Thursday, August 28, 2014
- by W. Michael Lawson
Due to the ebb and flow and nature of sports during the spring and summer, this column has had a tendency to wade in the waters of verbosity…to color in lines of sport with hues of human interest…to try and show the corporal face and heart of sport. It might even be thematic, at times. You see, in the South, spring and summer are seasons of more casual things…quieter sports…like baseball, golf, and tennis. It’s an easy and more relaxed cheering that we do. We are more active in our doing, and less vocal with our yells. This changes dramatically, however, with the arrival of autumn and the conjoining college football season, and so must this column with it. There is no more room for rumination of the spirit of things. It’s time for results…stats…winners and losers. Fall in the south is when temperatures chill and passions boil. This quasi secular religion we call football becomes the fulcrum for everything we do. Hiking? Maybe…what time is the game? Movie? Hmm…what time is the game? Party? Will they have the game on? Mall? Sure…they have to have a television somewhere. Weddings? Uh… no. (Except for you MB).
There are many reasons why football is so loved and followed in this area. For me though, the main catalyst for this Seasonal Affective Delusion, if you will, is that it’s when cousins go to war. Meaning, most see the south as some sort of monolith… a vast expanse of sameness…localness…countryness. But we, as southerners, know that this isn’t true. Some states are closer to others in character and composition, but they are all different, and each state has a school. Some states have multiple schools…bringing heated rivalries into the living room and to the kitchen table. Who you choose as your favorite college football team says something about you...and maybe even your family. It is an expression of regional representation…state pride…family pride…and tradition. It is simply a part of our shared cultural fabric…and the tapestry that will tell the story of the 2014 NCAA College Football season is now before us.
2014 will be a very unique year for college football…and for many different reasons: Inaugural year of the playoff system…continued conference realignment…new NCAA rules giving conferences more power and autonomy…all will have an effect that we can only predict…and still elicit questions. More specifically though, each team, and even more specifically, each team in the SEC, has questions going into this new season. Everyone is dreaming of winning and stardom…of righting old wrongs…ending losing streaks and starting new ones for their foes…but what will they have to overcome to do so? Here is my take on one major question facing each team in the SEC East going into this season…with a brief comment about the games this week…week 1 of this young football season (SEC West to come Friday:
1. Georgia- Is new Defensive Coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, able to correct the defense in year 1? This, for my money, is the key for a successful season for the Georgia Bulldogs. 2013 showed that the Bulldogs could score a bunch of points, even when missing starters to injury, but could not stop teams like Vanderbilt and Missouri from scoring when necessary. If Pruitt, who comes fresh off a National Championship in year 1, in the same role at Florida State, can replicate that effort and get those results in Athens, the Bulldogs have the best team they’ve had in a decade. If not, it will be another long season for Georgia. *UGA vs. Clemson this Saturday. I’m taking UGA in a close one “between the hedges”, 34-24.
2. South Carolina- Is 10-2 going to be good enough to get back to the SEC Championship Game? Coming off of what is probably the best year in South Carolina football history, the Gamecocks are loaded again this year with talent. There are some questions with 1st year starter Dylan Thompson at QB and a young Secondary, but don’t let that fool you. The thing is…can they win 11 regular season ballgames two years in a row? I think there is a second loss this year on the schedule, and after last year going 11-1 and not making it to ATL, getting to 11 wins would almost assure them of finally playing for hardware. *SC vs. TAMU this Thursday. Score will be closer than most think, but SC has too much defense in a high scoring game, SC 35-28.
3. Florida- How many games do they have to win to save Coach Muschamp’s job? I think most thoughtful people will admit that Florida will be markedly improved this year. But by how much? W’s are the only thing that matter in Gainesville, and coming off of a putrid 4-8 effort last year, they have to get to 9 wins. 8 with a win over Bama or UGA. *Florida vs. Idaho. Please…
4. Missouri- Can they replicate 2013 without key players in 2014? Mizzou won the East Division last year…and no one saw it coming. This year they try to stay competitive while replacing integral pieces to their scheme and personnel. They are still loaded at most positions ( Coach Pinkel is an underrated recruiter), but getting to ATL this year seems impossible. But…it did last year, too. I say the Tigers get to 8 wins and solidify respectability in the SEC East.*Mizzou vs. S. Dakota St. SDST is a better team than most realize, but they shouldn’t be in this game in the 2nd half. Mizzou 45-21.
5. Tennessee. Does the Magic 8 Ball show 6? We can get into specifics about personnel and position battles. We can talk whether Worley is the right guy at QB. We can discuss scheme and strategy…but none of that really matters…now does it? The fact is that if the Vols can’t get to six wins this year, and Rocky Top isn’t bowling, Vol Nation will be disappointed. It’s that simple. I think there are 6 wins on the schedule, but Coach Jones and staff will have to coach those young kids up throughout the year. Tennessee is very talented…but very thin…and very young. 6 wins…that’s what it comes down to….that or 5 wins with one of them over Bama or Florida. *UT vs. Utah St. Should be a very good game. Probably closer than what most Vols fans would want, but they come away with the ever so valuable “W”. Vols 34-28.
6. Vanderbilt- Does the Magic 8 Ball show 6? No…that’s not a typo. Vandy is in the same boat, as it were, as is Tennessee. Meaning, a successful season in 2014 would be getting to 6 wins and earning a spot in a bowl game. The Commodores lost HC James Franklin to Penn St., and a number of his players. That said, he left the cupboard pretty full for new Head Coach Derek Mason. The problem is that leaning new schemes takes time, and that’s something there isn’t much of in the SEC. There aren’t many weeks off, so to speak. Still, they should win all 4 games against weak sauce out of conference opponents, leaving them 2 wins shy of the number 6. I have a feeling that the games against Tennessee and Kentucky will determine that. *Vandy vs. Temple. Please…but if they struggle…yikes…
7. Kentucky- Can they get that coveted SEC win? The fan base for this perennial football afterthought is usually already dreaming about basketball by September. And…yes…they still are…but Coach Mark Stoops is giving the Blue Grass state something else to talk about these days. Much like Tennessee, the vibe in Lexington is one of excitement. After a top 25 recruiting class last year, and a few quality skill guys on the roster, this Kentucky team should be much better than last year. The Problem? So will most everybody else in the East. There’s no pressure on Stoops to perform now…what with 40-0 t-shirts hot off the presses already for the C-A-T-S, so any improvement is welcomed. They can get to 6 wins with a couple miracles…but most likely will see 4-8 or 5-7.*Kentucky vs. UT-Martin. Please…
W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.