By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 17, 2012
With three weeks of the 2012 season in the books, there is enough evidence available – however premature – to begin building some reasoned analysis of the 14 teams that make up the SEC.
Here’s our look at how the teams are trending, either up or down, versus what was expected of them in the preseason.
Alabama – Trending: Up
Most people thought Alabama would be 3-0 at this time. Few people expected the Crimson Tide to completely demolish both Michigan and Arkansas. Alabama’s offense hasn’t put up gaudy rushing or passing statistics, but QB A.J. McCarron is among the nation’s leaders in passing efficiency, and the offense has shown a killer instinct in capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes. Defensively, there are still some kinks to work out in the secondary, but the front seven hasn’t skipped a beat from 2011 despite losing Courtney Upshaw, Jerrell Harris, Josh Chapman and Dont’a Hightower. Special teams have improved geometrically. The Tide continues to dominate and intimidate opponents. What else is there to say?
Arkansas – Trending: Down
More like, “trending: basement.” The Razorbacks threw a rod against Louisiana-Monroe, then dropped the crankshaft against Alabama. LSU is still on the horizon and even Rutgers now looks like a juggernaut. Arkansas’ defense hasn’t been good since the early years of Houston Nutt’s reign, but this year’s version is particularly rancid. The front seven looks slow and weak, potential star defensive end Tank Wright is playing out of position at middle linebacker, and the secondary played against Alabama like it didn’t want to hit anyone. The real shock has been on offense, though, where RB Knile Davis appears a step or two slow, and the offensive line has been a mess. Add John L. Smith’s ineffective leadership, and the Razorbacks might miss the postseason altogether after spending the preseason as a darkhorse candidate to play for the national title.
Auburn – Trending: Down
Auburn’s demise has been as shocking as Arkansas’, not necessary the fact the Tigers lost two early games, but how they’ve looked in those games – and, how they haven’t responded to changes at both offensive and defensive coordinator. Everyone who knows basic football knew Auburn was in for choppy seas by trying to take personnel recruited for the spread attack and switch over to a pro-style offense. But most people believed the addition of Brian Van Gorder as defensive coordinator would help reverse the soft play style of former coordinator Ted Roof. Instead, the defense has been arguably the worse unit. Auburn can’t stop the run consistently, the secondary has been exposed, the middle of the defense is soft and the defensive ends don’t play with discipline. As for offense, Auburn has none – or at least, nothing it can consistently count upon for help.
Florida – Trending: Up
Give the Gators credit, they’ve played arguably the toughest early schedule and are 3-0. Bowling Green wasn’t much for an opener, but Florida went on the road for Texas A&M’s debut SEC game and won, then beat Tennessee convincingly in Neyland Stadium. Florida’s issues coming into the 2012 season were mostly mental, anyway. The Gators have above-average depth on defense and some true playmakers. With QB Jeff Driskel finally coming around, Florida could make some noise in a fairly open SEC East. The talent problems won’t be fixed this year; namely, a running back who fits the pro set and another receiver or two. But the Gators are doing a decent job so far with what they have.
Georgia – Trending: Up
You’ll have to excuse the handful of prognosticators who have been cautious about Georgia’s prospects in 2012, because we’ve all seen the Mark Richt Express derail itself before. Georgia hasn’t looked perfect, but the Bulldogs have developed a running game early on, and that was a big question for the Bulldogs heading into the year. On the flip side, Georgia’s defense hasn’t been as solid as hoped, as the Dawgs have yielded 20-plus points to Buffalo, Missouri and Florida Atlantic, and that’s a concern heading forward. But the win over Missouri showed what Georgia could do when it flips the switch, and if Richt can get his team to focus itself more consistently, even the best defenses will have problems containing the Bulldogs.
Kentucky – Trending: Down
Joker Phillips ought to be pricing moving vans at this point. After losing to both Louisville in the opener and Western Kentucky in Week 3, he should just be thankful that the Wildcats don’t have to face Eastern Kentucky (a ranked team in Division-IAA) later this season. Kentucky’s fundamentals are shot, and if quarterback Maxwell Smith continues to take hits like the ones he took from Western Kentucky, he won’t last the season. The Wildcats can’t run the ball and can’t stop the run, which is the exact antithesis of what winning football in the SEC looks like. Perhaps most troubling of all is that Phillips’ recruiting, expected to be a strong suit, hasn’t been any better than the on-field performance. Kentucky might not win again until its Week 11 matchup against Samford.
LSU – Trending: Up
Despite the academic suspension of several players recently, there is nothing to date in LSU’s early performances to warrant concern. As expected, the addition of QB Zach Mettenberger has made LSU’s offense better, as the Tiger personnel are much better suited to a pro-style attack than to the spread attack led by Jordan Jefferson in recent seasons. Defensively, LSU has been solid up front and in the secondary, but the linebackers could be an area for opponents to exploit, especially now that Tahj Jones is out for the season. The Tigers still have the best special teams in the conference, and is stacked at the skill positions on offense, even with a recent injury to RB Alfred Blue.
Mississippi – Trending: Up
This might seem counterintuitive at first, but the Rebels were supposed to be terrible on both sides of the ball in 2012. Now, it seems they might just be terrible on defense. The Rebels have put up solid offensive numbers in all three games and should be 3-1 when they match up with Alabama in two weeks. But new head coach Hugh Freeze certainly has his work cut out on the defensive side of the ball. Ole Miss has nothing there, thanks to poor recruiting under Houston Nutt. The defensive backfield was deplorable against Texas, and the Rebels don’t have either the depth or the quality along either the defensive line or linebacking corps to make up for it. Special teams have been quite a bit shakier than expected, but Ole Miss deserves credit for finding a way to make speedster Jeff Scott work as a running back in a SEC offense. This will be a multi-year process for Freeze, but early results are promising.
Mississippi State – Trending: Up
By beating Auburn, Dan Mullen got his first career win against a SEC West team not named Ole Miss. That in itself was a huge hurdle to clear, because the Bulldogs can now begin believing in the possibility of moving up in the SEC pecking order. The Bulldogs have a stiff defense, led by its secondary, and the offense has decent talent at the skill positions. One of the keys to Mississippi State continuing to exceed expectations will be the performance of its offensive line, which leads the conference in protecting the quarterback. But State will soon face tougher foes than Auburn, Troy or Jackson State.
Missouri – Trending: Up
Aside from the second half against Georgia, Missouri has acquitted itself well so far in its initial year in the SEC. Arizona State could have dealt Missouri a tough loss, but the Tigers held on for a 24-20 win. Surprisingly, it’s been the Tiger defense, rather than its offense, that has led the way so far. We’ll find out what Missouri is really about this week when the Tigers take on South Carolina, as the Gamecocks will have a distinct size advantage and – theoretically – an advantage in the toughness category. If Missouri is able to make a game out of it, the notion that the Tigers would be wiped off the map in their first SEC season will likely go up in smoke.
South Carolina – Trending: Up
In reality, we don’t know what to think about the Gamecocks. They barely got by Vanderbilt in the opener, then beat a pair of bad teams in East Carolina and UAB. Most worrisome is the fact that starting QB Connor Shaw can’t stay healthy. The Gamecock backups have looked solid against the Pirates and Blazers, but the one SEC defense South Carolina faced made the Gamecock QB depth chart look like sour milk. The run defense has been solid, but the pass defense has been barely acceptable, and South Carolina has some of the worst special teams, statistically, in the country at the moment. South Carolina gets an uptick for getting by Vanderbilt and holding serve with backup quarterbacks the last two weeks, but this is a grade given mostly on faith.
Tennessee – Trending: Down
Put aside the second half of the Florida game for a moment, and Tennessee has looked better than just about anyone expected so far in 2012. The Volunteers beat North Carolina State in the opener, then dispatched with Georgia State. The Vols were humming along until coming unglued in the second half against the Gators. The passing attack of the Vols will determine their success in 2012 – and there’s the rub. Few teams can win in the SEC with just a quarterback and two wide receivers, and nothing else on offense. Only Arkansas has made it work in recent years, and Tennessee doesn’t have Bobby Petrino calling the plays. More worrisome for Tennessee is a defense that is thin, substandard in talent and now battling significant injuries. We were ready to call this an “up” for Tennessee until the second-half implosion against Florida. The game against Georgia in two weeks now looms even larger than before.
Texas A&M – Trending: Up
The Aggies really should get a grade of “incomplete” after their opener against Louisiana Tech was postponed by Hurricane Isaac, meaning we have only a two-game sample from which to judge. The Aggies lost their opener to Florida at home, but bounced back nicely to shut down SMU 48-3. Most importantly, Texas A&M’s defense showed up in both games, something that rarely happened on a consistent basis in 2011. The Aggies are still going through a transition at quarterback from Ryan Tannehill to Johnny Manziel, and Kevin Sumlin’s team is bound to have a couple of disasters this season. But all in all, this is a better opening volley than was expected.
Vanderbilt – Trending: Down
Vanderbilt’s dream season in 2011 is beginning to look like more of an anomaly than reality. The Commodores lost a tight opener to South Carolina, then dropped a game to Northwestern (aka “Purple Vandy”) of the Big Ten. Walloping woeful Presbyterian last week should make the Commodores feel a bit better about themselves, but Vandy is about to go through a four-game stretch of Georgia, Missouri, Florida and Auburn. Getting a split in those games is a best-case scenario, and going 0-4 wouldn’t be a surprise. On top of everything else, Vanderbilt once again has a quarterback controversy brewing, this time between Jordan Rodgers and Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels.
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