Way-too-early SEC power rankings

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With recruiting almost over and Spring games at a close, it’s time to take a critical look at the SEC and decide who will be winners and losers in both divisions.

East Division

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RB Nick Chubb has proved an invaluable asset to the Bulldogs. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

1. Georgia

Even after an 8-5 season last year, the Bulldogs will dominate the East Division. Sophomore QB Jacob Eason had 2,430 yards in his freshman season, and threw for 16 touchdowns.

With Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returning for the 2017 season, the UGA ground game will be in full force. Chubb had 1,130 rushing yards last season, while Michel had 840.

The Dawgs also had an outstanding recruiting class, nabbing 21 4-star recruits and two 5-star recruits; rated second best by Campus Insiders.

2. Florida

The Gators showed promise during last year’s season, finishing 9-4. The offense remains strong with a slew of returners, and a new quarterback ready to take the reins, Felipe Franks. He threw for 2,766 yards and 35 touchdowns in his senior year of high school and is rated No. 5 at his position. Franks should do well with a strong receiving and running corps.

3. Tennessee

The Volunteers come into this season after losing two key defensive players, DE Derek Barnett and CB Cameron Sutton. They also lose QB Joshua Dobbs, although they have two promising quarterbacks vying for the spot.

Four-star recruit Jarrett Guarantano will battle Quinten Dormady, a junior backup who has completed 24 of his 39 total passes. The Vols add five-star OT Trey Smith, as well as four-star RB Ty Chandler to bolster the offense.

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Gamecocks QB Jake Bentley had an impressive 2016 season. Photo via Jeff Blake/USA TODAY Sports

4. South Carolina

USC returns 16 starters, including sophomore QB Jake Bentley, who impressed Gamecocks fans last season with 1,420 yards and a 65.8% completion rate.

South Carolina is picking up plenty of talent on both sides of the football, but the most important aspect of their recruiting is the offensive line.

The Gamecocks gave up 41 sacks last year, but they performed much better than in 2015, where their record was 3-9.

Muschamp was able to turn around the program to a bowl run in one year, so we’ll see how much he can turn them around after two seasons.

5. Kentucky

The most important thing for the Wildcats this season is improving their defense. They only racked up 21 sacks last season, and allowed 228.2 rushing yards a game.

However, Kentucky’s offense should be impressive, as they return both QB Stephen Johnson and RB Benny Snell, who ran for 1,091 yards last season.

The SEC is such a tough conference to compete in, and the Wildcats will struggle to hold their own against much better opponents.

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RB Ralph Webb will be part of the Commodores’ recipe for success. Photo via Jim Brown/USA TODAY Sports

6. Vanderbilt

The Commodores aren’t looking bad for the 2017 season. Despite losing linebacker Zach Cunningham to the NFL, Vandy returns RB Ralph Webb, who rushed for 1,283 yards last season, as well as most of the offense. If QB Kyle Shurmur performs with his considerable offensive depth, the Commodores will make it to a bowl game again.

7. Missouri

Mizzouri isn’t looking great for the 2017 season. After a 4-8 2016 season, they lost almost all of its defensive starters, only returning three players, and this after last season when they gave up 31.5 points per game.

The offense returns 10 players headed by QB Drew Lock, who had 3,339 passing yards with 23 touchdowns last season.

(West Division on next page below)

Final Four Preview: Sindarius Thornwell will carry South Carolina past Gonzaga

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No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. No. 7 South Carolina Gamecocks 

NCAA Tournament – Final Four

April 1, 6:09 pm (ET) on CBS

University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

For Gonzaga and South Carolina, this is their first trip to the Final Four. Amazingly, this year was the first time South Carolina even won back-to-back tournament games.

It’s incredible that these two teams are playing each other for the right to go to the National Championship.

Gonzaga has always been a good program, but hasn’t succeeded in the tournament. South Carolina came out of nowhere, guided by star guard Sindarius Thornwell and coach Frank Martin.

Gamecocks keys to victory

 

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Julio Cortez/ AP Photo

 

Guard Sindarius Thornwell

Thornwell is the reason that the Gamecocks have made it this far. There’s no doubt he’s been the best player in March.

He’s leading the tournament in scoring at 25.7 points per game, shooting lights out, and getting to the line at will (32-39 from the line).

He’s rebounding well for a guard, too, grabbing 7.5 boards per game. Thornwell has played lock down defense as well, guarding the opposing team’s best player each game. In the second round against Duke, he held Luke Kennard to 11 points. Against Baylor, he held junior guard Manu Lecomte to just eight points. Finally, in USC’s win over Florida, he held KeVaugh Allen to 13 points.

Thornwell is a force on offense and consistently locks down good players from the opposition.

Pressure on the wings

In terms of size, South Carolina doesn’t match up well with Gonzaga. However, the Gamecock’s guards are quick and great on defense. They’ll have to put a lot of pressure on the Gonzaga guards, making it difficult to throw the ball inside. Every time Gonzaga gets the ball in the post, it’ll be an easy two points.

South Carolina has the talent to limit Gonzaga’s inside touches, it is just a matter of executing.

Gonzaga keys to victory

 

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Photo via James Snook – USA Today Sports

 

 Pound it inside

Gonzaga has a huge advantage inside.

South Carolina will struggle to stop Gonzaga Center Przemek Karnowski, who is over seven feet tall. Karnowski has underperformed in this tournament, but a lack of execution from the Gamecocks will lead to easy buckets and rebounds for Karnowski.

Six foot nine Johnathan Williams will also be tough to stop. He’s played better in the latter stages of the tournament, scoring 13 against West Virginia and 19 against Xavier.

Stop Sindarius Thornwell

This one is obvious. Playing against the best player in the tournament, they’ll need to find a way to stop him. If they can’t, he could easily go for 30 points and take South Carolina to their first ever National Championship appearance.

Don’t Panic

Gonzaga is the better team. They have solid guards who will score double-digits points and big men to wreak havoc. They just need to keep doing what they’ve done all this season and they should knock off South Carolina.

Cinderella teams can make it to the Elite Eight and sometimes the Final Four, but history tells that they rarely go all the way.

Prediction

 

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Photo via Robert Deutsch – USA Today Sports

The Gamecocks will move on. They have just enough size to stop Gonzaga from going off inside, and they have guards that could present a lot of defensive trouble for Gonzaga. Frank Martin is a great coach, too. I loved him during his time at Kansas State and I believe he’ll make the right adjustments to limit Gonzaga’s big men.

Thornwell will be the difference. Expect him to have a big day with a few clutch shots late to move South Carolina past Gonzaga.

 

December 29 Bowl Game Previews

Picture via Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Today we see Oklahoma State square up against Colorado in the Alamo bowl.  We also will see USF vs. South Carolina in the Birmingham bowl which has implications for the next season. I’ll be focusing on these two games, but will briefly discuss the Virginia Tech vs Arkansas Belk bowl at the end.

Birmingham Bowl — USF vs South Carolina 

2PM EST

Birmingham, Alabama 

ESPN

Winner: USF

USF has proven itself to be a quality team this year, and it has high hopes for the following years. If the Bulls win this one, they’ll most likely be ranked going into the next year. Taggart’s team went 10-2 and won many impressive games.

USC (South Carolina) will look to dominate possession to keep the USF offense off the field, as it may be the only way to stop them.  However, USC has had a decorated bowl past, making this game far from a sure win for USF.

Ultimately, I see the Bulls pulling out a win here. They’re fresh and young, and Taggart will want to go out with a bang before going over to Oregon.

Alamo Bowl — Colorado vs Oklahoma State

9PM EST 

San Antonio, Texas

ESPN 

Winner: Colorado 

Mike MacIntyre has instilled a confidence in his team leading to a great season and momentum into this bowl game. Oklahoma State will have a hard time making plays against an amazing Colorado defense, so OSU will need an innovative gameplan to overcome the Colorado defense.

One way that OSU might try to do this is through RB Justice Hill. He’s a great freshman RB with over 1,000 yards on the season, and he might be able to push his way through Colorado’s D-line.

It’s not hard to forget the Cowboys’ loss to Central Michigan, but you can’t discount them as a powerhouse team. They’re well-ranked and run a balanced team, and it’ll be hard for the Buffaloes to figure them out.

However, I think the Buffaloes will come out on top. They have something to prove as a team that doesn’t often get the national spotlight, and this game has the potential to send them into the top 10 next season.

Belk Bowl — Virginia Tech vs Arkansas 

5:30PM EST 

Charlotte, North Carolina 

ESPN

Winner: Virginia Tech 

Even though Arkansas has a disappointing record, this will be a close game because they are in a super hard conference and their record doesn’t truly reflect their talent. The Hogs have a strong offense, but they might not be up to the challenge tonight.

Virginia Tech has had a solid season. They played well against Clemson, and their strong defense will control the game and lead them to a victory.