CFT predicts: the SEC

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Home of the last six BCS champions, the SEC will try to make it seven straight this season. The power of the SEC should once again reside in the West with Alabama, Arkansas and LSU all eyeing a trip to Atlanta. The East? It’s a work in progress as traditional powers Florida and Tennessee try to reclaim the glory days. Who knows, maybe Missouri will sneak in and grab a divisional title in its first year.

Looking ahead to the 2012 season, here’s how I see the SEC shaking out this season:

(Let it be known that I reserve the right to change my mind at any time without notice.)

East Division

1. Georgia (last season: 10-4, lost Outback Bowl)
After spending a couple of years on the hot seat, Georgia coach Mark Richt, who is as upstanding and genuine as any coach you’ll meet, sold his soul to Satan for a 10-win season and SEC title game appearance. But, karma’s a you-know-what, and the Bulldogs have witnessed an offseason of unusually high player attrition. Sounds like Georgia doesn’t stand much of a chance, huh? Well, you’re forgetting one thing: it’s the SEC East. Plus, picking South Carolina may as well be the kiss of death. Speaking of which …

2. South Carolina (last season: 11-2; won Capital One Bowl) 
Based on the Gamecocks’ inverse theory of expectations*, where preseason high praise and lauding inevitably lead to disaster later, this should be a relatively good sign for Steve Spurrier and Co. Another good one? Running back Marcus Lattimore. He’s back after suffering a season-ending knee injury a year ago. So, by picking South Carolina to finish second in the East, I’m actually secretly projecting the Gamecocks to finish first. I think. I don’t know.

(*see also: Clemson)

3. Tennessee (last season: 5-7) 
Tennessee is the super sexy sleeper pick for the East title. The Vols return a boatload of starters, but I’m not a huge believer in Tyler Bray yet — though in his defense, Bray wasn’t healthy for much of last season. Nevertheless, this is a crucial year for head coach Derek Dooley. Three losing seasons just isn’t going to do it in Knoxville, not when the fan base is used to winning and the program is pouring money into facilities. The Vols do have two outstanding receivers, though: Justin Hunter (when he’s healthy) and Da’Rick Rogers (when his head is on straight).

4. Florida (last season: 7-6; won Gator Bowl) 
The dropoff in the East starts here. I like the move to pick up Brent Pease as the team’s new offensive coordinator from Boise State and the Gators return some key playmakers from a top 25 defense a year ago. The schedule sets up nicely for Florida too with LSU and South Carolina at home, plus Florida avoids Alabama and Arkansas. If Florida can be a little — okay, a lot — more efficient on offense,  it can be competitive in the East.

5. Missouri (last season in Big 12: 8-5; won Independence Bowl) 
This is where it starts to even out in the East division. Frankly, I can see spots 4-6 all being shuffled around easily. I’m going to go with Missouri here because of the health of quarterback James Franklin. Although coach Gary Pinkel has insisted time and time again Franklin will be ready by the start of the season following shoulder surgery, I’m skeptical that he can stay healthy all season. And it’s not like Mizzou has amazing depth behind Franklin, either. The Tigers will do better in their inaugural year in the SEC than Texas A&M, but I still get the feeling there will be a somewhat rude awakening.

6. Vanderbilt (last season: 6-7; lost Music City Bowl) 
I absolutely love what James Franklin is building at Vanderbilt. He’s a relentless recruiter and the university is recognizing what it needs to do to stay competitive by improving facilities. Franklin may eventually compete, and possibly win, an SEC East title … just not this year. But, watch out: Vandy could upset South Carolina in the first game of the season and the Commodores’ toughest SEC West opponent is Auburn.

7. Kentucky (last season: 5-7) 
Hey, at least Mississippi isn’t alone in the SEC cellar. Kentucky’s non-conference slate is manageable, but that’s about it. Ticket sales are lagging too, showing the crowd in Lexington has probably had enough of the Joker Phillips era unless he does something to generate excitement. I don’t think he does, and the Wildcats finish last in the East.

West Division

1. Alabama (last season: 12-1; won BCS championship)
I picked against the Crimson Tide to win the West prior to last season, which turned out to be a somewhat accurate prediction. But, because I’m a well-documented numbskull, I unwisely disrespected the Tide again in the BCS championship game without considering that it’s nearly impossible to beat Nick Saban head-to-head when he has weeks to prepare. Point being, I’m not going to pick against Alabama again this season. I expect much improvement from quarterback A.J. McCarron after watching him make good (or otherwise non-lethal) decisions in the BCS championship game. Replacing Trent Richardson won’t be a big deal, but going on the road to Arkansas and LSU will be.

2. Arkansas (last season: 11-2; won Cotton Bowl) 
Say what you will about Bobby Petrino the man — and there’s a lot to be said —  but the guy could flat out coach a college football team. But, hey, you go for a ride on a motorcycle with your subordinate who you just so happen to be sleeping with, and a couple lies later, you’re out of a job. It happens. Now, the Hogs move on with former assistant coach John L Smith. The guy has a 10-month contract and a team primed to make a SEC championship run. Tyler Wilson should have been in a hospital with the hits he took last year, so there’s no arguing his toughness. Also returning is the explosive, yet oft-injured running back Knile Davis. Arkansas’ defense is stacked with seniors, and while I like the fact that the Hogs get ‘Bama and LSU at home, Smith is the wild card here.

3. LSU (last season: 13-1; lost BCS championship) 
I’m going to go out on a limb with the preseason No. 1 team (in the coaches’ poll). The defending SEC champion will be this year what Arkansas was last year: a talented team (now without Tyrann Mathieu) stuck in a division with two other phenomenal teams. Because of that, I’m going to put the Tigers at No. 3 in the West. I keep hearing that quarterback Zach Mettenberger is the missing piece for the Tigers if they want to win another BCS championship. That’s interesting considering he’s completely unproven. I know, I know, so were McCarron, Cam Newton and Greg McElroy when they won national championships. That trend stops this year.

4. Auburn (last season 8-5; won Chick-fil-A Bowl) 
2011 was a somewhat sobering year for Auburn, which was just removed from a BCS championship and a Heisman winning quarterback. The Tigers lost five games last season by an average of just under 28 points per game. First order of business? A new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder. Second order? Develop some household names on offense not named Phillip Lutzenkirchen in Scot Loeffler‘s more pro style offense. Running back Michael Dyer is gone and he gave the Tigers back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but Onterio McCalebb is back.  So is leading receiver Emory Blake. I’m looking for both guys to have huge years.

5. Mississippi State (last season: 7-6; won Music City Bowl) 
Auburn and Mississippi State could be flipped, but Auburn should win the early-season matchup in Starkville and I like the Tigers’ talent more. Outside of that game, though, the Bulldogs’ first seven games could give them a hot start; it’s the final five games that could give Mississippi State trouble. Save the season-ending Egg Bowl against Mississippi, the Bulldogs’ schedule is backloaded with games against Alabama, LSU and Arkansas — and two of those are on the road. Also, I’m still waiting for a program-defining win from Dan Mullen.

6. Texas A&M (last season in Big 12: 7-6; won Meineke Car Care Bowl) 
Kevin Sumlin made a promise that Texas A&M will “fight its ass off” this season. Awesome. So will every other team. The Aggies may be changing conferences, but the things that win football games don’t. A&M does have the chance to start off right by hosting Florida on Sept. 8, but there’s nothing fun about A&M’s schedule starting Sept. 29. There’s too much turnover for Sumlin and Co. to contend for a West title right away.

7. Mississippi (last season: 2-10) 
It’s going to be a tough first year for Hugh Freeze. I’m not convinced all the JUCO players in Mississippi could help the Rebels, either. A soft non-conference schedule might help build some confidence for the Rebels, but 2012 has the looks of a winless conference record.

CFT’s SEC champion: Alabama

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Interested in our other 10 conference projections along with Division 1-A (FBS) Independents? View ’em all below by clicking the individual links or our projections landing page HERE. And don’t forget to check out CFT’s preseason Top 25.

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Big East
Big Ten
Big 12
Conference USA
MAC
Mountain West
Pac-12
Sun Belt
WAC
Independents

Memphis loses OC to Auburn, DC to FCS head coaching job

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Thanks to the events of the last 24 hours or so, Mike Norvell will have a significantly reshaped Memphis coaching staff when the 2019 season kicks off.

First, Auburn announced Sunday night that it has hired Kenny Dillingham as Gus Malzahn‘s offensive coordinator.  The 28-year-old Dillingham, who will also coach quarterbacks, replaces Chip Lindsey, who left for the coordinator job under Les Miles at Kansas.

Dillingham spent the 2018 season as the coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Memphis.

“Kenny is one of the rising stars in our profession, coaching two top 10 nationally ranked offenses the last two years,” Malzahn said. “Because of Kenny’s energy, intelligence and genuine care for his players, he’s been highly successful coaching quarterbacks and is an outstanding recruiter, while working closely with Mike Norvell in developing one of the nation’s top offenses.”

The football program also confirmed that Malzahn will resume calling plays for the Tigers’ offense next season, just as he did from 2013-15.  In 2016, those duties fell to Rhett Lashlee; the past two seasons, Lindsey called the plays.

Dillingham wasn’t responsible for calling plays with the AAC Tigers as those duties fell to Norvell on gameday.

In addition to losing Dillingham, Memphis has also seen Chris Ball leave as the defensive coordinator was named Monday as the new head coach at FCS Northern Arizona.  Ball had spent the past three seasons as Norvell’s coordinator.

Ball, who was an assistant at Arizona State from 2012-15, will be introduced as the program’s 30th head football coach at a Wednesday press conference.

K-State announces North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman as Bill Snyder’s replacement

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One of the most successful coaches at the FCS level is making the move up to replace one of the most beloved figures at the FBS level — albeit not immediately as he has some unfinished postseason business at his current school to take care of.

Monday night, Kansas State announced that Chris Klieman has been hired as the Wildcats’ as the football program’s 35th head coach.  Klieman replaces the legendary Bill Snyder, who retired earlier this month after two separate stints at the school for a total of nearly three decades.

“I’m very excited to have Chris Klieman lead our program,” athletic director Gene Taylor said in a statement. “He is a perfect fit for us, both from a personal standpoint and as a head coach. He’s a tremendous teacher who I had the pleasure to hire at NDSU and watched him turn into a very successful coach. He will bring a ton of energy and excitement. His teams play extremely hard, disciplined football. He’s a winner. That’s all he does is win, and we’re excited to have Chris, Rhonda and the entire Klieman family join our K-State family. They will be a great fit not only for Kansas State Football and Kansas State Athletics, but also the entire community of Manhattan.”

Klieman is in his fifth season as the head coach at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State.  In the first four seasons, the Bison claimed three national championships (2014, 2015, 2017) and advanced to the semifinals the other year (2016).

In 2018, North Dakota State is a perfect 13-0 and will face South Dakota State in one of the two semifinal matchups Friday night.  Klieman will remain with the Bison through this year’s playoff run.

All told, the 51-year-old Klieman is 67-6 at North Dakota State.

“This is an absolute dream job,” a statement from Klieman began. “I’m so happy and thrilled to follow a legend in Coach Snyder. I’ve followed him from afar, went to his camps while playing in Waterloo, Iowa, and played against his Kansas State team when I was at Northern Iowa. The opportunity to follow in an icon’s footsteps is something I don’t take for granted and don’t take lightly. I know I have huge shoes to fill, and I’m excited to carry on his legacy. I have prepared my entire life for this opportunity and had great experiences at many institutions, most notably North Dakota State where we’ve had unmatched success over the last eight years. I can’t express how pleased I am and thank President Myers, Gene Taylor and the search committee for trusting in me and handing over the keys to this great program.”

Per the school, Klieman has signed a six-year contract that will pay him $2.3 million in 2019.  He will receive raises of $200,000 annually over the remaining five years of the deal.

Only Kansas’ David Beaty ($1.7 million), dismissed at the end of the regular season, made less than that figure in 2018 amongst Big 12 coaches.  Snyder, at $3.5 million, was the next lowest.

Former Texas State, Rice head coach David Bailiff lands at Texas A&M-Commerce

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One of the best pound-for-pound hires of the 2018-19 coaching cycle will be made at the Division II level. That’s where former Texas State and Rice head coach David Bailiff is headed after he was hired by Texas A&M-Commerce.

“During our comprehensive search process, David Bailiff emerged as an exceptional leader of men who exemplifies our Best in Class mission,” AD Tim McMurray said in a statement. “We had seven key pillars during our search – integrity and commitment to compliance, initiatives for student-athlete success, strategic recruiting based within the Texas footprint, a championship vision, an inclusive leadership style, excellent collaboration with campus partners, and demonstrated ability to engage our alumni and community.   With Coach Bailiff’s energy, passion, and ability to connect with student-athletes, we checked all our boxes.”

Aside from a 5-year stint as New Mexico’s defensive line coach, Bailiff is a Lone Star State lifer who played at Texas State back when the school was known as Southwest Texas State and participated in the Lone Star Conference — where A&M-Commerce lives now — and later became the head coach at his alma mater when it was an FCS school. He went 21-15 in three seasons with a Southland Conference title and a trip to the FCS (then Division I-AA) semifinals in 2005.

That success led him to Rice, where he remained head coach for 11 seasons with a 10-win campaign in 2008 and a Conference USA championship in 2013.

He was replaced by Mike Bloomgren after the 2017 season and spent this fall out of football.

“I am so thrilled to be the 20th head coach in the history of the school. I’m an old Lone Star Conference guy, and that’s where my roots are in college football,” Bailiff said. “It’s great and exciting what coach Carthel built here, and it’s the first job I’ve had where you’ve got to look at the blueprint and continue building the momentum on something great he’s already got started.”

Bailiff takes over for Colby Carthel, who left to become the head coach at FCS Stephen F. Austin. Carthel led the Lions to their first Division II national championship in 2017.

Texas Tech WR Antoine Wesley declares for NFL draft

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He didn’t win enough games at his alma mater, but Kliff Kingsbury did succeed at placing his skill players on NFL rosters. Patrick Mahomes is the MVP front-runner with three weeks left to play, and there are more Red Raider wide receivers in the League than any other college program.

And now we can go ahead and add one more.

Wide receiver Antoine Wesley declared for the NFL draft on Monday. He made the announcement through a Twitter post and a highlight video that paired with the post.

A Las Vegas native by way of Cibolo Steele High School in the San Antonio area, Wesley exploded on the scene as a junior. After catching 10 passes total in his first two seasons, Wesley recorded 88 receptions for 1,410 yards and nine touchdowns this year. He ranked ninth nationally in catches and seconds in yards and yards per game.

A rangy target at 6-foot-5, Wesley hauled in 13 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns in a 63-49 win over Houston on Sept. 15, and in back-to-back November games against Oklahoma and Texas he combined to catch 20 passes for 370 yards and two touchdowns.

Wesley was named a Second Team All-Big 12 performer this fall.