Before 2006, the debate over which conference was the best in college football was usually a good one. However, there's absolutely no doubt that the Southeastern Conference stands head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Five consecutive national titles, three of the past four Heisman Trophy award winners, and complete dominance of non-conference play leaves little doubt about the SEC. Coming into this season, the only major question is whether the SEC is ready to become a super conference by adding two or four more teams (at the time of writing, it appears the answer is yes as Texas A&M appears poised to join the current 12 members, foreshadowing more expansion). But before those dominoes fall, let's look into how the 2011 season may play out on the field.
Alabama Crimson Tide
If a bowl game is a jumping point for the next season, then Alabama certainly started on the right track with a 49-7 drubbing of top-10 surprise Michigan State in last year's Capital One Bowl. Perhaps the best part of that bowl victory was that it offered Nick Saban the chance to rotate in many of the players who will be taking starring roles this season. For example, the biggest and only notable hole to fill from the 2010 team is quarterback, but sophomore QB A.J. McCarron played a significant amount of time against the Spartans. McCarron is locked in a huge battle with freshman Phillip Sims for the right to start for the Crimson Tide, but it looks more and more like both will receive some playing time in the first three weeks to determine the new leader of the offense. The only other "replacements" on the offense are RB Trent Richardson, who electrified behind Mark Ingram the past two seasons, WR Duron Carter who transfered from Ohio State, and senior lineman Alfred McCullogh. In other words, the Crimson Tide will be just fine on offense. Expect Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks to put a ton of pressure on opposing defensive backfields no matter who is throwing the ball to them. Similar to two seasons ago, the strength of this Crimson Tide team will be the defense, which brings back 10 starters from a unit that gave up less than 300 yards per game a season ago. Future pro players are filling every level of the defense, but the linebackers and defensive backfield are perhaps the best in the country. LB Dont'a Hightower and S Mark Barron will read opposing offenses quickly and will then wreak havoc all over the field. Even the special teams brings back all of their starters, including PK Cade Foster and P Cody Mandell. Despite the difficulty of being in the best division and conference in the country, Alabama should roll to another BCS bowl and possibly even the National Championship with this much talent.
One team that could stop the rolling Crimson Tide is Les Miles's Tigers, who also enter the season with a high number of starters returning. LSU has also won the BCS Championship game both times it has been held in New Orleans (2003, 2007), so a team with top 5 talent will be eager to continue that trend in 2011. Considering all the inconsistent play from quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee the past two seasons, one would expect the loss of a running back to be a much bigger deal than it actually is for LSU. However, Jefferson has been given the vote of confidence to be the full-time starter, and five young highly-recruited running backs will battle it out throughout the season to start at running back. Jefferson will be helped by the return of top receivers Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard as well as tight end DeAngelo Peterson. The middle of the offensive line will be anchored by three returning starters, which should provide Jefferson with plenty of time to find the open receiver or back. The Tigers defense returns seven starters including senior LB Ryan Baker, who had 87 tackles a season ago. The defense is made of an interesting mix of seniors and sophomores, although two of these sophomores (S Craig Loston and DL Sam Montgomery) are returning starters from a season ago. The defense against opposing running games has slipped the past 6 seasons to 137 yards per game in 2010, but that trend should change even with two new defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Anthony Johnson. Special teams units could be one serious weakness for the Tigers with a new coach and new kickers and returners in 2011. However, the only thing that may keep LSU out of the national title picture is the schedule. A tough opener against Oregon at a neutral site and a road game in Tuscaloosa (albeit after a bye) may keep the Tigers out of the SEC Championship.
Despite losing to Alabama and Auburn a season ago, Bobby Petrino was able to get Arkansas into their first Sugar Bowl in a decade with a 10-2 finish in 2010. Under Petrino, the Razorbacks have turned into a pass heavy pro style offense that benefitted greatly from the transfer of Ryan Mallett the past two seasons. Now junior Tyler Wilson will step in and try to continue the success that Mallett had. Wilson will be benefitted by having three senior starting receivers returning in Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, and Joe Adams. RB Knile Davis also returns and is an underrated component of the Hogs attack, racking up 1322 rushing yards and all conference honors a season ago. Arkansas also improved dramatically against opposing passing offenses last season, and seven starters return to that defense. The defense will be led by the defensive line, which is led by senior DE Jake Bequette. Junior college transfer LB Alonzo Highsmith may also have an immediate impact in getting into opposing backfields quickly to disrupt quarterbacks and running plays. As long as the defense can generate turnovers in crucial situations, the Razorbacks could once again be a major factor in the SEC and national championship race. Unfortunately Alabama and LSU will each host the Razorbacks, but Arkansas will be heavily favored in all of their other ten games, the hardest of which is South Carolina at home. If Arkansas upsets the right team, they could find themselves in the SEC Championship with a chance to play for a national championship, even with one loss.
Although the balance of power has shifted to the West division thanks to some early NFL departures and some coaching changes in the East division, Georgia appears ready to be competitive with the West after Mark Richt's first losing season in 11 years at Athens. Richt should have an improved offense in 2011 despite replacing six starters including three offensive linemen. Expectations are higher thanks to the spectacular freshman season QB Aaron Murray had a season ago, throwing for 24 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions to go with 3049 yards. Murray will be helped by the addition of another great freshman talent, RB Isaiah Crowell. Crowell appears to be the starter heading into the season, although senior Caleb King will also get a fair share of carries to spell the freshman. On defense, Richt will be focused on improving his front seven, which slipped to giving up 147 rushing yards per game in 2010. The mostly revamped linebacker corps led by sole returning starter Christian Robinson will need to be ready immediately, as the two toughest and most important games of the year come in weeks one and two of the season against Boise State and hosing South Carolina. The defense will have all starters returning in the defensive backfield, so as long as the defensive front is ready to go in a couple of weeks, Georgia could turn around the 1-4 start that doomed them a season ago. Georgia will also be helped by having perhaps the best overall special teams unit in the country, highlighted by senior PK Blair Walsh and senior P Drew Butler. Walsh has range beyond 50 yards on field goals and Butler is a master of flipping field position even when the Bulldogs falter on offense. The Bulldogs pull the three weakest teams from the West and the toughest road game is at Tennessee. Thus, Georgia could wrap up the SEC East even if they start 0-2 and lose to USC, although the road will be much easier with a win in week 2. Anything less than a New Year's Day bowl will be a disappointment with this Georgia team.
IN THE MIX
South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina followed a roller coaster ride throughout last season on the way to their first SEC Championship game appearance and East division title. In the middle of the season, the Gamecocks lost a heartbreaker at Auburn, then knocked off #1 Alabama, and followed that up with their only loss all season in the division at Kentucky. Assuming Spurrier can encourage more consistent play in 2011, South Carolina should be favored to defend their division title. Early fall practice appears to indicate that senior QB Stephen Garcia, who was suspended twice this offseason, is back to being a leader and role model for the team and will hold off sophomore Connor Shaw for the starting QB position. Garcia brings a lot of experience to the table and will succeed with all the focus of opposing defenses being on containing 2010 national freshman of the year RB Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore and Garcia have four offensive linemen with significant experience returning, so look for Carolina to continue improving their offensive balance against some of the weaker competition in the SEC. Opposing offenses may be licking their chops when they see two freshman starting at defensive line, but Jadeveon Clowney is the best incoming defensive end in college football and Kelcy Quarles will also be high quality. The defensive backfield returns three starters but needs to improve dramatically over last year's 242 yards per game performance. Like Georgia, the Gamecocks miss LSU and Alabama during the regular season and so have a favorable schedule overall. However, Georgia and Arkansas are two roadtrips that will be very difficult to pass through unscathed. Furthermore, with Georgia's easier schedule, USC likely cannot afford to lose two conference games even if they knock off the Bulldogs. Consistency will be key to repeating as division champs.
The Urban Meyer era is over at Florida, and Will Muschamp walks into a reloading powerhouse in his first head coaching gig. Florida's offense will look vastly different with offensive coordinator Charlie Weis replacing the spread option with a pro style attack. Weis excelled at making good quarterbacks great, so quick improvement is expected of senior QB John Brantley and newcomer Jeff Driskel, who will see playing time as the best quarterback prospect in the country. The offense also returns senior RB Jeff Demps and all three receivers Chris Rainey, Deonte Thompson, and Frankie Hammond. The biggest question mark will be whether all this senior talent can perform better with a nearly completely new offensive line. Expect a fair number of sophomores and freshman to receive playing time up front until some leaders emerge. The defense took a significant step backwards last season and now only returns four starters. Once again, Muschamp will turn to a load of sophomores gleaned from Urban Meyer's final recruiting class to shore up all the openings. Of the newcomers, linemen Ronald Powell and Sharrif Floyd have the highest potential to make a huge impact in 2011. It will be interesting to see if freshman punter Kyle Christy can keep the Gators in positive field position as the year goes along. The special teams is another overall weakness with the replacement of a placekicker as well. Muschamp could set up a monster second season at Gainesville, but his debut will likely have some difficult bumps in the road, especially with only three conference home games and Alabama and LSU in back to back weeks. The Gators need to avoid upsets if they want to return to a New Year's Day bowl this season.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Entering his third season, Dan Mullen has quickly turned around the Bulldogs into another solid SEC program after some down years under Sylvester Croom. Mullen will benefit from 16 returning starters and a big bowl victory over Michigan in 2011 as the Bulldogs try to shock the world and be a serious player in the SEC West division. The offense has steadily improved in Mullen's tenure to averaging more than 400 yards per game in 2010, and the only holes to fill are two slots on the offensive line. Senior QB Chris Relf threw for nearly 1800 yards and ran for 700 more despite splitting some time with Tyler Russell. Relf should be the primary starter this year and the trio of junior receivers Chris Smith, Chad Bumphis, and Arceto Clark will benefit from the consistency. Vick Ballard will provide a serious threat in the rushing game as well and could break 2000 yards if the offensive line comes together quickly this season. The defense returns seven starters but zero starting linebackers, so the middle of the defense may be a weakness. Brandon Maye did start 33 games at linebacker for Clemson before transferring to Starkville, so look for Maye to be a new leader in the center of the defense. Each of the returning defensive backs pulled down multiple interceptions in the past two seasons, so there are threats wherever opposing quarterbacks throw the ball. MSU should also benefit from having a veteran kicker Derek DesPasquale, who hit 10 of 12 field goals last year. Mississippi State has an interesting schedule with all the heavy hitters (Alabama, LSU, South Carolina) at home, which puts many of the easier games on the road. However, this team has enough confidence and talent pouring in that a second or third place finish in the West would not be terribly shocking.
Despite starting the season 2-6 last year, the Volunteers rallied behind new coach Derek Dooley and ran the table to reach a bowl. Although the final record says 2010 was a losing campaign after the bowl game, the losses to LSU and UNC in the bowl were both controversial thanks to officiating decisions with no time left on the clock. In view of this and the overall weakness in the East division, the outlook is improving in Dooley's second season. The offense was pass heavy a season ago with Tyler Bray and Matt Simms splitting time at starter. Considering Bray has three more years of eligibility left, expect him to take most of the snaps barring an injury in 2011. Bray will be hoping for more of a running game with senior RB Taurne Poole returning to run behind an offensive line made up mostly of sophomores and new faces. However, these young linemen are highly rated recruits who will rapidly improve as the season progresses. The defense returns only six starters, but those six accounted for most of the tackles made in 2010. The defensive backfield was a huge weakness in 2010 but returns all four starters (3 juniors, 1 sophomore) and should be much better this season. The cross division schedule is as brutal as possible with LSU and road games at Arkansas and Alabama, but that also means more winnablehome games interspersed throughout the schedule instead of being stacked at the end like last season. Tennessee should see some small improvements this season and may be positioning themselves for a run at the division in 2012.
ALL THE REST
Despite not winning more than three conference games in the past four seasons, the Wildcats have appeared in five consecutive bowl games. Second year coach Joker Phillips will be looking to continue this streak with a large number of returning starters, including 10 on defense. The defense stayed consistent last season in yardage from previous years but they did surrender almost a touchdown more per game. Thus, the ten returning starters will need to improve in clutch situations such as forcing turnovers and stops in the red zone. The defense is led by linebackers Winston Guy and Danny Trevathan, both of which seem to sniff out plays quickly. The defensive line is younger than the rest of the defense, so look for teams to try and run early and often on Kentucky. On the offensive side of the ball, new QB Morgan Newton will try to match the success of long time starter Brian Hartline. Newton will miss Randall Cobb to throw to, but sophomore Brian Adams could fill Cobb;s role nicely this year. TE Jordan Aumiller may also play a bigger role as a check down for the inexperienced quarterback. The special teams could be a strength with returning kicker Craig McIntosh having 50+ yard range and senior punter Ryan Tydlacka netting more than 35 yards on his punts. The schedule is relatively soft despite back to back roadtrips to LSU and South Carolina in early October, so Kentucky should contine their streak of bowl appearances.
After starting with two winning seasons, the honeymoon may be over for Houston Nutt in Oxford after a 4-8 effort last year. Even though Ole Miss appeared to be rebuilding a season ago, Rebels fans do not want to stay at the bottom of the West division forever, especially with Dan Mullen turning MSU around. Although there were not a lot of shining moments in 2010, the offense stayed respectable and achieved nice balance in yards per game (208 rushing, 192 passing). Jeremiah Masoli's brief stint is over and the only missing element from last year's offense will be the quarterback. Even into fall practice, three competitors are all just as likely as one another to take the job: junior Randall MAckey, junior Zach Stoudt, and sophomore Barry Brunetti. Each of these quarterbacks has transferred from elsewhere and has a little experience in their previous stops, and each can readily jump into a good situation with nearly all receivers back and an intact offensive line. Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis will continue to split carries, but both will have good holes to run through. The biggest reason for the drop from 9 wins to 4 wins last year was the defense, which shockingly went from 17 points per game allowed to 35 points per game. Only four starters return, but Nutt will hope the new infusion of youth can more rapidly return this defense to his normal standards. Amongst those youngsters are freshman DL Carlton Martin and LB C.J. Johnson, each of which appear ready to start. Ole Miss has a similar schedule as MSU with the heavy hitters mostly coming to Oxford (Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia). With all these tough games being the homes schedule, the Rebels will struggle to achieve bowl eligibility in 2011.
It is not often that a defending national champion is picked to finish in the basement of their league or division the following season, but most defending champions return more than 6 starters. Gene Chizik has a monumental task at hand as he basically will have an entirely different team to work with following a 14-0 season. Chizik truly cleaned up in recruiting the South this season, but those dividends will not pay until 2012 at the earliest. In the meantime, the offense is taken over by QB Barrett Trotter, although freshman Kiehl Frazier may win more playing time as the season goes along. Frazier reminds the Auburn coaches of the potential Cam Newton offered, so he should be the quarterback of the future. Sophomore running back Michael Dyer will try to improve on his 1093 rushing yards a season ago, but his offensive line is completely rebuilt and he will not have Cam to deflect attention this season. Expect a step back for Dyer. The defense features one senior (FS Neiko Thorpe) and three juniors, with the remainder made up of underclassmen. The defensive weaknesses of Auburn a season ago were covered by a strong offense, but that will not be the case this season. Without Nick Fairley causing havoc at the line, expect a major step backward statistically in 2011 for the Tiger defense. Auburn hosts Ole Miss and Mississippi State, but the remainder of the conference schedule will be difficult to navigate with no games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Auburn should not be a factor in the SEC West other than as a spoiler for teams like Alabama, who may be undefeated when they come to Auburn in November.
Vanderbilt will have their third coach in three seasons as James Franklin takes the helm of a program with one winning season in three decades (2008). Although Vanderbilt struggles in recruiting thanks to high academic standards, Stanford has proven that success can be had if the right mix of young men are added to the football program. Franklin will begin with a veteran team: all starters back on offense and 8 of 11 on the defense, plus a returning kicker and punter. With all this experience returning, it may be hard to understand why Vanderbilt is picked to finish dead last in the SEC, but that just shows how hard life is in the SEC. Franklin likes to develop quarterbacks, so senior Larry Smith will not be guaranteed to keep his job over Jordan Rodgers and Charlie Goro. Running backs Warren Norman and Zac Stacy will split the carries and try to improve on poor team rushing numbers in 2010. The star of the defense is CB Casey Heyward, who snagged 6 interceptions last year to lead the team. If the defense can force a few turnovers, the Commodores might have enough experience to be competitive in some games this season. However, Franklin needs to continue restocking the shelves so that when this class of starters is gone, Vanderbilt can be truly competitive once more.
Although it seems impossible to run the table in the SEC, Alabama and Auburn have managed the task the past two seasons to complete 14-0 seasons and national titles number 4 and 5 in a row. This season Alabama and LSU both appear poised to take the title, and both teams will have a week off before their titanic clash on November 5. Both teams could be undefeated going into that game, which would make it the most compelling game of the regular season. However, Mississippi State and Arkansas have more than enough talent to say something about that. The East division race might not have national title implications, but at least four or five teams could potentially step up with a big season to show up in the SEC Championship. That champion will play the role of spoiler once again, and they likely will be rolled by the Crimson Tide or whomever else comes out of the West. The SEC will get at least a chance to win their sixth consecutive title, and those are welcome words in SEC country (although maybe not in Auburn Alabama)