The Georgia Bulldogs finally stepped up last season in Mark Richt's second season at Georgia, finishing with a 13-1 record, BCS bowl win over Florida State, SEC East title, and SEC Championship Game win. Only three offensive and seven defensive starters return from that team. Two of those on offense, though, are all-conference type players. Junior QB David Greene threw for almost 3,000 yards last year while completing 22 of his passes for touchdowns. WR Fred Gibson, also a junior, caught 43 passes last year, four of them for TDs. DE David Pollack is one of the best in the conference, and country. Three members of the secondary, including CB Decory Bryant adn Kentrell Curry, who intercepted four passes last season, are back. UGA opens the season at Clemson, a tough but very winnable game. South Carolina travels to Athens before a trip to LSU. Following Alabama's trip to Georgia, trips to Tennessee and Vanderbilt follow. The annual matchup with Florida in Jacksonville begins the home stretch, which ends with games at home against Auburn and Kentucky, followed by a season-ending road trip to in-state rival Georgia Tech. Road games at LSU and UT will be extremely difficult, but in every other game, UGA could/should be favored. A return trip to the SEC title game is very possible in 2003, though an undefeated run is not very likely at all.
Tennnessee finished third in the East last year with a 5-3 conference record, 8-5 overall. The Vols return eight offensive and three defensive starters from 2002. QB Casey Clausen is a senior who completed over 62% of his passes last year, but threw only 11 TDs. The RBs are stacked, with Cedric Houston (779 yards, 6 TDs), Jabari Davis (569 yards, 10 TDs), and Gerald Riggs all back. FB Troy Fleming is one of the conference's best. Four of the five offensive linemen are back to protect Clausen. On defense, the star is senior FS Rashad Baker, an interceptor of 5 passes in 2002. Only one of the top five tacklers from last year's team return this season. Non-conference home games against Fresno State and Marshall won't be easy but should be wins for UT. The SEC slate opens with a trip to Gainesville, always interesting. South Carolina visits Knoxville before a crucial West vs East matchup in Auburn. The Vols then host UGA in what may end up deciding the East champ in the event of a tie. A trip to Alabama is followed by two out-of-conference matchups, a visit from Duke and a trip to Miami. Mississippi State and Vanderbilt visit UT before the Vols close out the season at Kentucky. The Volunteers will likely lose one OOC game and could fail in as many as three SEC games again this season. However, I'm giving UT a 6-2 SEC record and a tie with UGA atop the East.
The Florida Gators finished up the 2002 season with a 8-5 record after a close loss to Michigan in the Orange Bowl. Only six offensive and three defensive starters are back, and obviously the biggest loss was QB Rex Grossman to the NFL. Grossman threw for 3,400 yards and 22 TDs in '02. WR Carlos Perez is one of the best in the SEC, as is TE Ben Troupe. Only one of the top seven tacklers for UF from '02 is back. The Gators open up against SJSU at home before traveling to Miami. The SEC slate opens with Tennessee at home and is followed by a trip to Kentucky, both of which could be either won or lost easily. Next, the Gators will try to gain revenge on Mississippi for last year's lost in Oxford. Crucial trips to the West against LSU and Arkansas in back-to-back weeks may define whether the Gators are contenders in the East this season or are just around the .500 mark. The season rounds out with a trip to South Carolina and then the annual game with Florida State, this year in Gainesville. The Gators should do no worse than 2-2 out of conference but could lose as many as four or even five games in the conference.
The Kentucky Wildcats had a very impressive 2002 season, winning 7 games while losing only 5 even though they were not bowl eligible due to NCAA violations. Seven offensive starters are back this year, the most important of which is senior QB Jared Lorenzen. The big man threw for 2,200 yards and 24 TDs last year, while only throwing 5 passes to the other team. RB Artose Pinner will be hard to replace, as will WR Aaron Boone. Second-leading receiver and one of the top return men in the nation Derek Abney does return, however. Only two of the team's top nine tacklers from '02 return for this year's campaign. The non-conference slate has games against Louisville, at Indiana, Ohio, and Murray State. UK should win at least three and probably four of those. SEC games at Alabama, against Florida, at USC, at Georgia, and against Tennessee will be difficult. Another winning season overall should be happening in Lexington this season, and a .500 record in the SEC is possible.
South Carolina was a disappointing 5-7 in 2002 after winning seven games in 2001 and eight in 2002. The Gamecocks return little experience from that team, just three offensive and six defensive starters. QB Dondrial Pinkins played last year but will have to replaced the main man, Corey Jenkins. Leading WR Troy Williamson returns for only his sophomore season in '03. Seven of the team's top eleven tacklers from '02 do return for this season. Non-conference games at home against ACC opponents Virginia and Clemson could go either way. Road conference games at UT, UGA, UM, and Arkansas will be tough. I expect the Gamecocks to drop at least three of their road conference contests but pick up two or three SEC wins at home. A .500 record should be expected in Columbia this year.
Vanderbilt won only two games in 2002, one against Furman and the other against Connecticut. Six starters return on each side of the ball for the 'Dores the team's QB, Jay Cutler, as well as Vandy's top five rushing leaders. Three of the top seven tacklers from the Vandy 'D' are back as well. The Commodores should split their non-conference games and could win one SEC game, giving the 'Dores yet another two-three win season.
The SEC West will again be one of the most competitive divisions in the country this season. Leading the way will be the Auburn Tigers after having a 9-4 record in 2002. Eight starters return on each side of the ball following last season, which ended with a Capital One Bowl win over Penn State. Junior QB Jason Campbell, who split time with Daniel Cobb in '02, threw for 1,200 yards and 11 TDs last year and is returning for 2003. The backfield is stacked, with Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown, and Tre Smith all coming back. The two unpronounceable WRs, Obomanu and Aromashodu, both return. They accounted for over 500 yards and 4 receiving TDs in 2002. Four of the five OL starters also return. All four DL return, including all-SEC candidate DeMarco McNeil. LB Dontarrious Thomas is the leading tackler from last season, and LB Karlos Dansby, who INT 3 passes last year, also is back. Only two of the team's top eight tacklers from 2002 have departed. Auburn opens up at home with Southern Cal before going to Georgia Tech and then Vanderbilt to open the conference season. A trip to Arkansas is sandwiched between visits from Tennessee and Mississippi State. A trip to LSU follows, and the Tigers wrap up the season against Mississippi, at Georgia, and at home vs Alabama. The Tigers could drop one non-conference game, but I see AU coming away unscathed. The winner of the West will likely have two losses, and that's what I see for Auburn in 2003.
The Mississippi Rebels are coming off of a 7-6 season that ended with an Independence Bowl victory over Nebraska. Eight starters on each side of the ball return for Coach David Cutcliffe's fifth season in Oxford. Senior QB Eli Manning is one of the best in the country; he threw for 3,400 yards and 21 TDs last year. The running back slots are in question, but Ronald McClendon, Termaine Turner, and Vashon Pearson will likely see a majority of the carries. Manning's top three targets, Chris Collins, Mike Espy, and Bill Flowers, who accounted for a combined 16 TD catches last year, all return. Two of the five OL will have to be replaced. FS Eric Oliver by far led the UM team with 129 tackles last year and is returing to Oxford for his junior year. Four of the top five tacklers are also returning, including Von Hutchings, who also hauled in six INTs. The Rebels open at Vanderbilt before traveling to Memphis. Texas Tech returns to the Rebels' visit to Lubbock last year before a trip to Florida. Back-to-back-to-back home SEC games follow: Alabama, Arkansas, and South Carolina. The season wraps up with a trip to Auburn, a visit from LSU, and a trip to in-state rival Mississippi State. The Rebels should go unbeaten against a very easy non-conference slate. Two losses could win the West, but I think the Rebels will lose three or four in the conference this year.
The LSU Tigers let the West title slip away from them late last season and finished the year with a 8-5 record and a bowl loss to Texas. Seven offensive and six defensive starters return to Baton Rouge this season. Junior QB Matt Mauck will compete with Marcus Randall for playing time this season; both players completed 48% of their passes in '02, but Mauck had the better TD to INT ratio (9:2 compared to 7:5). All-conference rushers Domanick Davis and LaBrandon Toefield must be replaced sufficiently with sophomore RB Joseph Addai. Leading WRs Michael Clayton and Devry Henderson both return this year. Five of the Tigers' top seven tacklers are back at LSU this year to face a schedule that includes two easy non-conference games on each side of a trip to Arizona. Georgia travels to Baton Rouge before a trip to Mississippi State. Games against Florida, at South Carolina, and vs Auburn could all either be won or lost by LSU. The schedule rounds out in very difficult fashion: at Alabama, at Mississippi, and vs Arkansas. The Tigers should go unbeaten out-of-conference, but will likely suffer at least three and maybe four conference losses this year.
The Arkansas Razorbacks hung around all season long last year and slipped into the SEC Championship Game at the last minute with a victory over LSU to close out the regular season. Last year's 9-5 record included two postseason losses, to Georgia in the championship game and Minnesota in the Music City Bowl. Junior Matt Jones is one of nine returners on offense and will see time at both QB and WR this year. De'Arrius Howard and Cedric Cobbs should have the backfield under control this year. Each of the team's top four pass-catchers are back, including George Wilson (7 TDs), Richard Smith (4), DeCori Birmingham (3), and Mark Pierce (2). Nine of the team's top ten tacklers are back this season, minus Ken Hamlin. The Hogs' schedule includes a trip to Texas out of conference before a trip to Alabama opens the SEC season. Consecutive home games against Auburn and Florida won't be easy, nor will road trips to Mississippi and Kentucky. South Carolina and Mississippi State travel to UA before the season wraps up at LSU. The Hogs should be in every game they play in, but I don't feel they'll be able to work some of the magic they did last year. An SEC West title is not out of the question, but I believe the Hogs slip a little after last season's West championship, still, however, being bowl eligible.
After having winning seasons every year from 1997 to 2000, the Mississippi State Bulldogs have had back-to-back three-win seasons. Coach Jackie Sherrill, in his 13th year at MSU, needs to get the Dawgs turned around this year, or he may not be in Starkville much longer. MSU returns six offensive and seven defensive starters from last year's team that went winless in the SEC. QB Kevin Fant, who threw for almost 2,000 yards last year, is competing with Kyle York for the starting job. The backfield is loaded with two sophomores in Jerious Norwood and Nick Turner, as well as a junior in Fred Reid. Three of the team's top four WRs from last year are also back. Six of the Bulldogs' top ten tacklers return, including sophomore FS Darren Williams who had 3 INTs last season. The Bulldogs open the season at home against Oregon before going on the road to Tulane and Houston. LSU and Vanderbilt come to Starkville to open the SEC season before the Dawgs go on the road in conference play to Auburn and Kentucky. Alabama visits before consecutive road trips to Tennessee and Arkansas. The season wraps up with a visit from in-state rival Mississippi. The Bulldogs could win all of their non-conference games or as few as one or two. The SEC schedule will be fairly tough, but I feel MSU will come away with at least two or three victories, meaning the Dawgs may finally be heading back a bowl game this season.
Alabama went 10-3 last season even though there was no reward awaiting them at the end of the tunnel due to NCAA violations. Six starters on each side of the ball return this season. QB Brodie Croyle saw action last year, as did senior RB Shaud Williams, though neither are considered returning starters. Three of the team's top four WRs return to action in Tuscaloosa this year. Five of the top six tacklers for Bama are also back. The Tide opens the non-conference schedule at home with games against South Florida and Oklahoma, before Kentucky opens Bama's SEC schedule in Tuscaloosa. A game against Northern Illinois precedes a visit from Arkansas. The Tide finally goes on the road for the first time on October 4 to take on Georgia before Southern Miss travels to UA. A trip to Mississippi won't be easy, nor will a visit from the Vols. The season wraps up with a trip to MSU, a visit from LSU, and consecutive trips to Auburn and Hawaii. The Tide's non-conference schedule is one of the toughest in the country, but with four of the five at home, they should be in good shape. The SEC schedule should give the Tide anywhere from three to five wins, but with yet again no reward awaiting a good season, this year I'm saying the Tide slips down in the conference standings.