I Hate You, John Crist: After getting burned last year, I'm down on Tennessee
I was very confident in Tennessee last season. Like most everyone at SEC Media Days, I went with the Volunteers to win the East.
My confidence wasn’t rewarded, though. UT finished 4-4 in conference play, although that was still good enough to grab second place in the league’s lesser division. No matter how you look at it, 2016 was a disappointment on Rocky Top.
As a result, I’m not expecting much from the Vols this season. As a matter of fact, I have coach Butch Jones and Co. doing no better than fifth in the East. Yes, behind South Carolina. Yes, behind Kentucky, too. The division may as well be a two-horse between Florida and Georgia. Let’s fast forward to the Cocktail Party.
Perhaps no team in the entire SEC lost as much star power off its roster as the one in Knoxville. Just about every recognizable player from last year is gone, so this is the make-or-break campaign for Jones.
Here are some of my favorite comments from this past week. Remember, I’m a columnist and never claimed to be a clairvoyant.
As far as the East is concerned, I’m higher on South Carolina than most. If you own stock in the Gamecocks, I’ll buy it from you.
On the other hand, I’m selling my shares of Tennessee like it’s Black Monday. I said it countless times on sports talk radio stations all last year: If the Volunteers can’t win the division in 2016, then maybe they never will.
At least not with Jones at the controls. The program had been gaining steam since he took the job in 2013. From five wins to seven wins to nine wins, the stage was set for double-digit victories and a trip to Atlanta. UT had a senior QB in Joshua Dobbs and more returning starters than any team in the conference.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way. After a couple of close calls early, eventually luck ran out for the Vols in College Station. A blowout at the hands of Alabama preceded difficult-to-explain defeats to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Undeniably, they resembled a M*A*S*H unit at one point with all those injuries, many of them to key contributors who couldn’t be replaced.
But now Dobbs is history. So are Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and Josh Malone from the skill positions. So are Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton on defense, even if Reeves-Maybin and Sutton were among the walking wounded.
There are so many holes to fill. Whether it’s Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano succeeding Dobbs at quarterback, expecting him to be the same level of dual-threat weapon seems greedy. Sure, all those injuries on defense meant extra playing time for younger guys last year, but it’s not like they played exceptionally well.
Additionally, the schedule is far from a cakewalk. There’s a road trip to Gainesville, where they haven’t won since 2003. There’s yet another to Tuscaloosa. Needless to say, the Third Saturday in October hasn’t been kind to Tennessee.
I could be wrong, though. The East has been anything but predictable lately. Still, if the Vols win the division, I’ll be shocked.
For some reason, my 4th of July story highlighting the most explosive players in the SEC turned into a debate on Nick Fitzgerald.
At the quarterback position, I went with Alabama’s Jalen Hurts. After all, he is the reigning Offensive Player of the Year in the conference. His style of play certainly qualifies as “explosive,” as well.
Because our Mississippi State readers tend to be a sensitive bunch — especially at the beginning of last season, when I picked the Bulldogs to finish last in the West — they tend to lose their minds when discussing Fitzgerald. They’re always citing statistics, many of them borderline meaningless, to pump up their guy.
I’m on record saying that Fitzgerald is the single most intriguing player in the entire league for 2017. If coach Dan Mullen he can develop him as a passer, as he did previously with Dak Prescott, then MSU could be very dangerous offensively.
But let’s not forget that Fitzgerald was actually benched twice last year and did next to nothing in three games facing ranked competition.
Against LSU, Auburn and Alabama, Fitzgerald threw for 446 yards and ran for an additional 89 — combined. His TD-to-INT ratio was an even 2-to-2, plus he failed to find the end zone on the ground.
Of course, there were times when Fitzgerald looked to be unstoppable. However, two of his three 300-yard passing games came against UMass and Samford. While he did run for 100-plus against five conference foes (South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Ole Miss), those programs finished ninth, 12th, eighth, 10th and 14th in the league in rushing defense.
By the way, to answer your question, Justin Senior was a sixth-round pick in April. Martinas Rankin is a possible first-rounder in next year’s draft. Two out of five NFL players along the offensive line isn’t too bad, even in the SEC.
The fact that Hurts has a better supporting cast is irrelevant anyway. Did anybody think Jake Coker provided more fireworks for the Crimson Tide than Prescott did for the ‘Dogs?
When coming up with my Preseason All-SEC Team for 2017, I included Missouri defensive end Marcell Frazier.
It’s a perfectly reasonable choice. He had 7.5 sacks as a junior in 2016, and since top pass rusher Charles Harris left early for the NFL, Frazier will be expected to be even more of a leader as a senior.
If you didn’t know already, Weagle99 is an Auburn fan. As a result, he’s “surprised” that I didn’t go out of my way to pick Marlon Davidson or Derrick Brown for All-SEC. It’s not a coincidence, naturally, that both Davidson and Brown suit up for the Tigers. They had a total of 3.0 sacks between them last year, by the way.
Don’t get me wrong. Davidson and Brown are both tremendous players and should be paid attention to going forward. Also, they were only freshmen this past season. A leap in production as sophomores makes sense.
But every now and then, it would be nice if an Auburn fan advocated for a player from Alabama, LSU or any other program than, well, Auburn.
It’s not just Auburn fans, obviously. One Kentucky reader was flabbergasted that safety Mike Edwards didn’t get a mention. A Missouri reader felt the need to correct me since he felt running back Damarea Crockett was absent.
Look, we’re all guilty of being homers. We typically forget to take our blinders off when discussing topics such as these. Are guys like Davidson and Brown capable of being All-SEC by season’s end? Sure they are. But are they more deserving of preseason recognition than Frazier? I don’t think so, and I won’t be alone at Media Days.
As for Crockett, look at tailback in the conference right now. Nick Chubb, Derrius Guice, Damien Harris, Kerryon Johnson, Kamryn Pettway, Bo Scarbrough, Jordan Scarlett, Benny Snell, Ralph Webb, Trayveon Williams — they might all be better than Crockett.
I’d be more willing to consider Crockett for honorable-mention status had his name been offered up by a reasonable Arkansas fan, not a scorned Missouri fan.