Ahhh. Can you smell it? Freshly cut grass. Hamburgers on the grill. Stale beer. The smell of football. It’s the smell of happiness to many in the South, including yours truly. So what’s on the horizon for college football? Change.
With a non-BCS team in the top five, and two in the top six, it seems the dominance of the current conference heavyweights may be over. The conferences themselves don’t seem as stalwart, getting some pretty serious makeovers. Plastic surgery seems more apropos. This off-season saw some major overhauls. FBS (formerly Divison 1-A) college football will be entering a new era where nothing seems certain. Nebraska is jumping ship. The Pac-10 is going to be…the Pac-12? The Big Ten will be the new Big 12. The Big 12 will be the new Big Ten. Every BCS conference seems to be changing. The Mountain West probably should be a BCS conference with the addition of Boise State, Fresno State, and Nevada. But that’s all in the future. One thing remains constant: the SEC. But other teams are looking to crash the party.
Ohio State looks to follow up its BCS success last season, winning the Rose Bowl 26-17 over the Oregon Ducks. Texas is always a strong contender, though arguably a perennial underachiever given the level of talent that walks through Mack Brown’s door (if only it weren’t for that pesky SEC I guess). Oklahoma looks to regain its swagger (if only to fail to win a BCS bowl game again). Miami is hoping this is the year that Jacory Harris puts it all together. Boise State and TCU hope that the strong preseason ranking is enough to propel them to the national title game.
But the SEC, along with the Pac-10, Big 12, ACC, and Big Ten still dominate the preseason polls.
Teams in AP Preseason Top 25 by conference:
SEC: (6) Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia, and Auburn
ACC: (5) Virginia Tech, Miami (FL), Georgia Teach, UNC, Florida State
Big Ten: (4) Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State
Big 12: (3) Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska
Pac-10: (3) Oregon, USC, Oregon State
Big East: (2) Pittsburgh, West Virginia
Non-BCS: (2) Boise State (WAC), TCU (Mountain West)
Change seems to be the name of the game. Conferences are changing. The style of football that ‘works’ is constantly in flux. Every (sane) person wants to change the way we crown the national champion. It seems if you don’t change, you’ll get left behind.
Or maybe not. The SEC has been the constant in all of this. No teams added, no teams lost. The SEC just seems to keep on winning, despite beating itself up, year-in and year-out. While some of the offenses might change their bells-and-whistles and defenses change from 4-3 to 3-4, the SEC is always built on speed. Speed kills, especially when it is attached to a 265-pound defensive lineman. Defenses are too fast, too aggressive, too skillful. The SEC will always be a speedy, defense-oriented conference. And that is why it will always be good.
BAMA OR BUST?
In recent years, the question hasn’t so much been “who will win the national championship?” but which “SEC team will win the national championship?” Winners of the last four BCS championships, five of the last seven, and six of the total twelve championships since the inception of the BCS in 1998, the SEC has been the bully on the block (a staggering 6-0) when it comes to the national title.
In a season that seems largely predicated on the changing landscape in college football, is this perhaps the year that the boys from the South can be knocked off the mountaintop?
Much of that will depend on the defending champion Tide, specifically their defense. The Tide’s dominating defense will be overhauled from the unit that carried them all the way to Pasadena and their thirteenth national championship last season. Key defenders lost from the unit ranked first in PPG allowed and second in total defense include Rolando McClain, Javier Arenas, Terrance Cody, Lorenzo Washington, Brandon Deaderick, Marquis Johnson, Justin Woodall, Kareem Jackson, and Eryk Anders—so basically, the entire secondary. And D-line. And Linebackers.
Have no fear Bammers, Mr. Dont’a Hightower will be returning to the Tide after missing most of last season due to injury. He is a huge, dominating presence in the middle of the field, able to rush, defend the run, and drop into coverage. Plus, there’s that Nick Saban guy. Don’t count out the Tide defense just yet. They might be young, but they are loaded with talent. If there’s one thing Saban can do, it’s recruit.
Oh yeah, and they have an offense too, which includes Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and running mate Trent Richardson, who actually might be even better than Ingram. Probably the best running back duo in the country, Ingram and Richardson accounted for 2869 yards from scrimmage last year. The running backs are the strength of the Tide’s offense. Whenever one of those great backs gets worn out or nicked up, you can just put in the other and not miss a beat. That’s a pretty rare thing to say when one of your options is a Heisman winner.
QB Greg McElroy quietly “managed” the offense to the tune of 2508 yards with a 17-4 TD-to-Int ratio. McElroy came roaring out of the gates, sputtered a little in the middle, but finished the season looking like Joe Namath with freckles. It doesn’t hurt having Julio Jones to catch the ball.
Don’t count the Tide out just yet. It might be a different ballgame when you’ve got the target on your back, but don’t expect Alabama to shy away from the challenge. This is what they live for. Maybe you heard, but the Crimson Tide have 13 national championships. That means they’ve had the target on their back at least 13 times. Look for them to wear it like a cute new handbag. Accessorize!
The rest of the SEC looks like this: ????. (That’s a bunch of question marks if you didn’t get it.) So, do all the hopes for another SEC national championship rest squarely on the shoulders of the Tide?
Not so fast my friend.
THE OTHER GUYS
Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg can attest that the “other guys” can step up and be the hero too. The Auburn Tigers are hoping they can do exactly that. After playing second-fiddle to the Bammers for the past two seasons, Auburn looks to regain the pair of big boy pants it was so accustomed to wearing for much of the decade.
So that brings us to the 2010 model of the Auburn Tigers. Second-year coach Gene Chizik has brought stability to a program that has been anything but stable over the past few seasons. After a five-win season in 2008, the Tigers decided it was time for a change. Firing Tommy Tuberville opened the door for the Tigers to go out and make a splash grabbing a big name or a hot new head coach. The Tigers went out and grabbed hot prospect…Gene Chizik? The signing had some folks scratching their heads, but it might go down as one of the better moves in Auburn history.
Chizik brought passion and enthusiasm. He brought discipline. But he also brought fun. Eight wins including a bowl victory didn’t hurt either. Then to follow all that up, he went out and succeeded in the area most people doubted him—recruiting. He nabbed a class that was ranked in the top five nationally. He also brought in a talented athletic quarterback to run Gus Malzahn’s fancy spread offense. With all that success and improvement comes expectation. Expectation breeds hype. Now it’s time to go out there and prove it.
Auburn is ready to put an offense on the field that will have a dangerous weapon: continuity. The Tigers seem to change coordinators more often than Lindsay Lohan checks into rehab. What really has the Plains buzzing is newcomer Cam Newton, who came to the Tigers from Florida via Blinn Junior College. Newton looks to bring some explosiveness to the quarterback position, something Auburn has dearly missed. In Gus Malzahn’s wide open attack, the quarterback is the catalyst for everything, both throwing and running. If Newton can live up to some big hype, look for the Tigers to be deadly this season.
Junior WR Darvin Adams exploded onto the scene last season as the Tigers top deep threat, possession receiver and basic all-around offensive weapon. Adams’ 60 catches were first and his 997 yards third most for a single season in Tigers’ history. Look for him to continue that success this season behind the strong arm of Newton.
Auburn is losing a very productive runner in Ben Tate to the NFL (who has also lost him for the season with an ankle injury). Tate rushed for nearly 1400 yards and 10 TDs, but the Tigers look to reload via a stable of backs. Mario Fannin, who I think is the most talented player on the team, and Onterio McCalebb look to add a little Thunder and Lightning vibe to the backfield. Add in fivestar recruit Michael Dyer, considered by many to be the most complete back in this year’s class, and things look pretty good for the Tigers’ backfield.
While Auburn will be riding high on its aggressive offense, the name of the game for Chizik is defense. The Tigers relied heavily on the turnover last year. At times the defense was porous, allowing 20 or more points in every game except opener Louisiana Tech. But they often created turnovers when it counted, quite often turning those directly into points. The defense was second in the country with four defensive touchdowns last season. Getting to the quarterback will be a big part of it, and losing star Antonio Coleman isn’t a good start, but the Tigers have some good young talent on the line, an experienced core of linebackers, and an athletic, aggressive secondary. Look for more consistency out of the Tigers’ D this season.
So there it is: lots of promise. On paper this team could compete for the SEC West crown, the SEC crown and a BCS bowl. ESPN analysts have gone so far as predicting the Tigers will beat rival ‘Bama and head to Atlanta for the SEC championship. But that’s just it. It’s all predications, speculation and hype. It’s all on paper. It’s time to get on the field and prove it.
THE OTHER OTHER GUYS
The SEC East is a little weaker this season than it has been in the past. Florida, Georgia and maybe South Carolina should be the front runners with Kentucky playing the darkhorse.
Florida lost Timmy Terrific and defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. John Brantley has some big shoes to fill after Tebow, but they’ve always got talent and speed. Tebow is arguably the most productive, vocal and visible college football player ever. New Florida starter John Brantley is different in almost every way. Quiet, softspoken and shy around people he doesn’t know, Brantley won’t be interested in matching Tebow’s Jersey Shore-esque fist-pumping escapades. Rather, he will be content to use his arm for throwing passes.
Georgia is always a threat if they can just beat rival Florida and some of the weaker teams that always jump up and get them. A.J. Green looks to put together another All-American season and propel the Dawgs towards an SEC title.
HOW THE WEST WAS FUN
The SEC West, on the other hand, is locked and loaded this season. It seems every team has a shot at the title with defending champs Alabama being the front runner. LSU, Auburn and Arkansas are all primed to give it a run. Mississippi State and Ole Miss are looking to surprise some folks and get to a bowl. The West will be fun this year. The question is, by whom will it be won.
LSU is lurking in the swamps ready to pounce on teams that don’t notice them. It must be nice to fly relatively under the radar whilst being ranked as high as number 16 in the preseason. Coach Les Miles will be wearing that hat menacingly on the top of his head and a scowl on his face.
Arkansas is going to score about 1,000 points behind the rocket arm of Ryan Mallet, but they might have trouble stopping other teams from scoring 2,000 points.
It will be a test to see which team can put it all together, stay out of its own way and, most importantly, endure the grind. There is no room for weakness when every week you will be facing a team that has a decent chance to beat you—maybe not a better team, but a team you have to play well against to win. That’s a lot to handle mentally and physically.
BOWLING FOR IRON
As far as the Iron Bowl goes, this year is shaping up to be one of the most exciting and important Iron Bowls in a long time. While it seems true that you can “throw out the records,” it’s nice when you don’t have to. For the last decade or so, it seems like one team is always really good and one team…well, not so much. One team is good, and the other underachieves.
The early half of the decade saw the Tigers in top form, dominating the rivalry, culminating in six straight wins. It was the longest streak in the series since Bear Bryant and the Tide won 10 in a row back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
But the Tide have had the upper hand the past couple of years, both nationally—capturing their 13th national title—and locally—winning backto-back Iron Bowls. The Tigers have struggled to remain strong the past couple of seasons. Some promising starts have given way to midseason struggles, with the Tigers losing games to underdogs.
This year brings new hope. Both teams have strong cases for good runs, deep into the season. This Iron Bowl could be shaping up to be for more than just local pride. SEC and national titles may not be won during this year’s Iron Bowl, but it is very possible they could be lost. Kirk Herbstreit has predicted that this year the Alabama state championship will determine the winner of the SEC West and a trip to Atlanta. The Iron Bowl has never directly determined the winner of the SEC West.
Alabama is the third straight SEC team to be ranked preseason number 1—Florida in 2009 and Georgia in 2008. Neither the Gators nor the Bulldogs won the title that year, but the SEC did. Right league, wrong team. Will that trend continue this year? Will Bama break the cycle and repeat this season? Or is this finally the year the SEC hands the crystal football to someone else? It’s nice to share sometimes. Tune in to find out.
And by that I mean the SEC is going to win yet again. Cheers!
P.S. UAB plays football occasionally too. You should go out and support them. Go Blazers!!
John Easterling writes the X’s & O’s blog for Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.