How the West will be won in an intriguing year for the Southeastern Conference.
If you've ever worked in Corporate America, you've surely enjoyed the unmitigated thrill of the employee evaluation.
Here at SBN ATL, we've decided to do some evaluations of our own, bringing each SEC team into the conference room and talking about their strengths, weaknesses, and goals for 2010. Some of them will be reaching for the stars; others may be reaching for life preservers. But each of them fits an archetype from one of the many workplace comedies we've identified with over the years. We'll start off with the SEC West (and their pop-culture avatars), going in order of predicted conference finish:
AlabamaAlabama is Jack Donaghy from "30 Rock" -- for lack of a better term, the top dog, the big boss. And not the kind of boss who invites you over to his lake house to barbecue or check out his new boat, either -- you honestly have no evidence that he cares whether you live or die. He makes a ton of bank for the company, though, so no matter how much you resent him for his success, he's not going anywhere.
2009 evaluation: What can we say, it was another stellar year -- plowed through the competition for a second straight 12-0 regular season, dumptrucked Florida in the SEC title game, and beat Texas 37-21 for a 13th national title. Or 14th, or 16th, or however many they're claiming these days.
Strengths: Offense is rarely the focal point of a Nick Saban team, but the 2010 Tide's offense could be one of the nation's best with nearly all the critical skill-position contributors coming back -- quarterback Greg McElroy; Heisman-winning tailback Mark Ingram and understudy Trent Richardson, who many have said might be even better than Ingram; and the top three WRs from last year, Julio Jones, Marquis Maze, and Darius Hanks. And while having to start a freshman (D.J. Fluker) on the O-line would ordinarily be a cause for acid reflux, they did it last year with Barrett Jones (in a year when the line was supposed to be a question mark to begin with) and it worked out just fine.
Weaknesses: It isn't just the number of defensive players Bama has lost, it's the quality -- four went in the first two rounds of the NFL draft alone. The Tide now enter 2010 wielding just two starters from last year's second-in-the-nation defense, none of them from the D-line. Special teams are getting a complete overhaul as well, with 2009's top kicker, punter, PR and KR all having graduated.
Key player: NT Josh Chapman. It's no secret to anyone that Bama's 3-4 defensive alignment relies heavily on a gargantuan nose tackle to plug gaps up front. Chapman -- a bit undersized for the position at 6'1", 310 -- has the formidable task of filling Terrence Cody's shoes.
Best chance to make a statement: Oct. 2 vs. Florida. If the Tide pick up right where they left off after last year's dismembering of the Gators in the Georgia Dome, there'll be no doubt about their chops as a repeat national-title contender.
Best chance to get tripped up: Sept. 25 at Arkansas. In Fayetteville, against the conference's best QB, are not the circumstances where you want to be tinkering with a rebuilt defense.
Goals for 2010: Another national title. Why not? There may be a lot of new faces on D, but with the coaching they've got and the raw talent they've amassed over a series of stellar recruiting seasons, there's no reason to think the Tide is headed for instant collapse.
AuburnAuburn is Angela from "The Office" -- the bitter middle manager who resents, well, pretty much everyone around her. She had a shot at the top spot back in 2004 but got passed over, and now that longtime rival Alabama's sitting up there, she's angrier than ever. Yet for all her sourness and catty comments, there's a definite cougar thing going on there -- she could be hot if she'd just, you know, loosen up a bit.
2009 evaluation: Far exceeded projections. Nobody expected much out of new head coach Gene Chizik, but he and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn got the Tigers off to a 5-0 start, and by the end of the season Auburn's offense had gone from 104th in the nation to 16th. They wrapped up the season with a wild shootout win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
Strengths: Last year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn turned also-ran Chris Todd into the SEC's third most efficient QB and the all-time Auburn record holder for most TD passes in a season. If Malzahn can accomplish that with Todd, then behind Cam Newton -- who, once upon a time, was being groomed to succeed Tim Tebow at Florida -- this Tiger offense might be a worldbeater. It'll get help from a seasoned offensive line and a receiving corps, headed by gamebreaker Darvin Adams, that ended years of underachievement by the Tigers' WRs. The middle of the defense should be strong, too, with a chance to improve over a mediocre performance against the run last year.
Weaknesses: How mediocre? Auburn was 10th in the conference (and just 78th nationally) against the run, allowing more than 150 yards per game. They should be better this year, but losing Antonio Coleman will make that effort more difficult. Special teams, too, are in need of a spark -- Auburn finished in the bottom 10 nationally in punt returns last year, and of the four guys Gene Chizik tried at that position, none of them could even consistently hold on to the ball, much less break a big return.
Key player: DE Michael Goggans. He's Coleman's replacement at defensive end, and will be charged with both stiffening the front four against the run and improving the Tigers' so-so sack numbers (46th nationally in 2009).
Best chance to make a statement: Nov. 26 at Alabama. Auburn jumped out to a 14-0 lead against the eventual national champs last year and nearly held on for a shocking upset. If Malzahn can exploit the weaknesses in Bama's revamped defense, Bama Upset Alert goes to DEFCON 1.
Best chance to get tripped up: Oct. 9 at Kentucky. The Wildcats handed Auburn a stunner of a loss at Jordan-Hare last season; if Auburn comes into this game 5-0 and looking ahead to their revenge opportunity against Arkansas the following week, there may be another upset in store.
Goals for 2010: Ten wins and another January bowl date. Even if you think Auburn's not quite ready to mount a serious challenge to Alabama for superiority in the West, they should still be able to improve upon last year's 8-5 record and get to double digits in the wins column.
ArkansasArkansas is the janitor from "Scrubs" -- a complete wild card in every sense of the term. Kind of a strange guy, keeps to himself; might have done time, might be ex-military, but even if it's the latter, you're still not entirely sure which military. You honestly have no idea what he does, either, but he must be good at it to have kept his job this long. That, or the bosses are just afraid to fire him.
2009 evaluation: Strong improvement over 2008 despite a tough schedule. The defense mostly stunk, but the Hogs notched big wins over Texas A&M, Auburn, and South Carolina to earn a trip to the Liberty Bowl, where they outlasted East Carolina in overtime, 20-17.
Strengths: If Arkansas doesn't have the best offensive numbers in the conference by the time the season's over, somebody wasn't trying hard enough. They've got Heisman-contending QB Ryan Mallett back, they've got his top four receivers from '09 back, they've got four of their five top rushers back, and everyone's operating behind one of the most experienced lines in the country. If Mallett can shake off the foot injury that held him out of spring practice, the Razorbacks will carpet-bomb defenses from Columbia to Baton Rouge.
Weaknesses: In Bobby Petrino's first year, the Razorbacks had the worst defense in the league. Last year they brought ten starters back -- and still had the worst defense in the SEC, giving up an average of 401 yards a game. The pass defense has to get better by default, particularly with some important potential contributors coming back from injuries, but the line will still be fighting uphill with leader Malcolm Sheppard having graduated. On special teams, neither kicker Alex Tejada nor punter Dylan Breeding were particularly impressive last season.
Key player: CB Rudell Crim. He's the most experienced player in the Razorback secondary and has to help lead this long-struggling unit to some major improvement if the Hogs are to live up to their preseason hype.
Best chance to make a statement: Sept. 18 at Georgia. The Dawgs were mediocre at best on offense through the first half of '09 but still dumped 52 points on the Hogs in their own house. Arkansas would love to return the favor against Georgia's rebuilding defense this year and show that their struggles on the road (they're 1-8 in away games under Petrino) are a thing of the past.
Best chance to get tripped up: Nov. 20 at Mississippi State. Don't laugh -- if the Hogs are looking ahead to their season-ending rivalry showdown with LSU, the Bizarro Bulldogs are good enough to put an embarrassing blot on what should otherwise be a good season.
Goals for 2010: Double digits in the wins column and a warm, sunny bowl destination. There's a lot of returning experience on this team, and the attention they've gotten in the preseason means eight wins and another bowl game against a C-USA squad aren't going to cut it.
LSULSU is Pete Hornberger from "30 Rock" -- the manager on the verge of losing it. The Tigers had a stellar year in 2007 and got a big promotion, and they're starting to look like the pressure of a demanding position might be getting to them. Their numbers are down, their behavior is erratic, and their time management has become a major liability. Another year of this and somebody may be getting a pink slip.
2009 evaluation: In a word, inconsistent. The Tigers played a few teams closer than they should have -- they actually led Alabama in the fourth quarter -- but also had a few unnecessary nailbiters themselves, only outlasting Mississippi State on a goal-line stand in the final minute. (And let's not even talk about Les Miles's brain fart at the end of the Ole Miss game.) Made it to the Capital One Bowl, but had yet another late clock-management snafu and lost 19-17.
Strengths: After a hugely disappointing 2008 on the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers brought in ex-Tennessee DC John Chavis and saw an immediate turnaround -- the secondary allowed 21 fewer passing yards per game in '09, and points allowed per game dropped by a full touchdown. The steady stream of top recruits coming into Baton Rouge means that improvement should continue in 2010, particularly in the secondary, where Patrick Peterson will be one of the nation's most dangerous headhunters. On offense, Jordan Jefferson had a rough 2009 but looks to improve with a full complement of lightning-quick receivers to throw to.
Weaknesses: Part of the reason Jefferson struggled so much last year was because the offensive line was flat-out terrible: They allowed an SEC-worst 37 sacks and didn't even redeem themselves by run-blocking all that well (the Tigers averaged just 3.7 yards per rush, also down in the conference's cellar). That line has to turn itself around this year even while replacing two players -- RG Lyle Hitt and LT Ciron Black, both multiple-year starters. And even if they get better, the running game might still struggle -- their most productive returning RB, Stevan Ridley, had just 187 yards on 45 carries last year. Quite frankly, this was a statistically lousy team last year that got lucky on quite a few occasions (five of their wins were by a touchdown or less).
Key player: LT Joseph Barksdale. He's being brought over from right tackle to protect Jordan Jefferson's blind side, which is a vitally important task -- poor pass protection completely neutralized the mobility that should have made Jefferson so dangerous last season.
Best chance to make a statement: Sept. 4 vs. North Carolina (in Atlanta). In its first two years, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game has served as a launching pad for a couple of big seasons by one of the Tigers' SEC arch-rivals. LSU would love to get the same kind of bounce by beating a Tarheel squad that's been one of the trendier picks in the preseason.
Best chance to get tripped up: Oct. 23 at Auburn. Even if LSU gets off to a strong start, they've got to take care not to get derailed by an Auburn team looking for revenge after an embarrassing showing in Baton Rouge last year.
Goals for 2010: At least nine wins, with one of them preferably being an upset over Alabama or Florida. This is a program that never lacks for raw talent, but continuing turnover at a few key positions means that merely matching last year's nine wins might be an achievement in and of itself.
Ole Miss is Ally McBeal -- the conference's resident hot mess. She's a looker, all right, but she makes poor choices, dumping smart, stable guys for "bad boys" (the weirder the better, and criminal records are always a plus). Even then, you're still tempted to risk office taboo by asking her out -- or would be, if you weren't positive that after three months she'd either dump you or end up outside your house with a knife.
2009 evaluation: Held firm at nine wins, but that came as a bit of a disappointment given all the hype surrounding them in the preseason. Only broke even in SEC play but made it back to the Cotton Bowl, where they knocked off 21st-ranked Oklahoma State.
Strengths: What looked like a desperate season on offense started looking up a little bit when Jeremiah Masoli -- who passed for 2,147 yards and ran for another 668 at Oregon last year before getting kicked off the team -- decided to spend his final year of eligibility in Oxford. With Masoli and running back Brandon Bolden, whose versatility mirrors that of do-everything superstar Dexter McCluster, this offense has a chance. The defense does, too, with a rugged front seven led by 330-pound defensive tackle Jerrell Powe.
Weaknesses: No matter how much promise Masoli and Bolden have, losing the experience of McCluster, Jevan Snead, and Shay Hodge (the Rebels' all-time leading receiver) is going to hurt, particularly with the offensive line being one of the least experienced in the country. Experience is also an issue in the secondary, where only one starter (safety Johnny Brown) returns from last year. Finally, losing Joshua Shene, the program's number-two all-time kicker, is going to take away a bit of their edge in close games.
Key player: LT Bradley Sowell. Filling the shoes of the now-legendary Michael Oher was always going to be a big task, and Sowell had some big whiffs last year. He and the rest of the line will really have to step up for Masoli's arrival to make a difference.
Best chance to make a statement: Oct. 23 at Arkansas. Houston Nutt has continued to drive Arkansas fans nuts by beating his old team in both of his seasons with the Rebels. Making it three in a row would be a great way to gain some momentum heading into a tricky late-season schedule.
Best chance to get tripped up: Sept. 25 vs. Fresno State. The Rebels' 2010 out-of-conference schedule is mostly a cakewalk, but Pat Hill's team doesn't lay down for anyone.
Goals for 2010: Eight wins and a third straight bowl. Don't people always talk about how Nutt performs best when expectations are low? Well, they're low this year, that's for sure. But the schedule sets up well for a fast start -- they shouldn't need a miracle to earn a bowl bid.
Mississippi StateMississippi State is Kenneth the page from "30 Rock" -- a hard-working go-getter who's starting out on the ground floor, but for whom big things are predicted. He may hail from humble beginnings in the Dirty Dirty, but don't dismiss him out of hand -- in a few years he'll either be in upper management or he'll have killed someone.
2009 evaluation: Exceeded all expectations by notching five wins, only the second time they've earned that many since 2000. Didn't get to a bowl game, but all things considered, a stunning 41-27 rout over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl was probably just as good.
Strengths: Turning this offense into a well-oiled spread machine like the kind Dan Mullen devised at Florida is still a work in progress, but presumptive starting QB Chris Relf made some important strides over the spring and summer, and will be working behind one of the most experienced lines in the SEC. On defense, the Bulldogs were just average, but there's some very promising young talent on that side of the ball -- you may remember free safety Johnthan Banks from the two Tim Tebow passes he picked off for touchdowns last season, and he leads a secondary that returns three of four starters.
Weaknesses: The Bulldogs' two most valuable players of '09 were probably leading rusher Anthony Dixon and leading tackler Jamar Chaney -- both of whom have graduated. Dixon's loss leaves a particularly big hole, as he was actually the top rusher in the SEC, ahead of even Alabama's Heisman-winning Mark Ingram. Chaney's loss isn't quite as critical, as the front seven brings back a fair amount of experience otherwise, but his leadership and high-motor playing style will be missed.
Key player: RBs Vick Ballard and Robert Elliott. These two guys will likely share time in the backfield, and they're going to have to step up to keep the burden of the entire offense from falling on the QB.
Best chance to make a statement: Sept. 25 vs. Georgia. For the East-Division Bulldogs, this game falls between a big home date with Arkansas and a much-anticipated road trip to Colorado. It'd be the perfect opportunity for State to grab a pivotal upset.
Best chance to get tripped up: Oct. 30 vs. Kentucky. Both the Bulldogs and the Wildcats will likely be on the bubble for a bowl bid this season, and given their schedules, this game could be a case of winner goes to a bowl, loser stays home for Christmas.
Goals for 2010: A bowl game, no matter how they have to get it. A rugged schedule means State could improve their play and still not have anything to show for it in the wins column, but it'd only take an upset or two to put them back in the postseason for only the second time this century.