Starting around 1995, I used to write a team-by-team projection for the entire SEC during the month of August, named with my typical humility "Will Interviews Will." I'd run down all twelve schools by position, tell some bad jokes, and make a projection (not a prediction; there's a difference) on how I thought they'd do in the upcoming season.
Then I got something resembling a life, and WIW died an ignominious death. I won't be bringing it back to life this year, but here's a very quick-and-dirty look at the conference, starting with the East:
Florida: The Crocs have been media favorites since not long after Steve Spurrier returned to his alma mater, and that trend didn't change much after Visor Boy left for points north. Last summer's coverage of Florida was really remarkable (and not a little nauseating for those of us who don't favor pastel tank-tops and jean shorts) for the taken-for-granted assumption that new coach Urban Meyer would levy a Spurrierian dominance on the SEC.
The utter failure of Meyer's gimmick offense to perform against SEC defenses hardly slowed down the media adulation (it was all Chris Leak's fault, you see), and the Gators are again the favorite to win their division (even though they're still led by that same Chris Leak--like they say on The Simpsons, "Cartoons don't have to be consistent"). My take is that until and unless he proves otherwise, Meyer is running a Mickey Mouse offense that will destroy bad defensive teams (like all the ones he coached against out west), but once again struggle to do much of anything against the big boys. Defensively, Florida looks like a very good team to me, and they'd better be for their own sakes. With no running game apparent and a near-inevitable quarterback controversy looming, Meyer is going to need all the help he can get to avoid the "Urban Myth" tag again this year.
Georgia: Living in Atlanta, I'm exposed to the full force of Georgia's media fan club. In most Augusts, you'd think the main question regarding the Bulldogs is not "will they win," but rather, "what will the margins of victory be, and what channel will the Heisman ceremony be on for [insert hyped running back recruit here], the next Herschell?" This year is... well, oddly different. It's a lot quieter around here. Georgia fans aren't really expecting another championship run out of Mark Richt this year, and heck, who am I to argue with them?
To be fair, I don't claim to have a great grasp of this team. I expect them to be good but not great. The biggest question in my mind for UGA is, with his options limited at quarterback, will Richt finally show enough patience to develop a running game, or is he still fixated on playing chuck-and-duck? I suspect the latter, but Richt has surprised me before.
Tennessee: To the amusement of many, many people who don't dress like traffic cones, the Great Pumpkin fell off his wall last year, and dang near shattered to pieces. If I live to be a hundred, I don't think I'll ever forget the look on Phil Fulmer's face when he realized that he was going to lose to Steve Spurrier... again. I personally think that Phil's best years are far behind him, but 2006 will be his chance to prove me and a whole lot of doubters (not a few of which wear that traffic-cone apparel I was talking about) wrong.
Given the results of the last few years, I question whether Tennessee's talent level is really as high as its billing. UT always seems to be the beneficiary of recruiting hype well out of proportion to the actual performance of those recruits in college, and 2005's slow-motion collapse didn't do anything to change that perception. Still, they've clearly got some players, and if they could just get some production on offense, it's possible that they could get on a roll and retrieve some of that lost swagger. Heck if I know whether they'll do it or not, but I will say that I don't envy David Cutcliffe's being saddled with a headcase like Erik Ainge. If "Cut" can turn that offense around with that particular quarterback, my hat'll be off to him.
South Carolina: Let me say up front that I joined the chorus of praise for Steve Spurrier in his first (official) year as a Cock. I thought he did a hell of a job in 2005. That said, I also think Visor Boy was very, very fortunate in his opposition during the second half of the season. It didn't hurt him a bit that he got to play against the worst Tennessee team in 15 years, and arguably the weakest Florida team of that same period. Still, give the credit where it's due: he did beat both of them, and turned what was looking like a horrible first season into a respectable finish.
I don't think he'll do as well this year. Carolina lost way too much off a defense that had already been decimated by Granny Lou Holtz's poor recruiting, and even though he's got a solid quarterback in Blake Mitchell and at least one great wideout in Sidney Rice, Spurrier still doesn't have a proven running back. Lest we forget, SOS's best teams in Gainesville all had thousand-yard rushers. That's going to be a tough task for USC this year. But I'll bet you he still beats somebody he shouldn't. I just hope it isn't Auburn.
Kentucky: The media consensus is that Kentucky will be better this year, and I'll give the Wildcats this: Rafael Little is a heck of a good running back. But, like most of the people who live in Kentucky, I just can't bring myself to care about UK football. I'll be very surprised if they finish over .500.
Vanderbilt: Bobby Johnson should have gone looking for a better job after last season. His stock will never be higher than it was after that Tennessee win. With Jay Cutler gone and no real expectation of anybody like him coming down the road, it's back to being Vanderbilt. Two or three wins, tops.
Tomorrow: The West.