SEC Preview

Florida, LSU favorites to win their respective divisions

Aug. 27, 2007

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By Adam Caparell

CSTV.com

 



ADAM CAPARELL

Adam is CSTV.com's football editor and national football writer.
E-mail here!

The SEC, the reigning king of all football conferences, surely has not lost its fastball.

 

Nine teams went to bowl games in 2006, two won BCS games and Florida was the national champion, the fifth title for the league in the last 15 years. All told, six teams won their bowl games, the most in the conference's 75-year history.

 

Yes, the league is as strong as ever, with all its schools finally off probation and featuring plenty of national title contenders yet again.


 

 

 

"Year in and year out, it's the toughest league of any in the country," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "I don't think that's going to change any time soon."

 

The Vols are one of several teams that could very easily be playing for the conference championship Dec. 1 and a potential berth in the national championship along with LSU, Florida and Auburn.

 

But will those teams survive the grueling SEC schedule that's practically impossible to navigate through undefeated? The chances are slim because there's so much talent and so many good teams in the league that running through your slate of eight conference games unscathed is nothing short of a miracle.

 

Other conferences feature some very good teams, but none of the other five BCS conferences features the kind of depth, speed, skill and physical play that the 12 teams in the SEC can boast.

 

"You can tell there's a difference," Georgia senior center Fernando Velasco said. "I really feel like the SEC is the best conference in the country. There's a lot of talent."

 

And plenty of legitimate national title contenders.

 

East --- CSTV's SEC East Preview

 

Florida - 2006: 13-1 Overall, 7-1 SEC

Offense

The defending national champs welcome in a new and very young starting quarterback. But since it is Tim Tebow, it's not such a big deal.

 

Granted, it'll be interesting to see how the sophomore handles the pressure of running the offense all on his own, and actually throwing the ball more than a few times per game, but coach Urban Meyer is giddy over the idea that he has another quarterback - in the mold of Alex Smith - to run his spread offense the way it's supposed to be run.

 

"Tim's ready to play quarterback at Florida," Meyer said. "A big part of that is because he's already had two spring practices under his belt."

 

And when Tebow cocks his arm back to throw, he'll be searching for Andre "Bubba" Caldwell, who decided to return to school, and Percy Harvin, who yet again will see plenty of hand-offs, reverses and screen passes so he can utilize his blazing speed. He's been slowed by a bothersome Achilles during camp, but if healthy you'd be hard pressed to find anyone faster than him in the conference.

 

And don't think for a second that Tebow doesn't have an arm. He can zing it with the best of them, but it'll be interesting to see how well he's grasped the nuances of the offense as the season unfolds. And of course, he'll be running the ball again.

 

The offensive line, quite possibly Florida's most underrated unit last season, returns practically intact and should clear the way for Tebow - and the running game - and protect the quarterback for those precious few seconds he's in the pocket.

 

Defense

All too often, it was Florida's defense that got the job done during last year's march to the program's second national championship. Now Meyer is faced with the unenviable task of replacing nine starters.

 

No Reggie Nelson, Brandon Siler or Jarvis Moss means there could be some considerable growing pains. Meyer said in the spring that there would be no redshirts this fall so expect to see plenty of new names and numbers.

 

The only notable returnee is defensive end Derrick Harvey, who single-handedly saved the Gators national title hopes last year when he blocked an extra point and the potential game-winning field goal against South Carolina. He'll be joined by a whole new cast in the front seven. The leader in the secondary is Tony Joiner, the only Florida defensive back on the roster who has picked off a pass.

 

"I have not seen false confidence," Joiner said. "I've seen talented groups of guys that know what is in our reach and know what we can accomplish."

 

The Skinny

Replacing nine starters on defense is a tall order. Florida's got great talent coming in, but not nearly enough to make up for what they lost. They literally had one of the best defenses in the country dismantled by graduation and defections and now it's up to freshmen and sophomores to step in.

 

But more so than anyone, the new guys up the middle - the tackles and middle linebacker - will be tested and Meyer says there's no better way to determine how good a football team is than by the strength of its middle. 

 

"If those people are productive, I think we'll be really good this year," Meyer said.

 

And the coach also feels really confident about his quarterback. He says Tebow's got "it."

 

The non-conference games are a joke, aside from Florida State. But traveling to LSU and South Carolina won't be. Every other important game is home, including the Seminoles, meaning the Gators figure to be in the driver's seat in the East, headed for a return trip to Atlanta. Youth be damned.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 Overall, 6-2 SEC

 

Tennessee - 2006: 9-4 Overall, 5-3 SEC

Offense

Phillip Fulmer thinks very highly of Erik Ainge. In fact, Fulmer thinks he's got one of the best quarterbacks in the country on his roster, if not the best.

 

"Do I think that Erik Ainge can be that kind of player? I do," Fulmer said. "I think Erik Ainge can be that kind of football player that our team can rally around, that he takes the bull by the horns and makes the plays that help you win championships."

 

That's good to hear because at the rest of the skill positions there are a lot of unknowns.

 

All his top receivers from last year are gone - most notably favorite target Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain - and in must step Lucas Taylor and Quintin Hancock, both big play threats. LaMarcus Coker, the Vols' top returning running back, was just reinstated after a two-week team suspension and will be Tennessee's featured back if he stays on the field. Arian Foster, after a disappointing 2006 campaign, hopes to return to his 2005 form and stay healthy for a change. He figures to share some of the load with Coker.

 

The Vols' offensive line is a little young, and sporting the scars of many offseason surgeries, but it's a unit that only allowed 19 sacks last season. On the other hand, they could have been better than the No. 96 rushing attack in the nation. But the offense should be in fine order. After all, David Cutcliffe is settling into his second season as the offensive coordinator. He got the Vols' passing attack to shine last season and with a year in his system under his belt, Ainge figures to be even better in 2007.

 

Defense

The problems start with the defensive line. They didn't get great pressure on opposing quarterbacks last season and weren't very good against the run. Not a good combination. And now they're even thinner with J.T. Mapu, one of the few legitimate Vols linemen, having not played in two seasons because he was on a Mormon mission.

 

"My concern on defense mostly is our defensive tackles," Fulmer said. "Replacing Justin Harrell, replacing Turk McBride is not an easy thing to do. But we can find guys in there that can play pad leverage and be intent on being good players."

 

The young and relatively inexperienced line will have to fair better than the 146.7 yards they let up against the run last year. Fortunately the linebacking corps will take some heat off of them with experience back in Jerod Mayo and Ryan Karl. 

 

The secondary is also a big question mark. Fulmer felt better about it after spring practice, but Jonathan Hefney is the lone returning starter. He's a big-time playmaker in a unit that could very easily feature a pair of junior college transfers and a freshman as starters. The other options aren't ideal considering Antonio Gaines and Marsalous Johnson were not blessed with great size (both come in around 5-foot-9).


The Skinny

There are holes to fill and questions to be answered on both sides of the ball. But Fulmer is undoubtedly more worried about the defense than the offense. He has his star quarterback and coordinator taking care of things.

 

Trips to Cal to open the season, Florida in the third week and Alabama will be difficult to say the least. But there's no LSU on the schedule, or Auburn for that matter, and a total of seven home games. Tennessee is a threat in the East, especially if they can knock off Florida right from the get go.

 

Easy to forget that it was only two seasons ago that Fulmer's Vols went 5-6.

 

"Somebody asked me if there's a magic number every year," Fulmer said. "Yeah, win `em all. That's the magic number to make everybody happy in Knoxville or the coach happy."

 

Regular Season Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 6-2 SEC

 

South Carolina - 2006: 8-5 Overall, 3-5 SEC

Offense

Steve Spurrier's a little cocky right now heading into the season because he finally thinks he's got a team ready to compete for the SEC East crown.

 

Of course, that's largely predicated on how well Blake Mitchell performs as the Gamecocks' quarterback. Mitchell showed some mettle last season in coming back from his benching to claim the quarterback position as his and had himself a very nice Liberty Bowl. But the jury is still out on Mitchell's ability to lead the team. He didn't help his reputation by being suspended for the Gamecocks' opener because he was skipping summer classes. But Spurrier likes what he sees on the football field from Mitchell - as long as he has the proper support. 

 

"Blake's the kind of quarterback where we need a running game and we need pass protection," Spurrier said. "When those two things happen, he can be very productive. He's capable of taking us a long way."

 

Luckily for Mitchell, he should have a very good running game. In fact, Spurrier thinks they're better suited to keeping the ball on the ground rather than airing it out. It's not a bad strategy considering he's got Cory Boyd and Mike Davis to carve out the yards. You could probably call them the poor man's Darren McFadden and Felix Jones - they're probably the best running duo in the SEC outside of Arkansas. However, they're running behind an offensive line that is a cause for concern. There are issues at the guard positions and with the line's overall ability to protect Mitchell and open holes for the two backs. Only one starter returns on the line that was respectable last year, but is certainly beatable this year.

 

Defense

Jasper Brinkley is the leader on the defense that was awful against the run, but respectable otherwise.

 

The middle linebacker decided to come back for his senior season and he'll be joined by his brother, Casper, at linebacker after Casper moved from defensive end to one of the outside positions. Casper was one of the leaders in sacks last season and will figure heavily in the pass rush again this season. The Gamecocks are pretty much set at linebacker.

 

Spurrier hopes he can do something about the run defense that was awful last season. Arkansas stomped on the Gamecocks last fall to the tune of 260-plus yards, and unless a relatively young group steps up, there could be more of the same in 2007. The line will be deep since Spurrier signed a bunch of defensive linemen, but maturity will be an issue.

 

The secondary doesn't feature a lot of size, but it was pretty good defending the pass last season. And lately South Carolina's had a track record of producing pros from its secondary, so there's clearly talent there.

 

The Skinny

The majority of the questions surrounding this team are on offense, namely Mitchell, and even more importantly, the offensive line, because their ability to protect Mitchell and get the running game going will ultimately decide how well Mitchell can play.

 

The Gamecocks get back Ryan Succop as their de facto kicker and that's great news for Spurrier who has his sights set on bigger and better things in Columbia.


"We've raised our goals this year," Spurrier said. "We're going to try and win the conference. We felt like we really increased our talent level at South Carolina. We've added a lot of players that we think are at a pretty close level with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee."

 

Things would have to break right for Spurrier to win the East this season, but it should tell you something because the Ol' Ball Coach doesn't usually mince words. He tells it like it is.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 8-4 Overall, 4-4 SEC

 

Georgia - 2006: 9-4 Overall, 4-4 SEC

 

Offense

The Bulldogs are now Matthew Stafford's team after the sophomore battled it out with the two Joe's last year - Tereshinski and Cox - to earn the permanent starting nod. Stafford showed some youth last season, tossing more interceptions than he'd like. But Stafford was just learning the plays and nuances of the college game. So expect bigger and better things from a very gifted young quarterback.

 

"He's so much better off than a year ago," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "I hope it shows on the field."

 

Stafford will have Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown as his featured runners, Brown the likely starter, and a receiving corps that's growing up right along with him.

 

But the real key to the offense's success? The offensive line.

 

Richt's got five early enrollees to work with on what will be a very young offensive line. But since they've been acclimated with the offense already, he's a lot less worried than he was right after the 2006 season ended.

 

"We only had six scholarship linemen after the season ended for a lot of different reasons," Richt said. "Thankfully we were able to bring in five kids at mid-year. Two junior college linemen, two prep school linemen and a true freshman. Because they were [here] in the spring, it gave the guys a chance to compete."

 

Defense

Only three starters return from a typically good Georgia defense that finished fifth nationally against the pass and eighth in total defense.


Gone up front are Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson, who combined for 14 sacks. No way is Georgia going to replace that kind of production, but the Bulldogs hope Marcus Howard can develop into a legitimate pass rushing threat in their stead.

 

The front four's ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks is even more important after the Bulldogs lost cornerback Paul Oliver to academic ineligibility. That leaves a relatively young crowd to step in and fill his shoes as best they can. But stepping in for one of the top corners in the country, let alone the SEC, will be no easy task and the rest of the defensive backs are lacking when it comes to size.

 

The Skinny

The offense was far from spectacular last year, averaging a pedestrian 311.8 yards per game. The young offensive line figures to go through some growing pains, there are big holes to fill up the ends and in the secondary.

 

That kind of formula doesn't equate to great success, especially when you take into account the brutal September schedule the Bulldogs feature: Oklahoma State and South Carolina right off the bat, followed by Alabama in Week 4 and Tennessee the first weekend of October.

 

If Georgia's not careful, the Dawgs could easily find themselves at 0-3 in conference play, leaving Georgia scrambling to get out of the SEC East doghouse.

 

"We're underdogs, we always have been, and that's how we see ourselves," strong safety Kelin Johnson said. "It's what gives us motivation."


Regular Season Prediction: 8-4 Overall, 4-4 SEC

 

Kentucky - 2006: 8-5 Overall, 4-4 SEC

Offense

This could the year Kentucky breaks through because the Wildcats have the best quarterback in the SEC.

 

That, of course, is senior Andre' Woodson, who put up some ridiculous numbers last season (3,500 yards, 31 TDs and just seven picks) and will  have a bulls-eye plastered on his back now that he's made everyone take notice of his talents.

 

"We've come a long way since I first came here as a freshman, from knowing where the program was going to where we want it to go now," Woodson said.

 

Woodson wants to go back to a bowl game after last year's Music City Bowl win and there's no reason why he won't with the likes of Keenan Burton, his senior wide out, Rafael Little, his senior running back, and Jacob Tamme, his senior tight end.

 

Only two starters return on the line, the weakness of the offense. Injuries were an issue last season and inexperience figures to be this year. The line needs to protect Woodson, who's not particularly mobile, because the offense starts and stops around him.

 

Defense

Eight starters are back. On paper that looks good, but the Wildcats were the second worst defense in the nation. They were bad against the run - ULM ran for 350 yards against the Wildcats - and horrendous against the pass, allowing an average of 269 yards per game.

 

The Wildcats mostly chalk it up to youth and inexperience, but they did force turnovers last season so there's some talent on the defense, with linebacker Wesley Woodyard being the best among them.

 

Kentucky still feels like it's being disrespected, but when you put up the kind of numbers they did last year, many will question how much of a turnaround can really be expected.

 

"I believe people are going to look at us like we won't compete well," safety Marcus McClinton said. "But they better not look at us as a homecoming game because they will be in for a rude awakening. I mean they aren't going to look at us as just a pushover team as they have done in the past."

 

The Skinny

That disrespect theme is going to be played all season long by the Wildcats. Not much was expected from them last year and all they went out and did was beat Clemson in the Music City Bowl, culminating one of the most successful seasons for the program in the past two dozen years.

 

"We've been a doormat for so many years, and now, we want people and teams to know that we are a contender and want to be a contender year in and year out," Woodson said.

 

They have the offensive weapons for sure, but the offensive line could hold them back over a tough schedule. The Wildcats get Louisville, LSU, Florida and Tennessee at home, which makes their schedule a little more manageable. An upset here or there is not without question. But the idea of Kentucky winning the SEC East - while not impossible - still seems far fetched.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 6-6, 3-5 SEC

 

Vanderbilt - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 1-7 SEC

Offense

The star on offense could very well be the SEC's most prolific receiver when the season comes to an end.

 

Earl Bennett is on pace to shatter the all-time conference mark for receptions and receiving yards - he's 48 catches and 1,071 yards away from both marks. And he's only a junior.

 

Chris Nickson, who did a very respectable job filling in for Jay Cutler last season, will be back to take the snaps and will throw Bennett's way as many times as possible. Nickson's also a threat to run at a moment's notice and contributes significantly to the Commodores' dynamic running attack. The school of thought in Nashville seems to be that the key to the offense's success will come via the run. Vanderbilt was actually one of the better rushing teams in the SEC and figures to be yet again. After all, they're bringing back five starters on the offensive line, including two of the better tackles in the conference.

 

"We have a lot of returning starters and guys who have been working extremely hard this off-season," Bennett said.

 

Defense

The defense wasn't spectacular last year, but they weren't that bad, either. Eight starters are back on a unit that was pretty good against the pass even though the secondary was very young in 2006, starting two freshmen in D.J. Moore and Joel Caldwell.

 

Jonathan Goff will help anchor the defense at linebacker, the unit that should be the strength of the Commodores. And he has every reason to believe that the Commodores will be better than last year's No. 74 showing. 

 

"The mindset of the program has changed and I just believe that coach (Bobby) Johnson and his staff have done a great job with recruiting and changing the mindset of the team," Goff said.

 

The Skinny

Yes, there's talent to be found at Vanderbilt and the offense should be a well-oiled machine when it's rolled out. Johnson is very optimistic that they can improve on last year's four wins.

 

"I think we're much more talented than we have been early in my career at Vanderbilt," Johnson said. "I think our guys feel like they can compete in this league. Their work habits reflect that."

 

Vanderbilt may have one of the best work ethics in the conference, but they don't have one of the best teams. They're better than either of the two Mississippi teams, but unfortunately the Commodores call the SEC East home. And that means at least four losses. It helps that they have eight home games, but Vanderbilt has actually been a better road team over the past several seasons.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 4-8 Overall, 1-7 SEC

 

West --- CSTV's SEC West Preview

 

LSU - 2006: 11-2 Overall, 6-2 SEC

Offense

Don't cry for the Tigers because they lost JaMarcus Russell, the top pick in last April's NFL Draft. Or that Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis are also playing professionally now as well.

 

The Tigers have an embarrassment of riches like wide out Early Doucet and three viable running backs ready and willing to handle the load.

 

Quarterbacking duties will go to Matt Flynn, a fifth-year senior, who has only made one start in his career at LSU, but that 2005 Peach Bowl performance against Miami, where he was named offensive MVP, is still carrying weight. Flynn's not the physical specimen that Russell is, but he's a lot more mobile and will run with the ball if need be.

 

With an offensive line that should be one of the best units in the conference, Flynn should have himself plenty of time to hit his big play target, Doucet. And Doucet thinks Flynn, who's been waiting to star as the Tigers signal caller for years, is ready to take the reins.

 

"He's going to be fine," Doucet said. "Matt is a poised veteran, this is his fifth year. He knows how to handle tough situations."

 

We'll see how LSU adjusts to not having Jimbo Fisher calling the plays as offensive coordinator, but coach Les Miles brought in Gary Crowton of Oregon fame. Expect to see plenty of the spread offense, Crowton's specialty.

 

Defense

Defensive coordinator Bo Pelini has built himself one heck of a squad, as eight starters return on a unit that was statistically one the best in the country last season.

 

And to boot, he brings back the best defensive tackle in the country in Glenn Dorsey, who was a surefire first-round draft pick last April. Dorsey, however, surprised many by deciding to return to school. Dorsey anchors a defensive line that's ridiculously deep at the tackle position and also features pass-rushing dynamo Tyson Jackson, who is a beast at 6-foot-5 and 292 pounds.

 

All three starters return at linebacker - Ali Highsmith, Darry Beckwith and Luke Sanders in what could be the SEC's best unit.

 

The secondary took a big hit with LaRon Landry off to the NFL. However, don't expect much in the way of a dropoff. Jonathan Zenon and Chevis Jackson return as starters at the corners who just happen to be seniors.

 

The Skinny

The Tigers lost a lot of talent off of last year's Sugar Bowl champs, but they have just as much coming back. It's almost to the point where it's becoming comical how many athletes Miles can trot onto the field.

 

"We enjoy the compliment of being talented, but that doesn't necessarily make you a great team," Miles said. "We're going to work on being a great team and look forward to this season, the schedule and all that it presents to us."

 

Other than their Week 2 meeting with Virginia Tech, the Tigers have a very easy non-conference slate. And their toughest road game? At Alabama against former coach Nick Saban. The Tigers are the cream of the crop in the West. It's theirs for the taking. After all, they say defense wins championships and LSU has a championship-caliber defense, one that can take it all the way to the BCS Championship Game in New Orleans on Jan. 7.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 11-1 Overall, 7-1 SEC

 

Auburn - 2006: 11-2 Overall, 6-2 SEC

Offense

Brandon Cox is finally healthy after he and the rest of the offense endured an injury-plagued 2006. Only problem is most of his playmakers are no longer around.

 

The senior only has three other starters back with him with notables like Kenny Irons and Courtney Taylor gone, but the Tigers will more than make due with what's left.

 

In will step Brad Lester for Irons where there shouldn't be much of a drop off. Ben Tate should also get plenty of carries, as coach Tommy Tuberville could feature a running back by committee where the two essentially share the ball. Carl Stewart also figures to get some carries, if he can shake a hamstring injury.

 

"Kenny was a great player, but we're loaded in the backfield," Cox said

 

Not having Taylor isn't the best of news for Cox, but he's got receivers to work with who are all a year older now and much more comfortable with the offense.

 

The offensive line is less experienced than Tuberville would like, with no returning starters, but Auburn won't be shuttling in freshmen and sophomores to fill the four holes on the line. The Tigers should feature plenty of upperclassmen doing the blocking.

 

Defense

Quentin Groves anchors the defensive line, and the defense as a whole, that will be one of the tougher groups in the conference to score on yet again.

 

The rushing defense allowed too many yards at times last season, but with experienced players back to man their positions, they should whittle down 2006's 124 yards per game average.


The pass defense was great last year, and with three starters in the secondary back and Groves, one of the top sackmasters in the conference last season, rushing the passer yet again, there's no reason not to think they won't be. 

 

The only glaring weakness is at linebacker where, again, Tuberville would like to see more depth. Tray Blackmon is very talented, but slightly troubled, and Groves - a married man - has taken him under his wing in hopes of straightening him out. If he can stay in the lineup for the full allotment of games this season, he'll provide a huge boost to the Tigers.

 

The Skinny

The offense struggled at times last year, but that was because people were so banged up. It was just one of those years. If the Tigers can stay healthy, chances are they'll be right there with LSU battling for West supremacy.

 

"We didn't have a good offense last year for several reasons," Tuberville said. "One, Brandon was a little beat up. We pulled the plug about middle season and just started pounding it and trying to win on defense and the kicking game. It worked pretty good for us most the time."

 

The defense will again be predictably stout, but the schedule could be a killer. Auburn plays at Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia. Florida, Arkansas and LSU all come within a four week window.


"We are a young team, and if we start out with confidence that will help our team on the road," Groves said.

 

Sure they're a young team, but a young team that should have a very good defense.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 5-3 SEC

 

Alabama - 2006: 6-7 Overall, 2-6 SEC

Offense

It's all predicated on the offensive line for the Crimson Tide. If they can improve on last year's performance, then the offensive outlook for `Bama is bright. If they perform as they did last year, when they allowed defenses to stifle their running game and pressure John Parker Wilson, then they won't live up to the huge expectations new coach Nick Saban has created in Tuscaloosa.

 

Give Wilson time to operate at quarterback and Alabama can score some points. He's a threat with his arm or with his legs and has options at receiver with DJ Hall and Keith Brown, who could very well be the best tandem in the SEC.

 

The running back position is unresolved in that Kenneth Darby is gone and Saban must turn to the likes of Jimmy Johns, Glen Coffee, Terry Grant, Roy Upchurch and a few others who all want the job. Saban would love to have two running backs emerge as his dependable ball carriers, but he'd settle right now for just one.

 

Saban's going to open up the offense a little more, so you can expect to see some new wrinkles, but it's certainly not a major overhaul of what former coach Mike Shula had installed.

 

"It has a few more spread-option plays involved," center Antoine Caldwell said. "But it is designed to get the ball in the playmakers' hands. That makes it similar in that we have the same people to run the offense."

 

Defense

Expect to see Alabama in the 3-4. They have the personnel for the formation and not for the 4-3, which they used previously, because Saban has far more game-ready linebackers than he does linemen.

 

They only managed 13 sacks last year, a paltry number, but Wallace Gilberry hopes to up that number this season after he led the team with 3.5. The Crimson Tide may not be able to go two deep at every linebacker position, but Prince Hall leads a solid, if unspectacular group.

 

Simeon Castille is the man in the secondary for Saban - he intercepted six passes last year - but two new corners must be inserted into the starting lineup. In his short time barking orders at his defense, Saban's already made a big impression on arguably his top defender.

 

"I've been playing defensive back for a long time, but it's amazing how much he taught me in just one spring," Castille said. "I was excited when I heard he was coming because I knew he was a defense guy."

 

The Skinny

It's all Saban, all the time. Every move he makes, every step he takes, Saban is being watched, dissected and critiqued like no other Crimson Tide coach before.

 

"It's a little more intense than recent years," Caldwell said. "There have been a lot more cameras in Tuscaloosa than last year."

 

But for all the headaches that Saban's brought from the attention he's received, it will be well worth it. He's a bottom-line coach and he'll get results from his team. He's won at just about every place he's landed, building successfully at Michigan State and a bringing a national championship to LSU.

 

There are young faces that will play a critical role in Alabama's ultimate fate. Saban brought in a very good class. Alabama's got a pretty tough schedule with Florida State due up in late September. They have to travel to Auburn, but their toughest games come at home. If things break right, an SEC West crown isn't totally out of the question, but things would have to really break right. Figure on `Bama falling short as they build for a big run in the following years.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 7-5, 4-4 SEC

 

Arkansas - 2006: 10-4 Overall, 7-1 SEC

Offense

Two words: Darren McFadden

 

Arkansas features the nation's top running back and a pretty good Robin to McFadden's Batman in Felix Jones.

 

McFadden, one of the Heisman Trophy favorites, ran for 1,647 yards and 14 TDs in leading the Razorbacks to the SEC West title. He'll be carrying a big target on his back, but his speed, size and ridiculous athletic ability makes him the most dangerous offensive player in the country. He's probably Arkansas' best quarterback - he threw three touchdowns last season - and you'll see plenty of the Wildhog formation this year, newly renamed from the Wildcat.

 

That's because Houston Nutt cut ties with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who brought the Wildcat with him from high school. Nutt hired David Lee, previously with the Dallas Cowboys, but not much will change philosophy wise. It's still going be a healthy dose of McFadden and Jones.

 

There are a few defections on the offensive line, losing three starters and quarterback Casey Dick had consistency issues last season. The Razorbacks don't know for sure what they'll get from him, plus top wide out Marcus Monk could be out the entire month of September with a bum knee. So pretty much it's going to be McFadden and Jones all the time. It's predictable, but it's going to work.

 

Defense

There are big, big holes to fill.

 

The Razorbacks must replace their top pass rusher and their best corner after Jamaal Anderson and Chris Houston, respectively, entered the draft. On top of that, tackle Keith Jackson is also playing on Sundays now and Marcus Harrison, who was supposed to help alleviate their losses on the defensive line, could be out the whole season after injuring his knee during the spring. There shouldn't be too much of a drop off at the end positions, and tackle Ernest Mitchell is a proven commodity. But the other tackle spot is wide open.

 

Linebacker will be anchored by Freddie Fairchild, but he's coming off an injury. There isn't a whole lot of depth to work with, but the Razorbacks will make do. The secondary, on the other hand, has some experience, with two seniors set to man the safety positions in Matt Hewitt and Michael Grant.

 

They were a respectable defense last season, but Arkansas could take a step back in 2007. Every team has holes to fill, but not the size that Arkansas is looking at.

 

The Skinny

The firestorm surrounding Nutt this offseason seems to have passed him by, but it created tons of headlines as several Arkansas fans pried into his personal life and reacted harshly to the departures of top freshman Mitch Mustain and Malzahn.

 

"This was really a different, totally different, offseason, something I've never experienced before in my 26 years of coaching," Nutt said.

 

But Nutt's survived and feels he's stronger for dealing with it. And despite the heavy losses on defense, he still has two world class college football running backs to rely on. Arkansas' non-conference schedule can be described in two words: a joke. The Hogs host Troy, North Texas, Chattanooga (in Little Rock) and FIU. They get Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State at home as well. Tough trips must be taken to Tennessee and LSU right at the end of the season, but it's a schedule the Razorbacks can take advantage of and could very easily be right in the mix for a second straight division title.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 8-4 Overall, 4-4 SEC

 

Mississippi State - 2006: 3-9 Overall, 1-7 SEC

Offense

Michael Henig saw limited action last year because of injury, but with a receiving corps that features some depth, bigger things should be expected from the offense that returns nine starters.

 

Henig has playmakers to utilize like Tony Burks and Lance Long at wide out. However, it's a different story when it comes to the rushing attack. They were bad last year, averaging just 95 yards per game in a conference where success is still largely dictated on running the ball. Now with an offensive line that returns practically intact, Anthony Dixon can pound away on the ground.

 

The offensive line is the biggest reason for optimism. They were young last year and dealt with a lot of injuries, but they're seasoned heading into 2007 and proved last year that they're capable of improving.

 

"When I look at us offensively we made significant progress. We had 22 sacks in the first six games," coach Sylvester Croom said. "Only had six in the last six. We finally pieced together an offensive line. That's been a process in itself."

 

Defense

Six starters are no longer with the Bulldogs and the defensive line was hit hardest with very little experience coming back. Depth is also an issue with this unit that doesn't feature much after the front four. Titus Brown figures to be Mississippi State's premier pass rusher.

 

"Titus is a very important factor in our football team," Croom said. "He's what I call a natural pass rusher. I expect him to have a big year for us."

 

Safety Derek Pegues and linebacker Jamar Chaney make up a nice tandem up the middle for the Bulldogs, but other than that, the cupboard's a little thin.

 

"Our team has a team concept," Croom said. "We got no superstars."

 

The Skinny

The progress that many were expecting under Croom has yet to come. He's entering his fourth season and he's only won nine games. Still, Croom remains optimistic that he can turn around the program that he was hired to rebuild.

 

"I'm extremely proud of the players who have come to our program because a lot of them, rather than choosing to go somewhere and riding on the coattails of someone else's success, they chose to be a part of building something," Croom said. "They're the ones that are building it, and builders are special people."

 

Unfortunately, they're not building fast enough. Croom has come under heat and he's simply not recruiting the kind of talent that can compete with the upper echelon teams in the SEC. It'll be another rough year in Starkville with Auburn, South Carolina, West Virginia and Arkansas all on the road. Fortunately there's no Florida, but there are certainly more losses than wins on this schedule.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 4-8, 1-7 SEC

 

Mississippi - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 2-6 SEC

Offense

Brent Schaeffer was once the future of the Rebels at quarterback, but the once highly touted signal caller is still battling it out with Seth Adams to become coach Ed Orgeron's starter.

 

Schaeffer was rumored to be contemplating a switch to receiver just a few weeks ago, but it seems as if the former Tennessee starter could sneak in and potentially steal it away from Adams, who was considered the favorite heading into fall camp. Everyone's waiting on an announcement as to who gets the nod for the opener against Memphis, but don't be surprised if we see a little of both during the season.

 

"I would like to not have a two-quarterback system," Orgeron said. "I'm not going to rule it out. I would like one guy to be our quarterback. I think the longer it goes, the better for our team."

 

Whoever it is must improve on the woeful numbers the Ole Miss offense put up last season. You can chalk that up in part to Schaeffer's unfamiliarity with his new teammates, but they put up some ugly numbers last year (15.7 points per game, 136 yards passing per game).

 

Whoever is finally tabbed as the starter will figure to hand the ball off plenty to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the SEC's third leading rusher last season. The Rebels' running attack figures to be stout yet again with an offensive line that returns several starters and will feature significantly more experience in 2007.

 

"I am very grateful for my offensive line," Green-Ellis said. "I pat them on the back every time they do something well. Last year, they were considered a makeshift offensive line before the season started and look at them now."

 

Size is one thing the receiving corps will not feature, but the Rebels have plenty of guys who caught balls last season back. It all depends on whether the quarterback, whoever he is, can get them the ball on a consistent basis.

 

Defense

In comes a new defensive coordinator in John Thompson, but out goes Patrick Willis, one of the top linebackers in the nation and far and away the Rebels' best defensive player.

 

"Patrick Willis was a great player and our leader on defense," defensive end Marcus Tillman said. "We will miss him on and off the field, but we have some guys who have been working hard to fill his shoes."

 

The only problem is that those guys will never come close to replacing one of the best middle linebackers Ole Miss has ever seen.

 

Tillman is the one known commodity on the defensive line, while the rest of his teammates up front have all battled injuries. Jamarca Sanford figures to be one of the team's top tacklers this season as he moves to strong safety. But he's only one of four starters who are back from a unit that let up a lot of yards on the ground last season.

 

"The thing I like about John Thompson is his expertise at the back end, and my expertise is the front end," Orgeron said. "I think it's going to be a great marriage. We want to have a great defensive team and I expect to have that."

 

The Skinny

Orgeron was forced to play a lot of freshmen last year - 17 to be exact - and actually only suited up 64 scholarship players at one point in the season and the results showed.

 

But he really feels like he's building some depth this year, which should be crucial in their fight to gain some respectability.

 

"I really feel that we're building depth," Orgeron said. "We actually have two offensive lines, which is new for us. We have three defensive lines across the board. "We're building depth, but it's going to take a while."

 

Orgeron just hopes he's around to see it. He hasn't produced much in the way of wins and with little hope of competing for the SEC West title anytime soon, his 7-16 record heading into the season only will loom larger and larger as speculation about his job security echoes louder and louder around Oxford. 

 

The Rebels have three easy non-conference games, but other than their annual meeting with Mississippi State, they'll be hard pressed to crack the four win plateau. Their toughest games, against the conference's best, all come at home, but Ole Miss doesn't have the fire power to stick with Florida, LSU and Auburn.

 

Regular Season Prediction: 4-8 Overall, 1-7 SEC

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