Last week we discussed which SEC team might be this year's Tennessee – a team that falls far short of expectations. My pick for that distinction was Florida. The Gators have overrated talent and a potentially volatile situation at quarterback.
So who could be this year's Vanderbilt – going from dreadful to decent in one season?
The Razorbacks, 4-7 overall and 2-6 in SEC play last fall, have most of their top players back, along with a schedule that is conducive to success.
The key returnee is tailback Darren McFadden, who rushed for 1,113 yards as a freshman last fall. His 6.3-yards-per-carry average was matched by only one other SEC rusher … teammate Felix Jones (626 yards on 99 carries).
In addition to the best 1-2 running punch in the SEC, the 2006 Hogs return just about everybody on defense. And they've added heralded freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain, whose primary responsibility will be handing the ball to McFadden and Jones.
Except for hosting Southern Cal in the opener, Arkansas's schedule is made to order. The Hogs' other non-conference foes are Utah State, Southeast Missouri State and Louisiana-Monroe. In addition, three of their four toughest league games – Alabama, Tennessee and LSU – will be played inside the state boundaries, where Arkansas is just about invincible.
Although the Razorbacks tend to be a poor road team, they still should win at Vanderbilt and at Mississippi State. If so, they have an excellent chance to go 8-4 overall and 5-3 in SEC play.
Ole Miss, 3-8 overall and 1-7 in league action last year, could make a similar jump in 2006.
And, as is the case with Arkansas, the Rebels benefit greatly from a favorable schedule. Opening with Memphis, Missouri, Kentucky and Wake Forest, they have a good chance to start 4-0. They also get Vanderbilt, Northwestern State and Mississippi State in Oxford, which should be three more wins. Thus, 7-5 overall and 3-5 in league play is entirely possible.