Here is a word to the wise. If you’re around Alabama coach Nick Saban, don’t say anything about the Crimson Tide “defending” their national championship in 2010. “You can’t defend a championship because it is not the same team that won a year ago,” he said.
But you can REPEAT as national champions, Saban conceded, and that is what the Crimson Tide, which has gone 12-0 in consecutive regular seasons, will attempt to do in 2010.
There is a reason that no team has repeated as consensus national champions since Nebraska did it in 1994-95. It’s hard. Players move on. The ones who return aren’t as hungry or don’t work as hard. Or stuff just happens.
Florida was certainly good enough to do it last season but Alabama was standing in the way. I thought Miami would do it in 2002 but they ran into a resourceful Ohio State team that won the BCS championship game in overtime. (Yes, there was a controversial pass interference call, but let’s not digress).
Heck, it’s hard to repeat as SEC champions. Nobody has done it since Tennessee in 1997-98.
Having said all that, I’m picking Alabama to win the SEC West for the third consecutive year and to beat Florida in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 4. Will that be good enough to earn a shot at the BCS title? For the past four years it has been. There is no reason to think that will change in 2010.
Let’s take our Spring Review of the SEC West. The ACC Atlantic is on deck for Wednesday.:
**–Last season: 14-0, 8-0 SEC; beat Florida 32-13 in SEC championship game; beat Texas 37-21 in BCS championship game.
**–Coach: Nick Saban, 124-50-1 in 14 years; 33-8 in three seasons at Alabama.
**–Key losses: LB Rolando McClain, DT Terrence Cody, CB Kareem Jackson, CB Javier Arenas, OG Mike Johnson.
**–Returning starters: Offense 8, defense 2, specialist 0.
**–Players to watch: RB Mark Ingram, RB Trent Richardson, QB Greg McElroy, WR Julio Jones, DE Marcell Dareus.
**–What we learned: The Alabama offense is going to be very, very good. There are a couple of spots that need to be filled on the offensive line, but there is young talent that O-line coach Joe Pendry feels pretty good about. Greg McElroy is an established quarterback who has a Heisman Trophy winner (Mark Ingram) at tailback. Ingram’s backup, sophomore Trent Richardson (5.2 ypc), may actually be better and will get the opportunity to prove it. Junior WR Julio Jones (43 catches in 2009) is finally healthy again and is going to have a breakout season. Alabama was fourth in the SEC in total offense (403.0 ypg) and scoring offense (32.1 ppg) last season. Expect those numbers to improve. Because of McElroy’s experience and knowledge of the offense, expect Alabama to take a few more shots down the field in 2010.
**–What we still don’t know: Can DC Kirby Smart rebuild with nine new starters? As crazy as this sounds, I don’t think there is going to be a talent drop off on the defensive side of the ball at Alabama. Dont’a Hightower has recovered from a knee injury suffered last September and moves in to take McClain’s spot at inside linebacker. Alabama is deep at all three positions on the defensive line (DE Marcell Dareus is going to be a great, great player). There are still some questions in the secondary where only SS Mark Barron returns. There are also a bunch of questions on the special teams were incoming freshmen will probably handle the punting and place kicking jobs. The other thing we don’t know is whether or not Alabama can stay hungry as a football team after winning the national championship. Managing a talented team coming off a national championship is not easy. Saban is one of a handful of coaches who can do it well.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. San Jose State
**–Last season: 8-5, 3-5 SEC; beat East Carolina 20-17 in Liberty Bowl.
**–Coach: Bobby Petrino, 54-21 in six years, 13-12 in two seasons at Arkansas.
**–Key losses: RB Michael Smith, OG Mitch Petrus, DT Malcolm Sheppard.
**–Returning starters: Offense 9, defense 7, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: QB Ryan Mallett, TE D.J. Williams, WR Joe Adams, WR Greg Childs, LB Jerry Franklin.
**–What we learned: QB Ryan Mallett didn’t practice, but he got better. Mallett, an All-SEC second team quarterback after throwing for 3,642 yards (30 TD) last season, broke the little toe on his left foot while doing conditioning drills on Feb. 17. He had surgery to repair the bone and sat out the spring the physical part of spring practice. “But Ryan stood behind every huddle call and went through it mentally,” Petrino said. “I was impressed at the maturity he showed and what he got out of spring ball.” When Mallett comes back to practice this summer Petrino will ask him to work to improve his medium range throws. The Hogs are deep at running back despite the loss of Michael Smith (5.6 ypg), deep at receiver (the top five pass catchers return), and four of the five starting offensive linemen return. This will be one of the best offenses in college football.
**–What we still don’t know: Can the defense improve just a little bit? If it does then Arkansas, which led the SEC in scoring offense (36.0 ppg), has a chance to make some noise in the SEC West. There were some signs in the spring that things could get better on a unit that was last in the SEC in total defense (401.2 ypg). Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson simplified the schemes so that his players could be more aggressive. “I think we’re much more physical on the defensive front than we were a year ago,” Petrino said. “We still have some questions to answer at linebacker.” Arkansas has a proven player at one of the linebacker positions in Jerry Franklin, who led the team in tackles with 94. Franklin can play both the inside and the outside positions. It won’t take us long to find out of Arkansas is for real. The Hogs’ first four conference games are at Georgia (Sept. 18), home against Alabama (Sept. 25), at Auburn (Oct. 16) and at home against Ole Miss (Oct. 23).
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. Tennessee Tech.
**–Last season: 8-5, 3-5 SEC; beat Northwestern 38-35 (OT) in Outback Bowl.
**–Coach: Gene Chizik, 13-24 in three years, 8-5 in one season at Auburn.
**–Key losses: TB Ben Tate, DE Antonio Coleman, TE Tommy Trott.
**–Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 8, specialist 1.
**–Players to watch: RB Mario Fannin, QB Cameron Newton, WR Darvin Adams, LB Josh Bynes.
**–What we learned: With Cameron Newton at quarterback, Auburn fans will now see the complete version of Gus Malzahn’s offense. Last season Chris Todd ran the Auburn offense and was limited in his ability to run. But with Newton, a 6-6, 247-pound JUCO transfer, Auburn will be able to threaten opposing defenses with a quarterback who can run very well. “Cam can do some things to help us,” Malzahn said. “He has a chance to be a very good player.” We also learned that Auburn is a pretty stable situation. It was the only team in the SEC to return its coaching staff intact. “We’re proud of that because the coaches here believe in what we’re building,” said Chizik.
**–What we still don’t know: Will Mario Fannin step up at running back? Ben Tate had a monster senior season (1,362 yards rushing) in this offense in 2009 and became the sixth running back taken in the NFL Draft. Now the position goes to Fannin, a senior from Hampton (Lovejoy H.S.). Fannin ran for 285 yards and caught 42 passes for 413 yards from the H-back position last season. Fannin should have room to run as four of five starters return on the offensive line. We also don’t know if Auburn will be able to find some more linebackers. Josh Bynes (104 tackles) and Craig Stevens (95 tackles) spent too many snaps on the field last season. Eltoro Freeman, a JUCO transfer last season, has talent but never mastered the defense last season. Safety Daren Bates was used some at linebacker in the spring. “We have to get more bodies back there to give our guys a break,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. Auburn finished 11th in the SEC in total defense (374.1 ypg) and appears to be short on talent again. Here is the key stat: Auburn’s defense was on the field for 945 plays (72.6 per game) in 13 games last season. That was more than any other team in the SEC.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. Arkansas State.
**–Last season: 9-4, 5-3 SEC; lost to Penn State 19-17 in Capital One Bowl.
**–Coach: Les Miles, 79-36 in nine seasons; 51-15 in five seasons at LSU.
**–Key losses: OT Ciron Black, WR Brandon LaFell, DE Rahim Alem, FS Chad Jones.
**–Returning starters: Offense 6, defense 4, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: QB Jordan Jefferson, CB Patrick Peterson, WR Terrance Toliver, LB Kelvin Sheppard.
**–What we learned: Only four starters return on defense, but that unit will be better in the second year under John Chavis. LSU’s defense lost a bunch of talented players but for most of the spring the defense was well ahead of the offense. Senior linebacker Kelvin Sheppard is back along with cornerback Patrick Peterson and that gives LSU a couple of anchors to build upon. This will be a faster, more physical defense. Chavis wants to force more turnovers this season. LSU forced only 18 turnovers in 13 games last season (5 fumbles, 13 interceptions). By contrast Alabama, last year’s champion, forced 31 turnovers.
**–What we still don’t know: Will new passing game coordinator Billy Gonzalez have an impact on the offense? LSU fans had better hope so because last season the Tigers were an offense without an identity. LSU could not run the ball (11th in the SEC at 122.8 ypg), could not pass the ball (ninth in the SEC at 181.8 ppg) and could not score (10th in the SEC at 24.8 ppg). And let’s not even mention the clock management issues. Sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson completed 61.5 percent of his passes but it was clear that the offense was simplified for him. Miles is not ruling out the possibility of going back to junior quarterback Jarrett Lee, who had a meltdown as the starter in 2008 as he threw seven “pick sixes” and LSU went 8-5. Lee (40 passes) played sparingly behind Jefferson last season. In an effort to get some big plays into the offense sophomore Russell Sheppard has been moved from quarterback to wide receiver. LSU needs to get back to basics and start running the football again. In 2007, when LSU won the BCS championship, the Tigers averaged 214 yards rushing per game. In 2008 (8-5) LSU averaged 166.8 and in 2009 (9-4) the average dropped to 122.7.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. North Carolina (Georgia Dome, Atlanta).
5. MISS. STATE
**–Last season: 5-7, 3-5 SEC.
**–Coach: Dan Mullen, 5-7 in his second season at Mississippi State.
**–Key losses: RB Anthony Dixon, LB Jamar Chaney.
**–Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 8, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: QB Chris Relf, QB Tyler Russell, DE Pernell McPhee, WR Chad Bumphis.
**–What we learned: The offense will miss RB Anthony Dixon (1,391 yards), but it will be better in 2010. Four of five starters return on the offensive line and that’s why Dixon led the Bulldogs to an average of 227.6 yards rushing per game. Mississippi State may have found Dixon’s replacement in JUCO transfer Vic Ballard, who had 73 yards on 14 carries in the spring game. Mississippi State also has two proven quarterbacks in junior Chris Relf and redshirt freshman Tyler Russell. Relf looks like he’ll start but Russell is too talented to keep on the bench.
**–What we still don’t know: Will the defense create more negative plays under new coordinator Manny Diaz? There were some bright spots on the Mississippi State defense last season as the Bulldogs had 17 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. But they also finished 89th in tackles for loss (61 in 12 games) and 104th in sacks (16 in 12 games). Veteran DC Carl Torbush left Starkville to take the same job at Kansas. So Mullen brings in Diaz, whose Middle Tennessee defense finished second nationally in tackles for loss and (112 in 13 games) and sixth in sacks (38 in 13 games) last season. The defense will miss LB Jamar Chaney, but look for an even more aggressive style in an effort to create more negative plays by the Bulldog defense.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. Memphis.
6. OLE MISS
**–Last season: 9-4, 4-4 SEC; beat Oklahoma State 21-7 in Cotton Bowl.
**–Coach: Houston Nutt, 129-78 in 17 seasons, 18-8 in two seasons at Ole Miss.
**–Key losses: QB Jevan Snead, RB Dexter McCluster, OG John Jerry, CB Marshay Green.
**–Returning starters: Offense 3, defense 6, specialist 1.
**–Players to watch: DE Kentrell Lockett, S Johnny Brown, LB Allen Walker, OT Bobby Massie.
**–What we learned: There has to be some drop off in the Ole Miss offense. Just do the math: Ole Miss was fourth in the SEC in total offense last season (402.4 ypg). Gone from that unit are eight starters, including the quarterback (Jevan Snead), one of the best all-purpose players in college football (Dexter McCluster), one of the best receivers in the SEC (Shay Hodge, led the SEC with 70 catches, 1,135 yards), three starters on the offensive line and the offensive coordinator (Kent Austin, now the head coach at Cornell). The biggest concerns are on the offensive line. “We knew this year was coming,” Nutt said. “We’ve got guys we can’t keep in the freezer any more. We have to get them ready to play.” It looks like Ole Miss has found a center in sophomore A.J. Hawkins and the tackle spots are in good hands with junior Bradley Sowell and sophomore Bobby Massie.
**–What we still don’t know: Will backup QB Raymond Cotton be ready to go in the fall? Cotton, a redshirt freshman, was bothered by a bad shoulder all spring. Sophomore Nathan Stanley would have probably won the job anyway, but now Cotton may need surgery, which would knock him out for the 2010 season. Coach Houston Nutt said that the hope is that Cotton can manage the shoulder with rehab. We know that Stanley will be fine at quarterback and that there are adequate running backs in place (Brandon Bolden, Enrique Davis). But what we don’t know is how the offense will function with veteran Dave Rader and Mike Markuson as co-offensive coordinators. Austin brought a certain creativity from his Canadian Football League background. Will Rader and Markuson provide that creativity to compensate for some possible issues on the offensive line? The defense, which returns six starters from a unit that finished fourth in the SEC (314.7 ypg) is going to have to step up. If Ole Miss can run the ball and play defense—a successful formula for Houston Nutt—the Rebels could be better than this sixth-place projection. But also remember this: The schedule, which was so favorable to Ole Miss in 2009, flips this season with games at Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. Jacksonville State.
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