1. Auburn Tigers
The Good: Just about everything. The Tigers have no glaring weaknesses that have been made apparent yet.
The Bad: Placekickers are still iffy on field goals. Secondary hasn't been tested by a top team yet.
The Verdict: The top team in the SEC right now and the only one still with a shot at a national championship.
Tommy Tuberville was telling people in the preseason that Auburn would compete for a national title, but few were listening. Most were thinking it was coachspeak fallout from Tuberville's near-firing in the offseason during what has come to be known as the "Lowder-Petrino Mutiny." Compounding the disbelief was that new offensive coordinator Al Borges' career was in a tailspin, and QB Jason Campbell wasn't exactly looked at as the world's smartest player at that position. All Auburn has done, though, is prove everyone wrong. The tailback rotation of Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams is doing a good job, the Tiger defense is playing solid football and the coaches haven't made any glaring errors. But Auburn must go through Georgia twice to get to a national championship game, and there remain questions about the Tigers' pass defense against top passing offenses, something they might not see until the postseason. But there is no denying that Auburn has put itself at the top of the pile for now.
Where Auburn will be in 2005: With the exception of the Big Three on offense (Campbell, Williams, Brown), Auburn should be okay. The Tigers have few other senior starters that will be difficult to replace, with the exception of the Junior Rosegreen-Carlos Rogers tandem in the secondary. The Tigers will again compete strongly for the division crown.
2. Ole Miss Rebels
The Good: Quarterback situation starting to settle down.
The Bad: Mediocre in nearly every area; worse than that in the others
The Verdict: Will have to work to get bowl eligible. Doesn't look like a legitimate division contender.
Yes, believe it or not, the Rebels are sitting second in the SEC West with a 2-1 conference record right now. But that's not likely to stay that way; Ole Miss has Tennessee this week and has yet to play Auburn or LSU. The biggest problem for the Rebels has turned out to be their losses on the defensive side of the ball, which put more pressure on an offense that certainly didn't need it. RB Vashon Pearson is starting to play with more poise, and quarterbacks Ethan Flatt, Micheal Spurlock and Robert Lane are progressing at least to the point where they are no longer liabilities. Ole Miss' goal for the remainder of the season should be to get eligible for a lower-tier bowl, but even that would necessitate upsetting either LSU, Auburn or Tennessee.
Where Ole Miss will be in 2005: It probably won't be any better than this. Graduation figures to hit the defensive front seven hard yet again. Offensive guards Doug Buckles and Marcus Johnson will be gone. Most importantly, Ole Miss will lose its veteran kickers. Recruiting will be critical.
3 (tie). LSU Tigers
The Good: Loads of talent stacked deep at most positions. Good coaching.
The Bad: Quarterbacks are very green and it has cost the Tigers dearly already.
The Verdict: A great team that is going through a rebuilding phase.
The Bayou Bengals' continuous quarterback battle between Marcus Randall and JaMarcus Russell shows just how important one position can be to a football team. Ole Miss went through a similar misfiring early in the season and is just now starting to come around. It looks like more work is needed for LSU. But when one of LSU's quarterbacks is on, this is a very dangerous team capable of competing at the highest levels. LSU will likely soon go by Ole Miss in the standings and stay in second place, unless Auburn takes an unexpected late-season swoon. No one will want to face this team in a bowl game.
Where LSU will be in 2005: Offensively, LSU loses only Randall and C Ben Wilkerson, so look for the Tigers not to skip a beat there. But the linebacker corps and particularly the secondary will have to be rebuilt. LSU will probably struggle a bit on defense and may drop a game or two that it shouldn't. But they'll be in the thick of the SEC West hunt regardless.
3 (tie). Alabama Crimson Tide
The Good: Defense is getting salty. Special teams and running backs have been dominant.
The Bad: Just can't shake the injury bug. Passing game seems non-existent
The Verdict: A potentially good team made mediocre by factors not entirely under its control.
Should Alabama get by Southern Miss this weekend, the near-certain win Alabama can expect against Mississippi State would be enough to get the Crimson Tide bowl-eligible. But Alabama is still mathematically in the SEC West hunt, and actually has a clearer path to the title than any team besides Auburn. Will it happen? Not likely. Injuries have been the story in Tuscaloosa this year, and a team thinned by probation is not as able to withstand the rash of injuries like Auburn or LSU could. Hopefully, the Alabama quarterback situation has been stabilized and Alabama can get down to the business of working on an upset or two in the second half. The defense, special teams and running game are there.
Where Alabama will be in 2005: Alabama returns 17 starters for 2005 and virtually all of its defense. But Alabama needs to find two new kickers, and the biggest task of all will be replacing guards Evan Mathis and Danny Martz and offensive tackle Wesley Britt. If Alabama can't find three linemen to plug into those holes, the injury bug may yet again bite QB Brodie Croyle. But if the Tide OL can be solidified quickly, Alabama will be a legitimate division contender.
5. Arkansas Razorbacks
The Good: Matt Jones. He's the single best playmaker in the Southeastern Conference.
The Bad: The defense. It's too young, too small in spots and can't stop the run
The Verdict: Most likely paper tigers, about to be exposed by the meat of their schedule.
Arkansas beat Alabama in Fayetteville for its lone SEC win so far, but it would be debatable as to which team was really the best. Alabama was going through its first game without Brodie Croyle at quarterback, and Arkansas' defense likely would not have been strong enough to stop a balanced attack. With injuries beginning to mount – most importantly FB Peyton Hillis, who even as a true freshman is probably the best at the position in the conference – Arkansas enters the toughest part of its schedule without some of its most important players. But never count out QB Matt Jones, who is so good that Arkansas seems to have 12 or 13 offensive players on the field at once. How Arkansas handles itself against a clearly stronger Auburn team will tell a lot.
Where Arkansas will be in 2005: Actually, not that bad off. Jones will be gone, but backup quarterback Robert Jackson has loads of talent. The nucleus of the offense will be back, and WR Marcus Monk looks like a future superstar. The biggest question marks will be where they are this year, the defensive line. Head coach Houston Nutt has done a good job recruiting skill players lately, but needs to start bringing in more quality beef for the defensive line.
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Good: The season is only 11 games long.
The Bad: The season is still about five games too long.
The Verdict: The team looks lost, injuries have claimed two quarterbacks and a verdict from the NCAA on probation is just around the corner. Times are lean in Starkville.
It would have been a Cinderella story if State had strung together some wins to begin the year and competed for a bowl berth – and it's still possible, mathematically – but even the most ardent MSU fans are now beginning to realize that they have a five- to eight-year rebuilding process ahead of them. Talent levels are low, and word is still out from the NCAA on how many scholarships will be taken away. First-year coach Sylvester Croom is getting more heat from a lot of Bulldog fans than he deserves, with last week's loss to a pretty good UAB team doing more damage than expected to fan morale. The reality of the situation, though, is that former coach Jackie Sherrill left Mississippi State with few playmakers and even less confidence. MSU's offensive and defensive lines have long been allowed to get lazy and out of shape, and basic athleticism is even questionable. It will be a long road back to respectability, one built with good recruiting – which figures to be further compromised by the NCAA cloud. Right now, MSU is in the nation's bottom third in most relevant performance categories.
Where Mississippi State will be in 2005: Graduation will greatly affect the depth situation in the secondary, at wide receiver and along the offensive line, but most other areas escape unscathed. Jerious Norwood will be back at running back, Omarr Conner will be back at quarterback and with the exception of DT Ronald Fields, the front seven returns intact. But MSU badly needs new linebackers, speed on offense and defensive backs that can cover. There will be too many holes to fill in just one recruiting year. The Bulldogs figure to be in the basement again.
1. Tennessee Volunteers
The Good: Tough OL and DL. Sound special teams. Coaches put the team in a position to win.
The Bad: Questionable secondary. Freshmen quarterbacks are bound to make mistakes.
The Verdict: If UT wins the SEC East, this likely will be the best coaching job in the conference.
Tennessee looks headed on the track to Atlanta again, a maddening fact for a good bit of the SEC. But the truth is, Tennessee's coaches have done a fantastic job of maneuvering the team despite using two true freshmen quarterbacks and having to disguise a sub-par secondary with smoke and mirrors. How is Tennessee doing it? Good play up front from both the offensive and defensive lines, winning special teams and game plans that play to the strengths and away from the weaknesses of its young quarterbacks. The lopsided loss to Auburn raises a question, not so much, of whether Tennessee is a pretender, but whether Auburn is a national title contender. The Volunteers, with a fairly easy schedule on the way out of the season with the exception of the Alabama game, are positioning themselves for possibly a BCS bowl invitation.
Where Tennessee will be in 2005: Tennessee will be in a similar situation as Alabama in 2005; the Volunteers return much of their defense, but will have to replace some big names on the offensive line. Tennessee should be the clear preseason favorite to win the SEC East for the '05 season.
2. Georgia Bulldogs
The Good: Loads of talent everywhere. Tough defense.
The Bad: Senior QB David Greene is slumping. Coaches have done a poor job in both preparation and playcalling.
The Verdict: Early favorite for biggest underachiever in the SEC.
Georgia should be running away with the SEC East, but aside from a convincing win over LSU, the Bulldogs have really done nothing of note. Georgia looked mediocre against Georgia Southern, South Carolina and Marshall, then gave away a home game to Tennessee through sloppy play and bad coaching decisions. The second half of the year has games against Florida and Auburn, as well as dangerous Arkansas and a rivalry game with Georgia Tech, which always seems to turn its play up a notch or two against the Bulldogs. If Tennessee missteps, Georgia could be headed to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game anyway, but this is no longer a team that has the look of a potential national champion. Whether the problem is a result of Qb David Greene's slump, or whether Mark Richt is being exposed as not quite ready for prime time, the bottom line is Georgia has been a disappointment. A lot of talent is being wasted or, at the very least, not living up to expectations.
Where Georgia will be in 2005: Georgia loses nearly all of its "name" players, including Greene, DE David Pollack and wide receivers Reggie Brown and Fred Gibson. Safety Thomas Davis, a junior, is a threat to skip his senior season for the NFL draft. A couple of others, including MLB Odell Thurman, might be tempted also. Ole Miss is going through this transition in 2004, but the Rebels have less talented players stepping into the holes caused by the losses of players such as QB Eli Manning or DT Jesse Mitchell. Georgia should fare better, but will likely return to third in the SEC East behind Tennessee and Florida.
3 (tie). Florida Gators
The Good: QB Chris Leak is perhaps the next Heisman Trophy winner out of the SEC. Young defense is making strides and should be stout in '05.
The Bad: Not much experience on either side of the ball, which hurts the potential for an SEC East crown in '04. Questionable coaching decisions continue.
The Verdict: This was to be a rebuilding year for Florida anyway, but head coach Ron Zook may not survive the process.
Florida was a seven- or eight-win team at most heading into 2004. The loss at Tennessee was not unexpected, and questionable officiating gave Gator fans an excuse to fall back on when it happened. But a late collapse at home against LSU has brought out the boo birds, and head coach Ron Zook is the preferred target. To Zook's credit, he has cut down on the number of boneheaded decisions he's made in years past, but he still looks a bit over his head at a program the level of Florida. The schedule still includes games with Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Florida could lose five games. Should that happen, Zook will probably be fired.
Where Florida will be in 2005: It depends on if Zook is back. If he is, Leak will have had three years in Zook's offense and should be ready to star. Florida brings almost the entire team back and loses no one that can't be readily replaced. The biggest name not returning for 2005 is OT Mo Mitchell. Florida will be loaded and ready to compete for the division title. If Zook is replaced, however, all bets are off while the new coach brings in his system.
3 (tie). South Carolina Gamecocks
The Good: New offense suits the talents of its personnel nicely. New defensive coordinator Rick Minter has been a great addition.
The Bad: Unforgivable loss to Ole Miss. Still making too many mistakes at the quarterback position.
The Verdict: A team headed in the right direction, but the talent level simply isn't there.
Lots of people – this writer included – chided head coach Lou Holtz for junking his son's spread offense in the spring and installing a variant of the one-back option combined with an I-formation attack. But if South Carolina and Holtz are to be judged on results, the early returns are favorable. The new offense has covered up the weaknesses of quarterbacks Dondrial Pinkins and Syvelle Newton nicely, while giving RB Demetris Summers the opportunity to shine when he's been healthy. South Carolina is now two wins away from bowl eligibility and Kentucky should be one of them. But if USC can't beat Ole Miss, can they beat Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida or Clemson to get the sixth win it needs? The loss to the Rebels, at home yet, was embarrassing and not what the Gamecocks needed. Holtz is on the hot seat, even with his record and reputation. If South Carolina misses out on a bowl in 2004, it could be a long time before the Gamecocks make the postseason – and recruiting will suffer, guaranteed.
Where South Carolina will be in 2005: Hurting. The Gamecocks lose the bulk of its offensive and defensive line and half its linebacker corps. Fortunately, Holtz has recruited well enough on the defensive line that there might not be a very big dropoff there. But the offensive line is suspect as it is, and losing C John Strickland and G Jonathan Alston won't help things. South Carolina's success may depend on whether it can get a JUCO lineman or two to step into holes. Newton must also continue to develop at quarterback. But a winning season should be considered unlikely at this point.
5. Vanderbilt Commodores
The Good: Bulk of the team returns for next year. QB Jay Cutler is a weapon.
The Bad: The bulk of the team returned for this year, too, and no good has come of it yet.
The Verdict: Wait until next year, and then start hoping for the best again.
Vanderbilt returned gobs of starters in 2004 and head coach Bobby Johnson had to be feeling optimistic. That was before Vanderbilt got drilled by South Carolina in the opener, lost late games it shouldn't have to both Ole Miss and Navy, then completely fell apart in the second half last week against Rutgers. The result is same old, same old at Vanderbilt. So far, the Commodores have only a win over Mississippi State on their resume. They should easily get by Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 23 and will likely beat Kentucky. Three wins in 2004 is one better than the two wins the Commodores recorded in 2003, but much better things were predicted for this team. What's worse, Bobby Johnson's choirboy persona is beginning to wear thin among his players now that the wins aren't coming as hoped. Such are the consequences of losing. QB Jay Cutler has turned into a dominant player, but he has no help offensively. The defense, expected to carry this team, has been awful. Sad to say at this point, but the season is lost.
Where Vanderbilt will be in 2005: Battling Kentucky for last place, again. The Commodores return practically the entire defense (again), and Cutler will be back. But the offensive line will have to be rebuilt, and WR Brandon Smith, one of the few playmakers on this team, is graduating. One has to believe Johnson's job will be on the line, and if Vanderbilt finishes as expected, Johnson will be looking for a job.
6. Kentucky Wildcats
The Good: Lots of potential on both sides of the ball. Talent is good at QB, WR, DL and DB.
The Bad: Either due to bad coaching, bad luck, or a quitting attitude, none of that talent has produced, at all.
The Verdict: A depressed, disappointing team looking for a soft place to crash.
Even though this is Kentucky and NCAA sanctions are hitting them every bit as hard, if not harder, than Alabama, this is a disappointing year for the Wildcats. Quarterbacks Shane Boyd and Andre Woodson have talent, and there is depth in the Wildcat receiving corps despite the losses of Keenan Burton and Tommy Cook. But defensively is where Kentucky was supposed to truly shine, and instead, the Wildcats have looked like tarnished antique brass. Kentucky coaches have absolutely squandered a tough defensive line. A linebacker corps that was average as SEC teams go has underachieved. And a secondary that could have been a team strength has been deplorable. Add in questionable coaching decisions, sloppy play, disintegrating special teams and a general malaise over the program, and what you have is the ultimate recipe for disaster. It's tough to say what will happen to Kentucky the rest of the year. If Kentucky plays to its current level, it might have an outside chance to beat Vanderbilt and will be a 50-50 shot against Mississippi State at best. If Kentucky plays like it could have played all along, it would likely stomp both those teams and cause at least some degree of heartburn for one of its other three opponents (Auburn, Tennessee or Georgia). But is just isn't meant to be for this year's Wildcat team.
Where Kentucky will be in 2005: Possibly looking for another coach. Rich Brooks, who did a fine job building the Oregon program at one time, has done absolutely nothing at Kentucky to suggest he deserves a third year. But with the true effects of probation on Kentucky's depth just now hitting, it will be tough to attract a promising young coach. Worse yet, the defense will lose four of its best players to graduation after this season, as well as QB Boyd and the team's two best offensive linemen. It's going to be a long recovery.