Georgia defenses in history when he was in Athens and has quality NFL experience with the Falcons. On offense, the Tigers are set at receiver and running back, but will need a young but talented offensive line to gel quickly and a young quarterback (most likely sophomore and previous 5 star recruit Kheil Frazier) to step up and execute the new offense. Look for Auburn to surprise and beat Clemson in the opener and then battle to 9 wins on the season, through a tough SEC schedule.
Arkansas Razorbacks Vs Nebraska Cornhuskers
It would almost be impossible for the Arkansas football team to have had more distraction. From the Bobby Petrino motorcycle scandal and the pending coaching change, to a slew of arrests in the wide receiver ranks, it has been an off-season to forget. While the Razorbacks have enough talent, including stud running back Knile Davis who is back from injury and star quarterback Tyler Wilson, to make a run for an SEC title, the arrests, distractions, the loss of Petrino, and an improved but still questionable defense, will prove to be too much to overcome against top teams in the conference. Look for a competitive 8 win, yet disappointing, season from the Hogs. Too many distractions for me to predict a championship run. However, that is still not out of the question for the Razorbacks.
South Carolina Gamecocks Vs Virginia Tech Hokies
Steve Spurrier has built a quality program at South Carolina and could have his team battling for an SEC East title again this season. Stud running back Marcus Lattimore should have a big season and help the Gamecock offense move the sticks. However, I am not sold on quarterback Connor Shaw. Without huge wide out Alshon Jeffery, who is off to the NFL, who will step up as his “go to” receiver? On defense, there is plenty of talent, but the three best players from last year’s impressive unit (players like DE Melvin Ingram, CB Stephen Gilmore, S Antonio Allen) are gone to the NFL. I look for South Carolina to be very competitive, but too much talent exited Columbia for me to project them for more than 8 or 9 wins.
Missouri Tigers Vs Iowa Hawkeyes
The Tigers first season in the SEC greatly hinges on the health and effectiveness of star quarterback James Franklin (over 3,800 total yards last season). He is a “do-it-all” QB that will give opposing defenses fits. However, the defense, especially a potentially unimpressive defensive front, will be challenged in SEC play. Mizzou will be competitive and qualify for a bowl, but don’t expect too much from the SEC’s newest Tigers.
Music City Bowl
Florida Gators Vs Virginia Cavaliers
The Gators could be a surprise team in 2012. I look for them to be better than they were a year ago. The running game will be more physical and the defense, with ten returning starters, should be a strength. One of the biggest improvements will be as new offensive coordinator Brent Pease teaches fundamentals and ball control; thus, reducing all the costly turnovers that plagued them a year ago. They most likely won’t put Florida back in the Gator Bowl, so they slip down to the Music City with an 8 win season. However, 9 or more wins and a better bowl invite is not out of the question.
Texas A&M Aggies Vs Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Aggies return 9 offensive starters and should be able to put some points on the board. However, they must replace star quarterback Ryan Tannehill who is now a Miami Dolphin. The defense is where the problems may arise. They are thin with depth and not very imposing along the defensive front. I see Texas A&M giving the SEC opponents a tough game each and every week, because of the focus and intensity of new coach Kevin Sumlin, but faltering late in big games due to a porous defense and thin depth. I do, however, project as many as 7 wins for the Aggies. The Military Bowl has an open spot with the service Academies unlikely to all get to six wins and would love to matchup an SEC team with Notre Dame…especially an SEC team with such a big ROTC program and cadets in the stands.
Mississippi State Bulldogs Vs East Carolina Pirates
The strength of the Bulldogs will be along the offensive line. With five returning starters along the offensive front, it will give emerging quarterback Tyler Russell more time to find his experienced receivers and help break in a new starter at running back. The trouble is on the defensive line, where depth is lacking and star tackle Fletcher Cox left early for the NFL. A tough schedule and a few holes on defense should keep State from having a big year. However, they should be able to get to at least 6 victories and earn a bowl invite for the third straight season.
Vanderbilt Commodores Vs Pittsburg Panthers
There is a new attitude in Nashville, as coach James Franklin continues to build a winner at Vanderbilt. The Commodores do not have the depth or overall talent of the top teams in the conference. However, they have big play making potential at the offensive skill positions with quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy and wide out Jordan Mathews. The defensive should be stable even with the loss of linebacker Chris Marve, as the d-line returns three tough starters and Archibald Barnes leads the line-backing unit. I see another bowl invite and another competitive season from the Commodores.