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Take Two: Who will exceed expectations?

8/26/2011

SEC bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff will periodically give their takes on burning questions affecting the league. Sometimes, we’ll agree. Other times, we won’t. We’ll let you decide who’s right … or whether we’re both wrong:

Today’s topic: Which SEC team will most likely exceed its expectations this season?

Take 1: Edward Aschoff

There is one team that I’ve considered a sleeper. It doesn’t have many stars and it’s young enough to field a high school team. I’m talking about Ole Miss. I’ll pause for the homer calls and wise cracks. … Good? Great. The Rebels aren’t getting much respect and rightfully so. Last year, offenses salivated over facing Ole Miss’ defense. The Rebels gave up a league worst 35.2 points per game and allowed their opponents to score 95 percent of the time inside the red zone. The offense was a little better, ranking sixth in the SEC in total offense, but the Rebels managed just four wins. But when Ole Miss is overlooked, the Rebels seem to step up in the right way (just look at 2008). The Rebels are breaking in a new, young quarterback in West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti, but he’s proving to be a true leader for this team and is both a strong runner and has a very accurate arm. Ole Miss’ veteran offensive line and a backfield featuring bruiser Brandon Bolden and home run threat Jeff Scott should take some pressure off Brunetti during his first go in the SEC. The defense is rebuilding, which could be a good thing. Tenacious defensive end Kentrell Lockett is back after missing 2010 with a knee injury and the secondary has a fresh, more athletic look, starting with juco transfer Wesley Pendleton, who has been a pleasant surprise and is primed to start. Linebacker Joel Kight is taking on more of a leadership role with D.T. Shackelford out, and he recently told me he’s seen a hungrier defense at practice. This group understands it significantly underperformed last year and took last year’s talent for granted. The team is ready to rebound. The schedule isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible for the Rebels to win seven games and go bowling. A win over BYU would provide great momentum and if Ole Miss is 4-1 heading into the Alabama game (that means winning across the country at Fresno State), I think the Rebels can get to seven wins.

Take 2: Chris Low

Not a bad choice, Edward. I also think the Rebels can surprise some people if they can beat BYU in the opener and get off to a good start. But the team I’m going with is Tennessee. Matter of fact, let’s just call it homer day. You grew up in Oxford and picked the Rebels. I live in Knoxville, graduated from Tennessee and am picking the Vols. Seriously, though, Tennessee will be a lot more equipped physically and mentally to win some of those games they couldn’t finish in the fourth quarter last season. I still want to see how Tyler Bray is going to play against some of the better defenses in the league, but the Vols should be able to run the ball better. They’re deeper at running back, and that young (and talented) offensive line is a year older. Losing junior safety Janzen Jackson was a blow, no doubt, and the Vols are dangerously thin at defensive tackle. But watch sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith take off this season, and true freshman linebacker Curt Maggitt is another star in the making. Ultimately, I think the Vols are going to have to outscore a lot of teams, which is never easy in this league. But their nonconference schedule is easier than it was a year ago with Cincinnati replacing Oregon, and Tennessee plays five of its first six games at home. Eight regular-season wins isn’t out of the question if the Vols can protect their home turf that first half of the season. They didn’t beat anybody that counts in Derek Dooley’s first season and won the games they were supposed to win. Look for that to change in Year 2. The Vols will find a way to win at least one of their games against Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.