Georgia 10-1 (7-1)
With the majority of starters returning, this team appears to be unbeatable. There are two big questions regarding the offensive line this year. How is the line compared to last year, and are they going to protect David Greene? The offensive line gave up an SEC high 47 sacks last year. If Greene is given some time in the pocket he will have good looks at his receivers, one of the best in the league. The big question is, will the receivers (Fred Gibson & Reggie Brown) live up to their ability? The key to Greene's air assault is going to be replacing the talents of Damien Gary. He was the "go to guy" last year because he was almost always guaranteed to catch it, and would pick up the 5-10 yards needed for a first down. Finding a replacement will be key. The Dawgs have a lot of talent in the running back position. Unfortunately, with the recent injury of Kregg Lumpkin, the Dawgs will have to look elsewhere for their starter. The defense appears to be as star studded as last year squad. There are three to four guys who will most likely be All-Conference, possibly All-American. Every offense that faces the Dawgs this year will meet Pollack or Thompson on the first play and see why they are some of the best ends in the game. Junior Odell Thurman will help the defense produce a lot this year (once he returns from his suspension). Losing Sean Jones and Bruce Thornton to the NFL last year were huge blows. Replacing Billy Bennett will also be a daunting task for the Bulldogs. Three key games, which will definitely play an impact on the Dawgs' chances of making it to the National Championship: LSU (10/2), Florida (10/30) and Auburn (11/13).
Florida 7-4 (5-3)
This is the best looking Gator team in the last few years, especially with Chris Leak coming to fruition at just the right time. He will eventually join the list of Wuerffel, Grossman, Matthews, and Spurrier as some of the greatest Gator quarterbacks of all time. With such a mobile quarterback leading the troops down the field, Leak should be able to find some open receivers with returning starter O.J Small leading the way. He was fourth on the receiving charts in yardage last year, but that was with Troupe, Kight and Perez playing as well. They have all since left, so now the next crop of talented wide outs needs to emerge. With only four players returning on the defensive side of the ball this year, Zook and Charlie Strong have their work cut out for them. Hopefully, this gives him the benefit of molding his defense and creating a squad that can go against the best the SEC has to offer. Emerging sophomore star Channing Crowder will follow-up his freshman leading 106 tackles from last year to become the leading defensive player on the field. If there is going to be success in the backfield, Strong needs to utilize the talents of this young man. Kicker Matt Leach returns to give the Gators the consistency and accuracy they need when in the red zone so that they can rely on points each trip down the field. Key games for their bid to be at the top of the SEC East include meetings with Tennessee (9/18), LSU (10/9) and Georgia (10/30).
Tennessee 7-4 (4-4)
This team, which did not lead the conference in any of the major categories last year, tries to rebuild in some of the toughest positions. The key loss for the Vols is the departure of Casey Clausen. Clausen was third in the conference with 2968 yards last year and was the only Volunteer to throw a pass for his team. That is going to prove costly for the Volunteers who most likely will rank towards the bottom of quarterback production this year. It appears that Rick Clausen (brother of Casey) may get the nod over C.J. Leak (brother of Florida quarterback Chris), but it will depend on their production come September. One solid part of the Tennessee game is going to be the talented backfield. The three highest runners from last year (Houston, Davis and Riggs) all return to Randy Sanders' offense this year. The Vols look as if they are going to rely on the talents of Houston this year, who placed sixth in the conference in rushing yards (744). Dustin Colquitt is back for his senior campaign as punter. Colquitt led the conference with a 45.3 yards punting average last year, and will likely build on that this year. Like their division rival Florida, the Vols are only returning four starters from last year on defense. The two key individuals on defense include Parys Haralson and Kevin Simon, who led their team in sacks, both getting 4.5 over the season. This defense will need to rely heavily on both of these players and hope they have some support from their teammates to have defensive stops against the other SEC powerhouses. Key games this year include Florida (9/18), Auburn (10/2) and Georgia (10/9).
South Carolina 5-6 (3-5)
With the majority of starters from last season returning, this Gamecock team has a chance to make some waves in the east. Twelve of the probable starters are seniors, so if there is a year for Lou Holtz to take advantage of his team, this year is it. On the offensive side of the ball, the Gamecocks ranked no higher then 47th in any of the major categories. That needs to change. It appears that Hotlz's main focus on offense this year will be the production he gets out of his running backs. The return of Demetris Summers, Cory Boyd, and Daccus Turman will give the offense the added boost it needs each fall Saturday. With two of these backs being sophomores, Holtz may have a number of great years left in the backfield. The big question is going to be in the quarterback position. Dondrial Pinkins returns for his senior season to hopefully build off of last year. In order to have a productive offense this year, Pinkins needs to figure out a way to increase his completion percentage (162 of 322/50.3) as well as improve his turnover rate (9 INT). The return of the two leading receivers, Matthew Thomas and Troy Williamson, will give Pinkins familiar targets to throw to. The Gamecocks' defensive line should prove to be one of the best in the conference, especially with Moe Thompson and George Cause capping the ends' positions. Both led the team in sacks last year, nabbing 5 each. The production from the linebacker position will be key as well, particularly with the return of Marcus Lawrence (99 tackles). With the departure of Dunta Robinson to the NFL Draft last year, the Gamecocks' secondary is going to be hurting. Key games include their season opener against Vanderbilt (9/4), their visit to Tuscaloosa at the beginning of October, and their annual grudge match with Clemson in Death Valley (11/20).
Kentucky 4-7 (2-6)
The key with this team is the loss of the majority of their offense from last year. They have five returning starters on offense, which is not the low for the SEC, but two of the biggest producers in Kentucky history are gone. Kentucky fans will be sad to see the #12 of Derek Abney and the #22 of Jared Lorenzen gone this year. Kentucky will have the best chance to replace Abney with rising Sophomore Keenan Burton. He was fourth in receiving last year. The biggest issue is that Burton has the opportunity to be successful, but with an inexperienced quarterback and rookie offensive line, a productive season appears unmanageable. Where Kentucky is going to be strong is on defense. The Cats have 9 defense players returning, with all three of their leading tacklers returning. The Wildcats' defensive backfield will be one of the best in the entire SEC. That's unfortunate for their opponents, because it is going to be very hard for any offense to get good production. The other aspect that Abney offered the Wildcats was versatility on the special teams. Over his last two years, he was able to return 7 balls for touchdowns off punt and kickoff returns. He also gave the Cats over 1000 yards off of those returns, which gave the team great position to attack on offense. The Cats need to find a replacement for Abney this year. The key games for Kentucky this year will include their visit to Louisville (9/4), Mississippi State (10/30), and Vanderbilt (11/13). Kentucky once again this season will compete for the bottom of the East and the SEC.
Vanderbilt 3-8 (1-7)
Another year, same story for the Commodores. Since 1976, Vanderbilt has had only one winning season. This year does not appear to be any different. They have big problems on defense. Although the Commodores have 11 players returning from last year's team, that team was ranked 10 out of 12 teams in the SEC in total defense. They allowed 380.17 yards per game last year. On the other side of the scrimmage line, the Commodores have glimmers of talent. Their deepest position this year is that of the quarterbacks. Jay Cutler returns for his junior year. Cutler ranked 4th in total offense last year, and when thinking of his company, that is very impressive. The only quarterbacks that did better have names like Manning, Clausen and Greene - not too shabby. Cutler has the ability to not only be a threat in the air, but also on the ground (2347 yards passing, 299 yards rushing). Cutler also has 10 of last year's offensive players returning, so he will not be around unfamiliar company. Unfortunately, for Cutler and the rest of Commodores, Vanderbilt did not do a good job on recruiting. By most of the ranking services out there, Vanderbilt ranks near the bottom of the SEC and the nation. Vandy's big games this year will be against South Carolina (9/4), Rutgers (10/9), and Kentucky (11/13). Not only is South Carolina the Commodores' first game of the season, but also their first conference test; and their annual grudge match with Kentucky will prove to be the battle for the bottom of the SEC East.
LSU 10-1 (7-1)
Every part of this team has been critiqued and analyzed by every sports magazine this year. Every football analyst touts the defense, the offense, the coaching, the special teams, and the recruits, but the Tigers have some rebuilding to do. Although players like Skyler Green, Ben Wilkerson, and Justin Vincent return to the LSU offense, it is going to be very difficult for this year's team to be as productive. The loss of Mauck and Clayton will prove to give the Tigers many problems this year. Fortunately for the Tigers, the offense can rely on rusher Vincent to save them from having absolutely no production at all. A returning 1000-yard rusher from last season proves to be valuable. Not only is he returning, but the next three rushers from last season are as well. Saban may have the dubious responsibility of placing a freshman at the helm of the offense. Marcus Randall returns for a senior season, but he played a back seat to Mauck last season. He is going to have to fight for his starting position with Jamarcus Russell. This blue chip recruit is touted as one of the best freshman quarterbacks in the country. The loss of Chad Lavalais puts a lot more emphasis on the production of DL Marcus Spears. His leadership on and off the field will help form the next crop of young Tigers. Three key games for the Tigers this year are versus Oregon State (9/4), Georgia (10/2), and Florida (10/9). Oregon State's meeting with the Tigers is big, because this will be LSU's first test of the season. LSU also has a score to settle against Florida for their 19-7 loss from last season. It is very likely that LSU will meet Georgia again for a second time in the SEC Championship come December.
Auburn 9-2 (6-2)
Last year Auburn was being presented as a possible national championship contender. Then the first game came along and had to ruin it, a 23-0 loss against the eventual co-national champion Trojans. Then Georgia Tech had to make it worse with a 17-3 loss. The Tigers, along with Tommy Tuberville, have something to prove this year. Everyone is focusing on the running backs position, stating that with the production of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, Auburn is going to be powerful. They are completely right, but the big question is going to be the work ethic of Jason Campbell. He returns for his senior campaign as the sole quarterback contender and has the perfect opportunity to mold redshirt freshman Brandon Cox into the next line of great Auburn quarterbacks. For the most part, Auburn is pretty sure of what to expect on offense; the big concern is that of defense. The Tigers finished last season achieving top-10 rankings in 3 of the 4 major defensive categories (rushing, total and scoring). Unfortunately, the War Eagles lost Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas, both of the linebackers. Their places are most likely going to be filled by underclassmen that did not get much playing time last year, which will be costly. Auburn's key opponents this season will be LSU (9/18), Mississippi (10/30), and Georgia (11/13). Their annual match against LSU will prove to be the race to the head of the SEC West. Come October, their game with Ole Miss will be a turning point. Their loss against the Rebels last year will give this Tiger team the energy to beat them this year.
Alabama 8-3 (5-3)
This is going to be the year for Mike Shula and the rest of the Tide. After going 4-9 last season, Shula has something to show the rest of the conference. Unfortunately the starters from last year did not do much in terms of production. They ranked no higher then 36th in the nation in any of the major offensive or defensive categories. Brodie Croyle will be given the starting position, so that he can build on last season's numbers. His 2,303 yards ranked 7th in the conference behind some very good names. The Tide's biggest loss came in the running backs position. Shaud Williams, the SEC leading rusher (1,367 yards), left and it looks as if Ray Hudson is going to get the nod at starter. The only problem with Hudson is that he has rushed for only 1,001 yards over the last three seasons. Vincent from LSU did that last season alone! On the defensive side of the ball, Demeco Ryans is the go to guy. He led the team in tackles and was ranked third in the conference with 126. Joe Kines, the defensive coordinator, is going to have his hands full of defensive talent coming in from high school this year. The combination of Justin Britt, Lorenzo Washington, and Chris Turner will give the Tide some great defense in the future. They may even get valuable playing time this year if Alabama's offense can give them a lead. With the return of Brian Bostick and Bo Freeland, the Tide appears to have some pretty solid special teams. Alabama is going to have to watch out for Tennessee (10/23), LSU (11/13) and Auburn (11/20). Look for a possible upset against Tennessee or Auburn.
Arkansas 5-6 (3-5)
The Razorbacks are going to have a tough year in 2004. They lost Shawn Andrews and Cedric Cobbs, as well as Caleb Miller, the 2nd leading tackler in the SEC last season with 133 hits. Cobbs, who ranked first in rushing yards per game at 110, will have a great replacement with Matt Jones....oh wait a second, he is the quarterback. With over 700 yards last year, Jones returns as the second leading rusher on the Razorbacks' team. Decori Birmingham will replace Cobbs on offense this year, and he's no lightweight. As a backup last year, he rushed for 549 yards, as well as caught 17 passes for 186 yards. Birmingham and Jones need to be successful in order for Arkansas to salvage anything out of this season. Defensively, the Razorbacks have two very gifted linebackers in Clarke Moor and Sam Olajubutu. Olajubutu ranked third on the team with 85 tackles and had two picks as well. Although Arkansas has only 3 returning defensive starters, I see this defense finding a way to come together and be very productive. Their opener against New Mexico State (9/4) will be very important, and if they win (which they should), they can build off that win to be very productive the rest of the season. Unluckily, the Razorbacks will be meeting Alabama (9/25), Florida (10/2), Auburn (10/16), Georgia (10/23), and LSU (11/27) this year. Doesn't look easy for that team from Arkansas.
Mississippi 6-5 (3-5)
Well, for the last four seasons, Ole Miss football has been on a high with the play of Eli Manning. Manning passed for 10,119 yards in his career, at which during that time, his replacement, Micheal Spurlock, threw for 118, only a difference of over 10,000 yards. The one benefit of Spurlock is his time and investment on the bench and scout teams. He knows David Cutcliffe's plays and has worked along side a number of the returning offensive starters. If he can be half as productive as Manning was last year, this year will be a success. Having someone to throw to, such as Mike Espy and Bill Flowers, definitely will help Spurlock be successful. The biggest aid to the Rebel offense is the return of senior Jonathan Nichols. If Spurlock can get the Rebels within scoring range, Cutcliffe can rely on the leg of Nichols. He ranked 4th in the nation in field goals and 9th in the nation in scoring. The Rebel defense needs to be productive. Ole Miss's leading tackler, Eric Oliver, returns for his senior season and leads a cast full of upperclassmen. The Rebels' defense, which ranked as high as 14th in the country in some defensive categories, has the ability to complete this task. The Rebels' home opener against Memphis (9/4) is very important and will give the Rebel fans and coaches a look at their post-Manning offense. Games against LSU (11/20) and Mississippi State (11/25) are important as well. If Ole Miss can get to their final two games with 6 wins, they have a chance at a bowl bid and will secure their ninth straight winning record.
Mississippi State 3-8 (2-6)
The highlight of Mississippi State's offseason was the addition of Sylvester Croom. Unfortunately, good coaching is not going to help the Bulldogs this year. The Bulldogs had as many wins in their 2000 season as they have had the last three seasons combined. This season is no different. They will be competing against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky for the bottom of the SEC crown. Once Croom develops his west-coast style offense and a recruiting program, this team will be back to late 1990's form. Unfortunately, this will not happen for a number of seasons. Most of the football analysts out there rank Mississippi State's team to be the worst, or close to the worst, in every position on the field in the SEC. The Bulldogs leading receiver (Justin Jenkins) and leading rusher (Nick Turner) are not returning this year for different reasons, and this puts their team at even more of a disadvantage. The key for this team is to focus on Croom's vision, because once he gets it in place, this team will be near the top of the SEC West and possibly the nation. Watch out for Darren Williams in the free safety position. He has All-Conference potential and is only a junior. The Bulldogs' key games will be against Vanderbilt (10/2), Kentucky (10/30), and Ole Miss (11/25). Although I feel that the Bulldogs will win no more then three games this year, watch out because they may surprise everyone. No one is expecting anything out of these guys, and that always is key in big upsets.
Preseason All-Conference Team
THE SEC BEST
Best Team - Georgia - With over 15 starters returning to a squad that went 11-3 last year, this team appears unstoppable. Two of the Bulldogs' losses last year were to eventual National Champion LSU. This team is fully capable of making it back to Atlanta and possibly Miami. Runners-up: LSU & Auburn
Best Coach - Nick Saban (LSU) - In the last three years, Saban has led the LSU Tigers to a 31-9 record. What Saban did last year was incredible. He took the National Champions to a 13-1 record and produced one of the most dominant defenses in the country. Although the expectations are high for the 2004 season, Saban will once again manage his troops to the top of the charts. Runners-up: Mark Richt (Georgia) & Lou Holtz (South Carolina)
Best Player - David Pollack (Georgia) - The All-American from last year's squad comes back for his senior campaign. After a break out season in 2002, Pollack had a sub par follow-up year. He needs only 6 total sacks this season to break the school career record. With the return of Will Thompson, the double teams on Pollack should be reduced. Runners-up: Justin Vincent (LSU) & Carnell Williams (Auburn)
Best Stadium - (tie) Neyland Stadium (Tennessee) & Sanford Stadium (Georgia) - As Neyland has evolved over the years, it has always competed as one of the largest stadiums in the country. With over 105,000 "Rocky Toppers" filling the seats each weekend, it creates a very intimidating environment for a traveling team to perform well in. The location of the stadium is perfectly placed on campus and off the Tennessee River, which allows their followers some great tailgating on and off land. In the neighboring state of Georgia, Sanford Stadium treats its guests to a beautiful sight. Not only do the Bulldogs have the best home field winning percentage (22-3/.880) since the 2000 season, but it also boasts a capacity of over 92,000 people. When the Dawgs get going "between the hedges," the red and black faithful are in for a treat! Runners-up: LSU - Tiger Stadium ("Death Valley") & Florida - Ben Hill Griffin Stadium ("The Swamp")
Best Game - Georgia vs. LSU (October 2nd) - A rematch of last year's lop-sided SEC Championship proves to be the game of the season in the league. This year Georgia is out for revenge and has all of the components to turn the tables on the Tigers. This game may also be a preview of the 2004 SEC Championship in Atlanta. Runners-up: Georgia vs. Florida (October 30th) & Auburn vs. Alabama (November 20th)
Best Fans - Tennessee - When the Vols march up and down the gridiron each Saturday, their fans are right there with them. The sea of orange and white fans singing "Rocky Top" intimidates even the strongest of teams. Tennessee, as with most of the teams from the SEC, supports their team whether they are at home or traveling around the south. Runners-up: Florida & LSU
Best Tradition - Mississippi's "The Grove" - Two hours before kickoff every fall Saturday, Ole Miss students, athletes, and fans get treated to one of the most exciting traditions in all of college football. This tradition was started over 15 years ago when the coach at that time, Billy Brewer, thought that the 10-acre piece of land would be a good area for pre-game rallying. The Ole Miss players walk along the sidewalk, which is completely covered with fans cheering them along all the way to the stadium. Runners-up: Celebration at Toomer's Corner (Auburn) & Ringing of Chapel Bell after victory (Georgia)
Best Bet to Underachieve - LSU - With the expectations of the Tiger nation high coming off of a national championship season, this team is bound to trip up in the most unexpected of ways. Most likely they will reach the SEC Championship game even though they have targets on their back seen by the rest of the SEC West. Anything less than a national championship will not due for the LSU squad. Unfortunately, it is going to take a lot more than "Seabiscuit" this year! Runners-up: Georgia & Florida
Best Bet to Overachieve - Alabama - Last year the Tide lost nine games, which is the most since before the time of "Bear" Bryant in the mid 1950's (if you don't count the forfeited season of 1993 due to NCAA actions). Based on last year's record, the Tide doesn't have much to live up to, so Mike Shula can be the coach he is capable of being. Bama got a good recruiting class and has over half of the starters from last year returning. Runners-up: Vanderbilt & Mississippi State
|Copyright © 2004 SouthernCollegeSports.com. All rights reserved. This website is an unofficial and independently operated source of news and information not affiliated with any school, team, or league.|