Marshall: Analyzing the SEC West and East

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about each of the 12 Southeastern Conference football teams and how they should fare this season.

Southeastern Conference Media Days have come and gone for another year. For SEC teams, it's time to get down to the serious business of preparing for a season.

Hope springs eternal at this time of year. The reality of autumn will come soon enough.

After three days of questions and answers, here is my view of what it would take for each team to win a division championship. We'll start with the West.

LSU

The No. 1 thing the Bayou Bengals must have is some consistency at quarterback. Jimbo Fisher is one of the top teachers of quarterbacks in the college game, so don't be surprised if JeMarcus Russell has improved greatly over last season.

There'll be some difficulty adjusting to a new coach. There always is. But Les Miles won't interfere with Fisher's offense. In fact, Fisher has more freedom now than he did under Nick Saban.

The West could be decided when Auburn goes to Baton Rouge on Oct. 22. LSU figures to be the favorite.

AUBURN

Tommy Tuberville caused something of a stir when he told the assembled media horde that his 2005 team would be the most talented, top to bottom, he has coached. That doesn't mean, however, that four first-round draft choices won't be missed.

The big question, obviously, is what Brandon Cox will get done at quarterback. It also remains to be seen how first-year defensive coordinator David Gibbs fares. Otherwise, there are few questions.

If Cox comes through and the defense plays at the level its talent says it should, the Tigers will be in the hunt until the end.

ALABAMA

It's that quarterback thing again. The burning question is if Brodie Croyle can avoid injury for the first time since his junior year in high school. If he can and if Kenneth Darby comes all the way back from a sports hernia and if new offensive linemen come through, Alabama could be good on offense.

That's a lot of ifs.

The Tide's defense is getting a lot of love. Some are calling the secondary one of the nation's best, but I'll have to be convinced of that.

No one will take the Tide lightly, nor should they. This should be Mike Shula's best team. A championship team? Not impossible but not likely.

ARKANSAS

The Razorbacks must replace one of the SEC's all-time playmakers in Matt Jones. They weren't a championship level program when he was around, missing out on a bowl game last season for the first time in Houston Nutt's seven-year tenure.

Nutt's teams are always tough at home. New defensive coordinator Reggie Herring will bring a hard-nosed mentality.

The Razorbacks were picked fourth in the media poll, and that seems about right.

OLE MISS

If bluster wins games, the Rebels are in good shape. The truth is, however, that no matter how many times first-year head coach Ed Orgeron rips his shirt off, he doesn't have enough talent to play consistently with the big boys.

Coach Ed Orgeron

Orgeron made a couple of amazing statements. He said Ole Miss didn't really need a strong quarterback to win. And he said every player who grew up in Mississippi wants to play for Ole Miss.

Whatever.

The Rebels have no shot at a division championship.

MISSISSIPPI STATE
Sylvester Croom, in his second season, is doing it the right way, but the Bulldogs are a long way from making a run at the top. It remains to be seen if they can ever do it.

What they can do is knock off somebody who is making a run at the top. Auburn should beware when the Bulldogs come to town the second week of the season.

On to the East…

TENNESSEE

The Vols' big hope at the moment is that they can get to practice without anyone else being arrested. Once they do, they have a loaded team.

Erik Ainge showed tons of potential as a freshman starter at quarterback. When he went down, Rick Clausen played better than anyone would have imagined. The Vols have a big-time runner in Gerald Riggs, one of the nation's best offensive linemen in Arron Sears and a bunch of great athletes on defense.

They also have a brutal schedule that includes back-to-back trips to Florida and LSU. How they come out of those games will tell the tale.

FLORIDA

Meet Urban Meyer, the latest coaching phenom. Among Floridians, it is a given that Meyer will win big and win in a hurry at Florida. The 15 losses in three seasons under unfortunate Ron Zook are all but forgotten.

There is no doubt Meyer has ample talent, starting with quarterback Chris Leak and wide receiver Chad Jackson. I think I'll wait before I dub him the next Steve Spurrier, but if the Gators knock off Tennessee, they'll be in the hunt until the end.

GEORGIA

Mark Richt will be without quarterback David Greene for the first time as a head coach. D.J. Shockley finally gets his chance as the starter. Whether he can add consistency to his considerable talent remains to be seen.

UGA quarterback D.J. Shockley is being counted on to lead the Bulldogs this fall.

With Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin at tailback, the Bulldogs might become a run first, throw second team. Just as Auburn will miss its four first-rounders, Georgia will miss Green, defensive end David Pollack, wide receivers Fred Gibson and Reggie Brown and several others.

The road to a championship is treacherous. An Oct. 8 trip to Tennessee could be a turning point one way or the other. If the Bulldogs win there, look out.

SOUTH CAROLINA

The Gamecocks landed a great coach in Spurrier, but most games are won with great players. And South Carolina has precious few of those.

Spurrier may defy history and turn the Gamecocks into big winners, but it won't happen this season.

VANDERBILT

It happens every year. The Vanderbilt coach comes to Birmingham and proclaims things are getting better. Then the season starts and Vanderbilt plays like, well, Vanderbilt. The Commodores haven't had a winning season since 1982. They won't have one this year, either.

KENTUCKY

Kentucky has done the seemingly impossible. It has replaced Vanderbilt as the worst team in the East. Rich Brooks insists things are getting better. They couldn't get much worse.


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