Athlon Sports SEC Predictions

The Georgia-Auburn rivalry might not rank among the most storied in all of college football, but these two Southern powers have met 106 times — more than any two SEC foes — since 1892. They have one scheduled meeting in 2003, on Nov. 15 in Athens, but there's a good chance the Tigers and Dawgs will get together a second time this fall in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.

Projected Finish - East

1. Georgia
2. Florida
3. Tennessee
4. Kentucky
5. South Carolina
6. Vanderbilt

Projected Finish - West

1. Auburn
2. LSU
3. Alabama
4. Arkansas
5. Ole Miss
6. Mississippi St.

Georgia returns seven starters from the league's top scoring defense (15.1 ppg), most notably defensive end David Pollack, the 2002 SEC Player of the Year. The Dawgs have some issues on the offensive line, but they do welcome back quarterback David Greene and explosive receiver Fred Gibson. The schedule could be Georgia's biggest obstacle in its quest to repeat; the Dawgs play at Tennessee and face arguably the three top teams in the Western Division — Auburn, LSU and Alabama.

Both Florida and Tennessee, the two clubs that ruled the East for so long, have major concerns heading into the 2003 campaign. The Gators must replace three outstanding talents on offense — quarterback Rex Grossman, tailback Earnest Graham and receiver Taylor Jacobs — and the defense will have an entirely new look with eight new starters and a new coordinator, Charlie Strong.

Tennessee will lean on quarterback Casey Clausen and a talented offensive line to jumpstart an attack that ranked a very un-Vol-like 85th in the nation in total offense and 86th in scoring offense.

Auburn plans on winning games the old-fashioned way — with defense and a strong running game. The Tigers are loaded with playmakers on defense, from tackle DeMarco McNeil to linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas to defensive back Junior Rosegreen. Junior quarterback Jason Campbell will run the show, but more often than not Campbell will simply hand the ball off to tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, perhaps the top tandem in the country.

LSU welcomes back quarterback Matt Mauck, who missed the final seven games of the 2002 season with a broken foot. The Tigers have more than enough talent to get back to Atlanta for the second time in three years; coach Nick Saban is looking for more consistency and better leadership.

A Strong Hire for Florida

After failing to land a head coaching position in each of the past two off-seasons, Charlie Strong decided to do the next best thing — accept a position as the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida. Three of the Gators' previous four defensive coordinators are now head coaches, including Strong's predecessor John Thompson, the new boss at East Carolina.

"I think when you're at the University of Florida, it affords you the opportunity (for promotion)," says Gator head coach Ron Zook, who pried Strong away from South Carolina.

Prior to Thompson's departure, Florida served as a springboard for two of the most successful Division I-A head coaches in the country — Marshall's Bob Pruett and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops. And two other I-A head coaches, Duke's Carl Franks and Stanford's Buddy Teevens, were hired away from the Gators' offensive staff.

Strong has been one of the most highly respected defensive coordinators in college football over the past three seasons, but he has yet to land a job as a head coach. Following the 2001 season he interviewed at Vanderbilt, Kansas and California, and this past off-season he met with officials at Tulsa and East Carolina.

No More Road Woes

Road teams won more games than they lost in Southeastern Conference action in 2002 for the first time since 1997. Led by Alabama and Georgia, which each posted a perfect 4–0 SEC record on the road, visiting teams finished an impressive 25–22 (.532) on their opponents' home field. (The annual Florida-Georgia game is a neutral-site game and does not count as a road game for either school.)

Fourth Quarter

It's probably no coincidence that the three best fourth quarter teams in the SEC during the 2002 season were the league's three winningest teams — Georgia, Alabama and Auburn. The Tigers outscored their opponents 98–45 in the fourth quarter for an SEC-best plus-53 scoring margin; Alabama, which scored a league-high 114 points in the final quarter, was second with a plus-47 margin; and Georgia, the 2002 SEC Champion, was third with a plus-24 margin.

Conversely, the SEC's three worst fourth quarter teams — South Carolina (-18), Mississippi State (-10) and Vanderbilt (-7) — combined for a 3–21 league record.

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