An Early Look at the SEC Football Race

Phillip Marshall makes early predictions on the 2004 Tigers and the Southeastern Conference football race.

The debate will soon begin to heat up. Another Southeastern Conference football season is less than three months away, and in the dog days of summer everybody can win a championship.

Players at Vanderbilt look toward the coming season with as much enthusiasm as players at LSU. Kentucky players surely believe this will be the year they turn it around. Alabama players, short on numbers, vow to prove the experts wrong. Auburn players are determined to make up for last season's disappointment.

The truth is everybody has question marks, some more than others. Everybody has talent, some more than others.

Six months from now, when we look back at the regular season and ahead to the bowl games, there will be some answers. But for now, there are only questions.

Here are some of them and my own somewhat educated, probably mostly wrong answers.

Q: Who will be favored to win the division and overall championships?

A: That's an easy one. LSU will be picked to win the West and Georgia the East. Georgia will be picked to win the overall championship. As I predicted in this space earlier, I think the Georgia-Florida winner will take the East and the overall championship.

Q: Who will be the surprise team in the SEC?

A: Maybe I expect too much of Sylvester Croom, whom I have admired since his days at Alabama, but look for Mississippi State to be much better and play with much more fire than it did last season. My next choice is Ole Miss. With Eli Manning gone to the New York Giants, not much is expected of the Rebels. But they have more talent and depth than they have had in many years. They have the confidence of a team that won 10 games last season. I think they'll be a factor in the West Division race.

Q: Who will be the biggest disappointment in the SEC?

A: As I wrote here earlier, LSU. It should be remembered that it won't take a total collapse for LSU to be a disappointment. Once you've won a national championship, fans expect another one. It takes a lot of talent and a lot of luck to win the big prize. Had two field goal kickers not had their worst days against LSU last season, the Bayou Bengals would have just been another three-loss team watching the SEC Championship Game on television.

Q: Who will win the national championship?

A: I'd make USC the favorite. The Trojans are loaded, and they don't have a lot of difficult Saturdays in the Pac-10. Georgia, Michigan and Oklahoma could be contenders if the Trojans slip.

Q: Where will Auburn finish in the West?

A: Anywhere from first to third. I think Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss (yes, Ole Miss) will go down the stretch in a close race. Whoever keeps the right players healthy and gets a lucky bounce or two will make it to Atlanta.

Q: What will Alabama do in Mike Shula's second season?

A: Not much, but the schedule is easy enough that the Tide should have a chance to win six games and squeeze into a minor bowl.

Q: Who is the best player in the SEC?

A: If I had to pick one player to start a team, I'd pick Georgia quarterback David Greene. My next choice would be Auburn tailback Carnell Williams. LSU defensive end Marcus Spears would be high on the list, too.

David Greene will be a senior at Georgia this season.

Q: How many games does Tommy Tuberville need to win to return as Auburn's coach?

A: I don't think Tuberville goes into the season on the "hot seat," but if he loses more than three games that could change. I think nine or more regular-season wins erases any question about his Auburn future. A championship would be nice, but his future won't hinge on that.

Q: Are any other coaches in danger of losing their jobs?

A: At this point, no. Vanderbilt and Kentucky devour coaching careers, but Bobby Johnson and Rich Brooks haven't been on their jobs long enough yet to be beaten down.

Q: Who is the SEC's best coach?

A: Right now, you'd have to say LSU's Nick Saban, but that changes from year to year. The truth is every coach in the SEC knows how to win. Everything fell into place for Saban last season. It might happen for somebody else this season.

Q: What are the keys to Auburn having a successful season?

A: Most of the talk is about the offense adjusting to new coordinator Al Borges, but a bigger key is the front seven on defense. There may be more talent on the front than a year ago, but a lot of valuable experience left with DeMarco McNeil, Reggie Torbor and Spencer Johnson. Linebackers like Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas are not easily replaced. On offense, quarterback Jason Campbell is clearly the key. If he has a productive year and the Tigers have some injury luck, they should be very good on offense.

Until next time…

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