The State of the SEC
What better way to start a preview of the Southeastern Conference than to discuss where the league stands compared to the rest of the country. After three straight National Championships, the SEC has solidified itself as the Premiere Conference in College Football and is running towards the 2009 season with the best team, player and coach in the nation.
The defending National Champion Florida Gators bring back their Heisman winning Quarterback Tim Tebow, the best coach in college football Urban Meyer and nearly their entire team. Love him or hate him, Tim Tebow is going to be the biggest story line this college football season because another Gator National Championship will make him the greatest quarterback in college football history. If you think you were sick of ESPN pieces on Tebow, just wait because there will be no end to the Tebow love fest in 2009. Regardless of how you feel about the SEC's Superman, he deserves every bit of the praise he is going to get because he is a great kid and a great football player.
The SEC boasts a number of other important returnees to the league such as its best defensive player Tennessee Safety Eric Berry, breakout QB Jevan Snead from Ole Miss, the freshmen sensations at Wide Receiver Georgia's AJ Greene and Alabama's Julio Jones and former Michigan Wolverine, now Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett. All of these players should put up numbers that will give them at the very least All SEC 1st team votes and this is just scratching the surface of the leagues talent.
The league has plenty of veterans making triumphant returns, but this season there will be new faces on the field and on the sidelines. Three new coaches make their SEC debuts this September at Tennessee, Auburn and Mississippi State who will coached respectively by Lane Kiffin, Gene Chizik and Dan Mullen. Chizik and Mullen have experience in the SEC as coordinators while Kiffin comes in from time spent in California with Southern Cal and the Oakland Raiders.
Like every year the SEC dominated in recruiting taking top recruits from all over the country, some of the guys you can expect to see early and often this year would be Georgia WR Marlon Brown, LSU WR Rueben Randle, Tennessee RB Bryce Brown, Florida LB Jelani Jenkins and Arkansas DB Darius Winston. There are too many top flight recruits to mention, but these young men plus a lot more will be on the field early this season if they make it on campus.
The SEC once again is looking strong from the stands to the sidelines and from the returning starters to the incoming freshmen. The league should start the season with 3 or 4 teams in the top 10 and the overall favorite to win the National Championship which would be 4 straight for the SEC. The top is obvious, but there is a lot of discussion after the Florida Gators.
Just like last year the SEC teams will be broken into three separate groups…the Contenders, the Pretenders and the Pushovers. Each group is listed by alphabetical order only; it is not listed by any ranking within each group. Keep that in mind when you get ready to fire off those emails about why your team is behind some one you think is worse. There is going to be plenty of reason for angry emails, but they should be based on the content, not the order.
What to Like : The defense is going to be strong this season, especially at the linebacker position. Alabama might have two of the top three linebackers in the league with Rolando McClain and Donta Hightower in the middle of their defense. The skill position players are very good with Julio Jones at WR, Mark Ingram at RB and they can rotate a number of good tight ends into the game that can catch the ball very well.
What to Dislike: The offensive line lost a lot and while everyone will point to first round pick Andre Smith, the loss of Antoine Caldwell will be an even bigger loss to the team. Smith was the player everyone knows about, but Caldwell was the foundation of that line and his leadership and experience will be missed. With first year starting QB Greg McElroy needing confidence early, the offensive line will have to protect him and that starts with new Center William Vlachos.
What to Like: What there is to like could take up all the space in this column, but to start with the senior leadership on this team is not matched by any team in the country. Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes are talented, experienced and they know what it takes to win championships. With those two leading this team it is like having two additional coaches on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. The Gators speed is extremely impressive from Cornerback to Running back. Joe Haden, Jeffrey Demps, Brandon James and Chris Rainey can flat out fly. Florida is the class of the SEC going in and while the rest of the league is good, they are not in the Gators league.
What to Dislike: There is really nothing to dislike about the Gators this year. Putting Tebow under center could end up causing problems for Florida depending on how much they use it and when they use it, but that is really nitpicking. If they stay focused all season, there won't be much to complain about this year if you are a Florida fan.
What to Like: Two things stand out when looking at LSU on paper, the first is the secondary which is scary with talent and the second is the ridiculous amount of skill players on offense. New Defensive Coordinator John Chavis has never had a problem coaching elite talent in the secondary and guys like Chad Jones, Patrick Peterson and Jai Eugene are going to benefit greatly from his coaching. The receivers once again should be formidable with returning senior Brandon Lafell, Terrence Tolliver and Rueben Randle all with the size and speed the NFL covets.
What to Dislike: The quarterback position is still not the strongest part of the team and that killed LSU last season. Jordan Jefferson played very well at the end of last season, but he is still young and inexperienced. He has a ton of athletic ability and talent to succeed in the SEC, but with just a couple of starts under his belt it is impossible to know if he will be great or start strong and then fade like Jarrett Lee.
What to Like: It is impossible not to like Ole Miss' returning quarterback Jevan Snead, he is the second best QB in the league, but he may be the best pro prospect in the SEC. The passing game should be good, but the running game may be even better with young guys like Brandon Bolder and Enrique Davis ready to break out. Defensive End Greg Hardy's return for his senior season was a pleasant surprise and he should anchor a very good defensive line.
What to Dislike: The Ole Miss pass defense was last in the SEC last year and that was with Jamarca Sanford in the secondary. This year's secondary is young and undersized, so it is hard to expect them to improve that much from last year in terms of pass defense.
Most likely to move down a group: Alabama Greg McElroy has looked good in fill in duty last season and he had a very good spring practice, but his situation is not as solid as the other 3 QB's ranked in the contenders group. The offensive line for the Crimson Tide is still unknown and he has yet to start a game in his young career. The Alabama defense is good enough to carry this team if the QB doesn't make mistakes, but what young quarterback doesn't make mistakes?
What to Like: Successful offense comes from a smart offensive game-planning and a quarterback who is able to execute the offensive. Bobby Petrino should have his offense running at full speed this year due to Michigan QB transfer, Ryan Mallett. Mallett is the perfect QB to run this offense because he has a cannon for an arm and is so tall that he can see the field very well. A young defense from last year returns 8 starters and it should help the Razorbacks get back to a bowl game.
What to Dislike: The schedule is just plain nasty this season with road games at Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU. Add home games against UGA, Auburn, South Carolina and a neutral site game against Texas A&M and Arkansas may have the toughest path to the SECCG. If it weren't for the schedule this team would be fighting for the SEC West this year, but because of the tough slate a good bowl game is more likely.
What to Like: Defense has never been a problem for Auburn and while there is not a lot of depth anywhere on the team, the defense should be very good this season. Ted Roof is a great defensive coordinator and while Gene Chizik may not impress as a head coach yet, he knows defense and he knows how to coach defensive backs. The leader of the Tigers D will be 5th year senior Antonio Coleman who should have a break out year and could work his way onto the All American list.
What to Dislike: Auburn's offense has struggled for years with the passing game and this year the Tigers don't have an SEC player at the QB position and the receivers are unproven and severely lacking depth. Gus Malzahn will improve this horrid offense a little just because of the upgrade he is in coaching, but outside of running backs Ben Tate and Mario Fannin, no Auburn skill player has shown they can make plays in the SEC.
What to Like: The Georgia Bulldogs do not lack playmakers at any position on the field, especially on offense. The Wide Receiver depth chart is stacked with talent from super sophomore AJ Greene to senior WR Mike Moore and with stud freshmen Marlon Brown on his way Joe Cox should be salivating at his targets. Running back is another strong area for UGA with highly recruited Caleb King in the starting spot, but not running away with the job and change of pace scat-back, Carlton Thomas, ready to take carries away from the bigger backs with his versatility.
What to Dislike: The offensive line is once again extremely young, but they are a little more experienced this year after being all freshmen and sophomores a year ago. What is so amazing is with the talent UGA brings in each year, they are severely lacking depth at every position on the offensive line. There were a lot of injuries on the O-line last year and it hurt them, it will be the same thing this year if the injury bug returns. Georgia could be relying on true freshmen once again if players start going down.
What to Like: South Carolina fans have to love that for the first time Steve Spurrier is going into the season with no quarterback controversy. Stephen Garcia is the starter and he should get all the important snaps this summer and he won't be looking over his shoulder at the QB standing next to Spurrier on the sidelines. On the defensive side senior Eric Norwood decided not to enter the draft this past spring and will be smacking opposing quarterbacks for one final year.
What to Dislike: What was a positive for Stephen Garcia could turn into a negative for the Gamecocks if he is to get hurt. He won't be looking over his shoulder, mostly because there is no one else there. In the past South Carolina has had a quarterback carousel, but this year that ride stops if Garcia falls off. No team in the SEC is more reliant on one player than South Carolina and one injury could move them from New Year's Day bowl to home for the New Year.
Most likely to move up a group: Georgia Joe Cox is an unknown, but the last time Georgia started a 5th year senior at QB it was DJ Shockley and that team won an SEC Championship. Richt seems to do well when his teams are under the radar; both of his SEC Championships came in seasons where they were not expected to be great. UGA is always one of the most talented teams in the country and solid QB play could push a likely modest year into something special.
Most likely to move down a group: Auburn The offense might be better this year, it is almost impossible for it not to be, but the QB situation is a mess, the team has very little depth and the October schedule will be brutal. October was the start of the Auburn downfall last year and this year is no better. With games at Tennessee, at Arkansas, home with Kentucky, at LSU and home against Ole Miss it is possible they could lose all of those games. September isn't overly difficult and they could get some positive momentum, but unless a player steps up at QB 2009 may remind Auburn fans a lot of 2008.
What to Like: The Kentucky defense has two of the SEC's best defensive players in LB Micah Johnson and CB Trevard Lindley. These two senior leaders should be huge for the Wildcats but this defense would have been even better if it still had Jeremy Jarmon on the team. Lindley is the best cornerback in the league and Johnson is a physical force at almost 260 pounds. It will be interesting to see if Johnson spends any time at defensive end with the off-season losses Kentucky has had at that position. No matter where he plays, he should end up as an All SEC performer this season along with Lindley.
What to Dislike: Moving Randall Cobb to wide receiver was the worst decision Rich Brooks has made while at Kentucky. College Football has moved into a time when teams want their best player to touch the ball every play at QB or just more often. Cobb at receiver means he will catch maybe 5 balls a game and maybe another 7-8 times on a reverse or in a Wildcat formation. This makes no sense when your current QB, Mike Hartline, has not proven to be any better than Cobb. Put money down in Vegas that Cobb will be the starting QB come October and Brooks will take serious heat for this decision.
What to Like: Dan Mullen seems to be a pretty smart guy, he looked at his team and during spring practice he tried to emphasize their strengths or more like strength. The best thing MSU has going for them is Anthony Dixon and Dixon is not even close to a spread running back. He is 100% power I back, but Mullen will use him often in his offense because he is the best option they have. That is smart coaching and that is something that should encourage Bulldog fans about Dan Mullen.
What to Dislike: Outside of Dixon there are zero offensive playmakers and the offensive players they have do not yet fit the spread that Mullen is going to try and run. The offensive line is not great and mostly inexperienced while the quarterback situation is among the SEC's worst. There is no player on the team that can currently run the spread and Mullen may have to bring out his entire bag of tricks to keep this team competitive.
What to Like: This should be a very good Volunteer defense with all the players returning and the coaches Lane Kiffin brought in. Ed Orgeron is a great defensive line coach and Monte Kiffin is a NFL defensive guru that should have quick success in the college ranks. Junior Eric Berry is the best defensive player in the country and he might be Tennessee's biggest threat on offense. The Tennessee defense is very experience with 10 of the 11 starters in their junior or senior years.
What to Dislike: Schedule and quarterback might be the two most important factors for college football teams and Tennessee has it bad in both of these. The QB situation rivals Auburn's and Mississippi State for the leagues worst and the first eight games include only two sure wins. Tennessee's schedule is always soft at the end of the year, but their September and October is just plain mean. The first two months of the season gives the Vols games against UCLA, Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
What to Like: Would it surprise you that Vanderbilt may have the best quarterback situation in the SEC outside of Florida. Both Mackenzie Adams and Larry Smith are big time offensive threats at the QB position and they both should play a lot this year. Expect to see a lot of the running QB Adams and the passer Smith in games because they are both dynamic players and it will cause SEC defenses problems all year long. Last year defense was the reason Vandy made it to a bowl game, but with all the losses on that side of the ball, the offense should be the reason they make it back to the postseason in 2009.
What to Dislike: The receiving core is shaky and they were hit by a couple injuries this spring that devastated the WR depth charts. The offense will be better due to the great QB play, but it will not be pretty at times. Starting wide receivers Terence Jeffers, Alex Washington and John Cole have a combined 13 receptions and every one of those receptions belongs to Alex Washington.
Most likely to move up a group: Tennessee: Lane Kiffin is a relative unknown to the SEC so it wouldn't shock anyone to see the Vols start out great or fall apart. If Kiffin can get through to any of his quarterbacks the offense could be better and the defense will not be put in as many terrible spots as they were last season. The Tennessee defense will be really good, maybe great and if the Vols can sustain drives, stop turning the ball over and complete more than 50% of their passes this team is talented enough to make it to a good bowl game.
What was wrong? What was right? Let me know what you think of the SEC this season. E-mail
me Brian Harbach