The Georgia Bulldogs haven’t won the SEC title since 2005, one year prior to their conference’s seven-year national championship run. The Dawgs haven’t won the national title since 1980 and have only seriously competed for it once in the last thirty years (their 2012 near-miss). So maybe I understand why the betting odds are a little averse to making them the favorite in this year’s SEC race.
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But understanding doesn’t mean agreeing, and it’s time to give Mark Richt’s Bulldogs some serious love as a championship contender—which in the SEC, means a contender to win the whole thing.
Georgia is a 13-2 betting choice to win the SEC title, and there are five conference teams with better odds. It’s no surprise that Alabama is the prohibitive favorite, even if the Tide are rebuilding.
I won’t say I’m shocked that LSU and South Carolina each rate higher than the Dawgs in the eyes of the bettors. Auburn at 5-1, slightly better than Georgia? Absolutely understandable. But Florida also at 5-1? Seriously? Why is everyone this down on the Dawgs?
The answer has to be the need to replace quarterback Aaron Murray. But senior Hutson Mason was at least able to get some experience in the final two games of last season, an overtime win over Georgia Tech and a bowl loss to Nebraska. Murray tore an ACL late in the year and Mason had to step in.
It cost the Dawgs a Gator Bowl victory, but if the experience helps Mason early—and the schedule opens with Clemson and South Carolina—then it will be the equivalent of sacrificing a pawn to take a queen.
What I like most about this year’s Georgia team is that the defense is stacked with experience. It’s this unit that’s the sole reason the Bulldogs haven’t been able to break through and win the SEC over the last nine seasons. But they’ve got ten starters back, and Richt plucked a new coordinator off the staff at Florida State.
Thus, Mason steps in with real game experience under his belt, an improved defense to back him up and one of the great running backs in the country in Todd Gurley, an anticipated contender for the Heisman Trophy so long as he can stay healthy. Those are the reasons I think this is Georgia’s year to win the SEC East, capture the conference championship game and make the College Football Playoff.
ALABAMA-AUBURN OUT WEST
It’s purely reputation and recruiting that have Alabama is the heavy favorite in this division, the conference overall, and on a par with Florida State in being considered virtual locks to be in the four-team Playoff.
I won’t say reputation and recruiting are bad reasons to give Alabama this deference, but if it’s the case, I may as well junk my lifetime proclivity for buying college football annuals and seeing who has what players returning. Because based on this, Alabama should have some struggles (relatively speaking) ahead.
There’s a new quarterback, significant rebuilding on defense and a young offensive line. All of that adds up to reasons for looking elsewhere in the SEC West.
And why not start with the program that actually won the SEC West last year and came within a play or two of winning the national championship?
Auburn brings back four starters on that offensive line that was pushing people around and piling up insane rushing numbers by the end of last year. Even with running back Tre Mason gone, I have every confidence head coach Gus Malzahn can plug in another back and keep the yards coming.
In the meantime, Nick Marshall is back at quarterback and should be more polished. The defense has six starters, evenly distributed across the unit’s three layers. The fact Auburn has to visit Alabama this year is a big stumbling block—and by Thanksgiving weekend, the Tide’s experience problems should be in the rearview mirror. But with the raw number of contenders in the West, it’s also possible that Auburn-Alabama won’t be winner-take-all. Thus, I am taking Auburn to win the West.
THREE MORE CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDERS
LSU: The hype in Baton Rouge is about running back Leonard Fournette, an incoming freshman that many feel could have been a top five NFL draft pick out of high school. No pressure on the kid or anything. In a recent interview, head coach Les Miles compared Fournette’s zeal for preparation and winning to that of NBA legend Michael Jordan. Way to keep the hype toned down coach.
The hype machine may be hard on the freshman, but if he’s even a fraction of what everyone says he is, it means LSU won’t miss departed quarterback Zach Mettenberg quite so much. The offensive line is tough. It’s the development of a young secondary that will determine if this team can win the SEC West.
South Carolina: A significant rebuilding job for Steve Spurrier across the board. I know they’ve had a strong run over the past three years, winning 11 games all three seasons. But with no SEC East titles and no major bowl appearances, I feel like the program missed an opportunity.
Florida: I’m filing a protest against including Florida among true championship contenders, but I’m deferring to the betting odds. If you want to tell me Florida will be improved and be a bowl-caliber team again after last year’s 4-8 train wreck, I agree. If you want to tell me they can pull a signature upset (Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and LSU are on the schedule), I suppose I could buy it. But there’s no reason to think the woeful offense that has characterized Wil Muschamp’s tenure here is going to get any better.
BOWL TEAMS & DARK HORSES
Ole Miss: I got on their bandwagon last year, with all the young talent that head coach Hugh Frieze has brought on and was disappointed when the Rebels lost five games. But most of them were close and this might be a case of some of us just getting antsy and jumping on them a year too early. The Rebs will play good defense, Bo Wallace is back at quarterback and the program that got used to playing with some expectations.
Tennessee: The Vols’ SEC title odds are a respectable 15-1 (by comparison Ole Miss is 12-1). I dunno. There isn’t a single returning lineman on either side of the ball and I’m not all that sold on Butch Jones as a SEC-caliber head coach. Tennessee won five games a year ago, I won’t say that getting six and a bowl bid is out of the question, but I can’t see much more than that.
Missouri: It’s a big rebuilding job for Gary Pinkel after last year’s amazing run to the SEC East title. At least Maty Mauk, the new starting quarterback, got some experience last year when James Franklin was injured and led a couple big wins.
Mississippi State: It’s a big year for head coach Dan Mullen. His program was once the rising dark horse in the SEC West, but has started to fall behind. Perhaps an overtime win over Ole Miss last year and a subsequent bowl blowout of Rice will get things back on track. The Bulldogs look strong on defense and have Dak Prescott back at quarterback.
Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, and the Aggies might shift to a more run-oriented approach behind a veteran offensive line. The defense has eight starters back and you have to hope that experience allows this group to make significant strides. Head coach Kevin Sumlin is choosing from underclassmen at quarterback…of course that was also true when he unveiled the freshman Manziel in 2012, and Sumlin is known for his offensive wizardry.
Arkansas, Kentucky and Vanderbilt are all considered longshots and even making a bowl game would be a cause for celebration. With the Hogs and Wildcats, I understand the sentiment. Bret Bielama and Mark Stoops still have considerable building to do and schedules that aren’t very forgiving.
Vanderbilt, I’m not ready to write off so quickly. I know head coach James Franklin is gone for Penn State. But I like the hire of Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason as the new boss. There’s always concerns about whether a successful coordinator will be a good head coach, but Mason did oversee a physically tough unit at Stanford and he’ll make sure the Commodores hit and play the game the right way.
What’s more, the Commodores have players back in both trenches. Mason won’t be without challenges, but I don’t see why Vandy is a 250-1 longshot in the SEC, while Arkansas and Kentucky are at 70-1 and 80-1 respectively. If nothing else, Vanderbilt will be better than both of those teams.
As noted above, the pick in this conference is for Georgia to defeat Auburn in the SEC title game. While I generally avoid making predictions regarding the four-team College Football Playoff until all conference previews are completed, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the SEC champ will be in that group of four.
The question is whether Auburn—or another strong runner-up could join the league champ in the Playoff. That, I’ll leave for when TheSportsNotebook does its final predictions prior to the season opener on August 28. And, as usual, it’s the SEC and South Carolina that will open up the year, as the Gamecocks play Texas A&M on the opening Thursday night.