SEC Preview: Florida, LSU on a Collision Course

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SEC Preview: Florida, LSU on a Collision Course

IconEast Division
 
1. Florida Gators

Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2)
Losses: Auburn (9/29), at LSU (10/6)
 
Key Players: QB Tim Tebow, WR Andre Caldwell, WR/RB Percy Harvin, TE Cornelius Ingram, T Phil Trautwein, C Drew Miller, DE Derrick Harvey, DE Jermaine Cunningham, LB Brandon Spikes, S Tony Joiner, S Kyle Jackson

Newcomer: DE Torrey Davis
 
With several players gone from the 2007 National Championship team, Urban Meyer and the Gators will regroup for another run at a title. 

The big change for Florida will be at quarterback, where Tim Tebow takes on full-time from four-year starter Chris Leak. Tebow ran for 469 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year, but he will have to prove his worth throwing the ball in 2007, as defenses will key on his legs. 

Tebow will throw to talented receivers Andre Caldwell, Percy Harvin, and Cornelius Ingram. Harvin may be the fastest athlete in college football,  and will be utilized both in the backfield and at receiver. 

The running game will be decent with Kestahn Moore.  It may be significantly better when USC transfer Emmanuel Moody is eligible in 2008. 

The Florida offensive line returns at least three out of five starters, which will help a great deal on an otherwise inexperienced squad.  Senior captain tackle Phil Trautwein may be unavailable for the season because of a stress fracture in his foot; his status is unknown.

Aside from D-end Derrick Harvey, the Florida defense is comprised of young, unheralded players—but don’t sleep on their potential.  Sophomore linebacker Brandon Spikes has the chance to be as good as stalwarts Andra Davis and Channing Crowder were before him.  Safety Tony Joiner holds the distinction of being the only returning player who started every game last year. 

Despite the inexperience, the defense should be solid.
 
Final verdict: Florida will have a target on its chest all season long.  Many of the key contributors from last year are gone, but Urban Meyer’s spread system and an athletic defense should keep Florida atop the SEC.  Florida won several close games last year, and the same will probably be true in ’07.
 

2. Georgia Bulldogs

Projected Record: 8-4 (6-2)
Losses: Oklahoma State (9/1), Florida (10/27), Auburn (11/10), at Georgia Tech (11/24)
 
Key Players: QB Matt Stafford, RB Thomas Brown, RB Kregg Lumpkin, FB Brannan Southerland, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, WR Sean Bailey, DT Jeff Owens, S Kelin Johnson, S Reshad Jones, K Brandon Coutu

Newcomers: RB Knowshon Moreno, T Trinton Sturdivant
 

Georgia enters the season, again, with lofty expectations. 

Much of the onus will be on sophomore quarterback Matt Stafford, a prized recruit who struggled at times last year. However, he did show promise in his last three games, throwing for a 56 percent completion rate, 602 total yards, four touchdowns, and one interception.
 
Stafford will be expected to bring the Bulldogs to the SEC championship game—and his supporting offensive crew is up to the task. 

The caravan of running backs (Thomas Brown, Kregg Lumpkin, Knowshon Moreno) should provide Georgia with a reliable ground game.  The talented receivers proved to be wildly inconsistent last season, but have a year of experience and should bounce back in 2007. 

The star of the offensive line is also its youngest member; freshman Trinton Sturdivant looks to be the anchor at tackle for years to come. 

Only two starters return from the 2006 D.  The departures of ends Charles Johnson and Quentin Moses will hurt.  The team also lost top cornerback Paul Oliver due to ineligibility.  However, Georgia looks to rebound well, as it has a strong young nucleus ready to emerge in the SEC.  Most of these players were once part of Mark Richt’s top recruiting classes.  2007 will be time to prove their worth.  Safeties Kelin Johnson and Reshad Jones will continue to carry on the legacy of solid Georgia defensive backs.

Final verdict: Expectations are always high in Athens, but after disappointing losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky in 2006, the Dawgs will need to show some improvement and more consistency.  Stafford should have a breakout sophomore year after a half-season starting as a true freshman. Out-of-conference games against Oklahoma State and at rival Georgia Tech will be much tougher than playing the Georgia Southern’s of the world.
 

3. Tennessee Volunteers

Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3)
Losses: at California (9/1), at Florida (9/15), Georgia (10/6), at Kentucky (11/24)
 
Key Players: Key Players: QB Erik Ainge, RB Arian Foster, T Eric Young, G Anthony Parker, C Josh McNeil, DE Xavier Mitchell, DT J.T. Mapu, LB Jerod Mayo, LB Rico McCoy, LB Ryan Karl, S/PR Jonathan Hefney, P Britton Colquitt

Newcomer: CB Eric Berry
 
The pressure is on head coach Philip Fulmer to lead the Volunteers to an SEC title in ’07.

With Florida playing so many young, inexperienced starters and Georgia bouncing back from an off-year, Tennessee should have every opportunity to take advantage. 

In addition to Fulmer, the pressure will also be on four-year starter Erik Ainge.  After a disappointing sophomore season, Ainge made great strides as a junior, completing 67 percent of his passes for 2,989 yards, 19 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. 

Ainge will have to rely on a new group of receivers, as the top three from last year are gone.  The running game is also something of an unknown, as starter LaMarcus Coker was suspended from the team and only recently reinstated.  His backups—junior Arian Foster, who started as a freshman, and sophomore Montario Hardesty—are more than adequate reserves in Coker’s place. 

The defense features stars at linebacker and in the secondary, including Jerod Mayo, Rico McCoy, and 5’9”, 185 pound free safety Jonathan Hefney (96 tackles, five INTs in 2006), another All-American candidate. 

The D-line doesn’t have anyone to match former stars John Henderson or Albert Haynesworth but is still solid overall. Former starting DT J.T. Mapu returns after a two-year Christian mission. 

The special teams game should be solid again with Hefney, a dangerous punt returner, and punter Britton Colquitt, brother of former All-American UT punter Dustin.

Final verdict: UT should contend for the SEC title, but faces stiff competition along the way.  The Volunteers have to travel to Berkeley the first weekend to play Cal, and then play at the Swamp in Gainesville two weeks later—not to mention games at Alabama and at home against Georgia and Arkansas along the way.  The season will be a success if Fulmer has his team playing in a January bowl game, but the likelihood with this schedule is fairly low.
 

 4. Kentucky Wildcats

Projected Record: 7-5 (4-4)
Losses: Louisville (9/15), at Arkansas (9/22), LSU (10/13), Florida (10/20), at Georgia (11/17)
 
Key Players: QB Andre’ Woodson, RB/PR Rafael Little, WR/KR Keenan Burton, WR Dicky Lyons, TE Jacob Tamme, G Christian Johnson, DT Myron Pryor, LB Wesley Woodyard, LB Braxton Kelley
 
Kentucky made great strides last year, going 8-5 (4-4 in SEC) and beating Clemson in the Music City Bowl. 

The main source of the improvement was the evolution of André Woodson into an efficient, pro-style quarterback.  Woodson always had the strong arm, but the development of his mechanics and decision-making did wonders for his overall performance. 

As it stands, Woodson has established himself as one of the top-five quarterback prospects in the NCAA. 

Most of the offense will also be returning, including standout wide receiver Keenan Burton and All-SEC tight end Jacob Tamme. There’s no question Kentucky can compete with its explosive offense, but can they stop anyone? 

The UK secondary was 118th (out of 119) in D-I A in pass defense.  Kentucky will have to improve that number, especially going against quarterbacks like Brian Brohm (Louisville), Erik Ainge (Tennessee), Matt Stafford (Georgia), John Parker Wilson (Alabama), and Tim Tebow (Florida).  The run defense last year wasn’t much better, but linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Braxton Kelley are improving, and should provide some help in that department. 

As far as special teams go, Keenan Burton and Rafael Little are dangerous in the return game.
 
Final verdict: Kentucky has its most talented team in years, but its schedule is also incredibly tough. UK plays Louisville, at Arkansas, LSU, Florida, at Georgia, and Tennessee—all teams which could end up playing for the national title. Woodson’s performance in these games is extremely important for both Kentucky and himself.  If he plays well against the best defenses the SEC has to offer, Kentucky will win some games and play in a second consecutive bowl (a big step for this program), and Woodson will likely be a first-round pick and possibly the top-rated quarterback in the country.
 

5. South Carolina Gamecocks

Projected Record: 6-6 (2-6)
Losses: at Georgia (9/8), at LSU (9/22), Kentucky (10/4), at Tennessee (10/27), at Arkansas (11/3), Florida (11/10)
 
Key Players: QB Blake Mitchell, RB Cory Boyd, RB Mike Davis, WR Kenny McKinley, T Justin Sorenson, T Jamon Meredith, DE Eric Norwood, DT Jordin Lindsey, LB Jasper Brinkley, P/K Ryan Succop

Newcomer: WR/KR Chris Culliver
 
South Carolina lost star receiver Sidney Rice, but much of the offense remains intact. 

The onus will be on senior QB Blake Mitchell, who has never quite lived up to his potential in Steve Spurrier’s run-and-gun offense.

After getting benched in favor of Syvelle Newton for seven games last year, Mitchell finished the ’06 season strong. He’ll have to start the 2007 season on the bench after skipping a summer class, but will be back in time for Georgia the second week.

Supporting Mitchell will be the running back tandem of Cory Boyd and Mike Davis. Bookend tackles Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorenson should provide plenty of protection for Mitchell as he throws primarily to Kenny McKinley and newcomer freshman Chris Culliver. 

The defense features run-stopping linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who had twice as many tackles in 2006 as any other player on the Gamecocks defense.  Jasper’s twin brother, Casper, and sophomore Rodney Paulk help form a formidable supporting cast in the middle three. 

Ryan Succop is one of the best kicker/punters in the NCAA , and Culliver should be dangerous in the return game.
 
Final verdict: Steve Spurrier’s pledge to leave the program if South Carolina didn’t change its admissions process caused a little stir during the offseason.  His main gripe was that two key players in his 2007 recruiting class weren’t admitted to the University.  This class—ranked sixth in the nation by rivals.com—could bring Spurrier’s team some national recognition in a few years. Don’t expect a huge leap from an 8-5 team last year, but there shouldn’t be too significant of a drop off.
 


6. Vanderbilt Commodores

Projected Record: 4-8 (1-7)
Wins: Richmond (9/1), Ole Miss (9/15), Eastern Michigan (9/29), Miami Univ. (10/27)
 
Key Players: QB Chris Nickson, WR Earl Bennett, T Brian Stamper, T Chris Williams, DE Curtis Gatewood, LB Jonathan Goff, S Reshard Langford, S Ryan Hamilton

Newcomer: RB Jeff Jennings
 
Vanderbilt has playmakers in QB Chris Nickson and WR Earl Bennett; Bennett will become a household name by the end of the season, and Nickson could end up as one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC. 

The running game will need some help, as Nickson was the team’s leading rusher in ’06. The tandem of Cassen Jackson-Garrison and freshman Jeff Jennings will need to produce—or opponents will always double Bennett. 

The defense is led by stalwart linebacker Jonathan Goff, one of the SEC’s leading tacklers last year.  The seasoned veteran will have to have support this year if Vanderbilt is to improve its sluggish run defense. 

Senior linebacker Marcus Buggs and sophomore Brandon Bryant are up to the challenge.  Curtis Gatewood could have a breakout year after posting seven sacks in 2006.
 
Final verdict: Vanderbilt would be a potential surprise team if it were playing in other conferences, as it returns most of its starters, including one of the best players you’ve never heard of in Bennett. However, Vandy still lacks a consistent run game and has some holes in its run defense, which will get picked apart in the SEC.  Duplicating the 4-8 season of last year shouldn’t be too hard, as Vandy plays an easy out-of-conference schedule.  And hope isn’t futile, as the Commodores lost several close games (by three to Alabama, two to Arkansas, seven to Ole Miss, and six to Florida) last year. Vanderbilt hasn’t had a winning season in over two decades, though, and that trend will probably continue in ’07.
 

SEC East Offensive MVP: QB André Woodson, Sr., Kentucky
SEC East Defensive MVP: DE Derrick Harvey, Jr., Florida
SEC Newcomer of the Year: T Trinton Sturdivant, Fr., Georgia
 

West Division

1. LSU Tigers

Projected Record: 11-1 (7-1)
Loss: at Alabama (11/3)
 
Key Players: QB Matt Flynn, RB Keiland Williams, RB Jacob Hester, WR/KR/PR Early Doucet, WR Brandon LaFell, T Ciron Black, G Will Arnold, DE Tyson Jackson, DT Glenn Dorsey, LB Ali Highsmith, CB Jonathan Zenon, CB Chevis Jackson

Newcomer: WR Terrance Toliver
 

LSU head coach Les Miles had high expectations for the 2006 season.  However, after losing at Auburn and at Florida, LSU failed to reach the SEC Championship Game.

To their credit, they still walloped the Brady Quinn-led Notre Dame squad in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the season.

And this year, even without top pick QB JaMarcus Russell and sixth-pick safety LaRon Landry, the Tigers could be even better. 

Enter fifth-year senior Matt Flynn, who backed up Russell and last played in a bowl game two years ago.  Flynn, who once almost beat out Russell for the starting job, is efficient and makes few mistakes. 

He’ll be supported by a crew of running backs that includes Keiland Williams, Jacob Hester, and redshirt freshman Richard Murphy.  Senior RB Alley Broussard quit the team after saying his heart was not in the game. 

Ciron Black and Will Arnold are two of the best linemen at their positions.  Early Doucet will certainly be a candidate for the Biletnikoff Trophy, given out to the top receiver in the country.

On defense, no single player has a greater impact on opposing offenses than defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey.  Dorsey is an absolute monster on the interior line.  He accumulated an unusually high number of tackles for his position with 64 (including 8.5 for loss), and racked up three sacks. 

Opponents have to double Dorsey, which allows end Tyson Jackson (37 tackles, 10 for loss, 8.5 sacks) more freedom to wreak havoc. 

Corners Jonathan Zenon and Chevis Jackson are two of the best shutdown defensive backs in the conference. All told, the LSU defense is the best in the SEC and one of the best in the NCAA.

Final verdict: LSU’s defense played well in big games in ‘06, but the offense was another story. In the Tigers’ two losses, the offense managed to score only 13 points.  A big test for LSU will be the September 8th matchup against Virginia Tech.  An undefeated season in the balanced SEC will be hard to achieve, so it’s crucial for LSU to win its out-of-conference schedule if it wants play for the BCS Championship.
 

T-2. Arkansas Razorbacks

Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3)
Losses: at Alabama (9/15), at Tennessee (11/10), at LSU (11/24)
 
Key Players: QB Casey Dick, RB Darren McFadden, RB/PR/KR Felix Jones, FB Peyton Hillis, WR Marcus Monk, C Jonathan Luigs, G Robert Felton, DE Antwain Robinson, CB Matterral Richardson

Newcomer: LB Ryan Powers
 
Running back Darren McFadden is the Heisman Trophy frontrunner along with John David Booty of USC. 

McFadden, who finished second to Troy Smith in the Heisman voting a year ago, rushed for 1,647 yards, had 149 yards receiving, and even threw for 69 yards (7 for 9 passing) with 18 total touchdowns in 2006. The 6’2”, 210-pound back has been compared to Eric Dickerson because of his punishing, upright running style. 

McFadden’s less-heralded backup, Felix Jones, also ran for over 1,000 yards with nine total touchdowns. The Razorbacks have, by far, the best pair of running backs in the country, and head coach Houston Nutt will continue to utilize both in two- and three-back formations.

The question for the offense here is whether the Razorbacks can throw the ball when they have to. Casey Dick completed only 49.5 percent of his passes last year, and star receiver Marcus Monk will be out at least a month with a knee injury. 

The Arkansas defense has some holes to fill after the departures of DE Jamaal Anderson, LB Sam Olajubutu, and CB Chris Houston.  But Antwain Robinson, Weston Dacus, and Matterral Richardon, respectively, should replace each player more than adequately. Robinson had eight sacks last year and looks to improve on that number this year.

Final verdict: Arkansas isn’t as talented as other top-tier teams, but the team will win games if it puts the ball exclusively in the hands of its talented playmakers.  It will be a heavy load to carry, but if McFadden can manage to reproduce his performance from last year, Arkansas should contend for the SEC West title again and play in a January bowl.
 

T-2. Auburn Tigers

Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3)
Losses: at Arkansas (10/13), at LSU (10/20), Ole Miss (10/27),
 
Key Players: QB Brandon Cox, RB Brad Lester, WR Rodgeriqus Smith, T King Dunlap, G Leon Hart, DE Quentin Groves, DE Sen’Derrick Marks, LB Tray Blackmon, CB Patrick Lee, CB Jonathan Wilhite

Auburn has been in the upper tier of the SEC for some time now, and that trend should not change in 2007. 

The onus will be on senior quarterback Brandon Cox, who was plagued by injuries last year.  Cox’s fate could be similar to that of predecessor Jason Campbell, who blossomed as an efficient passer his senior year. 

Cox will operate behind an entirely new offensive line, which could be a good thing. Last year’s line was designed to run block and drive defenders up field. It struggled mightily in protecting the quarterback. 

On defense, standout ends Quentin Groves and Sen’Derrick Marks should provide ample pass rush for the Tigers. The secondary duo of Patrick Lee and Jonathan Wilhite should also excel. 

The only question for the Auburn D is whether it can consistently stop the run, which could be a major problem against solid ground games.
 
Final verdict: Auburn is capable of a 10-win season and a January Bowl, but it needs consistency out of Cox and the offensive line. The defense should keep the Tigers in games as long as the interior line doesn’t fall apart against power running teams.
 

T-2. Alabama Crimson Tide

Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3)
Losses: Georgia (9/22), Florida State (9/29), Tennessee (10/20), at Auburn (11/24)
 
Key Players: QB John Parker Wilson, RB Glen Coffee, RB Jimmy Johns, WR D.J. Hall, WR Keith Brown, T Andre Smith, C Antoine Caldwell, G Justin Britt, DE Wallace Gilberry, LB Prince Hall, CB Simeon Castille, KR/PR Javier Arenas

Newcomer: DT Brian Motley
 
All the headlines are about Nick Saban’s return to SEC football, as he takes over the rein after Mike Shula’s disappointing 6-7 season.

‘Bama boosters wanted a higher-profile winner, and they got it in Saban. 

To his credit, Shula didn’t exactly leave the cupboard bare; with nine players returning on offense and standouts Simeon Castille and Wallace Gilberry back on defense, Alabama will be poised to make a run in the SEC West. 

The Crimson Tide have the best offensive line in the SEC, with star tackle Andre Smith and center Antoine Caldwell punishing defenders. Second-year starter John Parker Wilson should feel comfortable operating behind them at quarterback. 

Senior receivers D.J. Hall and Keith Brown are at Wilson’s disposal, and form a solid one-two tandem so long as they’re healthy. 

The defense has individual talents, but returns only four starters. Those stepping into starting roles this year need to make an impact, especially on a run defense that will have to face BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Anthony Dixon, the LSU running backs, and Darren McFadden. 

On special teams, Javier Arenas returned two punts for touchdowns as a freshman.  Both kicker and punter positions are up for grabs and look to be mediocre this year.
 
Final verdict: Saban has proven to be an excellent coach and recruiter in the college ranks. He has enough talent this year to beat LSU, but the consistency may not be there yet. Nevertheless, Alabama will be better than its 6-7 record from a year ago.
 

5. Ole Miss Runnin’ Rebels

Projected Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Wins: at Memphis (9/1), Louisiana Tech (10/6), at Auburn (10/27), Northwestern State (11/3), at Mississippi State (11/23)
 
Key Players: QB Seth Adams, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, WR Mike Wallace, T Michael Oher, G John Jerry, DE Marcus Tillman, S Jamarca Stanford, K Joshua Shene

Newcomer: LB Tony Fein
 
Head coach Ed Orgeron is on the hot seat.  If he can’t bring his team to a bowl game, he may be out the door. 

One thing’s for sure: Ole Miss will be a smashmouth football team this year. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a former transfer from Indiana, rushed for 1,000 yards last season, and should excel behind a big, physical line that includes sophomore standout Michael Oher. 

Ole Miss struggled at quarterback with Brent Schaeffer at the helm last year, so former walk-on Seth Adams will have to prove his worth.  The quarterback situation may be better next year when Texas transfer Jevan Snead becomes eligible. 

The defense will miss LB Patrick Willis, one of Mississippi’s best defensive players eve. Only two starters from last year’s D will be starting again in ’07. All-American junior college transfer Tony Fein will get a crack at replacing Willis at linebacker. 

Joshua Shene was on the freshman All-American team last year, hitting 14 of 17 field goals.
 
Final verdict:  With little experience on defense and serious troubles in the passing game, this certainly won’t be Ole Miss’s year to take over in the SEC West.  Can they get to six wins?  It all depends on whether Orgeron’s squad wins the games it’s supposed to win and scores a few upsets along the way. Easier said than done.
 

6. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Projected Record: 3-9 (0-8)
Wins: at Tulane (9/8), Gardner-Webb (9/22), UAB (10/6)
 
Key Players: RB Anthony Dixon, WR Tony Burks, TE Eric Butler, T Mike Brown, DE Titus Brown, LB Jamar Chaney, S/KR/PR Derek Pegues

Newcomer: RB Robert Elliot
 
Sylvester Croom says Mississippi State is significantly improved, but it’s yet to be determined whether than improvement will translate into wins. 

State should improve its run attack, which was 104th in the country last year. Sophomore running back Anthony Dixon has the speed and size to be a productive back. He’ll be running behind an experienced offensive line that returns five of six starters including the tight end. 

Quarterback Michael Henig has performed poorly in his career, and needs to show some poise and accuracy in the pocket if State is to be less one-dimensional. 

The defense was average last year (36th in rush defense, 67th in pass defense), but it lost several key players. Expect the D to be much more conservative as it breaks in its new players. 

Versatile safety/corner/return man Derek Pegues has flown under the radar in the SEC, but possesses lockdown cover skills and is always a threat to take a punt the distance.
 
Final verdict: Mississippi State hasn’t won an SEC title since 1941.  Sylvester Croom looks like he’s brought in some good recruits for the future, but he may not be able to stay around long enough to see the program blossom.  After three straight three-win seasons, one more could be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
 
SEC West Offensive MVP: RB Darren McFadden, Jr., Arkansas
SEC West Defensive MVP: DT Glenn Dorsey, Sr., LSU
SEC West Newcomer of the Year: WR Terrance Toliver, Fr., LSU
 
All-SEC Conference

Offense

QB – André Woodson, Sr., Kentucky
RB – Darren McFadden, Jr., Arkansas
RB – BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Sr., Ole Miss
WR – Earl Bennett, Jr., Vanderbilt
WR – Percy Harvin, So., Florida
WR – Keenan Burton, Sr., Kentucky
OL – Will Arnold, Sr., LSU
OL – Drew Miller, Sr., Florida
OL – Andre Smith, So., Alabama
OL – Michael Oher, So., Ole Miss
OL – Antoine Caldwell, Jr., Alabama

Defense

DE – Derrick Harvey, Jr., Florida
DE – Quentin Groves, Sr., Auburn
DT – Tyson Jackson, Jr., LSU
DT – Glenn Dorsey, Sr., LSU
LB – Jonathan Goff, Sr., Vanderbilt
LB – Ali Highsmith, Sr., LSU
LB – Jasper Brinkley, Sr., South Carolina
CB – Chevis Jackson, Sr., LSU
CB – Simeon Castille, Sr., Alabama
S – Jonathan Hefney, Sr., Tennessee
S – Kelin Johnson, Sr., Georgia

Special Teams

K – Brandon Coutu, Sr., Georgia
P – Britton Colquitt, Jr., Tennessee
KR – Felix Jones, Jr., Arkansas
PR – Derek Pegues, Jr., Mississippi State

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