Last season: 12-2; lost to Florida 31-21 in SEC championship game; lost to Utah 31-17 in Sugar Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 4, defense 9, kicker 2.
Coach: Nick Saban, 110-50-1 overall, 19-8 in two seasons at Alabama.
What we still don’t know: Can the defense carry this team until the offense grows up? Three very good starters (including Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith) are gone on the offensive line. The Tide will have a new quarterback in Greg McElroy, who takes over for John Parker Wilson. Alabama still needs a big-time receiver on other side from superstar Julio Jones. There are just a lot of questions on the offensive side of the ball. Alabama will not be able to dominate teams running the ball as it did a year ago. The good thing is that the defense, which was third nationally (263.5 ypg) last season, returns nine starters. LB Rolando McClain becomes the de facto leader with the departure of FS Rashad Johnson. NT Terrence Cody has now had a year’s worth of conditioning. It will show come the fall. Can the Crimson Tide repeat as SEC West champs? They certainly have the schedule to do it. Georgia goes off the schedule and South Carolina comes on. The toughest road game will be at Ole Miss on Oct. 10. LSU comes to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 7. Alabama will find out early if it has the right stuff as the Crimson Tide plays Virginia Tech, who will be in everybody’s Top 10, at the Georgia Dome in the Chick-fil-A Classic.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Virginia Tech (Georgia Dome).
Last season: 5-7, 2-6 SEC.
Starters returning: Offense 8, defense 9, kicker 1.
Coach: Bobby Petrino, 46-16 overall, 5-7 in one season at Arkansas.
What we still don’t know: Arkansas had the worst defense in the SEC last season. Does it have a chance to get better? Nine starters return from a unit that gave up 375.2 yards per game and gave up way too many big plays in the passing game. Petrino and his staff went out and signed a bunch of defensive backs, some of whom will compete for playing time in the fall. Transfer Rudell Crimm was an honorable mention JUCO All-America last season. Will Ryan Mallett be able to shake off the rust? Mallett started three games for Michigan in 2007. After sitting out the 2008 season he appears to be starting quarterback for Petrino. “Ryan does a great job of understanding what we want to do,” Petrino said. “As long as he gets his footwork right and sets up right he can be an accurate passer.” Can Arkansas find some help for RB Michael Smith? Smith rushed for 1,072 yards last season but at 5-7, 173 pounds he is simply not big enough to handle that kind of pounding (207 carries) again. Some big backs have arrived to help. Knile Davis (6-1, 209) graduated from high school early. Broderick Green (6-1, 242) is transfer from Southern Cal who must get a waiver to play this fall. His status won’t be resolved until this summer. De’Anthony Curtis (5-9, 211) had 103 yards in the spring game.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Missouri State (Little Rock).
Last season: 5-7, 2-6 SEC.
Starters returning: Offense 7, defense 7, kicker 2.
Coach: Gene Chizik, 5-19 overall, first season at Auburn.
What we still don’t know: Does Auburn have a quarterback who can run Gus Malzahn’s offense? Malzahn ran up big numbers at Tulsa but nobody was overly impressed this spring with Kodi Burns and Neil Caudle. Malzahn said he wants to name a starter early in August if possible because he wants that guy to get the majority of the snaps. But Chizik has said that true freshmen Tryik Rollison and Clint Moseley will be a strong look when they arrive in August. Does Auburn have enough offensive linemen? Three of five starters return but overall the position looks a little thin. “We need more depth there,” Malzahn said. Is the defense going to play with more of an attitude under Ted Roof? Roof, the former defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and head coach at Duke, spent the entire spring looking for the best 11 football players he could put on that side of the ball. He found a diamond in JUCO transfer Eltoro Freeman, who has apparently earned a starting spot at weak side linebacker. “We are looking for a certain speed, a certain tempo and a certain attitude on defense,” Roof said. “The guys who can do that are the guys who are going to play.”
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Louisiana Tech.
Last season: 8-5, 3-5 SEC; beat Georgia Tech 38-3 in Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 7, defense 6, kicker 0.
Coach: Les Miles, 70-32 overall, 42-11 in four seasons at LSU.
What we still don’t know: How much better will the defense be under John Chavis? Despite a defense that included DE Tyson Jackson, the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft, DE Kirsten Pittman and LB Darry Beckwith, the LSU defense wasn’t very good last season, finishing ninth in the league (325.5 ypg). That will change this season under Chavis, who was Tennessee’s defensive coordinator for 14 seasons. When Chavis has good athletes, and LSU still has a lot of good athletes, his defenses have usually been near the top of the SEC. Is LSU going to keep Russell Shepard exclusively at quarterback? Shepard, a true freshman from Houston, was considered by many to be the nation’s top high school quarterback in 2008. He was used exclusively at that position in the spring game and could see some action in the shotgun formation this fall. But he will probably also be used at wide receiver because he is such a great athlete. How good is sophomore CB Patrick Peterson? Safety Chad Jones, who also plays for the LSU baseball team, is the best athlete in the secondary. But Peterson is the school’s next great defensive back. He started his last four games as a true freshman and ended the spring game with a 69-yard interception return for a touchdown. This guy is big time.
First game: Sept. 5 at Washington.
Last season: 9-4, 5-3 SEC; beat Texas Tech 47-34 in Cotton Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 6, defense 8, kicker 1.
Coach: Houston Nutt, 120-74 overall, 9-4 in his second season at Ole Miss.
What we still don’t know: What about the left side of the offensive line? LT Michael Oher, a first-round draft choice, is gone as is left guard Darryl Harris. Coming out spring ball the LT position belongs to sophomore Bradley Sowell (6-7, 310). But the Ole Miss coaches are awaiting the arrival of highly-recruited freshman Bobbie Massie (6-7, 345) from Lynchburg, Va. Reid Neely (6-6, 310), a three-year letterman, looks like he’ll win the left guard spot. This is important because the Rebels have the league’s second best quarterback in Jevan Snead. They want to keep him healthy. Ole Miss also wants to be able to run the ball and if the line comes through the Rebels will be very good at running the ball. Brandon Bolden was the team’s third-leading rusher last season but he shot to the top of the depth chart in the spring. With Bolden (542 yards), Dexter McCluster (655), Codera Eason (647), and Enrique Davis (244) the Rebels are very deep at running back. Will Ole Miss be able to handle the hype? The Rebels were the only team to beat national champion Florida in 2008. They capped off a 9-4 season by beating favored Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Now Ole Miss is a sexy pick for the Top 10. It’s a totally different mindset. Ole Miss has a manageable schedule with Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU at home.
First game: Sept. 6 at Memphis.
Last season: 4-8, 2-6 SEC.
Starters returning: Offense 8, defense 5, kicker 0.
Coach: Dan Mullen, first season at Miss. State
What we still don’t know: Will freshman Tyler Russell challenge Tyson Lee for the starting quarterback job? Mississippi State spent the spring installing the new offense of Mullen, the former offensive coordinator at Florida. But it is possible that Mullen’s starting quarterback is not on campus yet. Lee, a rising senior, completed 59 percent of his passes last season for 1,519 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. But he is expected to get a challenge for his job from Russell, a 6-4 incoming freshman. Russell was Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi last season. He threw for 3,284 yards with 40 touchdowns and only five interceptions in leading Meridan (Miss.) High School to a state championship. Who’s going to play wide receiver? Regardless of the quarterback, the Bulldogs appear thin when it comes to guys who can catch it. Only two receivers in spring camp, Brandon McRae (51 catches) and Delmon Robinson (12 catches) have had any significant playing time. O’Neal Wilder, a track star, caught four passes for 122 yards in the spring game. Leon Berry, one of five JUCO transfers to earn starting jobs this spring, caught 14 passes for 200 yards in three full-speed scrimmages. Will the special teams improve? They have to because the head coach is in charge of them. Mississippi State was near the bottom of the league in every major special teams category last season. Placekicker Sean Brauchlea and punter Heath Hutchins are JUCO transfers who won their respective jobs in the spring.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Jackson State.