SEC Football Preview

August 30th, 2009

Gators prohibitive favorite to win conference


The defending national champions are back for one more run, and things set up quite well for Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators. Quarterback Tim Tebow gets the majority of they hype and rightfully so, but this is a team with talent in droves all over the field. Offensively they’ll have to manage the loss of receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy, but there’s plenty of speed to go around on one of the country’s deadliest offenses.


Jeff Demps, Brandon James and Emmanuel Moody all return to provide depth at running back, while tight end Aaron Hernandez is one of the nation’s best. The receiver prospects to a hit with the injury to freshman Andre Debose, but he should be ready to contribute to a group that returns David Nelson and Riley Cooper among others. Up front the Pouncey twins center Maurkice and guard Mike, anchor a line that will need to replace both tackles.


But the best reason for a possible repeat may be a defense that returns all eleven starters, led by middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. And given a schedule that is by and large manageable (a trip to LSU may determine whether or not they go undefeated), it’s no surprise that so many have picked Florida to win the national title. Florida also will not have to play either Alabama or Ole Miss in the regular season, drawing Arkansas and Mississippi State as their other crossover opponents.


The team most likely to finish second in the East is Georgia, who had a hard time dealing with lofty expectations in 2008. With Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno off to the NFL, and Florida being as good as they are, not much is expected from Mark Richt’s team in 2008. But there’s still a lot of talent in Athens, led by sophomore wide receiver A.J. Green and a talented stable of running backs. Senior Joe Cox will step in at quarterback, and the Bulldogs welcome back linebacker Rennie Curran and five other starters back on defense (DT Jeff Owens is a starter but missed all of 2008 to a knee injury so he isn’t counted).


But they’ve also got a treacherous early-season schedule than can either make or break their season. A season-opening trip to Oklahoma State is followed by games against South Carolina, Arkansas (road), Arizona State and LSU. An undefeated run of that stretch could catapult them into the national title race while a few losses could knock them out of contention for a New Year’s Day bowl.


South Carolina will look to make a move in the division standings and any progress will depend upon the development of quarterback Stephen Garcia. Can the on-field production match the expectations for the sophomore, who only played in eight of the Gamecocks’ thirteen games? Steve Spurrier will also have to find suitable replacements for his top two pass catchers in 2008, Kenny McKinley and Jared Cook. Six starters return on defense, led by linebackers Eric Norwood and Darian Stewart. But they’ve got a schedule that does them no favors, beginning the year with trips to NC State and Georgia and including both Ole Miss and Alabama.


Lane Kiffin made some waves in his first few months on the job, calling out opposing schools within the conference. It is one thing to rile up your rivals, but attempting to poke the likes of Urban Meyer and Nick Saban can land you on the receiving end of a beating once gametime rolls around. The Volunteers will go with Jonathan Crompton at quarterback with the hope being that his production can improve with the presence of a new coaching staff.


But the true star of this team is junior free safety Eric Berry, who can both hit and cover receivers. He’s received some preseason Heisman hype (personally, he should have won the Thorpe Award last year) and is just fifteen yards shy of Terrell Buckley’s record for career interception return yards. The key for Tennessee: finding some offensive playmakers. Wide receiver Gerald Jones will miss some time early due to injury, but running backs Montario Hardesty, Lennon Creer and freshman Bryce Brown will all be counted on to be those guys.


Vanderbilt had their most successful season since 1982 thanks to seven wins and a victory in the Music City Bowl. Nine starters return on each side of the football for the Commodores, who look to reach a bowl game in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. All five starters return on the offensive line and the defense is led by one of the SEC’s best in linebacker Patrick Benoist. Four of the top five tacklers from last season return to Nashville in 2009.


Kentucky returns just eleven starters, six of whom are on the offensive side of the football. Quarterbacks Randall Cobb and Mike Hartline both return for head coach Rich Brooks, as will three starters on the offensive line. The defense returns just four starters, but one of those four also happens to be arguably the best corner in the SEC in senior Trevard Lindley. Both of the Wildcats’ SEC wins last season both came against Western Division foes (Arkansas and Mississippi State); if they want to entertain any thoughts of getting out of the Eastern cellar that can’t happen in 2009.


The West will have far more intrigue at the top with three teams all entertaining serious thoughts of winning the division. Alabama won the division last season thanks to a solid running game, stout defense and an experienced quarterback in John Parker Wilson who knew how to manage the game. Just four starters return on offense for the Crimson Tide, but they do bring back three of their top four rushers from 2008 (Glen Coffee is the lone departure) and a spectacular wide receiver in Julio Jones.


Greg McElroy will take over the reins at quarterback, and with nine starters back on defense the Crimson Tide won’t need him to be a world-beater. Manage the game, make a few plays and don’t kill the team with turnovers is the formula for Alabama, and it should once again be a successful one. 2008 was thought to be a year too early for a Crimson Tide revival but they spent time ranked number one in the national polls. No one will be shocked if the same were to happen in 2009.

Houston Nutt’s Ole Miss Rebels turned some heads in 2008, winning nine games including a win over Texas Tech in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic. Quarterback Jevan Snead, running backs Cordera Eason and Dexter McCluster, and receiver Shay Hodge return to Oxford, giving the Rebels their best shot at an SEC title since Eli Manning’s senior season (2003). The defense returns eight starters including leading tackler Kendrick Lewis, but there are the injury concerns regarding DE Greg Hardy to deal with not to mention the loss of defensive tackle Peria Jerry.


The key for the Rebels will be managing expectations. At a school where the saying goes that “we may not win every game but we’ve never lost a party” the excitement has reached levels that haven’t been seen since the Archie Manning era. Luckily for the Rebels they get both Alabama and LSU in Oxford and three manageable crossover opponents in South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Tennessee. So long as the Rebels don’t allow the hype to get to their collective heads they should be right in the thick of things in the SEC West.


There’s also LSU, who will look to use their impressive win in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl as a springboard to bigger things in 2009. Jordan Jefferson came into his own in the 38-3 win over Georgia Tech, and he’ll be aided by the return of the top four rushers (led by First-Team All-SEC selection Charles Scott) and three of the Tigers’ top four receivers (including First-Team All-SEC selection Brandon LaFell) from 2008. There’s also the presence of highly-touted quarterback Russell Sheppard, who stands to see playing time due to his ability to make plays with either his arm or legs.


Defensively the Tigers return their top four tacklers from 2008, led by strong safety Harry Coleman. Senior defensive end Rahim Alem also returns, and despite the fact that he started only one game in 2008 Alem was a First-Team All-SEC selection. The defense, which disappointed last season, should be better under the direction of former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis. What could hamper their chances at another division crown is the schedule, with trips to Alabama, Ole Miss and Georgia along with a visit from Florida.


Arkansas could be a dangerous team this season due to the return of running back Michael Smith and the eligibility of Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett. Smith, a Second-Team All-SEC selection, led the team with 1,072 yards on the ground and eight touchdowns. A lot of talent returns to Fayetteville for the second year of the Bobby Petrino era, including tight end D.J. Williams and nine starters on defense.


Unfortunately for the Razorbacks they’ve drawn the toughest road schedule imaginable when it comes to conference games. They’ll visit Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and LSU in 2009 and that will make it very tough for them to improve upon their fourth (tie) place finish in the division in 2008.


Auburn and Mississippi State both welcome new head coaches, with the Tigers’ move from Tommy Tuberville to Gene Chizik arguably being the biggest head scratcher among coaching moves last offseason. Tuberville left his job on The Plains with a record of 85-39 in nine season at Auburn, most likely the end result of the decision to hire then fire (mid-season) offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. Chizik returns to the school whose defense he ran in 2003 to the tune of a 13-0 season with a career coaching record of 5-19.


To say the least there were some who weren’t too fond of the switch, but Auburn had a productive spring. Chris Todd won the quarterback job, and they’ve still got some decent running backs led by Ben Tate and Mario Fannin. Seven starters return on each side of the football for Auburn, and the hope is that the spread offense performs better in 2009 than it did in 2008.


Rounding out the division are the Bulldogs, who welcome Dan Mullen after an era under Sylvester Croom that featured moments of progress along with maddening displays of offensive ineptitude. Seven starters return to an offense that ranked at or near the bottom of the SEC in just about every statistical category, and the hope in Starkville is that the coach who played a major role in Florida’s two national titles can spark an offensive revival. Leading rusher Anthony Dixon returns, as does senior linebacker Jamar Chaney on the other side of the football. The rebuilding job will be tough, but the Bulldogs may have found the right man for the job.


Storyline: Can Florida go wire-to-wire? The talent, both on the field and within the coaching staff, is definitely there for another run. But it will be up to senior leaders such as Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes to make sure the Gators remain hungry.


Players of the Year: QB Tim Tebow (Florida) and SS Eric Berry (Tennessee)


How they’ll finish

            East     1. Florida                                             West    1. Ole Miss

                        2. Georgia                                                        2. Alabama

                        3. South Carolina                                              3. LSU

                        4. Tennessee                                                    4. Arkansas

                        5. Vanderbilt                                                    5. Auburn

                        6. Kentucky                                                     6. Mississippi State


Next: SEC East and West Ultimate Schedules