Back at SEC Media Days in July, just like everybody else on hand, I made my preseason predictions for the West and East divisions.
For the winners, I went chalk. Until further notice, Alabama will be my selection in the West since coach Nick Saban is essentially running an NFL farm team now. I was also on board with all the love being thrown Tennessee’s way in the East.
As for the cellar dwellers, my picks were Mississippi State in the West and South Carolina in the East. The Bulldogs were replacing Dak Prescott, the best quarterback — maybe even best player — in school history. The Gamecocks appeared to be starting a complete rebuild after ex-coach Steve Spurrier let the program run off the rails.
I feel pretty good about my winners. The Crimson Tide have been No. 1 wire to wire and already wrapped up the West. The Vols still have a chance in the East.
With regard to my bottom feeders, I appear to be half right at this point. MSU is indeed bringing up the rear with a 4-6 record — 2-4 in conference play. With Arkansas at home and then Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl to close out the schedule, my summer prognostication of 4-8 and no bowl game is a very real possibility.
so right about bulldogs
As mentioned, Prescott was a once-in-a-generation player in Starkville. Perhaps even once in a lifetime.
Mississippi State, an institution with an adjusted all-time mark of just 536-556-36, was No. 1 in the country for four glorious weeks in the fall of 2014. Without Prescott at the controls, that wouldn’t have been possible.
He finished his Bulldogs career in 2015 completing 62.8 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 70-to-23. Prescott added 2,521 yards and 41 TDs as a rusher, as he was the Alpha and the Omega — the arm and the legs — of coach Dan Mullen’s spread-option offense. He was terrific off the field, too.
You don’t just replace a guy who is in the conversation as a rookie for NFL MVP with the Dallas Cowboys.
But Mullen was forced to do so, and he gave that unenviable task to Nick Fitzgerald. Even if he might already be a better runner than Prescott, he’s nowhere near as skilled a passer. He’s been inconsistent as a result.
No scheme in the league is as QB-dependent as Mullen’s. Not only is Fitzgerald (above) MSU’s leading passer, but he’s also the leading rusher. As a matter of fact, he has more rushing attempts than the top two tailbacks — that would be the little-used Aeris Williams and Ashton Shumpert — on the depth chart combined.
In four wins, Fitzgerald averages 277.3 yards passing and 151.5 rushing. In six losses, he averages 123.5 yards passing and 41.3 rushing.
Quite simply, unless Fitzgerald balls out, Mississippi State can’t win. He doesn’t have a strong running game or a suffocating defense or opportunistic special teams to lean on if he’s anything less than dominant.
Compare Fitzgerald’s numbers to Prescott’s last season. He averaged 299.3 yards passing and 48.2 rushing in nine wins, while he averaged 274.8 yards passing and 38.5 rushing in four losses — not a huge contrast between victories and defeats. Prescott has able to mask the Bulldogs’ deficiencies in other areas.
That’s why I wrote repeatedly during the offseason that he was the single most difficult player to replace in the SEC.
so wrong about gamecocks
South Carolina, on the other hand, didn’t have to say goodbye to a generational arm talent. It was stuck with former walk-on Perry Orth, although there was excitement in Columbia about incoming recruit Brandon McIlwain.
What the Gamecocks needed — in addition to improved quarterback play, of course — was serious help at the skill positions. They returned none of their dependable rushing and receiving options from a season ago. Running back Brandon Wilds was gone. So were wide receiver Pharoh Cooper and tight end Jerell Adams.
Even if Orth put it all together as a senior or McIlwain developed quickly as a freshman, who would run the ball and catch passes?
On the other side of the ball, USC hadn’t stopped anybody consistently for the last few years of the Spurrier regime. The situation went from bad to worse when star linebacker Skai Moore was ruled out for 2016 due to injury.
I came to the conclusion that first-year coach Will Muschamp had a much bigger rebuilding job on his hands than most fans — especially those who didn’t pay close enough attention to his track record at Florida — anticipated. There simply weren’t enough blue-chip athletes on the roster to compete in this conference.
I picked the Gamecocks to finish 2-10, 0-8 in the SEC. With Muschamp (above) flip-flopping back and forth between Orth and McIlwain, South Carolina started 2-4 and was atrocious offensively.
However, just as I was patting myself on the back for picking both of the league’s last-place finishers, Muschamp pulled the redshirt off Jake Bentley’s back and thrust him into the lineup. He’d seen enough of Orth and McIlwain.
Bentley wasn’t even the most celebrated QB signee of his own recruiting class. That honor went to McIlwain. Nevertheless, he won his first three — including an upset of East favorite Tennessee — and has the Gamecocks on the verge of bowl eligibility at 5-5 and 3-5 in league play. The turnaround has been stunning.
Rico Dowdle has solidified the tailback position. Deebo Samuel is a good-looking receiver. Hayden Hurst has been reliable at tight end, too.
If USC wants to go bowling, it better beat 2-8 Western Carolina at home Saturday. Upsetting Clemson on the road in Week 13 isn’t going to happen. Still, Muschamp and Co. are a lot further long than I anticipated. Kudos to them.