Running through the last few days of kickoff week for the 2011 season, could expectations for the SEC conference be any higher? With eight teams ranked in the top 25 and two expected to contend for the national championship, all eyes are on our conference to make it an amazing six national championships in a row. While naysayers complain that too many of our teams are ranked, they fail at math and don't realize that we do have to play each other, a fact that will result in only six or seven of us going to bowls and maybe five or six ranked at the very end, which face it, is still pretty damn good. And being this is a prediction thread, pencil me in for six bowl teams and five ranked at the end, which while not bad, may not be too good if our conference doesn't win the MNC--which we won't. More on that later.
The conference pride banner is carried this weekend by LSU and Georgia, taking on Top 10 opponents Oregon and Boise State. While most SEC fans probably do root for their stablemates in games like these, they certainly don't proclaim it too loudly, and hardly out in the open on blogs. LSU has had a tough week, with WR Russell Shepard being suspended early last week for unspecified reasons, and then Jordan Jefferson and Josh Johns over a bar fight from the week before. Don't think that Chip Kelly and Oregon will care one bit and will be out for SEC blood.
Not a lot of buzz here in Atlanta over the upcoming Chick Fil A kickoff game, which either means that Georgia is either fully confident or scared to death over it. I'm already on record for the predictions of these games, so the only thing worth wagering is if Les Miles breaks Jefferson's suspension by Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Georgia's Aaron Murray will either prove to me he's the best returning QB in the conference without a drinking problem, or that Mark Richt's days are numbered in Athens. A win by the Dogs could vault them into a SEC east run, a loss could put them in a flat spin, especially with South Carolina looming next week.
I'm sticking withmy predictions that both Richt and Miles are the two biggest coaches on the hot seat this year, and it's apropos that both are featured in two of the biggest games in the nation this weekend. While most will disagree about Miles, his zany management style is still coming under fire from old coordinators, something almost unheard of these days. And should this high-expectations squad this year fall short either due to player self-destruction or another Miles' Miracle Minute Meltdown, the ever-present dissent from the fan base lies just below a three or four-loss season. Count on it--but leave a little time on the clock.
So what else is there to predict?
The SEC Champion this year will be a team that's never won it before under divisional play. Is that bold or what? Maybe the national media has you convinced that Alabama and LSUare the ones to beat, but you might want to think again. All the talking heads preach is talent and more talent, but leadership is sorely lacking for both teams, especially at QB, and there are many stumbling blocks along the way. I am convinced that the SEC west is the strongest division yet again, and stronger by far than even any single conference in the land. When Arkansas and Mississippi State are in the running along with usual suspects AU, UA and LSU, something's gotta give, and my guess is that it's an unblemished record going into Atlanta for the West champ.
In the east, it's a little easier. South Carolina is the prohibitive favorite and I think they will make it to Atlanta, and at the least, make it there A LOT less bruised and battered than their western opponent. Georgia may give them a run. I'd go as far as saying that the SEC east is decided in Athens next weekend. Tennessee is till a season or two from finding itself, which may be a season too many for Derek Dooley's hopes. Florida will be surprisingly flat in Will Muschamp's first season. I see him and OC Charlie Weiss chaffing a bit if the offense flounders, and don't be surprised if the Gators have six losses or are barely bowl eligible.
Make no mistake. The West will be the power division and will indeed be wild this year with no game is guaranteed. I think you see more parity than ever witnessed in the division and the traditional powers may have to take a back seat to the upstarts for the first time in a while. The West will be stronger than the east, but will consume itself in such a way that I believe the East champ will be in a better position to win the conference crown.
For that reason, I don't see the SEC winning the national championship for the 6th year in a row. If favorites Alabama and LSU run out of steam, other teams in the conference may have a hard time making up ground in the polls as anti-SEC sentiment will surely be present. Conventional wisdom will say that it's best for CFB if someone else wins the title, that the SEC's dynasty wasn't a good thing for the sport. There may be outright hostility towards our conference if the Texas A&M bomb blows up in mid-season. I hope that the Aggies have good enough sense to realize that the trade deadline is over and not to try and make a move until the off season.
Auburn ties for second in the SEC west. The schedule is just too tough for this young team. That's a far cry from 5th place as most predict, but if there's one team I would not want to sell short and that is the Auburn Tigers. It's a cliche on the Plains, but when expectations are low, that's when we shine. I think that Barrett Trotter surprises many and runs the offense even more efficiently than Cam Newton did. Now, that's not to say that Trotter will have the same flair for the dramatic and super-human, but Auburn easily leads the conference in total offense, rushing, and scoring, and is among the top 5 among BCS teams nationally in those categories.
Ted Roof's super-elastic defense gains even more confidence, and young talent steps up to lead that squad to a significant improvement in the stats over last year's team. Overall, Auburn starts to gel with all the young talent coming together. I think if we have a lapse, it's early, but this team comes on strong towards the end and makes it to a quality bowl--setting the stage for something even more fantastic next year. War Eagle!