SB Nation's Comprehensive, Encyclopedic SEC Preview

No one can say the SEC was boring in 2008. In the course of a year, the conference saw heavyweights Auburn and Tennessee crash and burn as new offenses failed to live up to their promises; witnessed Alabama climb back on top of the West with an undefeated regular season; and saw an Ole Miss team left for dead at the beginning of the year finish the season as one of the best four teams in the conference.

In the process, one national title favorite (Georgia) was replaced with another (Alabama) and then another (Florida) while Vanderbilt made a bowl for the first time in more than a quarter-century and Les Miles had his first season in the SEC with fewer than 10 wins.

So what do you do for an encore?

How about the most dominant national-title favorite in college football history, a three-way race for the SEC West crown and a muddled SEC East where it's Florida, Georgia and then anybody's guess about where everybody else falls? To help make a bit more sense out of the league, the SB Nation's SEC bloggers -- some of the best in the business -- put their heads together and came up with this.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

EAST

WEST

1

Florida Gators

47.5*

1

Alabama Crimson Tide

45.0

2

Georgia Bulldogs

40.5

2

LSU Tigers

39.0

3

South Carolina Gamecocks

28.5

3

Mississippi Rebels

36.0

4

Tennessee Volunteers

22.5

4

Arkansas Razorbacks

23.5

5

Kentucky Wildcats

15.5

5

Auburn Tigers

15.5

6

Vanderbilt Commodores

13.5

6

Mississippi St. Bulldogs

9.0

*At least shared first place on every ballot.

But how will all that happen? We asked our bloggers to outline their thoughts using a couple of different approaches to give you the most comprehensive single-post SEC preview you're likely to find anywhere on the Web. First, we asked 10 different bloggers each a question about the SEC in 2009. Then, we took the time to review each team, either smashing a popular myth about the squad in question, highlighting the good and the bad or, in the case of Florida, just pointing out the obvious (they're really quite good this year).

Because while Florida's quest for perfection will get most of the attention this year, there's so much more to the SEC than one team. If last year proved nothing else, it's that there always is.

The SEC in 10 Questions

1. Aside from the SEC Championship Game, the game Florida is most likely to lose in 2009 is ...

Alligator Army (Florida): At LSU. Not because LSU is the second best team in the SEC (Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss could play for that) or because they are equal in talent to UF (probably a year away), but because the game will likely be played at night in Tiger Stadium against a very good defense for the Tigers. LSU's defense should be far improved from the one that allowed 24 points per game in 2008. They will retain their speed, which allows them to match up against UF. With a fast secondary, they can stay in man coverage, allowing more backers to blitz the Gators. That same strategy was used by Ole Miss to smother the Gators in 2008.

The Tigers quarterback will be a problem (is it Jordan Jefferson or not?), but they will lean on RB Charles Scott to take the pressure off. WR Brandon LaFell is still a great player, even if he has an average or below average QB. I don't see the Tigers scoring more that 21 against the Gators, but a 17-14 win for LSU is not out of the question. Florida has at least one road brain cramp per year in the Meyer era (at South Carolina in 2005, at Auburn in 2006, at LSU in 2007). Florida avoided that jinx in 2008, but they were a desperate team. With a bullseye on their back and 92,000 crazy people trying to get in their heads, a night trip to LSU could destroy UF's hopes for a National Championship. --mlmintampa

2. The SEC West will be determined by the following game: (a) Alabama at Ole Miss; (b) LSU at Ole Miss; (c) LSU at Alabama; (d) Some other game; (e) A combination of games

Roll Bama Roll (Alabama): I'm going with (e) on this one, simply for the fact that it is highly unlikely any of the top three teams are getting to Atlanta undefeated and because Arkansas is going to spoil someone's season this year. They beat LSU to close the regular season last year and were two points away from taking a lot of polish of Ole Miss's surprise run to the Cotton Bowl as well. With a certified pocket passer in Ryan Mallett to run the offense, Petrino should be able to put up a lot of points this season. If the offense takes a leap forward (the Hogs lost three games last season by three points are less) they'll be back in a bowl and also holding the deciding factor in who heads to Atlanta. I would say that the big three not only have to beat at least one of the others, but will also have to handle Arkansas if to secure the division.

3. Ole Miss was the surprise team in the SEC in 2008. Who will be that team in 2009?

Red Cup Rebellion (Ole Miss): The general consensus is that Arkansas is going to be greatly improved this season, leading many to call them 2009's "surprise team." This, by the very nature of the term "surprise," automatically disqualifies Arkansas from this distinction.

My pick: The Georgia Bulldogs. With Florida and Tim Tebow stealing all of the "omg teh best teem evar" press out of the East, and the three-headed-monster atop the SEC West stealing the press out our way, the Classic City Canines have been somewhat overlooked.

Will they win the East over Florida? Hell no. Will they be a very good football team? Yes.

A ton of folks are a bit down on the 2009 Bulldogs for three very obvious reasons: No more Knowshon, no more Stafford, last season's disappointment. Let's look at those reasons a bit closer.

No more Knowshon Moreno hurts. It really does. But it almost seems like most people have forgotten that Caleb King, Knowshon's backup, actually made a legitimate push for serious playing time not so long ago. Knowshon's All-SEC abilities finally won out over King, but that hardly means he lacks the talent to be a good SEC halfback. Coupling King with Richard Samuel, a back who averaged over five yards a carry in limited action last season, gives the Bulldogs a letimage running game.

No more Matthew Stafford also hurts, but I don't think Joe Cox is going to be a gigantic dropoff. Of course he won't be as good as Stafford but, when considering the fact that Stafford was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, that isn't saying much of anything. So long as he can manage the game and move the ball when he is called upon, Georgia will win games. Also, A.J. Green is still alive, isn't he? He's awesome. Like, the kind-of-receiver-who-makes-terrible-quarterbacks-look-okay awesome.

And speaking of things which hurt, Georgia was plagued with what may have been the worst rash of injuries any SEC team has seen this decade. No, that's nowhere close to a hyperbole. The Bulldogs suffered 18 season-ending injuries last year, but managed to only lose three games. It is a fruitless exercise to play "What if?" with history, but "what if Georgia didn't suffer but four or five such injuries last year?" Would they have won the SEC? Would they have only lost once, to the rival Gators? I would say that either would have been a more realistic outcome. When looking up and down their depth chart, I see a ton of juniors and seniors -- especially on the defense. Many of these guys missed last season to injury and are likely looking to redeem themselves, and their team, this season.

In looking at their schedule, I really only see one game which Georgia would be a major underdog in (take a wild shot here -- here's a hint, it's not Auburn). Oklahoma State will be a very difficult game early on, but if Cox and company can keep the ball moving while the veteran UGA defense forces a few turnovers, you've gotta love their chances. Winning in Fayetteville is never easy, South Carolina is always a close game and LSU should be better, but not by enough for me to be reasonably convinced that they'll take the Dawgs.

So, yes, I am saying the Georgia Bulldogs could do something like go 11-1 and get an At-Large BCS bowl bid. I wouldn't bet money on it because I really can't be certain of anything right now, which is exactly why I'm calling that outcome my "surprise" pick of 2009.

4. After Florida and Ole Miss, which team has the best starting quarterback in the league? And, of all the teams, who do you think has the best No. 2?

And The Valley Shook (LSU): First, let's say that it is no given that Tebow and Snead won't be joined by another this year. It's hard to name names, but as of right now, this minute, as I sit here, with little else to go on besides what it is in my tired, worn-out, addled brain, I would say that the best quarterback in the conference other than Tebow and Snead is most likely Ryan Mallet of Arkansas. He's a guy who can make all the throws, and while he may not be all that mobile, he is a stand-in-the-pocket distributor. He's the kind of quarterback who has always excelled for Bobby Petrino.

Then again, his stats at Michigan in 2007 kinda sucked when you get down to it. 43% completion percentage. Seven touchdowns. Five interceptions.  An ATVSQBPI of 4.96? That's not that good. Then again, it was a very tough situation. I think he and Jordan Jefferson have the best chance to join that elite category, but Jefferson still has a ways to go to prove it, and he is even less experienced than Mallett.

Best backup? I am tempted to say Jarrett Lee. Heck, he was in the top half of the league last year in terms of starters. How good of a backup is he? But I'm not going to go with Lee. I'm going to go off the board and say Randall Cobb of Kentucky. That dude is a dangerous weapon. It's strange, because I think Mike Hartline is one of the worst starting QBs in the league, but his backup is kind of awesome. Everyone hypes up John Brantley of Florida, and I'm sure he's good, but he's as green as Kermit.--Richard Pittman

5. Aside from Georgia, who has the toughest out of conference schedule? Who has the easiest?

A Sea of Blue (Kentucky): Here's how I rank the teams of the SEC for OOC strength of schedule and description of my methodology. First, the ranking:

Rank

School

Points

1

Georgia

36.57

2

Auburn

35.67

3

Mississippi State

35.67

4

South Carolina

32.34

5

Vanderbilt

31.87

6

Florida

30.62

7

Tennessee

26.37

8

LSU

25.48

9

Alabama

24.61

10

Arkansas

24.46

11

Kentucky

22.66

12

Mississippi

22.56

Mean

29.07

Median

28.49

Methodology: Using my ranking system developed in Football Rankulator software, I first ranked the SOS of all the teams that are covered in the software. I used last SOS year's rank as the basis for FBS teams, and applied it to each.  For the FCS Schools, I used a fairly arbitrary system that establishes the best FCS school somewhere mid-pack of the FBS. Then, using their ranking points from their final rankings (where 1 would be highest, .999 would be next, etc), multiplied that by the mid-pack number (in this case, 25) and assigned the resultant value to each school. That gives us an idea of the relative strength of each FCS school on the schedule and normalizes the scale. Adding all that up came up with a number, the higher the better.

6. Three teams went 5-7 in 2008: Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn. Of those three, the team that will have the best record in 2009 will be ...

Arkansas Expats (Arkansas): The Hogs' record, coming on the heels of a major offensive talent drain, wasn't a particularly big surprise. What was surprising, though, is that Tennessee and Auburn were equally mediocre -- and in fact, were probably worse by the end of the season.

This year, all three teams have some cause for optimism (of course, everyone is optimistic about their team in August). But, we can confidently say that Arkansas will have the best record of the three at the end of the year. Although the Hogs' defense still has a long way to go before it scares anybody, the offense seems to be gelling going into Bobby Petrino's second season and should win a few games on its own. Our schedule is brutally tough (hello four road games against Top 10 teams), but we can see the Razorbacks flipping last year's record to 7-5 (or maybe better if the ball bounces the right way here and there).

As for Auburn and Tennessee, they'll possibly be better than last year, but not good enough. The jury is still out on Lane Kiffin's ability to do anything but rile up opposing teams, and Auburn is alarmingly thin at the offensive skill positions. So, our completely unbiased and thoroughly scientific answer to the original question looks like this: 1. Arkansas; 2. Tennessee; 3. Auburn.--John Expat

7. How many SEC teams will have losing records this year?

For Whom the Cowbell Tolls (Mississippi State): I think at least three teams will have losing records, maybe four: Kentucky, Auburn and Mississippi State, with the possible fourth being Vandy.

Kentucky is blessed with three linebackers who show great NFL potential, but lost 11 starters from a defense that finished 11th in the SEC last year. Add to that a tough early schedule and they may end up under .500 for the season.

Auburn is in a rebuilding year, with a completely new coaching staff and another attempt to implement a spread offense. They have settled on a starting QB with Chris Todd, but they are weak at receiver. They also lost 2 key defensive players to the draft early.

Mississippi State is also in a rebuilding year. Dan Mullen has the Bulldog faithful excited about the program for the first time since the Liberty Bowl, but is also installing a spread offense using a 5-foot-10 QB and a lack of depth at receiver. Combine that with a schedule that includes five of the pre-season top 25 and I wouldn't look for more than a 5-7 season.

Vandy had a winning season last year, and returns 18 starters from the first bowl winning team in over 50 years. Still, they always run out of steam at the end of the season. They also lost D.J. Moore to the draft and are weak at the receiver position. They may have a hard time going 7-6 for the second year in a row.--jeremyflint

8. How many of the lower three teams in the SEC East (South Carolina, Kentucky, Vanderbilt) will defeat Tennessee this year? Will any of them pull an upset against the other two of the Big 3 (Florida, Georgia)?

Garnet and Black Attack (South Carolina): First of all, considering that it's Tennessee that's coming off a five-win season while South Carolina, Kentucky and Vandy are all coming off bowl-eligible seasons, I'd dare to say that the burden is on Tennessee to prove that it is still in the same category with Florida and Georgia and not, in fact, itself one of the "lower three." Tennessee has certainly been better than USC, UK, and VU traditionally, but the gap has closed considerably in the past four years. Consider that in that time span South Carolina has beat the Vols twice, Vandy has beat them once, and the Vols have had to eke out escapes in most of their wins, when in the past they would have won comfortably. It doesn't really make sense to talk about Tennessee as part of the conference's upper echelon until they reprove that they're an elite team. The fact that many previews don't have the Vols in the East's top three coming into this season attests to the lowered expectations for UT.

As far as how many games they'll lose to USC, UK, and VU, it's difficult to say. We don't really know what to expect from Tennessee this year. Were the struggles of past years due to a lack of talent or was it coaching that was the problem? If the former, it will probably take a couple of years for Tennessee to regroup under Lane Kiffin. In that case, I would say that the Vols will almost certainly lose a game or two to the teams you mentioned. If the talent is still there and Kiffin and his all-star staff are doing a good job, then the Vols will probably win at least two and possibly all three.

Can USC, UK, or VU pull off an upset against UGA or Florida? Against Florida, almost certainly not. However, UGA is in transition this year and may be vulnerable. I'd say South Carolina has the best chance against them, as the Gamecocks tend to play UGA well. We get them early, before they've had a chance to solidify the new lineup. South Carolina also gets extra time to prepare for UGA, as the Gamecocks play a Thursday night game the week before.Vandy and Kentucky may have more trouble, as UGA will probably be playing well towards the end of the year, whereas the 'Dores and 'Cats will likely be suffering from lack of depth by that point in the year. However, an upset in either of those games isn't out of the question.--Gamecock Man

9. Which coach will win the SEC first: Gene Chizik, Lane Kiffin, or Dan Mullen?

Rocky Top Talk (Tennessee): None of the above.

Just kidding. The question speaks mostly about the opportunity these coaches will have to win the SEC. To cut to the chase, Mississippi State has the most difficult path toward the SEC crown; their facilities are among the humblest in the SEC, which has a significant effect on the ability to attract and train the top recruits. Their tradition is not as sellable, and for all that we like to think that previous decades don't matter, they do; recruits are still attracted to the same schools that dominated football throughout the last century. Just ask Notre Dame, Michigan, and Florida State. I don't think there's been a coach alive who could be counted on to take the Mississippi State job -- while surrounded by LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss -- and turn it into an SEC winner in short order. It's not that it's not possible; it's just not believable.

The race then narrows to Auburn and Tennessee. While Auburn is in a better home state for recruiting, it is not a state that can support two elite programs, and they are outmatched by the University of Alabama -- the traditional favorite destination of high school seniors; historically, a strong Alabama has always resulted in an in-state recruiting mismatch for Auburn. To the east, the universities of Georgia and (to a lesser degree) Georgia Tech have the upper hand. To the south, the Florida / Florida State / Miami triumvirate have the edge. That places them in a similar situation as Tennessee -- disadvantaged in the race for recruits. The only difference is that Tennessee is more prepared for the challenge.

Tennessee knows that their home state is not talent rich. To atone for this, they have learned to recruit nationally. With the largest recruiting budget in the country (over $1 million per year), Tennessee leaves no state unturned. They find quality in quantity by sifting through more prospects than anybody else and finding the best they can find. That approach won a national championship in 1998; in the hands of perhaps the most effective recruiting staff ever assembled (hand-picked straight from the recruiting coordinators of fellow SEC rivals, no less), there is no reason to believe that Tennessee will not assemble a SEC-winning team prior to either Auburn or Mississippi State.--hooper

10. Mark Richt is the longest-tenured head coach in the SEC. Whose chance to challenge him for that title ends this season (i.e., who gets fired/resigns/retires)?

Dawg Sports (Georgia): I'd love to say that this is the year Urban Meyer takes the Notre Dame job, Steve Spurrier takes up permanent residence at Augusta National, or Lane Kiffin has a debut so bad he's cancelled after a single failed shot at stardom like "Emily's Reasons Why Not," but I don't believe any of those things are going to happen. I actually think this is going to be a year of stability for the league after a tumultuous 2008 season, but, if there's any coach in the conference who doesn't think this question is BS, it's Rich Brooks. The Kentucky skipper is grizzled and crotchety by Big Ten standards and surely he knows he's pushing his luck trying to extend the Wildcats' glory run (such as it is) beyond this season. Bowl or no bowl, Brooks will hang up his whistle and hand it over to some other Joker at the end of this autumn.

TEAM BY TEAM

EAST

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FLORIDA
SBN: Alligator Army
2008: 13-1, 8-1 SEC

As we've already noted, this year is about the Gators and whether anyone in the conference -- or in the country -- is capable of knocking off the reigning national champions.

It's not an unreasonable question. Florida returns 18 starters to a team that suffered just one letdown -- a one-point loss to eventual Cotton Bowl Champions Ole Miss -- and defeated then-unbeaten Alabama in the SEC Championship Game before taking down Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game. Any problems you find with the team are picking at the edges.

And yet -- Florida loses their most dynamic player not named Tim Tebow with the departure of WR "slash" Percy Harvin. Some still dread the thought of Tebow under center, seeing in it a desire to move the nation's best player higher in the draft pool at the expense of the team's ability to win. It's taking some time to iron out the starting offensive line, though no one doubts it will be set by the time Florida plays its first game and certainly by the time they face someone good enough to give them any trouble.

Then again, as last year's loss to the Rebels shows, nothing about any team's destiny is certain. And even if Florida rolls through a favorable SEC schedule, they still face the prospect of an Atlanta showdown with either Alabama, LSU -- or Ole Miss, the only team that's gotten the better of Florida during the regular season since October 2007.--C&F

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GEORGIA
SBN: Dawg Sports
2008: 10-3, 6-2 SEC

You already know what's bad about the Bulldogs -- the losses of No. 1 NFL Draft pick QB Matthew Stafford, irreplaceable tailback Knowshon Rockwell Moreno and oft-underappreciated WR Mohamed Massaquoi virtually guarantee that the Red and Black offense will be significantly more pedestrian in 2009. What's good about Georgia is that the Dawgs are solid at defensive tackle and linebacker, deep along the offensive line, bolstered by a glut of young talent in the receiving corps, and led by senior quarterback Joe Cox, a David Greene-style game manager who may not lead any eleventh-hour game-winning marches, but who won't be guilty of the sorts of maddening miscues Stafford seemed to be good for at least once a game.

SMASH-MYTH FOOTBALL | The biggest myth about the Bulldogs is that they're at their best when expectations are low. The 2002 Georgia squad was highly touted in the preseason and delivered on its promise with an SEC title, a Sugar Bowl victory, a 13-win season, and a No. 3 national ranking. The trend of successes and (relative) failures for the Classic City Canines in the Mark Richt era isn't about meeting or exceeding expectations, it's about offseason focus. When Georgia opens with a legitimate opponent (Clemson in 2002 and 2003, Boise State in 2005, or Oklahoma State in 2007), the team comes out of the gate ready and the sky is the limit. When the Dawgs kick off the campaign in a glorified scrimmage (Arkansas State in 2001, Georgia Southern in 2004 and 2008, or Western Kentucky in 2006), they tend to sleepwalk into the season and slip up along the way. Fortunately, beginning the autumn in a nationally-televised bout with a top-ten caliber opponent in the surging Cowboys qualifies as a strong start by any measure, so history would seem to suggest a brighter 2009 for the Red and Black. That's what I keep telling myself, anyway.--T. Kyle King, Dawg Sports

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SOUTH CAROLINA
SBN: Garnet and Black Attack
2008: 7-6, 4-4 SEC

SMASH-MYTH FOOTBALL | Lots of folks -- significantly fans of Spurrier's old rivals -- think that Steve Spurrier is washed up as a coach. These critics focus not only on Spurrier's inability to win lots of games but also on his failure to produce a competent offense in Columbia despite being considered an offense-oriented guy. They do this not without good reason; at South Carolina, Spurrier's offenses have been anything but impressive. Indeed, the meager win totals Spurrier has accumulated at USC have mainly come by virtue of stout defenses, and even Spurrier will admit that he doesn't have much to do with the defense.

These facts don't bode well for Spurrier's reputation. However, has Spurrier really failed as an offensive coach? A more moderate judgment might suggest that the real problem hasn't been Spurrier but rather USC's lack of a competent offensive line and quarterback. In fact, if you pay close attention to game tape, you'll see that Spurrier is still able to pull off his old tricks. He still oftentimes manages to draw up plays that get receivers open. The problem is that his quarterbacks either don't have time to get them the ball or they just don't throw it well.

This year, there's a possibility that we may see a resurgence in Spurrier's reputation as an offensive coach. With a new offensive line coach that has improved line play across the board and a multi-talented quarterback that has reportedly been relatively successfully "coached up," some of the old problems may not rear their heads again, and if Spurrier really is still calling good ball plays, the 'Cocks may be primed to put a lot of points on the board. It may not be enough to make a major difference in the W-L columns, as Carolina probably does not have quite the same defense it has had in recent years and moreover faces a brutal schedule that includes two ACC teams that will probably go bowling and an unlucky slate of Western division teams that includes preseason Top 10 teams Ole Miss and Alabama. However, the idea that Steve Spurrier has lost his touch as an offensive coach may be revealed to be nothing more than a myth by the end of the year.--Gamecock Man, Garnet and Black Attack

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TENNESSEE
SBN: Rocky Top Talk
2008: 5-7, 3-5 SEC

Things We Like | Depth in the backfield: Senior RB Montario Hardesty looks to finally stay healthy, and should be the first option for the majority of carries in what will have to be a strong running game. Whether it's Hardesty, the super-freshman duo of Bryce Brown and David Oku, or Tauren Poole (who refuses to go away), the Vols will run behind four experienced senior offensive linemen. The defense was a statistical giant last season, picked up Monte Kiffin in the offseason and returns Eric Berry, who might be the best defensive player in all of college football. The defensive line has great potential with tackle Dan Williams and end Chris Walker, and if untested players blossom at linebacker and tackle, the Vol defense could be great once again.

Things We Don't | It's either Jonathan Crompton or Nick Stephens under center, and we all know how that worked out last year. Vol fans are extraordinarily hopeful that the majority of the offensive woes last season were the work of Dave Clawson's offensive "gameplan" and not a true indication of ineptitude. We'll see. There is zero quality depth on the offensive line, so the Vols must stay injury-free there. After WR Gerald Jones, most of the pass catchers that will be relied on have great potential but have shown nothing in a Tennessee uniform. At least two starters -- one offensive tackle and one outside linebacker -- will have no quality game experience.

The Outlook | Lane Kiffin has made few friends and lots of enemies, and between that and the Vols' 5-7 effort last year, I can't make a rational argument that Tennessee is going to beat Florida or Alabama. That leaves a handful of relative toss-up games -- UCLA, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina, plus a mid-November date with Ole Miss -- that will decide the fate of Kiffin's first season. The Vols have the talent up front and in the backfield to have a strong running game, and could have the defense to keep them very competitive. But ultimately, much of this season's fate still falls on Jonathan Crompton's shoulders, and Kiffin's ability to get more out of his quarterback than the previous offense did will determine how far the Vols can go. Six wins would be an improvement -- eight wins would be a success.--wshelton2, Rocky Top Talk

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KENTUCKY
SBN: A Sea of Blue
2008: 7-6, 2-6 SEC

This year's Kentucky team will be an interesting test of how much maturity matters in a team. Last year, Kentucky was very young at most offensive skill positions and struggled to put points on the board. This year, that unit is back mostly intact, but a year older. Mike Hartline, Kentucky's starting quarterback for most of last year, returns as a junior to try to prove that his improvement with a year of seasoning will make him worthy of leading an SEC team.

Randall Cobb, last year's do-everything true freshman (quarterback, receiver, punt returner), returns to the team, dedicated largely to the the receiver position but sure to see time in the "Wildcat" formation where the ball will be placed directly in his hands in a spread-type formation to allow him to use his considerable athletic skills to make plays. Kentucky's young receiving corps is a year older and, if reports are to be believed, much better. The addition of highly-ranked junior college transfer Chris Matthews and his reportedly stellar work in practice could make a big difference in Kentucky's passing game.

Alfonso Smith returns as the senior starter in the running game, along with help from freshman walk-on CoShick Williams, and junior Moncell Allen should be solid, if unspectacular. Potential star running back Derrick Locke is returning from a severe knee injury, and it remains to be seen if he will contribute.

The offensive line is a senior-dominated unit lead by Zipp Duncan, Justin Jeffries, Jorge Gonzalez and Christian Johnson. Capable backups make this the deepest and arguably most talented Kentucky offensive line in many, many years.

Defensively, the loss of Jeremy Jarmon will sting. DeQuin Evans, another highly-ranked JUCO transfer, will help some, but the Defensive line will not be as strong as last year in the pass rush department. Corey Peters and Ricky Lumpkin will anchor the d-line. The linebacking corps, led by Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell will be very stout, and the defensive backfield with All-American candidate Trevard Lindley will be rock-solid.

The defense will be strong again this year, but different. The defensive line will arguably be somewhat weaker, while the linebacking corps and defensive backfield should be stronger. It will be interesting to see how that dynamic works out.

Perhaps the biggest loss is in special teams. All-SEC selection Tim Masthay will not be back due to graduation, so the kicking game will be rebuilt around sophomore Ryan Tydlacka.--Truzenzuzex, A Sea of Blue

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VANDERBILT
2008: 7-6, 4-4 SEC

Last season, Vanderbilt attended its first bowl game since 1982, and the victory in it was the Commodores' first post season win since 1955. VU's points for/points allowed ratio against FBS opponents has improved every season under head coach Bobby Johnson. Things are on the upswing for the program, but the question on everyone's minds is: can they keep it up?

The Vanderbilt offense was just plain bad last season, putting up meager point totals and getting outgained badly on the season. The faithful are pinning their hopes on sophomore QB Larry Smith, the man who beat Boston College in the Music City Bowl. He will have to beat out senior Mackenzi Adams, who started some games last season, for the right to play behind the five returning starters on the line. To aid in output, Johnson's offensive staff has implemented a no-huddle, spread scheme with some Wildcat-style plays mixed in.

The strength of the team is likely to be the defense again. The Commodores return all of their front seven plus half of its secondary from 2008. The loss of star CB D.J. Moore hurts, but some Commodore fans believe they have a star in the making in Moore's replacement, Casey Haywood. Vandy allowed more than 24 points just once last season, and that was to eventual national champ Florida and its prolific offense. With so many people back, a similar mark would not be out of the question.

Now that Vanderbilt has got the bowl-less streak off its back, the goal has to be making success sustainable. A major step to that goal was accomplished in February when Johnson signed his highest rated recruiting class ever. There are just enough winnable games on the schedule to allow for another bowl trip, but if the offense doesn't improve, yet another December at home awaits.--Year2

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WEST 

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ALABAMA
SBN: Roll Bama Roll
2008: 12-2, 8-1 SEC

On offense, the Crimson Tide has all the ingredients to continue on with the power rushing attack that yielded so much success last season; second leading rusher Mark Ingram returns after a stellar true freshman campaign and he's joined in the backfield by senior Roy Upchurch, a former Parade All-American that has shown flashes of dominance when he can stay healthy; true freshman Trent Richardson, the No. 2 running back in the country that many recruitniks feel is an even better prospect than Ingram; and Eddie Lacy, another true freshman that has drawn positive reviews from the staff over the course of the fall. Blocking for them is a mostly rebuilt line, but there shouldn't be much drop off from last season. Mike Johnson returns at LG and Drew Davis is back at RT, and elsewhere along the line candidates have emerged to fill the departed shoes of the Andre Smith (James Carpenter, a JUCO transfer, locked down the LT spot during the spring and never looked back), Antoine Caldwell (similarly, William Vlachos grabbed the start at C during the spring and has been virtually unchallenged since), and Marlon Davis (a handful of candidates have gotten a look at RG, but Barrett Jones seems to have locked it up over the fall). As impressive as last season's line was, only Andre Smith was what you would call a "VHT," while everyone else were solid yet unspectacular. Their strength was their cohesiveness as a unit and, if this current grouping can stay healthy, they should not only maintain last season's production but they have a chance to actually improve on it. Also aiding in the ground game is a deep well of talent at TE. Travis McCall was the silent workhorse of the ground game last season and played an integral part as a lead blocker, but Baron Huber (who moved over from FB) and Undra Billingsley (who moved over from DE) are both capable blockers, while Colin Peek (a transfer from Ga. Tech), Preston Dial, and Brad Smelley present the best of both worlds as blockers and pass catchers.

Speaking of pass catchers, Alabama finds itself in a position to take advantage of some finally consistent playmakers at WR. Everyone knows the name Julio Jones after last season, but a few more you'll likely know after this season are Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks, Mike McCoy, and Earl Alexander. Maze was a real bright spot for the offense during the spring and has shown over the fall that he is the kind of speedy deep threat that Alabama hasn't had since Tyrone Prothro. McCoy, a senior, is a solid run blocker and a big target that can make catches in traffic.  Hanks and Alexander are both practice field heroes that have yet to bring that production to the stadium due to injuries, but both are poised for breakout seasons this year. Just having one other receiver that can consitently make plays frees Julio up to move around and take on a greater role in the offense. Further, Jones played most of last season with a sports hernia suffered against Gerogia and also added wrist and shoulder injuries over the course of the season, so just having him healthy means his production should increase as well.  But unless someone can get the ball to them, it's all a moot point. Greg McElroy, a redshirt junior, has waited patiently for his opportunity to start, and with a coordinator's grasp of the offense and surprising accuracy he has all the tools to be successful right away. Though he's untested as far as game experience goes, he's been praised by both the staff and fellow teammates throughout the spring and fall as both a leader and a savvy game manager that can help keep the Tide offense efficient.

Switching to defense, the Tide returns all but one key component of one of the more dominant groups in the country last season. That one key component is a doozy, though, as FS Rashad Johnson was the heart and soul of the defense and his leadership and knowledge of the schemes were big keys to that unit's success last year. Filling Johnson's shoes is such a daunting task that two players are having to do it, sophomores Robby Green and Mark Barron. Both played on special teams last year with Barron seeing some time as an extra defensive back on passing downs, and Saban has said that he considers both co-starters right now. Green is the better coverage guy (having moved over to FS from CB), while Barron is a physical hard hitter that can play near the line in run support.  Rounding out the safeties, Justin Woodall is back for his senior year at SS. At CB, Kareem Jackson, Javier Arenas, and Marquis Johnson, last season's top three corners, are all back, while sophomore B.J. Scott and true freshman Dre Kirkpatrick have turned a lot of heads this fall as well.

Moving up to the front seven, generating a better pass rush is an imperative this year. Though it was considered one of the most dominant units against the run last season, the Tide wasn't terribly effective at pressuring the QB, a fact that reared its ugly head against both Florida and Utah. Though leading sack man DE Bobby Greenwood has graduated, the rest of the d-line rotation is back and there should be improved production from the Jack linebacker position as well. Terrence Cody continues to be the bedrock of the Alabama front seven, but surrounding him is plenty of talent with specific skill sets. Josh Chapman backed up Cody last year and will continue to be the preferred NG this year during passing situations, while Lorenzo Washington and Brandon Deaderick are both back at DE.

The linebacking corps should also be as effective as last year's unit, and could actually be better with more athleticism coming from the Jack and greater contributions from the younger players after a year in the system. Last year's starter at Jack, Brandon Fanney, transferred to North Alabama after seeing his playing time quickly diminish after a suspension during the spring, while Eryk Anders and Courtney Upshaw have developed into the kind of solid pass rushers off the edge that Alabama has been lacking. Anders was a third down "Rabbit Rusher" specialist last season and, though he's a little small to be an every down back against the run, he's still our best man off the edge and has been working with the first unit ever since spring. Upshaw made a name as a hard hitter on special teams last season and is a better run stopper than Anders, so look for those two to rotate frequently. At the other outside spot ("Sam"), senior Corey Reamer is back as is sophomore Jerrell Harris, a VHT type that spent last year backing up Reamer and learning the schemes and will see plenty of playing time. At the two inside spots, Mike linebacker Rolando McClain and Will linebacker Dont'a Hightower will be the anchor of the defense. Both are freakish blends of size and athleticism, able to stand against the run and play press coverage against backs and TEs while challenging the intermediate routes in zone coverage. Even worse for opposing offenses, a big time infusion of linebacking talent is also availabe, from sophomore Chris Jordan to true freshmen Tana Patrick and Nico Johnson.--Roll Bama Roll

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LSU
SBN: And The Valley Shook
2008: 8-5, 3-5 SEC

SMASH-MYTH FOOTBALL | The myth, perpetrated by everyone, was that Jarrett Lee was the worst quarterback in the league, or one of the worst.

We have been going over this myth in exhaustive detail. Jarrett Lee's father is probably about to send us an email saying, "Jeez, I get it! My son wasn't that bad last year. Move on!" The details: A couple years ago, I invented a statistical index meant to be an improvement on the traditional "passer rating." If you remember our conversation last month where I defended Jarrett Lee, I pointed out that his passer rating was mid-pack in the SEC last year. I later backtracked, saying that the passer rating insufficiently punishes interceptions. My own metric punishes interceptions a lot more, but lo and behold, Lee was still in the middle of the pack.

If you look at the QB numbers, pretty much everyone in the conference in 2008 had a poor TD-to-INT ratio, except for the Big 3 of Tebow, Stafford, and Snead. Jarrett Lee's, at 13-16, was actually right in line with the majority of quarterbacks in the conference. Plus, he had a pretty good yards per attempt average and didn't get sacked a whole bunch. The result was that in a conference with a whole lot of bad numbers for quarterbacks, Jarrett Lee's numbers weren't nearly the worst. Lee certainly wasn't great by any means, but there were a lot worse quarterbacks in the conference. I'm looking in your direction, Mike Hartline, Wesley Carroll, Jonathan Crompton and anyone lining up behind center for Auburn.

Lee just gets remembered for all the interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, but it probably wasn't his fault that a disproportionate number of his interceptions were brought to the house.

Anyway, then we broke down his statistics by game, and he started out the season really well. If the season had ended after the Mississippi State game on Sept. 27, Lee may have been in line to be All-SEC, but then as the interceptions mounted, he play started playing worse and worse. It became a mental thing, starting with the Florida game, where he threw 3 interceptions, 2 returned for touchdowns. Even then, though, if the season had ended we would have said that he had a promising rookie season despite a few mishaps. He played well again a few weeks later, but never as well as he had earlier in the season, and he had a couple more disastrous games as the season progressed. Still, over the course of the season his numbers were right in line with the middle of the pack.--Richard Pittman, And The Valley Shook

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OLE MISS
SBN: Red Cup Rebellion
2008: 9-4, 5-3 SEC

The Good | Ole Miss' defensive line. When all cylinders are firing, the Rebel defensive front is perhaps the nation's best. If sackmaster Greg Hardy can survive a complete, injury-free season, Ole Miss' defense will be a tough one to score on.

The Bad | Depth. The Rebels have solid starters at nearly every position on the field but would be hard-pressed to replace any of them to injury. This is especially true with regards to the younger offensive line and underachieving secondary.

What might happen | With this team, 12-0 is possible. With any SEC schedule, 7-5 is possible. That being considered, bet on something in between.--Red Cup Rebellion

 

 

 
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ARKANSAS
SBN: Arkansas Expats
2008: 5-7, 2-6 SEC

It's hard to find a preseason magazine or other prognosticator who isn't picking the Razorbacks as one of the most improved teams of the year. Despite the decidedly mediocre stats of Ryan Mallett during his brief starting career in Michigan, many expect the new Arkansas signal-caller to serve as the final missing piece in Bobby Petrino's offense. Mallett has some quality help, as well, with 1,000-yard rusher Michael Smith and D.J. Williams Jr., maybe the most underrated TE in the country, coming back after catching 61 passes in 2008.

But offense wasn't the biggest problem for Arkansas last year -- defense was. Alabama piled up 328 rushing yards against the Hogs, Kentucky had 284 yards passing and even South Carolina's anemic ground game picked up 132 yards rushing -- the Gamecocks' highest total and average (3.9 ypc) in SEC play. There are plenty of returning starters, but too many injuries like the season-ending ACL tear of Isaac Madison could erode the hopes of progress.

The schedule won't do Arkansas any favors. Georgia replaces Kentucky in the East rotation, while the Hogs have to travel to the Swamp this year to play Florida. And Arkansas will go to Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU this year. The nonconference slate contains a couple of potential land mines -- Texas A&M will be Texas A&M, but is hardly a cupcake with the game being held in Arlington, and Troy is still a Sun Belt team, but the best of the Sun Belt teams; the Trojans just fell short against LSU last year.

Yes, Arkansas will be better; how many wins that will add to last year's 5-7 record is the big question.--C&F

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AUBURN
SBN: Track Em Tigers
2008: 5-7, 2-6 SEC

Anyone who tells you they know exactly what's going to happen to Auburn this year should probably be administered a polygraph -- even if they're an Auburn fan. Last year's 5-7 disaster marked the first losing season for the Tigers in a decade and included as much of a soap opera as the league has seen in quite some time -- an offensive coordinator canned mid-season, the pathos of a fan base watching its once-dormant rival pass it by and a coaching search that ended with the hiring of a man who couldn't even win a quarter of his games in the Big XII North.

But the very same uncertainties that plagued Auburn in 2008 could once again linger over the team in 2009. Sure, Gus Malzahn's spread is supposedly more in keeping with "Auburn football," but the team has still chosen much-maligned Chris Todd to helm the offense. Given the other signal-callers on their depth chart, it might have been the only choice they could make.

And then there's Chizik. What will he bring to the equation? A highly-regarded defensive coordinator, his defenses struggled when he was head coach at Iowa State. And whatever Auburn's offense looks like this year, it's not going to be able to catch up if the Tigers fall too far behind. On the other hand, they return eight starters from last year's team -- which, while it certainly had some embarrassing moments in 2008 (271 yards rushing against West Virginia), also had some quality outings (351 yards and 17 points allowed to Georgia).

The schedule is not favorable. The opener against Louisiana Tech features a quickly improving WAC opponent; while Auburn should be able to win that game, it won't be a cakewalk. Other challenging games include tilts vs. West Virginia, at Arkansas, at LSU vs. Ole Miss, at Georgia and vs. Alabama.--C&F

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MISSISSIPPI STATE
SBN: For Whom The Cowbell Tolls
2008: 4-8, 2-6 SEC

The Bulldogs are rebuilding for what seems like the 9th year in a row. Dan Mullen has everyone excited about the football program and had a recruiting class to match the excitement, nabbing 4 of the top players in the state of Mississippi.

Mullen is installing the spread offense and will feature running back Anthony Dixon heavily, with rotations of Christian Ducre, Robert Elliot and Arnil Stalworth as needed. At receiver, incoming freshmen Chad Bumphis and Chris Harris, along with JUCO transfer Leon Berry, will have plenty of chances to get their hands on the ball. After all, Mullen wants a dozen or so receivers in the rotation. The offensive line was a sore spot last year, but moving to a spread-type offense should ease up their workload and give Dixon plenty of room to run.

On defense, veteran coordinator Carl Torbush has plenty of talent to work with, including senior linebacker Jamar Chaney. Chaney is returning thanks to a medical redshirt granted after a broken leg in the 2008 season opener. Other defensive standouts include K.J. Wright, Kyle Love and Pernel McPhee.

The Bulldogs have a tough schedule this year, including visits from defending national champions Florida, as well as Alabama, LSU, Georgia Tech and Ole Miss. Non-conference opponents are no walk in the park either. Houston is picked to win Conference USA and Jackson State will likely contend for the SWAC championship.--jeremyflint, For Whom the Cowbell Tolls

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