On to '06

Things can – and will – change drastically between now and the first weekend of football games this fall. Recruiting season is just now seriously heating up, and there are spring practices and summer weight training programs to complete.


But it's never too early to take an early look at the teams in the SEC for 2006. Assuming everyone goes through spring training as expected, works diligently in the offseason program and signs a recruiting class commiserate with usual expectations, here's a first look at what you might see in the fall. Things can and will change between now and September.


SEC West


Team: Alabama Crimson Tide

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Worse

Overview: It's a tough pill to swallow, but if Alabama replicated its 10-2 record in 2006, it will be because the Crimson Tide played over its head. Alabama must replace seven defensive starters, and that by itself will make the 2006 season potentially troublesome, especially in the beginning of the year. The opening game against Hawaii, for instance, will pit a young Alabama defense against a veteran Hawaii offense for the second time in four years, with the last meeting ending in a Bama loss. But it's the tough run of SEC road games (Florida, Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas) that poses the greatest challenge. Alabama will also be replacing veteran QB Brodie Croyle, and the offensive line will still be a question mark despite the players being more experienced. WR Tyrone Prothro's status is still uncertain, as is the NFL aspirations of some underclassmen.

Strongest point: The offensive skill positions, which have good depth all around, particularly at running back.

Weakest link: Although the offensive line remains a trouble spot, the inexperience on defense is going to result in a lot of mental mistakes made, especially early. Alabama's defense up the middle, from the tackles through the middle linebackers and to the safeties, will be virtually all new.

Rough estimate of wins: Likely seven, but could be as many as nine depending on how far some of Alabama's rivals fall.

Outlook: Right now, no games jump out as sure-thing losses. Florida appears to be the toughest on paper, but must rebuild its offensive line. Tennessee is in disarray and must rebuild its defense. So must LSU. If Arkansas gets its act together early, it could prove to be one of Alabama's toughest games. Auburn could end up being the toughest team Alabama faces, but that game is in Tuscaloosa and it's doubtful that Alabama will be trounced as they were last year. On the other hand, Alabama must guard against the upset at every turn – a byproduct of having a young defense.


Team: Arkansas Razorbacks

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Better

Overview: Arkansas can't help but be better in 2006, particularly considering the enormity of talent returning in the Razorback offensive backfield. RB Darren McFadden started slowly in 2005 but by the end of the year was the Hogs' go-to back. QB Casey Dick showed promise late in the year of being able to avoid screwing up, which was something neither Robert Johnson nor Alex Mortensen ever grasped. Defensively, Arkansas got better as the year went along, but the Razorbacks will have to replace three senior safeties in the secondary. The biggest question revolves around offensive philosophy; high school coach Gus Malzahn has been named offensive coordinator, but veteran NFL and college assistant Alex Wood has been named passing game coordinator. Arkansas will quickly have to develop an identity and learn how to make the new system work, and not forget that the team strength lies in the hands of three or four guys who are very adept at running the football.

Strongest point: The running backs, by far. Darren McFadden and Peyton Hillis may be the conference's best one-two punch.

Weakest link: Assuming the defensive improvement wasn't a mirage, the most troublesome task for Arkansas will be replacing three starters on the offensive line while implementing a more open offensive system.

Rough estimate of wins: Arkansas didn't do itself any favors by scheduling Southern California, but the good news is that aside from South Carolina and Auburn, all the other big games will be played in the shadows of the Ozarks. Arkansas should be bowl-eligible and finish with seven wins.

Outlook: Although Dick finished the season as the quarterback, the issue most pressing on Arkansas fans' minds is where prep QB Mitch Mustain will end up. Mustain played last season for Malzahn, whose hiring was expected to seal the deal with the nation's top-rated prep passer. Instead, it seems to have had the opposite effect, as Mustain is looking around. Even if Mustain doesn't end up at Arkansas, Dick could be out of a job depending on what system is installed. Robert Johnson has the most experience, but has never been accurate. But he is very mobile. Mortensen has transferred to Georgia Southern. The reason finding a quarterback is so important is that if Arkansas can build offensive balance around its running backs and WR Marcus Monk, this is a team that could seriously contend for the division title. Defensively, the linebacker corps needs work, and must replace several veterans. Seven wins looks doable, but it also looks like perhaps the most optimistic outlook for next year.


Team: Auburn Tigers

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Worse

Overview: Auburn is replacing 11 starters, more than even Alabama, but Auburn will have the advantage of having QB Brandon Cox back. Assuming he doesn't opt for early entry to the NFL, RB Kenny Irons also returns. The problems for Auburn come up on defense, where the act of replacing tackles Wayne Dickens and Tommy Jackson is likely to cause some heartburn for the Auburn coaches. The jobs will likely fall to Tez Doolittle and Josh Thompson, a pair of players that have yet to live up to expectations on a consistent basis. With DE Stanley McClover heading to the NFL, Quentin Groves and Marquies Gunn have to get more consistent. The biggest dropoff will come in the linebacking corps, where Travis Williams and Antarrious Williams are graduating. Auburn must also rebuild its wide receiver rotation. Prechae Rodriguez and Courtney Taylor will make a fine starting pair, but depth got hammered by graduation. Perhaps the biggest challenges will be replacing FB Jake Slaughter and the two offensive tackles, Troy Reddick and Marcus McNeill. Record-wise, Auburn will probably equal the 2005 season win total, but this team probably won't be as imposing as it was this year.

Strongest point: The offensive backfield, assuming Carl Stewart or Mike McLaughlin can handle the fullback role.

Weakest link: The middle of the defensive front seven will be all new, and Auburn hasn't gotten the greatest play from its safeties in recent years.

Rough estimate of wins: Auburn's out-of-conference schedule is a virtual cakewalk, and other than Alabama, Auburn gets all its important divisional games at home. The most intriguing road game will be against South Carolina in Columbia. Auburn should end up winning around nine games.

Outlook: Auburn, through good coaching, has managed to rebuild offensive lines, offensive backfields and defensive lines in recent years when all logic said they wouldn't be able to do it. So it would be foolish to say Auburn can't find two new linebackers, or a pair of good defensive tackles, or two new offensive tackles to protect Cox. On the other hand, the law of averages says you can't play with fire that many times and not get burned. Can Auburn get a pair of decent tackles out of the group that includes King Dunlap, Leon Hart and Antwoin Daniels? Can Kevin Sears and Karibi Dede be every-down players at linebacker? Can Auburn's secondary be more physical now that it doesn't have a plethora of great players in front of it? The answers to those questions will tell the tale of Auburn's 2006 season.


Team: LSU Tigers

Better, worse of the same in 2006: Worse

Overview: LSU was such a senior-dominated team in 2005 that it would be nearly impossible to duplicate the successes of this year. Defensively, LSU must replace seven starters and a couple of long-serving senior reserves. Offensively, the line must be rebuilt, and RB Joseph Addai isn't around anymore. On top of that, LSU has a real quarterback controversy on its hands now that Matt Flynn helped dismantle Miami in the Peach Bowl. With JaMarcus Russell coming off injury and talented redshirt freshman Ryan Perrilloux still on the bench, spring training will be a hoot to watch. The out-of-conference schedule isn't bad – Arizona is the toughest team on it – but the SEC schedule is a killer, with only Alabama coming to Baton Rouge out of the teams that present a legitimate challenge to the Tigers. Games against Auburn, Tennessee, Florida and Arkansas will take place on rival soil.

Strongest point: Even with the loss of Skyler Green, wide receiver is stocked with athletic playmakers.

Weakest link: The defensive line goes from being a gathering of big-time playmakers to a collection of underachievers and inexperienced kids with impressive high school resumes, but few collegiate contributions.

Rough estimate of wins: The win total could be as low as seven or eight, depending on what LSU does with Arizona, Alabama and Arkansas. As far as running the table and repeating as division champions, don't bet on it until you see the defense on the field firsthand.

Outlook: Especially until the defense gets its sea legs, this team will have to win with offense. It has a great running back duo in Justin Vincent and Alley Broussard, assuming Broussard can make it back from a knee injury, plus FB Jacob Hester and whichever quarterback winds up with the job. Wide receivers and tight ends abound. That's why replacing three starters and a top reserve on the offensive line is so important. LSU's line will likely be average in 2006, and given how QB JaMarcus Russell has struggled with QB pressure in the past, it's imperative head coach Les Miles solve this riddle as soon as possible. LSU will still be a contender in the West, but if quarterback controversies are allowed to simmer throughout the first weeks of the season and the defensive front seven is slow to come around, LSU could be out of the picture before the Tigers really even get in it.


Team: Ole Miss Rebels

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Worse

Overview: It's hard to imagine being worse than 3-8, but Ole Miss will give it a run. A kind out-of-conference schedule will give Ole Miss the chance to get to four or five wins, but the Rebels aren't likely to be as tough against the top teams of the SEC as they were in 2005. Ole Miss must replace six starters on defense, along with QB Micheal Spurlock and both tackles, Bobby Harris and Tre Stallings. Additionally, the wide receiver corps were gutted by graduation, and there was turnover in the assistant coach ranks after just one year under Ed Orgeron. Especially on the two lines of scrimmage, Ole Miss will have problems. The team essentially has no quarterback; senior Ethan Flatt figures to get the job almost by default, and he's closer to being a liability than a strength.

Strongest point: The linebacker corps, especially if Patrick Willis decides against taking his act to the NFL. The defensive backfield figures to be solid as well.

Weakest link: The offensive line was a train wreck for most of 2005. It gets worse in 2006.

Rough estimate of wins: Three on the low side, five on the high side. Outside the conference, Ole Miss gets Memphis, Missouri, Wake Forest and Div-IAA Northwestern (La.) State. The Rebels should get by Northwestern State and Memphis, as well as Vanderbilt and probably Kentucky inside the conference. The Wake Forest game likely represents the fifth win. An upset of Mississippi State at year's end could get Ole Miss to .500, but don't be ton it.

Outlook: Ole Miss is doing much better than usual in recruiting this year, which is a good thing, because most of the Rebels' signees are going to have to play. The real question is just how good of a coach Ed Orgeron is. The results of last year weren't promising, and rumors persisted throughout the year that Orgeron was always one small step away from a meltdown. Ole Miss' success in 2006 will mostly be about the offensive line and whoever is under center. The Rebels were one of the least potent offensive teams in the country last year (ranked 111th in total offense), and actually figure to get worse in 2006. And unlike 2005, there won't be a top-flight defensive line to dig this team out of holes.


Team: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Better

Overview: Sylvester Croom got his team turned the right way in its last game against Ole Miss, when the Bulldogs beat a much more talented team 35-14. Unfortunately, MSU spent most of the year either underachieving or simply looking horrible. It doesn't do the Bulldogs any favors that its best player, RB Jerious Norwood, will be practicing his skills in the NFL next year. But all is not lost; MSU returns most of a pretty solid defense, and offensively, Norwood and center Chris McNeil are the only two major losses. But improvement is drastically needed at quarterback, wide receiver and the other four positions along the offensive line.

Strongest point: The MSU pass defense, which has been good two years in a row and returns most of its playmakers from 2005.

Weakest link: The offensive line, which was patched together as it was for 2005 and lost three of the players that played big roles toward the end of the year.

Rough estimate of wins: The Bulldogs should be in the three-to-five win area like their in-state rivals Ole Miss. This is still a team not good enough to compete day in and day out with most of the SEC, however.

Outlook: This is the year that Sylvester Croom needs to show improvement in, or he's going to start to lose a good bit of his base support. Mississippi State isn't a good team, or even a mediocre team, but the Bulldogs will field a solid defense and in the SEC, that's good enough to get you an upset or two. Offensively, this team is devoid of playmakers, which will probably result in Omarr Conner moving to wide receiver full-time and starting opposite the good-hands Will Prosser. Aside from TE Eric Butler, though, Mississippi State will probably have to dip deep into its recruiting haul to find bodies. On both lines, this is a thin team, so injuries, even minor ones, could have drastic effects in the long run.


SEC East


Team: Florida Gators

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Better

Overview: New head coach Urban Meyer might not have generated as much excitement on the field as he'd hoped in his first season, but between his sometimes overconfident off-the-field persona and a recruiting class that is beginning to look like one of the best in the conference in recent memory, he's certainly making as much noise as a man can possibly make. Unfortunately, this team will go into 2006 with questions along the offensive line, in the secondary and on special teams. Losing WR Chad Jackson early to the NFL draft didn't help. And there's still the issue of QB Chris Leak and how he doesn't really fit what Meyer wants to do offensively. This is still a team looking for an identity.

Strongest point: Even without Jackson, the wide receiver corps could be a great strength – if the Gators can avoid the injury bug, which they weren't able to do in 2005.

Weakest link: The offensive line, by far, which will be a patchwork bunch at best.

Rough estimate of wins: Florida splits the toughest part of its SEC schedule, getting Alabama, LSU and South Carolina at home but going on the road to Auburn and Tennessee. The out-of-conference schedule is mixed well, with the annual tilt against Florida State, solid challenges from Southern Miss and Central Florida and one get-well game against Div-IAA Western Carolina. Eight wins should be the minimum, if the offensive line comes together.

Outlook: The offensive line is a major part of Meyer's offense, because they must play as a group and be very athletic in order to handle the option portions of the scheme. If Florida coaches can put a good line on the field, Florida could easily win 10 games in the regular season. The wild cards are the secondary, which could have some troubles, especially early in the year, and Meyer himself, who looked very unprepared at times last year for the kind of toughness expected of a successful SEC coach. As such, Florida could be a big hit or a big bust. The question marks are all in critical places, while the Gators' strengths are in places (QB, WR) that won't help them much if the basics aren't in place.


Team: Georgia Bulldogs

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Worse

Overview: Between the loss of QB D.J. Shockley, three key members of an offensive line that was the best in the conference, top TE Leonard Pope and perhaps the team's entire defensive front – not to mention three defensive backs – 2006 screams "rebuilding year" for the Georgia Bulldogs. Not that there's anything wrong with that – it happens to all teams at some point, and it's happening to Georgia now. The good news is that head coach Mark Richt has proven himself in recent years as the true answer for what has ailed Georgia for so long, and the Bulldogs will be competitive in 2005. But repeating as SEC champions looks virtually out of the question.

Strongest point: The deep collection of running backs, which makes Georgia a threat even with the needed rebuilding elsewhere on offense.

Weakest link: The defensive line, which returns very few proven players.

Rough estimate of wins: Only Georgia Tech figures to be a loss among Georgia's out-of-conference opponents, although Colorado will give the Bulldogs a fight. Inside the conference, Georgia has only one key team at home, Tennessee. The rest are on the road or at a neutral site. Seven or eight wins looks like the top end for this team.

Outlook: This is going to be tough. First, Georgia must find a quarterback. Then, the Bulldogs must find an offensive line to protect him. Finally, they have to find a defensive line to go get the other team's quarterback, while at the same time looking for a defensive backfield to harass the other team's wide receivers. The quarterback battle will likely come down to senior Joe Tereshinski, who isn't a playmaker, or sophomore Blake Barnes, who hasn't progressed as quickly as hoped. The offensive line will be filled with upperclassmen, but experience is at a premium. There are serious depth issues at defensive line. The outlook is better in the secondary, where it's just a matter of finding the right mix of talent. Unfortunately, with this much rebuilding, Georgia figures to get upset at least once. And it's not clear whether there are enough playmakers in key places to pull off any upsets in return. The reality is that Georgia stands a real chance of not being bowl-eligible at the end of the year. While that would be a surprise, so would repeating as division champions, which is a goal probably outside this team's reach.


Team: Kentucky Wildcats

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Same

Overview: Head coach Rich Brooks was allowed to return in 2006, and he brings back the optimism he has been preaching for three years now. Brooks is convinced he can build a winner in Lexington, but the numbers say differently. Unlike Alabama, Kentucky has not rebounded from NCAA probation. Rather, the Wildcats have been mired in mediocrity for the three years Brooks has coached the boys in blue. This year, he must add the tasks of replacing a recently-graduated veteran wide receiver corps, some important running backs, the anchor of his offensive line and the two best players in the secondary.

Strongest point: QB Andre Woodson, who really deserves better than this.

Weakest link: Probably the offensive line, which isn't the most talented group in the world.

Rough estimate of wins: Kentucky at least got this portion of the program right – after opening up with its annual loss to Louisville, Kentucky gets Div-IAA Texas State, Central Michigan and Louisiana-Monroe, which should net them three wins. Add in an expected victory over Vanderbilt, and voila, Kentucky gets to four wins. Unfortunately, that may be as far as it goes. The only other winnable games come against Ole Miss (home) and Mississippi State (away).

Outlook: Everyone thought Kentucky would be in the market for a new coach this year, but it seems the Wildcats simply prolonged the inevitable. There's very little way Brooks can save his job with a 4-8 record, which appears to be Kentucky's upper limit. On the good side, Kentucky is enjoying its best recruiting season in years, topped by the nation's No. 1-ranked defensive tackle prospect, Micah Johnson. The real question is whether Brooks will make it to see that talent actually take the field. He'll need a Herculean effort from his scattershot offensive line, and that's one place he won't be able to dip into the recruit pool – Kentucky has only one OL commitment so far. Look for a coaching change going into 2007.


Team: South Carolina Gamecocks

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Same

Overview: Steve Spurrier solidified his genius label last season, taking a moribund group, completely changing everything they did on the field, and notching a 7-5 record and a bowl trip in the process. Things would only seem to be looking up, but alas, things aren't all rosy in Columbia. The defense needs significant reshuffling after graduation took its toll, and the offensive line is going to be a mess early in the year. The best news for Gamecock fans is that Spurrier has things moving in the right direction. The biggest key right now is sheer patience.

Strongest point: The secondary, led by safety Ko Simpson, figures to be among college football's best in 2006.

Weakest link: The offensive line, particularly the tackles. QB Blake Mitchell better become the master of the three-step drop.

Rough estimate of wins: Somewhere between six and eight, with nine as a possibility only if Spurrier grows a second brain.

Outlook: The biggest question is obviously the offensive line, which has to account for the losses of tackles Jabari Levey and Na'Shan Goddard. Several others who logged significant playing time, such as Freddy St. Preux, won't be back, either. Then there is the question of QB Blake Mitchell – just how good is he, and will Spurrier have a quick hook now that he as other options available? When the question was solely between Mitchell and Antonio Heffner, the answer was easy. Now, Spurrier has redshirt freshmen Cade Thompson and Tommy Beecher, as well as signee Chris Smelley in the mix. The running game is still a sore spot, and perhaps the biggest challenge will be to fix the front seven on defense. It wasn't good to begin with, and now Orus Lambert, Ricardo Hurley, Lance Laury and others have completed their eligibility. Spurrier is developing a winner in Columbia, but it might take a year or two for the Gamecocks to come up to full speed. Next season looks like another learning year for the Gamecocks.


Team: Tennessee Volunteers

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Better

Overview: The 5-6 campaign put up in 2005 was without a doubt one of the most disappointing in the history of Tennessee football, given the talent the Volunteers had at their disposal. At first blush, the 2006 team would appear to be in an even greater fix, what with as many as eight defensive starters moving on. Tennessee must also replace its most consistent wide receiver, C.J. Fayton, as well as two starting offensive linemen, RB Gerald Riggs Jr. and QB Rick Clausen. While the amount of turnover might seem staggering at first, it may be for the best, as the Vols need a thorough cleansing in order to be competitive again.

Strongest point: The secondary was good even without Jason Allen last year, and is the most experienced part of this team.

Weakest link: The linebacker corps, which will have to be totally rebuilt from the ground up.

Rough estimate of wins: Tennessee didn't do itself any favors with its out-of-conference schedule, which features California, Air Force, Marshall and Memphis. Only Memphis, however, is on the road, and even in that case the crowd will be split no worse than 50-50. Tennessee's conference schedule is favorable. Alabama, LSU and Florida all come to Knoxville. Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina are on the road. Eight wins would seem to be a fairly decent prediction.

Outlook: The key element is what will be going on on the sidelines. David Cutcliffe has returned as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, and that will only help Erik Ainge and Jonathan Crompton. Tennessee is also still in the mix for Mitch Mustain's signature. Once that question is answered, it should be a fairly simple process to fix the offense, assuming Tennessee can find three new starters on the offensive line. Depth is good there, however, so there likely won't be a major problem improving upon last year's dire numbers. Defense is another story, however. The starting defensive line will be good, but depth will be at a premium. The secondary isn't the greatest in the world, but the players have played together as a unit for two years now and are developing some chemistry. The problem spot is linebacker, where no starters return and no great players are currently available. Tennessee will go as far as this defense will take it, and defensive coordinator John Chavis will have his hands full. Another bowl-less season is not unthinkable.


Team: Vanderbilt Commodores

Better, worse or the same in 2006: Worse

Overview: Vanderbilt rode the arm of QB Jay Cutler to a 5-6 record in 2005, but with Cutler now in the NFL, times figure to be rough in Nashville. In addition to replacing Cutler, Vandy must retool the offensive line, replace MLB Moses Osemwegie, and find new starters to replace key parts of the defensive line and secondary. The good news is the Commodores have a nice collection of skill players and have added more in recruiting. The bad news is that this is a team lacking in size, and that problem has not been addressed in recruiting.

Strongest point: While short on numbers, the wide receiver corps features playmaker Earl Bennett and a good supporting cast.

Weakest link: The defensive line, which is thin, small and not particularly productive against SEC opponents.

Rough estimate of wins: Vanderbilt has a weak out-of-conference schedule with the notable exception of Michigan, who recently replaced MTSU as the Commodores' season opener.  Michigan is by farVanderbilt's toughest non-conference game. The other three are against Div-IAA Tennessee State, Duke and Kent State. Vanderbilt should win the latter three – and lose every SEC game it plays along with the season opener.

Outlook: Jay Cutler was a big guy, strong and could make plays downfield with his arm. The likely new quarterback is Chris Nickson, who is primarily a runner. Between the athleticism of Nickson and his receivers, Vandy will be good for a handful of big plays each game. An often overlooked strength for Vandy is its running game, with Jeff Jennings and Cassen Jackson-Garrison a nice one-two punch. The only trouble is, the Commodore defense probably won't be able to stop opposing offenses, particularly those that can pound the ball on the ground. Vanderbilt is slowly getting better, and head coach Bobby Johnson has improved the Commodores' recruiting. The 2006 season, though, just won't be his year. It looks like a 4-8 season for the black and gold.

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