LSU and Georgia look to be the cream of the SEC crop again this year, but both will face stiff challenges from within the division as well as some very difficult interdivisional matchups. Here is a team-by-team look at all twelve members of the SEC.
Projected Order Of Finish:
Florida -- The Gators have yet to win 10 games under Ron Zook since the unexpected departure of Steve Spurrier after the 2001 season. If the Gators don't get 10 wins this year, Ron Zook might not be the coach to take them back to the summit as tempers are starting to grow short amongst the Gator faithful. Chris Leak will be back to lead the offense in Gainesville again, but he is one of only 7 returning starters from last year's 8-5 team. This could be good or bad for the Gators. They have no proven go-to WR. They are replacing last year's starting HB. They are replacing the entire secondary, and only two starters return on defense. The Gators have had some very talented recruiting classes in the last few years, but that talent is going to have to gel quickly and win a lot of games this year or they might be trying to learn a new head coach next year. The challenge ahead doesn't present the Gators with an easy road to a big season with games at Tennessee and Florida State, LSU coming to Gainesville, and the yearly game in Jacksonville against Georgia. My pick: Gators can't overcome that many good teams in their path and go 8-3 and finish 3rd in the East.
Georgia -- The Dawgs come into 2004 looking to represent the East in Atlanta yet again. The Dawgs dodged significant bullets with the return of David Greene, David Pollack, and Fred Gibson for their Senior seasons. The Dawgs look poised to win their third straight SEC East crown this year and head back to Atlanta with a trip to the Orange Bowl at stake. Fall practice has not been kind to Georgia so far, with the loss of their projected starting HB (Kregg Lumpkin) for the season to a torn ACL. Still, the Dawgs return 15 starters from last year's Capital One Bowl winner. The road back to the Georgia Dome will not be easy for UGA though, with a trip to Columbia against South Carolina, games at home against Tennessee and LSU, the Cocktail Party against the Gators, on the road against Auburn and Arkansas in the west, and wrapping up the season at home against rival GaTech. There are a lot of stumbling blocks along the way, but if UGA can run the table, they will deserve their shot at the national championship. My pick: UGA goes 9-2 in the regular season and finishes 1st in the SEC East.
Kentucky -- Where have you gone, Jared Lorenzen? The Wildcats are without their star QB this year, and in addition to his departure, they are going to have to replace most of the offense. Derrick Abney is gone as well, and last year's Kentucky squad only managed four wins in twelve games. The Wildcats are going to have to replace their entire offense with the exception of two members of the offensive line and their starting TE. Fourth year man Shane Boyd finally will have his opportunity to start a full season in Lexington, but won't have much to work with as the Wildcats are still feeling the after effects of NCAA sanctions. The defense returns intact, but this was a defense that gave up an average of 400 yards to opposing offenses last year. The schedule isn't favorable either with games at Louisville, Tennessee, and Florida, and home games with Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia. My pick: The faithful in Lexington get ready for Tubby early this year as the Cats go 3-8 and finish last in the SEC East.
South Carolina -- This will probably be the last season for Lou Holtz in Columbia. Last year's Gamecocks were young and underachieved with a 5-7 tally. The last really competitive game the Cocks had in them last year was the overtime loss in Knoxville, and after that the bottom kind of fell out. Another season like last year, and Holtz will hang it up. If the Cocks do manage a big year, Holtz is likely to retire and go out on a high note. Carolina has the talent to make some noise this year, or at least, they've got more experience than last year's squad. Carolina returns 16 starters, which bodes well for familiarity and continuity, but this was a team that quit down the stretch last year and got embarassed by nemesis Clemson by the tune of 63-17. Demetrius Summers is a whale of HB though, and if the offensive line can open holes for him the Cocks could control the clock and grind out some wins this season. My pick: Holtz goes out on a (semi)high note as the Cocks go 7-4.
Tennessee -- The Vols are without a returning starting QB for only the second time in the last 10 years. The graduation of Casey Clausen has left a void behind center in Knoxville this year that could be filled by any one of a cast of characters. The Vols have CJ Leak (brother of Florida's Chris Leak), Rick Clausen (Casey's brother), Jim Bob Cooter, Erik Ainge, and Brent Schaffer competing for the starting job this fall. CJ Leak got the nod as the #1 guy over Clausen and Cooter after spring practice, but will have to win the job again over the two incoming freshmen. Other than that, the Vols return a ton of talent. Toting the rock will be split between Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs Jr. The Vols return no fewer than seven wide receivers, and have arguably the most talented and deepest WR group in the nation. The defense has to replace the secondary, but the front seven all had playing time last year and should be solid. The schedule isn't easy for the Vols this year with Florida, Alabama, Auburn at home and an away trips to Georgia and Mississippi. The Vols have the depth and talent to make a lot of noise if the QB situtation works itself out, and with a lot of options at QB, something big could be brewing in Knoxville. My pick: Vols still can't get past UGA, but do manage to go 9-2 and tie for first in the East.
Vanderbilt -- The Commodore showed signs of life last year for the first time in almost a decade with two wins. Two other times the Dores were within 7 points of their opponent as time expired. That's more than fans in Nasvhille have been able to claim in quite some time. The Dores were very young and inexperienced last year, and really look to make some noise this year with 21 starters returning. This might be the year for Vanderbilt to finally step up and beat one of the top tier SEC teams and make everybody take notice of them as more than just a consistent celler dweller. The schedule is favorable enough that if the Dores got on a real roll they could potentially be bowl eligible for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. Games against Navy, Rutgers, Kentucky, and Mississippi State are certainly winnable for the Dores, and with those few favorable bounces...who knows? My pick: Not this year, maybe next year...4-7 finish to the regular season and 5th in the East.
Projected Order Of Finish:
Alabama -- Second year head coach Mike Shula is finally out from under the weight of NCAA sanctions. Unfortunately for him, the expectations have been pretty high for this year from the Tide faithful. The Tide return 13 starters from a team that went 4-9 last year, and could be in for more of the same this year. The offense doesn't have a returning WR of note, and they are replacing all world HB Shaud Williams in the backfield this year. The Tide also have to replace four of their front seven on defense and one member of their secondary (a defense that yielded 350+ yards per game last year). The out of conference schedule is easy for the Tide, and should yield three easy wins with games against Utah State, Southern Mississippi, and Western Carolina. Once they step inside the SEC things should be too much for Alabama to handle with the lack of depth and lack of quality recruiting classes from the last few years. My pick: The rebuilding continues in Tuscaloosa as the Tide go 6-5, but miss a bowl game as they finish 4th in the West.
Arkanasas -- Speaking of rebuilding...The Hogs lose a total of 22 players from last year's team with eighteen of their 22 starters gone. QB Matt Jones in the lone returning starter on offense and will have his hands full as the new offensive line tries to protect him. The Hogs haven't had great recruiting in the past few years, but it hasn't been awful either. This year will be the year that defines what kind of coach Houston Nutt is. The Hogs have to travel to Florida and to Jordan-Hare to face the Tigers this year, but the rest of their most difficult games are at home (Texas, LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia). The schedule is favorable for the Hogs, but this is a team that is going to need to come together quickly. My pick: Too many new faces doom the Hogs as they go 5-6 and finish 5th in the West.
Auburn -- Was there a more disappointing team than Auburn in the SEC last year? They were a consensus top five preseason team and never lived up to the hype. The Tigers return over half of their starters from a year ago and look to make some noise this year with lower expectations. Carnell Williams returns for his Senior season in Auburn and should be the focal point of the offense this season as the Tigers return three offensive linemen. QB Jason Campbell has a trio of Junior WRs to throw the ball to, and should find some open WRs if the ground game does its job. The Tigers return seven starters from a defense that was one of the best in the nation last year. The Tigers gave up less than 285 yards a game on average last year. If the defense can play to that level again this year, the Tigers could be in for a big year. The schedule isn't easy for the Tigers with games against Georgia and LSU at home, and on the road against Tennessee and arch rival Alabama. My pick: Auburn makes a little noise this year and goes 9-2 and finish second in the West.
LSU -- The Tigers return to try and lay a solo claim to that which they had to share last year, The National Championship. Lightning rarely strikes twice, so LSU will have their hands full this year. They return 13 starters from last year's title team, but will be replacing three members of the defensive front seven (including Chad Lavalais), two members of their offensive line, QB Matt Mauck, and all everything WR Michael Clayton. Ask anybody but Alabama and Nebraska how easy it is to repeat as national champions, and they'll tell you...because it hasn't happened other than to those two teams in the last 30+ years. Nick Saban has the talent around him after another big recruiting class, and the schedule is favorable with no difficult games out of conference and only a difficult test against Georgia in the East. My pick: LSU goes for two in a row and makes it a 10-1 regular season, winning the West and going back to Atlanta.
Mississippi -- Much like Kentucky, the Rebels are without their star quarterback. Eli Manning went on to the greener pastures of the NFL after four years of memories reminiscent to a Mississippi QB three decades before. The Rebels return 10 starters from last year's squad, and will look to replace almost their entire defense as well as all of the skill positions on offense. We will find out two things this year: 1. How well David Cutcliffe has been recruiting...and 2. How good a coach he is. The Rebs will have their hands full with games against Tennessee and Auburn at home and games on the road against LSU and Alabama. My pick: It's a down year in the Grove as the Rebs go 7-4 and finish 3rd in the West.
Mississippi State -- Jackie Sherrill out. Sylvester Croom in. Coach Croom is going to have his hands full this year as he has 14 returning starters from last year's 2-10 squad. The schedule is favorable this year for the Bulldogs with games OOC against Maine, Tulane, and UAB. The eastern division opponents are Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Florida. There is so much unknown about this year's MSU squad with the new coaching staff, but the new staff is going to have to make great strides with limited talent to prevent this year from turning into a repeat of last year. My pick: Croom goes 3-8 and finishes last in the West and looks to build for the future.
Preseason SEC All-Conference Team:
The Best of the SEC:
Best Team: Georgia. Returning Seniors Green, Gibson, and Pollack get the nod over the defending National Champs.
Best Coach: Nick Saban, LSU. Coach Saban turned down the Bears gig after winning the National Championship in less than five years on the Bayou. He's also restored the LSU legacy in short order and put the Bayou Bengals back at the top of the conference with two titles in three years.
Best Player: Carnell Williams, Auburn. If Cadillac was not in a two back system, he would have easily lead the SEC in rushing last year, and would lead it again this year. Power, speed, and moves. A sure first round NFL draft pick in April, 2005.
Best Stadium: The Dawgs have only lost twice at home in the last three years. Add to that fact that they've recently added more seats, plus the beautiful campus setting, and Sanford Stadium gets this year's vote.
Best Game: Georgia Vs. LSU. October 2. Sanford Stadium. The past three SEC titles. The two winningest SEC teams of the last two years meet up in a 2003 SEC Championship Game rematch. This is the biggest regular season game in the SEC this year.
Best Fans: Ole Miss. Nothing like heading to The Grove and taking a step back in time with the Ole Miss faithful.
Best Tradition: Before Florida ran through the 'F'....Before Alabama ran through the 'A'....Tennessee continues the best tradition in the SEC with the running through the 'T' to the roar of 105,000+ drowning out the Pride of the Southland Band's rendition of Rocky Top in a sea of orange.
Best Bet To Underachieve: Florida. They're picked second in almost every SEC East preview you'll see, but they've yet to win 9 games (let alone 10) under Coach Zook. Tennessee. Georgia. Florida State. LSU. Those are four good reasons that Florida probably won't win 10 games again this year.
Best Bet To Overachieve: Vanderbilt. The Dores are back and intact (virtually) from last year. A couple of lucky breaks here and there and the Black and Gold could be bowl bound.
The SEC, America's first "super conference", looks to continue it's place of prominence in the NCAA Division I landscape. Returning powerhouses Georgia and LSU appear to be the best bets for the SEC playing for yet another National Championship. If the SEC were to lock up another National Championship this year, they could lay claim to the title of Best Football Conference with five national titles in a thirteen year span. More impressive than four titles in that span is the fact that it's been done by four different teams. The SEC looks to continue to spread the wealth with realistic possibility of a bowl appearance by Vanderbilt this year, who hasn't appeared in a bowl since Reagan's first term in office and is the only SEC team not to appear in a bowl game in the last ten years.
It is a year of questions in the SEC. How will Coach Croom do in Starkville? Which team is better: LSU or Georgia? Will Alabama return to prominence? Can Vanderbilt put together a winning season? Is this Coach Holtz' final year? Will Florida turn the corner with Zook? How will Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ole Miss fare without their departed veteran quarterbacks? Will Auburn step back to where they were expected to be last year? How will the rebuilding go in Fayetteville? The answers are just a few weeks away.
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