The SEC had another banner year in 2007, again finishing as the strongest conference in college football. For the second consecutive year, the SEC produced the National Champion as LSU became the first team to be crowned BCS Champion twice. LSU won their first conference title under Les Miles after defeating SEC East Champ Tennessee. Furthermore, Tim Tebow of Florida became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy, yet another achievement to add to the conference’s laundry list of accolades.
The SEC appears to be one of the country’s best conferences again in 2008. There is a lot of experience returning and five teams were ranked in the initial AP Poll. Furthermore, Georgia appears to be the consensus #1 overall team in the preseason polls and expectations are high. The East division appears to be the stronger and more wide open of the two, where as many as four teams could legitimately play in the SEC Title Game in Atlanta. In the West, there may be less overall talent, but there is still plenty of uncertainty. Expect a very exciting 2008 in the Southeastern Conference.
2007 was a frustrating, surprising and in the end gratifying season for the Tennessee Volunteers. At one point in the year, the Vols were sitting at 1-2 with both losses in blowout fashion while program icon Phil Fulmer appeared to be on his way out of town. Soon thereafter, Tennessee blew out Georgia by three touchdowns and the Vols finished the regular season on an 8-1 run to win the SEC East. However, Tennessee lost in blowout fashion to Florida and Alabama, their biggest two rivals, and they will look to amend those hurts this fall. Fulmer was awarded a contract extension in the offseason, which should put the calls for his head to rest and allow him and his 14 returning starters to focus on what could be an excellent 2008 campaign.
On offense, Tennessee loses three year starter Erik Ainge at quarterback. However, junior Jonathan Crompton looked very good in the spring football game and was a big time recruit a few years ago. While Crompton probably won’t match Ainge’s 31 TD passes, he won’t have to and should be very solid under center. One of the biggest reasons for my optimism surrounding Crompton is the presence of the SEC’s best offensive line, which returns four starters from last year. They allowed only FOUR sacks all of last year and feature all upperclassmen as starters, meaning Crompton should have plenty of time to make good decisions. Furthermore, senior running back Arian Foster is expected to have a huge year running behind such a talented line. Foster ran for nearly 1,200 yards last fall and 12 TDs and I fully expect those numbers to improve and for him to spend much of 2008 on the periphery of the Heisman discussion. Tennessee should have a very strong running attack. Yet another reason for optimism is the return of virtually the entire receiving corps, led by senior Lucas Taylor, who had 1000 yards receiving and 5 TD catches last fall. Thus, it appears that Tennessee’s offense will have a strong running game featuring one of the conference’s top tailbacks running behind the best O-Line in the conference, which should also provide their quarterback with plenty of time to throw to a fleet of talented and experienced receivers. Sounds like a recipe for success to me. Expect Tennessee to score a ton of points this fall.
On defense, the Volunteers had a pretty tough 2007, allowing over 27 points per game; nearly eight points more on average than in 2006. However, the UT defense played a lot better in the season’s second half and they should continue their improvement this fall. Tennessee’s defensive line is traditionally one of the SEC’s best and this year is no exception. Two starters return at defensive tackle and sophomore defensive end Ben Martin could be a star. Expect UT to get a lot of pressure along the line and drastically improve against the run after allowing 165 yards per game last fall. The linebackers will have a little bit of work to do this fall after losing Jerrod Mayo to the NFL’s first round in April, but junior Rico McCoy is back after recording over 100 tackles last fall and should anchor a pretty solid group. Expect the linebackers to improve their tackling and do their part to return Tennessee’s toughness against the run. However, the biggest improvement, by far, will be in the secondary. Last year, Tennessee allowed 240 yards per game through the air, nearly sixty yards worse than in 2006! The Vols played a lot of young players who should benefit from last year’s tough showing. The unquestioned star of the defense will be sophomore safety Eric Berry, who made 86 tackles and snagged 5 picks as a true freshman! Expect Berry along with both returning starters at cornerback to lead a massive turnaround against the pass. Overall, Tennessee should be much improved on defense and this is one of the SEC’s better units.
Tennessee has a fairly tough conference draw, facing rival Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State from the West. The Vols also have to travel to face South Carolina and Georgia in their division, though they host rivals Florida and Alabama at Neyland Stadium. The Vols also continue their tradition of playing good out of conference opposition by traveling to California to face UCLA to open the season. Picking the Volunteers will be a surprise to many, but Tennessee has a lot of factors in their favor: An excellent offense with a strong running attack, an improved defense and a reasonable schedule. Why not Florida or Georgia? Well, Tennessee has beaten the Bulldogs three of the last four years, including blowouts the last two years, and Georgia’s schedule is nothing short of murderous. Furthermore, Tennessee is a more complete team than the Gators, who have a lot of defensive issues. Finally, the presence of the conference’s best offensive line means that Fulmer will be able to play his preferred ball control offense and keep the opposing offense of the field. Tennessee has not won an SEC title since 1998, when the Volunteers were the National Champions. 2008 could be the year that the streak finally ends.
Biggest Games: Sept. 1st @ UCLA, Sept. 20th vs. Florida, Oct. 11th @ Georgia, Oct. 25th vs. Alabama, Nov. 1st @ South Carolina
Florida (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)
2008 was a solid year for the Gators following their National Title run of 2006. Quarterback Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to ever win the Heisman Trophy and is more popular than beer on the Florida campus. However, Florida had some tough losses, including a loss to a purported lead-footed Michigan team in the Capital One bowl. This fall, Florida brings back sixteen starters and hopes are very high in Gainesville.
On offense, Florida is led by junior Tim Tebow, who was recently called ‘the greatest player of this generation’ by Head Coach Urban Meyer. Perhaps a bit dramatic, but Tim Tebow combined for over 4,000 yards of offense and 55 total touchdowns last fall! However, don’t expect Tebow to come close to that number this fall for two reasons. The first is that Florida is expected to have an improved running game after their tailbacks were outrushed by both Tebow and junior wide receiver Percy Harvin last fall. The second is that if Tebow has to run the ball over 200 times again, odds are that he won’t make it through the season healthy. Helping to offset Tebow’s rushing load this fall will be sophomore USC transfer Emmanuel Moody and redshirt freshman Chris Rainey, who Florida fans rave about. If either can be remotely productive then Tebow and Harvin won’t have to function as the entire offense again in 2008. Florida’s offensive line should be very good this fall, returning three starters from last year’s group. Expect the line to open up a lot of holes to run through. Florida also has a lot of playmakers at wideout, led by Harvin and senior Louis Murphy, who caught 5 TDs last fall. However, the Gators will miss star TE Cornelius Ingram, who tore his ACL in practice and is one of five Gators that are expected to miss the season due to knee injuries. Overall, Florida has the pieces in place to be a very productive offense, but they absolutely must develop a more traditional running attack because Tebow can’t take another year of pounding like he did last year. Tebow is the franchise for the Gators, so they’ll need to keep him healthy if they want to try and beat last year’s impressive 42.5 points per game average.
On defense, Florida has a lot of questions. The 2007 edition had the 11 th worst pass defense in the SEC and allowed nearly 26 point per game, essentially doubling the previous year’s total! Furthermore, the Gators started a ton of underclassmen last fall and still aren’t expected to have a single senior defensive starter! The defensive line is a big question, as the Gators’ top three defensive tackles could be two sophomores and a true freshman, never a good sign at a position where experience is a huge factor. However, junior DE Jermaine Cunningham could be a pass rushing force after notching 6.5 sacks last fall. The linebackers will be the strength of the Gator defense, led by juniors Brandon Spikes (131 tackles last fall) and Dustin Doe. Expect Florida to again be very solid against the run. Unfortunately, the secondary is a very big concern this fall after last year’s abysmal showing. The Gators have three returning sophomore starters and have already lost two upperclassmen to ACL injuries at the strong safety position, meaning true freshman Will Hill could be in line to start. That means Florida won’t have a single upperclassman starting on the SEC’s 11 th worst pass defense from a season ago. That is not a good sign. While I expect the Gators to improve against the pass after starting multiple freshmen last fall, they will probably still struggle and could be a weak spot all year. Overall, the Florida defense has two major issues: Defensive tackle and the secondary. The combination of youth and inexperience could mean that Florida’s talented defense could really be a year away from being very good.
The schedule for the Gators is nowhere near as brutal as last fall but it is still pretty tough. Florida welcomes Ole Miss and LSU from the West while traveling to rebuilding Arkansas. Furthermore, the Gators must travel to rival Tennessee and the only big game in the division that will be played at the Swamp will be a late season clash with South Carolina. The non-conference schedule is interesting, as the Gators face both Florida State and Miami for the first time in 5 years. Overall, Florida has one of the best offenses in the country and the Gators should develop a strong running game this fall, meaning that star quarterback Tim Tebow should be able to remain relatively healthy throughout the season. However, they will need to be prolific on offense as the Florida defense could find itself subject to a lot of big plays in the passing game and could struggle overall. While the Gators are definitely a better team than last fall and boast a ton of talent, I feel that they are still a year away from truly becoming National Title contenders but it would certainly not be a surprise to see them win the SEC East this fall.
Biggest Games: Sept. 6 th vs. Miami (FL), Sept. 20 th @ Tennessee, Oct. 11 th vs. LSU, Nov. 1 st vs. UGA, Nov. 15 th vs. South Carolina, Nov. 29 th @ FSU
South Carolina (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)
2007 was a tale of two seasons for the South Carolina Gamecocks. The first half of 2007 was a fantastic run for Steve Spurrier’s team, reeling off a 6-1 record after defeating Georgia and Kentucky, both of whom were in the top ten at the time. However, that wonderful run ended rather abruptly with a stunning loss at home to Vanderbilt and the Gamecocks entered a freefall from a #6 national ranking all the way to a 6-6 finish. The question for South Carolina is pretty simple: Which team will show up this fall? Will the Gamecocks come roaring out of the gate this fall and sustain that momentum with seventeen returning starters or will they fall back into their traditional habit of underachieving?
On offense, South Carolina enters Spurrier’s 4 th year with a big question at quarterback. Junior Tommy Beecher is expected to take over to begin the year but redshirt freshman Steven Garcia is expected to eventually push for playing time. Whoever wins the starting job will throw a lot of passes under Spurrier and the Gamecocks’ top returning wide receiver is senior Kenny McKinley, who had 77 catches and 9 TDs last fall. South Carolina also returns four starters on the line of scrimmage, including two seniors at the tackle positions. Expect a much improved rushing attack this fall, led by senior Mike Davis, who had over 500 yards and 5 TDs in limited experience in 2007. Overall, Spurrier has now had three full seasons to implement his system and bring in the right recruits. Expect South Carolina to have a very solid offense this fall.
On defense, South Carolina returns a massive ten starters! The Gamecocks suffered a lot of injuries last fall and underperformed down the stretch, but expect this year’s unit to be very solid. On the defensive line, senior Marque Hall and sophomore Ladi Ajiboye should be vastly improved at DT. Hall was recovering from an ACL injury last year and Ajiboye was a true freshman, so both should have significantly stronger years and anchor a solid defensive line. At linebacker, the Gamecocks are very pleased to return senior Jasper Brinkley, who was a 1 st team All- SEC selection in 2006 before missing most of last fall with an ACL injury. Brinkley is expected to lead a very solid group of linebackers and South Carolina should be significantly improved against the run. In the secondary, all four starters from last year are back along with a large group of talented backups. Junior cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was a 1 st team All- SEC selection after picking off three passes, tying for the team lead with junior safety Emanuel Cook , who led the team in tackles last fall. Overall, South Carolina allowed less than 24 points per game in 2007, mostly due to poor run defense. Expect the Gamecocks to be significantly improved on the defensive side of the ball and field one of the SEC’s best units.
South Carolina has a fairly reasonable schedule, facing LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas from the West. The Gamecocks also host divisional rivals Tennessee and Georgia. Another advantage built into the schedule is that the Gamecocks will have two bye weeks built in and there are no long, difficult stretches. In fact, the Gamecocks’ longest stretch of SEC games is only 3 weeks in a row, so the conference slate is tailor-made for a great season. The non-conference schedule is highlighted by two ACC foes: NC State to begin the season and rival Clemson to end it. Overall, South Carolina showed some of their potential in the early going last season by upsetting Georgia and Kentucky and beginning 6-1. I expect the Gamecocks to shake off their tough ending and have a very solid 2008. South Carolina is improved at nearly every position and they should finally have a season that Spurrier can legitimately brag about.
Biggest Games: Sept. 13th vs. UGA, Oct. 4th @ Ole Miss, Oct. 18th vs. LSU, Nov. 1st vs. Tennessee, Nov. 15th @ Florida, Nov. 29th @ Clemson
Georgia (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)
Last year was a very successful year for the Georgia Bulldogs. After stumbling in the season’s early going and extending their SEC losing streak to five straight games, the Bulldogs reeled off seven consecutive wins (including rivals Florida, Georgia Tech and Auburn) to finish the year 11-2. However, their two losses were to SEC East foes South Carolina and Tennessee, so the Bulldogs didn’t even win their division. This fall, the Bulldogs are the consensus #1 team in the nation according to the preseason polls and expectations are exceptionally high for Mark Richt’s team. With fifteen starters returning from last fall, it is easy to see why but Georgia has a lot of obstacles to overcome to live up to the enormous hype.
The offense will be led by junior quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for 2,500 yards and 19 TDs last fall. Stafford was more of a game manager because of the presence of superstar sophomore tailback Knowshon Moreno, who ran for 1,300 yards and 14 TDs last fall. Expect Moreno to see even more carries this year after Thomas Brown (779 yards, 10 TDs) graduated. The Bulldogs have a veteran group of receivers who have underperformed thus far in their careers. Georgia fans are still waiting on senior Mohamed Massaquoi to have a break out season. Another major question for the Bulldogs is the offensive line, which started three freshmen last year. Expected to be improved this fall, the Bulldogs were dealt a huge blow when sophomore left tackle Trinton Sturdivant was lost for the season to a torn ACL. The Bulldogs now have only two returning starters to the group that Mark Richt indentified as his biggest concern on the team at the end of spring football, before Sturdivant was lost. Georgia could have some trouble protecting Stafford and Moreno can only break so many tackles. If Georgia’s offensive line and receiving corps doesn’t step up in a major manner, Georgia could be a huge disappointment this fall.
On defense, Georgia actually took a step back last fall, allowing over 20 points per game for the first time since Mark Richt’s first season! The defensive line should be pretty solid, led by All- SEC defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who had 7.5 sacks last fall. The Bulldogs will be looking for someone to step up in place of departed DE Marcus Howard, who had 10.5 sacks in 2007 but the line should be solid overall. At linebacker, senior Dannell Ellerbe was the team’s leading tackler last year and also accounted for 4.5 sacks. Expect Ellerbe to anchor a very good group of linebackers for the Dawgs and Georgia should again be tough against the run. The secondary is also a solid group led by junior cornerback Asher Allen, who finished second on the team in interceptions and tackles last fall. Overall, Georgia has a very solid defense which should perform no worse than last year’s unit and is capable of being very good.
The Bulldogs have one of the toughest schedules in the country. They draw road trips to LSU and Auburn from the West and must also face South Carolina, Kentucky and Florida outside of Athens. Factor in a tough non-conference schedule that features a road trip to Arizona State (the first regular season game that Georgia has played outside of the Southeast since the 1960s!), a visit from MAC champ CMU, and a matchup with new Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, it is difficult to see the Bulldogs navigating the schedule with any less than two losses. However, I feel that there is even more to consider: Since the end of last season, Georgia has also been the #1 team in the country in players arrested and six players are suspended at the start of the year. Furthermore, Georgia’s national hype seems to partly be a byproduct of a massively hyped end zone celebration against Florida and a shellacking of a massively overrated Hawai’i team in the Sugar Bowl. People easily forget that Georgia was barely in the top 25 at the halfway mark last fall, coming off a blowout loss to Tennessee and were a Vanderbilt fumble at the goal line from being unranked before Mark Richt pulled out every motivational trick in the book (and came up with a couple new ones) to coax the Dawgs to their final record. Finally, the Bulldogs have already suffered a couple of tough injuries to important players and they can’t afford many more. In all honesty, looking at Georgia’s roster I don’t see 2008’s preseason #1 team. I see 2009’s preseason #1 team! The Bulldogs have been crowned a year early and I’m afraid that they’re not going to live up the hype this fall. Georgia has way too many questions on the offensive line and Matthew Stafford and his receivers aren’t proven enough to rely on if Moreno shut down. Unless Georgia’s defense develops into an absolutely shutdown unit, Georgia is probably no better than a nine or ten win team this fall in the face of a brutal schedule.
Biggest Games: Sept. 13th @ South Carolina, Sept. 20th @ Arizona State, Sept. 27th vs. Alabama, Oct. 11th vs. Tennessee, Oct. 25th @ LSU, Nov. 1st vs. Florida, Nov. 15th @ Auburn, Nov. 29th vs. Georgia Tech
Kentucky (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)
Kentucky had one of the best years in recent memory in 2007, finishing the season with an 8-5 record and upsetting #1 LSU. The Wildcats climbed on star quarterback Andre Woodson’s back and rode an excellent offense all the way to a #8 national ranking at midseason. Though Kentucky faded down the stretch, they still managed a bowl win over Florida State to cap off a great season. This fall, Kentucky returns 12 starters to a team that will have significantly lower expectations than the 2007 edition.
On offense, sophomore Mike Hartline will take over for Woodson. Hartline has six career pass attempts, so he will be playing his first significant minutes and could struggle in his first year. Hartline will have to find a lot of new receivers after most of last year’s leaders are now gone. Only senior Dicky Lyons, who had 56 catches and 7 TDs last fall, is back and will be expected to provide leadership for a very young group. The offensive line returns three starters from last fall, including both tackles, and the Wildcats should have a strong year blocking. At running back, senior Tony Dixon will be expected to be the feature back and has been named a team captain. Expect Kentucky to rely more on the run this fall but the Wildcats’ offense should be less prolific than their excellent 2008 edition.
On defense, the Wildcats struggled last fall against the run, giving up over 190 yards per game and allowing nearly 30 points every week! Obviously, these are numbers which need to improve if UK wants to make it back to a bowl game. Luckily for the Wildcats, they return five starters in the front seven and should be much stouter against the run. On the defensive line, junior Jeremy Jarmon ranked up 9 sacks while finishing 4 th on the team in tackles. Expect him to be a stalwart on a much improved line. The linebackers will have to replace Wesley Woodyard’s 139 tackles but seniors Johnny Williams and Braxton Kelley should be very solid contributor this fall. In the secondary, the Wildcats were pretty good last year, allowing only 206 yards per game through the air. Kentucky returns three starters from that unit, led by junior Trevard Lindley, a freshman All-American two years ago. Kentucky should be improved on defense this fall and I look for them to be stronger across the board.
The schedule is also fairly favorable for Kentucky, avoiding Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss out of the West. Furthermore, the ‘Cats have three home division games and don’t face any of the top four teams from the East in back to back weeks. The non-conference schedule is also favorably light; Outside of rival Louisville, the ‘Cats don’t face any BCS opponents. Kentucky rode an excellent offense to eight wins in each of the last two years, but this fall will be different. Kentucky will be a much more balanced team as the offense will take a step back but the defense should be stronger. It is unlikely that Kentucky will match last year’s win total or make the same splash nationally, but it is definitely possible that the Wildcats will return to a bowl this fall.
Biggest Games: Aug. 31st @ Louisville, Oct. 4th @ Alabama, Oct. 18th vs. Arkansas, Nov. 8th vs. UGA, Nov. 15th vs. Vanderbilt, Nov. 29th @ Tennessee
Vanderbilt (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)
The Commodores had a very tough 2007, finishing with a 5-7 record after entering the year with the expectations of a bowl berth. Vanderbilt fumbled away a sure win over Georgia late in a tied game inside the UGA 10 yard line in one of their toughest losses, but the Commodores also lost their last four games when they were a single win away from bowl eligibility. This fall, it is back to rebuilding mode for Vanderbilt, as only 11 starters return.
On offense, junior MacKenzi Adams returns after taking over down the stretch at quarterback. However, senior Chris Nickson did oversee the Commodores to a 4-2 start in 2007 and he could play as well this fall. At receiver, senior George Smith is the top player back but he only had 32 catches and 3 TDs in 2007. Vanderbilt also has some serious concerns on the offensive line, which must be completely reassembled this fall. The only good news is that a large pack of upperclassmen return to step into starting roles but expect the line to struggle. At running back, senior Jeff Jennings is a power back and will be given the chance to carry the load. Vanderbilt was pretty anemic on offense last fall and the entirely new offense line makes it very likely that Vandy will again have one of the league’s worst attacks.
On defense, the Commodores were actually pretty solid last fall, allowing an average of less than 23 points per game and were pretty stingy against the run. The Commodores must rebuild most of their defensive line in 2008, but the expected starters at DE, juniors Steven Stone and Broderick Stewart, combined for 10 sacks last fall and should again be solid. The linebackers have to replace a ton of production and will probably have a bit of a drop off. However, the secondary looks very solid, as all four starters return and are all upperclassmen. Look for junior cornerback DJ Moore to be one of the SEC’s best after making 83 tackles and snaring six interceptions last fall. Vanderbilt will probably take a step back in run defense but the secondary looks very good and the defense shouldn’t be significantly worse than last year’s unit.
The schedule is quite tough for the Commodores, drawing trips to Ole Miss and MSU and a visit from Auburn out of the West. Vanderbilt has three home division games, but they are against Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina. The Commodores might have the toughest home slate of any team in the SEC! The non-conference schedule features two ACC teams in Duke and Wake Forest and the Commodores have a dangerous start to the year at a good Miami (OH) team. The only good scheduling news for the Commodores is that the season is split into three 4 week stretches as the bye weeks are very strategically placed. Vanderbilt is a much more talented team than past basement dwellers have been, featuring SEC-caliber athletes and better depth at every position. However, the Commodores have the misfortune of playing in the toughest division in college football and will be at a talent disadvantage in almost every conference game they play. Don’t expect the Commodores to qualify for the first bowl berth in over 25 years and if they can win more than a single game in conference play I will be surprised.
Biggest Games: Sept. 4th vs. South Carolina, Oct. 4th vs. Auburn, Oct. 18th @ UGA, Nov. 8th vs. UF, Nov. 15th @ UK, Nov. 22nd vs. Tennessee
SEC WEST DIVISION
Auburn (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)
2007 was a very up and down year for Auburn. The Tigers struggled in the early going, starting 1-2 and looking awful doing so. Auburn then inexplicably beat #4 Florida and only registered losses to LSU and Georgia the rest of the way, including their sixth straight win over hated Alabama. The Tigers switched to a new spread attack during bowl practice and it paid off with a win over Clemson in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl. This fall, expect Auburn to have the personnel to implement a much stronger attack and field an excellent defense. With sixteen starters back, Head Coach Tommy Tuberville could be looking at his second SEC title in five years.
The offensive attack will enter its first full season running Offensive Coordinator Tony Franklin’s spread offense. Who will lead the offense remains a big question, as junior Chris Todd and sophomore Kodi Burns are still battling for the position. However, I think you have to expect Burns to win the position with his significant advantage in the athleticism department. Lining up in the backfield will be a very solid pair of tailbacks in senior Brad Lester and junior Ben Tate, both of whom saw significant time last fall. The pair should be quite productive behind an offensive line which returns all five starters. Expect the line to be much stronger after starting three freshmen last fall and Auburn should have a very strong rushing attack. The Tigers return a good corps of receivers, led by senior Rodgeriqus Smith, who had 52 catches and 5 TDs last fall. Expect a much better passing attack from the Tigers after producing a very meager aerial attack in 2007. Auburn should be a very strong rushing team this fall and either quarterback should be a statistical improvement over departed starter Brandon Cox’s paltry production from 2007. Expect a significantly improved offense in War Eagle country.
On defense, Auburn is always one of the stoutest units in the land and 2007 was no different. The Tigers allowed less than 17 points per game and were very solid against both the pass and run. The defensive line should be very solid and juniors Sen’Derrick Marks and Antonio Coleman (8.5 sacks last fall) should be two of the conference’s top linemen. Behind them, the linebackers are very solid and their depth is very good with all of last year’s starters back. Expect Auburn to again be a force against the run. In the secondary, junior Jerraud Powers had four picks last fall and was also strong against the run. Look for Auburn to have a very solid pass defense despite returning only two starters. The Tigers have one of the conference’s top defenses and are solid at all positions. Expect a very big year stopping the opposition.
The schedule is tough, but the Tigers play most of their big games at home. From the East, both Georgia and Tennessee come to town and so does defending National Champions LSU. In fact, the only significant road test this fall in conference will likely be a season-ending road trip to rival Alabama. The Tigers also have a very big out of conference game as they travel to face West Virginia on a Thursday night late in October. Overall, Auburn has all the pieces in place on offense to be a very strong team and their defense is one of the conference’s best. Combine that with a schedule which allows the Tigers to play almost all the tough games at home and you have the recipe for the 2008 SEC West Champions.
Biggest Games: Sept. 20th vs. LSU, Sept. 27th vs. Tennessee, Oct. 23rd @ WVU, Nov. 15th vs. UGA, Nov. 29th @ Alabama
LSU (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)
LSU had a dream season in 2007, finishing 12-2 and becoming the first team to win two BCS National Championships. The Tigers only two losses were in triple overtime and they had the good fortune to play for the National Crown in their own backyard, as the National Title Game took place in New Orleans. However, this fall the Tigers face a tough road after dismissing expected QB starter Ryan Perrilloux and losing a ton of senior talent to the NFL. The Tigers return 12 starters and Head Coach Les Miles will hope to extend his streak of winning ten or more games to four straight seasons to begin his tenure, a mark that would be an LSU record.
On offense, LSU has some serious questions at quarterback. Signs point to junior Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch to start to begin the year, but freshmen Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson could also see time. Luckily, the Tigers have one of the nation’s best offensive lines as four starters are back from last year’s National Championship group. Expect the running backs to benefit as well, as juniors Keiland Williams and Charles Scott will attempt to match the production of the departed human battering ram, Jacob Hester. At receiver, junior Brandon LaFell is expected to have a big season and a very solid receiving corps could help take the pressure off of the young quarterbacks. While LSU certainly will take a step back this fall from last year’s excellent 39 points per game mark, the Tigers still have the potential to be a solid offense and if they can get solid quarterbacking they could be a big surprise.
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On defense, LSU loses a ton of talent from last year’s National Championship defense, including most of the back seven. However, the defensive line remains one of the country’s best, featuring three senior starters and inserting National Title Game MVP Ricky Jean-Francois into departed superstar Glenn Dorsey’s spot. Expect talented defensive ends Kirston Pittman and Tyson Jackson to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. At linebacker, senior Darry Beckwith is the lone returning starter after ringing up 65 tackles last fall. Expect the linebacker play to drop down a notch, but playing behind such a talented defensive line will make breaking in new starters a lot easier and they should still be quite productive. The elephant in the room is the secondary, where only senior Curtis Taylor returns. A large part of LSU’s success last fall was based off of their exceptional turnover margin and the departed starters combined for fourteen interceptions last fall and 1 st team All-American Craig Steltz led the team in tackles! LSU has a lot of young talent to plug in, but the Tigers won’t come close to replicating the excellent pass defense of 2007. Overall, LSU has a very good defensive line and should be strong against the run but the secondary could be a huge concern for the Tigers.
The conference schedule is pretty tough as well, featuring road trips to Florida and South Carolina in consecutive weeks followed by a visit from Georgia! The Tigers also have to travel to face Auburn and rival Arkansas, meaning that LSU’s road schedule is exceptionally tough. The Tigers have a joke of a non-conference schedule, which is highlighted by Wolverine killers Appalachian State and zero BCS competition. Expect LSU to easily run through the non- SEC slate but they have a very tough conference draw, especially early, and could struggle. Overall, LSU has a couple of glaring questions on offense at the quarterback and running back positions. Finding a replacement for Jacob Hester’s continual 4 th down conversions while breaking in a new group of quarterbacks could be a lot for the Tigers to handle. Furthermore, a suspect pass defense could be the downfall on defense and LSU could find itself hard pressed to slow strong passing attacks. Still, LSU has an abundance of talent and the Tigers will certainly play very hard after last year’s experience. Expect a solid year out of the Tigers, but I would be surprised if they emerged on top of the SEC West.
Biggest Games: Aug. 30th vs. Appalachian State, Sept. 20th @ Auburn, Oct. 11th @ Florida, Oct. 18th @ South Carolina, Oct. 25th vs. UGA, Nov. 8th vs. Alabama, Nov. 28th @ Arkansas
Ole Miss (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)
Ole Miss had an awful run of luck in 2007 and it cost former coach Ed Orgeron his job. In his stead, Ole Miss hired former Arkansas coach and two time SEC Coach of the Year Houston Nutt. Nutt steps into a great situation, as Ole Miss is very talented despite only winning ten games during Coach O’s three years. With 16 starters back and a few key players becoming eligible, Ole Miss will be the surprise of the SEC in 2008.
The Ole Miss offense has been pretty poor the past few years, but the Rebels have the good fortune of starting former Texas quarterback Jevan Snead this fall. Snead was a former top recruit who nearly beat out Texas’ star QB Colt McCoy in the fall of 2006 and has impressed since arriving in Oxford last fall. Expect Snead to have a big year under center running and passing. Snead will play behind a very good offensive line which returns four starters from last year and will be anchored by one of the country’s best tackles; Senior Michael Oher. Expect the Rebels to have a very solid passing attack as Snead will be throwing to last year’s top five receivers, led by senior Mike Wallace (716 yards, 6 TDs in 2007) and junior Shay Hodge (593 yards, 6 TDs). The only question on offense will be at the tailback position, where the Rebels return a combined total of less than 80 yards rushing from last year’s team. True freshman Enrique Davis and junior Cordera Eason will probably see the bulk of the carries and should provide a solid running attack behind a very good offensive line. The 2007 Ole Miss team only scored 20 points per game, a number which this year’s edition should easily eclipse.
On defense, Ole Miss has the foundations of a very solid defensive line. Junior Greg Hardy racked up 10 sacks last fall and the defensive line will finally feature beastly freshman DT Jerrell Powe, who has worked to get eligible for three full years and should be an impact player. Powe will fill in the only open spot on the line and the Rebels should get a great push up front. At linebacker, all three of last year’s starters are back and seniors Tony Fein and Ashlee Palmer were the team’s top two tacklers last fall. Expect a very good year from the linebackers and the Rebels should drastically improve upon the 199 yards per game that they allowed on the ground last year. In the secondary, three starters are back and senior safety Jamarca Sanford should be an impact player. With so much talent returning, the defense should be solid under former South Carolina defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, who takes over the same spot in Oxford this fall. Expect the Rebels to improve upon last year’s 28.5 points allowed average in a big way.
The schedule is certainly not easy. Out of the East, the Rebels draw visits from South Carolina and Vanderbilt and must also travel to the Swamp. Furthermore, Ole Miss only has two home division games. While the schedule is broken up nicely with two byes, the middle stretch of back to back road games at Alabama and Arkansas followed by a visit from Auburn should be a very tough task. Out of conference, the schedule is highlighted by an early game at Wake Forest. Overall, Houston Nutt steps into a great situation in his first year in charge, inheriting a talented but underachieving team. In Nutt’s first year at Arkansas, he stepped into a similar situation and took the Razorbacks to a bowl and I expect him to do the same here. Ole Miss might be overlooked by some of their SEC opponents early, but the Rebels have the talent and coaching to navigate their schedule and win a lot of games. An eight or nine win season is not out of the question for the Rebels this fall.
Biggest Games: Sept. 27th @ Florida, Oct. 4th vs. South Carolina, Oct. 18th @ Alabama, Oct. 25th @ Arkansas, Nov. 1st vs. Auburn, Nov. 28th vs. Mississippi State
Alabama (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)
Nick Saban’s first year at Alabama was decidedly a mixed bag. After the Crimson Tide ran out to a 3-0 start, they fell in two straight weeks while ranked in the top 25. Then after another three game winning streak, Bama rose back into the top 25 and the promptly lost their last four games to barely qualify for a bowl game! However, Saban brought in one of the country’s best recruiting classes and the Tide could have been significantly better than their 7-6 mark last year. There has also been some unrest in Tuscaloosa during the offseason as Alabama has had to deal with a rash of off-field incidents involving the team and only Georgia has had more run-ins with the law. This fall, Alabama has 12 starters back and the expectation from the notoriously impatient fanbase of college football’s highest paid coach is clear and obvious improvement and a team that stays out of the police blotter.
On offense, the Crimson Tide will be led by senior John Parker Wilson, who enters his third year as the Tide’s starting quarterback. Wilson should be much improved this fall after throwing for 2,800 yards and 18 TDs in 2007. However, he has little experience returning in his group of wideouts, so vaunted freshman Julio Jones could get a shot to play early. The Tide returns a pretty solid offensive line that features four returning starters. Junior tackle Andre Smith is one of the country’s absolute best at his position and expect the Tide to run behind him a lot this fall. Speaking of the running game, sophomore Terry Grant returns after leading the team in rushing yards and TDs last fall. Expect him to improve upon his 890 yards and 8 TDs while running behind a very good line. Overall, Alabama’s offense will depend on the development of an inexperienced group of receivers. If they step up to the plate and produce, the Tide offense could be very good.
The Alabama defense finished last year with their worst scoring defense in four years, allowing over 22 points per game. On the defensive line, Bama will be hard-pressed to replace 1 st team All- SEC DE Wallace Gilberry, who had 80 tackles, 10 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss last fall! Alabama runs a 3-4 defense and a lot will be expected of junior nose tackle Lorenzo Washington. At linebacker, the Tide returns only one starter; sophomore Rolando McClain. The linebacking corps was diminished in the offseason when expected starter Jimmy Johns was arrested for dealing cocaine in the football complex parking lot! The linebackers have some injury troubles as well and they might be a weak link in the Crimson Tide defense. The secondary loses a lot of production from last fall as well, but the Tide are lucky to return All- SEC safety Rashad Johnson, who led the team in tackles while snaring six interceptions. Expect Johnson to anchor a solid but unspectacular pass defense in 2008. Overall, Alabama has a lot of talented athletes, but the front seven is short on proven performers and Alabama could regress against the run.
The schedule isn’t very friendly to the Tide, as they draw road trips to Georgia and rival Tennessee out of the East while traveling inside the division to play newfound rival LSU. The Tide do have a fairly spread out schedule and welcome archrival Auburn to Tuscaloosa to end the year as Alabama tries to end a six games losing streak in the Iron Bowl. The non-conference schedule is highlighted by a season-opening clash in Atlanta against a top ten Clemson squad. If Alabama can knock off the first of three Tiger teams they play this fall, expectations will skyrocket. Overall, Alabama has a solid but unspectacular offense and a defense that might have trouble defending the run. That isn’t a great combination to hang your hat on. However, the Tide does have a ton of talent and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them finish better than their predicted 4-4 conference record. For that to happen, the young receivers will have to quickly build a good repertoire with Wilson (who also needs to play better in big moments) and the linebackers also have to come together. The fairest expectations in the Sabanator’s second year is seven or eight wins, but if the Tide knocks off Clemson to start the year then expectations could jump to an unfairly high level. Alabama probably won’t compete for the SEC West this fall, but the next few years could be the time when Saban’s exhaustive recruiting bears fruit.
Biggest Games: Aug. 30th vs. Clemson, Sept. 27th @ UGA, Oct. 18th vs. Ole Miss, Oct. 25th @ Tennessee, Nov. 8th @ LSU, Nov. 29th vs. Auburn
Mississippi State (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)
Mississippi State was the feel good story of the SEC last fall, winning eight games and qualifying for the school’s first bowl berth in seven seasons. Furthermore, defeats of division rivals Auburn and Alabama gave a lot of hope a long-suffering fan base. For all of the success seen in 2007, Head Coach Sylvester Croom was named the SEC Coach of the Year. However, 2008 is a different season and expectations in Starkville will be to improve upon last fall’s breakout year. To that end, Croom returns 14 starters as the Bulldogs will expect to compete for the division crown, however unlikely that may be.
On offense, MSU will be led by sophomore quarterback Wesley Carroll, who threw 9 TDs and 7 picks last fall after stepping in at midseason as a true freshman. Carroll should be a much improved quarterback after having a year in the program and his top returning receiver will be senior Jamayel Smith, who had over 500 yards and 3 TDs last year. However, Mississippi State is not a pass-dominated offense. Instead, the Bulldogs will look to run the ball a lot and junior tailback Anthony Dixon is a load. Dixon rushed for over 1,000 yards last year, ran in 14 touchdowns and is the unquestioned man in the backfield. Dixon should be even better this year, but his offensive line returns only two starters after kicking a 2 nd team All- SEC tackle off the squad in spring practice. Mississippi State’s offensive line could struggle and certainly will take a step back from last year, an ominous sign for young Carroll and the MSU running game. Expect the Bulldogs to do no better on offense than match their relatively paltry 21.5 points per game from 2007.
On defense, Mississippi State has been consistently solid under Croom, never allowing more than 26 points per game and less than 23 points per game! This fall, the strength of the defense will be the secondary, which returns all four starters and features three seniors. Foremost of that group is safety Derek Pegues, who was a 1 st team All- SEC choice after snaring five picks last fall. Expect MSU to again be very solid against the pass. Up front, the Bulldogs will need much better production out of their defensive line, which returns very few sacks from last year. Expect the line to be fairly good with the return of both starting tackles, but the Bulldogs won’t be anything special. At linebacker, seniors Jamar Cheney and Dominic Douglas are the team’s top two returning tacklers and they should anchor a pretty solid group of linebackers. However, don’t expect much improvement for the Bulldogs against the run this fall. MSU has a very good pass defense and teams will look to run the ball down their throat to avoid giving the secondary chances to make plays. Mississippi State has one of the league’s lower rated run defenses and that could offset the quality of their secondary.
The schedule is pretty friendly, drawing home matchups with Vanderbilt and Kentucky from the East. However, the Bulldogs face two tough stretches during the season, the first beginning early with Auburn at home followed by back to back road trips at ACC foe Georgia Tech and LSU. The second tough stretch closes out the season and features road trips to Alabama and rival Ole Miss surrounding a home matchup with divisional foe Arkansas. Overall, Mississippi State is no better than they were last fall and the rest of the conference won’t take them lightly this year. A weak run defense and offensive line will probably do the Bulldogs in this fall and despite a good draw from the East I would be surprised if the Bulldogs matched their 4-4 conference record from a year ago. It will be a successful year for Sly Croom if Mississippi State makes a bowl game this fall.
Biggest Games: Sept. 13th vs. Auburn, Sept. 20th @ G-Tech, Sept. 27th @ LSU, Nov. 1st vs. UK, Nov. 15th @ Alabama, Nov. 28th @ Ole Miss
Arkansas (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)
The Arkansas Razorbacks followed up an SEC West Championship year in 2006 with a stellar 8-5 performance last fall. The Razorbacks ran all over the place last fall behind the dual running machines of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, both of whom were first round draft picks in April! Former coach Houston Nutt finally succumbed to the absurd pressure placed on him and went out on top to close out the regular season by upsetting #1 LSU in triple overtime in his last game as Arkansas’ coach. Now Nutt is in Oxford and the new coach is former Louisville boss Bobby Petrino. Petrino has a reputation for grooming quarterbacks and leaving jobs abruptly (as seen by his half of a season in Atlanta with the NFL’s Falcons before quitting), but he probably won’t be doing much of either this fall. Arkansas returns 11 starters in Petrino’s first year and the Razorbacks will probably struggle.
On offense, senior Casey Dick will start his final season after throwing for nearly 1,700 yards and 18 TDs last fall. However, Dick will probably only be a distraction to Petrino as he prepares Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett, the prototype for Petrino’s offense, to start next fall when he is eligible. The offense will be very young this fall, but the O-Line returns three senior starters, including Rimington Award winner Jonathan Luigis. However, the line will be asked to do a lot more pass blocking this fall and they could struggle switching to Petrino’s scheme. At wide receiver, no one returns with any more than three TD catches from last fall and the running backs are equally bare. Expect a large number of young players to play at the skill positions this fall as Petrino tries to gauge the talent he has on hand. Arkansas will certainly take a large step back on offense this fall and the Razorbacks will come nowhere near last year’s 37 points per game average.
The defense is also a concern. The Razorbacks allowed over 26 points per game last fall and struggled against the run. This year, the Razorbacks return three starters on the defensive line, including senior Ernest Mitchell, who had 3.5 sacks last year. The line should be solid but it won’t be a spectacular unit by any measure. The linebackers will be led by junior Freddie Fairchild, who had 90+ tackles and 4.5 sacks last year. However, Fairchild was suspended for spring practice and that’s not a good sign for a player who is expected to set an example for a young group. The secondary is in even worse shape as it will be entirely rebuilt. Arkansas’ only major returnee is last year’s nickel back, junior Jerell Norton, who had five interceptions in 2007. Expect Arkansas to take a big step back this fall and this might be the conference’s worst defense.
The schedule is also pretty tough, drawing Florida and South Carolina from the East. The Razorbacks also have to travel to divisional rivals Auburn and Mississippi State and their season-ending rivalry game with LSU is even being played in Little Rock instead of Razorback Stadium! To make matters worse, the non-conference schedule is highlighted by a visit to former Southwestern Conference rival Texas and a visit from C-USA offensive machine Tulsa, home of former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who departed in a contentious fashion two years ago. Expect Tulsa to be up for that game. Overall, Arkansas will take a big step back on both sides of the ball while Petrino implements his system. The Razorbacks look like they’re in for a long season and I will be surprised if they win more than four games this fall.
Biggest Games: Sept. 13th @ Texas, Sept. 20th vs. Alabama, Oct. 11th @ Auburn, Oct. 25th vs. Ole Miss, Nov. 8th @ South Carolina, Nov. 28th vs. LSU
The Bottom Line for the SEC in 2008
The SEC has been the dominant conference the last two years but his year could see the SEC slip to #2 behind a very deep Big XII. What has always stood out about the SEC is the depth of the middle tier teams instead of the top end talent. The SEC East is as strong as ever and features four teams that have a legitimate chance to play for the conference crown. However, the West will overall be weaker and only Auburn stands out in the division as LSU, Arkansas and Alabama are still retooling while the Mississippi teams are still emerging. This fall also will probably mark the first year since 2005 that an SEC team won’t play for the National Title. Last year’s LSU squad was the first team to play for the National Title with two losses in the BCS era and I don’t expect that to happen again this fall. Unfortunately, I also don’t see any SEC team that will finish this year with less than two losses due to the depth of the conference and each team’s own shortcomings.
In the East, Florida and Georgia have been the most hyped teams but I strongly believe that Tennessee will emerge victorious as the division champion because of the balance and depth of the team, along with a navigable schedule. In the West, Auburn is the clear favorite and if another team wins the division it would be an upset. Beware Ole Miss in that regard. However, I predict that on Dec. 6 th in Atlanta, the Tennessee Volunteers will defeat the Auburn Tigers in a low-scoring game dominated by two very good defenses to win the SEC Title and represent the conference in the Sugar Bowl.
Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s newest staff writer. If you’d like to join his college football therapy group, email him at matt.baxendell @ gmail.com with all your questions, comments, and anything else you would like to share.