Aug. 7, 2006
By Brian Hardy
Brian is an assistant editor for CSTV.com and contributes on a regular basis.
SEC Western Division
The Tigers are, without a doubt, the favorite not just to win the SEC West this year, but to win the SEC title. The names they are bringing back are most notable on offense, a unit which led the SEC last year in total offense (409.8 yards per game), as well as scoring offense, averaging 32.2 ppg. The Tigers were second in rushing offense with 194.1 ypg. Senior tailback Kenny Irons played an integral part in the Tiger offense last season, rushing for 1,293 yards on 256 carries last season and scoring 13 touchdowns. Irons was named First-Team All-SEC on offense by the media heading into this year.
"I'm looking for big things from Kenny," Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville said. "We're a running team. We talk about quarterback and receivers. Our team is built on playing defense and running the football."
"Kenny is, in my opinion, the best back in the country," Auburn wideout Courtney Taylor added. "He is in the same league as Carnell (Williams) and Ronnie (Brown). He has the same characteristics as them. For you to be that good, it is all about how much you want it."
The Tigers also look to be very well off at the quarterback position, as Brandon Cox returns after getting better and better as the season went on last year, as the junior threw for 2,324 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The Tigers are coming off an 11-2 year, the second-most wins in a season in program history. Perhaps the biggest question for the Tigers heading into this season is at quarterback: starter JaMarcus Russell went down with a shoulder injury at the end of last season, forcing him to miss the Peach Bowl as well as spring practice. But at the SEC Media Days last month, LSU coach Les Miles put an end to any speculation, saying that the Tigers are going to look to Russell first.
"JaMarcus Russell, very talented," Miles said. "He's bigger and stronger than he's been. He's in better shape, better condition, and he's completely healed from the hand and the shoulder. He won 10 games for us a year ago and we're going to look to him first."
Russell led the Tigers to a 10-1 mark last season before the injury, so there's no question the guy can win. But the Tigers do have two capable quarterbacks. Matt Flynn stepped right into the mix when Russell went down and won MVP honors in a 40-3 Peach Bowl victory over Miami, completing 13-of-22 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
The backfield for the Tigers looks to be in good hands as well, as junior Alley Broussard returns from a knee injury and Justin Vincent, the team's No. 2 rusher, returns to the fold after rushing for 488 yards and five TDs on 121 carries.
The Tigers' defense will have some new faces, especially on the front seven, where only two starters return. But, many of the new starters did see a good deal of action last season, so they should be ready.
"We should do well," LSU free safety LaRon Landry said about the defense. "It started off in the weight room and then with 7-on-7 drills this summer, a lot of the young guys are stepping up. We're very relaxed and so is the team. We're happy to get started."
The Crimson Tide will be looking to contend for the West title after a 10-2 season last year where they beat Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. `Bama will be losing just two starters on offense from last season, and the returnees are highlighted by senior tailback Kenneth Darby, who rushed for 1,242 yards last season.
Meanwhile, at quarterback for the Tide will be sophomore John Parker Wilson, who will be replacing graduated QB Brodie Croyle.
`"He's a great guy," Darby said. "I think he brings a lot to the team and will do more than is expected. He has a winning spirit instilled within him; he cam from a high school that was used to winning."
"I'm excited about him personally," `Bama head coach Mike Shula said. "I think he's already a leader on this football team, no just for the offense, but for this football team. I'm anxious to see what he can do out there."
The Razorbacks will be trying to rebound from a 4-7 finish last season, but don't expect too much too soon. Getting highly touted recruit Mitch Mustain at quarterback was a huge deal, but this team still looks to be at least another two years away from really making some noise in the SEC.
But don't be surprised if the Razorbacks are able to pull off an upset or two.
"These guys are ready," Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt said. "They're hungry. Our fans are hungry. The coaches are hungry times 10. They expect to win. They expect good things to happen. That's the way I want them to feel."
Coming off a 3-8 season a year ago, the Rebels and head coach Ed Orgeron know they have a lot of work to do as Orgeron steps into his second season at the Helm in Ole Miss. And he feels that having that year on his belt is a big plus.
"Everything was new for me last year, with it being my first year as a head coach," Orgeron said. "Some things I did right, some things I did wrong. Hopefully, I don't repeat those same mistakes this year."
One name to look for on this squad is the addition of quarterback Brent Schaeffer, a transfer from Tennessee that Orgeron announced would be the team's starting quarterback come this fall.
The Bulldogs are long overdue for a winning a season, and don't expect them to get one in 2006. Even if they do improve from last year, the SEC is simply just too tough for a team like Mississippi State to win games without making drastic improvements. Over the last five seasons, the Bulldogs have won a combined 14 games, and have just six wins in head coach Sylvester Croom's two-year era.
SEC EASTERN DIVISION
The Gators are my pick to win the SEC title this year, for several reasons. First, the experience at quarterback with Chris Leak, a first-team All SEC Offense pick by the media, should help carry this team. Second of all, this marks Year Two under head coach Urban Meyer, so Leak has had a year to work under Meyer's system of offense and should be more adjusted to it.
Another thing to look for is the development of freshman quarterback Tim Tebow, who Meyer said would be the backup.
"Tim Tebow has a great advantage," Meyer said. He's learning from Chris Leak. There's a very good relationship between Chris and Tim."
If wasn't for the fact that the Bulldogs will have a new quarterback this season,
"Of course, the biggest question that we have going into the season is who's going to be the quarterback," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. "I'm pretty confident that we have at least one. I think we have more than one guy that can get the job done. Now, the job is to find out who that is and make sure that he's ready to help us win."
The Vols are coming off their first losing season since 1988 and
"I think last year was an aberration, but we still have a lot of work to do to get back to where we want to be," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "I don't think you're just going to flip a switch and say, oh, we're going to be back there. The goal is always to be in the championship mix."
The Gamecocks are coming off a 7-5 mark last season and will once again try to get out of the middle tier of teams in the SEC and take that next step up among the elite. And South Carolina might just have a shot. Last year they tied for second in the Eastern Division and were just one more win away from advancing to their first SEC championship game in history. So if the pieces fall in the right direction, who knows, the Gamecocks might just be a sleeper.
There is some talk of possibly reaching a bowl game down in Kentucky after a 3-8 season in 2005, as the Wildcats have two strong quarterbacks in Andre' Woodson and Curtis Pulley, as well as tailback Rafael Little, who rushed for 1,045 yards last year.
"I can't predict if our schedule will be able to get us into a bowl game or not,"
The Commodores took a big step last season winning five games after four straight two-win seasons. The problem is, star quarterback Jay Cutler is gone to the NFL. But Vandy coach Bobby Johnson and his team remain optimistic that despite losing Cutler, they can continue to improve.
"To tell you the truth, I think the people around Jay Cutler that we had last year were much improved over 2004, that they gave Jay Cutler a chance to shine, "Johnson said. "I think it was inprovement in those positions that helped Jay. So we expect those guys to continue to improve, and hopefully that improvement will go to other positions on our team, especially on defense, and we'll continue to get better even if we don't have Jay.