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Fargo’s Southeastern Conference Football Preview

SEC Preview

Matt Fargo

Matt Fargo

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Matt Fargo of Sharp Sports Advisors weighs in every year his previews for all NCAA Division 1 Football teams and conferences. It’s nearing the end of August and efore you know the games on Saturday will be here.

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The SEC has long been considered the toughest conference in football and rightfully so. It has produced the last three National Champions, Florida twice with LSU sandwiched in-between. The SEC leads all conferences in all-time titles with 17 and there will be teams looking to add to that this season and with legitimate shots in doing so. The leader of the pack is defending champion Florida who is favored once again to win the SEC East. The Gators may not even get challenged as the rest of the division is weaker and in a down year for some teams that are looking up at Florida. Nothing is guaranteed but the Gators have arguably the best shot at winning their division as any other team in the country.

Florida Gators 13-1 SU, 11-2 ATS, 8-5 O/U

Summary: It is a pretty safe bet to put Florida here. The Gators have won the National Championship two of the last three years, bring back their entire defense, bring back seven players on offense including Heisman winner Tim Tebow and face a schedule that is one of the easiest around. Florida had only one hiccup last season and that came at home against Mississippi by just a point despite outgaining the Rebels by 118 total yards. Florida lost at the right time as it was able to move up in the rankings as the season wore on and eventually beat then undefeated Alabama in the SEC Championship. The loss of Percy Harvin and his 1,304 combined rushing and receiving yards will hurt but this team is too stacked to not repeat in the weak SEC East.

Schedule: Florida has a cakewalk for the most part. Three of the Gators non-conference games are against Charleston Southern, Troy and Florida International. That is ridiculous. Rival Florida St. is the fourth. As far as SEC action, three of the four road games are easy wins with LSU being the lone challenge as well as possibly Georgia in Jacksonville.

Bottom Line: The Gators were two votes shy of being the unanimous number one team in the AP Preseason poll. They will likely sit atop the poll the entire season if they can get past LSU and another BCS Championship game is quite likely. Strange things happen in college football so as mentioned, another title is far from a guarantee although Florida has no excuses for not repeating.

Betting Forecast: Florida is a very public team but still managed to go 11-2 ATS last season. The numbers can only get bigger and that ATS winning percentage will drop.

 Fargo’s SEC Football Preview

Georgia Bulldogs 10-3 SU, 4-7-1 ATS, 6-6 O/U

Summary: Georgia was a pretty big disappointment last season as it went from preseason number one to a 9-3 regular season record. This season, they come in ranked 13th by the AP so the underachieving label from last season can be switched to an overachieving label this season. The Bulldogs are loaded with talent but expectations are low because of the loss of quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno. There is experience replacing both of those positions and Georgia returns eight offensive linemen that have started at least one game. The defense in 2008 was the worse in points allowed (24.5 ppg) since 1999 (25.8 ppg). Seven starters are back on the defense and this unit should improve in scoring allowed considering it was a solid 22nd in total defense with 312.0 ypg.

Schedule: Besides playing Tennessee Tech in early November, the Bulldogs schedule is loaded. They start the season with a battle against Oklahoma St. in Stillwater and then it is right into SEC action with games against South Carolina at home and Arkansas on the road. The other two non-conference games are against Arizona St. and at Georgia Tech. Georgia only has six home games on the slate.

Bottom Line: Georgia could surprise some folks as it always seems to play its best when expectations are low. Can the Bulldogs challenge Florida for the top spot in the division? I definitely think so but the defense needs to play more consistent and not allow 38 or more points like it did five times last season. If the quarterback situation doesn’t take a big dip, the meeting with Florida on Halloween could be something special.

Betting Forecast: After going 8-4 ATS last season, the Bulldogs dipped to 4-7-1 ATS. Look for another turnaround this season as people will be down on Georgia again.

Tennessee Volunteers 5-7 SU, 5-7 ATS, 1-10-1 O/U

Summary: Tennessee missed the postseason for the second time in four seasons last year and that should be unacceptable in this program. So unacceptable, that longtime head coach Philip Fulmer was shown the door after 17 seasons. The Volunteers hired Lane Kiffin as head coach and his opening season has certainly had its share of distractions before any games have even been played. There is already talk about violations and he had 11 players leave the team. Nonetheless, Tennessee must move on and there should be some major improvements this season following a tough 2008. The defense was outstanding, finishing 3rd overall but the offense was a different story as it ranked 115th overall and 110th in scoring. Seven starters return on offense and Kiffin brought in former Purdue offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to help matters. Heading back to the postseason is a likely possibility for Tennessee.

Schedule: All four of Tennessee’s non-conference games are at home as it hosts Western Kentucky, UCLA, Ohio and Memphis. Thus, there are only four games on the road on the entire schedule but three of those are at Florida, Alabama and Mississippi and those are three likely losses. The other comes in the season finale at rival Kentucky. All four SEC home games are winnable with Georgia being the toughest.

Bottom Line: Tennessee has been added to the list of perennially strong programs that have taken a fall in a short amount of time. Recruiting has a lot to do with that but Kiffin should help alleviate those issues long with Ed Orgeron who was hired to run the defensive line and is one of the best recruiters around. Tennessee will move back into the top of the SEC but it may take a few classes for it to happen.

Betting Forecast: After a stretch of going 10-26 ATS as a home chalk from 2001-2006, Tennessee is 7-3-1 the last two years. I see that solid run continuing.

South Carolina Gamecocks 7-6 SU, 5-6-1 ATS, 5-6-1 O/U

Summary: When Steve Spurrier came to Columbia in 2005, expectations flew through the roof. In his first four seasons with the Gamecocks, they are 28-22. In Lou Holtz’ last four seasons, they went 25-22 so there has not been a huge difference. Spurrier has taken them to three bowl games but the highest ranking at the end of a season was, well, they have not been ranked. Supporters are getting antsy and justifiably so. South Carolina finished 97th in total offense last season and that is the one area his teams used to thrive in. Quarterback Stephen Garcia is just a sophomore but does show a lot of upside. The defense was rock solid, finishing 13th overall but there may be a slight decline as depth is a concern heading into 2009. Going back to a bowl should happen but it will be another “who cares” type of bowl.

Schedule: The Gamecocks enter 2009 with two tough road games at NC State on Thursday and then at Georgia the following week. It is then four straight home games with the only tough one being against Mississippi so it looks like a 3-3 start heading into the meat of the schedule. None of the final three road games are easy while two of the final three home games are against Florida and Clemson.

Bottom Line: Time is running out on Spurrier but he may call it quits before the university decides to do it for him. He did bring in the 12th ranked recruiting class in the nation but it was just 6th in the SEC so it is hard to compete with that type of competition. The Gamecocks could pull some surprises this season but it looks like it will be another middle of the conference finish.

Betting Forecast: Under Spurrier, South Carolina is 12-6-1ATS in road games so it has been competitive. Look for this trend to continue as long as the defense stays strong.

Vanderbilt Commodores 7-6 SU, 8-5 ATS, 4-8-1 O/U

Summary: Vanderbilt made it to its first bowl game since 1982 last season and actually walked away with its first bowl win since the 1955 Gator Bowl. The fact that the Commodores actually made it to a bowl game with the nation’s 117th ranked offense is beyond me. They started the season 5-0 before dropping four straight and limping to a 1-6 finish. The defense played strong early on but caved a little near the end of the season and that defense will be asked to carry the team once again. The only issue is that Vanderbilt lost two players from the secondary to the NFL so opposing teams know where the weakness will be this season. The offense returns eight players so the unit should improve behind sophomore quarterback Larry Smith who led the Commodores to that bowl victory in his only start of last season.

Schedule: Vanderbilt has a shot at jumping out to another quick start but nothing like going 5-0 and most likely somewhere in the likelihood of 4-2 as it has winnable games against Western Carolina and Mississippi St. at home and Rice and Army on the road. The last non-conference game is later in the season against Georgia Tech. In SEC play, the Commodores travel to LSU, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Bottom Line: Making it to consecutive bowl games has never happened at Vanderbilt but there is a possibility this year. If it can in fact open at 4-2, it will need only one upset in the second half of the year since it hosts Kentucky and I will count that as a win. Many of the same pieces are in place for head coach Bobby Johnson who despite leading the team to just one bowl game, has completely turned the program around.

Betting Forecast: The Commodores are 16-5 ATS as road underdogs the last five years but don’t expect that to continue. They no longer will have teams looking past them.

Kentucky Wildcats 7-6 SU, 6-6 ATS, 5-6-1 O/U

Summary: Kentucky has made it three straight bowl games which is a big accomplishment for a program not known for its football prowess. After three straight losing seasons, head coach Rich Brooks has turned this team into a winner and that is proven by all three of those bowl games resulting in victories. It will be a challenge to make it to four straight however as the schedule has gotten tough and no teams will be looking past the Wildcats like they did for years. The defense was a solid 40th in the country last season and it will be above average again. The offense needs to show some big improvements however as the Wildcats finished 106th in total offense and topped 27 points only three times. Overall, only 12 starters are back so new players will have to step in right away to avoid a slow start and help to give them a chance at a late season bowl run.

Schedule: Kentucky opens the season in a neutral game against Miami, Ohio and then hosts rival Louisville who is in a down year. The schedule toughens up after that with back-to-back home games against Florida and Alabama and then back-to-back road games at South Carolina and Auburn. Following that rough stretch are four straight winnable games before closing the season against Georgia and Tennessee.

Bottom Line: Six wins are a possibility for Kentucky meaning another bowl game is in store. The problem is that some of those winnable games could easily go the other way if the offense cannot produce. The Wildcats were held to 17 or fewer points five times last season and to no surprise, they went 1-4 in those games. Quarterback Mike Hartline will play a big role and he will have to limit his mistakes.

Betting Forecast: Kentucky is 6-2 ATS he last two years in non-conference games and it will be favored in all three this year (EKU not included). Look for more wins. Fargo’s SEC Football Preview

While the SEC East has the best team in the conference in Florida, the SEC West has the next three strongest teams overall. Alabama, LSU and Mississippi all have shots at winning the West and none of the three have a significant edge over the other. All three are ranked in the AP Preseason top ten but it is unlikely all will finish there. I give the edge to Alabama based on its strong defense and underrated offense while I believe that Mississippi is overrated until it can prove itself. LSU should be very hungry following a disappointing 2008 season after winning the National Championship the previous year.

Alabama Crimson Tide 12-2 SU, 9-5 ATS, 5-9 O/U

Summary: The Crimson Tide were one of last years big surprises as they went a perfect 12-0 during the regular season before dropping their first game against Florida in the SEC Championship and then losing the Sugar Bowl to Utah. Many will be down on Alabama because of that finish and because it lost a lot heading into this season. Alabama brings back only four starters on offense and must break in a new quarterback as well as three new offensive linemen and that can be a devastating reality for most teams but not the Tide. Looking at the offensive line, it is loaded with experience and class A talent while new quarterback Greg McElroy should be able to flourish right away. Defensively, the Tide finished 3rd overall and 7th in scoring and could be even stronger this season.

Schedule: Alabama will get tested right away as it starts with Virginia Tech in a neutral site game in Atlanta, the same place where is started last season. The Tide has an easy stretch for the next four games before a showdown at Mississippi on October 10th. The next three games are at home including another difficult contest against LSU which is the last roadblock on the slate. Alabama misses Florida and Georgia from the East.

Bottom Line: Alabama comes into the season ranked 5th in the country and while many think that is overrated, I think it is exactly right. The Tide are arguably a better team this season as they are coming off their second straight number one recruiting class in the nation. This team is loaded with depth and while the defense can carry Alabama throughout the year, the offense will be better than the 2008 unit.

Betting Forecast: Alabama is 6-17 ATS as a home favorite since 2005. With the public being anti-Tide, they will get some good value at home despite being ranked high.

LSU Tigers 8-5 SU, 3-9 ATS, 7-5 O/U

Summary: Last year was certainly a disappointing season for the Tigers following three straight years of 11 or more wins including the National Championship in 2007. They started 4-0 before getting pounded at Florida by 30 points and the Tigers could not recover from that. Both the offense and the defense took steps backward in 2008 but both sides will show improvements this season. The offense will be led by sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson who ended last season strong in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, earning offensive MVP honors. He has two playmakers, running back Charles Scott and receiver Brandon LaFell at his disposal. The defense slipped to 56th in the nation in scoring last season and it brings in new defensive coordinator John Chavis, who had the same title for 14 years at Tennessee. Despite needing to replace most of the defensive line, the depth is greater this season and the secondary, which was torched last season, will be much more improved.

Schedule: The schedule is not easy for LSU so it is a gamble putting it second but it has a very good track record against elite teams. The Tigers should start out 4-0 again before their first test at Georgia followed by a home game against Florida the following week. A three week break follows before another tough road game at Alabama and then a third at Mississippi two weeks later.

Bottom Line: LSU had a losing record in the SEC for the first time since 1999 which was a big surprise following the BCS Championship the previous season. After a down year like that, you know that the Tigers will rebound and despite a brutal schedule, it will be a title contender once again. Head coach Les Miles is 42-11 at LSU including a 13-5 record on the road and that is where the season hinges.

Betting Forecast: LSU has had three straight losing season in the SEC against the number and coming off a down year, low expectations means more profits in 2009.

Mississippi Rebels 9-4 SU, 9-3 ATS, 6-6 O/U

Summary: The Rebels finished strong last season with six straight wins including a relatively easy win over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Also in the mix was a huge upset at Florida and Mississippi finished the season with a 9-4 record. The Rebels have not won 10 games since 2003 which was quarterback Eli Manning’s final season in Oxford. The AP put Mississippi 8th in the Preseason poll, its highest ranking to open a season since 1970, Archie Manning’s senior year with the team, so it will have a lot to prove this season. Personally I think they are overhyped and while they could put forth a great season, I am not sold until it actually starts out well. A bowl game is a definite but the division title will be a much tougher challenge.

Schedule: The schedule sets up very well for Mississippi and this could be the reason it does win the division. The non-conference schedule is easy with the toughest of the four games being the opener at Memphis. The Rebels begin SEC action with two road games at South Carolina and at Vanderbilt. They get Alabama, Tennessee and LSU all at home and then close the season at rival Mississippi St.

Bottom Line: With that schedule, the Rebels should be able to take advantage in what could be one of the best season in Oxford in a very long time. There are skeptics and I am one of those. Quarterback Jevan Sneed threw for 2,762 yards last season while completing 56.3 percent of his passes along with 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He is good but not good enough in my opinion to bring home a championship.

Betting Forecast: Mississippi has had three straight winning seasons in the SEC against the number, the opposite of LSU. High expectations mean fewer profits in 2009.

Arkansas Razorbacks 5-7 SU, 5-6 ATS, 7-4 O/U

Summary: Last year was supposed to be a year in transition and that it was as Arkansas settled for a losing record in head coach Bobby Petrino’s first season. With 18 starters back, things should definitely improve but I’m not sure how much as the Razorback face the toughest schedule in the SEC. Last season, the offense finished 49th overall but just 91st in scoring so getting more points on the board is goal number one. They will be led by Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett at quarterback and despite this being his first year, he learned the system while sitting out last year. The defense was a disappointing 72nd overall and 93rd in scoring but will be a much improved unit this season.

Schedule: Arkansas opens against Missouri St. and then has a bye so it is almost like having an extra three weeks of practice. After that only two of the first six games are at home and three of those road games include Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. The Razorbacks do get a break after that with four straight games at home, one taking place in Little Rock, before the season finale at LSU.

Bottom Line: Arkansas has the talent and the experience to make it to a bowl game in 2009. The schedule may not allow it however. While there are only four true road games, all appear to be losses while facing Georgia, Troy and South Carolina at home are no easy outs. If it can avoid any upsets, Arkansas will be back in the postseason after a year off. That is a big if however.

Betting Forecast: Arkansas is just 3-8 ATS in non-conference games over the last three years. Texas A&M is right after Georgia and Alabama so it looks like a play against.

Auburn Tigers 5-7 SU, 2-9 ATS, 3-8 O/U

Summary: Auburn entered the 2008 season as a preseason top ten team and closed the season with its first losing record since 1999. Head coach Tommy Tuberville was forced to resign despite putting together a 42-9 record the previous four seasons. A 5-7 record easily could have been 9-3 as the Tigers dropped four games by five points or less. Former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik takes over following two disappointing seasons at Iowa St. He comes into a good situation which is rare when a coach leaves following a rough season. Auburn returns 15 starters for a second straight season but the offense needs to make huge strides for the Tigers to get back into bowl contention. They finished 104th in total offense and 110th in scoring offense and the defense will be asked to carry the team, at least from the start.

Schedule: Auburn opens the season with four straight home games which is a big advantage for a team trying to turn things around. Mississippi St. and West Virginia are the two toughest of the bunch. Three of the next four games are on the road with all three being against teams ranked higher. The Tigers close with three of their last four games at home but two are against Mississippi and Alabama.

Bottom Line: Auburn does fall into a good spot where its season was a big disappointment but could have and should have been a lot better. That usually means rebound the following season and that could be the case for the Tigers but it is not going to be that easy. The problem is the offense still has a lot of problems and the tough SEC schedule does not help matters.

Betting Forecast: Auburn was a horrid 2-9 ATS last season and records that bad usually reverse out the following season so expect a profitable 2009 for the Tigers

Mississippi St. Bulldogs 4-8 SU, 4-7 ATS, 4-7 O/U

Summary: The Sylvester Croom experiment did not work out for Mississippi St. After three straight three-win seasons, in 2007 the Bulldogs made it to their first bowl game since 2000 but a regression last season forced Croom to resign. Mississippi St. hired Dan Mullen who was the Florida offensive coordinator for the last four seasons. That should improve the offense that has averaged more than 18.9 ppg only once since 2001. it may not happen this season since Mullen probably does not have the right players for the job but he is a perfect hire for the Bulldogs. Mississippi St. finished 35th in total defense last season and brings back only three starters but there should not be a big dropoff as there is some solid experience. A bowl is not in the picture this season but Mississippi St. should have a bright future ahead.

Schedule: The Bulldogs open with Jackson St. before opening SEC action with back-to-back road games at Auburn and Vanderbilt. They return home for three straight home games but none are easy as they face LSU, Georgia Tech and Houston. The backend of the schedule is even tougher with games against Florida, Alabama and Mississippi even though all of those games are at home.

Bottom Line: Croom was the SEC Coach of the Year in 2007 so the fact that he is gone is somewhat surprising but our of his five years resulted in losing seasons so this should be a change for the good. The Bulldogs used to be a fixture at the top of the standings and while they won’t make it back up there this season, they should rise once again.

Betting Forecast: We may want to look at Mississippi St. totals again this season as a revamped offense and a strong defense will lead to more low scoring games.

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  1. South Carolina opened their season last night with a 7-3 sloppy win over North Carolina State, but I do not think Florida has to worry about them just yet.

    The Gators are a heavy favorite to repeat as champs, but I would still keep my eye on Georgia as they have the best chance to pull off the upset.

  2. I want your SEC predictions folks….hit me with em! Comment here!