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Statistically Speaking: 2008 SEC Preview

Saturday, July 19, 2008

2008 SEC Preview

East

Florida
One season after capturing the MNC in a memorable rout against top-ranked Ohio State, the training wheels came off the Urban Meyer-spread option and the offense began to pound everyone into submission. However, while the offense became one of the nation’s best (3rd in total offense and 4th in scoring), the defense lost 9 starters and went from allowing 13.5 points per game in 2006 to nearly double that (25.5) in 2007. Still, 9 wins and a Heisman Trophy account for a pretty good season by most standards.

The Gator offense returns most of its playmakers in 2008. The team’s leading rusher and passer, quarterback Tim Tebow (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) returns and barring a cataclysmic injury, should again be one of the best players in the nation. Teaming with Tebow, be it in the passing game or toting the rock is uber-speedster Percy Harvin. In his 2 seasons in Gainesville, Harvin has gained 1192 yards on the ground and averaged a mind-boggling 9.61 yards per carry. To put that number in perspective, the leading receiver for Notre Dame last season, John Carlson, averaged 9.30 yards per catch. Harvin is no slouch catching the football either, gaining 1285 yards through the air in his Florida career. The Gators lose only 3 starters from last year’s team—2 offensive linemen and 2nd leading receiver Andre Caldwell. The Gators should once again be one of the best offenses, not only in the SEC, but also the nation.

As mentioned earlier, the defense was very green in 2007, having lost 9 starters from the unit that dominated Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game. That relative inexperience last season should pay dividends in 2008 as 8 starters, and 5 of the top-6 tacklers return. The major loss is defensive end Derrick Harvey, who led the team with 8.5 sacks in 2007, and opted to leave for the greener pastures of the NFL. Of course, last season the Gators had to replace 4 NFL draft choices from the defensive line, so replacing one should be a piece of cake. The Gators will probably not be the elite unit they were in 2006 (6th in total and scoring defense), but with this explosive offense, they don’t need to be.

Prediction: The Gators leave the state of Florida only 3 times in 2008. They must face Tennessee in Knoxville, Arkansas in Fayetteville, and Vanderbilt in Nashville. Tennessee and Arkansas should both field weaker squads in 2008 than they did in 2007, and Vanderbilt is, well Vanderbilt. If the Gators can get by LSU at home and Georgia in the Cocktail Party, their only other stiff test would come in the SEC Championship Game. Florida is as good a bet as any to take home the MNC in 2008. In other news, I can’t wait to see the spread for their first game, a home date with Hawaii. Georgia shellacked a solid Hawaii team on a neutral field in the Sugar Bowl. Imagine what the Gators may do to a depleted Hawaii team in the friendly confines of the Swamp.


Georgia
Mark Richt has done nothing but win since coming to Georgia before the 2001 season. His Bulldogs have played in 3 BCS Bowl Games in 7 seasons, and Richt has posted a cumulative record of 72-19. If Richt sticks around, sooner or later, the MNC will come. Unfortunately for Georgia fans, it won’t come in 2008.

Why such hate for a team that finished 11-2 in 2007, won their last 7 games, qualified for a BCS bowl, and returns 17 starters in 2008? For starters, the offense was below average last season. The Bulldogs finished 74th in the nation in total offense, averaging 376 yards per game. In SEC play, the Bulldogs finished a very average 7th in yards gained. They did this despite having two of the nation’s most highly touted players in the backfield—running back Knowshon Moreno and quarterback Matthew Stafford. Moreno has lived up to the hype in his one season of play, compiling over 1300 yards on the ground and averaging a robust 5.38 yards per carry. However, for all the hype surrounding Stafford, he just hasn’t been that stellar. In 2006, his freshman year, he threw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (7) and completed only 52.7% of his passes. His passer rating of 108.98 was not even in the top-100. He improved substantially in 2007, throwing 19 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He still struggled with accuracy, completing only 55.7% of his passes. His passer rating, while better (128.92), ranked only 56th in the nation. Stafford may improve somewhat, but he will still likely be only slightly above-average. Plus, with the loss of his number one receiver (Sean Bailey), the Georgia attack will be overly dependent on Moreno.

The Georgia defense made up for the shortcomings of the offense. The Bulldogs allowed only 323 yards per game (14th in the nation). In SEC play, only the powerhouse defenses in the SEC West (Auburn and LSU) fared better. After an embarrassing showing in Knoxville, when they gave up 411 yards and 35 points in a loss to Tennessee, the Bulldogs held their next 4 SEC foes (Vanderbilt, Florida, Auburn, and Kentucky) to 292 yards per game. Amazingly, the Sun Belt’s Troy Trojans gained the most yards against the Georgia defense in 2007, racking up 488 yards (a lot of it in garbage time). The Georgia defense should remain among the SEC’s best in 2008. 9 starters, including 6 of the top-7 tacklers are back. The Bulldogs will miss defensive end Marcus Howard and his team-leading 10.5 sacks, but the Bulldogs had 42 as a team (6th in the nation) in 2007, so the pass rush should still be brutal.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule has one gigantic landmine against Arizona State in Tempe. If they survive that game, they could very well be 7-0 when they travel to LSU in late October. Unfortunately, in their last 5 games, the Bulldogs must travel to LSU, Auburn, and face Florida in the Cocktail Party. The schedule is simply too daunting for a team with so many offensive issues to navigate without a few losses.


South Carolina
It wasn’t supposed to end like that. On the morning of October 20th, the Gamecocks stood 6-1 and were ranked #6 in the country. Their opponent that day in Columbia, Vanderbilt, had not beaten the Gamecocks since their winless campaign (0-11) in 1999. When the smoke cleared that Saturday evening, the Gamecocks had committed 4 turnovers and scored only 6 points in an embarrassing loss. That loss dropped the Gamecocks to 6-2, and they win not win another game. Some of the losses were heart-wrenching (Tennessee and Clemson) and some were ugly (Arkansas rushed for over 500 yards), but they happened, and they kept the Gamecocks home for the postseason. Can the Gamecocks shake off the ugly ending to last season and resume their hunt for an SEC East title?

The Gamecocks had a decent offense in 2007 (though not by typical Spurrier standards), averaging 372 yards per game (77th in the nation). In SEC play, the Gamecocks were 6th in yards gained. The Gamecocks bring back 7 starters in 2008, including 4 offensive linemen. In addition, two players who were not starters in 2007, quarterback Chris Smelley and running back Mike Davis, saw significant action in 2007. Smelly threw passes in 7 games and posted an efficiency rating of 127.46. Although he did not have enough attempts to qualify, that rating would rank 58th in the nation (just 2 spot below the aforementioned quarterback for the University of Georgia). Davis gained 518 yards on the ground in 2007 spelling Cory Boyd. The Gamecocks offense should be just as good, if not better in 2008 with the continuity on the offensive line and the return of the top-2 receivers, Kenny McKinley and tight end Jared Cook.

If the Gamecocks are to rise in the SEC standings, the defense, in particular the run defense will have to improve. The Gamecocks were a respectable 56th in total defense, allowing an average of 378 yards per game. However, the run defense was atrocious, permitting 209 yards per game (110th in the nation). They also allowed 4.85 yards per rush (101st in the nation), proving that they were not the victims of an inordinate number of runs. Every team gained at least 100 yards on the ground against the porous run defense (Tennessee at 101 yards was the lowest). The run defense was not appreciably worse in the 5-game losing streak either, it was bad all year, and if we remove the Arkansas game, it was arguably better at the end of the year. The good news for South Carolina fans is that 9 starters are back in 2008. That number jumps to 10 if we include Jasper Brinkley, a 1st Team SEC linebacker in 2006, who played in only 4 games last season due to injury. The Gamecock defense should be substantially improved, and the team’s record should follow suit.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule includes two walkovers (Wofford and UAB), a Thursday night home opener against NC State, and the annual rivalry game at Clemson. The Gamecocks should be 3-1 at worst against that lineup. In conference play, the Gamecocks have very winnable road games at Vanderbilt (won last 4 times in Nashville), Kentucky (won last 4 at Lexington), and Ole Miss. The home schedule has two very winnable games (Tennessee and Arkansas) and two toughies (Georgia and LSU). When all is said and done, the Gamecocks should be one of the top-3 teams in the SEC East.


Vanderbilt
The Commodores have come oh so close to gaining bowl eligibility 2 of the past 3 seasons. In 2005, they began the season 4-0, before losing 6 straight (4 by 7 points or less) to fall out of bowl contention. In 2007, they needed just 1 win in their final 4 games to attain bowl eligibility. They lost all 4 (2 by a combined 8 points). Can the Commodores end 26 years of heartache and qualify for their first bowl game since 1982?

Last season the Vanderbilt offense was among the worst in the nation. They gained only 327 yards per game (103rd in the nation) and scored only 21.7 points per game (93rd in the nation). In SEC play, only one team gained fewer yards (Mississippi State). That dilapidated unit loses 8 starters in 2008, including all 5 offensive linemen, the team’s leading receiver (Earl Bennett) and the team’s leading rusher (Cassen Jackson-Garrison). Sounds like the Commodores may be in for a truly lousy offensive season. Of course, it pays to remember that in 2007 Vandy brought back 10 offensive starters and actually averaged fewer yards (327 to 351) and fewer points (21.7 to 22.0) per game. So maybe those players starting all those games just weren’t that good? I don’t think Vandy will light up the scoreboard in 2008, but if the offense declines it will not be by much.

Defensively, Vanderbilt fielded one of the better units in the program’s history last season. Opponents averaged only 325 yards per game (16th in the nation). In SEC play, Vandy allowed the 6th fewest yards, but amazingly had the 2nd best yardage defense in the SEC East. Of East teams, only Georgia allowed fewer yards. That’s a pretty amazing feat for Vandy to allow fewer yards than the 4 other public institutions with much better traditions and talent (Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Carolina) in the SEC East. The Vandy defense returns 6 starters in 2008, but loses 2 of their best players in linebackers Jonathan Goff (1st in tackles) and Marcus Buggs (3rd in tackles). The entire secondary does return, so the pass defense which held opposing passers to a solid rating of 118.03 (42nd in the nation) should remain a strength.

Prediction: With non-conference games against Miami (Ohio), Rice, Duke, and Wake Forest the chance for a 3-1 mark outside the SEC is very good. If the Commodores can upset Wake on the last weekend in November, they could be looking at 4 non-league wins. In SEC play, Vandy has a very tough home schedule (South Carolina, Auburn, Florida, and Tennessee). I wouldn’t expect them to knock off the Tigers or Gators, but the Gamecocks or Vols (beaten each once in the last 3 seasons) could be an upset victim. The road schedule is very manageable with winnable games at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Kentucky (lost last 4 to Wildcats). Vandy’s luck just has to change. In one-score SEC games under Bobby Johnson, the Commodores are just 4-17. With a little bit of luck, they could have played in 2 bowl games already. The fates will smile on the Commodores in 2008, and they will qualify for their first bowl game since 1982.


Tennessee
Take a moment and try to remember back to the 2004 season. Tennessee played in the SEC Championship Game after seemingly narrowly escaping each conference opponent. In the offseason, Tennessee was the toast of pundits nationwide. But alas, one man told Tennessee fans to reel in expectations. Unfortunately, for Tennessee fans, 2008 could look a great deal like 2005.

Can you guess which SEC team allowed the most yards in conference play last year? That’s right, it was the Tennessee Vols. What’s even more amazing is how schizophrenic the defense was. The table below lists the yardage totals Tennessee allowed in their 8 conference games. As you can see, the defense improved substantially throughout the course of the season. Just kidding. I fudged those numbers quite a bit. The games where they allowed over 500 yards came throughout the season, just as the games where they offered a stiff defense came sporadically. In their first SEC game, Florida gained 554 yards in a thorough beating at the Swamp. 3 weeks later, they held Georgia to 243 yards. They followed that up with a solid performance against Mississippi State (338 yards), before getting blitzed by Alabama (510 yards) and South Carolina (501 yards) in consecutive weeks. Just 2 weeks later, they held the explosive Arkansas attack to 289 yards (one week after the Hogs eviscerated the Gamecocks) and then allowed a scant 270 yards to Vanderbilt. The Vols closed the SEC regular season by allowing 564 yards to Kentucky. If there ever was a time when you really didn’t know what you were going to get, it was with the Tennessee defense in 2007. Even outside the SEC, they could be good (held Wisconsin to 347 yards in the bowl win) or bad (gave up 471 in the opener at Cal). The Vols return 6 starters from that helter-skelter unit. They do lose their best player, linebacker Jerod Mayo, who bolted early for the NFL, but the Vols should no longer feature the worst defense in the SEC.

While the defense should be better, the offense has to replace perhaps the most important member of the 2007 unit, quarterback Erik Ainge. Ainge tossed 31 touchdowns last season and posted a passer rating of 135.48 (36th in the nation). Besides Ainge, most of the key contributors return. Running back Arian Foster, the team’s three best receivers (Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers, and Josh Briscoe) and 4 starting offensive linemen return. Ainge’s likely replacement, junior Jonathan Crompton, will have good talent surrounding him. While the Vols will surely miss Ainge, the offense, if it does falter, should do so only negligibly.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule features 3 sure wins (UAB, Northern Illinois, and Wyoming all come to Neyland Stadium) and one very dangerous game—the opener at UCLA on Labor Day. Inside the SEC, the Vols have tough road trips to Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt while hosting Florida, Mississippi State, Alabama, and Kentucky. While the Vols won 10 games last season, they were extremely fortunate to do so. Even if the offense and defense improve, the luck may not. Expect the Vols to have a losing SEC record for the 2nd time in 4 seasons.


Kentucky
Flashback if you will to the late 1990’s. Mel Gibson was a box-office stud (and not the hate-spewing anti-Semite he has become—at least not in public), Britney Spears was an innocent pop princess, and the Kentucky Wildcats had just participated in their second consecutive bowl game. The Wildcats followed up that pair of bowl games with a 2-9 record (winless in the SEC) in 2000. Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, a similar fate may await the 2008 squad.

The past 2 seasons, the Wildcats have been a little more lucky than good. While they have gone a collective 16-10 over that span, they have a sterling 8-4 in one-score games. That luck is likely to reverse course in 2008. In addition, the Wildcat offense, the driving force behind the team’s run of success, losses all of its stars. Quarterback Andre Woodson (13th in pass efficiency in 2006 and 20th in 2007) is gone, as are running back Rafael Little (over 1000 yards rushing and 42 catches last season), and receivers Steve Johnson (over 1000 yards and 13 touchdowns last season) and Keenan Burton (over 1000 yards in 2006 and over 700 last season). The positives for the offense are that 3 starting linemen return and receiver Dicky Lyons (nearly 1500 receiving yards the past two seasons) could prove a solid replacement for Johnson or Burton. Still, likely signal-caller Curtis Pulley, should not come close to matching Woodson’s production.

Defense has been a problem for the Wildcats seemingly since the dawn of time. Last season the Wildcats finished a respectable 67th in total defense, permitting 397 yards per game. However, in SEC play, their 10th place finish in yards allowed was much more indicative of their quality. Only Ole Miss and Tennessee allowed more yards in SEC play. The Wildcats do bring back 8 starters in 2008, and could conceivably improve. However, improve in this case means trend toward mediocrity, which will not be good enough to make up for the losses on offense.

Prediction: Outside of Louisville, the non-conference schedule is a breeze, featuring the likes of Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee, and Western Kentucky. After a 3-1 start, things will start to get rough. Alabama, Florida, Mississippi State, and Tennessee dot the road schedule, while South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, and Vanderbilt come to Lexington. With so much talent departing on offense and an almost assured reversal in good fortune, the Wildcats will sink to the bottom of the SEC East.


West

Auburn
In the Brandon Cox era (2005-20070, the Auburn Tigers went 29-9, 18-6 in the SEC, and defeated rival Alabama 3 times. However, one has to wonder what the team could have done with a little more consistency at the quarterback position. The following table lists Auburn’s national rank in total offense, total defense, and passer rating the past 3 seasons. As you can see, as the defense became elite, the offense became putrid. A great deal of that is due to the play of Brandon Cox. In his first season as a starter, Cox threw 15 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, hardly Heisman numbers, but very solid. In his senior season, he threw only 9 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In fact if he look at the disappointing losses over the past 3 seasons, nearly all of them involved a terrible game from Cox.

2005: In the season opener (his first game as a starter), Georgia Tech picked him off 4 times. In the bowl upset to Wisconsin, Cox completed only 15 of 33 passes for a measly 137 yards.

2006: In the loss to upstart Arkansas, Cox gained only 153 yards on 29 passes. In the whitewashing at the hands of Georgia, he totaled just as many interceptions (4) as completions.

2007: In the loss to South Florida, Cox completed less than half his throws (16 of 35) for only 165 yards. In the shocker to Mississippi State, Cox threw 2 interceptions in only 10 pass attempts. In yet another blowout loss to Georgia, Cox threw 4 picks. All told, here is how Cox performed in the 29 Tiger wins versus the 9 Tiger losses of his starting career.
As you can see, when Cox was bad, he was very bad. So what does this have to do with 2008? Not a whole lot. Cox has moved on and the Tigers have embraced some form of the spread offense, complete with a mobile quarterback (Kodi Burns), which they showcased with moderate success in the Peach (err Chick-Fil-A) Bowl win over Clemson. Besides Cox, the only other loss on offense is a non-descript tight end. The offense should improve substantially in 2008 and give the team a legitimate shot at getting to the SEC Championship Game.

The Tigers had the best defensive unit in the SEC last season. Even better than conference (and MNC) champion LSU. These Tigers allowed a scant 283 yards per game to their SEC foes. 7 starters return, including defensive end Antonio Coleman, whose 8.5 sacks led the team last season. The defense may fall somewhat from its perch at the top, but it should remain one of the finer units in the nation.

Prediction: The Tigers begin the year with Louisiana-Monroe, and two upsets over SEC schools in 10 calendar months seems a little much for the Warhawks. Elsewhere in non-conference play, the Tigers host Southern Miss and Tennessee-Martin and in one of the marquee games of the year, travel to West Virginia on a Thursday night in late-October. That game will serve more to validate West Virginia’s season, but an Auburn win could position them to play for the MNC even with an inevitable loss in SEC play. In league play, the Tigers road schedule (Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, and Alabama) is very manageable, but the Tigers will probably slip up in one of those games. The home schedule is where the action is, with LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia coming to Jordan-Hare. The benefit of hosting LSU gives Auburn the edge over those other Tigers in the SEC West.


LSU
The 2007 season ended like the previous two years of the Les Miles era, with two losses and a bowl win. However, since every other major team in the nation also had two losses, and more importantly, the teams in their division all had at least three losses, the Tigers were able to take home the MNC. Was LSU the best team in 2008? There’s some pretty significant statistical evidence that they were. By the both measures of SDPI, they were the best team in the best conference. For posterity’s sake, it would be prudent to note that the Tigers did lose to two teams—Kentucky and Arkansas that combined to lose 10 games last season. The also had a solid 4-2 record in one-score games and had an outstanding turnover margin of +20. The Tigers were a very good team (I’m hesitant to throw out the word great) in 2007, but they were also propped up by a host of other mitigating factors; many of which lay outside their control.

In SEC play, the Tigers the gained the 3rd most yards (behind Florida and Arkansas) and allowed the 2nd fewest (behind Auburn). In other words they were strong on both sides of the ball. With significant losses on both sides, they should remain strong, just not as strong. On offense, the Tigers lose their starting quarterback (Matt Flynn) and running back (Jacob Hester). The Tigers do return their top-2 receivers (Brandon LaFell and Demetrius Byrd) as well as 4 starting offensive linemen. However, the biggest loss on offense may be quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, who was slated to be the starter in 2008, but has subsequently been dismissed from the team. Likely starter, redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee, has yet to see any game action. He was weapons, but lacks experience, so the offense is likely to go through some growing pains early on.

The defense loses the most talent from the squad with only 5 starters returning. Among those departing are defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey (1st round draft pick), linebacker Ali Highsmith (2nd team All-American), and safety Craig Steltz (4th round draft pick). The best returning player is defensive end Kirston Pittman, who led the team with 7.5 sacks in 2007. The unit should remain stout, but is likely to decline somewhat with the loss of so many talented players.

Prediction: Even with Appalachian State on the schedule, the non-conference slate should result in 4 wins (Troy, North Texas, and Tulane are the other foes). In SEC play, the Tigers have 4 very tough road contests—Auburn, Florida, South Carolina, and Arkansas. The home schedule has Georgia as the marquee foe along with Alabama, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. The schedule is too daunting and the ridiculous turnover margin of +20 will surely come down and prevent the Tigers from defending their conference and national title.


Alabama
Talk about not getting what you pay for. After forking over a king’s ransom to acquire the services of perpetual job hunter Nick Saban, the Alabama Crimson Tide won exactly one more game in 2007 than they did in 2006. To be fair they did win twice as many SEC games (4 versus 2), but when you lose to the likes of Louisiana-Monroe, the season cannot be considered a success.

Last season the Alabama offense was mediocre by national standards (75th in total offense) and below average by SEC standards (8th in yards gained in conference play). The good news for Alabama fans is that the offense should improve in 2008. Quarterback John Parker Wilson returns for his senior season (3rd as a starter). Wilson posted a respectable passer rating of 126.50 in 2006 (47th in the nation), but saw his efficiency plummet to 114.61 in 2007 (92nd in the nation). If Wilson can regain his 2006 form, the offense could see some significant improvement. Elsewhere on the offensive side of the ball, the Tide return their leading rusher, Terry Grant. Grant gained nearly 900 yards in his first season of action. With 4 starting offensive linemen back, Grant should easily top 1000 yards. The only issue the offense could have is finding a reliable go-to receiver. The top-3 pass-catchers from 2007 (DJ Hall, Matt Caddell, and Keith Brown) are all gone. The lack of an experienced reliable receiver could hinder Wilson’s progression and slow down the entire offense.

The Tide defense was pretty good last season, finishing 31st in total defense, permitting 346 yards per game. In SEC play, they were 4th in yards allowed, behind the stout defenses at Auburn, LSU, and Georgia. The Tide defense returns 6 starters in 2008, including leading tackler and 1st team All-SEC safety Rashad Johnson. However, the team’s top sacker, defensive end Wallace Gilberry (10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss in 2007), has exhausted his eligibility. The defense should be roughly on par with last year’s unit. Perhaps a bit better, perhaps a bit worse, but for all intents and purposes very similar.

Prediction: The Tide open with Clemson in an intriguing ACC/SEC clash. Their other non-conference games are against Tulane, Western Kentucky, and Arkansas State. Barring another total meltdown like last year’s debacle against Louisiana-Monroe, the Tide should be 3-1 at worst outside the SEC. In conference play, the Tide’s home schedule is very manageable—Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Auburn. If the Tide can reverse their recent trend against the Tigers, they could very well sweep the home schedule. The road schedule is another issue entirely—Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and LSU are all conceivable losses. The Tide don’t seem to be significantly improved in Saban’s 2nd season, so another 4-4 SEC record seems likely.


Ole Miss
In the fiasco that was the Ed Orgeron era (2005-2007), the Ole Miss Rebels won 3 SEC games. With a new coach (former Arkansas head man Houston Nutt), an intriguing quarterback transfer, a favorable schedule, and some positive statistical indicators, the Rebels should equal and could exceed their SEC win total from the 3 previous seasons.

Last season, Ole Miss featured one of the worst offenses in the nation and in the SEC. The Rebels gained only 345 yards per game (91st in the nation) overall and in SEC play only Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State gained fewer yards. A single player, quarterback and Texas transfer Jevan Snead, may be just what the offense needs to get out of the doldrums. These are the quarterback ratings and national ranking the Ole Miss offense has produced the past 4 seasons (since Eli Manning graduated). That’s a pretty horrendous track record. However, Snead, a highly sought after recruit who failed to beat out Colt McCoy at Texas in 2006, should go a long way toward rectifying those numbers. To aid Snead in his quest to bring relevance to Oxford are 4 returning starters on the offensive line (including Michael Oher of Blindside fame) and the top-3 receivers from 2007. The Rebels do lose their leading rusher, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (over 1100 yards in 2007), but Nutt has a history of producing quality running backs. The Ole Miss offense should be substantially improved in 2008.

The Reb defense from last season did the misfiring offense no favors. Only Tennessee allowed more yards in SEC play than Ole Miss. In non-conference action, even IAA Northwestern State gained 499 yards! Overall, the Rebels finished 88th in total defense, allowing 423 yards per game. However, the 2008 unit should be one of the most improved defenses in the nation. Amazingly, the Rebels return their top-14 tacklers in 2008! That’s not a misprint. 14. The best of the lot is undoubtedly defensive end Greg Hardy who registered a team-leading 10 sacks in 2007. The Ole Miss defense should rise to the upper-half of the SEC in 2008.

Prediction: In non-conference action, the Rebels open with Memphis for the 5th straight season. The Rebels have faced Memphis every season since 2002, and have won 4 of 6, but the last 4 games in the series have been decided by 7 points or less. The Rebels would be wise to not overlook their opponent from Conference USA. The Rebels follow that up with a trip to Winton-Salem to take on Wake Forest. In their last meeting, in Oxford in 2006, the Deacons trounced the Rebs 27-3. It won’t be easy, but Ole Miss could very well knock off the Deacons. The Rebels other two non-conference games are relative layups at home against Samford and Louisiana-Monroe. Anything worse than 3-1 outside the SEC is grounds for worry. In SEC play, the Rebels have 3 very winnable home games—Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Mississippi State. The other is against Auburn. The road schedule is much more daunting with trips to Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU. If the Rebels can score a mild upset at home, they could break even in SEC play. Besides the new coach, talented quarterback, and host of returning starters, the Rebels were also a poor -10 in turnover margin last season. All those positive indicators should have the Rebels back in postseason play for the first time since 2003.


Arkansas
One year after taking the nation by storm and rising as high as #5 in the polls, the Hogs fell back to Earth and suffered their 6th .500 or worse finish in SEC play in the last 8 seasons. They were also utterly decimated by Missouri in the Cotton Bowl and figure to be a much different (though not necessarily better) team in 2008.

The 2007 Arkansas offense was the antithesis of balance. They averaged 287 yards per game on the ground (4th in the nation) and an otherworldly 5.96 yards per rush behind the dynamic duo of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. They averaged only 163 yards though the air (112th in the nation). When the offense couldn’t run the ball, the team was toast. In the games where they were offensively impotent (7 points versus Auburn, 13 points versus Tennessee, and 7 points versus Missouri), the team averaged only 119 yards on the ground and 3.23 yards per rush. Quarterback Casey Dick was unable to rescue the offense when McFadden or Jones were contained. Dick posted solid overall numbers, with an efficiency rating of 126.63 (62nd in the nation), but he was prone to mixing in good games with some real ugly ones. Dick posted a very good rating of 135.12 against a solid Alabama pass defense, and followed that up with a 79.24 rating against a weak Kentucky defense. Further illustrating the point, he was eaten alive by the manic-depressive Tennessee defense (89.83 rating) and then torched the solid Mississippi State unit the following week (258.33 rating). New head coach Bobby Petrino has a penchant for cultivating good quarterbacks, but with just one season to work with, I wouldn’t bet on Dick becoming an elite passer. With the loss of McFadden and Jones, as well as number one receiver Peyton Hillis, the Hog offense should decline in 2008.

The Arkansas defense, a strength in 2006 when they allowed a mere 300 yards per game (26th in the nation), became a weakness in 2007. The Hogs finished a respectable 46th in total defense (366 yards per game), but in SEC play, only Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Tennessee allowed more yards. Marked improvement is not likely in 2008 as the Hogs return just 5 starters and lose their top-2 and 5 of their top-6 tacklers. The biggest loss is in the secondary where the entire starting lineup has departed. The Hogs should be about where they were last season in regards to defense, below average, but not terrible.

Prediction: Arkansas has 3 non-BCS foes on the schedule, and the first two they face should offer no real test (Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe). However, the third presents a very unique challenge. Tulsa comes to Fayetteville in the middle of the SEC season (November 1st) and their spread offense is led by coordinator Gus Malzahan, who coordinated the Arkansas offense in 2006. While the Hogs certainly have the talent advantage, the Tulsa offense could give the Hogs some trouble. Realistically, that game could determine if Arkansas is bowl bound, as 3 wins looks to be the maximum in conference play, and the Hog other non-conference game is in Austin against Texas.


Mississippi State
Although they were outscored on the season by 22 points and outgained by 452 yards, the Bulldogs finished 8-5 and won a bowl game for the first time since 2000. Despite some solid returning players, especially on defense, Mississippi State should be due for a big fall in 2008.

How did Mississippi State win in 2007? With a good defense (21st in total defense and 5th in yards allowed in SEC play) and some good luck. The Bulldogs were 4-0 in one-score games, befitting a team that won 8 games despite being outscored. The Bulldogs also had 6 non-offensive touchdowns (5 interceptions and one punt return), many of which came at very opportune times. An interception return was the difference in a 19-14 win over Auburn, the very famous pick-6 before halftime was the difference in a 17-12 win over Alabama, and safety Derek Pegues punt return tied the game against rival Ole Miss (eventually won by the Bulldogs on a last-second field goal). Of course, these things happened, so let’s give the Bulldogs some credit. However, defensive and special teams touchdowns are essentially random events and not highly correlated from one season to the next. Suffice it to say, the Bulldogs will have a tough time matching their non-offensive touchdowns in 2008. They will have an even tougher time having those non-offensive touchdowns occur at such critical moments.

With the 5th best defense in the SEC, why did the Bulldogs need such good fortune to qualify for a bowl game? Because the offense sucked. The Bulldogs gained only 297 yards per game (113th in the nation) and in SEC play, they gained the fewest yards of any team. Freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll fared much better than junior Michael Henig (104.57 quarterback rating versus 75.44), but his passer rating was not even in the top-100. As a team, the Bulldogs finished 117th in passer rating (98.46), ahead of only Idaho and Florida International. While Carroll may improve slightly, it would be a mistake to expect him to finally ‘get it’ and become an above-average passer. The Bulldogs best hope to field a decent offense is running back Anthony Dixon. Dixon topped 1000 yards last season (1064), but of all the running backs to top that mark, he was the only one to average under 4 yards per carry (3.69). With only two starting offensive linemen returning to lead the way, Dixon will have a tough time bettering his 2007 numbers.

Prediction: Mississippi State’s season may well begin rather ominously as they travel to Ruston, Louisiana to take on some more Bulldogs from Louisiana Tech. I’m not saying the lesser-regarded canines will win, but it should certainly be interesting. Elsewhere in non-conference action, Mississippi State hosts SE Louisiana and Middle Tennessee State before traveling to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech. Depending on the result of the opener, the Bulldogs should either be 3-1 or 2-2 outside the SEC. In SEC play, the Bulldogs best odds at winning come at home against Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Arkansas. If they win all 3 of those, they should get to bowl eligibility, but that’s a dubious proposition.

Predicted Records:

4 Comments:

Blogger Harry Carey said...

I like your picks of Florida and Auburn, and I think that would make for a fantastic SEC championship game, but 8-0 in the SEC? I've said myself that I think Florida will score a hundred points a game next year, but undefeated in the SEC is nothing short of Patriotesque. And boy do I hate Urban Meyer.

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to point some facts about Georgia's 2007 "offensive issues". They started (3) freshmen on the offensive line. Moreno did not become a starter until Thomas Brown was injured. Matthew Stafford's completion rate was hampered by a lot of dropped passes early on.

South Carolina had a respectable offense (372 ypg) and, Georgia has issues (376 ypg)?

4:23 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Interesting analysis. However, I think you are over-estimating South Carolina and under-estimating Tennessee.

7:59 PM  
Blogger matt said...

Harry: I may have been a bit presumptuous in predicting an undefeated season for the Gators, but hey, they are my preseason #1 so why not?

Anonymous: In SEC play, SC actually gained 372 ypg and Georgia gained 364. really not much of a difference, but to address your point: no one is calling SC a national title contender. And rightfully so. I just think Georgia's offense is a little overrated based on what they have actually accomplished.

5:55 PM  

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