At this point, the conventional wisdom surrounding the SEC has really congealed nicely. What follows here is basically a rundown of the 2011 SEC season narrative according to a synthesis of the major previews published so far.
The SEC is the nation's best and deepest conference.
Most people make this assumption in every year, but it is perhaps more believed this season than most. The coaches went a little overboard in putting eight SEC teams in their preseason poll, but the preseason consensus has seven SEC squads in its top 25. Auburn is almost in it at a tie for 29th, and it hasn't yet updated to include AU's No. 19 rank in the Coaches' Poll. Even that bastion of contrarianism Phil Steele has seven SEC schools in the top 25 of his preseason power poll. The conference is supposed to be up this year.
The conference's best shot at the Heisman is at running back.
If you survey the numerous early Heisman watch columns out there, only two SEC players consistently show up. One is Trent Richardson, who is the star running back on national contender Alabama. Given that Mark Ingram used that formula to win it in 2009, it's not a bad pick. The other is South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore, and he certainly will get enough touches to put up some big numbers this fall. The general feeling is that we won't see an SEC quarterback take home the statuette like in 2007 and 2010.
Alabama is the runaway favorite.
The Crimson Tide is tops in the preseason consensus and has captured all but one vote for first place in the West division so far. Bama also cleaned up at SEC Media Days, gaining two thirds of the media votes for first in the West and about 59% of all votes for first in the conference. With about 18 starters returning, including nearly the entire defense, it's not hard to understand why that's the case. The only concern anyone has is at quarterback, where the team hasn't decided on a starter going into fall camp.
Arkansas will be good but is hurt by the competition.
Only Alabama has consistently gotten more players listed in the various All-SEC teams that have been selected, and the Razorbacks are currently tied for 11th in the consensus. So why are they almost universally picked to go third in the division? It's because everyone has Bama and LSU ranked higher. So to review: Arkansas will be very, very good this year, but its location in the SEC West will hold it back.
Auburn will be falling a long, long way.
The conventional wisdom is that Auburn rode two incredible players in Cam Newton and Nick Fairley to the national title last year, but thanks to losing more than 30 scholarship players, they'll fall a long way. Specifically no one is sure who the new quarterback will be, the top couple receivers are gone, and the two lines bring back just one player each. Many betting outfits have gone so far as to put the over/under on season wins at 6 or 6.5. With seven teams in the preseason Coaches' Poll on the schedule along with all the turnover, it's not difficult to understand where this belief comes from.
Florida is talented, but also troubled.
If you read any preview of this year's Gators, it will mention that they are perhaps the most talented outfit in the East division. If you look at recruiting rankings, you'll know why. However with a new head coach and brand new offensive scheme, expectations for Florida are lower than they've been since the Ron Zook era. John Brantley will fit in the new offense better, but no one is sure if his confidence is in one piece. Large amounts of roster turnover plus a large scholarship player deficit combine to keep UF out of most people's envisioned division race.
It's now or never for Mark Richt at Georgia, and it's probably now.
Richt has been on many folks' hot seat rankings for years, but after a 6-7 season in 2010, they really mean it this time. However he's got the unanimous best quarterback in the conference in Aaron Murray, and a monster recruiting class will bring in productive new faces like RB Isaiah Crowell, DT John Jenkins, and DE Ray Drew. Crowell is perhaps the key to the season, as the top two rushers from last year are gone. Most people believe UGA will make a big step forward this year, as the Bulldogs have picked up a couple East division first place nods and have rarely been picked below second.
Kentucky will just be Kentucky again.
Across the board Kentucky is being picked to finish fifth in the East, one spot ahead of Vanderbilt. The team has no buzz going into 2011, though a lot of folks think they might squeak into a bowl with six low-quality wins. In other words, it's just another season of Kentucky football.
LSU is the conference's other big contender.
These Tigers are the only team aside from Alabama to get any real number of picks to win the West division. Their 11-2 record and bowl demolition of Texas A&M are probably the primary reasons for it, along with the fact that OC Gary Crowton is gone. LSU doesn't have as many players on the All-SEC teams as you would expect from the league's presumed No. 2 team, but there is a lot of faith that the defense will be able to carry the squad once again.
Ole Miss should be better, but not that much better.
After a pair of nine-win seasons, Ole Miss crashed hard to 4-8 last year. No one is projecting the Rebels to lose to another I-AA team, but no one other than Phil Steele has them out of the West's cellar either. Only OG Bradley Sowell and DE Kentrell Lockett are getting much All-SEC buzz, though a few are highlighting RB Brandon Bolden as well. Most seem to think six wins and a bowl is attainable, if not necessarily the most likely outcome.
Mississippi State won't skip a beat.
With Auburn's cratering solidified in the preseason conventional wisdom, these Bulldogs are picked to move up to fourth in the West. It's the third year of Dan Mullen's tenure in Starkville, and he's expected to keep the positive momentum going. QB Chris Relf made third team All-SEC as voted by the coaches, and he and RB Vick Ballard are expected to make Mullen's spread option sing.
South Carolina is the clear favorite in the East.
No need to update your apocalypse insurance: South Carolina is the East favorite for a reason. For one thing, the Gamecocks won the division last year. For another, they return nearly every important player and bring in the nation's top-rated recruit in Jadeveon Clowney. They won the SEC media vote for East champ by almost as large a margin as Alabama won the West, and the team has dueled UGA for honor of being the East program putting the most number of players on the various All-SEC teams. Big things are expected from this team this year.
Tennessee has another year of building ahead of it.
Here and there you'll see Tennessee mentioned as a potential East dark horse, but their projection as fourth in the East is about as unanimous as any pick you'll find. They have some of the same youth and scholarship number issues that Florida has, but they don't have as highly rated recruiting rankings or coaches. Tennessee struggled to put anyone other than Janzen Jackson and Malik Jackson (no relation) on the All-SEC teams, and no one expects it to be a possible contender until next year.
Vanderbilt is still Vanderbilt.
James Franklin has come is and impressed many. He has been collecting a lot of recruits above Vandy's normal level, and his confidence shone through at SEC Media Days. Of course, it was the confidence of a Vanderbilt coach who had yet to preside over a game yet. VU being the worst of the East is the only unanimous pick in the SEC preseason consensus, and after two straight historically bad seasons, Franklin has a lot of work to do.