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Get those coolers packed up and those grills cleaned, because it's almost time for kickoff. We are less than two weeks away from the college football season. With the season rapidly approaching, it's time for me to step up to the plate with some bold (and sometimes not-so-bold) SEC predictions. And, don't worry, if the conference doesn't shake out this way, I always hold myself accountable at the end of the year.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
How can you pick any team other than Alabama to win the SEC West? Alabama returns eight players from an offense that ranked fourth in the SEC in total offense in 2009, including Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, quarterback Greg McElroy and the electric Trent Richardson. However, the Crimson Tide's foundation is defense, and that's where all the focus has been this summer. With nine starters to replace on defense, and Marcell Dareus' eligibility questions, there will be some holes to fill early in the season. Big problem – Alabama has some early landmines to navigate through, with games vs. Penn State, at Arkansas, vs. Florida and at South Carolina all before October 6. They will rebuild that defense enough to win the SEC West, but they will not go through the SEC regular season unblemished. By December, Alabama probably will be playing the best football in the country, but a couple of early losses will prevent them from winning back-to-back national championships. Their consolation prize will be a revenge win over Florida in the Georgia Dome, which will prevent the Gators from getting to the BCS Championship Game.
Regular season losses: Arkansas, Florida
2. Auburn Tigers (9-3, 5-3 SEC)
The Tigers return four starters on their offensive line, their top four receivers, four of their top five rushers and welcome quarterback Cameron Newton to the Plains. Newton will provide the running threat at quarterback that Auburn didn't have last season. With an offense that typically scores quickly, Auburn has to have the best-conditioned and deepest defense in the conference. The return of Mike McNeil, Aairon Savage and Zac Etheridge in the secondary allowed Auburn to move freshman All-SEC safety Darren Bates to linebacker to provide depth at a position that was razor-thin in 2009. Aside from the Iron Bowl, most of Auburn's difficult games will played on the Plains in 2010; including games against LSU, Clemson, Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina. For the first time since the divisional split in 1992, the Iron Bowl will serve as the SEC West Championship Game.
Regular season losses: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama
3. Arkansas Razorbacks (9-3, 5-3 SEC)
Talk about being stacked on offense. Arkansas returns a Heisman-caliber quarterback, 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. With playmakers littering the roster, including wide receivers Greg Childs and Joe Adams, tight end D.J. Williams and a running back corps that goes four-deep, the Razorbacks will put up video game numbers again in 2010. Defense, on the other hand, has been an issue. Jerry Franklin is a solid linebacker, but he can't do it all by himself. Just like last year, Arkansas' offense will win them a few games, but their defense will lose a few for them too. With Florida falling off their schedule in favor of Vanderbilt; and Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU all at home, Arkansas' schedule is much kinder this season than it was in 2009.
Regular season losses: Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina
4. LSU Tigers (6-6, 4-4 SEC)
This time last year, LSU fans would defend Les Miles with great fervor when anyone dared to criticize 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. The two big problems last year were the rushing attack and the offensive line. The three-headed monster of Stevan Ridley, Michael Ford and Richard Murphy will stabilize the running game after the departure of Charles Scott and Keiland Williams. Up front, the Tigers lost Ciron Black and Lyle Hitt off of an offensive line that allowed 37 sacks in 2009 – tied for last place in the SEC. The poor play from the offensive line was the primary reason quarterback Jordan Jefferson was inconsistent last year. With an opening week game against North Carolina – one of the toughest defenses in the country – the Tigers better get it fixed in a hurry. On defense, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard moves outside and cornerback Patrick Peterson will anchor the secondary. With John Chavis at the controls, LSU's defense is poised to have a big season again. But if they can't move the ball, will it matter? LSU will be better than the 6-6 record indicates, but that won't be enough to satisfy the LSU fan base or keep Les Miles employed.
Regular season losses: North Carolina, West Virginia, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs (5-7, 2-6 SEC)
Dan Mullen may not have made a bowl game last year, but that doesn't mean that his inaugural campaign was a disappointment. The Bulldogs went 5-7 in Mullen's first season, 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 redshirt freshman LaDarius Perkins, who has been impressive playing the "Percy Position" this summer. Defensively, the Bulldogs will be better-than-advertised, and it all starts up front. Junior college transfer Pernell McPhee, who earned second-team All-SEC honors a year ago, returns at defensive end. With games at LSU, Alabama and Florida, the schedule certainly isn't going to do them any favors. The Bulldogs will show major improvement on the field in Mullen's second year at the helm, but a tough out-of-conference loss to Houston will eliminate them from bowl consideration.
Regular season losses: Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Houston, Florida, Alabama, Arkansas
6. Ole Miss Rebels (5-7, 1-7 SEC)
Last year the Rebels were the chic pick to jump into 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. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is a nice late-summer addition, but opposing defenses will key on him and force someone else to beat them. One candidate will be running back Brandon Bolden. The junior rushed for 614 yards last season, but less than 300 of those yards came in conference games. The defense will be solid, with Kentrell Lockett and Jerrell Powe anchoring a defensive line that could be one of the best in the SEC. 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 travel to Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee. With an easy schedule early in the season, they'll get out to a hot start, but it won't last. You can't coach experience, and virtually every team in the SEC West has a lot more of it than the Rebels.
Regular season losses: Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi State
1. Florida Gators (12-0, 8-0 SEC)
Needless to say, there are quite a few question marks in Gainesville. Urban Meyer returns after an extended leave of absence (18 hours), John Brantley replaces Tim Tebow at quarterback, and the Gators lose Joe Haden, Brandon Spikes and Carlos Dunlap off of their heralded defense. The good news for the Gators is that most of the SEC East has just as many question marks as they do. Florida struggled with the absence of Percy Harvin last season, but stud freshman Andre Debose and junior Chris Rainey will step into that role and be the sparks that the Florida offense needs. Haden received all the pub last year in the Gator secondary, but junior Janoris Jenkins and senior Ahmad Black aren't exactly pushovers. Aside from the road game at Alabama, the schedule sets up pretty well for the Gators. If they can topple the Tide in T-Town, they will head to Atlanta unscathed for the second straight season.
Regular season losses: None
2. South Carolina Gamecocks (9-3, 6-2 SEC)
The South Carolina fan base has been in a perpetual state of frustration for nearly a century. That changes a bit in 2010 thanks to the boat load of talent returning to Columbia and the uncertainty in the rest of the SEC East. Quarterback Stephen Garcia has drawn the ire of head coach Steve Spurrier throughout the spring and summer, but I still believe that it's more motivation than actual competition. Whether it's Garcia or freshman Connor Shaw taking the snaps, weapons like running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Tori Gurley will go a long way in stabilizing the offense. Defensively the Gamecocks return defensive end Cliff Matthews and stud defensive backs Stephon Gilmore and Chris Culliver. They get most of their tough games at home, but travel to Florida in mid-November to wrap up SEC play. That trip to the Swamp could decide the SEC East champion.
Regular season losses: Alabama, Florida, Clemson
3. Georgia Bulldogs (9-3, 5-3 SEC)
Georgia has to replace six starters on defense, install a new defense and replace a starting quarterback. Generally speaking, that's not a recipe for success in the SEC. Aaron Murray is a complete unknown, and if he's inconsistent – or worse, ineffective – the Bulldogs will have to move Logan Gray back to quarterback or rely on true freshman Hutson Mason to take the snaps. But head coach Mark Richt has coached successful freshmen quarterbacks in the past (see: David Greene and Matt Stafford), so Murray should be fine. The Bulldogs do get the benefit of an offensive line that's seven-deep with experienced talent. The running backs, Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, emerged late in the season last year. But in the last five games, the they didn't play against a rushing defense ranked higher than No. 68 in the country (Georgia Tech). Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's new 3-4 scheme will allow outside linebacker Justin Houston to become a household name by the time we hit October; but the combination of defensive question marks and a new quarterback might haunt Georgia in a few games. On the field, the Bulldogs will be improved, but won't be world beaters. A forgiving schedule will get the Bulldogs back to a respectable place in the SEC East and take any perceived (or, in reality, non-existent) heat off of head coach Mark Richt.
Regular season losses: South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida
4. Kentucky Wildcats (7-5, 3-5 SEC)
In a normal situation, you'd think that a first-year head coach taking over at a non-traditional football school could 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. The fact that quarterback Mike Hartline took so long to win the job might scare Wildcats' fans, but he's been a serviceable quarterback in that offense before, so there's not too much to worry about. Wildcat QB/wide receiver Randall Cobb and highly-underrated running back Derrick Locke will provide stability for the Kentucky offense, even if Hartline sputters. Defensively, the Wildcats have some questions to answer They lose defensive tackle Corey Peters, linebackers Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell and cornerback Trevard Lindley. Senior defensive end DeQuin Evans will be the anchor of the defensive line and leading returning tackler Danny Trevathan will step in to start at linebacker. Kentucky is an underrated program, and will jump up in bite you if you're not careful. The Wildcats will make their fifth straight bowl game, extending the school record.
Regular season losses: Florida, Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi State
5. Tennessee Volunteers (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
Aside from USC, no team in America has had a more turbulent off-season than then Tennessee Volunteers. Derek Dooley steps in to lead the Vols after posting a 17-20 record at Louisiana Tech. It wasn't a flashy hire like Tennessee made with Kiffin, but it'll do. The quarterback situation has pretty much been settled, with junior college transfer Matt Simms the likely winner over freshman Tyler Bray. The defense loses safety Eric Berry, but Janzen Jackson, who's still recovering from a hamstring injury, will fill in and be find for first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Vols also get linebacker Nick Reveiz back from a knee injury that he suffered four games into the 2009 season. 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.
Regular season losses: Oregon, Florida, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky
6. Vanderbilt Commodores (2-10, 0-8 SEC)
Considering they didn't win a conference game last season, there's really no place else to put the 'Dores. First-year head coach Robbie Caldwell has his work cut out for him, after taking over for the recently-retired Bobby Johnson. They do return sophomore running back Warren Norman, who put up 783 rushing yards and three touchdowns en route to winning the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year award. But Norman has been slowed this summer with swelling in his knee, and backup Zac Stacy has missed most of camp with a knee injury of his own. Quarterback is a point of contention for the Commodores. Larry Smith completed only 46.7 percent of his passes last year. That number has to improve for the 'Dores to be competitive. If Vandy can boast anything as a program, it can produce quality linebackers – and 2010 won't be an exception. Junior Chris Marve is All-SEC caliber linebacker, and returns to anchor a defense that was ninth in the country in passing defense last season. They'll have a decent defense again, but for the second straight season, offensive inconsistency will haunt the Dores and they will go winless in the SEC.
Regular season losses: Northwestern, LSU, Ole Miss, Connecticut, Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee
SEC Championship Game
For the third-straight season, Alabama and Florida will meet in the Georgia Dome to decide the champion of college football's toughest conference. Only this time, it will be a rematch from earlier this season. Alabama will avenge a home loss to the Gators earlier in the year, and win the SEC Championship for the second-straight season. For the Gators, there will be an argument that a one-loss SEC team deserves a spot in the National Championship, even though they didn't take home the SEC Title. That won't happen though. To the dismay of many, Boise State will get their shot at the crystal football in Glendale, Ariz., where they will take on the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @BarrettSallee
Click here for the 2010 Three & Out archive
2010 Column Archive:
Predicting The SEC – August 23, 2010
Top Five Games Inside The SEC – August 22, 2010
Ranking The SEC Out-Of-Conference Games – August 21, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part IV – August 10, 2010
SEC Teams In The Coaches Poll – August 7, 2010
Ranking The SEC Head Coaches – August 2, 2010
SEC Media Days: Day 3 Recap – July 23, 2010
SEC Media Days: Day 2 Recap – July 22, 2010
SEC Media Days: Day 1 Recap – July 21, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part III – July 13, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part II – June 21, 2010
Auburn Gets The Last Laugh – June 10, 2010
Realignment – What Should The SEC Do? – June 9, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part I – June 7, 2010
Richt On The Hot Seat? – June 3, 2010
Auburn Dismisses Redshirt Freshman RB – May 21, 2010
SEC Hires of the Decade – The Bottom Five – May 14, 2010
Top 5 SEC Hires of the Decade – May 5, 2010
Georgia In A Gray Area – April 26, 2009
Taunting Rule Goes Too Far – April 16, 2009
Memorable SEC Press Conferences – February 20, 2009
2010 Early SEC Picks, Part 2 – February 18, 2009
2010 Early SEC Picks, Part 1 – February 16, 2009
Florida Reaches For DC – February 12, 2009
Vols Go West For New DC – February 3, 2009
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