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July 21, 2012

HURT: Confidence high in SEC

So the final tally is in from Southeastern Conference Media Days. There are five teams who think they will be as good as everyone thinks they will be. There are seven teams who are confident that they will be better than everyone else thinks they will be. And there are two teams who don't seem quite sure, which isn't a very good place to be.

Let's deal with those two teams first. In the East, Kentucky might actually be decent but the program seems to have lost momentum under Joker Phillips and in the SEC, it is hard to regain contact with the pack, much less the leaders, when you have to stop and refuel.

One could argue the Wildcats will be no worse than Vanderbilt, but the Commodores exude far more confidence, thanks in large part to an indefatigable coach, James Franklin. His personality, as much as the Commodore talent level, is why Vandy thinks they will surprise people.

Ole Miss wasn't even trying to fool anyone in Hoover. It is a long-term rebuilding job in Oxford and, although this is another column for another day, it is a point worth pondering as to whether Ole Miss can ever - as in all of our lifetimes - win the SEC again.

For now, one has to admire Hugh Freeze's honesty for saying things like "significant challenge ahead" and "about 60 percent of our players have bought in." That statement raised eyebrows, although it probably was a statement that reflects many programs after a coaching change. Nick Saban wouldn't say so, but his 2007 Alabama team wasn't much higher than 60 percent in terms of the buy-in ratio, either. That changed quickly.

On the other end of the spectrum, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina all are regarded as very good teams, and should be. If I ran the Associated Press poll, I wouldn't throw out a ballot that had all five in the top 10 in the country. Yes, the Razorbacks were picked to finish third in the SEC West, but that only reflected the strength perceived in Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa. Lots of people in Hoover, media and otherwise, think Arkansas will be a 10-2 team in a division where 10-2 isn't good enough.

What will make the league interesting, though, is a group of seven teams the outside world isn't quite sure about: Florida, Tennessee, Missouri and Vanderbilt in the East and Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State in the West. They can't all be good - someone is going to be downright disappointing - but the point is they all expect to be good. The fact that I have assigned them to the middle group doesn't mean they can't have a great year.

I would have said the same thing about Auburn in 2010. It does mean some good fortune - maybe not Cam Newton-level good fortune, but some positive development - has to happen. For instance, what if Tyler Bray has a Heisman-candidate year as Tennessee's quarterback? I don't think he will, but people who cover Tennessee think he's capable. What if Missouri or Texas A&M start playing SEC-caliber defense all of a sudden? These are all teams that have 10-win potential - if everything goes right.

The thing is, though, everything doesn't always go right and there is no mathematical way for everything to go right for 12 teams in a 14-team league. Someone is going to be a disappointment, possibly a major disappointment, and not every coach in the league can survive being a major disappointment.

That is why a few of next year's confident coaches will be new faces, not the same ones that were confident earlier this week.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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