Last year was a strange year for the SEC, as the conference has never really had two teams run away with each division to the extent that Florida and Alabama did (LSU was the only other conference team with a winning record at 5-3!). The showdown turned into a rout as Alabama gained a little revenge in their second-straight conference title game against Florida, and just like the Gators, the Crimson Tide kept the winning streak going in BCS Championships. This is the best conference in the country by far and there will be no runaway teams in either division this year, despite Florida and Alabama being the provisional favorites to meet again for the "play-in" game to the BCS Championship. Great coaches, great players, great games, and four straight national championships make this the golden era of SEC football.
Alabama Crimson Tide
With most good coaches, it only takes one year for the program to skyrocket, and Nick Saban has had Alabama right in the national championship mix the past two seasons. This year the schedule is brutal in the first five SEC games, but if Alabama is on top of the division standings going into November, the race will be theirs to lose with three home games to end the season. The Crimson Tide offense brings back 8 starters from a unit that rolled up 400 yards of offense per game last year. QB Greg McElroy threw for over 2500 yards and seventeen touchdowns, but the real star is Heisman winner RB Mark Ingram. Ingram will actually split a lot of carries again with Trent Richardson, and there no real weak point to attack against this offense. A couple new linemen will be slotted in, but one of them is perhaps the top lineman recruit in the country in DJ Fluker. As long as Alabama stays healthy, they will be hard to hold under 28 points. The defense must completely retool with only 2 starters back, but almost every player coming in is a junior or sophomore who saw a bit of playing time a year ago and was a top 40 recruit at their position coming out of high school. Make no mistake about it, Alabama could lose two games easily with drawing Florida and USC from the East, but they still might be in the mix for a BCS Championship because this team is as talented as the two-loss LSU team that won the title three years ago.
After one year away from the spotlight, Gene Chizik started turning Auburn right back around at the end of 2009, giving the Crimson Tide all they could handle in the Iron Bowl. Chizik has surrounded himself with great coaches and is a great recruiter himself, so Alabama will not be alone at the top for very long no matter how good Nick Saban recruits. The Tiger offense returns 8 starters including most of a stellar offensive line and all the receivers. New quarterback Cameron Newton was perhaps the best recruit available from junior colleges, so Newton will likely step in and be great for the offense. Losing RB Ben Tate will slow the offense a bit, but Mario Fannin should be fine behind such a great offensive line. While the offense will be just fine, the defense will again be the big question mark. The Tiger defense has 8 returning starters and their top 5 tacklers from a season ago. The linebackers are loaded with Craig Stevens, Josh Bynes, and Jonathan evans all back for another season together. The schedule is incredibly in Auburn's favor as the only road games before Alabama are against three of the bottom 4 teams in the conference, so Auburn could be playing for a division title in Tuscaloosa.
When Ryan Mallett transferred away from Michigan, nobody in Ann Arbor knew exactly what was lost. Now everyone knows as Mallett enters his junior season and has Arkansas as the trendy pick to compete for a conference championship in the SEC. The offense only replaces one starter on the line and should be tearing up defenses again with a prolific passing game led by Mallett and fellow junior receivers Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, and Greg Childs. The Razorbacks need to be better in the running game or else teams will sit back and tee off agains the passing game, so expect a big year for sophomore RB Ronnie Wingo and returning starter Broderick Green. The defense improved a lot with 9 returning starters a year ago, and seven more come back this year to continue the overall improvement. The biggest question marks will be on the defensive line where a couple of sophomores will join Jake Bequette and Zach Stadther. The defense will need to improve against the run with tough road games at Georgia and USC on the schedule. The schedule does favor the Razorbacks except for the roadtrip to Auburn in the division, so an upset against Alabama in September would put Arkansas in the driver's seat for a surprise SEC championship.
Last year Florida had the title defense target on their back, and Tim Tebow led them all the way to the SEC Championship before Alabama got the best of the Gators. Even with a troubling resignation and reinstatement of Urban Meyer, the Gators took care of a good Cincinnati squad and sent the seniors out winners. Now John Brantley takes over for arguably one of the best college football players of all time, and as such, the offense will change to more of a wide-open pro style passing offense. Meyer will try to keep his stress levels down, and one hopes that Meyer delegates more tasks to keep himself healthy while running a great program. RB Jeff Demps will have a much bigger burden than when Tebow racked up many rushing yards a year ago, but Demps has a pro-caliber line to run behind. On defense the Gators must replace six starters, which could make for a vulnerable frontrunner. SS Ahmad Black should be able to play some centerfield and grab more than the one interception he had a year ago. Meyer also welcomes back great special teams led by kicker Caleb Sturgis and P Chas Henry. The Gators will likely lose at Alabama, but the season will come down to the Georgia and USC games, which will determine if Florida returns to the BCS or the SEC Championship.
IN THE MIX
South Carolina Gamecocks
When Steve Spurrier came to Columbia, many thought that USC would be a defining force in the SEC East. However, the Gamecocks have never reached the top shelf with Florida and Georgia staying atop the division. However, 2010 looks like "the year" as Spurrier has 16 starters returning and by far his best team in six years at USC. The offense welcomes back QB Stephen Garcia and RB Kenny Miles, but Miles may very well lose his job to the best newcomer in the conference, top running back freshman Marcus Lattimore. Even though the focus of Spurrier's teams has never been the running game, that may change with this much talent at running back and on the offensive line. The better offense will cover up any holes on defense, which does have to replace 4 starters including two on the line. The defensive backfield is one of the better back sevens in the conference, which may make the difference in the most important games against Georgia and Florida. USC does draw the hell trifecta from the West in Auburn, Alabama, and Arkansas, but the Gamecocks have enough to perhaps beat Florida and sneak into a conference championship with two hard losses.
Although Mark Richt has had a nice career between the hedges, Georgia fans will likely expect a SEC Championship game appearance with rival Florida reloading this season. The Bulldogs have 10 starters back on offense, but the most important player is the one they have to replace as freshman Aaron Murray takes the snaps in 2010. Murray will have a great offensive line to work behind and will have every opportunity to become a great freshman quarterback in such a tough league. Look for the running duo of Washaun Early and Caleb King to add to a total of 10 rushing touchdowns a season ago. The defense will have to replace six starters including Rennie Curran and Reshad Jones. However, three of the four linebackers return in the 3-4 defense, which is the most important position in that scheme. If the linebackers make good reads and keep an inexperienced backfield protected in the passing game, then the defense will likely stay as good or better than the 2009 version. Playing the Gators in Jacksonville is never a picnic, but the season may come down to a tough week two game at South Carolina. If Georgia wins at least one against USC and Florida, Georgia will be in the mix for a return to the SEC championship game.
Surprisingly, the fans in Baton Rouge are growing impatient with the reloading cycle for LSU and Les Miles, despite a 5-3 finish and 9-4 overall last year. Unfortunately for Miles, this is one of the hardest schedules he has ever faced and only 10 starters return. Despite these problems, LSU can never be counted out in any game, even against the top echelon of the SEC. QB Jordan Jefferson comes back for a second full year of starting which will be refreshing to LSU fans who have grown to dread the quarterback mistakes of the past three seasons. Stevan Ridley should lead the rushing attack and while there is a lot of turnover in the running game, LSU should be better as long as injuries do not decimate the top 2 again. The offense perhaps needs to reload to get back toward 30 poitns per game, which was normal before last season. The defense only has 4 starters returning from a unit that had a real knock for red zone defense despite giving up a fair amount of yardage. LB Kelvin Sheppard is the best player returning and will need to inspire all the new faces around him to survive the brutal schedule. With UNC and West Virginia on the out of conference schedule, this season has the makings of 6-6, which may not be enough to save Les Miles.
Rebels fans might be packing in for a long season with the strong West division and only 10 starters returning, but Houston Nutt always seems to do more with low expectations than most other coaches. A new starter comes in at quarterback in Nathan Stanley, who saw limited action last season. stanley will also be throwing to new receivers, but the passing game may also be helped by RB Brandon Bolden. The defense will have six starters back including five of the front seven. Although the defensive front is not as good as the run-stopping wall of 2008, opposing offenses will likely need to go to the air to keep up with or stay ahead of the Rebels. SS Johnny Brown will need to anchor the backfield or else Ole Miss may be outscored by the better teams in a rough three game stretch against Bama, Arkansas, and Auburn in October. Even with a good performance, Mississippi can only hope for bowl eligibility.
ALL THE REST
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Although drawing the SEC East has been no picnic in the past, the Bulldogs have to wish that's the division they played in this season. Despite 14 returning starters and a full year of experience under Dan Mullen, the schedule is not favorable with Georgia and Florida joining all the tough west teams. Mullen led the spread offense to a ten point upswing in what was a long-time anemic offense last year, and even with new QB Chris Relf, the improvement should continue. The offensive line has a lot of talent led by tackle Derek Sherrod, and should keep things moving in the right direction. The defense took a step back in Mullen's first year, but three of the top four tacklers return and could improve overall. The defensive line replaces two starters but should produce a good pass rush, which will be critical against quarterbacks like Mallett at Arkansas. The defensive backfield is also experienced, which could be a key is MSU wants to return toward bowl eligibility. While Mississippi State is better on paper than Ole Miss in 2010, the schedule disparity likely drops the Bulldogs to the bottom of the better SEC dvision.
As quick as Lane Kiffin was here, now he is gone. In his wake Tennessee enters a true rebuilding phase under Derek Dooley. Only three starters return from a good offense, and the entire offensive line will be new as well as the running back and quarterback. Tennessee will struggle to score against the better defenses in the conference, and may enter November with only 2-3 wins total. The November slate can be swept though, which would make Tennessee bowl eligible in a year when that's not really expected. The defense does bring back six starters, but the slew of sophomores coming in to fill the holes are good athletes who will hold the line well. Look for defensive ends Ben Martin and Chris Walker to really disrupt opposing offenses and perhaps keep the Volunteers in some of those early games. The special teams will have a couple of seniors handling the kicking and punting duties, but Daniel Lincoln and Chad Cunningham are both new starters and could be inconsistent. Look for Tennessee to finish well, but that might not be enough to salvage a rebuilding season.
Rich Brooks did a lot with a little in Lexington, pushing Kentucky to four straight bowl seasons before retiring at the end of 2009. Joker Phillips has known he would be the successor for over two years, so the transition will not be a difficult one. However, Kentucky only returns 11 starters and could struggle to get back to a bowl with all this inexperience. QB Morgan Newton took over for Mike Hartline halfway through last season and should improve from his freshman season assuming a mostly new offensive line can protect him. Senior RB Derrick Locke should finally crack 1000 yards rushing, but the passing game will have to do more and avoid the 10 interceptions that plagued them last season. The defense returns six starters, but the only returning top performer is LB Danny Trevathan. The defensive line is also solid, but the back seven will need to be much better if Kentucky is to be bowl eligible. The one thing favoring Joker Phillips is a soft schedule including a draw of Ole Miss and MSU from the west. With both of those games on the road, Kentucky may still fall short of 6 wins.
Bobby Johnson and the Commodores were one of the best stories two seasons ago, reaching their first bowl since 1982. However, a return to reality struck hard last season with a winless conference season. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt does not look much more competitive this season. Most of the skill position talent comes back including QB Larry Smith and RB Warren Norman. Both of these starters could be superstars behind an experienced offensive line, but they will certainly not have that this season with four new starters and only one senior. The defense also must plug some holes but will be led by mostly juniors and seniors unlike the offense. LB Chris Marve racked up 121 tackles a year ago and will again lead the defense with the rest of the linebackers being replaced. Vanderbilt could be a real competitive team in 2011 if everyone stays healthy, but this year will be all about laying the foundation for the next year. The best chance for a win will be the home game against rival Tennessee in November.
At the end of the day, there are at least seven different teams that could make up the two in the conference championship game. However, the difference in the east will be USC having to travel to Florida, which will keep Georgia in the title game after defeated Florida in Jacksonville. Arkansas will fizzle out a bit, leaving a 7-0 Auburn and a 6-1 Alabama to fight for the division title in the Iron Bowl. Although it will break Auburn hearts to hear it, the Crimson Tide are just simple better, especially at Bryant-Denney. Alabama will go on to surprisingly lose to Georgia, who will break the streak of SEC national championships simply by not making it in. Alabama will yet again have two huge games at the end of the season with a national title on the line, but perfection will escape them this season. The SEC will not go down without a fight, so expect even a two-loss SEC champion to lobby hard for consideration unless there are two undefeated BCS conference teams in the argument. If nothing else, the SEC will be far more entertaining than the 2009 blowouts in both divisions. with that said, the preview season is over! Thanks for reading and I'll be back on Wednesday or Thursday with the first normal weekly article detailing what to watch for in Week 1. Let the excitement begin!