PiRate Preview: The SEC

Southeastern Conference football is more than just a game—it's a way of life in Dixie. If games were moved to Sunday mornings, Neyland Stadium, Sanford Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Jordan-Hare Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and Williams-Brice Stadium would be the seven biggest churches in America.

That old-time religion is ready to start at fervent pitch tonight when the season kicks off with South Carolina visiting Mississippi State.

Let's look at a few polls before looking at the PiRate ratings.  The national polls ranked six teams in the Top 25 and eight teams in the top 35.  Looking at the Coaches' poll, Auburn was picked sixth, Florida eighth, LSU ninth, Georgia 14th, Tennessee 23rd, and Alabama 24th.  Arkansas and South Carolina received a large amount of votes.


At the SEC Media days, a record 104 voters participated in the preseason SEC poll.  Here are the results: 


Eastern Division (first place votes in parentheses)                        Votes

1.  Florida (49)                        179

2. Georgia (42)                        200

3. Tennessee (9)                        303

4. South Carolina (4)                        362

5. Kentucky                        545

6. Vanderbilt                        595


Western Division

1. Auburn (87) (Picked to win SEC Title Game)                        129

2. LSU (12)                        217

3. Alabama (5)                        348

4. Arkansas                        364

5. Ole Miss                        550

6. Mississippi State                        576


The PiRates agree with the SEC media more than they agreed with any other conference.  In fact, except for flipping the 5th and 6th place team in both divisions, the preseason ratings are identical.


For the SEC preview, I am expanding the coverage to show you a little how the PiRate rating is determined for each team.  I will relay the major component that is used—rating each unit on a scale of 1-100.  This rating makes up close to 70% of the final PiRate rating.  Each unit carries a certain constant weighting (for example defensive backs are more important than special teams), so you cannot add these numbers together and get anything meaningful from it. 


One note: the PiRate predicted W-L is not really valid, as this rating only represents how each team rates to start the season.  Unlike other ratings you may see on the Internet, the PiRates adjust for each team based on other factors besides scores.  For example, a team with little depth but great starters may start out with a rating of 115 and win their first game by more points than they were supposed to, and yet they may lose points based on the lack of depth (as the season progresses, those great starters will begin to tire and be less effective).


Eastern Division


1. Florida Gators

PiRate: 116             National Ranking: 8 (t)                  HFA: 6


PiRate Prediction:  7-1/10-3  Bowl: Capital One vs. Michigan


Analysis: The time is now for Chris Leak.  Can he be another Carson Palmer and explode for a monster year as a senior?  Or, is he going to be remembered as an above-average player who failed to live up to expectations?  I think he will be closer to Palmer than above-average.  I expect Florida to score the most points since Steve Spurrier left Gainesville.  Look for the Gators to run for 150 and pass for 275 yards, while scoring about 34 points per game.


Defensively, the Gators have been weakened at linebacker due to injuries, but they are still quite strong there as well as everywhere else.  Florida should give up about 17 points per game and less than 300 yards per game


The schedule is deadly in the middle with games against Alabama, LSU, at Auburn, and Georgia in Jacksonville.  They cannot win all four.  The finale at Florida State is tough as usual.


2. Georgia Bulldogs

PiRate: 114             National Ranking: 17                   HFA: 6


PiRate Prediction: 6-2/10-2  Bowl: Outback vs. Iowa


Analysis: Losing D.J. Shockley is probably too much of a hill to climb for the Bulldogs.  They are solid everywhere else, except possibly the secondary, where three starters are gone.  Expect scores to look more like the Vince Dooley days; UGA will limit opponents to 15 points or less and try to wear defenses down when they have the ball.  I expect Georgia to rush for 180 yards and pass for 180 yards, averaging about 25 points per game.


The Bulldogs should win all four non-conference games and could be undefeated when they head to the cocktail party to face Florida, looking for revenge.  Having to play Auburn at Jordan-Hare will be tough, but UGA will have revenge on their mind there too.


3. Tennessee Volunteers

PiRate: 107             National Ranking: 37 (t)            HFA: 6


PiRate Prediction: 3-5/6-6  Bowl: Independence vs. Iowa St.


Analysis: Will Tennessee's offense return from hiding?  The Vols averaged just 18.6 points and 326 total yards per game last year.  After gaining 412 yards in the opener against UAB, something happened.  The shuffling of quarterbacks and a plethora of fumbles grounded the attack, and the Big Orange averaged just 318 yards per game the rest of the year. 


The defense was almost as good as UT's 1998 national champs, but they had to begin too many drives with the opponent already in the scoring zone. 


This year, Tennessee will be stronger offensively, but their great defense must be rebuilt.  UT will score five to seven more points per game this year, but they will give up four to six more points per game.


The opener against Cal will find the Vols having to play at mid-season form to win; chances are not likely for that to happen.  The rest of the non-conference schedule is manageable.  Road games at Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas should be losses, while facing Florida, Alabama, and LSU at home will be tough.


4. South Carolina Gamecocks

PiRate: 107             National Ranking: 41                   HFA: 5


PiRate Prediction: 5-3/8-4  Bowl: Music City vs. Georgia Tech


Analysis:  It wouldn't surprise me much if South Carolina won their first four games and took the early East Division lead.  It also wouldn't surprise me much if USC lost their first two games and eliminated themselves from the race altogether.  The margin between success and failure for this team is razor thin. 


The biggest questions on offense will be the young offensive line and whether the Gamecocks can establish much of a rushing game.  At Florida, Spurrier's teams were excellent running teams overshadowed by superior passing.  He hasn't been able to replicate that so far in Columbia.


Defensively, USC will not be as strong as last year; the Gamecocks gave up just 104 points in their last six regular season games.  Look for them to give up 25 points per game this year, but with an offense that scores close to 30 per game, USC should improve in the won-loss column.



5. Vanderbilt Commodores

PiRate: 97               National Ranking: 75                   HFA: 3


PiRate Prediction: 0-8/3-9  Bowl: Maybe 2007


Analysis: Vanderbilt fans will forever look back at last year as the season the Commodores should have broken the streak.  They should have stopped the consecutive losing season string at 22.  A blocked punt by Middle Tennessee on the last play of the game; a controversial penalty against Florida; and a 20-minute snooze against Kentucky could have gone the other way and led to an 8-3 mark.


However, consider this:  Jay Cutler engineered comeback wins over Wake Forest, Arkansas, and Tennessee.  Without him, the Commodores might have won two games for the fifth consecutive season.


Cutler is now the second coming of John Elway in Denver.  He was a once in a generation star for Vandy.  Who is his heir apparent?  Let me make one thing perfectly clear:  Chris "President" Nickson is going to be a good quarterback who could lead the Commodores back to the promised land (a winning season and bowl), but it is not going to be this season. 


On offense, the Commodores will rely on a strong offensive line to give Nickson enough time to locate an excellent group of receivers.  Nickson will take off and run for five to 10 yards if the defense doesn't leave some linebackers in his vicinity.


The run blocking is still in need of improvement, so Vanderbilt will rush for about 125-140 yards.  Throw in about 220 yards passing, and the Commodores should score about 21 points per game.


Defensively, Vandy is still going to have difficulty with good running teams.  They gave up 170 yards per game at a 4.5 yard clip last year, and that number could go up this season.  The Commodore secondary lowered the completion percentage allowed from 65.1% in 2004 to 57.7% last year.  The total yardage allowed went up from 208 to 224, but that was due more to the fact that the Commodores faced a better slate of passers last year.  For 2006, the black and gold need a better pass rush, as they only made 14 sacks a year ago.  The secondary would be quite competent if they didn't have to defend for so long.  Look for Vandy to give up 180 yards rushing and 200 yards passing this season, allowing 27 points per game.


If the Commodores' schedule began with MTSU instead of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and if the Ole Miss and Kentucky games were at home, they would have been picked to go 6-6.  That's how close they are.  2007 could be the year; 2006 will be the year for developing some younger talent.


6. Kentucky Wildcats

PiRate: 97               National Ranking: 76 (t)            HFA: 4


PiRate Prediction: 2-6/5-7  Bowl: Just Misses in finale


Analysis:  Rich Brooks has few allies in Lexington, as a large number of fans don't want him to be their coach and never wanted him to be named coach.  To those fans, let me tell you something—you are making a mistake.  Brooks brought Oregon's program back from the dead, but it took some time.  If you let him stay there, he will do the same thing in the Commonwealth.


The move toward respectability begins this year.  Kentucky's defense will make a move from mediocrity to not half bad.  The Wildcats gave up 34.1 points and 439 yards per game last year; this year, they should shave off at least five points and 40 yards.  The defensive line should be the biggest improvement in this first step.  For once, there's depth in the trenches.


The offense will also be improved, as it was last year.  UK could top 25 points per game.  Running back Rafael Little must stay healthy to take advantage of a strong offensive line.  If defenses have to concentrate on him, quarterback Andre Woodson will enjoy a 2,000-yard passing season.   The only question mark is the receivers.  Too many dropped passes will throw a monkey wrench into the improved season.  Little cannot be the leading receiver once again.


The schedule is set up for UK to make a run at 6-6.  Texas State, Central Michigan, and Louisiana Monroe are all winnable (although CMU will be tough to beat).  Home games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt and a road game at Mississippi State give them a shot at five wins heading to Knoxville for the season's climax.  Both teams could be 5-6 with the winner gaining the 8th bowl slot.


Western Division


1. Auburn Tigers

PiRate: 116             National Ranking: 7              HFA: 6


PiRate Prediction: 7-1/12-1  Bowl: Sugar vs. Miami


Analysis: Three years after Tommy Tuberville almost secretly lost his job to Bobby Petrino, Auburn is now the current class of the league.  The Tigers narrowly missed out on a return trip to the SEC Championship Game, losing at LSU in overtime.  Since Auburn gets LSU at home this season, they should be slightly favored on September 16 (barring some unforeseen changes).


This year's team may actually be a tad weaker than last year's team, but in a year of parity, the War Eagles should emerge as the best team in the SEC.  Brandon Cox should contend for 2nd team All-SEC honors, and he is likely to pass for 2,700 or more yards.  Kenny Irons could rush for more than 1,500 yards.  The receiver corps is young, but talented.  The offensive line should protect Cox well enough to allow less than 20 sacks, while opening holes for Irons.


Auburn should win all four non-conference games, but the opener with Washington State could be interesting if the Cougars' offense is fully in gear.  Getting LSU, Arkansas, Florida, and Georgia is a huge benefit.  The game at Alabama could end their hopes for a BCS Title Game, but the burnt orange and navy are the clear-cut favorite to win the SEC Championship.


2. L S U Tigers

PiRate: 116             National Ranking: 8 (t)                  HFA: 6


PiRate Prediction: 5-3/9-3  Bowl: Cotton vs. Nebraska


Analysis: Who probably prevented LSU from enjoying a season like 2003 last year?  It was that awful lady Katrina.  The loss at home to Tennessee came amidst a circus atmosphere.  The Tiger players wore down from the events and had nothing left in their tanks in the second half of that game. 


Now, a year removed from the catastrophe, LSU returns some spectacular talent, but they also have holes to fill.  This team is not as complete as the last three versions.  The defense has some question marks at linebacker, and the offensive line could take time to develop.  Replacing running back Joseph Addai could be a problem as well if Alley Broussard isn't back to his 2004 form.  Not all backs recover fully from ACL injuries.


What LSU can do about as good as any other team is to throw and catch the ball.  JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, and Ryan Perrilloux make up the best three-deep unit in the NCAA.  Expect better than 60% completions and 250 yards through the air.  If LSU has to pass more due to a problem with Broussard, then that number could go 25 yards higher.  Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis, and Early Doucet all averaged better than 15 yards per catch last year and combined for 16 touchdowns.  Tight end Keith Zinger cannot be ignored, because he can catch the ball in a crowd and dole out punishment.


The Tigers have an interesting schedule.  Louisiana-Lafayette shouldn't give them much trouble in the opener, except they will play the games of their lives.  If LSU is looking forward to the Auburn game, Arizona could make game two close.  Road games at Florida, Tennessee, and Arkansas could be tricky, while you have to figure Alabama has their November 11 game in Tiger Stadium circled.


3. Alabama Crimson Tide

PiRate: 113             National Ranking: 19                   HFA: 6


PiRate Prediction: 4-4/8-4  Bowl: Chick-fil-a vs. Boston College


Analysis: The Crimson Tide are one player away from being great instead of just good.  If you are going to have one question mark unit, you definitely don't want it to be at quarterback.  John Parker Wilson must fill Brodie Croyle's shoes after seeing limited action in five games and throwing just 11 passes.  Wilson could eventually be a very good signal caller, but he will have growing pains in his first season at the helm.  The healthy return of Tyrone Prothro, if he can come back this year, would make the receiving unit one of the best in the nation.  Teaming with Keith Brown would stretch the field vertically on both sides.


Defensively, there are a couple holes to fill at linebacker and in the line, but defensive coordinator Joe Kines is the Norm Chow of the stop side.  He will mold this talented, but young defense into a force to be reckoned with by November.


The schedule finds the Tide going on the road to Arkansas and Florida in back-to-back weeks.  They must play Tennessee at Neyland, and they must go to the Bayou to seek revenge over the team that ended their unbeaten season.  By the time they host Auburn on November 18 (assuming that 12 games in 12 weeks hasn't decimated their two-deep), they could be as strong as any team in the league.


4. Arkansas Razorbacks

PiRate: 111             National Ranking: 28 (t)            HFA: 5


PiRate Prediction: 6-2/9-3  Bowl: Liberty vs. Tulsa


Analysis: This is a make or break year for Coach Houston Nutt at Arkansas.  He must win or else.  With almost the entire 1st team offense and defense returning, the Hogs will be much improved.  Excitement will be in the air from the start, as the dynasty team of the 21st century invades Fayetteville to open the season, and the Razorbacks have the nation's top recruit ready to play quarterback—possibly as early as the second quarter of game one.


Mitch Mustain is being touted as the second coming, of Elway that is.  While Robert Johnson has been named the starter for the USC game, it's a good bet Mustain will be in there early.  When you have the top prospect in the nation, and you aren't USC or Texas, you play him from the start; he isn't going to be there once he becomes eligible for the NFL Draft.  Plus, you don't bring in his high school coach, Gus Malzahn, as offensive coordinator if he's going to ride the bench one of the three years he'll be there.


As soon as Darren McFadden is fully healthy, he will rush for six to seven yards a try.  2nd teamer Felix Jones will fill in admirably.  The Hogs up front will open holes against most defenses, and they should protect Johnson/Mustain just fine.  Look for about 225 yards rushing and 200 yards passing, which should be good enough to score 30 points per game.


Defensively, Arkansas should be better in all three units.  The farther back you go, the better this defense gets.  I think opponents will fail to complete 50% of their passes against this secondary, unless most of the passes are of the dink and doink variety.  I'm expecting the Razorbacks to yield less yardage and points this year; try 125 yards rushing and 185 yards passing on for size.  Arkansas could give up about 21 points per game.


Assuming they don't put everything into a losing effort against Southern Cal, Arkansas has a chance to go to Auburn 2-0 in the SEC.  That game could be the decisive one as far as the West Division race goes.



5. Mississippi State Bulldogs

PiRate: 98               National Ranking: 74                   HFA: 3


PiRate Prediction: 1-7/3-9  Bowl: Egg vs. Ole Miss


Analysis: Year number three in the Sylvester Croom regime in Starkville should find an improved Bulldog team facing a harder schedule than last year.  Mississippi State's defense is bowl-worthy; the offense still needs to improve more than it has to propel State above .500.  Opponents will not like playing the Maroons this year, even though most of them will beat the Bulldogs.


The offense will be better than last year for sure, but improving by three to five points will leave MSU in last place yet.  They only averaged 13.9 points and 277 yards per game in 2005, and they will improve to 17 to 18 points and 300 total yards this year.


The fairly strong defense gave up only 335 yards per game and 23.5 points per game.  With eight starters back, including three in the line, two at linebacker, and three in the secondary, and with most of the second team returning, this defense should give up less than 21 points and 320 yards per game.


Mississippi State will have several close games, but without a proven quarterback, they may come up short several times.  The opener tonight against South Carolina could go either way, but Blake Mitchell has the better chance of pulling it out late.  Tulane, at UAB, Jacksonville State, Kentucky, and at Ole Miss give the Bulldogs five serious chances to win.  They should pull the trick three times.


6. Ole Miss Rebels

PiRate: 94               National Ranking: 84                   HFA: 4


PiRate Prediction: 2-6/4-8  Bowl: Egg vs. Miss. State


Analysis: This does not look like a rebound year for Ole Miss.  Quarterback Brent Schaeffer not only must study his playbook, he has to study his academic textbooks.  He didn't do that at Tennessee, and who knows whether he will do that in Oxford.  He hasn't had the benefit of spring practice, and he didn't know until the last day before practice began if he would be able to play at Ole Miss.  It may take half a season before he gets untracked.


The bigger problem is a relatively weak offensive line and group of receivers.  The running game could have something if they get a few blocks, but even Reggie Bush and LenDale White would have trouble rushing in the SEC when the opponents are in your backfield when you get the ball.  I'm expecting Ole Miss to score less than 17 points per game and accumulate about 300 total yards per game.


Like their intrastate rival, Ole Miss will have a fairly strong defense.  When you have the best linebacker in the country, you're going to stop a few people.  Patrick Willis might record 150 tackles this year, and he should be one of the first three picks in next year's draft.  The Rebels gave up only 22.3 points and 332 yards per game last year.  If a decent nucleus can be placed around Willis, they could equal those numbers in 2006.


Ole Miss gets a little help from a favorable schedule.  Memphis, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Northwestern State (La.), and Mississippi State must come to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium this year.  They should win three or four of these games.  A road contest at Kentucky gives them a chance at one more victory.


Next:  THE SEASON BEGINS!!!  Check for the opening PiRate picks for week one, and get ready to have a fun season of action with more parity than any year since maybe 1990.


Sources:  The Southeastern Conference official website and the 12 individual members' official websites.


The Tennessean

The Atlanta Journal Constitution


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