Commissioner’s Report: Time to answer SEC questions

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 6:39pm

The winter doldrums are long past, and even though the Julian calendar says that summer still has a month to go, everyone who follows college football marks August two-a-days as the end of summer vacation, and opening game weekend as the start of the fall.

Yes, the 2009 college football season is finally upon us. For several teams in the SEC, the opening weekend of play brings significant challenges and tough questions.

Has Alabama finally shaken off the hangover following its loss to Florida in the Championship Game? Will Georgia find replacements for offensive duo Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno? 

Are the Rebs for real, or was their Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech a mirage? Can Vanderbilt capitalize on the ‘Dores first post-season appearance in forever and get half-way to bowl eligibility in the month of September? 

What about Tennessee? Can Lane Kiffin get his foot out of his mouth long enough to be an effective head coach? These and dozens of other questions will start to find answers this Saturday in cities like Atlanta, Stillwater, Okla., and Memphis.

The Commissioner is serving up some predictions for the more significant SEC games this weekend:

Alabama vs. Virginia Tech:  The Tide and Hokies provide the best match-up of the opening weekend. It’s not often that two teams in everybody’s top 10 play each other to start the season. 

Alabama returns nine starters on a defense that was among the nation’s best in ’08. The Tide stop-troops are anchored up front by man-mountain Terrence Cody who is complimented by an outstanding corps of linebackers that include pre-season All-American Rolando McClain and all-SEC Dont’a Hightower.

While the Pachyderms have some holes to fill on offense, indications are that juco transfer James Carpenter will perform well at left tackle in place of the departed Andre Smith, with freshman phenom D. J. Fluker seeing significant playing time. 

Meanwhile, the Hokies will try to find a replacement for injured pre-season all-ACC running back Darren Evans, who compiled 1,265 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last season on his way to winning the MVP award in the Orange Bowl. Evans has been lost for the season with a torn ACL.

But Frank Beamer’s VT teams are rarely known for their offense. Rather, strong defenses and game-breaking special teams are Beamer’s coaching signatures and the 2009 Turkeys look like they will fit the Beamer mold. Leading the Hokie defense will be defensive end Jason Worilds who accumulated 18.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2008 while playing hurt most of the time.

The last time Alabama faced Virginia Tech — in the inaugural Music City Bowl on Dec. 29, 1998 — the Hokies made short work of the Mike Dubose-coached Tide. Alabama is on its fourth head football since then, while Beamer is still the head coach at Tech. But don’t expect this weekend’s game in the Georgia Dome to be a repeat of the Music City Debacle. Virginia Tech is a very good football team. But so is Alabama.

This game will be a hard-hitting affair custom-made for fans who like good defense. Pick: Alabama, in a close one.

Georgia vs. Oklahoma State. This game could be an embarrassment for Georgia.

The Cowboys have lots of offense and can gobble up yardage equally as well on the ground as in the air. 

In 2008, OSU gained 3,191 yards rushing and 3,149 passing and all their big stars are back again this year, including quarterback Zac Robinson [3,064 yards passing], running back Kendall Hunter [1,555 yards and 16 TDs] and receiver Dez Bryant [87 receptions, 19 TDs].

Like most teams in the Big 12 Oklahoma State played defense like it was merely a temporary moment for the offense to get a drink of Gatoraide while the other team put on a passing and scoring exhibition. Nevertheless, 10 of the Cowboys top 12 tacklers from 2008 return this year.

Georgia, in addition to finding replacements for Stafford and Moreno, must eliminate the defensive errors and penalties that plagued it last season. In fact, Georgia’s best defensive strategy may be to play good offense.

Wide Receiver A. J. Green is every bit as good an offensive weapon as any player on the OK State roster, and if the Dawgs can run the football, convert third-downs, move the chains, and run the clock then they will shorten the game.  

This does not look to me like a good match up for Georgia at such an early point in a transitional season. The Cowboys are playing at home and are talking about challenging cross-state rival, Oklahoma, for the Big 12 South title. Pick: Oklahoma State in a one-sided track meet.

LSU vs. Washington:  Few teams in college football were as ineptly coached as the Huskies were the last four years under the dismal leadership of Tyrone Willingham.  What he failed to accomplish on the field [11 wins, 32 losses] he matched in recruiting.

UW’s players are reportedly very upbeat and excited about a huge change for the better brought about by the new coaching staff, but the Huskies start too far back and in too deep a hole to be able to beat the likes of LSU, even with the advantage of playing at home.

The Tigers, meanwhile have their own issues to deal with. Getting better production on offense and shoring up a defense that was somewhat porous in 2008 are important tasks.   While LSU will not be in the winners’ circle in the SEC at season’s end, they are more than a match for a PAC 10 doormat at the beginning. Pick: picks LSU by double digits.

Tennessee vs. Western Kentucky: Gene Stallings once said that if you think playing a team you are supposed to beat is no big deal, just wait until you lose — then you’ll find out how big a game it was all along. That’s the trap that awaits UT as the Hilltoppers come to Vol-ville.

Compare these two programs. For the third year in a row, WKU football players sold season tickets door-to-door in neighborhoods throughout Bowling Green. The price? $30.  I think that’s what you pay to park in Knoxville. Last season, WKU averaged nearly 17,000 fans at each of its home games. That’s the average number of people lined up for the rest room at any one time during a UT home game.

There is no way that Tennessee should lose to Western Kentucky. In fact, there is no excuse for Tennessee not beating Western by 30 points and playing its starters like a pro team in the preseason. Mark my words: If Tennessee wins like it ought to, no later than the fifth post-game Vol-caller will be talking about how UT can win the BCS Championship. 

But what if? I mean, what if the unthinkable happens? What if Western plays Tennessee close? What if the Hilltoppers actually have a lead in the second half? Pick: Tennessee will win like it should.

Ole Miss v. Memphis:  This is one of the most intriguing games of the weekend. Memphis was not a good football team in 2008. But since that time it has added more transfer players to its roster [7] than any other team in Division I.

All of the pre-season hype has been on the Rebs. Every commentator is predicting great things out of Oxford this fall. Some experts have even picked Ole Miss to win the SEC West. After all, that’s why they play the games and Ole Miss did defeat last year’s BCS Champion on the road.

But the 2009 Tigers are not going to be the Tigers of 2008. A loss would knock all the shine off of Ole Miss, which is enjoying its highest pre-season ranking since the days of Archie Manning. I think a loss is unlikely; but a throat-tightening scare is very much a real possibility. Pick: Rebels in a squeaker.