Oct 13

Halfway Home - SEC Midseason Review

Posted By:Wes Mewbourne - Birmingham, AL  Tags:

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It’s hard to believe the season is half over, but that’s the reality here.  In another couple of months, we’ll be discussing who got the big nod into the BCS Title Game, how our teams were successes or disappointments, and who’s looking for a new coach.  For now, let’s take a look at the winners and losers in the SEC for the first half of the season… 
Alabama – After a disappointing end to last year, the Tide have come full circle to their dominating form at the beginning of ’08.  Beginning the season knocking off #7 Va. Tech (who, after the loss, now ranks fourth) and coming off a strong pair of road wins – Kentucky and #20 Ole Miss, Alabama looks poised to once again challenge Florida for SEC supremacy, as well as a spot in the national championship game.  First, though, they’ll have to get through #22 South Carolina this week, LSU on Nov. 7th, and a road trip to rival Auburn to close the regular season the day after Thanksgiving.  
The early verdict: Alabama gets thumbs up for being able to seamlessly replace 60% of their offensive line and starting backfield, while also continuing to have a stifling defense.  They should finish undefeated, and find themselves in Atlanta to avenge last year’s first loss.
LSU – The Tigers haven’t been the dominant presence they have been in recent year, but The Mad Hatter is still getting it done in Death Valley.  Starting the season just outside the Top 10, they went on the road and beat a rebuilding Washington team in dramatic fashion.  Since then, though, they seem to walk a thin line, first at Miss St, then Georgia, and most recently, their loss against Florida.
The early verdict: LSU performance wise has been a disappointment, however it’s hard to argue with their record.  They are a Top 10 team for now, but will probably finish around the 8-4 mark with losses coming at Alabama, Auburn, and their third straight to Arkansas.
Auburn – Talk about progress in year one.  Gene Chizik in some circles was ridiculed, or at least Auburn was ridiculed for hiring him.  After 5 wins in two years with Iowa St., he matched that number in 5 games on the Plains.  Couple that with the fact that they have already scored more points this season than they did all 12 games last year.  A disappointing loss to Arkansas will have them refocus, but they’ll bounce back.
The early verdict:  The biggest question the Tigers had coming into the season was depth, and it has showed.  In the fourth quarter, the Tigers have been outscored a combined 30-17.  Doesn’t seem like much, but they haven’t played Alabama, LSU, or Georgia yet, either.  This year, they should finish with 7 or 8 wins, depending on which Georgia team shows up.  It seems disappointing given their start, but gaining 3 wins in the SEC this year is a feat.
Arkansas – Here’s another team looking for an identity.  They feature on of the best offenses in the country, but could only muster 7 points at Alabama.  The last two games, though, have been one-sided thanks mostly to their defense – holding Texas A&M and Auburn (both Top 10 offenses) to an average of 21 points in blowout wins.
The early verdict:  Just like last year, the Razorbacks aren’t a major player in the SEC race, but they still can have an impact.  Though they didn’t put up a big fight against Alabama, there’s still Florida and Golden Boot rival LSU.  They will probably improve on last year’s record enough to go bowling, but not by much.  They will be 7-5 and a solid year two under Petrino.
Mississippi – Arguably the conference’s biggest disappointment, the Rebels have struggled quite a bit thus far.  This preseason Top 10 team has had one real victory of note (23-7 at Vanderbilt) and scored a mere 13 combined points in its two highest profile games against South Carolina and Alabama.  The rebels have since fallen to #20, and their Heisman hopeful, QB Jevan Snead, is coming off a 4-interception day at home against Alabama.  This isn’t how Houston Nutt’s program saw this season going.
The early verdict:  It’s easy to write the Rebels off as overrated, but last year they started off slow as well.  As the season progresses, don’t be surprised to see them hang around in the rankings, and finish with 8 or 9 wins after the bowl game.  Still not the season they were hoping for, but they do play in the toughest division in college football, too.
Mississippi State – First year head coach has certainly taken his share of lumps so far this season.  The best win the Bulldogs have at this point is a win on the road at Vandy, and 15-3 is nothing to write home about.
The early verdict:  Just as the preseason predictions, Mississippi State will not reach a bowl game and will continue to look up from the bottom of the SEC for the foreseeable future.  They would have to win 4 out of their last 7 games to be bowl eligible, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since their last bowl season in ’07.  in fact, that’s the last time in seven years they’ve won more than four games period.
Florida – Though largely unproven the first five games of the season (their best win so far is against a shaky LSU team), the Gators have overcome their fair share of adversity.  Their receiving corps has seen a bunch of injuries, and their all-everything quarterback Tim Tebow was sidelined after the “Hit-Seen-Round-the-World” gave him a concussion.  Lucky for him, and the Gators, there was an off week to allow him the time to recover.
The early verdict: Sitting atop the national rankings, the Gators still have their eyes on the prize.  Sure Tebow might have bowed out of the Heisman race, but the Gators are still undefeated in the nation’s toughest conference.  They should meet Alabama with one fewer losses than they did last year to set up a new “Game of the Century”.  ESPN will channel their former selves before the Michigan-Ohio St game three years ago.
South Carolina – Dost my eyes deceive me?  Is that the Gamecocks in the top 25 and second only to the mighty Gators in their division?  It sure is, folks.  The Ole Ball Coach is at it again.  And again, he’s doing it with a stout defense and a game manager at quarterback.  Coming up, their toughest test to date – playing at Alabama for homecoming.

The early verdict:  We’ve seen this out of South Carolina.  Two years ago, they rose as high as #6 with a 6-1 record before losing their last 5 games of the season.  This year, they can likely improve on the record, but not this week.  They will likely drop at least half of their remaining games, but will surprise either Arkansas or Tennessee on the road, and end Clemson’s win streak in their rivalry.  8-4 with a decent bowl.

Georgia – If ever there was a Jekyll/Hyde team this year, it’s certainly Georgia.  After laying an offensive egg against Oklahoma St. in the opener, they exploded for a combined 93 points against South Carolina and Arkansas.  Then, back to their old ways, not getting more than 20 points the last three games, with two of those being losses.

The early verdict:  This could quite possibly be the lowest a Richt-coached team has fallen.  They were a preseason #1 last year, and now, they are looking at a potential 6-6 season.  I think they will rally the troops possibly against Auburn, but Florida and Georgia Tech will be too much for them…again.  7-5 and Mark Richt begins next season on the Hot Seat watch list.

Tennessee – After a disappointing season last year, and a new coach this year, the Volunteers have certainly seemed to have found their footing.  After a better than expected showing at Florida and a never-say-die attitude against Auburn, they laid the lumber on Georgia.  The next two games, at Alabama and hosting South Carolina, will go a long way in showing the improvements made by Kiffin and Co. in year one.

The early verdict:  It’s still too soon to get excited, even with that impressive win against the Bulldogs.  They are looking at a 6-6 year, dropping games against Bama, SC, and Mississippi.  Not bad, but not what the Tennessee nation was hoping for.

Kentucky – After a brutal 3-game stretch that included Florida and Alabama, the Wildcats have seen a 2-0 start with a Governor’s Cup win over Louisville spiral to a 2-3 record.  They look to rebound over the next few weeks starting with a reeling Auburn team.

The early verdict:  I wouldn’t write the Wildcats off just yet.  A worn down Auburn now looks like a very winnable game, and they could very well be bowl eligible with a four game win streak going into Vanderbilt.  Right now, 6 or 7 wins seems about right now, and Rich Brooks will help secure his status as the best coach at Kentucky since Bear Bryant.

Vanderbilt – One year removed from their first bowl invitation in my lifetime (and the first postseason win in 50 years), the Commodores look to have returned to their usual spot in the SEC East.  Sadly, with all the effort Bobby Johnson gets out of his team, he still coaches at Vanderbilt.  His teams continue to be just out of reach of the win.  Their best chance to go bowling again is to knock off Georgia this week, and Kentucky and Tennessee down the road.

The early verdict:  Depending on how much Tennessee improves (or regresses) as the season goes by might be the determining factor as to their bowl hopes.  Best case scenario is a .500 record with a second win over their in-state rival.  More realistic is a 4-8 finish.  My condolences to Bobby Johnson for a disappointing follow up from last year.

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