It looks to be a great year for the SEC with at least three teams in each division having a chance to make it to the league championship.
Florida coach Urban Meyer is new to the conference, but after leading Utah to a spot in the BCS last season, he should make the East Division even tougher. And, oh yeah, the ol' ball coach is back – Steve Spurrier is roaming the South Carolina sideline.
This is gonna be fun.
Ranked third in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
You almost can see the gleam in coach Phillip Fulmer's eyes. He has a good old-fashioned Tennessee ball club on his hands, and he knows it. Everybody is healthy, the offseason headaches are over and it's time to play ball. Playing great defense, running the football and not turning the ball over is the way Tennessee won the national championship in 1998, and it is the way the Vols want to play football this year.
Gerald Riggs Jr. is back after rushing for 1,107 yards last year despite splitting carries with Cedric Houston. The offensive line is solid, and there are two ready and able quarterbacks in Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen. There is quality and depth at wide receiver.
The defense should be the best in Knoxville since the 1998 championship team. The Vols will have one of the best front sevens in America, led by All-American tackle Jesse Mahelona and linebackers Kevin Simon and Omar Gaither. Opponents will find it almost impossible to run the ball. The safety position could be the only weakness as future NFL star Jason Allen moved from safety to cornerback after leading the league in tackles last season.
I have picked Tennessee to win the SEC because the Vols are just loaded with talent. However, anyone who looks at UT's schedule knows this is a very close call. Playing LSU and Florida back-to-back on the road in September will make or break my prognostication before we even get our first frost.
Ranked 10th in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
The SEC's best passing attack again will be led by the SEC's best quarterback, Chris Leak. And he will be throwing to the SEC's best group of wide receivers. If ex-Utah head coach Urban Meyer successfully can add his spread running game the offense could be unstoppable. Someone still needs to step up at running back in the battle between DeShawn Wynn, Skyler Thornton and Markus Manson.
Defense is the bigger question mark at Florida. It's not so much whether it will be good but rather whether it will be good enough to win the tough SEC East.
The biggest changes Meyer has brought to Florida have been in discipline and attitude. He demands that the players do the right things on and off the field, and that has been apparent – there have been zero disciplinary problems in Gainesville this offseason. The players have the right attitude, believing that if they do what their coach tells them, they will win and they will win big. I'm beginning to believe it, too.
Ranked 13th in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
It will be interesting to see how coach Mark Richt will react in his first year at Georgia without quarterback David Greene. They only went 42-10 together. Senior D.J. Shockley finally will take over, and his mobility should add another dimension – running – to the Bulldog offense. That looks to be the strength of the offense this season. All five linemen return from last year along with tight end Leonard Pope and three big-time running backs. There is talent at wide receiver, but it is undeveloped. Look for the run game to carry the load until the young receivers can learn what they're doing.
Georgia loses three of its best-ever players on defense in end David Pollack, linebacker Odell Thurman and safety Thomas Davis, but nobody reloads on defense better than Georgia. The Bulldogs defense was ranked in the top 10 last year, and it will be ranked in the top 10 this year. In fact, defense is becoming the trademark of a Mark Richt team – that, and winning 10 games a year.
Steve Spurrier has taken over at South Carolina to see if his Cock & Fire offense can take the Gamecocks to the next level in the SEC. That is going to be quite a task, as reaching the next level requires South Carolina to win its fair share of games against East Division partners Tennessee, Georgia and Florida and also take care of rival Clemson.
To give you an idea of just how difficult that will be, consider that one of the best coaches in the business, Lou Holtz, just retired with a 33-37 record at USC (skewed somewhat by an 0-11 record in his first season). The Gamecocks also have only one 10-win season and three bowl victories in school history.
The good news is that Spurrier took both previous college football programs that he coached, Duke and Florida, to new levels. Holtz left a solid core of talent at South Carolina, and Spurrier will have something to work with. The defense, led by safety Ko Simpson, will have to carry the load until the ol' ball coach can find a quarterback who can run the offense.
Because of his ability to scheme victories with his offensive style, Spurrier definitely will bring winning seasons to South Carolina. Whether that includes winning the East Division or SEC title is an entirely different story. Look for the Gamecocks to go to a bowl this year and also upset some team that thought it would be going to the SEC championship.
The Commodores have not had a winning season since 1982, and you have to wonder when the losing streak is going to end. Bobby Johnson is 6-29 in his three years in Nashville. Even if the team can win a couple of more games this season, it's not going to be more than it loses.
Senior Jay Cutler is one of the best quarterbacks returning in the SEC. But without a sophisticated offense that suits a bunch of smart but athletically challenged teammates, he really doesn't have a chance to make a difference.
Defensively, Vanderbilt just can't field enough quality athletes who can run and play in open space to compete in the SEC.
Best scenario: Beat non-conference cupcakes Middle Tennessee and Richmond and win the balance of the games against Wake Forest, Arkansas, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Kentucky. Unfortunately, that still gives the Commodores their 23rd consecutive losing season.
The only realistic goal I can see for Kentucky this year is staying ahead of Vanderbilt in the West standings. East Carolina was the only other team in Division I-A that ended last season outside the top 100 in both offense and in defense.
Ever since offensive guru Hal Mumme resigned as head coach because of NCAA violations, it seems the Wildcats have forgotten that his offensive genius was the key to their success. Kentucky must get back to running an offense that will do something unorthodox with the ball, like the passing attack of Mike Leach at Texas Tech or the running game of Paul Johnson at Navy do.
Kentucky cannot get the caliber of athlete it needs to compete in the SEC; the Wildcats must do something outside the box when it comes to coaching strategy. Head coach Rich Brooks, who had success at Oregon, must recognize that normal coaching strategies like playing hard-nosed defense and not turning over the ball will only get them closer losses in one of the toughest leagues in college football.
Ranked sixth in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
If new head coach Les Miles didn't already realize it when he took over at LSU he probably now knows that he has one of the best coaching jobs in the country. Yes the fans are rabid and yes the expectation level is always over the top, but Louisiana is the fourth-best recruiting state in the country. If Miles can put a fence around the state as Nick Saban did, he will have a chance to compete for the national championship every year.
This program has 18 returning starters from a team that won nine games one year after winning the national championship. Along with Tennessee, the Tigers have the most talent in the conference. If they can just get great leadership and decision-making out of the quarterback position they will play for the SEC championship with a chance to go to the Rose Bowl.
There is not a more talented quarterback in the country than redshirt sophomore JaMarcus Russell. However, because of his inconsistency last season he split time with Marcus Randall and then Matt Flynn. It always concerns me when the most talented guy doesn't separate from the pack. If either of these guys doesn't take charge of the offense, or if LSU is forced turn to the nation's No. 1 QB recruit Ryan Perilloux, then all talk of a conference title – much less a national championship – is off the table.
Ranked 15th in Terry's Preseason Sweet 16
Conventional wisdom says that with Auburn losing four first-round draft choices – including three from the offensive backfield – this should be a rebuilding year for the Tigers. But never underestimate head coach Tommy Tuberville.
Tuberville has proven to be one of the best – and most unheralded – recruiters in the business, and there are plenty of fat, juicy pegs to fill into all the available holes.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges is sensational at putting his offensive pieces in the right places, and if the Tigers can average around 30 points per game they will have done their duty. Defensively, the loss of coordinator Gene Chizik would be devastating to most programs, but Tuberville cut his coaching teeth at Miami and Texas A&M putting together great defenses. There won't be any drop-off in the defensive X-in' and O-in'. Not only will the defense be outstanding, but also the front seven will be even better than the one that led the Tigers to the No. 1 rank in scoring defense last season.
I have LSU as the favorite in the SEC West, but if these Tigers don't come through at quarterback they will be on the outside looking in as the Auburn Tigers return to the SEC championship game.
Coach Mike Shula took over the Tide program under almost impossible circumstances with NCAA probation and scholarship reductions. That is why he was given a contract extension in spite of going 10-15 over his first two years.
Alabama returns nine starters from the nation's second-best defense, and there is no reason why it won't be even better this season. That is saying a lot considering this defense ranked either first or second in the SEC in turnovers caused, first downs allowed and red zone defense.
The difference maker this year, though, will be the return of a healthy senior Brodie Croyle at quarterback. Alabama was 3-0 and averaging 42.6 points per game before he was injured last season. The Tide averaged just 18.5 points with him on the bench.
I look for Alabama to be the sleeper in the conference this year, with a chance to win seven regular-season games at worst and slide into the SEC championship game at best. It all falls on the shoulders of a healthy Brodie Croyle.
Even though the Razorbacks will be breaking in a new quarterback for the first time in four years, the offense has a chance to be pretty good. QB Matt Jones has moved his arm and more importantly his legs to the NFL as a wide receiver. Sophomore Robert Johnson looks to be in line to take over. The running game should be strong and the receivers are talented. If Johnson shows that he can stand in the pocket, make his reads and throw accurately, there is no reason Arkansas shouldn't put a bunch of points on the board.
Defensively, head coach Houston Nutt paid a ton of money to bring in defensive coordinator Reggie Herring from North Carolina State, where his group ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense last year. I was on the coaching staff at Florida State when he was a linebacker, and there is not a more intense individual in football. Forget about personnel, the defense will play a whole lot harder and better just because of his presence.
Last year's 5-6 record had to be a real disappointment, and with the strength of the offense and the addition of Herring, the Razorbacks should be able to win more than they lose this year – just not by much.
One has to wonder how in the world Mississippi could fire a fine coach like David Cutcliffe after one bad season. Regardless of the reason, the Rebels went out and got a bundle of adrenaline from the top program in America. Ed Orgeron not only coached the defensive line at Southern California but also served as the recruiting coordinator, and it is the latter qualification that is needed most at Mississippi. Coming off a 4-7 season, there just is not a lot of SEC-quality talent at Ole Miss.
If the players can pick up the new offensive and defensive schemes quickly, there are six or seven possible wins on the schedule. However, Rebel fans should not be discouraged if the win column doesn't get any higher than five.
When Sylvester Croom was named the head coach at Mississippi State he knew he had a lot of work to do. Last year's 3-8 record is an indication of just how difficult his job is going to be. The good news is that the season did include an impressive win over Florida and that 15 starters who understand the system are back. The bad news is that about a dozen kids who didn't fit into the Sylvester Croom way of doing things left the program.
The defense was poor last year, and the offense was even worse. Only time and athletes will get this program turned around – time, athletes and patience. The Bulldogs will do well to get four or five wins this year.