The SEC continues to establish itself as the best league in all of college football, claiming another national title in 2006 with the Florida Gators dismantling of Ohio State in the national championship game. The league sent 9 of its 12 programs into the postseason last year, winning 6, including 2 BCS games. Further demonstrating how good this league is, the SEC has won 7 of its 8 BCS games since the 2001 season, and every week the conference seems to have a national championship knock-out game on the schedule. Heading into 2007, the league again has tons of talent and athleticism to set up another thrilling chase for the league championship and its automatic BCS berth.
This year’s national title challenger appears to be an LSU program that will rely on a brutal defense and a favorable home schedule to make a run at the league’s 2nd straight national championship. The Tigers did lose 2 conference games last season, but they led the league in both scoring offense and defense in addition to total offense and defense, demonstrating how close this team really was last year. The main challengers to the Tigers look to be last year’s champ Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee, with Arkansas, Auburn, and Georgia retaining enough talent to be factors during the season. The league is likely to match last year’s 9 bowl teams, as Vanderbilt and Kentucky look to battle for that final post-season position. If the Commodores of Vandy were to achieve a bowl bid, it would be the school's 1st since a 1982 Hall of Fame bowl appearance.
1. Key #1 is which of the two new quarterbacks for league favorites Florida and LSU is more prepared to step in immediately and lead their team. Florida has the highly regarded superstar recruit in Tim Tebow, who did more running than passing last year as a true freshman, so his grasp of the offense remains an unknown at this point. LSU has the veteran Matt Flynn who has exactly one start in 3 years, but that one start was an impressive one in the 2005 Peach Bowl as LSU thumped Miami. These two are critical pieces if these talented teams are to reach their potential in 2007.
2. Key #2 is a question. Is Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina program finally ready to make some noise and challenge for the league championship? The road schedule is brutal, but this is the most talent assembled in Columbia in years, and the Gamecock faithful are clamoring for more than 8 wins this season. The defense looks nasty, and with Spurrier putting together the offensive game plan, this team looks to be a major player in the title chase.
3. Key #3: do not expect to sleep walk to a win over Vanderbilt anymore, as this program has greatly improved over the past few seasons. This year’s bunch of Commodores returns 18 starters from last year's group that put major scares into Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida, and earned a win over Georgia. Expect Vanderbilt to turn a few of those close losses into wins this season and to play a major role in deciding who emerges victorious in the tight SEC East race.
OFFENSE: The Tide will rely on the arm of quarterback John Parker Wilson and the fleet feet of a talented receiving corps that returns its top 4 pass catchers from a season ago. The leader of the receiving corps is D.J. Hall, who is coming off a 62 reception, 1,056 yard season as one of the SEC’s top wide-outs. The offensive line is experienced and deep with all 5 starters returning, led by tackle Andre Smith, the next great Bama lineman. One concern is a running game that struggled last season, finishing 9th in the conference at 123.1 yards per game. Backs Terry Grant and Jimmy Johns are battling to take over the starting assignment from the graduated Ken Darby.
DEFENSE: The Tide will switch to a 3-4 defense this season that is focused on an extensive number of blitz packages to generate a more consistent pass rush. They struggled last season in reaching the quarterback, finishing last in the conference as they recorded a dismal 13 sacks on the season. The leader of the back four is shutdown cornerback Simeon Castille, who recorded 6 interceptions last season and also finished 4th on the team in tackles, showcasing his all around skills as a run stuffing force as well. If a pass rush can be developed, this can be one of the SEC’s top units.
SPECIAL TEAMS: All starters are back in this group, led by kicker Jamie Christensen who connected on 13 of 17 kicks last season. The Tide will look for increased production out of punter P.J. Fitzgerald after he averaged 38.2 yards per kick last season, finishing 8th in the league. The return game should show major improvement with Javier Arenas back after gaining a great deal of experience as a true freshman last season.
COACHING: In the off-season's most publicized hire, the Tide returns Nick Saban to the college game after his 2 seasons with the Miami Dolphins. This will be Saban’s 2nd stint in the league after he spent 5 seasons at LSU and won a national championship in 2003. Expectations are immense in Tuscaloosa, and if nothing else, Saban is focused on ending a 5 game losing skid to in-state rival Auburn.
SCHEDULE: The home schedule is tremendous, featuring a who’s who of SEC powerhouses as Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and LSU all visit Bryant-Denny Stadium. The season finale is the standard battle with Auburn, this time on the road, while the highlight of the non-conference schedule is a trip to Jacksonville to battle Florida State. The schedule lines up nicely with the toughest conference games all at home, where the Tide is 17-5 over the past 3 seasons.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Tide take advantage of their home schedule and have enough talent and experience to be playing in the SEC championship game on December 1st. The return of 9 starters on offense, including the entire line, sparks major improvement in scoring production, while Saban’s strength in developing defenses turns the Tide into one of the league’s toughest groups.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Tide fails to build on last season and finishes in 4th place in the SEC West. The defense struggles adapting to the new system as the inexperienced front line gets manhandled by the top SEC offensive lines. The lack of experienced runners makes John Parker Wilson solely responsible for leading the offense, and he is unable to win games on his own.
MAKE OR BREAK: There are tons of choices on the schedule, but after 5 straight losses, which was a huge reason behind the dismissal of Mike Shula, the Tide needs to beat Auburn this season. A win over the Tigers will set the tone for Saban as he tries to sell the Tide as Alabama’s premier program. Either Terry Grant or Jimmy Johns needs to emerge at the running back position to support the passing game; otherwise it will be another season of mediocre offense, with opposing defenses able to focus on punishing Wilson.
OFFENSE: The Hog offense is centered around returning Heisman runner-up Darren McFadden and back-up Felix Jones, who led the Razorbacks to the top rushing offense in the SEC last season. McFadden is the definition of a work horse, as he carried the ball 284 times last year for 1,647 yards, while Jones rushed for 1,168 of his own yards, averaging 7.6 per carry. Arkansas needs quarterback Casey Dick to develop into a threat in the passing game after he completed less than 50% of his attempts last year. Defenses will focus all of their resources on slowing the Hog rushing game until Dick can demonstrate an ability to throw the ball effectively.
DEFENSE: This unit has some huge names to replace in Jamaal Anderson and Keith Jackson, plus the potential loss of tackle Marcus Harrison who was injured in the spring. The key to this group will be to find capable playmakers on the defensive line, and ends Antwain Robinson and Malcolm Sheppard are capable of stepping up and becoming the next stars of the group. The secondary needs to find replacements for 3 starters and looks to be susceptible to the league’s top passing games. There is talent across this unit, but this group is likely to have a decline in production this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Hogs had big time trouble in the kicking game last season as Jeremy Davis missed on 7 out of his 13 attempts. Enter freshman Alex Tejada, who has a big leg and will be counted on to stabilize the field goal game. Davis now shifts over to assume the punting duties, in the hopes of improving on last year’s 11th place average in the SEC. The strength of this group is in the kick return game as both Felix Jones and Darren McFadden are just as productive returning kicks as they are running the ball.
COACHING: Houston Nutt has had a successful tenure in Fayetteville, going 67-44 in his 9 years at the helm. Even with the recent success, Nutt still finds himself on the hot seat and needs to keep the momentum rolling after last year’s 10-4 record. A significant change to the staff is the addition of David Lee as offensive coordinator, and his main task is to kick start a struggling passing game.
SCHEDULE: Arkansas needs to get rolling early as they are at home in 5 of their initial 6 games, highlighted by a visit from Auburn on October 13th. The non-conference slate is filled with winnable games against Chattanooga and 3 Sun Belt conference foes in Troy, North Texas, and Florida International. The toughest stretch occurs in November as the Hogs host South Carolina and then take visits to both Tennessee and LSU.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Arkansas finds itself a semblance of a passing game to combine with the lethal running combination of McFadden and Jones. The dynamic offense is enough to lift the Razorbacks to a 9 win season and a return to a New Year’s Day Bowl game for a 2nd consecutive season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The offense continues to be one dimensional, and the defense struggles with a rebuilt line not yet up to the level of SEC play. The combination of these factors leads to a season of Arkansas struggles, and a 7 win season appears to be much more likely. The 4 non-conference lay-ups almost guarantee a return trip to the post-season even with the worst case scenario.
MAKE OR BREAK: The September 15th visit to West division challenger Alabama is huge for the Hogs season, as a win in this one should launch Arkansas to a 5-0 start before Auburn visits. Quarterback Casey Dick has to show improvement; completing less than 50% of his passes again this season will not allow this team to reach its potential. He actually saw a decline in his production as the season progressed last year and will need a quick start to regain his confidence.
OFFENSE: The Tigers were unable to develop a consistent passing game last season as the offensive line struggled in protection, allowing 34 sacks, while the receiving corps did not have enough play makers to open up the offensive attack. This season, Auburn is focused on developing a running game to pound on opposing defenses, and to do so, they will rely on the talented combination of Brad Lester and Ben Tate. Only one starter returns on the line in King Dunlap as this group remains an area of concern.
DEFENSE: The Tigers almost always produce a top-notch defensive unit, and last season was no different as the group yielded just 13.9 points per game. The leader of the unit is a talented defensive line that will be a disruptive force led by Quentin Groves and his 9.5 sacks, along with rising star Sen’Derrick Marks. A huge concern after spring ball was a secondary that gave up passing yardage in major chunks and clearly will miss out on the leadership of David Irons. In order to earn a repeat of last season’s results, the back 4 must develop into a more consistent group, relying especially on Jonathan Wilhite to become a shutdown corner.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Entering the fall, the kicking game remains wide open and is a major question with Zach Kutch the most likely candidate to start the season. Ryan Shoemaker has the task of replacing the conference's best punter in Kody Bliss, and like the place kicking, the punt game is likely to suffer a decline this season. The kick returners are the best in the SEC, led by Tristan Davis and Brad Lester, while the punt return game needs an upgrade, as Robert Dunn looks to improve on his 5.5 average of last season, resulting in an 11th place finish in the conference.
COACHING: Head coach Tommy Tuberville has restored Auburn as a national power in his 9 years in charge of this program, guiding the Tigers to outright or shared division titles in 5 of the past 7 seasons. A key to Tuberville’s success has been surrounding himself with well respected assistants in defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Al Borges.
SCHEDULE: The good news is that Auburn hosts 8 home games this season, highlighted by the season ending battle with Alabama. The bad news is that the 4 road games are as tough as they come with the Tigers traveling to Florida, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia. The non-conference slate is manageable, with a visit from rising power South Florida an interesting game on September 8th.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Tigers take advantage of their home schedule, sweeping all 8 games, and split their 4 road games to earn a 10 win season. The offense develops more consistency and leads to a balanced attack with the powerful rushing game setting up an improved pass offense.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Tigers suffer an upset loss in week #2 to an improving South Florida program and then are overwhelmed by the brutal road schedule as the program declines to a 7 win season. The pass defense just is not good enough to withstand the high powered SEC passing attacks, and the defense suffers a decline in production.
MAKE OR BREAK: A visit to the defending national champion Florida on September 29th could set the stage for a huge season at Auburn, as with a win in this one the Tigers have the potential for a 6-0 start heading into their game with Arkansas. Quarterback Brandon Cox has the potential to be a leader of this offense, but he has not been consistent up to this point in his career. His improvement can be the difference between a good or a great season.
OFFENSE: The Gators return 6 starters from the SEC’s 2nd highest scoring offense from last season, and for the 1st time in 4 years, they will be without quarterback Chris Leak. Enter Tim Tebow, who not only is the Gators' leading returning passer but he is also the team's returning rusher after a 469 yard season. Tebow is the perfect fit for Meyer’s spread offense, but he only attempted 33 passes last year so he may still be on the learning curve this season. A huge positive for Tebow will be the return of a top notch receiving corps led by Andre Caldwell and Percy Harvin and an experienced and deep offensive line.
DEFENSE: This group needs to be rebuilt as there are only 2 starters returning in defensive end Derrick Harvey and safety Tony Joiner. The good news is that there is tons of talent available to choose from after consecutive years of outstanding recruiting in Gainesville. The strength of this group looks to be a linebacking corps that will be led by future stars Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe. This group may not be great in the early part of the season, but come November, expect to see a different unit as the players develop into a cohesive defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game will be a focus in the fall with Jonathan Phillips the expected starter, and additional production is expected from this position. The Gators are likely to rely on a true freshman to punt as Chas Henry gets the call after averaging 45.1 per kick in high school. The punt returning is in good hands with Brandon James, but Florida needs more out of a kick return group that finished 11th in the conference last year. This group is a concern with little experience in the kicking game, and it may cause trouble in a tight game.
COACHING: It will be difficult to improve on Urban Meyer’s initial 2 seasons at Florida, where he has compiled a 22-4 record, won two bowl games, and is coming off a national championship season. The question is what can Meyer do now that he has brought in players that fit his system perfectly. The sky appears to be the limit for the future of this program. Meyer has surrounded himself with strong assistants in co-defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen.
SCHEDULE: The schedule opens with two lay-ups against Western Kentucky and Troy, before the huge East division battle at home versus Tennessee. A tough back-to-back stretch occurs in late September and the 1st week of October when the Gators host Auburn and then travel to SEC West favorite LSU. The season ends as it always does with in-state rival Florida State, with this year's game at home in Gainesville. Overall, Florida has 7 home games, 1 neutral site game in the state of Florida, and only 4 true road trips.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Gators talent develops quicker than expected, and Florida finds themselves back in the SEC championship game. With so many starters that need to be replaced, expecting a repeat trip to the national title game appears to be out of reach, but this program is surging right now and expectations are that high.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The loss of 14 starters impacts both sides of the football, and the inexperience of Tebow in directing the entire offensive game plan is felt as he must learn on the fly. There is too much talent in place to slip too far in the standings, but a 4 loss season is within reason with the always tough and unforgiving SEC schedule.
MAKE OR BREAK: Tim Tebow has to step in and take command of this offense if the Gators are going to have a successful season by their standards. The Urban Meyer offense revolves around the quarterback position and Tebow appears to be the perfect fit; now is his time to shine. The September 15th battle with Tennessee is always important, and with the game being in week #3, it will be a great yard stick to see how far Tebow and the Gator offense has developed in the early going.
OFFENSE: The Dawg offense is centered around rising star quarterback Matthew Stafford, who stepped in and took over the starting assignment last year as a true freshman. Stafford struggled along the way, tossing 13 interceptions against 7 touchdowns, but the playbook was also limited as Stafford gained experience. Georgia hopes to have running back Thomas Brown back after he suffered a season ending knee injury last year to combine with last year’s leading rusher Kregg Lumpkin to take the heat off of Stafford. The line is a concern with only 2 starters returning and a true freshman as the likely starter in Trinton Sturdivant.
DEFENSE: A defense filled with inexperience will need to develop quickly if Georgia is to challenge for a division title. The strength of this unit looked to be the secondary in the spring, but the loss of returning starting cornerback Paul Oliver now has raised questions in the back four. The defensive front will rely on tackles Jeff Owens and Kade Weston as the only returning starters of a group that must replace top-notch talent. Georgia was the 3rd best defensive unit in the league last year, but this group is likely to struggle a bit in the early going as the new faces develop in the Bulldog system.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Georgia has one of the best, if not the best, kickers in the league in Brandon Couto, who connected on 10 of his 11 attempts last year before being injured. On the other hand, the punting situation is unsettled with Brian Mimbs looking to take over the job, but to do so he will have to keep the talented freshman Drew Butler off the field. The punt return unit is in great hands with one of the best in the nation handling the duties in Mikey Henderson, while Asher Allen takes care of the kick returns again this season.
COACHING: Mark Richt is entering his 7th season in charge of the Georgia program, directing the Dawgs to a 61-17 record in that span, and twice being named the conference coach of the year. Richt is a strong offensive mind, but he has relinquished the play calling duties to his young offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo. Willie Martinez has done a great job as defensive coordinator, and he will continually be pursued for head coaching jobs in the future.
SCHEDULE: The initial 2 weeks of the season are tough with visits from a vastly improved Oklahoma State program and then division rival South Carolina. The road schedule presents major challenges as Georgia must travel to Alabama, Tennessee, pesky Vanderbilt, and in-state rival Georgia Tech, in addition to a neutral field game with Florida. The home slate is highlighted by a November 10th visit from Auburn.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Georgia has enough talent on campus to win the Eastern division title and get back to their 2nd SEC championship game in 3 seasons. The offense takes a huge step forward as Stafford progresses by leaps and bounds in his 2nd season behind center and develops into one of the league’s best.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....Georgia stumbles out of the gate in their first 2 games and ends up finishing in 4th place in the East division. The new faces on both the offensive and defensive lines are not yet ready for rugged SEC play, and both units' production drop into the lower tier of the conference standings.
MAKE OR BREAK: The opener is a huge game for this team as Oklahoma State heads to Athens. Georgia cannot afford to lose to this dangerous OSU team, especially with league challenger South Carolina lurking in week #2. The offensive line development is critical to the success of this team, and true freshman Trinton Sturdivant and redshirt freshman Chris Davis are projected to start on the left side of the line. The development of Sturdivant and Davis is critical, as otherwise Stafford will spend all game running for his life and likely will not reach his vast potential.
OFFENSE: If you asked college football fans what team led the SEC in passing, there are not too many folks who would reply the Kentucky Wildcats. But, led by quarterback Andre Woodson, the Wildcats did just that in 2006, throwing for 276.7 yards per game as Woodson tossed 31 touchdowns against only 7 interceptions. Woodson has a strong receiving corps at his disposal again this season, led by Keenan Burton and Dicky Lyons, who combined for 127 receptions last season. A major concern on this group is the offensive line that struggled last season and does not appear to be much improved in 2007.
DEFENSE: As good as the Kentucky pass offense was last season, the pass defense was just as bad, finishing last in the league. The secondary struggled all last season as 5 freshman saw action, so there is experience returning, but the back 4 still appears to be a work in progress this season. The rushing defense was not much better, finishing 11th in the conference as the defensive line struggled all season long, and it looks to be much of the same in 2007 as the Cats still have questions that need to be answered.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kentucky does return both its kickers, but needs additional production from the group. Lones Seiber hit on 11 of his 19 field goal attempts, while Tim Masthay averaged 39.2 on his punts. The return game is top notch, led by the best punt returner in the league in Rafael Little, who averaged an amazing 22.6 yards per return, while Keenan Burton is also near the top of the league in returning kicks.
COACHING: Rich Brooks has done a nice job in rebuilding this Cat program, taking his team to their 1st bowl game in 7 years as UK won the Music City Bowl over Clemson. He was rewarded with a 4 year contract extension last year in response to his strong 2006 season. An adjustment to the staff this year is new defensive coordinator Steve Brown, who takes on the huge job of rebuilding the SEC’s worst unit.
SCHEDULE: Kentucky has set up a nice schedule this season, as they host 8 teams in Commonwealth Stadium. The non-conference slate is light, with one large exception, a visit from Louisville on September 15th. The conference schedule is highlighted by visits from LSU, Florida, and Tennessee, while road trips to Arkansas, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Georgia will be key to the Cats' bowl hopes.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Kentucky earns a 2nd consecutive bowl bid and reaches 7 or 8 wins on the season. The offense becomes even more explosive as the offensive line improves enough to add a strong running game to an already lethal passing attack.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Cats defensive struggles continue, and they are unable to repeat last year’s performance, battling to win 4 or 5 games on the season. The Kentucky offense is very good, but without major defensive improvement, this could end up being a long season in Lexington.
MAKE OR BREAK: Kentucky fans are circling September 15th on their calendar as in-state rival Louisville will pay a visit to UK. The Cardinals have dominated the series in recent years, winning 4 straight and 7 out of 8, including last season’s 31 point thrashing. Kentucky needs to break this streak, and that would be a great start before the kick-off of SEC play. The pass defense has to show major improvement with cornerback Trevard Lindley leading the way in a group loaded with underclassmen, as the development of this group is critical to UK’s success.
OFFENSE: The LSU attack will be adjusted this season to a quicker, up-tempo offense that also adds the option into the Tiger game plan. The favorite to direct the new offense is Matt Flynn, who saw minimal action last season, but did showcase his talents in the 2005 Peach Bowl where he started and led LSU to a 40-3 rout of Miami. Flynn will have at his disposal numerous weapons, led by receiver Early Doucet and running back Keiland Williams. There are 4 starters back on the offensive line, led by guard Herman Johnson and tackle Ciron Black on the left side, and this group is one of the SEC’s top units.
DEFENSE: The perfect word to describe this group is nasty. The defensive power begins on the defensive line and All-American candidates in Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson, both players who spend a majority of their time in the opponent’s backfield. The linebackers look to be just as good a unit as the line with Darry Beckwith and Ali Highsmith making it nearly impossible for teams to establish a running game against this group. If there is one area of concern, it is that LSU has to replace both starting safeties, but the corners look to be in great shape, led by all-SEC candidate Jonathan Zenon and Chevis Jackson.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game will remain in the hands of Colt David, who was average last season, hitting on 8 of his 13 attempts. Patrick Fisher takes over punting duties, and he has a total of 6 punts in his Tiger career and will need to demonstrate consistency with his big leg. An area that the Tigers are looking for improvement is the return game, as LSU finished 7th in the kick-off and 8th in the punt return games last year. Early Doucet returns and should have an improved 2007 season in establishing Tiger field position.
COACHING: Les Miles is heading into his 3rd season at Baton Rouge and now has firmly established his stamp on the LSU program as the staff is now entirely his. There was an offensive shake-up in the off-season as Miles added 3 new assistants to his staff, headlined by new coordinator Gary Crowton. Expect more running out of the quarterback position this year with Crowton, who also has a strong reputation in developing QB talent.
SCHEDULE: The schedule sets up nicely for a national championship run as LSU will play host to its toughest opponents on the season. Highlighting the home schedule is a great battle in week #2 when Virginia Tech visits, while conference foes heading to Baton Rouge include South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas. The toughest road battle looks to be a trip to Alabama on the 1st Saturday of November.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....LSU will be lining up in the Louisiana Superdome on January 7th as they play for the national championship. The defense has the potential to be the best group in the nation with all-star candidates all over the field. The top-notch defense should provide the offense with time to pick up the newly installed system.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....LSU stumbles in week #2 against Virginia Tech and ends the season in 2nd place in the SEC West. There is too much talent on hand to fall below 9 wins on the year, and a 9 win season would be a major disappointment for the LSU faithful. The offense has a few questions that still need to be answered, and if a key leader gets injured on the offensive side, the unit could struggle.
MAKE OR BREAK: The November 3rd trip to Alabama looks like it could be for the SEC West title. The Tigers have won 6 of 7 in this series and will look to continue their dominance in 2007. Quarterback Matt Flynn has huge shoes to fill with the departure of JaMarcus Russell, and he is talented but does lack experience. He will be key to the success of the new spread offense, along with wide receiver Early Doucet.
OFFENSE: The Rebel offense will be centered around star running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who rumbled for 1,000 yards last season without the help of any type of consistent passing game. Green-Ellis can look forward to running behind a line that returns 4 starters and should provide more running room in 2007. The quarterback situation is unstable with last year’s starter Brent Schaeffer struggling enough that he may lose his starting assignment to Seth Adams, with the most recent rumblings out of Oxford having Schaeffer shifting to wide receiver as Adams takes over behind center. Whoever emerges at QB must improve over last season’s production as the Rebels finished last in the SEC in passing offense.
DEFENSE: The Rebels will stick with their 4-3 scheme to focus on the strength of the defense, an impressive defensive line. The line returns a great deal of talent, as 8 players with experience are back, led by an emerging star in end Marcus Tillman. The linebacking unit needs to be rebuilt after the departure of all-time great Patrick Willis and 2 other starters. Opponents will look to expose this inexperienced group until the Rebels can settle on a stable starting unit. Mississippi finished 9th in the league in pass defense last season and will have 2 new starters at cornerback in the hopes of upgrading the back 4.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Josh Shene is a solid place kicker, as he connected on 14 of 17 last season, including a long of 52 yards. Also returning is punter Rob Park, who will look to improve on his 38.9 average of last season. The return game is in excellent hands with Marshay Green who has breakaway potential on every return as he handles both the punt and kick return duties.
COACHING: The Rebel fans are beginning to become restless as Ed Orgeron begins his 3rd year in Oxford. In his initial 2 seasons, the Rebels have won 7 out of 23 games and have not demonstrated the improvement expected to this point. In the hopes of improving the team’s defensive performance, Orgeron brought in new defensive coordinator John Thompson, a highly regarded defensive mind who was in charge of the East Carolina program for the past 2 seasons.
SCHEDULE: The Rebels open with their standard battle against Memphis, this time on the road, then host an interesting game as Missouri heads to Oxford. The home schedule is filled with tough games as Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU are slated, while the toughest road games are at Georgia, Auburn, and the season finale against in-state rival Mississippi State.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Mississippi wins 6 games and earns a return to the post-season for the 1st time since 2003. This is still a young team, and earning a .500 record can do wonders for the confidence of the players as the Rebels look to build for a strong 2008 season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The losing trend continues and Mississippi ends the season with only 2 or 3 wins. The offense remains a one man show with Green-Ellis the only star, and he cannot carry the load alone yet again in the tough SEC.
MAKE OR BREAK: The initial 3 games are critical to this team’s bowl hopes as Ole Miss travels to Memphis and Vanderbilt and hosts Missouri. The Rebels need to win 2 of these initial 3 contests before games against Florida and Georgia follow the last two weekends in September. Either Brent Schaeffer or Seth Adams must improve the passing game that struggled for the entire 2007 season. Schaeffer only completed 47.1% of his passes and did not use his athleticism nearly enough, as he is an excellent runner and can add another dimension to his game.
OFFENSE: The Bulldogs return 9 starters to build on last season’s group which finished 11th in the SEC in scoring offense at 18.4 points per game. The 4 starting returning offensive linemen will be counted on to pave the way for the two-headed ground attack, led by last year’s leading rusher in Anthony Dixon and incoming potential star freshman Robert Elliot. In order for this group to show any type of substantial improvement, quarterback Michael Henig must improve on his 43.8% completion percentage, and he has his top 5 receivers back to help him to do just that.
DEFENSE: MSU needs to replace 6 starters and rebuild a defensive line that only brings back one player with substantial game experience in defensive end Titus Brown. The game plan will be focused around a speedy linebacking corps, led by returning starters Gabe O’Neal and Jamar Chaney. The Bulldogs will need the front 7 to generate a strong pass rush as the starting cornerbacks are new and are likely to be exploited if they are left too long in coverage.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Dawg special teams had major struggles last season as kicker Adam Carlson only connected on 6 of his 12 attempts, while Blake McAdams averaged a paltry 38.2 yards per kick. The return game looks to be in good hands as Derek Pegues helped MSU finish 3rd in the league in punt returns and 6th in kick-off returns.
COACHING: Sylvester Croom needs to get this program moving now in his 4th season as the head coach, after only winning 3 games per season in his first 3 years in charge. Without substantial improvement in total wins this season, it could be Croom’s last in Starkville. In the hopes of getting his Bulldogs to the next step, Croom has added 4 new assistants this year, including former coach Rockey Felcker, who takes over as running backs coach.
SCHEDULE: The Bulldogs have 3 winnable non-conference games on the schedule, beginning with a visit to Tulane and then home contests with Gardner-Webb and UAB. The final non-conference game is a trip to West Virginia, a game that the Bulldogs lost 42-14 at home last season. The conference home schedule is highlighted by an opening weekend visit from LSU, a mid-October game with Tennessee, and a November 10th battle with Alabama.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Mississippi State wins 6 games and becomes bowl eligible for the 1st time since the 2000 season. The Bulldogs win 3 of their 4 non-conference games to add much needed confidence to a group that has not been used to winning for too long of a time.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Bulldogs finish their 4th consecutive season with 3 wins. The offensive struggles continue without the threat of a legitimate passing game, while the defense remains unable to defend against the pass as MSU gets carved up by the top SEC passing games.
MAKE OR BREAK: A mid-season battle with Tennessee looms large to the overall success of the season. By that time, the young defense will have 6 games under its belt, and for this team to entertain post-season hopes, it will need a breakthrough performance at home. Quarterback Michael Henig may hold the key to this team’s success. Last season he struggled early and then was injured and missed substantial time. If Henig is still not ready to emerge, junior college transfer Josh Riddell may get the call.
OFFENSE: The key question surrounding this unit is whether or not quarterback Blake Mitchell is ready to assume command of this offense in his 3rd year behind center. Mitchell has been solid, but he needs to at least double his touchdown production for this offense to reach the next level. The return of Cory Boyd and Mike Davis to the backfield provides the Gamecocks with a strong running threat to combine with the upgraded passing game. The focus will be plugging the interior of the offensive line as the 3 middle starters all must be replaced.
DEFENSE: Spurrier and his offense get all the attention, but this year’s Gamecock team will be led by a top-notch defense that returns 10 starters. Leading this unit is one of the best set of linebackers in the league, with Jasper Brinkley a dominating force on the inside. This group will be extremely difficult to run on as there is speed galore in the two-deep. South Carolina finished 9th in the league last season on run defense due to a defensive line that was not as effective as the talent level of the group. If this group reaches their potential, this could definitely be the best overall defense in the SEC.
SPECIAL TEAMS: If a game comes down to a final field goal attempt, South Carolina is in good shape with Ryan Succop ready to go after a 16 for 20 season, including a long of 55 yards. Also good news is that Succop is the punter as well, and he led the Gamecocks to a 4th place finish in the league in net average. On the other hand, the return game was mediocre, and Spurrier will look to Kenny McKinley to improve on the punt return average, while Captain Munnerlyn is expected to provide a shot in the arm to the kick return game.
COACHING: The time is now for Spurrier to make this program a legitimate challenger in the SEC title chase. His first two seasons have been solid as he has compiled a 15-10 overall mark, but bids to the Independence and Liberty Bowls will not satisfy the USC faithful any longer. The addition of Tyrone Nix as defensive coordinator in 2005 was a great hire, and he will be in charge of a great group of Gamecock defenders. No need to discuss the offensive coordinator, as Spurrier is always in charge of the play calling.
SCHEDULE: The SEC road schedule is about as tough as it can be with games at Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, and Arkansas, with the only non-conference road game a visit to North Carolina. The last two weeks of the season should bring major excitement to Columbia as Florida visits followed by bitter rival Clemson to cap the campaign.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....South Carolina wins the SEC Eastern division title and battles for a BCS bid in the conference championship game. The offense looks to have the potential to be the best unit under Spurrier, and the defense is loaded with athletes that can take this program to the next level.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The brutal road schedule takes its toll, and the Gamecocks end the regular season with same record as last year at 7-5. The loss of 3 interior offensive linemen greatly impacts the group, and the middle of the line is a mess, forcing Blake Mitchell and Cory Boyd to run for their lives all game long.
MAKE OR BREAK: There is not much time to gear up as a trip to Athens to meet Georgia is scheduled in week #2. The Bulldogs look to be down a bit this season, and a win by Carolina could set in motion the makings of a great season. Who is ready to step up and replace All-American wide receiver Sidney Rice? Kenny McKinley is the leading candidate, while junior college transfer Larry Freeman will also be counted on heavily to keep the passing offense humming.
OFFENSE: The Vols have a nice base to build around in quarterback Erik Ainge, who led Tennessee to the SEC’s 2nd best passing attack last season. Ainge will be looking for a top receiver to emerge, with Lucas Taylor the leading candidate to step in as the #1 target. With the recent suspension of LaMarcus Coker, either Arian Foster or Montario Hardesty will be the top back after they ran for a combined 706 yards last season. The line will need to improve on its run blocking to improve a rushing attack that finished 10th in the SEC last year.
DEFENSE: Tennessee toyed with a switch to the 3-4 defense in the spring to focus the defense on a top set of linebackers. The stars of the backers are Jerod Mayo and Rico McCoy; both have great speed and are disruptive forces all over the field. The defensive line's production has not matched its potential over the past few seasons, especially last year when the Vols only recorded 17 sacks. There needs to be much more time spent in the opposition’s backfield this season, especially with a secondary that must replace 3 starters. Look for this group to continue to develop as the season progresses.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Vols have one of the nation's best punters in Britton Colquitt, who averaged a strong 44.9 yards per kick last year. Colquitt could also start the season as the kicker, with the eventual plan to have Daniel Lincoln assume the place kicking duties, but so far his results have been mediocre at best. Tennessee is likely to turn to Arian Foster to spice up a kick return game that finished last in the league in 2006, while Jonathan Hefney is solid on punt returns.
COACHING: Phil Fulmer is the dean of SEC coaches, heading into his 16th year in charge of the Volunteer program. There is pressure on Fulmer after recording only 2 top ten seasons in the past 8 years and not winning an SEC title during that span. Although his 77% win percentage is best among active coaches with at least 10 years of service, this is a huge year in Fulmer’s tenure in Knoxville as the orange crush are expecting a conference championship run.
SCHEDULE: The Volunteers will challenge themselves right out of the gate with a trip to California in the opener, followed by a visit from Southern Miss, and then off to a game in Gainesville with defending national champion Florida. Tennessee does get a nice break by hosting Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas, while their toughest conference road game besides Florida is an October 20th trip to Alabama.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Even with the challenging schedule, this team is talented enough to win 10 games and be a major player in the SEC championship race. The running game is established early, and combined with Ainge, the Vols have the potential to put up some major offensive numbers.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....Tennessee gets off to a 1-2 start and ends up sliding to the middle of the East division while winning 7 games. The defense continues to be gouged by the top running games and is not able to generate pressure on the quarterback as a rebuilt front line is just not sturdy enough.
MAKE OR BREAK: Tennessee fans have to circle week #3 on the calendar when they travel to Florida in one of the SEC’s best rivalries because the winner of this game moves into the driver’s seat in the East division race. Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty now assume a huge role with the potential loss of Coker, and they must contribute immediately to give the offense balance. They both shift from complementary pieces in the puzzle to key cogs in the Volunteer game plan.
OFFENSE: The Commodore offense improved greatly as the 2006 season progressed, and with the return of 10 starters, this group has the potential to be even better in 2007. Highlighting this unit is the combination of quarterback Chris Nickson and wide receiver Earl Bennett, one of the league’s top passing duos. Bennett led the SEC in receptions, catching 82 aerials for 1,146 yards on the season, and he is a great combination of size and speed that is almost impossible to stop. Vandy will look for additional production out of running back Cassen Jackson-Garrison to ease the pressure on the passing game.
DEFENSE: This group had its struggles last year, but with 8 starters returning, it should be vastly improved. The defense will be focused around a strong linebacking corps, led by all-SEC candidate Jonathan Goff who returns for his senior season after a 93 tackle effort in 2006. An area of concern is a secondary that was the 10th rated pass defense in the league last year. The good news is that 6 players who have starting experience are returning and should improve on last year’s statistics, led by a strong group of safeties.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This group could use an upgrade after a poor 2006 season. The kicker will be Bryant Hahnfeldt, who struggled through injury last year on his way to an 8 of 17 season, while Brett Upson will look to build on his 37.4 yard average. The punt return game was awful, finishing last in the league after averaging only 4.7 yards per return, and the same players are expected to start again this season. The kick return game was a little better, but still can use an upgrade with Josh Allen looking for improved production.
COACHING: Bobby Johnson has done a great job at Vanderbilt as he heads into his 6th year in charge of the Commodores. He has this program on the verge of its 1st bowl berth since 1982 and has won 9 games in the past two seasons after winning only 6 in his initial 3 seasons. That is substantial improvement for the SEC’s lone private institution as the ‘Dores continue their uphill battle.
SCHEDULE: Vanderbilt has a great set-up to start the season, hosting 5 of its first 6 opponents, including having both Alabama and Georgia visiting Nashville. On the other hand, the road schedule is brutal with trips to Auburn, South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee, the only 4 road games for the entire season. A bowl bid could be on the line in the final week of the season when Vandy hosts Wake Forest.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Vanderbilt wins 7 games on the year and enjoys the school's 1st postseason bid in 25 years. The Commodores win 4 of their first 6 games to get much needed confidence for a program that has seen nothing but struggles in the SEC. The offense takes off and becomes one of the league’s best groups with Nickson and Bennett becoming household names around the SEC.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....Vanderbilt does what they have almost always done, winning 4 or 5 games on the season and ending the year in last place in the SEC East. The defense, although more experienced, does not improve enough to slow the top offenses in the league, and 2007 becomes another year of frustration.
MAKE OR BREAK: The 2nd game of the year has huge implications for this team when Alabama visits Nashville. Vanderbilt has lost 19 straight to ‘Bama, so a win in this one could have the Commodores off to a 4-0 start. Running back Cassen Jackson-Garrison will be relied upon more heavily to jump-start a rushing attack that has struggled in recent seasons. The key for Vandy this year is to not have Nickson be the leading rusher again so the attack is much more balanced.
The SEC continues to lead the nation as the toughest conference from top to bottom, making for yet another great season of action. The defending national champion Gators of Florida have their work cut out for them as they lost a great deal of last year's starting lineup on both sides of the football to graduation. Taking over the role of favorite are the Tigers of LSU, led by the one of the most dominant defenses in the nation that will overwhelm most opponents. The prediction is for the Gators to defend their East crown in a tight battle with South Carolina and Georgia, while LSU emerges from the West, overcoming an improved Alabama team and last year’s division champion Arkansas.
In the next group and looking to be locks for postseason bids are Auburn and Tennessee, while the battle for the final SEC bowl slot looks to be between a rising Vanderbilt program and a rebuilt Kentucky team. There is a showcase game every week, and with the improvement in the bottom portion of the league, there is no week off in the battle for a berth in the championship game.