2006 SEC Conference Preview

The Scout.com SEC publishers have come together to give you a quick glance at each team in the conference for the upcoming 2006 season.

East Division

Florida Gators
By: Dave Stirt/Fightin' Gators Magazine

Urban Meyer heads into his second season with one of the country's most experienced quarterbacks in senior Chris Leak, but the Gators' chances of reaching their first SEC title game in six years will revolve around a tale of two lines--- the offensive and defensive ones.

On the offensive side, Florida must replace four senior starters up front and the ability of the newcomers to protect Leak and open holes for the running game on a consistent basis will go a long way in determining if the Gators are national-title contenders. With solid protection, Leak is in position to shatter a number of Florida and SEC career passing records, including Peyton Manning's SEC record for completions (863) and Danny Wuerffel's UF career yardage mark (10,875 yards). A tremendous trio of returning wideouts in Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell and Jemalle Cornelius, plus quarterback-turned-tight end Cornelius Ingram and top national recruit Percy Harvin, should help Leak reach those coveted marks.

Defensively, the Gators' front line may be the deepest and most talented in the country. Sack leader Jarvis Moss returns along with veteran starters Marcus Thomas, Joe Cohen and Ray McDonald, plus former Parade All America end Derrick Harvey, a redshirt sophomore who seems primed to fulfill his potential. Add in All-SEC caliber linebackers Brandon Siler and Earl Everett, and Florida has the makings of a dominant defensive unit. In creating an SEC-leading 31 turnovers last year, the Gators displayed a hard-hitting style that figures to be even more intimidating in 2006.

Anything less than a Dec. 2nd trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game will be a major disappointment for Meyer's contingent.

Georgia Bulldogs
By: Dean Legge/DawgPost.com

Question at quarterback…

When Georgia lines up for its 2006 season, they will be defending the SEC title for the second time in four seasons, but the number one question on Georgia's football team is which quarterback will be the starter. Senior Joe Tereshinski, who has one career start, will get the nod at the start of the campaign, but young Matthew Stafford will get his shot if things don't go well for the Dawgs in September.

Title talk…

If Georgia can get steady production from the quarterback, and its defense continues to be one of the best in the country, there is no reason Georgia can't successfully defend the SEC title. But if the quarterback controversy drags on all season long, the Bulldogs could be in for a sub-par bowl game.

Diamonds in the rough…

The best Bulldog you have never heard of is cornerback Paul Oliver, who takes over as the top pass defender for the Bulldogs this fall. Oliver is big and fast, and it now looks like he's starting to live up to his potential. Asher Allen, a true freshman who returns kicks and also plays cornerback, should certainly be considered an impact freshman along with Stafford. After enrolling early, Oliver had an impressive spring in Athens.

Kentucky Wildcats
By: Larry Vaught/KentuckySportsReport.com

While almost all the attention has been focused on who Kentucky will play at quarterback, the biggest storyline for the Wildcats this season is defense. The defensive line had trouble stopping the run and rushing the passer, one reason the secondary gave up 24 touchdown passes. Injuries forced UK to play numerous young players on defense last year, and that could provide needed depth and experience this year.

Rising star: Versatile running back Rafael Little had almost 2,000 all-purpose yards last season, ranking fifth in the nation. He can run, catch and return kicks. He has the ability to score any time he touches the football. If Kentucky's quarterback and offensive line do their jobs, he could put up even bigger numbers this year.

Best unknown player: Sophomore defensive tackle Myron Pryor was the star of spring practice. He has the power, size and speed to stop the run and rush the passer. He's not only lost weight — 43 pounds in one year — but he's also stronger. Plus, he figured out his constant leg cramps last year were caused by not drinking enough water. "I used to drink Gatorade a lot. I thought that would keep me hydrated real well. But then I would notice when I would drink a lot of water, I wouldn't get the cramps. It was as simple as that," Pryor said.

Player to watch: Freshman linebacker Micah Johnson is Brooks' most highly publicized recruit ever. He could even play some running back in short yardage situations. Johnson had a rigorous off-season workout that included doing yoga with his brother, sophomore lineman Christian Johnson. "We don't tell everybody that we did that, but it really helped us both," Micah Johnson said.

South Carolina Gamecocks
By: Doug Jolley/GamecockAnthem.com

Heading into the second year of the Steve Spurrier era, the South Carolina Gamecocks will look to improve upon last season's 7-5 finish. The 2005 Gamecock squad relied upon an opportunistic defense to carry the load, while the young offense suffered some growing pains throughout the course of the year. However, the roles will be reversed in 2006. The Carolina offense returns eight starters, including quarterback Blake Mitchell and All-SEC receiver Sidney Rice. The defense, however, will feature several new faces, as the Gamecocks lost their top seven tacklers from a year ago.

The Gamecock offense appears primed for a breakout year in 2006, that is if the offensive line can stay healthy. The Gamecocks return an array of talented skill players, including their top three receivers and three of their top four rushers from 2005, but depth along the offensive line is a serious concern. Center Chris White, who has 28 career starts, will anchor the offensive line this year, but the rest of the line claims fifteen career starts combined. Carolina will likely be forced to rely on a couple of true freshman to play in reserve roles along the line this season.

The Carolina defense will look to replace their entire starting linebacker trio, as well as fill the vacancies left by safety Ko Simpson and cornerback Jon Joseph, who both departed early for the NFL. However, after struggling to stop the run all of last season, the Gamecocks showed signs of improvement in spring practice. With a veteran defensive line, anchored by Stanley Doughty and Marque Hall, the Gamecocks hope to improve in the trenches in Tyrone Nix's second season as defensive coordinator. The Gamecock secondary will be led by pre-season All-SEC cornerback Fred Bennett, and despite the loss of Simpson and Joseph, the Carolina defensive backfield should once again be solid in 2006.

Tennessee Volunteers
By Randy Moore/InsideTennessee.com

Best player you never heard of: Lucas Taylor

Lucas Taylor did not catch a pass as a freshman receiver for the University of Tennessee football team in 2005. You can't get much more obscure than that, but he won't be obscure much longer.

Barring injury, Taylor will catch quite a few passes in 2006. He'll carry the ball on some end-arounds. He'll return kickoffs … and maybe punts, as well. He'll probably throw a flanker pass and he might even line up at quarterback on occasion.

In short, the 5-foot-10, 168-pound speedster could be Tennessee's version of Alabama's Tyrone Prothro, a little guy with a knack for making big plays. Taylor, who once ran for 539 yards in a high school game, has that same kind of game-breaking ability. Even seeing limited action in 2005, he recorded a 47-yard kickoff return (Tennessee's longest of the season), a 20-yard punt return and an 18-yard scrimmage run.

You're probably wondering: If he's so talented, why didn't Taylor catch a single pass last fall? Simple. He played quarterback in high school and is still in his infancy as a receiver. The Vols are determined not to waste his talents while he gets on-the-job training at wideout, though. They've got him returning kickoffs and some punts. They've installed a double-pass to utilize his throwing skills. They've even put together a package that will enable him to play quarterback in certain situations.

You haven't heard of Lucas Taylor just yet. But you will.

Vanderbilt Commodores
By: Don Yates/VandyMania.com

Jay Cutler is gone but Vanderbilt is loaded with athletes and speed. Bobby Johnson has systematically improved these important team aspects since his arrival at Vanderbilt four years ago. Think Vanderbilt will be starting again from scratch with a new, inexperienced quarterback? Think again. Johnson took advantage of a new NCAA rule and secured the transfer of Arizona quarterback Richard Kovalcheck. Kovalcheck passed for 1,351 yards for the Wildcats in 2005 and nearly led them to a victory over USC. He is eligible immediately.

Of course you've heard a lot about Cutler but you may not have heard of wide receiver Earl Bennett. Bennett, a true freshman in 2005, was Cutler's primary target and snared 79 of his passes. Incredibly, in Vanderbilt's last four games Bennett had 49 catches for 9 touchdowns.

Offensive lineman Brian Stamper is a veteran who is on the Outland Trophy watch list. Cassen Jackson-Garrison will be Vanderbilt's primary running back, but Vandy's biggest impact newcomer could be redshirt freshman running back Jared Hawkins. The tough Hawkins possesses blazing speed and benches 340 pounds. True freshman TE/FB Jonathan Massey could also be an impact player.

Defensively Reshard Langford is an emerging star. The strong safety had three interceptions in 2006 and made the All-SEC Freshman team. Junior linebacker and captain Jonathan Goff may contend for postseason honors as well. Johnson speaks highly of redshirt freshman free safety Ryan Hamilton. Incoming freshman defensive lineman Greg Billinger could provide instant help.

West Division

Alabama Crimson Tide
By: Kirk McNair/ BamaMag.com

Alabama has had the best defense in the SEC and one of the best in the nation in recent years, but this season the Crimson Tide must replace seven defensive starters from the 2005 team that went 10-2 and finished eighth in the nation. All seven of those 2006 defenders–headed up by Lott Award winner and SEC Defensive Player of the Year DeMeco Ryans–are now in NFL camps.

But Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines may have more big guns. Two of the biggest surprises of spring training were on the defensive line. Junior Keith Saunders moved ahead of sophomore Bobby Greenwood (2005 back-up) to replace Mark Anderson. Senior Dominic Lee, who has been injured throughout his Tide career, is healthy and had an excellent spring at nose tackle, where he is replacing Rudy Griffin.

At strongside linebacker, Ryans will be replaced by senior Terrence Jones, who has been a solid backup for three years. Freddie Roach was Bama's middle linebacker, and his spot will be taken by either junior Matt Collins, last year's backup, or redshirt freshman Prince Hall, one of the Tide's best athletes.

Junior Simeon Castille, who has been a nickel back starter the past two years, will replace Anthony Madison at right cornerback. Senior Jeffrey Dukes, a very good backup the past two years, will replace Charlie Peprah at strong safety.

The only real concern is at safety, where Roman Harper was an all-star performer. Junior Marcus Carter has the physical ability, but Alabama could suffer from a lack of experience at this critical play-calling position.

Arkansas Razorbacks
By: Clay Henry/HawgsIllustrated.com

Arkansas returns 19 starters, as well as several others who could have been described as starters last year, and has perhaps the SEC's best group of running backs led by Darren McFadden.

The question centers around the quarterback, where true freshman Mitch Mustain, the consensus national prep player of the year, will battle returnees Casey Dick and Robert Johnson, both starters for stretches last season.

End Jamaal Anderson, tackle Marcus Harrison and linebacker Sam Olajubutu lead the defense, perhaps UA's best since coach Houston Nutt's first season. There are eight home games on a favorable schedule, but the Hogs better be ready early. Southern Cal plays in the Ozarks to open the season on Sept. 2nd.

One of the mysteries this year will be the Hogs' offensive style of play. Will the plays be akin to what Nutt called the last few years with a heavy emphasis on the run, or will the Hogs gravitate to the no-huddle system favored by new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn? Either way, the Hogs should be better and finish with a winning season after 4-7 and 5-6 campaigns the last two years.

Auburn Tigers
By: Mark Murphy/AUTigers.com

After finishing in a tie for first place in the SEC West but not getting the opportunity to defend its conference title (LSU won the tiebreaker with an overtime win vs. the Tigers), Auburn will try to return to the SEC Championship Game with a team that features a significant amount of experience.

Although the Tigers officially list only five starters returning on offense and six on defense, there are actually 13 players on offense with starting experience and a dozen more on defense.

If Coach Tommy Tuberville and his staff adequately replace three key receivers along with two starting defensive linemen plus two linebackers, the Tigers should be tough.

Key returnees include the SEC's top rusher, Kenny Irons, and his brother David, a potential first-round NFL pick at cornerback. Junior lefty Brandon Cox is expected to be one of the league's top QBs with a year of starting experience.

Defensively, the Tigers are quick and athletic, particularly in the secondary where new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp will have a variety of options. The Tigers lost several key players, but have good talent on both sides of the ball and return three-year starters Kody Bliss (punter) and John Vaughn (field goals).

Star Potential: Sr. WR Courtney Taylor is back from an injury and is very talented.

Best Under the Radar Player: Senior DE Marquies Gunn is bigger, stronger and quicker this year at 6-4, 270, and is a proven performer.

Impact Freshman: WR Tim Hawthorne has the size, speed and talent to make an immediate contribution.

Impact (redshirt) Freshmen: LB Tray Blackmon is a big hitter and TE Tommy Trott has big-play potential.

LSU Tigers
By: Matt Deville/TigerRag.com

Phil Steele and Lindy's magazine says LSU is among the most talented teams in America. But Lindy's has the Tigers finishing second in the SEC West, and Steele has LSU ranked No. 21 in the country. Why, you may ask?

The Tigers lost four of five starters on the offensive line and three of four on the defensive front. And LSU must go on the road to play at Auburn, Florida, Tennessee and SEC darkhorse Arkansas. Plus, there is some uncertainty at the quarterback position. Sounds like doom and gloom, right? Maybe not.

Folks want to talk about a quarterback controversy, but second-year LSU coach Les Miles isn't having any of it. Miles has said JaMarcus Russell is the No. 1 guy with Peach Bowl MVP Matt Flynn and redshirt freshman Ryan Perrilloux following in that order. Sure, the Tigers lost lots of interior linemen, but LSU returns arguably the most talented corps of receivers and running backs in the SEC, the same group of offensive specialists who carved up Miami 40-3 in last year's Peach Bowl. Toss in the return of running back Alley Broussard, who missed 2005 with a knee injury, and you are looking at an offensive juggernaut. The Tigers do have plenty of experienced offensive linemen to fill the holes.

On defense, the void left by defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten is significant. However, look for junior defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey to rise to the occasion as a big-time run stopper. In the summer, world-class sprinter/wide receiver Xavier Carter walked away from football to pursue a professional track career. No problem. Watch for redshirt freshman Brandon LaFell to emerge as the fourth wide receiver. Miles was fortunate to have senior free safety LaRon Landry return for his senior season. The Tigers were equally as lucky to land prep phenom Jai Eugene, who could contribute in the secondary as a true freshman.

Ole Miss Rebels
By: Chuck Rounsaville/OMSpirit.com

The following are some tidbits about the 2006 Ole Miss Rebel football team that you won't get in a typical preview magazine.

Did you know…
Strength & Conditioning Coach Aaron Ausmus recently became the proud father of a son he named "Max?" The Rebel football team had only seven players who could max power clean 300 pounds or more when he took over two years ago, but now has over 25 squad members who can accomplish that feat. "Max" is a magical word for Ausmus.

Did you know…
Sophomore DE Peria Jerry, the best player you never heard of, played sparingly as a true frosh in 2005, but was the most dominant player on the team during spring training? Jerry's disruption of the Rebel offense made it difficult for new Offensive Coordinator Dan Werner to install his offense as quickly as he would have liked.

Did you know…
Transfer TB BenJarvus Green-Ellis has made such an impact on the TB position that last year's leading rusher – Mico McSwain, one of the best athletes on the Rebel team – has been moved to wide receiver? McSwain gained over 600 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry while Green-Ellis sat out due to transfer rules in 2005.

Did you know…
The Rebel coaches were so pleased with their 2006 recruiting class – ranked number 15 in the country by Scout.com – they are anticipating more than a dozen newcomers to play substantial roles on the '06 team? Prep All-American DT Jerrell Powe is projected as an instant impact player. Junior QB Brent Schaeffer was given the starting job before he ever stepped foot on campus.

Did you know…
Between Head Coach Ed Orgeron and OL Coach Art Kehoe, they own nine national championship rings between them? Kehoe collected five during his 25-year tenure at Miami. Orgeron picked up two at Miami and two at Southern Cal.

Did you know…
Senior Middle Linebacker Patrick Willis led the nation in solo stops per game as a junior with 9.0 an outing?

Mississippi State Bulldogs
By: David Murray/Dawgsbite.com

Fans scanning Mississippi State's signing class were surprised by one name, or rather by his listed position. Coach Sylvester Croom inked Aaron Feld of Homewood, Ala… as a deep snapper. That's how much the coach thinks of this task, and of fourth-year starter Russell Cook. "He's one of the best deep-snappers around and he's a senior," Croom says of Cook, who had to walk his way on the team in 2003. "We saw a young man out there who is as good if not better than Russell, and I'm not waiting to next year to see if there is another one. Aaron can play other positions, we're going to start him out as a linebacker and maybe look at fullback. I've got to see where there is the least likely chance of getting his right hand hurt!"

While snapping is in good hands, other aspects of State's special teams play need serious upgrades. To that end, Croom has threatened to put more offensive and defensive starters on these squads and run the risks of kicking-play injuries. "We have to get the best people on the field," Croom says. "Because our special teams were not what we expected them to be last year. A lot of that is because we had some mismatches in talent." That does not include punting, where Blake McAdams averaged 41.9 yards as a true freshman. Croom is so satisfied with the 2006 sophomore he is letting McAdams play baseball next spring, where he should contend for the open shortstop job.