The SEC’s Surprise Teams
By Matthew Osborne
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Florida and Mississippi State could be in for surprisingly successful 2012 seasons.
With less than 75 days until the start of the 2012 college football regular season, the anticipation continues to grow for what will unquestionably be another exciting and unpredictable year on the gridiron.
As we continue to assess the potential for each team heading into the 2012 season, here are two SEC programs which could be in for surprisingly successful campaigns this fall.
SEC East: Florida Gators
For Coach Will Muschamp and the remainder of the Florida program, the success of the 2012 season will hinge on how well an offensive unit that lacks a wealth of firepower can fare against stingy conference defenses.
Sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are battling it out to earn the starting job heading into the season opener against Bowling Green. Both signal callers received time under center last season, although neither performed at an exceptionally high level when called into action. Despite a lack of proven production at the position, the Gators are still relatively optimistic about their quarterback situation, as both Brissett and Driskel were ranked as top five quarterbacks coming out of high school. The consensus from people close to the program appears to be that both quarterbacks have made significant progress from last season.
WR Andre Debose has been an electric playmaker on special teams through his first two years in Gainesville, and he is hoping to parlay his prowess on special teams into production at the receiver position. Debose averaged an astonishing 27 yards per catch last season, proving that he is capable of taking any reception for six points. Quinton Dunbar caught 14 passes as a freshman last season, but he should continue to improve as he adds weight and strength. Frankie Hammond had a very solid spring for the Gators and will be looked upon for leadership out wide. New offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s offense should call for plenty of two-tight end sets, which is good for the Gators, as they have a pair of talented tight ends/H-backs in Jordan Reed and Trey Burton.
Florida was known for its dominant running attack under the direction of Urban Meyer, but the Gators managed to register just 143 yards per game on the ground in 2011. Although the Gators no longer have speedy backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, Florida will be employing a more physical run game under Pease. Senior Mike Gillislee is not as fast as Demps or Rainey, but he is a very talented runner who will add some much needed size to the ground game. Look for true freshman RB Matt Jones (6-3, 225) to get his fair share of carries as well. The Gators return four starters on the offensive line, so drastic improvement on the ground should be expected this fall.
While there are still some issues which must be settled on offense, there are no such concerns on the defensive side of the ball in Gainesville. The Gators finished eighth in the FBS in total defense last season and are set to return 10 starters from that unit. The defensive line is extremely deep and talented, although star DE Ronald Powell will likely miss at least the beginning portion of the season while recovering from a torn ACL.
Linebackers Jonathan Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and SS Matt Elam each registered at least 75 tackles last season, and they combine to give the Gators a consistent trio of production in the back seven. If the Gators can improve upon the 14 turnovers which they forced last season, which seems like a near certainty, Florida could very easily have a top five defense nationally.
The schedule does not really do the Gators many favors, but Florida will undoubtedly have one of the top defenses in the country and, as we know, defense wins championships. Georgia and South Carolina are the favorites in the SEC East, but the Bulldogs and Gamecocks should watch out if Florida’s new offensive system works as well as they are hoping it will.
SEC West: Mississippi State
2012 should bring about an entirely new look to the Mississippi State offense, as the run-heavy attack which was in place with the presence of QB Chris Relf and RB Vick Ballard will now be scrapped in favor of a more balanced offense led by pro-style QB Tyler Russell. A former four-star prospect, Russell has patiently been waiting in the wings for the last three seasons. Now a redshirt junior, Russell is fortunate to have a vast array of talented playmakers at receiver for the Bulldogs. Seniors Arceto Clark and Chad Bumphis give the Bulldogs a pair of blazing speedsters on the perimeter, while redshirt freshman Joe Morrow is a big-play threat with his 6-4 frame. Morrow dropped a couple of passes in Mississippi State’s spring game, but head coach Dan Mullen commented that he was still extremely happy with the way that Morrow stretched the field vertically, which is something the Bulldogs have lacked in recent seasons. Senior Chris Smith led the Bulldogs with 35 receptions last year, and will once again play a major role in the offense this fall.
Junior RB LaDarius Perkins is not quite as big as Vick Ballard, but he is a very balanced running back who should benefit tremendously by what should be a significantly improved passing attack. Perkins will receive the bulk of the carries, but Nick Griffin is a powerful runner who will also be called upon to leave his mark on the ground game.
Although the Bulldogs only return two starters – C Dillon Day and G Gabe Jackson – on the offensive line, there is still reason to believe that Mississippi State could be better up front this season. Jackson was a second-team All-SEC performer last season, while Day’s play should improve considerably following a season in which he took his fair share of lumps as a freshman. Senior G Tobias Smith missed 10 games last season after going down with an ACL injury during the LSU game. The Bulldogs really struggled on offense following Smith’s injury, and Mullen has stated that the return of their starting right guard gives the Bulldogs one of the best lines in the SEC. The two new starters at tackle will be Damien Robinson and Blaine Clausell. Robinson was ranked as a top ten tackle prospect coming out of high school, while Clausell possesses outstanding length and foot quickness.
The strength of the 2012 Mississippi State defense will undoubtedly be a secondary led by star CB Johnthan Banks, who intercepted five passes a year ago. The Bulldogs finished 27th in the country in pass defense last season and return three starters in 2012. CB Corey Broomfield does not receive the amount of press that Banks does, but he is a very good cover corner who will have a chance to join his teammate in the NFL.
The other star of the Mississippi State defense this season will be LB Cameron Lawrence, who finished second in the conference with 123 tackles in 2011. The Bulldogs were forced to break in three new starters at linebacker last season, but will only have one new starter – most likely Ferlando Bohanna – at the position this fall.
While the Bulldogs did lose first round draft pick Fletcher Cox from the defensive line, the unit as a whole has a chance to actually be even better in 2012. DE Kaleb Eulls and DT Josh Boyd combined for 5.5 sacks last year and are expected to increase their production with another year of experience under their belt. Perhaps the most important players on the defensive line, however, will be newcomers Denico Autry and Quay Evans. Autry and Evans were both ranked five-star prospects in the class of 2012 by Scout.com (Autry comes to Mississippi State from a junior college), and both players should make an immediate impact in Starkville.
There is no such thing as an easy schedule in the SEC, but for a team playing in the SEC West, the Bulldogs have about as easy a schedule as they could hope to get. Mississippi State’s four non-conference games come against Jackson State, South Alabama, Middle Tennessee and at Troy. In addition, the Bulldogs’ two cross-divisional contests are at Kentucky and at home against Tennessee. The schedule will still be filled with its share of difficult games, but the Bulldogs should be able to improve upon the six regular season games they won last season.