Now that camps have started and Media Days are complete, the smell of football is definitely in the air. We got another whiff of it last week, when the initial USA Today Coaches' Poll was released.
Like it or not, the Coaches' Poll is the one that counts. It's completely absurd that coaches (or SID's), who have a personal, professional and financial interest in the poll (not to mention a lack of time to pay attention to teams outside of their conference), play a major role in determining the national champion. Nonetheless, the initial release of the poll is important to the overall championship picture. So, with that said, let's look at how the SEC fared in the initial poll.
No. 1 – Alabama Crimson Tide
The Verdict: Dead on. The defending national champs enter 2010 riding a 14-game winning streak, and have gone undefeated in the regular season for two straight years? Alabama returns the dynamic running back duo of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, quarterback Greg McElroy, wide receiver Julio Jones and a talented offensive line led by first-team All-SEC members Barrett Jones and James Carpenter. Are there some question marks on defense? Absolutely. Cornerback Rod Woodson's decision to transfer and Marcell Dareus' eligibility question mark certainly doesn't help matters. You might not recognize the names on the back of the jerseys right off the bat, but Nick Saban has recruited his tail off the last three years. Guys like B.J. Scott, Dre Kirkpatrick and Courtney Upshaw are certainly capable of filling the holes. Anyone ranking any other team at the top spot would just be a contrarian. Who else are you going to put up there? Ohio State? Oklahoma? Please...
No. 3 – Florida Gators
The Verdict: About right. The Gators enter the post-Tim Tebow era looking to replace not just a quarterback, but their top two receivers and four of their top five tacklers. The good news for the Gators is that they get back a veteran offensive line, their top four running backs and finally get to see how Andre Debose and Chris Rainey do in that "Percy Position." Florida head coach Urban Meyer has never totally relied on a drop-back passer at any of his head coaching stops. In Gators' 2006 national championship season, Chris Leak operated a hybrid spread and had Tebow come in for short-yardage and goal-line situations. So the jury's still out on how Meyer will handle the transition to John Brantley, who's a prototypical NFL quarterback. I could understand ranking the Gators anywhere between 2-6, so No. 3 is good enough.
No. 16 – LSU Tigers
The Verdict: WAY too high. If there's any proof that coaches (or SID's) have better things to do than rank the top 25 teams, this is it. Les Miles took a lot of heat last year for his coaching debacles, but it was the lack of offense that really hurt the Tigers. To try to fix the situation, Miles brought in Billy Gonzales from Florida to coach the wide receivers. Gonzales was integral in the development of Percy Harvin at Florida, and will try to do the same with former quarterback Russell Shepard. Is that enough to fix things? Nope. The Tigers lose All-SEC tackle Ciron Black and guard Lyle Hitt off of an offensive line that finished tied for last in the SEC in sacks allowed. Typically, losing the best piece of a bad unit doesn't bode well for the future, and certainly doesn't help the development of a quarterback. At SEC Media Days, the SEC media voted LSU fourth in the SEC West behind Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn. That's much more believable.
No. 19 – Arkansas Razorbacks
The Verdict: About right. There was no doubt that head coach Bobby Petrino was going to get that offense cranking when he arrived in Fayetteville in 2008. However, the defense was bad in 2008 (375 ypg) and got worse in 2009 (401 ypg). Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson is hoping that the experience gained last season by his eight returning starters will translate into production on the field this season, but that remains to be seen. The golden arm of Ryan Mallett won some games for the Hogs last year, but the defense lost some too. Until the Razorbacks prove it on the field, there's no reason to believe that 2010 will be any different. Thus, the No. 19 ranking is about right.
No. 21 – Georgia Bulldogs
The Verdict: Maybe a bit too high. Generally speaking, having to replace six starters on defense, install a new defensive scheme and replace a starting quarterback isn't a recipe for success in the SEC. Granted, the new defense is being installed by someone other than Willy Martinez, so Georgia fans should be optimistic about that. But there will be a transition period, and with games against South Carolina and Arkansas early, the Bulldogs could dig themselves a hole quickly. New quarterback Aaron Murray will rely on a veteran offensive line and running backs Washaun Ealey and Caleb King early on. While that might be the right thing to do, I'm not totally sold on the Georgia running game just yet. King and Ealey emerged late last year. But in the last five games, the Bulldogs played teams with rushing defenses ranked no higher than No. 68 in the country. Could some of that have to do with the fact that Richard Samuel got the majority of the carries early in the year? Sure. But you can't discount the weak rushing defenses that King and Ealey feasted on late in the year.
No. 23 – Auburn Tigers
The Verdict: Dead on. There's a renewed optimism on the Plains in 2010, thanks to a solid first season from head coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Quarterback Cameron Newton's ability to make plays with his arm and his legs will kick Malzahn's offense into overdrive, and give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares. Ted Roof's defense, however, left a lot to be desired. Depth was a big issue for the Tigers. The return of Mike McNeil, Aairon Savage and Zac Etheridge in the secondary, coupled with added depth at linebacker through a stellar recruiting class will shore things up a bit. Auburn's going to be pretty good this year. But just like Arkansas, until the Tigers prove that their defensive issues have been resolved, you can't make a legitimate case to rank Auburn higher than No. 23 right now. I do have more faith that the Chizik/Roof combination will get things fixed on defense faster than Petrino/Robinson.
Others receiving votes:
Ole Miss checks in at No. 30, which is too high. Jeremiah Masoli or not, the Rebels lost WAY too many playmakers on offense. Their defense should be okay, thanks to a veteran defensive line led by seniors Kentrell Lockett and Jerrell Powe. But No. 30, ahead of Clemson, Stanford, South Carolina and intra-state rival Mississippi State? I don't think so.
South Carolina comes in at No 35, which is WAY too low. This is the year for the Gamecocks. No seriously, it is. There's no doubt that Gamecock head coach Steve Spurrier was sending a message to quarterback Stephen Garcia this offseason, and that his job status was never really in question. The Gamecocks need to find a running game, and should with the arrival of freshman Marcus Lattimore – who one South Carolina coach described to me as "the real deal." Don't be surprised to see the Gamecocks in SEC East contention in November.
Mississippi State received one vote, which is good enough to be ranked No. 50. I like it. Does it matter in the grand scheme of things? Probably not. But it's nice that Dan Mullen's crew got at least one vote.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at
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