Like the humble groundhog tentatively poking his head out of the ground after three long months of desolate winter, preseason football magazines and even a few of the blogs are emerging from the spring/summer football dead period to cautiously tender their predictions for the upcoming season. Since the worst that could happen as a result of throwing up similar predictions is a torrent of "Ha ha, you suck!!1!!1!one" comments from readers, which I'm pretty much used to anyway, I figured I'd put up some predictions of my own. Keeping in mind these are just semi-educated guesses I'll probably be doing my darndest to weasel out of in a few months anyway, we begin with the Eastern Division of the SEC, naturally the one nearest and dearest to my heart, going from the top of the standings to the rock bottom:
A sight familiar to anyone who followed Florida football last season -- Chris Leak getting whacked.
1. Florida Gators
Last year: 9-3 (5-3 SEC), squeaked by Iowa 31-24 in the Outback Bowl, entered into Faustian pact with Satan and/or Houston Nutt to ensure that Georgia's star quarterback would be out for the Cocktail Party
You would've been hard-pressed to find a shakier-looking nine-win team last year than the Gators. Of the games they won, only the 41-3 pasting of LaTech and the 34-7 humiliation of Florida State were of certifiable juggernaut quality; most of the rest of the time they were either snatching victory from the jaws of defeat (having to hold on against a Georgia team playing its second-string QB, getting taken to double-OT by Vandy) or just plain getting embarrassed (31-3 blowout at Alabama, a spirit-crushing 30-22 "I crap bigger'n you, son" loss to the Evil Genius and his South Carolina Gamecocks). The reason, as nearly everyone knows by now, was Urban Meyer's diabolically complicated offense, which more often than not strung Chris Leak out as chum for opposing linebackers and backed him up with very little running game to speak of. The good news is that everyone involved will be a lot more used to Meyer's system; the bad news is that the Gators bring to the table one of the most inexperienced offensive lines in the conference, and that's baaaad news indeed when the top item on your 2006 To-Do list is "Keep QB from getting dismembered." Florida will grind plenty of people down with a tough defense this year, but I'd be really surprised to see major, scoreboard-confirmable improvement on the offensive side.
And yet, I don't think they'll lose too many games, certainly not in the Eastern division, where their main competition is Tennessee (could give the Gators a scare in Knoxville, but not enough of one to win), Georgia (who only beats Florida once every 6-7 years and isn't due quite yet), and South Carolina (who will be the subject of some Charles Bronsonesque revenge fantasies when the Gamecocks venture into The Swamp on November 11).
Absolute best-case scenario: 12-0, SEC championship, trip to the national-title game.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: 7-5, with losses coming to Tennessee, LSU, Auburn, South Carolina (again), and the hated Seminoles.
My prediction: 10-2 and a berth in the SEC title game.
Future SAT question: Quentin Moses : opposing QBs :: a) hammer : nail; b) Mike Tyson : Michael Spinks; c) Ronald Reagan : Walter Mondale; d) all of the above?
2. Georgia Bulldogs
Last year: 10-3 (7-2 SEC), abject humiliation at the hands of our couch-immolating Mountain State overlords in the Sugar Bowl
Yeah, yeah, I know, new quarterback, losing tons of guys on defense, rebuilding season, blah blah. Why does that sound familiar? Oh, yeah, because everybody said the exact same shit last year and Georgia still won an SEC title. Obviously, the situation in '06 is not exactly the same as last year's, since none of the four guys vying for the Dawgs' QB spot have anywhere near as much experience as D.J. Shockley did when he took the reins. But the new starter will have, as Shockley did, the benefit of an experienced O-line and no fewer than three extremely talented tailbacks. And even if the offense doesn't quite gel, the defense can be counted on to win some close games, with the QB-annihilating end combo of Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson on the defensive line and some raw but very quick talent in the secondary.
The question mark at QB is way too big for Georgia to expect the stars to align perfectly again and the Dawgs to win another SEC title, but they couldn't have picked a better year to have Western Kentucky and UAB as two of their first three games, or to draw Ole Miss and Mississippi State out of the Western Division. A fifth straight year of double-digit wins is very doable, and what the Dawgs should be shooting for.
Absolute best-case scenario: 11-1 and another SEC title.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: 6-6 and the bitter disappointment of a streak-snapping loss to Georgia Tech still fresh on their minds as they ride the bus to Shreveport.
My prediction: 10-2 and a postseason bowl trip to either Dallas or Tampa.
Erik Ainge, a milk-carton regular since coming out on the losing end of the landmark case Cranium v. Goalpost (2005).
3. Tennessee Volunteers
Last year: 5-6 (3-5 SEC) and a gigantic Nelson Muntz "HA-ha!" echoing from Tuscaloosa to South Bend as the Vols missed the postseason for the first time in 17 years
Well, things obviously have to get better for Tennessee this year, but only in the same way that George W. Bush's approval ratings have to go up, because doing any worse than the Vols did in 2005 would actually present a bigger challenge than doing better -- that's how dramatic their failure was last year. It certainly wasn't a lack of talent, but you could definitely point to a lack of leadership, for the only real question was whether the Vols gave up after their epic 6-3 loss to Alabama or their 16-15 upset shocker to South Carolina and the Evil Genius. The piss-poor offense should be much better now that the Jeff Bowdenesque willful lameness of offensive coordinator Randy Sanders has been replaced by the steady hand of David Cutcliffe, but Cutcliffe has his work cut out for him bringing Erik Ainge back from last year's implosion. The Vols are also green at linebacker and lacking a true shut-down cornerback, so they could get drawn into some shootouts against the better offenses on their schedule (i.e. Cal, South Carolina, LSU).
Tennessee is one of the few teams in the league that didn't throw together a My Little Pony non-conference schedule, and it's conceivable that they could be struggling at 3-3 by the midpoint of the season. But I think they will have improved enough that most of Vol Nation's worst fears will be allayed, thus keeping the denizens of Knoxville from hunting for a spit big enough to roast Phil Fulmer on.
Absolute best-case scenario: 11-1 and a trip back to the SEC title game.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: 6-6 and Phil Fulmer sends his résumé to Mike DuBose hoping to land an assistant position at Millsaps.
My prediction: 8-4 and a trip to the Music City Bowl.
Above, the Antichrist. Oh, calm down, I'm just kidding -- I'd never insult the Antichrist like that.
4. South Carolina Gamecocks
Last year: 7-5 (5-3 SEC), including the unique feat of figuring out a way to lose to Missouri in a bowl game
I know everyone in the SEC is supposed to be feverishly looking at their watches, counting down to the exact second when the Gamecocks break out under Steve Spurrier and seize juggernaut status in the Eastern Division. Not that it couldn't happen eventually, but . . . well, it's not gonna happen this year. Yes, the offense should be dynamite, with a now-more-experienced Blake Mitchell throwing to an excellent group of receivers and two very underrated RBs providing production on the ground. And though focusing on entirely on offense while ignoring defense has killed numerous coaches in the past, Steve Spurrier has certainly never been one of them. But with a so-so front seven and a decimated secondary, the offense had better be good, because my guess is they're going to be involved in more than a few shootouts between now and when the bowl invites are handed out.
In the end I see this as kind of being a "placeholder" season for the Gamecocks, which really shouldn't be seen as all that bad. Yes, last year they were one missed two-point conversion against Georgia away from possibly playing for the SEC title, but they were also 12 points away from going 4-7 and really ruining Spurrier's coronation year in Columbia. I'm guessing that their improvement this year will end up being incremental, but wins in could-go-either-way matchups against Georgia, Tennessee, and Clemson could ratchet expectations up considerably.
Absolute best-case scenario: 11-1 (with the one loss to Auburn) and a first-ever trip to the Georgia Dome.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: 6-6, which is pretty damn good when you consider they went 7-5 last year and everyone thought that was freakin' fantastic. I just don't see them losing to Missy State, Vandy, or Kentucky, and let's don't even talk about their non-conference schedule (which includes such titans as Wofford, MTSU, and Florida Atlantic).
My prediction: 8-4 and an Outback Bowl berth.
Heh. It says "Little" on the back of his jersey.
5. Kentucky Wildcats
Last year: 3-9 (1-7 SEC), apparently still good enough for Rich Brooks to keep his job (which was the most surprising thing they accomplished all season)
Now we're descending into the "Is anyone still reading this?" part of the rankings, because it doesn't matter how much pressure Brooksie is under, or how many sleepers they've supposedly managed to recruit on offense, or how many supposedly winnable games they've managed to finagle onto the schedule -- this team just isn't good enough to be anything more than a speed bump for the top teams in the conference. The offense could very well be the best UK has fielded since the fondly remembered Dusty Bonner days, right before Hal Mumme went clinically insane, but it all hinges on Brooks manning up and deciding between Andre Woodson and Curtis Pulley as his starting QB -- and even then, the best they'll be able to manage against teams like Florida or LSU is probably a first-half outpouring of points just surprising enough to make opposing fans say, "Huh, these guys can actually play a little offense" right before the opposing D gets their heads screwed on straight and blows the Wildcats out of the water in the second half. Either that, or we see a lot of games like last year's Florida contest, in which UK does nothing in the first half but then manages some sort of mini-explosion against the second or third string.
And let's not even talk about the defense, other than to mention that they were the worst in the SEC last season and really have nothing other than an additional year of experience to make anyone believe things will be any different in '06. Fortunately for the Wildcats, they're playing their usual ricockulous out-of-conference schedule (other than Louisville), but even if you spot 'em three OOC wins and victories over conference bottom-feeders MSU and Vandy, they're still gonna need another W to go to a bowl for the first time in seven years. I can think of a couple places where that win might come from, but with each one I'm thinking, "Yeah, but come on, it's . . . Kentucky."
Absolute best-case scenario: 7-5 and a trip to the Liberty Bowl or something like that, prompting Rich Brooks to have a cardiac episode that is serious but non-fatal.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: 2-10 and Brooks gets fired. No, check that: 2-10 and they keep him.
My prediction: 5-7 and, after a very intense coin flip in the AD's office, Brooks gets to keep his job.
Trust me, this is way better-looking than anything else Vanderbilt's gonna put on the field this year.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores
Last year: 5-6 (3-5) SEC, no bowl -- c'mon, it's Vanderbilt -- but a stunning and Schadenfreude-rich victory over Tennessee
Well, kids, I hope you had fun almost beating teams like South Carolina and Florida and almost going to a bowl last year, because the clock has struck twelve, the carriage has turned back into a pumpkin, and Jay Cutler has busted tracks for the NFL. When you're Vanderbilt, and you actually give a shit about book-larnin' and such, your windows of opportunity for turning-point success are more like peepholes, and Vandy's peephole was last year. Even if new QB Chris Nickson is actually talented, he's completed all of one pass in his college career, and it'll be a while before he's able to convince opposing defenses to do anything other than key in on RB Cassen Jackson-Garrison. On the defensive side, Moses Osemwegie is gone, and if you knew how many tackles he usually gets -- seriously, if I did a shot every time I heard the announcer utter his name during a Georgia-Vandy game, I would've died of cirrhosis halfway through the 2002 season -- you'd know he's almost as big a loss to the defense as Cutler is to the offense.
Of course, Vandy could be one of those teams that bounces up and surprises everyone when they're left for dead after the departure of some key players, but I doubt it. The Commodores will have to go back to settling for being the smartest guys in the room again, because if they actually beat an SEC opponent this year, I'll be very surprised.
Absolute best-case scenario: 5-7 and two conference wins.
Book-of-Revelation apocalyptic scenario: 2-10 and no conference wins.
My prediction: 3-9, flirtations with wins against Ole Miss and Kentucky, but in the end a big goose egg in the conference-wins column.
So that's the Eastern Division. Tune in next week, or at some point in the general vicinity of next week, when I'll make equally wrongheaded predictions for the West.