Monday, August 31, 2009

NC State-South Carolina Preview and Prediction

NC State vs South Carolina
Thursday, Sept 3 Raleigh, NC
Line: NCST -4

The college football season kicks off with an ACC vs SEC matchup at Carter-Finley Stadium as the Wolfpack of NC State look for redemption against the South Carolina Gamecocks. Last season, South Carolina thumped the Wolfpack 34-0 in Columbia aided by 171 yards on the ground, their highest total against an FBS opponent all year.

NC State Offense vs South Carolina Defense...

NC State returns ACC Freshman of the year Russell Wilson at QB. Wilson was knocked out of the game last year when the Wolfpack were still in contention. His pinpoint accuracy is very unusual for a young player and he has wheels to make plays with his feet. But expect the sophomore to stay in the pocket more this year because those hits he took on the run contributed to his numerous injuries last year. Redshirt freshman Mike Glennon is backing up Wilson this year and drew rave reviews in the Spring.

The Wolfpack return the core of their offensive line that improved as the year went on. With continued improvement, this unit could be one of the best in the ACC. Last year, NC State was breaking in several lineman that had been switched over from the defensive side of the ball. In their last six regular season games, State ran the ball for 149 yards or more in each game.

Wilson's top targets look to be receivers Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams who combined for over 1000 yards last season. But I am guessing State's main mode of transportation in this game will be on the ground with Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene. Baker is coming off a two year absence but has shown explosiveness in his twelve career starts.

Looking to stop the Wolfpack is a South Carolina defense that smothered NC State in the opener last year allowing just 138 total yards. Coming off the edge will be two really good pass rushers in Eric Norwood and Cliff Matthews. The Gamecocks allowed 133 yards per game on the ground last season which was about middle of the pack for the SEC, but they allowed an average of 237 over their final three.

South Carolina's secondary is replacing 100 career starts. The back four will need the front four to put some pressure on NC State's QBs.

Russell Wilson will contend for ACC Player of the Year, if he stays healthy

South Carolina Offense vs NC State Defense...

Stephen Garcia is the starting QB for South Carolina, but you never know how short Steve Spurrier's hook is. The highly touted prospect has yet to deliver on a consistent basis, but Gamecocks fans are hopeful a quiet off season means the sophomore is focused and ready to go.

South Carolina has a new offensive line coach this year and needs to improve on their rush offense which gained under 100 yards per game last season. It is a bit of a misnomer that Steve Spurrier does not like to run the ball, he just hasn't had the horses to do it recently. Expect Brian Maddox, Kenny Miles, Jarvis Miles, and Bryce Sherman to see action at running back replacing Mike Davis. The Gamecocks are replacing their top two receivers from last year.

Defensively, the Wolfpack return the core of their front seven, but did lose star LB Nate Irving for the season. Last year, State went from over 180 yards per game allowed on the ground to 140. The Gamecocks are more apt to throw than run, so it will be important for State to get pressure on the QB. State finished last in the ACC in pass defense allowing nearly 250 yards per game through the air. If South Carolina gets their running game going it would really help their passing game.

Steve Spurrier hopes his team can execute his game plan


I think Tom O'Brien is one of the underrated coaches in the ACC. He has consistently been able to deliver results above where his recruiting classes are ranked. His trademark is solid play on the offensive and defensive lines and sound decision making leading to minimal turnovers. In other words, his teams are not going to beat themselves. Also, O'Brien has kept his staff intact since arriving in Raleigh.

Spurrier is known to be a very strong tactician when he has time to prepare. South Carolina has won all four openers under Spurrier by at least nine points. If the Gamecocks execute his game plan then they have a very good chance to pull off the upset. Six new assistant coaches are in their first year so it will be interesting to see how the alignments and substitution patters work on both sides of the ball.


I expect State to try and establish the run early with Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene. O'Brien has said Glennon will play in this game so it will be interesting to see how he manages his playing time. I see South Carolina blitzing a lot to get Wilson out of the pocket and to pressure the less athletic Glennon. Also, with new starters in the secondary, the Gamecocks will want their defensive backs in coverage as short as possible.

When South Carolina has the ball, I expect them to try and establish the run game early. But if it does not work, then Spurrier will go to the air vertically. The one thing that could get Garcia pulled is turnovers. If the Gamecocks get the running game going, then they could really put the NC State defense on their heels.

I think South Carolina has some match up advantages and will make this one very close on the road. But I don't think it is enough to overcome a much improved NC State team from a year ago.

NC State 21 South Carolina 20
South Carolina Covers +4

My NC State Preview
My South Carolina Preview

NC State Blogs:
Yet Another NC State Blog
Backing The Pack

South Carolina Blogs:

Leftover Hot Dog
Garnet and Black Attack


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Alabama Preview and Prediction: Will The Tide Win The West?

To say Nick Saban is beloved in Alabama is an understatement

The Alabama Crimson Tide hope 2009 has a much better ending than its beginning. After a 12-0 start, the Tide stumbled against Florida in the SEC Championship and then fell flat on their face against Utah in the Sugar. Still, not many expected an undefeated regular season in year two under Nick Saban; many thought the big jump would come in year three.

With two top flight recruiting classes on campus, might Alabama be ready to play for a BCS Title? To get a better look at the Crimson Tide, I contacted Roll 'Bama Roll for their insight.

Is Alabama going to be better on offense with Greg McElroy at QB?

Its certainly possible that Alabama will be better on offense with McElroy at QB, but not necessarily because it is McElroy at QB. That's not a knock on McElroy by any means.

If you look back through the RBR archives I've been a big booster for him even during the horrible '07 "if he can't beat out Wilson for the start he must be awful" season. He seems like he's a smart, capable game manager that can read the defenses well enough to take whatever they'll give him, and has enough arm to make plenty of throws.

But the biggest reason the offense should be better than last year is that we should actually have better balance in our play calling and a greater ability to generate "explosive" plays. Whereas last year we were really a power run team that prized brutal, chain moving efficiency over big chunks of yardage.

Everyone knows Julio Jones by now, but coming out of fall camp Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks have wowed quite a few people with their play making abilities, while Mike McCoy, Brandon Gibson, and even true freshman Kevin Norwood have looked like they'll be able to contribute in the passing game as well.

Further, the TE position is just as deep as last year and has become a very prominent fixture in our offense. Colin Peek should be an NFL caliber player this season, while Brad Smelley made a big splash as a pass catcher last year as a true freshman. Preston Dial has also been around for awhile and should be able to really break out now that he's out of Nick Walker and Travis McCall's shadow.

And even top of that, Julio is going to be better this year as well. As hard as that may be to believe, he wasn't healthy for most of last year (sports hernia, wrist, and shoulder injuries were all fixed in the offseason) and now that he's been in the system for a year he knows the offense better and has learned enough positions that he can be lined up in more places and better utilized.

The ground game may take a bit of a dip, but it shouldn't be a big one. Mark Ingram (2nd leading rusher last season) is back as is Roy Upchurch, who should have been a star for years now if he could just stay healthy.

The biggest question is whether or not the offensive line can come together as a unit like last year's model. Much has been made about losing Andre Smith, Antoine Caldwell, and Marlon Davis, all of whom were multi-year starters and, in the case of Smith and Caldwell, All-American/SEC selections, and replacing them won't be an easy task.

But Mike Johnson at LG and Drew Davis at RT are solid veterans, while William Vlachos and James Carpenter locked down C and LT, respectively, during the spring and haven't looked back. The only position that has been up in the air is RG, but Barrett Jones has been working there since before the first fall scrimmage and is pretty well entrenched at this point.

If this five can come together and play as a unit and manage to stay healthy and in the same grouping (our two worst offensive showings last season were when players were injured/missing and everyone else had to shuffle to an unfamiliar position) then they have a good shot at reaching the admittedly high bar set by last year's group.

Thousand yard rusher Glen Coffee is gone. Who steps up here to replace him?

Last season Coffee was certainly the main guy in the backfield, but we were using two and three backs in a game throughout the season and are likely to continue on in that philosophy this year.

As mentioned previously, Ingram was the second leading rusher last year and all indications out of camp are that the starting job is his to lose. He's added some bulk to be an even better between the tackles runner (his bread and butter last year) and has also improved as a pass catcher, following his blocks and letting a play develop instead of just trying to bounce outside (something the true freshman in him struggled with last season), and has really made a commitment to be a solid pass blocker as well. He's going to be the guy you see in the primary role at RB this season unless something (knock on wood) unfortunate happens.

We saw what happened without Outland Trophy Winner Andre Smith in the Sugar Bowl. With just two starters back, who has step up on the Alabama offensive line to make it dominant again this year?

Well, first off it wasn't so much that we were without Andre in the Sugar Bowl that led to the offensive implosion, but the way in which we were without him. We had to completely and unexpectedly shuffle our line just a few days before hand and, to add insult to injury (or rather injury to insult in this case), Mike Johnson, who moved over from LG to LT in his place was taken out of the game on our fist offensive series. So its not even that we were working with a line that had only a few days to practice in that particular grouping, we were instantly working with a line that had never played together before, and as any observer of football knows an offensive line's chemistry is a fickle thing that has to be developed over time.

With that being said, I don't think anyone in particular has to step up to make this year's model as dominant as last year's; we've got plenty of talent on the o-line thanks to some solid recruiting over the last few years. But what we do need is for everyone to remain healthy and consistent in their position and not have anyone shuffling out of position mid-game.

Julio Jones hopes his sophomore year is even better than last year

The defense has nine starters back. Are they the best unit in the nation?

That's not entirely accurate. Brandon Fanney, last year's starter at Jack linebacker, transferred over the summer so we really only have eight starters back. That's not a big deal though considering Fanney, solid against the run though he was, was an absolute non-factor in the pass rush (something that really came back to bite us against Florida and Utah) and his departure actually opens the way for guys like Eryk Anders (our best edge rusher last season) and Courtney Upshaw to step in and give us some more production from the Jack. Fanney had also been in the doghouse during spring, sitting several games with the dreaded "undisclosed violations of team rules" and being essentially demoted to the second team defensive line as a pure DE instead of working with the linebackers.

But that's not what you asked. I would happily say that I would put our D up against just about anyone in the country right now with one stipulation: They have to prove that the emphasis on the pass rush that we' ve heard so much about through spring and fall is actually going to materialize this year. That was the one aspect of our defense that was lacking last season, and without it I can't say we're the "best."

With Rashad Johnson gone, who steps up as the leader of the Tide defense?

I'd have to say Rolando McClain is probably the "leader" of the defense at this point. He called the plays along with Johnson last year and is our most experienced linebacker so it will be up to him to really step up and make sure the whole defense is on the same page during the game.

He's not a very vocal leader, though, and that's something he's talked about working on and something that coaches have encouraged him with, but there are a couple of salty vets in the secondary in CB Javier Arenas and SS Justin Woodall.

Woodall will likely be the guy that fills Johnson's play calling shoes in the backfield, but both will be called on to really help make sure the defense is ready and knows the where and what on the field.

Nick Saban has brought in stellar recruiting classes the last two years. Who are the top freshman that could make a significant impact this year?

On defense, Kerry Murphy springs to mind on the defensive line. He spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy before reporting and suffered a tremendous tragedy early in camp with the murder of his brother. He's understandably missed some of fall camp but he's a tremendous talent that will see plenty of time. Likewise, CB Dre Kirkpatrick has worked with the first team defense as an extra DB and is just too good to keep off the field.

On offense, both Kevin Norwood and Trent Richardson have impressed so far in camp at WR and RB, respectively, though Richardson has the much better shot at playing time. The #2 running back in the country last year, he has the kind of speed and power that Saban covets in a running back.

The Alabama defense should be fierce once again

Who do you see as the biggest challenger to the Tide in the West: LSU or Ole Miss and why?

I think both are legitimate challenges, but LSU probably has the edge on the Rebels. They have a ton of talent across the board and with an SEC veteran like John Chavis running the defense they should be back to form after last year's disappointing display.

Ole Miss just has to have too many things go its way to be a lock, but at the same time they are in a very good position with experienced play makers at QB, RB, and WR and a mean front seven to be one of the best offenses in the division. Their biggest knocks are a talent drain on the o-line with none of the new projected starters really impressing and a secondary that finished dead last in the league against the pass last year.

LSU is just the better overall team at this point, though as the season goes on that could very easily change.

How is the mindset of Alabama fans' different going into this years game against Virginia Tech versus last year against Clemson?

I don't know that the mindset really is different, honestly. I think we're certainly more confident in our chances, but at the same time the idea that "we have to win this to prove that we belong here" is exactly the same.

What is your prediction for Alabama?

I hate doing predictions because I'm a total homer and I never pick against the Tide no matter who is on the schedule yet really don't want to be a jinx either, so I'll just say that we have a very good chance to win every game on the schedule and, barring substantial injuries, not winning the division and making it back to Atlanta will be a big letdown.

My Thoughts on Alabama...

While Alabama had a very, very good season last year, the taste left in many people's mouths are the losses to Florida and Utah to end the season. But I think those losses will really fuel Saban and his team to come back strong in 2009.

Offensively, you have to be concerned about losing guys like Smith and Caldwell from the offensive line. A lot will ride on how well those talented, young players can step up. Even with leaving as Alabama's all time leader in total offense, John Parker Wilson, had kind of worn out his welcome in Tuscaloosa. It will be interesting to see how much more dynamic McElroy can be. The skill positions are loaded with talent, just gotta make sure the new line blocks for them. I think I am more concerned about this line than RBR.

On Defense, Alabama could be the best in the nation. I agree with RBR that an improved pass rush is needed. Saban spends a lot of time with DBs so that will help the pass rush, but the best pass defense is a pass rush many times. Where Alabama is very strong is against the run which is paramount in the SEC. Mt. [Terrance] Cody is back for his senior season looking to make more running backs look like pork chops.

At 15/1, I think Alabama is a good sleeper pick to win the BCS title. They have the players, the coach, and a manageable schedule. Starting the season with Virginia Tech will be a doozy as will a trip to Oxford, and home date vs LSU, but the Tide will likely be favored in 10 or 11 games this year. I look for Alabama to win the West again this year and meet Florida, again, in the SEC Championship Game.

My Prediction...
10-2, 6-2, SEC Championship Game

Best Case Scenario: 12-0
Worst Case Scenario: 8-4

Vegas Odds:
BCS Championship 15/1
SEC Championship 9/2 (tied for 2nd)
Win Total - 9.5

Thanks again to Roll 'Bama Roll for their insight.

And Julio Jones is not without his fans either!


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Arkansas Preview and Prediction: High On The Hogs?

Bobby Petrino looks for a big break through in year two

The Arkansas Razorbacks enter year two under Bobby Petrino hoping it goes better than year one. The Hogs started off the season with two close wins over Western Illinois and UL-Monroe, but ended with an upset win over LSU and a 5-7 record. Arkansas has the most starters back in the SEC, but faces the top five teams in the conference. To get a better look at the Razorbacks I contacted Donald Fincher, a featured columnist for Arkansas here on Bleacher Report.

Arkansas has a stable of running backs this year, but Petrino likes to air it out. What changes can we expect on offense in Bobby Petrino's second year?

I don't see one having to exclude the other. In fact, I think you will see more of both. I expect to see more sustained drives this year. If the average drive was, for example, six plays last year, I suspect it will be 8-10 plays this year. That's because Arkansas has a quarterback with a higher ceiling than they did last year and more experienced and varied running backs to compliment their wide receivers which, as a unit, are one of the best in the nation. In other words, I expect more 3rd down conversions leading to more plays meaning a high amount of both running and passing.

According to Chris Low, of ESPN's SEC Blog, Arkansas' running back unit and receiving unit are both in the top 3 of the conference. The only other team that can say this...Florida.

How has Ryan Mallett looked in the off season? Is he ready to lead Petrino's high octane offense?

This depends on the measuring stick. He looked good in the spring. Then he had an atrocious start to two-a-days. But he did not get his head down and impressed Petrino with his determination and had a very strong finish. But, unlike previous years when Arkansas really hasn't had much of a backup, Petrino is too smart to not have one.

Tyler [Wilson] is coming along just fine and can ably step in if Mallett gets injured or is just having an off game. Bottom line is that Mallett's bad start to two-a-days was rumored to be because the coaches were making some necessary changes in his footwork that he was having to adapt to. With these changes now mostly implemented, he has already improved his accuracy and his ceiling has gone even higher. Arkansas will also have what they have been missing since the Clint Stoerner years (late 90's) and that is the ability to throw vertically when necessary; Mallett has the arm strength.

Highly touted QB Ryan Mallett returns home to Arkansas to lead the Razorbacks this year

Two starters are gone on offensive line, but five are back who made starts last year. How much can this unit improve in '09?

This is the question of the season right here. The Hogs are loaded at the skill positions and have a master tactician in Petrino calling the plays. If they get good blocking, they could be one of the highest scoring teams in the nation. However, the offensive line is a question mark. While the returning starters are more experienced, they did lose an All-American center in Jonathan Luigs.

Centers are vital to anchor the line and the player who is selected to start in that role will be filling big shoes. How fast this young man grows into those shoes could make or break Arkansas season in those critical one or two toss-up games that could be the difference between 8-4 or 6-6.

The Hogs lost 47 starts to injury a year ago, third most in FBS. Who really needs to stay healthy this year for Arkansas to compete for the SEC West crown?

On offense, I know that Smith (1000+ yard rusher) was a small back and just got dinged up by the end of the year. And there was a receiver or two that went down, but Arkansas had more receivers than good, eligible backs last year so not that worrisome. On defense, both the linebacking corp and the secondary unit were not real deep to start with and were pretty decimated by mid-season. This goes a long way to explaining why the defense was among the worst in the SEC last year.

There is now a plethora of skill players and secondary and linebacker players. Therefore, I would say it would have to be the linemen, especially offensive linemen.

The defense returns the top 10 tacklers. Where is the strength of this unit?

As I mentioned in the injury question, it's an upgrade to just get everyone off of injured reserve. However, Petrino made it a point to get some quality pass defenders and pass rushers this recruiting cycle. So, Arkansas should be much improved in the secondary and coming off the edges. In fact, Arkansas signed one of the top secondary players in the country last year in Darius Winston and he will see playing time this year. He was from Arkansas which helped the recruiting process or he probably would not be wearing Razorback red for his college career (just being realistic here).
With a little better luck on the injury front, the offense keeping them off the field more, and the offense and special teams combining to keep the defense from defending a short field, we could see this defensive unit make great strides this year.

What about the biggest weakness for a defense that ranked last in the SEC?

As I eluded to in the previous answer, I am a firm believer that all 3 units must play defense. The offense can't turn the ball over or leave the defense on the field 3/4's of the game. The special teams can't give up 30+ yards routinely on punt coverage. And, of course, the defensive unit itself must do its job no matter what hand they've been dealt by the offense of special teams. It's a collective effort.

A prime example of this concept is Florida State. If you think about it, back when Florida State had great offenses was when they also were considered to have great defenses. In other words, their defenses used to get help that, starting with the Jeff Bowden offensive coordinator era, it no longer got. Their defensive stats suffered because they were constantly given a short field to defend, typically on the field more than the offensive unit, and constantly playing from behind because they weren't scoring (which exacts a psychological burden on the defense).

Therefore, it cannot be understated the effect that the Razorback offense (or lack thereof) and special teams put last year's defensive unit "in the hole" with short fields and short rests on numerous occasions. At times, by the end of the game, if the defense wasn't just overly tired, they were demoralized. The Alabama game comes to mind. And just simply being on the field more made them more susceptible to the injury bug.

The offensive part of that equation got better as the year progressed and will be even better this year. Special teams has been an area of particular emphasis this off-season so I foresee that getting better too.

Who are the top freshman this year Fayetteville?

Winston was the prize recruit from this past year's cycle. He was the number one cornerback nationwide last year according to most recruiting services. He will add immediate help in the secondary. I haven't seen him yet but I've had acquaintances that have seen him say that he is in the mold of a Deon Sanders type of lock-down cornerback. That's pretty exciting.

Also, Arkansas had good running backs last year but that stable was significantly upgraded with two premium recruits and a transfer from none other than USC. The names are Ronnie Wingo, Kniles Davis, and Broderick Green (transfer from USC). There was a question of transfer eligibility on Green although the NCAA has a loophole if a student moves because of a gravely ill family member which was the case here and he was cleared to play in July.

So Arkansas adds a back that came from USC and two other 4/5 star backs with him. They are now officially "loaded" at that position. And Wingo is also known for catching out of the backfield too.

The Razorbacks came from the old SWC to the SEC in the early 90s. Who do the fans consider their biggest rival today?

This is a good question. And the answer is that I don't know that there really is one. Arkansas and South Carolina entered the league at the same time and are each other's fixed opponent from the other side of the bracket. However, because of the distance and the fact that Arkansas has pretty much owned that series, it's not really rivalry material.

There have been efforts made on both sides of the Arkansas/LSU rivalry to cultivate that game with a trophy given to the winner every year. Because of the proximity of the two schools, both of them being in the SEC West, the fact that it's the last game of the season for each and, prior to the dominance of LSU recently, they were fairly evenly matched, it seemed like it would take off as a rivalry. However, it's been a streaky rivalry at best. Arkansas has won the last two. Before that LSU won the last four.

The next closest SEC schools geographically are the Mississippi schools but Arkansas has been so dominating over them that there isn't much rivalry. With Houston Nutt now prowling the sideline over there at Ole Miss, that might heat up. However, Nutt has a tendency to start strong with someone else's players and then fizzle to mediocrity. He took some great recruits from Danny Ford and took them to the Capital One Bowl in his first year at Arkansas. Within 2 seasons, Arkansas was 5-6.

He took some great recruits from Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss and went to the Cotton Bowl last year. And, within a couple of years, I expect he'll be back to his inconsistent "on again/off again" ways that led to his dismissal at Arkansas. In other words, if Nutt stays there and Petrino stays at UA, I see this becoming one-sided again soon.

Arkansas had a little rivalry with Tennessee early on because the way the rotation worked when Arkansas first joined the conference, they were rotating onto the schedule quite often. However, the conference schedule rotation was changed a few years back and Arkansas will now only face them two years out of every eight so it's hard to make much out of that.

Really, I think most fans would rather beat 'Bama than anyone else. This is largely because Bama is the first SEC game every year for Arkansas so winning it means being 1-0 in conference and figuratively pushing your nose out in front of the conference division race while losing it means being behind the 8-ball the rest of the way trying to catch up.

I still vividly remember this scene the same night Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons

The Razorbacks face arguably the top five teams in the SEC. Can they upset one of them and why?

I presume you are talking about Florida, Bama, Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss? My personal prediction is that Arkansas will win one or two of those games. More on that below.

What is your prediction for Arkansas?

I see Arkansas winning their 4 non-conference games which are: Missouri State, Texas A&M, Eastern Michigan, Troy. I see Arkansas losing the following three conference games: Florida, Alabama, LSU.

As for the other five conference games, I'll offer both predictions and short comments:
Georgia - This is a trendy upset pick. Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit have already picked the Hogs. Georgia plays Oklahoma State, a top 15 team, at their place to open the season. If that goes poorly and then they don't bounce back against South Carolina, they could be a team in total disarray given their always lofty expectation. I see Arkansas winning if they can keep the crowd in it and Georgia comes in psychologically shattered. However, I see it as a toss-up otherwise.

Auburn - Auburn is breaking in a new coach and a new offensive coordinator. Auburn was the only team Arkansas beat last year before the surprise win to end the season with LSU. Auburn doesn't really have a strong QB where Arkansas does. This is a home game for Arkansas. I see Arkansas winning this one.

Ole Miss - This is a tough one. Arkansas should have beaten Ole Miss last year but for a disputed play in the late 4th quarter. Still, it was a only a two point differential between Petrino's team that finished 5-7 and Ole Miss team that won the Cotton Bowl. In other words, Petrino is the better coach here and I think it will start to show by 2010 at the latest. However, I think the Hogs get it done this year, one year ahead of schedule. However, I'll admit that this just may be a habit of my years of assuming the Ole Miss game as a win since historically it has been.

South Carolina - This is a home game for Arkansas. Spurrier has never really had solid QB play at South Carolina. Arkansas has the advantage in this series. I see Arkansas winning it.

Mississippi State - Last year was the first time in a decade that Mississippi State beat Arkansas. This is a home game for Arkansas and Miss. State is breaking in all new coaches. Most prediction services don't predict them to win a conference game. I agree with that. All Hogs here.

My final prediction is that I will be wrong about one of these five games. This isn't a question of confidence in my picks or admitting that I'm being too much of a "homer." This is a matter of anyone that knows anything about math will tell you that the odds of me getting five of five right here are slim. When I get five out of five right, I'll stop blogging and permanently move to Las Vegas. Therefore, I'll fade these five games down to a 4-1 result and when matched up with the "guaranteed" wins and losses mentioned above, I predict Arkansas will go 8-4, land in a middle tier bowl game (Music City, Peach, or Cotton), and win that game to improve their final record to 9-4.

Furthermore, after this year's result, and with Florida dropping from the schedule for 2010, I see Arkansas being pre-season top 15-20 to start the following year.

My Thoughts on Arkansas...

Arkansas is a chic sleeper pick to make a big jump in year two under Petrino. Mallett was one of the top QB recruits in the nation a few years ago and is a classic drop back passer like Petrino wants. I agree with Donald that Arkansas is loaded at the running back position. But the offensive line is going to make or break this offense and despite its losses has four players with 10+ starts.

Donald brought up some good points about the defense suffering last year because of the offense. But Petrino has never been known for defense and I think the Hogs will be middle of the pack at best in the SEC.

The former Louisville coach gets a ton a flack for frequent coaching movements, but there is no doubt in my mind he can coach and can win in the SEC. Petrino played a lot of young players last year that will pay dividends this year. Arkansas may have the toughest slate in the SEC outside of LSU. This team will be much improved but because of the schedule I don't think it translates into a lot more wins as Arkansas is behind the big three in the West.

My Prediction...
7-5, 3-5, Bowl Game

Best Case Scenario: 9-3
Worst Case Scenario: 6-6

Vegas Odds:
BCS Championship 75/1
SEC Championship 25/1 (8th)
Win Total - 7

Thanks again to
Donald for his insight.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ole Miss Preview: Rebel Revival Is Alive and Well in Oxford

Tailgating in The Grove is a sight to see in Oxford!

To say optimism is high in Oxford is an understatement. The Ole Miss Rebels enter 2009 with their sights set on their first trip to Atlanta and an outright SEC West title. The only team to beat Florida last year, has one of the nation's best returning QBs in Jevan Snead and carries the momentum from a Cotton Bowl upset of Texas Tech towards this season. To get a better look at Ole Miss, I talked with one of the best Rebel Blogs The Red Cup Rebellion.

After a Cotton Bowl Win and now a top 10 preseason ranking, what has the atmosphere been like around the Rebel program this off season?

The atmosphere has been unbelievable. To finish the season by obliterating our two chief rivals (31-13 over LSU and 45-0 over Mississippi State) and thumping a top-10 team in a New Year's Day bowl before realizing that you return a majority of your starters along with your chief offensive play makers is naturally a thrilling experience.

People were certainly excited during the 2003 season, which saw a senior, Eli Manning, lead the Rebels to a 7-1 SEC record, but I doubt any were this excited before the season even started. All of the ESPN love, Sports Illustrated covers, and constant chatter surrounding the program seem only to fuel this fire. It is truly a spectacle.

Are we going to see any tweaks in QB Jevan Snead's game in year two under Houston Nutt?

Halfway through last season, something clicked. I have no idea what it was, but it caused Jevan to change from the talented, but reckless gunslinger (10 TD and 10 INT through 7 games) into the deadly accurate offensive leader (16 TD and 3 INT through 6). He stopped forcing plays to happen, and began allowing them to happen. He threw fewer errant passes, took the occasional sack, and minimized the heroics in favor of simply getting the job done. During that time, the coaches gave him increasingly authority and opportunity to check plays and call audibles because, frankly, he earned it.

I would expect more of the same development through this upcoming season. Kent Austin, the Rebels' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, has a ton of confidence in Snead and is rumored to have designed a whole slew of new plays which will hopefully maximize Snead's abilities.

Jevan Snead made a pretty good choice to transfer after backing up Colt McCoy at Texas

The line looks like the biggest question mark on offense. Who steps up and replaces the two starters gone?

With regards to replacing Maurice Miller at right guard, a steady rotation including Brandon Green, Rishaw Johnson, and others should certainly suffice. Miller was a gigantic bulldozer, but he's hardly irreplaceable. Michael Oher, on the other hand, is irreplaceable. He will certainly go down as one of the greatest linemen in the history of SEC football. Sophomore Bradley Sowell has the frame to be an excellent left tackle, but hasn't near the necessary experience or skillset to replace Michael Oher. If he can get decent-to-good, we Rebels will be satisfied with him.

Coach Nutt's latest recruiting class did feature Bobby Massie, a gigantic tackle out of Virginia with offers from Virginia Tech, Georgia, Alabama, and others. While not expected to be a legitimate left tackle as a true freshman (even Michael Oher did not play left tackle as a freshman), Massie could step in during certain situations or fill in at some guard spots. He is just too big and too strong to keep off of the field.

The defense returns most of the starters from a year ago, but loses four of the top five tacklers. Who needs to step up?

The biggest losses are Peria Jerry and Jamarca Sanford. Jerry, a first round pick in last year's NFL draft, was last season's most dominant nose tackle in the SEC by a very long shot. His endless motor and vicious nasty streak made him the cornerstone of a defense which led the nation in tackles for a loss. Replacing Jerry will be a rotation of tackles, all of whom saw legitimate playing time last season. Jerrell Powe, Ted Laurent, nor Lawon Scott will individually be as reliable as Peria Jerry, but as a unit they should be fine.

Sanford, a second-day pick by the Minnesota Vikings, was a hard-hitting strong safety. He will be missed in run support, but hardly in coverage where his skills were marginal at best. Replacing him will be Johnny Brown, an athletic safety who was slated to start last season's opener until sidelined with a hamstring injury.

The other top tacklers lost to graduation would be a pair of linebackers: Tony Fein and Ashlee Palmer. Very few Rebels are worried about the void they have left. While both were excellent (Fein was a leader and tough in run support while Palmer was athletic and consistent), neither were full-fledged starters. They shared a significant amount of playing time with guys who will get the starting nods this year.

Replacing Fein at MLB will be Johnathan Cornell and replacing Palmer on the weak side will be Patrick Trahan. Both Cornell and Trahan are legitimate SEC caliber linebackers who saw a great deal of playing time towards the end of last season. Folks may remember Trahan as the linebacker who dropped Graham Harrell for a safety in the Cotton Bowl.

Will star DE Greg Hardy be 100% for the opening game after the auto accident this summer?

I doubt Hardy will be truly 100% until a few weeks into the season. His foot injuries have nagged him for years and I won't ever believe a healthy Greg Hardy until I see a healthy Greg Hardy. If he were to be 100% healthy though, he would lead the conference in sacks by a wide margin. He only saw limited reserve action in nine games last season, but still managed to tally 8.5 sacks. If he were a starter through 12 (or 13, or 14) he could easily pull in 13, 14, or even 15 sacks on the season. I swear I'm not kidding at all here.

Who are the impact freshman this year?

There could be several, but the Rebel freshman most folks will become acquainted with by the end of the season is Patrick Patterson. Patterson, the Magnolia State's #1 overall recruiting prospect last season, is a 6'3", 220lb wideout with large hands, long arms, and incredible leaping ability. He could easily be one of this season's star freshman wideouts a la Alabama's Julio Jones or Georgia's AJ Green from last season.

D.T. Shackleford at linebacker, Rodney Scott at tailback, and even Raymond Cotton at quarterback (there are rumors of him being used in certain packages) could see significant playing time this season as well.

The Rebels are coming into the year with a lot of hype, but some are skeptical with Houston Nutt as a favorite. Tell me why Ole Miss is for real this year?

Recently, we conducted a position-by-position breakdown of this upcoming team to the last legitimate Rebel contender for the SEC: Eli Manning's 2003 squad. We determined that Eli is a better quarterback than Jevan and was blessed with having a better offensive line. That's it. Jevan Snead's 2009 Rebels have a better stable of halfbacks, more talented receivers, and a defense which dwarfs its counterpart in size, speed, and talent.

Don't know what Houston is pointing to, but Rebel fans hope it is an SEC Championship

Who do you see as the bigger challenge in the West: LSU or Alabama and why?

We've been asked this question a million times, so the answer may seem a bit rehearsed, but it's Alabama by a mile. Why? We lost to Alabama last season. We spanked LSU. It's really that simple. Sure, there's the idea that LSU's hype is based solely on their deceptively dominant Chick Fil-A Bowl victory (GA Tech had seven turnovers while nearly matching LSU's offensive output) and the fact that, simply, they're LSU. They were dominant over no in-conference foe last year, with their largest margin of victory over an SEC school coming in the form of a 34-24 victory over a horrible Mississippi State team.

People are talking about Jordan Jefferson, but we're not buying it yet. He was mediocre against us in a loss, lost to Arkansas (completing less than 50% of his passes against their porous secondary) and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt against Georgia Tech. In case you were wondering, that's worse than Mississippi State's quarterbacks did against GA Tech.

All-SEC halfback Charles Scott is not impressive against stout run defenses (he averaged one yard per carry against the Rebels) and, unless John Chavis is just that good of a coordinator, their defense won't be worlds better from last seasons. Alabama though, while not possessing the same offensive power they did last season, should have what may become the best defense in America. You can't help but find Alabama as the bigger challenge.

What is your prediction for Ole Miss?

We'll be having our previews and predictions up on our site a few days before kickoff. Without giving any away, I'll say that anything less than 8-4 would be disgusting, something around 10-2 makes sense, and something like 12-0 is almost impossible.

My Thoughts on Ole Miss...

I will admit I have been a skeptical of Ole Miss, but the Red Cup Rebellion is making me think twice. Most years, Jevan Snead would be the best QB in the SEC and he would have arguably the best skill position players, but Florida takes that title this year.

I am very concerned about the offensive line and concerned about the defensive line for the Rebels (added for clarification). This is where they won a lot of their game last year with All SEC T Michael Oher leading the charge on offense and dominant DT Peria Jerry on the defense. Ole Miss has to find more than suitable replacements here to win the West.

The schedule is about as forgiving as one can be in the SEC. Ole Miss gets Alabama and LSU to come to Oxford with no Florida or Georgia from the East. I think we will find out by October 3rd if this team is for real when they travel to South Carolina (Sep 24) and Vanderbilt (Oct 3). This is two teams the Rebels lost to last year in games surrounding the Florida win. If Ole Miss wants to be a big boy they have to win these games!

This is the year for Houston Nutt to shake the perception he can't cut it when he is the hunted. He has better talent than he ever had at Arkansas (mostly thanks to Ed Ogeron), an All-SEC QB, and a schedule that is very manageable. If he isn't going to do it this year, I don't know if he ever will.

My Prediction...
9-3, 5-3, New Years Bowl

Vegas Odds:
BCS Championship 25/1
SEC Championship 9/2 (tied for 2nd)
Win Total - 9

Thanks again to Red Cup Rebellion for their insight.

Ole Miss players celebrate the Cotton Bowl upset of Texas Tech


Monday, August 24, 2009

LSU Preview and Prediction: Tigers Look For Rebound

LSU enters 2009 hoping for redemption after a five loss campaign in 2008, the most ever for a defending BCS Champion. Les Miles brought in a new defensive coordinator, John Chavis the longtime Tennessee DC, in hopes of improving a unit that was gouged at times a year ago. Also, the QB situation seems to be settled after a year of shaky play. The Tigers have a lot of talent in Baton Rouge and to find out if they are ready to contend again we talked with And The Valley Shook.

LSU went 8-5 last year, but lost three of their last four before destroying a hot Georgia Tech team in the Chick Fil A Bowl. How do you explain the up and down season?

The up-and-down season was directly related to our quarterback play and the fact that our schedule got tougher as the season went on. Jarrett Lee started out the season pretty well. We got through the Mississippi State game with Lee still playing pretty solid football, but then things started to fall apart for him. He was throwing more and more interceptions, and while early in the season he had been making good plays to partially make up for the interceptions, he stopped making the plays and kept throwing the interceptions.

It also didn't help that Andrew Hatch got hurt in mid season. Hatch had only slightly more talent for quarterbacking than I do, but he was a steadying influence, an overachiever who took a lot of pressure off of Lee. When he got hurt, Lee lost that security of knowing there was someone behind him who could do good things, and he did not respond well.

Two of the three losses you mention were to very good teams: Alabama and Ole Miss. The third one occurred when Jefferson was making his first start [against Arkansas].

It also didn't help that apparently the relationships between the players and the defensive staff appeared to deteriorate at around this time.

Who is the real Jordan Jefferson? The one we saw against Arkansas or the one we saw in the bowl win?

I think the real Jordan Jefferson is closer to the one we saw in the Chick Fil-A Bowl than the one we saw before. If you watched the Arkansas game, you saw a quarterback that the coaches just didn't trust to open up the playbook. You also saw a lot of freshman mistakes, which is perfectly understandable, considering he was a freshman making his first ever start, against an SEC team in late-season form no less. Against Georgia Tech, he was playing with more practice reps under his belt, and with a more varied playbook in his head. He developed rapidly between the end of the regular season and the bowl game.

This is not to say we are not concerned. Going into a season with a true sophomore starting quarterback with two career starts is not the equivalent of sleeping on clouds, but we are cautiously optimistic that Jordan Jefferson will make some plays over the course of the season.

In what role will we see talented true freshman Russell Shepard?

I think you will see Russell Shepard in a Percy Harvin-esque role of being a hybrid runner/receiver, with some Pat White thrown in, as he will spend time behind the center. The word sneaking out of camp is that Shepard is the real deal, and quite possibly an immediate impact player as a runner. I don't think you'll see Shepard as an over-the-middle receiver or anything like that, but I think we'll see some short passes and screens to him to try to give him the ball with a little space. You'll also see sweeps and draws being run to him.

I was hoping he would be given a chance as a return man. If you watch his high school videos, you see a young player with a knack for seeing where the space is and a knack for making a move on a player to get past him and then running away from him. That sounds like a step-by-step recipe for a punt returner. Of course, he also has to be able to catch a wobbly punt falling from 30-40 yards in the air with 220 pound gunners running at him and wanting to hit him very hard, which is not a trivial skill at all.

Three starters are back on the offensive line. Will this unit be better in '09 or stay about the same?

I think the offensive line will be a strength of the team. We are still worried about the center position, where we have to replace one of the great overachieving players of the decade in Brett Helms. A couple of young players are fighting to take his place and we don't know how that will turn out. We also have to replace Herman Johnson, who always sort of left us wanting more. 
Josh Dworaczyk (pronounced "duh-ROSS-ick") is getting raves in camp. I expect second-year starter Joseph Barksdale to make a big jump in his production at right tackle, and of course, it's a great luxury to have the steady play of 4-year starter Ciron Black at left tackle, who could have taken his game to the NFL after last season. Lyle Hitt at right guard doesn't wow anyone, but he brings a lot of experience as a 3rd year starter.

 Les Miles hopes to lead his team to Atlanta and maybe Pasadena

What can new DC John Chavis do for a defense that ranked 10th in the SEC in total defense and last in pass defense?

We sure hope that John Chavis can do a lot. The first thing he can do is get players into the right position. Last year, our best safety (Chad Jones) was our dime back and filled in as linebacker or rover. Our best cornerback (Patrick Peterson) didn't start until around game 9. Our starting strong safety was too slow for the position. We've moved that strong safety (Harry Coleman) to linebacker, and the dime back (Chad Jones, arguably the best athlete ever to attend LSU (seriously, he chased down Darren McFadden from behind when McFadden was in a dead sprint, and he was the best left-handed pitcher on the baseball team this year)) has been made the cornerstone of the safety group.

After putting players in their correct positions, his next task is to make sure none of them are confused about where they're supposed to line up or what their assignments are on any particular play. Last year, you could visibly see defenders looking to the sideline to be given the signal on what they were supposed to do as the ball was being snapped. You could also see players rushing on and off the field while the offense was set to snap. I've never seen anything like it at this level. It is no surprise that under these circumstances, the defense failed so miserably.

Given that, it's not going to be hard to upgrade that system. Chavis has not completely avoided criticism in his career. He has been criticized for being too passive on 3rd and long, and I wonder about his reported nickel- and dime-package strategies for this year, but we're going to be a lot better at defense this year than we were last year.

The defensive line lost four players with at least seven starts last year? Who is going to step up here and continue the tradition of strong LSU lines?

Along with quarterback, defensive line is probably the biggest question mark on the team. We really will have to replace a lot of talent and experience. The good news is that we have a defensive end who was a backup last year but really should have been a starter. Rahim Alem was an impact defensive end last year, but in another great move by the defensive coaches, he was only put in the game in obvious passing situations, even though the starter was generally unproductive.

The starter was Kirston Pittman, who was very good in 2007, but for whatever reason did not seem to have it in 2008. At least one service named Rahim Alem as 1st team All-SEC after the season due to his high sack number, which is amazing when you consider that he did not start a game for LSU.

We have a defensive tackle we think can be an impact player as well. Drake Nevis has been waiting his turn, and some have said he should have been given his turn a little earlier. He has had some minor nagging injuries in his career, but when healthy and given a chance to play he has always played very well. If he can stay healthy and can take the pounding of being a starter rather than a situational substitute, he could be an excellent player for us.

The other tackle spot will see a rotation of Al Woods and Charles Alexander, both of whom are big space eating seniors. Woods has struggled with inconsistency and poor technique, while Alexander has struggled with injuries (he's a 6th year senior). When Alexander was at his best (early in the 2007 season before he tore his ACL (again)) he was outstanding. Last year he was clearly not 100%. We're hoping he's healthy and that the new defensive staff can get more out of Woods than the previous one could.

The really big question on the defensive line is the depth. Outside of the people named, every one of our defensive linemen is going to be a freshman or a redshirt freshman. We will have to use at least an 8-person rotation, and we just don't know what those last 3 will give us.

Which freshman are going to make a significant impact this year?

Russell Shepard will probably be the biggest impact freshman, for reasons we've already discussed.

In addition to him, we will be looking to true freshman wide receiver Rueben Randle to be a contributor. He was the #1 receiver in the country in the 2009 class according to the services. I don't think we're going to see Julio Jones- or AJ Green-like immediate production from Randle, in part because we already have a couple of very good and experienced receivers ahead of him, but he should be an important part of the wide receiver rotation. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he starts the season as our #3 receiver behind Brandon Lafell (the leading receiver in the SEC last year in both receptions and touchdown receptions).

We will see freshmen play on the defensive line as well. There is just a necessity there. It may be redshirt freshmen, such as defensive tackle Lavar Edwards or defensive ends Chase Clement or Chancey Aghayere, or it could be true freshmen like Michael Brockers (maybe the next Tyson Jackson), Josh Downs, Chris Davenport (consensus 5-star, but still a little raw), or Sam Montgomery (maybe the next Rahim Alem).

If safety Craig Loston can get cleared by the [NCAA] Clearinghouse and if he's healthy enough to play (he may need wrist surgery), I would expect him to be an impact player on special teams immediately. If he could have enrolled in school when the rest of the players enrolled at the beginning of summer, I think he could have competed for the strong safety spot alongside Chad Jones.

The coaches love offensive lineman Chris Faulk, who could be Ciron Black's backup and heir apparent. Running back Michael Ford is drawing raves, but the depth at that position is daunting, with 3 seniors and a junior among the running backs he is competing with. Any number of other freshmen could contribute on special teams as well.

The SEC West looks like a three headed monster with Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU. The Tigers face both on the road, but who do you think presents the bigger challenge: Alabama or Ole Miss?

I think Alabama is the better overall team if both are healthy (factoring in that Ole Miss DE Greg Hardy is NEVER healthy), but you always have to be wary of a team with a really good quarterback like Jevan Snead. It's really hard to answer that question right now, because I'm really not even thinking about games that far into the season.

By then, accumulated injuries (or lack thereof) will have impacted all three of these teams, and we'll know more about what the new starters and young players can do. Right now, I say that Bama is the scarier team because they have a lot more talent on defense.

 The Tigers hope to reverse their fortunes against Ole Miss and Alabama this year

What is your prediction for LSU?

I have an idiosyncratic opposition to doing predictions. I invented a new scientific principle called "football chaos theory." It tells us that the outcome of a football game is determined by a number of factors that cannot be reliably predicted and that too much randomization goes into the game to make a good prediction.

Sure, we can say that LSU is likely to beat the University of Washington, but we don't know that for certain. Those who think they can predict the outcome of football games, particularly those that are months in the future, are fooling themselves.

I will say that I think we have a very good team capable of beating anyone if things go right and certain players and positions develop, and if we avoid crushing injuries. I think there are five games on the schedule that scare me (Georgia, Florida, Ole Miss, Bama, and Arkansas). The season will probably be determined by the outcomes of those games, but there are certainly other teams out there that can pull an upset on us if they bring their best game and we do not.
My Thoughts on LSU...
The Bengal Tigers have about as much talent as any team in the nation, but like Richard said they need to get it in the right places.  Jordan Jefferson looked very good in the bowl game and I think he should be a much better QB this year.  The lack of ability at that position last year cost LSU a couple of games with turnovers.  There is plenty of talent at the skill positions for Jefferson to get the ball to.  The line is of some concern, considering for all the talent they have had here, it has not been as dominant as it should have been the past few years.

Defensively, Chavis should be a steadying force on a defense full of talent but lacking direction a year ago.  Six of the top seven tacklers return and we should see much better numbers this year. Despite some losses, the defensive line is still one of the most physically imposing units in the nation.
I think Les Miles is a good coach and don't understand why he is not taken more seriously as one of the best in the nation.  He does have a BCS Championship which most coaches cannot say.  That said, this is a big year for Miles to quiet the critics after a very disappointing season a year ago.  He needs to quiet the critics who say he cannot when without Nick Saban's players.

However, LSU does not get any scheduling breaks playing both Florida and Georgia from the East while having to face West favorites Alabama and Ole Miss on the road. 

My Prediction...
9-3, 5-3, Bowl Game

Best Case Scenario: 10-2
Worst Case Scenario: 8-4

Vegas Odds:
BCS Championship 20/1
SEC Championship 9/2 (tied 2nd)
Win Total - 8.5

Thanks again to And The Valley Shook for their insight.

Tiger Stadium at night is a sight to behold


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Florida Gators Preview: Will They Go Undefeated?

Tim Tebow has a few fans in Gainesville

In case you have not heard, the Florida Gators are the defending BCS Champions and they return just about everyone this year. Led by former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, Florida is looking to repeat and this time with an undefeated season; something the Gators have failed to do in their three other national title seasons. To get a better look at the Gators, I asked Thomas Goldkamp who runs Florida Gator Stop and the SEC Sports Hub.

The Gators are a consensus number one, but they are not perfect. Where is the biggest weakness for this team?

There are two glaring weaknesses for this team despite all the projections that have the Gators in the BCS National Championship Game. The first, and the obvious one, is at the wide receiver position. Florida must find a way to replace all-world play maker Percy Harvin, as well as reliable senior Louis Murphy.

Harvin's play making ability will be irreplaceable, and the Gators will have to find different ways to accomplish everything that Harvin did by himself. Look to wide receiver Deonte Thompson, who has a similar skill set to Harvin and has really impressed in fall practice to fill the majority of Harvin's role as a receiver who can make plays after the catch.

Wide receiver Riley Cooper has also stepped up in a big way and will likely be the other go-to guy for the Gators. Cooper is one of the best down field blockers in the nation and the Gators got a huge boost when Cooper elected to return for his senior season despite signing a professional baseball contract with the Texas Rangers.

The second weakness, which isn't quite as pressing, is the offensive line. The Gators lost both starters at tackle, as well as a valuable contributor at guard. Replacing them won't be easy. Carl Johnson should step in seamlessly at guard and provide the Gators with one of the toughest interior offensive lines in the nation, along with Maurkice and Michael Pouncey.

Sophomore Matt Patchan has won the left tackle spot and Marcus Gilbert has locked down the right tackle spot. Experience will be at a premium for the unit, so the Gators could struggle early on up front offensively.

Fill in the blank for me. Tim Tebow has to _____ to become the greatest college football player of all time.

"continue to do what he has done for the past two seasons"

Tebow is on pace to etch himself forever into college football lore. Simply put, if Tebow continues to be as good as he has been the past two seasons, the Gators have enough talent elsewhere to win another National Championship. If he improves significantly in his final year, Tebow will likely have three National Championships and two Heisman Trophies to his name when he leaves Gainesville.

Tebow has a chance to become the greatest
college player ever this year under Urban Meyer

What changes are we going to see with new OC Steve Addazio?

Despite losing offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, the Gators' offense doesn't figure to change much under Steve Addazio. Play calling has always been a group affair under Urban Meyer and that won't change this year. The Gators will have to adjust to having a different guy in the press box giving looks from up top.

In addition to a joint play calling effort, another thing that will negate changes in the Gators offense is the fact that it is very much personnel driven. The Gators will likely look a bit more traditional in the 2009 season as a result of the loss of Percy Harvin. Without Harvin, the Gators are likely to look like a more traditional passing attack, though the option will still be a huge part of what the Gators do offensively.

Who is leading the tailback battle in practice thus far?

There really wasn't a "tailback battle" in practice so to speak. Urban Meyer traditionally dishes out carries according to how productive each player is, not whether or not they are the No. 1 guy in a spot. Jeffery Demps is undoubtedly the "starter" at tailback, though several players will get touches throughout the year.

Chris Rainey has added a decent amount of weight and should receive significantly more touches this year to help replace some of Harvin's touches. Emmanuel Moody could develop into a short yardage option if he can shake his injury problems. If not, look to see walk-on Chris Scott to be the short yardage guy for the Gators. Scott was extremely impressive in fall practice and runs with real purpose through the tackles.

Who is going to step up in the Percy Harvin role?

Simply put, there won't be one guy filling Harvin's role. As far as players that will likely be used in a similar capacity to Harvin, true freshman Andre Debose seems to fit the bill. Still, he has a lot of learning to do and he's nowhere near ready enough to replace the impact that Harvin had.

Senior Brandon James should spend more time this year as a slot receiver, helping to fill that aspect of Harvin's role. Deonte Thompson and Riley Cooper will help to replace the deep threat that Harvin offered in the passing game. Finally, Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey will see an increased workload to make up for Harvin's absence running the ball.

All 11 starters return on defense, but if there was one area defensively Florida could improve on what would it be?

The weakness for the Gators defensively has been and will continue to be the center of the defensive line. Everywhere else, Florida is loaded with defensive talent and depth to boot. However, several recruiting gems at defensive tackle have turned out to be busts over the past few years and it leaves the Gators with the most question marks there.

Lawrence Marsh will continue to hold down one of the starting defensive tackle spots, but Terron Sanders is being pushed hard for the other starting spot by Jaye Howard. Howard is a significant improvement in my mind, and will likely win the starting job by mid season. Still, depth is an issue inside.

The Gators D slowed the vaunted Oklahoma offense...and everyone is back

Urban Meyer is a well known for his recruiting abilities. Who are the top true freshman that could see significant action and who are the top red shirt freshman to get on the field this year?

First off, we'll tackle the offensive side of this question. Obviously, highly touted true freshman wide receiver Andre Debose is likely to have a big impact in his first year. Still, there will be a learning curve for him and he may not have the biggest impact offensively. True freshman tight end Desmond Parks is another guy to keep an eye on, as the Gators are pretty thin at tight end.

Two red shirt freshman to look out for on offense are wide receiver T.J. Lawrence and center Sam Robey. Robey could end up winning the starting center job at some point during the season, allowing Carl Johnson to move to tackle. While Lawrence isn't the popular pick as the red shirt freshman receiver to break out, he seems to have a better connection with Tim Tebow than does Frankie Hammond Jr, who seems to be the favorite target of backup quarterback John Brantley.

Defensively, a couple of linebackers stand out as the answer to this question. First, we'll talk about true freshmen Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins. Bostic was on campus during the spring and has already made quite the name for himself. Meyer has already stated that he will not red shirt. Jenkins has similarly freakish athletic ability and should see some time as a true freshman this year.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Brendan Beal has recovered tremendously from a torn ACL and has looked absolutely dominant during the spring and early fall practice sessions. He has a natural nose for the ball and should be a key contributor during the 2009 season.

Florida-Florida State was arguably the best rivalry of the 90s. How did the Gators turn the rivalry so far in their favor?

The only real difference in this rivalry over the past few years is that the Gators have gotten better, while Florida State has stood still. Bobby Bowden's program seems to have stagnated, while Urban Meyer's recruiting and coaching have taken the Gators to new heights. I can't say I see the tide really turning in this one until Bowden retires and someone injects a new level of energy and enthusiasm into the Florida State program.

If the Gators are to lose a regular season game, where would you see it and why?

While many are pointing to LSU as the most likely loss on the schedule, I'll take a slightly different tack. The Gators have a bye before traveling to Baton Rouge to take on the Tigers, and Urban Meyer has been remarkably good when playing following a bye in the regular season. Add to that that LSU goes to Georgia the week before and I think Florida will walk out with a win, even if it is a narrow one.

This situation is essentially reversed in Florida's matchup with Georgia this year. The Bulldogs will be coming off a bye, while the Gators will be coming off an emotional game against former offensive coordinator Dan Mullen in Starkville. Georgia has done well when playing after a bye, and they will have ample motivation to beat the Gators after an embarrassing 2008 loss.

What is your prediction for Florida this season?

My prediction for the Gators may be somewhat shocking, considering the somewhat glowing review I've given of Florida to this point. Florida has never gone undefeated, and I don't see that changing this year. While the Gators have unquestionably the best team with the least questions entering the season, that doesn't translate to wins.

Every team in the country will be gunning for the Gators and they will face every team's best effort. I think the Gators will have enough talent to beat the teams that could be considered "trap games," even if they don't show up with full focus. I think one team will come out and play well above their level to knock off the Gators this year. Whether that team is LSU, Georgia or another team that proves to be much better than most prognosticators would have thought, I don't know. Regular season prediction: 11-1 (7-1).

My Thoughts on Florida...

First, a very through review by Thomas. Florida comes into this season as the biggest favorite to repeat since USC in 2005. They got a huge boost when Tebow decided to return, but back up John Brantley may be better than half the starting QBs in the SEC this year! One area where Florida has struggled is finding a true running back that can continually pound out yards. Unless Moody steps up here, I think Meyer has to again rely more on speed and elusiveness to gain yards. The offensive line could also be a concern. In Florida's one loss last year, a really good Ole Miss defensive line really took it to Florida's front.

On the defensive side of the ball, this team is LOADED. All 11 starters return as do the top 15 tacklers from a year ago. The leader is MLB Brandon Spikes who turned down the NFL to come back for his senior season. The secondary was much improved last year with ball hawking safeties like Major Wright. I agree with Thomas that the interior defensive line is the only "weak point" here, but veteran defensive coordinator Charlie Strong has plenty of talent to work with to make this unit tops in the SEC and the nation.

Going undefeated is very tough and as talented as Florida, is the odds are against them. I agree the biggest test on paper looks to be in Baton Rouge on October 10th, but watch out for Georgia a few weeks later. As Thomas pointed out, Georgia has a bye week before while Florida plays at Mississippi State. UGA had a bye before their 2007 win while Florida played at Kentucky. Still, with one loss and an SEC Championship, the Gators should be playing for another BCS Championship in 2009.

My Prediction...
11-1, 7-1, BCS Championship Game

Best Case Scenario: 12-0
Worst Case Scenario: 10-2

Vegas Odds:
BCS Championship 2/1 (favorite)
SEC Championship 1/2 (favorite)
Win Total - 11

Thanks again to Thomas for his insight. You can check him out at the Florida Gator Stop.

Could the Gators be holding a third crystal ball in four years?