The SEC has won the last two national titles, with their league champions ending up in the BCS National Championship Game with either one (Florida, 2006) or two (LSU, 2007) losses on their record. These results may be further proof of what many have thought for years: that the SEC is indeed the best conference in college football. And even though they should receive a stiff challenge from programs throughout the nation, the SEC has four teams that could very well find themselves heading home with the crystal football come January 8th.
The conversation would best start with the defending national champion LSU, who is absolutely loaded at every position except for one: quarterback. One-time Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch has performed the best in camp, but Jarrett Lee and incoming freshman Jordan Jefferson should also see some action under center. If this position can find a way to simply manage the game and not put the Tigers behind the figurative eight ball the Les Miles could have another national title to his credit. But they’ll have to get past a September 20th meeting at Auburn to simply win the West, and the Tigers will be up to some new offensive tricks in 2008.
New offensive coordinator Tony Franklin gave War Eagle fans a taste of what to expect in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, with Auburn running nearly forty more plays than their per game average in the overtime victory. The backfield will not lack talent, and quarterbacks Kodi Burns and Chris Todd offer differing styles that could confuse opponents all year long. Add to this a once-again stout defense led by tackle SenDerrick Marks and linebacker Tray Blackmon and head coach Tommy Tuberville could win the SEC for the first time since 2004.
Behind these two juggernauts should be Alabama and Mississippi State, both of whom have the talent and ability to improve upon their 2007 campaigns. John Parker Wilson won’t lack for weapons to get the ball to on offense, including freshman sensation Julio Jones at wide receiver and Terry Grant at running back. And while the Crimson Tide only return six starters on defense, head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele have enough experience between them to improve upon Bama’s 31st-ranked total defense.
Sylvester Croom heads into 2008 armed with a contract extension and seven starters on defense, including linebackers Jamar Chaney and Dominic Douglas. But the key for the Bulldogs will be improving an offense that ranked 113th in total offense. Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre are back at running back, but the issue during the Croom era has been the passing game. If MSU can get more through the air they could have a shot at matching their eight wins from a season ago.
Lastly you have two programs that due to a coaching change may be joined at the hip this season. Amidst much turmoil and an upset of LSU in late-November, Houston Nutt resigned his post at Arkansas…and was quickly snatched up by Ole Miss. Jevan Snead takes over at quarterback, which should mean good things for a program that struggled mightily in the passing game last year. And in defensive end Greg Hardy the Rebels have one of the nation’s more talented pass rushers. Bobby Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons with three games left in the season and showed up at a night press conference in Fayetteville calling the Hogs. We won’t get into the ethics of such a move here, but he’ll have a tough time replacing Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in the backfield. Look for the ball to be in the air a lot more than in seasons past at Arkansas.
As for the East, the two contenders for the national title at season’s end have never been too fond of each other, and Georgia’s celebration of their first score against Florida last October did nothing to put out the fire. The display made it into Gator head coach Urban Meyer’s new book despite Georgia head coach Mark Richt apologizing for the act. But both are absolutely loaded, with Georgia holding a slight edge on the defensive side of the ball. Their meeting on November 1st looks to be one for the ages, just as much for the extracurricular activities that may be on display as the game itself.
In regards to who can challenge the Dawgs and Gators for SEC East supremacy, the “Head Ball Coach” may have a sleeper in Columbia. South Carolina returns ten starters on defense, not including linebacker Jasper Brinkley who missed 2007 due to a knee injury. Linebacker Eric Norwood and corner Captain Munnerlyn are two other faces that opponents will get to know this season. But the question for USC has always been the quarterback position, with Tommy Beecher seemingly being the guy Coach Spurrier is willing to settle on…for now.
Tennessee says goodbye to David Cutcliffe and Erik Ainge, and hello to former Richmond coach Dave Clawson, who is the new offensive coordinator. Even though the Volunteers will look to open things up on offense a bit this season behind quarterback Jonathan Crompton, the reliable Arian Foster is back at running back with the school rushing record well within his reach. And Eric Berry leads what could be one of the country’s best secondary units, which would be a marked improvement from their ranking of 73rd in passing defense last season.
And no disrespect to either Kentucky or Vanderbilt, but either one of them winning the East would go right alongside Appalachian State beating Michigan as one of the biggest surprises in recent college football history. Not only did the Wildcats lose Andre Woodson and Rafael Little, they also had to dismiss projected starter Curtis Pulley. Mike Hartline will get the call in the opener against Louisville, and the eight returning starters on defense will need to do some heavy lifting while he gets his “sea legs”.
The Commodores may have missed out on their best shot at a bowl game for the first time since 1982 thanks to tough losses to Georgia and Tennessee. Mackenzi Adams and Chris Nickson are both back at quarterback, with the hope that one (or both) can be consistent. A defense that was 16th nationally in total defense last season returns six starters, including corner D.J. Moore (league-high six interceptions in 2007). The race for the top spot may look to be between four teams right now, but in the SEC you never know what each weekend will give you.
Players of the Year: QB Tim Tebow (Florida) and DE Tyson Jackson (LSU)
Coach of the Year: Mark Richt (Georgia)
Newcomers of the Year: RB Chris Rainey (Florida) and LB Gerald Williams (Tennessee)
Three Best Non-Conference Games
1. Georgia @ Arizona State (September 20th): The second major road test for the Bulldogs will be a measuring stick game for the hosts.
2. Auburn @ West Virginia (October 23rd): The Tigers take on another Big East opponent, this time on the road in Morgantown. They would like a better result this time around (an overtime loss to USF last year).
3. Alabama vs. Clemson (in Atlanta, August 30th): The opening game will tell the nation a lot about both teams, and whether or not the Tide can challenge in the SEC West.
Conference Games of the Year
SEC East: Florida vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville, November 1st): The day after Halloween offers up this traditional rivalry, one that should have a little more spice to it after last season’s matchup. The winner could be well on their way to Miami by way of Atlanta when it’s all said and done.
SEC West: LSU @ Auburn (September 20th): One could only wish that this game was played later in the season, but this is their traditional meeting time. LSU won in Baton Rouge on the game’s final play last season, and Auburn won the game two seasons ago late in the fourth quarter. I think you get the hint.
How they’ll finish
East: 1. Georgia West: 1. LSU
2. Florida 2. Auburn
3. South Carolina 3. Alabama
4. Tennessee 4. Mississippi State
5. Kentucky 5. Ole Miss
6. Vanderbilt 6. Arkansas