The 2011 college football season started with high hopes for all 12 SEC teams. Eight teams were ranked in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll. Alabama topped the listed ranked second in the nation followed by LSU (4), South Carolina (12), Arkansas (14), Georgia (19), Mississippi State (20), Florida (22), and Auburn (23).
Natural attrition during the first half of the 2011 season would weed a few teams out of the rankings. Mississippi State and Georgia are the only two teams to no longer in the AP rankings.
All an SEC team feels they need to do is win the conference championship game for a shot at the national title as a SEC team has won each of the last five BCS Championships after winning the SEC title game. With half of the season left to play, the SEC East and West races are still undetermined.
LSU and Alabama are undefeated in the West with Arkansas and Auburn on their heels with one conference loss each.
In the East, South Carolina and Georgia are tied for first place with one conference loss a piece. Florida, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt are tied for second place each with two conference losses.
First Half Storyline in the SEC: Injuries
Injuries to key players have been the main story for many SEC teams during the first half of the 2011 season. Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt have seen their starting quarterbacks knocked out of game action at some point during the season.
Florida lost their first and second string quarterbacks against Alabama and Tennessee’s Tyler Bray has a broken thumb that could keep him out of action for six weeks.
Mississippi State has been plagued with injuries along their offensive line.
Justin Hunter, the Vols top wide receiver andKentucky’s true freshman running back Josh Clemons each tore their ACL and are out for the season.
Arkansas played without four starting defensive players against Alabama and Texas A&M. The Hogs were without three of their top four running backs until the A&M game as well.
The top running backs for Ole Miss have been hampered by various injuries all season.
Defensive standouts Collins Ukwu (Kentucky), C.J. Mosley (Alabama), and Melvin Ingram (South Carolina) have missed the majority of the first half of the season but appear to be healthy for the second half run.
Grade for Nonconference Games: B
In games against notable nonconference opponents the SEC turned in a 7-4 record. Their 4-1 record against ranked opponents is impressive.
Arkansas, LSU, and Alabama made loud statements with big wins, LSU twice, over Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-12, and Big East teams.
Vanderbilt’s win overConnecticut, the 2010 Big East champs, was a signature win for the Commodores and new head coach James Franklin.
Georgiatook a tough loss at home to Boise State 35-21. Auburn’s loss to Clemson, not ranked at the time, inDeath Valley ignited a Tiger’s team now ranked in the top 10.
Key Nonconference Games in the First Half
*Teams/Date/Site (off-campus location)
Boise State at Georgia, September 3, in Atlanta, Georgia
BYU at Ole Miss, September 3
Oregon vs. LSU, September 3, in Arlington, Texas
Alabama at Penn State, September 10
Cincinnati vs.Tennessee, September 10
Connecticut vs. Vanderbilt, September 10
Auburn at Clemson, September 17
Louisville at Kentucky, September 17
LSU at West Virginia, September 24
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M, October 1, in Arlington, Texas
Ole Miss at Fresno State, October 1
Key nonconference games yet to be played
Florida State vs.Florida, November 26
Clemson vs.South Carolina, November 26
Vanderbilt vs.Wake Forest, November 26
Grade for In-conference Games: C-
Many of the first half games have been disappointing. Injuries or not, LSU andAlabamahave not been tested by the rest of the conference.
Here’s a list of games that looked like great matchups before the season began.
*Teams/Date/Site (off-campus location)
South Carolina at Georgia, September 10
Mississippi State at Auburn, September 10
LSU at Mississippi State, September 15
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, September 17
Arkansas at Alabama, September 24
Florida at Kentucky, September 24
Alabama at Florida, October 1
Florida at LSU, October 8
Of the games listed, Mississippi State versus Auburnwas the lone dramatic game coming down to a last second goal line stand for the Tigers.
Notable In-conference Games Remaining
Georgia vs.Florida, October 24, in Jacksonville, Florida
LSU at Alabama, November 5
South Carolina at Arkansas, November 5
Florida at South Carolina, November 12
Arkansas at LSU, November 25
Team Grades SEC West
The Tide’s defense has dominated their opponents. The third ranked defense in college has held two teams scoreless. The most points they have given up this season is 14 to Arkansas at home.
The offense continues to roll with running backs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. The Alabama offensive line creates holes for their running backs and gives first year starter AJ McCarron time to find his receivers when needed.
The Tide won three signature games against Penn State, Arkansas, and Florida. Looking a little bit closer, Penn State is not that great, Arkansas and Florida had injury problems during the game. What have we really learned about Alabama so far?
November 5, Bama will be tested for the first time when LSU comes toTuscaloosa.
What defensive team do we rate? The healthy unit or how the team that has played to date? When have they been healthy?
As bad as it may seem for Razorback fans the Hogs are ranked 37th in scoring defense (21.33), 67th in total defense (389.50 yards per game), and 30th in pass defense (200.83 yards per game). With Jake Bequette, Isaac Madison, Darius Winston, Tank Wright, and Robert Thomas missing time, this group has held together well.
Willy Robinson’s defensive unit held Alabama’s offensive attack to 17 points in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Not having both starting defensive ends has contributed to their SEC low of 6 sacks.
Look for improvement on the Arkansas defense in the second half as they get healthier.
How can a team that averages 39.17 points per game, 17th best in the nation, have a B+ ranking on offense? Their running game is the reason or lack thereof.
Arkansas averages 129.33 rushing yards per game, 77th in the nation and 8th in the SEC.
In upcoming games against South Carolina and LSU Tyler Wilson will need the support of the running game if the Hogs hope to win.
The Hogs have a lot of room for improvement but have played well enough to win two important games versus Texas A&M andAuburn. Should the offensive line gel and improve their blocking this group can go far. The addition of Broderick Green and Dennis Johnson in the backfield will help the Hogs’ rushing attack.
Bobby Petrino has to be all smiles that he made it through the toughest part of the Razorback schedule with only one loss.
Look for the Hogs to roll until their game against LSU. If the Hogs beat LSU that could create a three-way tie for first place in the SEC West if LSU beatsAlabama.
Auburnhas the 105th ranked defense in college football.
The defense heldSouth Carolinato a season low 13 points in an upset win on the road. Was that Garcia’s poor performance, Auburn’s play, or a little bit of both?
The defense is young and still coming together as a group. Look for them to get stronger as the season progresses.
Auburn is 80th in the nation in total offense. Much of that is due to the running ability of Michael Dyer. Dyer is third in the SEC in rushing yards (679) and rushing touchdowns (8).
Barrett Trotter has 9 passing touchdowns, 6 interceptions, and has taken 12 sacks.
Through it all they average 27.83 points per game.
How good or bad Auburn really is this season is still up for debate. Four of their victories have been last minute wins. Is this a sign of a team that never gives up and finds a way to win or a sign that they play down to their level of competition?
Auburnlost nearly 40 percent of their players from the 2010 roster to graduation and the NFL. This team is young and still learning how to play together. Next year could be a great season for Gene Chizik and company.
Auburn should end up 9-3 or 8-4 putting them on track for their third straight bowl appearance.
Hard to poke any holes in LSU’s defense to date. The Tigers held Oregonto 27 points (2nd ranked scoring offense) and West Virginia to 21 (12th ranked scoring offense). Not counting the LSU game, Oregon is averaging 56 points per game this season.
In three conference games LSU is allowing 8 points per game. Overall offenses are scoring 12.50 points per game against their defense.
LSU is finishing games at a rate of 38.50 points per game. Their passing attack is not stellar, 8th in the SEC, but good enough to get the job done when needed. Their rushing attack is 6th best in the SEC. All very average numbers but with their defense backing them, they do not have to take unnecessary chances or be flashy on offense.
LSU has played the most difficult schedule in the nation to date and remains undefeated. There is little doubt that this is the best team in college football.
Upcoming games against Alabama and Arkansas seem to be the only two games standing in their way of a SEC title berth and a possible BCS Championship game berth.
MSU opponents are averaging 20.17 points per game. The Bulldogs have the 41st best defense in total yards. The problem is their defense is letting opponents run for 159 yards per game.
Dan Mullen has no answers for the loss of their 2010 starting linebacker unit, namely Chris White and K.J. Wright. Until their linebackers learn to stop the run, this will be a long season for Bulldog fans.
Despite Chris Relf’s struggles under center, MSU’s offense is scoring at a rate of 26 points per game. They have talent in the backfield with running back Vick Ballard.
Mullen may have to make the difficult decision to bench senior quarterback Chris Relf for sophomore quarterback Tyler Russell. Russell played well coming off the bench against UAB in week 6 leading MSU to a come from behind 21-3 win.
Mississippi State is 0-3 in conference play. Losing to Auburn, Georgia, and LSU is no crime. If Mullen was hoping to take MSU to the next step in the SEC he needed to win two of those games.
Mullen has three winnable games left on the schedule, atKentucky, versus Tennessee-Martin, and versus Ole Miss. Winning those three could put them in a bowl game even without a signature win.
Winning one of the three remaining games against South Carolina, Alabama, or Arkansas renews the Bulldog program and places them in a bowl.
Halfway through the season Ole Miss rush defense is ranked 95th in the nation (193 yards/game) and their pass defense is ranked 53rd (215.40 yards/game).
Their opponents during the first 6 games of the season include: BYU, Southern Illinois,Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Fresno State. None of their opponents have been ranked at the time of play.
In the Rebels two wins against Southern Illinois and Fresno State their offense averaged 40 points. In their three losses their offense averaged 11 points.
Mississippi’s passing game and rushing attack is 10th worst in the SEC in total yards. Vanderbilt is ranked below the Rebels in passing and rushing and beat Ole Miss 30-7.
If one believes in recruiting stars and rankings given via major recruiting publications, there is talent on campus. Houston Nutt has done a poor job of getting consistent quarterback play and the most out of his player’s talents thus far.
Rebel fans do not get your hopes up for a turnaround in the second half of the season. Ole Miss has three winnable games remaining againstKentucky, Louisiana Tech, and Mississippi State.
The good thing is Ole Miss has four games left on the schedule at home. The bad thing is three of those teams are Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU.
The first four games of the season the Gators defense looked as good as any in the nation. The most points Florida allowed was 23 points by Tennessee in a conference rivalry game. Then in the last two games Alabama scored 38 and LSU scored 41.
How good is the Gator defense? Great but not elite?
Florida averaged 40.25 points per game in their first four games. Against two of the better teams in the nation they averaged 10.5.
The Gator offense took heavy lumps againstAlabama. John Brantley, Jeff Demps, and Jeff Driskel were all injured making them miss time against LSU in the following game.
This is Charlie Weis’ first season in Gainesville as offensive coordinator. Look for him to keep developing the young talent he has on offense and forFloridato get better as the season continues.
Florida’s kicking game has been phenomenal this season. The lone missed field goal was an attempt over 50-yards.
Florida looked great in their first four games climbing as high as number 12 in the AP poll. After their injuries and two devastating losses toAlabamaand LSU the Gators welcome the second half of their schedule which features only one team currently ranked, South Carolina.
The six remaining games on the schedule are all winnable. Having to rely on one of two true freshmen under center until Brantley comes back could make those six games a wild ride.
The defense has rebounded from the first two games of the season against Boise State and South Carolina. The Bulldog scoring defense is ranked 20th in the nation (tied withFlorida) limiting teams to 19.17 points per game. In their last four games opponents have averaged 8.75 points against them.
Florida, if healthy, Auburn, and Georgia Tech’s offenses could create problems for the Bulldogs in the second half.
Putting points on the board has not been a problem for Mark Richt’s team this year. They average 32.17 points per game. Finding a balance with the running game and passing attack took a few games.
True freshman running back Isaiah Crowell has been a difference maker for the Bulldog offense. Crowell did not start until game three against Coastal Carolina. He is the 4th leading rusher in the SEC in total rushing yards and has three 100-yard rushing games.
Aaron Murray has been hot and cold during his sophomore campaign. He has thrown 13 touchdown passes but has also thrown 6 interceptions. If he takes 13 more sacks in the second half of the season, that could prove to be problematic forGeorgia.
The Bulldogs need to improve their 39 percent 3rd down conversion rate in the second half of the season.
Georgia is in a great position to have a nice second half run. All of the Bulldogs games are winnable. Florida, Auburn, and at Georgia Tech highlight the schedule.
After their 0-2 start to be tied with South Carolina for the SEC East lead is not a bad place to be.
South Carolina has two tough SEC games left.Georgianeeds a South Carolina loss for a shot as the SEC East representative in the conference title game.
The Wildcat’s defense allows 29.50 points per game. Kentucky’s offense is the 118th worst in FBS scoring 13 points per game.
What is the defense to do with no help from the offense?
The worn down Wildcat defense allows 408.5 yards of total offense per game. If the offense was able to help control the clock a little more this defense could be decent.
Sorry Wildcat fans but it is true, the offense is really bad. Morgan Newton has not been able to replace Mike Hartline’s production as the starting quarterback. In Kentucky’s last game versus South Carolina, Newton completed 4 of 21 passes for 17 yards. After the game one could hear Wildcat fans across the country shouting, “I could do better than that.”
Head coach Joker Philips has not been able to ignite the offense that lost Hartline, Cobb, Locke, and Matthews. To make matters worse running back Josh Clemons is out for the year with an ACL tear. Raymond Sanders will have to take a bigger role in the offense ifKentuckyis to have a shot at going to a bowl game.
Kentuckyhas two nonconference wins but has been blown out by three straight ranked SEC teams; Florida 48-10, LSU 35-7, South Carolina 54-3.
The remaining schedule is not overly difficult. For Kentucky it may be very difficult.
Any sort of offense could help the Wildcats win games in the second half of the season against Jacksonville State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt, at Georgia, or at home against Tennessee.
Wildcats will miss a bowl game for the first time in over five years.
After giving up 37 points to East Carolina and 42 toGeorgiain their first two games, the Gamecock defense has settled down.South Carolinaallows 274.50 yards of total offense per game which makes them the 9th best team in the nation. Their scoring defense is giving up a total of 20.33 points per game, 28th best in the nation.
Defensive tackle Melvin Ingram has missed time this season and All-SEC defensive end Devin Taylor had a slow start to his season. Slowly their defense has become the dominate force Gamecock fans were expected to be before the season began.
Let’s be honest, Marcus Lattimore is the South Carolina offense. Senior quarterback Stephen Garcia was having a horrible season leading the SEC in interceptions thrown and helping USC be the 111th worst team in FBS in that statistic.
Garcia has been dismissed from the team by head coach Steve Spurrier and now the reigns have been turned over to sophomore Connor Shaw. Shaw had a good game against Kentucky throwing for 311 yards completing 26 of 39 attempts with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Shaw’s ability to be consistent and not turn the ball over will be the key to the Gamecock season going forward; that and Marcus Lattimore staying healthy.
How good are the Gamecocks?South Carolinahas not played a ranked team this season. Auburn jumped to 15th in the nation after beating USC in Williams-Brice Stadium.
USC will have three chances to prove their ranking before the season is over. They travel toArkansas, play Florida in Jacksonville, and get Clemson at home.
The Gamecocks are capable of winning out the rest of their season if they can get strong quarterback play from Shaw.
Look for USC to have at least one more conference lost and have a shootout against Clemson in the Battle of the Palmetto State.
Tennessee is limiting their opponents to 343.80 yards per game and 20.40 points per game. The defense will be challenged with remaining games against LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, and Arkansas.
If the defense can keep their current average of points per game and yards per game allowed they should be able to win a couple of tough games in the second half of the season.
Even though Tennessee has been one-dimensional with Tyler Bray at quarterback, the offense is still putting up 32.60 points per game. Bad news is Bray could be out for six weeks. The good news is senior quarterback Matt Simms is stepping under center for the Vols.
Simms played through the toughest part of the Vols schedule in 2010 before missing the rest of the year with an injury. Simms has the ability to keep the Vols in games with his arm.
Simms, like Bray, will have to play without a rushing attack. A big season was expected of running back Tauren Poole but he has not played well. He has been hampered by a hamstring injury and may see limited time against LSU this weekend.
Tennessee does not have a big win under their belt this season. They played Florida tough at the Swamp. The rest of the season looks brutal.
Tennessee should be bowl eligible by season’s end. If they can catch LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, or Arkansas napping, come December they could end up in a nice bowl.
Considering the lack of offense and the amount of time the Commodores have spent on the field they have been great during the first half of the season.
The secondary has been among the leaders nationally in interceptions all season.
Vanderbilt has the 23rd ranked scoring defense in FBS at 19.40 points per game. Holding SEC teams to an average of 307.30 total yards per game is impressive as well. How long will the defense be able to hold up without the offense’s help?
In three SEC games the offense has averaged 11 points. Senior quarterback Larry Smith has missed time in the last two games to nagging injuries. Junior quarterback Jordan Rodgers played the final three quarters against Alabama in Vandy’s last game.
The two-headed rushing attack of Zac Stacy and Jerron Seymour places Vanderbilt as the 11th best team in the SEC. First year head coach James Franklin will have to find a way to keep the Commodores on the field and look for ways to put points on the board if they want to have a successful second half of the season.
Vanderbilt’s kicking situation is not great. They missed two field goals against Alabama. For the season they are 3 of 5 with a long of 33 yards. Essentially Vandy’s offense has to be in the red zone if they hope to kick a field goal. That makes it even more difficult to put points on the board for the Commodores.
Vanderbilt has been competitive this year for the first time since they won 7 games in 2008. Their defense is SEC caliber. Their offense is not.
For all of the returning talent Vanderbilt had starting the season, they are still a young team. If Franklincan keep his guys focused through the rest of 2011, through good times and bad, he will have a special team come 2012.
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