Scouting The SEC

An indepth look, with a prediction included, of the entire Southeastern Conference race this season ...

The SEC is the best college football conference in the NCAA. It may not always be the strongest from top to bottom or even the strongest at the top every year, but in the South, college football is almost a religion. Outside any of the 12 stadiums, you will see tailgating and partying like in no other conference. SEC fans will follow their teams all over the country. I have met Alabama fans who save their vacation days only for Tide road games.

The 2005 SEC football season will see two heated races in the divisions. In the East, three teams are so close in overall talent, that if they played the schedule three times this year, there might be three different winners. In the West, one team appears to be the class of the division, but two other teams have the talent to pull out a big upset and sneak into the top spot.

The official SEC media poll picked Tennessee first, followed closely by Florida. Georgia was the third choice, followed by South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. In the West, LSU was the overwhelming choice for first, followed by Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. Tennessee was picked to win the championship. It goes to note, that this poll has failed to pick the eventual champion nine years in a row!

My ratings basically agree with the official poll. While it shows Tennessee with the highest rating in the East, home field advantages and the schedule gives Georgia the edge for making the conference title game. My initial ratings show LSU to be the class of the league with a good chance to run the table.

Note: Remember, these ratings only reflect how the teams look as of September 1st. I do not recommend the readers drawing too many conclusions on the entire season, as this is just a "snapshot" of late August.

Only Vanderbilt gets the minimum three point's home field advantage. South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State get four points, while Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, LSU, Auburn, and Alabama get the maximum five points.

Eastern Division

1. Tennessee PiRate: 118 HFA: 5

Phil Fulmer's Volunteers return 17 starters from a team that went 10-3. When we last saw them in the Cotton Bowl, they dismantled Texas A&M like the Aggies were a I-AA school.

The Vols have a rough schedule this year, as they must make back-to-back visits to Florida and LSU. They must play at Alabama and at Notre Dame, and they host a Georgia team that has beaten them in Knoxville the last two times. If they go undefeated with this schedule, they may actually pass an undefeated Southern Cal team.

After a supposedly open audition this summer, Erik Ainge has won the starting quarterback job. He is fully recovered from last year's shoulder injury. In his first year, Ainge completed 55.1% of his passes at 13.3 yards per completion. His TD/INT ratio was 17/9. Ainge is not a threat to run, and he could suffer more injuries if he cannot escape a hard rush.

Senior Rick Clausen will see game action. He performed well at the end of the year, hitting nearly 60% of his passes for 11.7 yards per completion. His interception percentage was lower than Ainge's (3.7 to 4.5).

Ainge and Clausen will have a nice group of receivers. There are no Willie Gault's or Joey Kent's on the roster, but Robert Meachem, C.J. Fayton, Chris Hannon, Jayson Swain, and Bret Smith give the Vols lots of depth. Meachem is the prime deep threat; he grabbed 25 passes for 459 yards and four scores last year. Tight end Chris Brown is a better receiver than blocker, and he should catch more than six balls this year.

The SEC's best tailback, Gerald Riggs, Jr. returns after rushing for 1,107 yards (5.7 avg.) and six touchdowns. Replacing 1,000-yard rusher Cedric Houston could eventually be redshirt freshman Arian Foster. He isn't a speedy back, but it will take two defenders to bring him down a majority of the time. Fullback Cory Anderson tips the scales at 275 pounds. He exemplifies the third guard tag. Last year, he caught 17 passes and scored two touchdowns.

The offensive line is one of the best in the nation. Tackle Arron Sears has started games at guard as well. He is a preseason 1st team All-SEC pick. Guard Cody Douglas will play for pay next year. Tackle Albert Toeaina is a goliath 6-6 and 355. He only needs to stand up to be a good pass blocker.

Tennessee scored 29.1 points per game and produced 399 yards per game. Expect those numbers to improve to 35 points and 425+ yards per game. The defense yielded the most points of any Tennessee team since the 5-6 team of 1988. Don't expect this year's edition to give up 22.7 points and 356 yards per game.

With 12 of the top 14 tacklers returning, Tennessee should give up no more than 17 points per game. It all starts with one of the two best lines in the league. Tackle Jesse Mahelona and end Parys Haralson will contend for All-American honors. They teamed up for 12 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Haralson recorded an additional 21 quarterback hurries. Justin Harrell and Jason Hall make this a dominant front four.

Two potential All-SEC players make up an excellent line backing trio. Omar Gaither combines strength, speed, and on-the-field smarts into a solid package. 11 of his 92 total tackles went for loss with two more sacking a quarterback. He broke up 4 passes and intercepted two. If he is fully healthy after multiple injuries, Kevin Simon can control a game from his middle linebacker spot. Jason Mitchell's biggest asset is his lateral quickness.

The secondary was the Vols' weakness last year, as they gave up 236 yards and nearly 61% completions. All four starters return, so there should be a good deal of improvement. Cornerback Jason Allen led UT with 123 tackles. He broke up seven passes, and that number should hit double digits this year.

As usual with Tennessee, they have an excellent pair of kickers. The Colquitt family is to Tennessee what the Fortescue family is to Wimbledon. The latest of the brood is Britton, who averaged better than 45 yards in high school. Place kicker James Wilhoit nailed two field goals from beyond 50 yards.

2. Georgia PiRate: 117 HFA: 5

Coach Mark Richt's Bulldogs have been an impressive 33-6 over the past three seasons with three New Year's Day bowl wins. This year's schedule is favorable for a repeat, as Georgia has only one difficult road game at Tennessee. The Dogs host Auburn and, of course, play Florida at the Gator Bowl.

Georgia is neither explosive on offense nor dominant on defense. They are very good at both and rarely beat themselves. Last year's average scoring margin was 28-17.

The offense has a new leader under center after David Greene departed for the Seattle Seahawks. Senior D. J. Shockley is more of a quarterback Vince Dooley would have used at Georgia. He is not an exceptional passer, but he can roll out on the perimeter and hurt defenses with a run-pass option. In limited action last year, he completed just 43.3% of his passes, but the average was a healthy 17.8 yards per completion.

The Bulldogs have stockpiled above-average running backs. Richt will have three excellent choices to call upon to carry the ball. Thomas Brown and Danny Ware teamed up for 1,567 yards and 12 touchdowns while running for more than five yards per carry. Kregg Lumpkin returns after missing all of 2004 with a knee injury.

The wide out cupboard has been reduced to crumbs. Reggie Brown and Fred Gibson have matriculated to the NFL. Together, they caught 102 passes for 1,661 yards and 13 TDs! Trying to pick up the pieces are Sean Bailey and Bryan McClendon. Neither have much game experience. 1st Team All-SEC tight end Leonard Pope returns to use his 6-07 body as a target. Pope caught 25 passes for an eye-popping 19.3 yards per catch. He can block equally well.

The offensive line is as good if not better than Tennessee's. Pro scouts are looking at four of the five starters. Guard Max Jean-Gilles is not only a preseason 1st team All-America candidate, he is one of the leading nominees for the Outland Trophy. Tackles Daniel Inman and Dennis Roland will rarely let their man get by them to the quarterback. Center Russ Tanner was a Rimington Award finalist last year.

Georgia should average close to 30 points per game and keep their defense off the field by eating up the clock. The Bulldogs keep the clock running and shorten the game by about 10 plays from the norm.

It's not like the defense needs much help, as it has eight starters returning from a unit that gave up 16.5 points and 289 yards per game. The Bulldog secondary returns three starters, but loses leading tackler Thomas Davis. Safety Greg Blue and cornerbacks Demario Minter and Tim Jennings broke up 22 passes, but only Jennings intercepted any (2). Rover Tra Battle has enough game experience to be considered a semi-regular.

The linebacker corps will miss NFL draft pick Odell Thurman, but Tony Taylor, Brandon Miller, and Danny Verdun-Wheeler will form an impressive unit. Depth is a concern here, as there are no experienced players in reserve.

The defensive line loses one of the best Bulldog defenders ever in David Pollack. Tackle Kedric Golston becomes the leader of this unit, but he won't approach Pollack's 12.5 sack total. Nose tackle Gerald Anderson holds his ground in the middle and stops most runs up the middle for little gain. End Quentin Moses will be asked to become the new monster pass rusher. He registered 6.5 sacks last year, but he must improve his run defense skills.

3. Florida PiRate: 115 HFA: 5

Gator fans are calling it their urban renewal plan. Coach Urban Meyer comes to Gainesville fresh off a miraculous season at Utah. Can he repeat his success in the top football conference? Is the sky blue? Florida will quickly become a power once again, possibly as early as this year. Having three top 10 teams on the schedule may mean only eight regular season wins in year one, but the Gators will make life miserable for Tennessee, Georgia, and Auburn this year.

Meyer has plenty to work with on offense. It starts with the league's total offense leader of 2004. Chris Leak threw for 3,197 yards and 29 touchdowns last year, connecting on 59.6% of his passes. Meyer likes his quarterbacks to move and run with the ball, but Leak hasn't shown a proclivity for doing this.

Leak has three of last year's top four receivers returning. Andre Caldwell, Chad Jackson, and Dallas Baker are multi-talented wide outs who can go deep or catch the short ball and run to daylight. Last year, the trio accumulated 1,747 yards on 98 receptions (17.8 per catch). Tight end Tate Casey returns after catching only eight passes, but four went for touchdowns.

Running backs DeShawn Wynn and Skyler Thornton won't confuse Gator fans into thinking Emmett Smith and Errict Rhett have returned to Gainesville, but they will fit into this new offense quite well. Both can come out of the backfield as a fifth receiver, and both have the speed to turn a draw or trap into a long gainer.

The offensive line returns four seniors with starting experience. After that, there is hardly any experience to call on. Tackle Randy Hand is the star of this unit. He'll team with guard Tavares Washington to form one of the strongest blind sides any quarterback could ask for. Center Mike Degory may be the best snapper not playing in the Big 10.

Florida scored 31.8 points per game last year, so there isn't much room for improvement. 32-35 ppg would be a reasonable expectation. Defensively, the Gators yielded 21.1 points per game. It was one thing to give up 30 to Tennessee and 31 to Georgia, but when the Gators gave up 38 to the same Mississippi State team that couldn't score on Maine, it abruptly ended Ron Zook's employment.

Trying to right that ship are seven returning full-time starters plus four others who started at some point in 2004.

The defensive line should be much stronger this season with all four regulars returning. None of these guys will make 1st team All-SEC, but as a team, they should shave 10 or 15 yards off last year's 142 yards rushing allowed per game and pick up more than last year's 23 sacks. Tackle Marcus Thomas is a stronger pass rusher than run defender, while ends Joe Cohen and Jeremy Mincey are better run defenders than pass blockers. Tackle Ray McDonald excels at both, as he recorded seven tackles for loss and three sacks.

Middle linebacker started just half the games last year, yet he led the Gators with 77 tackles, including eight for loss and two sacks. It earned him SEC Freshman of the Year honors. He also broke up three passes. Earl Everett finished second in tackles with 74 and broke up four passes. Experienced senior Todd McCullough will start at the other outside backer position.

The Gators gave up 204 yards passing per game last year; that number should drop below 200 this year, as three starters return including two potential All-SEC players. Cornerback Demetrice Webb and safety Jarvis Herring combined for seven interceptions and 15 passes batted away. Free safety Kyle Jackson stops runners from breaking away once they have gotten past the front seven.

In year one, expect Urban's troops to win eight regular season games and return the excitement to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Steve Who?

4. South Carolina PiRate: 103 HFA: 4

Will 2005 be the year "Fun and Gun" comes to Columbia, South Carolina? Yes and no. Steve Spurrier returns to the SEC to steer the Gamecock ship back into friendly waters. He doesn't have the talent on hand to run the same offensive attack he ran at Florida. This will be a transition year, so call it "Fun and Run with a Little Gun" or "Fun and Cap Gun."

South Carolina returns the fewest starters in the league. When USC lines up to face Central Florida in the opener, only three offensive players and four defensive players will be starting. Additionally, Spurrier has made numerous changes to his depth chart.

South Carolina doesn't return a Spurrier type passer on the roster. Sophomore Blake Mitchell will start game one, but don't be surprised if true freshman Cade Thompson eventually jumps up from 3rd team to first team. It may only take a few bad passes from Mitchell and top backup Antonio Heffner.

Last year's co-starter at quarterback is this year's starter at wide receiver. Syvelle Newton is not only the leading returning passer, he is the leading returning rusher. He won't be doing either of those this year, as he will be just catching passes. In 2003, he caught 22 passes. Joining him at wide out are Noah Whiteside and here-to-for seldom used senior Kris Clark. Whiteside caught 20 passes for 290 yards last year.

The running back position will have some shakeups as well this year. Best rusher Demetrius Summers was dismissed from the team, and second best Cory Boyd has been suspended for the season. Regular Fullback Daccus Turman will miss the opener as punishment for participating in last year's brawl with Clemson. True freshmen Bobby Wallace and Mike Davis, and former walk-on Lanard Stafford will start against Central Florida. Wallace may be the best pass catcher on the roster right now.

There is some good news at the interior line positions. Tackles Na'Shan Goddard and Jabari Levey take a back seat to nobody in the SEC. The duo should have no trouble blocking in the new offense and should open holes for the inexperienced backs to pick up yardage. Center Chris White can play anywhere on the line.

USC averaged 22.1 points per game and 369 total yards per game last year. They will struggle to match that output this year.

Defensively, the Gamecocks weakened as 2004 wore on. Depth was an issue, and it will be a bigger issue this year. Only one starter from the front seven returns this year.

The defensive line has to be rebuilt from scratch. In the SEC, that's usually trouble. South Carolina yielded 4.1 yards per rush and created just 12 sacks last year. This D-line may not be able to match those low numbers. Expected starting end Charles Silas is another player suspended for the first game thanks to the brawl at Clemson. Josh Johnson hasn't played since 2002, but he will start against UCF. Marque Hall, Chris Tucker, and De'Adrian Coley have very little experience but a good deal of potential.

One starter returns to the line backing corps. Ricardo Hurley is an above-average talent who recorded 53 tackles last year. Lance Laury has a little game experience. Mike West does not, but he has 4.38 speed.

If the defensive line can keep enemy quarterbacks from having the whole afternoon to pass the ball, the secondary should do an excellent job. Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Fred Bennett combine strength and speed; both can cover most receivers one-on-one. Safety Ko Simpson was named the SEC's AP Freshman of the Year last year after intercepting six passes and knocking away six more.

The first year of Spurrierball in Columbia will be a learning experience. Hat stores may run out of visors if the Gamecocks don't perform up to the coach's expectations. Call it a four or five win season.

5. Vanderbilt PiRate: 92 HFA: 3

2004 was supposed to be THE SEASON in Vandyland. 20 starters returned last year, and fans and media were expecting a winning season for the first time in 22 years. Instead, the Commodores repeated their results of 2001, 2002, and 2003—two wins.

This year six starters return on both sides of the ball. Gone are the two leading rushers, one via graduation and one by tragedy. Gone are the best two blockers on the team, fullback Matthew Tant and tackle Justin Geisinger. Gone is the leading receiver from 2004. And, gone are the two of the top three defensive players.

That's a lot for a 2-9 team to lose in one year and expect much improvement. What Vandy has coming back just could allow them to win an extra game or two this year, but it isn't a given. Coach Bobby Johnson's Commodores could go 1-10 or 4-7 (or even 6-5 if there are no injuries and a very positive turnover ratio) or anywhere in between.

Returning to pilot the offense is the best quarterback in the SEC. Put Jay Cutler in a Southern Cal jersey and move Matt Leinart to Nashville, and Cutler would produce Leinart's USC numbers; I doubt Leinart could reproduce Cutler's numbers at Vandy. Last year, Cutler completed 61% of his tosses for 1,844 yards. His TD/INT ratio was 10/5. For Vandy to be successful this year and make a run toward a winning season, Cutler will have to complete 60+% of his passes once again but throw the ball around 40 times a game for 300 yards and 25 touchdowns. Anything short of that, and Vanderbilt will endure losing season number 23 in a row.

Vanderbilt has two or three receivers who can play for anybody in the SEC. Erik Davis and Marlon White are as good as any other tandem in the league. They teamed for 66 receptions and 967 yards last year. Both can go deep and force defenses to play back on their heels. George Smith deserves heaps of praise for coming back after not playing for the last two year due to a serious illness. He will join true freshman Earl Bennett as the next options. Tight end Dustin Dunning caught 14 passes for 143 yards; his one touchdown came against arch-rival Tennessee.

The running game must start from scratch this year. Tailbacks Jeff Jennings and Cassen Jackson-Garrison will split most of the carries. Both of these backs run with more power than speed, but if the offense opens up, that may be an asset. Traditionally, old-fashioned fullback types compliment a wide open passing game better than speedy wide-running tailbacks. At fullback, former backup QB Steven Bright will be an excellent pass receiver coming out of the backfield. You have to believe that the coaching staff will install a trick play allowing him to throw a bomb downfield after receiving a backwards pass.

The offensive line may not have its leading (possibly two leading) blocker(s), but there is a solid nucleus returning here. Trey Holloway deserved some type of award for changing from defense to offense and starting at center without looking like a rookie playing out of position. Mac Pyle may deserve an award if he can return to his 2003 playing level after leaving the team last year. Brian Stamper and Chris Williams cannot possibly replace Justin Geisinger, but they may surprise some folks with their better than expected play.

Expect Vanderbilt to score more points and accumulate more yards this year. I see the maximum possible output coming from a game plan that throws the ball 40 or more times. If Vandy averages more than 40 passing attempts per game, the offense will score 25-30 points and produce 400+ yards per game. It will be enough to give them a chance to win six games.

The defense will be one of the smallest in the nation if you call about 275 pounds small for a D-line average. The defense will be quicker, so they will have to rely on speed and gang tackling to bend but not break.

The interior line will rely on tackle Ralph McKenzie to become the star. He registered just 20 tackles last year with two sacks. Joining him at the other tackle spot will be Theo Horrocks and Lamar Divens. Both figure to be decent pass rushers and run defenders. Ends Herdley Harrison and Chris Booker should be effective pass rushers, but it will be hard for them to stop a power running team.

The linebacker trio is led by preseason 1st team All-SEC selection Moses Osemwegie. He led Vandy with 94 tackles last year, five of them for loss. Joining him are Jonathan Goff and Kevin Joyce. These two will have to make a giant leap forward this year, or the defense will regress. Goff made no tackles for loss, no QB sacks, no interceptions, and broke up no passes. Joyce forced two fumbles and intercepted another pass, while recording two sacks and four tackles for loss.

The secondary is still weaker than the average SEC unit. Vandy gave up an outrageous 65.1% completions last year for 208 yards. That number could have been 300 yards if the defense wasn't so easy to run against. Once again, the DBs will have to play back a few extra yards to avoid getting beat deep. Cornerback Andrew Pace broke up seven passes from his safety position. He may have trouble covering the corner. Kelechi Ohanaja and Reshard Langford make a decent pair of safeties. With cornerback Sean Dixon out due to injury, backups Jared Fagan and Josh Allen will have to step up.

The biggest problem last year was special teams. There was nothing special about them. Expect better kicking this year, but the return game needs to pick up as well.

Vanderbilt has the potential to top two wins, but the ratings unfortunately say, another two–win season.

6. Kentucky PiRate: 90 HFA: 4

Coach Rich Brooks was the man who turned the Oregon program around after a decade-long hibernation. He left the Ducks after taking them to the 1995 Rose Bowl. A short tenure with the St. Louis Rams ended in failure. It appears that a three-year tenure in Lexington may end the same way. The Wildcats won four games in his first year and just two games last year. Chances are good, The Cats could once again win half as many games as the year before. Year three should bring the Brooks tenure in Lexington to an end.

Kentucky was equally weak on offense and defense last year. They averaged just 15.7 points and 276 yards per game while giving up 31 points and 428 yards per game. They got nearly 20% of their total offensive production in the Indiana game.

What UK fans are hoping is that the final two games will carry over to this year. Kentucky beat Vanderbilt and scared the dickens out of Tennessee before losing in the final minute.

Andre Woodson will be the new quarterback for the Cats. Filling in for Shane Boyd last year, he passed for 492 yards (61.4%) and two scores. He isn't much of a runner, but he has a strong arm. New offensive coordinator Joker Phillips has changed the offense to better utilize Woodson's ability.

Woodson will have better receivers to throw the ball to than Boyd had. Keenan Burton returns after missing almost all of 2004. He has the rawest talent of the group. Glenn Holt caught 49 passes, but he averaged only 8.5 yards per catch. Scott Mitchell added 30 catches, but he is not a deep threat either. Tommy Cook returns after missing all of 2004 with a knee injury. He caught 63 passes his first three years. Tight end Jacob Tamme has been moved here from wide out. He won't provide much run blocking, but he will be an asset as a receiver.

The running game will rely on the feet of Rafael Little for speed running and Alexis Bwenge for power running. Little averaged five yards per run in limited action last year.

The offensive line is a weak spot, but it will be better in 2005. Tackles Aaron Miller and Hayden Lane are competent pass blockers. Guard Fatu Turturi is another good pass blocker, and a positive blocker against the run.

Kentucky should score more points this year—maybe close to 20 points per game.

Defense is another problem. The Cats have very little talent in their front seven. Tackle Trey Mielsch and end Durrell White are the best of the bunch up front, while linebacker Raymond Fontaine is the closest thing to an SEC-caliber backer.

The secondary is actually not that bad, but they may have to defend too long without much pass rush. Safety Muhammad Abdullah and cornerback Antoine Huffman can make big plays. Abdullah intercepted three passes last year, while Huffman broke up six.

The biggest weapon may be kicker Taylor Begley. He was perfect last year on PAT's and hit 9 of 14 field goals, including two from 50+.

The schedule is unkind to the Cats. They must play Indiana, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt on the road. The home field advantage won't help them against Louisville, Florida, Auburn, and Tennessee. 1-10 is a distinct possibility.

Western Division

1. L S U PiRate: 119 HFA: 5

Note: The following data and the above rating do not factor in the effect that Hurricane Katrina will have on this team. The final record assumes the game with North Texas will be made up.

Les Miles takes charge of the Tigers at the right time. This team has more talent than the 2003 national champs. On paper, LSU should aced their schedule and play for all the marbles. At least, that's what their initial rating shows.

Even with the loss of Alley Broussard to injury, the Tigers have a potent offense. Joseph Addai isn't the size of Jerome Bettis, but he is as powerful as "The Bus" with speed to boot. Last year, he averaged 6.7 yards per carry as Broussard's backup. Addai has an added benefit; he is an exceptional pass catcher, as his 26 receptions show. Fullbacks Kevin Steitz and Jacob Hester clear holes like bulldozers.

JaMarcus Russell takes over the quarterback job full time. He will have to produce immediately, as there are two excellent signal callers waiting in the wings to make him another Wally Pipp. Matt Flynn had a better spring than Russell, while Ryan Perrilloux was merely the top high school QB in the nation last year. He chose LSU over Texas at the eleventh hour.

LSU is so stocked at the receiver position, there backups could go transfer to the Big 12 and make All-Conference this year. Craig Davis and Dwayne Bowe teamed for 82 receptions and 1,256 yards last year. These two receivers are physical and not afraid to muscle their way into a crowd and claim the ball. Skyler Green and Early Doucet can go deep or make a short pass a long gain. Then, there's Xavier Carter and Amp Hill. Carter has world-class sprinter's speed, while Hill isn't much slower. They may not get many opportunities, but either of them can turn in an 80-yard reception. Keith Zinger and David Jones add two more NFL-potential players to the receiving corps.

The offensive line had some problems last year giving up 33 sacks. Tackle Andrew Whitworth won't give up many if any this year. One of the NCAA's five best at his position, he should be a first round draft pick next year.

LSU could rush and pass for more than 200 yards each, while scoring 30-35 points per game. With an exceptional defense, that could be enough to win every game.

The Tiger defense gave up six more points per game last year than the year before, but 17.1 was still a good number. They finished third nationally in total defense allowing 257 yards per game. Expect more of the same this year.

There are stars in all three units. The best player is in the secondary. Safety LaRon Landry led the Tigers with 92 tackles and four interceptions. Cornerback Ronnie Prude isn't far behind him. Prude broke up four passes and delivered several hard tackles.

Leading the charge at middle linebacker is Cameron Vaughn. Next to Freddie Roach at Alabama, Vaughn is the best middle linebacker in the league.

The defensive line has a couple of can't miss NFL prospects. Tackles Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten combined for 12 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. They will both be selected on the first day of the next NFL draft.

2. Auburn PiRate: 116 HFA: 5

No team can lose what Coach Tommy Tuberville's Tigers lost last year and challenge for the conference title this year, right? WRONG! Auburn has enough talent returning, especially on defense to compete for the West Division title. The schedule is friendly, as Auburn could easily play at LSU on October 22 with a 6-0 record.

Auburn's biggest loss on defense may be its coordinator. Gene Chizik won the Broyles Award for the best assistant coach last year, but he took the DC job at Texas. The new coordinator is David Gibbs, who comes from the staff of the Denver Broncos.

Gibbs takes over a defense that gave up just 11.3 points and 277 yards per game. The front seven is as good as LSU's and almost as good as Tennessee's. Ends Quentin Groves and Stanley McClover can blow by blockers and get to the quarterback before the drop back has been completed. Last year, they teamed for 15 sacks.

The Williams's are a terror at linebacker. Travis led the team with 80 tackles and eight for loss. Antarrious added six tackles for loss and recorded three sacks.

The secondary isn't as strong as the front seven, but they rarely have to cover for very long. Safety Will Herring intercepted three passes and broke up three more. A return to full health by cornerback David Irons, who missed all of 2004, would be a big plus.

Auburn has the best pair of kickers in the league. Kicker John Vaughn connected on 12 of 15 field goals last year, while Kody Bliss punted for a 42.3 yard average with very few returned for more than five yards.

Auburn has to play at LSU and at Georgia. The other nine games look like wins. If they can pull off a shocker in Baton Rouge, they could play on December 3rd.

3. Alabama PiRate: 112 HFA: 5

Slowly, but surely, Coach Mike Shula is returning Alabama back to respectability. After being placed in an untenable situation following his late hire to replace Mike Price in 2003, and facing a reduction of scholarships due to probation, Shula won four games in 2003 and then six last year without a competent quarterback. ‘Bama went to the Music City Bowl solely on the back of its defense.

Last year, the Crimson Tide allowed 15.8 points per game and the nation's second best total yardage figure at 245 per game. Most of that sterling stop unit returns this year.

Alabama's line backing corps loses leading tackler Cornelius Wortham, but returns two future NFL players. Freddie Roach and DeMeco Ryans have both been selected on the preseason 1st team All-SEC squad. Both players made seven tackles for losses last year.

The secondary could be even better than the linebackers. Safety Roman Harper made 77 tackles with six for losses. He intercepted three passes and broke up four more. His counterpart at safety is Charlie Peprah, who could challenge for All-SEC honors this year. Cornerback Anthony Madison intercepted four passes and broke up 10 more.

The defensive line doesn't have an All-SEC player, but it has the most depth and is solid. Tackles Jeremy Clark and Rudy Griffin won't give up too many yards to running backs trying to run up the middle. End Wallace Gilberry is a ferocious pass rusher, while end Mark Anderson destroys off tackle runs to his side.

The only question mark on defense is the depth issue. Due to scholarship reduction, a series of injuries will wreck ‘Bama's defense. Give defensive coordinator Joe Kines a lot of credit.

The offense will be much better if just one player stays healthy. Quarterback Brodie Croyle was off to a spectacular season in 2004 before seeing his season end against Western Carolina (The Tide were way ahead at that point). Up to that point, Croyle had completed 66.7% of his passes for 12.1 yards per completion and six touchdowns against no interceptions. The rest of the Alabama quarterbacks combined for five touchdown passes against 11 interceptions.

Another crippling injury was the one that took out tailback Ray Hudson, who was averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Kenneth Darby returns after rushing for 1,062 yards and eight touchdowns, even though he didn't start until the Southern Mississippi game in late October. When the Tide uses a fullback, Le'Ron McClain and Tim Castille are excellent lead blockers. Castille can also get the crucial first downs on 3rd and short and break the plane at the goal line.

Tyrone Prothro is the leading returning receiver. Last year, he caught just 25 balls for 347 yards and only one touchdown; those numbers should double this year if Croyle stays healthy. Matt Caddell and D. J. Hall will be Croyle's next two options; they teamed for 34 receptions. Caddell is a legitimate deep threat. Nick Walker will start at tight end; he is a better receiver than blocker.

The offensive line returns just two starters from last year. If they don't protect Croyle, the season could turn south in a hurry. J. B. Closner will start at center after playing guard last year. Tackle Kyle Tatum has loads of potential, after playing just one season on the offensive side.

Alabama is the most tricky team to predict. If they stay injury free and the offensive line does its job, they could be the dark horse for the West title. If the injury bug returns, and/or the O-line doesn't develop, they could struggle to get back to six wins. For now, I'll guess eight wins.

4. Arkansas PiRate: 108 HFA: 4

Coach Houston Nutt's Razorbacks were one of the best 5-6 teams in years last year. They took Texas to the wire, losing by two. They made a huge comeback to make the Florida game interesting and moved the ball on Auburn better than almost anybody. They lost a heartbreaker at South Carolina in what appeared at the time to be a bowl elimination game. For the season, they outscored opponents 30-25.

Expect the Razorback defense to improve by leaps and bounds this year. Not only do they return the bulk of their starters, they may have already made the top interception of the season----by stealing defensive coordinator Reggie Herring from North Carolina State. Herring's stop troops in Raleigh only led the nation in total defense.

Arkansas has two potential All-SEC defensive players in linebacker Pierre Brown and strong safety Vickiel Vaughn. They were the leading tacklers last year, combining for 126. After that, the stop troops are rather average. The defensive line gave up 4.6 yards per rush and registered only 16 sacks. Against the pass, the Hogs allowed 60% completions for 217 yards per game.

Herring will have to work his magic on the defensive line. Tackle Marcus Harrison is the best of the lot. Former wide receiver Anthony Brown was moved to defensive end in spring practice and worked his way up to first team.

A cornerback must emerge to shut down opponents' best receiver. Darius Vinnett and Matterral Richardson are not the answer.

The offense will have a new look. Gone is quarterback Matt Jones, who led the Razorbacks in rushing as well as passing. The new signal caller is Robert Johnson. Johnson is more of a drop back passer and nowhere near the runner that Jones was. Nobody else on the roster has any game experience.

Johnson will have one of the nation's better receivers on his team. Marcus Monk caught 37 passes at 15.4 yards per catch and scored six times. Cedric Washington will start at the other wide out after catching 17 balls for 284 yards (16.7 avg.) and a score. Dedrick Poole will start at H-Back.

Peyton Hillis combines speed and power and has excellent hands. He will start at tailback after rushing for 240 yards last year. When the Hogs use a fullback, Brandon Kennedy is a hog of a blocker.

The offensive line will have to do without top blocker Zac Tubbs for the start of the season. If he ever gets healthy, he has NFL potential. Tackle Tony Ugoh, guard Stephen Parker, and center Kyle Roper form a formidable trio blocking for the run.

Arkansas gets Southwest Missouri and Vanderbilt at home to start the year, then must play at Southern Cal and at Alabama. Road games at Georgia and at LSU are probable losses, while a home tilt against Auburn doesn't look favorable. Six wins would be a good year for Nutt's hogs. For what it's worth Coach Nutt has a couple of pot-bellied pigs as pets. I doubt they eat much pork in that household.

5. Mississippi State PiRate: 99 HFA: 4

Coach Sylvester Croom's maroon Bulldogs ever so slightly improved as the 2004 season wore on. The 3-8 record was just baby steps better than 2003, but from midseason on, State was not a team to be overlooked; just ask Florida.

This season, look for Mississippi State to take another step forward. While it is highly unlikely, there is enough talent on hand to compete for a 6-5 record to get bowl eligible. Everything would have to fall into place, such as limited injuries, positive turnover margin, and enough injuries to Alabama to make them beatable.

The Bullies welcome back eight starters on offense and eight starters on defense. State will win games by playing mistake free offense, letting their running game control the clock, while continuing to improve every week on defense. They cannot let teams get a 10-point lead, as their offense isn't ready to overcome that type of deficit.

Back to direct the offense is quarterback Omarr Conner. He completed a so-so 51.9% of his passes in 2004 for 1,224 yards and six scores. The former wide out has decent running ability, but most of his running last year was done trying to escape the defensive pass rush.

The bread and butter of this offense is tailback Jerious Norwood. He topped 1,000 yards last year while rushing for 5.4 yards per carry and seven touchdowns. His 174-yard game against Florida sparked the biggest upset of the SEC season. As he goes, so goes the State offense. Blocking for Norwood is fullback Bryson Davis. At 264 pounds, "Big Bryson" cleans up the hole at the line of scrimmage.

Tee Milons and Will Prosser are back as the two leading receivers from last year. Both of them hauled in 24 balls. Prosser is more of a deep threat than Milons, but he has been fighting off the injury bug. Look for redshirt freshman Keon Humphries to start against Murray State. He has the talent to be the team's go-to guy once he gets valuable playing time. Tight end Eric Butler is just an average blocker, but he is an excellent receiver. Last year he caught 15 passes for 166 yards and four touchdowns.

The offensive line has two upperclassmen who could compete for All-SEC accolades. Center Chris McNeil and tackle Brian Anderson can both play guard as well. Their run blocking enabled Norwood to achieve his 1,000-yard season.

The Mississippi State defense yielded 25.5 points and 364 yards per game after giving up almost 40 points and 475 yards in 2003. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has the makings of a decent defense this year. The defensive line should be this year's strongest unit. It all starts up front with end Willie Evans. Last year, he made nine stops of running backs behind the line of scrimmage and 5.5 sacks. His counterpart on the other side of the defense is Michael Heard. Heard forced three fumbles and registered four tackles for loss. Tackles Andrew Powell and Deljuan Robinson make it hard to run the ball up the middle. All told, this is one of the SEC's top six interior lines.

All three starters at linebacker return this year, although Gabe O'Neal has been dealing with a slight knee injury and may not begin the season in the starting lineup. Quinton Culberson offers speed and Clarence McDougal offers strength in the second tier of the defense.

Mississippi State allowed just 174 yards passing per game last year, but part of that was because opponents ran the ball for 4.4 yards per rush. Cornerback Kevin Dockery has some limitations (namely size), but he is developing into a fine defender.

Return specialist Jonathan Lowe averaged 11.5 yards per punt return with a 73-yard touchdown.

Mississippi State should be more competitive against the powerhouse teams and win one more game than last year. Croom is getting the job done by setting a good foundation for success. In another year or two, they will be competing for a bowl game; maybe, that bowl game will be played in January.

6. Ole Miss PiRate: 97 HFA: 4

David Cutcliffe faced a major rebuilding situation last year at Ole Miss, and the Rebels went 4-7. Three of those losses were by four points or less to bowl teams. Yet, Cutcliffe was let go after having the Rebels bowl eligible for seven straight years. There are instances where doing this has led to a team crashing and staying down for years. Could it happen in Oxford? Yes, it could, unless new coach Ed Orgeron can work the same kind of magic that his former boss Pete Carroll did at Southern Cal. It's not so simple to win at Ole Miss; it's been 30 years since Johnny Vaught retired. The Rebels are now the weakest team in the West, and they very well may fail to match last year's 4-7 record.

The cupboard isn't totally bare. Four offensive and six defensive starters could potentially make one of the three-deep All-SEC teams.

Robert Lane and Michael Spurlock are still involved in a hotly contested race for the starting quarterback role. Last year's starter Ethan Flatt has fallen to third on the depth chart. He could possibly transfer if it appears he won't play. Neither Lane nor Spurlock were impressive last year in brief action. They both completed less than 44% of their passes. Lane threw three interceptions in just 57 attempts. Both of these guys can run the ball, especially Lane. My guess is he will nudge Spurlock for the job at the beginning of the season.

Last year's leading rusher, Vashon Pearson, will miss the season due to academic suspension. That leaves Jamal Pittman as the first running option. Pittman is more of a fullback type and will get more yards between the tackles than outside them. When the Rebs use a fullback, redshirt freshman Jason Cook will get the nod.

The receiving unit will be the best part of this year's offense. Mike Espy and Mario Hill are excellent mid-route receivers. Espy will start at the slot back position, while Hill will team with deep threat Taye Biddle. Tight ends Jimmy Brooks, Lawrence Lilly, and Robert Hough will all see playing time. Brooks is strictly a run blocker, while Lilly is mostly a receiver. Hough can do a little of both and may get the starting nod.

The offensive line is led by All-SEC tackle Tre Stallings. He is an excellent pass blocker, who can play either tackle spot or either guard spot. Bobby Harris is also an excellent pass blocker; he will line up at tackle, but he can also play guard.

Ole Miss will try to speed up the game getting off more plays. This may be great for the offense, but it could be bad news for the defense. There is talent in the first 11, but the next 11 as a whole are not up to SEC standards. The Rebels gave up 25.3 points and 391 yards per game last year. Orgeron is his own defensive coordinator.

Tackle McKinley Boykin anchors the defensive interior. He was selected as a member of the preseason 1st team All-SEC. His excellent quickness helps him get to the running back. Last year, he made six tackles behind the line. Nose tackle Michael Bozeman and end Jayme Mitchell teamed for 10 more tackles for loss.

The line backing unit has one emerging star. Middle linebacker Patrick Willis recorded 70 tackles with six for loss and five quarterback sacks in 2004. He will team with Kelvin Robinson and Garry Pack to form a fairly good unit.

The leader of the secondary is cornerback Travis Johnson, who broke up 13 passes last year while intercepting two. Trumaine McBride gives The Johnny Rebs another great cornerback. He also broke up 13 passes last year (unlucky for the quarterbacks).

The Ole Miss defense will be good enough to win in the SEC if the offense is above average. Unfortunately, without a real leader at quarterback, the Rebels will find themselves on the short end of the scoreboard more than the happier alternative. It looks like a step even farther backward this year in Oxford.

If All Games Were Played September 1st

(in other words, these ratings are only good for the first week of the season)

(and predicted records may move a team up or down due to HFA)

Team         Conf.     Overall

East
Georgia      7-1       10-3 *
Tennessee    6-2        9-2
Florida      5-3        8-3
S. Carolina  2-6        5-6
Vanderbilt   1-7        2-9
Kentucky     0-8        1-10

West
L S U        8-0       12-0 *
Auburn       6-2        9-2
Alabama      5-3        8-3
Arkansas     4-4        6-5
Miss. St.    2-6        4-7
Ole Miss     2-6        3-8


* LSU expected to beat Georgia for the SEC title

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