Aug. 20, 2009

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By Adam Caparell
NCAA.com

It's hard to argue against the SEC being the best conference in football.

How can you not anoint them the best after the last three BCS Champions have come from the conference and five teams find themselves in the preseason Coaches Top 25 Poll?

With national contenders Florida (1), Alabama (6), LSU (9), Ole Miss (10) and Georgia (13) leading the way, the SEC appears as strong as ever. It has marquee, household names that are among the best in the nation - Tim Tebow and Eric Berry are probably the two best players at their respective positions. And it could very well be the most physical brand of football this side of the NFL.

The SEC is not for the faint of heart and mostly for those who rank football a close second to religion on their personal importance scale.


East


Florida
2008 Record: 13-1 (7-1), SEC East Champions, SEC Champions, BCS Champions
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 11 defense
Offensive Keys: The Gators have this guy named Tim Tebow. Maybe you've heard of him before? He's accomplished a few things in three seasons. But in all seriousness, Superman is back for his senior season and will lead the Gators offense that will be missing four key cogs from last year's unit. Replacing Percy Harvin will be impossible and don't overlook the loss of Louis Murphy either. But Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey are the powerful and explosive combination in the backfield. The offensive line has to replace its starting tackles from last season so the front five is a bit of a concern. But considering it starts and stops with Tebow, the Gators are in good hands. Expect him to throw the ball a bit more this fall after spending the off-season working on his mechanics. And while head coach Urban Meyer certainly isn't going to mortgage this season so Tebow can show the NFL he's pro-material, Meyer will showcase his quarterback a little bit with a few more conventional sets (i.e. taking snaps under center) than Gators fans have been accustomed to.
Defensive Keys: Considering that the Gators not only return every starter, but everyone from last year's two-deep roster, they're going to be really good, if not borderline great. The Gators allowed just 12.9 points per game last fall and gave up only 14 to the highest scoring team in history in the BCS Championship. The front four is stacked and the buzz about the secondary is that it could be the best in the country. Scary considering the Gators finished +22 in turnover margin last year.
Keep An Eye On: TE Aaron Hernandez, DE Carlos Dunlap, LB Brandon Spikes
All In The Numbers: 0, times a Florida back has rushed for 1,000 yards under Meyer.
Deciding Game: Oct. 10 at LSU
Outlook: The expectations are through the roof. Tebow is looking for a third national championship and a second Heisman Trophy. Can he and Meyer lead the Gators to the top of college football once again and secure Florida's first undefeated season? They certainly have the talent to do so. And with a schedule that has them avoiding Ole Miss and Alabama, the Gators are everyone's pick to repeat as SEC Champions and BCS Champions. The only thing that might stand in their way is that trip to Death Valley. Or the weight of the enormous expectations.


Georgia
2008 Record: 10-3 (6-2), Capital One Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: The top three playmakers from last season are gone, but don't expect any big drop-off from the Bulldogs. Sure losing Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and Mohamed Massaquoi hurts, but Georgia will manage. Senior Joe Cox may not have a ton of experience - or Stafford's big arm - but he knows the system and he's got A.J. Green to throw to whenever he wants. The running back situation is a little murky so expect to see head coach Mark Richt go with a tailback-by-committee approach. But considering the Bulldogs always rush for at least 2,000 yards a season, Richt isn't overly concerned if someone doesn't step to the front of the field. The offensive line that was a sore spot for the Bulldogs last season should be a strength with a dearth of big bodies with starting experience returning.
Defensive Keys: While the Bulldogs lose some quality playmakers from last year's squad, they are gaining the services of tackle Jeff Owens who missed all but a few plays in the first game last season. With Owens and Geno Atkins stuffing the middle, the Bulldogs run defense should be pretty stout. The linebackers are probably the unit's strong suit with Rennie Curran leading the way. The secondary should be solid, but the defense overall did not have a particularly strong season in 2008. Richt will expect more out of this unit.
Keep An Eye On: RB Caleb King, LB Darryl Gamble, FS Reshad Jones
All In The Numbers: 49, TDs Stafford, Moreno and Massaquoi accounted for last season.
Deciding Game: Oct. 31 vs. Florida (Jacksonville)
Outlook: Historically, and for whatever reason, it seems like Georgia has done better when the expectations have been more muted. Last year's preseason No. 1 ranking turned out to be a curse for the Bulldogs who did not meet expectations with an appearance in the New Year's Day bowl. This year, the Bulldogs will have to contend with juggernaut Florida for the SEC East and a schedule that features LSU and a trip to Oklahoma State to start the season. You may not be as familiar with this team as you were last year, but that doesn't mean they're not going to be good or be among the SEC's top teams.


Kentucky
2008 Record: 7-6 (2-6), Liberty Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 4 defense
Offensive Keys: The hope is Mike Hartline is Kentucky's next big armed quarterback who can move the ball down the field. The Wildcats weren't the same last year without Andre' Woodson, but that was to be expected. Some of the offense's woes can be heaped on a young receiving corps that will be asked to show more this fall. Randall Cobb will be the Kentucky x-factor. The speedy and versatile playmaker will see some time in the Wildcat formation and catch plenty of balls from Hartline. Head coach Rich Brooks wants to get him the ball at least 15 times a game.
Defensive Keys: The Wildcats had a very respectable defense last season and that's shaping up to be the case again this year. The defensive line took a hit when DE Jeremy Jarmon was suspended, prompting him to head directly to the NFL. But that loss wasn't make or break for the Wildcats. The secondary should be strong, especially considering it'll feature one of the top cornerbacks in the nation in Trevard Lindley. Replacing seven starters won't be easy, but the Wildcats appear to have the bodies to do so.
Keep An Eye On: RB Alfonso Smith, DT Corey Peters, LB Micah Johnson
All In The Numbers: 14, straight non-conference games Kentucky has won.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 at Vanderbilt
Outlook: The schedule does no favors for the Wildcats this season, making their goal of another bowl game a tough task. With road trips to South Carolina, Vandy and Georgia, along with matchups against Florida and Alabama on back-to-back weekends, Kentucky has its hands full with its SEC slate. The defense will once again have to carry a heavier load than usual as the offense tries to settle into a comfort zone.


South Carolina
2008 Record: 7-6 (4-4), Outback Bowl
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: Steve Spurrier hasn't found his ideal quarterback in his four years in Columbia, but he's hopeful that Stephen Garcia is pretty close. Garcia's talents have never been questioned, but his desire and commitment have with run-ins with the law and other off the field issues. Spurrier believes those are behind Garcia and he's expecting big things out of the sophomore this year. But if the offensive line does not do a better job of protecting the quarterback - or generating any holes for the running game - then Garcia's talents and Spurrier's game plans will go to waste.
Defensive Keys: This side of the ball has been South Carolina's strong suit, surprisingly, under Spurrier and that doesn't figure to change this year. Depth will be the Gamecock's biggest issue this fall, especially in the secondary that returns only its free safety. LB Eric Norwood will anchor this unit that finished second in the nation against the pass. The unconventional - by SEC standards - 4-2-5 scheme will be back for another season, but based on the results it's no surprise the Gamecocks will line up with an extra defensive back most of the time.
Keep An Eye On: RB Jarvis Giles, WR Jason Barnes, CD Akeem Auguste
All In The Numbers: 94.1, yards per game rushing averaged by South Carolina last year, 112th in the nation.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 vs. Florida
Outlook: Spurrier's record at South Carolina is a rather pedestrian 28-22 compared to his high flying days at Florida. But the Ol' Ball Coach isn't washed up by any means and his revamping of a good portion of the coaching staff this past off-season should prove that he's committed as ever to turning South Carolina into one of the SEC East's top programs perennially. Whether the Gamecocks can crack the eight-win plateau Spurrier is sitting on will depend heavily on the offensive line play along with Garcia.


Tennessee
2008 Record: 5-7 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: The Vols offense was dreadful last season, averaging just 17.3 points and 268.8 yards per game. New head coach Lane Kiffin hopes to turn things around in Knoxville with Jonathan Crompton back under center. The talented Crompton did not have himself a distinguishable 2008 and should be motivated by the new coaching staff - and possibly fan backlash - to have a better 2009. Crompton will have a strong running game to rely on and everyone will be anxious to see what highly-touted freshman running back Bryce Brown has to offer. Kiffin had pretty good success when he was running USC's offense. He doesn't quite have the talent he had in Los Angeles, but he's got some players to work with.  
Defensive Keys: The Vols will be led by the man some believe is the best defensive coordinator in NFL history. Monte Kiffin has joined his son at Rocky Top where he takes over a defense that finished as one of the nation's best last year. Leading the way on the field is one of the nation's best players in Eric Berry. He's such a good athlete that some believe he's actually Tennessee's best quarterback. His secondary mates help make that unit one of the conference's best. The line will welcome new starting ends and linebacking unit will feature a pair of new starters as well.
Keep An Eye On: WR Gerald Jones, DE Chris Walker, LB Rico McCoy
All In The Numbers: 2nd, Berry's place on the NCAA's all-time interception return yardage list.
Deciding Game: Oct. 25 vs. Alabama
Outlook: Lane Kiffin has done plenty of talking over the summer, doing his best to anger just about every other school in the SEC - none more so than Florida. The Vols could be in for a rude awakening when they head down to Gainesville, but Kiffin's goal of putting Tennessee on everyone's radar worked like a charm. Kiffin has to be bold and a little outlandish because the Vols have to recruit nationally to survive. And the only way to get national attention is to do and say some unusual things. He's also recruited a start-studded group of assistants, the highest paid in the country. It'll be interesting to see what kind of turnaround he can orchestrate as the Vols enter their first season without Phil Fulmer on the sidelines in some capacity since 1979. Kiffin can talk. Can he back it up?

Vanderbilt 
2008 Record: 7-6 (4-4), Music City Bowl
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: It wasn't pretty at times for the Commodores, but they got the job done last year. That could be the way they do things this year once again. The quarterback situation appears to be unsettled with Mackenzi Adams and Larry Smith fighting for the right to start. Whoever wins the job must develop some sort of passing threat after Vandy managed just 122.6 passing yards per game last fall. Fortunately, the offensive line brings back all five starters. That means the running game - Vandy's strong suit a year ago - and pass protection should be improved.
Defensive Keys: The Commodores lost two NFL Draft picks in the secondary which won't be easily replaced, but other than that this is pretty much the same unit that led the way last year. Broderick Stewart should be good to go after suffering a broken leg late last season. The Commodores will gladly welcome his pass rushing skills back to the fold. Now if they could just get the same effort out of him against the run. Vandy was stingy against the pass last year, but let up a few too many yards on the ground.
Keep An Eye On: RB Jared Hawkins, LB Chris Marve, CB Myron Lewis
All In The Numbers: 26, years it had been between bowl appearances for Vanderbilt.
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 vs. Georgia
Outlook: Nobody expected the Commodores to get to a bowl game last year, but Bobby Johnson did a great job of riding his defense to the postseason. Chances are if Vanderbilt wants to make it two bowl games in a row he'll have to do the same thing. They won close, low scoring games last year, especially early in the season before the schedule really ticked up a few notches.


West


Alabama
2008 Record: 12-2 (8-0), SEC West Champions, Sugar Bowl
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: There are plenty of changes, most notably up front and under center. Greg McElroy takes over for record-breaking QB John Parker Wilson and the Tide must replace two of the premier offensive linemen in Antoine Caldwell and Andre Smith. They were two of the biggest reasons why that Alabama running game was so impressive last year. Mark Ingram will likely take over the duties of featured back with his slashing ways after scoring 12 times last year. And when McElroy isn't handing the ball off he's got Julio Jones - one of the top receivers in the game - ready and willing.
Defensive Keys: One of the best units in the nation last season figures to be just as strong. Starting with the biggest body in the South, tackle Terrence Cody, the Tide will be tough to run on once again after allowing just 74.1 yards per game last fall. All four linebackers return and the secondary will be excellent again. Although not having Rashad Johnson back at safety will be a big hole to fill. His playmaking abilities - as evidenced by his five interceptions - will be missed.
Keep An Eye On: RB Trent Richardson, LB Dont'a Hightower, CB Javier Arenas
All In The Numbers: 263.5, yards per game the Alabama defense allowed last year, third best in the nation.
Deciding Game: Nov. 7 vs. LSU
Outlook: The Tide were ahead of schedule last season, according to head coach Nick Saban, so that should bode very well for not only this year's squad but future Alabama teams. As for this year's version of the Tide, expectations are high, but predictions are varied as to whether they'll repeat as SEC West Champs. Alabama certainly has the talent to do it again and the schedule does not feature Florida or Georgia. It does, however, feature the season opener vs. Virginia Tech and a trip to Ole Miss in October. The Tide will battle the Rebels and LSU for the division and a trip to Atlanta.


Arkansas
2008 Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: The Razorbacks bring back some very talented players. Starting with QB Ryan Malllett followed by RB Michael Smith and a receiving corps that has plenty of athleticism to go around, Arkansas should pose an offensive threat with head coach Bobby Petrino calling the shots. Mallett is the presumed starter, but the transfer from Michigan does have competition in Tyler Wilson. Don't overlook that addition of RB Broderick Green, a transfer from USC who was given a waiver by the NCAA to play right away.
Defensive Keys: This side of the ball needs work after the Razorbacks put up some ugly numbers a season ago. But with so many starters back there figures to be improvement. Depth will be an issue at several positions, most notably at linebacker. DT Malcolm Sheppard could be the key playmaker for the Razorbacks. The secondary, after a shaky performance in 2008, will be asked to step it up.
Keep An Eye On: TE D.J. Williams, WR Jarius Wright, LB Jerry Franklin
All In The Numbers: 259.6, yards passing per game Arkansas averaged in `08. That should increase this fall.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 at LSU
Outlook: Winning five games last year was no small feat. Not much was expected from the Razorbacks who lost so much talent from the 2007 squad and welcomed in Petrino for his first season in Fayetteville. Now there are some expectations placed upon Arkansas and with an offense that has the potential to be very explosive, a bowl game looks like more and more of a reality every day. That said, the schedule will not be easy with road games against Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss and LSU to close out the season.


Auburn
2008 Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: New head coach Gene Chizik is going to have a heck of a time sorting out his quarterback situation. Kodi Burns, Neil Caudle, Chris Todd, Tyrik Rollison and Clint Moseley were all vying to win the starting spot before Todd was officially tabbed by Chizik and offensive coordinator Guz Malzhan. At running back, the Tigers can turn to Ben Tate and Mario Fannin. However, the stability of the offensive line will be a big question mark throughout the season. It should be better, but how will it hold up?
Defensive Keys: Chizik is a defensive coach so we should really see his signature on this side of the ball. The Tigers should be pretty good this year, but the do lose a lot from last year's squad. One player who is back is DE Antonio Coleman, a top pass rusher. Depth at linebacker will be an issue this fall while the secondary should be the unit's strength. Health will be Auburn's biggest issue on this side of the ball because they had a tough time fielding a full squad last year.
Keep An Eye On: C Ryan Pugh, LB Eltoro Freeman, LB Josh Bynes
All In The Numbers: 5-19, Chizki's record at Iowa State.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 vs. Alabama
Outlook: There are plenty of things that have to be solved for the Tigers to turn around last season's disappointing campaign. But there is a lot of optimism and excitement around Auburn with the new coaching staff in place. Installing the new systems and growing comfortable with them will be a challenge. But if the offense doesn't struggle to the depths it did last fall then there's no reason why Auburn can't flirt with .500 with an upset or two.


LSU
2008 Record: 8-5 (3-5), Chick-fil-A Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: The quarterback controversy is hopefully solved with Jordan Jefferson under center. Consistency was the Tigers biggest problem last year, but Jefferson showed he can handle the offense and he'll be Les Miles' man this fall. Fortunately for Jefferson he has Charles Scott, the bruising and powerful senior running back. And at receiver, Brandon LaFell, who gets lost in the shuffle with Jones and Green, is unheralded.
Defensive Keys: Despite some excellent units, Miles hasn't quite found the right mix on defense which is why he brought in yet another new coordinator. Well-respected Tennessee coordinator John Chavis takes over in Baton Rouge were he'll look to improve the Tigers pass defense that finished 11th in the SEC and overall simplify things. All the big names from 2007's BCS Championship squad are gone, but that doesn't mean the Tigers are without any athletes. That's far from the case.
Keep An Eye On: LT Ciron Black, LB Kelvin Sheppard, FS Chad Jones
All In The Numbers: 18, rushing touchdowns for Scott last year, tops in the SEC.
Deciding Game: Nov. 7 at Alabama
Outlook: The headache that was the quarterback position should be taken care of this year with Jefferson having a full year to grasp the offense. And the offense should be much better this year. Mistakes and turnovers were a big problem for the Tigers and that should not be the case this fall. The offense will score points and the defense should hold its end of the duty as the Tigers fight tooth and nail with the Tide and Ole Miss for the SEC West. But the undoing of the Tigers could be a difficult schedule that features road games with Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss.


Mississippi
2008 Record: 9-4 (5-3), Cotton Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: The biggest concern will be the offensive line. Michael Oher is no longer protecting the left side and after the starters, the Rebels are not overly deep. But other than that the Rebels are built to score a bunch of points. Starting with QB Jevan Sneed, a Heisman Trophy candidate, Ole Miss could turn out to be the conference's most potent unit this side of Florida. They averaged 32.1 points per game last season and last season's top four rushers return. And of course there's WR Dexter McCluster. Whether he's rushing the ball or catching passes, he's one of the most dangerous playmakers in the conference, especially when he's lined up in the Wild Rebel.
Defensive Keys: Ole Miss will be strong up front yet again. Peria Jerry may not be around anymore, but that's not going to the stop the front four from being a force. DE Greg Hardy, if he's fully healthy, will be one of the conference's top pass rushers this season. They'd love to have him for more than some sporadic duty, as was the case last year, considering the pass rush could use a little improvement. The secondary returns three starters so the hope is the experience should spur on better numbers.
Keep An Eye On: WR Shay Hodge, LB Patrick Trahan, K Joshua Shene
All In The Numbers: 0, wins for the Rebels in SEC play two years ago.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 vs. LSU
Outlook: This is new territory for Houston Nutt and the Rebels. A lot is expected out of Ole Miss and last year's surprise Cotton Bowl appearance may not be enough for some fans this time out. There's talk of BCS for the Rebels if they can find their way to Atlanta. But that involves beating Alabama and LSU. The rest of the schedule will be very manageable with two games against FCS opponents and no Florida or Georgia.


Mississippi State  
2008 Record: 4-8 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: Dan Mullen takes over in Starkville and he'll bring his championship pedigree after helping guide Florida to a pair of BCS Championships. The former Gators offensive coordinator is installing his version of the spread that will feature more than its fair share of receivers. Quarterbacking duties should fall to Tyson Lee for the second straight season, but Lee could potentially be beat out by sophomore Chris Relf. Whoever wins the competition is going to need a better effort from his offensive line after the front five allowed too many sacks and created few holes for the running game a year ago.
Defensive Keys: Big things are expected of this unit after last year's respectable numbers give reason for optimism on this side of the ball. The Bulldogs were pretty good against the pass last year, allowing just 176.6 yards per game in the air. Only one starter is back in the secondary, but Charles Mitchell is the name to watch as he could take his place among the SEC's best by the season's end. The run defense, however, needs some work.
Keep An Eye On: RB Anthony Dixon, WR Brandon McRae, LB Jamar Chaney
All In The Numbers: 274.9, yards per game averaged by Mississippi State last year, 113th in the nation.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 vs. Ole Miss
Outlook: Sylvester Croom did not work out to the Bulldogs liking so they decided a change was in order after four losing seasons in five years. 2009 might make it five in six years, but since Mullen is undertaking a lot of change - especially on offense - that's only to be expected. The Bulldogs are building for the future, one they hope is based on scoring a lot of points.