2009 SEC Football Preview

It is getting redundant at this point: The SEC has been the best conference in the past five years in college football.

There, I got it out of the way. Now I’m turning off E! SPiN and heading towards some real analysis. The SEC is in the midst of an excellent run of success at the national level and has won the past three national titles. There’s no question that Urban Meyer’s incredible run in winning two national crowns in three years is one of the biggest achievements in college football’s recent history. The LSU Tigers should also be commended as they became the first two time winner in the BCS era. This much high-profile success earned the SEC a record television contract with ESPN and should allow them to surpass the Big Ten as the country’s most powerful league in terms of revenue this fall.

However, I’m going to have to argue with the burgeoning concept that the SEC is infallible as the country’s top dog. Last year, people saw how close the Big XII was in terms of competitiveness and SEC fans should be very hesitant to proclaim their conference’s continued sustainability on top of the heap. Remember, if you had asked someone in 2001 which conference was the country’s best, the overwhelming answer outside of Dixie would likely have been the Big XII. From 1994 to 2000, the Big XII won four National Titles and boasted a bunch of powerhouse programs. Nebraska was the country’s preeminent team and the national rankings were awash with Big XII schools. Sound like the SEC today anyone?

Now, SEC fans will argue that their conference is deeper and more prepared to handle individual teams’ adversities than the Big XII. After all, where is Nebraska ranked this season? The SEC’s first BCS national champion was the Tennessee Volunteers and the conference weathered their erosion without trouble. Meanwhile, since the Huskers’ fall, Oklahoma and Texas have dominated the Big XII, giving rise to the perception that they’re the only two teams in the league. Clearly, as every talking head’s first statement about the SEC after praising Tim Tebow usually involves the conference’s depth, the Southeastern Conference doesn’t have the same problem.

But the truth is that since 2000 there have only been two SEC title games that haven’t included either LSU or Florida and those two teams have combined for six of the last nine conference titles and all four of the league’s national titles! So, is it not fair to wonder if the SEC’s reputation nationally hasn’t largely been built on the strength of two excellent programs? I know that glosses over the recent achievements of Georgia, Auburn and to a lesser extent, Tennessee, but my point is clear: LSU and Florida have dominated the league as much as Oklahoma and Texas have the Big XII.

I firmly believe that any conference’s national reputation will be built upon success or failure in the biggest games and the SEC is a great example: When you’re 5-0 in National Title games, nothing else really matters. No one questioned the strength of the Big Ten until their struggles in BCS games the past three seasons and now people think that the conference of Woody and Bo is a joke. Just remember, conference strength is cyclical in college football. The 60s and 70s belonged to the Big Ten and Big XII, the 80s belonged to the Independents, the 90s belonged to the Big XII and the first decade of this century has been the property of the SEC. So enjoy this success if you’re in the Southeast, because history indicates that it won’t last forever.



However, that’s all part of this unnecessarily vicious ‘my conference is better than yours’ argument that has college football fans ready to riot all months of the year. I’m going to lay a fair share of this on SEC fans, which are both extremely passionate and often irrational. I think this whole conference argument could be much more civil if SEC fans didn’t piggyback upon the success of their Cadillac programs. Remember, they don’t cut the crystal national championship trophy into 12 pieces and give one to each member institution. If you aren’t a Florida or LSU fan, you don’t have quite the same room to brag. Also, if you guys could stop chanting your conference’s name all the time, that’d be great because that ranks right up there with playing ‘Rocky Top’ 125,000 times at every Tennessee home game as one of the most annoying traditions in college football.

There, now we can all discuss the 2009 season with some perspective.

Florida is the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC East in 2009. There’s no ifs ands or buts about it as the Gators earned 58 out of 60 first place votes in the AP Preseason Poll, the highest in history. On top of that, Tennessee is rebuilding under new coach Lane Kiffin, Georgia has to replace its starting backfield and South Carolina continues to be a mystery under former Gator great Steve Spurrier. If I had a chance to win a million dollars on one of my preseason predictions, it would be that the Gators win the SEC East and I imagine every single person without a rooting interest that is previewing the SEC would say the exact same thing. This division is Florida’s to lose.

The West is MUCH more interesting. Alabama is the defending champion but will have to deal with a lot of offensive turnover. LSU struggled to a 7-5 finish after winning the 2007 National Title but dominated in their bowl game and should once more field a very strong team. Ole Miss was the darling of the 2008 season and they return most of their core talent, including quarterback Jevan Snead, who is the division’s best. These three teams are the favorites to go to Atlanta for the SEC Title Game. However, Arkansas should also be a very formidable foe in Bobby Petrino’s second season and Auburn and Mississippi State will look for improvement with first year head coaches. The SEC West will be fascinating to watch this fall.

EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH

EAST: 1) Florida Gators 2) Georgia Bulldogs 3) South Carolina Gamecocks 4) Tennessee Volunteers 5) Vanderbilt Commadores

6) Kentucky Wildcats

WEST: 1) Mississippi Rebels 2) Alabama Crimson Tide 3) LSU Tigers 4) Arkansas Razorbacks 5) Auburn Tigers

6) Mississippi State Bulldogs

 



EAST DIVISION

  • Florida Gators (Predicted Conference Record: 7-1)

To sum up the 2008 season: Florida went 13-1 and won the SEC and National Titles. The Gators had a Heisman Trophy finalist in quarterback Tim Tebow (who also happened to win it 2007). Urban Meyer is one of the best coaches in America and defensive coordinator Charlie Strong has head coach written all over him. The Gator offense was so successful that offensive coordinator Dan Mullen is now Mississippi State’s head coach! Florida’s only loss came by a single point and they held an extremely explosive Oklahoma offense to a measly 14 points in their 24-14 win in the National Title game. Here’s the scary part for the rest of the country: Almost everyone is back.

Offensively, the Gators revolve around senior quarterback and cultural icon Tim Tebow. Like him or hate him, he’s perhaps the most visible college football player of the past decade. How good has Tebow been? When the SEC Preseason Team was announced, there was an outcry because Tebow wasn’t a unanimous decision! The 2007 Heisman Trophy winner was a finalist last fall as well and should once more find himself in New York at the end of the season. After passing for 30 touchdowns against only four interceptions last fall while rushing for over 650 yards and 12 touchdowns, can he really get much better?

Tebow also returns all three of his running backs from last season and an excellent offensive line. The Gators return four of their top five rushers and should have a dominant running game once more. The biggest question will be replacing their top two receivers as both Louis Murphy and 1 st round draft pick Percy Harvin are gone. Harvin will be especially difficult to replace as he accounted for over 600 yards both running and receiving last fall. On top of that, Florida will have a new offensive coordinator. So, there are some questions on offense but the Gators return almost everyone from a unit which put up nearly 44 points per game last fall. As long as the very physical Tebow stays healthy then this will still be one of the best offenses in the country.

Florida’s defense was excellent last fall, allowing only 13 points per game. If that wasn’t enough, the entire two deep returns and the Gators could be even better this year! Uh oh. The defense revolves around superstar senior middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who could have gone to the NFL this spring and is a very bad man who made 93 tackles and 4 picks last fall. On top of Spikes, junior safety Major Wright is an absolute force supporting the run and is the best player in a great secondary which also features fellow junior safety Ahmad Black, who tied for the conference lead in interceptions last season.

The Gators also have a very strong defensive line, highlighted by junior Carlos Dunlap, who notched 9.5 sacks in 2008, and their depth is excellent. On top of all of that, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong is one of the best in the nation and could easily be a future head coach somewhere. In the end, there’s only one thing you can say about a unit that dominated most opponents last season and returns literally every single contributor: This is going to be one heck of a defense.

The schedule is somewhat daunting for the Gators as they only have three true SEC home games. Luckily, the only major road test appears to come against LSU, a game which the Gators lost two years ago in Baton Rouge. Their annual grudge match with Georgia comes later in the season as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party continues at its traditional site in Jacksonville. In the non-conference portion, rival Florida State is the only BCS opponent and the Gators play their typically light slate, which is especially disappointing after renewing their rivalry for only one year with Miami last fall. In short, this is a very manageable schedule as Florida avoids Alabama and Ole Miss out of the West.

To be quite obvious, Florida is an overwhelming favorite in the SEC East. A supremely talented team that oozes with experience going against a favorable schedule makes me think very long and hard about picking the Gators to finish undefeated for the first time in school history. However, only one SEC team has finished unbeaten in the past decade and I’m going to respect history and say that the Gators finish 7-1 in conference play despite their myriad of talent. However, Florida will almost certainly win the SEC East and play for the conference title and they’re also one the biggest favorite to play for the National Championship.

Biggest Games: Sept. 19th vs. Tennessee, Oct. 10th @ LSU, Oct. 17th vs. Arkansas, Oct. 31st vs. Georgia( Jacksonville), Nov. 14th @ South Carolina, Nov. 28th vs. Florida State

 

 

  • Georgia Bulldogs (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

The Bulldogs entered last season with unrealistically high expectations as they were the preseason #1 team in the country. I disagreed strongly with this assessment and didn’t make a lot of friends in the Peach State when I said that Georgia could easily lose four games. Well, injuries derailed the team early, their defense betrayed them at times and the Bulldogs finished the year with a 10-3 record after edging Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. After the season, quarterback Matt Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno both declared early for the NFL Draft and were selected in the first round. Can Mark Richt continue his run of success this fall with unproven players at those key positions?

Georgia’s offense averaged over 31 points per game in each of the past two years, largely thanks to the powerful 1-2 punch of Stafford and Moreno. With both gone, Georgia will begin the season with a very inexperienced backfield. However, there is plenty of good news at other positions. The Bulldogs suffered through a lot of injuries last fall on the line but there are six players back who started during last season and sophomore Trinton Sturdivant (who started every game at left tackle in 2007) rejoins the group after missing all of last season due to an ACL injury. I expect Georgia to have one of the conference’s best offensive lines. The wide receiver position also looks strong with superstar sophomore AJ Green lining up next to senior Michael Moore. Expect both, along with freshmen Tavares King and Marlon Brown, to provide a very solid receiving corps.

However, the tale of the tape for 2009 will come from the backfield. Replacing Stafford is 5th year senior Joe Cox, who has only started one game in his entire career. However, Cox has impressed me when he’s played and I’ve always seen him as a very capable quarterback stuck behind a great physical specimen. With Stafford gone, I expect Cox to shine. The tailbacks are a bit more concerning, as sophomores Caleb King and Richard Samuel are expected to assume most of Moreno’s workload. However, neither runs with the fury that Moreno did and they combined for barely over 400 yards last fall. Experience is a major concern and I don’t expect either to make Georgia fans forget the explosive Moreno. On the other hand, both are highly touted prospects running behind a great line, so I expect the Bulldogs to at least field a solid running game. Just don’t expect either tailback to be a gamebreaker. Overall, I think Georgia’s offense is primed for a big year and I expect Cox to put up great numbers in his only season in charge. This is one of the SEC’s best offenses.

No one was more maligned in Athens last fall than defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, especially after allowing 45 points to Georgia Tech in the Bulldogs’ first loss in 7 years to their in-state rival. However, Georgia had a lot of unfortunate injury issues to deal with last year and I think that staying healthy should help a lot this fall. Up front, things begin with perhaps the conference’s best defensive tackle tandem in seniors Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens. Owens missed last season with a knee injury and his return will definitely help the Bulldogs against the run. With such strong defensive tackles, superstar linebacker Rennie Curran, who led the team in tackles last year, should have another great year. With the entire group of starting linebackers back, expect a very strong front seven presence from Georgia this fall.

The secondary will be interesting to watch develop after losing some talented performers, including cornerback Asher Allen a year early to the NFL. Luckily, senior safety Reshad Jones is one of the best in the conference and was a 2nd team All-SEC choice last fall after making 76 tackles and snaring 5 interceptions. However, there are some pretty big holes to fill, especially in Allen’s stead. Overall, the Bulldogs have allowed more points per game compared to the previous season in every single year under Martinez’s tenure and if that trend continues then it will be a disappointing year in Athens and could cost him his job. However, the front seven looks very strong and the secondary is loaded with highly touted players so I expect a much better showing than last year’s 24.5 points per game average and I think that Georgia could have one of the conference’s best defenses.

Now, I need to pause and give Georgia a standing ovation for their schedule. They play the country’s best non-conference schedule: At Oklahoma State, home versus Arizona State and at Georgia Tech. Unfortunately, two of those teams are top 15 caliber opponents and that is going to make things tough for the Dawgs outside of the SEC but I admire their willingness to play anyone. In conference, their draw of a dangerous road trip to Arkansas and home games against LSU and Auburn from the West is pretty tough, though they do avoid both Alabama and Ole Miss. In division play, road trips to Vanderbilt and Tennessee accompany their annual match with Florida in Jacksonville. An interesting fact about Georgia is that they’re 10-2 under Richt coming off of an open week and the Dawgs have the week off before the Florida game this fall. Could UGA spring the upset for the 2 nd time in three years? This is a very tough schedule with only 6 home games and their opening half is one of the country’s most formidable stretches. I have to believe that this is one of the nation’s hardest schedules.

My thoughts on the Bulldogs are almost completely the opposite from this time last year. Preseason 2008, I said things like ‘thin on the lines’, ‘unfocused’ and ‘overrated’. Right now, I believe that the Bulldogs are very deep along both lines, very focused as they’ve avoided trouble off the field and are massively underrated coming into the year. I said last fall that if Georgia brought everyone back, they’d be a strong candidate for the 2009 preseason #1 team. Unfortunately, Stafford and Moreno are gone but I still believe that this is a motivated and deep Bulldog squad which is very strong along both lines and should be one of the conference’s strongest teams this fall. I expect 9 or 10 wins from Georgia in 2009.

Biggest Games: Sept. 5th @ Oklahoma State, Sept. 12th vs. South Carolina, Sept. 19th @ Arkansas, Oct. 3rd vs. LSU, Oct. 10th @ Tennessee, Oct. 31st vs. Florida (Jacksonville), Nov. 14th vs. Auburn, Nov. 28th @ Georgia Tech

 

 

  • South Carolina Gamecocks (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

The Steve Spurrier era hasn’t quite gone as planned at South Carolina. Now entering his 5 th season, the Head Ball Coach has a 28-22 record and hasn’t finished better than 5-3 in conference play. Most shocking has been his inability to groom a decent quarterback or field an explosive offense when both were his trademarks during his time at Florida. This fall, South Carolina has to replace a lot of departed NFL talent but the attitude in Columbia appears to be significantly better with some turnover and coaching changes. Can Spurrier finally lead the Gamecocks to more than eight wins?

Perhaps the biggest key to answering that question will be the development of sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia, who has made more headlines for his off-field idiocy than for his on-field prowess. Garcia took over during the 2008 season and performed decently, showing both athleticism and inaccuracy. He kept himself out of trouble this past offseason and could take steps this fall towards becoming a solid quarterback. At receiver, there were some significant losses and sophomore Jason Barnes is expected to step up in a big way. This will be a young receiving corps but there is a lot of potential in their younger players.

Up front, the Cocks should benefit from a new offensive line coach and their veteran group, which returns three starters, could be much improved this fall. While Spurrier is well known for his love of passing the football, he needs to have better balance than last season and freshman Jarvis Giles appears in line to have the majority of the carries this year. While the run game will never be the primary axis in a Spurrier offense, I still think that South Carolina will have an improved running attack. However, this offense will go as Garcia goes and I think that he’ll have a solid but unspectacular season, which means that the Gamecocks should improve upon last year’s paltry 21 points per game production but not by much.

Defensively, the Gamecocks fielded one of the league’s best units in 2008 until allowing 118 points in their final three games, all losses. Despite these struggles, they still finished up allowing barely 21 points per game. This fall, the strength of the defense will be up front. The Gamecocks bring back five starters in their front seven and should improve against the run once more after holding opponents to 65 rush yards less per game compared to 2007. While the line is a strong unit, senior linebacker Eric Norwood is the star of the defense. Norwood made 75 tackles and notched 9 sacks last season and was a 1st team All-SEC selection. Along with junior Rodney Paulk, who missed much of last season due to injury, Norwood should be the centerpiece of a solid linebacking corps.

The secondary sustained some tough losses but there is a good base to build upon. Senior Darian Stewart will move to safety after playing cornerback last fall and will team with junior Chris Culliver to form a very solid tandem which combined for 124 tackles in 2008. There is some concern about the cornerback position and it looks like the Gamecocks could start multiple underclassmen this year. While I don’t think that they’ll field as strong of a secondary as last season, Spurrier’s pass defenses have been solid in each of his 4 years (perhaps due to so many practice reps through the air against his Fun ‘N Gun offense?) and I think that South Carolina should be all right in the back. Overall, this appears to be a solid defense but I wouldn’t classify it as much better than a middle of the pack unit in the SEC.

The schedule is fairly tough. The season begins with road games at North Carolina State and Georgia before Ole Miss comes to town two weeks later on a Thursday night! The Gamecocks have to travel to both Arkansas and Alabama from the West while hosting the Rebels, giving them perhaps the toughest draw in the division! They also host pesky Vanderbilt, rebuilding Kentucky, favored Florida and archrival Clemson. We’ll know all we need to know about the Gamecocks after their first four games.

Overall, the same questions surround this team as they have all of Spurrier’s South Carolina teams. Can they get solid quarterback play? Will there be a decent running game? Will this finally be the year that the Head Ball Coach produces a strong offense? Frankly, I’m getting sick of asking the same thing every year and I know that South Carolina’s ever-loyal fan base must be pulling their hair out at this point. I hate to disappoint the Gamecock Faithful, but I don’t think that their team will field a consistently dangerous offense this fall as they’re simply too young at all of the skill positions. Combine that with an extremely tough schedule and I think that means that another disappointing season of six or seven wins is a strong possibility in Columbia.

Biggest Games: Sept. 3rd @ NC State, Sept. 12th @ Georgia, Sept. 24th vs. Ole Miss, Oct. 17th @ Alabama, Oct. 24th vs. Vanderbilt, Oct. 31st @ Tennessee, Nov. 7th @ Arkansas, Nov. 14th vs. Florida, Nov. 28th vs. Clemson.

 

 

  • Tennessee Volunteers (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

Last year was a shocking season in Knoxville. The Volunteers boasted the conference’s 3rd best defense, allowing less than 17 points per game and were loaded with talent. However, their offense was atrocious, failing miserably at scoring points and protecting the football. Tennessee responded by firing legendary head coach Phil Fulmer late in the year after sixteen seasons in charge and the Vols’ 5-7 finish ended his wonderful career with a whimper. In his place, the Vols hired bombastic youngster Lane Kiffin, who immediately brought in one of the country’s best coaching staffs and a top 10 recruiting class. With most of the key contributors from an exceptional defense back, the big question is whether the Kiffster’s offensive background will allow the Vols to produce a serviceable attack.

How bad was the fall-off on offense in 2008? The Vols averaged a measly 17 points per game, which was barely half of their 2007 production! The largest part of the drop off was because their passing game barely produced half the yardage it did during the previous year. Unfortunately for the Vols, there hasn’t been any change at the quarterback position. Senior Jonathan Crompton won the job in camp after throwing for less than 900 yards last fall and his options at wide receiver are just as depressing. Junior Gerald Jones is one of the most athletic players in the SEC but he’ll miss the season’s first month with a high ankle sprain and it looks like the starting wide receivers will either be inexperienced upperclassmen or true freshmen. I’m not so sure if the Vols will have a much improved passing game in 2009 despite last year’s terrible numbers.

On the other hand, the Vols have a veritable plethora of tailbacks available. Senior Montario Hardesty appears to have won the starting job after scoring 6 touchdowns last fall and a trifecta of talented underclassmen, including two of the top ten prep tailbacks in the country, should provide plenty of depth. They’ll run behind what should be a very veteran offensive line that was among the country’s best two years ago. Unfortunately, it looks like 4th year starting senior Josh McNeill’s career could be over thanks to a preseason knee injury, which will definitely set back the line as he made all of the protection calls. I think that Tennessee could field a solid running game and that should be the focus of their offense in the early going. On top of that, Kiffin has experimented with a Wildcat formation and that could provide an interesting and badly needed changeup. I expect the Vols to be more productive on offense this season but no one should mistake them for the 2008 Oklahoma Sooners.

The defense is another matter entirely. The best defensive player in the entire conference is junior safety Eric Berry, who made 72 tackles and 3 sacks last fall while snagging 7 interceptions, earning 1st team All-American honors. Berry will be the star of what should be a very strong pass defense which picked off seventeen passes last year. I also expect new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who is one of the best at his job in the country after inventing the Cover-2 scheme in Tampa Bay, to find plenty of ways to use Berry to make him even more dangerous this fall.

Up front, the Vols actually fielded a strong run defense in 2008, barely allowing opponents to average over 100 yards per game. With former Ole Miss head boss Ed Orgeron in charge, I think that the defensive line should once more anchor a tough run defense. With two solid senior defensive tackles returning in the starting lineup, there is plenty of talent available. At linebacker, senior Rico McCoy is the lone returning starter but he had 87 tackles last fall and earned 2nd team All-SEC honors. I expect him to be one of the league’s best linebackers this season and there should be solid production around him. While I don’t think that the Vols will improve significantly upon last season’s performance, I still definitely expect Tennessee to field one of the SEC’s best defenses this season thanks to a lot of star power and an improved pass rush from the defensive line.

The schedule is a mixed bag. The good news is that Tennessee has eight home games this fall and they host their toughest out of conference opponent, UCLA. However, three of their four road games look awfully intimidating: Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss. If Tennessee wins one of those three, I’ll be surprised. This especially applies if they’re even competitive against Florida after Kiffin’s well-publicized shenanigans this summer involving stealing recruits and accusing Urban Meyer of NCAA Violations. However, the Vols have a legitimate chance to open up 4-1 going into a home clash with Georgia as they don’t face anyone of note out of conference aside from the Bruins.

Overall, Lane Kiffin isn’t going to turn the Vols into a ten win team right away. Tennessee doesn’t have a quarterback right now or waiting in the wings, something that Kiffin and company have been struggling to fix in recruiting. On top of that, some of the Vols’ best talent is very young and everyone is playing in a new system this season, which means that there could be some growing pains in Knoxville. However, I like the talent on defense and the potential of the running game enough to say that Tennessee should return to a bowl game this fall. The schedule is also friendly enough early for the possibility of a strong start, which will only build confidence. Just don’t expect the Volunteers to win more than seven or eight games.

Biggest Games: Sept. 12th vs. UCLA, Sept. 19th @ Florida, Oct. 10th vs. Georgia, Oct. 24th @ Alabama, Oct. 31st vs. South Carolina, Nov. 14th @ Ole Miss, Nov. 21st vs. Vanderbilt

 

  • Vanderbilt Commodores (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)

2008 was the most successful season for the Commodores since 1982. Vanderbilt broke a 26 year bowl drought and finished the season with a Music City Bowl victory to give them a 7-6 record. Bobby Johnson has rebuilt the conference’s biggest bottom-dweller into a tough opponent that simply can’t be overlooked. However, the big question now is whether last year was a sign of things to come or if it was simply an example of the ball bouncing the right way for the Commodores. After all, Vandy finished with a 1-6 skid to finish the regular season. Can a veteran team avoid a similar slide?

On offense, the Commodores simply weren’t very strong last fall, finishing in the bottom 3rd of the league in scoring at only 19 points per game. The strength of the offense this fall will undoubtedly be the line, which returns all five starters. I expect senior tailback Jared Hawkins to be the primary beneficiary of such a strong line and Vanderbilt should definitely be improved on the ground this fall.

However, this was the worst pass offense in the conference and I honestly don’t see much improvement in the cards this year. Sophomore tight end Brandon Barden is the top returning receiver after snagging four touchdowns last year and the entire group of wideouts is a giant question mark. At quarterback, senior McKenzie Adams has proven to be erratic and sophomore Larry Smith is a question mark. I just don’t see a very strong passing game emerging. Overall, Vanderbilt should have a solid run attack but I can’t see their offense being much more effective than last fall.

Defensively, the Commodores are much stronger. Last season’s unit held opponents to under 20 points per game and finished in the top half of the SEC in scoring defense for the 2nd consecutive year. This fall, the entire front seven return and there is a ton of experience on hand. Up front, senior defensive end Broderick Stewart led the team in sacks last fall and the all-upperclassmen unit should improve against the run this fall. At linebacker, senior Patrick Benoist and sophomore Chris Marve both racked up over 100 tackles last fall and should provide strong performances once more. I think Vanderbilt has a strong front seven and will definitely be better against the run.

The secondary is a bit of a concern for me. Despite the return of seniors Myron Lewis and Ryan Hamilton, who combined for 9 interceptions and 180 tackles last fall, the Commodores losses are equally stiff. DJ Moore led the team with 6 picks last fall and replacing the production of safety Reshard Langford will be very tough as well. I think Vanderbilt could be more vulnerable against the pass this fall after losing half of their interceptions from 2008. However, I still think that the Commodores have a fairly tough defense and this unit should keep Vandy in most of their games this fall.

The schedule is a mixed bag. The only BCS opponent out of conference is Georgia Tech, so a 3-1 mark is a strong possibility. However, LSU rotates onto the schedule from the West and the Commodores only have six home games. The entire season also alternates between home and away games, which won’t allow Vandy to build up any momentum at home like most teams. Overall, this is a tough schedule as the ‘Dores draw Ole Miss and LSU out of the West while traveling to Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida.

Last season was such a success early that the Commodores actually even entered the top 25 with their 5-0 start. However, much of their success was made by a major turnover advantage and a solid defensive showing. When the offense began turning the ball over and their ball hawking defense stopped intercepting passes, Vanderbilt fell off quickly. The SEC suffered a bit of a down showing last fall on offense and I think that the Commodores managed to take advantage. Simply put, I don’t think Vandy is any better offensively this fall and that just won’t get it done. The Commodores are a very similar team to year’s edition but I’m afraid a lot of teams in the conference have gotten better and surpassed them. If Vanderbilt hopes to make a 2 nd consecutive bowl game, they’ll have to finish 4-0 out of conference because they have a very daunting schedule and only a moderately talented team to navigate it with.

Biggest Games: Sept. 12th @ LSU, Oct. 3rd vs. Ole Miss, Oct. 17th vs. Georgia, Oct. 24th @ South Carolina, Oct. 31st vs. Georgia Tech, Nov. 7th @ Florida, Nov. 14th vs. Kentucky, Nov. 21st @ Tennessee

 

 

  • Kentucky Wildcats (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)

The past three seasons have been among the most successful at Kentucky since Bear Bryant was in charge nearly half of a century ago. The Wildcats have won three consecutive bowl games and even entered the national rankings two years ago. However, 2008 was a fairly tough year in Lexington as the Wildcats finished the regular season 6-6 and had a lot of trouble fielding a decent offensive attack. With a lot of experience gone, can the Wildcats find a way to keep their bowl streak alive?

The offense really struggled last fall to replace former quarterback Andre Woodson, averaging nearly 120 less pass yards per game and playing multiple quarterbacks. Junior Mike Hartline is the guy in charge this fall as sophomore backup Randall Cobb was switched to receiver full time to take advantage of his athleticism. However, Hartline was fairly ineffective and blamed his teammates at times when the offense struggled, so pardon me if I’m not filled with much confidence knowing he’ll be under center. Cobb immediately becomes his #1 target after catching 21 passes in a part time role last fall. However, I really don’t have much faith in any of his fellow receivers and I don’t expect much out of the Kentucky passing game with Hartline in charge.

The running game was not very strong in 2008 and Cobb is also the team’s leading returning rusher. Behind him, senior Alfonso Smith should be a contributor but he only rushed for 300 yards last season. Kentucky’s offensive line just doesn’t inspire much confidence for me despite having three senior starters back. I know they have a lot of experience but I really wasn’t very impressed with them last fall. Simply put, I think Kentucky was stupid to move Cobb to receiver when he appeared to have a lot of upside and impressed at times with his athleticism. I know he wasn’t the most polished passer but he led the Wildcats to 38 points in a near-upset of Georgia as a true freshman and his passing skills were only going to improve. I think Kentucky will regret moving him and I won’t be surprised in the least when he ends back up at quarterback because he’s the best option to move their offense. Expect the Wildcats to regress until the switch is made and this could be one of the league’s weakest units.

Defensively, Kentucky was fairly strong last fall as they allowed only 21.5 points per game. However, four of their top five tacklers are gone and there will be some big holes to fill. The best defensive lineman is senior Jeremy Jarmon, who has had 13 sacks in the past two years. I actually like the depth up front and I think that the Wildcats could repeat last year’s solid showing against the run. The return of 2008 1 st team All-SEC middle linebacker Micah Johnson also helps, though he is the only returnee at his position and there is little proven talent around him.

The secondary features senior cornerback Trevard Lindley, who was a 2nd team All-American last fall. He’ll lock down half of the field for the Wildcats this fall. Unfortunately, he’s the only returning starter and I fully expect opposing teams to avoid throwing at him. I think that the Wildcats are going to regress defensively this fall because teams are going to be able to throw the ball much more easily against them. Furthermore, their front seven is strong but not spectacular. Don’t expect a repeat of last year’s strong showing.

The schedule is an interesting mix. The Wildcats have only four road games and play the expected two bottom feeders in the West. Furthermore, their only major out of conference opponent is rival Louisville, who isn’t expected to field a strong team this fall. The schedule itself is manageable despite only having two home SEC East games, especially if the Wildcats can win their 3rd consecutive game over the ‘Ville.

Overall, I’m going to predict that the Wildcats’ run of postseason appearances ends this season. I think they made a big mistake moving the promising Cobb into a less important position and leaving the keys to the offense in the less capable hands of Hartline. Furthermore, I think that their strong defensive numbers last fall were the byproduct of a down offensive year in the conference and I don’t expect them to repeat them. Even with a weak out of conference schedule, I think that the Wildcats’ ceiling in the regular season is a 6-6 finish. With an SEC opening slate of Florida and Alabama at home followed by back to back road trips to South Carolina and Auburn, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Wildcats start 0-4 in SEC play. The bowl streak ends this year unless the Wildcats exceed my expectations on offense.

Biggest Games: Sept. 19th vs. Louisville, Sept. 26th vs. Florida, Oct. 3rd vs. Alabama, Oct. 10th @ South Carolina, Oct. 17th @ Auburn, Nov. 14th @ Vanderbilt, Nov. 21st @ Georgia, Nov. 28th vs. Tennessee

 

 

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  • Mississippi Rebels (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

The boys from Dixie were the darlings of college football in 2008 after upsetting the Florida Gators in the Swamp. Ole Miss’ 9-4 record was their best finish since Eli Manning was under center and all four of Mississippi’s losses came by a touchdown or less. While I was one of the few people in the preseason last year to give Ole Miss a lot of credit, even I didn’t foresee their incredible run in Houston Nutt’s first season in charge. The big question is whether the Rebels can repeat their success now that they can’t sneak up on any teams. With 16 starters back and a huge pool of talent, I wouldn’t bet against them.

The Ole Miss offense is run by the division’s best quarterback, junior Jevan Snead, who threw for 2,700 yards and 26 touchdowns last fall. What was really impressive was that 2008 was his first full season starting at the college level, so it isn’t unreasonable to expect him to improve even further. While leading receiver Mike Wallace is now a Pittsburgh Steeler, seniors Shay Hodge and Dexter McCluster each had 44 catches last fall and there is a ton of young talent behind them. I expect an even better passing attack this fall from the Rebels.

The running game should also be excellent as the top four rushers from last season all return. Senior Cordera Eason and the extremely versatile McCluster each rushed for over 600 yards while sophomore Brandon Bolden contributed over 500 yards and 5 touchdowns. Expect the committee situation to also include sophomore Enrique Davis this season and I expect that Ole Miss will have another very strong year running the football. The offensive line returns three senior starters and should be a strong unit once more, though losing two 3-year starters will definitely hurt. Despite the losses, there is so much talent on hand and I expect Snead to get even better in his second season. Ole Miss has one of the SEC’s best offenses.

What’s really impressive is that their defense might actually be better. After finishing 4th in the SEC in scoring defense last fall, eight starters are back and former head coach Ed Orgeron’s recruiting is really paying off for Nutt. Up front, there is so much talent across the board. While losing 1st round tackle Peria Jerry will hurt a little bit, it helps when you can plug in a two time All-SEC performer like senior Greg Hardy (8.5 sacks last year, 10 sacks in 2007) in his place. This is the deepest line in the conference and I expect Ole Miss to be death to opposing running games this season considering they also return two starters at linebacker.

The secondary is also a bright spot, as three senior starters return. Safety Kendrick Lewis led the team with 85 tackles and 4 interceptions last fall and cornerbacks Marshay Green and Cassius Vaughn combined for 5 picks as well. There is some solid depth behind them and I expect Ole Miss to improve significantly against the pass this year after allowing over 220 yards per game through the air in 2008. Overall, Ole Miss has an excellent defense and I really think that they’re almost on the same level as Florida and Alabama in terms of talent.

Unfortunately, I have to put my praise on hold for a moment. That’s because Ole Miss plays the most pathetic non-conference schedule in the entire country. They play TWOD-1AA teams and don’t play a single BCS conference opponent! If Ole Miss wins the SEC with one loss and they’re tied with two other one loss teams for a berth in the National Title game, I’m voting the Rebels third on principle. Their SEC schedule is also very favorable as they avoid Georgia and Florida from the East and host Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU and Alabama! Beware an early Thursday night trip to South Carolina, which appears to be their only difficult road game all year.

Since the SEC split into two divisions in the early 90s, every single SEC West team has played in the conference title game except one: Ole Miss. Well, with such an exceptional team returning after breaking out last fall, I think that streak ends this season. While Houston Nutt deserves a lot of credit for turning around the Rebels, former coach Ed Orgeron recruited really well during his tenure and the wealth of talent on hand is largely his responsibility. Ole Miss is probably the 3rd most talented team in the entire league and I think that they have a great chance at not only playing for the conference title but winning it for the first time since Archie Manning was in college. If things bounce the right way, Ole Miss could be a darkhorse in the National Title chase.

Biggest Games: Sept. 24th @ South Carolina, Oct. 10th vs. Alabama, Oct. 24th vs. Arkansas, Oct. 31st @ Auburn, Nov. 14th vs. Tennessee, Nov. 21st vs. LSU, Nov. 28th @ Mississippi State

 

 

  • Alabama Crimson Tide (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

2008 was a huge turnaround for the Crimson Tide. Alabama opened up their season with a blowout win over preseason top 10 Clemson in the Georgia Dome and finished the regular season 12-0! Their return trip to the Georgia Dome wasn’t as kind as eventual National Champion Florida ended their unbeaten run in the SEC Title Game and a shocking loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl ended the year on a sobering note. On the flip side, there is no doubt that last year was the most successful for Alabama in over a decade. With expectations at an all-time high throughout the SEC’s most fanatical supporters, can Saban rebuild his offense quickly enough to compete for the SEC West once more?

‘Who’s on offense?’ is the big question this fall in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has to replace three starters on the offensive line, their starting tailback and their starting quarterback. Last season’s starting quarterback was Tuscaloosa native John Parker Wilson, who threw for over 2,200 yards and 10 touchdowns against only 8 interceptions. I wouldn’t lament his loss for too long if I’m an Alabama fan because he was more of a caretaker quarterback than a playmaker. The new starting quarterback will be junior Greg McElroy, who pulled away from the competition during camp. McElroy played behind Mizzou’s former star quarterback Chase Daniel in high school, so Tide fans are optimistic that he knows how to step into the spotlight with ease. What will really make McElroy’s life easy is the presence of sophomore superstar receiver Julio Jones, who had 58 catches for 924 yards and 4 touchdowns last fall as a true freshman despite being Alabama’s only real receiving threat. I expect the Tide to improve their passing game from last year and Jones will be at the center of that progress.

The Tide had an absolutely dominant O-Line last fall but we saw what life was like without NFL top 10 pick Andre Smith when he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl and Alabama couldn’t run the football to save their life. Simply put, Saban has recruited exceptionally well in the past two years but Alabama has to replace two 1st team All-American linemen and that means their O-Line won’t be nearly the force it was in 2008. However, I still think that there is enough talent to take care of McElroy and open up some holes for the running game. That’s good news for sophomore Mark Ingram, who ran for 725 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and is expected to see the majority of carries this season. Along with talented senior Roy Upchurch, I expect another solid running game. I think that Alabama will be much more difficult to prepare for this season compared to 2008 when they scored early and often and then ran the football for 3 quarters to sit on their lead. Expect a much stronger passing attack and a more productive offense in 2009 but keep an eye on their rebuilt line early.

Defensively, the Tide finished 2008 as the 2nd ranked scoring defense in the SEC and nine starters are back this fall. It all begins up front, where Alabama’s defensive line is one of the best in the country. Senior Terrance Cody is one of the biggest players in the country and commands a double or triple team nearly every play! In Bama’s 3-4 defense, that’s a huge advantage as it frees up their linebackers to make a ton of plays. There is so much depth alongside Cody up front and I expect a strong run defense. Another reason for optimism is that all four starting linebackers are back, led by 3 rd team All-American junior Rolando McClain, who made 95 tackles last season. Alabama will be very tough to run the football against this year.

The secondary is also going to be very good despite losing 2 nd team All-American safety Rashad Johnson. 2nd team All-SEC cornerback Javier Arenas is one of the best in the conference and senior safety Justin Woodall made 47 tackles while snagging 4 interceptions in 2008, so there is still plenty of star power. There’s even more depth as all of last season’s backups return and I expect another big season from this group. As good as this defense was a year ago, I actually expect that it will be even better this fall.

The schedule is going to be very interesting. Alabama opens up in Atlanta against Virginia Tech and both teams will likely be ranked in the top ten. If Alabama wants to make another run at a championship season, they have a great opportunity to make a statement on national television. The Tide also has a really favorable draw from the SEC East, avoiding both Georgia and Florida! They also host rivals LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee! The only daunting road games come against Ole Miss and Auburn in the Iron Bowl (and that’s only because Auburn is their archrival)! Thus, it is safe to say that the schedule is fairly favorable for the Tide.

After a six win improvement last fall, some may wonder if the Tide is going to come back to earth this season. However, I’m not one of them. I see one of the conference’s top two defenses and a strong running game similar to last year’s unit. The difference is that I think that McElroy will be more of a playmaker than Wilson and a stronger offense means that Alabama won’t have to endure unnecessarily close games against the likes of Kentucky and Tulane this fall. Furthermore, they have a favorable conference schedule and if they can repeat last season’s 7-0 home record then they could find themselves in the SEC Title Game for the second consecutive season. However, I’m picking the Tide to tie for the SEC West title and lose out on a return trip to Atlanta thanks to a tiebreaker victory for Ole Miss on Oct. 10 th in Oxford. Despite the fact that I don’t expect the Tide to play for the SEC Title, I can’t see them winning less than 9 games. If the ball bounces their way, Alabama could once more be a big part of the National Title chase.

Biggest Games: Sept. 5th vs. Virginia Tech (Atlanta), Sept. 26th vs. Arkansas, Oct. 10th @ Mississippi, Oct. 24th vs. Tennessee, Nov. 7th vs. LSU, Nov. 27th @ Auburn

 

 

  • Louisiana State Tigers (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

After you win a National Title and lose 26 seniors like LSU did last fall, it is more than reasonable to expect a drop off. I mean, that’s a ton of talent to lose! However, none of the Tiger faithful expected a 7-5 regular season that included losses to Ole Miss and Arkansas and there were some unhappy folks in Baton Rouge last December. Things ended on a bright note as the Tigers drilled a highly thought of Georgia Tech squad in their home town in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl and all is right in Tigerland once more. As usual, expectations are sky high for Les Miles’ team to compete for the conference title. Can the young Tigers rebound from their worst finish in the past seven seasons?

The offense scored over 30 points per game last fall, so you wouldn’t expect them to have been the problem for LSU, right? Well, unfortunately quarterback Jarrett Lee threw 16 interceptions, seven of which were returned for touchdowns! That’s pretty brutal. Towards the end of the season, freshman Jordan Jefferson took over and was named the Chik-Fil-A Bowl Offensive MVP. Jefferson is an extremely elusive athlete who is the unquestioned starter as a 19 year old sophomore and could have a breakout season. It will help him that most of the Tigers’ leading receivers are back, led by seniors Brandon LaFell and Richard Dickson, who combined for 94 catches and 13 touchdowns last season. I expect Jefferson to have a strong year and he shouldn’t turn the ball over anywhere near as much as Lee did last fall. Just remember, he’s young and there will probably be a few hiccups.

Jefferson will be able to rely on a powerful running game, led by the SEC’s best tailback, senior Charles Scott. Scott’s 1175 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns earned him 1st team All-SEC honors last season and he literally runs players over. There is great depth behind him as well and I expect an excellent running game in Death Valley this fall. The offensive line brings back three starters and should be one of the best in the conference. Overall, I expect LSU to score just as many points as last season but avoid team-killing turnovers. This is one of the SEC’s best units.

Defensively, the Tigers had a few head-scratchers last season. Five teams scored more than 30 points and Georgia and Florida both broke 50! Part of this was poor field position thanks to the offense’s inability to protect the ball but the other part was a porous pass defense. To fix things, Miles brought in former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis, who has a great track record of fielding outstanding defenses. I have to give the Mad Hatter credit for a great hire and with seven of the top nine tacklers back, LSU should be in line for a solid defensive year.

Beginning in the secondary, I have to say that I’m really impressed with the talent level. Three starters are back and sophomore Patrick Peterson has superstar written all over him after playing extensively as a true freshman last year. There’s a ton of experience and this is the best secondary in the SEC that doesn’t wear Gator blue. Three upperclassmen starters return and the team’s leading tackler for 2008, senior Harry Coleman, moves up from safety to further bolster a strong unit at linebacker. The only concern is the defensive line, which returns a single starter. Luckily, senior Rahim Alem was a 1st team All-SEC selection last fall after making 8 sacks and should be a force rushing the passer. While the Tigers lost two NFL draft picks along the line, there are few teams in the country who recruit talented D-Linemen like LSU does and I will be very surprised if this year’s unit falls below expectations. Miles hasn’t had a defense allow more than 110 rush yards per game during his tenure and I expect that streak to continue this fall with Chavis in charge. LSU has one of the SEC’s best defenses.

The schedule is not going to be easy for the Tigers. They have to travel to Georgia while hosting rival Florida from the East. Furthermore, the face road trips to both Ole Miss and Alabama! That means that they have to play the conference’s top four teams and three of those games will be away from the very friendly confines of Death Valley! The good news is that while their non-conference schedule is an upgrade over recent years with a trip to Washington, the Huskies are coming off of a winless season and no one expects LSU to run into a lot of trouble with a rebuilding UW team. Still, LSU has the toughest schedule of all of the conference championship contenders.

Overall, LSU is an extremely talented team that should give opposing offenses fits. Furthermore, Jefferson might be the most mobile quarterback in the conference. However, they have to play all of the conference’s major challengers and only favorite Florida comes to Baton Rouge. While I think that the Tigers are just as good as anyone in the SEC, I think their schedule will be too much for them to overcome this year to win the SEC West. However, nine or ten wins is a strong likelihood this season.

Biggest Games: Sept. 5th @ Washington, Oct. 3rd @ Georgia, Oct. 10th vs. Florida, Nov. 7th @ Alabama, Nov. 21st @ Ole Miss, Nov. 28th vs. Arkansas



  • Arkansas Razorbacks (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

2008 was a transition year as Bobby Petrino’s first season was chock full of close games and defensive lapses. Arkansas finished 5-7 but lost some very tight games in the second half and capped off the season with an upset of rival LSU. The Razorbacks return more starters than any other team in the entire conference and ended the season last year as the proverbial team that no one wanted to play. Can the Hogs take the next step towards contention?

The biggest news on offense is that former Michigan quarterback Ryan Mallett, who was the top prospect in the country his senior year, is finally eligible and will start under center. Everyone knows about Petrino’s success with Brian Brohm at Louisville and Mallett probably has more physical talent. This position will go from a weakness to a strength immediately. Mallett, who is much slimmer than when he was nicknamed ‘Lurch’ at Michigan, should be able to buy plenty of time in the pocket to get the ball to a young but deep receiving corps. Junior tight end DJ Williams was a 1st team All-SEC selection last fall after catching 61 passes and every contributing receiver of note is back. I expect a big jump in productivity through the air.

The running game should also be significantly better this fall. Senior Michael Smith is back after rushing for 1,000 yards and 8 touchdowns, earning 2nd team All-SEC honors. However, he won’t have to bear the entire load this season as USC transfer Broderick Green will provide a very capable second option in the backfield. Both should find plenty of room to run behind an offensive line that should be much improved in their second season in Petrino’s system. Overall, I expect a big jump in offensive production from the Razorbacks and they should outstrip last season’s paltry 22 points per game production by a wide margin. This is the most improved offense in the conference.

Defensively, the Razorbacks were the conference’s worst team in 2008, allowing over 31 points per game. However, there are nine returning starters and the Hogs only started four upperclassmen last fall! Petrino’s decision to go with youth on defense last fall will definitely pay off in 2009. Up front, senior defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard was a 2nd team All-SEC selection after racking up 68 tackles and 6.5 sacks and I expect him to once more be a force inside. While the Razorback line will probably start two sophomores, both of whom played major minutes last fall, there’s a ton of talent on hand and senior end Adrian Davis provides another strong pass rusher. I expect a significantly improved defensive line.

At linebacker, all three starters are back after combining for 206 tackles last fall. Sophomore Jerry Franklin led the team in tackles and interceptions last year and could be one of the conference’s best players. I really like the Arkansas front seven and this should be a vastly improved run defense. On the other hand, the secondary only had one upperclassman starter last fall and is still a very young group. Even worse was junior Isaac Madison tearing an ACL, meaning that the Razorbacks could once more start three underclassmen, including star true frosh Darius Winston! While I think that Arkansas has a much improved front seven, they’re vulnerable through the air and are still a very young unit. However, I definitely expect a much improved defense this fall.

The schedule is absolutely brutal. The Razorbacks play Georgia, Florida and South Carolina from the East! On top of that, they have to travel to LSU, Ole Miss and Alabama in SEC West play! Their non-conference schedule isn’t too tough outside of a renewal of their old Southwest Conference rivalry with Texas A&M but they have the misfortune of being the only SEC team to play the conference’s five best squads.

Here’s a quick summary of this time: Significantly better on offense and much improved on defense. My only real concern with the Razorbacks is their secondary but there are a lot of talented players jockeying for playing time. However, I almost feel like I’ve gone out on a limb picking them to go 4-4 in SEC play. That’s because of their schedule, which might be the toughest in the country. Look at this stretch starting in mid-September: Georgia, at Alabama, vs. Texas A&M, Auburn, at Florida, at Ole Miss! Talk about difficult! I think Arkansas is going to have a great offense because Ryan Mallett is the prototype for Petrino’s offense and everyone around him is a year better. I think the defense will be tough up front and should eventually settle the backfield. I just think that this year’s schedule combined with the team’s extreme youth is going to make things very difficult for the Razorbacks to compete for the SEC West crown. While I think that 8 wins is their ceiling this year, watch out for Arkansas in 2010.

Biggest Games: Sept. 19th vs. Georgia, Sept. 26th @ Alabama, Oct. 3rd vs. Texas A&M (Arlington), Oct. 10th vs. Auburn, Oct. 17th @ Florida, Oct. 24th @ Ole Miss, Nov. 7th vs. South Carolina, Nov. 28th @ LSU

 

 

  • Auburn Tigers (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)

2008 was so full of drama that ESPN should have run a reality show called ‘As Auburn Turns’. Beginning with former coach Tommy Tuberville’s firing of new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin halfway through the year, things were out of control all year. After a season-ending loss to Alabama, Tuberville was forced out by kingmaking alumnus Bobby Lowder despite winning a share of the SEC West title 5 times in 9 years, posting a 7-3 record against Alabama and finishing the 2004 season 13-0. However, that didn’t end the drama as Auburn hired former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik to take over despite his 5-19 record in two years as Iowa State’s head coach. That brought charges of racism on the university from alumnus Charles Barkley and ESPN broadcast a video of Chizik being booed by a fun upon arrival at the Auburn airport. To say that Chizik will be relieved when the season begins is an understatement. He inherits a veteran team and will be expected to win right away after last season’s bowl-less year.

On offense, Chizik hired spread guru Guz Malzahn as his new offensive coordinator. This could be troublesome initially as Auburn clearly didn’t have the personnel to run the spread last year after a decade of power football. Will that lost year in a similar system help? The starting quarterback is expected to be senior Chris Todd, who was 3-2 last year as the starter before finishing the year sidelined by a shoulder injury. Todd isn’t mobile so junior Kodi Burns should also see the field, especially in the Wildcat formation. The receiving corps isn’t very impressive, though senior tight end Tommy Trott is very athletic and could be the top target. Unfortunately, there isn’t much beside him in terms of experience.

At tailback, senior Ben Tate ran for over 650 yards and 3 touchdowns last fall and will likely be the top ball carrier once more. Junior Mario Fannin is also a solid pass catcher and should see the field plenty. They’ll run behind a decent offensive line that has three junior starters returning. After struggling with pass blocking last fall, I think that their experience in the spread will help in 2009 and I expect improvement. However, I still don’t think that Auburn really has the proper personnel to run an effective spread offense and Malzahn will need some out of nowhere talent if this team is going to be significantly more effective than last year’s unit.

Defensively, eight starters are back from a unit which was the SEC’s 4th best in scoring. Auburn only gave up 18 points per game in 2008, so you know that the blame for their 5-7 season doesn’t lie with the defense. Up front, three starters are back and senior Antonio Coleman was a 1st team All-SEC selection last fall. Despite Coleman’s powerful presence, Auburn struggled against the run, faring their worst in seven seasons! I have to think a more veteran unit guided by Chizik and new coordinator Ted Roof will perform better this fall. The linebackers should also help improve the run defense as two starters are back and both were strong contributors, so expect Auburn to fare better against opposing rushing attacks.

The secondary is the brightest spot on the defense. The only loss was 3rd round draft pick Jerraud Powers at cornerback from a unit which was solid against the pass. With so much experience returning and a renewed emphasis on defense I expect Auburn to field a solid secondary. Simply put, Auburn won’t struggle this fall because of their defense. Their front seven should be strong against the run and Coleman will provide quite the pass rush off the edge. With a solid secondary behind them, I would expect Auburn to once more finish in the top half of the conference in total defense.

The schedule is on the Tigers’ side. Their only BCS conference opponent out of conference is an early visit from rebuilding West Virginia and they have eight total home games. They have three division home games and they avoid Florida in division rotation. The downside is that they have to travel to Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia in conference play, giving them a pretty difficult SEC run.

I was on record lambasting Auburn for firing Tommy Tuberville after last season. It was Tubbs’ first losing season in a decade and he boasted a 7-3 record against Alabama, 5 SEC West Title, two SEC titles and an unbeaten season during his tenure. This was a power play by the school’s most influential alumnus, who was also behind the infamous secret interview with Bobby Petrino while Tuberville was still in charge back in 2003, and I think they’ll eventually regret it. That said, Chizik has put together a strong staff and should recruit well. This fall I have a lot of concerns about the offense because of a serious lack of playmakers and I think that will hurt the Tigers in conference play. However, their non-conference schedule is pretty weak outside of the WVU game and I won’t rule out a bowl game in Chizik’s first season. However, I will be surprised if the Tigers win any more than six games in 2009.

Biggest Games: Sept. 19th vs. WVU, Oct. 3rd @ Tennessee, Oct. 10th @ Arkansas, Oct. 24th @ LSU, Nov. 14th @ Georgia, Nov. 27th vs. Alabama

 

 

  • Mississippi State Bulldogs (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)

2008 was a big letdown in Starkville. After earning their first bowl berth under Sylvester Croom in 2007, the Bulldogs fell to a disappointing 4-8 finish and Croom, the 2007 SEC Coach of the Year and first black head coach in conference history, was fired after finishing with four losing seasons in five tries. The primary reason for all of the losing during his tenure was a very ineffective offense and the administration appears very cognizant of that fact as they hired Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen to take over. Can Mullen kickstart the inexperienced Bulldogs this fall?

Undoubtedly, the best player at Mullen’s disposal is senior tailback Anthony Dixon, who is a very powerful runner with over 2,000 career rush yards. While Florida’s offense featured a different type of tailback, there is no question that Dixon’s success will be a big part of this fall’s MSU offense. He’ll run behind a questionable line that struggled often in 2008 but I still expect to see some improvement in the Bulldog rushing attack this fall.

At quarterback, senior Tyson Lee and sophomore Chris Relf are battling for the starting job. Lee is more of an option to run the ball and I think he’s more likely to fit into the system that Mullen wants to run. Lee passed for over 1,500 yards and 7 touchdowns last fall and quarterbacked the team to three wins, so I expect him to earn the starting nod. His receivers are very inexperienced behind senior Brandon McRae, who had 51 receptions last season. As he’s the only returnee of note, expect a lot of freshmen to join him catching passes. Overall, Mississippi State fielded the conference’s worst offense last fall at only 15 points per game. However, I expect that an improved rushing attack, a new system and more experience at quarterback will allow the numbers to jump in Mullen’s first season. However, there’s no Tim Tebow or Percy Harvin on this unit and it will take time for MSU to accumulate enough playmakers to become a dangerous offense.

Defensively, I thought Mullen made a really good hire when he brought in former Alabama and Texas A&M defensive coordinator Carl Torbush. Mullen’s offensive background necessitated that his defensive coordinator be a strong veteran presence because I expect Mullen to spend more time working with his offense. Torbush is a strong hire and should do well as the main man defensively. He inherits a relatively inexperienced group that only returns one of its top five tacklers. However, I like the linebackers as junior KJ Wright was solid last fall and 2007’s top tackler, senior Jamar Chaney, is healthy and will start at middle linebacker.

Unfortunately, the linebackers are the only solid point on the defense. Up front, Torbush is likely to play a ton of freshman and junior college transfers and I don’t expect much of a pass rush. If this group can at least hold the point of attack then I think MSU fans will have to be satisfied. In the secondary, senior cornerback Marcus Washington is the only returning starter. There are a lot of young players who saw the field a lot last season so the drop off won’t be enormous. However, this is still a weak unit. I honestly don’t expect a very strong defensive showing from the Bulldogs this season and Mississippi State could have the conference’s worst defense.

The schedule is somewhat friendly as MSU only plays four true road games. Their non-conference schedule is highlighted by visits from Houston and Georgia Tech, both of which should be strong this fall. The good news in the SEC portion is that the Bulldogs have three home division games and draw Kentucky and Vanderbilt from the East. However, that draw also includes Florida and the Bulldogs will likely face six ranked teams this fall, making things very tough.

Overall, Mullen has inherited a big rebuilding job. He’s probably going to have to play a lot of young players while building towards the future and I honestly don’t have any expectations for this team as they’re thin on both sides of the ball and really don’t have any playmakers. I think that this is the conference’s weakest team. What will tell the tale of the tape is how Mullen recruits. Can he convince enough talent to come to Starkville based on his Florida resume while the Bulldogs continue to struggle on the field? I will be surprised if the Dawgs reach last season’s four win total this season but I would give Mullen time to turn things around if I were a MSU fan as his first recruiting class was solid. Just don’t expect him to win right away.

Biggest Games: Sept. 12th @ Auburn, Sept. 19th @ Vandy, Sept. 26th vs. LSU, Oct. 31st vs. Kentucky, Nov. 14th vs. Alabama, Nov. 21st @ Arkanasas (Little Rock), Nov. 28th vs. Ole Miss

 

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

The SEC looks significantly stronger offensively this season after scoring dropped precipitously last fall, thanks to average at best quarterback play all over the league. This fall there are a ton of talented teams and I wouldn’t be surprised to see as many as nine team finish the year bowl eligible. There is no question that this is one of the country’s elite conferences once more in 2009.

The SEC Championship game will match up the Florida Gators and the Ole Miss Rebels this fall in a rematch of the epic 2008 upset at the Swamp. The Rebels have a ton of talent on hand and both teams will benefit from excellent quarterback play. This should be a great match up as both teams don’t face off during the regular season. However, I’m picking the Gators to win a close game over the Rebels because I think that Florida will be able to slow the run game and pressure Snead into mistakes. I also am not picking against Tim Tebow in his senior year.

My choice for the 2009 SEC Champion is the Florida Gators for the second consecutive season. If the Gators can finish the year unbeaten for the first time in school history, they’re a shoo-in to play for their third national title in four years.

 

 

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Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s football writer. Keep an eye out all fall for his multiple weekly articles discussing everything college football. If you want to get in touch with him, email him at Matt.Baxendell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell

 

 

 


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