Last week we broke down how five preseason magazines predicted the ACC’s Atlantic and Coastal Divisions. For the next couple of days we’re going to look at the SEC as we prepare for next week’s media days in Birmingham.
Let’s start with the SEC East, where it looks like the Mighty Gators (that’s what Steve Spurrier used to call them when he was mad) of Florida are untouchable. Here are the magazine’s picks followed by my picks.
Athlon: Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Kentucky
Lindy’s: Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Kentucky
Phil Steele: Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Vanderbilt (tied for 5th), Kentucky (tied for fifth)
Sporting News: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt
The Kickoff: Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Kentucky
What we learned: As expected, Florida was a unanimous pick to win the division. In fact, four of the five magazines had the same top three: Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. The Sporting News had South Carolina finishing third ahead of Tennessee. It looks like the real competition in this division is going to be for third place behind Florida and Georgia. Tennessee appears to be the logical pick with an infusion of young talent, but South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky could all make that difficult for the Volunteers.
Florida: Complacency is the only thing standing in the way of Florida and another run at the national championship. Tim Tebow is not going to let anybody get complacent. The one thing Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, has not achieved in his remarkable career is leading a team to an undefeated season. He has made it clear to teammates and coaches that he will accept nothing less in 2009. LB Brandon Spikes returns as the leader on the other side of the ball. Yes, WR Percy Harvin is gone but this offense will be much more diverse and will finally feature a power running game with somebody other than Tebow carrying the ball. Let’s just say it: If Florida can win at LSU on Oct. 10, the Gators will go 12-0 and return to Atlanta with a chance to win its third SEC title and then play for its third national title in four seasons.
Georgia: Relax, Dawg fans. Georgia is going to be fine. Yes, beating Florida in Jacksonville on Oct. 31 is probably not in the cards. But in every other game Georgia will have equal or better talent than the opponent. Barring another rash of injuries (OL Tanner Strickland is already out for the season), another 10-win season appears to be very realistic. Joe Cox will be very solid at quarterback and the rest of the offense will follow his lead. If it stays healthy, this will be the best offensive line since the SEC championship season of 2002. Sophomore A.J. Green may be the best wide receiver in college football. The coaches keep waiting for one of those running backs to step up and be a star. It hasn’t happened yet. The big issue is whether or not the defense is going to grow up and play like an SEC defense should. If it doesn’t, then the Bulldog Nation will get restless and the heat will be turned up on DC Willie Martinez. We’ll learn a lot on Sept. 5 at Oklahoma State.
Tennessee: The Volunteers’ 5-7 record in 2008 plus the exit of Phillip Fulmer as head coach makes some people think the talent cupboard is bare. It’s not. But it’s not full, either. Tennessee has talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Tennessee finished tied for first (with Alabama) in total defense last season and Monte Kiffin, one of the best defensive coaches in the history of the game, will take six returning starters and build it into something pretty good. One of those starters is safety Eric Berry, who is one of the best football players I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why I feel this way but I believe QB Jonathan Crompton is tired of getting beat on by the fans and will play better. If that happens, and if the offensive line finally grows up, the Vols will be fairly decent on offense. There are four opponents on the schedule that I believe have Tennessee outgunned (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss) in terms of talent. The Vols match up well with everybody else.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks could challenge for the No. 3 spot if a couple of things fall into place. QB Stephen Garcia has made it through a complete spring and summer should be ready to finally play like an SEC quarterback. I’m still concerned about the offensive line, which has been a weak spot since Spurrier got to South Carolina. If all Garcia is doing is running around and trying to survive, it is not going to be pretty. While the defense looks to be good again the Gamecocks lost a lot of big plays with the departures of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, safety Emmanuel Cook, and linebacker Jasper Brinkley. The opener at N.C. State on Sept. 3 is a very dangerous game for South Carolina. Then the Gamecocks have to go to Georgia on Sept. 12. How will the South Carolina fan base react if the Gamecocks start 0-2?
Vanderbilt: The Commodores accomplished a lot in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year in 2008. They started 5-0 and were ranked as high as No. 13. They finished tied for third (at 4-4) in the SEC East. They played in their first bowl game since 1982 and won their first bowl game since 1955. A total of 19 starters (9 offense, 9 defense, 1 kicker) are back from that team. Vanderbilt has two proven quarterbacks (Larry Smith, Mackenzie Adams) and will probably need both of them before the season is over. Somebody has to step up and take the place of big-play guy D.J. Moore, who played both ways for the Commodores. Vanderbilt should be competitive in every game it plays because of another solid defense, which has been a staple since Bobby Johnson took over as head coach. The concern I have for Vanderbilt is that the defense gets left on the field for too many plays and gets worn down over the course of the season. That is why the offense, which finished dead last in the SEC (256.2 ypg ) last season, must be more productive.
Kentucky: The Wildcats, who have been to three straight bowl games, suffered a heartbreaking loss in May when DE Jeremy Jarmon, who passed on the NFL to play his final season of college football, was suspended for testing positive for banned substance. Jarmon was going to join CB Trevard Lindley and LB Micah Johnson to anchor a pretty good Kentucky defense. How Kentucky will react to the loss of Jarmon is anybody’s guess. But the real concern for Kentucky is finding some offensive firepower. After fielding one of the nation’s best offenses in 2007, the Wildcats dropped to 22.6 points per game last season. There is reason to think this group will be better. Mike Hartline looks like the starter at quarterback but WR Randall Cobb will line up and run the ball out of the “Wildcat” formation. Kentucky also has freshman quarterback Morgan Newton, the Indiana high school player of the year, joining the mix. Track star Derrick Locke, who injured his knee at the mid-point of last season, says he’ll be back when practice starts in August. If Locke can contribute, the Wildcats have a chance to go to their fourth straight bowl game, which would be a first in school history.
Okay. Give me your picks and tell me where I’m wrong.
Programming note: Tonight I will be doing a guest shot on “SportsNite” on CSS (6 p.m.-7 p.m.) to talk about the SEC race and other related topics. Please tune in if you get a chance.
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