MOST LIKELY TO SPRING SOME UPSETS: Alabama is going to be very good on defense and if the offense comes around, the Crimson Tide could be a contender in the SEC West. Because of lingering depth problems due to the after effects of NCAA sanctions, the Tide will be underdogs against Florida, Tennessee and LSU, games that will be played in the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Should Brodie Croyle stay healthy and there are no significant injuries, figure the Tide will have a real shot at knocking off one of those three teams at home. Alabama returns nine starters on a defense that ranked first in the SEC and second nationally last year.
MOST LIKELY TO MELT DOWN: Georgia could be very good because there are a lot of talented football players, but the Bulldogs are also the team most likely to experience a melt down either on offense or defense or both. What makes Georgia's situation on defense so precarious is a sideline minus Brian Van Gorder, who molded the Bulldogs into the SEC's best unit over the last four years combined. Van Gorder's defenses were always fundamentally sound with great defensive line play and linebackers who could make up for a lot of mistakes with their speed and physical play. He's gone and secondary Coach Willie Martinez has taken over. Not only is Martinez taking over for Van Gorder, he has to replace three of the SEC's five best defensive players the last two years in David Pollack, Odell Thurman and Thomas Davis. On offense, there's no more David Greene. It wasn't so much what Greene did as much as what he kept the Bulldogs from doing. His presence was always felt more with the head games than what he did with his arm. DJ Shockley has a great arm and he's far more mobile than Greene ever thought about being. Can he think on his feet like Greene? Can he recognize defenses and check off in a blink of an eye to the right play? If he can't there could be a meltdown on offense, too. Georgia has 10-2 talent but it could melt down to 6-5 or 7-4 season if things don't go right early.
MOST LIKELY TO KEEP DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS UP AT NIGHT: Give that honor to Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators. This spread option offense has a chance to take the SEC by storm the way that Stevie Wonder's throw it long, throw it deep, throw it often offense shredded the league in 1990. While a lot of so called experts are ridiculing this as a "gimmick" offense, you can bet the ranch that John Chavis, Bo Pelini and the other defensive coordinators in the SEC are already spending countless hours figuring out how they can have the right personnel on the field often enough to stifle this offense that is the product of a very sick mind because it's part Knute Rockne and the Notre Dame double wing, part Woody Hayes three yards and a cloud of dust, part Tom Osborne option and part Steve Spurrier Fun N Gun. Throw in the fact that Florida will put four receivers on the field at the same time who all merit double coverage and you have a dilemma. Other than Alabama, which may have the best secondary in the nation, there isn't a team capable of covering the Florida receivers one on one. Double the receivers and the running game becomes the staple. This is a nightmare of an offense and you can bet the defensive coordinators in the league cancelled their vacations to study ways to stop it.
COACH MOST LIKELY TO SEEK EMPLOYMENT IN 2006: That would be Rich Brooks at Kentucky. Kentucky absolutely blew it when it wouldn't give Guy Morris the kind of financial support the football program needed to be competitive in the SEC. When your coach finds the pastures at Baylor greener than the Kentucky bluegrass, it's an indictment of just how much the Wildcats value great basketball over a decent football program. Blowing it with Morris, who had Kentucky respectable despite NCAA sanctions, was bad enough. Replacing him with Rich Brooks was disastrous. Brooks' style worked well on the west coast when Oregon gave him a bazillion years to get that program in shape. He doesn't have a bazillion years at Kentucky and his personality is the equivalent of a couple of blocked punts. The out of conference schedule has two wins (Idaho State and Indiana) and then there is always Vanderbilt (every conference needs a Vanderbilt), but after that, there isn't a single game that the Wildcats will have much of a chance. Figure sayonara Richie at season's end.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO SURPRISE YOU: He isn't Cadillac Williams and he isn't Ronnie Brown, but don't think that Tre Smith isn't capable of putting up some numbers at Auburn. Smith gained more than 400 yards as a true freshman in 2002 including a memorable 126 yard game against Alabama when Williams and Brown were both injured. He battled shoulder problems the last two years (redshirted last year). He is healthy, a ripped 204 pounds and running an electronically timed 4.42 40 these days. He gets to run behind an offensive line that includes Marcus McNeill (6-9, 339), who could end up one of the first three picks in the NFL draft in 2006. And in case you have forgotten, this is the same Tre Smith who was Mr. Football in Class 5A in 2000 when he scored nearly 40 touchdowns and gained nearly 3000 yards to lead Venice to an unbeaten state title season.
PLAYER WITH THE MOST PRESSURE: Chris Leak gets that distinction by a wide margin. He's a pure drop back passer who came to Florida to play in an offense that was just a sophisticated step up from the offense he ran four years in high school. Now he's being asked to run the spread option where he will have to make more decisions as well as make plays with his legs. Leak showed in the spring that he could adapt to the offense in practice, but it's quite a difference running the Urban Meyer offense on a practice field than it is with 90,000 people screaming at you in a hostile environment. If Leak handles the pressure of the position, Florida could be good enough to win the SEC.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Jason Allen of Tennessee gets this title only because he's going to move from safety, where he was dynamite, to corner where he has no experience and where he will have to cover people one on one. At safety where he didn't have many one on one responsibilities, he could roam the field and make plays. At corner, he will find out quickly that there are some wide receivers in the SEC who can flat out fly. He's capable of getting physical at the line of scrimmage but he doesn't have the speed to stay with a Chad Jackson or a Devin Aromashadu (Auburn).
BEST OFFENSIVE LINE: How good is the LSU line? Consider this. In 2004, LSU rushed for 2326 yards and threw for 2421, almost perfect balance. They can hammer people running the ball and they're quick enough to pass block. All five starters return and they're all big, strong and nasty. Andrew Whitworth (6-7, 325) gets all the pub and he's very good, but the best player on that line is guard Will Arnold (6-4, 320), a sophomore mauler who just beats people up. Center Rudy Niswanger started the last half of the season in 2004, showing he could make all the line calls. On the right side Nate Livings is a two year starter and Brian Johnson has potential but he is the one player prone to inconsistency. Terrell McGill can back up at either guard, but if there is an injury at tackle or at center, the Tigers could be in trouble.
BEST RECEIVERS: Florida's Fab Four of Bubba Caldwell, Chad Jackson, Jemalle Cornelius and Dallas Baker is not just the best in the SEC, it's no worse than the second or third best crew in the entire country. All of the Fab Four are capable of getting open against any secondary in the league and they're all legitimate deep threats. Throw in Gavin Dickey to that mix as a slash guy who will throw, run the option, do some running back duty and catch passes and you've added a migraine to the nightmare. Tate Casey is Florida's only tight end, but he's now a Jeremy Shockey-ish 6-6, 244 and ready to be a killer in the slot. Then there are the freshmen --- 6-6 David Nelson who is a mismatch waiting to happen, and Nyan Boateng and Louis Murphy, both 6-3 and both with deep threat speed. This might be the most talented receiving corps the Gators have ever put on the field and that includes 1996.
BEST OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD: Florida gets the edge here because quarterback Chris Leak will be a third year starter. Leak can make all the throws and he's got the best receivers in the league to throw to. If Deshawn Wynn steps it up at tailback, the Gators could be truly fearsome. Wynn has the size to go with power and speed that if he is motivated to turn on the talent, it could be scary. Skyler Thornton gives Florida a dependable receiver out of the backfield and redshirt freshman Markus Manson is like Ciatrick Fason, a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Florida has athletic backups at quarterback in Dickey and freshman Josh Portis.
BEST DEFENSIVE LINE: Tennessee has the deepest and most talented defensive line in the conference and it all centers around the play of Jesse Mahelona who disrupts on every play even though he's always double teamed. Justin Harrell, at the other tackle, makes a lot of plays because of all the attention given Mahelona. Parys Haralson is the best pass rusher among the ends and Jason Hall is steady against the run. Freshman Delmonte Bolden has the size and quickness to play a significant role. The Vols allowed only 120 yards per game rushing last year.
BEST LINEBACKERS: The best linebacking crew in the SEC and in the entire southeast --- yes that includes the School Out West --- belongs to Alabama. Freddie Roach and Demeco Ryans are the kind of hitters who knock people into next week plus they are outstanding in pass coverage. Juwan Simpson has the kind of speed that will make him a terror on the blitz. These three guys are a big reason Alabama led the SEC in total defense last year. Roach has NFL first round ability and Ryans isn't far behind. Like the secondary, this is one of the few positions at Alabama where there is quality depth.
BEST SECONDARY: That's Alabama where all four starters return from a group that finished second in the NCAA in pass efficiency defense. Corners Ramzee Robinson and Anthony Madison are both capable of making All-SEC and the safeties are both capable of covering like corners. Strong safety Charlie Peprah is one of the best in the nation and free safety Roman Harper is a fearsome hitter. The backups are nearly as talented as the starters. Corner Eric Gray would start for any team in the SEC except Alabama. The secondary is so good in coverage that defensive coordinator Joe Kines doesn't have a problem sending his entire front seven on any play.
BEST PUNTER: Florida's Eric Wilbur has a 44-yard average for two seasons and he is poised to have a much better season this year after working with his kicking coach to simplify his drop. That one little correction could add as much as 3-4 yards and another couple tenths of a second to his hang time. Wilbur is an inconsistent practice punter but he's shown in big games that he can really deliver.
BEST PLACEKICKER: John Vaughn of Auburn only missed one extra point in 52 tries last season and he hit on 12 of 15 field goal attempts. Inside 42 yards Vaughn is almost automatic.
BEST COACH: For the moment, that honor would have to go to Tommy Tuberville of Auburn. He won all thirteen games last season and though it's unlikely he'll run the table again, pencil in nine or ten wins on his dance card. Tuberville gets kudos for the way he handled the botched palace coup after the 2003 season when boosters and the Auburn president tried to can him and replace him with Bobby Petrino in what was supposed to be a clandestine weekend. The boosters have been banished and the president is history. Tuberville? He got a seven year, $18.5 million contract after last season's 13-0 record.
SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: The guess here is the winner of the September 17 Tennessee-Florida game in Gainesville will face off against the winner of the Auburn at LSU game October 22.