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SEC football: 2013 surprises, busts

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Is Ole Miss overrated or underrated in 2013? (Source: Joshua McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics) Is Ole Miss overrated or underrated in 2013? (Source: Joshua McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics)
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The following is an exchange of thoughts/factoids/steel chair shots between SEC weekly columnist George ‘Hot Reads' Jones and self-professed SEC analysis-ist Matt Quillen.

(RNN) – Media Days: Because any excuse to talk about SEC football will do.

The annual saltine to the starving superfan kicked off Tuesday, and with it came the unmistakable thirst that can only be quenched by …

Wait for it …

Little longer …

Getting there …

Sorry, left the stove on …

Kickoff.

That's not to say the three-day event is without merit. There's always a chance Nick Saban could set a guy on fire with a lightning bolt from his cold, steely eyes.

And there's my perennial favorite: The Steve Spurrier "Dagnabbit" Drinking Game. That's where you slug one back each time the Ol' Ball Coach says one of his favorite deep-fried phrases.

Here's hoping everyone called in sick to work if they played along (I'm looking at you, What We Learned).

Since there's no avoiding the talkapalooza, we might as well jump in with both feet. And what could be more entertaining (see: time-consuming) than projecting this year's upstarts and disappointments?

For that, let's turn to the guy who puts both the "fun" and the "mental" in "fundamentals." Hot Reads, what teams do you have your eye on?

 

HR: I want to offer a disclaimer now. Any reference to recruit rankings or poll rankings is intended only for reference since I detest them, and most other people tend to hang the moon on them. It's not that I don't think they're important; they're just stupid.

That being said, can we get on with this? I would really like to put my headphones in before I hear some moron predict a national champion a full six weeks before the season starts.

Surprise: Ole Miss Rebels

Ole Miss is hitting leadoff for my list of most improved teams (sorry, had to get the baseball reference in there).

Here's the rundown: Coming off a 7-6 season that could easily have been 10-3; returning 19 starters; a historically great recruiting class that included the overall No. 1 high school player.

Robert Nkemdiche joins a defense that definitely needs the help, but without him this is still an impressive recruiting class. Laremy Tunsil could compete for the only open spot on the offensive line (right guard), and signing Laquon Treadwell is like dropping a Swiss army knife into an already dangerous offensive toolbox.

The one red flag is in the secondary, and not just because the team was 11th in the league in passing defense in 2012. Nick Brassell is questionable academically and the team will do without Carlos Davis for six games because he played the same number while academically ineligible last season.

They added some talent in that department, and with a pass rusher like Nkemdiche joining his brother Denzel - an all SEC linebacker - you have to think the Rebels will play more 4-3 outside of their base 4-2-5.

 

SECA: Bold choice on the Rebels. They've become trendier than a Kanye West-Kate Middleton baby in Abercrombie sweatpants listening to Daft Punk on Beats by Dre headphones.

Bust: Florida Gators

People want daring, Hot Reads. And I give the people what they want. So how about a team on the decline? I say how about the mighty Gators – you feel the ground move beneath your feet just now?

Florida is in year three of the Will Muschamp Era – usually a time when recruiting and strategy synergize on the field. And they have their quarterback returning, so that's good, too. Usually. I don't think it is in this case.

Jeff Driskel did not have to be the guy last year with such a strong running game, and he may not be able to handle the role of offensive centerpiece. The SEC is not a "three yards and a cloud of dust" place anymore. A team needs to be able to score no matter how good the defense plays.

Another problem is the schedule: Early at Miami (FL) could be trouble (and a big confidence blow), at LSU, at South Carolina and Georgia in Jacksonville are all losses. What it comes down to is it's a three-team race for the SEC East, and Florida looks like the third-best team. That will be a disappointment in Gatorland.

 

HR: Florida on the decline? You know our company randomly tests for drugs, right?

People make too much of Florida's passing game. They didn't move the ball in the air because their line didn't pass protect well, something three returning starters up front will hopefully remedy. It's also worth noting that for what the Gators lacked offensively, Alabama was the only SEC team that allowed fewer points or yards.

Surprise: Vanderbilt Commodores

Vanderbilt forced people to reluctantly (skeptically?) turn their attention toward Nashville for something other than country music last fall. This season, folks had better be looking from the very start.

Here is a quote from my column last year: "They may become a contender... The 'want to' is already there, and the talent is coming."

Hello, talent. Welcome to Vanderbilt.

The Commodores return a nice core of 13 starters that outfought and outsmarted their way to nine wins. Adding a wide receiver talent like Jordan Cunningham and an absolute man at middle linebacker in Nigel Bowden certainly helps.

However, the most impressive upgrade was already on the team - quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels.

Watching him on film, it amazes me he didn't steal away the job last year. People forget he started as a true freshman and sophomore at Wyoming and was the offensive MVP of the 2009 New Mexico Bowl. He can make every play imaginable in the pocket, and as it stands now he may be the most underrated quarterback in the conference.

 

SECA: The New Mexico Bowl! Why didn't you say so? I'll go ahead and tell them to engrave the conference championship trophy.

Bust: Texas A&M Aggies

The key to this is finding teams that will not play to their expectations. For the Aggies, the expectations couldn't be much higher.

By no means do I think they will lose more than three games, but isn't that enough to disappoint? This is a team with national championship aspirations and an offense that will definitely entertain and light up the scoreboard.

The problem lies on the other side of the ball. The secondary remains a soft spot and defensive end Damontre Moore is a huge loss – the guy led the team in sacks and tackles. Without somebody stepping up huge to fill his role of gamechanger (ask Bama), this team is in line for a lot of shootouts.

Does that mean A&M games will be must-watch? Absolutely. But when a team has to score six-plus touchdowns every week to win, something will eventually give.

 

HR: Johnny Manziel could suffer some growing pains this season, and it couldn't have happened to a better Twitter villain. Apparently, the bar fight culture Manziel made famous in College Station last year has spread among the team.

But still, it's hard to argue against the Aggies. An outstanding recruiting class proved everyone wants to play with a Heisman winner, so if needed, they can plug some holes that way. And don't overlook the power of a talented coaching staff, which the Aggies have.

Nice try, though. Give it one more shot, and I'll close out strong.

 

SECA: Since you put it that way …

Bust: Ole Miss Rebels

A plot twist? That's right, I take your pretty little premise and expose more inaccuracies in it than a McDonald's budget strategy.

Again, it all comes down to expectations. This team snuck up on everybody last year because no one bothered to look. In 2013, everyone expects them to show up.

Another concern is the QB spot. Bo Wallace has some tools but showed he was not a good decision maker last year; those tools are also in question after offseason shoulder surgery. They have some good guys catching the ball, but it has to get to them first.

I like their run game but don't know if there's a playmaker good enough to make up for the deficit at signal-caller. Put it this way: You should be worried about generating enough offense if you have Florida's defense. With the Ole Miss defense, you should be petrified.

Finally, the Rebels' schedule is ridiculous: Start on the road against fellow darling Vandy, play one cupcake and follow that with a brutal five-game stretch (at Texas, at Bama, at Auburn, Texas A&M, LSU). I'd say a loss in at least four of those six is realistic.

 

HR: I was about to say something nice about your team, too. Why not, I already wrote it down.

Surprise: Auburn Tigers

Yes, your "beloved Auburn." I reluctantly make this pick, and I only do for one reason: they weren't that bad last year.

Auburn's biggest problem in a three-win season wasn't personnel, it was play calling. New/old coach Gus Malzahn and a spread offense that fits the players the Tigers recruited the past four years will fix that.

There is a lot to be encouraged about on The Plains. Tre Mason somehow managed to run for 1,000 yards in that jumbled mess, four offensive linemen are back and the quarterback battle features two guys that each made at least four starts last season.

And yeah, the Tigers were something short of awful defensively, as well. But they are adding a ridiculous amount of talent to a unit that returns eight starters. Plus, it's hard to stop people when your offense's routine three-and-outs give you no time to breathe.

SECA: It ends with Auburn. All is as it should be.

HR: Right. Auburn is last, just like in 2012.

SECA: Too soon.

Copyright 2013 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

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