In a time-honored tradition, several SEC schools this year will be scheduling football games against Division 1AA (err, I mean “championship division”) teams in week one. Some say they do this because the SEC schedule is already so tough, others say it’s a good intermediate between scrimmages and “real” in-season games. Others, such as Michigan, say that it’s sometimes a mistake. Whatever it is, here are some quick previews of these games in week one of the 2009 SEC football season.
Missouri State at Arkansas
Speaking of Michigan, transfer Ryan Mallett is a talent who should be a substantial upgrade over Casey Dick in Bobby Petrino’s pass-heavy offensive scheme. Arkansas was 2nd in the SEC in passing last year, but at the cost of the SEC’s #10 running game and an abysmal 3.83 sacks allowed per game — 118th in D1A football. The defense was similarly poor, with the conference’s worst marks in both total (yardage) defense and scoring defense, and the second-to-worst mark in turnover margin. Missouri State will be a nice warmup game before Arkansas takes a bye in week 2. Focus on the Arkansas offensive line as they attempt to do a much better job of establishing a running game and protecting the Razorbacks’ new asset at QB.
Charleston Southern at Florida
Florida returns 18 starters from a National Championship team. Their last two games were the BCS title game against Oklahoma and the SEC title game against then #1 ranked Alabama. Count on Tebow playing at least half of the season opener, even if he has to get a painkiller high to do it. Percy Harvin is the notable departure, but when you return 18 starters from a team whose “letdown” week was a 1 point loss to the eventual Cotton Bowl champion, you are not worried about Charleston Southern. There are still some questions about the starting offensive line that must be answered in week one, but there will be no upset in this game.
Jackson State at Mississippi State
The Mississippi State Bulldogs are rebuilding building from scratch yet again. Dan Mullen is installing the spread offense, and a first week tune-up is just what you need when bringing a new offense to a team coming off of a very disappointing season. Jackson State will make a reasonable opponent — they are expected to compete for the SWAC championship and can put alot of speed on the field. While the focus will be on the offense, look for defensive standouts such as Jamar Chaney, KJ Wright, and Kyle Love to show their talent as the program looks to get its new coach off to a great start.
Western Kentucky at Tennessee
Western Kentucky, still in the process of transitioning to Division 1A after 12 straight winning seasons in the Championship Subdivision, lost all 10 of their games against FBS opponents. Tennessee, off of a 5-7 season, brings in the controversial Lane Kiffin along with one of football’s defensive masterminds and a stable of talented running backs. Tennessee maximizes their chances of winning by running the ball down the Hilltoppers’ throats, but once a win is in hand, WKU’s back 7 should provide a challenge for the Vol passing game to hone its skills. WKU will be one of the worst offensive teams in the country this year, and expect Kiffin Sr.’s defense to have their eye on a shutout. Tennessee opens as a 29.5 point favorite with an over/under of 44. I may take Tennessee and the Under, with a pretty strong conviction that the Vols will keep WKU at or under 14 points.
Western Carolina at Vanderbilt
The big question for the Commodores to answer after last season’s bowl win is whether the offense will improve. Coach Bobby Johnson has installed a no-huddle spread offense, and all 5 starting offensive linemen return, along with RB Jared Hawkins. The missing ingredient last year was at the quarterback position, which is why the Music City Bowl turned into a 3-QB sideshow in which half of Vanderbilt’s scoring offense was directly attributable to the punter and punt coverage team. There has been no official announcement yet, so while most Vanderbilt faithful expect RS-Soph Larry Smith to take the reins, we may not know the starting QB’s name until he takes his first snap. The passing game will be the focus for the Commodores not only due to the new QB and new system, but also because of the wide receiver corps. After graduating George Smith and Sean Walker, and losing talented transwer Terrence Jeffers to academic ineligibility, Vanderbilt will need to find 6 or more WRs to rotate through their uptempo season. Alex Washington, Udom Umoh, and converted TE Justin Green are among the best VU options at the position.
That about covers it for these games. Except for the Vols’ opener, there are no point spreads availible. I expect the SEC to hold steady in these games (hence the short, grouped preview), but the most dramatic game of this group may be MSU’s if Jackson State brings its best effort, as presumptive SWAC-East champs.