SEC EAST Elite Teams
Offense: As long as Florida has head coach Urban Meyer and QB Chris Leak (2,639 yards and 20 TD's) the offense should be one best in the SEC if not the country. With both of them having a year under their belts together I expect them to improve on (28.6 pts per game ranked 49th nationally) With five returning starters and receiving corps that is so talented and deep led by WR Jemalle Cornelius (Rec 29, 383 yards and 1TD) there is no reason to think that this offense can't do some very special things. They will have to get more in their running game (DeShawn Wynn has been very inconsistent 621 yards and 7 TD's) this season in order for the Gators to make a run at the SEC championship game.
Defense When you think Gators you usually think offense, but not so fast last year’s defense ranked (18th in scoring 18.8 pts per game and 9th in total defense allowing 299.8 yards a game) and should again have one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. With six returning starters, anchored by some strong linebackers (Jr. LB Brandon Siler and Sr LB Earl Everett) the Gators look like a defense that is ready to dominate the SEC.
Who to keep your eye on – WR Conelius Ingram a converted QB has been one of the most impressive players coming out of spring practice. With a 6"4 235lb frame he is very opposing for DB's.
Offense: The biggest question for the Bulldog's offense is how they replace D.J Shockley at QB. They will attempt to do this with third generation Bulldog QB Joe Tereshinski (371 yards and 1 TD) if he struggles early on look for freshman phenom Mattew Stafford to step in. Whoever plays QB will need a playmaker at WR. So. WR Mohamed Massaquoi (38 rec, 505 yards and 2 TD's) will be one the premier possession receivers in the conference, but the Bulldogs will still need a deep threat. Running the ball last year for (143.9 yards per game ranked 52nd nationally) was a big part of the Bulldog offense they will look again to RB Thomas Brown (736 yards and 4 TD's) to be a big part of their offense. If the Bulldogs can find a replacement for D.J Shockley they could find themselves in another SEC championship game.
Defense: The Bulldog defense was top notch last season allowing (16.4 pts per game 8th in the nation) and only (313.5 yards per game 18th in the nation). The Bulldogs held eleven of their opponents to two touchdowns or less in 2005. The only concern for this year’s defense that returns five starters is how do they replace Greg Blue and two other named to the All-SEC team. They will try to this with DE Quntin Moses, a fierce pass rusher that has a NFL upside. If the Bulldog defense can stay healthy they should be one of the nation’s top defenses not only in the SEC but the country. The defense will have to carry the Bulldogs a lot more than it did in past years due to inexperience at the QB position. If this happens look for the Bulldogs to be right among the SEC elite come year’s end.
Who to keep your eye on – QB Mattew Stafford one the most highly regarded freshman QB's in the country. Matthew has cannon for an arm and was by far the best QB of their spring football game.
Offense: First things first the Volunteers re-hired David Cucltliff who mentored Payton and Eli Manning to serve as offensive coordinator. This should help the Volunteer offense gain productivity it once had. Last year’s offense ranked 101 in scoring offense averaging 18.6 pts per game and 9th in total offense. In order for the offense to improve they will have to get better play out of the QB position, gone is last year’s soap opera where Jr Erik Ainge (737 yards and 5 TD's) had to share duties with Rick Claussen. Erik Ainge should have some talented and experienced WR to work with including JR Robert Meachem (29 rec, 383 yards and 2 TD's) who leads the bunch. The one bright spot last year was the running game, RB Arian Foster (879 yards and 5 TD's) ran for over 100 yards in his first five starts. They will need this again to offset a passing game that has struggled in recent seasons.
Defense: The Volunteers lost six of their starting front seven from a year ago, but there is hardly any panic. The Volunteers still return five starters form a defense that was (16th in scoring defense and 18.6 pts per game and 6th in total defense 298.2 yards per game) The Volunteers will rely on a strong secondary (returning all four starters) this season and a strong recruiting class in order to fill the holes in the front seven. If Tennessee wants to compete with the BIG BOYS in the SEC the "D" will have to play at the same level it played at in 2005 to compete in the SEC East.
Who to keep your eye on – QB Erik Ainge came to Tennessee as one of the most highly regarded recruits, gone now is the QB shuffle he should have the reins to himself without someone looking over his shoulder. I look for him to have a big year and for the Volunteers to have bounce back season.
BEST OF THE REST
South Carolina – In his first year at South Carolina Steve Spurrier got his new team into a bowl game. Having said this, the offense was not very Spurrier like averaging (23.7 points per game ranked 75th in the nation in scoring and 100th in total offense 315.9 yards per game). Spurrier will look to QB Blake Mitchell who had a excellent spring to spark a lack luster offense and he should have some help with five returning starters on this side of the ball including one of the best WR in the SEC Sidney Rice (70 rec, 1,143 yards and 13 TD's). Replacing four offensive linemen could be tough but if they can take care of that, things look pretty promising for the Gamecocks. In order for the Gamecocks to return to top of the SEC they will have to replace the top seven tacklers from last year’s “D" including early entry Ko Simpson defense will struggle to be as good as last year but should be decent again.
Kentucky – If the fortunes are to change for the Wildcats this season it will start with All – Purpose RB Rafael Little (1,045 yards and 9 TDs and 46 rec and 449 yards). This guy is the Reggie Bush of the SEC. With eight returning starters and four of the five offensive linemen returning the future looks promising for an offense that struggled last year. Road is never easy in the SEC but the Wildcats could sneak up on some people with their very versatile offense. The Wildcats defense figures to be better this season (gave up 34.1 points per game and ranked 107th in scoring and 103rd in total offense) it couldn't get much worse finishing last in every major defensive category. If the Wildcats can stay healthy which was a huge problem last year they should be improved with seven returning starters. They will rely on Jr. LB Wesley Woodyard (82 tackles and 63 solo) to anchor defense that has struggled.
Vanderbilt – Gone is Jay Cutler arguably the greatest player in school history. In is So QB Chris Nickson and boy does he have some BIG shoes to fill, but he will not be alone as he has a group of talented WR's including So. WR (Earl Bennett 79 rec, 876 yards and 9 TD's) and excellent RB behind him (Cassen Jackson – Garrisson 539 yards and 8 TD's) this should help cushion the blow for the young QB. The key for the Commodores offense could be could be how fast the offensive line gels after losing two starters, if they can fill these holes the Commodores offense could be a problem for a few defenses. The Commodores defense struggled last season to put pressure on the passer last season. If there young players show the same amount of improvement as they did last year the Commodores defense could show great improvement. Much of it will depend on how much the offense can sustain drives in order to keep the defense off the field as no defense can spend the whole Saturday afternoon on the field.
SEC WEST Elite Teams
Offense: If the Tigers want to win or share of the SEC West title for the sixth time in seven years they will have to replace a talented group of WR's. (The most productive group in SEC history) Replacing the talented WR's will be big for QB Brandon Cox (2,324 yards and 8 TD's) and his comfort zone. Helping to take some that load off until some of those young wideout's can come along this season will be big play RB Kenny Irons (1,293 yards and 13 TD's). With five starters returning from a group that averaged over (32.2 points per game last season and over 407 in total yards per game). If they can overcome the loss of their top three WR's and couple of losses on the offensive line they should be the same old Tigers. Three yards and a cloud of dust and timely passing is what has helped the Tigers be the elite of the league the past few seasons I don't foresee anything changing there.
Defense: Will Muschamp, Nick Saben's top defensive assistant at LSU takes over the DC position (third DC in as many years for the Tigers) He promises to be more aggressive then the Tigers have been in the past and will certainly have new elements. Changing a defense that ranked (6th overall in scoring defense 15.5 points per game and 19th in total defense 315.3 yards per game) is something that will not need that much tweaking. With six starters returning and none more important then Will Herring (69 tackles, 34 solo) who moves from safety to linebacker this season to help in the run dept the Tigers should have all the key elements on this side of the ball to be one of the elite defenses in the SEC.
Who to keep your eye on – RB Kenny Irons will shoulder much of load this year for the Tigers. I look for him to have huge season and improve on his 13 TD's from a year ago. All- SEC honors could be just around the corner for this explosive RB.
Offense: There has plenty of QB talk around Baton Rouge, is JaMarcus Russell the man. Well the coaches think so and I agree. This guy has won 10 games last year and 14 since 2004. Having said all that QB JaMarcus Russell (2,443 yards and 15 TD's) will be the key to the Tigers offensive success. With both there leading rusher from 2004 (RB Alley Broussard) and 2005 (RB Justin Vincent 488 yards and 5 TD's) injured there are many questions that surround the Tigers running game. Both missed the entire spring with knee injuries and there status the upcoming season is uncertain. They will need there talented receiving core to step up this year after a dismal 2005, if this happens the Tigers could be playing in this year’s SEC Championship game.
Defense: Thanks to some outstanding recruiting over the last few years the Tigers defense has been one of the league’s best. This year defensive strength should be the defensive line even though three starters have moved on. The Tigers secondary is also considered one of the nation’s best, safeties LaRon Landry and Jessie Daniels have been playing regularly for the past four years. The Tigers have five returning players on defense including LB Ali Highsmith (75 tackles, 36 solo). This year’s defense will be hard pressed to match last year’s totals (3rd in scoring 14.2 points per game and 3rd in total defense 266.9 yards per game) If the Tigers can produce the same results as last year or somewhere close they will again be fighting for a league title.
Who to keep your eye on – QB JaMarcus Russell is do for a breakout season this year. He is playing with a chip on his shoulder and word has it around Baton Rouge is that he would like to put all the doubters to rest.
Offense: The Razorbacks have a new OC, Gus Malzahn. He will bring a much more versatile offense (No-Huddle spread offense) to the Razorback fans. Look for the Razorbacks to continue to run the ball which has been there bread and butter over the last few years but mix in the pass a little more than usual. This should really energize an offense that ranked 65th in scoring and 108th passing overall. With ten starters returning Malzahn should have the tools and experience on offensive it takes to handle his new system. This offense will lean on RB Darren McFadden (1,113 yards and 11 TD's) while adjusting to their offensive style. The outlook is good for a team that could really use a boost on the offensive side of the ball.
Defense: Nine starters return from a unit that became solid against the run last year. (35th overall against the run) All the key components are back this season including LB Sam Olajubutu (118 tackles, 69 solo). One of the things the Razorbacks will have to improve on this season is creating turnovers as they ranked 65th in turnover margin last year. The defense will also try to shore up its Achilles heel – giving up the big play. If these two things improve this season should be a banner year for the Razorbacks defense as they look to move themselves up the SEC ladder.
Who to keep your eye on – LB Sam Olajubutu is a monster and a legitimate All-America candidate at 5' 9 he may be undersized but he tracks down ball carriers like animal looking for food. I look for him to have a monster year.
BEST OF THE REST
Alabama – Returns nine players on offense and four players on defense from a team that went (10-2) last year. In order for the Crimson Tide to duplicate last year season the offense they will have to become less vanilla. Doing this may be harder than expected with first year starter QB John Parker Wilson. The Crimson Tide will rely on RB Kenneth Darby (1,294 yards and 3 TD's) to take some of the pressure off. The running game will be the strong suit for the Crimson Tide this season with four returning offensive lineman. I Look for the Crimson Tide offense to look to ball control and timely passing in order to as affective as 2005. With back to back No 2 national rankings in total defense the defense will have to rely on a larger collection of first time starters. The linebacking crew will be raw aside from third year starter Juwan Simpson (64 Tackles and 33 solo). In order for the Crimson Tide to have the season they have had the last two some first year starters will have to step up and make major contributions.
Mississippi – Coming off a (3 – 8) season the Rebels look to new offensive coordinator Dan Werner and juco standout QB Brent Schaeffer (Spent time as a Tennessee as a starter in 2004). The Rebel fans have high expectations for their prized signee. If the offense is to improve in 2006 (13.5 points per game 115th in the nation in scoring ) they will have to rely on the arm of Schaeffer and the legs of RB Robert Lane (612 yards and 3 TD's) and hope for the best. The other side of the ball was much better as they only allowed (22.3 points per game 31st nationally) having said all that the will have to replace all four defensive lineman most notable a pair of productive tackles. A pair of four year starters in the secondary (Trumaine McBride and Charles Clark) should help anchor an excellent secondary and give Rebels what they need again to be very good defense.
Mississippi St – For a team that only averaged (13.9 points per game and ranked 113th in the nation in scoring) scoring was a thing that was hard to come by. In order to solve this problem they will look to multi-dimensional QB Michael Henig who knows that the success of the Bulldogs offense begins with him. Henig will need some playmakers to help him out if they are to be successful in 2006. Two likely candidates are Sr. WR Will Prosser (28 rec., 286 yards) and So RB Brandon Thornton (225 yards and 1 TD). One of the biggest surprises last season was the improvement of the defense, which went from last in the SEC in yards to eighth in 2005. The biggest key to why the defense made such a quick turnaround was the play of the defensive line. In order for the Bull, dogs to make a jump in the SEC the defense will again have to step up and play well again.
Georgia has a question mark at the QB position and lost three players on the defensive side of the ball to the NFL, however they have a knack for winning football games (close games and games on the road). The Bulldogs will have competition with the Gators and second year coach Urban Meyer. What hurts the Gators is the brutal schedule (road games @ Tenn, @ Auburn, @ Georgia and @ Florida St) and their lack-luster running game. I look for Tennessee to have bounce back year there is just too much talent there for them to be under 500 team and let’s not forget that this is the winningest team in the SEC east over the last decade. South Carolina offense will have to step it up this year in order for Gamecocks compete with the top level teams in the SEC. Kentucky and Vanderbilt wrap up the rest of the east, neither these teams have the talent it takes to push the top four teams in this division . SEC East will come down to a two team race between Georgia and Florida, if Florida can get through there brutal schedule they will have earned the right to play in the SEC Championship game. My pick to win this side of the SEC is the Georgia Bulldogs, a knack for winning games on the road and a top notch defense will keep them in just about every game.
LSU looks to be the elite team in the western division, but if they are to win this division they will have to do it on the road. (@ Florida, @ Tennessee, @ Florida and @Arkansas) JaMarcus Russell will determine how far the Tigers go as he goes so do the Tigers. It will be hard to pick against the Tigers after their brutal beating of Miami in last year’s Peach Bowl. Auburn has won 17 of its last 18 conference games and has a favorable schedule this year. Having said that, their defense will not as stout as it was last year and they will have to rely more on their running game with loss the three outstanding receivers. Arkansas has more returning starter then any team in the SEC conference. For Arkansas to make the leap to the elite and compete with the likes of Auburn and LSU their offense must make a quantum leap from where it was a year ago. Installing a new dynamic offense this year can only help an offense that has relied on the run in years past. Alabama will have to retool it's outstanding defense from a year ago that only returns four starters. The good things is that have nine returning starters on offense and look to improve on a offense that was one of the worst in the SEC. Alabama figures to be right in the middle of the pack in the SEC come year’s end. Mississippi and Mississippi State figure to be at the bottom of the league neither of these two teams have the offensive fire power to compete with the big boys in the SEC.
4. SOUTH CAROLINA
6. MISSISSIPPI STATE
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