Tony Barnhart is an expert on college football and specializes in the SEC. Barnhart is a long time writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and now has a regular blog for the AJC. He also is a co-host of a college football show on CSS and works for CBS at halftime and pre and post game. He will have his own show in the fall on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS College Sports Network where he will talk college football. The show begins on Sept. 14. I spoke on the phone with TB and got his thoughts on the upcoming 2010 SEC season and also got some of his predictions. Here is my interview with Tony:
DW: Who do you like in the East?
TB:" Florida is just too talented. They had some losses on defense and lost a once in a lifetime quarterback in Tim Tebow, but John Brantley has a great arm. He grew up a Gator. His father was a Gator, his mother was a Gator, and his uncle a Gator. He won't be overwhelmed by being the starting quarterback or anything like that. I expect him to have a very good year. They've got some guys who can run at quarterback in the short yardage situations in Trey Burton and Jordan Reed. Chris Rainey will play "the Percy Harvin" position and Jeff Demps is very fast at running back. They're loaded at receiver led by Andre Dubose and Carl Moore. They return four of five offensive linemen led by Mike Pouncey, who, I think, will be the best offensive linemen in college football. His twin brother, Maurkice, just got drafted by the NFL so they'll not be playing together for the first time since fifth grade.
"The defense is less known. They lost five guys to the NFL and Charlie Strong, their coordinator (who is now the head coach at Lousville). He was a good defensive coordinator. They've got some good athletes over there, but they won't be as good as last year. The thing is all the other teams in the East have major issues."
DW: What about the West?
TB: "I like Alabama. Their offense is very good. Mark Ingram is back and his backup, Trent Richardson, may be better than him. The offense is great. On defense, they have to replace nine starters, but I don't see much dropoff. They'll miss Rolando McClain–he's a once in a generation player–but Dont'a Hightower is great. Marcell Dareus was basically unblockable up front in the Spring. They'll need some help in the secondary for Mark Barron. It'll take them a little while. Their key game is the game at Arkansas on Sept. 25. That should be intriguing. They'll beat Penn State (at Tuscaloosa), and by the fourth game, the defense should be clicking. I like Alabama and Florida in the championship game with Alabama winning it."
DW: What about Auburn?
TB: "I thought they really did well last year coming within a possession of beating the national champion. Now, with Cam Newton at quarterback, I think you'll really see the Auburn offense. Cam Newton can run the spread." The rest of the offense should be good. Mario Fannin has to produce at tailback along with his backups including five-star frosh Michael Dyer, but receiver looks great and the oline looks solid.
"The issue for them is on defense. There's not nearly enough depth at linebacker or depth on the field. The Auburn defense had more plays on the field than any other team in the SEC last year. The Auburn defense had 945 plays last year in 13 games compared to Alabama's 844 in 14 games. It shows you that Alabama's defense was very good. Auburn is not better than Alabama and they're probably not better than Arkansas." Though AU plays Arkansas at home.
DW: Who's the underdog in the conference this year?
TB: " I like Arkansas. They led the league in scoring last year and Ryan Mallett is back at quarterback. They'll be very, very good on offense. The question is can they be good on defense. If they're even average on defense, they could make some noise. I really don't see anybody else. South Carolina thinks they're going to take a step forward this year, but their offensive line is a question mark. The big game is Georgia at South Carolina the second game of the season." Georgia lost Zach Mettenberger to expulsion and redshirt freshman Aaron Murray will start. Running backs Caleb King and Washaun Ealey need to take the pressure off Murray and then you have the outstanding A.J. Green at wideout. Barnhart says the oline should be good with tackle Trinton Sturdivant back after being out for almost two complete years. The defense needs to get more takeaways, which Barnhart considers the most important stat in football. Also, they have to cut down on the penalties. Tennessee will be rebuilding and have questions at quarterback. Kentucky has the great Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb and quarterback Mike Hartline back, though Morgan Newton is right on his heels along with redshirt frosh Ryan Mossakowski. Vandy will struggle offensively once again because of quarterback, line and wr issues, but the defense should be respectable. Linebacker Chris Marve and cornerback Casey Hayward should be outstanding.
DW: Who do you think can make it to a bowl game from the West?
TB: "I can see all six teams from the West making it. The division is that good. Ole Miss will miss Dexter McCluster and Jevan Sneed, but they've got some quality players. State should be better. LSU needs Jordan Jefferson to step up (at quarterback). Jarrett Lee will give him a run. (Linebacker) Kelvin Shepphard is back along with (cornerback) Patrick Peterson." You've got to think Georgia can make it from the East. South Carolina should make it. Tennessee and Kentucky are maybes and Vandy a long shot.
DW: Who do you like nationally?
TB: "Right now, I like Alabama and Ohio State playing for the national title. (Quarterback) Terrelle Pryor will be better, so I like them and Alabama. A lot of people are talking about Boise State, but they've got to play Virginia Tech in Landover (Md.) to open the season, and also play Oregon State. If I've got to pick it now, I'd say Alabama and Ohio State."
(Tony Barnhart pictured above.)