Do you have a comment? E-mail me.
The coaching silly season is over, recruiting is winding down and spring practices don't get cranking for another month or so. September can't get here fast enough! Seven months is too long to wait, so why not look ahead to the 2010 season right now?
Here's an early projection of what I think the SEC standings will look like when the calendar moves to December of 2010 (order subject to change any time between now and late August):
1. Florida Gators
It's certainly not going to be as easy as it has been in the past for Florida. Urban Meyer returns after an extended leave of absence (18 hours), John Brantley steps in at QB and the Gators lose super-stud's Joe Haden, Brandon Spikes and Carlos Dunlap off of their heralded defense. Needless to say, there are quite a few question marks in Gainesville. With road games at Alabama, Tennessee and Florida State, the Gators will likely drop a few regular season games, but still find their way to Atlanta for the third consecutive season.
2. South Carolina Gamecocks
This is the year for South Carolina. No seriously, this is the year. The South Carolina fan base has been in a perpetual state of frustration for nearly a century. That may continue past 2010, but considering Florida's instability, some team has to step up and contend – and that team is South Carolina. The Gamecocks return 19 of 22 players on both their offensive and defensive two-deep; and, other than Vandy, are the only East team to return their head coach, both coordinators and quarterback. South Carolina hosts Georgia and Tennessee, but travels to Florida in mid-November to wrap up SEC play. Don't be surprised if that trip to Gainesville decides the division title.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
The good news for Georgia is that former defensive coordinator Willie Martinez no longer maintains an Athens mailing address. Addition by subtraction at its finest. The bad news is that new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has to replace six defensive starters, including Rennie Curran and Reshad Jones, both of whom bolted early for the NFL. The Bulldogs will most likely replace recently-departed quarterback Joe Cox with Aaron Murray, a redshirt freshman from Tampa, Fla. Defensive question marks and a new QB? No thank you. Georgia finishes at 6-6 or 7-5. The bigger question is, will that kind of record cost Mark Richt his job? 6-6 will. 7-5 probably won't unless one of those losses is, say, at Colorado.
4. Kentucky Wildcats
The loss of Rich Brooks will hurt the Wildcats. If any coach in the SEC was more underrated than Brooks, I haven't seen him. In a normal situation, you'd think that a first-year head coach taking over at a non-traditional football school may have some speed bumps. I don't think that happens with Joker Phillips. This is a transition that the Wildcats have prepared for, so Phillips should be as comfortable as any first-year coach can be. With quarterback Mike Hartline back after an injury, wildcat QB/wide receiver Randall Cobb and the highly-underrated running back Derrick Locke all returning, Kentucky should be able to make it back to a decent bowl game for the fifth straight year.
5. Tennessee Volunteers
For the second straight season, no team in America has had a more turbulent off-season than then Tennessee Volunteers. This go 'round, Lane Kiffin (who is grossly unqualified for either job) bolted Knoxville “Baltimore Colts-style” in favor of greener pastures in L.A., leaving Vols AD Mike Hamilton scrambling to find a coach. Derek Dooley steps in to lead the Vols after posting a 17-20 record at Louisiana Tech. It wasn't a flashy hire like Hamilton made with Kiffin, but it'll do. The general consensus is that there will be major hurdles for the first-year coach to jump in order to make the Vols contenders again. Contrarily, last season, everyone in Knoxville seemed to think Kiffin could compete in the SEC right away. Reality is somewhere in-between. Tennessee will go bowling, but probably not somewhere in Florida.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores
Ya think Bobby Johnson regrets not moving on from Vanderbilt after leading them to their first bowl win in a quarter-century two years ago? Considering they didn't win a conference game last season, there's really no place else to put the 'Dores. They do return sophomore running back Warren Norman, who put up 783 rushing yards and three touchdowns as a freshman. If you haven't heard of him, you should get to know his name. He was the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year and set the conference record for most all-purpose yards by a freshman (1,941). So they've got that going for them. But that's about it. Expect another year in the cellar in Nashville.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
How can you pick any team other than Alabama to win the SEC West? Offensively, the defending national champions return reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, senior quarterback Greg McElroy and stud wide receiver Julio Jones. However, the Crimson Tide's foundation is defense, and there could be some issues there. Gone are defensive linemen Terrence Cody and Brandon Deaderick, linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive backs Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson. Those are some big names to replace. Alabama has a fairly sketchy schedule, with games vs. Penn State, at Arkansas, vs. Florida and at South Carolina. They will rebuild that defense enough to win the SEC West, but expect at least one loss along the way. That could be enough to knock them out of the national championship hunt.
2. Arkansas Razorbacks
Judging from the quarterback play in the Senior Bowl, Ryan Mallett made a VERY bad choice returning to Fayetteville. I'm sure Arkansas fans are okay with his decision though. The second-team All-SEC performer returns to lead a Razorback offense that is returning three of its four leading rushers and four of its five leading receivers from 2009. Not bad considering the Hogs were the third-best offense in the conference last season, averaging 427 yards per game. They couldn't really stop anybody last year, and that's a bit of a problem. But with Florida falling off their schedule in favor of Vanderbilt, and Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU all at home, Arkansas is likely headed to Jerry World or one of the Florida bowls come January.
3. Auburn Tigers
The Auburn offense amassed more yards last year than any other offense in school history. There's more where that came from. The Tigers return four starters on their offensive line, their top four receivers, four of their top five rushers and have JUCO transfer Cameron Newton, who is a perfect fit for offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's system, stepping in at quarterback. The problem is, with an offense that typically scores quickly, Auburn has to have the best-conditioned and deepest defense in the conference. They didn't have either last year, and not much has changed in the new decade. However, aside from the Iron Bowl, most of Auburn's difficult games will played on the Plains; including games against LSU, Clemson, Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina. Another New Years Day bowl is in Auburn's future.
4. LSU Tigers
This time last year, LSU fans would defend Les Miles with great fervor when anyone dared to criticized the Mad Hatter. After two mangled two-minute drills that included some of the most horrific clock management ever seen, Miles has jumped the shark in the minds of many LSU fans. It's make or break time for Miles – only he doesn't seem to realize it. Why else would offensive coordinator Gary Crowton still be employed? LSU couldn't run the ball last year, even when former All-SEC running back Charles Scott was healthy. If they couldn't do it last year, do you think that the combination of Stevan Ridley and wildcat QB Russell Shepard can fix things? I don't. LSU wins seven games and Miles is looking for new work this time next year.
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen had an up-and-down year in his first season in Starkville. One thing is certain though, the man can coach. The Bulldogs went 5-7 in Mullen's inaugural campaign, which included a 41-27 romp over intra-state rival Ole Miss. Running back Anthony Dixon and linebacker Jamar Chaney are gone, but the Bulldogs return stud wide receiver Chad Bumphis and quarterback Tyler Russell, a four-star recruit from the 2009 class who red-shirted last season. The problem for the Bulldogs is the schedule. They travel to LSU, Alabama and Florida. A bowl game is certainly possible, but I wouldn't etch it in stone just yet.
6. Ole Miss Rebels
Last year the Rebels were the chic pick to jump in to division title contention thanks to a ton of returning players. That didn't happen. In 2010, they must contend with the losses of running back Dexter McCluster, wide receiver Shay Hodge, quarterback Jevan Snead, defensive end Greg Hardy and cornerbacks Marshay Green and Cassius Vaughn. To compound problems, rumors are swirling that Houston Nutt may replace recently-departed offensive coordinator Kent Austin with either Dave Rader or Steve Kragthorpe. Yikes. The Rebels dropped four games last year with an extremely forgiving schedule. What the schedule giveth last season, the schedule taketh away in 2010. The Rebels have to go to Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee. Expect the Rebels to return a place where they've spent a lot of their time since the division split in 1992 – SEC anonymity.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/BSallee_CFN
Off-Season Column Archive:
Early 2010 SEC Predictions – January 31, 2010
Chizik Doing It Right – January 21, 2010
Georgia's DC Debacle – January 12, 2010
SEC Bloggers: Do Over – January 8, 2010
Trouble In Baton Rouge – January 2, 2010
Meyer Calls A Reverse – December 27, 2009
Urban Meyer's SEC Legacy – December 26, 2009
End Of The Season Accountability – December 26, 2009
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 18, 2009
2009 SEC Superlatives – December 13, 2009
Click here for the 2009 Regular Season Three & Out archive