It’s time to start talking about college football

Jun 28, 2011 3:00 AM

It’s time to start talking and writing about college football so the discussion should begin with the nation’s top conference, the SEC.

There’s no debating this fact. An SEC team has won the national title in each of the last five years. The conference as a whole is 8-2 in BCS bowl games and 30-16 in bowls overall during that span.

An SEC player has captured the Heisman Trophy three times in the last four years, and the conference has sent more players to the NFL than any other league by a wide margin. Last year this league had 10 bowl teams and 38 NFL draft picks.

Again, second-to-none in both categories.

Don’t expect the SEC’s football prowess to decline any time soon. A quick look at recent recruiting rankings shows that the conference has placed at least five teams in the Top 10 in each of the last four years – the best athletes continuing to choose to play for SEC schools.

When we examine the 2011 freshman and JUCO recruiting classes, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and South Carolina all snared Top 25 national rankings. That ensures that the SEC has enough talented players to remain at the top of the college football landscape for the foreseeable future.

When I preview college football teams, my primary focus is point spread value. National title aspirations or projected conference standings are discussions for TV talking heads, not for Vegas bettors. Which teams are likely to be underrated by the betting markets and which teams look like good fades, overvalued by pre-season and early season bettors?

Let’s start in the SEC East this week and go through the conference, team by team to see what we can uncover in regards to future ATS success.

Georgia: The hottest coaching seat in the SEC belongs to Mark Richt after the Bulldogs suffered through tepid campaigns in each of the last two years: 14-12 SU, 10-16 ATS. The scary thing for Georgia supporters heading into 2011 is that the Bulldogs improved dramatically in numerous statistical categories last year, yet finished the season with a worse record.

The Dawgs improved by three points and 20 yards per game offensively from 2009 to 2010. They went from a -10 to a +16 turnover ratio and had dramatically improved QB play with frosh Aaron Murray taking over for Joe Cox behind center. Their defense also was three points and 10 yards better than in ’09. And yet, despite those improvements, Georgia’s record declined by two wins.

In the offseason, Georgia lost three multi-year starters on the offensive line to graduation, and lost a fourth lineman to a potential career ending ACL injury in spring ball. Another potential OL starter, AJ Harmon, left the team in May.

And, highly touted frosh prospect Brent Benedict left the program for "personal reasons" this past weekend. Georgia also sent a pair of playmaking wide receivers to the NFL draft, leaving Murray’s protection and his receiving corps in question as fall camp approaches.

Teams tend to go one of two ways in ‘spotlight’ seasons with their head coach on the hot seat. Either they rise to the occasion and put together a banner campaign, or the pressure gets to them and things fall apart after a subpar performance or two early in the campaign.

With arguably the toughest first two games of the season for any BCS conference team – an opener against Boise State followed by an SEC East showdown in Week 2 against South Carolina – if Georgia craps out early, it could be a very long season in Athens.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks won the SEC East last year, but didn’t earn a profit for their supporters with a 7-7 ATS mark for the campaign after losses to Auburn in the SEC title game and Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

The offensive production improved by more than 10 points and nearly 50 yards per game from 2009 to 2010, masking a 50+ ypg defensive decline. Senior QB Stephen Garcia was recently re-instated following his fifth suspension from the team, a clear indication that head coach Steve Spurrier doesn’t have much in reserve at that position.

Florida: The Gators have national championship level talent – their recruiting didn’t suffer one iota despite the transition from Urban Meyer to Will Muschamp at the head coaching spot.

Part of the Gators ability to recruit top level talent are their brand new coordinators on both sides of the ball, with Charlie Weis (offense) and Dan Quinn (defense) both installing new schemes for the 2011 campaign.

The Gators offense declined from 43.6 points and 445 yards per game in their national title season of 2009 to 29.8 points and 351 yards last year. QB John Brantley was a major disappointment in his first season as the starter. If he doesn’t live up to expectations early in his senior year, don’t be shocked if Muschamp recruit Jeff Driskel takes over behind center at some point during the campaign.

Tennessee: There’s a fair bit of hype heading into the season after the Vols were a dramatic ‘morpher’ last year, rebounding from their 2-6 start to reach a bowl game. Some of that late season success was schedule related.

The Volunteers faced Memphis, Ole Miss, Vandy and Kentucky down the stretch; favored in every one of those games and finishing +9 in turnovers for those four contests. Sophomore Tyler Bray played as well as any QB in the league over the back half of the campaign, but he lost his top receiver and tight end to the NFL.

In addition, there are loads of questions about the Vols front seven on defense, leaving this team potentially a tad bit over-rated despite most pundits projecting them fourth out of six teams in the SEC East.

Kentucky: For a basketball school, this program has been in excellent shape over the past half decade. The Wildcats have earned five consecutive bowl bids in large part to an explosive offense masking some of their defensive weaknesses.

This year the situation could be reversed after the Cats lost their QB and top two playmakers at both WR and RB in the offseason, while returning ten starters on the defensive side of the ball. After going 9-3 to the OVER in the regular season last year (including 7-0 at home), this team has legitimate UNDER potential to open the 2011 campaign.

Vanderbilt: This is a program as hopeless as any BCS conference school this side of Duke. The Commodores inability to recruit SEC caliber athletes or accumulate SEC caliber depth is the primary reason why they’ve been to only one bowl game in the last 30 years, and why they are universally projected for another last place finish in the East.

The Commodores return more starters than anyone else in the conference. But with their third head coaching change in the last three years there’s not enough continuity here to expect any sort of substantial improvement. Vandy looks to end an 0-7 SU and ATS run with a three game home stand to open the season.