A look into the crystal ball
By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
While predictions are often a shot in the dark, it is still fun to look ahead and try to predict the future. Here is our annual look at how the SEC might shape up in the coming year, with the bestowing of our annual preseason awards.
SEC Player of the Year: Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina. With Connor Shaw still learning how to be a playmaker at this level, look for the Gamecocks to rely heavily on Lattimore. Gamecock coaches will have to monitor his workload, especially early on, given that Lattimore is making a comeback from knee surgery. But Steve Spurrier may feel he has no choice but to work Lattimore, especially if he feels the Gamecocks are championship material. Runner-up: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia. With no proven rushing threat, and a talented receiver group, Murray should put up big numbers as Mark Richt looks to solidify his hold on the Georgia head coaching job.
SEC Coach of the Year: Nick Saban, Alabama. If Alabama makes a return to the BCS Championship Game, or even comes close, it will be an achievement given the losses to graduation and the NFL Draft this Alabama team sustained following the 2011 season. Runner-up: Steve Spurrier, USC. If the Gamecocks make it back to Atlanta, Spurrier should be commended for doing what no one else before him could do – bring a consistent winner to Columbia.
SEC Coach With the Hottest Seat: Derek Dooley, Tennessee. The season-ending loss to Kentucky last year was perhaps the worst possible outcome for Dooley, who has struggled to unite the Volunteer fan base. Multiple public relations gaffes have combined with too many losses to make Dooley a target, and unless Tennessee wins 8 games or more this year, it’s hard to see Dooley returning to Knoxville. Runner-up: Joker Phillips, Kentucky. Mark Richt’s name finally doesn’t appear in this article, thanks mostly to Phillips, who now appears not to have been ready to steer a SEC ship by himself. If Kentucky misses out on another bowl, change is likely.
Player Most Important To His Team: A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama. The backup quarterback situation at Alabama borders on the dire, and an injury to McCarron would likely derail any championship talk in Tuscaloosa. McCarron looked sturdy last year, and fortunately has a veteran offensive line back for 2012. Still, coaches and fans will hold their breath on every hit. Runner-up (tie): James Franklin, QB, Missouri, and Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia. It will take SEC fans awhile to learn about new brother Missouri, and the importance of Franklin to that team, but losing him – or Georgia losing Murray – would be almost an automatic knockout in the SEC East.
SEC Team Most Likely To Fall Short of Expectations: Arkansas. The late-spring firing of Bob Petrino and the hiring of the always fiery but often unpredictable John L. Smith may be too much even for this talented team to handle. Smith’s offense doesn’t differ much in style from Petrino’s, but Petrino was a master playcaller. Even with Petrino, Arkansas was a sketchy bet thanks to a thin defense that is mid-pack at best. If Smith suffers one of his trademark explosions – and the stress of SEC football is a ready catalyst – this train could go off the tracks in a hurry. Runner-up: Georgia. The Bulldogs are always a threat to do something strange, and with no proven rushing attack, they risk becoming a one-trick pony under a coach that prefers to run the ball.
SEC Team Most Likely to Surprise Us All: Missouri. If the offensive line can stay healthy, there is plenty of talent on the Tiger offense, and head coach Gary Pinkel knows how to craft a gameplan that scores points. The Tigers are also solid in the secondary on defense and have decent speed off the edge. Winning 8 or 9 games isn’t out of the question. Runner-up: Florida. No one is talking much about the Gators, thanks largely to a coaching staff that fell way short of expectations in 2011 and a quarterback situation that can best be described as pessimistic. But if the Gators find someone to pull the trigger effectively, and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease is worth the hype, Florida has the raw talent needed to advance to Atlanta.
SEC Team Most Likely to Make a Run at a National Championship: Alabama. LSU’s quarterback situation is again in flux, Georgia hasn’t been mentally sound lately and neither Arkansas nor Florida are complete teams. Alabama has questions to answer on defense, but the talent level in Tuscaloosa is simply amazing at this point. Runner-up: LSU. It’s hard to consider anyone else in this slot, frankly. LSU again will be strong defensively, provided linebacker play is solidified. The Tigers have great special teams, and a first-rate offensive line.
SEC Team Most Likely to Fall Completely Apart: Arkansas. It’s hard to go through what the Razorbacks endured this offseason and not suffer some consequences; it’s another thing when the new coach your school hires is known for behavior approaching that of nitroglycerin. The Hogs lost a bunch of playmakers on offense, don’t have a premier offensive line, and the defense is comprised of 3-4 real playmakers and 7-8 other guys who would have a hard time starting at Kentucky or Vanderbilt. Runner-up: Auburn. The Tigers, on paper, have enough talent to win 8 or 9 games, but only if the defense grows up quickly. Gene Chizik’s Auburn teams have yet to look competent defensively, and add to that a complete restructuring of the offense – this could be bad, especially if the Tigers drop one or two early games that they shouldn’t.
Newcomer Most Likely to Make a Big Impact: John Theus, LT, Georgia. Playing left tackle in the SEC as a true freshman is rarely a recipe for success, but John Theus is going to try to break that stereotype. If he can’t win the job, Georgia has other options, but Theus is regarded by some as the best left tackle prospect to come into the SEC since Andre Smith at Alabama. Runner-up: Deion Belue, CB, Alabama. Belue has been at Alabama less than 9 months, but has already leapfrogged several returning players and a fellow JUCO transfer, Travell Dixon, who was much more highly rated than he was. It’s hard imagining him not making a big impact in a Nick Saban-coached defense.
SEC Offensive Player of the Year: Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina. As many times as he’s likely to get the ball this year, Lattimore is the obvious pick. The only real question is how his knee will hold up. Runner-up: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia. Assuming Georgia throws the ball more than Arkansas does (which is likely), Murray will put up sky-high numbers for the Bulldogs.
SEC Defensive Player of the Year: Robert Lester, S, Alabama. This is a hard call given that the SEC lost most of its headline defensive stars after the 2011 season. Lester gets the pick almost by default given that Alabama will be building a secondary around him. Runner-up: Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn. If Auburn’s defense gets more aggressive, as the coaches say it will, look for Lemonier to put up solid sack numbers. He’s already one of the most difficult speed rushers to defend.
Most Underrated Player Award: Ryan Swope, WR, Texas A&M. He’s underrated because most people in this conference don’t know who he is, frankly. He caught 89 balls for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year and was a big reason why QB Ryan Tannehill was able to put up such good numbers under center. Runner-up: Daren Bates, LB, Auburn. He doesn’t have the best technique and he’s not the biggest guy, but he affects offensive players thanks to his aggressiveness. He also has top-line speed for a linebacker and can disrupt the short passing game. If Auburn’s new defensive staff can corral him, he could be another Jerico Nelson.
Public Enemy “Don’t Believe the Hype” Award: Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee. Yes, he has a big arm and can make all the throws. The problem is, he often doesn’t, and his mental game is suspect at best. He’s also somewhat fragile, and although the Volunteers return a solid offensive line, that may not be enough to keep him upright beyond October. In baseball terms, it’s time for Bray to become a pitcher rather than just a thrower. Runner-up: Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU. Let’s be clear that we’re talking about as a cornerback. As a complete football player, Mathieu is a weapon thanks to what he brings on special teams. But as a cornerback – and now he’ll be expected to be LSU’s primary at that position – he struggles against big wideouts and doesn’t play with solid technique.
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