***FLORIDA (13-1 overall, 7-1 in conference and national champs in 2006)
*Returning Starters: Eight with six on offense and two on defense.
*Summary: It didn't take long for the hire of Urban Meyer to pay dividends. A mid-season 10-point loss at Auburn was the only stumbling block for the Gators, who rolled off seven straight wins to end the year. This included a 41-14 shellacking of Ohio State in the BCS National Championship game. It'll be hard to repeat in the rough and tough SEC and having to replace nine starters on defense.
Quarterback Chris Leak is finally gone and that leaves sophomore stud Tim Tebow in control of the offense. As a freshman last season, Tebow was most dangerous as a runner, gaining 469 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. The 6-3, 234-pound signal caller didn't throw the ball a lot but did complete 22-of-33 passes for 358 yards and five touchdowns. Helping Tebow's transition in the passing game will be Percy Harvin and Andre Caldwell. Harvin is one of the nation's most dangerous threats with the ball and gets touches via handoff, screen or deep pass in Meyer's offense. Caldwell is the leading returning receiver after catching 57 balls in 2006 for five scores. Four starters return on the offense line and that should help in protection for Tebow and to make holes for whoever will be running the football. Mon Williams is out for the season after blowing out his knee in the spring. Kestahn Moore returns after totaling just under 300 yards last year.
The defense was stellar last season, ranking 6th in total and scoring defense. But nine new starters have to be found on the talent-rich Florida roster. End Derrick Harvey is the only returning starter in the front seven. Harvey was a monster in 2006 with 11 sacks. At linebacker, three new starters must be found. Dustin Doe is tops in this group with 22 stops last year. In the secondary, S Tony Joiner will be the point man. Joiner registered 59 tackles last season and intercepted two passes. Florida has talented players on defense but 2007 could be a growing experience for some.
*Impact Players: QB Tebow (13 total TD's), WR Harvin (427 receiving yards, 428 rushing yards, 5 TD's) and E Derrick Harvey (11 sacks).
*Key Games: September 15th vs. Tennessee, October 6th at LSU, October 27th vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville) and November 24th vs. Florida State.
***GEORGIA (9-4 overall, 4-4 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 11 with seven on offense and four on defense.
*Summary: Mark Richt has built a consistent winner at Georgia, amassing a 61-17 record in six years in Athens. Last year, despite puzzling losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the Bulldogs won nine games, including a 31-24 victory over Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Georgia has road games at Tennessee and at Georgia Tech and must play Florida in Jacksonville.
The offense all starts with QB Matthew Stafford. As a freshmen, Stafford was up-and-down, tossing seven touchdowns to 13 INT's. But the signal caller should improve greatly in his sophomore season. The offense better improve, as it ranked 90th last season. RB Kregg Lumpkin can take some of the pressure off of Stafford. Lumpkin ran for 798 yards and six touchdowns as a junior and is a big back at 6-1, 222-pounds. WR Sean Bailey missed all of 2006 with an injury and should be a top target in the passing game. The offensive line must replace three starters.
Defensively, the Bulldogs were 8th in total defense and 20th in scoring defense. Only four starters, though, return to the unit. Up front, two new defensive ends need to be found. Tackles Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins and Kade Watson make DT a strength of the front seven. The linebacker core will be green on experience as three new starters will be installed into the lineup. In the secondary, CB Paul Oliver was supposed to be the stud of the group after totaling 57 tackles and 3 INT's in 2006. But Oliver was ruled academically ineligible and is out for the season. S Kelin Johnson is the team's leading returning tackler with 60 stops, including 5.5 for losses.
Brandon Coutu was 10-of-11 in kicks last season, including a perfect 8-for-8 from 49 yards and in.
*Impact Players: QB Stafford (1,749 yards, 7 TD's), RB Lumpkin (798 yards, 6 TD's) and S Johnson (60 tackles, 2 INT's).
*Key Games: September 8th vs. South Carolina, September 22nd at Alabama, October 6th at Tennessee and October 27th vs. Florida (in Jacksonville).
***KENTUCKY (8-5 overall, 4-4 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 15 with seven on offense and eight on defense.
*Summary: Kentucky was one of the surprises of the 2006 season. The Wildcats won eight games, including victories over Georgia and Clemson in the Music City Bowl. This season, LSU and Florida come to Lexington while Kentucky has road dates at Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia.
The Wildcats were 9th last season in passing offense, including 1st in the SEC. Andre' Woodson returns after having a spectacular junior season. Woodson tossed 31 touchdowns to only seven interceptions and completed 63 percent of his passes. The senior's main target, WR Keenan Burton, is also back after catching 77 passes for 1,036 yards and 12 touchdowns. Dicky Lyons returns as the second WR and caught 50 balls and nine TD's last season. TE Jacob Tamme nabbed 32 passes last year and gives Wooden three legitimate weapons in the passing game. RB Rafael Little ran for 673 yards and three TD's but it's in the air where the offense does the damage. The offensive line must replace three starters to give Wooden time to find open receivers. Last year, the line was 106th in sacks allowed.
The defense was downright bad in 2006. Kentucky was 118 out of 119 teams in Division I in total defense. The Wildcats allowed 453 yards a contest and 28 points a game. Without the prolific passing offense, Kentucky would not have been over .500. DT Myron Pryor and DE Jeremy Jarmon combined for nine sacks. LB's Wesley Woodyard and Braxton Kelley were 1-2 in tackles in 2006. In the secondary, S Marcus McClinton picked off four passes last year and registered 65 tackles. CB Trevor Lindley racked up 52 tackles and 2 INT's last season.
The Wildcats were 1st in 2006 in punt returns and 10th in kickoff returns. Rafael Little averaged 22 yards per punt return and scored a touchdown.
*Impact Players: QB Woodson (3,515 yards, 31 TD's), WR Burton (1,036 yards, 12 TD's) and LB Woodyard (122 tackles, 9.5 TFL).
*Key Games: September 15th vs. Louisville, September 22nd at Arkansas, October 13th vs. LSU, October 20th vs. Florida and November 24th vs. Tennessee.
***SOUTH CAROLINA (8-5 overall, 3-5 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 16 with seven on offense and nine on defense.
*Summary: In two years as head coach, Steve Spurrier has gone 15-10 in Columbia. Last season, the Gamecocks won eight games but lost several close contests. The biggest disappointment was a 17-16 defeat at Florida where a last-second FG was blocked. This year, road dates await at LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas.
South Carolina was 20th in total offense last season, totaling nearly 400 yards a game. QB Blake Mitchell is back after tossing 10 TD's to six INT's while completing 66 percent of his passes. Now is the time for the signal caller to increase the passing touchdown number and take the offense to new heights. WR Kenny McKinley caught 51 balls for 880 yards and five TD's in 2006 and is Mitchell's No. 1 target. RB Corey Boyd ran for 823 yards and eight TD's and caught 35 balls for 402 yards. The offensive line returns both tackles but has to replace the interior three.
The defense was 63rd overall last season but 29th in scoring defense. As a freshman, Eric Norwood totaled seven sacks and as a group the team was 29th nationally in the category. LB Jasper Brinkley returns after leading the Gamecocks in tackles in 2006 with 107, including 14.5 for losses. LB Marvin Sapp broke his ankle in the spring. If the junior is back, along with his 51 tackles from a year ago, the linebacker core will be a talented bunch. CB Stoney Woodson is back after leading South Carolina with three INT's in 2006. The unit was 43rd in pass defense last season.
Ryan Succop was 16-of-20 in field goals last season and is poised for a big junior season.
*Impact Players: QB Mitchell (1,789 yards, 10 TD's), RB Boyd (823 rush yards, 406 pass yards, 8 TD's) and LB J. Brinkley (107 tackles, 14.5 TFL).
*Key Games: September 8th at Georgia, September 22nd at LSU, October 27th at Tennessee, November 10th vs. Florida and November 24th vs. Clemson.
***TENNESSEE (9-4 overall, 5-3 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 12 with seven on offense and five on defense.
*Summary: Tennessee rebounded from a poor 2005 season to win nine games last year under head coach Phil Fulmer. The Volunteers did lose in the Outback Bowl 20-10 to Penn State. This season, Tennessee opens up on the road at California and also plays at Florida and Alabama.
Under offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, QB Erik Ainge had a breakout junior season. Ainge tossed for over 2,900 yards and 19 touchdowns and completed 67 percent of his passes. The signal caller won't have his top targets back from last year. TE Chris Brown (31-239-TD) and WR's Lucas Taylor and Austin Rogers will have to pick up the slack. Although ranking 12th in the passing offense in 2006, the Vols might have to rely on the running game. LaMarcus Coker and Montario Hardesty combined for over 1,000 yards and nine TD's last year while Arian Foster returns after battling injuries last year. The offense must replace the left side of the line.
The defense ranked 50th in total defense and 33rd in scoring defense in 2006. The linebackers are the strength of the front seven. LB Jerod Mayo totaled 83 tackles last season, including 12.5 for losses, and leads the returners with five sacks. LB Ryan Karl registered 66 stops last year. In the secondary, Jonathan Hefney was always around the action, amassing 96 tackles in 2006 and five INT's. But other than Hefney, three new starter have to be found.
*Impact Players: QB Ainge (2,989 yards, 19 TD's), LB Mayo (83 tackles, 12.5 TFL) and S Hefney (96 tackles, 5 INT's).
*Key Games: September 1st at California, September 15th at Florida, October 6th vs. Georgia, October 29th at Alabama and November 17th at Vanderbilt.
***VANDERBILT (4-8 overall, 1-7 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 15 with eight on offense and seven on defense.
*Summary: Vanderbilt won three of their four non-conference contests last season but could only muster one conference victory. However, that win was against Georgia, who won nine games in 2006. Non-conference games against Richmond, Eastern Michigan, Miami (OH) and Wake Forest are coupled with another brutal SEC slate.
The Commodores had a middle-of-the-road offense but a few playmakers highlight this side of the ball. WR Earl Bennett caught 82 passes for 1,146 yards and six TD's in 2006. Throwing the ball to Bennett is Chris Nickson, a dual threat quarterback. Nickson threw for over 2,000 yards and ran for another 694. Nickson must be better than 13 TD's and 15 INT's, which is what his ratio was last season. RB Cassen Jackson-Garrison added another 600 yards last year and returns to the lineup, along with Jeff Jennings, who is back after a knee injury sidelined him last season. Four starters return on the offensive line to provide needed experience. Vanderbilt was 35th in sacks allowed in 2006 and should improve on this number.
The major problem for Vandy last season was rush defense. The Commodores ranked 91st against the run, surrendering 156 yards per game on the ground. But eight starters are back in Nashville. Up front, DE Curtis Gatewood had seven sacks last year and should anchor the line. LB Jonathan Goff is a force in the front seven after registering 93 tackles in 2006. In the secondary, there's a lot of players with experience but two new starting CB's must be found.
Special teams was anything but special in last season. Vanderbilt was 102nd in kickoff returns and 114th in punt returns.
*Impact Players: QB Nickson (2,085 passing yards, 694 rushing yards, 24 total TD's), WR Bennett (82 receptions, 1,146 yards, 6 TD's) and LB Goff (93 tackles).
*Key Games: September 8th vs. Alabama, October 6th at Auburn, October 20th at South Carolina and November 17th at Tennessee.