Photo via Bill Carter.
About 80 hours from now, Missouri's 2012 football season will kick off versus SE Louisiana on what might or might not be a very wet Faurot Field. My full-time work with SBN has put me in the odd position of having previewed all of Mizzou's 2012 FBS opponents ... but not having really previewed them here. Sure, you got pieces on UCF and Arizona State last week, and lord knows we spent a lot of time and words talking about each SEC opponent (sans Tennessee*) in the historical context. But since my 2012 college football preview series wrapped up today (just in the nick of time), I should probably share some links and blurbs with you here, huh?
* I've run out of time on the Tennessee piece, so I'll just have to post it during Tennessee week in November.
|9/22||at South Carolina||X||X||X|
|11/24||at Texas A&M||X||X|
From 2002 to late-November 2008, Mark Richt's Georgia Bulldogs went 73-17. Over the next 29 games, they went just 15-14. Their 10-2 finish in 2011 represented either a temporary surge (aided by a less-than-brutal schedule) or the onset of a recovery, and with the level of experience here, sign me up for the latter.
Make no mistake: the offense still has plenty of question marks. The running backs might have all the potential in the world, but it is still just potential right now. The receiving corps is still a little too reliant on low-efficiency guys at times (not only Tavarres king, but also senior split end Marlon Brown). And the line is quite young. But if the doesn't slip up early, it will be virtually impenetrable, and it should allow Bobo and Richt to play things conservatively (as is their wont) and get away with it. The conservatism I saw in last year's Outback Bowl irked me a bit, and if the offense doesn't click, Georgia will certainly be in danger of losing in trips to Columbia (Missouri), Columbia (South Carolina), Auburn and Jacksonville (to face Florida). I don't think I can consider them a national title contender because of this, but they should certainly be considered the heads of the class in the SEC East this year. Mark Richt is a survivor, and the odds are pretty good that he will become the head of an elite football team, or close to it, again this year.
On Arizona State...
Setting expectations in the first year of a new coaching regime is always difficult, but the schedule may have set the bar for ASU fans in 2012. ASU is initially favored in just a single game this fall, with one other game a pick 'em and three others with a spread of 2.5 points or fewer. Some of the lines (plus-1.5 at home versus Washington State, plus-2.5 at home versus UCLA, and plus-1.5 at Colorado, to name three) are questionable, however. A bowl game might be a stretch, but I'll set the bar at five wins instead of, you know, one.
Todd Graham is quickly making his mark on the Arizona State program. Almost every Arizona State defender lost weight this offseason, which melds well with the thought of him bringing more speed to the table on the defensive side of the ball; plus, Graham signed eight junior college transfers. He has no interest in taking on a three-year (or more) rebuilding project, and that's good because Arizona State doesn't need that much rebuilding. Despite low 2012 expectations, the Sun Devils should still have a strong run game and a solid pass defense. If karma takes it easy on the Sun Devils, a bowl in 2012 is still a reachable goal, a 2013 squad that returns about 15 starters or so could do very good things.
On South Carolina...
After two years and 20 wins, Steve Spurrier's chest is indeed poking out a bit further these days, and he just can't stop himself from needling Georgia whenever possible. Under his watch, the South Carolina football program has become more sturdily-built than ever before. But there are quite a few red flags in regard to this year's team. The schedule does the Gamecocks no favors, forcing them to start the season at Vanderbilt and sending them to Baton Rouge and Gainesville after the big home game versus Georgia. That alone might make it difficult for the Gamecocks to remain in the Top 10 at the end of the season, but considering South Carolina's known weaknesses, the schedule is even trickier. The dicey run defense has to face Vanderbilt, Missouri, LSU and Arkansas. The "questionable until we see how Ace Sanders fares as a No. 1 receiver, and if Connor Shaw can actually make quicker decisions this time around" passing game must face the tremendous Georgia and LSU secondaries, back-to-back.
This season could take so many different turns, especially if luck is not Carolina's friend this time around, but at the same time there is no truly likely loss beyond the LSU game. To me, anything between 7-5 and 11-1 is a distinct possibility. And please don't ask me to commit to either extreme.
Considering the typical velocity of UCF's bounceback seasons, one would assume that UCF fans are aiming high in their team's final year in Conference USA. Still, the schedule is brutal enough to prevent a return to the land of double-digit wins. The Knights visit Ohio State on Sept. 8 and host Missouri on Sept. 29, and they must travel to face another conference favorite, Tulsa, in November. Still, the other three road games (Memphis, Marshall, UTEP) are all winnable enough to set the bar back at eight wins or so and a run at a division title.
Last year, I was quite bearish on O'Leary's Knights. The losses on defense scared me, and I wasn't sure how high the offense's ceiling might be if Jeff Godfrey wasn't able to improve on passing downs. This year, I'm surging in the opposite direction. I really like Bortles and the offense (drops aside), and I just have to assume that, while the defense probably won't play at 2007-10 levels, it will still improve a decent amount, as will, in theory, last year's bad luck. The schedule may preclude double-digit wins, but with East Carolina, Southern Miss and SMU visiting Orlando, it is friendly toward UCF's chances at a return to the Conference USA title game. There is a positive side to Trachselization, and UCF should see that side this fall, as long as chemistry doesn't get in the way.
James Franklin has pretty quickly raised the bar in Nashville, and with his recruiting successes, bigger things might be expected of the Commodores in the future. But after a surge, it is typically best to aim for consolidation of gains the next season. Bowl eligibility would equal major success for Vandy in 2012, especially considering the 'Dores have never actually been to bowls in back-to-back seasons.
That said, the schedule is friendly. Two of Vandy's four in-conference road trips are to Kentucky and Ole Miss (both beatable, to say the least), and South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee must all visit Dudley Field, and it is worth pointing out that Vandy went 5-2 with two tight losses to Georgia and Arkansas at home last year. So you'll forgive Vandy fans for dreaming big.
It's amazing how much can change in one season. James Franklin changed the culture and mentality of Vanderbilt football, he is winning recruiting battles, and he won six games with a pretty inexperienced team a year ago. Honestly, nothing between about four and nine wins would surprise me in 2012, in part because the schedule is favorable and in part because, among other things, Franklin wiped the slate clean last fall. I officially have no idea what to expect from, or where to set the bar for Vandy football moving forward. That, in and of itself, is an amazing vote of confidence for a man by whose hire I was quite underwhelmed a couple of winters ago. Vanderbilt has quickly gone from the Homecoming opponent of choice for much of the SEC East to, at worst, a really tough out. We will see how quickly the young, talented recruits can earn playing time, but in the meantime Vanderbilt is going to simply go about life playing tough, smart football, ready to take advantage of any weaknesses you show along the way.
Fans of exciting, spread-'em-out, offense-heavy football have been going through the five stages of grief when it comes to the rise of Sabanball. Over the last year, many have been transitioning between Stage 3 (Bargaining) and Stage 4 (Depression -- "Why bother?"), but at some point Stage 5 (Acceptance) will set in. Nick Saban has not invented a new way to play football; he just recruits better players than everybody else can and coaches them better than anybody else could.
Alabama isn't going to win the national title every year, and they certainly have just enough potential holes to bite them. If they are occasionally vulnerable to vertical passing attacks like they were in 2010, then trips to Arkansas and/or Missouri could be problematic. If youth is most evident early in the year, then the Week 1 meeting with Michigan in Dallas could present problems. And, of course, the trip to Baton Rouge on Nov. 3 looms large even now.
But Saban is going to continue crafting a remarkable product, even if he isn't worried too much about aesthetics. Be it 10 or 13, his Tide will win a lot of games this year, then sign another top recruiting class, then win a lot more games next year.
Eventually, this potential dynasty will fold. They always do. But "eventually" probably won't come around in 2012.
When you go to five straight bowls and then miss a year, it is easy to set the bar at six wins and bowl eligibility. And to be sure, anything less than that will make this recent blip feel like a more permanent step backwards. But Kentucky plays only three teams projected worse than 50th, meaning they will have to win all three of those games, take out Mississippi State and Vanderbilt at home, and pull an upset to get to six wins. That seems like quite a bit. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 gives UK just a 10 percent chance of reaching bowl eligibility, so I'll set the bar closer to four wins.
It takes quite a few if's to make Kentucky good in 2012, and the schedule doesn't help. The Wildcats will need a serious boost from either last year's bit players or this year's star recruits, and counting on that is typically a good way to lose a lot of games.
Joker Phillips is an easy coach to root for -- he was a star at UK in the early-1980s and worked his way through the coaching ranks for 20 years (from Kentucky, to Cincinnati, to Minnesota, to Notre Dame, to South Carolina, back to Kentucky) before finally getting a shot to guide his alma mater -- but his program's momentum has fizzled, and while he did bring in some interesting pieces in the last couple of recruiting classes, most of the SEC has brought in more. That usually isn't a good sign when it comes to the length of a coaching tenure.
I admit that I sometimes get sucked into what teams look like on paper. I have for teams like Texas A&M this year, and I most certainly did with Florida last year. But while I'm not going to make any "I wouldn't be surprised if this team competes for the national title" proclamations this time around, I have to say it wouldn't surprise me if the Gators were to compete for the East title. They get South Carolina, LSU and Missouri at home, and the best SEC team they play on the road is either Texas A&M or Tennessee. (They play Georgia in Jacksonville, obviously.) That's manageable, even if only some of the former blue-chippers on the roster begin to fulfill potential.
Florida is in an interesting place right now, however. Nobody is intimidated by the Dynasty aura that the Gators perhaps put off a few years ago. Fans of both Texas A&M and Tennessee are probably looking at September visits from Florida as potential wins, and really, the burden of proof is on Florida to once again force teams (and fan bases) to fear them. The expectations are lower this time around, but another 7-6 season in Gainesville would probably place Muschamp on a pretty warm seat heading into 2013. He inherited a bit of a mess, but he's only going to get so long to fix it.
Tennessee ranks 40th in the country in five-year F/+ performance. Fortieth! Boston College ranks 36th, Oregon State 33rd. South Florida ranks 32nd. Pittsburgh, the school from which UT once stole Johnny Majors: 27th.
The Vols have gone 23-27 over the last four years, their worst four-year record since the beginning of the Majors era (21-23-1 from 1977-80). Tennessee is not the pinnacle of the elite in college football, but the fanbase is too large, too passionate, and too aware of past successes to put up with this level of play for too much longer. The Vols stuck with Majors in the 1980s, and it eventually began to pay off (top-10 finishes in 1985, 1989 and 1990), but the consensus seems to be that Derek Dooley is not going to receive the same luxury. Whether he inherited a mess, or whether his lack of success is his own doing, his approval rating is not where he would like it to be in an election year (and in college football, every year's an election year). He needs one tremendous effort from Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Prentiss Waggner, Herman Lathers and company to earn another term in office.
After a year away from the postseason, one would assume that success in 2012 would be defined simply by a return to a bowl game. The schedule might not cooperate very much, however. The Orange have only five true home games (their sixth is a trip to the New Meadowlands to face USC), four of which are against teams projected higher than them. In fact, they play just two teams projected lower than them all season: Stony Brook and Minnesota. The 'Cuse will need to overachieve to reach a bowl, so I'll draw the success-or-not line at a more conservative five wins.
Entering Year 4 of the Doug Marrone era, I am not sure what to think. It took him just two years to lug Greg Robinson's program remnants to a bowl game, but the Orange took a somewhat unexpected step backwards last year. There is average-to-solid talent everywhere (Ryan Nassib, Prince-Tyson Gulley, Alec Lemon, Marcus Sales, Justin Pugh, the linebackers) but very few standouts. And when you have been bowl eligible just once in the last seven years, it is up to you to prove that your one lovely season wasn't simply a fluke. I like this team a little more than their final F/+ projections probably will… but do I like them enough to find six wins on a schedule that includes USC, Missouri and a host of average-to-decent Big East opponents? I can't say I do.
On Texas A&M...
Every year, by mid-October, we reflect on the exploits of some unexpectedly hot, highly-rated team, and we realize we should have seen their rise coming. Last year, it was, to some degree, Clemson (who faded) and LSU (who did not). In 2010, it was perhaps Oregon. I'm not saying Texas A&M will be that team in 2012, but if you're looking for a darkhorse, they are a pretty good one.
Now, the reasons they are a darkhorse instead of an outright favorite are obvious. No matter how they looked on paper, they did only go 7-6 last year. Besides, a green quarterback and a thin defensive line are not exactly assets in the SEC West. But we should be able to tell quickly whether this team is top 15-20 caliber, or simply top 35-40. Florida, Arkansas and LSU must all visit College Station, and trips to Louisiana Tech (in Shreveport), SMU, Ole Miss, Auburn and Mississippi State are all winnable for a top-15 team. Of course, on the flipside, if this is only a top 35-40 team in Sumlin's first season, then a 3-6 start is as likely as 9-0.
Just keep an eye on the Aggies, is all I'm saying. For all I know, they'll lose to Louisiana Tech on the first Thursday of the season, and you can forget I said any of this.
The season is almost here. Commence celebration.