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The Crimson Tide won seven games last season while finishing tied for third place in the SEC West. Their .500 record in conference play was good enough to get the Tide a bowl berth and eventually, a bowl win. This season, seven offensive and eight defensive players return to the lineup. Although the Tide will not be able to go bowling this season to due NCAA rules violations, they have planned a late-season trip to Hawaii to take on the Warriors. Neither starting WR returns for Alabama, but all five starting OL are back for the ‘02 campaign. Competiton for the QB spot will be between Tyler Watts, a somewhat-exerpienced starter, and Brodie Croyle, a highly-touted RS Freshman. The TB and FB spots have returning starters to fill those slots. On defense, the DL has three returning starters and could be one of the league’s best. Jarret Johnson, Kenny King, and Kindal Moorehead are all experienced seniors who could be all-conference players. Two LBs return, and so do three members of the defensive secondary. The Tide’s OOC schedule is probably the toughest in the league. Road contests at Oklahoma and Hawaii will be extremely tough games as will home games with Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Southern Miss. The Tide should be able to capture yet another winning record this season and be in the top half of the SEC West standings.
The Razorbacks have been one of the more consistent teams in the SEC West, always winning enough games to have a winning season but never enough to make a major run at a BCS bowl game. Last season, the Hogs went 7-5 while splitting an even .500 in SEC play. This season, five offensive starters and seven defensive starters are back. Two WRs are back from last year’s team, but three members of the OL will have to be replaced. OT Shawn Andrews is one of the better offensive linemen in the SEC. QB Matt Jones, who started a portion of the games last season, will return at that position, and Fred Talley will be Arkansas’s TB. Half of the four members of the DL return for the 2002 season, and two LBs are back as well. Both CBs and possible all-conference FS Ken Hamlin return for the Hogs in 2002. Both kickers are back but could use some improvement. The non-conference schedule may be the weakest in the SEC. There are only two halfway-tough games on the schedule (all four games are at home): Boise State and South Florida. The Hogs should be able to win all of the OOC games and need only a few wins in SEC action to again have a winning season. Although they may not be at the top of the conference standings, the Hogs could win seven or eight games this year.
The Tigers continued to improve under Tommy Tuberville last season as they went 7-5 and tied for first place in the SEC West. Since they lost to LSU at the end of the regular season, though, AU was left at home while the other Tigers took on Tennessee in the conference championship game. Three starters from the offense and six from the defense are back for Auburn this season. None of last year’s starting WRs are back, and only the center is back from the OL. QB Jason Campbell, just a sophomore, got starting experience last season and appears to be ready to lead the Tiger offense. Although he’s not considered a returning starter, RB Carnell Williams is poised to possibly have a breakout season in 2002 and contend for a spot on the all-conference team. Two of the four members of the DL return this season as do two LBs. One of them, OLB Dontarrious Thomas, is one of the league’s best at his position. Half of the four members of the defensive secondary return for AU. Kicker/punter Damon Duval may be one of the best in the country. He came through in the clutch last season for the Tigers and will be a key part to their success this season. The Auburn non-conference schedule is pretty tough. A road game at Southern Cal as well as a home contest with Syracuse will be tough matchups for the Tigers. I expect Auburn to rank a little lower in the conference standings this year than last. Even if the Tigers dropped below .500, it would not surprise me, but I think they’ll be right above the break-even mark.
After probably being the most successful team in the ‘90s and also one of the best teams in the country in that span, the Florida Gators will have to try to continue their success with a new head coach. After Steve Spurrier departed for the NFL, Ron Zook was named as UF’s new boss. The Gators return a total of ten starters, five from each side of the ball. Technically, the Gators don’t have a returning WR, but Taylor Jacobs is back and is one of the SEC’s best. Only two OL are back (Starks and Snell), but both are quality veterans. RB Earnest Graham is one of the top backs in the league, and QB Rex Grossman is a legitimate 2002 Heisman Trophy candidate. The offense should fare well this season. Two DL return from last year’s squad, one of which, Ian Scott, is possibly one of the top two or three DL in the conference. Two LBs return, but the only starter in the secondary is all-conference FS Todd Johnson. The punting spot is under control, but UF is desperately searching for a replacement for K Jeff Chandler. The Gators’ non-conference schedule is one of the SEC’s toughest. A meeting with Miami as well as the annual game with Florida State (away from UF this year) will be especially tough contests for Florida. The Gators will still be good thanks to their offense, but we’ll see how much Steve Spurrier had to do with his players performing on the field. I think the Gators will fall from a 10-win team from last year to about eight or nine wins this season and finish in the middle of the SEC East.
The Georgia Bulldogs had a good season in 2001, going 8-4 and finishing tied for third in the SEC East. Once again, though, many experts say that the Dawgs finally have a shot to overtake Florida and Tennessee for the SEC East championship. A total of twelve starters, seven offensive and five defensive, return for UGA, as do both both kickers. Two WRs return for Georgia, and one that isn’t even considered a returner, Fred Gibson, may be the best of the bunch. Four OL are back, and two of them are all-conference stars, Stinchcomb and Breedlove. The TE and FB spots need new starters, but everything is settled at QB where David Greene came in and led the Dawgs last season. He’s only a sophomore though, and will be pushed by freshman D.J. Shockley. On defense, two DL return for the Bulldogs, as do two LBs. The Bailey/Gilbert tandem may be the best pair of LBs in the conference. Only one member of the defensive secondary is back from last year’s team. Bennett and Kilgo, the kicker and punter respectively, are both back, so the kicking game is in good hands. The non-conference schedule is pretty good. Although the Dawgs don’t play a road OOC game, home contests with Clemson and Georgia Tech will surely challenge UGA. I expect the Dawgs to contend for not only a ten-win season but also a SEC Eastern Division championship.
Kentucky had a bad ‘01 season as they won only two games overall and finished fifth in the SEC East. Behind QB Jared Lorenzen, the ‘Cats hope to turn things around in 2002. Only 10 total starters return, however, six on offense and four on defense. Two WRs return from last season, and three OL are back as well. Abney is an experienced junior wideout who will probably be Lorenzen’s most important target. On defense, only one starter from last year’s DL returns for UK this season, and neither LB is back. Three of the five members of the defensive secondary, however, do return. The kicking spot will need a new starter, but punter Glenn Pakulak is probably the best player at his spot in the SEC. UK’s non-conference schedule is in the middle of the pack in the conference. A road contest at Louisville will be a challenge for UK as will home games with Indiana and Middle Tennessee. Kentucky should improve slightly this year, but I still believe a winning season is out of the question. UK should, however, be able to pull out a total of three to five wins and win a game or two in the conference. The Wildcats are still several years away from rising towards the top of the SEC.
The Tigers went 10-3 last season and after starting a little slow, they went on to win the SEC West. Their divison championship led them to the SEC Championship Game where they defeated Tennessee, and then a Sugar Bowl appearance against Illinois also resulted in a LSU victory. Now, the Tigers will try to defend their title, and six starters from each side of the ball are back to do so. Technically, there is only one returning WR, but Michael Clayton is one of the league’s best (and he’s only a sophomore). Only one OL needs replacing, though new starters will have to be found at the FB and TE positons. The RB spot is settled thanks to the return of all-SEC candidate LaBrandon Toefield. Matt Mauck and Rick Clausen, both underclassmen, will battle it out for the QB job. On defense, only one DL is back for the ‘02 campaign, but two LBs return. One of these players is Bradie James, possibly the best LB in the conference. Three members of the defensive secondary also return, one of which is Damien James, a senior FS who is a possible all-conference selection. The LSU non-conference schedule has a couple tough games: a road trip to Virginia Tech and a home contest against Miami (OH). The Tigers should again make a run at the SEC West crown though I don’t think they’ll have another ten-win season.
The Rebels had a pretty good season in 2001, finishing 7-4 overall and an even .500 in the conference. The tied-for-third place finish in the SEC West wasn’t enough to get them into postseason play however. Seven offensive starters and five defensive starters return this season to try to push the Rebs back into a bowl game. One WR returns for Mississippi, and four OL are back as well. Center Ben Claxton is one of the conference’s best at his position. So is TE Doug Zeigler; the RB and FB spots will have to be filled after the starters from those spots graduated after last season. QB Eli Manning could be one of the best QBs in the country be season’s end. The question on this team, though, will be the defense. Two starters from last season’s DL are back, and both LBs also return. LB Eddie Strong could be an all-conference type player. Only one member of the defensive secondary returns for the Rebs. The non-conference schedule is towards the bottom of the conference. A home contest against Memphis won’t be easy, and a road contest at Texas Tech will also be very tough for UMiss. I don’t think the Rebs will climb up much farther in the standings this year than they did last; the question this year is will seven wins and a .500 record be good enough for a bowl game?
Mississippi State, picked by many people to win the SEC West last year, struggled early in the season and ended up going 3-8. The Dawgs will have to gain back most of the respect they had won over the last few years. A total of thirteen returning starters are back for MSU, seven on offense and six on defense. Both starting WRs are back for the Bulldogs, but only two OL are back from last year’s squad. TE Donald Lee also returns as does TB Dontae Walker. The FB spot is also filled. QB Kevin Fant took over for Wayne Madkin at the end of last season and proved he could lead the offense. On defense, two starters from the DL are back, and so is MSU’s only LB. Mario Haggan will almost surely be an all-conference pick and possibly an All-American. Three starters are back from the defensive secondary as well. Both the kicker and punter return for MSU, but the focus will be on the kicker spot where MSU needs major improvement. The non-conference schedule has only a couple of tough contests, a road trip to Oregon and another road contest at Memphis. The Dawgs should undoubtedly improve on last year’s dismal record. A winning season should be expected by MSU fans, but the schedule is very difficult this season. I see State finishing right at or just above .500 this season.
After surprising the country with a major improvement the season before, the Gamecocks continued their success last season by going 9-3 overall and finishing tied for third in the SEC East. Only nine starters return this season, however, four offensive and five defensive. Both kickers also return for USC. Neither starting WR is back, and two OL will have to be replaced. OG Cedric Williams is one of the better OL in the conference. The TE spot is looking for a new starter, but Pinnock is returning at FB. RB Ryan Brewer is back at that position, and Corey Jenkins appears poised to take over the QB spot. Two of the three DL return including Dennis Quinn, one of the better DL in the SEC. Two LBs are back for USC, but only one member of the defensive secondary returns. Rashad Faison is a good one though, a senior leader for the ‘Cocks. Both the punter (Dean) and kicker (Weaver) nailed down their spots last season and appear to have the kicking duties under control. USC’s non-conference schedule is one of the toughest in the conference. Road trips to Virginia and in-state rival Clemson will be tough matchups for the Gamecocks. If some of the newer guys can step up and do their jobs, USC can be right in the middle of things at the end of the season. I expect the Gamecocks to rack up about eight or nine victories this season.
The Volunteers came on strong at the end of the 2001 season and won the SEC Eastern Division title. After losing to LSU in the championship game, the Vols went on to knock off Michigan in their New Year’s Day bowl contest. Four offensive and five defensive starters are back from last year’s UT team that went 11-2 overall. Both kickers also return. One WR returns for the Vols, but he (Kelley Washington) may be the best in the SEC (and he’s just a sophomore). Only two OL return, and Ofenheusle is one of the better blockers in the league. TE Jason Whitten returns, but the FB and TB spots will have new starters in ‘02. QB Casey Clausen is returning to lead the Vols, and he should have a very successful season. The UT defensive line has no returning starters. Two of the three LBs return for the Vols, and three members of the defensive secondary return as well. CB Greer and SS Battle are two of the better DBs in the conference. Both kickers return, so the kicking and punting should be solid. Tennessee has an average non-conference schedule. A tough home contest with Miami is the final OOC game of the season; a home game with in-state rival Middle Tennessee will also be interesting. The Vols will almost surely make a run at the SEC East title but will have to fend off Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina to capture that crown. The Vols could win double-digit games this season but could also drop to near .500 if they start out slow. I see UT as a major contender this season.
The Commodores again struggled in the mighty SEC last season. After going 2-9 overall and not winning a game in the conference, coach Woddy Widenhofer was fired, and now Bobby Johnson will take control of the VU football program. Six offensive and one defensive starter returns for the Commodores this season. Two starting WRs return for VU, as do three OL. OG Jimmy May is one of the SEC’s better linemen. All three positions in the backfield will have to find new starters this year (RB, FB, and QB). QB Greg Zolman will be missed by the Commodores this season after leading the VU offense for several years. The only returning defensive starter is DL Brett Beard. There are, however, six projected starters on the defense who are seniors and an additional two players (including Beard) who are juniors. Neither kicker returns for Vandy, so those jobs (which need improvement) are up for grabs this season. Vanderbilt’s non-conference schedule is fairly weak. The season opener at Georgia Tech is by far the toughest of the OOC games. A game at home against Middle Tennessee will also be an extremely tough task for Vandy. The Commodores have very little experience returning this season, but coach Bobby Johnson can use that to his advantage. His new system will take a few years to do any good though, so Vanderbilt will again likely be at the bottom of the SEC standings.
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