It seems really hard to call 2008 a down year for the best conference in America when a third straight national championship entered the coffers, but that's exactly what happened. The offenses were mediocre at best, the defenses were not up to the normal caliber, and rebuilding programs littered the landscape. While Vanderbilt and Alabama were great stories, the poor years of Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee overshadowed these success stories. Nevertheless, the SEc pulled it together in bowl season mostly and Florida won another hard-fought BCS Championship game. The conference would love to make it 4-for-4 in BCS Championships since the BCS added that fifth bowl, and again Florida is poised to become a true dynasty. The best news of all if that the SEC will be better overall in 2009, re-cementing them as the best in America.
While there's no doubt these Gators have joined Miami and USC as the dynasty-like programs, Florida will need to do something all of those teams could not do: win two consecutive national championships. Florida only has to speak to their basketball program to understand what a challenge this is, but coach Urban Meyer will do his best to keep the Gators focused on the task. On the bright side, Florida has perhaps the easiest schedule of any of these dynasties we are speaking of this time around and have lost absolutely nobody outside of Percy Harvin has left. QB Tim Tebow will look to become a more well-rounded passer this season to give defenses even mroe to think about, while the defense returns all 11 starters from an outstanding unit. This team is so good it could lose a game and likely still end up in Pasadena, much like the LSU team from two seasons ago. The season comes down to a road game at LSU and the Jacksonville game against Georgia. Win one or both of these and we'll see the Gator chomp going for all the marbles again.
Gerogia has nothing to be ashamed of after eight seasons of the Mark Richt era, but watching Florida and LSU swoop to 4 national titles has left Bulldog fans wondering when it will be their turn. Last year all the pieces were in place and Georgia just couldn't get over the Tebow hurdle. This year the Bulldogs must replace two of the best athletes in program history in Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, but there's still good talent on both lines and enough in the tank for a chance to knock off the vaunted Gators. Unlike last year when all the pressure was put on the two stars, look for the bulldogs to fly under the radar and play the underdog role very well, as only injuries should hold this program back from another January bowl game. The fans might not be incredibly happy being the bridesmaid again, but this is certainly better than rebuilding.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Speaking of overlooked programs, Alabama raced to 12-0 a year before the Crimson Tide was supposed to be great, and then two losses later to Florida and Utah, and everybody is ignoring the Tide thanks to Florida. Although John Parker Wilson is gone, Greg McElroy will be an even better quarterback for Nick Saban's offense. The defense should be able to plug the minor holes left by graduation as well, and the new stable of running backs will be more than adequate. The opening game against Virginia Tech will be just as important as last year's tilt with Clemson in really removing one contender from the national title hunt. The Tide misses Georgia and Florida as well, so winning the home game against LSU will put Alabama right back in the play-in game to the BCS Championship, also known as the SEC conference championship. Expect another January bowl game for this team.
LSU seems to be running on a four year cycle these days, ramping up to a national title every four years and dropping to mediocrity every second year after the title. LSU jumped the gun a bit on rebuilding last year by falling apart at the end of the season to finish 7-5, but a dismantling of Georgia Tech proved LSU could be back this season. Les Miles has spent the offseason really plugging the holes and problem areas from 2008, such as the defensive line. While there may not be any household names going into the season on the offense, look for WR Brandon LaFell and RB Charles Scott to become superstars in their senior seasons. The only problem for the Tigers is the most brutal schedule in the country, even with a joke non-conference slate. Road games at Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama join a home date with Florida, all of which will probably derail the LSU train. Make no mistake, LSU will steal one or two of these games and may end up in the conference championship again with a chance to ruin Florida's dynasty dreams.
IN THE MIX
South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina seems to be a program that is better than expected with unknown coaches and worse than expected when they land a big fish. Steve Spurrier is trying to escape the same fate as Lou Holtz as the Gamecocks try to break into the competitive echelon of the East Division. It will be tough with Florida and Georgia being so good, but the Gamecocks are better than the past couple of seasons. The offensive line will probably determine whether the offense does enough to carry the team into legitimate battles with the better teams on the schedule. The defense has been more solid than most expected for a Spurrier team, and don't expect that to stop this year with fantastic LB Eric Norwood and LB Rodney Paulk. USC should be good for a couple surprises and another bowl appearance.
Kentucky is definitely a basketball school, but Rich Brooks has given Wildcat fans a reason to pay attention before the hoops season comes around. The Wildcats had a lot of close losses and wins last season and could've ended up with nine wins as eaily as three. As it turns out, Kentucky made another bowl game and won it this time with budding young talent which will be better-developed this year thanks to the experience. The defensive line is solid and the offensive line should be much better. The battle in the trenches will be crucial for UK to stay competitive in the SEC in 2009. Look for LB Danny Travathan and CB Trevard Lindley to give even Tim Tebow fits in the conference battles.
While the Mississippi athletic department seems to expect too much from the football program, this could be the season Ole Miss finally breaks out nationally as the fanbase desires. The Rebels are the trendy pick to steal the conference with the Houston Nutt system well known in year two and a huge lot of returning talent. The defense will be rock solid in all phases, but the line has a chance to be truly special behind a trio of ends Greg Hardy, Kentrell Lockett, and Marcus Tillman. Look for QB Jevan Snead to take the next step, even if he's not quite another coming of Eli Manning. Mississippi definitely could be in the SEC Championship, but they must take advantage of getting LSU and Alabama at home with Florida and Georgia off the schedule or else Coach Nutt might be as short-tenured as his predecessors.
The Razorbacks are right where they want to be, with nobody talking about them or taking the program seriously ater a 5-7 campaign. Sure, there are plenty of other good stories in the West Division, but Bobby Petrino is a great college coach and has Arkansas headed back to glory. Michigan transfer QB Ryan Mallett will lead a group of 18 returning starters who will be better but are really only holding the fort one more year before Petrino's talented recruits take over. Still, Arkansas could compete if they survive the murderer's row road schedule of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and LSU. A conference title will not happen yet, but the foundation will be laid with a couple big wins in all likelihood this year.
ALL THE REST
Well the first year of the Lane Kiffin era was not a dream for this program's expectations, but there were signs of hope. Kiffin knows how to recruit and has brought in a ton of talent to shore up the major gaps left by Philip Fulmer when he left, incluiding a stable of running backs. Look for these young guns to shine quickly behind one of the best offensive lines in the conference. The Volunteers are an enigma this yeat but should be back in the mix as Florida and Georgia recede a bit in 2010.
Vanderbilt finally broke through to a bowl game in a great 2008 story, but that was a down year in the conference and everything needed to break right for it to happen. Although there is more experience and upgraded talent from the past few seasons, the offense will not fix itself overnight and the defense will not be able to carry this team to six wins again, in all likelihood. Bowl eligibility is the goal, but sadly that's all Commodore fans can look forward to being stuck in such a great conference.
Although Tommy Tuberville's team fell apart at the end of last season and a 36-0 loss to heated rival Alabama finished the canning of the coach, Auburn perhaps took a bigger step backwards by hiring Gene Chizik, who went a whopping 5-19 at Iowa State. Chizik at least has mroe recruiting prowess to play with, but Alabama will continue to spank the Tigers for years as long as Nick Saban keeps the recruiting advantage he has now. All Chizik can hope for this year is showing some sense of competitiveness, which will be ver tough considering the rebuilding that needs done.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Unlike Auburn, who took a 36-0 on the chin and seemed to go the wrong way in rebuilding, Mississippi State grabbed a better head coach in Dan Mullen and has more talent to recover from their own 45-0 drubbing from their rival Mississippi in 2008. The defense should be fantastic, which will be important when needing to win those close games for bowl eligibility. Mullen has a fair amount of good recruits as well to restock the shelves and perhaps build to the occassional surprising season. Just not this year.
While nobody in the deep south would have you believe it, everyone knows the Big XII was one big Oklahoma win away from claiming best conference in America after a stunning 2008. However, the hardware and the titles remain in the SEC, and the conference certainly has the benefit of the doubt when it comes to one-loss teams thanks to competitive balance and past history. The only way Florida doesn't end up in Pasadena would be an upset in Jacksonville which would likely prevent them from playing in the all-important conference championship. However, there's more of a story with Mississippi rising, Alabama and Georgia competing, and some new coaches trying to find some upward momentum in the cellar. The best conference in America should earn the title this year, but it may not be enough to stop the juggernaut that is Florida. Thanks for joining us in this preview season and we look forward to bringing you some great weekly content beginning with our pre-season Fab 15 poll on Friday. A few short days before kickoff, let's prepare to enjoy the ride of 2009. See you next week!