The Washington Times - August 8, 2011, 01:54AM

Time to wrap up the SEC East and give Notre Dame its placement as well in Monday’s segment …

No. 15 GEORGIA

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Last season’s disappointing 6-7 season – capped with a Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida – prompts a query that echoes well beyond Athens: Is the Mark Richt era past the point of no return?

After six 10-win seasons in seven years, the Bulldogs endured a post-Matthew Stafford regression in 2009 and then got worse last year. Georgia’s 2010 outfit is a fine study in the dangers of blindly trusting per-game averages,

The season-long numbers demonstrate the Bulldogs scored 10 points per game more than their opponents and a 56.5-yard edge on a week-to-week basis.

Ignore three games with pushovers – UL Lafayette, Vanderbilt and Idaho State – and the picture changes considerably:

GEORGIA TOTAL OFFENSE AND TOTAL DEFENSE, 2010

OpponentTotal O  
Scoring O
Total D
Scoring D  
Pushovers (3-0)
458.051.0138.74.7
Everyone Else (3-7)  
363.126.4385.227.3

 

In that context, Georgia was just as mediocre statistically as its record suggests.

Nonetheless, there was a little lousy luck factored into the equation. The Bulldogs perfected the art of the close loss, falling by a touchdown or less to Arkansas, Colorado, Florida and Central Florida. Plus, Richt collected a stellar recruiting class, the sort that could actually come in and make a substantial difference as freshmen. Toss in the flux at Florida and Tennessee, and there’s actually an opening for the Bulldogs to win the SEC East.

One thing is obvious: Georgia’s season will have direction in a hurry. The Bulldogs meet Boise State in the Georgia Dome, then turn around and face South Carolina the next week. Win both, and Richt could go on a wild ride through the friendliest SEC imaginable (no Alabama, Arkansas or Louisiana State).

Lose both, and it’s time for Richt to hire a realtor, even with a 96-34 career record over 10 seasons.

No. 14 STANFORD

In the history of the Heisman Trophy, a quarterback has finished in the top three in the voting on 93 occasions.

Only five of them pulled off the feat with a first-year head coach; just one of them did so in the last 45 years.

HIGHEST HEISMAN FINISHES, QB WITH A FIRST-YEAR COACH

1st: Les Horvath (1944 Ohio State/Carroll Widdoes)
1st: John Huarte (1964 Notre Dame/Ara Parseghian)

2nd: Angelo Bertelli (1941 Notre Dame/Frank Leahy)

3rd: Johnny Lujack (1946 Notre Dame/Frank Leahy)
3rd: Ken Dorsey (2001 Miami/Larry Coker)

Which brings us to Andrew Luck, generally considered an NFL franchise quarterback enjoying his time on campus for an extra season. More power to him.

But his odds of winning the Heisman decreased a bit when his coach (Jim Harbaugh) opted to chase NFL dollars instead of remaining on the Farm. He’ll also have less experience protecting him up front, which could mean something since Stanford yielded only 13 sacks over the last two seasons.

There’s little doubt new coach David Shaw is set up for a fine year. Arizona State isn’t on the schedule, the Cardinal will play five Pac-12 home games and Oregon pays a visit in mid-November.

Yet it’s not always easy to maintain a juggernaut, especially for a first-time coach. Stanford does have an elite quarterback, but not the across-the-board bounty of riches Coker enjoyed a decade ago at Miami. The Cardinal should wind up winning 10 games, but they seem just a tad overhyped – even if Luck is every bit as good as he demonstrated last fall.

No. 13 NOTRE DAME

The “Brian Kelly is magic” theory gets put to the test starting this year in South Bend. Despite a 1-3 start and losses to Navy (nothing new of late for the Irish) and Tulsa later on, Kelly righted things to finish 8-5 in his first season at Notre Dame.

Much is being made of the cooperation Kelly is receiving from a school known at times for its inflexibility. Of course, his track record as a college head coach is superior to predecessors Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis (though Willingham, to his credit, had fared well at Stanford before his hire).

Despite Kelly’s reputation for offensive pyrotechnics, the difference in the Irish’s late surge a year ago was defense. Utah, Army and Southern California were all held well below 300 yards, and Miami managed 406 yards in the Sun Bowl largely because of extensive garbage time in a 33-17 Notre Dame win that never felt that close.

It was a performance for the Irish to build off, even if it came against a turnover-happy Miami bunch with an interim coach. And it will be similar teams that the Irish will face until the season finale against Stanford.

Just look at the posse of potentially borderline top-25 teams awaiting the Irish: South Florida, Michigan, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Air Force, Southern California, Maryland. Every team in that bunch could win eight games … and still lose to Notre Dame if Kelly correctly harnesses his team’s talent.

History says the former Cincinnati coach will do just that. Ten wins is doable for Notre Dame, and that will probably be enough to snag the Irish their first BCS berth since 2006.

No. 12 TEXAS A&M

The Aggies probably deserved to crack the top 15 at some point last year and did not, largely because the difference quarterback Ryan Tannehill made after a change under center wasn’t fully appreciated. Texas A&M won its last six regular season games, all after Tannehill took over.

The late realization, coupled with plenty of help returning on both sides of the ball, makes the Aggies one of the trendier breakout picks. There are two problems with this theory.

1. Texas A&M must play Arkansas. The Aggies are 0-for-the-SEC since the formation of the Big 12 in 1996 (0-6), including losses to Arkansas the last two seasons and bowl losses to Georgia and Louisiana State, respectively, the last two years.

2. Texas A&M must play at Oklahoma. The scores of the Aggies last six trips to Norman: 51-6, 31-10, 77-0, 36-30, 42-14, 65-10. It’s not a place with happy memories.

This doesn’t even include facing Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas, the three teams most likely to join the Aggies and Oklahoma in the top half of the new-look Big 12.

Talent-wise, Texas A&M warrants a place in the top 15. There just seem to be a few too many potential stumbling points to justify a ranking much higher than this. Still, the Aggies’ first 10-win season since 1998 appears attainable.

No. 11 SOUTH CAROLINA

The best way to nullify the maddening effects of a knuckleheaded (if talented) quarterback is to find him an elite tailback. And so Steve Spurrier did just that, making Marcus Lattimore a major piece of the Gamecocks’ offense in 2010 as a freshman.

TOP RUSHING YARDAGE, SEC FRESHMAN, 2000-10

1334: Knowshon Moreno, 2007 Georgia

1197: Marcus Lattimore, 2010 South Carolina
1113: Darren McFadden, 2005 Arkansas

1093: Michael Dyer, 2010 Auburn
1001: Justin Vincent, 2003 Louisiana State

891: Terry Grant, 2007 Alabama
879: Arian Foster, 2005 Tennessee
875: Thomas Brown, 2004 Georgia

That’s fine company, and so long as Lattimore can stay healthy (he missed all of one game and much of two others last year), he’ll be the fulcrum of the Ol’ Ball Coach’s hopes of squeezing out an SEC title in Columbia.

Still, he’ll need quarterback Stephen Garcia to achieve a level of consistency nothing his work on or off the field suggests is all that likely. Once again deploying the 6-foot-4 Alshon Jeffery to haul in Garcia’s passes will help.

There’s no telling how long a window will be open in the SEC East for the Gamecocks, whose solid 2010 was spoiled by consecutive losses in Atlanta to close out the season. This year, the key might be surviving a three-game trip to Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas in the middle of the season.

Spurrier won a national title and etched out a fine Hall of Fame resume at Florida, but punching through for an improbable SEC title in the land of the Chicken Curse would be a captivating achievement. With Georgia and Florida far from their peak and no Cam Newton to be found, the Gamecocks could get a better chance than last year to haul home a conference crown.

Patrick Stevens