SEC Preview: Week One

Jess Nicholas previews the Southeastern Conference football slate and gives his predictions: Last year's record: 67-18 (78.8%)

MTSU at ALABAMA
Game within a game: Alabama OL vs. MTSU DL
MTSU has some decent defensive linemen, but not much depth. Alabama has nothing but question marks along its offensive line, a group which has been under a powerful microscope all of spring and fall drills. The opener will answer a lot of questions for Alabama: Whether the Tide can handle a good nose guard (Jeff Littlejohn), whether Alabama's tackles will make average defensive ends look like NFL Pro Bowlers, and whether the group can handle blitzes that will surely be coming. On the other side of the ball, Alabama must deal with MTSU QB Clint Marks, who completed an eye-popping 70 percent of his passes and led MTSU to a ranking of 15th nationally in passing. But the Blue Raiders don't run the ball well, and good quarterbacks absolutely neutered their secondary in 2004. It figures to be much of the same for MTSU in both categories in 2005. MTSU has the potential to score points, but Alabama has the potential to score far more. The big story here may not be the final score, but what the individual battles will tell Alabama about its chances as a team for the rest of the year. Alabama 40, MTSU 20

WYOMING at FLORIDA
Game within a game: Wyoming's steadiness vs. Florida's big play ability
Don't sneeze off this game thinking Florida is guaranteed to hammer the Cowboys. Wyoming returns 18 starters from a team that managed to beat Ole Miss last year, and head coach Joe Glenn is this year's Urban Meyer, the hot name who will probably be packing his bags for a bigger assignment at year's end. Wyoming comes into this game with a good passing offense, but only a mediocre defense. The Cowboys will probably control the special teams game, however. The big question for Florida is whether QB Chris Leak can actually handle the job of quarterbacking under Meyer's frenetic spread-option attack. A veteran, quality team like Wyoming is probably not the ideal opponent against which to trot out something entirely new, but that's the hand Meyer has been dealt. Expect the Gators to have trouble and never completely pull away in this one, but the Gators' superior talent ought to bring home the victory. Florida 38, Wyoming 27

BOISE STATE at GEORGIA
Game within a game: Boise State rush defense vs. Georgia RBs
The focus of this game so far seems to be on how well Georgia QB D.J. Shockley is going to do against the Boise State pass defense, but a better question is how well Georgia is going to run against a team that ranked 10th in rush defense in 2004 and returns eight defensive starters. Granted, the WAC is a much different conference than the SEC, but winning football is winning football, to an extent. Boise State's hyper-frenetic offense got most of the attention last year, as did gonzo head coach Dan Hawkins, but it was the defense that pulled Boise State through against opponents like Fresno State, Hawaii and Louisiana Tech. If there's a weakness, it's the secondary, which was one of the worst in Division-IA last year, and that makes this a good first test for Shockley's real abilities as a starter. Georgia figures to prevail, but it's not going to be an easy road to travel, and head coach Mark Richt needs to avoid the temptation to go ultra-conservative here and instead, turn Shockley loose a little – especially if the Broncos shut down Georgia's running game. Otherwise, this could be the upset special many are imagining. Georgia 27, Boise State 23

KENTUCKY at LOUISVILLE
Game within a game: Kentucky secondary vs. Louisville WRs
If Kentucky has any prayer of winning this game, here's what has to happen, in one sentence: The Wildcat secondary must absolutely shut down Louisville's experienced wide receivers. Louisville is vulnerable in the offensive backfield, where there will be a new quarterback, fullback and running back. The Cardinals are also breaking in a new tight end. Kentucky's secondary is the strong part of its defense, and if the defensive backs play lights-out, Kentucky's thin front seven might actually have a chance to do something other than cost their teammates touchdowns. In reality, though, Kentucky has very little chance to even come within two scores of the Cardinals, who are superior in virtually every way. The only way out of the Wildcats' current predicament is to recruit a more competitive team. Louisville 41, Kentucky 17

CENTRAL FLORIDA at SOUTH CAROLINA
Game within a game: UCF rushing attack vs. South Carolina front seven
Central Florida was winless in 2004, and figures to be one of the worst teams in Division-IA in 2005. They make, therefore, for the perfect opening opponent for head coach Steve Spurrier and his South Carolina Gamecocks. This figures to be the weekend's sloppiest game, with South Carolina still trying to figure out the dance steps of the Fun 'N Gun offense and Central Florida trying to learn what a first down stake is. Expect a lot of penalties and turnovers, but don't look for a lot of scoring unless it's set up by turnovers deep in someone's own territory. Statistically, UCF has to get out of the basement offensively, particularly in the running game. South Carolina may be vulnerable there, as the Gamecocks replace their entire front four. But it figures to be a happy debut for Spurrier in the end. South Carolina 27, Central Florida 10

UAB at TENNESSEE
Game within a game: UAB QB Darrell Hackney vs. Tennessee secondary
UAB quarterback Darrell Hackney is one of those rare individuals that comes along – a great player at a modest program, who has the ability to take a game over and beat teams much better than his own. While this game presents itself as the ultimate Cinderella opportunity for Hackney, the fact is UAB has drawn what will likely be the best team in the SEC. But Tennessee is not without weaknesses, and one of those is the secondary, where the Volunteers can be hurt. UAB averaged 256 yards per game passing in 2004, good for 26th nationally. Unfortunately, the Blazers were also one of the country's worst teams at stopping the pass. Look for this game to be perhaps closer than the spread, but UAB will have to avoid getting run over by the physically superior Vols if there is any hope at pulling the upset – not to mention that Hackney must play the game of his life for UAB to even have a chance. Tennessee 30, UAB 17

VANDERBILT at WAKE FOREST
Game within a game: Wake Forest passing attack vs. Vanderbilt secondary
If Wake Forest can't throw the ball consistently, they have no shot in this game. Likewise, if Vanderbilt's oft-troubled secondary can't stop the Wake quarterbacks, they'll essentially open the floodgates of head coach Jim Grobe's flex-option attack. Wake Forest was the 17th-best rushing team in the country last year, but was 109th in passing. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, finished 94th in pass efficiency defense. Something figures to give here. Wake is probably the more talented team by a slight margin, but the Demon Deacons are replacing most of their offensive backfield and still haven't found playmakers at wide receiver. Defensively, it looks like a wash; both teams are replacing large chunks on that side of the ball. Special teams look thoroughly average on both sides. Look for Grobe to test Vandy through the air early; if he gets what he wants, the Commodores will be in trouble. If Vanderbilt can hold, though, the Commodores figure to steal one. Vanderbilt 19, Wake Forest 17

SW MISSOURI STATE at ARKANSAS
Game within a game: Arkansas QBs vs. their own inexperience
There is really nothing to see here, as Arkansas takes on a mediocre Division-IAA opponent who couldn't stop the run in 2004. That means certain death for SW Missouri State, who played one Division-IA team in 2004 – Tulsa – and lost by the nailbiting score of 49-7. The only interesting part of this game will be watching the new Arkansas quarterbacks, Robert Johnson and Alex Mortensen, and trying to project how they'll look once Arkansas starts playing legitimate competition. Arkansas 55, SW Missouri State 0

GEORGIA TECH at AUBURN
Game within a game: Auburn QB Brandon Cox vs. Georgia Tech defensive speed
This one has upset special written all over it, as the underrated Yellow Jackets return a balanced defense that was ranked 13th against the run and 24th against the pass in 2004. That's the bad news for Auburn; the worse news is that most of the starters from last year's team still call Atlanta home. Defensively, Auburn gives up nothing to Georgia Tech, and with the Yellow Jackets replacing four offensive line starters, Tech doesn't figure to do a lot of scoring. But there's the little matter of the quarterback competition, where Georgia Tech's Reggie Ball has a ton of experience, whereas Auburn's Brandon Cox has virtually none. Worse yet, Cox has been slowed by arm trouble for much of fall camp, and Auburn's backup situation is unsettled. A second game-within-a-game concerns Auburn's running backs, and how they will be rotated in the wake of graduation of the two-headed Ronnie Brown-Carnell Williams tandem from last year. Were this game being played in Atlanta, it would probably be picked differently, but look for Auburn to make the most of its home field advantage in this one. If Cox gets off to a rough start, though, more than just this game becomes a questionable affair for the 2005 Tigers. Auburn 21, Georgia Tech 17

NORTH TEXAS at LSU
CANCELLED

MURRAY STATE at MISSISSIPPI STATE
Game within a game: MSU QB Omarr Conner vs. Murray State secondary
A Lot of people laughed when Mississippi State signed on to play Maine last year – that was until the Black Bears upset the Bulldogs 9-7. And Maine finished its season 5-6. This year, the Bulldogs get a better Division-IAA team, Murray State, which runs the ball well, plays solid defense and notched a 7-4 record in 2004. Another loss to a lower-division school shouldn't happen, but State QB Omarr Conner will have a challenge on his hands as he continues to learn the position on the college level. The Racers won't lay down for MSU, and this game may end up closer than a lot of Bulldog fans would like. Mississippi State 29, Murray State 16

OLE MISS at MEMPHIS
Game within a game: Ole Miss OL vs. Memphis front six
Memphis has become the trendy pick to do big things in 2005, but the fact remains the Tigers will be replacing six offensive starters, including their quarterback. But Ole Miss is doing a lot of rebuilding in its own right, in particular the middle of the offensive line. The Rebels will also have to contend with Memphis' blitz-happy 3-3-5 defense. The best-case scenario for Ole Miss will be to get something working on the ground quickly and make Memphis cheat up, then burn one of the country's worst secondaries for big plays. Ole Miss has gone through a lot of turmoil this offseason, and critics are keenly interested to see whether the Ed Orgeron experiment will be a wild success or a spectacular failure. Ole Miss should win its opener, but it's not a stretch to say the Tigers could blow the troubled Rebels out of the water, either. Ole Miss 27, Memphis 23


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