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SEC Week: Binding Picks, East Division

The process is important, but for the benefit of returning readers, the explanation of the methodology that’s preceded the picks the last couple weeks is below the fold. So if you find yourself confused by the numbers in the boxes, or just need a refresher, click ’Read More’ at the bottom. As always, feedback and criticism is encouraged.
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1. Florida

By Game
6 Tennessee
8 at Ole Miss
5 Auburn
3 at LSU
7 at Kentucky
5 vs. Georgia
7 Vanderbilt
5 at S. Carolina
5.56 TOTAL
The unavoidable blow to the defending mythical champs is its wholesale shipment of defensive stars to the pros, like a conveyer belt that ships out exquisite, intricately fashioned, I dunno, terra cotta soldiers or something that took years to perfect, only to roll in lumps of unrefined, unmolded clay right behind them. The potential is there, but Florida’s defense for the time being is havoc-wreaking end Derrick Harvey and a bunch of lumps with high accolades and no productivity on this level to justify them. We can assume with Charlie Strong’s track record and the raw size and speed on hand that it will still be nasty, especially as the year wears on, but the defense is the reason Florida is the youngest team in the country and therefore it has no chance of approaching the heights of its predecessor, the only team in the nation last year that finished in the top six in all four major defensive stat categories.

They can’t hold him back forever.
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At the same time, though, besides being simply the biggest, strongest, fastest outfit overall, the Gator offense has more going for it than any other element of any team in this division. None of us have any way of knowing whether Tim Tebow will actually be better fit in a full-time role than Chris Leak was – this becomes a much tougher question after Leak’s triumphant finale – but Leak started last season with a history of being pummeled in the system (he was sacked more than 30 times in ‘05), wondering whether he’d even be able to remain upright long enough to run it behind four new linemen. If Tebow were capable of foolish mortal worry, he’d have no such concerns: Meyer’s system pulled off its grand coup, grew many times more productive as the season wore on and Percy Harvin’s big play skills found their niche and the line cohered into a fearsome veteran wall. Assuming Tebow can, in fact, handle an offense every down without growing reckless with boredom, no defense has the secondary chops to cover the combination of Harvin, Andre Caldwell, Corenlius Ingram and Louis Murphy if it’s forced to keep even one eye on Tebow and/or Kestahn Moore out of the backfield. Throw Jarred Fayson and Riley Cooper and incoming terror Deonte Thompson in that mix, too, just to drive home the point: if Meyer does stand out as a unique offensive mind, this group is his dream and everyone else’s nightmare. UF was already the highest-scoring team in the division and will make up in experience and explosiveness most of what the new defense yields to youth. But not enough to find itself anywhere near another BCS title game.

2. Georgia

By Game
5 So. Carolina
4 at Alabama
7 Ole Miss
4 at Tennessee
6 at Vanderbilt
4 vs. Florida
4 Auburn
7 Kentucky
5.13 TOTAL
Georgia is almost untenably young in a lot of areas, but there is something to be said for its consistency under Mark Richt (UGA is the SEC’s winningest program during Richt’s tenure) and for the way the team pulled itself up by the proverbial bootstraps when it could have rolled over down the stretch last year. Most teams that lose four of five in October, especially when two of those games are to Vanderbilt and Kentucky and the lone win is a nailbiter over Mississippi State, naturally wilt with the likes of Auburn and Georgia Tech in front of them. But Georgia closed ranks, brought the pain on defense, and managed to salvage a 3-0 finish with a comeback over Virginia Tech in the Peach Chick-Fil-A Bowl, and that momentum in context of UGA’s most recent success is worth some optimism.

But these lines? Well, not so much. The offense is looking at starting a true freshman, a redshirt freshman and an unhrealded JUCO transfer who failed to catch on at Kansas; the defensive newbies are somewhat more acclaimed, but newbies nevertheless, in six of the front seven starting spots. The only way to redeem such overwhelming loss of productivity is to remind yourself of the Bulldogs’ extreme consistency on defense, which is true, even if the run-stopping can hardly be expected to maintain last year’s high (3.2 per carry allowed) with so many new faces. Like Florida, expect the D to have some teeth, but extreme youth=regression.

But Georgia also finds itself in the same position as Florida offensively, with a heralded sophomore quarterback who took his lumps and can be reasonably expected to mature into a winner with his skill talent intact in year two. The first sign of Matt Stafford’s coming of age was his plummeting interception total, which dropped from eight in his first four starts (1-3) to just one in his last three (3-0). If the line can get the running backs any room at all, UGA should be in the championship equation past the Cocktail Party, at least – this division has the look of a knotty, tiebreaking finish among the top four, so any combination of wins could punch the ticket to Atlanta.

(That’s a polite way of saying I seriously doubt Georgia can will end its string of futility against Florida, I think).

3. South Carolina

By Game
4 at Georgia
2 at LSU
7 Miss. State
7 Kentucky
7 Vanderbilt
5 at Tennessee
4 at Arkansas
4 Florida
5.0 TOTAL
It’s easy to get carried away by Carolina’s high-flying finish and its could-have-been efforts against Florida, Tennessee and Auburn and the senior quarterback and all the returning starters on defense (no, literally, all the returning starters). On paper, anyway, this is the golden opportunity for USC to orchestrate a hostile takeover of the division.

Off the paper, though, I still have to be convinced Carolina’s lines can hold up well enough for that level of aspiration, or that Steve Spurrier and Tyrone Nix are so X-O saavy that mediocre-to-bad line play won’t matter. For Nix’s part, his defensive line is intact and bolstered with the influx of freshmen who represent a needed leap in athleticism. But if this front performs at a championship level, it will be the first here, probably ever. The league’s consistently upper echelon defenses – LSU, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Alabama – perpetually rank among the top dozen in the country against the run and wouldn’t dream of allowing four yards per carry over an entire season (see Tennessee below), a telling threshold of physicality South Carolina hasn’t passed since 2001, or for years prior to that. This is borne out in the ‘Cocks’ losses last year far more than blocked field goals and onside kicks: Georgia, Auburn, Arkansas and Florida all pounded Carolina effectively in wins (the quartet averaged 185 yards), and Clemson’s terrible backfield twosome went over 200 before losing on a missed field goal. The surest way to shirk this trend is to have the manpower up front, and unless ‘06 injury casualty Marque Hall and/or incoming Clifton Geathers immediately represent the upgrade their recruiting hype suggests, I’m not sure Nix has it yet re: the biggest guns he’ll face.

His big guys appear to be closer than Spurrier’s, though, which speaks more to the maddening faults of the offensive line than the merits of the defense. One of the reasons Spurrier came off so brilliantly by merely keeping his team close in last year’s big game losses is that it was so obviously overmatched and couldn’t hope to run straight ahead or protect its quarterback for very long. That he was able to cobble together a competitive running game – and keep his defense off the field – from perfectly-timed draws, screens and misdirection is to the OBC’s credit, but not generally the kind of display of strength one looks for in a potential division winner. This year’s line is three-fifths new and driving Spurrier crazy so far in practice.

That’s the issue for me: even without Sidney Rice, Carolina has the speed and skill talent to compete for the East title, but it has to accompany that with improvement along the lines – as Spurrier said last week, "If we didn't have to block, we'd have a heck of an offense right now." Based on recent recruiting there, the gap between Georgia, Florida and Tennessee is still a little too wide.

4. Tennessee

By Game
3 at Florida
5 Georgia
7 at Miss. State
4 at Alabama
4 So. Carolina
4 Arkansas
6 Vanderbilt
6 at Kentucky
4.88 TOTAL
I like senior quarterbacks in general, especially those that have demonstrated some learning from youthful indiscretions, and so I’m one of the few non-Tennesseeans who counts Erik Ainge as a strong asset to the Vols. He’s one of very, very few.

My initial instincts about the Vols were optimistic, but that was prior to the suspension of the only promising running back, LaMarcus Coker, and cornerback Roshaun Fellows before him, whose dismissal in the spring coincided with the academic ineligibility of safety Demetrice Morley and ongoing incapacity of Inquoris Johnson to leave the secondary critically thin. Outside of veteran safety Jonathan Hefney, Phil Steele projects both corners and the second safety to be manned by a true freshman (his top-rated corner, Eric Berry) and a pair of junior college transfers; if he’s wrong, the returning options have zero career starts between them. "This unit could be a strength in time," notes The Sporting News, but Tennessee doesn’t have time – its first eight games include Cal, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, each of whom will be salivating to face noobs across the way, however physically gifted.

I could forgive that inexperience if it wasn’t so ominously mirrored by the wide receivers, which will be manned by a career return specialist (Lucas Taylor) a Florida State refugee (Kenny O’Neal) and one of any number of true freshmen, or if Tennessee didn’t have such lingering issues along both lines of scrimmage. This latter issue, in the trenches, has always been UT’s strength under Phil Fulmer, but the offensive running game has tanked two years in a row and was oddly joined last year by its typically stout defensive counterparts. The front seven was fast as ever but allowed four yards per carry for the first time in well over a decade – again, that threshold is anathema to good defenses in this conference – and were legitimately pushed around by Georgia (5.4 per carry), LSU (5.1), Arkansas (5.8) and Penn State (4.6), to name only the worst instances. If J.T. Mapu and Demonte Bolden aren’t immediate upgrades in the middle of the line, stopping the run could remain an ongoing problem, in addition to the problem of rushing the passer (one sack in the last four games), all to the direct distress of that sketchy secondary.

On the other side, Coker’s suspension was lifted last week, but he won’t travel to Cal for the opener and is likely to cede carries again to the same underwhelming duo (Arian Foster and Monterrio Hardesty, lumbering types who finished under four yards a pop last year) while he waits in the dog house; again, the only other hope is with a true freshman, Lennon Creer, unless the offensive line gels into the old school Tennessee maulers that frankly have been MIA for two years now.

That leaves Ainge as essentially the only somewhat proven commodity on either side, minus the outside threats he employed to such great effect as a junior. Tennessee still deserves to expect to compete for the East title as long as its quarterback remains upright and guru David Cutcliffe is whispering in his ear, but the margins in this division are too small to put the chips on so much uncertainty everywhere else. This changes if the lines turn their fortunes around.

5. Vanderbilt

By Game
3 Alabama
5 Ole Miss
3 at Auburn
3 Georgia
2 at S. Carolina
2 at Florida
5 Kentucky
3 at Tennessee
3.25 TOTAL
Bold prediction: by the time they meet in November, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest will roughly regarded as equals, as they were when the Commodores or "Commies," as I like to call them) beat Wake to open the 2005 season. That Vandy team, by virtue of upsetting Arkansas early and Tennessee late and finally beating Ole Miss for a change in between, was two points against Middle Tennessee from its first bowl bid since 1982 – a lot of younger readers, I bet, were not born in 1982 – and by every measure, this team should be better than that one.

Well, possibly not every measure, since junior Chris Nickson is not projected as a first round draft pick, or perhaps a pick in any round, as his predecessor Jay Cutler was. But Nickson is the most dangerous running quarterback in the conference and returns behind a wholly intact line with more around him – namely a veteran Earl Bennett, who’s developed into the SEC’s most reliable receiver – than Cutler had to work with. On defense, where the going should be legitimately tougher for opposing offenses than it was in ‘05, even the few new starters have played enough to make a seamless transition into the lineup. Vandy played Alabama, Arkansas and Florida close last year and beat Georgia, and everywhere, it looks like it should expect its best season in decades.

How good is that, though? Only three games on the schedule – Richmond, Eastern Michigan and Miami, Ohio – look like probable wins; Ole Miss and Kentucky, then, become essential if the finale with Wake is to have any postseason ramifications, unless there’s some shocking or quasi-shocking upset against Auburn or South Carolina or somebody elsewhere in the conference schedule, all assuming the Commies can win the games they’re "supposed to win" for a change. When the nearest precedent for success is 5-6, I wouldn’t change my usual holiday plans.

6. Kentucky

By Game
2 at Arkansas
2 at S. Carolina
1 LSU
2 Florida
6 Miss. State
4 at Vanderbilt
2 at Georgia
3 Tennessee
2.75 TOTAL
I feel bad about this, because Kentucky’s offense is high-octane, high-flying, high-scoring, generally high in all regards, everything a dangerous and moderately fun upstart should be. Andre Woodson is rightly regarded as the best returning passer in the league, with a top-end receiver in Keenan Burton and a versatile, effective threat out of the backfield in Rafael Little, who led the SEC in yards from scrimmage in 2005. This offense can really go behind Woodson’s arm, and if Little is healthy – the running game lagged badly without him through the middle of last season – it has to scare some degree ofgoog hell out of everybody looking at the Wildcats on their schedule.

The bowl win was nice, but don’t let the trees obscure the forest.
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I dunno, though, looking at last year’s surprise bowl run, I get the sense Woodson was a sort of force of nature fighting off the wolves with a mortally wounded comrade on his back – most notably, he was sacked three times a game, easily the most of any quarterback in the conference, which goes back to an overwhelmed line that also to make any way for a largely toothless running game. And the defense, my god, the defense: 118th in total defense, vulnerable against the run (opponents averaged an atrocious five yards per carry), vulnerable against the pass (dead last in the SEC in pass defense and pass efficiency defense, by a mile), and generally in line with everything wrong about the teams that went 8-40 in-conference from 2000-05.

And there’s this: of Kentucky’s seven wins against I-A teams, six of them can be directly traced to turnovers – the Wildcats were outgained on average against Ole Miss, Central Michigan, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Clemson, but finished plus-13 turnovers in those games and won all of them. The seventh win? A come-from-behind, 42-40 squeaker in which the ‘Cats were even in turnover margin but allowed 351yards rushing to UL-Monroe. So I’ll believe UK’s staying power when I see it. Again, I mean.