SEC Reigns Supreme in 2007

Looking back on the 2007 SEC football season, it becomes more and more evident that this season wasn't all that different from others over the past decade.

All of which means, of course, the SEC once again emerged as the nation's best football conference.

The Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-10 will attempt to make their own cases, but it's hard to argue with all of this:

--LSU became the first team in the BCS era to win the national championship with two losses. The Tigers did their part, but being part of the SEC elevated their profile and put them in position to win the title, just as it did for Florida in 2006.

--Obviously, it helps to produce the national championship for the second straight year, making the SEC the first conference to win back-to-back BCS national titles and the only conference to produce four national champions in 10 years of the BCS era.

--The SEC is now 11-4 all-time in BCS bowl games, with a 4-0 record in BCS bowls the past two seasons.

-- The SEC won seven bowl games this season, an all-time high for any conference. The SEC set the previous high with six bowl wins in 2006.

--The SEC's 7-2 bowl record this season is the best among the automatic qualifying BCS conferences.

--Five of those bowl victories came against teams from the BCS automatic qualifying conferences.

--SEC teams posted a 47-10 record against non-conference foes in 2007. The SEC's winning percentage of .825 percent is the highest percentage of all Division I-A conferences. With 47 non-conference wins, the SEC tied its all-time record, set in 2007.

--The final polls included five SEC teams. The final AP poll included No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Georgia, No. 12 Tennessee, No. 13 Florida and No. 15 Auburn. The only other conference with five teams was the Big 12.

While it's always fun to look back, it's also fun to look ahead to the possibilities of what could be in 2008.

Of the five SEC teams that finished in the top 25, LSU is the only one likely to experience a drop-off; and even then it appears the Tigers won't slip very far or stay there very long. It's hard to imagine ANY program replacing what LSU lost from its championship team – not just in terms of talent, but in experience and maturity – so it could take the Tigers a few games or even a season for everything to come back together.

So much will depend on how ready Ryan Perrilloux is to become the full-time starting quarterback and lead this team.

The most likely possibility for a third straight SEC national champion is Georgia.

The Bulldogs return a strong nucleus of players from a team that finished strong in 2007, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno.

"Realistically, we are going to be looked upon as a national championship-caliber team and we are not going to be afraid to say it," Stafford said. "Starting off the year, we have got a lot of makings to be pretty good."

Yes, but can the Bulldogs handle that status? Only six seniors started for Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, but those six players – Sugar Bowl MVP Marcus Howard, running back Thomas Brown, center Fernando Velasco, offensive tackle Chester Adams, receiver Sean Bailey, and safety Kelin Johnson – all played valuable roles and could be tough to replace.

One major key will be a young offensive line that gained valuable experience last season and must continue to grow and improve. Another key will be Mark Richt's continued growth as a head coach. By turning the play calling over to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo last year and taking a more active role behind the scenes and on the sidelines, Richt has become more of a hands-on leader for his team and it showed in the second half last season.

"We're going to return a very good football team," Richt said. "But in the Southeastern Conference, it doesn't matter how good you are; there's going to be at least seven, eight teams just as good as you are. And to think you can predict being in contention at the end is pretty brash. I'm not going to do that.

"But I do think we're going to have a more veteran team than we've had in a while, and I think we'll have some good depth, and I think we'll have a chance to make a run at it."

Florida will also be better after fielding the SEC's youngest team in 2007 and still finishing 9-4 overall. Quarterback Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy in his first season as a starter and still has plenty of room to grow as a passer. But the real key may be how much the Gators are willing to learn from their shortcomings and setbacks. As Florida proved in 2006 and LSU showed in '06, talent is never enough.

"We've got a lot of growing up to do," linebacker Brandon Spikes told the Gainesville Sun after the Gators lost 41-35 to Michigan in the CapitalOne Bowl. "I thought we had something going in the last four games of the season. This opened our eyes that we didn't. It let us know we have a lot of work to do in the offseason."

Tennessee has a lot to be excited about in 2008, including the return of 15 starters, all five offensive linemen, their best receivers and the core of a defense that showed considerable improvement in the second half of the season. What the Vols need to do now is find a quarterback to replace Erik Ainge and pull together offensively with four new offensive assistants. Otherwise, they could be in trouble when they must play Florida, Auburn and Georgia in the first six weeks of the season.

The closest thing to a favorite in the SEC West is Auburn. The Tigers return a strong nucleus of experienced players and improved depth that emerged from a multitude of defensive injuries last season. The three true freshmen who started on the offensive line last season should benefit from the combination of the first season and the first spring.

Auburn fans are excited about the change in offensive philosophy and the initial signs they saw from it in the Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Clemson – and they should be – but the Tigers still have a lot to learn and must find and develop the right quarterback, whether it's true freshman Kodi Burns, JUCO transfer Chris Todd, or someone else.

The Tigers must also replace defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, the second Auburn OC to leave for the same job at Texas in the past four years. Hiring Pitt DC Paul Rhoads looks like a smart move on paper and Auburn won't make any significant changes in defensive philosophy, but you never know how long it will take for everyone to get on the same page.

As for the rest of the conference …

South Carolina could be better, but must improve its quarterback play and its defense.

Kentucky is a much better overall program than the one Rich Brooks inherited, but the Wildcats have some outstanding offensive weapons to replace. Alabama has a lot to prove on offense, especially with its third offensive coordinator in three seasons.

If Mississippi State continues to build on the identity it created last season, the Bulldogs will continue to give the rest of the SEC fits.

New Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino must figure out a way to run a pro-style offense without the pro-style skill players.

New Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt brings a lot of enthusiasm to his new job, but he won't be able to bring in enough players in one recruiting class to turn things around in one season.

And then there's a Vanderbilt program that has been on the cusp of breaking through and becoming bowl-eligible the past three seasons. There's no reason to think the Commodores will get any further this season, especially without receiver Earl Bennett.

SEC fans know football is a year-round sport broken down into four seasons: the regular season, recruiting, spring practice and the summer program. Add January to that list. Not only is the winter conditioning program becoming more and more important to a team's growth and progress, but the decisions of underclassmen can be crucial to a team's immediate future.

Every year there are winners and losers as players make their decisions to stay for their senior seasons or pass up their remaining eligibility and enter the NFL Draft.

The biggest winners appear to be:

--LSU: The Tigers knew they were losing an abundance of quality seniors, but they couldn't be sure about defensive end Tyson Jackson and linebacker Darry Beckwith. Their decisions to return give the Tigers a good place to start as they rebuild their defense. Now LSU must hope the NCAA grants defensive end Kirston Pittman an additional year of eligibility.

--Alabama: Junior offensive lineman Antoine Caldwell decided to stay for one more season, giving the Tide another foundation block to go with left tackle Andre Smith. Caldwell's best position is center, but he's played four different spots and started at three.

--Ole Miss: Junior left tackle Michael Oher announced his decision to enter the draft and then changed his mind at the last minute, giving the Rebels a much-needed anchor on their offensive line.

Somewhere in the middle:

--Tennessee: The Vols lost linebacker Jerod Mayo, which hurts, but tailback Arian Foster decided to return and safety Demetrice Morley has been reinstated to play for the Vols one year after he was dismissed because of academic problems.

The biggest losers appear to be:

--Arkansas: No team can afford to lose two tailbacks the quality of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, let alone both at the same time. That's especially true for a team that returns so many question marks on offense. Getting transfer quarterback Ryan Mallett from Michigan is a positive, but he's got to sit out a year.

--Vanderbilt: One thing that is keeping Vandy from getting over the hump is the lack of big-time offensive playmakers. The Commodores lost the SEC's all-time leading receiver when Bennett entered the draft. Good luck replacing him.

--Florida: The Gators return 25 of the 29 listed on the defensive depth chart for the CapitalOne Bowl; but so many of those players are unproven and inconsistent, exacerbating the loss of defensive end Derrick Harvey.

--Auburn: The general thinking among NFL scouts is that defensive tackle Pat Sims left too soon and needed another year. Sims might prove them wrong at some point, but in the meantime the Tigers must replace two starting tackles that played so well down the stretch last season.


Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sportswriter, author and Tiger Rag's SEC expert. Reach him at

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