By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- As confetti rained down on the Superdome last January 9th, a National Championship wasn't the only thing the country was celebrating. When Alabama head coach Nick Saban hoisted the ultimate symbol of football success, the BCS crystal ball, it was a moment of conflicting emotion for college football fans.
The 2011-12 season, in all its glory, was over. The Crimson Tide, after a defensive performance that reminded many of 1992, defeated SEC Western Division foe LSU, bringing to end another tension filled season on the gridiron. The ending, while debated nationally for weeks before the BCS Championship game actually started, was really a perfect closing to another magical year. In the midst of a "golden age" of success, the conference which defines college football supremacy had to face itself to crown a champion.
The day after, reality began to set in. Birmingham began to turn the page toward next season. Immediately.
On one of the local sports radio stations (WJOX), the countdown to 2012 kickoff started. That number brought hope, giving the 11 (now 13) fan bases in the league that didn't win a national title the belief that next year was theirs for the taking. College football, especially within the borders of the SEC, doesn't end when the final whistle does. It has become a lifestyle, leaving legions of fans staring at their calendar waiting for fall to arrive.
234 days. That's how much time will have passed when toe meets leather in Nashville this Thursday night. Nearly eight months. Both the real and SEC world have changed, giving us a different landscape from what we remember when Alabama's defense reigned supreme in New Orleans.
Popular social media giant Facebook was a private company then, and is now a publically traded corporation. Back then, no one had heard of Bane (The Dark Knight Rises), and Gabby Douglas was an unknown gymnast with Olympic dreams. LeBron James wasn't a World Champion, and Joe Paterno was still alive. All that took place in the past 234 days.
In SEC life, things changed as well. The family is bigger, as Missouri and Texas A&M were officially added to the conference on July 1st. Those two new programs now begin the first chapter of their SEC history, bringing with them an overwhelming sense of belonging and excitement.
Among all the differences, the Monday "Three and Out" hasn't changed one bit. Once again we return, much like the college football schedule we have all been waiting for. It is time.
First Down: Immediate Urgency In Nashville
How would you like to be the head coach of either South Carolina or Vanderbilt? Dumb question, because I’m guessing just about anyone reading this would trade places with Steve Spurrier or James Franklin in a heartbeat. The better question might be, do you want to be them in the opening week of this season?
Both coaches have only been with their teams for a few weeks, while having them truly practice (with pads on) for less than that. Yet, despite unfamiliarity with the talent they lead, their “A” game is needed from the opening snap of the season. These two programs square off on Thursday night, playing a critical East Division matchup before Labor Day arrives.
Is this rare? Somewhat. The last time two SEC teams started the season playing a conference game was 2007, when Mississippi State took on LSU to open their schedule. This time around brings big implications, seeing as how both fan bases involved expect greater results in the coming year.
Vanderbilt’s program is in the midst of an awakening, almost a rebranding of what it means to play Commodore football. Franklin, a relative unknown before getting the gig in Nashville, has begun to undo years of program confusion in just over 14 months.
His outgoing and charismatic style, evident by his YouTube stardom, has Vanderbilt people believing that competing in the SEC is possible. Franklin’s philosophy of openness is a welcome change, as he has effectively pulled back the curtain on life as a BCS coach. He made bowling seem cool, awarded walk-ons scholarships and even reminded his own fans that the past was no longer acceptable.
Where does he go from here though? Can he capitalize? Can he make Vanderbilt a bowl team year in and year out? Those are questions that will be answered this fall. Armed with one of the SEC’s best running backs (Zac Stacy), the Commodores have a chance to make a major statement at home to start the 2012 season. While Vanderbilt Stadium isn’t known as an intimating venue, it will probably be as packed and loud as it ever has on Thursday.
The rest of the world will be watching on television.
For South Carolina, different expectations lie ahead. Winners of the East Division two years in a row, Steve Spurrier has his squad thinking bigger, a fair aspiration considering he’s armed with a collection of talent that rivals any Gamecock squad he’s had.
USC has questions of their own, most circling around their star player. Feature back Marcus Lattimore, a Heisman candidate, is returning from a gruesome knee injury suffered late last season. Is he 100 percent healthy? Is he the same workhorse that averaged 116.9 yards per game? Is he the same guy that already ranks 14th in school history in rushing yards?
Lattimore is arguably the most important health question any SEC team has this season. The gifted junior’s value to the Gamecock offense is immense, and for South Carolina to reach the lofty expectations their fans hope to he has to return to peak form.
The stage is set for a very important game in Nashville on Thursday night. While others in the SEC might get more national attention (see below), no other matchup means more in the league than South Carolina vs. Vanderbilt.
Second Down: Everything Bigger In Texas?
Who’s up for a trip to Dallas? For fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide, a pilgrimage to one of the nation’s most iconic stadiums is in the cards, as they travel to “Jerry World” to watch their team take on top 10 opponent Michigan.
As Alabama head coach Nick Saban constantly reminds the media, each team is different, and to call this year’s squad the defending National Champions isn’t accurate. While Saban is right, the phrase just sounds good, adding even more intrigue to a matchup already billed as the best of opening weekend.
If the phrase “everything is bigger in Texas” is true, than Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX, is the perfect setting. It marks the second straight matchup of this kind to open the year, as LSU defeated Oregon in last season’s opening soiree at Jerry World. Both of those teams ended up as top six programs to end 2011, and the same is very possible for Alabama and Michigan in 2012.
Alabama is perhaps the best program in the country right now, and has gotten to the point under Saban that a National Championship is expected every season. Wouldn’t you have those expectations?
The Tide has won two of the past three BCS Titles, and were one win away from having the shot to play for another title in 2008 (they lost to Florida in the SEC Championship Game). Why can’t they do it again?
This year’s Tide will look different offensively. The reins now lie in the capable hands of AJ McCarron, who surprised everyone by playing the game of his life against LSU in last year’s BCS Title Game.
But, as anyone can tell you, Alabama’s championship formula is more about defense, as last year’s unit ranks as one of the best to ever play in the SEC. Gone are eight starters from that vaunted corps, including four that were taken in the top 35 picks of the NFL Draft. Years of top five recruiting classes replenish the cupboard, but having talent alone isn’t enough to dominate. The Tide defensive front bears the most “pressure”, hoping to provide a push and protect the youth running around the Alabama secondary.
In this matchup, discipline will be important, as Michigan has perhaps the nation’s best running quarterback in Denard Robinson. Robinson, who thinks he can beat Usain Bolt in the 40-yard dash (I disagree) is quick to break contain, and Alabama will have to keep eyes on him should the pocket collapse. Their ability to neutralize Michigan’s rushing attack (221 yards per game, 2nd in the Big 12 last year) will be key to Alabama’s success.
SEC supremacy and the chance to start another championship journey start in Dallas for Alabama. Will they be up for the task? I think so.
Third Down: Two Pivotal Games, One Location
At the beginning of every season, there are a million different “classics”. Such is the case at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, as Tennessee and Auburn will take the field on back-to-back days for an early season test.
Both teams are somewhat of an unknown quantity headed into this year, looking to find footing in their respective divisions. Tennessee is hoping to bounce back from a mediocre 2011, while Auburn hopes another year brings them closer to the magic of 2010.
Either way, Atlanta will tell us a lot about these two teams. Are these transition seasons, or the start of a journey that ends one (or both) back in the Georgia Dome in December?
For Tennessee, the game itself will be a welcome distraction from the offseason storylines. While the Volunteers have one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks in Tyler Bray, the new question becomes…does he have enough weapons?
With the suspension of Da'Rick Rogers made official last week, the Vol offense lost one of the conference's top receivers. UT now is one injury away from a serious depth issue at that position. Also consider that their other top flight wide receiver, Justin Hunter, is recovering from a knee ligament tear.
While the Vols have the QB position solved, Auburn is still looking for an answer. After the whirlwind of amazing that was Cam Newton two years ago, 2011 saw the Tigers searching for a signal caller. Six different players threw passes for Auburn last year, with no one averaging more than 150 yards a game through the air.
This year’s offense has a new look, from the coordinator to the quarterback. Newly named starter Kiehl Frazier gets the nod in the Georgia Dome, fresh off a rookie campaign that saw him throw just 12 passes all year. Frazier was highly recruited, and proved a year ago that his speed is effective. Auburn needs more though, and Frazier and new offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler will establish a game plan against a talented Clemson squad.
Having a sophomore at quarterback isn’t the lone spot of youth on this Tiger team, as underclassmen cover the depth chart. Many freshmen saw playing time last year, and Tiger fans hope early experience will mature a young squad. The opening matchup against Clemson will show us if that theory rings true.
If you are a college football fan, and want to get two for the price of one (you know what I mean), Atlanta will be your “classic” setting this weekend.