SEC: A look at the conference in 2002

Amidst all the change in college football, and despite the fact that LSU snuck in to steal the league title last season, the 2002 campaign is shaping up as an old-fashioned year in the SEC: Florida, Tennessee, and everybody else.

And no, the SEC West champion will not win the title game in the Georgia Dome. That's only supposed to happen on select occasions. 

Since it's always good to save the best for last, let's start out with the SEC West. Some folks think Ole Miss is the favorite because of the quarterback who's Manning the controls in Oxford; others think the Rebels are going to be the cellar-dweller in the West. Some people think Auburn is a clear upper-division team, while others are not so sure, putting Tommy Tuberville's troops in the middle of the pack. There's really no rhyme or reason to this division, especially when you consider the paucity of quarterback talent and the fact that Alabama, considered by many to have the most talent, is on probation. Who the heck will be in Atlanta on the first Saturday of December? In a sport that gains more and more parity with each passing season (and certainly not each "running" season), it's an exercise in futility to pick the SEC West. I said last year that LSU would lose at least three league games, and therefore picked the Tigers third in the West. I said the only way for LSU to win the West would be for everyone else to lose at least three games, with the tiebreakers lining up in favor of the Bayou Bengals. 

Darned if that didn't happen in the Wild, Wild West. 

Auburn looked to have a stranglehold on the division, only to lose at Jordan-Hare to a transformed Alabama team that woke up just in time to have a winning season. Every Saturday in October and November is a one-of-a-kind adventure in the SEC West. This year, it will be no different. This means two things: 1) get out your schedules, ladies and gentlemen; 2) wait til the very last weekend of the season, when LSU and Arkansas battle for the Boot on Thanksgiving Friday on CBS. 

The big winner with the schedule is Auburn. The War Eagles had the good sense—or good fortune, really—to get Florida on the road, meaning that their battleground games, games that are extremely winnable, are at home. LSU? Home. Arkansas? Home. Georgia? Home. And Alabama, a rivalry game, is on the road—that's fine, because anything and everything happens in rivalry games. Auburn knows that fact all too well after seeing what the visiting Tide did on the Plains last November. 

LSU also got a favorable schedule—like Auburn, the Bayou Bengals go to Gainesville, but get South Carolina, Mississippi State, Alabama and Ole Miss at home. In fact, LSU gets Ole Miss at home for the second straight season. How the heck did that happen? Well, no one in Baton Rouge will be complaining. 

Alabama got a reasonable deal with its schedule, all things considered. The Tide get Tennessee in Knoxville, while "battlegrounders" against Georgia, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State are in Tuscaloosa. 

Arkansas and the Mississippi schools got the short end of the schedule stick. Arkansas needs to make road trips to both Tennessee and South Carolina, which will both be extremely difficult to win. No other SEC West team plays two of the SEC East's fab four on the road. Everyone else in the West gets at least one of the East's better teams at home. 

The schools from the Magnolia State both took it on the chin because the Bulldogs and Rebels each have to trek to Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa for battleground games against LSU and Bama. You need to have some of your intra-divisional wars on home turf, and there just aren't enough of them for M'sipi State and Ole Miss this year. 

When all is said and done, the absence of an overwhelming favorite—a recurring theme in the SEC West in recent years—means that individual hunches and personal pigskin opinions (if not intimate associations with a school, otherwise known as "picking with the heart and not the head") will determine anyone's picks for the West…  

My own views of SEC West football, which were reaffirmed rather than shaken in 2001, tell me that Auburn should win, because Tommy Tuberville is the best coach in a division where talent is fairly evenly distributed. When in doubt, assume that Auburn will win one more game than what you might initially think. Whereas many will look at Auburn's SEC schedule and say, "that's a 4-4 league record for sure," the smart money from my angle is on Auburn finishing with a 5-3 mark. 

Don't worry, though—there will be plenty of 4-4 teams in the West. Try Arkansas, LSU and Bama. Arkansas is another team that should finish a game higher than the consensus, given what Houston Nutt always manages to do. Still one of the most underappreciated coaches in the SEC and in college football at large, Nutt is a tireless worker who magnificently motivates and manages his teams every season. Nutt always squeezes an extra win out of his ballclubs, enabling the Hogs to reach two Cotton Bowls and a Citrus Bowl in three of the last four seasons. Someway, somehow, Nutt will have the Hogs in the running for the West. But even if the Hogs don't win the division, they might wind up spoiling things when they host LSU in Little Rock on Nov. 29. One big thing to consider is the fact that, while many around the SEC and the Arkansas program are screaming about a quarterback controversy, the opinion here is that Matt Jones proved himself as a playmaker, though not a great pure passer. Trust Jones to make plays from the quarterback position, albeit with his feet, and make Arkansas quite competitive.  

For LSU, life as a defending champion will be hard enough, given that Nick Saban's boys will bear a big and bulging bullseye. But without Rohan Davey and Josh Reed, it will be even tougher for LSU to Geaux back to Atlanta. It's hard to imagine LSU swaggering into the plains and beating Auburn, which it will probably need to do to walk away with the West. 

And then there's Alabama. The 1999 championship season is a conspicuous exception in the post-Gene Stallings era. Recent autumns have usually been occasions for underachieving in Tuscaloosa, rather than bold marches to the place Dixie's football pride is used to: first place. It's hard to shake the conviction, especially in a probation year, that Bama will underachieve again. Sure, the players will say they're particularly motivated in July, but that's so much idle talk. Not having a big bowl game as a goal will take something away from the Tide's tenacity. Then again, it will make Auburn that much bigger of a game, meaning that the West could wind up in Bama's hands. But again, my hunch says the Tide won't turn in the direction of a Western division title. 

The Mississippi schools—State and then Ole Miss—fill out the division with 3-5 and 2-6 league marks, respectively. These teams get killed by their schedules, and have just too many question marks. If there is a dark horse in the SEC West (if it's even possible to have a dark horse in a wide-open division), it would be Mississippi State. One of the biggest questions in the whole SEC is if Scott Field can once again become an intimidating home venue that will bring the Bulldogs' win total back to a respectable count of at least six or seven. Last year, anyone and everyone won in Starkville's Cowbell Cathedral, causing Jackie Sherrill to have a shockingly bad year. Sherrill is second only to Tuberville as a coach in the West (in a virtual dead-heat with Nutt from Arkansas), but as good as he's been over the years, it's still an open question if State will be able to reacquire its normal upper-division perch in the West. 

Ole Miss? Well, there's something called defense, folks, and the Rebels don't have it. And even though the SEC has become a pass-oriented league, they don't usually have 56-49 Pac-10 or WAC-style shootouts in the Southeastern Conference. Games with 100 total points occur only when overtime enters the picture, as was the case in a 58-56 game Ole Miss played against Arkansas last year… and—oh by the way—LOST (and at home, too!). Games like the Arkansas game keep slipping through the Rebels' fingers each season. Until Ole Miss can avoid losing those "ought-to-win" home games, it's hard to take the Rebels seriously as a preseason SEC West favorite. They'll have to face another lower-division finish in the Grove.  

Now, onto the big, bad, bold boys of the SEC East. Just as the East winner will re-claim the SEC title in 2002, it also follows that other things will stay the same. 

Yep—be ticked, Mark Richt. Say "ugh," UGA! Wince, Vince. 

And as for Lou Holtz, he just might be right when he poor-mouths his team this particular year. 

But once again, the sting will be felt in Athens, which in many ways is the epicenter of the East this season, even though it will probably be left on the side of the road at the end of November, as per usual. 

Is it a question of talent? No—the Dawgs are loaded, so let no one say that Georgia's talent is being overlooked, especially with Musa Smith raring to go after recuperating from an injury. David Greene, Smith, and Fred Gibson. Woo-wee! That's big-time talent. 

But as Yogi Berra once said about baseball, "90 percent of the game is half-mental," and for Georgia, "200 percent of the game is 100 percent mental." It's all in their heads, and each year, after more sky-high expectations get shattered, the despair Between the Hedges only grows. Georgia stunned the bejeezus out of Tennessee last year—in fact, they broke the Vols' noses with a hobnailed boot, in the words of legendary UGA play-by-play man Larry Munson—but let's not confuse that upset with a deeply-rooted emotional sea change in the Vols-Dawgs rivalry. 

Going into the not-too-distant past, did Georgia's landmark win over Florida in 1997 change the tenor of that tussle? You be the judge. 

Let's just get back to basics: only two schools have ever won an SEC East title. Those schools are in Gainesville and Knoxville. 

The school in Athens, while loaded with talent and blessed with a considerable college football pedigree, is still at the stage where it hopes to win. When push comes to shove, only the Gators and Vols expect to win, and consequently do the gut-check-level things needed to win championship games. Last year, it was Tennessee that came through. 

Now, you might be inclined to breathlessly say that with Florida being weaker than last season, and with Tennessee going into the Hedges, THIS WILL BE THE YEAR FOR GEORGIA, BABY! THIS IS IT! 

Such a claim would have a substantial amount of merit behind it. No need or reason to argue with that. 

But deep down in your gut, in the core of your analytical self, you still know. You hafta know. You gotta know. 

Florida and Tennessee, September 21. Still the Big Game. Still the Real Deal. Still the be-all and end-all in the SEC. 

Tennessee just won in the Swamp last year. Think they'll be fazed by Athens, which witnessed losses to a hardly overwhelming South Carolina team and an underdog Auburn team in 2001? Don't count on it. 

Rex Grossman and Earnest Graham toyed with Georgia last year in the Cocktail Party, despite one gigantic mistake from each of them. Think they'll play poorly enough for Georgia to win a low-scoring game? Don't count on it. Could happen, but don't think it'll probably take place. When you keep gettin' whupped, don't crank up the expectations or volume. Just come to the table with all-out effort and determination, because Tennessee and Flawda ain't fadin' away gently into that good night. When all others had fallen by the wayside, there were the Vols and Gators, trading punches in an epic battle at the Swamp last December. Tennessee's team toughness and Rex Grossman's singularly sensational stuff are two very big obstacles for the Dawgs to overcome.  

Again, could the boys in Athens do the deed? Yes. But again, do not count on it happening. 

And what about South Carolina? Many people are high on Corey Jenkins, thinking that the Gamecocks' quarterback will metamorphose into a devastating dual-threat quarterback with his feet and legs. I'm not sold on Jenkins. Reports are that he looked great throwing the ball in spring practice, but that's just what that is—spring practice. With fade-throwing specialist Phil Petty at QB last season, South Carolina could pressure defenses vertically. This year, Jenkins will test defenses with his feet, but in this here league, quarterbacks have to beat defenses with their arms. There's too much speed on the front sevens of the Vols, Gators and Dawgs for Jenkins to destroy them with his legs. Jenkins will have to throw for dough, and the opinion here is that Jenkins won't be able to pass muster—literally. 

And oh-by-the-way, South Carolina loses a heart-and-soul leader/producer named Kalimba Edwards. You just don't replace a defensive warrior—not immediately, anyway—on a Lou Holtz-coached team that will have to hang its hat on defense, just as South Carolina did last year, and just as all Holtz teams normally do. The deck is not stacked in USC's favor, except for the fact that Tennessee and Georgia come to Columbia. The Gamecocks will battle gamely, but they won't be there at the end. 

It all comes down to Florida and Tennessee. What makes this rivalry delicious is the fact that the coaching-centered and emotionally-rooted dynamics of this rivalry have undergone 180-degree reversals. A year ago, Tennessee was still scratching to gain a place of complete equality with Florida. Mission accomplished. Now it's Florida who's desperate to get back at Tennessee and avoid having to concede that the Vols are the clearly superior program, which will indeed be the case if the Vols win decisively in Knoxville and storm to an authoritatively-earned SEC title. 

A year ago, the same old song and dance had Tennessee's coaching staff looking for some way—any possible way—to beat Steve Spurrier and the Gators. A year later, it's now a case of Florida's young and new-look staff looking for any chink in Tennessee's armor. Zook, a defensive coach, was hired by Gator AD Jeremy Foley to STOP TENNESSEE'S OFFENSE after the events of Dec. 1 in Gainesville. The same Zook then hired John Thompson, an effective Vol-neutralizer in his days as Arkansas' defensive coordinator, to become Florida's defensive coordinator and STOP TENNESSEE'S OFFENSE!!! 

And then there's another unique subplot to Vols-Gators 2002: after Rex Grossman got robbed of the Heisman in broad daylight, both Tennessee and Florida can now claim Heisman-worthy quarterbacks who have been jobbed in the past five years. And after UT stubbed its toe in an embarrassing SEC title game loss to LSU last year, UF fans no longer have to live with the shame of the same nature, suffered after the paralyzing and pathetic 1999 loss to Alabama in the Georgia Dome. 

Though endowed with a whole new level of respect and, in many ways, a clean slate of sorts, Florida-Tennessee continues on with old-fashioned hatred and big-time stakes. And all hype aside, there is the matter of who will win the game. Well, with Rex Grossman, all things are possible for the Gators, who would win the league to no one's surprise. But the feeling here is that Tennessee has passed a very huge emotional hurdle in its rivalry with the Gators, and after swooping into the Swamp and smacking the Gators' defense up and down the field, the Vols will only continue to feed on more good emotional vibes in the comfy confines of Neyland Stadium. One wonders where Florida will get enough defensive pressure to even lightly stain Casey Clausen's pants. Grossman and Earnest Graham—who missed last year's Tennessee tilt—will give UT's defense a headache, but if Florida can't stop the Vols either, home field definitely gives the home-team defense a decided lift. Edge, Vols. 

Rounding out the East, one gets the sense that Vanderbilt is likely to top Kentucky. While the Cats deal with the wreckage left behind from the Hal Mumme Era, the Commodores have a fresh start with head coach Bobby Johnson, who is overhauling Vandy in his image. Gone is the 3-4 defense employed by Woody Widenhofer, and in is a 4-3 look employed by Johnson and defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler. Gone is the spread look with Greg Zolman, and in is a smashmouth I-formation featuring the talents of running back Ian Gaines. The new configuration of Vandy Football will enable a heretofore downtrodden program to focus more on smacking people, which is what the Commodores did in their 1999 season that came oh-so-close to earning a bowl bid. An emphasis on strength in the trenches, especially on offense, might give the Dores the new identity and mental approach they need. 

And while Kentucky does have more talent, with quarterback Jared Lorenzen and some fleet-footed receivers who torched the Dores for 56 points last November, college football is a game of emotion and mental toughness (right, Georgia?). While Kentucky labors under the weight of sanctions, it's the Dores who are more likely to be playing with passion and purpose at the end of their 2002 season. In this stage-setting campaign, which he hopes will lay a foundation for the program in 2003 and beyond, Johnson should have his ballclub battling to the very end. One doesn't leave a Division I-AA powerhouse (Furman) without compiling a strong track record, and one doesn't leave that kind of environment for Vanderbilt without being hungrier than all git-up to succeed in one of college football's most challenging jobs. Count on one thing: the fire in the belly of Bobby Johnson—and the Vandy program—will not be extinguished at any point this season. 

But in getting back to the larger picture, some folks—unlike Johnson at Vanderbilt—lack the luxury of a honeymoon season. Mark Richt has the makings of a great coach, but his jawdropping mistakes last season—in his play-calling against Auburn and his strategic moves in the Music City Bowl against Boston College—won't cut it in the most cutthroat division of the most competitive conference in all of college football. Judgments that important, made in the final minutes of huge games, have to be on target.  

It might have been a case of first-year jitters or inexperience for Georgia's head man—fair enough. But what's important is that Richt must make sure those mistakes were indeed nothing more than first-year foul-ups; if they become second-year slip-ups, University of Georgia President Michael Adams might be tempted to give Richt a slip… one with the color pink. (Well, not really, but Adams is more bent out of shape than anyone else in Athens over the fact that Georgia has yet to play in an SEC Championship Game, let alone win one. If Richt doesn't cross the threshold and get his butt in the Georgia Dome by the time of his third year, it could be gonzo for the Golden Boy and Bobby Bowden disciple.)  

In 2002, the more things change in the SEC, the more they stay the same. The East is the Beast, the West is a parity-fest, and Georgia, still the center of intrigue and expectations in the conference, has a huge mental barrier to overcome as it tries to reach a very elusive mountaintop.  

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