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Beyond the Empire: Talking SEC Football with Team Speed Kills

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With the football season quickly approaching, we here at OTE HQ thought it would be fun to reach out to our friends across the College Football Blogosphere to give us crazy Big Ten fans a little taste of what is happening across the nation. In theory, the goal of this series is to get a sense of the teams and players that we hear about, but might not know anything about. First up, we have our friends from Team Speed Kills, the excellent SB Nation SEC Site, to give us all sorts of knowledge on what to expect from those crazy kids down south. We cover standings and expectations within the context of the CFP, Wisconsin-Alabama, and that sweet television money. We finish with some SEC predictions and darkhorse players to keep an eye on. Huge thanks to David Wunderlich for his time and patience with my overly verbose questions. Go and give him a follow on the twitterz @Year2. He's a really smart dude.

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1. Last year we started this whole shebang out giving an overview of where the SEC was headed. You had mentioned that 2014 was probably always going to be a transition year, and that it wasn't outrageous to think that the winner would be pretty banged up because of extreme parity. Well, the SEC West seemed to do just that, and the reward was a berth by Alabama in the inaugural CFP. Of course, that team lost to the B1G Champion OSU, and now we're trying our best not to feel like everything's coming up B1G. That all in mind, let's be real for a moment. If last year was a transition, this year looks to be a fruition year. Looking at rankings, the SEC has some legitimate respect from top to bottom, and with the amount you all are paying coaches, one has to assume the results are going to come, right? So my initial question - on the back of last year's question - where do you see the strength of the SEC being going into 2015? Is there a dominant team? Will there be any fun startups like last year?

David: I think it’s likely that ten of the 14 SEC programs will be better than they were last year. Florida is a wild card that could go either way, Mississippi State will probably take a couple of steps back after losing tons of starters, and Alabama and Mizzou will be about the same at best. Other than that, everyone should improve on some level.

The West will still be the center of power, and it has a chance to be the best division top-to-bottom there’s ever been. You can make a case that all of them will be among the top 25 best teams right now. The Pac-12 South is pretty great too, but it still has Colorado. MSU is the consensus pick for seventh, but it returns one of the country’s better quarterbacks in Dak Prescott. Plus, its usage of large rotations of players last year mitigates the whole fewest-returning-starters stat. Thanks to some fresh raises and extensions, everyone in that half makes at least $4 million a year. Someone will have loads of talent and be paid $4 million and still end up with the label of "last place". The pressure is high.

The two biggest risers are expected to be Tennessee and Arkansas. The Vols went through a comedy of errors on the path from Phillip Fulmer to Butch Jones, but they seem to be on stable ground now. The Razorbacks played like one of the best teams in the country last year according to the advanced stats, even if the record didn’t reflect that. They play each other on October 3 in Knoxville, so that should be a nice measuring stick for both teams.

2. So last year, Wisconsin-LSU mostly lived up to they hype, until Wisonsin's coach forgot he had the best RB in the nation on his team and put him on the bench, and when Les Miles remembered he had the ability to punish Wisconin's defense in the fourth quarter. Still, we split the regular season matchups when Indiana beat Missouri, and the B1G felt good about itself. This year? Well, this year we only have one matchup. Alabama-Wisconsin... which on paper seems sort of like a really terrible idea for Wisconsin. They have a stellar offensive line, a really really good defense, but their QB spot is iffy, and while Corey Clement is stellar, he is not Melvin Gordon... yet. I'm predicting Bama in this game, but they seem to have some question marks too. What's the feel down south about this matchup?

David: Not many people seem worried about Alabama losing to Wisconsin. Primarily it’s because Alabama is about to have one of the best front seven units that college football has ever seen. They go about ten deep on the defensive line, and Bruce Feldman has said a few times this offseason that he’s never seen a more imposing group of players than what the Tide has in its first two levels of defense.

It may be possible to beat Bama with speed in the passing game, but that’s not really what Wisconsin does. No one knows what to expect from Alabama’s pass game, but the run game is in great hands with Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. The former is a massive power back who still can outrun some defenders, while the latter is more versatile. As long as Lane Kiffin suppresses his instincts and leans on the run game, the Tide should have enough to win that one. It’s just a really bad matchup for the Badgers.

3. So taking a sidestep from games and going into the big money discussion, talk to me about the SEC Network. By all accounts it seemed to takeoff about as well as anyone could hope and now everyone is taking home that sweet sweet TV money. In fact, we're really happy about your contract because ours is coming up soon! Has the product been everything people had hoped for? Is ESPN a good partner? Do you all love the fact that you get SEC Baseball (noting, of course, that the BTN still hates baseball)?

I haven’t seen or heard too many complaints about the SEC Network. In fact, despite the thing being only about a year old, I’ve seen plenty of folks talk about how it feels like it’s been around forever. The only real objections I’ve seen are related to Paul Finebaum getting so much airtime, but it’s easy enough not to turn the channel on during his show.

ESPN has been a great partner. You can’t ask for more when it comes to exposure, and the fact that it figured out streaming years ago means that there haven’t been any big technical headaches. The real question about ESPN as a partner is going to be in the coming years as we see if the company with the biggest attachment to the traditional pay TV model can navigate the transition to all TV coming through the Internet.

The network, above all else, has meant more live sports of all kinds available in more areas with an easy way to get to it. For all the hand wringing that occasionally goes on, it’s hard to argue with that.

4. So a lot of people like to think that the SEC floundered in its bowl games, and to be fair, it was less than great when you look at it from the 10,000 foot view. Sure, you all won seven bowl games, which is remarkable, but in marquee - or really, ranked - matchups, the conference went 2-5. Gross. Nick Saban and the rest of the coaches seemed like they were jumping through all sorts of hoops to explain losses with everything from NFL evaluations to 'the rigors of the SEC schedule' excuse. As a fan who follows the conference, how do you perceive the postseason? Was it sort of circumstantial and just a blip or is there some truth to the coaches' speak? Moreover, do you think it will be something that is repeated?

David: I’ve never been one to put a ton of stock in bowl games. You never know what the motivation or rust level will be for 18 to 22-year-olds who haven’t played in a month, and with coaches either looking at or sometimes actually changing jobs during bowl practice, preparation can be lacking from the paid adults as well.

The SEC still ended up with a winning record at 7-5, but the biggest games were losses. It was bound to happen at some point. The conference was never going to win the large majority of its spotlight games every single year. Several of them were close anyway. Bama lost by a touchdown, while Auburn and LSU essentially lost coin flip games. The Mississippi schools got embarrassed, but the last time either program had been on a postseason stage that big was decades ago. It’s not like TCU didn’t have something to prove, or that Georgia Tech wasn’t running one of the country’s best offenses.

Bowl games have zero predictive power for subsequent seasons, so the 2-5 record for the West says nothing about those teams’ chance this year. I wouldn’t bet on it, but another bowl season flop could happen again. You never know with those games.

5. Alright, finally, give me some of the best games for us Northerners to tune into? Any darkhorse games that we can't miss? How about any players that we should definitely see? Oh, and while you're at it, who is playing in the SEC Championship game? You know, because that's what these are all about...

David: If preseason projections hold out, the biggest game of the year will be the Iron Bowl on November 28. It could be a situation like 2013 where the winner goes to Atlanta with a chance to play for the national title afterwards. The schedule worked out that both Alabama and Auburn play East favorite Georgia this year, with the Tide visiting Athens on October 3 and the Bulldogs going to the Plains on November 14. Those will have SEC Championship Game-like vibes.

September has more important games than normal. Tennessee’s non-conference bout with Oklahoma at home on the 12th will provide insight into both teams’ seasons. UT is supposed to be breaking out, while OU revamped its offensive coaching staff to try to shake things up. Several in-conference matches will help us start to sort out the West pecking order: LSU at Mississippi State on the 12th, Ole Miss at Alabama and Auburn at LSU on the 19th, and Arkansas and Texas A&M in JerryWorld on the 26th. By the end of all of that, we should start to understand how the tiers of that division go.

Lots of people will probably focus on LSU-Alabama on November 7, but don’t sleep on Texas A&M-Auburn on the same day. They played a wild game last year with lots of late drama, and both are in a similar position of having good offenses and hoping new defensive coordinator hires fix the rest.

I haven’t finalized my divisional picks yet, but despite the fact that the SEC Championship Game is seldom a rematch, the consensus pick is Alabama and Georgia. You see some exceptions, like how Stewart Mandel picked A&M to win the league, but most predictions boil down to either Georgia or Tennessee from the East and either Alabama or Auburn from the West. I will give you this: the SEC hasn’t had a team win back-to-back championships since Tennessee in 1997-98. If the pattern holds, look for someone other than Alabama to win it this year.

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Again, huge thanks to David for answering my questions. Go ahead and check out him and the rest of the Team Speed Kills team here.