CFT 2017 Preseason Preview: The SEC

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The last few years have had a common theme in the SEC. Namely that the league has turned into mighty Alabama and 13 other mediocre programs. Despite the issues of breaking through and developing multiple elite teams as of late, there’s reason for optimism around the conference that things will be a lot different this time around.

Key to that could be the return of so many budding young quarterbacks at just about every school from East to West. Add in a few top-flight tailbacks like Georgia’s Nick Chubb, LSU’s Derrius Guice plus Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough — to say nothing of the elite defensive talent across the board — and you can see why there’s talk of the bunched up middle class of teams breaking out of this recent rut.

How will things shape up in the mighty SEC? Here’s a look at the conference heading into the 2017 campaign and how things should shake out:

EAST
1. Georgia (8-5 overall, 4-4 in SEC last season):
 We’ve seen new head coaches turn in some surprising jumps in their second year at a program and many expect that to be the case with Kirby Smart in Athens. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given the weapons on offense and a two-deep on defense that is the envy of everybody but Alabama. If the Bulldogs can become more consistent and eliminate mental errors that plagued them in 2016, a run to Atlanta appears in the cards.

2. Florida (9-4, 6-2 last season): The Gators have taken advantage of the division’s weakness the past two years but will need to step up their game if they want a third straight trip to the league title game. The offensive line will be a strength for the squad and just about everybody expects improved quarterback play with Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire likely starting under center. If the defense can quickly replace a number of key starters, the division may once again come down to the winner of the World’s Largest Cocktail Party between Florida and Georgia.

3. Tennessee (9-4, 4-4 last season): Despite winning nine games back-to-back for the first time in a decade, Butch Jones enters 2017 on the hot seat for a fan base that is looking for at least a division title (and probably a whole lot more). Expectations are tempered a little by the number of new starters on both sides of the ball but there’s enough to build around — such as tailback John Kelly — that the Vols should remain in contention down the stretch.

4. South Carolina (6-7, 3-5 last season): The Gamecocks surprised many by reaching a bowl game in 2016 despite a remarkable youth movement across the board at just about every position. QB Jake Bentley’s play proved to be a key catalyst once he was inserted into the lineup and there’s reason for optimism in Columbia that things will only get better after another offseason under Will Muschamp and company.

5. Vanderbilt (6-7, 3-5 last season): Success can be a fleeting thing for the Commodores but there’s plenty of hope around Nashville that the program’s trajectory is looking up after a strong close to last season unexpectedly put the team in a bowl game. Derek Mason has one of, if not the, most experienced teams coming back in the division and if the offense can improve even a little they could be a tough out in SEC play.

6. Kentucky (7-6, 4-4 last season): There are plenty of teams that are a preseason enigma but Mark Stoops’ side runs the entire gamut of predictions about how things will play out this year.  There is enough to like about the Wildcats both offensively and defensively but one has to question if that will be enough in such a competitive league with few openings to move up.

7. Missouri (4-8, 2-6 last season): One of the bigger surprises in the East was just how far the Tigers slid on defense, going from a normally stingy unit to lackluster at best in Barry Odom’s first year on the job. While the offense took the requisite steps to be more than passable, Mizzou’s future will be tied to an improvement on the other side of the ball.

WEST

1. Alabama (14-1 overall, 8-0 last season): There’s no reason to expect anything other than a dominant Crimson Tide team to take the field once again, running through the SEC before eventually moving on to the College Football Playoff. There are five-stars all over the two-deep once again and the offense might be one of the best the team has had in a while if youngsters continue to develop.

2. Auburn (8-5, 5-3 last season): Injuries played a big role in the disjointed season the Tigers had a year ago but that likely played a role in developing depth for a promising 2017 on the Plains. Gus Malzahn turned a transfer QB into a Heisman winner before and there’s plenty of hope that he can do so again with Jarrett Stidham running the show under center this time around.

3. LSU (8-4, 5-3 last season): The Ed Orgeron show continues in Baton Rouge and spirits are running high that this will finally — finally! — be the year the Tigers are competent on offense with new coordinator Matt Canada calling plays. Derrius Guice and Arden Key will be the headliners but there’s plenty of talent on the roster to take this team into Tuscaloosa with a fighting chance to win the division.

4. Texas A&M (8-5, 4-4 last season): There are few things more certain in college football than the Aggies getting off to a hot start before losing to Alabama and seeing their season backslide into an 8-5 year. Things look much the same for Kevin Sumlin again in College Station as he retools the offense with yet another new quarterback.

5. Mississippi State (6-7, 3-5 last season): It seems like we’ve talked about the Bulldogs being a dark horse for the past several years and the team will once again channel that heading into 2017. Nick Fitzgerald is already one of the better dual-threat QB’s in the conference and if gains can be made on defense, MSU will certainly surprise a few teams in the West.

6. Arkansas (7-6, 3-5 last season): The Hogs look like they’re a little better suited to contend in 2018 but a strong backfield to build around offensively will keep the team in just about every game on the schedule this season. If the defense takes another step, knocking off one of the big division rivals could certainly be in the cards.

7. Ole Miss (5-7, 2-6 last season): It’s possible the Rebels, backs firmly against the wall, take an us-against-them attitude and go wild behind talented sophomore QB Shea Patterson. Odds don’t favor that though, as this team has less talent than the one that won just two SEC games and could give up on the year with an interim head coach and even more NCAA sanctions looming on the horizon.

Report: Steve Spurrier Jr. leaving WKU for job at Wazzu

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With coaching holes throughout his Washington State staff to fill thanks to significant offseason poaching, Mike Leach has added a very famous college football surname.  Reportedly.

According to the Bowling Green Daily News, Steve Spurrier Jr. is leaving Western Kentucky to take a job under Leach at Wazzu.  The son of College Football Hall of Famer Steve Spurrier just completed his first season as the Hilltoppers’ quarterbacks coach.  He also held the title of assistant head coach under Mike Sanford.

It’s unclear what specific title Spurrier Jr. will hold at Wazzu.

Prior to his one season at WKU, and one season as an off-field staffer at Oklahoma, Spurrier Jr. had been an assistant on his father’s South Carolina staff for 11 seasons.  During his time with the Gamecocks, he served at various points as wide receivers coach (2005-15), passing-game coordinator (2009-11) and co-offensive coordinator (2012-15).

Spurrier Jr., who played wide receiver at Duke, has also spent time during his coaching career as receivers coach at Oklahoma (1999-2001) and with the Washington Redskins (2002-03).

Ex-Texas All-Big 12 defensive tackle takes DL coaching job at Baylor

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Baylor’s latest coaching addition is a very familiar name in the state of Texas.

BU confirmed Wednesday evening that Frank Okam has been added to Matt Rhule‘s coaching staff.  Okam, who was a Freshman All-American and two-time All-Big 12 defensive tackle at Texas from 2004-07, will coach the Bears’ defensive line.

“Frank is a living embodiment of everything the young men in our program should want to accomplish,” the head coach said in a statement. “He’s a college graduate, an All-American, a Big 12 champion, a national champion, a NFL draft pick and then he continued life after football earning his master’s degree from Rice and is now one of the top young football coaches in the country.

“We are excited to have Coach Okam on staff and for him to mentor our defensive line group and help take them to the next level.”

The 32-year-old Okam, who went to high school in Dallas, spent the past four seasons at Rice, the last two as the Owls’ line coach.  This will mark Okam’s first coaching job at a Power Five program.

Longtime ESPN play-by-play man Mike Patrick announces retirement

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ESPN’s roster of college football play-by-play announcers suffered a high number of attrition of late. Brent Musburger retired. Brad Nessler replaced Verne Lundquist at CBS. Sean McDonough moved to Monday Night Football. Now the dean of ESPN’s Saturday voices is going away, too.

Mike Patrick announced his retirement on Wednesday, ending a 32-year run that began in 1982, three years after the network launched.

“It’s wonderful to reflect on how I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do with my life,” Patrick said. “At the same time, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with some of the very best people I’ve ever known, both on the air and behind the scenes. While I’m not sure exactly what’s next for me, I’m looking forward to continuing my journey with new life experiences.”

His biggest assignment came as the voice of ESPN’s Sunday Night Football from 1987 until the package moved to NBC after the 2005 season, but outside of that he was one of the Worldwide Leader’s leading college sports voices. He was the lead voice on the network’s ACC basketball package, he called the Women’s Final Four for a decade and a half, and he was a leading voice on the College World Series and served as the play-by-play man for ESPN’s Thursday night and Saturday night packages, before ESPN turned its Saturday primetime window into the top package owned by the network.

You may remember this moment.

ESPN will say goodbye to Patrick through a pre-recorded tribute voiced by Rece Davis airing throughout the day on SportsCenter and a tribute during the network’s coverage of the Louisville vs. Duke basketball game tonight (9 p.m. ET).

Heisman winner Chris Weinke hired as Tennessee’s running backs coach

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It can be argued that the only reason Tennessee has a national championship is because of Chris Weinke. As we know, the Vols claimed the 1998 national championship by defeating Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, the first national championship game of the BCS era. Tennessee won that game, 23-16, thanks in large part to a pick-six thrown by Marcus Outzen, a third-string quarterback forced into action due to an injury by the two signal callers ahead of him on the depth chart.

Here’s how a Sports Illustrated article described Weinke and that FSU team in its 1999 preview issue:

Don’t think of 1999 as a new season for Florida State, think of it as the resumption of an old one. Before quarterback Chris Weinke was dumped on his head and suffered a season-ending ruptured disk in his neck in a 45-14 win over Virginia last Nov. 7, no team in the country was playing better than the Seminoles, who had bounced back from an early-season defeat at North Carolina State. So how cruel was this? Upset losses suffered by Ohio State, UCLA and Kansas State sent 11-1 Florida State to the national title game in the Fiesta Bowl, but without its best quarterback. The Seminoles and backup signal-caller Marcus Outzen struggled on offense and lost to Tennessee.

Nevertheless, Tennessee won that season’s title, Weinke would lead Florida State to the 1999 national title and take the Heisman Trophy a year after that. The past is the past.

But now the past is the present, as the former Florida State quarterback on Wednesday was announced as Tennessee’s running backs coach.

“I’m excited to have Chris Weinke on our staff to coach running backs,” Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt said in a statement. “He has played the game at the highest level and what he has accomplished on the field speaks for itself. He is also an outstanding coach and teacher of the game, coaching in the NFL, in college this past season and at the high school level. He has a great eye for talent and knows the game on the offensive side of the ball as well as anybody I’ve been around. He will be a great fit for our Tennessee program.”

Weinke entered the NFL as a 26-year-old and lasted seven seasons with the Panthers and 49ers before moving into coaching. He first worked as a trainer at IMG Academy, then moved onto coaching the high school program, where he went 19-2 as head coach and offensive coordinator. From there he deposited a stint as the Los Angeles Rams’ quarterbacks coach before spending the 2017 season as an offensive analyst at Alabama, where he hooked up with Pruitt.

Weinke will be charged with re-building the Vols’ backfield after losing John Kelly to an early entry into the NFL draft. Rising sophomore Ty Chandler is Tennessee’s leading returning rusher, carrying 71 times for 305 yards and two touchdowns in 2017.