A State of Surprise

With Alabama in the middle of an off-week and the college football season approximately half over, this would be the time of the year ordinarily that Tide fans might engage themselves in a discussion of the SEC's surprise team.

 

In 2005, all Alabama has to do is look in the mirror.

 

The Crimson Tide has become a media darling after its 31-3 swamping of the Florida Gators. Even with the loss of wide receiver Tyrone Prothro, Alabama has been all over sports magazines, television and radio programs and Internet sites, proclaimed the team to watch in the SEC and perhaps the nation's next rising star.

 

It's good work if you can get it, and Alabama should be proud of what it has accomplished. But national championships aren't awarded at midseason and the Crimson Tide still has a long road ahead.

 

Regardless, it's unusual as of late for Alabama to find itself in the position of being the buzzword team in the SEC, to say nothing of the national stage. In most years, that's because Alabama is already at the top and other teams are lining up to try and knock the Tide off. But lately, it's been because Alabama has spent more time trying to be a respectable team than a dominating team.

 

These are heady times for Alabama football and its fans, who have, for the most part, waited patiently for the worst effects of NCAA probation to pass the team by. While those effects aren't completely gone yet, and won't until 2007 at the earliest, Alabama should be proud of coming this far, and ahead of schedule.

 

Here's a brief look at where each team stands at the halfway mark:

 

SEC WEST

1. Alabama Crimson Tide (5-0, 3-0 SEC)

High Point: The 31-3 thrashing of the Florida Gators, which popped Urban Meyer's genius bubble and put Alabama on the cover of every publication – with the possible exception of newspapers in Eufaula.

Low Point: The loss of WR Tyrone Prothro to a broken leg in that same game, especially with the game's outcome all but decided.

The rest of the way: Big games at home against Tennessee and LSU and the season-ender, a road game at Auburn. All three are eminently winnable, or losable.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Far better. Not necessarily in record, but in the way they've played the game – Alabama has been the undisputed class of the SEC West and perhaps the entire conference.

Outlook: Without Prothro, Alabama will need another wide receiver or two to step up. If it happens, Alabama might cruise into the SEC Championship Game. If not, Alabama will probably lose at least two of the three big games left on its schedule and could even get upset by one of the Mississippi schools.

 

2. Auburn Tigers (4-1, 2-0 SEC)

High point: A 48-7 teardown of South Carolina, a game that saw Auburn dominate on both sides of the football and present itself as a legitimate player in the division.

Low Point: The opening loss of the season – at home – to a Georgia Tech team that looks just as average now as it ever has under Chan Gailey.

The rest of the way: Tough road games at LSU and Georgia, along with the requisite in-state battle at Jordan-Hare Stadium with Alabama. The Oct. 15 road game against Arkansas in Fayetteville won't be a walkover, either.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Worse, but not by much, and it's slowly coming back the other way. The biggest problem for analysts is that aside from Georgia Tech, Auburn hasn't really played anyone.

Outlook: It's almost a case of not enough relevant data. Auburn figures to drop one or both of the LSU/Georgia games, and could very well go into the Alabama game as a home underdog. A loss at Arkansas, a site the Tigers have had problems with under Tommy Tuberville, isn't expected, but wouldn't be a shock, either.

 

3. LSU Tigers (2-1, 1-1 SEC)

High Point: A 35-31 victory over high-flying Arizona State in the season opener, a back-and-forth affair on national television that gave new head coach Les Miles the opportunity to prove his transition into the LSU family wouldn't be a long one.

Low Point: A 30-27 loss to Tennessee the following week, a game in which LSU led the entire way before Miles and co. handed it right into Tennessee's lap at the end. Probably the biggest choke by LSU since Curley Hallman presided over an interception festival against Auburn back in the days of 90-cent gasoline.

The rest of the way: Winnable home games against Florida and Auburn before hitting the road to face Alabama. The remaining schedule is definitely in LSU's favor.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Worse, especially in pass defense, where LSU has stopped no one. This team has more talent than any other in the SEC, even Tennessee, and had a legitimate chance to play for a national title until the debacle against the Volunteers.

Outlook: LSU is still basically in its first third of the season thanks to Hurricane Katrina fouling up the schedule, and it's entirely possible LSU could play the Tennessee game again a dozen times more and win all 12. But as long as the defense looks shaky, LSU won't be able to breathe easy. The linchpin game comes against Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 12.

 

4 (tie). Arkansas Razorbacks (1-3, 0-2 SEC)

High Point: Believe it or not, giving Alabama a late scare in a 24-13 loss on Sept. 24. It showed the Razorbacks wouldn't simply quit against better SEC teams.

Low Point: A 70-17 loss to Southern California the week before that looked simply comical. Southern Cal is a good team, but Arkansas made the Trojans look like the New England Patriots while the Razorbacks looked as if they could come up snake eyes in an intramural flag football game.

The rest of the way: The schedule isn't doing Arkansas any favors. Road games against Georgia and LSU, and the Hogs have to face Auburn Oct. 15.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Depends on who was doing the predicting. Analysts saw this team everywhere from 3-8 to 6-5. It looks like 4-7 from here at this point, so we'll call it "worse."

Outlook: This team can run the football effectively no matter who it faces, so that should be enough to get Arkansas by both Mississippi schools and South Carolina, along with Louisiana-Monroe. It's a good bet, though, that there will be an upset in there due to Arkansas' porous defense. Beating Auburn would turn the season around, but don't bet on that.

 

4 (tie). Ole Miss Rebels (1-3, 0-2 SEC)

High Point: Winning in head coach Ed Orgeron's debut game against Memphis. A bad Memphis team. By a score of 10-6. Uh-oh.

Low Point: Take your pick, but it's hard to ignore getting beat at home by the Mountain West's Wyoming 24-14 in a game that was never as close as the score.

The rest of the way: Alabama, Arkansas and LSU are all at home. Auburn is on the road, and then there's the Egg Bowl at season's end against Mississippi State. The schedule is Ole Miss' friend to some extent, but it might not matter.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Worse, definitely. Orgeron was supposed to instill confidence and excitement; instead, Ole Miss has been plagued by mistakes and confusion. This is shaping up to be the worst offensive team in the SEC despite having mid-level talent on that side of the ball.

Outlook: A 3-8 finish is likely in the cards, with wins over The Citadel and Kentucky. Ole Miss is more talented than Mississippi State but isn't likely to beat the Bulldogs. The loss to Vanderbilt was bad enough, but the loss to Wyoming really started the questions flying about the direction this team is going.

 

6. Mississippi State Bulldogs (2-3, 0-3 SEC)

High Point: Holding their own in a 23-10 loss to a Georgia team that is about five times as talented as their nickname namesakes.

Low Point: RB Jerious Norwood, MSU's only offensive threat, getting banged up against LSU. He'll play, but he needs help from the backups and fast.

The rest of the way: The game at Florida this weekend looks like a loss, but the other road games – Kentucky and Arkansas – are winnable. Houston, Alabama and Ole Miss come to Starkville. With some luck, the Bulldogs could feasibly qualify for a bowl.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Better overall. On defense, MSU is much better than expected, but on offense, it's a good bit worse. QB Omarr Conner looks more comfortable, and he's got more guts than a hippopotamus, but it hasn't translated into more points.

Outlook: Best-case scenario, State beats Kentucky, Arkansas, Houston and Ole Miss and goes to a minor bowl game at year's end. With a good defense, anything's possible. Unless Florida or Alabama shoots themselves in the foot, though, the Bulldogs don't have much of a chance against either of those teams.

 

SEC EAST

 

1. Georgia Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0 SEC)

High Point: A 48-13 annihilation of Boise State in the season opener, a game where everything went right and the Bulldogs looked like title contenders.

Low Point: A 17-15 eek-out over a bad South Carolina team, a game that raised all kinds of questions over coaching and talent and made the Bulldogs look like total pretenders.

The rest of the way: The schedule borders on brutal, with road trips to Tennessee and Georgia Tech and tough home games against Arkansas and Auburn. And, a cocktail party date with the Florida Gators on Oct. 29.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Probably better, given that Tennessee was identified as the SEC East's top dog before the season and instead it's been Georgia making the headlines. But honestly, this team looks like it still needs some work.

Outlook: It's unlikely Georgia can run the table. The Bulldogs figure to do no better than split the Tennessee and Auburn games, and the Florida game is a toss-up. Don't discount an upset at the hands of Georgia Tech at year's end, either, especially if Georgia qualifies for the SEC Championship Game and gets caught looking ahead. There's talent enough to win every game, but an effort against one of the Bulldogs' tougher opponents that is similar to the one put forth against South Carolina, and it's all over but the barking.

 

2. Vanderbilt Commodores (4-1, 2-0 SEC)

High Point: A 28-24 win over Arkansas in Fayetteville, one of the SEC's toughest places to play.

Low Point: A 17-15 loss to winless MTSU, a game that epitomized what Vanderbilt football has really been about for the last 40 years.

The rest of the way: Vandy has two and only two winnable games left, Kentucky and South Carolina. LSU and Georgia come to Nashville, while the Commodores travel to Florida and Tennessee. It's unlikely Vanderbilt will come within two scores of any of the last four.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Far better, especially on offense, where the Commodores have developed a legitimately effective rushing attack with virtually entirely new personnel. Defensively, though, it's what most have come to expect from Vanderbilt over the years – a slow, undersized line that gets pushed around, and not enough athletes elsewhere to compensate.

Outlook: Likely to get smashed by the Big Four left on their schedule, setting up do-or-die games at home against Kentucky and on the road against South Carolina. Vanderbilt should be favored in both games, however. Whether the Commodores win both depends largely on how physical games against LSU and Georgia take their toll on the Vandy psyche and the injury list.

 

3 (tie). Florida Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC)

High Point: A 16-7 win over Tennessee in Urban Meyer's first big home game, and first battle against the hated Volunteers.

Low Point: Getting run out of the building against Alabama and having the spread option offense exposed in the process.

The rest of the way: After a revenge game against Mississippi State, Florida hits the road for LSU and then plays Georgia at a neutral site. The Gators finish up at home with Florida State, which may still be undefeated at that time.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Honestly, better. Aside from the Alabama disaster, Florida's defense has been worlds better than expected. Offensively, though, things have been rougher than predicted. QB Chris Leak is beginning to struggle in Meyer's offense and the Gators have no other legitimate option at the moment. Lost in the jaw-agape reaction to the Alabama loss has been the impressiveness of the Tennessee win.

Outlook: At worst, Florida will finish 7-4, and don't expect the worst-case scenario to occur. Meyer has a reputation for doing well in rivalry games, which makes the Georgia and Florida State affairs winnable given Florida's performance against Tennessee. Not being on the road for either game makes it that much more likely Florida will pull an upset in at least one of the two. And as long as LSU is still being LSU, they're fair game, too.

 

3 (tie). Tennessee Volunteers (3-1, 2-1 SEC)

High Point: Being in the right place at the right time as LSU swallowed a big fat Creole chicken bone and choked away the Sept. 26 matchup.

Low Point: Spending four weeks deciding on a starting quarterback, which led not only to a here-they-go-again 16-7 loss in the Swamp, but also middling performances against UAB and Ole Miss.

The rest of the way: After Georgia at home this week, big road games at Alabama two weeks afterwards and then Notre Dame in South Bend on Nov. 5. The rest of the schedule? Vandy's the best team on it.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Worse by a Smoky Mountain mile. This was a national championship contender, but problems became evident very early as UAB was competitive with the Vols in the opener. The loss to Florida looked like a return to form for Fulmer, who got a brief respite from being Florida's whipping boy while Ron Zook was at the helm in Gainesville. LSU had to gift-wrap a win for Tennessee, and even Ole Miss hung in there for a spell.

Outlook: The game against Alabama suddenly goes from a near-sure thing win to very possibly a loss, even though the Vols are bigger, more physical and more experienced. The Notre Dame game will not be a cakewalk, and Georgia will be tough. Expect Tennessee to lose no fewer than one and no more than two of these three, but they'll poleax the bottom-feeders on the schedule and get into a decent bowl at year's end, at worst.

 

5. Kentucky Wildcats (1-3, 0-1 SEC)

High Point: Nearly taking pretty-boy Louisville to the cleaners in the opener, despite having half the talent on the field and in the coaching box.

Low Point: Watching no fewer than a dozen key players go down with serious injuries, several of them season-ending – or getting beaten by 24 points by lowly Indiana, your choice.

The rest of the way: Kentucky gets three winnable games in a row, with road trips to South Carolina and Ole Miss and a home game against Mississippi State – then, here come da judge: Auburn, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Tennessee close the schedule.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: This is a bad team, but then again, it was expected. The injuries make it worse, but that's largely out of Kentucky's control.

Outlook: In their wildest dreams, the Wildcats could finish 5-6, but it's not going to happen. A loss to South Carolina this weekend would effectively wipe out whatever confidence Kentucky might have left and probably seals the book on Rich Brooks' coaching career in Lexington. In fact, we'll call it a 1-10 season for Kentucky right now and a coaching change in the offseason.

 

6. South Carolina Gamecocks (2-3, 0-3 SEC)

High Point: A 24-15 win in the opener on national television against Central Florida, which got the Gamecocks some much-needed positive publicity.

Low Point: Getting hammered 37-14 by Alabama – also a widely televised game – which apparently roasted the Gamecocks' confidence.

The rest of the way: Winnable home games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, then a gauntlet of games against Tennessee (away), Arkansas (also away) and Florida (home) before finishing at home against a Clemson team that has owned South Carolina in recent years, both on the field and in recruiting.

Better/worse than preseason predictions: Worse, but that's because too many analysts let the Steve Spurrier aura get the best of them and cloud their judgment. Honestly, this team is about on par with what was expected. The offense has looked a shade better, particularly in the passing game, but the defense has been significantly worse than thought.

Outlook: At best, South Carolina can put up five wins, but it's not likely. Splitting the Kentucky and Vanderbilt games is a good bet, and then there should be another win somewhere, maybe from Clemson at season's end. Even if South Carolina gets its act together in the next week or two, a bowl trip isn't likely in the cards.


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