Mailbag: Loss of Mathieu hits hardest

Fox on the Fifty’s weekly mailbag will run every Thursday throughout the season, focusing on the SEC, ACC and Conference USA. To submit your question or comment, tweet or e-mail Zach Dillard (@Zach_Dillard) or send us a note on any of our company’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Nashville feels like Spring Break.

An underwhelming Spring Break, perhaps, one characterized by sleeping on floors blanketed by a bath towel, cruising the streets searching for media gates and parking passes and, above all, noticing a surprising lack of Vanderbilt fans tailgating in preparation for tonight’s opener to the college football season. Craziness is AWOL. Gamecock fans are scattered about under tents, wearing garnet polos and quietly muttering about D.J. Swearinger’s outfits and Jordan Rodgers’ personal safety.

In Commodore fans’ defense, it is a school day. Spring breaks always become less mundane in retrospect, anyhow.

The one thing Nashville does not feel like yet, is an SEC town. It surely is a Southern city: live country music infused the airwaves last night, the humidity is characteristically palpable and restaurants such as BBQ Beach and San Antonio Taco Co. share a parking lot. It surely has a football stadium and a football team and cops directing traffic at noon for a 6 p.m. game. 

But it surely does not FEEL like the SEC.

There are no flags waving from car windows and few block-letter ‘V’ decals littering back windshields of SUVs. No Vanderbilt fans were heckling the visitors discussing their quarterback’s safety. 

The only hint that an SEC football team resides here — apart from campus-related sights, which are gorgeous and doubtlessly help in recruiting, by the way — is a team calendar pinned to the front door of the place Fox on the Fifty is crashing, featuring a Vanderbilt player Photoshopped and menacingly holding an anchor. He’s holding it like an upside down pickax. Much like Vanderbilt’s fans at this hour, you can not see his eyes.

Yet somehow, and maybe it’s all in my head, a buzz exists. It is game day, at long last. No more previews, no more prognostications and guesswork from sports writers like myself.

I’m picking South Carolina in tonight’s game — call it 27-14, just for kicks — because I also am not sold on Rodgers’ personal safety. Those South Carolina fans may have a point (if that’s what they were discussing in the first place). Bookends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor take the field in a few hours, and there is little question in my mind that they will wreak havoc in tonight’s contest. SEC football is back, even if the feeling is building slowly in Nashville.

Now, on to your questions:

Cory Ferrell (via Facebook): How do you think the vols are going to be now that they dont have da’rick rodgers?

Brandon Bailey (via Facebook): Who is the biggest loss for their team? Crowell, Mathieu, or Rodgers?

There is so much unknown here. Each of these three teams — LSU, Georgia and Tennessee — is deep at these respective positions, almost resembling an ensemble cast. If Brad Pitt drops out of Ocean’s Eleven, does the movie flop? Probably not. What about George Clooney? The LSU secondary, Georgia running back position and the Tennessee receiver corps are characterized by such depth that the question is not only which player will be missed, but if any loss will be significantly detrimental to his respective team at all.

That depends, largely, on their replacements — all of which are unproven commodities. But here’s what we know…

Da’Rick Rogers: The 6-foot-3 wideout was suspended indefinitely — he later admitted the suspension was for failing a drug test — and transferred to FCS school Tennessee Tech. It’s pretty clear by now that the guy was a headache from the first day he arrived on campus.

But last season, he was one of the two most accomplished receivers in the conference, catching 67 passes for 1,064 yards and nine touchdowns. His numbers were better than Alshon Jeffrey, Reuben Randle and Joe Adams. Those three guys are on NFL rosters this season, as well as Arkansas’ Jarius Wright who led the SEC in receiving yards and touchdowns. Pro receivers do not just grow on trees … unless you consider the Volunteers’ receivers in 2012.

NFL prospect Justin Hunter is back from last season’s ACL tear. Some believed he was the best on the roster before the injury. He’ll fill the No. 1 spot. Then there’s JUCO transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, who has drawn rave reviews for his potential this summer but has not received many reps with the first team. He was a two-time JUCO All–American and was a five-star coup for Derek Dooley in February. Those two, along with slot wideout Zach Rogers, should fill in just fine for Rogers. Tyler Bray shouldn’t have too much trouble finding able hands to catch his passes. 

As long as Tyler Bray stays healthy, I still expect Tennessee to have a top-20 passing offense.

So, I suppose Rogers is Matt Damon in this analogy.

Isaiah Crowell: Georgia legend Vince Dooley made it clear that he feels Crowell’s dismissal is a cut-and-dry example of addition by subtraction, but I’m not sold. If anything, his production last season serves to punctuate the fact that he was, perhaps, the most naturally gifted running back in the SEC last season. Think about it: He was incessantly sidelined by injuries and was obviously dealing with off-the-field concerns, and still he earned AP SEC Freshman of the Year honors.

And Bulldog fans want to describe him as “replaceable?” Not so fast, my friends.

Bulldog freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, and to a lesser extent Ken Malcome, are an unknown commodity. To assume that either first-year running back can step in and replicate Crowell’s production is very bold, and Malcome is just as unproven (174 career yards). The best-case scenario is that Marshall and Gurley live up to the hype and, through a by-committee approach, provide a solid running attack for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.

There’s little denying that if Crowell could have sorted out his personal issues and stayed trouble-free this offseason, his talents would’ve been a welcome addition to the backfield. He was poised for a huge year. Georgia’s offense will score plenty of points without Crowell, though, especially since the schedule bypasses the lion’s share of the SEC’s top defenses. So will his loss be all that noticeable week in and week out? Probably not.

Tyrann Mathieu: The Honey Badger is George Clooney … at least for this mailbag’s purposes. First, a few caveats: I never believed Mathieu was an elite cornerback — he’s 5-foot-9, he struggled covering receivers like Rogers. In fact, last season he was not even the third-best secondary player on his own team. He was a benefactor of LSU’s tremendous talent base, as guys like Mo Claiborne and Eric Reid could cover his backside so he could run around and make plays. Do you honestly believe he would have been able to rush the passer and force fumbles like he did without offensive lines fretting over Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Michael Brockers?

LSU will still boast a top-10 defense, will still be in the national title picture and will still cause fumbles and intercept passes. 

Here’s the thing: This question addresses which player will be the biggest loss for his team, so you can not evaluate each individual in a vacuum. Da’Rick Rogers and Isaiah Crowell might very well be better pro prospects, but when you let Mathieu run free in that vaunted Tigers’ defense, nightmares ensue for opponents.

Tyrann Mathieu’s absence will be more evident than any other dismissed player in the SEC. His uncanny playmaking ability will be tough to replace, both in the secondary and, maybe even especially, on special teams. So every time you watch the Bayou Bengals this season, don’t think, “See, they don’t even need the Honey Badger,” but rather, “Man, can you imagine how much better this team could have been?”

Haven’t we all said that about George Clooney and every movie he isn’t in?

Nicholas Mitchell Dorman (via Facebook): How bad is the SEC East?

If this is a joke, then let’s just post a sign reading, “NO HUMOR ALLOWED IN THE MAILBAG,” because this is not a place of entertainment or fun or cynicism of any kind. Just kidding. And I hope you are, too, Mr. Dorman.

The SEC East is not a poor division whatsoever. SEC West powerhouses LSU and Alabama and their success have stimulated that opinion more than anything else in recent years. 

In fact, if today’s East division were to replace any other division in any other conference, it would be the strongest division in said conference. If the SEC East were the Legends division (always an embarrassing way to describe something), does anyone believe the Leaders division — Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State, Indiana, Illinois and Purdue — would be the strongest?

The same goes for the replacing the Leaders division, or any other conference besides the Big 12 because, you know, it only has 10 teams. Hence no divisions. Hence no conference championship. Hence no resemblance to their conference’s name. Divide the Big 12 in any way you like, and I’d take the SEC East.

Face value: Two top-10 teams, two historic programs battling back from down years, a high-scoring newcomer, a re-energized academic institution and a conference bottom-feeder. That’s the East division, and it’s a hell of a lot stronger top-to-bottom than any other division out there … besides, you know. the SEC West.

Tom Brumbeloe (via Facebook): We all know LSU, Bama, UGA, & SC are favored in their divisions. Which teams might surprise and make some noise outside of these four?

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but there will not be a surprise team attending the SEC Championship game. Georgia or South Carolina will represent the East, Alabama or LSU will represent the West. Life’s tough.

With that out of the way, though, there are a couple surprises I expect to come out of this season in college football’s preeminent conference.

–Arkansas will be worse than expected. The Razorbacks might not finish the season No. 3 in the West. Bobby Petrino’s offseason mishaps will pay a toll, for he was, despite his many shortcomings, one of the top offensive minds in the country. It’s impossible to call the man a leader, but he sure knew how to orchestrate an offense. He will be missed on Saturdays.

Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis are stars, Cobi Hamilton could have a dominant year, but returning six starters to the 36th-ranked defense and losing Wilson’s top two targets only exacerbates the issue. Check out the schedule: Alabama and LSU (losses), road trips to Texas A&M, Auburn and Mississippi State (three potential losses), and a road game against South Carolina (loss). So, Arkansas travels for four of its six toughest games, and hosts the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the other two? Yeah, an 8-4 record is not a stretch.

–Vanderbilt  anchors down. Athletic director David Williams has already sent out the warning.

“I’ve already told our fans not to make plans for December,” he said in a recent phone interview.

He might be onto something. The schedule is not overly kind to the Commodores, as losses to Georgia, South Carolina (TONIGHT’S GAME, PEOPLE) and Florida are all likely. But behind a disciplined defense and a few standout offensive weapons, Vandy can beat the likes of Northwestern, Missouri, Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee. If they can win three of those six games, they’ll be bowling … and it will feel a lot sweeter than Maryland’s recent excursion.

That’s it for this week’s mailbag. Game time is fast approaching … and I need to make sure my voice recorder is sufficiently charged for James Franklin and Steve Spurrier.