Last week, I wrote about the lofty projections for Auburn -- coincidentally, right before The Associated Press picked the Tigers to play Ohio State in the national championship game -- and said I wasn't buying the hype. Yet. I did say "yet."
I wasn't saying Auburn won't be good, or even very good. But one of the four best teams in college football? That's what I don't see.
That's not an emphatic prediction. If you know me, you know how much I despise emphatic predictions. I don't pretend to know the future.
But I also don't like following the herd. I don't like buying the hype. I didn't buy Mississippi State and Ole Miss as the two best teams in the country last year. In fact, in speaking to a small group, I was asked which team I thought would get through the SEC West.
My answer: Alabama. Never mind that Auburn was ranked second and Mississippi State and Ole Miss -- coming off its win over Bama -- were tied for third.
It doesn't mean I'm always right, or even more often right than anyone else. But I like to form my opinions based on what I see and not on what everyone -- or, for that matter, anyone -- says. So as we're officially in count-down mode for the start college football, here are some random thoughts on what I'm buying and not buying.
Tennessee will have a break-through season.
Despite having their first winning season since 2009 -- and that was just 7-6 -- the Volunteers have been picked to as a preseason Top 25 team.
It would not surprise me even mildly if the Volunteers win the East. The Vols were two plays away from finishing 9-4 last season, losing by three to Georgia and by one to Florida. They also lost by eight to Missouri, so that's a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
Tennessee's top 25 players are good enough to contend for a championship. The Vols, like most rebuilding programs, have lacked depth. But Butch Jones hauled in another excellent signing class. Now, rather than being counted on to come in and start, these freshmen can come in and contribute as valuable backups, and push the starters to work harder if they want to keep their jobs.
If Josh Dobbs plays to his potential at quarterback, this could be a very dangerous team.
South Carolina has become an SEC bottom-feeder.
Many projections have the Gamecocks finishing just ahead of Vanderbilt in the East.
Maybe I'm giving Steve Spurrier too much credit. A coach can do only so much. But his teams almost never underachieve. Last year was one of those rare exceptions. Even then, the Gamecocks managed to have their seventh consecutive winning season. Four of their six losses (Missouri, Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee) were decided by a touchdown or less.
In a world of Type-A competitors, Spurrier is one of the most intensely competitive people in college football. I can't believe he has just shrugged off last season's frustrations and worked on lowering his handicap.
The Gamecocks probably don't have the talent to win 11 games like they did for three consecutive seasons. But there is enough talent to win seven or eight games. That's significantly better than being a bottom-feeder.
Mississippi State's Dak Prescott will be a Heisman finalist.
Prescott is a near-unanimous pick as the first-team All-SEC quarterback.
Prescott is plenty good. But I'm not buying that he's the best player in college football. I'm not even buying that he's the best quarterback in the SEC. Yeah, he'd probably be my pick by default because so many teams are facing transition at quarterback. My gut feeling is Auburn's Jeremy Johnson will be the best quarterback in the SEC, and that Missouri's Maty Mauk will put up better numbers than Prescott.
And I'm just not buying Mississippi State as a Top 15 team, which is what it would take for Prescott to win it. Kudos to the Bulldogs for their 9-0 start and ascent to No. 1 in the country last year. But they lost three of their last four. Last year, Hail State beat LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn and Arkansas in the West. I could see the Bulldogs losing all four of those games this year. Plus, Missouri replaces Vanderbilt as one of their East opponents.
This team could struggle to earn a bowl bid.
The SEC West is still vastly superior to the East
Last year, the West was 10-4 against the East, and all four of the East's wins were by Georgia and Missouri.
The West still the better division. But it's partly perception. South Carolina and Florida could have beaten Auburn and LSU, respectively. If they had, that would have made the record 8-6.
I don't think the gap will be nearly that large. I think the league will be more balanced, and so will the inter-division schedule. As I've mentioned, I think Tennessee will be improved, South Carolina will be at least as good. Kentucky is competitive. Florida is the wildcard. It's hard to see the Gators staying down for long. They might not be quite as good on defense, but could be better on offense.
I don't know how the SEC will play out this fall. But here's what I would be willing to bet on.
Expect the unexpected.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent.