State Of The Hogs: SEC's Best

Florida, Auburn or LSU. That's the way some of my fellow SEC magazine publishers saw the SEC football race when I did an informal poll last week at a national conference. I interviewed two of the men I trust the most on SEC football, Auburn's Mark Murphy and Florida's Marty Cohen.

Neither seemed real interested in my thoughts on the same subject, but I'll throw them in later just for fun.

Cohen, the main man at Gator Bait, my counterpart at Florida, likes the Gators in the East and thinks they might be the best overall, too. He keeps it simple by just saying, "The Gators are the team to beat with another year under Urban Myer."

Murphy, owner at Inside the Auburn Tiger and a good friend, thinks LSU and Auburn are the two most talented West teams, but lists Arkansas as the possible "surprise" team in the West.

Murphy seems fascinated over the possibilities with quarterback Mitch Mustain, a player he and some of his fellow Auburn scribes tried to go see in person when they arrived the night before the Arkansas-Auburn game last year.

"I'd heard a lot of talk about him, from writers and from coaches," Murphy said. "So we got in early Friday in hopes of seeing him. We went to dinner on Dickson Street and that took longer than expected because of the crowds. So when we got in the car to head to Springdale, we turned on the radio and Mitch was already out of the game because they were so far ahead. We didn't bother to drive up there at that point."

Usually, freshmen can't help at quarterback in SEC warfare, Murphy said. Mustain may be one of the few exceptions to that rule.

"I'd say if you are counting on a freshman quarterback in this league, you are making a mistake," he said. "But this is an unusual circumstance. He's a player who has experience in the system they are putting in under the same coach, Gus Malzahn. Maybe Mitch can help this year and in the SEC.

"Mustain is one of the most exciting recruits to come into this league in a while. He may know the system better than the players who were there this spring."

Cohen calls the West "wide open." He thinks LSU and Auburn are the front runners and isn't "ready to dismiss Alabama just yet. I think Arkansas is the dark horse in the West with so many returnees. I'd say Arkansas is laying in the weeds, very dangerous this year. I like the way they finished the season."

Both men were stumped when asked to pick the league's best returning player. I laughed when Murphy deadpanned, "Kenny Irons, the Auburn tailback, thinks he's the best. I don't know about that, but he and his brother (cornerback David) are both probably first-round draft picks. I'm just not sure about saying anyone is the best right now."

Cohen wouldn't name anyone as the league's best, but he did point to Arkansas sophomore Darren McFadden as a rising star.

"They have some great young backs there at Arkansas right now," Cohen said. "Those guys are very talented SEC players."

Again, they didn't ask, but I kinda like Auburn at the top, perhaps because I thought the Tigers might have been the best in the SEC at season's end last year. They lost some standout wideouts and two great offensive tackles. But I like the way Tommy Tuberville has reloaded in the plains the last couple of years and think he'll do it again. Plus, offensive coordinator Al Borges is going to have an easier time with a second-year quarterback in what has become a high-scoring unit.

There are some interesting story lines around the SEC. No one knows what is going to happen with Tennessee. The Vols had a rare losing season last year and no one thinks they'll stay down long.

"Tennessee is the league's wild card," Murphy said. "Who knows about them this year. Florida is the best in the East, along with Georgia. I have an idea that South Carolina is going to be better in Steve Spurrier's second year. I just don't have a feel for Tennessee just yet."

Cohen added, "Tennessee is just a huge question mark. Conventional wisdom says Tennessee won't be 5-6 again this year, but I'm not sure you can just write it down that they are going to automatically be the old Tennessee just yet. I want to see it."

As far as his old buddy Spurrier, Cohen isn't ready to say Carolina is a solid contender in the East. He said, "I thought Spurrier did a great job to get them to 7-5 last year, but inevitably that's what great Carolina teams do, finish 7-5. I'm not convinced they are going to do any better than that."

As for Georgia's Bulldogs, Cohen said, "They have serious question marks at quarterback. I bet they end up with a true freshman at quarterback and that's not a good thing. They have some very good backs and lots of other good players, but I am not sold on them right now. I think it's Florida in the West. They have a chance to be very good at Florida."

Cohen said folks at Florida are still sick over losing both Ben Cleveland and Damian Williams to Arkansas after early commitments to the Gators by both.

"They really wanted both of them," Cohen said. "They thought Damian Williams was a great one, but when they knew for sure that Gus Malzahn was going to Arkansas, they saw the handwriting on the wall. No one was surprised they switched to Arkansas."

As for how soon they make an impact with the Hogs, Cohen wouldn't hazard a guess. Like Murphy, he's not accustomed to picking greatness to freshmen in the SEC.

"There is a transition period for everyone, even the great ones," he said. "It's a tough, tough league."

Both Cohen and Murphy have seen enough phenom wideouts roll into camp from the football factory that is high school football in Florida to have a clue on the subject of freshmen wideouts playing in the SEC. Defenses in the league, perhaps the nation's toughest units, routinely chew up rookie quarterbacks and wideouts.

I think that is the best message to take out of my visits with these two men. If the best skilled players in Florida need a transition, it's probably a safe bet those that honed their skills in the AAAAA-West will have a bit of a transition period, too.

CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET

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