SEC Media Days begin Monday and last until Labor Day. (Slight exaggeration, but only slight. In the league where It Just Means More, It Also Takes Longer.) Fourteen coaches will spend the better part of a week discussing their teams, none of which have practiced since spring. At the end, the weary assembled media will anoint Alabama and Georgia as division favorites.
The contrarian in me would, just for grins, love to pick Ole Miss and Vanderbilt to win the West and East, but we all know that can’t happen. It would mark an upset if, come Dec. 7 under the lately functioning roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, any teams but the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs are on hand. That said, upsets do happen. Alabama has twice won a national title without winning its division. Missouri won the East in back-to-back seasons.
Oh, and one guy – this guy, actually – is on record as believing the 2019 SEC title tilt will NOT match Bama and Georgia. A little while back, this famous fool picked Florida to take the East. (Though Georgia will still make the College Football Playoff. I’m a convoluted contrarian.) Today’s exercise is to locate those teams most apt to spare us another round of Saban vs. Smart, at least for this year – and a couple that won’t contend at all.
Florida: I thought Dan Mullen did nice work at Mississippi State, among the league’s toughest postings. I also recall his best State team being overrun in the Orange Bowl by Georgia Tech. I noticed when Jeremy Foley, Florida’s almighty athletic director, twice declined to hire the former Gators assistant as Head Ball Coach, opting instead for (ugh) Will Muschamp and (oof) Jim McElwain. I also know that current Florida AD Scott Stricklin, who may or may not be my cousin, not only hired Mullen but waxes rhapsodic about his many virtues. And I noted that Mullen’s first band of Gators, which will be his worst for a while, led Georgia in the third quarter last year in Jacksonville. As Bulldogs fans know all too well, Florida under the right coach is always a fortress.
LSU: I’ve never gone back and forth on Ed Orgeron. I consider him no more than a passable interim coach. With another big season, I might need to rethink. Coach O’s Tigers were rather good last year, and not just on defense. Their offense – as overseen by Steve Ensminger, who apprenticed under Ray Goff – proved capable of making the more-than-occasional first down, and their quarterback, the Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow, returns. Most of LSU’s big SEC games will be played in Baton Rouge. The exception, alas, is Alabama.
Texas A&M: The Aggies will win the West within three years. Jimbo Fisher is a big-time coach at a program with big-time resources; he won a national championship in a similar setting. Another plus: Alabama plays in College Station this year. A Saturday to circle: A&M’s Nov. 23 date in Athens could be the key game on the SEC schedule. Both teams could be playing for division titles that day. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Missouri: A smart man who knows a lot about SEC football – he coached in the league – sees the Tigers as a greater Eastern threat than Florida. The Gators play Auburn and LSU from the West; Mizzou gets Ole Miss and Arkansas. Missouri pulled off one of those waiver-wire deals, landing transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant, who’d been rendered redundant at Clemson by Trevor Lawrence. If the Tigers get past Wyoming and West Virginia in the season’s first two weeks, they could start 8-0. The rather massive catch is that Mizzou, as it stands, is ineligible for postseason and therefore ineligible for the SEC title game. An appeal of the NCAA ban is pending.
Kentucky: OK, I’m an alum. I’m also an alum who covered the last UK team that won 10 games. I recall how that turned out. From 10-1 in 1977 with Art Still and Derrick Ramsey, the Wildcats went 4-6-1, 5-6, 3-8, 3-8 and 0-10-1. Mark Stoops has done a fine job, and I doubt his team falls that far. But, as happened 41 years ago, the Kentucky team that won 10 games lost its best offensive player (Benny Snell) and best defender (Josh Allen). I’d be surprised if the Big Blue finishes above fourth.
Auburn: I’d be more than surprised if Gus Malzahn is coaching here next year. He beat Georgia and Alabama – the teams that played for the national title – over two giddy weeks in 2017, after which he levied Arkansas’ interest into a $49 million contract extension. On cue, the schizo Tigers finished the 2018 regular season 7-5, prompting reports that Auburn wanted to fire the guy it just re-upped, which is not atypical for Auburn. Trouble was, it would have cost $32 million to make him go away, spawning further reports that the school was demanding that Malzahn take less money than contractually owed to keep his job, which sounded nuts. Malzahn is still in place, but that seems a temporary thing. The schedule is frightful. By October, you’ll be hearing rumors that Urban Meyer is buying a house on Sougahatchee Lake.