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The SEC continued it's reign as the top conference in college football, following Auburn's 22-19 thriller over Oregon in Glendale to win the 2010 BCS National Championship. Will the SEC make it six in a row? It's that time of year again for me to step out on that limb and predict how the SEC will shake out in 2011. Feel free to e-mail me and let me know how wrong you think I am; and don't worry, I always take my medicine at the end of the year.
1. South Carolina Gamecocks (10-2, 6-2)
The Gamecocks enter 2011 in a position that they've never been in before - defending SEC East champions. It's impossible to predict how South Carolina will handle being the favorite in the division, but one thing's for sure, the Gamecocks are LOADED with individual talent. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and running back Marcus Lattimore make up one of the best RB/WR tandems in the nation, and quarterback Stephen Garcia - despite his off-the-field issues - has a pretty good shot at leaving Columbia as South Carolina's all-time leading passer. With Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram and true freshman Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina's pass rush will be lethal, which should help its talented - yet underachieving secondary. The first road trip of the year to Athens will dictate which team wins the East; and with so much on the line early, you have to go with the team that is better on paper.
Regular season losses: at Mississippi State, at Arkansas.
2. Georgia Bulldogs (8-4, 5-3)
Not only does Mark Richt enter 2011 on the hottest seat in the SEC, but the Bulldogs are also set up to contend for the SEC East. Quarterback Aaron Murray is coming off of a sizzling redshirt freshman campaign that saw him pass for 3,049 yards, 24 touchdowns and only eight interceptions - a better season than David Greene had as a freshman. Having the SEC's best quarterback combined with the most forgiving schedule in the SEC will make the Bulldog look good on paper, even though the Bulldogs have well-documented problems at wide receiver, running back and offensive line. The defense should be much better in Year 2 of Todd Grantham's 3-4, thanks in large part to defensive tackles Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins - both of whom can be that force at nose tackle that a 3-4 defense needs. Georgia doesn't have Alabama, LSU and Arkansas - the top three teams from the SEC West - on its schedule; and gets Auburn and Mississippi State between the hedges. If Georgia can get past South Carolina in Week 2, the Bulldogs may just win the division.
Regular season losses: Boise State, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn.
3. Florida Gators (7-5, 4-4)
Will Muschamp makes his debut as a head coach in a place where championships aren't just expected - they're required. Muschamp brought in a solid staff to help ease his transition to the head coaching role, led by former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis. With Weis comes the pro-style offense, which is a big departure from the spread that former head coach Urban Meyer brought to The Swamp. Even though quarterback John Brantley is more suited for Weis' offense, we've rarely have we seen a program switch back to the pro-style from the spread, so the offense will sputter a bit. Jeff Demps and Mike Gillislee return to the Gator backfield, and will be joined by former wide receiver Chris Rainey and redshirt freshman Mack Brown. Probably the most important item to watch over the summer is which one of those running backs will emerge as a between-the-tackles bruiser - a requirement in the pro-style offense. On defense, the star-studded recruiting class from two years ago will be the centerpiece of one of the best defenses in the country. The schedule features trips to LSU, Auburn and South Carolina, as well as the annual end-of-the-season showdown with rival Florida State.
Regular season losses: Alabama, at LSU, at Auburn, at South Carolina, Florida State.
4. Tennessee Volunteers (6-6, 2-6)
Will the real Tyler Bray please stand up? Bray solidified himself as Tennessee's starting quarterback with a strong November that saw him pass for 12 touchdowns and only four interceptions - but that was against relatively weak competition. In the spring game Bray threw for under the Mendoza Line, completing just 5-of-30 passes. Bray will have a lot of weapons, including running back Tauren Poole - one of the SEC's most underrated players. Poole ran for 1,034 yards and 11 touchdowns behind an offensive line that was mediocre at best. Wide receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers will constitute one of the nation's best wide receiver tandems. Safety Janzen Jackson is back, which is huge for Tennessee's secondary - which was a bit of a question mark earlier in the summer. Transfer defensive tackle Malik Jackson could be the SEC's "next Nick Fairley" and defensive end Jacques Smith is a star in the making; and we all know how much a good pass can disrupt an offense. Tennessee isn't there yet, but the consistency on the field will improve from last season. Head coach Derek Dooley has that team going in the right direction, even thought the 2011 record may not indicate it.
Regular season losses: at Florida, Georgia, LSU, at Alabama, South Carolina, at Arkansas.
5. Kentucky Wildcats (6-6, 2-6)
Can second-year head coach Joker Phillips lead Kentucky to a school record sixth straight bowl game? It'll be tough. Quarterback Mike Hartline, running back Derrick Locke and wide receiver Randall Cobb - three of the most important players on Kentucky's 2010 roster - are all gone, which will make Phillips' sophomore season at the helm a big-time challenge. Junior Morgan Newton solidified the starting role at quarterback, but he doesn't have a lot of firepower to work with. Raymond Sanders will get the first crack at the feature back role, and wide receiver La'Rod King has some experience, but he's never been a go-to receiver. Linebacker Danny Trevathan passed on the NFL to return to Lexington, where he will lead new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter's hybrid system. The Wildcats will go bowling, but just barely.
Regular season losses: Florida, at LSU, at South Carolina, Mississippi State, at Georgia, Tennessee.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores (3-9, 0-8)
The Commodores put their big-boy pants on this offseason, trying to lure hot shot Auburn assistant Gus Malzhan to Nashville to take over at the helm. Malzhan declined (and got P-A-I-D), forcing Vanderbilt to settle with James Franklin. Franklin has been nothing short of impressive in the offseason, but we still don't know what kind of head coach he is on the field. The Commodores ranked 112th in the nation in scoring offense (16.9 ppg) and 110th in total offense (298.3 ypg), so he certainly has his work cut out for him. Senior season Larry Smith will be back at quarterback, but don't be surprised to see junior Jordan Rodgers - the brother of Green Bay Packer Aaron Rodgers - give Smith a run for his money in fall camp. Warren Norman and Zac Stacy will make up a pretty decent SEC backfield, and that's saying something considering the firepower that the conference boasts at that position this season. Linebacker Chris Marve will lead a defense that will be better than expected at times, but remain wildly inconsistent.
Regular season losses: UConn, Ole Miss, at South Carolina, at Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, at Florida, Kentucky, at Tennessee.
T1. Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1)
Alabama comes in to 2011 as the favorite to win the SEC, despite having to replace quarterback Greg McElroy, running back Mark Ingram and wide receiver Julio Jones. Trent Richardson will step at running back, but behind him, the Crimson Tide is VERY thin. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks (who has to sit out the first two games) both are capable of filling in at wide receiver, although neither of them can block like Jones. The big question is at quarterback, where AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims continue their battle into the fall. McCarron is the odds on favorite, but he tends to be too much of a gunslinger for head coach Nick Saban, who has stated that both players could see time. On defense, all you need to know is: Josh Chapman, C.J. Mosley, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, Robert Lester. That, my friends, is a stacked roster. The Tide will drop one regular season game - at home vs. LSU. Will it cost them a shot at the SEC West title?
Regular season losses: LSU.
T1. Arkansas Razorbacks (11-1, 7-1)
Say it with me and say it with feeling: "Arkansas is a legitimate SEC and national title contender." Maybe it's the lack of national reputation that makes Arkansas the "dark horse," because you could make a legitimate case that the Hogs should enter 2011 as the SEC West favorite. They have the best receiving corps in the SEC with Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton; plus the SEC's top returning running back in Knile Davis. New quarterback Tyler Wilson blew up Auburn's secondary last season in relief of Ryan Mallett, and the SEC should expect more of the same in 2011 thanks playmakers all over the field. The only real question is at the offensive line, which is replacing three starters. Defensive end Jake Bequette and linebacker Jerry Franklin lead a veteran defense. Defenses that have been around for a while typically are opportunistic, which may be all Arkansas needs to make a legitimate title run. The Hogs will only drop one game in 2011, a road game at Alabama in late September. Will that be enough to get them to Atlanta?
Regular season losses: at Alabama.
T1. LSU Tigers (11-1, 7-1)
LSU was really good last year, despite having a quarterback that would have had trouble hitting water if he fell off a boat. Jordan Jefferson is back under center for 2011, and from all accounts, has solidified the starting spot at quarterback. With all the talent around him, if he can be just a little more consistent, it could vault the Tigers to the next level. Running back Spencer Ware rushed for 102 yards in the Cotton Bowl and then followed it up with a stellar spring, and will headline a talented group of running backs. The Tigers should have a solid receiving corps with Russell Shepard and Rueben Randle; and the offensive line returns four starters. Junior Mo Claiborne is a proven SEC cornerback, and Tyrann Mathieu was solid last season as well. Between the two of them, Patrick Peterson's absence won't be as glaring as some are making it out to be. LSU will enter the regular season finale unblemished, but drop a heartbreaker at home to Arkansas. Will that be enough to win the West?
Regular season losses: Arkansas
4. Auburn Tigers (8-4, 4-4)
Auburn will take a step back in 2011, but it won't be off of a cliff like many are expecting. The problem on the Plains isn't talent, it's experience. With Cam Newton, three receivers, and four starters on the offensive line all gone, the Tigers have some holes to fill on offense; but one of the biggest pieces of the National Title run remains - offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Malzahn set offensive records with Chris Todd at quarterback in 2009, so whether it's Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley or Kiehl Frazier taking the snaps, that offense will still be successful. Only two starters from Auburn's defense return to their positions from last season, but the Tigers have recruited well on that side of the ball, particularly on the defensive line. With road trips to Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia, Auburn's schedule is tough; but don't be surprised to see the Tigers spring and upset or two as the young players develop.
Regular season losses: at South Carolina, at Arkansas, at LSU, Alabama.
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs (7-5, 3-5)
Nine wins in Starkville is quite a feat, but Mississippi State's preseason hype has gotten just a tad bit out of control. The Bulldogs are 2-8 vs. the SEC West under Dan Mullen - both wins vs. Ole Miss. That won't cut it in the nation's best division. The Bulldogs do have a solid offense coming back, including quarterback Chris Relf, a solid rushing duo of Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins returns, and do-everything wide receiver Chad Bumphis. The biggest question for Mississippi State is the defense; and particularly, how to replace former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright. Brandon Maye, a graduate transfer from Clemson, will likely step in at middle linebacker, with a large group of contenders vying for the two spots on the outside during fall camp. The Bulldog defensive line, anchored by defensive tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox, should be solid. Mississippi State will make another bowl game, but I doubt it will be one that takes place after New Year's Eve.
Regular season losses: at Auburn, LSU, at Georgia, Alabama, at Arkansas.
6. Ole Miss Rebels (5-7, 1-7)
Barry Brunetti, a transfer from West Virginia, emerged from spring practice as the tentative starter at quarterback after getting his one-year residence requirement waived be the NCAA - continuing the trend of transfer quarterbacks in Oxford. Head coach Houston Nutt has stated several times that Brunetti is the guy "right now," so unless something drastic happens, he will be taking over following the one-year Jeremiah Masoli error. Senior Brandon Bolden rushed for 976 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and is one of the best running backs you've never heard of. Alongside Bolden is speedster Jeff Scott, who gives first-year offensive coordinator David Lee options in the running game. Defensive end Kentrell Lockett returns on the Rebel defense, after being granted a sixth year of eligibility following a torn ACL last season; but linebacker D.T. Shackleford went down with the same injury during spring camp. The Rebs have to replace their top four defensive tackles from a year ago, so that defense will be extremely vulnerable - especially early on.
Regular season losses: Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, at Auburn, at Kentucky, LSU, at Mississippi State.
SEC Championship Game
As you can see, the top three teams in the SEC West not only are tied record-wise, but all will have beaten one of the other teams atop the standings (see: Big 12 South, circa 2008). That means we go all the way down to tiebreak No. 8, which reads: "The tied team with the highest ranking in the Bowl Championship Series Standings following the last weekend of regular-season games shall be the divisional representative in the SEC Championship Game, unless the second of the tied teams is ranked within five-or-fewer places of the highest ranked tied team. In this case, the head-to-head results of the top two ranked tied teams shall determine the representative in the SEC Championship Game." Presumably, that would leave LSU out since their loss will be the final week of the regular season, thus, the Tigers will probably have the lowest BCS ranking of the three. That leaves a tie between Alabama and Arkansas, in which Alabama would hold the tiebreaker. The Tide will head to Atlanta and narrowly beat the South Carolina Gamecocks to claim the SEC Championship.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @BarrettSallee
2010/2011 Off-Season Column Archive:
Predicting The SEC - August 6, 2011
CFN Analysis: Butch Davis Gets Canned - July 28, 2011
CFN SEC Bloggers All-SEC Team - July 27, 2011
The SEC's Most Indispensable Players – July 20, 2011
King's Absence Is Huge For Georgia – July 8, 2011
Five Thoughts on the SEC Defensive Backs – July 5, 2011
Five Thoughts on the SEC LB's - June 28, 2011
Top 5 SEC Games of 2011 - June 27, 2011
Point/Counterpoint: Richt & UGA Need To Part Ways? - June 26, 2011
CFN Analysis: The NCAA Letter to UNC - June 23, 2011
Five Thoughts on the SEC DL - June 21, 2011
Top 5 SEC Out-Of-Conference Games - June 18, 2011
Five Thoughts on the SEC OL - June 13, 2011
CFN Analysis: Pryor Done at OSU - June 7, 2011
Five Thoughts on the SEC WR's - June 6, 2011
Ranking The SEC Head Coaches - June 6, 2011
Point/Counterpoint: Oversigning In The SEC II - June 4, 2011
Point/Counterpoint: Oversigning In The SEC - June 2, 2011
CFN Analysis: Tressel Resigns – May 30, 2011
Five Thoughts on SEC RB's – May 29, 2011
Ohio State & Tressel: The Hits Keep Coming – May 29, 2011
Five Thoughts on the SEC QB's – May 23, 2011
CFN Thoughts – The Extra Stipend Debate – May 22, 2011
Ealey's Transfer Leaves UGA In A Bind – May 9, 2011
Russell Wilson to the SEC? – May 5, 2011
SEC Draft Review – May 4, 2011
Five Thoughts on Janoris Jenkins – April 27, 2011
Muschamp Sets New Tone For Florida – April 26, 2011
Spring Lessons Learned – SEC East – April 24, 2011
Spring Lessons Learned – SEC West – April 20, 2011
Five Thoughts On Kentucky's Spring – April 14, 2011
Five Thoughts On Bama's Calloway – April 13, 2011
Stephen Garcia, Winning! – April 6, 2011
Stephen Garcia Suspended Indefintely – April 6, 2011
Five Thoughts On Ole Miss' Spring – April 6, 2011
Five Thoughts On Auburn's Spring – April 4, 2011
Real Sports Much Ado About… – March 31, 2011
Ainge's Addictions, And What It Means For UT – March 29, 2011
Five Thoughts On Tennessee's Spring – March 29, 2011
Tressel-Gate Has Only One Conclusion – March 26, 2011
Five Thoughts on Bama's Spring – March 25, 2011
Five Thoughts on Vandy's Spring – March 24, 2011
Five Thoughts on Florida's Spring – March 23, 2011
Bama Star Arrested – March 20, 2011
Five Thoughts on South Carolina's Spring – March 16, 2011
Five Thoughts on Arkansas' Spring – March 15, 2011
Auburn Players Arrested, Dismissed – March 12, 2011
Five Thoughts on LSU's Spring – March 11, 2011
CFN Analysis – The Too Busy Offseason – March 11, 2011
Five Thoughts on Georgia's Spring – March 9, 2011
CFN Analysis – Should Jim Tressel Have Been Fired – March 8, 2011
Five Thoughts on Mississippi State's Spring – March 6, 2011
Wheels On Newton Saga Keep Spinning – February 28, 2011
Six SEC West Spring Storylines – February 24, 2011
Kiffin and the Tennessee Issue – February 23, 2011
Six SEC East Spring Storylines – February 17, 2011
CFN Analysis – The SEC Schedule – February 10, 2011
Ealey Suspension Leaves Georgia In A Bind – February 9, 2011
SEC Signing Day Review – February 3, 2011
CFN Analysis – Signing Day 2011 – February 2, 2011
Dream Team Won't Save Richt – January 31, 2011
Five Thoughts On Kragthorpe – January 24, 2011
Ridiculously Early SEC West Rankings – January 23, 2011
LSU Hires OC Four Years Too Late – January 20, 2011
Ridiculously Early SEC East Rankings – January 19, 2011
CFN Analysis: Cam Turns Pro – January 14, 2011
BCS National Championship Review – January 11, 2011
CFN Analysis: Cotton Bowl – January 8, 2011
Five Thoughts On Why Auburn Wins – January 7, 2011
Five Thoughts On Dan Quinn – January 5, 2011
Tuesday Question: Should Rich Rod Be Fired – January 4, 2011
Five Thoughts on Charlie Weis – January 4, 2011
CFN Analysis: Charlie Weis as the Florida OC – January 3, 2011
CFN Analysis: Outback Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Gator Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Capital One Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Liberty Bowl – December 31, 2010
CFN Analysis: Music City Bowl – December 30, 2010
End Of The Season Accountability – December 27, 2010
Pryor Can't Be Compared To Newton – December 23, 2010
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 19, 2010
Malzahn Makes The Right Move – December 14, 2010
Five Thoughts on Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Florida Hires Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Cam's Heisman Landslide – December 11, 2010
Five Thoughts On Urban Meyer – December 9, 2010
Meyer Leaves Legacy, Question Marks – December 8, 2010
Click here for the 2010 regular season archive
Click here for the 2010 Three & Out archive