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SEC preview: Steadiness wins

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SEC predictions
West Division
1. Auburn
2. LSU
3. Alabama
4. Arkansas
5. Mississippi
6. Mississippi State
East Division
1. Florida
2. Georgia
3. Tennessee
4. South Carolina
5. Vanderbilt
6. Kentucky
SEC championship game
Auburn over Florida
Season Preview featuring Terry Bowden:
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This looks to be a strong year in the SEC, with six teams having a legitimate shot at the title.

Although this is a league that prides itself on defense, I look to the two teams with the most stability at quarterback to end up in the conference championship game. Brandon Cox at Auburn and Chris Leak at Florida should lead their teams into the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Dec. 2.

LSU is the team most likely to prove me wrong.


WEST DIVISION

1. Auburn Tigers Team page | Schedule | Roster | Sporting News preview

Ranked sixth in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16

Give head coach Tommy Tuberville a veteran quarterback like Brandon Cox and a thousand-yard rusher like Kenny Irons, and he’ll give you a league-leading offense. That’s exactly what the Tigers should have this year. Defensively, Auburn returns the nucleus of last season’s unit that ranked seventh in the nation, and the Tigers will have the added punch of new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.

The schedule couldn’t be better, with eight home games including LSU, Florida and Georgia plus a non-conference schedule made to order. Be sure to circle that early Sept. 16 date with LSU.

2. LSU Tigers Team page | Schedule | Roster | Sporting News preview

Ranked 13th in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16

LSU returns a ton of talent – maybe even too much at the quarterback position. JaMarcus Russell was last year’s starter, but Matt Flynn replaced him in the Tigers' big 40-3 Peach Bowl win over Miami. Young Ryan Perrilloux is pressuring them both. The defensive strength will be at safety, with seniors LeRon Landry and Jessie Daniels leading the way. Both lines will need to find three new starters.

All that being said, I still would have put this team even with Auburn in the West if not for the brutal road schedule that includes Auburn, Florida and Tennessee.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide Team page | Schedule | Roster | Sporting News preview

After back-to-back seasons with the nation’s No. 2 defense, coordinator Joe Kines again has proved he is one of the best in the business. With only four starters returning on that side of the ball those talents will surely be tested. However, it will be up to the offense to open it up a little more this year if the Tide is going to compete for the division title. Brodie Croyle will be replaced at quarterback by sophomore John Parker Wilson, but Wilson will be surrounded by nine returning starters. Like LSU's, the Crimson Tide road schedule is a bear.

4. Arkansas Razorbacks Team page | Schedule | Roster

Head coach Houston Nutt has to be feeling a little pressure to get this ship back on course after back-to-back losing seasons. With 10 starters back on offense and nine on defense, the Razorbacks may just be the dark horse in the conference. Somehow, Arkansas must find a way to add a credible passing attack to its one-dimensional offense. New offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has been hired to oversee that, and if the spring was any indication it should be much improved. The schedule is favorable, and Arkansas at least should get to a bowl this year.

5. Mississippi Rebels Team page | Schedule | Roster

Last year’s offense was a disaster, scoring just 15 touchdowns. Coordinator Dan Werner and line coach Art Kehoe, both from Miami, have been hired to revamp the offense. The X-factor will be transfer quarterback Brent Schaeffer, who previously was a starter at Tennessee. The good news is that it can only get better. Head coach Ed Orgeron serves as his own defensive coordinator, and last year's 11 showed signs that they can be pretty good. Linebacker Patrick Willis is the superstar of that unit. The key to the Rebels' season will be their first six games, in which only Georgia will be unbeatable. A slow start would lead to another ugly season.

6. Mississippi State Bulldogs Team page | Schedule | Roster

Sylvester Croom was hired to win ballgames at Mississippi State, and so far he has not proved he can do that. The offense has only one way to go, and that’s up. Quarterback Michael Henig needs some playmakers around him, especially with the loss of State’s all-time leading rusher, Jerious Norwood. Linebacker Quinton Culberson leads a defense that is good enough to compete in the SEC if the offense can offer some help.

EAST DIVISION

1. Florida Gators Team page | Schedule | Roster | Sporting News preview

Ranked seventh in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16

The second year is a charm for Urban Meyer (see his stints at Bowling Green and Utah), and that means Florida will be headed for the SEC championship game this year. Actually, senior quarterback, Chris Leak is the best QB in the SEC, and he is the key to Florida’s success this year. If Meyer will play call to Leak's strengths and not just run the spread option offense, the Gators will not just get to Atlanta but also bring home the bacon.

Defensively, the Gators gave up 19 points per game last season and should be much improved. Linebacker Brandon Siler is the undisputed leader of this unit. The key this season is for Gator fans to refrain from yelling “We want Tebow” at any time during the year (Tim Tebow was the nation's top quarterback recruit).

2. Georgia Bulldogs Team page | Schedule | Roster | Sporting News preview

Ranked 15th in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16

This looks to be a rebuilding year for Georgia, but that doesn’t mean the Bulldogs are going to be out of the hunt for the SEC title. It just means they are not going to be the preseason favorites.

The key will be who head coach Mark Richt will choose for his quarterback between senior Joe Tereshinski and hot-shot freshman Matthew Stafford among others. Being an old QB coach himself, I’m sure Richt will have a good plan. Defensively, the Dawgs must get back to their old ways of being a great run-stopping unit.

3. Tennessee Volunteers Team page | Schedule | Roster | Sporting News preview

Last year Tennessee had a horrible 5-6 season. Something had to be done to get things back to the way they once were, when the Volunteers were winning SEC titles and playing for national championships. So Phillip Fulmer hired David Cutcliffe to come back, run the offense, call plays and teach the quarterbacks how to play like champions. That being done, Tennessee is back to being Tennessee, and the rest of the SEC will have to go back to contending with the Vols to determine the conference champion.

4. South Carolina Gamecocks Team page | Schedule | Roster

I believe you can scheme victories on offense, but you have to have talent to win with defense. That’s why head coach Steve Spurrier will make a bigger impact at South Carolina than Lou Holtz did. That’s how he had a winning season the first year, and probably how he is going to have to do it this year, too. In fact, Spurrier is good enough to have a winning season every year at South Carolina. The big question is whether he can recruit the level of athletes to compete with Tennessee, Georgia and Florida to get to the SEC championship game. I’m not sure about that.

5. Vanderbilt Commodores Team page | Schedule | Roster

You don’t lose arguably the greatest player in Vanderbilt history (Jay Cutler) and get better on offense. There are seven possible wins on the schedule, but everything would have to fall into place. Adding Michigan to the schedule is not going to help.

6. Kentucky Wildcats Team page | Schedule | Roster

With experience back at almost every position the Wildcats should be much improved over last year’s 3-8 team. Offensively, do-everything tailback Rafael Little is back to run, catch and return the football. Kentucky must settle on a quarterback, likely Curtis Pulley, and add to a passing game that threw only six touchdown passes last year. Wesley Woodyard leads a strong linebacking group, and if the defense can just stay healthy this year it should make a marked improvement.