Mark Green Picks The SEC

Mark Green is back for another season of analyzing Southeastern Conference football and picking the winners and losers.

Editor's Note: Mark Green, a contributing writer to Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and football newsletter, resumes his weekly Southeastern Conference prediction column for AUTigers.com.

OLE MISS (7-6) at VANDERBILT (3-9)

David Cutcliffe and the Deep South Rebels charge into Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday morning to kick off the 2003 SEC football season with an 11:30 JP Sports-televised matchup. Ole Miss senior Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Eli Manning is the star attraction in the show that will be performed in front of a mere 35,000 expected fans, a third of which might be from Mississippi.

Adding to the Commodore pain and suffering will be a first-rate Reb wide receiver corps and an improved, experienced defense. In all, 17 starters return to an Ole Miss team, which ended last season with a 27-23 upset of Nebraska in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport. And if Mississippi can muster a running game in ‘03, the Rebels might even compete with Auburn, Arkansas and LSU for first place in the SEC West.

Even if the Rebels don't improve on last season's three-yard-per-carry rushing average, they should paste up the points on Vanderbilt. Bobby Johnson's babies may start ten sophomores on defense Saturday, including three new faces in what could be a terrifyingly porous secondary. To make matters worse for the 'Dores, last year's leading tackler, Hunter Hillenmeyer has graduated, leaving local law enforcement in the hands of six more sophomore starters among the Vanderbilt front seven. And if all that wasn't enough, talented Vandy kicker Greg Johnson bolted for Texas over the summer, leaving the Commodores in the lurch in the kicking game.

The bright spot for the 'Dores is at the skill positions where returning running backs Norval McKenzie, Matthew Tant and Kwane Doster should team with wide receivers Chris Young, Brandon Smith and Grant Brigham to help sophomore QB Jay Cutler put some points on the board. And, as has been the case in recent meetings between these two teams, Saturday's contest may well see a truck load of those points--on both sides of the scoreboard. OLE MISS 45, VANDERBILT 20.


GEORGIA (13-1) at Clemson (7-6)

The sickness continued in Athens this summer unabated. Incident followed incident. Arrest and release. Crime and no punishment. Long time Athletic Director Vince Dooley was also run off mainly because he told the university president "I told you so" when head basketball coach Jim Herrick was found guilty of violating NCAA rules with the school's basketball program. It was said that 60,000 Georgians signed a petition to keep Dooley on as AD, but that figure is hard to believe. Doesn't seem likely that many UGA grads could write their names.

Somewhere in all this mess Georgia has had to get ready to play football again after last season's SEC Championship season and the consequent ceremonial ring-selling jamboree held on Ebay during the spring. That certainly wasn't sugar falling from the skies. But the Dawgs' did trip to New Orleans in January for a one-night fling with Richt's former band of gypsies, the Florida State Seminoles. That 26-13 victory is the last anyone has seen of Georgia actually participating in organized aggression. Since then the only way to see the Dawgs up close in violent action is to stand on the street corner in downtown Athens holding you're your wallet between your teeth. Indeed it has been a sad summer in Athens. But Richt and his team somehow seem nonplussed by it all. I guess the only way to make Georgia players cry these days is with a can of mace.

Meanwhile, Clemson Coach Tommy Bowden must be wondering how "Diddy's" non-related assistants are doing so well away from home, when he and his brothers can't seem to buy a break in the business. Apparently the old block doesn't want any competition from his prodigal coaching sons, none of whom seems likely to inherit the throne at FSU when the old tyrant finally departs.

After a short, but successful stint at Tulane, Tommy Bowden has found the road somewhat rocky in South Carolina, and he needs a big season-starting home upset over Georgia to quiet the gathering crowd of critics in Death Valley. The trouble is, the cupboard is about half bare on defense and sophomore quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and his offensive mates will have to carry the load against a banged-up UGA secondary.

An upset is certainly possible, but look for Dawg second-string quarterback D.J. Shockley to pour some second-half cold water on the hopeful home fires. Also keep in mind Dawg junior QB David Greene has never lost an SEC road game (Jacksonville doesn't count). GEORGIA 31, Clemson 24.


Fresno State (9-5) at TENNESSEE (8-5)

The fat fella with the shirt colored yella arises for perhaps one last season-long battle with the Southeastern Conference this year. Big Phil lost a lotta sleep as well as some hair last season as his cool coaster quarterback Casey Clausen, himself with follicle issues, played out the season with one arm in a sling and no wide receivers with which to loosen up the defense. Compounding the problem was the jocular visage of prima-donna wideout Kelley Washington pacing the sidelines, unfit to play or even encourage his struggling teammates.

Gone now is Washington, but also departed to the NFL is TE Jason Witten, Clausen's go-to receiver in 2002. The wide receiver corps is down to possession man Tony Brown and solo artist Mark Jones, who may represent the Vols' only offensive big play threat. Running back should be loaded with Cedrick Houston and Gerald Riggs, but there is no Jamal Lewis in sight, and Casey may find the predicament not too different from what it was a year ago.

Defensively, the Vols lost eight starters, including their front four to graduation. All totalled, UT sent eight players to the NFL from last year's team, a team which folded up to the tune of 30-3 to Maryland in the Peach Bowl. Something is certainly wrong here, but what we won't know exactly what for a few weeks, when UT visits Florida, Miami, Alabama and Auburn.

Fresno State may be the team to give us a glimpse of Orange illness as early as this week. Bulldog Head Coach Pat Hill has played the roll of giant killer in recent years. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, hot shot quarterback Paul Pinegar, who threw for 2,929 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, is injured and will turn over starting duties to fifth-year senior Jeff Grady on Saturday. However, Pinegar will "make the trip" to Knoxville. Hmmm. I wonder. TENNESSEE 31, Fresno State 24.


San Jose State (6-7) at FLORIDA (8-5)

San Jose State looked pretty good against Grambling last week, but must travel all the way across the country to play the Crocodiles, er a Gators in the Croc Pot, er a Swamp this Saturday. Not easy, for sure. However, with Ron Zook at the Gator helm, anything can happen. Three or four Florida quarterbacks will likely play, and a host of speedy running backs.

The defense will be an adventure for new coordinator Charley Strong. Eight starters are missing from a year ago, but there is a ton of young talent on hand. It could be a little too young for the likes of Tennessee, Miami and Georgia, but not San Jose, I'm afraid. CROCS 48 Sand Jose State 27.


Louisiana-Monroe (3-9) at LSU (8-5)

I keep waiting for this guy to graduate, but Louisiana Monroe keeps returning for yet another senior season. Don't they have any rules in that league? LSU 48, Louisiana Monroe and friends 13.


Louisiana-Lafayette (3-9) at SOUTH CAROLINA (5-7)

Gamecock Coach Lou Holtz is scared to death of losing this game. But nobody I know feels that way about it. SOUTH CAROLINA 38, La LaFayette 20.


Oregon (7-6) at MISSISSIPPI STATE (3-9)

Now that Joe Lee (barefoot) Dunn has been moved out on the streets in Memphis, Jackie is alone in defense of his declining coaching career. Any other time, this game would look like easy pickins on the underdog upset board. After all, State can match the Beavers player for player in the skill department. But Mike Belotti, despite travelling with his team across the country to the most barren and desolate environment any Duck could imagine, should still outsmart that staff of :recruiters" presently assembled in Starkville. Oregon 30, MISS STATE 24.


Louisville (7-6) at KENTUCKY (7-5)

Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Central marks the head coaching debut of former Auburn offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino at Louisville. It will also be the first game at Kentucky for Rich Brooks, former coach of the St. Louis Rams and, before that, the Oregon Ducks.

It's just a matter of time before Petrino gets things to his liking in Louisville. Though John L. Smith's Cardinals did beat Florida Sate last year, they were inconsistent because of a youthful offensive line. The big trouble for UL this Sunday will be on defense where Conference USA defensive Player of the Year Dewayne White graduated along with five other talented starters. This game could easily fall either way, but I'll guess J-Lo and Derrick Abney will team with QB-RB Shane Boyd to knock off the Cards in Lexington. KENTUCKY 31, Louisville 27.


South Florida (9-2) at ALABAMA (10-3) Birmingham

Legion Field is the sight of the coaching debut of new Alabama Coach Mike Price. Make that Mike Shula, the greatest young coach in the game, according to university publications. However, Shula's window of opportunity may shut on his fingers if he doesn't win this game Saturday afternoon. School contract negotiators were a bit more lenient than some, however, as the incentives in 2003 start with a winning season.

Apparently the marketmakers at Alabama don't really want anyone to replace Bear Bryant, anyhow, and they have demonstrated repeatedly that they'll do anything to get rid of any mocking facsimile, even if he's as nice as Burl Ives. Ole grandpappy can struggle for justice till the cows come home, but trying to get your money back in Tuscaloosa is like asking for a second chance in Nagasaki. Former Coach Fran fled like a Cambodian refugee to Texas A & M, and his heart rate has yet to return to normal. Rumor has it he's hired a bodyguard so he and Kim can sleep at night.

Whether South Florida Coach Jim Leavitt will be able to take a successful shot this Saturday at the school he turned down will depend on the play of his new quarterback, junior Ronnie Banks. Almost all of the remaining cast returns from an offense that played a big role in USF's nine-win season a year ago. The remarkable thing is that the Bulls have risen to their current level in just six seasons of operation. Whether they continue to move up the food chain of college football depends heavily on their ability to attract upper-echelon recruits, a chore made easier by a favorable location in Tampa. The next step though is to win a big one. And the workaholic Leavitt should have his team ready to do just that if the opportunity arises in Birmingham.

Turnovers are the key and the play Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle will be the focus for both coaching staffs. Bama's solid running game should give Croyle and his veteran receiving corps a chance to shine, even though the Bulls return three seniors in the secondary. USF benefited from causing 21 more turnovers than their opponents forced last season, but that total will be hard to match in 2003. ALABAMA 40, South Florida 23.


Southern California (11-2) at AUBURN (9-4)

"The black flag, sir---

"We should meet the invader on the outer verge of just and right defense. And raise the black flag. No quarter to the violators of our houses and firesides."

---Stonewall Jackson, CSA

"Well Colonel, One way or another, the South will give them a warm reception"

---Col. J.E.B. Stewart

You think this isn't big? Sixth-ranked Auburn and its gentle, deep-southern head coach will be trying to forge a name for themselves on the national college football scene, while relegating Trojan failure, if possible, to the back page of the Los Angeles Times, behind Ahhnold, Gray Davis, Gary Coleman and a 37-billion dollar budget deficit. Oh man, the West Coast Nile sickness is upon us now!

What is not now universally believed, will be presently known: that quarterback Jason Campbell, and his fellow Auburn Tigers can play, that Gene Chizik with his deft handling and deployment of defensive backs, can coach, and that co-offensive coordinators Hugh Nall and Steve Ensminger, paired as one, can call a game.

Coach Tommy Tuberville has assembled not only a team and a staff, but an opportunity. Saturday evening Auburn will play in perhaps the biggest home season-opening football game in its history.

And Sunday morning a slice of the city of Los Angeles and it's proud private city college football team will return to West Coast normal, back to grappling with those complex political, economic and societal infestations that have made them the envy of all the desperate men and women of the post-modern era. Enjoyed it guys. It's been real. AUBURN 27, USC 19.


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