Which SEC Team Will Extend the League's Streak of BCS Titles?
I've written before that if you'd started gambling on the SEC to cover the spread back in 1998 when Tennessee notched the conference's first BCS title, in the wake of Auburn's victory you'd now have $128,000. That's right, you'd have 128 times your money in just 13 years, the same period of time when the stock market has tanked.
So as a pre-preseason guide to 2011, it makes sense to take a gander at the SEC teams and figure out which one is most likely to win. This process isn't infallible -- for instance, Auburn wouldn't have ranked inside the top four in the 2010 preseason -- but it is likely that your 2011 national champion is coming out of the top half of the SEC. Especially since the SEC by itself has now won more BCS titles than the Big Ten, Pac-10, Big 12, ACC and Big East combined. Who knows, this could be the year that a sixth different SEC team garners a title. So which team will be your national champ?
Let's dissect them in reverse chronological order of the likelihood of hoisting a trophy. Beginning with, you guessed it, Vanderbilt.
Vandy has a new coach. Gone is turkey inseminator Robbie Caldwell and in his place is James Franklin, the man who Maryland promised the head coaching job to and then didn't really want to give the head coaching job to. Franklin is enthusiastic, charismatic, a purported terror on the recruiting trail and likely to lose nine games, at least, in his first season as a head coach.
Because the Commodores continue to schedule three tough out of conference games each season when the rest of the SEC typically schedules one. This means Vandy has just one guaranteed win in 2011, the opener against Elon. After that the 'Dores run the gauntlet: Army, Wake Forest, and UConn are the easiest matchups and Vandy could lose all three. That's even before we consider the SEC season. And just to make things particularly tough on Franklin for his introduction to the SEC, Alabama rotates on the schedule and the 'Dores will travel to Tuscaloosa.
2-10 is likely.
Joker Phillips will be the next coach fired in the SEC. Go ahead and write that in stone. It's going to happen. And soon.
Phillips took over from Rich Brooks and his honeymoon lasted about 10 minutes. That's despite the fact that Kentucky does the best job scheduling of any team in the SEC. With the addition of a 12th game, all Kentucky has to do is beat Louisville, stomp three awful out-of-conference opponents, beat Vandy, and manage to get by just one other SEC team.
Voila, that's six wins, the recipe for Kentucky's recent bowl run.
The problem for Kentucky? This narrative is getting stale. And Charlie Strong's Louisville team may well surpass Kentucky by 2011. Meaning the Cats would have to find a way to notch a third SEC win. That probably isn't happening in 2011.
And 2012 will be Joker's final season at Kentucky. The fan expectations have gotten completely out of whack with the reality of Wildcat football.
10. Ole Miss
Remember when Ole Miss fans didn't revel in back-to-back nine win seasons that ended in Cotton Bowl victories? Yeah, that was a mistake.
Last year the Rebels notched a 4-8 season (1-7 in the SEC). Included in that performance was a two-touchdown home loss to Vanderbilt and the worst SEC loss since divisional play began, along with a home loss to someone called Jacksonville State. Unfortunately for Rebel fans, the team is going to have a losing season in 2011 again.
Take consolation in the fact that Colonel Reb no longer has to watch football games. Now it's the Ole Miss Rebel Black Bear.
Without Cam Newton the Tigers go 7-5 in 2010 at best. Whether Newton's 2010 season ranks among the top five in college football history -- I think it does, supposing it counts -- could be an argument. What isn't an argument is that losing Newton and the nation's best defensive player, Nick Fairley, along with a bevy of veteran offensive linemen, means that the Tigers are going to come back to earth in 2011.
The Tigers may have the easiest out-of-conference schedule in America next season with three games their fourth-string team could probably win -- Utah State, Florida Atlantic and Samford -- but the SEC schedule won't be as forgiving. Nor will that road loss at Clemson.
Auburn will finish 6-6, 3-5 in the SEC.
Just hope that collapse doesn't lead Gus Malzahn to jump ship. Because then Auburn fans are going to realize that Gene Chizik is a paper tiger.
The Vols have eight home games thanks to the buyout of the North Carolina series. What would have been a road game in the Tar Heel state -- can you imagine how crazy this matchup would be given how the Music City Bowl ended? -- is now a home game against Buffalo. As a result, the Vols opening four games include Montana, Cincinnati and Buffalo. Spliced into that mix is a road game at Florida.
Worst-case scenario the Vols should begin 3-1. Unfortunately, the road schedule is brutal: at Florida, at Alabama, at Arkansas, and, mercifully, at Kentucky. But with eight home games, Derek Dooley should be able to get to 8-4 even with road losses at three of these schools.
In past seasons, 8-4 would put coaches on the chopping block at Tennessee. But after a three-season stretch of 18-20, 8-4 will look like a national championship to Vol fans.
When a program goes bad, it generally stays bad as long as the man at the top doesn't change. And make no mistake, Georgia is bad, 13-12 the past two seasons, just 7-9 in the SEC. This should be the year that Georgia fires Mark Richt after a third consecutive bad season. Only the schedule is too easy for a complete collapse to occur. The Dawgs have the easiest road schedule in the 2011 SEC: at Vandy, at Tennessee, at Ole Miss and at Georgia Tech. Georgia should be favored in three of these games -- the UT line will be between -3 and +3 depending on the start to the season.
Basically I don't see any way Georgia doesn't win at least eight games in 2011. Eight games won't take Richt off the hot seat, but it won't get him fired either. That's why he may very well be the next coach to go, but he won't be fired, it will be too expensive to fire him. I think you'll see a Tubby Smith-esque departure for another school instead.
6. Mississippi State
Dan Mullen's delightful arrogance has really flown under the national radar. That's a shame because if Mullen is arrogant in Starkville, Miss. can you imagine what he'll be like when he ends up at a bigger program in a city with buildings taller than three stories?
Mullen's schedule isn't easy, but it does break well. Provided, that is, he survives an SEC opener trip to Auburn. This might be the nastiest game in SEC history. So bad that I'm betting the league doesn't allow the game to be played at night. Nope, welcome to an 11:20 ESPN regional audience kickoff.
Get a win there and top-five ranked LSU comes to Starkville for a Thursday night kickoff that could be the biggest game in Mississippi State history. Win that game, too, and Mullen could take his Bulldogs into November as a national title contender.
Charlie Weis is going to bring a pro-style offense back to Florida. That should be good news for John Brantley, the pro-style quarterback who Steve Addazio insisted on wielding like a hammer attempting to put a square peg into a round hole. The rest of Florida's offense won't be very good, but it can't possibly be as bad as last year, can it?
Meanwhile, the Gator defense should be national championship caliber. Especially with Janoris Jenkins returning for another season to lock down one side of the defense and with Will Muschamp there breaking clipboards on the sideline.
The Gators' new coach should start off 4-0, just in time for Alabama to roll into town for a "We're still Florida" referendum. If the offense can be cured, the Gators have a chance to take down the Tide and announce themselves as a title contender. Last year's team was young, this year's should be much better. True title contender? Probably not. But a much improved offense?
Ryan Mallett is gone and in his place comes Tyler Wilson. Will the Razorbacks throw him into the fire immediately? Uh, no. Try Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy. So the Razorbacks are going to be 3-0 rolling into Tuscaloosa. The biggest problem for Arkansas is that the Razorbacks' two toughest games, Alabama and LSU, are on the road. The Razorbacks won't win both those games.
So if you pick Arkansas to win the national title, you're gambling that the team can go 13-1 and get in the big game. SEC fans should also be leery about Wilson. Yes, he had one great half against Auburn and he's playing in Bobby Petrino's system, but Arkansas will regress at the quarterback position. That means the offense won't be as explosive. Meanwhile, the expectations for Wilson are approaching John Brantley level. And we all know how well that went when the Gators new quarterback followed a first-rounder.
The fact that Alabama could graduate a senior quarterback who won a national title, have three potential first-round picks leave school a year early and still be the Las Vegas favorite to win a national title from the SEC, speaks volumes for what Nick Saban has done with the Tide.
It's why I've been arguing for some time that Saban, who makes less than the Situation and Snooki, is drastically underpaid. But I think Alabama may well fall victim to the same thing that felled it in 2010, a brutal schedule. At Penn State, vs. Arkansas and at Florida in a four-week span before Oct. 2?
I think the Tide will lose at least one of those games. And then lose to LSU later in the season.
2. South Carolina
Be still Gamecock hearts, if you can win at Georgia, there is a 100 percent chance you're starting 6-0. If ever there was a season that set up for a national championship run, this is it. Truly. With the best running back and wide receiver, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, in the SEC --and maybe the country -- a defense that should continue to improve (it vanished down the stretch) and a coach who believes this is his last run at history, the Gamecocks are a legitimate national-title contender.
Beat Georgia in Athens and the Gamecocks will be in the top five in the nation by mid-October.
Even if the national title hopes fade, it's hard to see how the Gamecocks do worse than 10-2. A second straight SEC title game appearance looks downright likely.
The want to win a national championship is present. So, too, is Georgia's quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, who arrived at LSU after being kicked out of Georgia for multiple alcohol infractions. He'll fit in perfect in Baton Rouge, where a drinking problem is not falling down and peeing all over yourself at the end of a weekend.
Give Les Miles credit, he's not afraid to schedule like a lunatic. He's playing Oregon in Dallas and then taking his team to Morgantown, W. Va. (Already the idea of LSU and West Virginia fans mixing for a football game has the Morgantown police force breaking out in cold sweats). John Chavis' defense will be the best in the SEC next season as well and LSU was just a functional quarterback away from a national title this past fall.
This year a Matt Flynn-esque signal caller will pan out.
So will a national title.
Don't worry, I can't believe I just predicted Les Miles to win the SEC's sixth consecutive national title either. But it's happening. Miles is already working on the karma, chewing grass as fast as his jaw can move.
Follow Clay Travis on Twitter here. With All That and a Bag of Mail back on a weekly basis, you can e-mail him questions at Clay.Travis@gmail.com.