At the recent SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Alabama Head Football Coach Nick Saban told the crowd of writers and announcers on hand their track record of picking the SEC Football Champs in the pre-season polls was appalling. In the twenty-one prior seasons, the media had correctly picked the league champ only four times; a 4-17 record in any sport would get you fired. I cast a ballot in at least a dozen of those seasons myself, and believe it or not, my record was a bit better than most. Today I'll begin a two part preview of SEC Football 2013, beginning with the SEC East.
7. Kentucky Wildcats: The Cats have a new head coach with a big name in college football. Mike Stoops, the younger brother of Oklahoma's Bob Stoops is now guiding Kentucky football.
Even though Wildcat fans are excited, I also hope they're patient. The most talented players on the roster are all linemen, which means skill players are few and far between. Getting a late start on the job also hurt Stoops a bit, but you can't fault his enthusiasm for recruiting. In fact, Stoops was called out on the air by ESPN's Colin Cowherd for his "mass-mailing" approach. Stoops response: He sent fifty recruiting letters to Cowherd.
6. Missouri Tigers: The Eastern Division's newest member was a disappointing 1-7 in the league last fall. Their only win; at Tennessee in a game that helped nail the coffin shut on Vols' Head Coach Derek Dooley. The seat under current Tiger boss Gary Pinkel is as hot as any after last season. Mizzou's win total dropped for the third straight year, and their 5-7 overall mark snapped a seven year streak of going to bowl games. Two key figures for this season are quarterback James Franklin who was dealing with shoulder and knee problems all season long. Running back Henry Josey missed the whole season while he rehabbed a torn ACL and MCL. If those two are healthy and a few other things fall into place, Mizzou could be much better and headed back to a bowl.
5. Tennessee Volunteers: Fifth place is the lowest spot I have ever predicted Tennessee to finish in the SEC East, which is right where they deserve to be. (Only a third loss to Vanderbilt in thirty years will do that for you.) New Head Coach Butch Jones has a huge challenge ahead as camp begins. He must find a new starting quarterback with last year's back-up Justin Worley being the most experienced. The Vols have the best offensive line in the SEC, but unless someone surprises everyone at running back, that line will be blocking for average SEC running backs. You can still win with average running backs mind you, but with little or no experience at receiver, the offense may struggle. Which means the Vols must win with defense; oh wait, the 2012 Tennessee defense was the worst in school history, so if Tennessee avoids a third straight season without a bowl game, Coach Jones has to have a few rabbits to pull out of his hat. I pick the Vols to be 6-6.
4. Vanderbilt Commodores: Fourth place is the highest I have ever pick Vandy to finish in the East. Head Coach James Franklin has sparked an excitement about the Black and Gold in Nashville. Vandy has won fifteen games in Franklin's first two seasons and gone to a pair of bowl games. Even though finding a new starting quarterback and a a new starting tailback is a tough challenge, Vandy should be just as good as last year. The Commodore defense has been ranked in the top twenty nationally for the last two seasons, and as camp starts there is no reason to believe that will change. One big boost for Vanderbilt in the off-season was the announced return of wide receiver Jordan Mathews, who returned to school rather than jump to the NFL. Mathews said, " I'm coming back because I think we can win a National Championship." That kind of thinking is what makes Coach James Franklin so special.
3. Florida Gators: The 2012 version of Gator football was anything but a season put together by Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer. Florida finished among the worst in the SEC in three offensive categories; passing, total yards and scoring. Quarterback Jeff Driskel returns with a strong offensive line, but nobody has stepped up to be a playmaker at wide receiver yet. While the Gator defense ranked second in the SEC last fall, most of the key players on that unit are gone. This is a pivotal year for third year Head Coach Will Muschamp, who has put together a a pretty good two year record of 18-8, but a very tough schedule makes a Florida return to a BCS bowl game unlikely. Florida must be more consistent in 2013. The Gators did score impressive road wins at Texas A&M and Florida State, but needed a blocked punt to win at home against UL-Lafayette 27-20. Florida also needed four interceptions to knock off Missouri 14-7, and they lost to Louisville 33-20 in the Sugar Bowl.
2. South Carolina Gamecocks: Steve Spurrier has already solidified his spot among the best college football coaches ever. He's won more than 200 games, and a National Championship in 1996 while at Florida. But, he has yet to win an SEC title at South Carolina. He recently said, " I wanted this job because I felt like there was nowhere to go but up, and we had a chance to achieve so many firsts. " In the eight seasons Spurrier has spent in Columbia, they have gone a decent 66-37. The Gamecocks were 11-2 overall and 6-2 in the SEC last year. They could be even better in 2013. An early test will come in game number two when USC plays at Georgia. The Gamecocks have arguably the nation's best player in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who has gotten a lot of pre-season Heisman Trophy mention. Spurrier has won in the past with a two-quarterback system and that's what he has now as camp opens. Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson are expected to both play in the backfield, and if highly-regarded recruit Mike Davis is as good as advertised, at tailback, this could be Spurriers' best team ever at USC. The game at Georgia will be pivotal as always.
1. Georgia Bulldogs: Was it just a couple of seasons ago that Bulldog fans were screaming for the head of Head Coach Mark Richt? I believe it was. Now they're talking, "National Championship" in Athens, and they have every right to do so. While the teams biggest question marks are on defense, with a lot of key personnel loss, the offense is as good as it gets in college football. With quarterback Aaron Murray returning with a great line and super talented backs and receivers this could be the year that moves Mark Richt from "pretty good" to "great" status among college coaches. In twelve seasons at Georgia, Richt has fashioned a very good 118-40 record, with a couple of SEC Titles. The only thing left for Richt is a National Title, and this could be his best chance. A brutal schedule, especially early in the year is a key component in the Bulldogs' success. They open at powerful Clemson, then host South Carolina the following week. They win both of those games, and I will go ahead and predict them to play for a National Championship as well.
Later this week, the SEC West.
Randy Smith has been covering sports in Tennessee for the last 43 years. After leaving WRCB-TV in 2009, he has continued his broadcasting career as a free-lance play-by-play announcer. He is also an author and is a media concepts teacher at Brainerd High School in Chattanooga. He is also the Head Softball Coach at Brainerd. Randy Smith's career has included a 17-year stint as scoreboard host and pre-game talk show host on the widely regarded "Vol Network". He has also done play by play of more than 500 college football, basketball, baseball and softball games on ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports, CSS and Tennessee Pay Per View telecasts. He was selected as "Tennessee's Best Sports Talk Show Host" in 1998 by the Associated Press. He has won other major awards including, "Best Sports Story" in Tennessee and his "Friday Night Football" shows on WRCB-TV twice won "Best Sports Talk Show In Tennessee" awards. He has also been the host of "Inside Lee University Basketball" on CSS for the past 11 years. He was the first television broadcaster to ever be elected to the "Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame", in 2003. Randy and his wife, Shelia, reside in Hixson. They have two married children (Christi and Chris Perry; Davey and Alison Smith). They also have three grandchildren (Coleman, Boone, and DellaMae).