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SEC Football Week 1 Breakdown: Mark Ingram’s Injury Won’t Slow Alabama; Will UNC Field A Team To Play LSU?

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My partners J. Newcastle and Eddie McCoy helped me break down the SEC East and SEC West last week on our SEC Football Breakdown podcast.  We looked at all 12 teams, examined their strengths and weaknesses, and made our predictions for the upcoming season.  The preseason work is done.  It’s game time!  We’ve got our predictions for Week 1 of the 2010 SEC football season in this week’s podcast.  Here are my predictions.

Southern Miss @ South Carolina

Game Notes

  • USM returns nine starters on a defense that was #62 nationally last year in scoring defense, #43 against the run and #109 against the pass.
  • #18 scoring offense in the country last year but returns only four starters from that group and only one on the offensive line
  • S. Carolina returns 8 starters on offense, seven on defense and has added one of the top RBs in the country in freshman Marcus Lattimore
  • S. Carolina ranked an awful #108 in scoring offense last year, #24 in scoring defense

Keys To The Game

S. Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is one of the best in the SEC.  He lost a great player in Eric Norwood to the NFL but returns a veteran squad.  They’ll go up against a USM offense that has become more explosive under head coach Larry Fedora, but one that has a lot of new personnel that will have to come together in a hostile road environment.

Meanwhile, the Gamecock offense has never had the firepower of Spurrier offenses in Florida.  QB Stephen Garcia has been erratic at best.  The offensive line was horrid at its best but returns four starters.  Spurrier has WR Alshon Jeffrey and Lattimore to help Garcia.  USM’s defense was poor last year but like the S. Carolina O-Line returns veteran performers.  Can the Gamecock line give Lattimore room to run and protect Garcia well enough to find Jeffrey?  Can Garcia be consistent enough not to put his strong defense in bad positions?

Prediction:  It won’t be pretty but the Gamecocks will get this one at home.

Kentucky vs. Louisville

Game Notes:

  • First-year Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips’ offense will be led by 5th-year senior Mike Hartline and returns playmakers Randall Cobb and RB Derek Locke.
  • The Wildcat offense returns only one starter on its offensive line but returns seven defensive starters.
  • First-year Louisville coach Charlie Strong has eight offensive starters and six on defense.
  • Louisville Scoring Offense: #111; Scoring Defense: #65
  • Kentucky Scoring Offense: #69; Scoring Defense: #43

Keys To The Game

We have two first-year head coaches who have each been successful as assistants in their own right.  Strong was a great defensive coordinator at Florida and gets his long overdue opportunity to lead a program.  Phillips was the coach-in-waiting and takes over for a program where he played and was offensive coordinator. 

Kentucky seems to return a little more well-rounded, complete roster and would appear to have the advantage.  Louisville’s best chance to win this game is for Strong to put together a defensive game plan that exploits the Wildcats’ inexperience upfront.  Strong can certainly dial up that game plan but does he have the players to execute it this early in the season?

Prediction: Both coaches are going to do good things at these schools but for now Phillips has the advantage of familiarity with personnel and a bit more established talent.  The Wildcats will open the season 1-0 and beat their in-state rival.

Vanderbilt vs. Northwestern

Game Notes:

  • Northwestern defeated Iowa last year after Hawkeye starting QB Rick Stanzi went down with an injury.  The Hawks went on to defeat Ga. Tech in the Orange Bowl while Northwestern lost a close bowl game to Auburn.
  • Vanderbilt was nowhere near bowl quality last year and might be worse this year after head coach Bobby Johnson inexplicably left just weeks before the start of fall camp.

Keys To The Game:

Unless the CDC was wrong and H1N1 takes out 2/3 of Northwestern’s team, there is nothing the Commodores can do to win this game.

Ole Miss vs. Jacksonville State

Game Notes:

  • Former Oregon Duck QB Jeremiah Massoli’s debut is now in serious doubt
  • Ole Miss returns four starters on offense, six on defense

Keys To The Game:

Ole Miss thought this would be the week Jeremiah Massoli made his debut at QB after transferring having been kicked off the Ducks’ football team for a series of legal issues.  Ole Miss and Massoli thought they found a loophole that would allow him to play without sitting out for a year as is the rule for transfers like this.  The NCAA has other ideas and this week ruled him ineligible.  Ole Miss plans to appeal.  The NCAA isn’t known for its speed in these matters so all bets are off as to when and if Massoli will next play college football and that’s a big problem for Ole Miss because he was about to be the best three players on their team.  They won’t have any problem with Jacksonville State with or without Massoli but this season would have been a challenge with him and it’s not going to get any easier.

Prediction: Do I have to say it?  Ole Miss.

Alabama vs. San Jose State

Game Notes:

  • Have you heard defending National Champion Alabama returns only two defensive starters?
  • San Jose St. ranked #118 in total offense (out of 120) last year and returns 9 starters from that mighty squad

Keys To The Game:

Alabama’s defense is filled with top-level recruits coached by Nick Saban, the only coach to win BCS Championships at two different schools, and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who was named outstanding assistant coach of the year last year.  At some point their inexperience will be tested and possibly exploited.  It won’t be this week. 

The main objective for Alabama this week is to rotate some guys, get them some live game action, and avoid any serious injuries on either side of the ball.  Unfortunately for the Tide, they’ve already been hit by a major injury in the form of Heisman Trophy-winning RB Mark Ingram.  Ingram had arthroscopic surgery on his knee and while the team expects him to recovery fully and quickly, he won’t be starting his Heisman defense campaign in Week 1.  As great a player as Ingram is, RB is one position where Alabama is embarrassingly deep.  There are many football fans and insiders who believe sophomore Trent Richardson is actually the best RB on the team.  I disagree but Richardson is special and he’s more than enough to handle San Jose State.

Prediction:  Roll Tide Roll!

Arkansas vs. Tennessee Tech.

Game Notes:

  • Have you heard of Ryan Mallett, Arkansas’ future NFL QB with the cannon arm?
  • Arkansas ranked #58 in total defense last year and that stat is misleading as they gave up nearly a TD more per game against ranked opponents than non-ranked opponents.

Keys To The Game:

Arkansas is going to win big and they’re going to score a ton of points without breaking a sweat.  The only thing I want to see on offense from the Razorbacks is their running game.  They didn’t use theirs effectively last year and while Tenn. Tech is not going to provide stiff resistance, I’d like to see if head coach Bobby Petrino does anything to get the running game going early.

Defensively for the Razorbacks, Tech isn’t good enough to put a scare into the Razorbacks.  What we’re looking for here is big plays from the defense and an attitude that despite the inferior competition, they will go out and dominate for 60 minutes and not do anything silly.

Prediction:  Bet the over on this one because Arkansas can score enough for both teams.

Florida vs. Miami (OH)

Game Notes

  • Did you know this will be the first game since the Eisenhower administration without Tim Tebow in a Gators’ uniform?
  • Miami (OH) has 19 returning starters (9 Off, 10 Def).

Keys To The Game:

Miami has 19 of 21 spots filled with last year’s starters but they ranked near the bottom of Division 1 schools in offense and defense.  Florida is breaking in a new QB and a lot of new players on defense but this is still an Urban Meyer-coached team so you know they’ll be well prepared for this and will be superior at every position on and off the field.  We’ll want to see how new QB John Brantley does in his first start and the Gators need to stay healthy and allow the new pieces on defense to gel under their new defensive coordinator.

Prediction:  John Brantley will only play one possession in the third quarter because Florida will be up that much that fast.

Tennessee vs. UT-Martin

Keys To The Game:

I want to talk about this game even less than I do the Northwestern/Vandy game.  Tennessee is going to be awful and should be awarded the win if they can find 22 guys on their roster without a criminal record.  Head coach Derek Dooley doesn’t have many gimme wins on their schedule.  This had better be one of them.  The goal here for them is not to get anyone hurt, particularly on an offensive line that returns zero starters.  They need to make some good things happen because they have Oregon, Florida, and Georgia in the first month of the season.

Prediction:  It’s going to be a long year in Knoxville but it won’t be this bad.  They can handle Martin.

Mississippi State vs. Memphis

Game Notes:

  • Memphis returns seven starters on offense, four on defense.
  • Miss. State returns seven starters on offense, eight on defense
  • Memphis Scoring Offense: #95; Scoring Defense: #110
  • Miss. State Scoring Offense: #72; Scoring Defense:#71

Keys To The Game:

Neither team was all that good last year. Miss. St. has more experience on both sides of the ball and that should help Dan Mullen’s squad as he enters his second season with the Bulldogs.  Based on what we know of these teams, Miss. State has a veteran, below average offense taking on Memphis’ inexperienced, poor defense.

Prediction: I like the Mullen coaching staff and have faith they will find just enough offense to get it done.

Auburn vs. Arkansas State

Keys To The Game:

I’m not going to spend much time on this one, either, as Arkansas St. isn’t built to compete in this game.  The big story line here is Auburn QB Cam Newton leading Gus Malzahn’s high-powered spread attack.  Ark. St. won’t pose a threat to Newton.  This is all about a young man who has gone through a lot battling his own excitement, settling down, and executing the offense.  We’re looking for command and accuracy from Newton more than anything else.  Auburn needs to get their guys in game condition as they look ahead to a short week to face Miss. St. in Starkville Thursday.

Prediction: Auburn fans are going to take more from this game than they should because Newton will shine in his debut.

Georgia vs. UL-Lafayette

Game Note:

  • Georgia’s emerging star at RB Washaun Ealey was arrested for a hit-and-run vehicle incident and his status remains in question for this game

Keys To The Game:  Very similar to Auburn, Georgia has a high-powered offense with 10 returning starters.  The newcomer?  QB Aaron Murray.  Murray needs to do the same things as Newton: stay calm, execute the plays, and remember that he doesn’t have to do it all with the talent around them with or without Ealey.

Prediction: Georgia is tuning up for next week’s matchup with S. Carolina.

LSU vs. North Carolina (in GA Dome)

Keys To The Game:  This is one of the marquis matchups of the opening week of the season- or at least it was going to be.  There was a little incident involving possible NCAA rules violations involving players from several schools but UNC seems to have been hit the hardest.  At this moment, we don’t know who will be suiting up for a Tar Heels team that was supposed to start one of the toughest defenses in the country.

LSU has identity questions but it has a lot less to do with NCAA issues and more to do with coaching.  Year in and year out, LSU is one of the most talented teams in the country but the Tigers can’t seem to shake the label of ‘underachievers.’ 

Somebody is going to have to show up for this game. 

Prediction:  I’ll take an LSU impostor over a UNC team in shambles and full of distractions.

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